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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Scotland’s Wind Power Enough for 5 Million Homes

Attempts at finding alternative energy sources to fossil fuels might seem like everyday news—of course not futile, still of course productive and necessary, though less surprising. Every so often, some efforts make the world extra proud, extra green, and extra clean, like perhaps seeing the biofuel potential of kelp farms in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean and running an entire school in Denmark solely through solar power.

Today, one groundbreaking (or windbreaking?) story brings us a breath of fresh air. Scotland has achieved another wind power record by supplying energy equivalent to the usage of five million homes.

“Renewables have provided an incredible amount of power during the first three months of this year,” Dr. Sam Gardner, WWF Scotland’s acting director, said in a statement. “An increase of 44 percent on the record-breaking equivalent period in 2017 is clear evidence the investment made in this technology has paid off for the economy and the environment, putting Scotland at the forefront of the fight against climate change.”

In the first quarter of 2018, 5.3 million megawatt hours of energy were generated by Scotland’s wind turbines. March 1, considered so far as the best day in the country for wind power, produced 110,000 megawatt-hours of energy that could have provided for 173 percent of the nation’s entire electricity demand.

But WWF Scotland’s acting director is not only proud; he wants the potential of the country’s wind power production to serve as a call to action for the rest of the UK.

“If Scotland’s full renewables potential is to be unleashed to power our economy, heat our homes and charge our cars, then the UK government needs to stop excluding the cheapest forms of power, like onshore wind and solar, from the market,” he said.

With this record and all its implications for Scotland’s—and perhaps the UK’s—future, not only is Scotland taking our breath away, it is set to take the world by windstorm.

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Dogs Love Baby Talk, Study Says

Dear dog moms and dog dads, fret not. When your pup saves people from a house fire, learns a new trick that would make the family proud, or simply behaves like the good boy that he is, you are not delusional to spend a few minutes babying him. You don’t even need to get him a comfy armchair or mouth-watering treats, researchers at York University say that dogs appreciate baby talk or high-pitched “dog speak.”

“Obviously we know that dogs can’t learn to talk, so we wanted to know whether dog-speak also has a function for dogs, or whether it is simply something we tend to use with our pets in a culture where we think of dogs as part of the family, like fur-babies,” lead author Alex Benjamin told HuffPost […]

The researchers wanted to see if the dogs were interested in the high-pitched intonation used for them or if they were responding to the actual words said to them. After conducting speech tests with 69 adult ones, the research team discovered that dogs were most likely to engage with people who mix dog-directed speech (high-pitched tone) and dog-related content (“Who’s a good boy? You’re a good boy!”).

“I was a little surprised that in the second experiment, neither content, nor prosody ― which [is] intonation of the voice ― was driving the dogs’ preference,” she said. “I think it is really interesting that our dogs are able to use both acoustic and content information to determine what speech might be meant for them.”

So next time, when somebody says that you’re just being a crazy dog mom or dad, give them the scientific basis of your adoration. Perhaps using baby talk could help you guys communicate, too.

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