Nowhere on earth has the power to inspire awe and wonder in the endless outcomes of evolution than a natural history museum. It’s a bold claim, but where else can you find over 500m years of biodiversity?
In a good museum, visitors can literally walk around open mouthed in astonishment at seeing the biggest animals that ever lived – whales and dinosaurs – and specimens showing extraordinary biological processes, like how a two-metre tall kangaroo is born the size of a jelly bean.
But lurking within these wondrous collections are chemical legacies of the ways they were prepared and preserved that can make museums a risky place to work. Here are four of them…
One of the main challenges of caring for a biological collection is that everything is edible, and we have to work hard to ensure that insect pests like clothes moths, carpet beetles and silverfish don’t nibble our specimens out of existence. Unchecked, they can turn invaluable objects into dust. When it comes to taxidermy and skins, the practice until recently was to coat the inside of the skins with arsenic soap or other poisons such as heavy metals or even strychnine and cyanide.
A taxidermy ocelot at the University Museum of Zoology. Image: University of Cambridge/Chris Green
While these are extremely effective at killing pests, they have the potential to make us very ill. If a specimen is old but looks in good condition, it’s likely to have been treated in this way. Short story: don’t stroke a museum skin unless you know for sure it’s poison-free.
Another mainstay of museum collections is animals preserved in jars of fluid. The first step in preparing these specimens is called ‘fixation’, which keeps the animal in suspended animation by halting the decomposition process at a cellular level, causing cross-links between molecules (including DNA). Formalin is a solution of the toxic and carcinogenic gas formaldehyde.
Preserved fish collected by Charles Darwin on the voyage of the Beagle at the University Museum of Zoology. Image: University of Cambridge/Chris Green
3. Alcohol preservative
The second step in preparing fluid specimens is to store them permanently in a preservative, and the most common is a solution of ethanol. Vodka, gin, rum, brandy etc. are all solutions of alcohol, and indeed sailors on historic voyages of discovery would find that the naturalist on board had commandeered their booze rations to preserve an important specimen.
Today, we tend to use stronger solutions of ethanol – at 70% – as it is more effective. Ethanol is obviously consumable, so why is this in a list of dangers? The ethanol museums use is called industrial methylated spirits, or denatured alcohol: it has a tiny bit of methanol added.
The toxic methanol has no beneficial properties for preservation – it’s there simply to stop museum workers from drinking it (and means that it isn’t subject to the high tax rates of alcoholic drinks).
Geological collections come with a whole different suite of hazards. Many minerals are inherently poisonous, or can break down in museum conditions to release toxic gasses. Others are naturally radioactive. If you’ve got a lump of uranium ore in your collection, that’s a pretty obvious risk, but there are also certain locations that a lot of fossils come from that have relatively high levels of radiation.
Museums have to be careful about how these are stored as once we lock these fossils up in a museum drawer or cabinet, the concentration of radioactivity in that sealed environment builds up over time, releasing a dangerous cloud once the drawer is eventually opened.
I should say that museums are pretty clued up on managing these risks, and there is no danger to the visiting public. Just don’t lick anything.
Energy is critical to life. However, we must work to find solution to source sustainable energy which compliments the UK’s emission targets. This article discusses six interesting facts concerning the UK’s diversified energy supply system and the ways it is shifting towards decarbonised alternatives.
1. In 2015, UK government announced plans to close unabated coal-fired power plants by 2025.
A coal-fired power plant
In recent years, energy generation from coal has dropped significantly. In March 2018, Eggborough power station, North Yorkshire, closed, leaving only seven coal power plants operational in the UK. In May this year, Britain set a record by going one week without coal power. This was the first time since 1882!
2. Over 40% of the UK’s electricity supply comes from gas.
A natural oil and gas production in sea
While it may be a fossil fuel, natural gas releases less carbon dioxide emissions compared to that of coal and oil upon combustion. However, without mechanisms in place to capture and store said carbon dioxide it is still a carbon intensive energy source.
3. Nuclear power accounts for approximately 8% of UK energy supply.
Nuclear power generation is considered a low-carbon process. In 2025, Hinkley Point C nuclear power-plant is scheduled to open in Somerset. With an electricity generation capacity of 3.2GW, it is considerably bigger than a typical power-plant.
In 2018, the total installed capacity of UK renewables increased by 9.7% from the previous year. Out of this, wind power, solar power and plant biomass accounted for 89%.
4. The Irish Sea is home to the world’s largest wind farm, Walney Extension.
The Walney offshore wind farm.
In addition to this, the UK has the third highest total installed wind capacity across Europe. The World Energy Council define an ‘ideal’ wind farm as one which experiences wind speed of over 6.9 metres per second at a height of 80m above ground. As can be seen in the image below, at 100m, the UK is well suited for wind production.
5. Solar power accounted for 29.5% of total renewable electricity capacity in 2018.
This was an increase of 12% from the previous year (2017) and the highest amount to date! Such growth in solar power can be attributed to considerable technology cost reductions and greater average sunlight hours, which increased by up to 0.6 hours per day in 2018.
Currently, the intermittent availability of both solar and wind energy means that fossil fuel reserves are required to balance supply and demand as they can run continuously and are easier to control.
6. In 2018, total UK electricity generation from bioenergy accounted for approximately 32% of all renewable generation.
A biofuel plant in Germany.
This was the largest share of renewable generation per source and increased by 12% from the previous year. As a result of Lynemouth power station, Northumberland, and another unit at Drax, Yorkshire, being converted from fossil fuels to biomass, there was a large increase in plant biomass capacity from 2017.