Saturday, December 25, 2010

New solar fuel machine ‘mimics plant life’

A prototype solar device has been unveiled which mimics plant life, turning the Sun's energy into fuel. In the prototype, sunlight heats a ceria cylinder which breaks down water or carbon dioxide. Science / BBC

By Neil Bowdler, Science reporter, BBC News
23 December 2010 Last updated at 14:11 ET

A prototype solar device has been unveiled which mimics plant life, turning the Sun's energy into fuel.

The machine uses the Sun's rays and a metal oxide called ceria to break down carbon dioxide or water into fuels which can be stored and transported.

Conventional photovoltaic panels must use the electricity they generate in situ, and cannot deliver power at night.

Details are published in the journal Science.

The prototype, which was devised by researchers in the US and Switzerland, uses a quartz window and cavity to concentrate sunlight into a cylinder lined with cerium oxide, also known as ceria.

Ceria has a natural propensity to exhale oxygen as it heats up and inhale it as it cools down.

If as in the prototype, carbon dioxide and/or water are pumped into the vessel, the ceria will rapidly strip the oxygen from them as it cools, creating hydrogen and/or carbon monoxide.

Hydrogen produced could be used to fuel hydrogen fuel cells in cars, for example, while a combination of hydrogen and carbon monoxide can be used to create "syngas" for fuel. …

The prototype is grossly inefficient, the fuel created harnessing only between 0.7% and 0.8% of the solar energy taken into the vessel.

Most of the energy is lost through heat loss through the reactor's wall or through the re-radiation of sunlight back through the device's aperture.

But the researchers are confident that efficiency rates of up to 19% can be achieved through better insulation and smaller apertures. Such efficiency rates, they say, could make for a viable commercial device. …

New solar fuel machine 'mimics plant life'

Monday, December 20, 2010

Construction of the world’s largest neutrino observatory completed: Antarctica’s IceCube

Sensor descends down a hole in the ice as part of the final season of IceCube. Icecube is among the most ambitious scientific construction projects ever attempted. Credit: NSF / B. Gudbjartsson

ScienceDaily (Dec. 19, 2010) — Culminating a decade of planning, innovation and testing, construction of the world's largest neutrino observatory, installed in the ice of the Antarctic plateau at the geographic South Pole, was successfully completed Dec. 18, 2010, New Zealand time.

The last of 86 holes had been drilled and a total of 5,160 optical sensors are now installed to form the main detector -- a cubic kilometer of instrumented ice -- of the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, located at the National Science Foundation's Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.

From its vantage point at the end of the world, IceCube provides an innovative means to investigate the properties of fundamental particles that originate in some of the most spectacular phenomena in the universe.

In the deep, dark, stillness of the Antarctic ice, IceCube records the rare collisions of neutrinos--elusive sub-atomic particles--with the atomic nuclei of the water molecules of the ice. Some neutrinos come from the sun, while others come from cosmic rays interacting with the Earth's atmosphere and dramatic astronomical sources such as exploding stars in the Milky Way and other distant galaxies. Trillions of neutrinos stream through the human body at any given moment, but they rarely interact with regular matter, and researchers want to know more about them and where they come from. …

Construction of the world's largest neutrino observatory completed: Antarctica's IceCube

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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Science magazine’s breakthrough of the year: The first quantum machine

Qubit resonator. Andrew Cleland / Wired

Contact: Natasha Pinol,

(American Association for the Advancement of Science) Back in March, a group of researchers designed a gadget that moves in ways that can only be described by quantum mechanics -- the set of rules that governs the behavior of tiny things like molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles. In recognition of the conceptual ground their experiment breaks, the ingenuity behind it and its many potential applications, Science has called this discovery the most significant scientific advance of 2010.

Physicists Andrew Cleland and John Martinis from the University of California at Santa Barbara and their colleagues designed the machine—a tiny metal paddle of semiconductor, visible to the naked eye—and coaxed it into dancing with a quantum groove. First, they cooled the paddle until it reached its "ground state," or the lowest energy state permitted by the laws of quantum mechanics (a goal long-sought by physicists). Then they raised the widget's energy by a single quantum to produce a purely quantum-mechanical state of motion. They even managed to put the gadget in both states at once, so that it literally vibrated a little and a lot at the same time—a bizarre phenomenon allowed by the weird rules of quantum mechanics.

Science and its publisher, AAAS, the nonprofit science society, have recognized this first quantum machine as the 2010 Breakthrough of the Year. They have also compiled nine other important scientific accomplishments from this past year into a top ten list, appearing in a special news feature in the journal's 17 December 2010 issue. Additionally, Science news writers and editors have chosen to spotlight 10 "Insights of the Decade" that have transformed the landscape of science in the 21st Century.

"This year's Breakthrough of the Year represents the first time that scientists have demonstrated quantum effects in the motion of a human-made object," said Adrian Cho, a news writer for Science. "On a conceptual level that's cool because it extends quantum mechanics into a whole new realm. On a practical level, it opens up a variety of possibilities ranging from new experiments that meld quantum control over light, electrical currents and motion to, perhaps someday, tests of the bounds of quantum mechanics and our sense of reality."

The quantum machine proves that the principles of quantum mechanics can apply to the motion of macroscopic objects, as well as atomic and subatomic particles. It provides the key first step toward gaining complete control over an object's vibrations at the quantum level. Such control over the motion of an engineered device should allow scientists to manipulate those minuscule movements, much as they now control electrical currents and particles of light. In turn, that capability may lead to new devices to control the quantum states of light, ultra-sensitive force detectors and, ultimately, investigations into the bounds of quantum mechanics and our sense of reality. (This last grand goal might be achieved by trying to put a macroscopic object in a state in which it's literally in two slightly different places at the same time—an experiment that might reveal precisely why something as big as a human can't be in two places at the same time.)

"Mind you, physicists still haven't achieved a two-places-at-once state with a tiny object like this one," said Cho. "But now that they have reached the simplest state of quantum motion, it seems a whole lot more obtainable—more like a matter of 'when' than 'if.'"

Science's list of the nine other groundbreaking achievements from 2010 follows. …

Science's breakthrough of the year: The first quantum machine

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Scientists decipher 3 billion-year-old genomic fossils

Analysis of modern-day genomes finds evidence for ancient environmental change and a massive expansion in genetic diversity

The figure shows the evolution of gene families in ancient genomes across the Tree of Life. The sizes of the little pie charts scale with the number of evolutionary events in lineages, slices indicate event types: gene birth (red), duplication (blue), horizontal gene transfer (green), and loss (yellow). The Archean Expansion period (3.33 to 2.85 billion years ago) is highlighted in green. Credit: Lawrence David

Contact: Denise Brehm,
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

About 580 million years ago, life on Earth began a rapid period of change called the Cambrian Explosion, a period defined by the birth of new life forms over many millions of years that ultimately helped bring about the modern diversity of animals. Fossils help palaeontologists chronicle the evolution of life since then, but drawing a picture of life during the 3 billion years that preceded the Cambrian Period is challenging, because the soft-bodied Precambrian cells rarely left fossil imprints. However, those early life forms did leave behind one abundant microscopic fossil: DNA.

Because all living organisms inherit their genomes from ancestral genomes, computational biologists at MIT reasoned that they could use modern-day genomes to reconstruct the evolution of ancient microbes. They combined information from the ever-growing genome library with their own mathematical model that takes into account the ways that genes evolve: new gene families can be born and inherited; genes can be swapped or horizontally transferred between organisms; genes can be duplicated in the same genome; and genes can be lost.

The scientists traced thousands of genes from 100 modern genomes back to those genes' first appearance on Earth to create a genomic fossil telling not only when genes came into being but also which ancient microbes possessed those genes. The work suggests that the collective genome of all life underwent an expansion between 3.3 and 2.8 billion years ago, during which time 27 percent of all presently existing gene families came into being.

Eric Alm, a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Department of Biological Engineering, and Lawrence David, who recently received his Ph.D. from MIT and is now a Junior Fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows, have named this period the Archean Expansion.

Because so many of the new genes they identified are related to oxygen, Alm and David first thought that the emergence of oxygen might be responsible for the Archean Expansion. Oxygen did not exist in the Earth's atmosphere until about 2.5 billion years ago when it began to accumulate, likely killing off vast numbers of anerobic life forms in the Great Oxidation Event.

"The Great Oxidation Event was probably the most catastrophic event in the history of cellular life, but we don't have any biological record of it," says Alm.

Closer inspection, however, showed that oxygen-utilizing genes didn't appear until the tail end of the Archean Expansion 2.8 billion years ago, which is more consistent with the date geochemists assign to the Great Oxidation Event. …

Scientists decipher 3 billion-year-old genomic fossils

Friday, December 17, 2010

News Corp to go carbon neutral – Fox News still denies climate change

Rupert Murdoch. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

By Kate Sheppard
Thu Dec. 16, 2010 10:34 AM PST

The Fox News memo on how to "report" on global warming (i.e., suggest the science behind it is fatally flawed) got a lot of attention on Wednesday. Not that anyone was particularly surprised—you can turn on Fox most days and see that policy in action.

But while management at Fox is still banking on sowing doubt about climate change, the big-wigs at parent company News Corp. aren't. Earlier this year I reported at length about News Corp.'s effort to go carbon neutral. Rupert Murdoch has argued that dealing with global warming is not only the right thing to do, it's good for the corporation's bottom line. Yeah, all that stuff about how global warming is just Al Gore's pipe dream? The boss man doesn't think that.

Here's a letter from Murdoch on the initiative (it apparently hasn't trickled down to Washington managing editor Bill Sammon quite yet):

News Corporation has always been about imagining the future and then making that vision a reality. We seek new ways to reach our global audiences and we address those issues that have the greatest impact on their lives. Global climate change is clearly one of those issues. So how do we, as a media company, do our part to confront this challenge?
It starts with us. We must first get our house in order. In May of 2007, we launched a global energy initiative across News Corporation to reduce our energy use and impact on the climate. Our goals are to fully understand our carbon and energy impact, to reduce that impact significantly and to inspire our employees to take action on this issue in their business and personal lives.

News Corp.'s initiative is paying off: Climate Counts, a nonprofit that scores companies' efforts to deal with climate change, gave the company a glowing review just last week. It's a sad irony that, while the parent corporation is doing the right thing, Fox executives are still selling the idea that climate change is giant hoax crafted by conniving scientists and liberals to force us all to live like cavemen again (or whatever it is they want the American public to believe).

Wood Turner, the executive director of Climate Counts, writes via email:

Apparently, Bill Sammon didn't get Mr. Murdoch's climate memo. Fox News has been ignoring its own parent company's strong climate stance for a long time now. If News Corp is as committed as Mr. Murdoch says to inspiring and educating its audiences and its employees about its vision, it could start by making sure Fox News stops misrepresenting the basic facts.

Good on Murdoch for making strides on the impacts of his empire. But it's more than a bit hypocritical that Fox News, likely his most influential product in the US, continues to warp the public's understanding of the issue.

Fox Climate Coverage Irony Alert!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

New data shows REDD+ is succeeding

Commentary by Doug Boucher, special to  
December 15, 2010

Guest commentary by Doug Boucher, director of the Tropical Forest and Climate Initiative at the Union of Concerned Scientists

Amid the whirlwind of climate change news before and after the CancĂșn climate conference, including a landmark agreement on REDD+ (reducing emissions from deforestation, and related pro-forest actions), an important story seems to have passed by with little notice. Over the past two months, several new analyses have given clear evidence that deforestation has gone down over the past several years. In fact, the drop is quite impressive, and shows that of all the approaches to avoiding the worst consequences of global warming, reducing tropical deforestation is the one that has contributed by far the most to date.

The first analysis to come out, in October, was the Global Forest Resources Assessment (FRA) for 2010. This compendium of data from all the countries on the planet is released every five years, and provides the broadest look at the state of the world’s forests. The new FRA data showed that tropical deforestation in the first decade of the 2000s was down 18% from the level of the 1990s, dropping from 11.33 million hectares per year in the 1990s to 9.34 million hectares per year in the 2000s. Furthermore, the rate dropped from the first 5 years of the decade to the second five years, principally due to a dramatic decline in Brazilian Amazon deforestation. The FRA 2010 data also showed that the rate of primary forest loss, not just total forest loss, has declined. …

New data shows REDD+ is succeeding