Archives for the month of: October, 2013

Pollution with plastic waste is not confined to the oceans but poses a growing threat to lakes as well.

That is the view of researchers who found significant concentrations of the substance in Italy’s Lake Garda.

They say the levels are similar to those found in samples taken from marine beach sediments.

They are concerned that these tiny plastic particles are accumulating in freshwater species and are “likely” to get into the food chain.

The research is published in the journal, Current Biology.Plastic Waste 1

The problem of large amounts of plastic polluting the world’s oceans hasbeen well documented in recent years.

As well as bigger pieces that can choke sea creatures when ingested, there is an equally serious issue with very small fragments called micro-plastics.

But research on the problems caused by plastic in lakes has been lacking.

Danger on the Shore

This new study looked at Lake Garda, a large, sub-alpine body of water. The researchers found significant concentrations of plastic in sediment samples. On the north shore they found around 1,000 larger particles per square metre and 450 micro-plastic particles in the same area.

“We were surprised,” lead author Prof Christian Laforsch from the University of Bayreuth told BBC News.

“We have similar amounts of plastic particles in the sediment of the lake’s ecosystem as we find in marine ecosystems.”

Chemicals found in plastics can be poisonous, can damage endocrine systems or in some cases cause cancers.

They can also transport dangerous organic pollutants into clean environments like lakes.

Landfill to Lake

Plastic Lakes

Previous research on fish and other marine creatures has shown that these species tend to accumulate tiny plastic fragments into their tissue. Prof Laforsch worries that this is happening in Lake Garda and elsewhere.

“What we show is that filter feeders and sediment feeders and organisms that feed on the surface layer of the lake, all swallow these plastic particles mistaking them for food.

“There might be impacts when it affects the hormone system, they could become sterile for example. It could also be, that when fish are feeding on these organisms they accumulate these particles also in their tissue.”

The problem is being caused by human use of plastic materials say the researchers.

Apart from water sports, and tourist and fishing boats, the main sources of waste entering Lake Garda were discarded plastic products and debris which may originate from landfill sites.

The scientists are also concerned that the discovery of significant amounts of plastic in lake environments could have implications for human populations as the waters are often used for drinking and for agriculture.

And they argue that, as in the seas, plastic pollution is likely to be widespread in freshwater bodies.

“There is nothing particular about Lake Garda,” said Prof Laforsch.

“We are testing in Bavaria and it looks pretty much the same. It is, I think, a problem all over Europe and maybe all over the world.”

Content provided by Matt McGrath, Environment Correspondent

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For thousands of years, Judean date palm trees were one of the most recognizable and welcome sights for people living in the Middle East — widely cultivated throughout the region for their sweet fruit, and for the cool shade they offered from the blazing desert sun.

Tree Extinct 1

From its founding some 3,000 years ago, to the dawn of the Common Era, the trees became a staple crop in the Kingdom of Judea, even garnering several shout-outs in the Old Testament. Judean palm trees would come to serve as one of the kingdom’s chief symbols of good fortune; King David named his daughter, Tamar, after the plant’s name in Hebrew.

By the time the Roman Empire sought to usurp control of the kingdom in 70 AD, broad forests of these trees flourished as a staple crop to the Judean economy — a fact that made them a prime resource for the invading army to destroy. Sadly, around the year 500 AD, the once plentiful palm had been completely wiped out, driven to extinction for the sake of conquest.

In the centuries that followed, first-hand knowledge of the tree slipped from memory to legend. Up until recently, that is.

Tree Extinct 2

During excavations at the site of Herod the Great’s palace in Israel in the early 1960’s, archeologists unearthed a small stockpile of seeds stowed in a clay jar dating back 2,000 years. For the next four decades, the ancient seeds were kept in a drawer at Tel Aviv’s Bar-Ilan University. But then, in 2005, botanical researcher Elaine Solowey decided to plant one and see what, if anything, would sprout.

“I assumed the food in the seed would be no good after all that time. How could it be?” said Solowey. She was soon proven wrong.

Amazingly, the multi-millennial seed did indeed sprout — producing a sapling no one had seen in centuries, becoming the oldest known tree seed to germinate.

Today, the living archeological treasure continues to grow and thrive; In 2011, it even produced its first flower — a heartening sign that the ancient survivor was eager to reproduce. It has been proposed that the tree be cross-bred with closely related palm types, but it would likely take years for it to begin producing any of its famed fruits. Meanwhile, Solowey is working to revive other age-old trees from their long dormancy.

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 A new shape-changing metal crystal is reported in the journal Nature, by scientists at University of Minnesota.

It is the prototype of a new family of smart materials that could be used in applications ranging from space vehicles to electronics to jet engines.

Called a “martensite”, the crystal has two different arrangements of atoms, switching seamlessly between them.

Ss Metals

It can change shape tens of thousands of times when heated and cooled without degrading, unlike existing technology.

Currently, martensite metals are made of an alloyed mixture of nickel and titanium.

They have the remarkable ability to “remember” their shape and even after being bent will return to their original form. For this, they are called “shape memory” metals.

They have been used in spectacle frames and brassiere wires, but also in surgery as frameworks for shaping healing bones, and as “stents” for holding heart arteries open.

Martensite metals change shape when heated or cooled through a certain temperature, when the atoms that make up their structure rearrange themselves in a sudden transformation.

Some call this a “military transformation” because the rows of atoms that make up the metal crystal click into their new shape in an orderly manner.

The transformation means that martensite can be used in smart mechanisms that respond to temperature change.

Examples include automatic windows-openers in glasshouses, a means for automatically guiding solar panels to point at the Sun on the Hubble Space Telescope, and, very recently, a proposed use in the Boeing 787 Dreamliner to morph the trailing edge of the engine cowling, making it quieter when it runs hot on take-off.”

Ss Metals2

The pitfall of current martensites is that after repeated shape changes, they build up stresses inside that degrade them and eventually break them apart. The new alloy, made of a mixture of zinc, gold and copper, changes back and forth almost indefinitely with little internal damage, opening up a new range of applications for these types of “active materials”.

The aim is now to apply the lessons learned from the new metal to make a family of ceramic solids that can also be shape-switched back and forth.

“The real advance is to make the transformations reversible that could be applied in many situations” explains Prof Richard James, one of the authors of the study.

“You could make devices that convert heat to electricity directly. They could use the waste heat from computers and cell phones to recharge the battery and make them more efficient.”

As the material cycles through its different atomic arrangements, crystals can be seen at its surface in ever-changing patterns, looking like microscopic rivers.

The structures fit together without any stress layers between them, and this seems to be the key to their longevity and potential.

The new materials could also be used in improved and efficient microelectromechanical systems – energy harvesting devices, in which small vibrations can be converted directly into power.

These sorts of gizmos are already used in tyre pressure-monitoring systems in cars to power the electronics in the sensors.

Content provided by Simon Redfern, Science writer, BBC News,

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Tests showed that exhaust degraded some floral scent chemicals the bees “home in on” when they are foraging.

The study, published in Scientific Reports, also revealed that a specific group of chemicals found in diesel exhaust, known as NOx, diminished the insects’ response to floral scents.

They say the results are evidence that air quality should be improved.

“We got into this, because we were aware of the impacts of airborne pollutants on human health, so it didn’t seem so wild that there may be impacts that extended beyond human health,” said University of Southampton neuroscientist Dr Tracey Newman, who was involved in the work.


They then used a diesel-powered generator to create a mixture of air and exhaust that closely matched levels of exhaust found on a busy road, and mixed this lab-made air pollution with the floral scent mix.To drill down to the chemical effects of pollution on the pollinators, the researchers made a mixture of the volatile, or smelly, chemicals that make up the scent of oilseed rape.

“We saw that there was loss of two of the components [of the floral odour mixture],” Dr Newman said.

The two odour chemicals that were “lost” had chemically reacted with a component of the diesel exhaust, mono-nitrogen oxide, known as NOx.

Having worked out how the pollution affected the chemistry of floral scents, the team set out to discover if the bees were affected by this change.

“Bees need to decipher the chemical messages they’re getting [from flowers] to be able to home in on the flowers they know will give the best yield [of nectar],” said Dr Newman.

The pollinators, she said, learned to recognise the scents of nectar-rich flowers and this enabled them to forage more efficiently

Sniff Test

The team carried out a test that involved teaching bees to associate the smell of a particular chemical with being given a drop of sugary liquid.

Bees 1

Bees respond to the taste of the sugar by sticking out their tongues – just as they do when drinking nectar from a flower. So after a few trials where the scent of the odour is followed closely by a sweet drop of liquid, the bees stick out their tongues as soon as they detect the scent.
When these odour chemicals were degraded by NOx, the bees were much less responsive to their smell and would not stick out their tongues.”Having trained a bunch of bees, we then tested to see if they would respond in the same way to the mixture that was depleted by exposure to NOx [the reactive chemical in diesel exhaust],” said Dr Newman.

Biologist and lead researcher Dr Guy Poppy added that the airborne pollution appeared to be interfering with “the complex relationship” that had evolved between plants and animals.

“Flowers have evolved to produce chemical mixtures that attract pollinators,” he told BBC News.

Dr Newman added that the study highlighted the need to reduce pollution and improve air quality, in order to protect pollinating insects as well as improve human health.

The value to food production of so-called “pollination services” is estimated to be hundreds of millions of pounds per year in the UK alone.

Prof James Nieh, who studies honeybee health and behaviour at the University of California San Diego, said that the research posed a “largely unexplored question”.

“Most research on such contaminants has focused on pesticides,” he told BBC News.

“But bees are subject to a much wider variety of pollutants and contaminants. The influence and potential synergy of these pollutants with pesticides should be studied.”

Article from Victoria Gill of BBC News (

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The Volkswagen XL1, which we previously covered in both the prototype and “production” form, is making its official debut in the United States today at the 23rd Annual Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) Conference at the Chattanooga Convention Center. I usually called it a “production” vehicle with quote-marks because – unless plans change – only 250 will be made. So it’s not really a production model like the Jetta, but it’s also not quite a one-off.

VW 1

The XL1 offers an estimated European combined fuel consumption rating of 261 mpg (more than 200 mpg estimated in the U.S. cycle) and can cover up to 32 miles as a zero-emissions vehicle in all-electric mode. Combining to create the exceptional frugality are its light weight (1753 pounds), impressive aerodynamics (Cd 0.19), and a low center of gravity. According to VW: “This super-efficient Volkswagen has the ability to cruise down the road at a constant 62 mph while using just 8.4 PS (6.2kW) horsepower. In all-electric mode, the XL1 requires less than 0.1 kWh to cover more than a kilometer.”

“The XL1 offers a glimpse into Volkswagen’s present and future eco-mobility capabilities, and highlights the ultimate successes of ‘Thinking Blue’,” said Oliver Schmidt, General Manager of the Engineering and Environmental Office (EEO), Volkswagen Group of America, Inc. “Volkswagen is proud to debut this ultra-fuel-efficient vehicle before the Society of Environmental Journalists, a group that shares in our commitment to environmental stewardship.”

VW 2

The XL1 emits just 21 g/km of CO2, thanks to its high-tech lightweight design, aerodynamic efficiency, and a plug-in hybrid system consisting of a 48 PS (35kW) two-cylinder TDI® engine, a 27-hp electric motor, a seven-speed DSG® dual-clutch automatic transmission, and a lithium-ion battery. The estimated European driving cycle of 261 mpg fuel consumption figure is a record that has not been achieved by any other vehicle to date, showing that Volkswagen is redefining what is technically feasible in the automotive industry. The XL1 also has a top speed of 99 mph and can accelerate from 0 to 62 mph in 12.7 seconds.

The XL1 is 153.1 inches long, 65.6 inches wide, and just 45.4 inches tall. By comparison, a Volkswagen Polo is slightly longer (156.3 in) and wider (66.2 in), but is significantly taller (57.6 in). Even a purebred sports car like today’s Porsche Boxster is 5.1 inches taller. The XL1 will look spectacular going down the highway—a car of the future, built for today.

To keep things futuristic, they also have an augmented reality app for iPad that shows how to maintain and repair the XL1.

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Visiting the Colosseum in Rome last year, I was surprised to see that it wasn’t made of brick, but that the brick is really just acting as formwork for the Roman concrete inside. I am not a big fan of concrete; the manufacture of cement is responsible for about 5% of the world’s annual CO2 production, and the mining of aggregate is chewing up the countryside. However a new study shows that Roman concrete was in fact a lot better than the stuff we mix today. The Utne Reader points to a new study:

Russian Concrete

Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, summarized their findings in the Journal of the American Ceramic Society, and found the ancient Roman combination of limestone, volcanic ash, and seawater required far less heat (which means far less fuel) for solidification than modern concrete does. This suggests that contemporary application of the ancient Roman method may yield stronger, more durable concrete with a much smaller environmental footprint.

The Romans didn’t use portland cement, which is made from limestone heated to 1,450 degrees Celsius; they mixed lime with pozzolana, or volcanic ash. This requires far less energy as the lime only needs to be heated to 900 degrees.Conservation Magazine notes:

The mixture of lime and ash from nearby volcanoes reacts with seawater to form an extremely strong and stable material. This recipe could provide a model for producing durable, environmentally friendly concretes, say the researchers, since volcanic ash is found in many areas of the world.

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