Fingerprinting mercury emissions from coal

Tom Marcinko @ 17-10-2008

About 2000 tons of mercury from human-generated sources enter the environment every year, but tracing natural versus human sources, and sorting out local pollutants from distant sources, has been been a problem. University of Michigan scientists say they’ve taken a big step towards reading mercury “fingerprints.”

“For some time, we weren’t sure that it was going to be technically possible, but now we’ve cracked that nut and have shown significant differences not only between mercury from coal and, say, metallic forms of mercury that are used in industry, but also between different coal deposits,” [ecologist Joel] Blum said.

How it works:

The fingerprinting technique relies on a natural phenomenon called isotopic fractionation, in which different isotopes (atoms with different numbers of neutrons) of mercury react to form new compounds at slightly different rates. In one type of isotopic fractionation, mass-dependent fractionation, the differing rates depend on the masses of the isotopes. In mass-independent fractionation, the behavior of the isotopes depends not on their absolute masses but on whether their masses are odd or even. Combining mass-dependent and mass-independent isotope signals, the researchers created a powerful fingerprinting tool.

[Image: Christopher Gruver]

The Wire

Tom Marcinko @ 03-06-2008

Personally, I won’t believe it till I hear some guy on cable screaming about it at the top of his lungs. But how about a nanowire-mesh “paper towel” that can clean up 20 times its weight in oil, and recycle the gunk for future use? It might filter and purify water, too.

The new material appears to be completely impervious to water. “Our material can be left in water a month or two, and when you take it out it’s still dry,” [MIT materials scientist Francesco] Stellacci said. “But at the same time, if that water contains some hydrophobic contaminants, they will get absorbed.”

[Photos: Francesco Stellacci, MIT, and Nature Nanotechnology] [story via Gregory Frost]

Making Our Future as Better Ancestors

Tom Marcinko @ 02-06-2008

StonehengeIt seems to be the custom for new Futurismic posters to introduce themselves. I don’t see race, sex, age, residence, politics, or preferences. But people tell me I’m a 53-year-old white guy who lives in Arizona, leans to the left, and likes fiction, history, journalism, science, The Loud Family and The New Pornographers, and I believe them.

The birth of yet another niece puts me in mind of Samantha Powers’ recent commencement advice: “Be a good ancestor.” One way to do that might be to start treating the environment as part of the economy, by putting a dollar value on it. A report to the U.N. Commission on Biodiversity estimates that humans do at least $78 billion worth of damage each year, “eating away at our nature capital” through deforestation and pollution. Sobering to consider that about 40% of the world economy is still based on biological products and processes.

In light of the likely first contact with an uncontacted seminomadic Amazon tribe on the borderlands of Brazil and Peru, we probably need to factor cultural diversity into the equation, too. There’s something poignant and human about that AP photo of tribespeople firing arrows at an aircraft.

Think about all our ancestors have done for us. The origin and purpose of Stonehenge is no longer a total mystery, according to recent investigations: it served as a cemetary for at least 500 years beginning 5,000 years ago. It may have functioned for 20 or 30 generations as the resting place of a ruling dynasty. At least 300 surrounding homes made it one of the largest villages in northwestern Europe.

Ancestor-worship as big business? If that’s not old enough for you, consider a 375-million-year-old ancestor called the placoderm fish, with a fossil embryo attached with an umbilical cord. It’s the oldest known instance of live birth. Now think what our moms put up with, bringing us into the world. [Image by Danny Sullivan]

Data centers set to pollute more than airlines by 2020

Paul Raven @ 05-05-2008

Old rackmount server unitSo, once we’ve managed to tighten up on inefficient technologies and business practices in the transport industries, we’ll be home free on this environmental stuff, right?

Well, no. The little metal box that Futurismic lives on – doubtless in some anonymous room full of similar boxes – is doing its little bit to consume energy and, in the process, contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. So much so that projections suggest data centers will be bigger polluters than the air travel sector in little less than a decade. [image by Jemimus]

Hyperbole aside, this makes it clear how rapidly we’re expanding our use of server farms – and with the growth of cloud computing that trend is unlikely to reverse any time soon. But as is pointed out immediately on Slashdot, there’s a lot more scope for the data centres to cut down on their pollution levels than for the airlines.

At least, I hope so. The thought of bloggers becoming pariahs in the same way the SUV drivers have makes me a trifle uneasy … 😉

"Zero-pollution" compressed-air car coming to U.S.

Edward Willett @ 28-02-2008


The French-invented Zero-Pollution MDI Air Car, already licensed to a car company in India, is coming to the United States, with the first reservations to be taken within the next couple of months, although it will be 2010 before any cars are delivered. (Via Gizmag.)

The car uses a compressed-air motor developed by MDI International. It’s a four-door, seats six, and boasts a don’t-bother-drag-racing 75 horsepower. It will run up to 35 mph entirely on air; if you want to go faster (up to 90 mph), you have to burn a little gas to heat and compress more air. It’s supposed to have very low maintenance costs (30,000-kilometre service intervals), a range of up to 1,000 miles, and cost less than $20,000.

Not surprisingly, it was one of the first entries in the Automotive XPrize competition, which aims to do for efficient, clean personal transportation what the original X-Prize did for private space exploration.

Sound too good to be true? It may be: here’s a skeptical take on the idea from Technology Review.

Time will tell, but if you’re an early adopter and you live in the U.S., now’s your chance to ensure you’ll be the first on your block whose car goes “Phffft!” instead of “Vroom!”

(Image: Zero Pollution Motors.)

[tags]alternative energy,transport,cars,pollution[/tags]

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