Blog search results for Author: Maria Burke

Science & Innovation

Researchers have created a new extremely light and durable ceramic aerogel. The material could be useful for applications like insulating spacecraft because it can withstand intense heat and severe temperature changes. 

rocket taking off

The aerogel could be used to coat spacecrafts due to its resilience to certain conditions.

The aerogel comprises a network of tiny air pockets, with each pocket separated by two atomically thin layers of hexagonal boron nitride. It’s at least 99% space. To build the aerogel, Duan’s team used a graphene template coated with borazine, which forms crystalline boron nitride when heated. When the graphene template oxidises, this leaves a ‘double-pane’ boron nitride structure.

 aerogel

The basis of the newly developed aerogel is the 2D structure of graphene.

‘The key to the durability of our new ceramic aerogel is its unique architecture,’ says study co-author Xiangfeng Duan of the University of California, US. 

‘The “double-pane” ceramic barrier makes it difficult for heat to transfer from one air bubble to another, or to spread through the material by traveling along the hexagonal boron nitride layers themselves, because that would require following long, circuitous routes.’

How does Aerogel technology work? Video: Outdoor Research

Unlike other ceramic aerogels, the material doesn’t become brittle under extreme conditions. The new aerogel withstood 500 cycles of rapid heating and cooling from -198°C to 900°C, as well as 1400°C for one week. A piece of the insulator shielded a flower held over a 500°C flame.

 

Sustainability & Environment

Plant breeders are increasingly using techniques to produce new varieties they say are indistinguishable from those developed through traditional breeding methods. New genome editing technologies can introduce new traits more quickly and precisely.

However, in July, 2018, the European Court of Justice decreed they alter the genetic material of an organism in a way that does not occur naturally, so they should fall under the GMO Directive. This went against the opinion of the Advocate General.

In October 2018, leading scientists representing 85 European research institutions endorsed a position paper warning that the ruling could lead to a de facto ban of innovative crop breeding. 

crops gif

Originally posted by sunbursts-and-marblehalls

The paper argues for an urgent review of European legislation, and, in the short term, for crops with small DNA adaptations obtained through genome editing to fall under the regulations for classically bred varieties.

‘As European leaders in the field of plant sciences […] we are hindered by an outdated regulatory framework that is not in line with recent scientific evidence,’ says one of the signatories, Dirk Inzé, Scientific Director at Life Sciences Institute VIB in Belgium.

 

Sustainability & Environment

‘Biodegradable plastics have become more cost-competitive with petroleum-based plastics and the demand is growing significantly, particularly in Western Europe, where environmental regulations are the strictest,’ says Marifaith Hackett, director of specialty chemicals research at analysts IHS Markit. The current market value of biodegradable plastics is set to exceed $1.1bn in 2018, but could reach $1.7bn by 2023, according to IHS Markit’s new report.

In 2018, the report finds that global demand for these polymers is 360,000t, but forecasts an average annual growth rate of 9% for the five years to 2023 – equivalent to a volume increase of more than 50%. Western Europe holds the largest share (55%) of the global market, followed by Asia, and Australia and New Zealand (25%), then North America (19%).

 

Here’s how much plastic trash Is littering the Earth. Video: National Geographic

In another report released in May 2018, the US Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS) was similarly optimistic, finding that the bioplastics sector (biodegradables made from biological substances) is at ‘a growth cycle stage’. It predicts the US sector will outpace the US economy as a whole by attracting new investments and entrants, while also bringing new products and manufacturing technologies to make bioplastics ‘more competitive and dynamic’.

As bioplastics product applications continue to expand, the dynamics of industry growth will continue to shift, the report notes. Presently, packaging is the largest market segment at 37%, followed by bottles at 32%. Changes in consumer behaviour are expected to be a significant driver.

 bucket in water

Many countries, including China and the UK, have introduced plastic waste bans to tackle the problemImage: Pixabay

Changes in US tax policy, particularly the full expensing of capital expenditure, should support R&D in bioplastics,’ says Perc Pineda, chief economist at PLASTICS. ‘The overall low cost of energy in the US complements nicely with R&D activities and manufacturing, which generates a stable supply of innovative bioplastic products.’ He points, for example, to efforts by companies and collaborations to develop and launch, at commercial scale, a 100% bio-based polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle as a case in point. Most PET bottles currently contain around 30% bio-based material.



Sustainability & Environment

Researchers have detected high levels of sunscreen chemicals in the waters of Shenzhen, China. These include beaches, a harbour, a reservoir, and even tap water. In tests on zebrafish, the team showed that several of these UV filters are being transmitted through the food chain, and can have adverse effects on developing offspring.

Organic UV filters found in sunscreens, skin lotions and make-up, as well as textiles, plastics, and paints, are endocrine disruptors.

 The river and rice fields to the West of Shenzhen

The river and rice fields to the West of Shenzhen, China. Image: Wikimedia Commons 

Risk assessments for single compounds have concluded that current levels of organic UV filters pose low risk, but they don’t account for interactions of mixtures and how these interactions develop over time.

Kelvin Sze-Yin Leung’s team at Hong Kong Baptist University analysed nine common organic UV filters in surface waters of Shenzhen, a city with more than 20 popular beaches. They found seven of the nine chemicals, including benzophenone derivatives BP-3, BP-8, and BP-1, as well as ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate (EHMC), at public beaches, a harbour, a reservoir, and in tap water.

Which sunscreen should you use? Video: Ted-Ed

Total concentrations of UV filters were relatively high at three popular public beaches – ranging from 192 to 645ngL-1 – in the summer as expected. Shenzhen Reservoir showed UV filter pollution in both seasons, while tap water was contaminated by BP-3.

If inefficient water treatment processes are to blame, then research is needed into other ways to remove these filters to protect human health, says Sze-Yin Leung.


Energy

Engineers say they have demonstrated a cost-effective way to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The extracted  CO2 could be used to make new fuels or go to storage.

The process of direct air capture (DAC) involves giant fans drawing ambient air into contact with an aqueous solution that traps CO2 . Through heating and several chemical reactions, CO2 is re-extracted and ready for further use.

‘The carbon dioxide generated via DAC can be combined with sequestration for carbon removal, or it can enable the production of carbon-neutral hydrocarbons, which is a way to take low-cost carbon-free power sources like solar or wind and channel them into fuels to decarbonise the transportation sector,’ said David Keith, founder of Carbon Engineering, a Canadian clean fuels enterprise, and a Professor of Physics at Harvard University, US.

Fuel from the Air – Sossina Haile. Video: TEDx Talks

DAC is not new, but its feasibility has been disputed. Now, Carbon Engineering reports how its pilot plant in British Columbia has been using standard industrial equipment since 2015. Keith’s team claims that a 1 Mt- CO2 /year DAC plant will cost $94-$232/ton of  CO2 captured. Previous theoretical estimates have ranged up to $1000/ton.

Energy

A 3D battery made using self-assembling polymers could allow devices like laptops and mobile phones to be charged much more rapidly.

Usually in an electronic device, the anode and cathode are on either side of a non-conducting separator. But a new battery design by Cornell University researchers in the US intertwines the components in a 3D spiral structure, with thousands of nanoscale pores filled with the elements necessary for energy storage and delivery.

image

Originally posted by novelty-gift-ideas

This type of ‘bottom-up’ self-assembly is attractive because it overcomes many of the existing limitations in 3D nanofabrication, enabling the rapid production of nanostructures at large scales.

In the Cornell design, the battery’s anode is made of gyroidal (spiral) thin films of carbon, generated by block copolymer self-assembly. They feature thousands of periodic pores around 40nm wide. The pores are coated with a 10 nm-thick separator layer, which is electronically insulating but ion-conducting. Some pores are filled with sulfur, which acts as the cathode and accepts electrons but doesn’t conduct electricity.

Adaptive battery can charge in seconds. Video: News Direct

‘This is potentially ground-breaking, if the process can be scaled up and the quality of the electrodes can be ensured,’ comments Yury Gogotsi, director of A.J. Drexel Nanomaterials Institute, Philadelphia, US. ‘But this is still an early-stage development, proof of concept. The main challenge is to ensure that no short-circuits occur in the structure.

Energy

Renewables outstripped coal power for the first time in electricity generation in Europe in 2017, according to a new report. The European Power Sector in 2017 – by think-tanks Sandbag and Agora Energiewende – predicts renewables could provide half of Europe’s electricity by 2030.

Wind, solar and biomass generation collectively rose by 12% in 2017 – to 679 Terawatt hours  – generating 21% of Europe’s electricity and contributing to 30% of the energy mix. ‘This is incredible progress considering just five years ago coal generation was more than twice that of wind, solar and biomass,’ the report says.

image

Hydroelectric power is the most popular renewable energy source worldwide. Image: PxHere

However, growth is variable. The UK and Germany alone contributed to 56% of the expansion in the past three years. There is also a ‘bias’ for wind, with a 19% increase in 2017, due to good wind conditions and huge investments, the report says. 

‘This is good news now the biomass boom is over, but bad news in that solar was responsible for just 14% of the renewables growth in 2014 to 2017.’

New analysis by trade group WindEurope backs up the findings on wind power, showing that countries across Europe installed more offshore capacity than ever before: 3.14GW. This corresponds to 560 new offshore wind turbines across 17 wind farms. Fourteen projects were fully completed and connected to the grid, including the first floating offshore wind farm. Europe now has a total installed offshore wind capacity of 15.78GW.

The EU’s 2030 goals for climate and energy. Video: European Commission 

Germany remains top of the European league, with the largest total installed wind-power capacity; worth 42% of the EU’s new capacity in 2017, followed by Spain, the UK, and France. Denmark boasts the largest share of wind in its power mix at 44% of electricity demand.

Sustainability & Environment

It’s well known that the oceans are becoming more acidic as they absorb increasing amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere. Now, German researchers say they have found the first evidence that this is happening in freshwaters, too, with potentially widespread effects on ecosystems.

‘Many current investigations describe tremendous effects of rising CO2 levels on marine ecosystems,’ says Linda Weiss at Ruhr-University Bochum: acidic oceans can have major impacts on marine food webs, nutrient cycles, overall productivity and biodiversity. ‘However, freshwater ecosystems have been largely overlooked,’ she adds.

image

Originally posted by boitoyscotty

Waters with high acidity have reduced biodiversity.

Weiss and colleagues looked at four freshwater reservoirs in Germany. Their analysis of data over 35 years – from 1981 to 2015 – confirmed a continuous increase in CO2, measured as the partial pressure or pCO2, and an associated decrease in pH of about 0.3, suggesting that freshwaters may acidify at a faster rate than the oceans.

In lab studies, the team also investigated the effects of higher acidity on two species of freshwater crustaceans called Daphnia, or water fleas. Daphnia found in lakes, ponds and reservoirs are an important primary food source for many larger animals.

 Daphnia

Daphnia are an essential part of the freshwater food chain. Image: Faculty of Natural Sciences at Norwegian University of Science and Technology/Flickr  

When Daphnia sense that predators are around, they respond by producing ‘helmets’ and spikes that make them harder to eat. Weiss found that high levels of CO2 reduce Daphnia’s ability to detect predators. ‘This reduces the expression of morphological defences, rendering them more vulnerable,’ she says.

The team suggest that CO2 alters chemical communication between species, which could have knock-on effects throughout the whole ecosystem. Many fish learn to use chemical cues from injured species to detect predatory threats and move away from danger, for example.

Ocean acidification - the evil twin of climate change | Triona McGrath | TEDxFulbrightDublin. Video: TEDx Talks

Cory Suski, an ecologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, US, says he is not aware of many other data sets showing trends in CO2 abundance in freshwater over an extended time. Also, he notes: ‘A lot of the work to date in this area has revolved around behavioural or physiological responses to elevated CO2, so a morphological change is novel.’

But he points out that it is difficult to predict how this change could impact aquatic ecosystems, or whether this may be a global phenomenon, simply because of the complex nature of CO2 in freshwater. The amount of CO2 in freshwater is driven by a number of factors including geology, land use, water chemistry, precipitation patterns and aquatic respiration.

Agrifood

Russian researchers have developed new fertilisers based on nanopowders of transition metals. In field trials on agricultural crops, harvests increased by more than a quarter, compared with conventional fertilisers.

Iron, cobalt and copper affect a plant’s level of resistance to pests and diseases. These microelements are typically introduced into the soil as soluble salts, but rain and irrigation can wash them away, requiring further applications. They also have potential to disrupt local ecosystems as they pass into the groundwater.

 irrigation system

An irrigation system in Idaho, US. Image: Jeroen Komen@Wikimedia Commons

The team, led by the National University of Science and Technology (NUST) in Moscow, has developed a group of fertilisers that are applied as a powder to plant seeds, without losses to the soil or water systems. In this way, ‘the future plant is provided with a supply of necessary microelements at the stage of seeding,’ reports Alexander Gusev, head of the project at NUST’s Department of Functional Nanosystems. 

‘[It’s] a one-seed treatment by a product containing the essential microelements in nanoform. These particles of transition metals – iron, copper, cobalt – have a powerful stimulating effect on plant growth in the initial growth phase.’

Gusev reports improved field germination and increased yields of 20-25%.

image

Originally posted by magical-girl-stims

The main difficulty was to produce a powder from the nanoparticles, which tended to quickly stick together as aggregates, says Gusev – a problem they solved by using organic stabilisers and then subjecting the colloidal solutions to ultrasonic processing.

Gusev now wants to discvover how the new fertiliser acts in different soils, and in relation to different plant cultures. Its environmental safety also needs to be evaluated before widespread use, he adds.

But Steve McGrath, head of sustainable agricultural sciences at Rothamsted Research, is sceptical. Plants are adapted to take up ionic forms of these microelements, not nanoparticles, he says. ‘Also, seeds do not take up much micronutrients. Roots do that, and depending on the crop and specific nutrient, most uptake is near to the growing ends of the root, and throughout the growing season, when the seed and nearby roots are long gone.’

 fertiliser2

Critics are skeptical of the efficacy of the new kind of fertiliser. Image: Pexels

If there is an effect on crop yield, he thinks it is more likely to be due to the early antifungal and antibacterial effects of nanoparticles. ‘They have a large and highly reactive surface area and if they are next to membranes of pathogens when they react they generate free radicals that disrupt those membranes. So, in a soil that is particularly disease-infected, there may be some protection at the early seedling stage.’

Sustainability & Environment

Cellular agriculture involves making food from cell cultures in bioreactors. The products are chemically identical to meat and dairy products, and it’s claimed they have the same taste and texture.

The technology is an attractive option because it would reduce the world’s reliance on livestock, which is unsustainable, and would have potential knock-on benefits of lower greenhouse gas emissions, and reduced water, land, and energy usage than traditional farming.

milk gif

Originally posted by butteryplanet

IndieBio helps biotechnology start-ups. Since 2014, it has funded several new US-based businesses in cellular agriculture: Perfect Day, formerly Muufri, makes milk from cell culture; Clara Foods is developing a way to make egg whites from cell culture; and Memphis Meats is focusing on animal-free meat using tissue engineering.

Growth is driven by the clear benefits this technology can offer, says Ron Sigeta, IndieBio’s Chief Scientific Officer. ‘It takes 144 gallons of water to make a gallon of milk or 53 gallons of water to make an egg. Cellular agriculture products don’t require such large water supplies, or large tracts of land, or produce the same level of greenhouse gas emissions.’

 Salmonella

Salmonella bacteria are not present in cell-cultured milk so there is no risk of infection. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Food safety is also a significant issue. ‘Cellular agriculture makes products in an entirely controlled environment so it’s a source of food we can understand with a transparency that is simply not possible now,’ says Sigeta. For example, raw, unpasteurised milk can carry bacteria, such as salmonella, which is not a problem for Perfect Day’s milk as there are no bacteria-carrying animals are involved.


So how does it work?

Cellular agriculture products can be acellular – made of organic molecules like proteins and fats – or cellular – made of living or once-living cells.

Meat industry critics argue that it is not sustainable and lab-grown meat is the future. Video: Eater

Acellular products are made without using microbes like yeast or similar bacteria. Scientists alter the yeast by inserting the gene responsible for making the desired protein. Since all cells read the same genetic code, the yeast, now carrying recombinant DNA, makes the protein molecularly identical to the protein an animal makes.

Other products like meat and leather are produced by a cellular approach. Using tissue engineering techniques muscle, fat or skin cells can be assembled on a scaffold with nutrients. The cells can be grown in large quantities and then combined to make the product.

 cultured beef patty

The first cultured beef patty was made in 2013. Image: Public Domain Pictures

Mark Post at Maastricht University, the Netherlands, made the first cultured beef hamburger in 2013 using established tissue engineering methods to grow cow muscle cells. The process, however, was expensive and time-consuming, but his team has been working on improvements.

‘We are focusing on hamburgers because our process results in small tissues that are large enough for minced meat applications, which accounts for half of the meat market. To make a steak, one would need to impose a larger 3D structure to the cells to grow in.

‘It is very important that such a structure contains a channel system to perfuse the nutrients and oxygen through to the developing tissue and to remove waste as a result of metabolic activity. This technology is being developed, but is not yet ready for large scale production.’

 genetically engineered meat

Surveys have shown that the public are behind genetically engineered meat alternatives. Image: Ben Amstutz@Flickr 


Future outlook

Commercial challenges include finding a cost-effective medium for cell nutrition developing a bioreactor for industrial scale production. Public perception may also be a challenge: Will people buy synthetically engineered food?

A recent crowdfunding campaign shows the global massive support for the idea of clean meat, says Koby Barak, SuperMeat’s chief operating officer and co-founder. However, he believes these will be overcome shortly, and it will not be long before companies see ‘massive funding’ in this field and the creation of clean meat factories worldwide.