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Stanford Study: 100% Renewable Energy Is Feasible and Affordable

Stanford Study: 100% Renewable Energy Is Feasible and Affordable | Amazing Science |

One of the greatest promises of the high-tech future, whether made explicitly or implicitly through shiny clean concept sketches, is that we will have efficient energy that doesn’t churn pollutants into the air and onto the streets.

But here in the present, politicians and even many clean energy advocates maintain that a world run on hydrogen and wind, water and solar power is not yet possible due to technical challenges like energy storage and cost.

Yet Stanford University researchers led by civil engineer Mark Jacobson have developed detailed plans for each state in the union that to move to 100 percent wind, water and solar power by 2050 using only technology that’s already available. The plan, presented recently at the AAAS conference in Chicago, also forms the basis for The Solutions Project nonprofit.

“The conclusion is that it’s technically and economically feasible,” states Jacobson. The plan doesn’t rely, like many others, on dramatic energy efficiency regimes. Nor does it include biofuels or nuclear power, whose green credentials are the source of much debate.

The proposal is straightforward: eliminate combustion as a source of energy, because it’s dirty and inefficient. All vehicles would be powered by electric batteries or by hydrogen, where the hydrogen is produced through electrolysis rather than natural gas. High-temperature industrial processes would also use electricity or hydrogen combustion.

The rest would simply be a question of allowing existing fossil-fuel plants to age out and using renewable sources to power any new plants that come online. The energy sources in the road map include geothermal energy, concentrating solar power, off-shore and on-land wind turbines and some and tidal energy. All but tidal energy collectors are already commercially available.

Clean energy would save an average American consumer $3,400 per year than the current fossil fuel regime by 2050, the study lays out. That’s because the price of fossil fuel rises regularly, but with clean energy — where raw materials are free — once the infrastructure is built, prices would fall.

Jacobson has previously mapped out a similar proposal for the global energy market, including China. A related plan with a greater emphasis on efficiency was recently released by the World Wildlife Fund.

Eli Levine's curator insight, March 30, 2014 1:12 PM

Way cool.


But it will not be put into place due to the politics of the fossil fuel industry and their undemocratic influence in our governments across the world.


They stand to lose a lot of money; forced to give up massive amounts of invested capital (even though the profits they've realized from those capital assets have, so far, more than paid for themselves already).


Here we are, contemplating putting a high polluting oil pipeline through our country while we frack for natural gas, and we could be spending our time getting off fossil fuels entirely in an economically viable manner.


Think about it.

Avneel Channan's curator insight, March 27, 2015 8:44 AM

Corroborating with the Costa Rica article, 100% renewable energy research is the stop towards a less polluted Earth. 

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AI beat astronomers in predicting survivability of exoplanets

AI beat astronomers in predicting survivability of exoplanets | Amazing Science |
Artificial intelligence is giving scientists new hope for studying the habitability of planets, in a study from astronomers Chris Lam and David Kipping. Their work looks at so-called ‘Tatooines’, and uses machine learning techniques to calculate how likely such planets are to survive into stable orbits. The study is published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society
Circumbinary planets are those planets that orbit two stars instead of just one, much like the fictional planet Tatooine in the Star Wars franchise. Tens of these planets have so far been discovered, but working out whether they may be habitable or not can be difficult.
Moving around two stars instead of just one can lead to large changes in a planet’s orbit, which mean that it is often either ejected from the system entirely, or it crashes violently into one of its twin stars. Traditional approaches to calculating which of these occurs for a given planet get significantly more complicated as soon as the extra star is thrown into the mix.
“When we simulated millions of possible planets with different orbits using traditional methods, we found that planets were being predicted as stable that were clearly not, and vice versa,” explains Lam, lead author of the study and a recent graduate of Columbia University.
Planets need to survive for billions of years in order for life to evolve, so finding out whether orbits are stable or not is an important question for habitability. The new work shows how machine learning can make accurate predictions even if the standard approach - based on Newton’s laws of gravity and motion - breaks down.
“Classification with numerous complex, inter-connected parameters is the perfect problem for machine learning,” says Professor Kipping, supervisor of the work.\
After creating ten million hypothetical Tatooines with different orbits, and simulating each one to test for stability, this huge training set was fed into the deep learning network. Within just a few hours, the network was able to out-perform the accuracy of the standard approach.
More circumbinary planets look set to be discovered by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission, and Lam expects their work to help: “Our model helps astronomers to know which regions are best to search for planets around binary stars. This will hopefully help us discover new exoplanets and better understand their properties.”
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Scientists watch bacteria 'harpoon' DNA to speed their own evolution

Scientists watch bacteria 'harpoon' DNA to speed their own evolution | Amazing Science |

Indiana University scientists have made the first direct observation of a key step in the process that bacteria use to rapidly evolve new traits, including antibiotic resistance. Using methods invented at IU, researchers recorded the first images of bacterial appendages -- over 10,000 times thinner than human hair -- as they stretched out to catch DNA. These DNA fragments can then be incorporated into bacteria's own genome through a process called DNA uptake or "horizontal gene transfer."


The work is reported in Nature Microbiology"Horizontal gene transfer is an important way that antibiotic resistance moves between bacterial species, but the process has never been observed before, since the structures involved are so incredibly small," said senior author Ankur Dalia, an assistant professor in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Biology.


"It's important to understand this process, since the more we understand about how bacteria share DNA, the better our chances are of thwarting it," he added. Nearly 1 million people are affected by antibiotic-resistant bacteria each year, according to the World Health Organization. WHO has found evidence of these strains in nearly490,000 people with tuberculous and 500,000 people with other infectious diseases.

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Mosquito saliva vaccines: a weapon against arbovirus infections?

Mosquito saliva vaccines: a weapon against arbovirus infections? | Amazing Science |

A soon-to-be-published study supports the development of arbovirus vaccines targeting mosquito salivary proteins rather than the viruses present in their saliva.

Arbovirus infections represent 17% of all communicable diseases in humans, causing one billion cases and one million deaths annually. An arbovirus is a virus that is transmitted by insects to a vertebrate host, mainly mammals. The most common vectors of the arbovirus are mosquitos, ticks, and sandflies.


The most prevalent mosquito-borne viruses are dengue, yellow fever, West Nile, Zika, and chikungunya. These viruses have been responsible for emerging and re-emerging outbreaks and epidemics in the last years, thus representing a huge global health burden. Among all vector-borne viruses, Dengue is the most clinically significant arbovirus, infecting 390 million people each year with nearly 100 million symptomatic infections.

There are currently only vaccines for three arbovirus infections

Currently, vaccines exist for only three arbovirus infections: tick-borne encephalitis, Japanese encephalitis, and yellow fever. Dengue virus vaccines have been tested, but due to the complexity within the four dengue subgroups and genetic similarities with Zika virus, further studies must be conducted.


Since the development of viral protein-based vaccines has not been successful due to the intricacies of the vector-arbovirus-host interactions, some studies have supported the use of salivary proteins to develop “universal” arbovirus vaccines.


American researchers recently conducted a review study and its manuscript will bepublished soon in The Journal of Infectious Diseases. In their article, the authors review the literature and encourage the research and development of such vaccines.

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Move over, cyanobacteria - Study indicates novel and abundant nitrogen fixers in the Earth's surface ocean

Move over, cyanobacteria - Study indicates novel and abundant nitrogen fixers in the Earth's surface ocean | Amazing Science |

Nitrogen fixation in the surface ocean impacts global marine nitrogen bioavailability and thus microbial primary productivity. Until now, cyanobacterial populations have been viewed as the main suppliers of bioavailable nitrogen in this habitat. Although PCR amplicon surveys targeting the nitrogenase reductase gene have revealed the existence of diverse non-cyanobacterial diazotrophic populations, subsequent quantitative PCR surveys suggest that they generally occur in low abundance. Now, a team of scientists used state-of-the-art metagenomic assembly and binning strategies to recover nearly one thousand non-redundant microbial population genomes from the TARA Oceans metagenomes. Among these, they provided the first genomic evidence for non-cyanobacterial diazotrophs inhabiting surface waters of the open ocean, which correspond to lineages within the Proteobacteria and, most strikingly, the Planctomycetes. Members of the latter phylum are prevalent in aquatic systems, but have never been linked to nitrogen fixation previously. Moreover, using genome-wide quantitative read recruitment, the group of scientists were able to demonstrate that the discovered diazotrophs were not only widespread but also remarkably abundant (up to 0.3% of metagenomic reads for a single population) in both the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean northwest.


These results extend decades of PCR-based gene surveys, and substantiate the importance of heterotrophic bacteria in the fixation of nitrogen in the surface ocean.

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The first stellar-mass black hole found in a globular cluster

The first stellar-mass black hole found in a globular cluster | Amazing Science |
By the way, it’s also the first stellar-mass black hole ever found based on its gravitational pull.


The word globule isn’t the most appealing term. Maybe this is why globular clusters don’t get as much press as they deserve. These dense collections of ancient stars numbering in the tens of thousands are home to some of the oldest stars in the universe. If nebulae are the stellar nurseries of the cosmos, then globular clusters are the stellar nursing homes. But just as nebulae can teach us about how young stars form, globular clusters can teach us about how old stars evolve and age – which occasionally ends with an older, massive star collapsing into a black hole.

In a study published today in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, astronomers announced the discovery of one such black hole in the globular cluster NGC 3201. By noticing the exceptionally bizarre orbital behavior of a specific star in the cluster, the researchers were able to conclude that a black hole is lurking in the core of NGC 3201, located some 16,000 light-years away. The discovery of the black hole – which is not feeding on nearby material, and therefore invisible to direct observations – is the first detection of a stellar-mass black hole made purely by measuring its gravitational influence on other stars.

“[The star] was orbiting something that was completely invisible, which had a mass more than four times the Sun,” said Benjamin Giesers, an astrophysicist at the University of Göttingen and lead author of the study, in a press release. “This could only be a black hole! The first one found in a globular cluster by directly observing its gravitational pull.”

As part of a large survey of globular clusters orbiting the Milky Way, an international team of astronomers used the ESO’s Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explore (MUSE) instrument on the Very Large Telescope in Chile to search for stellar binaries – pairs of stars that orbit each other. In addition to analyzing the light of individual stars, MUSE measures their radial velocities, or relative back-and-forth motions. Among the plethora of radial velocity measurements taken for the globular cluster survey, the researchers found one oddball star.

They noticed that this particular star was being flung back and forth so quickly (over 200,000 miles per hour) that it must be orbiting an invisible black hole at least four times as massive as the Sun. Though the researchers acknowledge the possibility that the fast-moving star is being rag-dolled around within a triple star system containing two exceptionally large and tightly bound neutron stars, “since such a system was not observed to date and the actual mass of the discovered object is probably higher, a black hole scenario is more likely.”

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INTEL is now capable of producing full silicon wafers of quantum computing chips

INTEL is now capable of producing full silicon wafers of quantum computing chips | Amazing Science |
Mass production of quantum compute devices could fundamentally change how we look at traditional silicon. Although not necessarily a replacement for conventional hardware, quantum technologies allow for many difficult problems to be solved that would otherwise be impossible to comprehend.

Last year, Intel was able to take a few steps forward towards the commercialization of quantum computing. A 17-qubit superconducting chip was built followed by CEO Brian Krzanich showing off a test chip at CES 2018 with 49 qubits.


Unlike previous quantum efforts at Intel, this latest batch of wafers are focusing on spin qubits instead of superconducting qubits. This secondary technology is still a few years behind superconducting quantum efforts but could turn out to be more easily scalable.


Moving forward, Intel now has the capability to produce up to five silicon wafers every week containing up to 26-qubit quantum chips. This achievement means that Intel has greatly increased the number of quantum devices in existence and could be looking to increase the number of qubits steadily in the coming years.

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Seqster Platform to Integrate EHR, Wearable Health Data, Genomics and Ancestry Data

Seqster Platform to Integrate EHR, Wearable Health Data, Genomics and Ancestry Data | Amazing Science |

The San Diego startup company Seqster has launched a digital portal designed to let its users integrate, manage, and

access their health data within a single platform. Seqster says its highly unique platform consolidates in a single site a person;s electronic health records (EHR), wearable data, ancestry information, and genomics data, all contributed and owned by individual consumers, and until now largely stored and managed separately.


Seqster’s platform standardizes in a single database electronic health data collected and managed by EHR vendors Epic, Allscripts, and Cerner EHRs—giving the company access to 65% of the U.S. population’s electronic health records—as well as data from direct-to-consumer testing companies, and from several top wearable tech developers, including Garmin, Apple, and Nokia.


The platform incorporates data from more than 1,000 healthcare providers comprising more than 2,000 hospitals and clinics nation- wide. Healthcare providers include multi-hospital systems—including Cleveland Clinic, Kaiser, Mayo Clinic, Sutter Health, University of California, and San Francisco—as well as specialized providers.


“We’ve created the of health data,” Seqster CEO and co-founder Ardy Arianpour explains, referring to the financial data portal that lets users track their bank accounts, incoming bills, and credit score. “The same way that Mint enables consumers to see their net worth, why don’t we have an ecosystem or a platform where we can actually aggregate our health data and see our net health?”


"While we cannot under any circumstances be seen as providing clinical advice, many of our alpha and beta users discovered important health trends in their lab data with the aid of the visualizations we provided that were never disclosed by their primary care physician because they were not out of normal range," Arianpour said.


It's free for consumers to use Seqster's platform. Seqster relies on arrangements with partner organizations to make money. "There is an upfront cost to deploy the technology," Arianpour said, explaining that Seqster's partners will pay for providing research participants or organizational members access to the platform.


Seqster has had 1,000 alpha users give feedback on the platform, and Arianpour said the vast majority of these early users were "highly interested" in being more involved with their health data, in having more control over it, and in donating that data to advance research.


It remains to be seen if the platform will be widely embraced by consumers, hospitals and doctor offices. The company plans to team up with a genomics testing laboratory in San Diego, which is CLIA and CAP certified. Seqster recently inked several partnerships to make its platform available to patients and caregivers served by the George G. Glenner Alzheimer's Family Centers and to the participants of a Boston University study on traumatic brain injury.

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US beats China to build world's fastest supercomputer that's one million times faster than a laptop

US beats China to build world's fastest supercomputer that's one million times faster than a laptop | Amazing Science |

The US just took back the title for the world's fastest supercomputer. The US Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee unveiled the 'Summit' supercomputer that can deliver a peak performance of 200 petaflops, or about 200 quadrillion calculations per second. It managed to beat out the previous record holder that was China's Sunway TaihuLight supercomputer.


Summit is 60% faster than the TaihuLight supercomputer, which could achieve a peak performance of 93 petaflops. The feat puts the US at the front of the top 500 supercomputers in the world -- the first time it has held such ranking since June 2013. Summit has been in development for several years now and is made up of thousands of chips. Specifically, it's powered by six Nvidia Tesla V100 GPUs and two 22-core IBM Power 9 chips. It features 4,608 servers and an insane 10 petabytes of memory. Summit is so big that the servers and other gear fill up to two tennis courts. It's heavier than a commercial aircraft and a million times faster than your average laptop. To keep cool, the network of servers requires about 4,000 gallons of water a minute so as to not overheat. 


Summit is now the world's 'most powerful and smartest scientific supercomputer,' according to IBM. ORNL noted that its capable of over three billion-billion mixed precision calculations per second.


Researchers and government officials will use Summit to carry out a variety of tasks tied to machine learning, neural networks and artificial intelligence. For example, it can analyze massive amounts of data, such as medical reports and images, to identify previously unknown causes of disease, according to MIT Technology Review.  It will also help inform scientists about 'exascale' computers, which can handle up to a billion billion calculations a second, MIT noted.      

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Study illuminates how quantum magnets mimic the emergence of light in its own little universe

Study illuminates how quantum magnets mimic the emergence of light in its own little universe | Amazing Science |

Scientists have turned an abstract theory about the quantum properties of magnets into a testable hypothesis about a new kind of light.


What is light? It sounds like a simple question, but it is one that has occupied some of the best scientific minds for centuries. Now, a collaborative study with scientists at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST) has added another twist to the story, turning an abstract theory about the quantum properties of magnets into a testable hypothesis about a new kind of light.


Models of the atomic lattice structure of the quantum spin ice, praseodymium hafnate (Pr2Hf2O7). (Image: OIST)
Ever since Isaac Newton refracted light through prisms in 1672, scientists have been split over whether light is made up of particles or waves. Light seems to travel in straight lines, as would be expected of a particle, but Newton’s experiments have shown it also has frequency and wavelength, like sound waves.


Almost 200 years later, the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell supplied one part of the answer, when he realized that light was made up of fluctuating electric and magnetic fields. It was only in the 20thcentury through the work of Einstein, that light was finally understood to be made up of fundamental particles called photons, which act like both particles and waves. This discovery helped inspire the new science of quantum mechanics, which describes the behavior of matter and energy on the atomic and subatomic level.


More recently, in the late 20th century, physicists began exploring a phenomenon called emergence. Just as the behavior of large groups of people can differ from that of any single member of the group, emergence describes how particles in large groups can behave in unexpected ways, revealing new laws of physics or providing a new context for old ones. One question being asked was, “Could there be such a thing as emergent light?”


This brings us to OIST Professor Nic Shannon, Han Yan, a PhD student in his Theory of Quantum Matter Unit, and their colleagues in Switzerland and in the US. Their recent work centers on a strange family of magnetic systems known as spin ice, which escape all conventional forms of magnetic order and instead open a window on the quantum world.


In conventional magnets like the ones on your fridge, magnetic atoms produce a tiny magnetic field and work together to generate the much larger magnetic fields which enable them to “stick” to metal objects. This is possible because the tiny magnetic fields associated with each different atom in the magnet order themselves so that they point in the same direction.


In spin ice, however, atoms do not order magnetically, but still work together to produce a magnetic field which fluctuates on the atomic scale.


Recently, researchers realized that quantum effects at low temperatures can introduce an emergent electric field in spin ice, with an amazing consequence: Emergent electric and magnetic fields combine to produce magnetic excitations that behave exactly like photons of light.

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These tiny satellites, equipped with ion thrusters, could change how we explore space

These tiny satellites, equipped with ion thrusters, could change how we explore space | Amazing Science |

CubeSats, low-cost, bite-sized satellites inspired by the tubes used to hold Beanie Babies, were invented in 1999 as educational tools. Their creators — engineering professors Bob Twiggs and Jordi Puig-Suari — hoped building satellites the size and shape of Rubik’s Cubes would help students of all ages how to design and engineer efficiently.


Now, aerospace suppliers and governments across the globe see the tools as the future of space commercialization and deep space exploration. They want to turn CubeSats into tools for low Earth orbit activities like telecommunications and reconnaissance.


Companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Boeing and Airbus, for instance, want to create a space internet — a network of thousands of CubeSats that provide high speed broadband to remote parts of the world. And people like Paulo Lozano, director of the Space Propulsion Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, say sending the tiny satellites to asteroids could help improve space research (or even save the planet from an asteroid attack, he said).


“Instead of going to an asteroid every five, 10 years the traditional way, release a fleet of these tiny little CubeSats and visit 100 asteroids because it’s so cheap,” he said. “Because some of these asteroids, especially the very small ones, have the potential to collide with the Earth. Detecting them in time is important [for stopping them], but also knowing their composition.”


Over the first decade of the CubeSat era, universities dominated the landscape, sending two of every three devices into space. Today, commercial companies and militaries have taken over, launching 70 percent of CubeSats in the last five years.

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Revolutionary 3D nanohybrid lithium-ion battery could allow for charging in just seconds

Revolutionary 3D nanohybrid lithium-ion battery could allow for charging in just seconds | Amazing Science |
Cornell University engineers have designed a revolutionary 3D lithium-ion battery that could be charged in just seconds.

In a conventional battery, the battery’s anode and cathode* (the two sides of a battery connection) are stacked in separate columns (the black and red columns in the left illustration above). For the new design, the engineers instead used thousands of nanoscale (ultra-tiny) anodes and cathodes (shown in the illustration on the right above).

Putting those thousands of anodes and cathodes just 20 nanometers (billionths of a meter) apart dramatically extends the area, allowing for extremely fast charging** (in seconds or less) and also allows for holding more power for longer.
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Photographer Captures Incredibly Rare Shot Of Sperm Whales Sleeping in Groups

Photographer Captures Incredibly Rare Shot Of Sperm Whales Sleeping in Groups | Amazing Science |
Did you ever imagine the sperm whales sleeping? How would that look like..? If you still can’t picture that, then let the Swiss photographer Franco Banfi help you out.

Recently Franco snapped an extremely rare shot of a group of sperm whales in their sleep. He and a team of scuba divers were following the pack in the Caribbean Sea, near Dominica Island, when suddenly the whales stopped moving and went into a synchronized vertical rest.

This behavior was first documented only back in 2008, when a team of biologists from the UK and Japan drifted into a group of stationary sperm whales. After studying tagged whales the team found out that this collective nap occurs for approximately 7 percent of the whale’s life, in short stretches of just 6-24 minutes.
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Giant lasers pass new milestone towards fusion energy

Giant lasers pass new milestone towards fusion energy | Amazing Science |

Physicists working at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in the US say they have passed another important milestone in their quest for nuclear fusion energy. They have shown that the fusion energy generated by the laser implosion of a deuterium-tritium fuel capsule is twice that of the kinetic energy of the implosion. By further trebling the fusion energy, they say they will be close to the long-sought goal of an overall net energy gain.


The $3.5bn NIF trains 192 pulsed laser beams on to the inner surface of a centimetre-long hollow metal cylinder known as a hohlraum. Inside is a fuel capsule, which is a roughly 2 mm-diameter hollow sphere containing a thin deuterium-tritium layer. Each pulse lasts just a few nanoseconds and the lasers can deliver about 1.8 MJ of energy. This powerful blast causes the capsule to implode rapidly, creating immense temperatures and pressures inside a central “hot spot”, where fusion reactions occur.


The long-term goal is that the energy of neutrons given off by fusion can generate electricity. Before this is possible, NIF must show that it is possible to achieve ignition – the point at which fusion reactions generate at least as much energy delivered by the laser system. This involves self-sustaining reactions, in which the alpha particles that are also emitted during fusion give off enough heat to initiate further fusion.

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World can ‘safely’ store billions of tons of CO2 underground

World can ‘safely’ store billions of tons of CO2 underground | Amazing Science |
Storing billions of tonnes of CO2 underground would be a “safe and effective” way to help limit the effects of climate change, a new study says.


Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a process whereby CO2 is “captured” from the air and then transported to a storage site – which could be, for example, a depleted oil or gas field or a deep rock reservoir beneath the sea.


Though the technology is currently restricted to a few small pilot projects, many view its large-scale development as an essential step to limiting the effects of future climate change. In its most recent assessment report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that avoiding dangerous climate change would cost twice as much without CCS.


One barrier to the development of CCS is the costs associated with directly capturing CO2 from the atmosphere. Another barrier is the fear that, once underground, stored CO2 could leak out into the atmosphere. It is this second barrier that is addressed by the new research, which is published in Nature Communications.


To address the question of leakage, the researchers developed a new model – known as the Storage Security Calculator – which looks at what would happen if 12bn tons of CO2 were injected under the ground and left for 10,000 years. The 12bn-ton target reflects the EU’s ambition for CO2 storage by 2050.


The findings suggest that – providing a suitable storage site is chosen – the risk of CO2 leakage would be minimal, says lead author Dr Juan Alcalde, a geologist at the University of Aberdeen. In a video filmed at the sidelines of this year’s European Geosciences Union (EGU) General Assembly, he explains the study’s main findings to Carbon Brief.

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Pandoraviruses : Giant viruses which invent their own genes

Pandoraviruses : Giant viruses which invent their own genes | Amazing Science |

Three new members have been isolated and added to the Pandoravirus family by researchers at the Structural and Genomic Information Laboratory (CNRS/Aix‐Marseille Université), working with partners at the Large Scale Biology Laboratory (CEA/Inserm/Université Grenoble‐Alpes) and at CEA-Genoscope. This strange family of viruses, with their giant genomes and many genes with no known equivalents, surprised the scientists when they were discovered a few years ago. In the 11 June 2018 edition of Nature Communications, researchers offer an explanation: pandoviruses appear to be factories for new genes – and therefore new functions. From freaks of nature to evolutionary innovators, giant viruses continue to shake branches on the tree of life!

In 2013, the discovery of two giant viruses unlike anything seen before blurred the line between the viral and cellular world. Pandoraviruses are as big as bacteria, and contain genomes that are more complex than those found in some eukaryotic organisms1. Their strange amphora shape and enormous, atypical genome2 led scientists to wonder where they came from.

The same team has since isolated three new members of the family in Marseille, continental France, Nouméa, New Caledonia, and Melbourne, Australia. With another virus found in Germany, the team compared those six known cases using different approaches. Analyses showed that despite having very similar shapes and functions, these viruses only share half of their genes coding for proteins. Usually, however, members of the same family have more genes in common.

Furthermore, these new members contain a large number of orphan genes, i.e. genes which encode proteins that have no equivalent in other living organisms (this was already the case for the two previously discovered pandoraviruses). This unexplained characteristic is at the heart of many a debate over the origin of viruses. What most surprised researchers was that the orphan genes differed from one pandoravirus to another, making it less and less likely that they were inherited from a common ancestor!

Bioinformatic analysis showed that these orphan genes exhibit features very similar to those of non-coding (or intergenic) regions in the pandoravirus genome. Findings indicate the only possible explanation for the gigantic size of pandoravirus genomes, their diversity and the large proportion of orphan genes they contain: most of these viruses' genes may originate spontaneously and randomly in intergenic regions. In this scenario, genes “appear” in different locations from one strain to another, thus explaining their unique nature.  

If confirmed, this groundbreaking hypothesis would make these giant viruses craftsmen of genetic creativity – a central, but still poorly explained component of any understanding of the origin of life and its evolution.
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Delft scientists make first ‘on demand’ entanglement link

Delft scientists make first ‘on demand’ entanglement link | Amazing Science |

Researchers at QuTech in Delft have succeeded in generating quantum entanglement between two quantum chips faster than the entanglement is lost. Entanglement - once referred to by Einstein as "spooky action" - forms the link that will provide a future quantum internet its power and fundamental security. Via a novel smart entanglement protocol and careful protection of the entanglement, the scientists led by Prof. Ronald Hanson are the first in the world to deliver such a quantum link ‘on demand’. This opens the door to connect multiple quantum nodes and create the very first quantum network in the world. They publish their results on 14 June in Nature.

Quantum Internet

By exploiting the power of quantum entanglement it is theoretically possible to build a quantum internet that cannot be eavesdropped on. However, the realization of such a quantum network is a real challenge: you have to be able to create entanglement reliably, 'on demand', and maintain it long enough to pass the entangled information to the next node. So far, this has been beyond the capabilities of quantum experiments.


Scientists at QuTech in Delft have now been the first to experimentally generate entanglement over a distance of two meters in a fraction of a second, 'on demand', and subsequently maintain this entanglement long enough to enable -in theory- further entanglement to a third node. ‘The challenge is now to be the first to create a network of multiple entangled nodes: the first version of a quantum internet’, professor Hanson states. 

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Astronomers Just Cracked The Cosmic Mystery of Anomalous Microwave Glow in Our Galaxy

Astronomers Just Cracked The Cosmic Mystery of Anomalous Microwave Glow in Our Galaxy | Amazing Science |

The source of a mysterious microwave glow detected across our galaxy eluded astronomers for decades. But now a crack team has finally pinpointed the source: nanoscopic particles of crystalline carbon, otherwise known as diamond dust.


There are several environments across the Milky Way that produce a faint glow known as anomalous microwave emission (AME). Scientists have known for a while that this light was being produced by a small, rapidly spinning nanoparticle. But the type of particle was harder to pin down.


A team of researchers went looking for the glow of AME across the Milky Way. They studied 14 protoplanetary discs of dust and gas that surround newborn stars – and detected AME in three of them. This isn’t just the first time that AME has been detected in protoplanetary discs; it also allowed researchers to determine that the glow was most likely being produced by diamonds hundreds of thousands of times smaller than a grain of sand.


Previously, it was thought that carbon-based organic molecules called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) were responsible for the glow. These are common throughout interstellar space, and emit a faint infrared light. Nanodiamond dust also emits infrared light, at a slightly different wavelength, which allows researchers to tell the two particles apart.


The three AME sources were also emitting infrared light that matched that of nanodiamonds – but not that of PAH. In addition, the PAH signature has been observed in protoplanetary discs throughout the Milky Way with no anomalous microwave emissions. “In a Sherlock Holmes-like method of eliminating all other causes, we can confidently say the best candidate capable of producing this microwave glow is the presence of nanodiamonds around these newly formed stars,” said astronomer Jane Greaves of Cardiff University in Wales.

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The melting Continent: Sea level rise due to Antarctic ice melt has ‘tripled over past five years’

The melting Continent: Sea level rise due to Antarctic ice melt has ‘tripled over past five years’ | Amazing Science |

The rate of sea level rise resulting from the melting of the Antarctic ice sheet has tripled over the past five years, according to new research from a global team of scientists. The recent study, published in Nature, finds that ice loss from Antarctica has caused sea levels to rise by 7.6 mm from 1992-2017, with two fifths of this increase occurring since 2012.


At a press conference held in London, scientists said the results suggest that Antarctica has become “one of the largest contributors to sea level rise”. A glaciologist not involved in the paper tells Carbon Brief that the findings show “there now should be no doubt that Antarctica is losing ice due to regional climate change, likely linked to global warming”.

The new research was carried out by a team of scientists from the Ice Sheet Mass Balance Inter-comparison Exercise (IMBIE). The international group was established in 2011 with the aim of creating a comprehensive view of how melting in world’s polar regions could be contributing to sea level rise.

In its last assessment report, released in 2012, it found that ice melt in Antarctica was causing global sea levels to rise by 0.2mm a year. (Over the past two decades, global sea levels have risen around 3.2 mm a year in total.)


However, the new analysis finds that Antarctic ice melt is now driving sea level rise of 0.6mm a year – suggesting that the rate of melting has increased three-fold in just five years. The results show that Antarctic ice melt has become “one of the largest contributors to sea level rise”, says Prof Andrew Shepherd, co-leader of IMBIE and director of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Centre for Polar Observation based at the University of Leeds.

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Saudi Arabia's envisioned 200 GW solar power plant

Saudi Arabia's envisioned 200 GW solar power plant | Amazing Science |

Saudi Arabia has a plan to wean its economy off oil. In the biggest sign of what the future of the Gulf state would look like, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, has signed a memorandum of understanding with Japanese multinational Softbank to build 200 GW of solar power by 2030 at a cost of $200 billion.


These are eye-popping numbers. If built, that solar-power plant will be about 200 times the size of the biggest solar plant operating today. It would more than triple Saudi Arabia’s capacity to produce electricity, from about 77 GW today. With current technology, solar panels capable of generating 200 GW would likely cover 5,000 sq km—an area larger than the the world’s largest cities, And, yet, these are not unrealistic figures.


Based on data from Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), the global solar industry produced about 100 GW worth of solar panels last year, and production capacity is ramping up quickly.


But memorandums like the one signed by Bin Salman often don’t turn into reality. “I’ve probably made more binding agreements to grab a coffee,” Jenny Chase, a solar analyst with BNEF, joked on Twitter.



Still, the prince stands to damage his reputation if he doesn’t at least ramp up Saudi Arabia’s solar-power contribution. Though the country has talked about investing in clean energy for quite some time, it was only in 2017 that it began taking bids to build solar-power plants. And if any country could build a solar plant of this scale, it’s Saudi Arabia: the country gets plenty of sun, has vast areas of empty desert, and possibly has the financial power to pull it off.

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Magnetic beads can destroy brain tumors in ten minutes using MRI scanners to heat up the cancer cells

Magnetic beads can destroy brain tumors in ten minutes using MRI scanners to heat up the cancer cells | Amazing Science |

Deadly brain tumors could be removed in just ten minutes with a groundbreaking new treatment which uses MRI scanners to heat up cancer cells until they die.


The new therapy, developed by University College London (UCL), involves injecting tiny magnetic metal beads into the bloodstream and directing it to the site of the cancer.


The scanner is then used to heat up the metal seed which causes the cells to die in the surrounding tissue. Not only does it quickly kill cancer cells, but it saves healthy cells from the damaging effects of invasive surgery or radiotherapy.


The team at UCL has already proven it is effective in the brains of pigs and plans to move to human trials on patients with prostate cancer within the next two years with the hope it will be available for many cancers on the NHS within five years. 


Launching the new technology at The Cheltenham Science Festival, Mark Lythgoe, professor of imaging at UCL, said: “The aim is to turn every MRI scanner in the world into a therapeutic device. At the moment it just take pictures. “The simple idea is the patient goes into the MRI scanner, you locate a tumor in the brain or the prostate and then we implant a tiny magnetic particle, a little bit smaller than a grain of rice, to the site of the tumur.


“We can guide it with real precision avoiding any areas that we don’t want to go to, like the sensory motor-cortex in the brain, the area with memories. Once it’s in there we’re able to fire in a simple radio wave and these seeds heat up remarkably well, and kills all the cells around it. You then just guide the seed through the tumor, killing all the cells. And you can do it with real precision right up to the margins of the tumor so there is no tumor left. This is a life-changing technology.”

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How Humans Evolved Supersize Brains

How Humans Evolved Supersize Brains | Amazing Science |

Scientists have begun to identify the symphony of biological triggers that powered the extraordinary expansion of the human brain.


When it comes to brains, size isn’t everything. The human brain is much smaller than that of an elephant or whale. But there are far more neurons in a human’s cerebral cortex than in the cortex of any other animal.


The human brain has 86 billion neurons in all: 69 billion in the cerebellum, a dense lump at the back of the brain that helps orchestrate basic bodily functions and movement; 16 billion in the cerebral cortex, the brain’s thick corona and the seat of our most sophisticated mental talents, such as self-awareness, language, problem solving and abstract thought; and 1 billion in the brain stem and its extensions into the core of the brain. In contrast, the elephant brain, which is three times the size of our own, has 251 billion neurons in its cerebellum, which helps manage a giant, versatile trunk, and only 5.6 billion in its cortex.


Considering brain mass or volume alone masks these important distinctions. Based on her studies, Herculano-Houzel has concluded that primates evolved a way to pack far more neurons into the cerebral cortex than other mammals did. The great apes are tiny compared to elephants and whales, yet their cortices are far denser: Orangutans and gorillas have 9 billion cortical neurons, and chimps have 6 billion. Of all the great apes, we have the largest brains, so we come out on top with our 16 billion neurons in the cortex. In fact, humans appear to have the most cortical neurons of any species on Earth. “That’s the clearest difference between human and nonhuman brains,” Herculano-Houzel says. It’s all about the architecture, not just size.


Data taken from the following studies: Cellular scaling rules for primate brains;Cellular scaling rules for rodent brainsGorilla and Orangutan Brains Conform to the Primate Cellular Scaling Rules: Implications for Human Evolution; The elephant brain in numbers.

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Curiosity finds that Mars’ methane changes with the seasons

Curiosity finds that Mars’ methane changes with the seasons | Amazing Science |
The Curiosity rover found seasonally changing methane in Mars’ atmosphere and more signs of organic molecules in an ancient lake bed.


To Martian methane, there is a season. NASA’s Curiosity rover has found evidence that methane in Mars’ thin atmosphere varies during the year. Higher concentrations appear in late summer and early autumn in the northern hemisphere and lower concentrations in the winter and spring, researchers report in the June 8, 2018 Science. What’s more, Curiosity also spotted organic molecules previously unseen on Mars preserved in mudstone, some of the same researchers report in another study in the same issue of Science. Although neither methane nor organics alone are signs of life, the implications for astrobiology are “potentially huge,” says planetary scientist Michael Mumma of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., who was not involved in the studies.


In 2004, Mumma and colleagues reported the first observation of huge plumes of methane spewing into Mars’ atmosphere (SN: 2/14/09, p. 10). These plumes, detected with Earth-based telescopes, had methane concentrations as high as 45 parts per billion. That finding was exciting, because methane doesn’t last long in the Martian atmosphere before ultraviolet radiation from the sun destroys it. Something must have been creating or releasing the gas as astronomers watched. On Earth, most methane is produced by living creatures, so the plumes raised hopes that Mars supports life.


When Curiosity landed on the Red Planet in 2012, however, the rover initially found no methane to speak of. “A lot of people were disappointed and upset,” says Christopher Webster, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and a coauthor of the new methane study. But in 2014, after more searching, the Curiosity team found traces of methane, though much less than what was expected based on the earlier results.


Now after two full Martian years (five Earth years) of observing, the team reports that the annual average concentration of methane in Mars’ atmosphere is 0.41 ppb. But methane levels seem to rise and fall with the seasons, ranging from 0.24 ppb in winter to 0.65 ppb in summer. The researchers also saw relatively large methane spikes, up to about 7 ppb, at apparently random intervals.

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Casting a $20 Million Mirror for the World’s Largest Telescope

Casting a $20 Million Mirror for the World’s Largest Telescope | Amazing Science |
Building a mirror for any giant telescope is no simple feat. The sheer size of the glass, the nanometer precision of its curves, its carefully calculated optics, and the adaptive software required to run it make this a task of herculean proportions. But the recent castings of the 15-metric ton, off-axis mirrors for the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) forced engineers to push the design and manufacturing process beyond all previous limits.

Building the GMT is not a task of years, but of decades. The Giant Magellan Telescope Organization (GMTO) and a team at the University of Arizona's Richard F. Caris Mirror Laboratory cast the first of seven mirrors back in 2005; they expect to complete construction of the telescope in 2025. Once complete, it’s expected to be the largest telescope in the world. The seven 8.4-meter-wide mirrors will combine to serve as a 24.5-meter mirror telescope with 10 times the resolution of the Hubble Space Telescope. This will allow astronomers to gaze back in time to, they hope, the materialization of galaxies.

Each mirror costs US $20 million dollars and takes more than two years to build. Every stage of the manufacturing process calls for careful thought and meticulous planning. To begin, more than 17,000 kilograms of special glass are ordered and inspected for flaws. Next, a crew must build a 15-metric ton ceramic structure to serve as a mold for the glass, which they carefully place one chunk at a time. The glass is slowly melted and continuously spun in a furnace to create a parabolic shape, then cooled by fractions of degrees over the course of three months. And that’s only the beginning.

Once cooled, massive machinery lifts the mirror and tilts it to a vertical position. Engineers purge the ceramic mold from the mirror, wait for it to dry, and then rotate it again. They grind and refine the back of the mirror with exacting precision. Then they reposition the mirror in order to shape and polish the front face to within 20 nanometers of perfection—a process that takes about 18 months. Along the way, it undergoes four optical tests, some of which were engineered specifically for this project.
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Days on Earth are getting longer: Scientists calculate how they have increased by six hours over the last 1.4 Billion years

Days on Earth are getting longer: Scientists calculate how they have increased by six hours over the last 1.4 Billion years | Amazing Science |

The moon is moving away from Earth at a rate of  1.5 inches (3.82 cm) per year. As it drifts further from Earth, its gravitational pull weakens. This reduces the speed of Earth's spin and means days are slowly getting longer. Scientists discovered that a day used to be 18 hours long 1.4 billion years ago.

Eventually, days will lengthen significantly as the Earth's only celestial body pulls away — reducing the gravitational pull on our planet. Researchers found the shorter days were caused, at least in part, by the moon's  closer proximity to Earth. The closer the moon was to the surface of the planet, the stronger its gravitational pull and the quicker it made Earth spin. This contributed to the days on Earth lasting six hours less than they do today. Prof Stephen Meyers, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and co-author of the study, said: 'As the moon moves away, the Earth is like a spinning figure skater who slows down as they stretch their arms out.'

Professor Meyers and his team attempted to chronicle how the relationship between Earth and the moon has altered over time. They used a complex statistical method that links astronomical theory with geological observation — known as astro-chronology. Using this method, they were able to look back at Earth's geologic past and reconstruct the history of the solar system.

Professor Meyers said: 'One of our ambitions was to use astro-chronology to tell time in the most distant past, to develop very ancient geological time scales. 'We want to be able to study rocks that are billions of years old in a way that is comparable to how we study modern geologic processes.'

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Hunting for hidden life on worlds orbiting old, red stars

Hunting for hidden life on worlds orbiting old, red stars | Amazing Science |

All throughout the universe, there are stars in varying phases and ages. The oldest detected Kepler planets (exoplanets found using NASA's Kepler telescope) are about 11 billion years old, and the planetary diversity suggests that around other stars, such initially frozen worlds could be the size of Earth and could even provide habitable conditions once the star becomes older. Astronomers usually looked at middle-aged stars like our sun, but to find habitable worlds, one needs to look around stars of all ages.


In their work, Ramses M. Ramirez, research associate at Cornell's Carl Sagan Institute and Lisa Kaltenegger, associate professor of astronomy and director of the Carl Sagan Institute, have modeled the locations of the habitable zones for aging stars and how long planets can stay in it. Their research, "Habitable Zones of Post-Main Sequence Stars," is published in the Astrophysical Journal May 16.


The "habitable zone" is the region around a star in which water on a planet's surface is liquid and signs of life can be remotely detected by telescopes. "When a star ages and brightens, the habitable zone moves outward and you're basically giving a second wind to a planetary system," said Ramirez. "Currently objects in these outer regions are frozen in our own solar system, and Europa and Enceladus -- moons orbiting Jupiter and Saturn -- are icy for now."


Dependent upon the mass (weight) of the original star, planets and their moons loiter in this red giant habitable zone up to 9 billion years. Earth, for example, has been in our sun's habitable zone so far for about 4.5 billion years, and it has teemed with changing iterations of life. However, in a few billion years our sun will become a red giant, engulfing Mercury and Venus, turning Earth and Mars into sizzling rocky planets, and warming distant worlds like Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune -- and their moons -- in a newly established red giant habitable zone.


"Long after our own plain yellow sun expands to become a red giant star and turns Earth into a sizzling hot wasteland, there are still regions in our solar system -- and other solar systems as well -- where life might thrive," says Kaltenegger. "For stars that are like our sun, but older, such thawed planets could stay warm up to half a billion years in the red giant habitable zone. That's no small amount of time," said Ramirez, who is the lead author of the study. "In the far future, such worlds could become habitable around small red suns for billions of years, maybe even starting life, just like Earth. That makes me very optimistic for the chances for life in the long run," said Kaltenegger.

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