Shields Up!, Kangaroo Burps, Bee Dancing, Geothermal - The Energy Underground

 

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Shields Up!

shields_up.jpg A superconducting ring could produce a magnetic field that protects astronauts from cosmic rays. (Image: RAS).

Dr. Ruth Bamford has made a discovery that will delight avid Star Trek fans. She and her colleagues at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire, England, have developed an experimental version of the kind of space shield used on the USS Enterprise. Dr. Rutherford has been working on ways of protecting astronauts from the deadly effects of solar radiation ---- a necessity on extended voyages to Mars. The device works by creating a protective plasma bubble around the space craft, held in place using a magnetic field. Trekkies will recognize this as a bona-fide deflector shield. Dr. Bamford says the laboratory results are promising. The next step is to take it into the final frontier.

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Kangaroo Burps

kanga.jpg Western Grey Kangaroo - copyright Sean Mack, GNU Free Documentation License

Kangaroos and cows have a lot more in common than you might think. Namely, they're both grazers and both depend on microbes in their digestive tract to help them breakdown their high-fibre diet. The difference is that cows produce high amounts of the greenhouse gas, methane, in the process. Kangaroos, on the other hand, produce almost none. Dr. Athol Klieve, a researcher with the Department of Primary Industries & Fisheries in Queensland, Australia, is studying the gut bacteria of certain species of kangaroo, in the hope that they can be transfered into the digestive system of cattle; and, in doing so, significantly cut back the amount of greenhouse gas they produce.





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Bee Dancing

bees.jpg Bees building a give, courtesy H. Mattila

Queen bees mate with many males on their mating flights before they settle down to start a hive and raise larvae. Canadian scientist Dr. Heather Mattila, a postdoctoral associate in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at Cornell University, wondered if the number of matings had any impact on how successful the hive was. She found that they were, but the reason why was surprising. By mating with many males, the queen increased her chances of having a few offspring who were good dancers. Since dancing is how bees communicate where resources like food can be found, having bees in the colony who can cut a mean rug gives the hive a big advantage.

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Geothermal - The Energy Underground

old_faithful.jpg Old Faithful erupting

We're familiar with geothermal energy from mountain hot springs, geysers like Old Faithful in Yellowstone Park, and perhaps from the way Iceland has developed an entire energy system based on volcanic-heated water. However, geothermal energy is still just a niche player in the global energy picture. But that may be changing. Currently, we generate geothermal electricity from places where heat from the Earth's core runs into underground water, which can produce high temperature steam, but these sites are rare.

Dr Alan Jessop, who worked for Natural Resources Canada and led the geothermal energy program there, surveyed Canada's resources, but there were relatively few promising natural sites. Several nations, however, are working on new technology to create artificial geothermal reservoirs. These are enhanced geothermal systems in which deep holes are bored and water is pumped in to generate a source of very hot water. Dr. Jeff Tester, a professor of Chemical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Dr. Michal Moore, a Senior Fellow in the Institute for Sustainable Energy, Environment and Economy at the University of Calgary, helped prepare a report on the potential of enhanced geothermal energy. They think that up to ten percent of the US's electricity could be generated this way in the next fifty years - some 100,000 Megawatts.

Extremely hot rock isn't the only way to use geothermal energy, though. You can also get energy from relatively cool ground using a technology called geo-exchange. Currently, thousands of Canadian homes are heated this way using devices called ground-source heat pumps. Gary Poyntz, the Vice President of Clean Energy Developments (CED) in Toronto, installs these systems to replace heating and cooling systems, at an energy savings of 75% or better. Mark Douglas, an engineer at Natural Resources Canada, says that the systems run by extracting the small amount of energy from water circulated through a loop usually buried in the ground, and using that energy to heat the home. Paul Mertes, the President of CED, expects his business to grow immensely in the next few years, as the financial, energy and carbon emission savings from geo-exchange are very large.

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Theme music copyright Raphaël Gluckstein. Creative Commons License by-nc-nd-2.0