Category: New Research

A Pollution Solution, Brought To You By Lehigh University

The Lehigh Mountain Hawk in 2008
photo credit: Erin Podolak

If you’ve ever checked the About section of this blog, you’ll know that my alma mater is Lehigh University. I loved my time at Lehigh (it’s where I first learned about science writing) and thinking about the university evokes a lot of positive memories. But, as much as I love Lehigh, I have to admit it isn’t exactly a premier research institution (despite what they might tell you in the pamphlets). Not that research doesn’t go on at Lehigh, but it’s no University of Wisconsin-Madison as far as a reputation for cutting edge research is concerned.

Imagine my surprise as I was perusing Scientific American a few weeks ago when I stumbled upon Lehigh while reading an article (reprinted from ClimateWire) about a newly developed material that has the ability to pull carbon dioxide and methane pollution from other gases. The material was developed by Kai Landskron, Paritosh Mohanty and Lillian D. Kull of Lehigh’s department of chemistry, and could potentially be used to help capture greenhouse gases.

Creating carbon-sucking materials has been a goal for scientists for years as a way to combat the effects of climate change caused by an excess of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. However, existing systems tend to be expensive, use a tremendous amount of energy, or don’t work well at high temperatures. The new material developed at Lehigh avoids these problems.

The new substance was created using chemicals called diaminobenzidine and hexachlorocyclotriphosphazene. These chemicals are cheaper than others used for carbon absorption, and can operate at heat as high as 400 degrees Celsius. In addition to avoiding the problems that have plagued early carbon capture systems the researchers also had to create something that could take carbon dioxide and methane out of a gas stream, but then release it at a later time for permanent storage underground once compressed.

Coal power plant Somerset NY
Credit: Matthew D. Wilson/Wikimedia Commons.

When they developed their “sponge” the researchers found that the material drew more carbon dioxide and methane from the air than other gases, like nitrogen. This makes the material idea for capturing harmful greenhouse gases out of mixed emissions. The researchers have suggested that the material could be placed inside a tower located adjacent to a coal burning power plant, the flue gas generated from the burning coal could then be transported via pipeline through the material to capture greenhouse gases from the emissions.

According to the researchers, the material has a 90% success rate capturing CO2 from a gas stream. However, some problems with the mass production of this material include the fact that real power plants would emit a more complex mixture of gases than was tested by the Lehigh research team, the material may be too dense for manufacture on a large enough scale, and production would create chemical byproducts that may become difficult to control.

The researchers are confident however, in the product they have created. Landskron told ClimateWire:
“There is no fundamental difference in doing this in the lab versus doing it at an industrial scale.” This material hasn’t been tested on a commercial scale and it remains unknown if it could actually be implemented practically, so we’ll have to wait and see if the material can stand up to the high expectations its creators have set up for it.

Even though the chemicals used in the material are cheaper than others used for carbon capture, the cost of producing and implementing the technology is still a barrier to its use. The researchers hoped to test the material on an existing coal plant in the US earlier this year, but the effort stalled due to a lack of funds, even with a 50% investment by the Department of Energy.

On campus with friends before my graduation from
Lehigh in 2009.

So, while the research is promising and it demonstrates an interesting idea with a lot of potential for carbon capture it needs support and further research to make it something that could actually be used commercially. If you’d like to know more, the research was published in July in Nature Communications.

I was excited to see Lehigh in the news for scientific research. Research wasn’t a big part of my life at Lehigh, in fact I rarely encountered it, but Lehigh is where my passion for science evolved into a career. It is where, with the support of the journalism department and the wonderful professors who gave me my first real introduction to writing, I realized that I could have a career dedicated to science without being a scientist, and that has shaped the course of my life. I’m proud of my school, and even prouder to know that Lehigh researchers are working to find solutions to our greenhouse gas problems. Now lets get some funding to make that research a reality!

A Geek Roundup: The Best Science Posts From My Internship (Part III)

My internship with Geekosystem is coming to its end, but its time for another link roundup of my favorite science posts. I’ve been writing a lot of folk art posts lately (somehow that is the beat I’ve gotten myself on) but there have been some really interesting science developments in the past few weeks, especially with regard to goings on in space. Also, for your viewing pleasure here is a video from one of my posts that a commenter called “pure win.” I think so, because on a scale of one to adorable, this is off the charts, and it doesn’t even have any puppies in it.

MIT Researchers Announce Broad Spectrum Treatment For Viral Infections – This research has the potential to make a profound impact on the treatment of viral infections (from colds to hemorrhagic fever) if it is able to be transfered from human cells in the lab, to real humans. It uses the way that viruses replicate by taking over a cell against it, to destroy cells infected with the virus.

Microbots Use Magnetic Forces To Swim And Do Some Heavy Lifting – The post was based on two videos of what really look like just a collection of particles swimming around and moving small objects. The particle bunches are actually microbots, that have some pretty impressive capabilities.

NASA Proves Building Blocks Of DNA Come From Space – I got myself in some trouble with a commenter on this one for the word “prove” in the title. It was a choice to use the word prove in a science post. I used it in the headline in a way that I think is fair, but I got told it sounded like a tabloid, what do you think?

More Dwarf Planets Found In Kuiper Belt, Pluto In Good Company But Still Not A Planet – When Pluto was demoted from planet to dwarf planet a lot of people started to question what makes something a planet in the first place. These newly discovered dwarf planets meet a few of the criteria, but like Pluto, fall short of planethood.

Study: Stem Cells Used To Make Sperm, Then Used To Make Mouse Babies For The First Time – Adding to the amazing list of what scientists have done with stem cells, for the first time they have created sperm cells that resulted in successful offspring that had the ability to reproduce. This could have big impacts for infertility treatments.

Small Shark Can Glow And Become Invisible, Is Not A Mutant – I love doing strange animal posts, this one highlighted a shark that can “cloak” itself and appear invisible based on the way it looks when you view it from below.

Researchers Discover Gene That Causes People To Have No Fingerprints -There are only a few people in the world who don’t have fingerprints. It is a rare condition, and now researchers understand the genetic mutation that causes this disorder.

Scientists Suggest Earth May Once Have Had Two Moons – An interesting theory about how the moon formed suggests that Earth once had two moons, and that one crashed into the other to make our current moon. Its just a theory but there is some compelling evidence in its favor.

NASA To Launch LEGO Figurines Into Space – I totally loved this idea, basically NASA teamed up with LEGO to make three figurines: Juno, Jupiter, and Galileo to celebrate the launch of the Juno Space Probe on its trip to study the planet Jupiter. The figurines are really detailed (and really expensive) but its like every nerd’s dream to have LEGOS in space, right?

Ancient Skulls Sheds Light On How Dogs Became Man’s Best Friend – I didn’t understand the commenter on this post. I only got one and it was about how scientists make sweeping assumptions. Making a hypothesis or suggesting a theory about something based on evidence isn’t the same thing as making assumptions. The research may not be definitive but its not like the researchers were just making stuff up either.

Researchers Find Elusive Oxygen Molecules In Space – We’ve always been taught that there is no oxygen in space, which is why astronauts need those fancy helmets. But, researchers have found oxygen molecules in space. Now its not the same as having an atmosphere like ours with oxygen you can breathe, but its still pretty cool that the molecules were there at all.

Survey Method Shows That A Throw Of The Dice Makes People More Honest – I got a great email from the researcher on this study saying that I’d done a good job capturing it, it totally made my day. This was a really interesting study that showed if people have some kind of an out or a fail safe they are more likely to tell the truth, and it can be useful for gathering data about things people would rather not talk about, like illegal poaching.

Gene For Proteus Syndrome, Cause Of The “Elephant Man,” Found – Proteus Syndrome is a poorly understood disorder that causes tissues to swell so that people appear completely disfigured. For the first time researchers have identified the rare genetic mutation that leads to this disorder.

New Treatment For Hereditary Blindness Is First Drug To Restore Vision – I loved the commenters on this post, it was probably the one post all summer that made me really happy when I read the comments. Both comments I got were from people who either have or know someone with the disease, thanking me for the post. That was really awesome.

Researchers Create Glowing Dog That Can Be Turned On And Off – Researchers genetically altered a dog so that it would glow in the dark. I didn’t really understand the point, since it was an incredibly expensive process it isn’t going to catch on for any kind of commercial purpose and its unlikely to have much of a role in research.

Federal Funding For Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research Ruled Legal – In what is seemingly the final nail in the coffin for this legal challenge to federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research, lawyers have exploited a hole in the law to allow funding to continue. A good thing for researchers, not so good for people with a religious opposition to this type of research.

First Earth Trojan Asteroid Discovered – A trojan is a certain type of asteroid, and for the first time it was found that there is one around Earth, and yes, it is named after the trojans from the Trojan War. A little bit of history in space.

Mountain Lion Makes Longest Journey Ever Recorded By A Land Mammal – Got myself in trouble with commenters for this title too. Someone had to point out that humans are land mammals as well. Well, indeed they are, but I think it is quite obvious that humans are exempted from setting a longest journey record against any other animals. I thought that went without saying. I guess not, because someone felt the need to say it.

Study: Interrupted Sleep Harms Memory Development  – This one is pretty self explanatory from the title. But basically researchers determined that people who have their sleep interrupted have a harder time forming memories, it shows a connection between these two brain functions that could be interesting for further study.

Next Mars Rover Will Climb Sediment Mountain – The space shuttle program might be over, but NASA still has plenty of other active projects that could help us learn more about space. One of these projects is the Mars Rover, which is still out there searching for life on the red planet. The next Mars Rover will explore a sediment mountain that has promising environments for evidence of life.

Atlantis Returns To Earth, Space Shuttle Program Now Over – This post marked the landing of the Space Shuttle Atlantis at the completion of its restocking mission to the International Space Station. This final mission was the last trip of the Space Shuttle program, because NASA wants to focus on other things in the future.

New Wave Shape Observed For The First Time – This was a weird (but interesting) little study about the conditions under which waves form, and the different shapes that they take. I was surprised that there was a wave shape that researchers hadn’t yet observed, but it just goes to show you how many secrets the Earth still has to yield.

Potential Water Discovered On Mars, Still Not A Sign Of Alien Life – NASA researchers have announced that there is liquid water on the surface, or right below the surface of Mars. The water is most likely a brine (salty) and it is unknown how/if this water could impact the search for evidence of life on Mars.

Neil deGrasse Tyson Will Host Sequel To Carl Sagan’s Cosmos Produced By Seth MacFarlane – The reboot of Sagan’s famous TV series will be run on Fox in primetime. The opinion about this seems to be mostly positive, with everyone just hoping that the project does justice to the original series. The choice of MacFarlane makes some people nervous but here’s to hoping it works out well.

Bonus Non-Science Post: 

Woman Buys Non-Visible Art For $10,000 – So this isn’t a science post, but it needs a little commentary. The source that I used for my post had the woman in question’s name spelled wrong, it was off by one letter. Now, I’m all for accuracy, if I make a spelling mistake please do tell me so I can fix it. But, I still found it pretty amusing that Ms. Davison felt the need not only to comment on the post about wanting her name fixed, but also followed me (then proceeded to unfollow) on twitter so that she and a friend could tweet at me about the error. I have no idea why someone would try so hard to make sure their name was spelled right in a post that openly mocks them and the absolutely ridiculous way they wasted ten grand, but it was pretty important to her. So, I made the change and now I and the commenters on the post can mock her openly with the correct spelling.
When I first started this internship I said that I was afraid of the commenters and they made me feel really bad about myself. They still do, if I’m in a bad mood/frame of mind when I start reading comments that rip on every aspect or even just the smallest aspects of a post it makes me sad. I’m still learning which comments to take to heart and which to just write off. I wish I had time to go into all of the detail some of these topics deserve but most of these write ups are under 500 words and some of the context is going to get lost.

It is not an excuse for mistakes, but some of the nitpickers need to keep in mind that Geekosystem is a blog, not a peer reviewed journal. I am not a peer reviewer, I don’t have a science degree and I can’t always call bullshit on a study I don’t know a lot about or don’t have access to the paper through the pay wall system. Sometimes I can call bullshit right off the bat, and when I can, I do. It is just frustrating sometimes to feel like I don’t really get high traffic posts that are well received. We’ll see what this last week at Geekosystem has in store.

The Robot That Walks On Water

I don’t talk about religion on Science Decoded (with one exception) the way that I don’t talk about politics (with one exception). So all Jesus walking on water references will be excluded from this post. Sorry if that disappoints. But, I am going to talk about a robot that walks on water, and that alone is pretty cool.

Credit: The American Chemical Society.

Researchers from the State Key Laboratory of Robotics and System, and the Harbin Institute of Technology in China, writing in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces, have developed a microbot that is able to walk across water’s surface. The robot was designed to mimic the capabilities of water-striding insects like mosquitoes that can support themselves on water’s delicate surface.

The Chinese microbot is approximately six inches long and has 10 wire legs and 2 moveable oar-like legs. It is propelled by two small motors that help it to maneuver like a water striding insect. What makes the robot so much more impressive than what the insects do is that at 3.88 grams it weighs about as much as 390 water strider bugs. Despite its weight it is still able to walk, stand and turn on water’s surface without sinking.

So what is the trick to walking on water? My favorite: Math. (Sarcasm intended). While I still might be a bit intimidated by math, I definitely appreciate the amazing ways that nature is really just math and vice versa. The microbot’s legs are able to support it the way a water strider’s legs can support it based on the radius and contact angle of the legs with the water’s surface.

But the real question here is: aside from the fact that a robot that walks on water is just cool, why does it matter? According to the researchers this type of technology could be useful for developing tools for monitoring water pollution or water quality surveillance. Personally, I’m envisioning little robot spies stealthily sneaking across bodies of water, but that is something the researchers didn’t speculate on.

It amazes me everyday the kind of advances we’ve made in robotics, as we automate the world around us I can’t help but borrow the tagline from my friend Cassi’s blog: We Live In The Future.

Induced Hibernation In Ground Squirrels

As I sort through the news each day looking for things to cover in my posts on Geekosystem I come across a lot of science stories that are interesting to me, but that don’t really fit within the confines of what we do on the site. I’ve been saving some of these stories to blog about here whenever I get a chance.

One of these tidbits was a study about ground squirrels and how researchers have figured out a way to induce hibernation. Researchers from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks interested in studying the biological processes that cause animals to hibernate have found a way to make them go into this state. The research was conducted on arctic ground squirrels.

Source Wikipedia Commons

Now you might be asking yourself, what is a ground squirrel and is it any different than a regular old squirrel that you see in your backyard? Squirrels are part of a family of small rodents called Sciuridae, this includes your tree squirrels, ground squirrels, chimpmunks, marmots (woodchucks), flying squirrels, and prairie dogs. A ground squirrel (not surprisingly) tends to live on the ground rather than in trees.

The University of Alaska researchers wanted to study a condition called torpor in ground squirrels. When an animal hibernates its heart rate and blood flow become reduced. In a human this would cause brain damage, but that doesn’t happen in animals that hibernate. Animals that hibernate survive being in this state by reducing their metabolism – this is called torpor. When an animal is in torpor its oxygen consumption can fall to as low as one percent of its resting metabolic rate and its core body temperature can drop to near freezing. In hibernating animals a molecule called adenosine plays a role in entering this state by slowing down nerve cell activity.

The researchers discovered that if they administer a caffeine-like substance that stimulates the areas of the brain that are receptive to adenosine they could control the ground squirrels’ hibernation. The researchers woke six ground squirrels in the middle of their hibernation season using this substance, and were able to then induce a torpor state by taking away the substance in all of the ground squirrels.

The researchers also tried this with six ground squirrels that were woken early in their hibernation season and were only able to induce torpor in two. During the summer season when ground squirrels are not hibernating, the researchers weren’t able to induce them into a torpor state. The research was published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

So why does the ability to wake up sleeping squirrels matter in the slightest? Well, understanding how animals survive the reduced blood flow, heart rate, and body temperatures that come along with being in hibernation could help scientists develop new ways to treat patients who have had a stroke or another traumatic incident where blood flow to the brain is reduced. That kind of an application is a long way off, but this research is still a significant step forward in understanding the biological mechanisms that underly hibernation.

Polar Bears Have The Luck Of The Irish

I recently learned that I share a trait with my absolute favorite animal, the polar bear, in that we can both trace our ancestry back to Ireland. For people who follow this blog, or have at least looked back through the archives a bit, you’ll see that I find it impossible to pass up a good polar bear story. I’ve written about animal healthcaremysterious death, and the polar bear’s status (or lack thereof) as an endangered species. So it should come as no surprise that I can’t pass up the opportunity to talk about this new research that shows an ancient Irish connection to modern day polar bears.

via Wikimedia Commons

A team of researchers led by Beth Shapiro of Penn State University and Daniel Bradley of Trinity College (Dublin) has identified a common ancestor of polar bears (Ursus maritimus) and brown bears  (Ursus arctos) that lived in Ireland before the peak of the last ice age some 20,000 to 50,000 years ago. The researchers concluded that all modern day polar bears can trace their lineage back to this ancient female brown bear. The specific lineage of the brown bear that shared their mitochondrial DNA with polar bears went extinct around 9,000 years ago, but the research still shows that the modern species are related.

Despite significant differences between polar bears and brown bears (size, coloring, fur type, tooth shape, swimming ability vs. climbing ability, etc.) scientists have suspected for some time that the species have closely connected histories. The polar bear is known to have mitochondrial DNA (the part of the genome contributed by the mother) that traces back to the brown bear. But how modern polar bears acquired this brown bear DNA was a bit of a mystery.

via Wikimedia Commons

The two species are known to interbreed, and have been studied in captivity in addition to being spotted in the wild. An example of a polar bear/brown bear hybrid, jokingly nicknamed grolar bear or pizzly, was found in the wild Canada in 2006. But, even with the knowledge that the two species can co-mingle scientists were still perplexed about the history of these different species. The long standing theory about how polar bears evolved from brown bears had their history traced to the ABC Islands (the Alaskan Islands of Admiralty, Baranof, and Chichagof) around 14,000 years ago. But the bears’ genomes tell us a different story.

The research team led by Shapiro and Bradley found that the hybridization of polar bears occurred much earlier than would have been possible on the ABC Islands through a genetic analysis of the bears. The study analyzed 242 samples from polar bear and brown bear mitochondrial DNA spanning 120,000 years and several different geographical regions. The researchers found that the fixation of the mitochondrial genome in polar bears likely occurred closer to 50,000 years ago in the area of present-day Ireland.

According to Shapiro, in addition to genetic evidence, the interconnected history of the polar bear and brown bear is also supported by climate events. One example of this is the British-Irish ice sheet, which reached its maximum range around 20,000 years ago. At this time parts of Ireland would have been difficult to inhabit, pushing bears from the warmer areas toward ice shelves and land exposed by lower sea levels. This would have brought the bears into close contact with their northern neighbors, showing how the animals that became two different bear species could have started out in the similar location, sharing their genes.

The polar bear is currently considered a threatened species, and future conservation efforts may be aided by this new understanding of its genetic history and its ability to hybridize with the brown bear. The research is described in the paper, “Ancient Hybridization and an Irish Origin for the Modern Polar Bear Matriline” in the journal Current Biology.