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First whale detected by newly deployed acoustic buoy in New York Bight

July 28, 2016 - 5:15pm
A new acoustic buoy recently deployed by scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and WCS's (Wildlife Conservation Society) New York Aquarium to listen for some of the world's biggest animals in the New York Bight has detected its first whale species, and it's a really big one.Fixed in position some 22 miles south of Fire Island and fitted with a digital acoustic monitoring instrument, the hi-tech buoy is now operational and has detected the vocalizations of fin whales, enormous marine mammals second in size only to the blue whale, the largest animal species on earth. The first whale detection was made on Monday, July 4th, only 12 days after the buoy was placed in its current position on June 23rd.Since that time, the buoy has made several fin whale detections; the most recent vocalizations were detected yesterday (July 27th) and today.

Videos reveal birds, bats and bugs near Ivanpah solar project power towers

July 27, 2016 - 5:15pm
Video surveillance is the most effective method for detecting animals flying around solar power towers, according to a study of various techniques by the U.S. Geological Survey and its partners at the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System facility in southeastern California.This study is the first to examine a variety of remote sensing and sampling techniques to determine which technology might be most effective for monitoring how solar power facilities impact flying animals. The information will be used to further study the effects of solar power infrastructure on flying animals -- a subject about which little is known -- and to develop ways to lessen harmful effects.At Ivanpah, evidence of flying animals impacted by intense heat near the solar towers had been observed. The new study showed that although birds and bats were occasionally seen near the towers at Ivanpah, most observations involved insects.

Silicon-air battery achieves running time of over 1,000 hours for the first time

July 26, 2016 - 4:48pm
Silicon-air batteries are viewed as a promising and cost-effective alternative to current energy storage technology. However, they have thus far only achieved relatively short running times. Jülich researchers have now discovered why.In theory, silicon-air batteries have a much higher energy density and are also smaller and lighter than current lithium-ion batteries. They are also environmentally friendly and insensitive to external influences. Their most important advantage, however, is their material. Silicon is the second most abundant element in the Earth's crust after oxygen: it is cheap and its reserves are practically inexhaustible.

Biological wizardry ferments carbon monoxide into biofuel

July 26, 2016 - 3:27pm
Cornell University biological engineers have deciphered the cellular strategy to make the biofuel ethanol, using an anaerobic microbe feeding on carbon monoxide - a common industrial waste gas."Instead of having the waste go to waste, you make it into something you want," said Ludmilla Aristilde, assistant professor in biological and environmental engineering. "In order to make the microbes do our work, we had to figure out how they work, their metabolism."Aristilde collaborated with her colleague Lars Angenent, professor of biological and environmental engineering, on the project. She explained, "The Angenent group had taken a waste product and turned it into a useful product."To make biofuel from inorganic, gaseous industrial rubbish, the researchers learned that the bacterium Clostridium ljungdahlii responds thermodynamically - rather than genetically - in the process of tuning favorable enzymatic reactions.

Lonely atoms, happily reunited

July 26, 2016 - 12:28pm
At first glance, magnetite appears to be a rather inconspicuous grey mineral. But on an atomic scale, it has remarkable properties: on magnetite, single metal atoms are held in place, or they can be made to move across the surface. Sometimes several metal atoms on magnetite form small clusters. Such phenomena can dramatically change the chemical activity of the material. Atomic processes on the magnetite surface determine how well certain metal atoms can serve as catalysts for chemical reactions.Scientists at TU Wien (Vienna), together with colleagues from Utrecht University, can now watch single platinum atoms form tiny clusters. Carbon monoxide plays a dual role in this process: It allows single platinum atoms to move and form pairs, and then it holds these pairs together for a long time. Only by increasing the temperature can the pair-bonds between platinum atoms can be broken.

Researchers printed energy producing photographs

July 26, 2016 - 11:52am
Solar cells have been manufactured already for a long from inexpensive materials with different printing techniques. Especially organic solar cells and dye-sensitized solar cells are suitable for printing.-We wanted to take the idea of printed solar cells even further, and see if their materials could be inkjet-printed as pictures and text like traditional printing inks, tells University Lecturer Janne Halme.When light is absorbed in an ordinary ink, it generates heat. A photovoltaic ink, however, coverts part of that energy to electricity. The darker the color, the more electricity is produced, because the human eye is most sensitive to that part of the solar radiation spectrum which has highest energy density. The most efficient solar cell is therefore pitch-black.

Solar Impulse Just Completed Its Momentous Flight Around the World

July 26, 2016 - 11:28am
Solar Impulse 2 touched down in Abu Dhabi today, becoming the first fuel-free plane to successfully circumnavigate the globe. OK, so the 22,000-mile trip took a minute: The solar-powered bird lifted off from the same city in March 2015. But despite a few setbacks, the plane and Swiss pilot Bertrand Piccard (who took shifts with fellow flyer André Borschberg) touched down without incident.Solar Impulse 2 is a seriously nifty machine. Its 236-foot wingspan makes it wider than a Boeing 747, but the thing is just 5,000 pounds. 17,000 rigid, photovoltaic panels charge four uber-efficient batteries, which make up nearly a third of the weight. Its four 17.4-horsepower motors definitely aren’t the fastest: The plane tops out around 90 mph, and traveled at an average of 38 mph across the Pacific. (Yeah, we’d honk at it on the highway, too.)

Spiders spin unique phononic material

July 25, 2016 - 2:50pm
New discoveries about spider silk could inspire novel materials to manipulate sound and heat in the same way semiconducting circuits manipulate electrons, according to scientists at Rice University, in Europe and in Singapore.A paper in Nature Materials today looks at the microscopic structure of spider silk and reveals unique characteristics in the way it transmits phonons, quasiparticles of sound.The research shows for the first time that spider silk has a phonon band gap. That means it can block phonon waves in certain frequencies in the same way an electronic band gap - the basic property of semiconducting materials - allows some electrons to pass and stops others.The researchers wrote that their observation is the first discovery of a "hypersonic phononic band gap in a biological material."

Unlocking the secret to cheaper solar power

July 25, 2016 - 2:23pm
As climate change garners more attention around the world, scientists at the University of Virginia and Cornell University have made critical advances in understanding the physical properties of an emerging class of solar cells that have the potential to dramatically lower the cost of solar energy.Solar cells remain a focal point of scientific investigation because the sun offers the most abundant source of energy on earth. The concern, however, with conventional solar cells made from silicon is their cost. Even with recent improvements, they still require a significant amount of electricity and industrial processing to be manufactured.In 2009, energy researchers turned their attention to a class of materials called "metal halide perovskites," or MHPs. They are sprayed on like paint onto solid objects, says Joshua Choi, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at the University of Virginia. As the solution dries, the MHPs crystallize into a thin film that can be used to capture energy in a solar cell.

New lithium-oxygen battery greatly improves energy efficiency, longevity

July 25, 2016 - 1:31pm
Lithium-air batteries are considered highly promising technologies for electric cars and portable electronic devices because of their potential for delivering a high energy output in proportion to their weight. But such batteries have some pretty serious drawbacks: They waste much of the injected energy as heat and degrade relatively quickly. They also require expensive extra components to pump oxygen gas in and out, in an open-cell configuration that is very different from conventional sealed batteries.But a new variation of the battery chemistry, which could be used in a conventional, fully sealed battery, promises similar theoretical performance as lithium-air batteries, while overcoming all of these drawbacks.The new battery concept, called a nanolithia cathode battery, is described in the journalNature Energy in a paper by Ju Li, the Battelle Energy Alliance Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT; postdoc Zhi Zhu; and five others at MIT, Argonne National Laboratory, and Peking University in China.

Soon solar will be the cheapest power everywhere

July 22, 2016 - 11:04am
Solar is already the cheapest available power across large swathes of the tropics, writes Chris Goodall - its cost down 99.7% since the early 70s. Soon it will be the cheapest electricity everywhere, providing clean, secure, affordable energy for all.Towards the end of last year, Shell CEO Ben van Beurden made a little-noticed remark. He said that solar would become the "dominant backbone" of the world's energy system.He didn't give a date for his prediction, or indeed define what 'dominant' means, but he accepted that the sun will eventually provide the cheapest energy source across almost all of the world.

Mars rover's laser can now target rocks all by itself

July 21, 2016 - 6:07pm
New software is enabling ChemCam, the laser spectrometer on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover, to select rock targets autonomously -- the first time autonomous target selection is available for an instrument of this kind on any robotic planetary mission. Developed jointly at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Research Institute in Astrophysics and Planetology in Toulouse, France, the ChemCam (chemistry and camera) instrument aboard Curiosity "zaps" rocks on Mars and analyzes their chemical make-up. While most ChemCam targets are still selected by scientists, the rover itself now chooses multiple targets per week."This new capability will give us a chance to analyze even more rock and soil samples on Mars," said Roger Wiens, principal investigator for ChemCam at Los Alamos. "The science team is not always available to pick samples for analysis. Having a smarter rover that can pick its own samples is completely in line with self-driving cars and other smart technologies being implemented on Earth."

Offshore wind powers ahead as prices drop 30% below nuclear

July 19, 2016 - 10:30am
The cost of offshore wind power in the North Sea is 30% lower than that of new nuclear, writes Kieran Cooke - helped along by low oil and steel prices, reduced maintenance and mass production. By 2030 the sector is expected to supply 7% of Europe's electricity. Output from the Dogger Bank project will be 1.2 GW (gigawatts) - enough to power more than a million homes. Next year, a 150-turbine wind farm off the coast of the Netherlands is due to start operating, and other schemes along the Dutch coast are in the works. Denmark, Sweden and Portugal are major investors in offshore wind, and China has ambitious plans for the sector. Wind farms - both onshore and offshore - are a key ingredient in renewable energy policy, and an important element in the battle against climate change. WindEurope, an offshore wind industry group, says that at the present rate of installations it's likely Europe will be producing about 7% of its electricity from offshore wind by 2030.Offshore wind developers benefit from falling costsBy some calculations, all this building work would seem to make little economic sense. Fossil fuel prices are low on the world market, and constructing offshore wind farms several kilometres out at sea, in often treacherous conditions, has traditionally been an expensive business.

Hummingbird vision wired to avoid high-speed collisions

July 18, 2016 - 5:10pm
Hummingbirds are among nature's most agile fliers. They can travel faster than 50 kilometres per hour and stop on a dime to navigate through dense vegetation.Now researchers have discovered that the tiny birds process visual information differently from other animals, perhaps to handle the demands of their extreme aerial acrobatics."Birds fly faster than insects and it's more dangerous if they collide with things," said Roslyn Dakin, a postdoctoral fellow in the UBC's department of zoology who led the study. "We wanted to know how they avoid collisions and we found that hummingbirds use their environment differently than insects to steer a precise course."Note: Watch a video of the experiments here: at UBC placed hummingbirds in a specially-designed tunnel and projected patterns on the walls to figure out how the birds steer a course to avoid collisions when they are in flight. They set up eight cameras to track the movement of hummingbirds as they flew through a 5.5-metre long tunnel.

Trees rely on a range of strategies to hunt for nutrient hot spots

July 18, 2016 - 4:59pm
On the surface, trees may look stationary, but underground their roots -- aided by their fungal allies -- are constantly on the hunt and using a surprising number of strategies to find food, according to an international team of researchers.The precision of the nutrient-seeking strategies that help trees grow in temperate forests may be related to the thickness of the trees' roots and the type of fungi they use, according to David Eissenstat, professor of woody plant physiology, Penn State. The tree must use a variety of strategies because nutrients often collect in pockets -- or hot spots -- in the soil, he added."What we found is that different species get nutrients in different ways and that depends both on that species' type of root -- whether it's thin or thick -- and that species' type of mycorrhizal fungi, which is a symbiotic fungus," said Eissenstat. "What we show is that you really can't understand this process without thinking about the roots and the mycorrhizal fungi together."Tree species with thicker roots -- for example, the tulip poplar and pine - avoid actively seeking nutrient hot spots and instead send out more permanent, longer-lasting roots. On the other hand, some trees with thinner roots search for nutrients by selectively growing roots that are more temporary, or by using their fungal allies to find hot spots.

A battery inspired by vitamins

July 18, 2016 - 4:12pm
Harvard researchers have identified a whole new class of high-performing organic molecules, inspired by vitamin B2, that can safely store electricity from intermittent energy sources like solar and wind power in large batteries.The development builds on previous work in which the team developed a high-capacity flow battery that stored energy in organic molecules called quinones and a food additive called ferrocyanide. That advance was a game-changer, delivering the first high-performance, non-flammable, non-toxic, non-corrosive, and low-cost chemicals that could enable large-scale, inexpensive electricity storage.While the versatile quinones show great promise for flow batteries, Harvard researchers continued to explore other organic molecules in pursuit of even better performance. But finding that same versatility in other organic systems has been challenging.

WSU researchers determine key improvement for fuel cells

July 18, 2016 - 3:15pm
Washington State University researchers have determined a key step in improving solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs), a promising clean energy technology that has struggled to gain wide acceptance in the marketplace.The researchers determined a way to improve one of the primary failure points for the fuel cell, overcoming key issues that have hindered its acceptance. Their work is featured on the cover of the latest issue of Journal of Physical Chemistry C.Fuel cells offer a clean and highly efficient way to convert the chemical energy in fuels directly into electrical energy. They are similar to batteries in that they have an anode, cathode and electrolyte and create electricity, but they use fuel to create a continuous flow of electricity.Fuel cells can be about four times more efficient than a combustion engine because they are based on electrochemical reactions, but researchers continue to struggle with making them cheaply and efficiently enough to compete with traditional power generation sources.

Mobile app for rain forecasts raises farmers' yields

July 14, 2016 - 8:12am
A mobile phone-based innovation that can predict rain is helping farmers in six Sub-Saharan Africa countries sow, fertilise and harvest crops at the optimum time.The innovation is being used in Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal to improve crop yields and optimise food production through information and communication technology (ICT) weather forecasting model that produces Global Positioning System (GPS)-specific forecasts.

Electricity generated with water, salt and a 3-atoms-thick membrane

July 13, 2016 - 3:16pm
EPFL researchers have developed a system that generates electricity from osmosis with unparalleled efficiency. Their work, featured in Nature, uses seawater, fresh water, and a new type of membrane just 3 atoms thickProponents of clean energy will soon have a new source to add to their existing array of solar, wind, and hydropower: osmotic power. Or more specifically, energy generated by a natural phenomenon occurring when fresh water comes into contact with seawater through a membrane.Researchers at EPFL's Laboratory of Nanoscale Biology have developed an osmotic power generation system that delivers never-before-seen yields. Their innovation lies in a three atoms thick membrane used to separate the two fluids. The results of their research have been published in Nature.

NASA eyes first-ever carbon-nanotube mirrors for CubeSat telescope

July 12, 2016 - 4:38pm
A lightweight telescope that a team of NASA scientists and engineers is developing specifically for CubeSat scientific investigations could become the first to carry a mirror made of carbon nanotubes in an epoxy resin.Led by Theodor Kostiuk, a scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, the technology-development effort is aimed at giving the scientific community a compact, reproducible, and relatively inexpensive telescope that would fit easily inside a CubeSat. Individual CubeSats measure four inches on a side.Small satellites, including CubeSats, are playing an increasingly larger role in exploration, technology demonstration, scientific research and educational investigations at NASA. These miniature satellites provide a low-cost platform for NASA missions, including planetary space exploration; Earth observations; fundamental Earth and space science; and developing precursor science instruments like cutting-edge laser communications, satellite-to-satellite communications and autonomous movement capabilities. They also allow an inexpensive means to engage students in all phases of satellite development, operation and exploitation through real-world, hands-on research and development experience on NASA-funded rideshare launch opportunities.