The War on Plastic is a grand title. To most of us, it doesn’t seem like much of a war at all – more like a series of skirmishes. Nevertheless, if you look closely, you’ll see that a lot of companies are tackling the issue.
GSK Consumer Healthcare (GSKCH) is one such organisation. The healthcare brand that gave us Sensodyne and Advil has launched a carbon neutral toothbrush to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels (which create virgin plastic).
The composition of its Dr. Best tooth scrubber is interesting. The handle comprises a mixture of a cellulose derived from pine, spruce, and birch trees and tall oil, which comes from the wood pulping industry. The bristles are made from castor oil and the plastic-free packaging includes a cellulose window.
According to GSKCH, Dr. Best is Germany’s favourite toothbrush brand and there are plans to apply the technology to toothbrushes across its portfolio, including its Sensodyne brand. At the moment, GSK needs to apply carbon offsetting initiatives to make the toothbrush carbon neutral, but it says it is working on future solutions that do not require this approach.
GSK isn’t the only company that is actively reducing the use of plastics and minimising waste. Supermarket chain Morrisons has made aggressive moves in recent years to cut waste, and has just launched six ‘net zero waste’ stores in Edinburgh that will operate with zero waste by 2025.
Customers at these stores will be able to bring back hard-to-recycle plastics such as food wrappers, foils, yoghurt tubs, mixed material crisp tubes, coffee tubs, batteries, and plant pots. At the same time, all store waste will be collected by a range of specialist waste partners for recycling within the UK, and unsold food will be offered to customers at a cheaper price on the Too Good to Go app.
Morrisons’ proactive approach will help find a new life for hard-to-recycle packaging.
‘We’re not going to reach our ambitious targets through incremental improvements alone,’ said Jamie Winter, Sustainability Procurement Director at Morrisons. ‘Sometimes you need to take giant steps and we believe that waste is one of those areas. We believe that we can, at a stroke, enable these trial stores to move from recycling around 27% of their general waste to over 84% and with a clear line of sight to 100%.
‘We all need to see waste as a resource to be repurposed and reused. The technology, creativity and will exists – it’s a question of harnessing the right process for the right type of waste and executing it well.’
If this approach is successful, Morrisons plans to roll out the zero waste store format in all of its 498 stores across the UK next year.
>> Interested in reading more about sustainability and the environment? Check out our blog archive.
The government has also issued its latest battle cry in the war on plastics. Having defeated plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds, it has turned its attention to other single-use plastics.
Single-use plastic plates, cutlery and polystyrene cups are among the items that could be banned in England following public consultation.
The humble cotton bud has now been retired from active service.
Somewhat surprisingly, it estimates that each person in England uses 18 single-use plastic plates and 37 single-use plastic items of cutlery each year; so, it has begun moves to cut out this waste stream.
Environment Secretary George Eustice said: “We have made progress to turn the tide on plastic, banning the supply of plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds, while our carrier bag charge has cut sales by 95% in the main supermarkets. Now we are looking to go a step further as we build back greener.”
All in all, it’s encouraging to see that companies and the government are brushing up on their sustainable practices.
>> Curious to find out what the future looks like for lab-processed food and meat alternatives? Read what the experts say here.
A little talked about element, with the atomic mass 140, plays a surprisingly important role in everyday life. It has not only lit many a path, but can be credited with improving and saving the lives of billions of people by enabling cleaner air.
In his talk '140Ce: White light & Clean Air' Andy Walker, Johnson Matthey’s Technical Marketing Director explained why the soft, ductile silvery-white metal Cerium, deserves more recognition.
Walker began by outlining the history of SCI, celebrating its 140th anniversary this year. As an employee of Johnson Matthey, Walker highlighted that George Matthey was among the pioneers of SCI. In addition Walker explained that his PhD research had involved looking at catalysts that included Cerium.
Cerium is a lanthanide and the 26th most abundant element on earth. Indeed it was the first lanthanide to be discovered, found as its ore cerium silicate, in 1803. Cerium makes up 66ppm of the earth’s crust, which is about 5 times as much as lead. It is the only one of the lanthanides able to take on the +4 oxidation state, making it very useful in some of its applications. It is mined in the US, Brazil, India, Sri Lanka, Australian and China, with annual global production of 24 000 tonnes.
However, this straightforward look at the history of Cerium conceals a much more interesting narrative about how this element shaped the life of a number of prominent chemists of the day. Indeed Cerium was found as early as 1751 at a mine in Vestmanland, Sweden by Axel Cronstedt, who also discovered Nickel. Believing it to be an ore of Tungsten, he sent it to Carl Wilhelm Scheele for analysis. However, Scheele was not able to identify it as a new element.
This turn of events for Scheele, perhaps unfairly, helped to seal his moniker as the ‘unlucky chemist’. Scheele, a prominent chemist and pharmacist, had a number of discoveries to his name. He isolated lactic acid, and discovered hydrogen fluoride and hydrogen sulphide.
But as Walker explained, his most notable discovery was oxygen, some three years before Joseph Priestley. Sadly for Scheele; it took him six years to publish his findings, by which time Priestley had already presented his data. Putting a contemporary slant on Scheele’s misfortune, Walker added that the cautionary tale here was that getting things out into the public domain as soon as possible can be important to ensure credit goes to the right people.
Further work by Scheele led to the discovery of a number of elements including barium and chlorine, but sadly he did not receive any recognition because he didn’t manage to isolate them and identify them correctly. The chemist Sir Humphrey Davy did so, some years later, getting the credit for their discovery and isolation.
So it was in 1803 that chemists Wilhelm Hisinger and Jons Jacob Bezelius proved that Cerium was indeed a new element, naming it Cerium after an asteroid/dwarf planet which had been called Ceres. The successful isolation of Cerium took place in 1875, carried out by American chemists William Hillebrand and Thomas Norton, by passing an electric current through molten cerium chloride.
99.95% fine cerium isolated on white background
Once isolated, the earliest application of Cerium was in incandescent gas mantles. Developed by Carl Auer von Welsbach, in 1891, he perfected a mixture of 99% thorium oxide and 1% ceria, which gave a soft white light. Introducing his new mantle commercially in 1892, von Welsbach was able to monetise his development selling his product throughout Europe.
Gas mantles have been replaced, but Cerium’s importance in producing white light remains. As Walker explained, most white LEDs use a blue gallium nitride LED covered by a yellowish phosphor coating made of cerium-doped Yttrium Aluminium Garnet crystals.
In the medical arena, Cerium was used by Sir James Young Simpson, Professor of Medicine and Midwifery at Edinburgh who did a lot of work in the area of anaesthetics. Simpson found that cerium nitrate suppressed vomiting, particularly that associated with morning sickness, and well into the last century, medication containing Cerium could be bought over the counter. In addition Cerium has been the basis of treatments for burns.
Other applications for this versatile element are self cleaning ovens and mischmetal alloy, used in flints for cigarette lighters. Walker shared that the chemist and author Primo Levi, while imprisoned in Auschwitz, was able to steal cerium-iron rods from the laboratory he was forced to work in. Making them into cigarette lighter flints, he was able to barter for bread. Cerium is used to harden surfaces; it is a good polishing agent. Cerium sulphide has been used to replace the pigment cadmium red as a non-toxic alternative and Cerium is widely used across the chemical industry as a catalyst to produce a host of chemicals.
Catalysis is probably where Cerium has impacted most people as the element is the basis for the catalytic converters that have provided cleaner air for billions of people. Walker explained that the driver for the development came during the 1950s when photochemical smog was a problem in the Los Angeles Basin. Measurements at the time indicated that vehicles were responsible for the majority of the hydrocarbon and NOx emissions that led to the polluted air.
This turn of events led researchers to develop systems that could mitigate the emissions. Johnson Matthey was among those doing the early work on catalytic converters. Meanwhile, the automotive industry was pushing back on their introduction, concerned about the costs, durability and effectiveness. Working with Ricardo Engineering, Johnson Matthey carried out durability tests over 25 000 miles which also showed that the catalysts could pass US emissions tests.
The catalysts had to operate in three ways, at the same time, oxidising carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrocarbons (HC) while reducing NOx. Early catalysts, circa 1975, were based on Palladium and Platinum and focused on oxidising the CO and HC. Around 1978 a second catalyst was introduced to reduce NOx.
However, the introduction of Cerium then made it possible to develop a single catalyst that was able to carry out the functions that the researchers had wanted to achieve. Hence, 1981 saw the introduction of the three way catalytic converter with all three reactions enabled over a single catalyst. More recently ceria-zirconia oxide based catalysts have been developed with much higher oxygen storage capacity than ceria.
The impact of these developments has allowed the implementation of much more stringent air quality and emissions standards. Indeed Johnson Matthey estimates that its Cerium-based catalysts are responsible for removing around 40 tonnes of pollutants every minute of every day.
A single element has indeed impacted many lives.
Sarah Davidson has made impressive strides in a short space of time. She has risen to Group Sustainability Coordinator for global Research and Technology at speciality chemicals firm Croda and won the Young Ambassador Award at this year’s Chemical Industry Awards.
In the first blog in our Women in Chemistry series, we caught up with Sarah for a chat on embedding sustainability in the workplace, the need for more diversity in senior roles, and the best bit of advice she received.
Tell us about your career to date.
I loved chemistry at school, so I started off by doing a Master’s in Chemistry at the University of Sheffield. During the course I did a placement year, which was my first taste of working in industry. Once I finished my degree, I was torn between staying in academia and doing a PhD or going into industry. I chose to go into industry because I had enjoyed my placement year so much and saw where I could make an impact.
I was accepted onto Croda’s Graduate Development programme, where I had three placements around the business. Croda is a speciality chemicals company, so my placements included working as an applications scientist and synthetic chemist. However, it was my placement working with the Sustainability team that I loved the most.
After the Grad Scheme I became Group Sustainability Coordinator for Global R&D. This combined my experience in R&D and sustainability in a brand role that didn’t exist in Croda before. This role allows me to use my technical knowledge and understanding of the way the global team works to enable those responsible for Croda’s new product innovations to include sustainability as an integral pillar in new product development.
What does your day-to-day role involve?
In my role, my main focus is on getting our scientists to think about sustainability during product and process development. At a fundamental level this requires me to change their mindsets around sustainability, getting them to see it is important to what we do and understand what it means.
To do this, I have developed a number of tools including checklists, clearly defined procedures and training documents. I have been working to get these new procedures adopted over the global R&D team by fitting them into existing protocols. Another part of my role is to support our corporate targets and I am part of a number of working groups to do this.
One working group looks at how we define a consistent methodology for Life Cycle Assessments or LCA. In this group I have been doing research to understand the current methods around LCA, and what our customers want in terms of sustainability data. I also help gather data to show where we are up to with these goals, so we understand what actions we need to take to move forward. On a day-to-day basis I will have meetings to discuss the projects I am involved in, conduct research and reach out to other teams and functions to see what they are working on too.
Which aspects of your job motivate you most?
For me sustainability is the future, not only for the chemical industry but for the world. Knowing that I am having a positive impact on sustainability in my role is what motivates me the most. I try to live a sustainable life, and what I do at work is just an extension of that.
What personal challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them?
To embed sustainability into our ways of working, I need to change people’s mindsets, and subsequently their behaviour. Seeing this change in people is incredibly rewarding. However, it is also one of the biggest challenges. Some of our teams have been working in the same roles for decades without any change. So, it is my job to make these changes easier for them to adopt and persuade them of the benefits in doing so. To overcome this challenge, I have had to work on my influencing skills and know what will work with the audience I am speaking to.
What is the greatest future challenge for people in your industry and how could this be addressed.
Sustainability, and addressing the issues we face as a result of climate change, are some of the biggest challenges we will face as an industry. We are in a lucky position that we can achieve a competitive advantage with sustainability, but our main goal is to protect our planet. This gives us a big opportunity for collaboration where we may not have had one before. I think we can only solve this challenge by collaborating across the supply chain, across country borders, and between industry and academia.
>> Not everyone takes the standard career path into chemistry. Take a read of Claudio Laurenco’s unusual, inspiring story.
Which mentors have helped you along the way and how did they make a difference?
I feel like I have a long list of mentors and am very lucky to be able to call on so many people for advice. The best thing I have learnt from them is to pursue what I enjoy most, as people will be able to see my passion. This will help me move forward in my career. Having mentors who have confidence in me and my ability has helped me build my own confidence, something which I can lack from time to time. My mentors are great sounding boards for ideas, whether that is to do with things I want to try in my job or on the direction of my career.
What is the current state of play within your sector with respect to equality, diversity, and inclusion – and is enough being done to attract and retain diverse talent?
I don’t think so. We need to do more to attract and retain diverse talent. We seem to be relatively diverse and inclusive at an academic level, which disappears in industry. There must be a reason for this. There may be bias within recruitment processes, or within job descriptions for senior roles, which means there is less diversity as you move up in organisations. We need to make sure that there are equal opportunities within industry for everyone and make sure everyone has a path to progression that works for them.
Is there any advice you would give to young professionals starting out in your area, especially young women?
Understand where you are different and use that as your advantage. Everyone has a unique lived experience that they bring with them into all situations. As women we have a different perspective to men. This doesn’t mean it is less valuable, it is just different. When you feel like you are in a minority as a woman, or are not being listened to, it is important to remember that our opinions are equal regardless of our background, gender or ethnicity. You have the same right to share your views, as the majority do theirs.
>> We’re always keen to hear from women who are making a real difference in chemistry. If you know someone who you think we should cover, please get in touch with us at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you’re a vegan, do you really want to eat a ruby-red slab of plant protein that looks like lamb? If you are a health obsessive, would you opt for an ultra-processed, plant-based product if you knew it didn’t contain many vitamins and micro-nutrients? And why, oh why, are we so obsessed with recreating the taste and appearance of the humble hamburger?
These questions and more were posed by Dr David Baines in the recent ‘No meat and two veg – the chemistry challenges facing the flavouring of vegan foods’ webinar organised by SCI’s Food Group. The flavourist, who owns his own food consultancy and is visiting Professor at the University of Reading, painted a vivid picture of our changing culinary landscape – one in which 79% of Millennials regularly eat meat alternatives.
And this shift in diet isn’t just the preserve of the young. According to Dr Baines, 54% of Americans and 39% of Chinese people have included more plant-based foods and less meat in their diets. Furthermore, 75% of Baby Boomers – those born between 1946 and 1964 – are open to trying cultivated meat.
There are many reasons for this gradual shift. The woman biting into Greggs’ famous vegan sausage roll and the woman who carefully crafts her bean burger may have different reasons for choosing meat alternatives. For some, it’s an ethical choice. For others, it’s environmental or health-related. And then there are those of us who are simply curious.
Pea protein powder is used in plant-based meat alternatives.
Either way it’s an industry that, if you’ll excuse the pun, is set to mushroom. According to Boston Consulting Group and Blue Horizon research, the global meat-free sector will be worth US$290 billion by 2035. They also claim Europe will reach peak meat consumption by 2025, and Unilever is aiming to sell US$1 billion-worth of plant-based meat and dairy alternatives by 2025-27.
In his entertaining talk, Dr Baines outlined the extrusion processes that turn wheat and pea proteins into large ropes of fibrous material and how soy isolates are spun into textured proteins using looms like those used in the cotton industry. He explained how calcium is used to imitate the chewable texture of chicken and how Impossible Foods is using the root nodules of bean plants to produce the red colour we recognise so readily in meat.
>> For more interesting SCI webinars on battery developments, medicinal chemistry and more, check out our events page.
So, how close are we to products with the appearance, taste and texture of, let’s say, beef? ‘I think that will come from cultured meat to start with,’ he said. ‘Where the protein is produced, it will still need to be flavoured, but the fibres will have formed and the texture is already present in some of those products.
‘It’s a big ask and it’s been asked for a long time. It’s going to be a long time before you put a piece of steak on one plate and a plant-based [product] on another and they will be visually, texturally and taste(-wise] identical.’
And what appetite do people even have for these plant-based facsimiles? ‘There are people who want plant proteins not to look like meat, and there are people who want them to look like meat,’ he added. ‘The driver at the moment is to make them look like meat, and the driver is to make it taste like meat too.’
Baines wondered aloud about the bizarre fixation some have with recreating and eating foods that look and taste like beef burgers. In contrast, he pointed to the examples of tofu and soy-based products that have been developed in South East Asia – distinct foods that do not serve as meat substitutes.
Plant-based proteins are undoubtedly part of our culinary future, but these products have other barriers to surmount beyond taste and texture. There is no getting around the fact that plant-based proteins are ultra-processed in a time when many are side-stepping processed foods. Baines also explained that these protein- and fibre-rich foods tend to have lower calorific content, but lack vitamins and micronutrients. ‘Will they be supplemented?’ Baines asked. ‘How much will the manufacturers of these new products start to improve the nutritional delivery of these products?’
We have now entered the age of the gluten-free, vegan sausage roll.
But it’s easy to forget that the leaps made in recent years have been extraordinary. Who would have predicted back in 1997 – when Linda McCartney was at the vanguard of the niche, plant-based meat alternative – that a vegan sausage roll would capture the imaginations of a meat-hungry nation? Who would have foreseen fast-food manufacturers falling over each other to launch plant-based burgers and invest in lab-grown meat?
As Dr Baines said: “This is a movement that is not going away.”
>> Our soils provide 97% of our food. Read more about how they are undervalued and overused here.
Main image: Pea crop | Image credit: Geoff Dixon
Peas are a very rewarding garden crop. Husbandry is very straightforward, producing nutritious yields and encouraging soil health by building nitrogen reserves for future crops.
Rotations usually sequence cabbages and other nitrogen-demanding crops after peas. This is a sustainable way to use the organic nitrogen reserves left by pea roots resulting from their mutually beneficial association with benign bacteria. These microbes capture atmospheric nitrogen, producing ammonia, nitrites and nitrates in a sequence of natural steps.
Peas originated in the Mediterranean. They were cultivated continuously by ancient civilisations and through medieval times, and are now the seventh most popular vegetable.
Illustration 1: Pea seeds | Image credit: Geoff Dixon
In bygone centuries, peas provided a protein source for the general population as cooked meals of pea soup and pease pudding helped keep famine at bay before the introduction of potatoes. In the 18th century, French gardeners working for the aristocracy produced fresh peas using raised and protected beds of fermenting animal manure. The composting processes produced heat and released carbon dioxide, stimulating rapid growth.
Generally, however, eating fresh peas only gained popularity in the 20th century as canned and then quick-frozen foods were invented, and large-scale technological development enabled mechanised and automated commercial precision cropping. In recent times, retail market demand has returned for unshelled podded peas – a manually picked crop known colloquially as ‘pulling peas’.
Seeds can be sown directly (illustration 1) or transplants (illustration 2) can be raised under protection, giving an early boost for growth and maturity. Peas are cool season crops. They grow best at 13-18°C and mature about 60 days after sowing.
Illustration 2: Pea seedlings | Image credit: Geoff Dixon
Some cultivars such as Meteor can be grown over winter, preferably protected with cloches for very early cropping. The spring sown The Sutton cultivar group (CV) gives rapid but modest returns, and main crop CVs, such as Hurst Green Shaft, deliver the heaviest returns (illustration 2). This cultivar forms several long, well-filled pods at the fruiting nodes.
Sugar peas or mange tout – where the entire immature pod is eaten – is a popular fresh crop, while quick-growing pea shoots that mature in 20 days from sowing are excellent additions for salads or as garnishes for warm cuisine.
Human health benefits significantly by including peas in the diet. As well as being an excellent protein source, they produce a range of vitamins and nutrient elements. Their coumestrol content aids the control of blood sugar levels, helping combat diabetes, heart diseases and arthritis.
So, it’s certainly worth finding a spot for this versatile vegetable in your garden.
Written by Professor Geoff Dixon, author of Garden practices and their science.
We always hear about athletes eking out that competitive edge through subtle changes in diet or equipment. Well, when it comes to making our buildings more energy-efficient, dozens of different technologies could make a difference. Every one may not be earth juddering on its own, but each could help decarbonise our homes by degrees.
Phase-changing materials (PCMs) may have a role to play in reducing our reliance on power-hungry cooling and heating systems in the home. At Texas A&M University, researchers have developed PCMs to passively regulate temperatures inside buildings.
They believe their 3D-printed phase-change materials - compounds that can change from a solid to liquid when absorbing heat, or from liquid to solid when releasing heat - could be incorporated into our homes in paint or other interior effects to regulate interior temperatures.
New phase-change material composites can regulate ambient temperatures inside buildings | Image credit: Texas A&M University College of Engineering
Their partial substitute to the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems that predominate in many of our buildings is a light-sensitive liquid resin with a phase-changing paraffin wax powder.
According to the researchers, their 3D printable ink composite improves upon existing PCMs in that it doesn’t require a separate shell around each PCM particle. When the PCM is mixed with liquid resin, the resin acts as both the shell and building material, enabling thermal energy management without any leakage. They use an ultraviolet light to solidify their 3D printable paste and make it suitable for use in our buildings.
“The ability to integrate phase-change materials into building materials using a scalable method opens opportunities to produce more passive temperature regulation in both new builds and already existing structures,” said Dr. Emily Pentzer, associate professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and the Department of Chemistry.
To date, the researchers have only tested their materials on a small scale in a house-shaped model. Nevertheless, after placing their 3D printed model inside an oven, the results were encouraging. The model’s temperature was 40% different to outside temperatures compared to models made using traditional materials.
From solar panels and insulation to heat pumps and phase change materials, much has been done to make our homes more energy-efficient
“We’re excited about the potential of our material to keep buildings comfortable while reducing energy consumption,” said Dr. Peiran Wei, research scientist in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and the Soft Matter Facility. “We can combine multiple PCMs with different melting temperatures and precisely distribute them into various areas of a single printed object to function throughout all four seasons and across the globe.”
Perhaps we won’t see PCMs in widespread use in our buildings any time soon, but it’s always heartening to see the use of passive heating and cooling systems in our buildings. Anything that contributes to the decarbonisation mix is certainly worth investigating further.
Think of Earth as an apple and the soil as the peel. Now, imagine that more than 70% of this apple’s surface is covered in water. That veneer of peel suddenly seems very small indeed.
Dig beneath the surface and you realise that the world’s soil resources aren’t as plentiful as you first thought. When you take into account all of the uninhabitable, non-arable land on our planet, including the snow-bound poles and deserts, you’re left with just 3% of total landmass to grow all the fruit and vegetables we eat.
After reminding her listeners of some stark facts at the Soil resources in the UK: overlooked and undervalued? webinar, Jane Rickson, Professor of Soil Erosion and Conservation at Cranfield University, reminded us that soil is a precious, finite resource. “We’re dealing with a very thin resource that has to deliver all of these goods and services.”
You just need to think of your breakfast, lunch, and dinner to realise just how important soil is. Of all the food we eat, 97% comes from terrestrial sources. However, in recent decades, the many benefits brought by soil have been taken lightly. Apart from providing food, animal fodder, and a surface for football, it plays a vital role in climate change mitigation.
‘Soil is excellent for climate change mitigation,’ said Professor Rickson, recipient of the prestigious Dr Sydney Andrew Medal for 2021. ‘We know that healthy soils can support vegetation and crops and plants in taking out atmospheric CO2.’
A cross section of soil layers. Unless you live on fish and seaweed, it’s likely that almost all of your food sources will come from terrestrial sources.
However, she and her colleagues at Cranfield University have unearthed some unsettling facts about the state of our soils. She mentioned that 12 million hectares of agricultural land worldwide is lost each year due to soil degradation. In the UK, soil erosion rates can be as high as 15 tonnes per hectare per year, with soil formation rates only compiling at a rate of 1 tonne per hectare per year; and, based on current rates of erosion, some soils could disappear completely by 2050.
So, what is being done to arrest this problem? The obvious mammoth in the room is climate change, with extreme weather events such as flash floods precipitating a huge amount of soil erosion. Obviously, climate change mitigation measures on a national scale would help, but adjustments to farming practices could also improve soil resilience on a more local level.
A lot of work is also being done to reduce the intensity of farming to improve soil health. The aim, according to Rickson, is to maintain a fertile seedbed while retaining maximum resistance to soil degradation. There are lots of different ways to do this.
One approach being taken is cover cropping, whereby a crop is grown for the protection and enrichment of the soil rather than for immediate sale. This enriches the soil and helps prevent soil erosion. Another approach is strip-tillage – a minimum tillage system that disturbs only the portion of the soil that contains the seed row, with the soil between rows left untilled. She also mentioned the benefits of soil improvement, with poultry manure and mushroom compost used to improve soil health by Benedict Unagwu among others.
Cover crops such as vetch and oats improve the structure and fertility of the soil.
It is difficult not to have sympathy for farmers at the moment. Climate change falls heavily upon their lands, and they must battle flooding and drought to keep their farms financially viable. Professor Rickson often speaks to the farming community about soil health, with the focus placed on realistic solutions. As one farmer told her: ‘It's hard to be green when you’re in the red.’
Perhaps soil doesn’t capture the imagination the same way as an oak forest or a field ablaze with wildflowers, but its mismanagement is costing us a fortune. She estimated that the combined annual economic cost of soil degradation in England, Scotland, and Wales is £1.5 billion.
According to Professor Rickson, the US is probably the home of soil conservation following the harsh ecological lessons learnt from the Dust Bowl disaster of the 1930s. However, she believes the UK has plenty of knowhow in the area.
‘The UK has an opportunity to be world-leading in this,’ she said. ‘I think we are as good as anyone. Our scientific community understands soil and is really pushing the boundaries in terms of soil science.’
Farmers today are under pressure to produce more food with fewer resources and without damaging the environment around them. Faced with factors such as land pressures, soil fertility, pest management and agricultural policy, farming today is all about efficiency, time and energy saving technology, and the drive to make solutions as sustainable as possible.
This obviously poses the question: what can the agrochemical industry do to increase output on one hand and protect the environment and improve applicator safety on the other?
Formulation technology is becoming increasingly important in answering this question. By designing innovative formulations, agrochemical products can become more effective as well as safer. Without the right formulation, even the best active substance is worth nothing.
Most pesticidal active ingredients are not water soluble or water dispersible, yet the most common mode of delivery is via spray applications of aqueous dilutions. It is necessary to create a formulation of the active ingredient in a way that makes it easily dispersible in water and able to maintain stability over the application time period. Changing what goes into this formulation alongside the active ingredient is crucial in how effectively that material is delivered to where it needs to be.
Demonstration of an EC formulation.
Two of the most common types of agricultural formulations that tackle this issue are emulsifiable concentrates (ECs) and suspension concentrates (SCs). EC formulations are suited to active ingredients that are oil soluble and have low melting points. As they are purely a solubilised active ingredient in an oil or solvent with the presence of emulsifiers, they are simple to manufacture and relatively easy to stabilise. The presence of an oil also enhances the biological activity of the application, making them more efficacious in the field.
SC formulation, with an indication of what occurs upon dilution into the spray tank prior to application.
SC formulations, on the other hand, are suitable for insoluble active ingredients and those with higher melting points. Crucially, as water is the continuous phase, they are also typically safer and more convenient in use for the operator; there is an absence of dust, flammable liquids, and volatile organic compounds.
Built into each of these formulations alongside the active ingredient are formulation additives. Formulation additives, referred to as inert ingredients, are critical to provide the long-term stability to agrochemical products and their ability to mix effectively in the spray tank, making them suitable for [field spray] applications.
While the formulation type targeted is often dictated by the chemical characteristics of the active ingredient, the formulator has the ability to change every element of the spray quality characteristics and agrochemical delivery through selection of formulation additives. Changing both the formulation type and the additives within will habitually have a dramatic effect on the field efficacy of that application and subsequent yield and quality of the crop. Selecting the correct formulation additives is essential in creating a successful formulation, arguably making them as significant as the active ingredient itself.
How formulators learn to map the complex effects within formulations for improved crop protection is just one facet of today’s agriculture challenge.
Interested in learning more about how the formulation of agrochemicals plays its part in feeding the world? Visit: www.crodacropcare.com
As silicon reaches its solar ceiling, perovskite has emerged as one of the main materials of choice in the next generation of solar panels. Indeed, Oxford PV’s much anticipated perovskite-silicon solar cell could take conversion efficiency well beyond what is currently achieved on the roofs of our homes.
The benefits of perovskite are well known at this stage. It could increase the energy we harvest from the sun and improve solar cell efficiency, and its printability could make fabrication cheaper. However, as with almost everything, there are drawbacks.
According to researchers at the SPECIFIC Innovation and Knowledge Centre at Swansea University, the solvents used to control the crystallisation of the perovskite during fabrication hinder the large-scale manufacture of printed carbon perovskite cells. This is due to the toxicity and potentially psychoactive effects of these materials.
The SPECIFIC team claims to have found a way around this after discovering a non-toxic biodegradable solvent called γ-Valerolactone. They say this replacement solvent could be used without affecting solar cell performance. Furthermore, they say it is non-toxic, sustainable, and suitable for large-scale manufacturing.
Left - solvent normally used to make solar cells, which is toxic.
Right - new green solvent developed by Swansea University researchers from the SPECIFIC project
| Image Credit: Swansea University
‘This solvent problem was a major barrier, not only restricting large-scale manufacture but holding back research in countries where the solvents are banned,’ said research group leader Professor Trystan Watson. ‘We hope our discovery will enable countries that have previously been unable to participate in this research to become part of the community and accelerate the development of cleaner, greener energy.’
As the conversion efficiency of solar panels improves, cost is also key. What if you could create the same solar panels in a more cost-efficient way? That was part of the thinking behind another recent innovation in Singapore, where Maxeon Solar Technologies has created frameless, lightweight rooftop solar panels. These solar panels can be adhered directly to a roof without racking or mounting systems and allegedly perform just as well as standard solar panels.
The new Maxeon Air technology platform from Maxeon Solar Technologies
‘For close to 50 years, the solar power industry has almost exclusively used glass superstrate panel construction,’ said Jeff Waters, CEO of Maxeon Solar Technologies. ‘As solar panels have increased in size, and the cost of solar cells has been dramatically reduced, the cost of transporting, installing and mounting large glass panels has become a relatively larger portion of total system cost. With Maxeon Air technology, we can now develop products that reduce these costs while opening up completely new market opportunities such as low-load commercial rooftops.’
The idea is to use these peel-and-stick designs on low-load roofs that cannot support the weight of conventional solar systems; and they will be rolled out in 2022. Time will tell whether the innovations in Swansea and Singapore have a bearing on companies’ solar systems, but they provide more evidence of the ingenuity that is making solar power cheaper and more efficient.
We’re starting to see those silent cars everywhere. The electric vehicle evolution is gradually seeping onto our roads. Every month or two, we also seem to read about another wind power generation record in the UK, or some super solar cell. Pension funds and big corporations are coming under great pressure to divest from fossil fuels. The clean power revolution is well underway.
And yet the third biggest polluter of the planet - after power and transport - awaits the seismic shift that will shake it to its foundations. Indeed, cement production still accounts for roughly 8% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
The problem is that creating cement is an energy-intense, polluting process with firing temperatures of 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit needed to create it, and plenty of CO2 released during processing.
Green cement and concrete are needed to reduce emissions in construction and other industries.
But there are signs that the processing could become cleaner. A recent report released by Market Research Future (MRFR) predicts that concrete (of which cement is a key ingredient) use could get appreciably greener over the next six years. It estimates that the global green concrete market size will grow at a 9.45% compound annual growth rate from 2020-27.
MRFR attributes this rise to several factors. First, there is a growing demand for green or recycled concrete (that incorporates waste components) within the construction industry. For builders, it enhances their environmental credentials and will increasingly become a business-savvy investment as governments seek to reduce carbon emissions.
Green building codes and the creation of energy-efficient infrastructure will also help propel this growth, and changing building regulations in massive markets including China, India, and the Middle East will result in many manufacturers looking to develop different material combinations. Increasingly, we’re seeing manufacturers turning to less energy-intensive manufacturing methods and investigating which waste materials could be used to create a greener cement or concrete that doesn’t compromise on performance.
Researchers at Chalmers University of Technology, in Sweden, have even been developing a rechargeable cement-based battery. If it ever comes to pass, this could be used to create buildings that store energy like giant batteries. Some manufacturers are also looking into the electrification of kilns, which isn’t feasible yet, and carbon capture and storage has long been mooted as a means to reduce industrial emissions.
Imagine an entire twenty storey concrete building that can store energy like a giant battery. This could be possible if Chalmers University’s cement-based rechargeable batteries come to fruition. | Image Credit: Yen Strandqvist/Chalmers University of Technology
The good news is that we don’t just have people all over the world working on low-carbon materials and manufacturing methods; experts in the UK are tackling the issue right now. On 2 June, speakers at the SCI’s free webinar, Ultra-low carbon concrete, a sustainable future, will examine some of the exciting initiatives underway.
These include an award winning, industry accepted ultra-low carbon alternative to traditional cement, which could result in CO2 savings of up to 78%, and the potential of using offsite manufacturing to provide commercial projects with a sustainable structural frame solution.
As with transport and power, cement is getting greener increment by increment. But with drastic climate change consequences dangling above us like the Sword of Damocles, now is the time for concrete action.
Register for Ultra-low carbon concrete, a sustainable future today at: https://bit.ly/33WfjkN.
Sometimes, when you try to solve one problem, you create another. A famous example is the introduction of the cane toad into Australia from Hawaii in 1935. The toads were introduced as a means of eliminating a beetle species that ravaged sugar cane crops; but now, almost a century later, Western Australia is inundated with these venomous, eco-system-meddling creatures.
In a similar spirit, disposable face masks could help tackle one urgent problem while creating another. According to researchers at Swansea University, nanoplastics and other potentially harmful pollutants have been found in many disposable face masks, including the ones some use to ward off Covid-19.
After submerging various types of common disposable face masks in water, the scientists observed the release of high levels of pollutants including lead, antimony, copper, and plastic fibres. Worryingly, they found significant levels of pollutants from all the masks tested.
Microscope image of microfibres released from children's mask: the colourful fibres are from the cartoon patterns | Credit: Swansea University
Obviously, millions have been wearing single-use masks around the world to protect against the Covid-19 pandemic, but the release of potentially harmful substances into the natural environment and water supply could have far-reaching consequences for all of us.
‘The production of disposable plastic face masks (DPFs) in China alone has reached approximately 200 million a day in a global effort to tackle the spread of the new SARS-CoV-2 virus,’ says project lead Dr Sarper Sarp, whose team’s work has been published on Science Direct. ‘However, improper and unregulated disposal of these DPFs is a plastic pollution problem we are already facing and will only continue to intensify.
The presence of potentially toxic pollutants in some face masks could pose health and environmental risks.
‘There is a concerning amount of evidence that suggests that DPFs waste can potentially have a substantial environmental impact by releasing pollutants simply by exposing them to water. Many of the toxic pollutants found in our research have bio-accumulative properties when released into the environment and our findings show that DPFs could be one of the main sources of these environmental contaminants during and after the Covid-19 pandemic.’
The Swansea scientists say stricter regulations must be enforced during manufacturing and disposal of single-use masks, and more work must be done to understand the effect of particle leaching on public health and on the environment. Another area they believe warrants investigation is the amount of particles inhaled by those wearing these masks.
‘This is a significant concern,’ adds Sarp, ‘especially for health care professionals, key workers, and children who are required to wear masks for large proportions of the working or school day.’
Every tin can dropped into our recycling bins is a small act of faith. We hope each one is recycled, yet the figures take some of that fervour from our faith. According to UK government statistics from 2015-2018, only about 45% of our household waste is recycled. Similarly, the UN has noted that only 20% of the 50 million tonnes of electronics waste produced globally each year is formally recycled. So, it’s fair to say we could do better.
Thankfully, thousands of people around the globe are working on these problems and two recent developments give us grounds for optimism. The first involves upcycling metal waste into multi-purpose aerogels, and the second involves fully recyclable printed electronics that include a wood-derived ink.
Researchers at the National University of Singapore (NUS) claim to have turned one person’s trash into treasure with a low-energy way to convert aluminium and magnesium waste into high value aerogels for the construction industry.
To do this, they ground the metal waste into a powder and mixed it with chemical cross-linkers. They heated this mixture in an oven before freeze-drying it and turning it into an aerogel. The team says this simple process makes their aerogels 50% cheaper than commercially available silica aerogels.
Aerogels have many useful properties. They are absorbent, extremely light (hence the frozen smoke nickname), and have impressive thermal and sound insulation capabilities. This makes them useful as thermal insulation materials in buildings, in piping systems, or for cleaning up oil spills. However, the NUS team has loftier goals than that.
There is a great need for less energy intensive ways to recycle metals
“Our aluminium aerogel is 30 times lighter and insulates heat 21 times better than conventional concrete,” research team leader Associate Professor Duong Hai-Minh whose research has been published in the Journal of Material Cycles and Waste Management. “When optical fibres are added during the mixing stage, we can create translucent aluminium aerogels which, as building materials, can improve natural lighting, reduce energy consumption for lighting and illuminate dark or windowless areas. Translucent concrete can also be used to construct sidewalks and speed bumps that light up at night to improve safety for pedestrians and road traffic.”
The aerogels could even be used for cell cultivation. Professor Duong explains: “Microcarriers are micro-size beads for cells to anchor and grow. Our first trials were performed on stem cells, using a cell line commonly used for testing of drugs as well as cosmetics, and the results are very encouraging.”
Whatever about these speculative applications, this upcycling method will hopefully help us find new homes for all types of metal waste including metal chips and discarded electronics.
A team at Duke University has also made interesting progress in reducing electronic waste. The researchers claim to have developed fully recyclable printed electronics that could be used and reused in a wide range of sensors.
The researchers’ transistor is made from three carbon-based inks that can be printed onto paper, and their use of a wood-derived insulating dielectric ink called nanocellulose helps make them recyclable. Carbon nanotubes and graphene inks are also used for the semiconductors and conductors, respectively.
A 3D rendering of the first fully recyclable, printed transistor. CREDIT: Duke University
“Nanocellulose is biodegradable and has been used in applications like packaging for years,” said Aaron Franklin, the Addy Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Duke, whose research has been published in Nature Electronics. “And while people have long known about its potential applications as an insulator in electronics, nobody has figured out how to use it in a printable ink before. That’s one of the keys to making these fully recyclable devices functional.”
The team has developed a way to suspend these nanocellulose crystals (extracted from wood fibres) with a sprinkling of table salt to create an ink that performs well in its printed transistors. At the end of their working life, these devices can be submerged in baths with gently vibrating sound waves to recover the carbon nanotubes and graphene components. These materials can be reused and the nanocellulose can be recycled just like ordinary paper.
The team conceded that these devices won’t ruffle the trillion dollar silicon-based computer component market, but they do think these devices could be useful in simple environmental sensors to monitor building energy use or in biosensing patches to track medical conditions.
Read about the Duke University research here: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41928-021-00574-0
Take a look at the NUS study here: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10163-020-01169-1
To some, the almond is a villain. This admittedly tasty nut takes an extraordinary amount of water to grow (1.1 gallons per nut) and some in California say almond cultivation has contributed to drought.
And so it is no surprise to see the almond lined up in the rogue’s gallery of the thirstiest foods. In a study in the journal Nature Food, University of Michigan (U-M) and Tulane University researchers assessed how the food we eat affects water scarcity.
Meat consumption was found to be the biggest culprit in the US, with the hooves and feet of livestock accounting for 31% of the water scarcity footprint. Within the meat category, beef is the thirstiest, with almost six times more water consumption than chicken.
Almond crops in California have come under heavy criticism due to their heavy water consumption
However, the picture is a little more nuanced. Lead author Martin Heller, of U-M's School for Environment and Sustainability, explains: “Beef is the largest dietary contributor to the water scarcity footprint, as it is for the carbon footprint. But the dominance of animal-based food is diminished somewhat in the water scarcity footprint, in part because the production of feed grains for animals is distributed throughout less water-scarce regions, whereas the production of vegetables, fruits and nuts is concentrated in water-scarce regions of the United States, namely the West Coast states and the arid Southwest.”
Certain types of diets drain the water supply. People who eat large quantities of beef, nuts such as the infamous almond, walnut, and cashew, and a high proportion of water-intense fruits and vegetables including lemon, avocado, asparagus, broccoli, and cauliflower take a heavy toll on the water footprint.
The Brussels sprout is not just for Christmas… it is a less water intense option for your dinner table.
“The water-use impacts of food production should be a key consideration of sustainable diets,” adds study co-author Diego Rose of Tulane University. “There is a lot of variation in the way people eat, so having a picture with this sort of granularity – at the individual level – enables a more nuanced understanding of potential policies and educational campaigns to promote sustainable diets.”
So, what do you do the next time you feel a pang of water guilt? According to the researchers, you could swear off asparagus and that crushed avocado on your toast and replace them with less water intense foods such as fresh peas, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and kale (but maybe not on your toast). Those beef steaks and hamburgers could make way for other protein sources, such as chicken, pork, and soybeans, and you could graze on peanuts and seeds instead of those honey roasted almonds you love so dearly. Just think of all those gallons of water you’ll save.
For more on this study, visit: https://www.nature.com/articles/s43016-021-00256-2
Bit by bit, the green hydrogen revolution is coming to our shores. The news that a planning application has been filed for the UK’s largest electrolyser in Glasgow could be a boon for hydrogen evangelists, the local communities, and the political class.
The 20MW electrolyser will form part of the green hydrogen facility on the outskirts of Glasgow near Whitelee, the UK’s largest wind farm. The proposed project would produce up to 8 tonnes of green hydrogen each day – the equivalent of 550 return bus trips from Glasgow to Edinburgh.
If approved, the scheme would be delivered by ScottishPower, BOC, and ITM Power as part of the Green Hydrogen for Scotland Partnership. BOC would operate the facility using solar and wind power produced by Scottish Power and ITM Power would provide the all-important 20 MW electrolyser. Renewable energy would power the electrolyser, which would split the water into hydrogen and oxygen gas. The hydrogen produced by this process could then be used in various applications including transport.
Fundamentally, the people who will benefit most are the people of Glasgow, with the project aiming to provide carbon-free transport and clean air for people across the city area, while satisfying some industrial hydrogen demand. And we can all rest easy now that we know politicians will be pleased about it too, for the project coincides nicely with the United Nations 26th Climate Change Conference, which will be held in Glasgow later this year.
The new facility will be based beside a plentiful renewable energy source, Whiteless wind farm in Eaglesham Moor. | Editorial credit: Maritxu / Shutterstock.com
If all goes swimmingly, the facility will supply hydrogen for the commercial market by 2023. “Whitelee keeps breaking barriers, first the UK’s largest onshore wind farm, and soon to be home to the UK’s largest electrolyser,” says Barry Carruthers, ScottishPower’s Hydrogen Director. “The site has played a vital role in helping the UK to decarbonise and we look forward to delivering another vital form of zero carbon energy generation at the site to help Glasgow and Scotland achieve their net zero goals.”
Tumbling renewable prices
This exciting news follows on the back of some bold green hydrogen claims made in a recent Bloomberg New Energy Foundation (NEF) report: the 1H 2021 Hydrogen Levelised Cost Update. According to Martin Tengler, BloombergNEF’s Lead Hydrogen Analyst, the report authors believe the cost of renewable hydrogen could fall 85% by 2050, 17% lower than they had previously predicted. This, he says, is due to falling renewables prices.
It is becoming cheaper all the time to produce solar and wind power, which is good news for those producing green hydrogen.
Tengler also says that renewable hydrogen should be cheaper than blue hydrogen (when natural gas is split into hydrogen and CO2 via processes such as steam methane reforming) in many countries by 2030. Furthermore, Bloomberg NEF predicts that green hydrogen will be cheaper to process than natural gas in many countries by 2050.
With the prices of solar and wind power constantly tumbling, it would be no surprise to see the authors of these reports revising their projections even further in the coming years. In the mean-time, we welcome the green shoots peeking through outside Glasgow.
When you live in a cold country, you think of hot days as a blessing. Air conditioning units are for those in far-away places – humid countries where the baked earth smell rises to meet you when you step off the plane.
But cooling comes at a cost. According to the UN Environment Programme, it accounts for 7% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Some of us are visual learners; so, the sheer cost of cooling really hit me when I stared up at an apartment building in Hong Kong with hundreds of air conditioning units perched above the windows like birds.
And it isn’t just the Hong Kongers feeling the heat. The cooling industry as a whole is under pressure to cut its greenhouse gas emissions. The International Energy Agency expects emissions from cooling to double by 2030 due to heat waves, population growth, urbanisation, and the growing middle class. By 2050, it forecasts that space cooling will consume as much electricity as China and India do today.
Air conditioning units cling to a building
All of this was captured by the Cooling Suppliers: Who's Winning the Race to Net Zero report released by the Race to Zero campaign, the Kigali Cooling Efficiency Program (K-CEP), Carbon Trust and other partners in the UN Environment Programme-hosted Cool Coalition.
This report's authors found that only five of the 54 cooling companies they assessed have committed to net-zero targets. The document outlines three areas that must be addressed on the Cooling Climate Pathway: super-efficient appliances, ultra-low global warming refrigerants, and the widespread adoption of passive cooling measures such as clever home design and urban planning.
So, while builders adjust window sizes, introduce trees for shading, and choose materials (such as terracotta cooling systems) thoughtfully to temper the sun’s gaze, others are availing of different methods.
For example, the COP26 (the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference) Champions Team has just released its Net Zero Cooling Action Plan that includes a Cool Calculator tool to help companies and governments run simple calculations to see where they could decarbonise their cooling systems. Similarly, the UK's Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) has launched a net-zero cooling product guide that showcases energy-efficient products run on natural refrigerants.
Green walls are one of many passive cooling approaches used to reduce our reliance on mechanical systems.
However, it’s clear that the softly-softly approach won’t suffice. The EIA has called on governments to do more to encourage organisations to adopt sustainable cooling, to make concrete policy commitments, and speed-up the phase-out of climate-warming refrigerants such as hydrofluorocarbons.
“The development and expansion of net-zero cooling is a critical part of our Race to Zero emissions,” said Nigel Topping, UK High Level Champion for COP26. “In addition to technological breakthroughs and ambitious legislation, we also need sustainable consumer purchasing to help deliver wholesale systems change.”
We all love the technological panacea – innovations that will cure all the climate ills we have inflicted on the world. But the solution will also involve stodgy government regulations and changing consumer habits, and a reliance on the continued fall in renewable power generation.
For those in traditionally cooler climes, it’s no longer someone else’s problem. It was a balmy 22°C in London this week and we’re not even in April yet. So, it’s certainly time to turn up the heat on the cooling industry.
What do grape stalks, pineapple leaves, corn cobs, rice husks, sheep’s wool, and straw have in common? Apart from being natural materials, they have all been used to insulate homes. Increasingly, people are turning towards natural, sustainable materials as climate change and waste have become bigger problems.
Existing building insulation materials such as synthetic rock wool are excellent at keeping our homes warm in winter, but the conversation has moved beyond thermal performance. Energy use, re-usability, toxicity, and material disposal are all live considerations now, especially with regulations and emissions targets tightening. So, rock wool might perform better than straw bale insulation but straw is biodegradable, reusable, easy to disassemble, and doesn’t require large amounts of energy to process.
Sheep’s wool and hemp insulation have also become attractive to homeowners and housebuilders alike, but an even more encouraging prospect is the use of waste materials to create next generation insulation. In this spirit, researchers at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, have taken waste cooking oil, wool offcuts, and sulphur to process a novel housing insulation material.
Recycled paper is one of many waste materials that has found its way into domestic insulation.
To make this composite, they followed several stages. In the first stage of the synthesis, the researchers used inverse vulcanisation to create a polysulphide polymer from canola oil triglyceride and sulphur. They then mixed this powdered polymer with wool and coated the fibres through electrostatic attraction. This mixture was compressed through mild heating to provoke S−S metathesis in the polymer and bind the wool. The wool bolsters the tensile strength of the material, makes it less flammable, and provides excellent insulation. The result is a sustainable building material that fulfils its function without damaging the environment.
For Associate Professor Justin Chalker, the lead author of this study, this work provides an ideal jumping-off point. “The promising mechanical and insulation properties of this composite bodes well for further exploration in energy saving insulation in our built environment,” he said.
It is clear that ventures like the one in Adelaide will continue to sprout all over the world. After all, necessity dictates that we change the way we build our homes and treat materials.
A recent report from Emergen Research predicts that the global insulation materials market will be worth US $82.96 billion (£59.78 billion) by 2027. The same report was also at pains to mention that the increasing demand for reduced energy consumption in buildings will be a significant factor in influencing industry growth.
“Market revenue growth is high and expected to incline rapidly going ahead due to rising demand for insulation materials... to reduce energy consumption in buildings,” it said. One of the main reasons given for this increased green building demand was stricter environmental regulations.
And Emergen isn’t the only organisation feeling the ground moving. Online roofing merchant Roofing Megastore, which sells more than 30,000 roofing materials, has detected a shift towards environmentally friendly materials, with many homeowners sourcing these products themselves.
Rock wool insulation panels have come under greater scrutiny in recent times.
Having analysed two years of Google search data on sustainable building materials, the company found that synthetic roof tiles are generating the most interest from the public. Like the Flinders insulation, these roof tiles make use of waste materials, in this case recycled limestone and plastic. And you don’t need to look far down the list to find sustainable insulation materials, with sheep’s wool insulation in 9th place, wood fibre insulation in 10th, and hemp insulation in 12th.
Over time, the logic of the progression towards natural, less energy-intensive building materials will become harder to ignore. “Traditional materials such as synthetic glass mineral wool offer high levels of performance but require large amounts of energy to produce and must be handled with care while wearing PPE,” the company noted. “Natural materials such as hemp or sheep’s wool, however, require very little energy to create and can be installed easily without equipment.”
So, the next time you look down at your nutshells, spent cooking oil, or tattered woollen sweater, think of their potential. In a few years, these materials could be sandwiched between your walls, keeping you warm all winter.
Insulating composites made from sulphur, canola oil, and wool (2021): https://chemistry-europe.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/cssc.202100187?af=R
Rising anxiety about air pollution, physical, and mental health, exacerbated by Covid-19 and concerns about public transport, has seen an increase in the popularity of cycling around Europe, leading many cities to transform their infrastructure correspondingly.
These days, Amsterdam is synonymous with cycling culture. Images of thousands of bikes piled up in tailor-made parking facilities continue to amaze and it is routinely held up as an example of greener, cleaner, healthier cities. Because The Netherlands is so flat, people often believe it has always been this way. But, in the 1970s, Amsterdam was a gridlocked city dominated by cars. The shift to cycling primacy took work and great public pressure.
For some cities, however, the pandemic has provided an unexpected opportunity on the roads. Milan's Deputy Mayor for Urban Planning, Green Areas and Agriculture, Pierfrancesco Maran, has explained that, "We tried to build bike lanes before, but car drivers protested". Now, however, numbers have increased from 1,000 to 7,000 on the main shopping street. "Most people who are cycling used public transport before”, he said. “But now they need an alternative”.
Creating joined up cycling networks is a major challenge for urban planners.
In Paris, the Deputy Mayor David Belliard does not seem concerned that the city’s investment since the start of the pandemic will go to waste. “It's like a revolution," he said. “Some sections of this road are now completely car-free. The more you give space for bicycles, the more they will use it.” They are committed to creating a cycle culture, providing free cycling lessons and subsidising the cost of bike repairs. The city intends to create more than 650km of cycle lanes in the near future.
The success in these two cities has been supported by local government but it has also been fuelled by an understandable (and encouraged) avoidance of public transport and fewer cars on the road generally. Going forward, however, it seems likely that those last two factors won’t be present. So how do you create a cycling culture in your city in the long run?
The answer is both simple and difficult: cyclists (and pedestrians) need to have priority over cars. In Brussels, where 40km of cycle track have been put down in the last year, specific zones have been implemented where this is the case, and speed limits have been reintroduced across the city.
In Copenhagen, in the late 1970s, the Danish Cyclists’ Federation arranged demonstrations demanding more cycle tracks and a return to the first half of the century, when cyclists had dominated the roads. Eventually, public pressure paid off — although there is still high demand for more cycle lanes. A range of measures, including changes made to intersections, make cyclists feel safer and local studies show that, as cyclist numbers increase, safety also increases. In many parts of the city, it is noticeable how little of the wide roads are actually available to cars: bikes, joggers, and pedestrians are all accommodated.
Segregated cycleways, like this one in Cascais, Portugal, make people more likely to cycle.
But, if you were starting from scratch, you might not simply add cycle lanes to existing roads and encourage behavioural changes on the road. Segregated, protected bike lanes like those introduced in Paris are the next level up and the results suggest they work — separated from the roads, more people are inclined to try cycling.
Dutch experts suggest, where possible, going even further. Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht, believes the best option is to create solitary paths, separated from the road by grass, trees, or elevated concrete. Consistency is also important. Cities need networks of cycle tracks, not just a few highways. Again, prioritising cyclists is key to the Dutch approach. Many cities have roads where cars are treated as guests, restricted by a speed limit of 30km/hour and not permitted to pass. Signage is also key.
In London, Mayor Sadiq Khan’s target is for 80% of journeys to be made by walking, cycling, and/or public transport by 2041. Since 2018, the city has been using artificial intelligence to better understand road use in the city and plan new cycle routes in the capital. However, the experience of other European capitals suggests that, "if you build it, they will come" might be a better approach than working off current usage.
A completely clean, renewable energy system that can be produced locally and that can easily power heat, energy storage and transportation, and travel — that's the future that promoters of a hydrogen economy envisage.
If it sounds a bit like rocket science, that's because it is. Hydrogen is what's used to fuel rockets — that’s how powerful it is. In fact, it’s three times more powerful as a fuel than gas or other fossil-based sources. And, after use, it’s frequently converted to drinking water for astronauts.
US President Joe Biden has highlighted the potential of hydrogen in his ambitious plans for economic and climate recovery and a number of recent reports have been encouraging about hydrogen’s breakthrough moment, including McKinsey and Company (Road Map to a US Hydrogen Economy, 2020) and the International Energy Agency.
Hydrogen fuel cells provide a tantalising glimpse into our low-carbon future
The McKinsey report claims that, by 2030, the hydrogen sector could generate 700,000 jobs and $140bn in revenue, growing to 3.4 million jobs and $750bn by 2050. It also believes it could account for a 16% reduction in CO2 emissions, a 36% reduction in NOx emissions, and supply 14% of US energy demand.
So how does it work?
Simply put, hydrogen fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen atoms to produce electricity. The hydrogen reacts with oxygen across an electrochemical cell and produces electricity, water, and heat.
This is what gets supporters so excited. In theory, hydrogen is a limitless, incredibly powerful fuel source with no direct emissions of pollutants or greenhouse gases.
So what's the problem?
Right now, there are actually a few problems. The process relies on electrolysis and steam reforming, which are extremely expensive. The IEA estimates that to produce all of today’s dedicated hydrogen output from electricity would require 3,600TWh, more than the total annual electricity generation of the European Union.
Moreover, almost 95% of hydrogen currently is produced using fossil fuels such as methane, natural gas, or coal (this is called "grey hydrogen"). Its production is responsible for annual CO2 emissions equivalent to those of Indonesia and the United Kingdom combined. In addition, its low density makes it difficult to store and transport — it must be under high pressure at all times. It’s also well-known for being highly flammable — its use as a fuel has come a long way since the Hindenburg Disaster but the association still makes many people nervous.
A Hydrogen refuelling station Hafencity in Hamburg, Germany. Infrastructure issues must be addressed if we are to see more hydrogen-fuelled vehicles on our roads. | Image credit: fritschk / Shutterstock.com
So there are quite a few problems. What’s the good news?
In the last few years, we've seen how rapidly investment, innovation, and infrastructure policy can completely transform individual renewable energy industries. For example, the IEA analysis believes the declining costs of renewables and the scaling up of hydrogen production could reduce the cost of producing hydrogen from renewable electricity 30% by 2030.
Some of the issues around expense could be resolved by mass manufacture of fuel cells, refuelling equipment, and electrolysers (which produce hydrogen from electricity and water), made more likely by the increased interest and urgency. Those same driving forces could improve infrastructural issues such as refuelling stations for private and commercial vehicles, although this is likely to require coordination between various stakeholders, including national and local governments, industry, and investors.
The significant gains in renewable energy mean that “green” hydrogen, where renewable electricity powers the electrolysis process, is within sight.
The IEA report makes clear that international co-operation is “vital” to progress quickly and successfully with hydrogen energy. R&D requires support, as do first movers in mitigating risks. Standards need to be harmonised, good practice shared, and existing international infrastructure built on (especially existing gas infrastructure).
If hydrogen can be as efficient and powerful a contributor to a green global energy mix as its proponents believe, then it's better to invest sooner rather than later. If that investment can help power a post-Covid economic recovery, even better.
Broad beans are an undemanding and valuable crop for all gardens. Probably originating in the Eastern Mediterranean and grown domestically since about 6,000BC, this plant was brought to Great Britain by the Romans.
Header image: a rich harvest of succulent broad beans for the table
Capable of tolerating most soil types and temperatures they provide successional fresh pickings from June to September. Early crops are grown from over-wintered sowings of cv Aquadulce. They are traditionally sown on All Souls Day on 2 November but milder autumns now cause too rapid germination and extension growth. Sowing is best now delayed until well into December. Juicy young broad bean seedlings offer pigeons a tasty winter snack, consequently protection with cloches or netting is vital insurance.
From late February onwards dwarf cultivars such as The Sutton or the more vigorous longer podded Meteor Vroma are used. Early cropping is promoted by growing the first batches of seedlings under protection in a glasshouse. Germinate the seed in propagating compost and grow the resultant seedlings until they have formed three to four prominent leaflets. Plant out into fertile, well-cultivated soil and protect with string or netting frameworks supported with bamboo canes to discourage bird damage.
Young broad bean plants supported by string and bamboo canes
More supporting layers will be required as the plants grow and mature. Later sowings are made directly into the vegetable garden. As the plants begin flowering remove the apical buds and about two to three leaves. This deters invasions by the black bean aphid (Aphis fabae). Winged aphids detect the lighter green of upper foliage of broad beans and navigate towards them!
Allow the pods ample time for swelling and the development of bean seeds of up to 2cm diameter before picking. Beware, however, of over-mature beans since these are flavourless and lack succulence. Broad beans have multiple benefits in the garden and for our diets. They are legumes and hence the roots enter mutually beneficial relationships with nitrogen fixing bacteria. These bacteria are naturally present in most soils. They capture atmospheric nitrogen, converting it into nitrates which the plant utilises for growth. In return, the bacteria gain sources of carbohydrates from photosynthesis.
Broad bean root carrying nodules formed around colonies of nitrogen fixing bacteria
Broad beans are pollinated by bees and other beneficial insects. They are good sources of pollen and nectar, encouraging biodiversity in the garden. Nutritionally, beans are high in protein, fibre, folate, Vitamin B and minerals such as manganese, phosphorus, magnesium and iron, therefore cultivating healthy living. Finally, they form extensive roots, improving soil structure, drainage and reserves of organic nitrogen. Truly gardeners’ friends!
Professor Geoff Dixon, author of Garden practices and their science (ISBN 978-1-138-20906-0) published by Routledge 2019.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) defines the Blue Economy as ‘all economic sectors that have a direct or indirect link to the oceans, such as marine energy, coastal tourism and marine biotechnology.’ Other organisations have their own definitions, but they all stress the economic and environmental importance of seas and oceans.
Header image: Our oceans are of economic and environmental importance
To this end there are a growing number of initiatives focused on not only protecting the world’s seas but promoting economic growth. At the start of 2021 the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the European Investment Bank (EIB) joined forces to support clean and sustainable ocean initiatives in the Asia-Pacific region, and ultimately contribute to achieving Sustainable Development Goals and the climate goals of the Paris Agreement.
Both institutions will finance activities aimed at promoting cleaner oceans ‘through the reduction of land-based plastics and other pollutants discharged into the ocean,’ as well as projects which improve the sustainability of all socioeconomic activities that take place in oceans, or that use ocean-based resources.
ADB Vice-President for Knowledge Management and Sustainable Development, Bambang Susantono, said ‘Healthy oceans are critical to life across Asia and the Pacific, providing food security and climate resilience for hundreds of millions of people. This Memorandum of Understanding between the ADB and EIB will launch a framework for cooperation on clean and sustainable oceans, helping us expand our pipeline of ocean projects in the region and widen their impacts’.
The blue economy is linked to green recovery
In the European Union the blue economy is strongly linked to the bloc’s green recovery initiatives. The EU Blue Economy Report, released during June 2020, indicated that the ‘EU blue economy is in good health.’ With five million people working in the blue economy sector during 2018, an increase of 11.6% on the previous year, ‘the blue economy as a whole presents a huge potential in terms of its contribution to a green recovery,’ the EU noted. As the report was launched, Mariya Gabriel, Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, responsible for the Joint Research Committee said; ‘We will make sure that research, innovation and education contribute to the transition towards a European Blue Economy.’
The impact of plastics in oceans is well known and many global initiatives are actively tackling the problem. At the end of 2020 the World Economic Forum and Vietnam announced a partnership to tackle plastic pollution and marine plastic debris. The initiative aims to help Vietnam ‘dramatically reduce its flow of plastic waste into the ocean and eliminate single-use plastics from coastal tourist destinations and protected areas.’ Meanwhile young people from across Africa were congratulated for taking leadership roles in their communities as part of the Tide Turners Plastic Challenge. Participants in the challenge have raised awareness of the impact of plastic pollution in general.
But it isn’t just the health of our oceans that governments and scientists are looking at. There is growing interest in the minerals and ore that could potentially be extracted via sea-bed mining. The European Commission says that the quantity of minerals occupying the ocean floor is potentially large, and while the sector is small, the activity has been identified as having the potential to generate sustainable growth and jobs for future generations. But adding a note of caution, the Commission says, ‘Our lack of knowledge of the deep-sea environment necessitates a careful approach.’ Work aimed at shedding light on the benefits, drawbacks and knowledge gaps associated with this type of mining is being undertaken.
With the push for cleaner energy and the use of batteries, demand for cobalt will rise, and the sea-bed looks to have a ready supply of the element. But, the World Economic Forum points out that the ethical dimensions of deep-sea cobalt have the potential to become contentious and pose legal and reputational risks for mining companies and those using cobalt sourced from the sea-bed.
Energy will continue to be harnessed from the sea.
But apart from its minerals, the ocean’s ability to supply energy will continue to be harnessed through avenues such as tidal and wind energy. During the final quarter of 2020, the UK Hydrographic Office launched an Admiralty Marine Innovation Programme. Led by the UK Hydrographic Office, the programme gives innovators and start-ups a chance to develop new solutions that solve some of the world’s most pressing challenges as related to our oceans.
The UK’s Blue Economy is estimated to be worth £3.2 trillion by the year 2030. Marine geospatial data will be important in supporting this growth by enabling the identification of new areas for tidal and wind energy generation, supporting safe navigation for larger autonomous ships, which will play a vital role in mitigating climate change, and more.
Where once a country might have wanted to strike gold, now hitting upon a hydrocarbon find feels like a prize. But finding a hydrocarbon is only the beginning of the process and might not be worth it — as Lebanon is discovering.
First, a little background: for some time, Lebanon has been experiencing an energy crisis. Without resources of their own, the industry (which is government-owned) is reliant on foreign imports, which are expensive. Electricity in early 2020 was responsible for almost 50% of Lebanon's national debt. Major blackouts were common.
This contributed to a spiralling financial crisis, prompting public protests and riots as the middle class disappeared and even wealthier citizens struggled. Before Covid-19 and the devastating August 2020 blast in Beirut, Lebanon was in crisis.
The idea that the country might be able to switch from foreign oil to local gas was understandably appealing, especially when a major find was literally right there on the Lebanese shore. In 2019, a consortium of Israeli and US firms discovered more than 8tcm of natural gas in several offshore fields in the Eastern Mediterranean, much of it in Lebanese waters.
A hydrocarbon find off the Beirut coast has failed to live up to its early promise.
But a find is only the beginning. With trust in Lebanese politicians low (the country ranks highly in most government corruption indexes) and a system that has repeatedly struggled to deliver a stable government, there are additional difficulties, not least a delay in the licensing rounds and a lack of trust — both internally, from citizens, and externally, from potential bidders. Meanwhile, Lebanon's neighbours race ahead to exploit their own finds, which ratchets up tensions.
Amid all that, a drilling exploration managed to go ahead last summer. But the joint venture between Total, ENI, and Novatek, which operated a well 30km offshore Beirut and drilled to approximately 1,500 metres, did not bring back the hoped-for results. The results confirmed the presence of a hydrocarbon system generally but did not encounter any reservoirs of the Tamar formation, which was the target.
Offshore exploration is a long process, with a lot of challenges and uncertainties and Ricardo Darré, Managing Director of Total E&P Liban, said afterwards, "Despite the negative result, this well has provided valuable data and learnings that will be integrated into our evaluation of the area". But the faith national politicians have long put in the hydrocarbon find, selling it as an answer to all Lebanon's problems, seems to have only worsened the domestic situation since.
And domestic politics is just the start of the problems…
Unlike other countries in the Middle East, Lebanon has no pipeline infrastructure of its own.
Israel, Egypt, and Jordan already have pipelines, which go to Italy. Turkey is working with Libya on a pipeline. Lebanon has no pipeline infrastructure of its own yet, although Russia has storage facilities and pipelines in the country and an eye on possible competition in the gas market.
None of that is an issue if the supply is intended for domestic use but that might not be profitable enough for investors and the Lebanese government would struggle to underwrite production on its own. Cyprus has encountered similar issues exploiting its share of the find.
Lebanon has also set an ambitious goal of having 30% of domestic energy mix sourced from renewable energy by 2030. The hoped-for gas was intended to support the renewable energy mix but, with the clock ticking, it might be that priorities shift to focusing on renewables. The Covid-19 pandemic will significantly impact the budgets of drilling companies and the push for renewable energy, both from governments and investors, seems to be growing as a way to boost economic recovery.
It may be that, after all the excitement around the hydrocarbon find, Lebanon starts to look elsewhere for its energy provision.
The world’s biggest ever survey of public opinion on climate change was published on 27th January, covering 50 countries with over half of the world’s population, by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the University of Oxford. Of the respondents, 64% believe climate change is a global emergency, despite the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, and sought broader action to combat it. Earlier in the month, US President Joe Biden reaffirmed the country's commitment to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.
It is possible that the momentum, combined with the difficulties many countries currently face, may make many look again to geoengineering as an approach. Is it likely that large scale engineering techniques could mitigate the damage of carbon emissions? And is it safe to do so or could we be exacerbating the problem?
The term has long been controversial, as have many of the suggested techniques. But it would seem that some approaches are gaining more mainstream interest, particularly Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) and Solar Radiation Modification (SRM), which the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report for the UN suggested were worth further investigation (significantly, it did not use the term "geoengineering" and distinguished these two methods from others).
One of the most covered CDR techniques is Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) or Carbon Capture, Utilisation, and Storage (CCUS), the process of capturing waste carbon dioxide, usually from carbon intensive industries, and storing (or first re-using) it so it will not enter the atmosphere. Since 2017, after a period of declining investment, more than 30 new integrated CCUS facilities have been announced. However, there is concern among many that it will encourage further carbon emissions when the goal should be to reduce and use CCS to buy time to do so.
CDR techniques that utilise existing natural processes of natural repair, such as reforestation, agricultural practices that absorb carbon in soils, and ocean fertilisation are areas that many feel could and should be pursued on a large scale and would come with ecological and biodiversity benefits, as well as fostering a different, more beneficial relationship with local environments.
A controversial iron compound deposition approach has been trialled to boost salmon numbers and biodiversity in the Pacific Ocean.
The ocean is a mostly untapped area with huge potential and iron fertilisation is one very promising area. The controversial Haida Salmon Corporation trial in 2012 is perhaps the most well-known example and brings together a lot of the pros and cons frequently discussed in geoengineering — in many ways, we can see it as a microcosm of the bigger issue.
The trial deposited 120 tonnes of iron compound in the migration routes of pink and sockeye salmon in the Pacific Ocean 300k west of Haida Gwaii over a period of 30 days, which resulted in a 35,000km2, several month long phytoplankton bloom that was confirmed by NASA satellite imagery. That phytoplankton bloom fed the local salmon population, revitalising it — the following year, the number of salmon caught in the northeast Pacific went from 50 million to 226 million. The local economy benefited, as did the biodiversity of the area, and the increased iron in the sea captured carbon (as did the biomass of fish, for their lifetimes).
Small but mighty, phytoplankton are the laborers of the ocean. They serve as the base of the food web.
But Environment Canada believes the corporation violated national environmental laws by depositing iron without a permit. Much of the fear around geoengineering is how much might be possible by rogue states or even rogue individuals, taking large scale action with global consequences without global consent.
The conversation around SRM has many similarities — who decides that the pros are worth the cons, when the people most likely to suffer the negative effects, with or without action, are already the most vulnerable? This is a concern of some of the leading experts in the field. Professor David Keith, an expert in the field, has publicly spoken about his concern around climate change and inequality, adding after the latest study that, "the poorest people tend to suffer most from climate change because they’re the most vulnerable. Reducing extreme weather benefits the most vulnerable the most. The only reason I’m interested in this is because of that."
But he doesn't believe anywhere near sufficient research has been done into the viability of the approach or the possible consequences and cautions that there is a need for "an adequate governance system in place".
There is no doubt that the research in this field is exciting but there are serious ethical and governance problems to be dealt with before it can be considered a serious component of an emissions reduction strategy.
We are increasingly conscious of the need to recycle waste products, but it is never quite so easy as rinsing and sorting your waste into the appropriate bins, especially when it comes to plastic.
Despite our best intentions, only around 16% of plastic is recycled into new products — and, worse, plastics tend to be recycled into low quality materials because transformation into high-value chemicals requires substantial amounts of energy, meaning the choices are either downcycling or prohibitively difficult. The majority of single-use plastics end up in landfills or abandoned in the environment.
This is a particular problem when it comes to polyolefins such as polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP), which use cheap and readily available raw materials. Approximately 380 million tonnes of plastics are generated annually around the world and it is estimated that, by 2050, that figure will be 1.1 billion tonnes. Currently, 57% of this total are polyolefins.
Why are polyolefins an issue? The strong sp3 carbon–carbon bonds (essentially long, straight chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms) that make them useful as a material also make them particularly difficult to degrade and reuse without intensive, high energy procedures or strong chemicals. More than most plastics, downcycling or landfill disposal tend to be the main end-of-life options for polyolefins.
Polyethylene is used to make plastic bags and packaging.
Now, however, a team of scientists from MIT, led by Yuriy Román-Leshkov, believe they may have made a significant step towards solving this problem.
Previous research has demonstrated that noble metals, such as zirconium, platinum, and ruthenium can help split apart short, simple hydrocarbon chains as well as more complicated, but plant-based lignin molecules, in processes with much lower temperatures and energy.
So the team looked at using the same approach for the long hydrocarbon chains in polyolefins, aiming to disintegrate the plastics into usable chemicals and natural gas. It worked.
First, they used ruthenium-carbon nanoparticles to convert more than 90% of the hydrocarbons into shorter compounds at 200 Celsius (previously, temperatures of 430–760 Celsius were required).
Next, they tested their new method on commercially available, more complex polyolefins without pre-treatment (an energy intensive requirement). Not only were the samples completely broken down into gaseous and liquid products, the end product could be selected by tuning the reaction, yielding either natural gas or a combination of natural gas and liquid alkanes (both highly desirable) as preferred.
Polypropylene is used in bottle caps, houseware, and other packaging and consumer products.
The researchers believe that an industrial scale use of their method could eventually help reduce the volume of post-consumer waste in landfills by recycling plastics to desirable, highly valuable alkanes — but, of course, it's not that simple. The team says that more research into the effects of moisture and contaminants in the process is required, as well as product removal strategies to decrease the formation of light alkanes which will be critical for the industrialisation of this reaction.
However, they believe the path they're on could lead to affordable upcycling technology that would better integrate polyolefins into the global economy and incentivise the removal of waste plastics from landfill and the environment.
More about the study can be read here:
The theme of the 2021 World Economic Forum’s Davos Agenda was ‘The Great Reset’ and how the world might recover from the effects of Covid-19. Because of the current circumstances, the forum was split into two parts, with a virtual meeting held January 25-29 and an in-person gathering planned for May 13-16, in Singapore.
Each day of the January summit was dedicated to discussing a key area for recovery. On Monday, January 25, the focus was on designing cohesive, sustainable and resilient economic systems. On Tuesday, delegates discussed how to drive responsible industry transformation and growth, while on Wednesday they spoke about enhancing the stewardship of our global commons. Thursday's talks centred on harnessing the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and on Friday attendees discussed ways to advance global and regional cooperation.
With the International Labor Organization jobs report, published at the start of the week, stating that at least 225 million jobs vanished worldwide over the past year (four times more than the 2008 global financial crisis) and concerns that vaccine nationalism will see the pandemic continue to ravage many less wealthy nations, much of the talk was around equality and unity.
Christine Lagarde, President of the European Central Bank, spoke in Monday's meeting. ‘Once we’re through to the "second phase" of the 2021 Covid-19 recovery,’ Lagarde said, ‘it is most likely going to be a new economy, which will be associated with positive developments and also with challenges.’ Many advanced economies, she noted, particularly in Europe, have jumped forward in terms of digitalisation, some by up to seven years.
Christine Lagarde, President of the European Central Bank, has called for continued support for the digital-centred, post-pandemic economy. | Credit: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock.com
She added that it is likely that there will be a 20% increase in the amount of people working from home post-pandemic, which will have an impact on many economies, and claimed that technological changes are already having positive effects. She said that it is critical to continue ‘favouring and supporting investment into this new economy’ and that on the fiscal and monetary policy front, authorities will have to stay the course and continue to support. At the same time, investment will have to be focused on laying the ground for a new economy.
Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission (EC), agreed about the increase in digitalisation, and reported that the EU hopes ‘the 2020s can finally be Europe’s Digital Decade’, highlighting a number of investments to boost this process, including the startup scenes in cities such as Sofia and Lisbon.
However, she warned that there is a ‘darker side of the digital world,’ noting the assault on Capitol Hill in the US and making clear that ‘The immense power of the big digital companies must be contained. She spoke of the EC's plans ‘to make internet companies take responsibility for content, from dissemination to promotion and removal, and highlighted the Commission’s new rulebooks, the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act.
Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, believes the 2020s can be Europe’s ‘Digital Decade’. | Credit: John Smith Williams / Shutterstock.com
She invited the US to work together to: ‘Create a digital economy rulebook that is valid worldwide: it goes from data protection and privacy to the security of critical infrastructure. A body of rules based on our values: Human rights and pluralism, inclusion and the protection of privacy.’
Marc Benioff, Salesforce CEO, made a noteworthy intervention in his panel discussion, claiming, ‘There has been a mantra for too long that the business of business is business, but today the business of business is improving the state of the world.’ He added that, while there were many CEOs who had been ‘bad actors,’ others had used their considerable resources to help fight the pandemic.
Many speakers noted a shift towards sustainability in investments, with others demanding more change and faster. Of the latter, Mark Carney, Special Envoy for Climate Action and Finance to the UN, said bluntly, ‘if you are part of the private financial sector and you are not part of the solution […] you will have made the conscious decision not to be aligned to net zero […] if you’re not in, you’re out because you chose to be out.’
It could be concluded that there was a great deal to feel positive about, but the circumstances are difficult. Now we will see whether the attendees of the World Economic Forum can deliver on their inspiring rhetoric.
More people are looking at their nutritional intake, not only to improve wellbeing but also reduce their environmental impact. With this, comes a move to include foods that are not traditionally cultivated or consumed in Europe.
Assessing whether this growing volume of so called ‘novel foods’ are safe for human consumption is the task of the European Food Safety Authority. The EFSA points out, ‘The notion of novel food is not new. Throughout history new types of food and food ingredients have found their way to Europe from all corners of the globe. Bananas, tomatoes, tropical fruit, maize, rice, a wide range of spices – all originally came to Europe as novel foods. Among the most recent arrivals are chia seeds, algae-based foods, baobab fruit and physalis.’
Under EU regulations any food not consumed ‘significantly’ prior to May 1997 is considered to be a ‘novel food’. The category covers new foods, food from new sources, new substances used in food as well as new ways and technologies for producing food. Examples include oils rich in omega-3 fatty acids from krill as a new source of food, phytosterols as a new substance, or nanotechnology as a new way of producing food.
Providing a final assessment on safety and efficacy of a novel food is a time consuming process. At the start of 2021 the EFSA gave its first completed assessment of a proposed insect-derived food product. The panel on Nutrition, Novel Foods and Food Allergens concluded that the novel food dried yellow meal worm (Tenebrio molitor larva) is safe for human consumption.
Dried yellow meal worm (Tenebrio molitor larva) is safe for human consumption, according to the EFSA.
Commenting in a press statement, as the opinion on insect novel food was released, Ermolaos Ververis, a chemist and food scientist at EFSA who coordinated the assessment said that evaluating the safety of insects for human consumption has its challenges. ‘Insects are complex organisms which makes characterising the composition of insect-derived products a challenge. Understanding their microbiology is paramount, considering also that the entire insect is consumed,’
Ververis added, ‘Formulations from insects may be high in protein, although the true protein levels can be overestimated when the substance chitin, a major component of insects’ exoskeleton, is present. Critically, many food allergies are linked to proteins so we assess whether the consumption of insects could trigger any allergic reactions. These can be caused by an individual’s sensitivity to insect proteins, cross-reactivity with other allergens or residual allergens from insect feed, e.g. gluten.’
EFSA research could lead to increased choice for consumers | Editorial credit: Raf Quintero / Shutterstock.com
The EFSA has an extensive list of novel foods to assess. These include dried crickets (Gryllodes sigillatus), olive leaf extract, and vitamin D2 mushroom powder. With the increasing desire to find alternatives to the many foods that we consume on a regular basis, particularly meat, it is likely that the EFSA will be busy for some time to come.
Gardens and parks provide visual evidence of climate change. Regular observation shows us that our flowering bulbous plants are emerging, growing and flowering. Great Britain is particularly rich in long term recordings of dates of budbreak, growth and flowering of trees, shrubs and perennial herbaceous plants. Until recently, this was dismissed as ‘stamp collecting by Victorian ladies and clerics’.
The science of phenology now provides vital evidence that quantifies the scale and rapidity of climate change. Serious scientific evidence of the impact of climate change comes, for example, from an analysis of 29,500 phenological datasets. This research shows that plants and animals are responding consistently to temperature change with earlier blooming, leaf unfurling, flowering and migration. This scale of change has not been seen on Earth for the past three quarters of a million years. And this time it is happening with increased rapidity and is caused by the activities of a single species – US – humans!
Iris unguicularis (stylosa).
Changing seasonal cycles seriously affects our gardens. Fruit trees bloom earlier than previously and are potentially out of synchrony with pollinators. That results in irregular, poor fruit set and low yields. Climate change is causing increased variability in weather events. This is particularly damaging when short, very sharp periods of freezing weather coincide with precious bud bursts and shoot growth. Many early flowering trees and shrubs are incapable of replacing damaged buds, as a result a whole season’s worth of growth is lost. Damaged buds and shoots are more easily invaded by fungi which cause diseases such as dieback and rotting. Eventually valuable feature plants fail, damaging the garden’s benefits for enjoyment and relaxation.
Plant diseases caused by fungi and bacteria benefit from our increasingly milder, damper winters. Previously, cooling temperatures in the autumn and winter frosts prevented these microbes from over-wintering. Now they are surviving and thriving in the warmer conditions. This is especially the case with soil borne microbes such as those which cause clubroot of brassicas and white rot, which affects a wide range of garden crops.
Hazel (Coryllus spp.) typical wind-pollinated yellow male catkins, which produce pollen.
Can gardeners help mitigate climate change? Of course! Grow flowering plants which are bee friendly; minimise using chemical controls; ban bonfires – which are excellent sources of CO2; establish wildlife-friendly areas filled with native plants and pieces of rotting wood, and it is amazing how quickly beneficial insects, slow worms and voles will populate your garden.
Professor Geoff Dixon is the author of Garden Practices and their Science, published by Routledge 2019.
Understanding organisms’ capabilities of sensing environmental changes such as increasing or declining temperature is becomes ever more important. Deciduous woody trees and shrubs growing in cool temperate and sub-arctic regions enter quiescent or dormant states as protection against freezing temperatures.
These plants pass through a two-stage process. Firstly, they gradually acclimatise (or 'acclimate', in the USA) where lowering temperatures encourage capacities for withstanding cold. This is a reversible process and if there is a spell of milder weather the acclimatisation state is lost. This can happen, for instance, with a fine spell of 'Indian summer' in October or even early November.
Winter weather and dormant trees. All images by Geoff Dixon
Where acclimation is broken, plants become susceptible to cold-induced damage again. If acclimation continues, however, plants eventually become fully dormant. This is not a reversible state and only ends after substantial periods of warming weather and increasing day-length. Some plants will require an accumulation of 'cold-units' – ie, temperatures below a specific level before dormancy is broken.
Detailed research information is accumulating to describe how acclimatisation develops. Changes take place that strengthen cell membranes, possibly by increasing the bonding in lipid molecules, and causing alterations in respiration rates, enzyme activities and hormone levels.
Non-acclimatised azalea (front), acclimatised azalea (back).
Leaves in a non-acclimated state will leak cellular fluids when they are chilled, whereas acclimated leaves are undamaged. These processes result from an interaction between genotype and the environment. Cascades of genes come into play during acclimation and dormancy.
The genus Rhododendron offers a model for studies of these states. Some species originate from alpine environments, such as R. hirsutum coming from the European Alps and one of the first English garden 'rhodos'. By contrast, plants of R. vireya come from tropical areas such as the East Indies.
Comparing the leakage of cellular fluids in acclimatised and non-acclimatised rhododendron leaves subjected to -7°C
Practical outcomes from studies of acclimation and dormancy are twofold. Firstly, are there substances that could be sprayed onto cold susceptible crops, eg potatoes or cauliflowers, that prevent damage? This is so-called 'anti-freeze chemistry'. Some studies suggest that spraying seaweed extracts will dimmish damage. The downside of this approach is that rain washes off the application. Secondly, identifying genes which increase cold hardiness offers possibilities for their transfer into susceptible crops. Gene-editing techniques may offer means of tweaking existing cold-hardiness genes in susceptible crops.
Professor Geoff Dixon is the author of Garden Practices and their Science, published by Routledge 2019.
Today we chat to Joe Oddy about his life as a Plant Sciences PhD Student at Rothamsted Research.
Give us a summary of your research, Joe!
I study how levels of the amino acid asparagine in wheat are controlled by genetics and the environment. Asparagine levels in wheat grain determine the levels of acrylamide, a probable carcinogen, in certain foods. We are hoping to better understand the biology of asparagine to mitigate this risk.
What does a day in the life of a Plant Sciences PhD Student look like?
My schedule is quite variable depending on what analysis I am doing. I could have whole days in the lab doing molecular work or whole days at the computer analysing and writing up data. Most of the time it is probably somewhere in between!
I think I had a good grounding in basic principles from my undergraduate degree, but the training they gave in R stands out as being particularly useful. In my degree program I also worked for a year in research, which really helped prepare me for this kind of project work.
What are some of the highlights so far?
Being able to go outside to check plants in the field or in the glasshouse makes a nice break if you have been doing computer work all day! Finishing up some analysis after a lot of data collection is also quite cathartic, as long as it works…
What is one of the biggest challenges faced in a PhD?
In my project so far, the biggest challenge has just been trying to decide what research questions to focus on since there are so many interesting options available. I realise I am probably quite fortunate to have this be my biggest challenge!
What advice would you give to someone considering a PhD?
My undergraduate university actually gave me this advice. They said that the most important part of choosing a project was not the university or the project itself, but the supervisor. I think this is true in a lot of cases, and at least for me.
I wasn’t able to go into the labs for a while but thankfully my plants in the field and glasshouse were maintained. By the time they finished growing the lockdown had been partially eased. At last, a long growing season has helped rather than hindered a PhD project.
What are you hoping to do after your research?
I’d like to go into research either in academia or industry, but beyond that I’m not sure. The landscape is always changing and I would probably be open to anything that seems interesting!
Joe Oddy is a PhD Student at Rothamsted Research and a member of SCI’s Agri-Food Early Career Committee and SCI’s Agriscences Committee.
Fertile soils teem with life of all shapes and sizes, from badgers and moles to insects and the most minute microbes, forming an intricate web of life. Each plays its part – earthworms, for example, burrow through soils opening out channels that improve aeration and water percolation. They are, in Charles Darwin’s words, ‘nature’s ploughs’.
Microbes are quite probably the largest biomass, certainly numerically. The great majority form beneficial relationships with plants, relatively few are pathogens capable of causing crop diseases. Some of the most beneficial are nitrogen-fixing bacteria, which form symbiotic associations with the roots of legumes (clovers, peas and beans).
Their nitrogenase enzymes are capable of combining atmospheric nitrogen with hydrogen-forming ammonia. Followed by conversion into nitrites and nitrates which are made available for the host plant in exchange for carbohydrates, sources of energy for the microbes. The presence of these bacteria is indicated by white nodules on the roots of legumes.
The white nodules on the roots of legumes indicate the presence of nitrogen-fixing bacteria, which provide nourishment to microbes in the soil.
The fungi mycorrhizae also form associations with plant roots. These may form sheaths wrapping round the root, ecto-mycorhizea, or penetrate into the root cortex as endo-mycorrhizea, working in close association with host cells. Mycorrhizae solubilise soil deposits of phosphates and other minerals, making them available for the host. They also provide protection from root-invading plant pathogens.
These fungi utilise carbohydrates supplied by their hosts as energy sources in a similar manner to nitrogen fixing bacteria. Mutualistic mycorrhizal associations are found across most higher plant families with the key exception of the brassicas. This exception quite probably relates to production of the iso-thiocyanate mustard oil, which is fungi-toxic, in brassica roots.
Farmyard manure and compost stimulate soil health by introducing beneficial microbes.
Benefits from nitrogen-fixing bacteria and mycorrhizal fungi were recognised by 19th century agronomists. Much more recently, science has begun uncovering the biological capital of myriad microbes present in healthy soils. Research is being stimulated by recognition of the need for sustainable forms of crop husbandry that utilise ecologically sound techniques in integrated management.
Soil health can be stimulated by incorporation of farmyard manure or well composted green wastes, both containing huge populations of beneficial microbes. The critical importance of building and maintaining healthy soils cannot be over-emphasised. Quite simply, our food supplies depend upon it.Interested in soil health? Why not register for free to attend the 2020 Bright SCIdea Challenge final? One of the teams in this year’s final are pitching their method to restore the fertility of heavy metal ion rich farmland and increase crop yields.
The conference ‘Feeding the future: can we protect crops sustainably?’ was a tremendous success from the point of view of the technical content. The outcomes have been summarised in a series of articles here. How did such an event come about and what can we learn about putting on an event like this in a world of Covid?
This event was born from two parents. The first was a vision and the second was collaboration.
The vision began in the SCI Agrisciences committee. We had organised a series of events in the previous few years, all linking to the general theme of challenges to overcome in food sustainability. Our events had dealt with the use of data, the challenge of climate change and the future of livestock production. Our intention was to build on this legacy using the International Year of Plant Health as inspiration and provide a comprehensive event, at the SCI headquarters in London, covering every element of crop protection and what it will look like in the future. We wanted to make a networking hub, a place to share ideas and make connections, where new lines of research and development would be sparked into life. Well, then came Covid…
2020 is the International Year of Plant Health.
From the start, we knew in the Agrisciences group that this was going to be too much for us alone. Our first collaboration was within the SCI, the Horticulture Group and the Food Group. Outside of the SCI, we wanted collaborators who are research-active, with wide capabilities and people who really care about the future of crop protection. Having discussed a few options, we approached the Institute of Agriculture and Food Research and Innovation, IAFRI and later Crop Health and Protection, CHAP.
By February 2020, we had our full team of organisers and about half of our agenda all arranged. By March we didn’t know what to do, delay or virtualise? The debate went back and forth for several weeks as we all got to grips with the true meaning of lockdown. When we chose to virtualise, suddenly we had to relearn all we knew about organising events. Both CHAP and SCI started running other events and building up their experience. With this experience came sound advice on what makes a good event: Don’t let it drag; Keep everything snappy; Make sure that your speakers are the very best; Firm and direct chairing. We created a whole new agenda, based around these ideas.
How do you replicate those chance meetings facilitated by face-to-face events?
That still left one problem: how do you reproduce those extra bits that you get in a real conference? Those times in the coffee queue when you happen across your future collaborator? Maybe your future business partner is looking at the same poster as you are? It is a bit like luck, but facilitated.
We resolved this conundrum with four informal parallel sessions. So we still had student posters but in the form of micro-presentations. We engineered discussions between students and senior members of our industry. We tried to recreate a commercial exhibition where you watched as top companies showed off their latest inventions. For those who would love to go on a field trip, we offered virtual guided tours of some of the research facilities operated by CHAP.
Can virtual conferences take the place of real ones? They are clearly not the same, as nothing beats looking directly into someone’s eyes. But on the plus side, they are cheaper to put on and present a lower barrier for delegates to get involved. I am looking forward to a post-Covid world when we can all meet again, but in the meantime we can put on engaging and exciting events that deliver a lot of learning and opportunity in a virtual space.Feeding the Future was organised by:
All organisms are fitted for the habitat in which they live. Some are sufficiently flexible in their requirements that they can withstand small shifts in their environment. Others are so well fitted that they cannot withstand habitat change and will eventually fail. The extent of seasonal changes varies with latitude. Plants in temperate and sub-arctic are fitted for changing weather patterns from hot and dry to cold and wet as the calendar moves from summer into winter. Deciduous plants start growing in spring with varying degrees of rapidity and move through flowering and fruiting in summer and early autumn. Finally, some produce a magnificent display of autumn colour, but all senesce and shut down with the return of winter. Evergreen plants frequently inhabit the higher latitudes and retain their foliage. This is an energy conservation measure as they can respond more quickly when winter ends and growth restarts.
Plants respond to seasonal change by sensing alterations in daylength, spectral composition and most importantly temperature. It is known as acclimatisation (acclimation in the American literature). Falling temperatures are the most potent triggers in preparation for winter dormancy. Cold and ultimately freezing weather will seriously damage plant growth where acclimatisation has not been completed. Without preparation freezing ruptures cell membranes in leaves and stems disrupting their normal functions. These effects are measurable and used as means of quantifying plant hardiness. Membrane leakiness correlates with increased ionic concentrations when damaged leaves are placed in water and the resultant pC measured. Changes in chlorophyll fluorescent indicated damaged photosynthetic apparatus and measurable. Similarly, in some species bonding in lipid molecules alters and can be traced by mass spectroscopy. Understanding these processes and their ultimate goal which is protective dormancy underpins more accurate understanding of the natural world. It also provides information useful for breeding cold tolerant crops and garden plants.
Cold Damaged Plant
The rapidity of climate change is such that the protective mechanisms of plants and other organisms cannot respond with sufficient speed. Autumn in cool temperate regions, for example, is now extending as an increasingly warm period. This means that plants are not receiving the triggers necessary for acclimatisation in preparation for severe cold. Buds are commencing growth earlier in spring and now frequently are badly damaged by short bursts of deep cold. These buds cannot be replaced and as a consequence deciduous trees and shrubs in particular are losing capacities for survival.
This year’s wheat harvest is currently underway across the country after a difficult growing season, with harvest itself being delayed due to intermittent stormy weather. The high levels of rainfall at the start of the growing season meant that less winter wheat could be planted and dry weather in April and May caused difficulties for spring wheat as well. This decline in the wheat growing area has caused many news outlets to proclaim the worst wheat harvest in 40 years and potential bread price rises.
Difficult weather during this year’s growing season. Photo: Joe Oddy
This is also the first wheat harvest in which I have a more personal stake, namely the first field trial of my PhD project; looking at how asparagine levels are controlled in wheat. It seemed like a bad omen that my first field trial should coincide with such a poor year for wheat farming, but it is also an opportunity to look at how environmental stress is likely to influence the nutritional quality of wheat, particularly in relation to asparagine.
The levels of asparagine, a nitrogen-rich amino acid, in wheat grain have become an important quality parameter in recent years because it is the major determinant and precursor of acrylamide, a processing contaminant that forms during certain cooking processes. The carcinogenic risk associated with dietary acrylamide intake has sparked attempts to reduce consumption as much as possible, and reducing asparagine levels in wheat is a promising way of achieving part of this goal.
Asparagus, from which asparagine was first discovered and named.
Previous work on this issue has shown that some types of plant stress, such as sulphur deficiency, disease, and drought, increase asparagine levels in wheat, so managing these stresses with sufficient nutrient supply, disease control, and irrigation can help to prevent unwanted asparagine accumulation. Stress can be difficult to prevent even with such crop management strategies though, especially with environmental variables as uncontrollable as the weather, so it is tempting to speculate that the difficulties experienced this growing season will be reflected in higher asparagine levels; but we will have to wait and see.
This tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) relative was first planted in the SCIence Garden in the summer of 2018. It was grown from seed by Peter Grimbly, SCI Horticulture Group member. Although normally grown as an annual, some of the SCIence Garden plants have proven to be perennial. It is also gently self-seeding across the garden. It is native to the south and southeast of Brazil and the northeast of Argentina but both the species and many cultivars of it are now grown ornamentally across Europe. Flower colour is normally white, but variants with lime green and pink through to darker red flowers are available.
Like many Nicotiana this species has an attractive floral scent in the evening and through the night. The major component of the scent is 1.8-cineole. This constituent has been shown to be a chemical synapomorphy for the particular section of the genus Nicotiana that this species sits within (Raguso et al, Phytochemistry 67 (2006) 1931-1942). A synapomorphy is a shared derived character – one that all descendants and the shared single ancestor will have.
This ornamentally and olfactorily attractive plant was chosen for the SCIence Garden to represent two other (arguably less attractive) Nicotiana species.
Firstly, Nicotiana benthamiana, a tobacco species from northern Western Australia. It is widely used as a model organism in research and also for the “pharming” of monoclonal antibodies and other recombinant proteins.
In a very topical example of this technology, the North American biopharmaceutical company Medicago is currently undertaking Phase 1 clinical trials of a Covid-19 vaccine produced using their plant-based transient expression and manufacturing technology.
Secondly, Nicotiana tabacum, the cultivated tobacco which contains nicotine. This alkaloid is a potent insecticide and tobacco was formerly widely used as a pesticide.
This vivid extract from William Dallimore’s memoirs of working at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew illustrate how tobacco was used in the late Victorian era.
“Real tobacco was used at Kew for fumigating plant houses. It was a very mixed lot that had been confiscated by excise officers, and it was said that it had been treated in some way to make it unfit for ordinary use before being issued to Kew. With the men working in the house ten men were employed on the job. After the first hour the atmosphere became unpleasant and after 1 ½ hours the first casualties occurred, some of the young gardeners had to leave the house. At the conclusion there were only the two labourers the stoker and one young gardener to leave the house, I was still about but very unhappy. Each man employed at the work, with the exception of the foreman, received one shilling extra on his week’s pay.“
After a second such fumigation event it was reported that there was a great reduction in insect pests, particularly of mealy bug and thrips, with a “good deal of mealy bug” falling to the ground dead.
Health and safety protocols have improved since the Victorian era, but the effectiveness of nicotine as an insecticide remains. From the 1980’s through the 1990’s a range of neo-nicotinoid plant protection agents were developed, with structures based on nicotine. Although extremely effective, these substances have also been shown to be harmful to beneficial insects and honey bees. Concerns over these adverse effects have led to the withdrawal of approval of outdoor use in the EU.
Imidacloprid – the first neo-nicotinoid developed
In early 2020, the European commission decided not to renew the European license for the use of Thiacloprid in plant protection, making it the fourth neo-nicotinoid excluded for use in Europe.
Where the next generation of pest control agents will come from is of vital importance to the horticulture and agriculture industries in the UK and beyond and the presence of these plants in the garden serves to highlight this.
Soil is a very precious asset whether it be in your garden or an allotment. Soil has physical and chemical properties that support its biological life. Like any asset understanding its properties is fundamental for its effective use and conservation.
Soils will contain, depending on their origin four constituents: sand, clay, silt and organic matter. Mineral soils, those derived by the weathering of rocks contain varying proportions of all four. But their organic matter content will be less than 5 percent. Above that figure and the soil is classed as organic and is derived from the deposition of decaying plants under very wet conditions forming bogs.
Essentially this anaerobic deposition produces peat which if drained yields highly fertile soils such as the Fenlands of East Anglia. Peat’s disadvantage is oxidation, steadily the organic matter breaks down, releases carbon dioxide and is lost revealing the subsoil which is probably a layer of clay.
Cracked clay soil
Mineral soils with a high sand content are free draining, warm quickly in spring and are ‘light’ land. This latter term originates from the small number of horses required for their cultivation. Consequently, sandy soils encourage early spring growth and the first crops. Their disadvantage is limited water retention and hence crops need regular watering in warm weather.
Clay soils are water retentive to the extent that they will become waterlogged during rainy periods. They are ‘heavy’ soils meaning that large teams of horses were required for their cultivation. These soils produce main season crops, especially those which are deeply rooting such as maize. But in dry weather they crack open rupturing root systems and reducing yields.
Silt soils contain very fine particles and may have originated in geological time by sedimentation in lakes and river systems. They can be highly fertile and are particularly useful for high quality field vegetable and salad crops. Because of their preponderance of fine particles silt soils ‘cap’ easily in dry weather. The sealed surface is not easily penetrated by germinating seedlings causing erratic and patchy emergence.
Soil finger test
Soil composition can be determined by two very simple tests. A finger test will identify the relative content of sand, clay and silt. Roll a small sample of moist soil between your thumb and fingers and feel the sharpness of sand particles and the relative slipperiness of clay or the very fine almost imperceptible particles of silt. For a floatation test, place a small soil sample onto the top of a jam jar filled with water. Over 24 to 48 hours the particles will sediment with the heavier sand forming the lower layer with clay and silt deposited on top. Organic matter will float on the surface of the water.
Soil floatation test
The Industrial Decarbonisation Challenge (IDC) is funded by UK government through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund. One aim is to enable the deployment of low-carbon technology, at scale, by the mid-2020’s . This challenge supports the Industrial Clusters Mission which seeks to establish one net-zero industrial cluster by 2040 and at-least one low-carbon cluster by 2030 . This latest SCI Energy Group blog provides an overview of Phase 1 winners from this challenge and briefly highlights several on-going initiatives across some of the UK’s industrial clusters.
Phase 1 Winners
In April 2020, the winners for the first phase of two IDC competitions were announced. These were the ‘Deployment Competition’ and the ‘Roadmap Competition’; see Figure 1 .
Figure 1 - Winners of Phase 1 Industrial Decarbonisation Challenge Competitions.
Net-Zero Teesside is a carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) project. One aim is to decarbonise numerous carbon-intensive businesses by as early as 2030. Every year, up to 6 million tonnes of CO2 emissions are expected to be captured. Thiswill be stored in the southern North Sea which has more than 1,000Mt of storage capacity. The project could create 5,500 jobs during construction and could provide up to £450m in annual gross benefit for the Teesside region during the construction phase .
For further information on this project, click here.
Figure 2 – Industrial Skyscape of Teesside Chemical Plants
In 2019, Drax Group, Equinor and National Grid signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) which committed them to work together to explore the opportunities for a zero-carbon cluster in the Humber. As part of this initiative, carbon capture technology is under development at the Drax Power Station’s bioenergy carbon capture and storage (BECCS) pilot. This could be scaled up to create the world’s first carbon negative power-station. This initiative also envisages a hydrogen demonstrator project, at the Drax site, which could be running by the mid-2020s. An outline of the project timeline is shown in Figure 3 .
For further information on this project, click here.
Figure 3 - Overview of Timeline for Net-Zero Humber Project
The HyNet project envisions hydrogen production and CCS technologies. In this project, CO2 will be captured from a hydrogen production plant as well as additional industrial emitters in the region. This will be transported, via pipeline, to the Liverpool Bay gas fields for long-term storage . In the short term, a hydrogen production plant has been proposed to be built on Essar’s Stanlow refinery. The Front-End Engineering Design (FEED) is expected to be completed by March 2021 and the plant could be operational by mid-2024. The CCS infrastructure is expected to follow a similar timeframe .
For further information on the status of this project, click here.
Project Acorn has successfully obtained the first UK CO2 appraisal and storage licence from the Oil and Gas Authority. Like others, this project enlists CCS and hydrogen production. A repurposed pipeline will be utilised to transport industrial CO2 emissions from the Grangemouth industrial cluster to St. Fergus for offshore storage, at rates of 2 million tonnes per year. Furthermore, the hydrogen production plant, to be located at St. Fergus, is expected to blend up to 2% volume hydrogen into the National Transmission System . A final investment decision (FID) for this project is expected in 2021. It has the potential to be operating by 2024 .
For further information on this project, click here.
Figure 4 - Emissions from Petrochemical Plant at Grangemouth
SCI Energy Group October Conference
The chemistry of carbon dioxide and its role in decarbonisation is a key topic of interest for SCI Energy Group. In October, we will be running a conference concerned with this topic. Further details can be found here.
Single plant cells have amazing capacities for regenerating into entire plants. This property is known as ‘totipotency’ discovered in the 1920s. Linking this with increasing understanding of growth control by plant hormones resulted in the development of the sterile, in vitro, culture. Tiny groups of cells, explants, are cut from the rapidly growing tips of shoots in controlled environments and washed in sterilising agents. These are cultured sterile jars containing a layer of agar supplemented with nutrients and hormones.
Green plantlets growing on sterile agar
The process is known as ‘tissue culture’ or micropropagation. As the cells divide and multiply, they are transferred through a series of sterile conditions which encourage root formation.
Roots growing from newly developing plantlets
Ultimately numerous new whole plants are generated. At that point they are removed from sterile conditions and weaned by planting into clean compost in high humidity environments. High humidity is essential as these transplants lack the protective coating of leaf and stem waxes which prevent desiccation. Ultimately when fully weaned the plants are grown under normal nursery conditions into saleable products.
Why bother with this processes which requires expensive facilities and highly skilled staff? A prime advantage is that micropropagated plants have genotypes very closely similar to those of the original parent, essentially they are clones. As a result vast numbers of progeny can be generated from a few parents preserving their characteristics. That is particularly important as a means of bulking-up newly bred varieties of many ornamental and fruit producing plants which otherwise would be reproduced vegetatively from cuttings or by grafting and budding onto rootstocks. Micropropagation is therefore a means for safeguarding the intellectual property of plant breeding companies.
Explants cut from parent plants before culturing can be heat-treated as a means of removing virus infections. The resultant end-products of rooted plants are therefore disease-free or more accurately disease-tested. These plants are usually more vigorous and produce bigger yields of flowers and fruit. Orchids are one of the crops where the impact of micropropagation is most obvious in florists’ shops and supermarkets.
Orchids have benefitted greatly from micropropagation
Large numbers of highly attractive orchids are now readily available. Previously orchids were very expensive and available in sparse numbers.
The world is not perfect and there are disadvantages with micropropagation. Because the progeny are genetically similar they are uniformly susceptible to pests and pathogens. Crops of clonal plants can be and have been rapidly devasted by existing and new strains of insects and diseases to which they have no resistance.
Elderflowers are in full bloom this month, both in hedgerows as well as gardens across the country. Whether they are the wild Sambucus nigra or a cultivated variety with green or black leaves they are all beautiful and useful plants.
The black leaved cultivar growing in the SCIence Garden has pink blooms, whereas the wild species has white flowers. It was purchased as ‘Black Beauty’, but is also sold as ‘Gerda’.
Sambucus nigra f. porphyrophylla ‘Black Beauty’ growing in the SCIence Garden
This cultivar, along with ‘Black Lace’ (Eva) was developed by Ken Tobutt and Jacqui Prevette at the Horticulture Research International research station at East Malling in Kent and released for sale in the horticulture trade in 2000. The leaves stay a dark purple throughout the year and the flowers have a good fragrance.
The shrub will tolerate hard pruning so is useful for smaller spaces and provides a long season of interest. The plant is also a forager’s delight, both in early summer (for the flowers) and in the autumn (for the berries).
Most commonly one may think of elderflower cordial, or perhaps even elderflower champagne, but an excellent alternative to the rose flavoured traditional “Turkish Delight” can be made - https://www.rivercottage.net/recipes/elderflower-delight. I can highly recommend it!
The chemistry of the elderflower aroma is complex. Analyses such as that in the reference below* have identified many different terpene and terpenoid components including nerol oxide, hotrienol and nonanal.
* Olfactory and Quantitative Analysis of Aroma Compounds in Elder Flower (Sambucus nigra L.) Drink Processed from Five Cultivars. Ulla Jørgensen, Merete Hansen, Lars P. Christensen, Karina Jensen, and Karl Kaack. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 2000 48 (6), 2376-2383. DOI: 10.1021/jf000005f
June 27th 2020 marked the fourth Micro-, Small and Medium-sized Enterprise (MSME) day, established by the International Council for Small Businesses (ICSB).
Along with online events, the ICSB published its annual report highlighting not only the importance of MSMEs as they relate to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals but also calling for further political and regulatory support for the sector as the global economy looks to make a recovery.
Concept of a green economy
Ahmed Osman, President of the ICSB, used the annual report to share his perspectives on the future for MSMEs in the post pandemic world and posed the question ‘What is the new normal for MSMEs?’
‘There are six key factors every MSME or start-up needs to keep in mind post Covid-19,’ Osman stated, the first of these being financial assessment and security. Encouraging MSMEs to put in place a financial action plan, obtaining information about government relief packages and getting a clear picture of investor expectations, Osman said; ‘Once this financial risk assessment and support ecosystem are in place, one can execute the plan. This may involve deciding on a potential pay cut, pull back on investments related to infrastructure or expansion, halting new recruitment etc…’
Digital Business and Technology Concept
Having secured the financial footing the next factor was to re-evaluate the business plan in light of the new conditions. Osman stressed the importance of involving all stakeholders to come up with a mutually agreed set of new targets. The third factor to consider, according to Osman, was creating a ‘strong digital ecosystem.’ ‘If there is one thing that Covid-19 has taught businesses. It is the power of digital engagement. Even as an MSME, it helps to be present and active on digital media…Additionally, a digitally enabled internal ecosystem also needs to be in place that can accommodate remote working…without compromising data security or productivity of employees.’
The fourth factor Osman highlighted was adoption of the fourth revolution for business. ‘…This is also time to leverage the new age technology innovations and adopt the fourth revolution for business. While most SMEs and MSMEs look at this as an ‘out of league’ investment, it is actually very simple and can be incorporated for a higher ROI in the long run. Be it automation, CRM, ERP, IoT, a well planned strategy to scale to technology-enabled, highly productive next generation business can be worked out with a two to three year plan,’ Osman said.
Bulb future technology
Less reliance on physical space was the fifth factor Osman highlighted, anticipating a reversal in the trend that led to increasing the number of people in an office and home working becoming more normal.
The final factor Osman highlighted was the need to have a crisis management strategy in place. ‘It is vital to chalk up an effective crisis management plan that will take into consideration both immediate and long-term impact,’ he said.
Encouraging MSMEs to take stock, Osman asked ‘How did you help in the great pandemic? Quantify what you did for your employees, customers, community and country. Leverage the opportunity to build a better business, have credible solutions to the new major challenge and think globally act locally.’
Momentum for a post-pandemic ‘green recovery’ continues, as the UK government and the European Commission set out steps to accelerate their recoveries, while supporting the paths to net zero by 2050. Here we round-up just some of the initiatives announced in recent weeks to achieve these goals.
Human hands holding earth globe and tree
Plans for preservation of biodiversity
Speaking on the 3rd June 2020, at the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Economic and Environmental Committee Meeting, the UK’s Second Secretary from the UK Delegation, Justin Addison, said; ‘As we recover, we have an opportunity to protect and restore nature, reducing our exposure to deadly viruses and climate impact.’
Highlighting the UK’s global outlook on addressing climate change, Addison added, ‘The UK will soon announce a £64 million package to support Colombia to tackle deforestation and build a cleaner and more resilient economy in areas affected by Covid-19 and conflict.’
As well as the UK’s efforts to preserve biodiversity, the European Commission will be looking to protect and restore biodiversity and natural ecosystems. Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s Executive Vice President added that, ‘It can boost our resilience and prevent the emergence and spread of future virus outbreaks. We have now seen that this relationship between us and the natural environment is key to our health.’
Earth held in human hands
Enabling low-carbon solutions and boosting clean growth
In early June, a letter was sent to decision-makers across the European Union from more than 100 investors, urging the EU to ensure a green recovery from the covid-19 pandemic is delivered.
Investors are keen to ensure the government builds on The European Green deal to deliver a long term commitment that will accelerate the economy into one that is more green and carbon resilient post coronavirus.
The European Green deal, set out before the pandemic, details some of their targets including, a 50-55% emissions reduction by 2030; a climate law to reach net-zero emissions by 2050; a transition fund worth €100bn and a series of new sector policies to ensure all industries are able to decarbonise.
A shoot of a plant and planet Earth
To boost clean growth, the UK Government has recently launched a £40 million Clean Growth Fund that will ‘supercharge green start-ups’.
This fund will enable UK clean growth start-ups to scale up low-carbon solutions and drive a green economic recovery.
Potential examples of projects the fund could support include areas in power and energy, buildings, transport and waste.
Business Secretary Alok Sharma said: ‘This pioneering new fund will enable innovative low-carbon solutions to be scaled up at speed, helping to drive a green and resilient economic recovery.’
In a recent paper published in Nature Climate Change, an international group of researchers are urging countries to reconsider their strategy to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. While countries signed up to the Paris Agreement have individual quotas to meet in terms of emissions reduction, they argue this cannot be achieved without global cooperation to ensure enough CO2 is removed in a fair and equitable way.
The team of international researchers from Imperial College London, the University of Girona, ETH Zürich and the University of Cambridge, have stated that countries with greater capacity to remove CO2 should be more proactive in helping those that cannot meet their quotas.
Co-author Dr Niall Mac Dowell, from the Centre for Environmental Policy and the Centre for Process Systems Engineering at Imperial, said, ‘It is imperative that nations have these conversations now, to determine how quotas could be allocated fairly and how countries could meet those quotas via cross-border cooperation.’
The team’s modelling and research has shown that while the removal quotas vary significantly, only a handful of countries will have the capacity to meet them using their own resources.
A few ways to achieve carbon dioxide removal:
(3) CCS coupled to bioenergy – growing crops to burn for fuel. The crops remove CO2 from the atmosphere, and the CCS captures any CO2 from the power station before its release.
However, deploying these removal strategies will vary depending on the capabilities of different countries. The team have therefore suggested a system of trading quotas. For example, due to the favourable geological formations in the UK’s North Sea, the UK has space for CCS, and therefore, they could sell some of its capacity to other countries.
Co-lead author Dr Carlos Pozo from the University of Girona, concluded; ‘By 2050, the world needs to be carbon neutral - taking out of the atmosphere as much CO2 as it puts in. To this end, a CO2 removal industry needs to be rapidly scaled up, and that begins now, with countries looking at their responsibilities and their capacity to meet any quotas.’
Some plants such as lettuce require cool conditions for germination (<10 oC), a condition known as thermo-dormancy. This reflects the evolution of the wild parent species in cooler environments and growth cycles limited by higher summer temperatures. Transforming live but dormant seed into new healthy self-sufficient plants requires care and planning. The conditions in which seed is stored before use greatly affect the vigour and quality of plants post-germination. Seed which is stored too long or in unsuitable environments deteriorates resulting in unthrifty seedlings.
Seed is either sown directly into soil or into compost designed especially as an aid for germination. These composts contain carefully balanced nutrient formulae which provide larger proportions of potassium and phosphorus compounds which promote rooting and shoot growth. The amounts of nitrogen needed at and immediately post-germination are limited. Excess nitrogen immediately post-germination will cause over-rapid growth which is susceptible to pest and pathogen damage.
Minor nutrients will also be included in composts which ensures the establishment of efficient metabolic activities free from deficiency disorders. Composts require pH values at ~ 7.0 for the majority of seedlings unless they are of calicifuge (unsuited for calcareous soils) species where lime requirement is limited and the compost pH will be formulated at 6.0. Additionally, the pC will be carefully tuned ensuring correctly balanced ionic content avoiding root burning disorders. Finally, the compost should be water retentive but offering a rooting environment with at least 50 percent of the pore spaces filled with air. Active root respiration is essential while at the same time water is needed as the carrier for nutrient ions.
Seedlings encountering beneficial environments delivering suitable temperatures will germinate into healthy and productive plants.
Some plants such as lettuce require cool conditions for germination (<10 oC), a condition known as thermo-dormancy. This reflects the evolution of the wild parent species in cooler environments and growth cycles limited by higher summer temperatures.
Careful husbandry under protection such as in greenhouses provides plants which can be successfully transplanted into the garden. The soil receiving these should be carefully cultivated, providing an open crumb structure which permits swift and easy rooting into the new environment. It is essential that in the establishment phase plants are free from water stress. Measures which avoid predation from birds such as pigeons may also be required.
Netting or the placing of cotton threads above plants helps as a protection measure. Weeds must be removed otherwise competition will reduce crop growth and encourage pests and diseases, particularly slug browsing. Finally, the gardener will be rewarded for his/her work with a fruitful and enjoyable crop!
Another month starts in the SCIence Garden with no visitors to appreciate the burgeoning growth of fresh new leaves and spring flowers, but that doesn’t mean we should forget about it!
Hopefully in our absence the Laburnum tree in the garden, Laburnum x watereri ‘Vossii’ will be flowering beautifully, its long racemes of golden yellow flowers looking stunning in the spring sunshine!
Laburnum x watereri ‘Vossii’ in the SCIence Garden
This particular cultivar originated in the late 19th century in the Netherlands, selected from the hybrid species which itself is a cross between Laburnum alpinum and L. anagyroides. This hybrid species was named for the Waterers nursery in Knaphill, Surrey and was formally named in a German publication of 1893 (Handbuch der Laubholzkunde, Berlin 3:673 (1893)
The laburnum tree is found very commonly in gardens in the UK, and is noticeable at this time of year for its long chains of golden yellow flowers. However, the beautiful flowers hide a dark side to this plant. The seeds (and indeed all parts) of the tree are poisonous to humans and many animals. They are poisonous due to the presence of a very toxic alkaloid called cytisine (not to be confused with cytosine, a component of DNA). Cytisine has a similar structure to nicotine (another plant natural product), and has similar pharmacological effects. It has been used as a smoking cessation therapy, as has varenicline, which has a structure based on that of cytisine. These molecules are partial agonists at the nicotinic receptor (compared to nicotine which is a full agonist) and reduce the cravings and “pleasurable” effects associated with nicotine.
Cytisine is found in several other plants in the legume family, including Thermopsis lanceolata, which also looks stunning in early summer and Baptisia species, also growing in the SCIence Garden and flowering later in the year.
In 2018 there were 9.6 million deaths from cancer and 33% of these were linked to exposure to tobacco smoke.* Since the link between smoking and lung cancer was established in 1950, the market for smoking cessation therapies has increased enormously. In 2018 it was worth over 18 billion dollars annually worldwide and is projected to increase to 64 billion dollars by 2026.** Staggering! Varenicline, sold under the brand names Champix and Chantix, is one of the most significant smoking cessation therapies apart from nicotine replacement products.
If you see a laburnum tree whilst out on your daily allowed exercise this month, have a thought for its use as a smoking cessation therapy!
* Data from the Cancer Research UK website https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/health-professional/cancer-statistics/worldwide-cancer#heading-Zero accessed May 2020.
Seed is one of Nature’s tiny miracles upon which the human race relies for its food and pleasure.
Each grain contains the genetic information for growth, development, flowering and fruiting for the preponderant plant life living on this planet. And when provided with adequate oxygen, moisture, warmth, light, physical support and nutrients germination will result in a new generation of a species. These vary from tiny short-lived alpines to the monumental redwood trees growing for centuries on the Pacific west coast of America.
Humankind has tamed and selected a few plant species for food and decorative purposes.
Seed head of beetroot, the seeds are in clusters.
Seed of these, especially food plants, is an internationally traded commodity. Strict criteria governed by legal treaties apply for the quality and health of agricultural and many horticultural seeds. This ensures that resultant crops are true to type and capable of producing high grade products as claimed by the companies who sell the seed.
Companies involved in the seed industry place considerable emphasis on ensuring that their products are capable of growing into profitable crops for farmers and growers. Parental seed crops are grown in isolation from farm crops thereby avoiding the potential for genetic cross-contamination. With some very high value seed the parent plants may be grown under protection and pollinated by hand.
Samples of seed are tested under laboratory conditions by qualified seed analysts. Quality tests identify levels of physical contamination, damage which may have resulted in harvesting and cleaning the seed and the proportion of capable of satisfactory germination. There may also be molecular tests which can identify trueness to type. Identifying the healthiness of seed is especially important. The seed coat can carry fungal and bacterial spores which could result in diseased crops. Similarly, some pathogens, including viruses, may be carried internally within seed.
Septoria apicola – seed borne pathogen causing late blight of celery
Pests, especially insects, find seed attractive food sources and may be carried with it. Careful analytical testing will identify the presence of these problems in batches of seed.
The capabilities of seed for producing vigorous plants is particularly important with very high value vegetable and salad crops. Vigour testing is a refined analytical process which tracks the uniformity and speed of germination supplemented with chemical tests determining the robustness of plant cells. Producers rely on the quality, uniformity and maturity rates of crops such as lettuce, green broccoli or cauliflower so they meet the strict delivery schedules set by supermarkets. Financial penalties are imposed for failures in the supply chain.
Biology’s seemingly inert tiny seed grains are essential ingredients of humankind’s existence!
This latest SCI Energy Group blog introduces the possible avenues of carbon dioxide utilisation, which entails using carbon dioxide to produce economically valuable products through industrial processes. Broadly, utilisation can be categorised into three applications: chemical use, biological use and direct use. For which, examples of each will be highlighted throughout.
Before proceeding to introduce these, we can first consider utilisation in relation to limiting climate change. As has been discussed in previous blogs, the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions is crucial. Therefore, for carbon dioxide utilisation technologies to have a beneficial impact on climate change, several important factors must be considered and addressed.
1) Energy Source: Often these processes are energy intensive. Therefore, this energy must come from renewable resources or technologies.
2) Scale: Utilisation technologies must exhibit large scaling potential to match the limited timeframe for climate action.
3) Permanence: Technologies which provide permanent removal or displacement of CO2 emissions will be most impactful¹.
Figure 1: CO2 sign
Carbon dioxide, alongside other reactants, can be chemically converted into useful products. Examples of which include urea, methanol, and plastics and polymers. One of the primary uses of urea includes agricultural fertilisers which are pivotal to crop nutrition. Most commonly, methanol is utilised as a chemical feedstock in industrial processes.
Figure 2: Fertilizing soil
One of the key challenges faced with this application of utilisation is the low reactivity of CO2 in its standard conditions. Therefore, to successfully convert it into products of economic value, catalysts are required to significantly lower the molecules activation energy and overall energy consumption of the process. With that being said, it is anticipated that, in future, the chemical conversion of CO2 will have an important role in maintaining a secure supply of fuel and chemical feedstocks such as methanol and methane².
Carbon dioxide is fundamental to plant growth as it provides a source of required organic compounds. For this reason, it can be utilised in greenhouses to promote carbonic fertilisation. By injecting increased levels of CO2 into the air supplied to greenhouses, the yield of plant growth has been seen to increase. Furthermore, CO2 from the flue gas streams of chemical processes has been recognised, in some studies, to be of a quality suitable for direct injection³.
Figure 3: Glass greenhouse planting vegetable greenhouses
These principles are applicable to encouraging the growth of microorganisms too. One example being microalgae which boasts several advantageous properties. Microalgae has been recognised for its ability to grow in diverse environments as well as its ability to be cultured in numerous types of bioreactors. Furthermore, its production rate is considerably high meaning a greater demand for CO2 is exhibited than that from normal plants. Micro-algal biomass can be utilised across a range of industries to form a multitude of products. These include bio-oils, fuels, fertilisers, food products, plant feeds and high value chemicals. However, at present, the efficiency of CO2 fixation, in this application, can be as low as 20-50%.
Figure 4: Illustration of microalgae under the microscope
It is important to note that, at present, there are many mature processes which utilise CO2 directly. Examples of which are shown in the table below.
Many carbon dioxide utilisation technologies exist, across a broad range of industrial applications. For which, some are well-established, and others are more novel. For such technologies to have a positive impact on climate action, several factors need to be addressed such as their energy source, scaling potential and permanence of removal/ displacement of CO2.
The chemistry of carbon dioxide and its role in decarbonisation is a key topic of interest for SCI Energy Group. In the near future, we will be running a webinar concerned with this. Further details of this will be posted on the SCI website in due course.
March in the SCIence Garden
Narcissus was the classical Greek name of a beautiful youth who became so entranced with his own reflection that he killed himself and all that was left was a flower – a Narcissus. The word is possibly derived from an ancient Iranian language. But the floral narcissi are not so self-obsessed. As a member of the Amaryllidaceae, a family known for containing biologically active alkaloids, it is no surprise to learn that they contain a potent medicinal agent.
Narcissus (and in particular this cultivar) are an excellent source of galanthamine, a drug more commonly associated with snowdrops (Galanthus spp.). Galanthamine is currently recommended for the treatment of moderate Alzheimer’s disease by the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) but is very effective in earlier stages of the disease too.
Today, part of the commercial supply of this molecule comes from chemical synthesis, itself an amazing chemical achievement due to the structural complexity of the molecule, and partly from the natural product isolated from different sources across the globe. In China, Lycoris radiata is grown as a crop, in Bulgaria, Leucojum aestivum is farmed and in the UK the humble daffodil, Narcissus ‘Carlton’ is the provider.
Narcissus ‘Carlton’ growing on large scale
Agroceutical Products, was established in 2012 to commercialise the research of Trevor Walker and colleagues who developed a cost effective, reliable and scalable method for producing galanthamine by extraction from Narcissus. They discovered the “Black Mountains Effect” – the increased production of galanthamine in the narcissus when they are grown under stress conditions at 1,200 feet. With support from Innovate UK and other organisations, the process is still being developed. Whilst not a full scale commercial production process just yet, the work is ongoing. As well as providing a supply of the much needed drug, this company may be showing the Welsh farming community how to secure additional income from their land. They continue to look for partners who have suitable land over 1000 ft in elevation.
The estimated global patient population for Alzheimer’s in 2010 was 30 million. It is expected to reach 120 million by 2050. The global market for Alzheimer’s disease drugs for 2019 was US$ 2870 million.
Transferring plants between countries was a profitable source for novel commercial and garden plants until quite recently.
Potato crop: Geoff Dixon
Potatoes and tomatoes are classic examples arriving in Europe from South America during the 16th century. Substantial numbers of new plants fuelled empire expansion founding new industries such as rubber and coffee. One of the earliest functions of European botanic gardens was finding potentially valuable new crops for colonial businesses. At home selecting orchids and other exotics from imported plants brought fame and fortune for head gardeners managing the large 19th century estates such as Chatsworth. Commercially seed merchants selected by eye and feel new and improved vegetables, fruit and flowers.
The rediscovery of Mendel’s laws of inheritance brought systematic science and formalised breeding new crops and garden plants. Analysing the effects of transferring physical, chemical and biological characters identified gene numbers and their functions.
Colour range in Gladioli: Geoff Dixon
As a result, varieties with improved colourfulness, fruitfulness, yield and pest and pathogen tolerance fill seedsmen’s catalogues. Breeding increased food supplies and added colour into the gardens springing up in suburban areas as affluence increased.
Greater plant reliability and uniformity arrived with the discovery of F1 hybrids.
Hybrid Sunflowers: Geoff Dixon
Selected parental lines each with very desirable characters such as fruit colour are in-breed for several generations. Then they are crossed bringing an explosion of vigour, uniformity and reliability (known as heterosis). Saving seed from the hybrid lines does not however, perpetuate these characters; new generations come only from remaking the original cross. That is a major boon for the breeder as competitors cannot pirate their intellectual property.
Knowledge at the molecular level has unravelled still further gene structure and functioning. Tagging or marking specific genes with known properties shortens the breeding cycle adding reliability and accuracy for the breeder. Simplifying the volume of genetic material used in crosses by halving the number of chromosomes involved adds further precision and control (known as haploidisation).
Opportunities for breeding new plants increases many-fold when advantageous genes are transferred between species. Recent developments of gene-editing where tailored enzymes very precisely snip out unwanted characters and insert advantageous ones is now offering huge opportunities as a non-transgenic technology. Breeding science makes possible mitigation of climate change, reducing for example the impact of soil degradation brought about by flooding.
Flood degraded land: Geoff Dixon
One of the most beloved flowers in China (and elsewhere) this small tree was planted here in the SCIence garden to represent the Chinese UK group. It is in bloom from late winter and the bright pink flowers have a strong perfume. It is growing in the centre at the back of the main area of the garden.
There are 309 accepted species in the genus Prunus listed on the Plants of the World Online database (plantsoftheworldonline.org). The genus is distributed mainly across the Northern temperate zones but there are some tropical species.
The genus Prunus is generally defined based on a combination of characteristics which include: a solitary carpel (the structure enclosing the ovules – a combination of the ovary, style and stigma) with a terminal style, a fleshy drupe (fruit), five sepals and five petals and solid branch pith. The drupe contains a single, relatively large, hard coated seed (stone) – familiar to us in cherries, apricots, nectarines, peaches etc
This particular species, Prunus mume, originates from southern China in the area around the Yangtze River. The ‘Beni-chidori’ cultivar has been given an Award of Garden Merit by the Royal Horticultural Society.
Over 300 different cultivars of this species have been recorded in China, perhaps not surprisingly for a plant that has been domesticated for thousands of years due to its floral beauty. A recent study on the genetic architecture of floral traits across the cultivars of this species was published in Nature Communications.1
Prunus mume was introduced from China into Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam and it is now fully integrated into the cuisines of all these countries. In addition to its uses in many foodstuffs and drinks, extracts from the fruit are also widely used in traditional Chinese medicine and in the traditional medicines in Korea and Japan. Anti-bacterial, anti-oxidative, anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties have all been ascribed to the extract which has been used to treat tiredness, headaches, constipation and stomach disorders amongst other things. A recent review published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology2 gathers together information from literature reports on the anti-cancer activity of Prunus mume fruit extract.
One standardised extract in particular (MK615) has shown antitumour activity against most common cancer types.
The anti-cancer activity has not been ascribed to a particular component. Compounds isolated from the extract include ursolic acid, amygdalin, prunasin, chlorogenic acid, mumefural and syringaresinol.
Like all the plants in the SCIence garden – there’s a lot more to this one than just its ornamental beauty.
1. Zhang, Q., Zhang, H., Sun, L. et al. The genetic architecture of floral traits in the woody plant Prunus mume. Nat Commun 9, 1702 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-018-04093-z
2. Bailly, C. Anti-cancer properties of Prunus mume extracts. J Ethnopharmacology 246, 2020, 112215. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jep.2019.112215
In November 2020, the UK is set to host the major UN Climate Change summit; COP26. This will be the most important climate summit since COP21 where the Paris Agreement was agreed. At this summit, countries, for the first time, can upgrade their emission targets through to 20301. In the UK, current legislation commits government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 100% of 1990 levels by 2050, under the Climate Change Act 2008 (2050 Target Amendment)2.
Hydrogen has been recognised as a low-carbon fuel which could be utilised in large-scale decarbonisation to reach ambitious emission targets. Upon combustion with air, hydrogen releases water and zero carbon dioxide unlike alternative heavy emitting fuels. The potential applications of hydrogen span across an array of heavy emitting sectors. The focus of this blog is to highlight some of these applications, and on-going initiatives, across the following three sectors: Industry, Transport and Domestic.
Please click (here3) to access our previous SCI Energy Group blog centred around UK CO2 emissions.
Figure 1: climate change activists
Did you know that small-scale hydrogen boilers already exist?4
Through equipment modification, it is technically feasible to use clean hydrogen fuel across many industrial sectors such as: food and drink, chemical, paper and glass.
Whilst this conversion may incur significant costs and face technical challenges, it is thought that hydrogen-fuelled equipment such as furnaces, boilers, ovens and kilns may be commercially available from the mid-2020’s4.
Figure 2: gas hydrogen peroxide boiler line vector icon
Did you know that using a gas hob can emit up to or greater than 71 kg of CO2 per year?5
Hydrogen could be supplied fully or as a blend with natural gas to our homes in order to minimise greenhouse gas emissions associated with the combustion of natural gas.
As part of the HyDeploy initiative, Keele University, which has its own private gas network, have been receiving blended hydrogen as part of a trial study with no difference noticed compared to normal gas supply6.
Other initiatives such as Hydrogen 1007 and HyDeploy8 are testing the feasibility of delivering 100% hydrogen to homes and commercial properties.
Figure 3: gas burners
Did you know that, based on an average driving distance of approximately 11,500 miles per annum, an average vehicle will emit approximately 4.6 tonnes of CO2 per year?9
In the transport sector, hydrogen fuel can be utilised in fuel cells, which convert hydrogen and oxygen into water and electricity.
Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are already commercially available in the UK. However, currently, form only a small percentage of Ultra Low Emission Vehicle (ULEV) uptake10.
Niche applications of hydrogen within the transport sector are expected to show greater potential for hydrogen such as buses and trains. Hydrogen powered buses are already operational in certain parts of the UK and hydrogen trains are predicted to run on British railways from as early as 202211.
Figure 4: h2 combustion engine for emission free ecofriendly transport
This blog gives only a brief introduction to the many applications of hydrogen and its decarbonisation potential. The purpose of which, is to highlight that hydrogen, amongst other low-carbon fuels and technologies, can play an important role in the UK’s transition to net-zero emissions.
Stay tuned for further SCI Energy Group blogs which will continue to highlight alternative low-carbon technologies and their potential to decarbonise.
Links to References:
Every garden centre will currently bombard you with colourful displays of seed packets (figure 1). Each contains tiny grains of dormant life. Provided with water, warmth, suitable soil or compost and eventually light (figure 2) that resting grain will transform into the roots and shoots of a new plant.
Image 1: Racks of seed packets
Inside that seed cascades of genes trigger enzymes which release energy from stored starch and in some cases lipids. As a result, the seed coat opens and a root emerges which takes in supplies of water and nutrients. Shoots follow which grow upwards towards the light. They turn green as chlorophyll is manufactured and photosynthesis commences. At that point the seemingly inert grain becomes a self-sustaining living plant. Root and shoot growth result from active cell divisions with genetic controls determining the form and functions of each organ.
Image 2: Germinating seeds and the correct conditions
Each seed’s compliment of genes will determine what type of plant develops. But it is the environment provided by the gardener which determines the plant’s success. Careful and accurate husbandry results in succulent, health-promoting vegetables or colourful, vigorous flowers. Seedlings of some plants may be given nursery treatment before being placed into the garden’s big wide world. Providing protection in the early stages either in a green house or under cloches for many annual flowers and most vegetables boosts growth (figure 3) and eventually the quality of the produce.
Image 3: Legumes grown under protection
This does require time, skill and investment by the gardener. An alternative is purchasing seedlings from garden centres (figure 4). But an element of caution is required. These plants will have been raised under protection. Hence planting directly into the garden means still need care and attention. Frost protection and watering are essential, otherwise poor results may follow.
Image 4: Garden centre seedlings
Direct sowing seeds into garden soil is another alternative. Hardy vegetables and annual flowers may be cultured in this way. The requirements for success are a fertile soil with a fine tilth, that means it is free from stones and consists of uniform, aggregated particles allowing unimpeded movement of air and water.
Vegetables such as beetroot, carrots and parsnips will grow vigorously given these conditions. Hardy annuals such as African daisy, larkspur, love-in-the-mist, marigold and nasturtium will also thrive from direct sowings. Success in both garden departments depends on watering during dry spells and supplementary nutrition. Avoid nitrogenous fertilizers as these will encourage leaf growth whereas phosphate (P) and potassium (K) will promote root and flower formation.
Growing in just about the most challenging of locations in the SCIence Garden are a small group of Helleborus niger. They are planted in a very dry and shady location underneath a large tree sized Escallonia and although they struggled to establish when they were first planted (in May 2017) they are now flowering and growing well.
This plant was first featured as a Horticulture Group Medicinal Plant of the Month in December 2011 and as it is now in the SCIence garden I thought a reprise was in order.
Helleborus is a genus of 15 species of evergreen perennials in the buttercup family, Ranunculaceae. In common with most members of the family, the flowers are radially symmetric, bisexual and have numerous stamen.
Helleborus is the Latin name for the lent hellebore, and niger means black – referring in this species to the roots.
This species is native to the Alps and Appenines. Helleborus niger has pure white flowers, with the showy white parts being sepals (the calyx) and the petals (corolla) reduced to nectaries. As with other hellebores, the sepals persist long after the nectaries (petals) have dropped.
All members of the Ranunculaceae contain ranunculin, an unstable glucoside, which when the plant is wounded is enzymatically broken down into glucose and protoanemonin. This unsaturated lactone is toxic to both humans and animals, causing skin irritation and nausea, vomiting, dizziness and worse if ingested.
Protoanemonin dimerises to form anemonin when it comes into contact with air and this is then hydrolysed, with a concomitant ring-opening to give a non-toxic dicarboxylic acid.
Many hellebores have been found to contain hellebrin, a cardiac glycoside. The early chemical literature suggests that this species also contains the substance but later studies did not find it suggesting that either mis-identified or adulterated material was used in the early studies.
It is reported to contain many other specialized metabolites including steroidal saponins.
This plant has long been used in traditional medicine – in European, Ayurvedic and Unani systems and recent research has been aimed at elucidating what constituents are responsible for the medicinal benefit.
Extract of black hellebore is used sometimes in Germany as an adjuvant treatment for some types of tumour.
A recent paper* reports the results of a safety and efficacy investigation. The Helleborus niger extract tested was shown to exhibit neither genotoxic nor haemolytic effects but it was shown to have anti-angiogenetic effects on human umbilical vein endothelial cells (HUVEC), anti-proliferative effects and migration-inhibiting properties on tumour cells thus supporting its use in cancer treatment.
* Felenda, J.E., Turek, C., Mörbt, N. et al. Preclinical evaluation of safety and potential of black hellebore extracts for cancer treatment. BMC Complement Altern Med 19, 105 (2019) doi:10.1186/s12906-019-2517-5
A growing population is placing greater pressure on limited resources including land, oceans, water and energy. If agricultural production continues in its present form, water degradation, biodiversity loss and climate change will continue. As a result, people are adopting an increased interest in the environmental impact of food choice, choosing alternatives like insects.
This round-up explores examples of the various insect-based alternative foods.
According to data from Grand View Research, a US-based market research company, the global healthy snacks market is expected to reach $32.88 billion by 2025. Companies across Europe are developing healthy snack products based on insects, tapping into our desire for a variety of foods and tastes.
Eat Grub, established in 2013 and based in London UK, developed an insect snack made from house crickets, which are farmed in Europe. They are a sustainable, nutritious and tasty source of food, rich in protein. Research has indicated that insects are good for gut health due to their high chitin content. Chitinous fibre has been linked to increased levels of a metabolic enzyme associated with gut health.
A start-up Belgian beer company, Belgium Beetles Beer, described their drink as a real Belgium blond beer enriched with insect vitamins and proteins.
Upon ‘accidentally’ developing this product, they realised that the dry beetle powder offered a rich, light sweet, slightly bitter flavour.
A growing number of companies are now focusing their efforts on producing a product that looks and tastes like a traditional meat-based burger.
Bugfoundation’s burgers are based on buffalo worms, which are the larvae of the Alphitobius Diaperinus beetle. The company’s founders said that they decided to use buffalo worms because of their ‘slightly nutty flavour.’
The idea stemmed from a trip to Asia, where co-founder, Max Charmer came across fried crickets. His experience inspired him to bring these flavours to the west, hoping to please western tastes and comply with evolving European regulations.
Concerns regarding the livestock system have prompted novel inventions in the food space; insects, considered a source of protein, could outperform conventional meats to reduce environmental impacts.
So, will consumers soon be able to introduce insects to their everyday diets? Only time will tell.
Holly berries are emblematic of Christmas. Decorative wreaths containing sprays of holly boughs, bright red with berries, or sprigs set on cakes and puddings help bring seasonal cheer.
Holly is a problem for horticulturists! Male and female flowers develop separately requiring cross-pollination before fertilised berries develop. Dutch nurserymen got around this by selecting a self-fertile variety ‘J. C Van Tol’ which sets copious berries. Adding further colour in the winter garden is the variety ‘Golden King’ producing mixtures of creamy-white and green foliage. Most hollies in Great Britain are Ilex aquifolium which is a native of Northern Europe and is still found wild in the Welsh Marches. It is a flexible and valuable garden evergreen, very suitable for hedges as they form tough, prickly, impenetrable barriers.
Why plants use considerable energy to produce brightly coloured fruits is a puzzle for botanists. Co-evolution is an explanation. Bright berries attract birds which eat them, digesting the flesh and excreting the seeds. Wide seed distribution accompanied by a package of manure helps spread these plants increasing their geographical range.
Which came first, bright berries or vectoring birds? A combination is the answer. Plants with brighter berries attracted more birds spreading their seed more widely. Brighter berries are more nutritious and hence those birds which ate them were stronger and better fitted for the rigours of winter. Garden residents such as blackbirds and thrushes now thrive and survive on such natural food. Migratory species such as fieldfares travel from Scandinavia, attracted particularly by other berried treasures such as Cotoneaster.
Fleshy fruits such as those of holly or Cotoneaster are examples of some of the last energy sinks formed in the gardening year.
They draw products of photosynthesis from the manufacturing centres in leaves and accumulate sugars plus nutrients drawn up from the soil via root systems. That provides a rich diet for birds.
While digestive acids in the vector’s gut starts degrading the hard shell which surrounds the seed at the centre of the berry. Botanically that term is a misnomer since true berries, such as gooseberry fruits contain several seeds. Holly has one seed contained within a hard case encased in flesh and should be a drupe! Not a term which fits well for Christmas carols, decorations or cards!
Merry Christmas and a Prosperous New Year.
Gooseberries- true berry
Springtime colour is one of gardening’s greatest joys. Colourful bursts dispel the long darkness of winter with its depressing wetness and cold. Social research is clearly showing the physical and mental benefits obtained from the emergence in spring of bright garden colours linked with lengthening daylight. As with most gardening pleasures, this requires advanced financial outlay and an understanding of the rhythms of plant growth.
Planting bulbs such as daffodils, tulips and hyacinths in autumn is the necessary investment. In return, plant breeders now provide a huge array of colours, shapes, sizes and seasonal sequencing with bulbous plants.
Geoff Dixon: February Gold daffodils
Bulbs are large pieces of vegetative tissue which come pre-loaded with immature leaves and flowers, safely wrapped inside a dry coating of protective scales. Essentially, bulbs are large flower buds which are stimulated into growth by planting in warm, moist soil or compost. These conditions trigger the emergence of roots from the base of each bulb. Because bulbs are nascent plants, they require careful handling and are safest once planted.
Many bulbous species originate from higher altitude mountainous pastures and are naturally evolved for dealing with fluctuating periods of heat, cold and drought. Once safely planted at depths which should equal twice the length of each bulb, they will survive the freezing, thawing and fluctuating soil water- content delivered by winter weather.
Geoff Dixon: Bulb structure showing the flower bud embedded in the bulb
Warming soils of spring encourage growth and emergence of the leaves and flower buds contained within each bulb. Speed of emergence is governed by interaction between the genetic complement of bulbs and an interaction with their environment. Identifying and understanding the impact of this interaction formed the basis for Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallaces’ theory of natural selection. For springtime gardeners it is expressed in the multiplicity of bulbs on offer. Choosing a range of daffodil varieties for example, provides colourful gardens from February through to late May.
Geoff Dixon: Technique for planting bulbs using hand trowel and some sand for drainage under the bulb
Conserving the joys of spring pleasure over years can be achieved by naturalising bulbs. This means planting them in grass swards. This works effectively for daffodils, provided the foliage is allowed 8 to 10 weeks of uninterrupted growth and senescence after flowering. During this period, photosynthesis produces the chemical energy needed for replacement growth, which provides bulb multiplication and flower bud development for the following year. Tulips are much less easily naturalised in British gardens. This is because the leaves mature and senesce much more quickly after flowering, hence, less energy is produced, therefore, regrowth is less, and replacement flower buds are not formed.
For most gardeners the policy should be one of enjoying each springtime’s show and replacing bulbs with new ones every autumn for a relatively modest outlay.
Aldrin, Armstrong and Collins, Apollo 11’s brave astronauts were the first humans with the privilege of viewing Earth from another celestial body. These men uniquely wondered “what makes Earth special?” Certainly, within our Solar System, planet Earth is very special. Its environment has permitted the evolution of a panoply of life.
Green plants containing the pigment, chlorophyll either in the oceans as algae or on land as a multitude of trees, shrubs and herbs harvest energy from sunshine. Using a series of chemical reactions, known as photosynthesis, light energy is harvested and attached onto compounds containing phosphorus.
Captured energy then drives a series of reactions in which atmospheric carbon dioxide and water are combined forming simple sugars while releasing oxygen. These sugars are used further by plants in the manufacture of larger carbohydrates, amino acids and proteins, oils and fats.
The release of oxygen during photosynthesis forms the basis of life’s second vital process, respiration. Almost all plants and animals utilise oxygen in this energy releasing process during which sugars are broken down.
Released energy then drives all subsequent growth, development and reproduction. These body-building processes in plants are reliant on the transfer of the products of photosynthesis from a point of manufacture, the source, to the place of use, a sink.
Leaves and shoots are the principle sources of energy harvesting while flowers and fruits are major sinks with high levels of respiration.
Figure 1: Photosynthesis vs respiration, drawn by James Hadley
Transfer between sources and sinks occurs in a central system of pipes, the vascular system, using water as the carrier. Water is obtained by land plants from the soils in which they grow. Without water there would be no transfer and subsequent growth. Earth’s environment is built around a ‘water-cycle’ supplying the land and oceans with rain or snow and recycles water back into the atmosphere in a sustainable manner.
Early in Earth’s evolution, very primitive marine organisms initiated photosynthetic processes, capturing sunlight’s energy. As a result, in our atmosphere oxygen became a major component. That encouraged the development of the vast array of land plants which utilise rain water as the key element in their transport systems.
Subsequently, plants formed the diets of all animals either by direct consumption as herbivores or at second-hand as carnivores. As a result, evolution produced balanced ecosystems and humanity has inherited what those astronauts saw, “the Green Planet”.
Earth will only retain this status if humanity individually and collectively defeats our biggest challenge – climate change. Burning rain forests in South America, Africa and Arctic tundra will disbalance these ecosystems and quicken climate change.
The Big Picture
In 2018, UK CO2 emissions totalled to roughly 364 million tonnes. This was 2.4% lower than 2017 and 43.5% lower than 1990. The image below shows how much each individual sector contributed to the total UK carbon dioxide emissions in 2018. As can be seen, large emitting sectors include: energy supply, transport and residential. For this reason, CO2 emission trends from these sectors are discussed in this article.
Figure 1 Shows the percentage contribution toward Total UK Greenhouse Gas Emissions per Sector (2018) Figure: BEIS. Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v1.0.
In 2018, the transport sector accounted for 1/3rd of total UK CO2 emissions. Since 1990, there has been relatively little change in the level of greenhouse gas emissions from this sector. Historically, transport has been the second most-emitting sector. However, due to emission reductions in the energy supply sector, it is now the biggest emitting sector and has been since 2016. Emission sources include road transport, railways, domestic aviation, shipping, fishing & aircraft support vehicles.
The main source of emissions are petrol and diesel in road transport.
Ultra-low emission vehicles (ULEV) can provide emission reductions in this sector. Some examples of these include: hybrid electric, battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. In 2018, there were 200,000 ULEV’s on the road in the UK. In addition to this, there was a 53% increase in ULEV vehicle registration compared to 2016. In 2018, UK government released the ‘Road to Zero Strategy’, which seeks to see 50% of new cars to be ULEV’s by 2030 and 40% of new vans.
Energy Supply Sector
In the past, the energy supply sector was the biggest emitting sector but, since 1990, this sector has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 60% making it the second-biggest emitting sector. Between 2017 and 2018, this sector accounted for the largest decrease in CO2 emissions (7.2%). Emission sources included fuel combustion for electricity generation and other energy production sources, The main sources of emission are use of natural gas and coal in power plants.
In 2015, the Carbon Price Floor tax changed from £9/tonne CO2 emitted to £18/ tonne CO2 emitted. This resulted in a shift from coal to natural gas use for power generation. There has also been a considerable growth in low-carbon technologies for power generation. All of these have contributed to emission reductions in this sector.
Figure 2 - Natural gas power plant
Out of the total greenhouse gas emissions from the residential sector, CO2 emissions account for 96%. Emissions from this sector are heavily influenced by external temperatures. For example, colder temperatures drive higher emissions as more heating is required.
In 2018, this sector accounted for 18% of total UK CO2 emissions. Between 2017 and 2018, there was a 2.8% increase in residential emissions. Overall, emissions from this sector have dropped by 16% since 1990. Emission sources include fuel combustion for heating and cooking, garden machinery and aerosols. The main source of emission are natural gas for heating and cooking.
The UK has reduced CO2 emissions by 43.5% since 1990. However, further emission reductions are required to meet net-zero targets. The energy supply sector has reduced emissions by 60% since 1990 but remains the second biggest emitter. In comparison to this, emission reductions in the residential sector are minor. Yet, they are still greater than the transport sector, which has remained relatively static. Each of these sectors require significant emission reduction to aid in meeting new emission targets.
Controlling when and how vigorously plants flower is a major discovery in horticultural science. Its use has spawned vast industries worldwide supplying flowers and potted plants out-of-season. The control mechanism was uncovered by two American physiologists in the 1920s. Temperate plants inhabit zones where seasonal daylength varies between extending light periods in spring and decreasing ones in autumn.
Those environmental changes result in plants which flower in long-days and those which flower in short-days. ‘Photoperiodism’ was coined as the term describing these events. Extensive subsequent research demonstrated that it is the period of darkness which is crucially important. Short-day plants flower when darkness exceeds a crucial minimum, usually about 12 hours which is typical of autumn. Long-day plants flower when the dark period is shorter than the crucial minimum.
Irises are long day flowers. Image: Geoffery R Dixon
A third group of plants usually coming from tropical zones are day-neutral; flowering is unaffected by day-length. Long-day plants include clover, hollyhock, iris, lettuce, spinach and radish. Gardeners will be familiar with the way lettuce and radish “bolt” in early summer. Short-day plants include: chrysanthemum, goldenrod, poinsettia, soybean and many annual weed species. Day-neutral types include peas, runner and green beans, sweet corn (maize) and sunflower.
Immense research efforts identified a plant pigment, phytochrome as the trigger molecule. This exists in two states, active and inactive and they are converted by receiving red or far-red wavelengths of light.
Sunflowers are day neutral flowers. Image: Geoffery R Dixon
In short-day plants, for example, the active form suppresses flowering but decays into the inactive form with increasing periods of darkness. But a brief flash of light restores the active form and stops flowering. That knowledge underpins businesses supplying cut-flowered chrysanthemums and potted-plants and supplies of poinsettias for Christmas markets. Identifying precise demands of individual cultivars of these crops means that growers can schedule production volumes gearing very precisely for peak markets.
Providing the appropriate photoperiods requires very substantial capital investment. Consequently, there has been a century-long quest for the ‘Holy Grail of Flowering’, a molecule which when sprayed onto crops initiates the flowering process.
Chrysanthemums are short day flowers. Image: Geoffery R Dixon
In 2006 the hormone, florigen, was finally identified and characterised. Biochemists and molecular biologists are now working furiously looking for pathways by which it can be used effectively and provide more efficient flower production in a wider range of species.
The banana colour scheme distinguishes seven stages from ‘All green’ to ‘All yellow with brown flecks’. The green, unripe banana peel contains leucocyanidin, a flavonoid that induces cell proliferation, accelerating the healing of skin wounds. But once it is yellowish and ready to eat, the chlorophyll breaks down, leaving the recognisable yellow colour of carotenoids.
Unripe (green) and ready-to-eat (yellow) bananas.
The fruits are cut from the plant whilst green and on average, 10-30 % of the bananas do not meet quality standards at harvest. Then they are packaged and kept in cold temperatures to reduce enzymatic processes, such as respiration and ethylene production.
However, below 14°C bananas experience ‘chilling injury’ which changes fruit ripening physiology and can lead to the brown speckles on the skin. Above 24°C, bananas also stop developing fully yellow colour as they retain high levels of chlorophyll.
Once the green bananas arrive at the ripening facility, the fruits are kept in ripening rooms where the temperature and humidity are kept constant while the amount of oxygen, carbon dioxide and ethene are controlled.
The gas itself triggers the ripening process, leads to cell walls breakdown and the conversion of starches to sugars. Certain fruits around bananas can ripen quicker because of their ethene production.
By day five, bananas should be in stage 2½ (’Green with trace of yellow’ to ‘More green than yellow’) according to the colour scale and are shipped to the shops. From stage 5 (’All yellow with green tip’), the fruits are ready to be eaten and have a three-day shelf-life.
A fruit market. Image: Gidon Pico
The very short shelf-life of the fruit makes it a very wasteful system. By day five, the sugar content and pH value are ideal for yeasts and moulds. Bananas not only start turning brown and mouldy, but they also go through a 1.5-4 mm ‘weight loss’ as the water is lost from the peel.
While scientists have been trying out different chemical and natural lipid ‘dips’ for bananas to extend their shelf-life, such methods remain one of the greatest challenges to the industry.
In fruit salads, to stop the banana slices go brown, the cut fruits are sprayed with a mixture of citric acid and amino acid to keep them yellow and firm without affecting the taste.
Bananas are a good source of potassium and vitamins.
The high starch concentration – over 70% of dry weight – banana processing into flour and starch is now also getting the attention of the industry. There are a great many pharmaceutical properties of bananas as well, such as high dopamine levels in the peel and high amounts of beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A.
Whilst the ‘seven shades of yellow’ underpin the marketability of bananas, these plants are also now threatened by the fungal Panama disease. This vascular wilt disease led to the collapse of the banana industry in the 1950’s which was overcome by a new variety of bananas.
However, the uncontrollable disease has evolved to infect Cavendish bananas and has been rapidly spreading from Australia, China to India, the Middle East and Africa.
The future of the banana industry relies on strict quarantine procedures to limit further spread of the disease to Latin America, integrated crop management and continuous development of banana ‘dips’ for extending shelf-life.
Many aid organisations have recognised that to change the growing population rate, investing in women is pivotal. Today (Wednesday 11 July) is World Population Day and we will briefly discuss why changing the living conditions for women and girls is essential to preventing overpopulation.
Today, there are 1.2 bn Africans and, according to figures released by the UN, by 2021 there will be more than 4 bn, stressing the urgency to prioritise the population crisis. Making contraception easily available and improving comprehensive sexual education are key to reducing Africa’s population growth.
Family photo of five sisters from Africa. Image: Sylvie Bouchard
Over 225 m women in developing countries have stressed their desire to delay or stop childbearing, but due to the lack of contraception, this has not been the result.
Family planning would prevent unsafe abortions, unintended pregnancies, which would, in turn, also prevent infant and maternal mortality. If there was a decrease in infant mortality as a result of better medical care, parents would be able to make more informed decisions about having more children.
It is therefore pivotal that governments and organisations invest more money into projects that will strengthen the health services in these regions, and in women’s health and reproductive rights.
Lessons on family planning.
In Niger, there are an estimated 205 births per 1,000 women between the ages of 16 and 19 – a rate that hasn’t changed since 1960. The number of births in Somalia, have increased from around 55 to 105 births per 1,000 women within the same age range in the same time period.
In Rwanda, figures from Rwanda Demographic and Health Survey illustrate an increase in the use of modern contraceptive methods among married women, but the unmet need for family planning remains a large issue, stagnating at 19% between 2010 and 2015.
Rwanda’s leadership in creating platforms and programmes of action to progress sexual and reproductive health rights has resulted in a decrease in fertility rate, dropping from 6.1 children per women in 2005 to 4.2 in 2015.
World map of the population growth rate. Image: Wikimedia Commons.
‘Every year, roughly 74 m women and girls in developing countries experience an unwanted pregnancy primarily because there is a lack of sex education and a lack of contraception. It’s also because women and girls aren’t given equal rights’" said Renate Bähr, Head of the German World Population Foundation (DSW).
With opportunities and access to education, women and girls would be able to understand their rights to voluntary family planning. If women’s access to reproductive education and healthcare services were prioritised, public health and population issues would improve.
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.
A lavender field near Provence, France.
Flowering is the process by which higher plants transfer male gametes to female organs thereby uniting two sets of chromosomes and increasing natural diversity. During the formation of male and female gametes, slight changes take place in chromosome structure. Consequently, the resultant next generation differs slightly from its parents. That is the stuff on which natural selection operates.
Useful variations increase the survival fitness of some offspring, while individuals with disadvantages wither and die. Charles Darwin recognised the power of natural selection for the environmentally fittest individuals and how that leads eventually to species evolution. Succeeding generations of scientists have discovered details of the processes involved and how these may result in more useful plants for humankind by plant breeding.
Transferring the male gametes (i.e. pollination) happens by a variety of mechanisms which are suited for the environment in which particular plants grow. At its simplest, pollen which consists of cells containing male gametes is transferred within the same flower. That is suitable for plants growing in for example, alpine environments where few other options exist.
Pollen grains contain both reproductive and non-reproductive cells.
Cross-transfer of pollen from one flower to another is achieved either by physical means such as wind or water, or by partnerships with animals – particularly insects and especially bees. Wind transfer is suitable for trees such as hazel, birch and willow, which flower ahead of leaf formation in the early spring when it is too cold for insect flight. Biologically, it is a wasteful mechanism because much of the pollen does not reach its target.
Cross-pollination by insects produces by far the most colourful and exuberant flowers. These have evolved brilliantly colourful displays and intricate mechanisms suitable for either general interaction with insects or as means for partnership. These relationships have co-evolved and converged over numerous generations meeting the needs of both parties.
Sexual reproduction in plants. Video: FuseSchool - Global Education
Plant scientists are presented with intriguing questions in understanding how these relationships could have developed. On the practical side, plant breeders are presented with enormous opportunities for developing massive arrays of new varieties, particularly with ornamentals such as the garden favourites like dahlias, chrysanthemums, lilies and roses.
Enormous international trade has developed over the last hundred years exploiting increasingly colourful flowering plants.
An estimated 24% of Europe’s bumblebees are threatened with extinction.
Cross-pollination is absolutely vital for many field vegetable crops, especially peas and beans and the top and soft fruits. A reduction in beneficial insect populations now presents dire threats for natural biodiversity, our food supplies and the enjoyment of ornamentals.
This is only the latest in a litany of exotics to ravage American forests. Sixty-two high-impact insect species and a dozen pathogens have arrived since the 1600′s. Only two were detected before 1860.
The emerald ash borer. Image; Wikimedia Commons
Increased global trade and travel, along with climate change and warmer winters, are all fueling the problem. And the devastation has pushed scientists and foresters to look towards biotechnology for a remedy.
‘Almost every day there appears to be a new forest pest and some of these are quite devastating,’ says tree geneticist Jeanne Romero-Severson at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, US.
‘Biotech approaches such as transgenic technology and CRISPR gene editing could be valuable tools in saving specific species.’
These biotech solutions look sexier to funders, and policymakers, and that is where the resources go. But in many ways, it is a dead end if you don’t have a foundational breeding programme to feed into,’ warns DiFazio, a plant geneticist at West Virginia University, US.
A technology like CRISPR for gene editing is fast and powerful, but mostly it is used in lab organisms where much is known about their genetics. Without deep knowledge of a tree’s genome, CRISPR will be far less useful.
CRISPR is a gene editing tool that first came to prominence in the 1990′s and is considered one of the most disruptive technologies in modern medicine.
Powell, a plant scientist at the State University of New York (SUNY), US acknowledges that ‘the biggest thing is to the get the public onboard; a lot of people are afraid of genetic engineering.
Surveys suggest that knowledge about genetic engineering technology, as well as about threats to forest health, is fairly low amongst the general public. Given these deficits, ‘public opinion might be vulnerable to changes,’ notes Delborne.
The David Miller Travel Bursary Award aims to give early career plant scientists or horticulturists the opportunity of overseas travel in connection with their horticultural careers.
Juan Carlos De la Concepcion was awarded one of the 2018 David Miller Travel Bursaries to attend the International Congress of Plant Pathology (ICPP) 2018: Plant Health in A Global Economy, which was held in Boston, US. Here, he details his experience attending the international conference and the opportunities it provided.
I’m currently completing the third-year of my rotation PhD in Plant and Microbial Science at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK. My work addresses how plant pathogens cause devastating diseases that affect food security worldwide, and how plants can recognise them and organise an immune response to keep themselves healthy.
Because of the tremendous damage that plant diseases cause in agricultural and horticulturally relevant species, this topic has become central to achieving the UN Zero Hunger challenge.
Thanks to the David Miller Award, I was able to participate in the International Congress of Plant Pathology (ICPP) 2018: Plant Health in A Global Economy held in Boston, US. This event is the major international conference in the plant pathology field and only occurs once every five years.
This year, the conference gathered together over 2,700 attendees, representing the broad international community of plant pathologist across the globe. In this conference, the leading experts in the different aspects of the field presented the latest advances and innovations.
Juan’s current research looks at the rice plant’s immune response to pathogens.
These experts are setting a vision and future directions for tackling some of the most damaging plant diseases in the agriculture and horticulture industries, ensuring enough food productivity in a global economy.
In an era of glass and steel construction, wood may seem old-school. But researchers are currently saying its time to give timber a makeover and bring to use a material that is able to store and release heat.
Transparent wood could be the construction material of choice for eco-friendly houses of the future, after researchers have now created an even more energy efficient version that not only transmits light but also absorbs and releases heat, potentially saving on energy bills.
Researchers from KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm reported in 2019 that they would add polymer polyethylene glycol (PEG) to the formulation to stabilise the wood.
PEG can go really deep into the wood cells and store and release heat. Known as a phase change material, PEG is a solid that melts at 80°F – storing energy in the process. This process reverses at night when the PEG re-solidifies, turning the window glass opaque and releasing heat to maintain a constant temperature in the house.
Transparent wood for windows and green architecture. Video: Wise Wanderer
In principle, a whole house could be made from the wooden window glass, which is due to the property of PEG. The windows could be adapted for different climates by simply tailoring the molecular weight of the PEG, to raise or lower its melting temperature depending on the location.
Throughout the series, you will be introduced to its members through regular features that highlight their roles and major interests in energy. We welcome you to read their series and hope to spark some interesting conversation across all areas of SCI.
The burning of fossil fuels is the biggest contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), by the end of 2018, their observatory at Muana Loa, Hawaii, recorded the fourth-highest annual growth of global CO2 emissions the world has seen in the last 60 years.
Adding even more concern, the Met Office confirmed that this trend is likely to continue and that the annual rise in 2019 could potentially be larger than that seen in the previous two years.
Forecast global CO2 concentration against previous years. Source: Met Office and contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v1.0.
Large concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere are a major concern because it is a greenhouse gas. Greenhouse gases absorb infrared radiation from solar energy from the sun and less is emitted back into space. Because the influx of radiation is greater than the outflux, the globe is warmed as a consequence.
Although CO2 emissions can occur naturally through biological processes, the biggest contributor to said emissions is human activities, such as fossil fuel burning and cement production.
Increase of CO2 emissions before and after the Industrial Era. Source: IPCC, AR5 Synthesis Report: Climate Change 2014, Fig. 1.05-01, Page. 3
Weather impacts from climate change include drought and flooding, as well as a noticeable increase in natural disasters.
This warming has resulted in changes to our climate system which has created severe weather impacts that increase human vulnerability. One example of this is the European heat wave and drought which struck in 2003.
The event resulted in an estimated death toll of over 30,000 lives and is recognised as one of the top 10 deadliest natural disasters across Europe within the last century.
In 2015, in an attempt to address this issue, 195 nations from across the globe united to adopt the Paris Agreement which seeks to maintain a global temperature rise of well below 2C, with efforts to limit it even further to 1.5C.
The Paris Climate Change Agreement explained. Video: The Daily Conversation
In their latest special report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) explained that this would require significant changes in energy, land, infrastructure and industrial systems, all within a rapid timeframe.
In addition, the recently published Emissions Gap report urged that it is crucial that global emissions peak by 2020 if we are to succeed in meeting this ambitious target.
Are we further away then we think?
As well as the Paris Agreement, the UK is committed to the Climate Change Act (2008) which seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% by 2050 relative to 1990 baseline levels. Since 1990, the UK has cut emissions by over 40%, while the economy has grown by 72%.
To ensure that we meet our 2050 target, the government has implemented Carbon Budgets, which limit the legal emissions of greenhouse gases within the UK across a five-year period. Currently, these budgets run up to 2032 and the UK is now in the third budget period (2018-2022).
The UK has committed to end the sale of all new petrol and diesel cars by 2040.
At present, the UK is on track to outperform both the second and third budget. However, it is not on track to achieve the fourth budget target (2023-2027). To be able to meet this, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) urge that UK emissions must be reduced annually by at least 3% from this point forward.
We may not be sure which technologies will allow such great emission reductions, but one thing is for certain – decarbonisation is essential, and it must happen now!
Treatments for Alzheimer’s disease can be expensive to produce, but by using novel cultivation of daffodils, one small Welsh company has managed to find a cost-effective production method of one pharmaceutical drug, galanthamine.
The disease has been identified as a protein misfolding disease which leads to the break down, or death, of neurons and synapses in the brain. The pathology of the disease is complicated and involves many processes and enzymes.
Alzheimer’s disease is the cause of 60-70% of dementia cases.
Alzheimer’s disease is a neurodegenerative disease with a range of symptoms, including language problems, memory loss, disorientation and mood swings. Despite this, the cause of Alzheimer’s is very understood. The Alzheimer’s disease drug market is currently worth an estimated US$8bn.
The main current form of treatment is acetylcholinesterase inhibitors(AChEIs). Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that is mainly involved in motor function, particularly in muscles, and its production has been found to decrease in Alzheimer’s patients as they age. AChEIs inhibit the breakdown of acetylcholine, strengthening the brain’s responses.
Agroceutical Products: on the road to sustainable Alzheimer’s medication. Video: Innovate UK
Galanthamine is a natural product that is also an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor. It has been used in medicine since the 1950s and is commonly used for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. The drug can be isolated in small quantities from flowers such as Caucasian snowdrop, daffodils and red spider lilies, or produced synthetically at a high cost.
Improvements in robots and robotic technologies has fuelled huge advancements across many industries in recent years. The UK Industrial Strategy has several Sector Deals in which robotic innovations play a role, particularly in Artificial Intelligence (AI), Life Sciences and Nuclear.
Innovative robotics have a place in all industries to improve efficiency and processes, however, in industries where radioactive materials are commonly used, using robots can help to manage risk. This could be by limiting exposure of employees to radioactive substances or preventing potential accidents.
In the UK, legislation exists as to how much exposure to ionising radiation employees may have each year – an adult employee is classified, and therefore must be monitored, if they receive an effective dose of greater than 6mSv per year. The average adult in the UK receives 2.7 mSv of radiation per year.
Snake-like robot is used to dismantle nuclear facilities. Video: Tech Insider
Through using robots, very few professionals in the chemical industry come close to this limit, and are subsequently safe from long-term health effects, such as skin burns, radiation sickness and cancer.
Cooking, cleaning and other routine household tasks generate significant quantities of volatile and particulate chemicals inside the average home, leading to indoor air quality levels on a par with a polluted major city, said a researcher from Colorado University Boulder, US.
Not only that but these chemicals, from products such as shampoo, perfume and cleaning solutions also find their way into the external environment, making up an even greater source of global atmospheric pollution than vehicles.
‘Homes have never been considered an important source of outdoor pollution and the moment is right to start exploring that,’ said Marina Vance, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at CU Boulder. ‘We wanted to know how do basic activities such as cooking and cleaning change the chemistry of a house?’
First Conclusions from the HOMEChem Experiment. Video: Home Performance
In 2018, Vance co-led the collaborative HOMEChem field campaign, which used advanced sensors and cameras to monitor the indoor air quality of a 112m2 manufactured home on the University of Texas Austin campus.
Over one month, Vance and her collaborators from a number of other US universities conducted a variety of activities, including cooking toast to a full thanksgiving dinner in the middle of the summer for 12 guests, as well as cleaning and similar tasks.
The Svalbard Islands are in Northern Norway.
The finding is all the more unexpected as the team was seeking a virgin environment to try and establish what a background level of antimicrobial resistance in soil bacteria looks like.
Scientists found genes important to antimicrobial resistance in soil bacteria.
‘We took 40 samples to give us an idea of what the baseline of resistance might look like in nature, but we were surprised by how different the sites were from each other,’ says lead scientist David Graham at Newcastle University. Areas with high wildlife or human impact had greatest diversity of resistance DNA in the soil.
The results show that antibiotic resistance genes are accumulating even in the most remote locations. Included in a number of samples was a multidrug resistant gene called New Dehli strain, first isolated in India.
Newcastle University find antibiotic resistant genes in Arctic. Video: Newcastle University
Some sites had levels of antimicrobial resistance 10 times greater than others, particularly those with elevated levels of phosphorus, a nutrient usually scarce in Arctic soils.
‘There was much greater resistance diversity in sites with strong signatures of faecal matter,’ says Graham, indicating that migratory birds most likely brought the antimicrobial resistance genes, depositing them via their guano.
2019 has been declared by UNESCO as the Year of the Periodic Table. To celebrate, we are releasing a series of blogs about our favourite elements and their importance to the chemical industry. Today’s blog is an element which gives us life, oxygen.
Oxygen is a group 5 gas that is found abundantly in nature. Of the air we breathe, 20.8% is oxygen in its elemental, diatomic form of O2. Oxygen is also one of the most abundant elements in nature, and along with carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen, makes up the structures of most of the natural world. Oxygen can be found in DNA, sugar, hormones, proteins and so many more natural structures.
Although oxygen mainly exists as a colourless gas, at -183°C it can be condensed as a pale blue liquid. Oxygen may seem unsuspecting, but it is highly reactive and highly oxidising. A common example of this reactivity is how oxygen reacts with iron to produce iron oxide, which appears as rust.
Oxygen molecules are paramagnetic – they exhibit magnetic characteristics when in the presence of a magnetic field. Liquid oxygen is so magnetic that the effect can be seen by suspending it between the poles of a powerful magnet.
Oxygen gas has applications for medicine and space travel in breathing apparatus.
Oxygen can be found as ozone or O3. Ozone is a pale blue gas and has a distinctive smell. It is not as stable as diatomic oxygen (dioxygen) and is formed when ultraviolet light (UV) and electrical charges interact with O2.
The highest concentration of ozone can be found in the Earth’s stratosphere, which absorbs the Sun’s UV radiation, providing natural protection for planet Earth.
Ozone (O3) is most concentrated in the stratosphere. Image: Pixabay
Ozone can be used industrially as a powerful oxidising agent. Unfortunately, it can be a dangerous respiratory hazard and pollutant so much be used with care.
Water consists of an oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms. Though this may seem remarkably unassuming, this combination gives water unique properties that are crucial to it’s functions in the natural world.
Water can form hydrogen bonds between the slightly positive hydrogen and the slightly negative oxygen. These hydrogen bonds, along with waters other practical properties, make water useful in nature.
Without the hydrogen bonding found in water, plants could not transpire – transport water through their phloem’s against gravity. The surface tension of water provides stability for many natural structures.
Oxygen plays a key role in nature, including in water molecules. Image: Pixabay
Oxygen plays a key role in nature, from the ozone layer that encapsulates our planet, to our DNA. It’s combination with hydrogen in water makes a molecule which is integral to the natural world, and both water and oxygen itself are pivotal to our existence the planet.
Tracking pollen can help scientists better understand pollinator behaviour.
Pollination and pollination services are key for productive farming. In fact, many farms actively manage pollination, bringing in bees or planting effective field margins.
Fluorescent quantum dots on a bee show the distribution of the marked pollen. Image: Corneile Minnaar
Despite the importance of pollination, for many years research has been limited as there is no efficient way to study pollen distribution or track individual pollen grains.
Scientists at the university have developed an innovative method to track pollen using quantum dots.
Tracking pollen with quantum dots. Source: Stellenbosch University
Quantum dots are nanocrystals that emit bright fluorescent light when exposed to UV light. The quantum dots were equipped with lipophilic (fat-loving) ligands to allow them to stick to the fatty outer layer of pollen grains. The fluorescent colour of the quantum dots can then be used to track any pollen they have adhered to.
At the SCI HQ in Belgrave Square, London, we have curated a beautiful garden filled with plants that represent our technical and regional interest groups. Each of these plants has a scientific significance. On World Wildlife Day, we take a look at how some of our plants are doing in March.
Cyclamen hederifolium - the ivy-leaved cyclamen. Image: SCI
Cyclamen hederifolium is included in the SCIence garden to represent the horticulture group. This beautiful pink flower has a mutualistic relationship with ants, in which the ants carry the seeds far away, ensuring no competition between young plants and the original.
Dichroa febrifuga - a hydrangea with anti-malarial properties. Image: SCI
Not yet flowering, D. febrifuga is a traditional Chinese herbal medicine that is used for treatment of malaria. It contains the alkaloids febrifugine and isofebrifugine which are thought to be responsible for it’s anti-malaria properties.
Fatsia japonica - the paper plant. Image: SCI
F. japonica is also known as the glossy-leaved paper plant and is native to Japan, southern Korea and Taiwan. This plant represents our materials group.
Rosmarinus officinalis aka rosemary - a herb with many uses from culinary to chemical. Image: SCI
Rosemary is a common herb that originates in the Mediterranean. It has many uses, including as a herb for cooking and fragrance. One of it’s more scientific uses is as a supply of lucrative useful phytochemicals such as camphor and rosemarinic acid.
Prunus mume ‘Beni-chidori’ - a Chinese ornamental flower. Image: SCI
The Prunus mume tree is a beautiful ornamental tree that has significance in East Asian culture. It has a wide variety of applications, from medicinal to beverages, and can been seen in many pieces of art. This plant is in the SCIence garden to represent our Chinese Group UK.
Pieris japonica - the Dwarf-Lilly-of-the-Valley-Shrub. Image: SCI
The Pieris japonica ree has Asian origins, and represents our Agrisciences group. The leaves contain diterpenoids which inhibit the activity of feeding pests, such as insects.
Pulmonaria ‘Blue Ensign’ - lungwort. Image: SCI
The lungwort has been used since the Middle Ages as a medicinal herb to treat chest or lung diseases. It is an example of the use of the doctrine of signatures - where doctors believed that if a plant resembled a body, it could be used to treat illness in that body part.
Euphorbia amygdaloides - the wood spruce. Image:SCI
Euphorbia amygdaloides is planted to represent our Materials Chemistry group. It has a waxy feel, and has potential to be used as an alternative to latex.
Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’ - a flowering plant in the cabbage family. Image: SCI
The Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’ is a member of the cabbage family (Brassicaceae). This plant was used to make the first synthetic dye, Mauvine, when SCI founding member William Perkin discovered in in 1858.
You are a student of an agricultural discipline and suddenly you are asked a question about climate change. ‘It’s going to get warmer in general,’ you start to say, ‘more variable with bigger storms and droughts.’
You sound confident, but deep down you know that you’re not so sure about what will happen to pesticides. Will everything be better in the future? You need some hard science so you can make up your own mind - with so little time, where will you find that science? Help is at hand!
Here are five facts to give you all you need, to sound like the expert that you want to be.
1 - Pesticides won’t always degrade faster if it’s warmer
Chemical reactions do go faster at warm temperatures. So you would expect that pesticides would degrade faster in Spain than in Sweden.
However, hot temperatures are often linked to dry soils. Microbial reaction rates in dry soils are slower than in wet soils, although pure chemical reactions don’t have this limitation.
Temperature and moisture maps of Europe. Images: Atlas of the biosphere
The rates in Spain are four times faster due to temperature but five times slower due to moisture. The reaction rates may actually be faster in Sweden! You have to consider both temperature and moisture when you think about pesticide reaction rates in soil.
2 - Warmer water doesn’t necessarily contain more pesticide
Substances tend to get more volatile, the more that you heat them up. If you place a large body of water, like a lake, in a slightly warmer climate, the amount of pesticide in it will decrease slightly.
At a fixed temperature and pressure, there is a constant ratio of concentrations in the air and water phases. But change the temperature and the ratio changes too, and more of the substance ends up in the air phase.
Losses to the air are really small for most pesticides, and contamination of water is usually a bigger concern. But it is still interesting to note that pesticides tend to leave hotter water and head up, up and away into the atmosphere.
3 - Cold weather can reduce pesticide leaching
Leaching is the process when water that trickles through the soil takes pesticide with it, on a journey that can end at the water table. In Europe, colder weather is often associated with wet weather, so you would normally expect the excess rain to carry the pesticide on its journey all the more. However, there are situations where this would be false.
Pesticide leaching has paused. Image: Richard Walker/ Flickr
1. Really cold weather
The ground freezes and nothing moves anywhere. When things start to warm up a bit, there could be a fair abundance of water trying to percolate through. The question is; will the ground stay frozen long enough so that the water runs off before it ever gets into the soil?
2. Cold weather can pull pesticide out of the water
The amount of pesticide in the water is balanced with the pesticide stuck to the soil – we usually call this sticking ‘sorption’. Several studies indicate that when the temperature drops, the balance swings away from the water and towards the solid. That means there is less available for leaching.
4 - A lot of rain doesn’t mean a lot of pesticide runoff
If you have heavy rain, you have several different factors.
First of all, the state of the soil has an impact – is it easy for the water to penetrate?
You also have the slope: steeply sloping land will lead to runoff earlier in the rain event than gently sloping land.
Finally, you have the pattern of rainfall. If it all falls at once, runoff will be much more likely, because there won’t be time for it to soak in.
The pattern of rainfall intensity is called the ‘erosivity’ of the rain. If you take the average erosivity over a long period of time, you can build a map of where erosivity is generally highest.
There are some pretty wet places with low erosivity, such as Ireland, Denmark and Northern Germany. Some dry spots in Spain and southern Italy have high erosivity. Total rainfall (left) and erosivity (right). Image: Panagos et al. (2015)
5 - The main effects of climate change on pesticide fate will not be due to physics or chemistry.
There is a clear consensus that the climate is changing. The climate influences a range of agro-ecological features, for example the timing of pest infestation or infection, the rate of plant growth and the soil conditions, such as the organic carbon content, moisture status and the extent of cracking.
Would you choose to sow oilseed rape? It partly depends on the climate. Image: Simon Rowe/Flickr
The indirect effects of climate on pesticide fate can be considered as a tension between the twin societal drivers to maximise production while maintaining environmental safety. Will the indirect effects outweigh the direct effects? I think they will and I am not alone.
So, the biggest effect of climate change on pesticide fate is not physics and chemistry but a series of responses of farmers, consumers, producers, retailers and politicians in how we all decide to react to the changes.
How does climate change impact agriculture? Our Agrisciences group will be hosting an event on 6 March to look at just that!
Not only does climate change have a significant impact on agriculture, and the future of food security, but agricultural practices also directly contribute to climate change. Scientists, farmers and policy makers are coming together to find dynamic solutions to the problems caused by climate change in agriculture.
Agriculture provides food. Comprising of a variety of different farming systems, from crops to livestock, agriculture exists in almost every part of the world. Agriculture relies on knowing your geography – its soil properties, local pests and wildlife – but most importantly, the local climate. When these factors start to change, farming becomes a challenge.
We are already experiencing the effects of climate change, and turbulent or extreme weather is becoming more of the norm. As much as environmentalists can try to combat the development of these problems, agriscientists and farmers need to work together to overcome problems.
Consequences of climate change
One of the main consequences of climate change is a temperature increase. Even a slight temperature change can result in a significant effect on crop yields. Further to that, temperature change can result in drought, which affects the soil and plants alike, and lead to a change in pest numbers. An increase in atmospheric CO2 can also affect crops and livestock. Crops that thrive in higher CO2 levels will do better, but others may be negatively affected.
Not only will crop growth be affected directly by the weather, we could see a change in the diversity and number of pests. Image: Pixabay
Extreme weather events are also rapidly increasing in frequency. These include tornadoes, floods, heat waves, all of which can have quickly detrimental effect on farms. The 2018 British summer heat wave significantly affected crop farming in the UK.
As well as being affected by it, agriculture itself contributes to climate change. An estimated 10-20% of greenhouse gases are produced by agriculture, mainly from livestock.
Addressing the challenge
It is easy to consider that the impact of climate change on agriculture is something which can feel beyond our control. However, it is a dynamic challenge, and brings together scientists, academics, farmers, industry and policy makers, to overcome the negative impacts that a changing climate can have on agricultural systems.
Firstly, scientists can work to breed crops that are more resilient to these changes. They can identify genes for traits like heat and drought tolerance, pest resistance and stability under extreme conditions.
Solutions include plant breeding, GM crops, smart crop protection, policy changes and large collaborations across sectors. Image: Pixabay
Livestock farmers can help to curb climate change by introducing new diets that produce less overall methane. Other farmers can make shifts in their farming systems to more sustainable practices.
Policy makers can help with reducing the impact of climate change on agriculture. Not only by supporting environmental policies that potentially reduce the effects of climate change, they can also encourage scientific developments and relevant legislation relating to pest control, GM plants and other key areas.
Alterations to consumer practices can also reduce the impact of agriculture on climate change, and changes need to be made at all levels of the farming and supply chain.
How does climate change affect agriculture? Source: Syngenta
Overall, many parties need to collaborate to help to reduce the impact of agriculture on climate change, and help to overcome the problems that the future might hold, ensuring food security through a changing climate.
The predicted mass of the global e-waste mountain by 2021 is > 52m t/year, according to the UN.
Smartphones represent a fraction of global electronic waste. Discarded electronics are one of the fastest growing waste streams, with the UN predicting that the global e-waste mountain will reach over 52m t/year by 2021. Meantime, we are gradually running out of valuable minerals, such as neodymium, terbium and iridium, that are crucial in manufacturing electronics.
More than 60% of smartphones end up in landfills. Even if recycled, some 30% of material will still be lost. Image: Pixabay
As the scale of the problem is becoming clear, there has recently been a surge in efforts to understand what goes into electronic products, and how it can be recovered, says Susanne Baker from techUK, the association for companies in the digital economy. ‘We are seeing a lot of academic proposals looking at better understanding the flow of products and waste within the economy,’ says Baker, who heads the trade body’s environment and compliance programme.
Recycling e-waste into art. Source: Great Big Story
Scientists have discovered new microbes in the deep-sea which can use greenhouse gases, such as methane and butane, as energy sources. These new microbes could help reduce the concentration of these gases in our atmosphere and have the potential to be used to clean up oil spills in the future.
The deep-sea is one of the Earth’s most unexplored areas. Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin’s Marine Science Institute have published findings from an extensive documentation of microbial communities living in the hot, deep-sea sediments of the Guaymas Basin in the Gulf of California, US.
They found new microbes, vastly different genetically from any found before, that possess the same ability to ‘eat’ pollutant-chemicals as previously identified microbes.
A view of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill from the International Space Station. Image: Wikimedia Commons
The scientists analysed sediment from 2000m below the surface for genomic data. At this depth, volcanic activity causes high temperatures – around 200°C – and the water contains many hydrocarbons such as methane and butane, which can be used as energy sources for bacteria.
2019 has been declared by UNESCO as the Year of the Periodic Table. To celebrate, we are releasing a series of blogs about our favourite elements and their importance to the chemical industry. Today’s blog is about the first element in the periodic table, hydrogen!
Hydrogen isn’t just for keeping balloons afloat. Image: Pixabay
Hydrogen (H2) gas has many uses in modern engineering. Scientists are always searching for cheaper, more renewable fuel sources that have a lower negative impact on the environment. Hydrogen was frequently used to generate energy in the past, and this drive for more renewable energy has given hydrogen-derived fuel a new lease of life.
Hydrogen can be used in fuel cells. These act like batteries, generating their energy from a reaction between hydrogen and oxygen (O2). Hydrogen fuel cells have been incorporated into many modern technologies, including automotive. As the reaction occurring only generates heat, electricity and water, fuel cells are significantly better for the environment than many alternatives. Hydrogen is also much cheaper as a commodity that typical fuels.
Hydrogen fuel cells can now be used to power automotive vehicles, including cars!
Engineering cooling systems can use hydrogen. The gases physical properties make it 7-10 times better at cooling than air. It can also be easily detected by sensors. Because of this, hydrogen is used in cooling systems, which are generally smaller and less expensive than other available options.
Hydrogen gas can be used in reactions. The most famous reaction using hydrogen is the production of ammonia (NH3), also known as the Haber process. The Haber process was developed by Fritz Haber and Car Bosch in the early 20th century to fill the need to produce nitrogen-based fertilisers. In the Haber process, atmospheric nitrogen (N2) is reacted with H2 and a metal catalyst to produce NH3.
Nitrogen-based fertilisers are still used today, but ammonia was one of the first to be commercially produced.
Ammonia is a valuable fertilised, providing much needed nitrogen to plants. It was used on a variety of agricultural plants, including food crops wheat and maize, in the 19th and early 20th century.
Chemists undertake other chemical reactions, such as hydrogenation and reduction, that utilise hydrogen, to make commercially valuable products. Some physical properties of hydrogen make it tricky, and often dangerous, to use in industry. However, careful control of conditions allow for its safe use on larger scales.
Hydrogen gas can be explosive, making it often dangerous to use.
Producing hydrogen gas
There are many ways to produce gaseous hydrogen. The four main sources of commercially produced hydrogen are natural gas, oil, coal and electrolysis. To obtain gaseous hydrogen, the fossil fuels are ‘steam reformed’, a process which involves a reaction with steam at high pressure and temperature.
Electrolysis of water is another method that is used in hydrogen production. This method is 70-80% efficient. However, it often requires large amounts of energy, specifically in the form of heat. This heat can be sourced from waste heat produced by industrial plants.
So, whats all this hot air about hydrogen? Source: Tedx Talks
An alternative method for producing hydrogen is via biohydrogen. Hydrogen gas can be produced by certain types of algae. This process involves fermentation of glucose. Some hydrogen is also produced in a form of photosynthesis by cyanobacteria. This process can be used on an industrial scale.
Overall, hydrogen technology, whether it be new developments, such as hydrogen fueled cars, or old, like the Haber process, remains critical to the chemical industry.
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.
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.
Plants generate their energy from sunlight via photosynthesis, however many crops have a photosynthetic glitch, which costs them a significant amount of energy that could be used for growth. This glitch has been shortened using careful engineering by researchers from the University of Illinois and US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, to generate plants with a 40% increase in productivity in real-world conditions.
Tobacco seedlings. Image: Claire Benjamin/RIPE project
During photosynthesis, carbon dioxide (CO2) and water are converted into sugars by the enzyme Rubisco, which is fuelled by energy from sunlight. Rubisco is the planets most abundant protein, but its efficiency has resulted in an oxygen-rich atmosphere, and it cannot reliably distinguish between CO2 and oxygen (O2). Approximately 20% of the time, O2 is grabbed by Rubisco instead of CO2, and then converted into a compound which is toxic to plants. This compound can be recycled through a process known as photorespiration.
The research team. Image: Claire Benjamin/RIPE project
In this study, alternate routes for the process have been engineered, allowing the plant to save resources better utilised for growth. The scientists generated three alternate routes using different sets of promoters and genes, which were then stress tested in 1,700 individual plants to find the best performers.
‘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.
Many countries, including China and the UK, have introduced plastic waste bans to tackle the problem. Image: 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.
The UK’s efforts to move towards clean energy can be seen around the UK, whether it’s the wind turbines across the hills of the countryside or solar panels on the roofs of city skyscrapers. There is, however, a technology that most people will never see, and it is set to be one of the biggest breakthroughs in a low-carbon economy yet.
Deep in the North Sea are miles of offshore pipelines, once used to transport natural gas to the UK. The pipelines all lead to a hub called the St Fergus Gas Terminal – a gas sweetening plant used by industry – that sits on the coast of north-east Scotland.
St Fergus Gas Terminal in North-East Scotland.
This network has now been reimagined as a low-cost, full-chain carbon capture, transport and offshore storage that will provide the UK will a viable solution to permanent carbon capture and storage (CCS) called the Acorn project.
CCS is a process that takes waste CO2 produced by large-scale, usually industrial, processes and transports it to a storage facility. The site, likely to be underground, stops the waste CO2 from being released into the atmosphere, storing it for later use for another purpose, such as the production of chemicals for coatings, adhesives or jet fuel.
Carbon Capture Explained | How It Happens. Video: The New York Times
High levels of CO2 in the atmosphere have been linked to global warming and the damaging effects of climate change, and CCS is one of the only proven solutions to decarbonisation that industry can currently access.
Taking advantage of existing infrastructure means that the Acorn project is running at a much lower cost and risk to comparable projects and is expected to be up and running by 2023. It is hoped the project will bring competitiveness and job retention and creation across the UK, particularly in the industrial centres of Scotland.
After eight months of operation in Antarctica, the EDEN ISS greenhouse has produced a ‘record harvest’ of fresh lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, and other herbs and vegetables to support the 10-member overwintering crew stationed at the German Neumayer Station III, the team reported in September 2018. Despite outdoor temperatures of -20°C and low levels of sunlight, the greenhouse yielded 75kg of lettuce, 51kg of cucumbers, 29kg of tomatoes, 12kg of kohlrabi, 5kg of radishes and 9kg of herbs – on a cultivation area of ca13m2.
The goal of the EDEN ISS is to demonstrate technologies that could be used by future astronauts to grow their own food on long distance missions to Mars and other more distant planets, explained NASA controlled environment technician Connor Kiselchuk, speaking at the Bayer Future of Farming Dialogue event in Monheim in September 2018. ‘Food determines how far from the Earth we can go and how long we can stay,’ he said.
How does the EDEN ISS greenhouse in Antarctica work? Video: German Aerospace Center, DLR
Even if astronauts took a year and a half’s supply of food with them on a mission to Mars, for example, he pointed out that the food would be ‘very deficient in B vitamins’ by the time they came to eat it.
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, 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.
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled in July 2018 that onerous EU regulations for GMOs should also be applied to gene edited crops. The ECJ noted that older technologies to generate mutants, such as chemicals or radiation, were exempt from the 2001 GMO directive, but all other mutated crops should be regarded as GMOs. Since gene editing does not involve foreign DNA, most plant scientists had expected it to escape GMO regulations.
‘We didn’t expect the ruling to be so black and white and prescriptive,’ says Johnathan Napier, a crop scientist at Rothamsted Research. ‘If you introduce a mutant plant using chemical mutagenesis, you will likely introduce thousands if not millions of mutations. That is not a GMO. But if you introduce one mutation by gene editing, then that is a GMO.’
What is genetic modification? Video: The Royal Society
The ECJ ruling will have strong reverberations in academe and industry. The European Seed Association described the ruling as a watershed moment. ‘It is now likely that much of the potential benefits of these innovative methods will be lost for Europe – with significant economic and environmental consequences,’ said secretary general Garlich von Essen.
In 2012, BASF moved its plant research operations to North Carolina, US, because of European regulations. ‘If I was a company developing gene editing technologies, I’d think of moving out of Europe,’ says Napier.
‘The EU is shooting itself in the foot. Its ag economy has been declining since 2005 and it has moved from net self-sufficiency to requiring imports of major staples,’ says Maurice Moloney, CEO of the Global Institute for Food Security in Saskatchewan, Canada. ‘Paradoxically, it still imports massive quantities of GM soya beans and other crops to feed livestock.’
The concept of a hydrogen economy is not new to anyone involved or familiar with the energy sector. Until the 1970s, hydrogen was a well-established source of energy in the UK, making up 50% of gas used. For several reasons, the sector moved on, and a recent renewed interest into the advantages of hydrogen has put the gas at the forefront in the search for green energy.
Confidence behind the viability of hydrogen was confirmed last October when the government announced a £20m Hydrogen Supply programme that aims to lower the price of low carbon hydrogen to encourage its use in industry, power, buildings, and transport.
Hydrogen - the Fuel of the Future? Video: Real Engineering
‘In a way, hydrogen is more relevant than ever, because in the past hydrogen was linked with transportation,’ UCL fuel cell researcher Professor Dan Brett explained to The Engineer. ‘But now with the huge uptake of renewables and the need for grid-scale energy storage to stabilise the energy system, hydrogen can have a real role to play, and what’s interesting about that […] is that there’s a number of things you can do with it.
‘You can turn it back into electricity, you can put it into vehicles or you can do a power-to-gas arrangement where you pump it into the gas grid.’
The IHNV virus has spread worldwide and is fatal to salmon and rainbow trout – costing millions in sales of lost farmed fish. The current vaccination approach requires needle injection of fish, one by one. Now, however, Seattle-based Lumen Bioscience has come up with a new technology to make recombinant vaccines in a type of blue-green algae called Spirulina that costs pennies to produce and can be fed to fish in their feed.
To be effective, oral vaccines have not only to survive the gut environment intact but must also target the appropriate gut-associated immune cells. The approach developed by Lumen overcomes many of the problems with complex and expensive encapsulation strategies attempted in the past, according to CEO Brian Finrow.
‘[It] focuses on a new oral-vaccine platform [using] engineered Spirulina to express high amounts of target antigen in a form that is both provocative to the immune system – ie generates a desirable immune response that protects against future infection – and can be ingested orally without purification, in an organism that has been used as a safe food source for both humans and fish for decades.’
To produce the new oral vaccine, the Lumen researchers first developed a strain of Spirulina that manufactures recombinant proteins in its cell walls that the salmon immune system recognises as IHNV viruses. They then rapidly grew the strain in a large-scale indoor production system – requiring only light, water, salt and trace nutrients – and harvested and dried all the raw Spirulina biomass. This dried powder can then be fed to the fish.
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.
In May 2018, the EU proposed a single-use plastics ban intended to protect the environment, save consumers money, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As part of the new laws, the EU aims for all plastic bottles to be recycled by 2025, and non-recyclable single-use items such as straws, cutlery, and cotton buds to be banned.
An ambitious step – and arguably necessary – but there is no denying that plastics are extremely useful, versatile and important materials, playing a role in countless applications.
The World’s Plastic Waste Could Bury Manhattan Two Miles Deep: How To Reduce Our Impact. Video: TIME
The challenge to science, industry and society is to keep developing, producing and using materials with the essential properties offered by the ubiquitous oil-based plastics of today – but improving the feedstocks and end-of-life solutions, and ensuring that consumers use and dispose of products responsibly.
A number of innovative solutions have been proposed to help plastics move towards a more sustainable future.
A sweet solution
Deothymidine is one of four nucleosides that make up the structure of DNA. Image: Karl-Ludwig Poggemann/Flickr
‘Chemists have 100 years’ experience with using petrochemicals as a raw material, so we need to start again using renewable feedstocks like sugars as a base for synthetic but sustainable materials,’ said Dr Antoine Buchard, a Whorrod Research Fellow at the University of Bath, UK.
Dr Buchard leads a group at the Centre for Sustainable Technologies at the University of Bath that are searching for a sustainable solution for single-use plastics. Using nature as their inspiration, the team have developed a plastic derived from thymidine – the sugar found in DNA – and CO2.
We begin our new series breaking down key innovations in agriculture with the Haber-Bosch process, which enabled large-scale agriculture worldwide.
Ammonia – a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen – is therefore a key ingredient in fertilisers, allowing farmers to replenish the soil with nitrogen at will. As well as fertilisers, ammonia is used in pharmaceuticals, plastics, refrigerants, explosives, and in numerous industrial processes.
But how is it made? At the turn of the 20th Century, ammonia was mostly mined from deposits of niter (also known as saltpetre – the mineral form of potassium nitrate), but the known reserves would not satisfy predicted demands. Researchers had to find alternative sources.
Fritz Haber (left) and Carl Bosch (right) created and commercialised the process.
Atmospheric nitrogen, which makes up almost 80% of air, was the obvious feedstock – its supply, to all intents and purposes, being infinite. But reacting atmospheric nitrogen, which is exceptionally stable owing to its strong triple bonds, posed a challenge for chemists globally.
In 1905, German chemist Fritz Haber cracked the riddle of fixing nitrogen from air. Using high pressure and an iron catalyst, Haber was able to directly react nitrogen and hydrogen gas to create liquid ammonia.
His process was soon scaled up by BASF chemist and engineer Carl Bosch, becoming known as the Haber-Bosch process, and this would lead to the mass production of agricultural fertilisers and a phenomenal increase in the growth of crops for human consumption.
The Haber-Bosch process is conducted at a high pressure of 200 atmospheres and reaction temperatures of 450°C. It also requires a large feedstock of natural gas, and there is a global research and development effort to replace the process with a more sustainable alternative – just as the Haber-Bosch process replaced niter mining over a century ago.