Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 39, 2006

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Issue 39, 2006

This week's headlines:

Scientists get free access to environment journals
November 06, 2006

A new initiative has provided scientists in developing countries with free access to online environment journals, with the aim of reducing the information gap between developed and developing countries.

Over 1,000 scientific journals are available to scientists from countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America through the Online Access to Research in the Environment (OARE) scheme, launched last month by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and US-based Yale University.

Seventy countries whose GNP per capita is below USD 1,000 now have free access to the journals. By 2008, access to OARE will extend to 37 other countries whose GNP is between USD 1,000 - 3,000. The institutions in those countries will pay USD 1,000 per year for the scheme. The initiative will give more than 1,200 public and non-profit environmental institutions access to scholarly scientific and technical journals in biotechnology, botany, climate change, ecology, energy, environmental chemistry and environment studies, including environmental economics.

Full story: SciDev Back to top

Dutch to transform big methanol plant to biofuels
November 03, 2006

A consortium of Dutch and Belgian investors have bought a methanol plant in the Netherlands to transform it into the world's first biomethanol plant, producing 1 billion litres of green petrol per year. The investors, BioMethanol Chemie Holding, have bought the plant from Akzo Nobel, DSM and Dynea.

The plant was taken it out of production a few months ago due to competition from oil-producing nations which use their excess natural gas to produce low-cost fossil methanol.

Production will start at 100 kilotons of biomethanol, 100 million litres, and rise tenfold to 1,000 kilotons soon afterwards. The plant will use a new and very efficient process to make biomethanol from glycerine, a byproduct of biodiesel which is yet another kind of renewable green fuel made from oil-containing plants. The price of glycerol has dropped sharply due to the increasing world production of biodiesel. Biomethanol can double as a direct in-blend and a replacement for the petrol additive MTB, currently used as a lead replacement.

Full story: ABC News / Reuters Back to top

Cooking up 'nanorust' could purify water
November 09, 2006

A new recipe for 'nanorust' could give developing nations a cheap tool for removing arsenic from drinking water. Arsenic contamination is linked to bladder cancer and is a big problem in many places, especially in Bangladesh and the neighbouring Indian state of West Bengal.

Chemists know that arsenic binds particularly well to iron oxides, including rust, but practical techniques for doing this have been slow and laborious. Researchers at Rice University in Houston, Texas, have improved the efficiency of this process by reducing the size of the iron oxide particles employed. This is because a given weight of smaller particles has more surface area available for binding than the same weight of larger particles.

The team added nanoscale iron oxide to contaminated water, where it clumped together with the arsenic. They then magnetised the nanoparticles with an electromagnet and pulled them out. At the moment, the high cost of making nanoparticles means the process is too expensive to be used widely. In principle, however, the nanoparticles are easy to make: the team created them by dissolving large pieces of rust in heated oleic acid, which can be found in ordinary olive oil.

Full story: New Scientist / Science Back to top

'Nanoporous' material gobbles up hydrogen fuel
November 07, 2006

Hydrogen-powered cars could one day store fuel safely and efficiently using polymers filed with nanoscopic holes. Researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, California, and the University of California in Berkeley, both in the US, have achieved a new record for absorbing hydrogen using such 'nanoporous' polymers.

The researchers created nanoporous polymers by heating and chemically treating styrene. The resulting material has an abundance of pores, each less than 2 nanometres in diameter. Hydrogen atoms naturally stick to the polymer, when cooled to around 77 Kelvin (-196°C), by forming surface bonds. This allows them to pack tightly inside the material's pores. The material then releases the hydrogen when the temperature is raised or the pressure is reduced.

The researchers found that at roughly 40 times atmospheric pressure, the nanoporous polymers contained 3.8 per cent hydrogen. And, at atmospheric pressure, they contained 1.5 per cent hydrogen, which is the best achieved so far for such a material.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Geothermal power plants could also consume CO2
November 08, 2006

Pumping CO2 through hot rocks could simultaneously generate power and mop up the greenhouse gases produced by fossil fuel power stations, according to a new study by the US Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.

Harnessing geothermal power involves extracting heat from beneath the surface of the Earth. Normally, this means pumping water down through hot rocks and extracting it again. But the new analysis suggests CO2 could extract heat from rocks more efficiently than water.

According to the study, CO2 could theoretically boost the amount of energy produced by hydrothermal plants by 50 per cent or more. At the same time, the technique could be used to dispose of the CO2 produced by conventional power plants, which contribute to global warming.

Although CO2 cannot carry as much heat as water, it could boost efficiency because it can move through the plant's system much more quickly. In addition, less energy would be required to drive CO2 through the system in the first place. Furthermore, because some gas would leak into the rock, such a plant could be used to store CO2.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Wave-powered 'ducks' could purify seawater
November 07, 2006

Ocean waves could provide an energy-efficient way to desalinate seawater. Stephen Salter at Edinburgh University, UK, first designed a device to generate electricity from wave power in the 1970s, dubbed the 'Edinburgh Duck'. Salter and colleagues are now working on a version that purifies seawater by driving a pump with its rocking motion.

The 'desalinating ducks' convert wave energy into pressure changes that aid the collection of pure water as steam from seawater. By lowering air pressure, the system can draw steam from water at lower temperatures. The hollow core of each duck is half-filled with freshwater for ballast, with the air above divided by a central section. To start working, the ballast water must be pre-heated to about 100°C but the whole system is insulated so that it only gradually loses heat and only needs to be refilled about once a month. The central section contains a heat exchanger that both heats seawater and collects the steam produced.

As the duck rocks on the waves the ballast water acts like a piston - increasing the air pressure on one side of the central partition and reducing it on the other. The low pressure helps draw steam out of seawater inside the partition. This steam is then condensed and the purified water is pumped ashore.

Full story: New Scientist / Journal of Engineering for the Maritime Environment Back to top

The birth of a quieter, greener plane
November 06, 2006

A team of researchers in Britain and the US has come up with a revolutionary new aircraft design that could make a dramatic contribution to curbing climate change.

The SAX-40, which has been developed by the Cambridge-MIT Institute, is a radically different shape of aircraft. Officially, it is what is known as a 'blended wing'. It has a tailless wedge-shaped body with two bat-wings. The plane is new quieter and also 35 per cent more fuel-efficient than any airliner currently flying.

Ever since the Boeing 707 first flew in 1957 and ushered in the commercial jet age, airliners have changed very little in their basic appearance. However, the skies are not going to fill with radically new aircraft shapes any time soon. If this design gets the thumbs-up from the manufacturers, planes such as the SAX-40 are unlikely to fly before 2030 at the earliest.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

3D computer map pinpoints pains
November 09, 2006

People in pain could soon use a 3D computer program to explain how severe their symptoms are. It has been developed by a team at Brunel University to help wheelchair users log, from home, how they are feeling during the course of a day. Currently, patients have to detail how their pain has been on pen and paper during their visits to the doctor.

The program, which only requires a standard portable computer, can be uploaded by doctors at any point. It means doctors can build up information on how pain changes and the types of pain a patient has.

The device was developed to help register how a person's pain changed during the day, particularly after medication was taken. Patients use a standard PDA to log where they feel pain on a 3D body image, which allows the user to zoom in on certain areas or rotate the image. They can also class their pain as burning, aching, stabbing, pins and needles or numbness - which are each represented as a different colour.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

'Spy lab' decodes disappearing ink
November 08, 2006

A US historian and chemist have teamed up to crack an old mystery: the formula the East German secret police used to make invisible ink.

Kristie Macrakis, a historian of science at Michigan State University discovered a partial formula in the archives of the East German secret police, the Stasi, after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. She approached chemist Ryan Sweeder at MSU's Lyman Briggs School of Science, to see if they could crack the ink code.

Working in a room dubbed the 'spy lab' with undergraduates, the researcher found that the Stasi used a system in which an agent would put a piece of paper impregnated with the chemical cerium oxalate between two pieces of plain paper. As the agent wrote on the top piece, the chemical was pressed on to the bottom piece. The bottom piece was sent to another agent, who used a solution of manganese sulphate, hydrogen peroxide and other chemicals to activate the cerium oxalate to reveal the hidden text. If the process worked, orange writing appeared.

Full story: CBC News Back to top