Saturday, June 14, 2008

Is a sniff of coffee as good as a sip?

DRINKING a cup of coffee can wake you up, but perhaps just a whiff of Java is enough to reverse the effects of sleep deprivation on the brain.

A team led by Yoshinori Masuo at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Tsukuba, Japan, deprived rats of sleep for a day. When they examined their brains they found reduced levels of mRNA - messenger molecules that indicate when a gene is being expressed - for 11 genes important to brain function. When the rats were exposed to the aroma of coffee, the mRNA for nine of the genes was restored to near normal levels, and pushed to above normal levels for two - GIR, involved in neuro-endocrine control, and NFGR, thought to control oxidative stress (Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, DOI: 10.1021/jf8001137).

We don't know if the same genes are suppressed in sleep-deprived humans, nor whether we would feel tired if they were, but many of these genes do have human equivalents. So the team says gene suppression may help explain why people feel bad when they haven't had enough sleep - and that gene reactivation could explain why people love the smell of coffee.

Next the team hopes to identify the molecules in coffee aroma that affect gene expression. They suggest pumping them into factories to help revive tired workers who can't sip coffee while operating machinery.

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Allergy and Asthma Rates 50% Higher Near Roads

Smog and traffic, Los Angeles
Smog filled highway, Los Angeles.
Photo: David McShane/ Istock

A study of nearly 6,000 children in Munich has found that children are much more likely to develop asthma, allergies and skin rashes if they live near major roads.

Vehicle tailpipes emit nitrogen oxides, volatile organic chemicals and fine particulates (soot). While U.S. laws have cracked down on the worst polluters, diesel engines, air quality near major roads is knwon to be worse than in other areas.

The study, by Joachim Heinrich of the German Research Center for Environment and Health at the Institute of Epidemiology, is to be published in American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, a publication of the Thoracic Society.

"[Children] living very close to a major road are likely to be exposed not only to a higher amount of traffic-derived particles and gases but also to a more freshly emitted aerosols which may be more toxic," Heinrich writes. "Our findings provide strong evidence for the adverse effects of traffic-related air pollutants on atopic diseases as well as on allergic sensitization."

The study focused on four- and six-year-olds, and controlled for other factors that might influence lung health, like socioeconomic status, the presence of a pet in the home, parental allergies and the number of siblings sharing the home.

Even eliminating those causes, the road had an important influence on the children's health. Proximity was linked to asthma, hay fever, eczema and allergic sensitizations.

How close is too close?

Those children living within about 165 feet of a major road had a 50% greater chance of developing allergies.

"We consistently found strong associations between the distance to the nearest main road and the allergic disease outcomes," Heinrich wrote. "Children living closer than 50 meters to a busy street had the highest probability of getting allergic symptoms, compared to children living further away."

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APNewsBreak: Companies get OK to annoy polar bears

(AP) This undated file photo from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Alaska Image Library shows a...
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WASHINGTON (AP) - Less than a month after declaring polar bears a threatened species because of global warming, the Bush administration is giving oil companies permission to annoy and potentially harm them in the pursuit of oil and natural gas.

The Fish and Wildlife Service issued regulations this week providing legal protection to seven oil companies planning to search for oil and gas in the Chukchi Sea off the northwestern coast of Alaska if "small numbers" of polar bears or Pacific walruses are incidentally harmed by their activities over the next five years.

Environmentalists said the new regulations give oil companies a blank check to harass the polar bear.

About 2,000 of the 25,000 polar bears in the Arctic live in and around the Chukchi Sea, where the government in February auctioned off oil leases to ConocoPhillips (COP) Co., Shell Oil Co. and five other companies for $2.6 billion. Over objections from environmentalists and members of Congress, the sale occurred before the bear was classified as threatened in May.

Polar bears are naturally curious creatures and sensitive to changes in their environment. Vibrations, noises, unusual scents and the presence of industrial equipment can disrupt their quest for prey and their efforts to raise their young in snow dens.

However, the Fish and Wildlife Service said oil and gas exploration will have a negligible effect on the bears' population.

"The oil and gas industry in operating under the kind of rules they have operated under for 15 years has not been a threat to the species," H. Dale Hall, the Fish and Wildlife Service's director, told The Associated Press on Friday. "It was the ice melting and the habitat going away that was a threat to the species over everything else."

The agency made no secret that oil and gas operations would continue in polar bear territory when it announced May 14 that melting sea ice threatened the creature's survival. But Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne assured the public that the bear population would not be harmed.

"Polar bears are already protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which has more stringent protections for polar bears than the Endangered Species Act does," Kempthorne said.

Environmentalists already suing the agency over its determination that the bear's threatened status cannot be used to regulate global warming gases said Kempthorne's earlier assurances were misleading.

"Now, three weeks later, Interior issues a rule under the act that we view as a blank check to harass the polar bear in the Chukchi Sea," said Brendan Cummings, oceans program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. He added that his group believes the new regulations are illegal.

Exploring in the Chukchi Sea's 29.7 million acres will require as many as five drill ships, one or two icebreakers, a barge, a tug and two helicopter flights per day, according to the government. Oil companies will also be making hundred of miles of ice roads and trails along the coastline.

"We are poorly equipped to address those risks and challenges," said Steven Amstrup, one of the foremost experts on polar bears and a scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey's Alaska Science Center. "To assess what the impacts are going to be, we should know more about the bears."

Last year, the Marine Mammal Oversight Commission, an independent government oversight agency, told the Fish and Wildlife Service it lacked the information to conclude that exploration will not affect the bear population.

The seven companies will be required to map out the locations of polar bear dens, train their employees about the bears' habits and take other measures to minimize clashes with them. In exchange, the companies are legally protected if their operations unintentionally harm the bears. Any bear deaths would still warrant an investigation and could result in penalty under the law.

"These rules are essentially an insurance policy," said Marilyn Crockett, executive director of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, an industry group that in 2005 requested the new regulation. "They say if you conduct your operations in accordance to the requirement in this rule, you will not be held liable for the take of the bears."

Administration and industry officials said oil companies enjoyed similar status in the Chukchi Sea from 1991 to 1996 and in the Beaufort Sea since 1993 and there was no effect on polar bear populations.

There is no evidence of a polar bear being killed by oil and gas activities in Alaska since 1993, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. Since 1960, when the hunt for oil and gas began in Alaska, only two fatalities of polar bears have been linked to oil and gas activities in the state, the service said.


On the Net:

Fish and Wildlife Service:

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New Material Absorbs Light Completely And Generates Electricity

A partnership between Duke University and Boston College turned out to be very beneficial for the science world, as they obtained a metamaterial that absorbs all the light it gets (no, it doesn’t make things invisible), thus capable of generating more energy even than the solar cells.

It can’t be used as a camouflage, as it’s simply black, but scientists surely have other applications to put it to work into. The metallic material absorbs both the magnetic and electrical properties of electromagnetic waves over a certain frequency range, thus turning the light into heat. And as many of us already know, there are just a few sources of energy more efficient than heat.

The fact that science still finds new ways to produce electricity is laudable, but in the same time, it shows us that we have much to learn and that many unexploited areas of science are waiting to be unveiled. Meanwhile, it will surely be interesting to see how this discovery will evolve.

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Trying to solve the long-term nuclear waste storage problem

The increased awareness of the potential consequences of humanity's carbon emissions has generated intense interest in renewable energy sources. One nonrenewable technology that has also received significant attention is nuclear power. Although nuclear isn't truly renewable—there are finite sources of usable uranium—it has the significant advantage of being emissions-free once the construction and fuel isolation steps are completed. Although nuclear power does carry significant baggage in terms of safety and proliferation concerns, a significant barrier to its adoption remains the long-term storage of nuclear waste, some of which will remain a health threat for millions of years. Now, in a Policy Forum published in this week's Science, two former members of the US Geological Survey argue it's time to start addressing that issue by opening a long-term storage facility to pilot studies.

The problem the authors address is unlike anything humanity has ever faced. Some of the waste from nuclear plants will retain harmful levels of radioactivity for tens of thousands to millions of years. Beyond basic issues of securing and identifying it in a way that will persist even if our current culture doesn't, we will also have to encase it in a way that will be stable on geologic time scales. In the US, a proposed solution to the storage problem was to use areas in the desert Southwest where the water table remains hundreds of meters below the surface of geologically consolidated and stable mountains.

According to the authors, the trouble started with the selection of the site for the US storage facility. Initial legislation called for the full evaluation of three potential sites before choosing a final one; instead, five years later, Congress short-circuited the process and selected Yucca Mountain in Nevada. This action, according to the authors, obscured the fact that Yucca Mountain was on the list of finalists for a variety of well-documented technical reasons.

From there, the article discusses how the inherent uncertainties of science and engineering have left the public and legal system with a poor picture of our understanding of long-term storage. Science is poorly equipped to provide the certainty that everyone would like to see for a project of this nature, and engineering faces clear limits when predicting the behavior of structures over periods that are longer than human civilization has existed. "There is unlikely to be complete closure," the authors write. "Nor will honest disagreements among scientists and engineers regarding some YM [Yucca Mountain] issues likely ever cease."

Despite the uncertainties, the authors argue that there are very real reasons to start using Yucca Mountain: 60,000 metric tons of waste, currently stored in 72 sites, "many adjacent to metropolitan areas and all next to rivers, lakes, or the ocean." It's easy to default to inertia while waiting for greater certainty about Yucca Mountain or hoping something better comes along, but the authors argue that the current storage system creates far too much risk for this to be an acceptable path.

The paper argues that storage in the facilities at Yucca Mountain is not irreversible; if problems arise, the waste could be temporarily removed, or adjustments to the structural properties could be made. In fact, the authors argue, experience with pilot programs may be the best way to start reducing some of the outstanding uncertainties that are making the current debate so difficult. Without this knowledge, we may never be able to refine long-term models of waste storage.

What is perhaps most striking about the discussion is that the message of the authors focuses on helping the public understand that science is actually not a method of establishing certainty—"There need be no embarrassment to admit to the limitations of our explanatory and predictive capabilities," they write. Getting the public to realize that science can make the very best predictions possible despite residual uncertainties remains a significant challenge for nearly every case where science has to be translated to policy.

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8-day undersea mission begins experiment to improve coral reef restoration

Scientists are conducting an experiment to determine why some species of coral survive transplanting after a disturbance, such as a storm, while other species die.
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Scientists have begun an eight-day mission, in which they are living and working at 60 feet below the sea surface, to determine why some species of coral colonies survive transplanting after a disturbance, such as a storm, while other colonies die. Coral reefs worldwide are suffering from the combined effects of hurricanes, global warming, and increased boat traffic and pollution. As a result, their restoration has become a priority among those who are concerned. Using as a home base the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Aquarius--an underwater facility for science and diving located in Key Largo, Florida--a team of "aquanauts" is working to protect coral reefs from this barrage of threats by investigating ways to improve their restoration.

Scientists are conducting an experiment to determine why some species of coral survive transplanting after a disturbance, such as a storm, while other species die.

"It's like living on the space station, except that it's underwater," said Iliana Baums, an assistant professor of biology at Penn State and a collaborator on the project. "The job is dangerous because, once the aquanauts descend, their tissues become saturated with nitrogen. If they were to return to the surface quickly, they would get the bends--an often deadly illness in which tiny bubbles form inside the body. As a result, the divers at the end of their mission must spend an entire day depressurizing by making their way to the surface slowly."

A molecular ecologist, Baums is providing the genetic expertise that will reveal whether particular coral colonies contain forms of genes that allow them to survive transplantation and other stresses, such as increasing sea temperatures. The team has collected hundreds of coral fragments from two species: staghorn coral--which is listed as threatened under the United States Endangered Species Act--and a type of star coral that is common throughout the Caribbean. "We carefully designed the experiment in order to minimize its impact on natural populations," said Baums, who added that one of the collection sites was slated for development, and the corals there would have died anyway.

The researchers are splitting each of the fragments in half and placing one half in a shallow site (30 feet deep) and the other half in a deep site (60 feet deep) to see how they respond over time. "By splitting the fragments, we know that they are the same genetically, and we then can determine whether their abilities to withstand transplanting are due to their genetic makeup or to some environmental factor," said Baums.

While her colleagues in Aquarius transplant corals into the deep site, Baums and Margaret Miller, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the project's leader, are transplanting corals into the shallow site. Once the animals are established, the team will return to the sites monthly to measure, among other things, the corals' growth rates, their photosynthesis rates, and the biodiversity of the beneficial algae that live inside their cells.

The scientists expect that the study's results will help them to improve coral restoration efforts in the future. "The experiment will tell us why some corals die while others live after transplantation," said Baums. "We want to know if some corals die after transplantation because they already were weakened by an external force or because they are genetically weaker than some other individuals. Coral reefs are important because they protect our shores from wave action and create habitat for fish, but they also are beautiful. I am glad that I am able to apply my scientific expertise to their protection."


Other scientists involved with the project include Dana Williams from the University of Miami and NOAA, Lauri MacLaughlin from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, Abel Valdivia from the University of Miami and NOAA, Ken Nedimyer from the Coral Restoration Foundation, Mike Durako from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and Cheryl Woodley from NOAA. This research is funded by a grant from the NOAA Coral Reef Conservation fund to the University of North Carlonia at Wilmington.

Iliana Baums: (+1) 814-321-3593,
Barbara Kennedy (PIO): 814-863-4682,


High-resolution images related to this story, are on the Web at:

A live Webcam for viewing the science team while they are underwater in the Aquarius facility is on the Web at:

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New NASA Space Observatory Seeks Out Supermassive Black Holes Beyond Milky Way

On June 11th, a Delta II rocket lifted the Gamma Ray Large Area Telescope (GLAST) spacecraft off the launch pad toward an astounding mission to explore the most extreme environments in the universe, and search for signs of new laws of physics and what composes the mysterious dark matter, explain how black holes accelerate immense jets of material to nearly light speed, and help crack the mysteries of the staggeringly powerful explosions known as gamma-ray bursts most of which will be supermassive black holes in the cores of distant galaxies.

"We're interested in listening to the stories gamma rays are telling us," said Steve Ritz, mission project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

Gamma rays are ancient mariners, carrying tales at light speed from the farthest reaches and earliest days of our universe. They are the progeny of wild and violent events, of particles that have been accelerated to fantastic energies, and of dark matter annihilations.

Among the discoveries made by previous satellites was that the universe is dotted with powerful gamma ray bursts lasting only a few seconds and never reappearing. Searching out these bursts, which have been linked in some cases to the implosions of very massive stars into black holes, has become a current priority of space astronomy.

The GLAST team is searching for the deadliest detonations ever - gamma ray burst explosions. Nobody knows exactly what causes these short but indescribably energetic explosions, but a leading suspect is the collision of two neutron stars or black holes (and when you're talking about those kind of energies, it's the biggest bang you can have without creating a new universe). Another possibility is a super-supernova, which isn't the usual boring business of a star exploding, but the nuclear devastation of an incredibly large star that would make Zeus battling Odin look like two kids fighting in a sandpit.

These events are so mind-bogglingly intense that they can be detected from billions of light years away (and so billions of years in the past). Which is good, because you really don't want one to get any closer than that. One popular "sudden extinction" theory is that such a burst has happened within range of our own galaxy, but because the lethal gamma radiation moves at the speed of light, the first evidence we could 'detect' would be everybody and everything dropping dead. The only people who could investigate it are those who evolve from particularly hardy bacteria hidden deep in a rock somewhere, evolving for billions of years then looking at fossils full of iPhones and saying "Hmm, I wonder why everybody fell over all of a sudden".

GLAST will take high-resolution pictures of the invisible gamma-ray sky. Together, the Large Area Telescope (LAT) and the GLAST Burst Monitor (GBM) instruments will investigate the 10 keV to 300 GeV energy range, which includes some x-rays. The observatory will be launched into space to escape Earth's atmosphere, which blocks intense gamma radiation from reaching Earth's surface. The observatory will complete an orbit every 95 minutes, and can view the entire sky in two orbits.

The large area telescope is set to detect high energy gamma blasts accompanied by a "Burst Monitor" to detect lower energy gamma bursts - the phrase "lower energy burst" occupying the same levels of irony as "shallower ocean", "cooler blowtorches" and "less painful pokes in the eye with a pitchfork".

"If you put on gamma-ray glasses, you will see bright point sources, and you will also see a diffuse glow in our galaxy," says Rob Cameron, manager of a group at Stanford Linear Accelerator Center that will operate LAT and process its raw data.

A survey of the sky in the 1990s by the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, no longer in operation, found 271 more-permanent sources of celestial gamma radiation, which turned out to be quasars and pulsars, but more than two-thirds of them have never been identified.

Gamma-ray radiation is the most energetic form of radiation, billions of times more energetic than the type of light visible to our eyes. What is happening to produce this much energy? What happens to the surrounding environment near these phenomena?

The Glast team hopes that the learning period will begin in about two months, after the satellite has been thoroughly checked out. In the meantime, and in keeping with American space-faring tradition concerning orbiting observatories, the craft will also be renamed.

According to the space agency, more than 12,000 names were submitted through a suggestion box on the Glast Web site, , before the box closed in March.

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What Happens When You Go Number 2 in Space?

By: Dahlia Rideout (Little_personView Profile)

A NASA engineer answers one of the age-old questions every kid has: What happens when you go to the bathroom in outer space? A little insight into zero-gravity toilet design.

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Experts unveil 'cloak of silence

A working device could be used to enhance the acoustics of concert halls

Being woken in the dead of night by noisy neighbours blasting out music could soon be a thing of the past.

Scientists have shown off the blueprint for an "acoustic cloak", which could make objects impervious to sound waves.

The technology, outlined in the New Journal of Physics, could be used to build sound-proof homes, advanced concert halls or stealth warships.

Scientists have previously demonstrated devices that cloak objects from microwaves, making them "invisible".

"The mathematics behind cloaking has been known for several years," said Professor John Pendry of Imperial College London, UK, an expert in cloaking.

"What hasn't been available for sound is the sort of materials you need to build a cloak out of."

Sound shield

The Spanish team who conducted the new work believe the key to a practical device are so-called "sonic crystals".

These artificial composites - also known as "meta-materials" - can be engineered to produce specific acoustical effects.

Acoustic cloak simulation
Sound waves are channelled around an object by sonic crystals

"Unlike ordinary materials, their acoustic properties are determined by their internal structure," explained Professor Pendry.

These would be used to channel any sound around an object, like water flowing around a rock in a stream.

"The idea of acoustic cloaking is to deviate the sounds waves around the object that has to be cloaked," said Jose Sanchez-Dehesa of the Polytechnic University of Valencia, one of the researchers behind the new work.

He believes a material that consists of arrays of tiny cylinders would achieve this effect.

Simulations showed that 200 layers of this metamaterial could effectively shield an object from noise.

Thinner stacks would shield an object from certain frequencies.

"The thickness depends on the wavelength you want to screen," he told BBC News.

Sub systems

Dr Sanchez-Dehesa now wants to make and test such a material in the lab to confirm the simulations.

But researchers, such as Professor Pendry, believe the initial work is already an important first step.

Woman with finger on lips
Acoustic cloaks could be used to make soundproof rooms or buildings

"It's not an unrealistic blueprint - it doesn't demand that we do extraordinary things," he said. "This is something that can easily be manufactured."

If a material could be commercialised, both researchers believe it could have many applications.

Walls of the material could be built to soundproof houses or it could be used in concert halls to enhance acoustics or direct noise away from certain areas.

The military may also be interested, the researchers believe, to conceal submarines from detection by sonar or to create a new class of stealth ships.

However, the material may need to be optimised first.

"You don't want to wrap a submarine in something that is heavy and several inches thick," said Professor Pendry. "It would add quite a lot to the Navy's fuel bill, I think."

Light touch

The research builds on work by scientists from Duke University in North Carolina, US, and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Invisibility cloak   Image: Duke University
Duke University researchers created an invisibility cloak in 2006

Earlier this year, independent teams from the two institutions demonstrated the mathematics necessary to create an acoustic cloak.

Other scientists have shown that objects can be cloaked from electromagnetic radiation, such as microwaves.

For example, in 2006, scientists at Duke University showed how a small copper cylinder could be rendered invisible from microwaves.

The technique used a metamaterial consisting of 10 fibreglass rings covered with copper elements, to deflect the microwaves around the object and restore them on the other side.

To an observer it looked like the microwaves had passed straight through the cylinder.

Other researchers hope to build the holy grail of cloaking: an invisibility device that would channel light at wavelengths normally visible to the eye.

However, this technology is in a more primitive state, according to Dr Sanchez-Dehesa.

"We believe the acoustic cloak is more feasible than a similar device for light," he said.

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Solar Power's New Style

Enlarge Photo
Roscheisen claims Nanosolar can already produce thin-film solar cells at prices competitive with fossil fuels.
Thomas Broening for TIME

Mike Gering, CEO of the start-up Global Solar, picks his way along his factory floor, tracing the convoluted path that his thin-film solar panels follow from birth to shipping truck. The raw materials the workers carry are ultra-thin sheets of flexible plastic, which are then coated with a series of chemicals--indium, gallium, diselenide--that allows the module to turn sunlight into electricity.

The atmosphere here is less high tech than high school chemistry lab, and Global Solar's days in this cramped Tucson, Ariz., facility are history. The company is shifting production to a sparkling factory just a few miles down the road. The new facility is fast enough to churn out 40 megawatts' worth of thin-film solar panels a year, more than 10 times Global Solar's previous capacity.

It's a story being repeated throughout the solar world, from the Southwest to Silicon Valley to Germany. Everywhere you look, thin-film solar companies are opening new, more efficient factories. The thin in thin film refers to the skinny layers of photoactive chemicals needed for the technology, as compared with the thicker films used in crystalline-silicon solar modules. Though thin-film photovoltaics are cheaper than the crystalline ones on most rooftop solar panels, the technology has proved maddeningly difficult to mass-produce, which had kept it from going mainstream. But today thin film is the hottest part of the fastest-growing new energy source in the world. BCC Research, which charts technology markets, expects the global solar market to grow from $13 billion to $32 billion by 2012, with thin film expanding 45% a year. Masdar, the clean-energy arm of the government of Abu Dhabi, just announced that it will invest $2 billion in thin film. "Crystalline silicon has had its day," says Peter Harrop, chairman of the London-based research firm IDTechEx. "These new technologies will be taking over."

That evolution hasn't occurred overnight. Thin film is a relatively young technology, and moving it from the laboratory to mass production has been tricky. Even some of the best-funded thin-film start-ups--like Miasolé, based in Santa Clara, Calif.--have been plagued with production disruptions. "Going from R&D to manufacturing is always fraught with gotchas," says Joseph Laia, Miasolé's CEO. "There are a whole series of things you didn't see because no one has really done this at scale." Since the industry is still small, for example, companies can't always count on easy access to the raw materials they need, such as cadmium and selenium. "There's no well-oiled machine, no infrastructure," says Laia. "Our supply chain doesn't exist."

It was that reality that led the solar arm of BP to pull out of the thin-film industry in 2002, claiming that the economics would never add up. But the numbers have changed, thanks largely to the enormous success of Phoenix's First Solar. Though the company was launched in 1999, it has its origins in a solar start-up that had been around since the mid-1980s. First Solar spent years tinkering before moving to mass production. It was able to weather those early days of profitless experimentation because it had a rich, patient backer: Wal-Mart heir John Walton, who pumped $250 million into First Solar before his death in 2005.

Walton's investment has paid off handsomely. Since it began commercial production of thin-film modules in 2002 (much of the output has been sold to small-scale solar farms in Germany, where generous subsidies have primed the market), the company has done nothing but grow. With factories in Arizona and Germany and another being built in Malaysia, First Solar should be producing 1 gigawatt of solar power yearly by the end of 2009. "They've fully overcome the technological barrier with large production and low defects," says Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association. "Their plants are fully automated--it looks just like a silicon-chip factory."

As First Solar scaled production up, it was able to bring its costs down. Solar producers measure their costs in terms of dollars per watt of energy produced, a formula that's a combination of the cost of producing a module and its power efficiency. Right now the best crystalline-silicon makers can sell modules at $3 to $4 a watt; First Solar can sell at around $2.40 a watt, a price the company expects to reduce steadily. "They've really pushed this industry over the threshold," says Travis Bradford, author of The Solar Revolution. "They possess great technology."

But First Solar doesn't generate the most buzz. That notoriety belongs to the start-up Nanosolar, which shocked its competitors in December when it announced it would begin profitably selling thin-film panels at $1 a watt. That figure is solar's holy grail, the point at which power from the sun becomes generally cheaper than coal, without the help of subsidies.

Nanosolar ceo Martin Roscheisen, who, like many new solar kings, has roots in Silicon Valley, says he can achieve radical cost savings by directly applying photoactive chemicals with an ink composed of nanoparticles. Nanosolar's PowerSheet cells roll off the machines like pages of newspaper in a printing press, at the rate of several hundred feet a minute. Roscheisen, an intense Austrian, says Nanosolar's first 18 months of production have already been purchased. "We're looking for a 35% market share in the next couple of years," he says. "The simple truth is, we can scale a lot more product out for a lot less."

Roscheisen's competitors are, to put it gently, dubious about his claims, pointing out that the cost of raw materials alone should make it impossible to produce $1-a-watt panels profitably. "Of course they doubt it," he says. "Otherwise it makes a joke of their business models." Nanosolar's claims should become more transparent as the company scales up and either meets demand or fails to; in the past, it has suffered production delays.

Either way, there may be room for almost everyone as the solar market grows and cheaper thin film eats into the share held by crystalline silicon. "I've had three tours of combat, and this is more exciting than that," says Global Solar's Gering, standing on the floor of his new factory. "I'm a true believer." A limitless supply of clean, cheap energy--if thin film can deliver that, who wouldn't believe?

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Civic Outsells F-150 for First Time Ever

Coupled with GM’s news that the company will be closing plants and scaling back SUV production, the word that the F150 is finally not the country’s best-selling vehicle seems to put the final nail in the coffin of American gas guzzling. Sure, there are still tons of F150s selling (a lot of them to people who don’t really need them), but this change represents one of the biggest swings in the US auto market recently.

The numbers tell the whole story. Here are May’s top five selling vehicles:

  1. Honda Civic - 53,299
  2. Toyota Corolla - 52,826
  3. Toyota Camry - 51,291
  4. Honda Accord - 43,728
  5. Ford F-150 - 42,973

Overall, most of the automakers were way down in sales, except for Nissan and Honda, with Honda posting an increase of 11%. Strong sales of traditional economy cars show that people are not just trying to save money on gas, but are buying less expensive, less powerful cars in order to cope with an economic slowdown.

So what does all this really mean? It’s hard to say. On the one hand, the Prius is the most searched for new car on, but hybrid sales are also slumping. It seems that buyers know about the fuel economy possibilities with hybrids like the Prius, but are getting scared off by the price premium and moving towards either no car or a small car like the Civic or Corolla.

The real question now is, will it stick?

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Schools of Robo-fish for Finding Oil Spills, Tracking Wildlife

University of Washington in Seattle has created a team of robotic fish that are programmed to swim together as a school. The three robo-fish were tested in an indoor freshwater tank, and did relatively well sticking together as a unit. The problems that have kept this kind of innovation from succeeding in the past is that radio waves don’t travel well underwater, and that’s what the fish would use to stay in communication with one another. Previous versions of the fish had to be linked together with a cable, or would have to surface to receive signals from a central command. The new versions use sonar-like pings from acoustic modems, or radio when they’re in close proximity of one another.

The fish use servo-actuated two-link tails and flapping pectoral fins, which allow them to swim like any other fish, going in any direction, making sharp turns, or even swimming backwards. Powered by NiMH rechargeable batteries, each fish controls its own movements using onboard microprocessors for collecting data and processing control commands, and they’re equipped with a pressure sensor to gauge depth, and a 3D compass.

The point? Robo-fish that can school can be used to track things such as oil spills and wildlife, gathering much more information and covering much more distance than single units. This means we can learn more at a faster rate…if we can get them to work in the oceans and not just a safe swimming pool. There is also the issue of how sonar pings that the fish use to communicate with one another might interfere with the sonar used by the wildlife they’re sent to track. And also the issue of…well, there are a whole lot of issues yet to be addressed. Let’s just first see if the things can work accurately, I suppose.

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The Upside to Natural Disasters

Before I write anything else, I want to unequivocally explain that I think natural disasters are terrible. They cause countless deaths and incredible human suffering. With that being understood, I often find myself believing that things happen in nature for a reason, and so I started to ponder what some of the good aspects to natural disasters might be. I’ve come up with three ideas about what might be some positive consequences of natural disasters.

1. Natural Disasters Provide People with a Greater Respect & Appreciation for Nature

I currently live in Peru, and nowhere else has it been more obvious that natural disasters have influenced how people view and think about nature’s power. There are few people I have met in my travels in Peru who believe that they can control nature. Earthquakes are common in Peru, and have had a devastating effect here.

In 1970, perhaps the worst modern earthquake in the western hemisphere occurred in Peru, killing an estimated 70,000 people and leaving over half a million people homeless. The Peruvian Highlands city of Huaraz, where I currently live, was leveled. A city about an hour north of Huaraz called Yungay, was swept over in seconds by an avalanche triggered atop Mt. Huascaran. Among the 18,000 people living in that city, almost all were killed in seconds. My wife’s family were among a handful of survivors in a small town called San Marcos (also nearby) that was completely devastated by the earthquake.

I bring all of these things up, because I have personally witnessed how much the people in the Highlands Region of Peru, people like my parents-in-law, have ritualized their respect of nature into their culture. Last month in Huaraz, a festival in honor of the earthquake patron saint was held for a week in entirety. In traditional dress, every day local citizens marched through the city dancing and playing instruments in honor of El Senor de la Soledad (Our Lord of Solitude). Each smaller community in the region also holds events and dances of these kinds.

I doubt that these kinds of cultural understandings and respect for nature’s power are unique to Peru. In addition to providing people with a greater respect for nature, natural disasters probably also build cultural bonds through a shared experience, and consequently therefore strengthen community ties and heritage.

2. Natural Disasters Give Communities a Chance to Improve Infrastructure and Re-Prioritize Community Needs

In regard to this potentially positive aspect to natural disasters, it’s hard not to think of New Orleans, Louisiana, and other places in the American South that were devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2006. I’m not extremely familiar with how much progress has been made, but I remember reading about countless opportunities that were presented after Katrina to do things like rebuild shoddy homes, provide new jobs and health services to impoverished communities, and improve natural, ecological buffers so that a disaster on this scale could not happen again. I even remember that Brad Pitt received some publicity for co-sponsoring a sustainable design competition to help rebuild the city in a positive manner.

In Huaraz, Peru after the 1970 earthquake, buildings were constructed with a greater emphasis on anti-seismic measures. The adobe buildings that typified Huaraz prior to the earthquake did not tend to survive the earth’s movements. Now in Huaraz, beauty takes a backseat to safety, as the buildings and city are not extremely attractive. But these improvements to buildings show that the people of Huaraz have re-prioritized their own safety over aesthetics. The Peruvian government also in response has built preventative retaining walls and dams around and near high alpine lakes. Overflow from the lakes was largely responsible for causing huge mudslides immediately after the 1970 earthquake.

3. Research Has Shown That Natural Disasters Might Have Some Positive Ecological Effects

Did you know that hurricanes and tropical storms help distribute the Earth’s heat? Without the transfer of this heat from the Tropics to the Earth’s poles, climates might get totally out of whack. Large storms and the tremendous amounts of rainfall they bring with them are also beneficial to ecosystems and human agricultural needs. Researchers from Duke University’s School of Environment and Earth Sciences also say that without hurricanes, barrier islands on coast lines and their ecosystems would not survive. Of course while these are some positive benefits, it should be noted that hurricanes and the flooding they can cause might affect ecosystems negatively and, of course, harm the lives of a significant amount of people.

Fires are another natural disaster that can benefit ecosystems. They can eliminate unwanted invasive plants from certain ecosystems (but can also help spread them), enrich soils with fresh nutrients, and encourage greater plant diversity. Animals are also sometimes attracted to the new growth in fresh burn areas. Some plants are even dependent upon fire for their seeds to sprout in the long-term, and use fire to their advantage.

Are There More Positive Things to Say About Natural Disasters?

As I wrote in the very beginning, my intention is not to dismiss and disrespect the human suffering caused by natural disasters. But seeing as that almost every day the media reports depressing news and stories about natural disasters, it seems like a good thing to consider the potential positive sides to these events. In addition to the three major benefits I have written about ( 1. people gaining greater appreciation for nature, 2. the chance to rebuild communities positively and re-prioritize needs and 3. the potential benefits to ecosystems), are there other positive aspects to natural disasters that you can think of? If so, please share your thoughts in the comments section.

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How To Heat Up Solar

Sramana Mitra

In India, the sun is worshiped as a god. It seems incredible then that the U.S. Senate has again failed to pass a bill that would extend solar tax credits to build new power plants and potentially create hundreds of thousands of renewable-energy jobs. Why do we turn down the sun's abundant blessings?

Currently in the U.S. there are four key segments that use solar energy: new residential homes, retrofit residential homes, retrofit commercial and utilities.

Perhaps the most interesting place where solar energy is making inroads is in utilities. Not only are they setting up solar power plants of their own, they are also buying solar energy from others. There are 4,500 megawatts of solar power plant projects in the works as we speak.

In certain states, utilities are required to have a certain percentage of their portfolio in renewables, so the incentive to invest in solar is clear and compelling. California has one of the most aggressive requirements: 20% of a utility's energy must come from renewable sources by 2010. Oregon, Illinois, Ohio, Minnesota, Colorado, New Mexico and Hawaii are close behind. Experts expect a federal renewable portfolio standard soon.

Tom Werner, chief executive of SunPower (nasdaq: SPWR - news - people ), a leading manufacturer of high-performance solar energy technology, predicts that solar will account for about 10% to 20% of all new power plants in the U.S. by 2015. (Read my interview with Tom Werner.)

And solar power is a global business. Germany and Japan were early adopters. Spain, which imports 80% of its power, is making aggressive inroads into solar energy adoption as well. "With its abundant sunlight and environmentally aware population, Spain is today one of our largest geographies," Werner says. Similar dynamics drive other Mediterranean nations such as Italy and Greece, although they are behind Germany and Spain in adoption rates. Other active geographies that are leading the solar movement are Australia, South Korea and Ontario Canada, according to SunPower.

Conspicuously absent from the discussion are two names that loom large in the world's energy crisis: China and India.

While India is ahead of China, that's not saying very much. India has about 200 clear, sunny days in a year, and that natural resource could, theoretically, produce 5,000 trillion kilowatt hours of power per year. But India's sun resource is grossly underutilized, mainly due to a total lack of policy initiatives but also to limitations in energy storage technologies. Meanwhile, a large number of villages in India remain without electricity. The story is not much different in China.

All this leads us to ask a simple question: What would it take? What would it take for the U.S. to move to a 50% renewable energy economy by 2020? What would it take for India to become a 100% solar economy by 2050?

The answer lies in aggressive innovation and entrepreneurship in all parts of the solar ecosystem coupled with resolute policy decisions. And please note that policy alone, without innovation and entrepreneurship, will not solve the problem.

Take the United States. Building a 100- to 300-megawatt solar power plant costs $750 million to $1.5 billion. To really move the needle, hundreds and thousands of such plants need to pop up all over the country and funnel clean energy into power grids.

The best outcome would be if technology obviates the need for solar subsidies. "Eventually, it is a technology race," says David Chen of Equilibrium Capital, a new sustainability fund and a long-term technology industry veteran. We've seen this for over 30 years in cycle after cycle, whether it is in integrated circuits or disk drives, LCDs or flat panels. Moore's Law, it is called. We will see it again in solar. But in the meantime, policy will need to intervene, and make it worthwhile for investors and entrepreneurs to play in the market.

In India and China, a distributed power strategy would be ideal. But batteries, which store solar energy captured during the day and release it at night, are still too expensive to be used on a mass scale.

Here's another question: What would it take to stimulate small businesses to build up solar farms and sell energy into utility grids? I suspect, again, both policy and entrepreneurship would need to go hand in hand.

According to recent polls, the vast majority of Americans agree that developing solar power is vital to the health and wealth of the nation. Over the next five months, Senators Barack Obama and John McCain should ask these questions. Manmohan Singh, the prime minister of India, should too. To find answers, they need to sit down with entrepreneurs, business leaders and investors, and understand through candid exchanges what sort of policy is needed to unlock the enormous entrepreneurial energy that sits boiling amid the ocean of human potential.

Sramana Mitra is a technology entrepreneur and strategy consultant in Silicon Valley . She has founded three companies and writes a business blog, Sramana Mitra on Strategy. She has a master's degree in electrical engineering and computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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Jesus-era seed is the oldest to germinate

Seeds discovered at the Masada fortress in Israel turned out to be around 2000 years old. All were planted but only one germinated (Image: Guy Eisner/Science)
Seeds discovered at the Masada fortress in Israel turned out to be around 2000 years old. All were planted but only one germinated (Image: Guy Eisner/Science)

Forget cryopreservation – hot and dry conditions might be all you need to awake far into the future. A date palm seed some 2000 years old – preserved by nothing more than storage in hot and dry conditions – has germinated, making it the oldest seed in the world to do so.

The ancient seed was found along with several others in the 1960s in the Masada fortress on the edge of the Dead Sea in Israel. Recently, three were planted in soil and one germinated.

To determine their age, an Israeli and Swiss team carbon dated the two dud seeds and found them to be approximately 2000 years old – making them possible contemporaries of Jesus.

When the germinated date was 15 months old, the researchers moved it to a new pot and retrieved fragments of the seed shell so they too could be carbon dated.

Skewed result

Although the plant is now just 26 months old, the dating process indicated that the seed was around 1750 years old – 250 years or so younger than the seeds which had not germinated. However, this figure was not a true reflection of its great age.

"During its growth the date plant had taken up modern carbon and this affected the carbon dating results," explains Sarah Sallon of the Louis L Borick Natural Medicine Research Center in Jerusalem.

The modern carbon skewed the result and made the seed appear about 250 to 300 years younger, she says.

Previously, the oldest seed to have germinated was a 1300-year-old Chinese lotus seed, but the plant that grew from it had serious genetic abnormalities.

Useful genes?

Sallon thinks that the extreme dryness and heat of the Dead Sea region may have helped conserve the seed in a way that it was able to germinate 2000 years later.

In the first century AD, the area was famous for its high-quality dates, but the plants were later lost. Preliminary genetic analysis suggests the ancient date plant is quite different to its modern cousins, but the researchers caution that with only one plant to test, the results are not conclusive. They are seeking more ancient seeds to carry out more genetic studies.

If the ancient dates are very different, they could carry genes that make modern varieties more successful or resilient.

Journal reference: Science (DOI: 10.1126/science.1153600)

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