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air pollution smoke rising from plant tower

Latest estimates of atmospheric carbon dioxide shows horrifying future ahead

Human actions have depleted the natural resources of the planet to a great extent. From polluting the atmosphere, depletion of fossil fuels to harming aquatic life, human footprints have been literally everywhere. The price has to be paid by the coming generations.

Calculations by scientists showed that the carbon levels reached an all-time high of more than 415 parts per million in the middle of May. For the second time in the span of two months, researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and NOAA have bad news to be shared.

The team of researchers recorded the highest monthly average of carbon dioxide above the largest volcano in Hawaii since measurements began 61 years ago. The number is 414.8 parts per million, which has been the greatest of the increase in measurements made every year in May. Researchers at Mauna Loa Atmospheric Baseline Observatory have been recording the values from 1958 and the values have been plotted on a curve known as “Keeling Curve“- after Charles David Keeling who observed a strange trend. The results have been published by The Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

When the measurement began, the average annual increase of carbon dioxide was approximately 0.7 ppm. It increased to 1.5 ppm in the 1990s and in 2000s it had a value of 2.2 ppm. In 2019, both NOAA and Scripps found that this May monthly average – the highest point each year – is 3.5 ppm higher than it was in 2018. So, the annual change in CO2 is now 3.5 ppm per year. While a single reading can be dismissed, this continuous increment cannot be ignored.

Ralph Keeling, director of the CO2 program at Scripps and son of Charles Keeling commented that the human intervention in the earth’s atmosphere can be clearly observed as we focus on the bigger picture. Most of this change is due to the extremely high usage of fossil fuels which has led to search for more greener sources of energy. Climate model projections do not give us the current state of the atmosphere and they tend to overlook the alarming situation of global warming. However, these measurements are real time and give us an overview of our situation and where we are heading to.

Pieter Tans, an atmospheric scientist with the Global Monitoring Division of the NOAA remarked that it is very essential to have the correct, long term measurements of the carbon dioxide levels to get a clear understanding of the changes caused by fossil fuel pollution to our climate.

There have been many proposals on how to tackle the problem of global warming, but without a sharp decline of the carbon dioxide emissions, the proposals are borderline useless.

plastic wastes ocean

Researchers successfully convert plastic waste to jet fuel

A group of researchers at Washington State University has found a technique for converting the plastic waste products which are generated every day to jet fuel. Hanwu Lei of WSU and his colleagues have been successful in melting plastic waste at a very high temperature with the help of activated carbon, which is a processed carbon with a greater surface area to form jet fuel. The study has been published in the journal Applied Energy.

Lei, an associate professor at Department of Biological System Engineering in WSU commented that waste plastic is a major problem worldwide. But they have been able to recycle the plastic in a very simple way.

For the experiment, several low-density polythenes and a variety of waste plastic products such as water bottles, plastic bags were tested by the research group and they were ground to a very small size, around the range of three millimetres which is equal to the size of a rice grain. The granules of plastic were then kept above activated carbon, placed in a tube reactor at very high temperature, in the range of 430 to 571 degrees Celsius, which translates to 806 to 1060 Fahrenheit. The activated carbon plays the role of a catalyst which is a substance for increasing the rate of a chemical reaction without itself being consumed in it.

Lei remarked that since plastic is very difficult to be decomposed to smaller particles, the help of a catalyst has to be taken in order to break the chemical bonds. Plastics contain a very high amount of hydrogen, which is an important component in fuels.

Once the carbon catalyst has been used for one set of conversion, it can be again separated and reused for the next batch of conversion of plastics. If the catalyst loses its activity, it can be also be regenerated. Researchers tested several combinations of plastics and the best result obtained was a mixture of 85 per cent jet fuel and 15 per cent diesel fuel.

According to the estimates of Environmental Protection Agency, landfills located in the United States received close to 26 million tonnes of plastic in the year 2015. This is the most recent statistics which are available currently. Scientists estimate that at least 4.8 million tonnes of plastic enter the oceans in the world.

This new technique would help in making the best use of plastic and hence minimize its wastage. Lei said that almost 100 percent of the energy can be recovered from the plastic which is tested. The fuel which is obtained is of decent quality and the byproduct gases are of good quality as well. This process is even highly scalable.

Polish inventor and entrepreneur Jerzy Wysocki

Polish company manufactures edible plates to reduce plastic consumption

European Union has decided to ban all sorts of plastic utensils, cutlery from 2021. If you are wondering about the possible alternatives, you should know about the biodegradable plate that can also be eaten. Eaten? Yeah, you read it right.

Polish entrepreneur and inventor Jerzy Wysocki invented a biodegradable plate nearly 15 years ago which can also be consumed. Today, Biotrem manufactures almost 15 million such plates per year. Standing in the Biotrem production unit in Zambrow, northeast Poland, Wysocki says that a pork chop will certainly taste better in his wheat bran plate than on plastic.

Due to the ban, the production of these plates will certainly be skyrocketed. The plate itself does not contain many flavours. It will remind you something similar to dry flakes of cereal.

The idea for this kind of tableware came to Wysocki when he was looking for ways to use the leftovers from the flour production which took up a huge amount of space. He is also concerned about the increasing quantity of wastes which are polluting the oceans thus destroying the marine life. For manufacturing these plates, only wheat bran is used. It is then compressed at a very specific pressure and temperature with the help of a machine customized only for this use.

CEO of Biotrem, Malgorzata Then acknowledges the fact that these plates are certainly more expensive than the plastic products as they cost 17 US cents a piece, added with 20% for exports. However, for the cheap price of plastic, we have been compromising on environmental degradation and aquatic pollution for a long time.

The company’s first clients were those organisations who were conscious of the environmental damages caused by plastic and the hotel chains, restaurants who wanted to come up with something unique in their offerings. However, now due to the decisions taken by the European Union, companies ignorant about the environment are also paying extra attention.

Biotrem currently distributes the plates in several continents such as Europe, Asia, North America. The taste of the plates is even liked by the earthworms. Increase in the distribution would also mean a decrease in the prices. And on top, it would also be possible to use the same technology for making plates out of corn, barley, oats etc.

Wysocki says that although these numbers are not very high, they are big enough to remain positive for the future. Biotrem is considering the production of edible boxes for takeaway meals. Its research is at an advanced level, however, some changes are needed to make it more resistant to heat and fluids.

Besides Biotrem, scientists at the Gdansk University of Technology have come up with a way to manufacture cutlery from potato starch. They have been also tested on aquatic creatures and they can be easily consumed by these organisms.

 

wild bees

Scientists find bees using plastic for constructing their nests

Bees have been building their nests in the Argentinian crop fields with the help of strange materials. Scientists have detected bee nests which have been built fully from plastic waste. Plastics come to the farms in a variety of ways such as packaging. In these changing environments, the animals have to adapt to the conditions and it is up for debate whether they can keep up with the human activities.

A team of researchers from the National Agricultural Technology Institute in Argentina detected nests built from plastic in their research of chicory pollinators. For the research, the team constructed 63 trap nests in the fields. These nests are similar to the bee hotels which are built in the backyard of homes for solitary bees. It contains long hollow tubes which resemble the honeycombs in which bee larvae grow. These cavities are lined by bees with materials such as stones, leaves, mud. Then they use these materials for building the nests in the cavities that are separated into brood cells each containing one growing bee larvae. The study is published in the journal Apidologie.

The team checked the trap nests over the spring and summer of 2017, 2018 to check the signs of any bee activity there. Only three nests were used by the bees out of which two were built with the help of mud, stones. From the nests, five healthy bees came out. The third nest was built with plastic by the bees, distinctly shaped to oval and oblong structures. It contained three cells, two built from thin, blue plastic and the third made from thicker, white plastic.

Scientists mentioned in their paper that one of the three cells had a dead larva and an adult emerged from another cell, with the third cell left unfinished. This makes the indication that plastic may not be the ideal material for building although it is not the worst either.

The team could not identify the bee to the certainty that built the nest, however, it might be an alfalfa leafcutter bee. It is a European species which the team had previously noticed in the site. It works alone, uses the leaves for lining the nests and has been previously documented by scientists in North America while using plastic to construct bee cells.

Using plastic might have other advantages which are not yet known to us, however, it is difficult to make a single conclusion from only one nest. Although, it is an indication that bees are flexible to the changing environments and can use alternate materials for construction

crops

Climate change is already affecting global food production – and not equally

The world’s top 10 crops – barley, cassava, maize, oil palm, rapeseed, rice, sorghum, soybean, sugarcane and wheat – supply a combined 83 percent of all calories produced on cropland. Yields have long been projected to decrease in future climate conditions. Now, new research shows climate change has already affected the production of these key energy sources — and some regions and countries are faring far worse than others.

Published in PLOS ONE, the University of Minnesota-led study, conducted with researchers from the University of Oxford and the University of Copenhagen, used weather and reported crop data to evaluate the potential impact of observed climate change. The researchers found that:

  • observed climate change causes a significant yield variation in the world’s top 10 crops, ranging from a decrease of 13.4 percent for oil palm to an increase of 3.5 percent for soybean, and resulting in an average reduction of approximately one percent (-3.5 X 10e13 kcal/year) of consumable food calories from these top 10 crops;
  • impacts of climate change on global food production are mostly negative in Europe, Southern Africa, and Australia, generally positive in Latin America, and mixed in Asia and Northern and Central America;
  • half of all food-insecure countries are experiencing decreases in crop production — and so are some affluent industrialized countries in Western Europe;
  • contrastingly, recent climate change has increased the yields of certain crops in some areas of the upper Midwest United States.

“There are winners and losers, and some countries that are already food insecure fare worse,” says lead author Deepak Ray of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, whose high-resolution global crop statistics databases have also been used to help to identify how global crop production changes over time. These findings indicate which geographical areas and crops are most at risk, making them relevant to those working to achieve the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals of ending hunger and limiting the effects of climate change. Insights like these lead to new questions and crucial next steps.

Map of Earth and the change in units measured of crop yield from year to year.

Global map of changes in wheat yield on average annually. Units are measured by tons per hectare per year. Figure credit: Deepak Ray

“This is a very complex system, so a careful statistical and data science modeling component is crucial to understand the dependencies and cascading effects of small or large changes,” says co-author Snigdhansu Chatterjee of the University of Minnesota’s School of Statistics.

The Institute’s Global Landscapes Initiative, whose contributors to this study included Ray, Paul West and James Gerber, has previously produced global scale findings that have been put to use by international organizations such as the U.N., World Bank and Brookings in evaluation of global food security and environmental challenges. The scholars say this report has implications for major food companies, commodity traders and the countries in which they operate, as well as for citizens worldwide.

“The research documents how change is already happening, not just in some future time,” says Ray.

Materials provided by University of Minnesota

Megaraptor namunhuaiquii

Relation with T Rex found in fossils discovered 30 years ago

Humans of all age groups from children to great archaeologists have always been curious about the origin and existence of dinosaurs. Scientists at the University of Bonn and the Sirindhorn Museum have identified two new species of dinosaur which were based upon analyzing fossils discovered 30 years ago in Thailand.

The new species are distant relatives of the T.Rex dinosaur species but have a more primitive structure. Their work has been published in the journal Acta Palaeontologica Polonica. These fossils were discovered during excavation and were handed over to the Sirindhorn Museum.  Adun Samathi who is pursuing the research came over these fossils five years ago. He is currently pursuing a doctorate at Steinmann Institute of Geology, Mineralogy and Paleontology at the University of Bonn. He bought these fossils here to use the state of the art facilities at the University.

These group of dinosaurs are called megaraptors which is a group of carnivores predatory dinosaurs including the Tyrannosaurus-rex(T.Rex). They run on hind legs and their arms are strong and armed with long claws. They have a more delicate head which has a long snout ending. Samathi has said that these fossils can be assigned to the bones of a megaraptor named as Phuwiangvenator. Phuwiangvenator was believed to be the fastest runner with a length of about six meters and shorter than T.Rex who is 12 meters.

The main group of megaraptors are found in South America and Australia however they are believed to be originated in Southeast Asia and spread across the globe from there. Various characters of the Phuwiangvenator group indicate that they originated from Southeast Asia. Further unidentified fossils were discovered by a group of researchers which are of a predatory dinosaur species of length close to 4.5 meters, however, the species could not be identified. Scientists assume that this second species is a smaller variant in the dinosaur species called the Vayuraptor nongbualamphuenisis is also related to Phuwiangvenator and T. rex. Samathi compares this condition with that of the African black cats where the Phuwiangvenator is a lion and the Vayuraptor is a cheetah.

The recent findings and all the hard work of the archaeologists in finding the two new predatory species will be made public and presented on the tenth anniversary of the Sirindhorn Museum. Thai Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn will open the event. In the field of archaeology, there is no end as new fossils will lead to discovering of new species and theories.

 

Runit Dome

Fears of radioactive contamination of Cactus Dome increase in Runit Island

Nuclear tests which were carried out during war times and in the late 1900s have left a huge geographical impact on the area which is used for testing these explosives. The US tested their ‘cactus’ bomb in May 1958 which was relatively small but has left a lasting impact on the area of the Marshall Islands which has a dome-shaped radioactive dump.

This dome is located in Runit Island which is one of 40 islands of the Enewetak Atoll of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean. The dome was described as a coffin by the United Nations chief Antonio Guterres. The bomb crater was dumped with radioactive waste and later filled with concrete and it told the residents of the remote islands that they can safely return home. However, this dome has started to develop cracks and there are fears that it will soon start leaking radioactive material through the porous coral rock of the islands. The concern has intensified as the issues of climate change are gaining importance. Rising sea levels will further threaten the dome structure.

Jack Ading who represents the Marshall Island Parliament has called this dome a “Monstrosity” as it is filled with radioactive contaminants which include Plutonium-239 which is the most toxic substance known to man. The coffin is leaking poison in its surrounding areas and people of Marshall Islands are always reassured about its strength which is making matters worse at ground level.

The dome is a fine example of how US has left behind a mess by carrying out 67 nuclear tests at the Marshall Islands between 1947 to 1958. A lot of native population were forcibly evacuated from their native heartlands and resettled and even today those who live on those islands are exposed to radioactive fallout and suffer health problems. The US military later withdrew and signed a full and final settlement to the government of Marshall Islands but there have long been complaints about inadequate compensation by the US Government and United Nations has described this act as a “Legacy of Distrust” towards the states.

The foreign minister of Marshall Islands John Silk has appreciated people for bringing this issue to global attention. Issues like these require support of international community to address health and social issues.  A 2013 inspection commissioned by the US suggests that the radioactive fallout was already so high that a failure of the dome would not necessarily increase the exposure to radiation. This issue has been a constant source of anxiety for the people of Enewetak in the Marshall Islands and that people fear that the dome eventually could become their coffin.

 

Barberton Mts satellite NASA landsat 7

Researchers obtain trace of extraterrestrial matter in Makhonjwa Mountains

The Makhonjwa Mountains situated in South Africa have few of the oldest rocks on Earth. However, all the rock constituents do not have Earth as their place of origin. Researchers have informed that they have detected traces of some extraterrestrial material which has been buried deep in the volcanic remains dating back to some 3.3 billion years ago. The old age of the mountain range provides useful information about Precambrian environment in which the evolution of life took place. The study has been reported in Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta.

Frances Westall, an astrobiologist from CNRS Centre for Molecular Biophysics commented that this has been the first instance in which they have found actual tangible proof for extraterrestrial carbon present in the rocks. Earth has been impacted by violent meteorites from billions of years before which have led to major changes in the surface of the planet.

Several scientists hypothesize this far that the building blocks of life on Earth could be extraterrestrial molecules and the discovery in the Makhonjwa Mountains provides more support to this claim.

The volcanic deposit, Josefsdal Chert which lies within the Makhonjwa Mountains has a rock layer present in it bearing thickness of 2mm which has two “anomalous” signs in it. Taking the help of electron paramagnetic resonance spectroscopy, scientists have concluded that rock aging 3.3 billion years has two kinds of insoluble organic components, and both lead to extraterrestrial origins.

An EPR signal was similar to something scientists have seen before in carbonaceous chondrites: ancient meteorite samples which had organic compounds. This is the first instance where researchers have detected this. Several nano-materials of nickel, iron and chromium have also been identified in the rock samples, which are not usually detected in the rock formations of Earth. This suggests that they might have originated from some farther location in the universe.

Didier Gourier, a chemical engineer from PSL Research University explained that the formation of nickel-rich chrome spinels which are also termed as cosmic spinels takes place when extraterrestrial objects enter the atmosphere of the Earth.

The organic and spinel materials are supposedly contradictory in nature to exist at the same place in Josefsdal Chert. Scientists are not particularly sure regarding this explanation. The hydrogenated organic matter can only exist when the falling material’s temperature does not exceed that of a few hundred degrees. But, the cosmic spinels are formed only by the melting of an object when it enters Earth’s atmosphere.

Researchers have put forward a theory that micrometeorites might have mixed with the ash clouds and in the process of settling down on Earth, extraterrestrial carbon may have been preserved alongside cosmic spinels. Scientists are still exploring other possible causes of this phenomenon.

trimethoprim

Antibiotics found in some of the world’s rivers exceed ‘safe’ levels, global study finds

Concentrations of antibiotics found in some of the world’s rivers exceed ‘safe’ levels by up to 300 times, the first ever global study has discovered.

Researchers looked for 14 commonly used antibiotics in rivers in 72 countries across six continents and found antibiotics at 65% of the sites monitored.

Metronidazole, which is used to treat bacterial infections including skin and mouth infections, exceeded safe levels by the biggest margin, with concentrations at one site in Bangladesh 300 times greater than the ‘safe’ level.

In the River Thames and one of its tributaries in London, the researchers detected a maximum total antibiotic concentration of 233 nanograms per litre (ng/l), whereas in Bangladesh the concentration was 170 times higher.

Trimethoprim

The most prevalent antibiotic was trimethoprim, which was detected at 307 of the 711 sites tested and is primarily used to treat urinary tract infections.

The research team compared the monitoring data with ‘safe’ levels recently established by the AMR Industry Alliance which, depending on the antibiotic, range from 20-32,000 ng/l.

Ciproflaxacin, which is used to treat a number of bacterial infections, was the compound that most frequently exceeded safe levels, surpassing the safety threshold in 51 places.

Global problem

The team said that the ‘safe’ limits were most frequently exceeded in Asia and Africa, but sites in Europe, North America and South America also had levels of concern showing that antibiotic contamination was a “global problem.”

Sites, where antibiotics exceeded ‘safe’ levels by the greatest degree, were in Bangladesh, Kenya, Ghana, Pakistan and Nigeria, while a site in Austria was ranked the highest of the European sites monitored.

The study revealed that high-risk sites were typically adjacent to wastewater treatment systems, waste or sewage dumps and in some areas of political turmoil, including the Israeli and Palestinian border.

Monitoring

The project, which was led by the University of York, was a huge logistical challenge – with 92 sampling kits flown out to partners across the world who were asked to take samples from locations along their local river system.

Samples were then frozen and couriered back to the University of York for testing. Some of the world’s most iconic rivers were sampled, including the Chao Phraya, Danube, Mekong, Seine, Thames, Tiber and Tigris.

Dr John Wilkinson, from the Department of Environment and Geography, who co-ordinated the monitoring work said no other study had been done on this scale. He said: “Until now, the majority of environmental monitoring work for antibiotics has been done in Europe, N. America and China. Often on only a handful of antibiotics. We know very little about the scale of problem globally.

“Our study helps to fill this key knowledge gap with data being generated for countries that had never been monitored before.”

Antimicrobial resistance

Professor Alistair Boxall, Theme Leader of the York Environmental Sustainability Institute, said: “The results are quite eye opening and worrying, demonstrating the widespread contamination of river systems around the world with antibiotic compounds.

“Many scientists and policy makers now recognise the role of the natural environment in the antimicrobial resistance problem. Our data show that antibiotic contamination of rivers could be an important contributor.”

“Solving the problem is going to be a mammoth challenge and will need investment in infrastructure for waste and wastewater treatment, tighter regulation and the cleaning up of already contaminated sites.”

Material provided by University of York

Researchers show the test device for assessing the heat-moving capabilities of the cooling wood.

Researchers develop sustainable wood with improved cooling capacities

It would have been awesome if instead of using expensive devices, the building material of the house performed the cooling and reduced the electricity expenses. Scientists from the University of Maryland and Colorado have used the technology found in nature for solving the heat problems which is also sustainable. The results of this study have been published in the Science journal.

Researchers have found the solution in wood which is sustainable and is already used for building homes. By using the structures found in wood, the cellulose nanofibres and the chambers which allow the passage of water and nutrients, the optical properties of the wood expel the heat.

Professor Jian Li of Northeast Forestry University remarked that due to this research, wood can be used in fighting the current energy crisis. University of Maryland professor, Liangbing Hu along with the co-authors of the paper Tian Li and Shuaiming He has been working on the advanced applications of wood for several years now. The team has invented many wide-ranging technologies based on wood such as transparent wood, affordable batteries based on wood and also a water purifier.

The cooling wood is only composed of wood and it does not contain any other component like polymer. When it will be used for building purposes, this material can cool down the building without the help of external sources such as water, electricity.

Lignin is removed from the wood, which is the component responsible for the strength and brown colour of the wood. By removing it, researchers manufactured a pale wood comprising of cellulose nanofibres. For making it water repellent, a hydrophobic component was added for protecting the wood. This led to a white building material suitable for making the roof of buildings to repel heat.

For testing purposes, the wood was taken to the farms in Arizona which has sunny weather. The cooling wood was tested and they found that on average it remained five to six degrees Fahrenheit cooler than the normal temperature. Even in the hottest time of the day, the wood remained cooler than air. When compared to the normal wood in sunlight, it remains 12 degrees cooler.

On the strength aspect, the per weight mechanical strength of the wood is more than steel which is why it is very suitable for construction purposes. As compared to natural wood it is 10 times stronger and also passes the scratch test.

Researchers found that in hotter cities like Phoenix, Honolulu this cooling wood would save the maximum energy and in the buildings made after 2004, it would save 20% of the cooling costs.