Friday, January 9, 2009

Saturn's Titan -A Giant Organics Factory


"Titan is just covered in carbon-bearing material -- it's a giant factory of organic chemicals."

"We are carbon-based life, and understanding how far along the chain of complexity towards life that chemistry can go in an environment like Titan will be important in understanding the origins of life throughout the universe."

~Ralph Lorenz -Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

Titan_lake_4 Saturn's orange moon Titan has hundreds of times more liquid hydrocarbons than all the known oil and natural gas reserves on Earth, according to new data from NASA's Cassini spacecraft. The hydrocarbons rain from the sky, collecting in vast deposits that form lakes and dunes.

At an eye popping minus 179 degrees Celsius (minus 290 degrees Fahrenheit), Titan has a surface of liquid hydrocarbons in the form of methane and ethane with tholins believed to make up its dunes. The term "tholins," coined by Carl Sagan in 1979, describe the complex organic molecules at the heart of prebiotic chemistry.

Cassini has mapped about 20 percent of Titan's surface with radar. Several hundred lakes and seas have been observed, with each of several dozen estimated to contain more hydrocarbon liquid than Earth's oil and gas reserves. Dark dunes that run along the equator contain a volume of organics several hundred times larger than Earth's coal reserves.

Proven reserves of natural gas on Earth total 130 billion tons, enough to provide 300 times the amount of energy the entire United States uses annually for residential heating, cooling and lighting. Dozens of Titan's lakes individually have the equivalent of at least this much energy in the form of methane and ethane.

"This global estimate is based mostly on views of the lakes in the northern polar regions. We have assumed the south might be similar, but we really don't yet know how much liquid is there," said Lorenz. Cassini's radar has observed the south polar region only once, and only two small lakes were visible. Future observations of that area are planned during Cassini's proposed extended mission.

"We also know that some lakes are more than 10 meters or so deep because they appear literally pitch-black to the radar. If they were shallow we'd see the bottom, and we don't," said Lorenz.

The question of how much liquid is on the surface is an important one because methane is a strong greenhouse gas on Titan as well as on Earth, but there is much more of it on Titan. If all the observed liquid on Titan is methane, it would only last a few million years, because as methane escapes into Titan's atmosphere, it breaks down and escapes into space. If the methane were to run out, Titan could become much colder. Scientists believe that methane might be supplied to the atmosphere by venting from the interior in cryovolcanic eruptions. If so, the amount of methane, and the temperature on Titan, may have fluctuated dramatically in Titan's past.

Cassini's next radar flyby of Titan is on Feb. 22, when the radar instrument will observe the Huygens probe landing site. The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency.

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Milky Way and Andromeda will collide sooner than expected

By Chris Irvine

Milky Way and Andromeda will collide sooner than expected
The galaxy of Andromeda is the nearest large galaxy to our own Photo: GETTY

According to the most detailed measurements yet, scientists have discovered that our solar system, the Milky Way, is moving at 600,000mph, 100,000mph faster than originally thought.

The speedier rotation also means its mass must be similar to that of Andromeda, around 270 billion times the mass of the sun.

It means that the gravitational pull the Milky Way exerts on its neighbouring galaxies is stronger, meaning a collision would happen sooner than expected.

The Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies are the two largest in our cosmic neighbourhood, with the former 100,000 light years across, which is still only half the width of the latter.

Our solar system is around 28,000 light years from the centre of the Milky Way; Andromeda is around two million light years away.

The research, presented at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Long Beach, California, argues that the collision will happen around the same time our sun is due to burn up the last of its nuclear fuel, within the next seven billion years.

It is thought rather than planets and stars colliding, the two galaxies will merge to form a new, large galaxy.

Karl Menten, an astronomer at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Germany, and Mark Reid at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics in Massachusetts used a radio telescope called the Very Large Baseline Array (VLBA) to make precise measurements of the Milky Way as it moved through space.

"These measurements are revising our understanding of the structure and motions of our galaxy," said Dr Menten.

Gerry Gilmore, at the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge University, who was not involved in the study, said: "The galaxies will be dramatically stirred up, but they are very squidgy, so they will stick together and eventually all the stars will die out, and it will become one huge, dead galaxy."

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Orbiter, Finishing a Mission, Offers a Peek at Mars’ Wrinkles


RIPPLES A crater between the southern highlands and northern lowlands, intersected by what may have been a shoreline of an ocean.


Last month, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter wrapped up its two-year primary science phase, and Mars geologists are wallowing in a bounty of data.

“Technically and scientifically, it has certainly met our expectations,” said Alfred S. McEwen, a planetary geologist at the University of Arizona and principal investigator for the orbiter’s high-resolution camera.

Images taken by the camera, able to see features down to about a yard in size, have revealed details like rippled textures in what had looked like bland dusty regions, and researchers can now count tiny craters, enabling them to better estimate the age of terrains.

A sensitive spectrometer discovered rocks made of carbonate minerals, which may have formed when young Mars possessed a more benign environment: wet and maybe warm.

“That’s telling us something about the early history of Mars,” said Scott L. Murchie of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and principal investigator for the spectrometer.

Most of the carbonates were washed away by acidic waters in later epochs.

The orbiter will continue its observations, which will allow places to be photographed more than once to capture changes in the landscape.

Meanwhile, the two Martian rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, mark their fifth anniversary this month, far outliving their original three-month mission. Spirit has recently begun moving again after sitting still through the winter while Opportunity is crossing the plains en route to a 13.7-mile-wide crater named Endeavour, a journey that could take at least another two years.

Steven W. Squyres, the principal investigator of the rovers, said it struck him as an odd milestone for people to mark. “It’s kind of like celebrating your birthday in Mars years,” he said. “Of course, I’d be younger that way.” (In Mars years, Dr. Squyres is 28.)

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Faster than the Speed of Light? A New Theory Says, "Yes" -A Galaxy Insight

1684 A brilliant young physicist João Magueijo asks the heretical question: What if the speed of light—now accepted as one of the unchanging foundations of modern physics—were not constant?

Magueijo, a 40-year old native of Portugal, puts forth the heretical idea that in the very early days of the universe light traveled faster—an idea that if proven could dethrone Einstein and forever change our understanding of the universe. He is a pioneer of the varying speed of light (VSL) theory of cosmology -an alternative to the more mainstream theory of cosmic inflation- which proposes that the speed of light in the early universe was of 60 orders of magnitude faster than its present value.

Vsl Solving the most intractable problems of cosmology in one brilliant leap, Magueijo’s varying-speed-of-light theory (VSL) would have stunning implications for space travel, black holes, time dilation, and string theory—and could help uncover the grand unified theory that ultimately eluded Einstein.

Joao Magueijo's radical ideas intend to turn that Einsteinian dogma on its head. Marueijo is trying to pick apart one of Einstein’s most impenetrable tenets, the constancy of the speed of light. This idea of a constant speed (about 3×106 meters/second) -is known as the universal speed limit. Nothing can, has, or ever will travel faster than light.

Magueijo -who received his doctorate from Cambridge, has been a faculty member at Princeton and Cambridge, and is currently a professor at Imperial College, London- says: not so. His VSL theory presupposes a speed of light that can be energy or time-space dependent.

In his fist book, Faster than the Speed of Light, Magueijo leads laymen readers into the abstract realm of theoretical physics, based on several well known, as well as obscure, thinkers. The VSL model was first proposed by John Moffat, a Canadian scientist, in 1992. Magueijo carefully builds the foundations for a discussion of Big Bang cosmology, and then segues into the second half of the book, which is devoted to VSL theory.

Like most radical, potentially seminal thinkers, Magueijo shakes the foundations of the physics community, while irritating off many of his fellow scientists. VSL purposes to solve the problems at which all cosmologists are forever scratching: those inscrutable conceptual puzzles that surround the Big Bang. Currently many of these problems have no widely accepted solutions.

Could Einstein be wrong and Magueijo right? Is he a gadfly or a true, seminal genius? Time will tell.

Posted by Casey Kazan.

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Study Reveals Why First Impressions Count

By Jeanna Bryner

Getting off on the wrong foot can doom a relationship before it begins, as we all know.

Now scientists have studied one reason why this is true. When a person makes a bad first impression, the negative feelings are harder to overcome than a betrayal that occurs after ties are established.

"First impressions matter when you want to build a lasting trust," said study researcher Robert Lount of Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business. "If you get off on the wrong foot, the relationship may never be completely right again. It's easier to rebuild trust after a breach if you already have a strong relationship."

Trust game

Lount and his colleagues had college students play a computer game in which their partners (actually a computer, unbeknownst to the participants) betrayed their trust either right off the bat or somewhere in the middle of the game.

A betrayal of trust occurred when a player defected rather than cooperated in a round of the game. A cooperative play resulted in more money rewarded to both players, while a defector would get a lot more money than the partner.

After the computer partner made two defector moves, it would follow with 30 rounds of pure cooperation. Turned out that cooperation wasn't enough to gain back a participant's trust. Those who experienced a breach of trust at the game's start were the least likely to cooperate at the end of the game, cooperating less than 70 percent of the final 10 rounds.

Meanwhile, participants who experienced a betrayal later in the game, after 10 rounds of cooperation, showed the most cooperation at the end of the game, choosing to cooperate more than 90 percent of the time.

And in fact, those who were betrayed in rounds 11 and 12 were, on average, nearly 40 percent more cooperative in the last 10 rounds compared with participants who experienced an immediate betrayal.

When asked to evaluate their partners, participants gave more negative assessments of those early betrayers compared with the late ones.

"When the partner started off by defecting, and they were taken advantage of, they really formed these negative impressions — 'That person is immoral,' 'They're a jerk,' 'That's not the type of person I would like,'" Lount said.

The results are detailed in the December issue of the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Real-life relationships

Lount said the results fly in the face of Hollywood's portrayal of characters who don't get along at first but end up developing a passionate relationship. "The likelihood of that happening in real life is pretty low," he said.

Rather, a negative first impression can last a lifetime. "I think we would find this to be even more pervasive in real life, because you're going to be less likely to give these people second opportunities to interact with in the first place. In the game we forced them to interact," Lount told LiveScience.

"Often, a lot of times people end up writing people off. And if they can avoid future interactions with them, they would prefer to."

He suggests a person forms a first impression and sticks to it, looking for future cues that are consistent with this first impression.

For instance, say you have a lunch date with a new business partner or potential boyfriend/girlfriend. If the other person is late or doesn't show up, you are likely to mistrust that person and probably not set up future dates. But if the other person has been on time for lunch in your first few meetings and then shows up late, you will be more likely to give that person the benefit of the doubt, Lount said.

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Self-Replicating Chemicals Evolve Into Lifelike Ecosystem

By Alexis Madrigal

Life makes more of itself.

And now so can a set of custom-designed chemicals. Chemists have shown that a group of synthetic enzymes replicated, competed and evolved much like a natural ecosystem, but without life or cells.

"So long as you provide the building blocks and the starter seed, it goes forever," said Gerald Joyce, a chemist at the Scripps Research Institute and co-author of the paper published Thursday in Science. "It is immortalized molecular information."

Joyce's chemicals are technically hacked RNA enzymes, much like the ones we have in our bodies, but they don't behave anything like those in living creatures. But, these synthetic RNA replicators do provide a model for evolution — and shed light on one step in the development of early living systems from on a lifeless globe.

Scientists believe that early life on Earth was much more primitive than what we see around us today. It probably didn't use DNA like our cells do. This theory of the origin of life is called the RNA World hypothesis, and it posits that life began using RNA both to store information, like DNA does now, and as a catalyst allowing the molecules to reproduce. To try to understand what this life might have looked like, researchers are trying to build models for early life forms and in the process, they are discovering entirely new lifelike behavior that nonetheless isn't life, at least as we know it.

As Joyce put it, "This is more of a Life 2.0 thing."

The researchers began with pairs of enzymes they've been tweaking and designing for the past eight years. Each member of the pairs can only reproduce with the help of the other member.

"We have two enzymes, a plus and a minus," Joyce explains. "The plus assembles the pieces to make the minus enzyme, and the minus enzyme assembles the pieces to draw the plus. It's kind of like biology, where there is a DNA strand with plus and minus strands."

From there, Joyce and his graduate student Tracey Lincoln, added the enzymes into a soup of building blocks, strings of nucleic bases that can be assembled into RNA, DNA or larger strings, and tweaked them to find pairs of enzymes that would reproduce. One day, some of the enzymes "went critical" and produced more RNA enzymes than the researchers had put in.

It was an important day, but Joyce and Lincoln wanted more. They wanted to create an entire population of enzymes that could replicate, compete and evolve, which is exactly what they did.

"To put it in info speak, we have a channel of 30 bit capacity for transferring information," Joyce said. "We can configure those bits in different ways and make a variety of different replicators. And then have them compete with each other."

But it wasn't just a bunch of scientist-designed enzymes competing, like a miniature molecular BattleBots sequence. As soon as the replicators got into the broth, they began to change.

"Most of the time they breed true, but sometimes there is a bit flip — a mutation — and it's a different replicator," explained Joyce.

Most of these mutations went away quickly, but — sound familiar? — some of the changes ended up being advantageous to the chemicals in replicating better. After 77 doublings of the chemicals, astounding changes had occurred in the molecular broth.

"All the original replicators went extinct and it was the new recombinants that took over," said Joyce. "There wasn't one winner. There was a whole cloud of winners, but there were three mutants that arose that pretty much dominated the population."

It turned out that while the scientist-designed enzymes were great at reproducing without competition, when you put them in the big soup mix, a new set of mutants emerged that were better at replicating within the system. It almost worked like an ecosystem, but with just straight chemistry.

"This is indeed interesting work," said Jeffrey Bada, a chemist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who was not involved with the work. It shows that RNA molecules "could have carried out their replication in the total absence" of the more sophisticated biological machinery that life now possesses.

"This is a nice example of the robustness of the RNA world hypothesis," he said. However, "it still leaves the problem of how RNA first came about. Some type of self-replicating molecule likely proceeded RNA and what this was is the big unknown at this point."

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Learning More About Levitation

By Jeffrey Kluger

Visit to a Small Planet, 1960" title="Jerry Lewis levitates in Visit to a Small Planet, 1960">
Not quite yet: Jerry Lewis levitates in Visit to a Small Planet, 1960

Physics always seems to want to come out and play. Just when this most technical of sciences starts to become impossibly arcane, it goes goofy on you, as it did last year with the announcement that physicists at the University of California, Berkeley, had developed a tiny working model of an invisibility cloak. This week, the physics magic shop announced yet another wonder: levitation. Really.

The ability to levitate objects is not an entirely new thing in physics. Lower the temperature of certain metals and ceramics far enough (–459°F is a good number to shoot for), and they carry electromagnetic charges far more efficiently and for a far longer time than they otherwise would. When the metals are magnetized, they become so powerful that their ability to repel one another can actually allow them to lift heavy objects off the ground. That's the elegant principle behind some kinds of magnetically levitated (maglev) trains. (See the 50 best inventions of 2008.)

But maglev takes a load of hardware and a ton of power and is useless for small, simple kinds of engineering. The new breakthrough — achieved by a joint team of researchers from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Harvard University and published in a paper in the journal Nature — provides an alternative.

Everything in the universe — metals, gases, dogs, doughnuts — is made of materials with positive and negative charges. Opposite charges attract each other; identical charges repel each other. What prevents us from sticking to anything with an opposite charge is that all these forces have to be properly aligned before you can see them at work. "The materials are in motion, but sometimes the dance of the charges allows them to fall in step," says NIH physicist Adrian Parsegian, one of the authors of the paper. "When that happens, you get attractive forces."

What makes things trickier still is that not all attraction is equal. Some materials are drawn much more powerfully together than others — particularly on the nano (billionth of a meter) scale. And that difference can be exploited. In the Nature experiment, the research team began by placing a microscopically small sphere of gold on a glass surface. Gold and glass get along well enough and under the right circumstances will attract. But what they both like a whole lot more is a liquid called bromobenzene. When the researchers introduced a little bromobenzene to the other two materials, they both began drawing so much of it that the gold began to rise above the glass. In effect, it levitated on a thin bromobenzene film.

O.K., it's not Houdini. The microscopic pas de deux isn't even visible to the naked eye. Still, the phenomenon is not as uncommon as it might seem. Every time you ice skate, you experience something similar, as the shared properties of skate blade against ice create a thin film of water of a very particular thickness on which you, after a fashion, levitate. What makes the Harvard and NIH work so promising is its nano scale.

Increasingly, nanoengineers are working to develop medical devices, batteries, electrical switches and more made up of microscopic parts that float above one another on thin films of other materials. This increases efficiency, reduces friction and allows the hardware to be built to finer tolerances and tinier sizes. Design them small enough, and you can put them in microscopically tiny places machinery could never go before. "When you understand the forces you're manipulating," says Parsegian, "you can design efficiently at the nanometer scale."

By any measure, that's important stuff, though as with last year's invisibility cloak, it doesn't portend magical applications in the everyday world — and won't for a long, long time. "If you're looking for a free trip for your body on quantum levitation, you're not going to get it with this," says Parsegian. Even at its most fanciful, physics, it seems, can play around for only so long before it gets back to serious work.

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Stem Cells Undo Birth Defects

By Jocelyn Rice

Repairing damage: Neural stem cells, tagged green with a fluorescent dye, have been transplanted among the brain cells (red) of a mouse born with brain damage after its mother was given heroin during pregnancy. Transplants like this one seemed to effectively reverse the cellular, biochemical, and behavioral defects suffered by heroin-damaged mice.
Credit: Joseph Yanai

By injecting stem cells directly into the brain, scientists have successfully reversed neural birth defects in mice whose mothers were given heroin during pregnancy. Even though most of the transplanted cells did not survive, they induced the brain's own cells to carry out extensive repairs.

Transplanted stem cells have previously shown promise in reversing brain damage caused by strokes, as well as by neurological diseases like Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, and Huntington's. But their use in treating birth defects is relatively new. In recent years, a handful of research teams have been developing stem-cell-based therapies for rodents with real or simulated birth defects in the brain.

Joseph Yanai, director of the Ross Laboratory for Studies in Neural Birth Defects at the Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School, in Jerusalem, says that stem-cell therapies are ideal for treating birth defects where the mechanism of damage is multifaceted and poorly understood. "If you use neural stem cells," says Yanai, "they are your little doctors. They're looking for the defect, they're diagnosing it, and they're differentiating into what's needed to repair the defect. They are doing my job, in a way."

Yanai and his colleagues began with mice that had been exposed to heroin in the womb. These mice suffer from learning deficits; when placed in a tank of murky water, for instance, they take longer than normal mice to find their way back to a submerged platform. And in their hippocampus--an area of the brain associated with memory and navigation--critical biochemical pathways are disrupted, and fewer new cells are produced.

All of those problems are swiftly resolved when the researchers inject neural stem cells derived from embryonic mice into the brains of the heroin-exposed animals. When swimming, the treated mice caught up with their normal counterparts, and their cellular and biochemical deficits disappeared. Yanai announced these findings in 2007 and 2008.

Such dramatic results were surprising, considering that just a fraction of a percent of the transplanted stem cells survived inside the mice's brains. But they are consistent with an emerging consensus of how adult stem cells perform their many functions through so-called bystander or chaperone effects. Beyond simply generating replacements for damaged cells, stem cells seem to produce signals that spur other cells to carry out normal organ maintenance and initiate damage control.

"The chaperone effect is an important aspect of stem-cell biology that's simply been under-recognized," says Evan Snyder, who directs the Stem Cell Research Center at the Burnham Institute for Medical Research, in California, and whose research group coined the term in 2002. "That actually may be the low-hanging fruit in the stem-cell field--taking advantage of this, and not the cell-replacement aspect that we always thought would be the key to stem-cell biology in regenerative medicine."

Cesar Borlongan, a professor and vice chairman for research in the department of neurosurgery at the University of South Florida College of Medicine, uses a different model to explore the use of stem-cell treatment for brain-damaged infants. By deliberately restricting blood and oxygen flow to the brains of newborn rats, he and his colleagues simulate the effects of an infant stroke--a devastating event that causes untreatable brain injury in newborn humans.

Much like Yanai, Borlongan found that injecting stem cells into the compromised rats' brains reversed some of the behavioral deficits seen before treatment. For example, the treated rats could balance for longer time periods on a rotating rod.

To bring this kind of therapy closer to clinical tests in humans, Borlongan has experimented with administering the stem cells intravenously. Last July, in the online version of the Journal of Cerebral Blood Flow and Metabolism, he and his colleagues announced that transplanted stem cells produced the same result in rats regardless of whether they were given intravenously or injected directly into the brain.

Yanai has had similar success with intravenous administration in his heroin-exposure model, which he plans to announce at this year's annual meeting of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, in Barcelona.

The injected stem cells are able to migrate from the bloodstream to the brain for two reasons, says Borlongan. First, the injured brain sends out chemical signals that recruit the cells. And second, brain damage can compromise the blood-brain barrier, which normally regulates which substances can cross the threshold into the brain.

Not everyone is enthusiastic about the intravenous approach, however. Darwin Prockop, director of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine, cautions that the injected cells can lodge in other organs--particularly the lungs--causing unwanted and even deadly side effects. And according to Evan Snyder, it may be unnecessary to go in through the bloodstream; his group has not seen any major risks associated with direct brain injection, a route that he considers to be clinically feasible in humans.

But all of these therapies involve introducing foreign cells into the body, and therefore, run the risk of provoking a potentially dangerous immune response. In most studies to date, the treated rodents are dosed with powerful immunosuppressants. Yanai is currently exploring personalized treatments to circumvent this issue: cells are extracted from the animal to be treated, coaxed to return to a stem-cell-like state, and then transplanted. Because they originate in the treated animal, the cells are recognized as "self" and ignored by the immune system.

Recently, Borlongan has found that immunosuppressants are unnecessary in the infant-stroke model. Because he treats the rodents at a very young age, their still-immature immune systems appear relatively unfazed by the transplanted stem cells. Borlongan notes that a low-level immune response may actually be useful: by cutting down on the number of cells that survive in the long term, it may reduce the chance that injected cells will reproduce uncontrollably and form tumors.

Nonetheless, according to Prockop, the risk of tumors is a serious concern with any stem-cell-based therapy. And while he is optimistic about the future of cell therapies for treating a wide variety of diseases, he urges caution and conscience when considering severe birth defects. "The big danger is that you can take a child who may be doomed to die in a few years, and make that child a lifelong invalid who needs continuing nursing care," he says. "So the prospects, if you think about them hard, are extremely worrisome. If you don't get a complete cure, you may be causing more harm than good."

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Love spray being developed by scientists

By Richard Alleyne, Science Correspondent

It may not be the most romantic gesture but scientists are developing drugs that can boost that most human of emotions.

They are studying the brain chemistry responsible for the complex feelings that draw us to a particular member of the opposite sex and help keep us monogamous.

Animal testing is beginning to shed light on the complex neural and genetic components of love in the same way they have led to pharmaceutical therapies for anxiety, phobias and post-traumatic stress disorders.

The behavioural scientist Professor Larry Young, of Emory University, Georgia, writing in the journal Nature, said: "For one thing, drugs that manipulate brain systems at whim to enhance or diminish our love for another may not be far away."

Experiments have already shown a nasal squirt of the hormone oxytocin enhances trust and tunes people into others' emotions.

Websites are marketing products such as Enhanced Liquid Trust, a cologne-like mixture of oxytocin and chemical scents called pheromones "designed to boost the dating and relationship area of your life".

Prof Young said: "Although such products are unlikely to do anything other than boost users' confidence, studies are under way in Australia to determine whether an oxytocin spray might aid traditional marital therapy."

Prof Young said: "The hormone interacts with the reward and reinforcement system driven by the neuro-transmitter dopamine – the same circuitry that drugs such as nicotine, cocaine and heroine act on in humans to produce euphoria and addiction.

"Dopamine-related reward regions of the human brain are active in mothers viewing images of their child. Similar activation patterns are seen in people looking at photographs of their lovers."

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Cashing In on Clean Technology

By: Venuri Siriwardane

The future of all alternatives to oil rests on a single make-or-break factor -- money. And even as private investors fled other markets last year, clean-tech company coffers were still brimming with venture capital dollars.

Clean tech -- a loosely defined environmental category -- includes companies involved in solar power, biofuels, batteries, water, recycling, even farming. And as VCs clamored to get in, funding for the industry posted an all-time high of $2.6 billion in the third quarter of 2008. Experts linked the boom to soaring oil prices, generous tax credits, and a public fascination with all things green. Though they also say the torrid pace can’t continue, the amount of capital raised globally last year -- $8.4 billion -- still exceeds the 2007 full-year total of $6 billion, according to the Cleantech Group, a San-Francisco-based market research firm.

But these days, a rare confluence of events has sobered many clean-tech insiders. Facing liquidity hurdles, VCs are shouting from the rooftops that portfolio companies better start cutting costs. Oil prices have dipped to four-year lows, making traditional energy sources seem more viable. Credit remains scarce, which doesn’t bode well for a reputedly capital intensive industry. And as predicted, fourth quarter funding dropped last year to $1.7 billion, marking the first quarterly decline since 2004.

So could the go-go era of clean-tech investment come to a screeching halt? Unlikely, says Dan Squiller, a clean-tech CEO who bagged $30 million in Series D financing -- just days after bankruptcies and fire-sale deals mauled Wall Street in September. "Our new investors are just as enthusiastic about the company now as they were when the funding closed," says Squiller, whose San Diego-based firm, PowerGenix, manufactures recyclable batteries. "I think the clean-tech segment may be operating to a different drumbeat."

Here's why clean-tech executives and their investors are bullish about the long term.

What the Experts Say

Even as the economy sours, industry watchers say a host of factors should keep VCs funneling cash to clean-tech firms. Projected increases in global energy demand, declining production of oil and coal, growing concerns about climate change, and a desire for U.S. energy independence are "long-term drivers that haven't changed and won't change with respect to the credit crunch and the downturn," says Brian Fan, the Cleantech Group's senior director of research.

Still, he warned that companies will take a hit on valuations as VCs face roadblocks when trying to draw capital from their limited partners. “We forecast a pullback in clean-tech VC funding from the previous couple of quarters, when it was just record quarter upon record quarter,” Fan says. "But clean tech will remain a bright spot relative to other sectors competing for VC investment."

To an extent, clean-tech investment hinges on government policy. Congress recently approved an eight-year extension of the investment tax credit for utility-scale solar projects. President-Elect Barack Obama has pledged a new green economy along with support for alternative energy sources. And a cooperative of 10 Northeastern state governments have agreed to cap carbon emissions beginning this month. All have spurred cautious optimism throughout the industry's ranks.

Commodity prices also play a role in the evaluation of clean-tech firms, says Joe Muscat, Ernst & Young's director of clean tech and venture capital. But current lows shouldn't scare away the savviest investors who know the era of cheap oil is over, though pricing volatility remains.

"There are bigger drivers at work than what the spot price of oil is, and I do think clean tech will continue to be a significant percentage of the total of venture capital investing," Muscat says. "But it's going to be tough. There will be some consolidations and some failures because of the capital environments in this period of time."

Higher Returns for VCs

Potential investments -- including current portfolio companies -- are going to get much cheaper in the next few years, and therefore, returns on future investments are going to get much higher, says Richard MacKellar, managing director at Chrysalix Energy. The Vancouver-based VC firm, which funds clean-tech companies worldwide, has shied away from over-valued solar companies for more than two years. But with valuations deflating, MacKellar says Chrysalix is eager to resume activity in the space.

"What we're going to see is higher scrutiny and lower values," he says. "But I believe VCs recognize that this hiccup will lead to a sweet spot of optimum returns -- for those of us who do have the courage to make the investment in tough times."

As other investors retool, Good Energies, a global VC firm investing exclusively in clean tech, plans to keep pumping cash into the sector. "We're long-term investors and our philosophy is to always be a long-term investor," says CEO Richard Kauffman. "In terms of us, we're going to continue to invest through the cycle."

But as capital is rationed in the market, he pointed out that his firm faces a tough balancing act: preserving cash for existing portfolio companies, and supporting new companies with promising technologies. Since initial public offerings are currently off the table, many VCs will shift their focus to the latter, he says.

"Because they require less money, investing in earlier-stage companies is a reasonable strategy," Kauffman says. "By the time those companies have reached critical mass, perhaps the IPO market will be open again, or there will be additional capital available."

A Plan for Capital-Efficiency

Clean tech is famously capital intensive, but now is not the time to pitch a "bleeding cash model" to investors, says Jeff Wolfe, CEO of groSolar, which ranks at No. 757 on the Inc. 5000. As VCs ramp up due diligence, they could become leery of project-based financing, which often requires exorbitant amounts of capital. Instead, they may turn their attention to more capital-efficient companies.

Wolfe's firm, a Vermont-based distributor and installer of solar energy systems, has secured both Series A and B financing over the past two years. Sales doubled to $60 million in 2008, he says, and the company is attracting "significant interest" from venues for capital. "You've got to prove why and where you're spending the money," Wolfe says. "VCs will still invest in companies that can do that."

The market for clean-tech investment indiscriminately favored all firms in the space -- until now, says Larry Letteney, COO of Second Wind, No. 4,369 on the Inc. 5000. The Massachusetts-based company, whose leading investor is Good Energies, develops software for wind farms and recently introduced a new product called Triton. Letteney expects the product -- which uses sonic detection to calculate wind speed, direction, and turbulence -- to catapult revenue this year. Currently courting investors for its third round of financing, Second Wind boasts the kind of proprietary technology VCs love.

"There is not necessarily a high volume of innovative, technological companies with the capacity to grow and generate outside margins in renewable," Letteney says. "The environment that we face for the next several quarters really only fazes companies that can't display a level of low risk and high return, which would calm the fears of any investor."

Going forward, many in the industry contend that clean tech will steal investors away from other troubled sectors. "We're aware of a ton of cash peripherally, and it has to go somewhere," says Michael Brown, chairman of Greenline Industries, a California-based seller of biodiesel processors and No. 7 on the Inc. 500. To accelerate its overseas expansion, his firm closed a $20 million Series A financing deal early last year.

Brown, who hopes to bring biodiesel production to Africa, says support from the incoming Obama administration will ultimately be the biggest boon for clean-tech investment. “The smart money, out of Wall Street and out of the stock market, is just sitting there, and it doesn't want to be sitting there," he says. "I think that money is very sensitive to the election of Obama and knows that this is the sector to be in."

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Garage Invention Turns Restaurants Into Power Plants

By Alexis Madrigal

Would you like power with those fries?

A new garage-engineered generator burns the waste oil from restaurants' deep fryers to generate electricity and hot water. Put 80 gallons of grease into the Vegawatt each week, and its creators promise it will generate about 5 kilowatts of power.

That's about 10 percent of the total energy needs of Finz, a seafood restaurant in Dedham, Massachusetts, where the first Vegawatt is being tested. At New England electricity rates, the system offsets about $2.50 worth of electricity with each gallon of waste oil poured into it.

Vegawatt's founder and inventor, James Peret, estimates that restaurants purchasing the $22,000 machine will save about $1,000 per month in electricity costs, for a payback time of two years.

"You take this waste resource and make it a profit center," said Peret, who spent four long years cooking up the project in his garage. "When I started telling people, they said, 'Someone's gotta have done this.' I'd run into more people. They'd say, 'Why hasn't anyone done this?' My only response was, 'I don't know; it seems like a good idea.'"

Vegawattfins_georgeWhile Vegawatt is a small solution, Peret's invention is a very clever embodiment of several long-cherished alternative-energy ideas: capturing both the heat and power from fuel combustion, making energy where it's used, and recycling used resources. Big industrial plants that make paper, for example, have long taken advantage of these concepts to save on their utility bills, but the Vegawatt will be the first product that could turn thousands of fast food restaurants into mini power plants.

"Now the restaurant owners are going to be motivated to put every single drop of waste oil into this thing, because it will pay for itself," Peret said.

And importantly, it provides convenience for restaurateurs or Burger King managers, instead of subtracting it, like so many green solutions seem to.

Restaurants that fry delicious things like chicken and french fries generate dozens of gallons of waste oil that have to be stored in barrels out back. Because used cooking oil is considered a low-grade hazardous material, they haven't been allowed to just throw it away; they generally had to pay rendering-plant operators to come. But it is now a sellers' market for grease.

Higher crude prices have made other types of oil more expensive. Biodiesel makers and renderers have become increasingly willing to pay up to 40 cents a gallon for the stuff. There have even been reports of "biodiesel pirates" stealing fryer grease.

In fact, Vegawatt is derived from the home-brew fuel movement that many trace back to Dr. Thomas Reed, who popularized a recipe to convert waste cooking oil into biodiesel more than 20 years ago. Peret converted his truck to run on straight vegetable oil, or SVO to home brewers. But he was troubled by the inefficiency of the process.

"If you want to run waste vegetable oil in your car, it's not as simple as going behind a restaurant and filling up," Peret said. "People that do this spend the majority of their free time collecting fuel from restaurants."

Peret realized he could use the same engine technology to power an on-site generator and defray a restaurant's electricity costs.

"It's not difficult to go from spinning tires to spinning magnets," he said

So he created a test unit — which you can see at the back of his garage in the top photo — that's basically a diesel generator hacked to run waste cooking oil. It feeds power directly into the restaurant's electrical system through a 30 amp hook-in.

Vegawatt is more efficient than a typical coal or natural gas plant. Peret said it can capture 70 percent of the fuel's caloric value. That's because the generator captures and uses the waste heat it generates.

"All the water [the restaurant] would send to its boiler, instead of sending it straight there from the city, we run it through our heat exchanger first," Peret said. "Depending on the flow, [the water] can go into the hot water heater at 120 degrees." (This non-electrical energy savings is included in the 5-kilowatt rating cited above.)

The big power plants, though technically very efficient, waste most of the fuel they burn. After accounting for all the sources of energy waste "what you are left with ... is just 27.6 units of usable energy out of every 100 units you started with," energy researcher Benjamin Sovacool explained in his recent book, The Dirty Energy Dilemma. "In terms of making toast, it would have been nearly four times more efficient just to burn a lump of coal and place your bread over the flame."

Biomass energy sources — like waste wood, switchgrass or cooking oil — are best when used right near the source of their creation. Dragging the stuff creates more emissions and raises the cost of the fuel. Vegawatt doesn't have that problem. By company estimates, the Vegawatt generates 50 percent less carbon dioxide than a comparable amount of electricity from a coal power plant.

"In terms of the amount of energy that it takes to transport this waste, it's a french fry," Peret said. "You just feed the guy who is picking up the bucket and pouring it into the system."

Forest Gregg, an alternative-fuels expert and author of last year's SVO: Powering Your Vehicle with Straight Vegetble Oil, called it a "nifty application and a great business idea."

Gregg also drew attention to a strong part of Vegawatt's pitch: that it won't require "intervention or maintenance by restaurant staff." That's because when users buy a system — or lease it for $450 a month — they get a service contract with the company for cleaning and maintenance.

The owner of the very first Vegawatt, George Carey (pictured above), seems pleased with the unit, too. He heartily endorses the company on its website, saying, "The Vegawatt system enables me to significantly reduce my energy costs, generate clean energy on-site, and very importantly, reduce the heavy energy footprint of my restaurant."

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