A common algae that is already grown commercially to make fish food is looking like it may be far more valuable to us than that. Never mind keeping our finny friends happy, this particular type of blobby green may also be a source of both biodiesel and even jet fuel.
It’s all to do with an algael fat called alkenone, a compound consisting of long chains of carbon atoms, which researchers believe could be a potential fuel source.
Up to now, biofuel prospectors had dismissed this algae – known as Isochrysis – because its oil is a dark, sludgy solid at room temperature rather than a more useful clear fluid. However it is the sludge that makes this algae so special as it is caused by the alkenones and is the reason the algae could be a unique source of both fuels.
Researchers have now managed to separate out the alkenones from the other fats in the algae to create a free-flowing bio-fuel. They have also, thanks to inventing a Nobel Prize-winning chemical reaction, managed to break the alkenones’ 37-39 atom carbon chains into smaller pieces of between 8 and 13 carbons. Whilst 37 carbon atom chains are too big to be used as jet fuel, the smaller sections turn out to be just right.
The two hemispheres of Mars are more different from each other than is the case on any other planet in our solar system.
The northern hemisphere is made up of non-volcanic, flat lowlands, while the southern half of the planet is predominantly highlands, punctuated by countless volcanoes.
There have been numerous theories to explain this and the latest is that a celestial object at least one tenth the mass of Mars, must have smashed into the Martian south pole early in the solar system’s history. At the time, the Red Planet’s crust would have been very thin, like the crust of a crème brulée, hiding a liquid interior. The impact would have generated so much energy that a magma ocean would have covered the southern half of the planet. This molten rock eventually solidified into the mountainous highlands we see today.
It also triggered strong volcanic activity that lasted around 3 billion years. This extreme vulcanism caused the interior to cool very rapidly (in astrological terms), to the point where it could no longer maintain any vulcanism at all and the planet effectively died.
If this is right, Mars became an extremely hostile environment very early in its history and could never have supported the emergence of any form of life.
However, other researchers are adamant that, early collisions notwithstanding, Mars had a very significant volume of water for millions, if not billions, of years. Based on studies of the atmospheric water still to be found on Mars, researchers believe the planet’s early ocean must have been at least 20 million cubic kilometres. It is thought to have pooled in the northern hemisphere and would have covered a greater percentage of the planet than the Atlantic Ocean does the Earth.
Oceans are quite noisy places at the best of times, what with the weather, the movement and communication of fish and man-made noises like ships’ engines and sonar devices. However, the biggest cause of noise pollution in the whole underwater ecosystem is the air bubbles gushing from melting glaciers and their icebergs.
Fjords with melting glaciers are far and away the noisiest places in the ocean and generate sounds at all frequencies from 300 to 20,000 Hertz. Glacial calving is certainly noisy, but in a loud, short-lived sort of way. It is the consistent melting of ice from glaciers and their icebergs that is the real noise generator. The air trapped in the ice escapes as bubbles that ‘pop’ as they leave their icy prison, giving a constant, loud, background noise.
This begs the question of what difference will it make to the fjord ecosystem once climate change has reduced the glaciers to the point that they are melting on land instead?
At the moment, fjords with glaciers are foraging hotspots for all sorts of creatures as well as important breeding locations for harbour seals. It is thought they may use the underwater noise of the escaping air to help them hide from killer whales who hunt by listening to locate their prey.
As glaciers retreat on to land, the seals may lose this acoustic camouflage, which would explain why harbour seal populations are declining in fjords where glaciers no longer reach the sea.
Termite mounds can help prevent the spread of deserts into semi-arid ecosystems, according to a new study.
In the parched grasslands and savannas where termites make their home, they have a hugely beneficial effect on the surrounding ecology. Not only do their mounds store nutrients and moisture, but their extensive tunnels allow water to better penetrate the soil.
As a result, vegetation flourishes near termite mounds in ecosystems that are otherwise highly vulnerable to ‘desertification’.
The difference they make is so significant that lands with termite mounds can survive on substantially less annual rainfall than those without the little creatures.
A second advantage they unwittingly provide is to preserve seeds and plant life and this helps their immediate surroundings recover faster when it does eventually rain.
The amount of rain may be the same as in termite-less areas but, because the termite tunnels allow it to penetrate the soil better, the actual effect on plants is as if there had been more rain.
It may be that other mound-building animals such as ants, prairie dogs and gophers have a similar impact but so far there hasn’t been the research to prove it.
Vast ranges of volcanoes lie deep below the waves along the mid-ocean ridges that run like stitches where the earth’s tectonic plates meet.
It has always been assumed that these giants of vulcanism slowly oozed lava into the spaces left by plate movements at a regular, steady pace, having no influence on our world of air thousands of metres above them.
However, a new study shows that actually these undersea volcanoes flare up in regular cycles – some as often as every two weeks, others every 100,000 years or so – and that these eruptions happen almost exclusively in the first six months of every year.
These pulses in lava ejection are apparently tied to short- and long-term changes in the earth’s orbit and to sea-levels and may trigger natural climate swings.
The chains of undersea volcanoes stretch some 37,000 miles around the world’s oceans and produce possibly eight times as much lava as land volcanoes.
A couple of million years ago the heart of our galaxy, the Milky Way, was convulsed in a titanic eruption, driving gases and other materials outward at over 2 million miles an hour.
The aftermath of this mega-explosion can be seen today – billowing clouds of gas tower 30,000 light years above and below the plane of our galaxy.
This enormous structure was discovered five years ago, showing up as a gamma-ray glow in the sky, and being observed in x-rays and radio waves.
There are two possible origins for these massive bubbles of gas – perhaps there was a firestorm of star births at the galaxy’s centre, which would have produced supernovas and blown out the gas. Alternatively, a group of stars could have fallen into the super-massive black hole that lurks there, which would have blasted super-heated gas deep into space.
These bubbles of gas are short-lived in galactic terms, suggesting they are a repeating phenomenon in the Milky Way’s history. Another reason to be glad the earth is out in the backwaters of a spiral arm……
Our sense of touch is far more sensitive than most of us realise – so sensitive that if your finger was the size of the earth, it could feel the difference between houses and cars.
Swedish scientists have investigated the ‘unknown sense’ of tactile perception and found that people can detect nano-scale wrinkles on seemingly smooth surfaces.
Nano-scale? Basically this means we can feel a bump the size of a very large molecule.
These findings could lead to developments such as touch screens for the visually impaired. And as one of the scientist says ‘To make the analogy with vision, it is as if we have just revealed how we perceive colour. Now we can start using this knowledge for tactile aesthetics in the same way that colours and intensity can be combined for visual aesthetics’.
It seems that everyone on the planet with blue eyes has a single, common ancestor – someone from around 6,000 to 10,000 years ago.
The original, default eye colour is brown (which is still the most dominant in most parts of the world) but a genetic mutation way back when “turned off” the ability to produce brown eyes.
Variations in eye colour from brown to green can all be explained by the amount of melanin in the iris, which is governed by a particular gene. Mutations to this gene can reduce the production of melanin, effectively ‘diluting’ brown eyes to blue.
However, studies of blue-eyed people from such diverse populations as those in Jordan, Denmark and Turkey have found that they have very little variation in the amounts of melanin in their eyes. This suggests they are all linked to one ancestor and have all inherited the ‘switch’ that turns off melanin production at the same spot in their DNA.
Scientists have been trying for decades to work out how carbon behaves deep below the Earth’s surface, in fluids 100 miles below the surface and at temperatures of up to 2,100 degrees F
Now it has been revealed that, along with carbon dioxide and methane, Deep Earth also contains a rich variety of organic carbon species that could be responsible for forming diamonds and perhaps even providing food for microbial life.
The theory, called the Deep Earth Water model, suggests that these deep fluids, expelled from descending tectonic plates, may be responsible for transporting building blocks for life up into the shallow Earth.
They may also play a role in the creation of diamonds as scientists have believed for a long time that diamonds form due to chemical reactions involving either carbon dioxide or methane.
On a good day, our computers are so fast they seen almost instantaneous and this is about as fast as silicon can go….
However this silicon-imposed speed and size limitation of computer processors and memory could be overcome if we used “phase-change materials” (PCMs) instead.
These are materials that can switch between two structural phases with different electrical states – one crystalline and conducting and the other glassy and insulating – in billionths of a second.
The smallest silicon-based logic and memory devices are about 20 nanometres in size – around 4,000 times thinner than a human hair- but PCM devices can function down to about 2 nanometres.
The particular PCM researchers have been experimenting with is a chalcogenide glass, which can be melted and recrystallised in half a nanosecond (which is a billionth of a second) using voltage pulses.
In these PCM devices, logic operations and memory are located together rather than separately, as they are in silicon-based computers, and processing speeds could be 500 to 1,000 times faster than the average laptop we use today.
All this – and using less energy than current computers. All of which is great, but since the internet is already creaking at the seams I think it’s a bit like creating cars that can travel at 250 miles an hour when the road network is designed (on a good day) for 70 miles an hour and, in the busiest places, leaves your crawling along at 20……..