Business, Environmentalist, Green

EPA Boots Scientists Off Scientific Review Board

At least five scientists have been removed from the EPA's Board of Science Counselors.
At least five scientists have been removed from the EPA’s Board of Science Counselors. Photo: bakdc /

At least five academic scientists have been dismissed from a major review board, according to the New York Times.

J.P. Freire, a spokesman for EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, said Pruitt would consider replacing the academic scientists with representatives from industries that are supposed to be regulated by the EPA. “The administrator believes we should have people on this board who understand the impact of regulations on the regulated community,” Freire said.

This isn’t a surprising move, given that Pruitt is a former oil company executive who has questioned human-caused climate change—something that has been agreed on by at least 97 percent of the scientific community—and has been tasked by President Trump to roll back Obama-era regulations on clean water protection and climate change.

The scientists were dismissed from the 18-member Board of Scientific Counselors, which reviews and evaluates the research conducted by the EPA’s scientists.

“We want to expand the pool of applicants” for the scientific board, Freire said, “to as broad a range as possible, to include universities that aren’t typically represented and issues that aren’t typically represented.”

Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said, “This is completely part of a multifaceted effort to get science out of the way of a deregulation agenda.”

“I see the dismissal of the scientists from the Board of Scientific Counselors as a test balloon,” said Joseph Arvai of the University of Michigan, a member of the Scientific Advisory Board (SAB), a 47-member commission that advises the EPA on areas on where it should conduct research and evaluates the scientific integrity of EPA regulations. “This is clearly very political, and we should be very concerned if it goes further.”

On the other hand, Texas Republican Representative Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, said the SAB had become nothing but a rubber-stamp organization that approves all of the EPA’s regulations. He wrote a bill designed to restock that board with more members from the business world.

“The EPA routinely stacks this board with friendly scientists who receive millions of dollars in grants from the federal government,” Smith said. “The conflict of interest here is clear.”

“Today I was Trumped,” Robert Richardson, an environmental economist wrote on Twitter. “I have had the pleasure of serving on the EPA Board of Scientific Counselors, and my appointment was terminated today.”

“I believe this is political,” said Dr. Courtney Flint, a professor of natural resource sociology at Utah State University, said of the dismissals from the Board of Science Counselors. “It’s unexpected. It’s a red flag.”

Green, Science

Researchers Develop Method for Storing Solar Energy in Liquid

A team of researchers is working on a way to store solar energy as heat, to be released later.
The development of ways to store solar energy as heat could be a huge breakthrough. Photo: Shutterstock

While we have been capable of harnessing the energy of the sun for immediate use. However, before solar can replace fossil fuels and other less safe sources of energy, there needs to be a way to store that energy for later use.

Researchers at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden, are working on just that. They have developed a chemical solution to store solar energy, which can then be turned into heat on command, without destroying the medium in which it’s stored. They refer to it as a molecular solar thermal system.

The process is based on the organic compound called norbornadine, that when exposed to light converts into quadricyclone.

“The technique means that we can store the solar energy in chemical boonds and release the energy as heat whenever we need it,” said Professor Kasper Moth-Poulsen, who is leading the research team. “Combining the chemical energy storage with water heating solar panels enables a conversion of more than 80 percent of the incoming sunlight.”

When the research team held its first conceptual demonstration of the technique in 2013, they were able to convert a mere 0.01 percent of solar energy into stored energy that could be transported elsewhere. They were also using an element called ruthenium, which was very expensive. Now, they have improved that storage capacity to 1.1 percent. This may not sound like much, but it’s 100 times more effective than previous technology. The ruthenium has also been replaced by cheaper carbon-based elements.

“We saw an opportunity to develop molecules that make the process much more efficient,” said Moth-Poulsen. “At the same time, we were demonstrating a robust system that can sustain more than 140 energy storage and release cycles with negligible degradation.”

As the team continues to develop this technology, we hope to see simultaneous improvement in solar energy harvesting techniques—both of which could contribute to a higher degree of use for solar products.

Climate Change, Conservation, Environmental Hazards, Green, Nature

Climate Change is Already Threatening Some Species

Polar bear walking near water
Climate change is affecting endangered animals even more than we might think. Image: Shutterstock

Often, when we talk about climate change, we talk about the future, about how it’s going to affect the world. But more and more, we’re realizing that it already is affecting the world, that it is no longer a “future threat” but a very real, very current problem. And part of that problem is climate change.

There are currently 873 species of mammals and 1,272 species of birds listed as threatened, but of those, only 7% of mammals and 4% of birds are considered “threatened by climate change and severe weather.” However, a recent study by researchers from the University of Queensland and the Wildlife Conservation Society has found that as much as half of those mammals and a quarter of the birds “have already responded negatively to climate change.” This means that those species, such as the mountain gorilla, will have an even greater chance of being negatively affected by future changes.

The problem is that we aren’t seeing enough studies of animals, already classified as threatened or not, that take climate change into effect.

Climate change’s effect on animals isn’t anything new to us, even if previous studies have been few and far between. Back in 2014, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was already warning us that many animals were migrating further north or south toward the water in an effort to survive catastrophic changes to their natural habitats. Only the truly flexible species will be able to make it through as habitats shift and temperatures fluctuate.

Still, these studies might not be all doom and gloom. While the threats posed to these species are very real (and likely to get worse), knowing that these problems exist allows us to start addressing them. And knowing that climate change is already negatively affecting at least some species might make it easier to motivate people to care about climate change as something that’s happening right now…something we have a chance to deter, if not stop entirely.

Conservation, Environmental Hazards, Green, Nature

Weeds Could Improve Agriculture

A dragonfly on a milkweed leaf. Photo: Shutterstock

Some of the most significant impacts on the global ecosystem have come from human uses of pesticides and herbicides in agriculture. These chemicals make their way into soil and water, where they cause a number of problems, from killing off unintended plants and insects to increasing the resistance of unintended targets to these very same chemicals.

What’s more, developing such chemicals is basically an ever-escalating war against pests, which breed fast enough to develop immunity to them, resulting in more and newer chemicals constantly being introduced.

In order to reduce all of this, some researchers are now suggesting that allowing weeds, in controlled numbers, to grow amidst crops might be the best option.

“The benefits of weeds have been neglected,” says Kristine M. Averill, a weed research associate at Cornell. “They’re often seen as undesirable, unwanted. We’re now beginning to quantify their benefits.”

Milkweed, for example, can be allowed to grow among corn crops because it attracts aphids, which in turn attract beneficial wasps that lay their eggs inside European corn borer eggs, which kills them. The European corn borer is one of the species that corn farmers are most worried about.

The weeds can also help in a variety of other ways such as resisting erosion and giving homes to Monarch butterflies, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering protecting under the Endangered Species Act because their numbers have dropped dangerously low.

As we grow ever more conscious of how human activity affects the Earth, we need to begin searching in earnest for more options like this, which allow us to preserve crop yields and other production while being better for the environment.

Nothing in nature serves only one purpose, and by studying how organisms like weeds and pest insects function in the wild, we can develop a better grasp on how they might be used in agriculture. Between this and genetic engineering, we may be able to develop agricultural systems that don’t have such an adverse effect on the world around them.

Eco-friendly, Green, Science

Converting Carbon Dioxide into Ethanol is Actually Pretty Easy

Scientists discovered a way to produce ethanol from carbon dioxide.
An ethanol refinery in the American midwest. Photo: Shutterstock

The goal of developing alternative energy is twofold: to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels because we will run out of them eventually, and to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) that we dump into the air.

CO2 acts as a greenhouse gas, trapping heat against the Earth. It is one of the major culprits in global climate change. However, even as we turn to alternative energy sources like wind or solar, we still have a lot of CO2 in the atmosphere, and we need to get rid of it to turn back the damage we’ve already done.

A team at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory was working on a way to convert CO2 into something useful when they did exactly that. They developed a system using copper and carbon, easily obtained materials, which converts CO2 into ethanol, an alternative, renewable fuel. Best of all, the process works at room temperature, which makes it easy to start and stop, and reasonably cheap.

The team is exploring the technology further in the hopes of making it efficient enough for industrial use. This could be a huge step in the right direction. By converting CO2 into ethanol, either in the atmosphere or while it’s being created, we get more fuel out of the process. This, in turn, reduces our reliance on fossil fuels and reduces pollution, which slows the effects of climate change. It’s a win-win.

The carbon and copper method the researchers discovered would allow us to create ethanol without using as much arable land (it’s usually made from corn) and without affecting food prices. Plus, burning ethanol produces CO2, which could subsequently be turned into more ethanol. This process may not be exactly carbon neutral, but it’s a huge step toward that goal and an excellent way to make up for shortfalls from solar or wind energy production.

Conservation, Eco-friendly, Green, Science

California Academy of Sciences Installs “Living Roof”

The California Academy of Sciences has installed a living roof.
A living roof. Photo: Shutterstock

The California Academy of Sciences is dedicated to combining research and education like no other museum. This is true even with the roof. The Academy has a living roof—a 2.5-acre field sitting 35 feet above the ground. It is covered with a variety of indigenous Californian species and almost 2 million individual plants. The Bernard Osher Foundation made a $20 million donation specifically for this project, which began in 2005 and was finished by September 2008.

Several architecture groups worked together to create this never-been-done-before roof. The roof includes several hills, or steeply sloped domes. One of them has an incline of 60 degrees. The roof was structured using 50,000 modular porous trays made from tree sap and coconut husks. These held the plants in place while the roots grew together and interlocked, similar to sewing the pieces on a patchwork quilt.

In addition to being the densest concentration of wildflowers in San Francisco, this roof provides a habitat for birds, bees and other important animals. The plants also provide immense benefits to the building below. The plants absorb 98 percent of all storm water, meaning runoff with pollutants is not further entering the ecosystem

The plants keep the interior 10 degrees cooler than the average San Francisco roof. In addition the solar panels that are laid out with the plants provide up to 10 percent of the electricity needed for the Academy.

Among the more technical features of the roof is its automated skylight system. In addition to collecting basic weather data, the system monitors the inside of the Academy and the inside of the jungle exhibit. Using this data, it opens and shuts the skylights to regulate temperatures as necessary.

While most people don’t come to the Academy for the roof, it is certainly an impressive feat and is a great example for more projects to come.

Climate Change, Eco-friendly, Green, Science, Uncategorized

Plants Show Us How To Reduce Carbon Dioxide in the Atmosphere

A greenhouse full of plants. Scientists have found a way to turn carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide.
Photo: Shutterstock

Carbon dioxide is one of the major contributors to global climate change. The good news is that plants use it for energy, converting it into oxygen, which animals need to breathe. The bad news is that using fossil fuels like oil, coal, and natural gas creates more carbon dioxide than plants can keep up with.

However, plants can also teach us how to deal with the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

A team at the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Illinois at Chicago have found a way to convert carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide.

You may be alarmed by the production of carbon monoxide, as it is a known poison that can lead to suffocation and death. However, it’s much more reactive than carbon dioxide, which means it can be more easily converted into usable fuel sources.

“Making fuel from carbon monoxide means traveling ‘downhill’ energetically, while trying to create it directly from carbon dioxide means needing to go ‘uphill,’” said Argonne physicist Peter Zapol, one of the authors of the study.

The system by which the scientists did this took inspiration from plants, using many of the same ingredients, like light and water, that plants use to convert carbon dioxide into sugars. They even created an artificial leaf through which they processed the carbon dioxide. The process is very efficient, which is important because the more efficient a process, the cheaper it is and the more likely it is to catch on.

Carbon dioxide pollution is an important issue that scientists have been trying to address for decades now. While many plans going forward call for a reduction in carbon dioxide production, and that will certainly help, it won’t be enough to undo the damage caused by what is already in the atmosphere.

Other plans involve sequestering carbon dioxide by storing it underground, but that can be difficult and expensive, and it doesn’t get rid of the carbon dioxide.

Turning carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide and subsequently into methanol could be a huge boon, as it would reduce greenhouse gases and provide renewable fuel sources.