Potential of Cheap Hydrogen Fuel Reemerges

Previously studied and developed sources of energy like solar panels have received much attention and are already improving environmental conditions in areas where they are now in use. For instance, the UK is installing free solar panels in 800,000 homes. Scientists are also constantly looking into alternative sources when the circumstances call for it, like using Hurricane Irma waste to generate power, addressing not only the need for energy but also the need for recycling.

And then sometimes, intriguing and novel lab research makes an appearance, as seen in the UC Berkeley team that trained cyborg bacteria to photosynthesize and produce solar fuels. An intriguing — though apparently not novel — study that reemerged recently is the search for hydrogen fuel. In the 1970s, scientists have already started the work, but found that the production of hydrogen fuel cost too much, so only minimal research has occurred.

This year, about four decades later, researchers have finally found a way to make hydrogen fuel cheap and thus viable for widespread use — through the help of ammonia.

Ammonia, a hydrogen-rich molecule, has recently surfaced as a source of the molecular hydrogen needed to generate electricity. Now, researchers have figured out how to extract that fuel and generate power without creating usual pollutants that come from using ammonia.

Publishing their results in the Journal of Catalysis, the researchers found that a new crystal composed of copper, silicon, and other metals can be used to facilitate faster ammonia combustion without causing any pollution. Using the newfound chemical, ammonia extracts hydrogen fuel with only one byproduct — di-nitrogen, one of the Earth’s safe atmospheric gases.

Ammonia used to be inaccessible in the production of hydrogen fuel because it combusted only at very high temperatures (which made the process tedious and expensive) and generated much toxic waste. But thanks to the study, its usage is now cheap and clean, offering huge potential for the widespread production of hydrogen fuel.

One of the biggest potential uses for hydrogen power is emission-free vehicles. That’s the goal of much of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s hydrogen power research, perhaps because cutting greenhouse gas emissions from our cars, buses, and trucks would make a huge dent in our overall emissions.

It is important to note that the study happened in a laboratory, and more research is necessary to see if the potential will really blow up once taken to a bigger setting. But perhaps more important: sooner or later hydrogen fuel may just prove to be another strong and valuable contender in the search for more sources of clean energy.

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“Infinitely” Recyclable Plastic Discovered by Chemists

The impact of plastic on our environment has been discussed a multitude of times by different stakeholders, and even as individuals merely living our everyday lives, one thing should have definitely become clearer in the past few years: it is incredibly damaging, especially to our oceans. As a response, the UN drafted a resolution involving 200 countries to cut millions of tons of plastic waste every year. The EU followed with a similar campaign that aims to make all packaging fully reusable or recyclable by 2030.

Perhaps something that could help with these initiatives is the constant innovation of what plastics are available to use. Recently, a team of chemists at Colorado State University created a new kind of recyclable plastic which theoretically be used “infinitely”.

“The polymers can be chemically recycled and reused, in principle, infinitely,” said [Professor Eugene Chen]. “It would be our dream to see this chemically recyclable polymer technology materialise in the marketplace.”

The material they created has similarities with the plastics we currently use in order to be as functional. These include strength, durability, and heat resistance. But one key difference in the chemical composition of the “infinitely” recyclable plastic is its ability to be easily converted back to the molecules that form its building blocks. Because the scientists see that this process does not need toxic chemicals or intensive lab procedures, they promote the potential of the recyclable plastic for commercial use.

[C]ommenting on the new discovery, chemists Dr. Haritz Sardon and Professor Andrew Dove . . . wrote that such discoveries could “lead to a world in which plastics at the end of their life are not considered as waste but as raw materials to generate high value products and virgin plastics . . . This will both incentivise recycling and encourage sustainability.”

Tons of millions of plastic waste could seriously be avoided if there is widespread use of this “infinitely” recyclable plastic. Instead of increasingly causing the death of our oceans, perhaps plastic itself could live a new life again and again.

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Water Purifier Made of Paper is Almost 100% Efficient

As someone engaged in water research, it’s difficult to break records when there’s already news of an Indian startup producing water from thin air or an Australian team modifying a metal that can clean water super quickly. But that’s exactly what researchers at the University of Buffalo did when they tested out their innovative device that uses sunlight and black carbon-dipped paper to purify water — its nearly 100% efficiency rate appears record-breaking indeed.

“Our technique is able to produce drinking water at a faster pace than is theoretically calculated under natural sunlight,” said lead researcher Qiaoqiang Gan in a statement . . . “Usually, when solar energy is used to evaporate water, some of the energy is wasted as heat is lost to the surrounding environment . . . Our system has a way of drawing heat in from the surrounding environment, allowing us to achieve near-perfect efficiency.”

The sloping carbon-dipped paper is crucial to the device’s efficiency. The bottom edges of the water purifier soaks up water while its outer coating absorbs solar energy to facilitate evaporation. This makes way for the purification process. The structure seems simple enough. And according to the scientists, incredibly accessible too.

According to them as well, what set their device apart from those of other groups that try to develop a water purifier with solar tech is that they didn’t prioritize finding advanced materials such as carbon-based nanomaterials and other expensive metals. Instead, the researchers wanted to focus on creating something that was extremely low-cost yet efficient.

This is consistent with their ultimate goal, which is to make the water purifier device useful to regions that need it the most, including disaster-stricken areas. To achieve it, the researchers also made their own startup called Sunny Clean Water.

“When you talk to government officials or nonprofits working in disaster zones, they want to know: ‘How much water can you generate every day?’ We have a strategy to boost daily performance,” said Haomin Song, an electrical engineering PhD graduate, in a statement. “With a solar still the size of a mini fridge, we estimate that we can generate 10 to 20 liters of clean water every single day.”

I always knew writers like me could use our medium to promote causes like sustainability, water conservation, and the like. But who knew paper could literally purify water, especially at this speed and efficiency?

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NASA’s Cool, Tiny Space Helicopter Will Explore Mars

NASA put the first man on the moon, built an international space station, made the Hubble Space Telescope (which still gives us gorgeous shots of the universe), yadda yadda. Those are old news, right? But then, as I’ve recently been thinking about it, I realize the people at NASA just never seem to run out of surprises throughout the decades. They went surprisingly sustainable, announcing the launch of a recycled supply rocket. They went surprisingly cute, making their satellites capture pictures of more than a million penguins. They even have a (non-surprisingly) fantastic podcast.

Another one is coming from NASA in a tiny gift box. A four-pound autonomous space helicopter will be launched alongside their 2020 rover mission to Mars. And the experimental device is only the size of a softball!

Traveling at the speed of light, it’ll still take several minutes for any commands sent from Earth to reach the helicopter, so the flying rover will have to be at least partially autonomous as it provides scientists and other autonomous vehicles with the first long-term bird’s-eye view of the planet.

NASA made the tiny space helicopter carry batteries and other hardware that were customized to be as light as possible. And aside from being incredibly light, the device also needs to have incredibly fast mechanisms or functions in order to survive the conditions in Mars.

[T]he Martian atmosphere is practically non-existent. The air pressure at the planet’s surface is lower than it is at a helicopter’s maximum altitude when flying above Earth. In order to take off, the tiny flying robot needs to spin it’s two blades ten times faster — 3,000 times per minute — than it would on Earth[.]

Once the new rover and its passenger — the tiny space helicopter — reach Mars in 2021, they will be scanning for signs of life, identifying hazards for future astronauts, and assisting other ground-based rovers in ongoing geology research.

By then, all of us should prepare for more Martian surprises in store. Again, care of NASA’s coolness.

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Russia And U.S.A. To Build First Lunar Space Station

While the UAE is currently erecting a Mars-like metropolis for space study, two superpowers are working on something similar. Led by NASA, Russia and the U.S.A are building a crew-tended spaceport based on the moon.

“Roscosmos and Nasa have already agreed on standards for a docking unit of the future station. Taking into account the country’s extensive experience in developing docking units, the station’s future elements will be created using Russian designs.”

It all seems exciting, but the space station project stems from presidential indecision. While NASA plans to achieve Martian orbit by the 2030s, the last three U.S. presidents haven’t given them an easy ride. Nonetheless, it seems orbiting the moon is a stepping stone towards orbiting Mars.

“To avoid future problems over technical cooperation, part of the standards should be unified – for a possibility for various countries to work on their craft and dock to the international lunar station,”

Both countries are basing the spaceport’s infrastructure on existing rockets from Moscow. Perhaps we can thank the universe keeping Russia and the U.S. on good terms.

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Cool Similarity Between How Humans and Animals Communicate

While we have probably encountered a parrot at least once in our lives and have recently received news of orcas imitating their human trainers’ speech, we don’t really expect most animals to talk the way humans talk to each other. But surprisingly enough — they do!

According to a comprehensive new study, many species pause in their “conversations” to facilitate taking turns. For many years, this turn-taking has long been thought to be a solely human trait, but it has since been observed everywhere — from birds to whales to elephants.

After reviewing hundreds and hundreds of studies about mammals, amphibians, and many other classifications, the research team proposed a framework to understand how different animals communicate. Their findings imply that we might soon be able to understand how we evolutionarily began to communicate as well.

“The ultimate goal of the framework is to facilitate large-scale, systematic cross-species comparisons,” says one of the team, linguist Kobin Kendrick from the University of York in the UK.

“Such a framework will allow researchers to trace the evolutionary history of this remarkable turn-taking behaviour and address longstanding questions about the origins of human language.”

While taking turns was discovered to be common among many species, the gaps in the “conversations” vary. Songbirds take less than 50 milliseconds before they answer their fellow songbird. The gap in sperm whales can reach up to two seconds in between replies. Meanwhile, pauses in human conversations tend to be around 200 milliseconds.

Other interesting findings include what’s socially acceptable among other species. For instance, birds called European starlings avoid overlaps when they communicate. In human terms, this means that they don’t talk over each other. When that happens, it results in silence or one of the birds flying away. Fascinating, huh?

Since about 50 years ago, scientists have already been studying the ways animals communicate. But what’s different now is the large comparative scale of this analysis. Previous findings have never been compared, but now even human linguists are collaborating with the effort.

“We came together because we all believe strongly that these fields can benefit from each other, and we hope that this paper drives more cross talk between human and animal turn-taking research in the future,” says [Sonja Vernes from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands].

Who knows? One day we might not only be studying how communication happens across different species, but how it could eventually happen between different species.

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Hubble Space Telescope Celebrates with New Nebula

NASA has more cause to celebrate than discovering the possibility of life on Saturn’s Moon and four earth-sized planets. This year, the 28th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope is marked by gorgeous images and a fly-through video of a breathtaking accomplishment: the Lagoon Nebula.

Hubble, a joint project of NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), launched on April 24, 1990. The ESA’s Hubble site describes the Lagoon Nebula as a “colossal object” that’s 55 light-years in width and 20 light-years in height. Even though it is about 4,000 light-years away from Earth, it is three times larger in the sky than the full Moon.

The entirety of the Lagoon Nebula cannot be completely captured by the images NASA released, showing only its heart. But the magnificence we can glimpse at is still mind-blowing. It joins a stellar line-up of the previous years’ anniversary explorations of the Hubble Space Telescope, including the Bubble Nebula and a pair of spiral galaxies. As part of the celebration, the Hubble site also publicizes some trivia for us:

Since its launch, the space telescope has made over 163,500 trips around Earth, more than 1.5 million observations of over 43,500 celestial objects and generated 153 terabytes of data.

28 years ago, the scientists and astronomers that were part of the core team for this project had soaring ambitions, and yet they probably never imagined the heights their Hubble Space Telescope would reach. What a remarkable feat for science. And today, with another dazzling nebula, what a remarkable reminder of how science allows us to see the beauty of the universe.

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Mutant Enzyme Created by Accident Eats Plastic

Let’s face it, no matter how many individuals choose to replace their styrofoam coffee containers with reusable cups and no matter how many soda companies exchange plastic bottles for reusable ones, the total amount of plastic generated globally is still a huge enough crisis to keep finding solutions to.

Lucky for us, a mutant enzyme that can break down plastic drink bottles was accidentally born to an international team of scientists.

The creation of the enzyme came by accident when the team, led by Professor John McGeehan at the University of Portsmouth, UK, tweaked a bacterium they had discovered in a waste dump in Japan in 2016. The bacterium had naturally evolved to eat plastic, and the scientists inadvertently made it even better at breaking down polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, the plastic used for drink bottles. The break-down process starts in a matter of days, not the centuries it can take in the ocean.

In 2017, it was found that a million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute. A tragic pollution statistic. However, since the mutant enzyme naturally evolved to break down plastic components, scientists have found leads that it might soon be able to recycle clear plastic bottles into clear plastic bottles. Talk about evolution and resurrection.

“What we are hoping to do is use this enzyme to turn this plastic back into its original components, so we can literally recycle it back to plastic,” McGeehan said. “It means we won’t need to dig up any more oil and, fundamentally, it should reduce the amount of plastic in the environment.”

Sometimes, accidents can be beautiful. Especially when it is born in a lab and extremely  helpful for the environment.

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Aquatic Moss Makes Contaminated Water Drinkable

Algae used to be fashionable, what with eco-friendly biomass algae shoes and green chandelier air purifiers. Something that looks quite similar (though is biologically different), moss, used to be functional and innovative, with equally eco-friendly moss-covered tires that absorb moisture and expel oxygen.

But now moss is just plain genius and essential, as scientists in Sweden discover an aquatic one that purifies water contaminated with arsenic, enough that it even becomes potable.

Researchers at Stockholm University say the aquatic moss, warnstofia fluitans, which flourishes in northern Sweden, can rapidly absorb arsenic, removing as much as 82 per cent of the toxins within one hour in some tests.

Due to mining operations in this part of Sweden, wetlands and water sources used for drinking and for growing crops are often contaminated with arsenic.

Arsenic is known to be a waste product from mining. Mine tailings are often toxic and difficult to separate from waste deposits, and toxin concentrations often end up in water sources. This makes mining a major environmental issue.

“We hope that the plant-based wetland system that we are developing will solve the arsenic problem in Sweden’s northern mining areas,” said Maria Greger, associate professor at the Department of Ecology, Environment and Plant Sciences at Stockholm University and leader of the research group.

The process of cleaning the contaminated water done by the aquatic moss is called phylofiltration. The researchers have also mentioned that sometimes this process takes no more than an hour, which is indeed very quick. If only more humans are inspired to be as quick to act in the name of the environment.

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Discarded Electronics Are Literal Gold Mines

If you have seen any dystopian film or have read any piece at all of dystopian literature, you would know that a landscape made of metal offers intense horrors that bank on some of the deep-seated fears of today’s society.

Realistically speaking, we have been inventing ways to address the problem of metal such as recycling laptop batteries into a source of alternative energy or something as strangely innovative as making stylish backpacks out of car parts, but there is a need to push further. A trio of researchers recently took a shot at that and conducted a study which tries to answer how profitable it is to recover metals from old electronics.

In 2016 alone, the world discarded 44.7 million metric tons of unusable or simply unwanted electronics, according to the United Nations’ 2017 Global E-Waste Monitor report. That’s 4,500 Eiffel Towers-worth of phones, laptops, microwaves, and TVs. Only 20 percent of this e-waste was properly recycled that year. The rest was likely either incinerated, pumping pollution into the atmosphere, or added to a landfill somewhere, with its toxins now leaking into our soil and water supply.

It turns out, urban mining costs much less than traditional mining. The researchers from Beijing’s Tsinghua University and Sydney’s Macquarie University published their results in a scientific journal after collecting data from recycling companies in China. While the cost of recycling might vary from country to country, China’s status as the world’s biggest producer of e-waste makes light of the truth that the practice of urban mining could have a big impact on both economic and environmental matters.

[W]e already knew electronics contain precious metals in addition to all that glass and plastic. While a single smartphone might not contain all that much, consumers buy about 1.7 billion of the devices each year. In just one million of those, you’ll find roughly 75 pounds of gold, 35,000 pounds of copper, and 772 pounds of silver.

Necessary reminder though: this is no reason at all to justify our technological consumption practices. If anything, it should make us ask more conscientiously, what do I do with my smartphone once I find a new replacement that has great upgrades and loads informative online articles (like this!) much faster?

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