Science Simplified!

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Sweeping carbon under the carpet!

A Grave Problem 

Image source: 
Global warming is a term that is unknown to a very few. Time and again, we come across various effects of the warming of our Earth and vow to do something about it. It might be to reduce usage of plastic in our daily lives, adopt more greener modes of transport or even fix a small solar cell or windmill to harness some of the renewable energy available around us.  While as individuals, we take some liberty in following the guidelines we set for ourselves, on a larger scale, we become nations that miss their emission targets. A recent report in the Washington Post gives details of how countries, developed as well as developing, are failing to keep their emissions in check to stay on course for the year 2035 which has been marked as the point of no return for climate change. 

The resolve

However, it would be unfair to say that on their path of development and growth, nations are not bothered about climate change. While countries like Germany have taken massive steps to harness renewable energy, lesser known nations like Tuvalu plan to make their electricity generation completely green by 2020. 

The innovation 

Developed countries like the United States are looking at some innovative solutions to reduce their carbon emissions. One such method is Carbon Capture and Sequestration. The idea behind CCS is simple. It involves removal of Carbon dioxide for purposes of storage at the source itself. Since the captured carbon dioxide is not released into the atmosphere, it does not figure in the emissions made by the country. One may call this the cheeky way of keeping your emissions low. But then, the question arises, what do you do with stored CO2? 

This is where the innovation lies. The CO2 that is collected at such sites is being transported using pipes to nearby oil production fields, where it is injected into old fields and additional oil is being extracted. Called, Enhanced Oil Recovery, the United States has a 5800 km long pipeline network that collects CO2 and uses it for oil recovery operations. Even Canada and Norway have been using this technique, which is also utilised by fertilizer plants, the second most polluting industry after power generation using coal. It is interesting to note that a similar attempt in Germany, where captured CO2 was being transported with trucks instead of pipelines had to be aborted due to escalation of transportation costs making the operation economically unviable. What is also noteworthy is that these projects are not recent attempts to reduce carbon emissions but began as early as in 1986, 

So, what happens to the gases that do not go to oil fields? Where the CO2 cannot be used for oil recovery, it is being pumped into oil fields or coal mines that have been completely exhausted of their resources and other similar places from where it cannot escape. For some time, CO2 was also being let into the ocean water but was later banned fearing acidification of the ocean water and its unintended and unknown effects on aquatic life. 

Another innovative way of dealing with CO2 is to make it react with metals to make carbonates and guess what, yes dump it under the ground so that it does not cause global warming. Is this economically feasible is something that is being tested out at a power plant in Newcastle, Australia, but the United States government has already found that it has enough space on its mainland to deposit 500 years worth Carbon emissions. 

And now, construction work has begun at a coal fired power plant in Illinois that will allow the plant to capture 90% of its CO2 emissions. The United States government has earmarked a sum of $1 billion for this project that also includes building a 30 mile pipeline which will allow the captured CO2 to be transported to a the site where it will be pumped into a underground holding facility. 

The Risk

With all this pumping that is being done underground, one is bound to enquire about the risk it carries. What if one day, one of these underground storages leaks due to say a minor earthquake or excessive build up of CO2? The answer s quite simple, the high pressure CO2 will rise to the surface of the Earth and head straight to the atmosphere, where it will instantaneously start trapping Sun's heat and suddenly increase the temperature of the Earth. 

Do we have a back up plan in event of such a leak? NO. 

Source: Alexander Gerst (@Astro Alex) tweet
The Actual Answer

For the billions of dollars the countries are spending worldwide to handle climate change and the innumerable summits that are held every year, there is one important factor that everybody is forgetting. 

Astronaut Alexander Gerst recently uploaded this picture to show deforestation in southern Africa. Similar is the story in most parts of the world, where we have depleted our forest covers to bare minimums and taken away the natural factory that was once fixing carbon for us.

Instead of finding ways to sweep carbon under the carpet, time, money and effort would be better spent, conserving our forests and planting more trees to fight climate change. And then there are guys like Afforestt, who can help us develop native forests up to 10 times faster. Click on th video below to know more. 

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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Apps for Pets? [Coffee-byte]

Just like the way, we have adopted technology as a part and parcel of our daily lives, other animals, too, do not seem to have any issues adopting it as well. While they cannot build tablets and smartphones for themselves, they are surely interested in a game or two, if you offer.

It all started with researchers being able to show that gorillas can indulge in a playful game among themselves if you give them a ball.

But with advancing technology, just like kids get distracted these days, orangutans got distracted too! This Zoo in Milwaukee allows their orangutns to FaceTime with their friends in other zoos and also Doodle on the iPad in their free time.

Merlin, a dolphin in Mexico is already using an iPad to learn speech and associate objects with symbols. 

And if you thought, only primates and dolphins were smart, check the pigs in this pen who know how to collaborate with their human team mate and get the perfect score.  

  Friskies takes this even further and has already released three games for your little ball of fur. Here's a short video of how cats enjoy their time with the iPad.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Bacteria to clear up PCBs [Coffee-byte]

English: Labelling PCB-containing transformers.
Labelling PCB-containing transformers. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Polychlorinated biphenyl or PCBs are man-made compounds that were first made in 1881 and were extensively used as cooling agents in electrical equipment such as transformers and capacitors and also as additives in paints, pesticide extenders, flame retardants etc.  Monsanto was a major producer of this chemical in the early phases. 

Although PCBs had extensive applications. just like other man made plastics, they do not breakdown naturally. As early as 1922,  preliminary studies revealed that exposure to PCBs was detrimental to human and animal health. While initial reports suggested that the dangers extended to skin conditions alone, further reports linked PCBs to liver damage and poisoning. In the year 1968, about 400000 birds died after the feed that was supplied to them had been contaminated with PCBs. Detailed studies later also linked the exposure of PCBs to cancer. 

Multiple such incidents around the globe, finally led to banning of production of PCBs in the United States in the year 1979. Since PCBs do not disintegrate naturally, the risk of exposure to PCBs still continues. The physical method of destruction of PCBs is extremely expensive and while the chemical method is affordable, it requires temperatures in the range of 700-900 degrees Celsius. Apart from the cost and process consideration, the fact that PCBs containing instruments and devices have been dumped in various landfills and dump yards all around the world, makes it difficult to collect and dispose. Additionally, if the PCBs from these sources find their way into water bodies, entire city could be at risk of exposure. 

Researchers at the National University of Singapore have now been successful in identifying three new bacteria that can potentially be used to clear up PCBs. Hailing from the genus Dehalococcoides
these bacteria carry special enzymes in them that can break down PCBs by removing the chlorine groups from the compound, thus paving way to new methods of dealing with PCBs. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

SEX under the MRI [Coffee-byte]

12:38 PM Posted by Geetanjali Raikar , , , No comments
Sex has almost always, grabbed every ones attention. But this time its the medium through which you are watching it, that makes it fun and exciting- at least from the scientific stand point.

Researchers have filmed the act of sexual intercourse under an MRI machine.

A fun paper to read about viewing Sex under the MRI 

Monday, September 22, 2014

Technology for safety and a little bit of fun [Coffee-Byte]

5:02 PM Posted by Editor CTS , , , , No comments
We usually discuss science here and it can get a little heavy at times. So for a change, here is an application of technology for purposes of safety. No, this is not about driver less car that Google is making or some kind of hi-tech device that ensures safety in aeroplanes. This is for the safety of pedestrians at the riskiest place for them in the world, the traffic signals!

The video comes from Smart, a smart car maker, which is part of the Daimler AG in Germany.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Treat 2 genes to beat jet lag and cancer too! [Coffee-byte]

9:00 AM Posted by Editor CTS , , , , No comments
Image credit:
The circadian clock is the clock that we were born with. As kids it helped us sleep and wake up on time and as adults it keeps us awake when we travel to different time zones. It is more efficient than any clock ever made by man for it keeps adjusting itself for every little change that we make and now we know how it works! 

The circadian clock has been associated with
four genes, namely CLOCK, Period, Cryptochrome and BMAL1. It is the work of these genes (their respective proteins) that help us maintain our circadian rhythm. When a take a flight through different time zones, these genes take a while to adjust to new environs and this is why we experience 'jet-lag'. But researchers Rui Ye and Aziz Sancar at the University of North Carolina, were able to show that CLOCK and BMAL1 were the most important genes needed to maintain our circadian rhythms. Now, that we know how the clock works, we can design drugs that can help us to set the clock quicker or later as we need and get into routine quickly.

While these drugs are still away from being available in the market, the very idea of popping pills to mitigate a jet-lag may seems too much dependence on pills doesn't it? Well, research carried out on these genes has also revealed that an enzyme called XPA was found in high levels when the circadian clock was at its high or active state while it dipped in the afternoons, when the clock was also going through its low phase. Drugs designed to control circadian rhythms could be used to target cancerous cells as well and use other methods such as chemotherapy to triumph over cancer. 

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Plants, too, have microbiomes you know [Coffee-byte]

If you have read our post about being in sync with your microbes, you are well aware of 'microbiomes', the role they play in our lives and how unique they are to us. Researchers at the Institute of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Oregon, have now found that just like us, plants, too, have microbiomes! 

Plant leaves, especially, are home to millions and millions of bacteria. Using modern sequencing technology, researchers mass sequenced the multitude of bacteria found there and identified these bacteria using unique sequences called 'barcodes'. While there were some microbes that were found on most plants, there were also some that were unique or rarely found. 

The role of all the bacteria is not well understood but these microbes could be responsible for helping plants evade pathogenic infections or even help in faster growth. Certain bacteria were also found is certain areas where the air composition was markedly different, thereby showing that plants are working with microbes to make their environs more suitable for surviving. 

While the data reveals very little information as of now, such studies will help in the long run to help conserve certain plants and their eco-systems! 

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