News From Space: The Weird Atmospheres of Titan and Io

alien-worldStudying the known universe is always interesting, mainly because you never know what you’re going to find. And just when you think you’ve got something figured out – like a moon in orbit around one of the Solar Systems more distant planet’s – you learn that it can still find ways to surprise you. And interestingly enough, a few surprises have occurred back to back in recent weeks which are making scientists rethink their assumptions about these moons.

The first came from Io, Jupiter’s innermost moon and the most volcanically active body in the Solar System. All told, the surface has over 400 volcanic regions, roughly 100 mountains – some of which are taller than Mount Everest – and extensive lava flows and floodplains of liquid rock that pass between them. All of this has lead to the formation of Io’s atmosphere, which is basically a thin layer of toxic fumes.

Io_mapGiven its distance from Earth, it has been difficult to get a good reading on what the atmosphere is made up of. However, scientists believe that it is primarily composed of sulfur dioxide (SO2), with smaller concentrations of sulfur monoxide (SO), sodium chloride (NaCl), and atomic sulfur and oxygen. Various models predict other molecules as well, but which have not been observed yet.

However, recently a team of astronomers from institutions across the US, France, and Sweden, set out to better constrain Io’s atmosphere. Back in September they detected the second-most abundant isotope of sulfur (34-S) and tentatively detected potassium chloride (KCl). Expected, but undetected, were molecules like potassium chloride (KCl), silicone monoxide (SiO), disulfur monoxide (S2O), and other isotopes of sulfur.

Io_surfaceBut more impressive was the team’s tentative of potassium chloride (KCl), which is believed to be part of the plasma torus that Io projects around Jupiter. For some time now, astronomers and scientists have been postulating that Io’s volcanic eruptions produce this ring of plasma, which includes molecular potassium. By detecting this, the international team effectively found the “missing link” between Io and this feature of Saturn.

Another find was the team’s detection of the sulfur 34-S, an isotope which had previously never been observed.  Sulfur 32-S had been detected before, but the ratio between the 34-S and 32-S was twice that of what scientists believed was possible in the Solar System. A fraction this high has only been reported once before in a distant quasar – which was in fact an early galaxy consisting of an intensely luminous core powered by a huge black hole.

These observations were made using the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX) antenna – a radio telescope located in northern Chile. This dish is a prototype antenna for the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA). And while Io is certainly an extreme example, it will likely help terrestrial scientists characterize volcanism in general – providing a better understanding of it here on Earth as well as outside the Solar System.

TitanThe second big discovery was announced just yesterday, and comes from NASA’s Cassini space probe. In its latest find investigating Saturn’s largest moon, Cassini made the first off-world detection of the molecule known as propelyne. This simple organic compound is a byproduct of oil refining and fossil fuel extraction, and is one of the most important starting molecules in the production of plastics.

The molecules were detected while Cassini used its infrared spectrometer to stare into the hydrocarbon haze that is Titan’s atmosphere. The discovery wasn’t too surprising, as Titan is full of many different types of hydrocarbons including methane and propane. But spotting propylene has thus far eluded scientists. What’s more, this is the first time that the molecule has been spotted anywhere outside of Earth.

titan_cassiniThese finding highlight the alien chemistry of Saturn’s giant moon. Titan has moisture and an atmosphere, much like our own, except that its rains are made of hydrocarbons and its seas composed of ethane. Scientists have long wanted to explore this world with a boat-like rover, but given the current budget environment, that’s a distant prospect. Still, sales of propylene on Earth are estimated at $90 billion annually.

While no one is going to be mounting a collection mission to Titan anytime soon, it does offer some possibilities for future missions. These include colonization, where atmospheric propylene could be used to compose settlements made of plastic. And when it comes to terraforming, knowing the exact chemical makeup of the atmosphere will go a long way towards finding a way to make it breathable and warm.

And in the meantime, be sure to enjoy this video about Cassini’s latest discovery. With the government shutdown in effect, NASA’s resources remain offline. So we should consider ourselves lucky that the news broke before today and hope like hell they get things up and running again soon!


Cities of the Future: Building with Bacteria

bio-building1Since the beginning of civilization, building hasn’t evolved much. In fact, archaeological digs show that between the Early Paleolithic and today, construction has moved at a snail’s pace. And while change has certainly sped up within the past few centuries – with mud and stone giving way to bricks and cement and thatch and wood giving way to steel and shingles –  the fundamental techniques and concepts remain largely unchanged.

However, a radical shift may soon be underway where traditional factories will give way to biological ones, and the processing of raw materials using hands and tools will be replaced by an active collaboration between human architects and cells specifically programmed to create building materials. In this new age, biology, rather than machining, will be the determining factor and buildings will be grown, not assembled.

the-livingAlready, biological processes have been used to manufacture medicine and biofuels. But the more robust materials for everyday life – like roofs, beams, floor panels, etc – are still the domain of factories. However, thanks to researchers like David Benjamin – a computational architect, professor at Columbia University, and the principal of the The Living (a New York architectural practice).

The purpose of The Living’s research is to redirect and engineer biological processes and then capture them using computational models. The end result is what is known as “human-cell collaboration”, where humans specify the shape and properties of a desired material and computers translate them into biological models. Patterned “sheets” of bacterial cells are then grown in the lab, determining the final design based on what was encoded in the DNA.

bio-buildingEmerging software, says Benjamin, will soon allow architects to create multi-material objects in a computer, translate these into biological models, and let biology finish the job. This will be done in laboratories, growing them under carefully engineered conditions, or tweaking the DNA to achieve precisely the right result before deploying them to build.

At the moment, Benjamin and his colleagues are working with plant cells known as xylem – the long hollow tubes that transport water in plants. These are being designed as computer models and grown in a Cambridge University lab in conjunction with various species of engineered bacteria. In addition, they are working with sheets of calcium and cellulose, seeking to create structures that will be strong, flexible, and filigreed.

And of course, Benjamin and The Living are hardly alone in their endeavors. Living Foundries Program, for example, is a a Department of Defense initiative that is hoping to hasten the developmental process and create an emergent bio-industry that would create “on-demand” production and shave decades and millions of dollars off the development, the process is far from perfect, and could take another decade to become commercially viable. But this is a relatively short time frame given the revolutionary implications. This, in turn, may open up what the former U.S. energy secretary Stephen Chu has called the “glucose economy,” an economic system powered largely by plant-derived sugars grown in tropical countries and shipped around the world, much as we do with petroleum today.

Once factories switch to sugar as a primary energy source, and precisely engineered bacteria become the means of manufacture, the model of human civilization may flip from one powered by fossil fuels to one running largely on biologically captured sunlight. It’s one of the hallmarks of the future, where programmed biology is used to merge the synthetic with the biological and create a “best of both worlds scenario”.

In the meantime, check out this conceptual video by one of Benjamin’s collaborators about the future of bio-building. And be sure to check out some of the The Living’s other projects by clicking here.


Powered By The Sun: Visualizing Swanson’s Law

solar_power1For decades, solar power has been dogged by two undeniable problems that have prevented it from replacing fossil fuels as our primary means of energy. The first has to do the cost of producing and installing solar cells, which until recently remained punitively. The second has to do with efficiency, in that conventional photovoltaic cells remained inefficient as far as most cost per watt analyses went. But thanks to a series of developments, solar power has been beating the odds on both fronts and coming down in price.

However, to most people, it was unclear exactly how far it had come down in price. And thanks to a story recently published in The Economist, which comes complete with a helpful infographic, we are now able to see firsthand the progress that’s been made. To call it astounding would be an understatement; and for the keen observer, a certain pattern is certainly discernible.

PPTMooresLawaiIt’s known as the “Swanson Effect” (or Swanson’s Law), a theory that suggests that the cost of the photovoltaic cells needed to generate solar power falls by 20% with each doubling of global manufacturing capacity. Named after Richard Swanson, the founder of the major American solar-cell manufacturer named SunPower, this law is basically an imitation of Moore’s Law, which states that every 18 months or so, the size of transistors (and also their cost) halves.

What this means, in effect, is that in solar-rich areas of the world, solar power can now compete with gas and coal without the need for clean energy subsidies. As it stands, solar energy still accounts for only  a quarter of a percent of the planet’s electricity needs. But when you consider that this represents a 86% increase over last year and prices shall continue to drop, you begin to see a very trend in the making.

What this really means is that within a few decades time, alternative energy won’t be so alternative anymore. Alongside such growth made in wind power, tidal harnesses, and piezoelectric bacterias and kinetic energy generators, fossil fuels, natural gas and coal will soon be the “alternatives” to cheap, abundant and renewable energy. Combined with advances being made in carbon capture and electric/hydrogen fuel cell technology, perhaps all will arrive in time to stave off environmental collapse!

Check out the infographic below and let the good news of the “Swanson Effect” inspire you!:


Towards a Cleaner Future: Fuel Cell Breakthrough!

hydrogen-fuel-cellOne of the greatest challenges facing renewable energy is making it affordable and cost effective, to the point where it will naturally offset such sources as fossil fuels and coal. And when it comes to hydrogen fuel cells, a recent development may have accomplished just that. Quite surprising when you consider that it came from Alberta, home of the Athabasca Oil Sands and an output of roughly 4 million barrels of crude a day.

It all happened late last month, when researchers at the University of Calgary published a paper in the Journal of Science that they had come up with a much cheaper and easier way to build an electrolyzer. This is the device that uses electricity to break up water into hydrogen and oxygen, which are then used to power hydrogen fuel cells.

Picture shows the refuelling hydrogen syFor some time now, these fuel cells have been considered the most promising means of powering automobiles with a clean, renewable energy source. By recombining the two basic elements of hydrogen and oxygen, energy is generated and the only waste product is water. The only difficulty is the means of production, as electrolyzers often depend on expensive and sometimes toxic metals.

The most common of current methods involves the use of expensive rare earth metals in precise crystalline arrangements to catalyze, or speed up, the reaction. But with the new process developed by Chris Berlinguette and Simon Trudel comes into play, which involves catalyzers built out of common metals without the need for the crystal structure, the process will not only be vastly simplified but extremely cheaper.

solar_arrayBased on the estimates presented in their paper, Trudel and Berlinguette estimate that their new eletrolyzer will deliver results comparable to current techniques but at a cost of about one-one-thousandth the norm. The implications for clean, renewable energy,  such as wind or solar generators, could be enormous. Not only would it be far cheaper and more efficient, there would be far less toxic waste materials produced.

Not only that, but another major stumbling block for clean energy could be overcome. As is the case with just about any type of renewable power source – wind, solar, tidal – is that it is dependent on conditions which limit when power can be generated. But stored hydrogen energy can be used at anytime and could easily replace gas and coal, just as long as the production process is cost-effective.

hydrogencarAs Berlinguette himself pointed out, making and electrolyzer cost-effective means being able to produce power on demand and to scale:

If you think of a wind turbine producing electricity at two o’clock in the morning, there’s no one around to actually use that electricity, so it just gets dumped. If you could set that up with an electrolyzer, you could convert that electricity into hydrogen, then the next day, when there is demand, you can sell that electricity at a premium during periods of high demand.

In anticipation of the inevitable investment this will attract, Berlinguette and Trudel have already formed a company called FireWater Fuel Corp. to market their work and expect to have a commercially available electrolyzer by next year. So for those of you with money to invest and a socially-responsible, environmental outlook, get out your check books out and be prepared to invest!



The Future is Here: The (Super) Supercapacitor

supercapacitor_movieLast year, researchers at UCLA made a fantastic, albeit accidental, when a team of scientists led by chemist Richard Kaner devised an efficient method for producing high-quality sheets of graphene. This supermaterial, which won its developers the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics, is a carbon material that is known for its incredible strength and flexibility, which is why it is already being considered for use in electronic devices, solar cells, transparent electrodes, and just about every other futuristic high-tech application.

Given the fact that the previous method of producing graphene sheets (peeling it with scotch tape) was not practical, the development of the new production process was already good news. However, something even more impressive happened when Maher El-Kady, a researcher in Kaner’s lab, wired a small square of their high quality carbon sheets to a lightbulb.

supercapacitor1After showing it to Dr. Kaner, the team quickly realized they had stumbled onto a supercapacitor material – a high-storage battery that also boasts a very fast recharge rate – that boasted a greater energy storage capacity than anything currently on the market. Naturally, their imaginations were fired, and their discovery has been spreading like wildfire through the engineering and scientific community.

The immediate benefit of batteries that use this new material are obvious. Imagine if you will having a PDA, tablet, or other mobile device that can be charged within a matter of seconds instead of hours. With batteries so quick to charge and able to store an abundant supply of volts, watts, or amperes, the entire market of consumer electronics would be revolutionized.

electric_carBut looking ahead, even greater applications become clear. Imagine electric cars that only need a few minute to recharge, thus making the gasoline engine all but obsolete. And graphene-based batteries could be making an impact when it comes to the even greater issue of energy storage with regards to solar and other renewable energy sources.

In the year since they made their discovery, the researchers report that El-Kady’s original fabrication process can be made even more efficient. The original process involved placing a solution of graphite oxide on a plastic surface and then subjecting it to lasers to oxigenate and turn the solution into graphene. A year ago, the team could produce only a few sheets at a time, but now have a scalable method which could very quickly lead to manufacturing and wide-scale technological implementation.

solar_array1As it stands, an electric car with a recharge rate of a few minutes is still several years away. But Dr. Kaner and his team expect that graphene supercapacitors batteries will be finding their way into the consumer world much sooner than anyone originally expected.  According to Kaner, his lab is already courting partners in industry, so keep your eyes pealed!

Combined with the new technologies of lithium-ion and nanofabricated batteries, we could be looking at a possible solution to the worlds energy problem right here. What’s more, it could be the solution that makes solar, wind, and other renewable sources of energy feasible, efficient, and profitable enough that they will finally supplant fossil fuels and coal as the main source of energy production worldwide.

Only time will tell… And be sure to check out the video of Dr. Kaner and El-Kady showing off the process that led to this discovery:


Powered by the Sun: The Ion Cannon Solar Panel

solar5Hello and welcome back to my ongoing series of PBTS, dedicated to all the advancements being made in solar power. Today’s entry is an interesting one, and not just because it involves an ion cannon… well sort of! It comes to us courtesy of Twin Creeks, a solar power startup that has come up with a revolutionary way to generate photovoltaic cells that are half the price of those currently found on the market.

For many decades, solar power has been held back due to the fact that the cost has been prohibitive compared to fossil fuels and coal. By offering yet another way of cutting the cost of their production, Twin Creeks is bringing this clean alternative one step closer to realization. Ah, but here’s the real kicker: turns out that this revolutionary process involves a hydrogen ion particle accelerator!

hyperion-particle-accelerator1-640x353As has been mentioned in this series before, conventional solar cells are made from slicing 200-micrometer-thick (0.2mm) sections of silicon wafer from a large block. Then electrodes are added, a sheet of protective glass is placed on top, and they are placed in the sun to generate electricity. But of course, this approach has two serious drawbacks. One, a great deal of silicon is wasted in the production process. Two, the panels would if they were thinner than 200 micrometers, but silicon is brittle and prone to cracking if it’s too thin.

And this is where Twin Creeks ion cannon, aka. Hyperion, comes into play. It’s starts with a series of 3-millimeter-thick silicon wafers being placed around the outside edge of the big, spoked wheel (see above). The particle accelerator then bombards these wafers with hydrogen ions and, with exacting control of the voltage of the accelerator, the hydrogen ions accumulate precisely 20 micrometers from the surface of each wafer.

twin-creeks-hyperion-wafer-ii-flexibleA robotic arm then transports the wafers to a furnace where the ions expand into hydrogen gas, which cause the 20-micrometer-thick layer to shear off. A metal backing is applied to make it less fragile as well as highly flexible (as seen on the right). The remaining silicon wafer is taken back to the particle accelerator for another dose of ions. At a tenth of the thickness and with considerably less wastage, it’s easy to see how Twin Creeks can halve the cost of solar cells.

This process has been considered before, but the cost of a particle accelerator has always been too high. However, Twin Creeks got around this by building their own, one which is apparently “10 times more powerful” (100mA at 1 MeV) than anything on the market today. Because of this, they are able to guarantee a product that is half the cost of solar cells currently coming out of China. At that price, solar power truly begins to encroach on standard, fossil-fuel power.

But, of course, there still needs to be some development made on producing solar cells that can store energy overnight. Weather strictures, such as the ability to generate electricity only when its sunny out, remains another stumbling block that must be overcome. Luckily, it seems that there are some irons in that fire as well, such as research into lithium-ion and nanofabricated batteries. But that’s another story and another post altogether 😉

Stay tuned for more sun-powered hope for the future!


Powered by the Sun: Solar-Powered Reactors

solar2Welcome back to another installment in PBTS! Today’s news item is a rather interesting one, and it comes to us from the University of Delaware where researcher Erik Koepf has come up with an interest twist on solar power. In most cases, scientists think to use cells that can absorb photons and use them to generate a flow of electrons. But in Koepf’s case, sunlight is used in a different way; namely, as a means of creating alternative fuels.

Basically, the concept for Koepft’s new solar-powered reactor revolves around the idea of getting directly to the hydrogen that is found in conventional fuels, i.e. coal and fossil fuels. While they are decent enough energy sources, they do not burn clean, due to the extensive impurities they carry and by-products they create. If it were possible to remove the essential hydrogen from them, we would have a clean burning and efficient energy supply without the hassle of pollution.

Nuclear MOX plant : recycling nuclear waste : Submerged Spent Fuel Elements with Blue GlowAnd that’s where the solar reactor comes in. As the name suggests, the reactor relies on the Sun’s energy, which it then uses to split water molecules to get at their hydrogen atoms. This is done by exposing a zinc oxide powder on a ceramic surface to massive amounts of focused sunlight. From there, a thermochemical reaction happens that splits water apart into oxygen and hydrogen.

Though it may sound complicated, the sheer beauty of this concept lies in that fact that it uses the Sun’s infinite energy to do the heavy lifting and accomplish atom smashing. No particle accelerators, no nuclear fusion or fission; and best of all, no pollution! Since the process creates no emissions or Greenhouse gases, this is perhaps one of the most environmentally friendly energy concepts to date.

But of course, the project has some additional requirement which fall under the heading, “additional parts sold separately”. For one, the reactor needs to get seriously hot – between 1750° to 1950° Celsius (3182° to 3542° Fahrenheit) – before it can get to the work of splitting water molecules. For this, a focusing mirror that is roughly 13 square meters, flawlessly flat and 98% reflective is needed.

solarpowergeNo much mirror existed when Koepf and Michael Giuliano (his research associate) got started, so they had to develop their own. In addition, that mirror needs to focus the solar energy it collects onto a tiny six centimeter circle that has to be precisely aimed. If the light is just a millimeter or two off to one side, the entire reactor could be damaged. In essence, the system is simple and ingenious, but also temperamental and very fragile.

What’s more, just how efficient it is remains to be seen. While the first tests were successful in creating small amounts of hydrogen, the  the real test will take place next month when the duo present their reactor in Zurich, Switzerland, where it will be running at full power for the very first time. Naturally, expectations are high, but it is too soon to tell if this represents the future or a failed attempt at viable alternative power.