Scientific Earth Conscientious

Scientific progress makes moral progress a necessity; for if man's power is increased, the checks that restrain him from abusing it must be strengthened (Madame de Stael)

Archive for June, 2012

New fuel cell keeps going after the hydrogen runs out. Materials scientists demonstrate first SOFC capable of battery-like storage, Shriram Ramanathan’s laboratory setup for testing solid-oxide fuel cells.

Posted by Scientific Earth Conscientious on June 30, 2012

Shriram Ramanathan’s laboratory setup for testing solid-oxide fuel cells.

Cambridge, Mass. – June 29, 2012 – Imagine a kerosene lamp that continued to shine after the fuel was spent, or an electric stove that could remain hot during a power outage.

Materials scientists at Harvard have demonstrated an equivalent feat in clean energy generation with a solid-oxide fuel cell (SOFC) that converts hydrogen into electricity but can also store electrochemical energy like a battery. This fuel cell can continue to produce power for a short time after its fuel has run out.

“This thin-film SOFC takes advantage of recent advances in low-temperature operation to incorporate a new and more versatile material,” explains principal investigator Shriram Ramanathan, Associate Professor of Materials Science at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). “Vanadium oxide (VOx) at the anode behaves as a multifunctional material, allowing the fuel cell to both generate and store energy.”

The finding, which appears online in the journal Nano Letters, will be most important for small-scale, portable energy applications, where a very compact and lightweight power supply is essential and the fuel supply may be interrupted.

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NASA Explains Why Clocks Will Get an Extra Second on June 30

Posted by Scientific Earth Conscientious on June 30, 2012

With this antenna at Kokee Park on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, NASA makes regular VLBI (Very Long Baseline Interferometry) measurements that are used in the time standard called UT1 (Universal Time 1).

If the day seems a little longer than usual on Saturday, June 30, 2012, that’s because it will be. An extra second, or “leap” second, will be added at midnight to account for the fact that it is taking Earth longer and longer to complete one full turn—a day—or, technically, a solar day.

“The solar day is gradually getting longer because Earth’s rotation is slowing down ever so slightly,” says Daniel MacMillan of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Scientists know exactly how long it takes Earth to rotate because they have been making that measurement for decades using an extremely precise technique called Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI). VLBI measurements are made daily by an international network of stations that team up to conduct observations at the same time and correlate the results. NASA Goddard provides essential coordination of these measurements, as well as processing and archiving the data collected. And NASA is helping to lead the development of the next generation of VLBI system through the agency’s Space Geodesy Project, led by Goddard.

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Developed by researchers at the Indiana University simple and cost effective imaging device for breast tumor detection based on a flexible and wearable antenna system

Posted by Scientific Earth Conscientious on June 30, 2012

A simple and cost effective imaging device for breast tumor detection based on a flexible and wearable antenna system has been developed by researchers at the Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis. The team based in the Integrated Nanosystems Development Institute (INDI) describes details in a forthcoming issue of the International Journal of Computer Aided Engineering and Technology and point out that their system holds the promise of much earlier detection than mammography.

INDI’s Kody Varahramyan and colleagues, Sudhir Shrestha, Mangilal Agarwal, Azadeh Hemati and Parvin Ghane explain that their system uses a planar microstrip antenna design on a flexible substrate that is optimized for operation in direct contact with the skin. The system avoids the 20% microwave signal loss observed with other systems based on matched coupling medium. Their tests with breast and tumor “phantoms” – model human body systems – shows that the received signal from a tumor is three times the strength from healthy tissue and is well defined relative to background noise level in the image.

The overall goal of the research is to develop a wearable, brassiere-like imaging system that uses non-ionizing radiation to detect cancerous breast tissue. The researchers suggest that the system is cost effective and could detect breast cancer earlier than other systems, although they add that it would be a complementary system to mammography rather than a replacement for it. Nevertheless for early detection with minimal discomfort to the patients, such a system could become a useful adjunct for cancer detection.

“It has been well recognized that the early detection of breast cancer by regular breast screening increases the survival rate among the breast cancer patients,” the team says. Unfortunately, conventional mammography, which utilizes ionizing radiation, has a relatively high rate of false positives and false negatives as well as being uncomfortable. As such, the results for early breast tumors are often obscured by dense breast tissue and ambiguities present near the chest wall, which commonly leads to unnecessary biopsies.

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Marine energy could be doubled using new methods for predicting wave power

Posted by Scientific Earth Conscientious on June 30, 2012

Pelamis P2 Wave energy converter

The energy generated from our oceans could be doubled using new methods for predicting wave power. Research led by the University of Exeter, published (27 June) in the journal Renewable Energy, could pave the way for significant advancements in marine renewable energy, making it a more viable source of power.

The study was carried out by a team of mathematicians and engineers from the University of Exeter and Tel Aviv University. They devised a means of accurately predicting the power of the next wave in order to make the technology far more efficient, extracting twice as much energy as is currently possible.

Marine energy is believed to have the potential to provide the UK with electricity twice over. However, technologies to extract and convert energy from the sea are relatively immature, compared with solar or wind, and are not yet commercially competitive without subsidy.

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Precise time: NPL scientists help create an extra second of summer

Posted by Scientific Earth Conscientious on June 30, 2012

Scientists at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) will be adding a leap second at 00:59 BST on 1st July to its atomic clocks, to ensure UK time remains synchronised with international time.

The insertion of the leap second is required as the Earth does not rotate at a constant speed, whereas atomic clocks, several of which are located at NPL’s site in Teddington, are much better at keeping time. Due to the unpredictable nature of the Earth’s movement, leap seconds are occasionally required to bring atomic time back into alignment with astronomical time. This procedure ensures that on average the Sun remains overhead at noon.

Peter Whibberley, Senior Research Scientist in NPL’s Time and Frequency Group, said: “The purpose of leap seconds is to make sure our time scale based on atomic clocks remains in step with the time based on the Earth’s rotation. The Earth is a poor timekeeper compared to our clocks, and its rotation changes unpredictably due to changes in its atmosphere and molten core. The leap second correction to our atomic clocks means we get an extra second of summer time.”

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Bangladeshi women: food is cooked over an open fire using wood, agricultural residue and animal dung, known together as “biomass.” The result is death and release of black carbon significant source of greenhouse gases.

Posted by Scientific Earth Conscientious on June 30, 2012

New Haven, Connecticut – Women in rural Bangladesh prefer inexpensive, traditional stoves for cooking over modern ones despite significant health risks, according to a Yale study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

A large majority of respondents—94 percent—believed that indoor smoke from the traditional stoves is harmful, but less so than polluted water (76 percent) and spoiled food (66 percent). Still, Bangladeshi women opted for traditional cookstove technology so they could afford basic needs.

“Nontraditional cookstoves might be more successful if they were designed with features valued more highly by users, such as reducing operating costs even if they might not reduce environmental impact,” said Mushfiq Mobarak, a co-author and associate professor of economics at the Yale School of Management.

In most rural homes, where there is no electricity, food is cooked over an open fire using wood, agricultural residue and animal dung, known together as “biomass.” The result is 50,000 deaths in Bangladesh a year and over 2 million worldwide. The release of black carbon is also a significant source of greenhouse gases.

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New research reveals that it could reduce the number of fish needed to test the toxicity of a range of chemicals including pharmaceuticals and environmental pollutants

Posted by Scientific Earth Conscientious on June 30, 2012

Rainbow trout

A new way of testing the safety of natural and synthetic chemicals has been developed by scientists with funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). Their research, published today in the journal Ecotoxicology, could reduce the number of fish needed to test the toxicity of a range of chemicals including pharmaceuticals and environmental pollutants.

The researchers, led by Professor Awadhesh Jha of Plymouth University, have managed to coax cells from the liver of a rainbow trout to form a ball-shaped structure called a spheroid in a petri dish. This ball of cells behaves much more like normal animal tissue than cells grown in traditional ways in the lab and so can give researchers a more accurate picture of how an animal’s body would respond to a chemical in the environment.

Fish are used to test whether both new and existing chemicals like pharmaceuticals can damage wildlife or the environment. Because a large number of spheroids can be produced from a single fish the use of this technique could mean less fish are needed to do these tests.

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Urban rivers throughout England and Wales have improved dramatically in water quality and wildlife over the last 20 years.

Posted by Scientific Earth Conscientious on June 30, 2012

Urban rivers throughout England and Wales have improved dramatically in water quality and wildlife over the last 20 years.

That’s the conclusion of one the largest studies of national trends in river health ever undertaken.

After decades of pollution, typically from poorly treated sewage and industrial waste, rivers in or near Britain’s major urban areas are regaining insects such as mayflies and stoneflies that are typical of fast-flowing, oxygen-rich waters. The range of invertebrates found has also increased, on average, by around 20%.

Researchers from Cardiff University’s School of Biosciences carried out an independent analysis of data supplied by the Environment Agency using almost 50,000 samples from thousands of rural and urban locations.

The team puts the general improvement down to industrial decline, tighter regulation and improved wastewater treatment over recent decades.

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Scientists warn that recent developments could jeopardize Brazil’s position, undermining progress on reducing deforestation, protecting indigenous lands, and safeguarding ecosystems outside the Amazon rainforest

Posted by Scientific Earth Conscientious on June 30, 2012

Scientists convening at the largest-ever meeting of tropical biologists congratulated Brazil for its global leadership on environment and science, but warned that recent developments could jeopardize that position, undermining progress on reducing deforestation, protecting indigenous lands, and safeguarding ecosystems outside the Amazon rainforest.

Forgoing the Rio+20 Earth Summit, some 1200 tropical biologists and conservationists met in Bonito, Brazil at the 49th annual meeting of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC) to present and discuss topics ranging from ecology to sustainable use of tropical biology. More than half the participants were Brazilian.

At the conclusion of the meetings, ATBC issued a declaration urging the Brazil government maintain its leadership position on environmental conservation and sustainable development, by continuing to utilize scientific input and invest in science and education.

“Brazil’s success in advancing science and conservation, while achieving impressive economic growth and significant improvements in human welfare are being watched by the world as a potential model for environmentally sustainable development,” said John Kress, a botanist at the Smithsonian Institution who serves as ATBC Executive Director. “But recent developments raise concerns.”

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New generation of green flame retardants: Build coating the equivalent of a flame-retarding clay wall on the foam in a way that has no adverse impact on the foam manufacturing process

Posted by Scientific Earth Conscientious on June 29, 2012

Using a testing device called a cone calorimeter, NIST researchers measure the heat-release rate and other flammability properties of materials. Above, untreated polyurethane foam catches fire from a nearby heat source. Below, foam treated with a novel clay-filled coating did not ignite when exposed to the same heat source. Instead, a fast-growing protective layer — called char — forms on the surface.

In searching for better flame retardants for home furnishings—a large source of fuel in house fires—National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) researchers defied the conventional wisdom and literally hit a wall, one made of clay.

It wasn’t a dead end, but rather a surprising result that may lead to a new generation of nonhalogenated, sustainable flame retardant technology for polyurethane foam. The thick, fast-forming coating that the NIST team created has a uniformly high concentration of flame-inhibiting clay particles, and it adheres strongly to the Swiss cheese-like surface of polyurethane foam, which is used in furniture cushions, carpet padding, children’s car seats, and other items.

“In effect, we can build the equivalent of a flame-retarding clay wall on the foam in a way that has no adverse impact on the foam manufacturing process,” explains NIST fire researcher Rick Davis. “Our clay-based coatings perform at least as well as commercial retardant approaches, and we think there’s room for improvement. We hope this new approach provides industry with practical alternative flame retardants.”

Davis and his NIST colleagues describe the new coating and the process they used to make it in the journal ACS Macro Letters.*

To date, researchers have built up coatings by stacking thin layers in pairs that are held together by basic electrical attraction. With no clay present, just a pure polymer, a thick coating is formed rapidly, but it isn’t a fire retardant. With clay in every other layer, either the coating is too thin or the clay content is too low to be an effective fire retardant.

The NIST team tried something you would expect not to work: trilayers consisting of a positively charged bottom topped by two negatively charged layers. Under most circumstances, the two negative layers would repulse each other, but it turns out that hydrogen bonds formed between the two negative layers and overcame this repulsive force.

The resulting trilayer yields a unique result: a thick, fast-forming, and high concentration clay coating on polyurethane foam. This nanocomposite coating is 10 times thicker, contains 6 times more clay, and achieves this using at least 5 times fewer total layers than the traditional bilayer coatings.

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Geo-engineering schemes are moving forwards: Geoengineering efforts to mix oxygen into the Deep Baltic should be abandoned, Save the Baltic Sea.

Posted by Scientific Earth Conscientious on June 29, 2012

Baltic Sea

Over the last decade, an average of 60,000 km2 of the Baltic Sea bottom has suffered from hypoxia without enough oxygen to support its normal ecosystem. Several large-scale geo-engineering interventions are currently on the table as proposed solutions to this problem. Researchers from Lund University are calling for geo-engineering efforts that mix oxygen into the Deep Baltic to be abandoned.

In the June 28 edition of Nature, researchers warn of the unforeseen effects of geo-engineering to relieve the lack of oxygen in bottom waters. “Such radical remediation measures promise impressive improvements in water quality on short time scales. They are popular and politically attractive, but they are also potentially dangerous,” says Daniel Conley a researcher at Lund University.

Yet geo-engineering schemes are moving forwards. The Swedish Agency for Marine and Water Management has announced a plan to build a demonstration wind-turbine-driven pump in the southern Baltic. This is a significant change in current policy to reduce nutrients to the Baltic Sea.

“We are on the pathway to a healthier marine ecosystem. We have scientific knowledge, an active monitoring and assessment program, political organizations in place such as HELCOM, and the countries have agreed upon targets to reduce nutrients in the Baltic Sea Action Plan. We need to let that process work,” says Daniel Conley.

“Countries from around the Baltic Sea must immediately implement the national reductions for nutrients that have been agreed upon in the Baltic Sea Action Plan. If actions are postponed further, the situation in the Baltic Sea will continue to worsen,” he added.

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Study on fungi helps explain coal formation and may advance future biofuels production

Posted by Scientific Earth Conscientious on June 29, 2012

This is a scanning electron micrograph of wood that has been decayed by the white rot species Punctularia strigoso-zonata. The wood structure, including lignin and cellulose, has been largely destryed by the fungus.

A new study–which includes the first large-scale comparison of fungi that cause rot decay–suggests that the evolution of a type of fungi known as white rot may have brought an end to a 60-million-year-long period of coal deposition known as the Carboniferous period. Coal deposits that accumulated during the Carboniferous, which ended about 300 million years ago, have historically fueled about 50 percent of U.S. electric power generation.

In addition, the study provides insights about diverse fungal enzymes that might be used in the future to help generate biofuels, which are currently among the most promising and attractive alternatives to fossil fuels for powering vehicles.

The study, which was conducted by a team of 71 researchers from 12 countries, appears in the June 29, 2012 issue of Science and was partially funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

There are almost 1.5 million fungi species on Earth. They perform essential ecological roles that include decomposing organisms and serving as food for many insect species and larger organisms.

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A study found that mothers living within 30 kilometers of a hurricane’s path during their third trimester were 60 percent more likely to have a newborn with abnormal conditions

Posted by Scientific Earth Conscientious on June 29, 2012

Expectant mothers who dealt with the strain of a hurricane or major tropical storm passing nearby during their pregnancy had children who were at elevated risk for abnormal health conditions at birth, according to a study led by a Princeton University researcher that offers new insights into the effects of stress on pregnancy.

The study used birth records from Texas and meteorological information to identify children born in the state between 1996 and 2008 whose mothers were in the path of a major tropical storm or hurricane during pregnancy. The children’s health at birth was compared with that of siblings whose gestation didn’t coincide with a major weather event.

The study found that mothers living within 30 kilometers of a hurricane’s path during their third trimester were 60 percent more likely to have a newborn with abnormal conditions, which are detailed on birth records. Those conditions included being on a ventilator for more than 30 minutes or experiencing meconium aspiration, which occurs when a newborn breathes in a mixture of meconium — or early feces — and amniotic fluid around the time of delivery. Increased risk was also found following exposure to weather-related stressors in the first trimester, while evidence was less clear for exposure in the second trimester. The researchers were able to isolate the impact of stress caused by the storm from other factors, such as changes in the availability of health care in a storm’s aftermath.

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The evolution of fungi capable of breaking down the polymer lignin may have played a key role in ending the development of coal deposits and the great bulk of plant biomass decayed was released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

Posted by Scientific Earth Conscientious on June 29, 2012

White-rot fungi

For want of a nail, the nursery rhyme goes, a kingdom was lost. A similar, seemingly innocuous change—the evolution of a lineage of mushrooms—may have had a massive impact on the carbon cycle, bringing an end to the 60-million year period during which coal deposits were formed.

Coal generated nearly half of the roughly four trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity consumed in the United States in 2010, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. This fuel is actually the fossilized remains of plants that lived from around 360 to 300 million years ago. An international team of scientists, including researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute (DOE JGI), has proposed a new factor that may have contributed to the end of the Carboniferous period—named after the large stores of what became coal deposits. The evidence, presented online in the June 29 edition of the journal Science, suggests that the evolution of fungi capable of breaking down the polymer lignin, which helps keep plant cell walls rigid, may have played a key role in ending the development of coal deposits. With the arrival of the new fungi, dead plant matter could be completely broken down into its basic chemical components. Instead of accumulating as peat, which eventually was transformed into coal, the great bulk of plant biomass decayed and was released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

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The threat of PFCs Pollutants could pose health risks for five sea turtle species

Posted by Scientific Earth Conscientious on June 29, 2012

“Better understanding the threat of PFCs, especially PFOS, to sea turtles can help wildlife managers and others develop strategies to deal with potential health problems,”

Researchers at the Hollings Marine Laboratory (HML) and four partner organizations have measured for the first time concentrations of 13 perfluoroalkyl compounds (PFCs) in five different endangered species of sea turtles. While PFC toxicology studies have not yet been conducted on turtles, the levels of the compounds seen in all five species approach the amounts known to cause adverse health effects in other animals.

PFCs are man-made compounds that have many uses including stain-resistant coatings, fire-fighting foams and emulsifiers in plastics manufacturing. They have become widespread pollutants, are detectable in human and wildlife samples worldwide, infiltrate food chains, and have been shown in laboratory animals—rats, mice and fish—to be toxic to the liver, the thyroid, neurobehavioral function and the immune system. The PFCs most commonly found in the environment are perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).

Located in Charleston, S.C., the HML is a collaboration of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, the College of Charleston and the Medical University of South Carolina.

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Screening horticultural imports: New models assess plant risk through better analysis. Model asks if importing a plant is worth the risk of environmental damage, economic costs

Posted by Scientific Earth Conscientious on June 29, 2012

Weedy plants, many introduced to the U.S. for sale through plant nurseries, are responsible for extensive environmental damage and economic costs. Researchers at the University of Georgia Odum School of Ecology and the University of California, Davis have developed a “cost-sensitive” model to determine when importing a given plant is worth the risk.

Weedy plants, many introduced to the U.S. for sale through plant nurseries, are responsible for extensive environmental damage and economic costs. Although legislation restricts the introduction of certain species, the procedures used to select species for inclusion on the restricted list are haphazard and out of date.

To meet the need for more systematic weed risk analysis, researchers at the University of Georgia Odum School of Ecology and the University of California, Davis have developed a “cost-sensitive” model to determine when importing a given plant is worth the risk. Their work was published in the May edition of the journal Ecosphere.

Although the problems caused by invasive plants are well known, Odum School postdoctoral associate J.P. Schmidt, the lead scientist on the study, said the U.S. has historically placed very few restrictions on the import of plants.

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