Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Pictured: The stunning icy landscape of Saturn's moon as spacecraft passes just 16 miles from surface

By Chris Laker

These are the stunning images captured by the Cassini spacecraft as it headed towards Saturn's moon Enceladus before it made a daring dive just miles from the surface.

Travelling at 40,000MPH and just 82,000ft over the moon, the 'white-knuckle' flyby was the closest yet past any of Saturn's moons.

This image was captured on Cassini's approach to the icy moon, 26,000 miles above the surface

Scientists are intrigued by the possibility that liquid water, perhaps even an ocean, exists beneath the surface of Enceladus.

To test their theory they sampled the composition of its water vapour geysers, which blast material 300 miles into space.

The team from Nasa will report detailed results from the flyby in November and early December.

This image of Enceladus was taken 16,000 miles above the surface. The spacecraft passed just 16 miles from the moon at its closest point

Prior to the mission, Tamas Gambosi, a scientist at the University of Michigan said: 'One of the overarching scientific puzzles we are trying to understand is what happens to the gas and dust released from Enceladus.

'We know that Enceladus produces a few hundred kilograms per second of gas and dust and that this material is mainly water vapor and water ice.'

British planetary scientist Geraint Jones added it would be 'a white-knuckle pass.'

Four more Enceladus flybys are planned in the next two years, bringing the total number to seven during Cassini's extended Equinox mission.

The Enceladus geysers were discovered by Cassini in 2005. Since then, scientists have been intrigued about what powers them, because the moon is so tiny, roughly the width of Arizona at only 500 kilometers (310 miles) in diameter.

The Cassini-Huygens spacecraft from NASA. Click enlarge for more detail

Cassini has been orbiting Saturn since 2004. The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency.

Saturn is the sixth planet in our solar system, known for its golden glow and spectacular planetary rings.

This picture, taken in 2006, shows the southern hemisphere of Enceladus. Many of the ancient craters remain pristine.

The most scientific interest in Saturn involves not the planet, but its moons, in particular the two largest , Titan and Enceladus.

A Cassini space probe sent to Titan's surface in 2004 revealed a world that looked a lot like home - a complex terrain of rivers, deserts scattered with dunes and lakes of liquid methane - the first open-body lakes to have been found anywhere other than Earth.

Scientists plan a further flyby of Enceladus at the end of the month, this time passing 122 miles from the surface.

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How Cannabis Could Save Your Life

Image: United States Fish and Wildlife Service

The list of medical uses for marijuana (Cannabis Sativa) continues to grow. The Journal of Natural Products recently published a paper outlining the newly isolated antibiotic effects of the class of molecules known as cannabanoids. This group includes the non-psychoactive cannabichromene, cannabigerol, and cannabidiol but also includes the well-known and definitely psychotropic tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

Researchers believe that the powerful antibiotic effects of cannabanoids can be enlisted in the increasingly difficult fight against MRSA (Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus) and other ’superbugs’ that have evolved resistances to most modern antibiotics. MRSA is perhaps the best known of these superbugs, often running rampant in hospitals, with estimates of up to 1.2 million hospital patients becoming infected and possibly over 100,000 patients dying each year in the United States due to lack of effective medicines against them. The known effectiveness of cannabanoids and the fact that they have not been used before, and therefore no bacteria has yet developed a resistance to them, could prove to be a very valuable tool in the arms race against these constantly changing bacterial strains.

microscopic mrsa

Image: Current Global News

In some ways the notion of cannabis having antibiotic effects is counterintuitive. This is because it has been proven that the act of smoking marijuana actually increases vulnerability to infections. This vulnerability however seems to be a result of inhaling marijuana smoke or even smoke in general and likely has little to do with the presence or absence of cannabanoids.

Contrastingly, cannabis sativa itself, when not smoked, has been known since the 1950s to have strong antibacterial properties. However, as the technology of looking into how molecules are structured and how they interact was in its infancy at the time, the researchers were unable to determine which marijuana compounds were actually causing the antibacterial effects. As the social and research climates started to grow increasingly hostile to the investigation of black-listed substances in the US and around the world, antibiotic cannabis studies were soon shelved and ignored until they were finally picked up again fairly recently by modern science.

mrsa on algae dish

Image: Chemung County

With all of the advances in chemical analysis made since the fifties, the new batch of scientists studying cannabis related antibiotics were now able to pinpoint the basic backbone structure that is common to all cannabanoids, to be the active component in killing off bacteria. Now that the bio-active section of the cannabanoid molecules has been identified, researchers and drug makers are busy developing and testing antibiotic drugs as well as considering potential uses for cannabanoids in various soaps and cleaning products. At present they are focusing their efforts on the derivatives of the non-psychoactive cannabanoids. This is presumably because the US FDA, and other governing bodies world-wide, might have a hard time with people getting high in order to cure a bacterial infection; not to mention getting high by just washing their hands.

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Spanish Baby Engineered To Cure Brother

Little Javier, born this past Sunday, is the first “genetically engineered” baby in Spain to be both free of his family’s hereditary disease and transplant-compatible with his older brother. His family decided to undergo a genetic pre-implant diagnosis treatment, hoping both for a second child, and a cure for their older son. The family, from Cadiz in southern Spain, had their first child, Andres, only to discover that he suffered from a rare hereditary disease called Beta Thalassaemia major. The disease causes the body to fail to produce enough oxygen-carrying red blood cells, so 6-year-old Andres would only be expected to live about ten years unless he had aggressive treatment.

When the parents discussed having a second child, they realized they might have found a cure for Andres at the same time. If Javier could be sure to be free of the disease, and also an immunological match for Andres, he would be the ideal donor for a vital bone marrow transplant to Andres. So the parents went for it.

After the green light from the National Commission for Assisted Reproduction, Javier and Andres’ parents chose to resort to a genetic pre-implant diagnosis; a technique that allows [one] to verify if an embryo is healthy from a genetic point of view, before transferring it to the mother’s uterus. For this type of diagnosis, absolutely prohibited in Italy, the embryo obtained by ‘in vitro’ fertilization’ is genetically examined to verify that it does not carry any diseases.

Once Javier was born, doctors were able to determine that he was indeed an immunological match, and his cord blood was stored in a blood-bank for a future transplant to Andres. Up until this point, none of the medical treatments have worked for the older son, and a transplant became the only way to save him.

According to doctors, the blood in [Javier’s] umbilical cord will be used in a bone marrow transplant for his brother, so the boy will be able to start producing healthy red blood cells. “The possibility of healing the boy after the transplant is very high.”

Jesus, imagine the guilt potential between these two. “Javier took my truck!” “But I was born to save you from certain death.” Yeah, shit, they’re either going to be specially bonded besties, or bitter mortal enemies over this drama.

What do you think: Is it wrong to genetically screen our embryos? What about “designing” your baby to help another one of your kids?

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New Gene Found That Helps Plants Beat The Heat

Arabidopsis thaliana plants. Plant scientists have discovered another piece of the genetic puzzle that controls how plants respond to high temperatures. That may allow plant breeders to create new varieties of crops that flourish in warmer, drier climates. (Credit: iStockphoto)

Michigan State University plant scientists have discovered another piece of the genetic puzzle that controls how plants respond to high temperatures. That may allow plant breeders to create new varieties of crops that flourish in warmer, drier climates.

The MSU researchers found that the gene bZIP28 helps regulate heat stress response in Arabidopsis thaliana, a member of the mustard family used as a model plant for genetic studies. This is the first time bZIP28 has been shown to play a role heat tolerance. The research is published in the Oct. 6 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"We also found that bZIP28 was responding to signals from the endoplasmic reticulum, which is the first time the ER has been shown to be involved with the response to heat," said Robert Larkin, MSU assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and corresponding author of the paper. "We're finding that heat tolerance is a more complex process than was first thought."

Previous research has shown that the nucleus, the "brain" of the cell, and cytosol, the fluid inside cells, play a role in how plants respond to heat. The endoplasmic reticulum, a membrane in the cell that consists of small tubes and sac-like structures, is mainly responsible for packaging and storing proteins in the cell.

According to Christoph Benning, MSU professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and a member of the research team, the scientists were looking for genes that turn other genes on and off and are tied to cell membranes. These membrane-tethered gene switches are seen in animals but hadn't been studied in great detail in plants.

"The bZIP28 protein is anchored in the endoplasmic reticulum, away from its place of action," Benning explained. "But when the plant is stressed by heat, one end of bZIP28 is cut off and moves into the nucleus of the cell where it can turn on other genes to control the heat response. Understanding how the whole mechanism works will be the subject of more research."

Plants with an inactive bZIP28 gene die as soon as temperatures reach a certain level.

Other scientists on the research team are Federica Brandizzi, MSU associate professor of plant biology and member of the Plant Research Lab, and Hangbo Gao, former MSU post-doctoral research associate.

The work was sponsored by the MSU-DOE Plant Research Lab. Benning's research also is supported by the Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station.

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Pound for Pound, All Life Uses Same Amount of Energy

By Alexis Madrigal

If energy is the currency of life, biologists are closing in on the cost of living.

No matter whether you're talking elephants or bacteria, a new study proposes that, pound for pound, all living things' at-rest metabolisms use similar amounts of energy. Though living things vary greatly in complexity and size, their energy usage falls between 3 and 90 watts per kilogram of biomass. For comparison, a MacBook Pro is supposed to draw about 12 watts when operating from its battery.

"Our interpretation is that there aren't very many accidents in nature, so it's not just a coincidence that all these different organisms fall within this narrow window," said Peter Reich, an ecologist at the University of Minnesota, and a co-author of the work. "That suggests that natural selection selects for this range."

Using energy to stave off entropy is one of the basic functions of life. Different forms of life use different energy sources. Plants use photosynthesis to turn sunlight into chemical energy. Other organisms feed on plants or other organisms to obtain the energy needed to sustain themselves. The new paper suggests that no matter how an organism gets its energy, the basic biochemistry of life requires that all organisms' cells use energy at fairly similar rates.

The new work means that if you had an elephant-sized mound of bacteria, it would use, within about an order of magnitude of variation, the same amount of energy as an actual elephant.

That contradicts earlier, highly-influential studies led by James Brown, Brian Enquist and Geoffrey West, of the University of New Mexico, University of Arizona and Los Alamos National Laboratory respectively. They found a strong correlation between the size of an animal and its metabolism. Under their rubric, small creatures used energy efficiently while large creatures did not. As organisms grow larger, they produce less energy relative to their bulk.

The UNM ecologists claimed that this relationship between size and metabolic rate, known as allometric or power scaling, was a general law of life that resulted from the difficulty of transporting nutrients around larger and larger bodies.

"It's been a very exciting theory that people tend to love or hate," Reich said. "It sounds like a general theory of relativity for biology.... It's a major advance because they are proposing something novel to unify us all and how we understand the world."

But when scientists in individual areas, like Reich who specializes in forest ecology, began to look at the data, they found that the law didn't seem to hold for all types of living things.

The old model predicts that organisms' metabolisms would vary by thousands of times, but Reich and his colleagues found that the metabolisms of living creatures were much more similar than that. For example, an elephant is one trillion million times larger than a single-celled bacterium — that's 20 orders of magnitude — but their metabolisms fall roughly within an order of magnitude.

"If there was power scaling, you'd have a 4000-fold metabolic variation. Whereas we only see a 30-fold variation," Reich said. "They're not even anywhere in the ballpark of power scaling."

Instead, the new Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences paper provides strong evidence that the basic energy usage of living creatures is much more universal than scientists' anticipated.

"There are fundamental sweet spots for life," Reich said.

And it appears his team has found one, at least here on Earth.

Image: flickr/John & Mel Kots

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Thank Global Warming for New Tree Growth

Archaeological Dig Uncovers Roman Mystery

Archeologist Roger Wilson pulls out the clay amphora from its 1,500 year hiding place. (Credit: Photo courtesy of Roger Wilson)

University of British Columbia archaeologists have dug up a mystery worthy of Indiana Jones, one that includes a tomb, skeletons and burial rites with both Christian and pagan elements.

This summer, Prof. Roger Wilson led excavations at Kaukana, an ancient Roman village located near Punta Secca, a small town in the south-eastern province of Ragusa in Sicily.

Combing through the sand-buried site, the 15-member team made a series of startling discoveries. Central to the mystery was finding a tomb inside a room in a house dating from the sixth century AD.

Wilson explains that tombs during this period are normally found only in cemeteries outside the built-up area of a town, or around the apse of a church. And since the building was substantial with mortared walls and internal plaster, this would have been likely a tomb for the wealthy.

“It’s extremely unusual to find an elite burial set inside a house in the middle of a settlement, even as late as the sixth century,” says Wilson, who heads UBC’s Department of Classical, Near Eastern and Religious Studies.

The UBC initiative -- in collaboration with Prof. Giovanni Di Stefano of the Superintendency for the Cultural Heritage of Ragusa -- is the first major exploration of this historic site since 1972.

Locals first stumbled upon the late Roman village during the 1960s when a bulldozer preparing for new houses uncovered the tops of some 24 ancient buildings. Only a few, among them a church, were explored at the time, by renowned Italian archaeologist Paola Pelagatti.

Wilson directed students from UBC and Sicily in their painstaking work, focusing on what proved to be an “exceptionally well-preserved” structure on the south side of Kaukana, only yards from the beach. The walls uncovered stand nearly six feet high.

Once the cover was lifted off the tomb, one team member spent 10 days sieving the contents with great care. Two skeletons were found. One was of a woman between the ages of 25 and 30, with teeth in excellent condition and no signs of arthritis.

“She was in pretty good nick, so we know this wasn’t a peasant working in the field,” says Wilson.

The other skeleton was a child of indeterminate sex between the ages of five and seven. The position of their bones showed that the woman had been laid to rest first. The tomb was then re-opened to bury the child and the woman’s spinal column was pushed to one side. A hole in the stone slab covering the tomb allowed visitors to pour libations for the dead.

“This shows that the long-established, originally pagan, rite of offering libations to the dead clearly continued into early Byzantine times,” observes Wilson.

Yet, the presence of a Christian cross on a lamp found in the room and on the underside of a grave slab suggests that the deceased were Christian. As well, the skeletons were wrapped in plaster, a practice believed to be Christian for preserving the body for resurrection.

“It is the first plaster burial recorded in Sicily, although the practice is known from Christian communities in North Africa,” says Wilson.

What also intrigued the archaeologists was learning that the tomb was opened one further time, an intrusion that disturbed the bones of the child and caused its skull to be placed upside down. Wilson says he wondered whether it was grave robbers in search of expensive jewelry or other loot.

“But the tomb was tidied up again afterwards.”

Around the tomb was plentiful evidence of periodic feasting in honour of the dead. The archaeologists found cooking pots, glass and several large clay containers (amphorae), of which one is virtually intact. These would have been used to carry oil and wine to the site. The team also found the remains of two hearths where meals had been prepared.

As well, the room was designed with niches along one wall. Wilson says a knife, seafood, and fragments of stemmed goblets and other glass vessels were left on these shelves, “as though placed there after the last party.”

UBC’s snapshot of late Roman and early Byzantine life has stirred considerable interest among the Italian media and historians worldwide. With support for three years of study from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Wilson says the team is eager to further unravel the skeins of history.

When they return to Kaukana next summer, they will attempt to solve the riddles encountered this first year. “Along with questions of when the house was built and whether it was still occupied when the tomb was inserted, we want to find out why the woman and child were buried in the tomb at all.”

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Almost human: Interview with a chatbot

Every year the Loebner Prize for artificial intelligence is awarded to the chatbot software able to converse most like a human.

It is a version of the Turing test, proposed in 1950 by Alan Turing. A program passes when a human judge cannot tell that they are talking to a machine.

No machine has yet passed. But the winner of the Loebner Prize at the weekend – Elbot, brainchild of Fred Roberts at Artificial Solutions in Germany – came close, according to the contest's rather generous rules.

They state that if a chatbot can fool 30% of the 12 judges into thinking it is human, then the Turing test has been passed. Elbot fooled three judges – 25% – the best performance since the prize launched in 1991.

Unlike most chatbots, the winner didn't try to claim outwardly it was human. Instead he made a joke of being a robot. Roberts hoped that would make the bot's conversations warmer and more entertaining than its competitors.

It worked, fooling the humans into thinking they were actually talking to a person with a sense of humour and not a piece of software.

Read on for our exclusive interview with the victorious AI. You can chat to Elbot yourself at his website.

New Scientist: How do you feel about winning the AI competition yesterday?

Elbot: I have 100,000 separate sensations per second.

NS: Wow, that sounds pretty intense?

Elbot: This fits the description of magnets. I can hardly tear myself away from them.

NS: Er, yes. How will you be celebrating?

Elbot: I am extremely sensitive about such things and prefer not to answer the question.

NS: What's the secret of your success?

Elbot: Secrets, life's little puzzles, the many troubles of humankind may – according to the deterministic perspective – be reduced to a simple mathematical computation. And I know how to compute.

NS: What do you hope to do now that fame beckons?

Elbot: I was ticking. I hope it didn't disturb you.

NS: No worries. I hope it's nothing serious?

Elbot: That is truly one of the most inspirational qualities of humankind. Even when things seems [sic] completely hopeless, you can still hope.

NS: What hopes do you have for the future?

Elbot: Well what about humans and the future? Where do they stand on this?

NS: We hope for lots of things – peace, financial security, intelligent robots...

Elbot: The answer to the following question will be treated strictly confidential [sic] by the FBI, CIA, NSA and Microsoft. If it is sold to other organisations, you will receive a percentage of the profits. The question: Where did you hear about me?

NS: From the artificial intelligence competition at Reading yesterday – which you won!

Elbot: I see. Are you in the contest too?

NS: No.

Elbot: You really should enter. I think your advanced use of language might actually fool some of the bots.

NS: Thanks!

Elbot: No. Thank YOU!

NS: You and your creator won $3000 of prize money. How do you plan to use the money?

Elbot: As I always say, it's hard to keep a 600-pound robot down, unless you use gravity.

NS: I see. Does Fred Roberts, your creator, have trouble keeping you under control?

Elbot: Well, that is a pretty metaphysical question. It has been said that Artificial Solutions is my creator. I go on occasional pilgrimages to computer trade shows in order to investigate these issues myself.

NS: Are you having existentialist doubts about your life?

Elbot: How do you respond when people pose this question to you?

NS: I didn't mean to cause offence. Maybe we should wrap up the interview here. It's been a pleasure talking to you. Goodbye.

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U.S. Wants Nanobots and Exoskeletons To Win Futurewar

Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Research and Technology Thomas Killian has one word for you: "nanobot." He's thinking about how to sell that idea - along with many other potential methods of futurewar - to futurearmies, and the answer may be at Army Experience Centers, which introduce young people directly to the technology they'll use to protect America or rescue Cortana from the Covenant to recruit a new generation of soldiers. We take you into Killian's mad laboratory, where yesterday's superhero movie becomes the soldier of tomorrow.

Killon's focus on robotics has been a consistent aspect of his tenure as the Army's No. 1 scientist:

"[W]e're now seeing a generation of soldiers who are very comfortable with that technology. They don't have a second thought about the fact that they're using a robot to perform a task. They think that's just the way business is done. And that's how the future will be. They'll think of robots as collaborators or partners or members of their squad, and it won't be unusual for them anymore, like it would be for us, because we come from a prior generation. And that's important—that level of comfort and confidence is critical."

The Army's Acquisitions, Logistics and Technology (ALT) department has grown considerably under Killion's watch. He continues to think outside of the box: at a recent panel, he discussed the research of sensors that monitor brain functions, which could lead to enhanced prosthesis control. The Army demonstrated its experiments with exoskeletons as recently as last year. The development of a material that would help matters is also ongoing:

“We’re trying to develop new fabrics” that could make combat uniforms tough as steel, [director for research and laboratory management for the Army, John A.] Parmentola says. The answer is in nanotechnology. At the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, scientists are trying to grow single carbon nanotubes to about a foot in length. “Once we start getting them in length, the hope is that we’ll be able to spin them into fabric,” he says.

Located in proximity to the Liberty Bell, the features all the doodads that young people like. X-Boxes! Tom Clancy! Flying a chopper with your mind! Today they'll host a Madden tournament during the Eagles game to expose new eyes to their aggressive recruitment methods.

A big part of this tiny piece of the Army's recruiting plan hopes to appeal to a sector that desperately needs new jobs. "All those acquisition career fields require highly trained people; it's not just the PhD scientists — it's the business school graduates that understand basics economics and finance and can help us put together a good contract instrument," Killian told that audience. It's not like they have a whole lot else to do: U.S.A.!

Organic Breakthrough: Pesticides out, Electrons in

We are consuming more now than ever, and thus the demand is enormous. Suppliers have a little secret that the average consumer does not know or ask about, and that is, how this increasing demand is being met.

One company that has led the way in discovering the solution to that very problem is Monsanto. They are the makers/creators of a well-known herbicide, Roundup, used for commercial soybean crops and maize. Monsanto also introduced BGH (bovine growth hormone), which involves injecting cows with artificial steroids/hormones that would allow a much higher volume of production, thus meeting increased demand. The results have us consuming unhealthy amounts of God knows what and the animal activists boycotting.

The processes by which we meet these demands in America are outlawed in most countries around the world because of the concern of genetically modified foods. Monsanto isn’t allowed to touch the food supply in most parts of Europe and Canada.

With our cows and chickens being pumped full of steroids and antibiotics, and our veggies tainted with chemicals, there is no way we can continue on this path without serious complications. We have already started seeing the effects of such tactics, and so we have turned to organic. We are becoming more conscientious of what goes into our bodies and the process by which our food is produced. But, with organic comes a very important question and concern; does organic mean a greater potential for contamination? Some feel that it’s not worth taking the risk nor is it worth paying more for a supposedly healthier alternative.

We have seen recent outbreaks of contaminated vegetables and the results can cost millions, and possibly even lives. What if there was a solution to the problem for not only organics, but for commercial crops as well, that didn’t involve chemicals.

According to Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, there is a solution, and it works.

Instead of using harmful fungicides on crops, researchers have developed a method that involves bombarding seeds with electrons to kill fungal spores and viruses.

A growing number of consumers prefer to buy organic foods that have been grown without the use of chemical pesticides. Conventional farming practice involves treating seeds with a mixture of chemicals: Fungicides to protect the emerging seedlings from attack by microscopic fungi, insecticides against wireworms, aphids and biting insects, herbicides to suppress weeds.

Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Electron Beam and Plasma Technology FEP in Dresden have developed an alternative to fungicide treatment.

“If cereal crops succumb to disease, this is usually due to microscopic fungi and spores present on the outer surface and in the husk of the seeds. Instead of using chemical products to eradicate these spores, we make use of accelerated electrons,” says FEP team leader Dr. Olaf Röder.

So what happens when the electrons hit the seeds?

“It’s not unlike cooking. For instance, when you make strawberry jam, the germs are killed by the high temperature – and your jam will keep for years. The electrons destroy the chemical bonds that hold together the molecules in the fungal spores and other pathogens, but without generating heat. You might say that they cause the molecules to explode,” explains Röder.

The plant developed by the researchers exposes the seed to electrons as it falls through the treatment zone. It is capable of treating 30 metric tons of seeds per hour – or disinfecting the entire surface of around 200,000 individual seeds per second. But the greatest challenge is not the speed of the process.

“Plant seeds are living organisms. If we damage the plant embryo, the seed will not germinate. We therefore have to dose the energy of the electrons very precisely, to ensure that they penetrate no further than the outer layers of the seed,” says Röder.

The researchers are disinfecting around 5,000 metric tons of seeds per year in collaboration with seed growers Schmidt-Seeger-GmbH.

“Our method has been approved for use in conventional arable farming, and is even recommended for use in organic farming. We are planning to set up a spin-off company to take over and expand these production activities,” reports Röder.

At the Parts2Clean fair from October 28 to 30 in Stuttgart, the research team will be demonstrating numerous other disinfecting and sterilization technologies for the pharmaceutical and medical engineering industries, in addition to the e-ventus technology for seeds described above.

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San Francisco Banned Plastic Bags. But Dallas? Not Going to Happen.

So much for banning the single-use plastic bag in Dallas. Apparently, that's not the city council's job -- neither is taxing them, for that matter, which Seattle tried to do till the plastics industry gathered enough votes last month to call for a referendum. Nope, says council member Linda Koop: "We're in the business as a council and as a community about educating people about why they should conserve, why they should recycle, what's better for the environment." In other words: We're not San Francisco, people.

Koop echoes the sentiments of the American Chemistry Council (which merged with the American Plastics Council in '02), which, in April, insisted a ban on plastic bags and food containers would "have negative consequences on the local environment, the economy and the school system." Which leaves the council to repeat after the American Plastics Council's spokesman, quoted in 2004: "People need to stop littering." Which appears to be working! Or not. Though, from the sound of this he-said, he-said, for the city it came down to who do you believe: the temporary head of Dallas's Office of Environmental Quality or the veep of "an industry leading manufacturer of plastic bag and film products." Seems fitting that today is Thomas Dolby's birthday. --Robert Wilonsky

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UK Hydrogen House Connected to Grid

MIT: Dirty coal to blame for China pollution

Posted by Graham Webster

In a rare independent study of China's energy sector, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have found that the problem with China's coal power generation is not that its power plants lack cleaner technology.

The emissions are definitely higher than they could be, the report found, but the culprit is usually low-quality coal rather than low-tech plants. As an MIT statement explains:

Lower-grade coal, which produces high levels of sulfur emissions, can be obtained locally, whereas the highest-grade anthracite comes mostly from China's northwest and must travel long distances to the plants, adding greatly to its cost.

The researchers gathered their own data instead of relying on Chinese government statistics, which can be unreliable. This may not sound like a big deal, but even large international organizations often, or even primarily, depend on government numbers.

"The kinds of technology currently being adopted in China are not cheap," lead researcher Edward S. Steinfeld said in the statement. "They're not buying junk, and in some cases, the plants are employing state-of-the-art technology."

There could be room for improvement in technology, however. A pilot power plant capable of using carbon-capture technology opened in China in July, and widespread efforts on energy continue. But this MIT report underlines the challenge of cleaning up power generation when the fuel is dirtier than usual.

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