Snippets from Science

  • Many scientists believe that ethanol (corn-based alcohol) is not the answer to our future energy needs. In 2008 a Princeton researcher claimed that the benefit from biofuels is greatly exaggerated, since proponents of alcohol biofuel disregard the cost of taking land out of food-production or the resulting increase in corn-based foods. Now the California Air Resources Board concluded that corn-based alcohol produces slightly greater greenhouse emissions than does gasoline, with about 30 percent of those emissions occurring as farmers clear land for crops. (Science Magazine, May 1, 2009). Also, the present gasoline/alcohol mix decreases gas mileage up to about 3 percent.
  • The U.S. Dept. of Energy is funding about $3.9 billions worth of projects to test the feasibility of pumping carbon dioxide from coal-fired plants deep underground rather than releasing it to the atmosphere. Although many modern coal-fired plants generating electricity use “scrubbers” to capture sulfur dioxide (a major air pollutant) and hydrogen chloride, efficient scrubbers for carbon dioxide aren’t available. Theoretically, it’s possible to capture carbon dioxide from a factory or power plant, separate and compress it into a liquid, and pump it deep into certain types of geologic formations. Unmineable coal seams, deep saline formations, depleted oil and gas reserves, and basalt formations with impermeable “cap rock” formations above can seal in the carbon dioxide, which over decades will undergo a chemical reaction into a harmless solid. (Audubon, May-June, 2009)
  • Bar-headed Geese (Anser indicus) are long distance endurance champions. They migrate back and forth between Tibet and India, a one-way distance of about 1,000 miles, flying over the Himalayan Mountains at altitudes of up to 29,000 feet. At this altitude, winds reach 200 mph, oxygen is limited, and the temperature is low enough to freeze flesh instantly. Yet these amazing birds make the trip twice a year, sometimes covering the distance in a single day. Prof. M.R. Fedde, of Kansas State University, who has studied the respiratory system of these birds for many years, says “They can fly over 50 mph under their own power. Add the thrust of a tailwind of perhaps 100 mph, and these birds can really move!” They have huge, pointed, and highly aerodynamic wings, red blood cells with enhanced oxygen carrying capacity, and several air sacs in their body where they can “store” extra air. Another miracle of Mother Nature.
  • Many animals orient themselves in space by detecting magnetic fields. For instance, migrating birds have specialized neurons in their brains that contain microscopic crystals of magnetic iron oxide, or magnetite. The magnetite allows the birds to detect and orient to the earth’s magnetic field. This sense, along with visual cues from landmarks and sun orientation, assists birds in navigating during migration. Honeybees also navigate by sensing the earth’s magnetic field. Cells containing magnetite are found in each segment of the abdomen close to a cluster of neurons – these are responsible for providing the bee with its own Global Positioning System.
  • Magnetite has also been discovered in some bacteria. Place a magnet near a culture of these one-celled organisms, and they become tiny compasses, all pointing north.