Tag Archives: #environment

Research Team Develops Synergistic Decision Framework Incorporating Renewables and Flexible Carbon Capture (Engineering)

As the global energy demand continues to grow along with atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide (CO2), there has been a major push to adopt more sustainable and more carbon-neutral energy sources. Solar/wind power and CO2 capture – the process of capturing waste CO2 so it is not introduced into the atmosphere – are two promising pathways for decarbonization, but both have significant drawbacks.

Solar and wind power are intermittent and cannot be deployed everywhere; CO2 capture processes are incredibly energy-intensive. Both of these pathways have benefits, but each on their own does not present a viable strategy at the moment. However, a research team led by Dr. Faruque Hasan, Kim Tompkins McDivitt ’88 and Phillip McDivitt ’87 Faculty Fellow and associate professor in the Artie McFerrin Department of Chemical Engineering at Texas A&M University, has uncovered a way to combine both of these processes together to increase the efficiency of both.

Much of Hasan’s research deals with synergy and synergistic effects in complex systems. Synergy is the combined effect of cooperative interactions between two or more organizations, substances or other agents that is greater than the sum of their separate effects. To this end, Hasan examined the synergistic integration of renewables and flexible carbon capture with individual fossil power plants.

“We are addressing three things that each have pros and cons: fossil fuels are cheap, but they release a lot of CO2; CO2 capture is very beneficial for the environment, but it is prohibitively expensive; renewable energy sources such as wind or solar power are good for the environment, but the energy output is intermittent and variable,” Hasan said.

While each area presents significant challenges individually, Hasan and his research team have found a significant benefit when all the components are used in tandem. In a research paper published in Energy & Environmental Science, Hasan and his doctoral students Manali Zantye and Akhil Arora examined the use of synergistic integration of renewables and flexible carbon capture and found a significant benefit to efficiency and cost reduction. 

“Despite the growing interest in sustainable renewable energy sources, their intermittent availability would make it difficult to completely replace the dispatchable fossil-based energy generators in the near future,” said Zantye, who is the first author of the paper.

CO2 capture is an energy-intensive process. Normally, this process runs alongside standard energy generation at power plants. As energy is generally priced on a demand basis, the use of CO2 capture processes during peak energy demand can quickly drive up operational costs to an unsustainable level. In this research, Hasan also found that utilizing a flexible CO2 capture system can greatly offset operational costs. 

Normally, CO2 is captured into a large solvent tank and then removed in an energy-intensive process. In a flexible system, rather than removing the CO2 as it is introduced to the solvent, it can be stored for short periods of time and removed at non-peak times when the cost of power is lower. Further, by incorporating a renewable energy source, the cost of CO2 capture is offset even more. 

According to Hasan, the synergistic framework presented in the research can dramatically improve the system beyond the component parts. “We have developed a computational framework to utilize dynamic operational schedules to manage all these very complex decisions,” he said. “Developing carbon capture technology is very important, but equally important is how you integrate them. The operational aspect of integration is very important. Our study shows that this can be done in such a way that renewables, fossil fuels and carbon capture are all working together.”

According to Zantye, the proposed framework provides an effective decarbonization mechanism for the current fossil-dominated energy landscape as we transition to a more fully sustainable future.

This research is partly supported by the Department of Energy. 

Featured image: Dr. Faruque Hasan has developed a synergistic framework that combines carbon dioxide capture processes and renewable energy sources at power plants, increasing the efficiency of both. | Image: Getty Images

Reference: Manali S. Zantye,   Akhil Arora  and  M. M. Faruque Hasan, “Renewable-Integrated Flexible Carbon Capture: A Synergistic Path Forward to Clean Energy Future”, Energy and Environmental Science, 2021. https://doi.org/10.1039/D0EE03946B

Provided by Texas A&M engineering University

A Plant’s Nutrient-Sensing Abilities Can Modulate Its Response To Environmental Stress (Botany)

Understanding how plants respond to stressful environmental conditions is crucial to developing effective strategies for protecting important agricultural crops from a changing climate. New research led by Carnegie’s Zhiyong Wang, Shouling, Xu, and Yang Bi reveals an important process by which plants switch between amplified and dampened stress responses. Their work is published by Nature Communications.

To survive in a changing environment, plants must choose between different response strategies, which are based on both external environmental factors and internal nutritional and energy demands. For example, a plant might either delay or accelerate its lifecycle, depending on the availability of the stored sugars that make up its energy supply.  

“We know plants are able to modulate their response to environmental stresses based on whether or not nutrients are available,” Wang explained. “But the molecular mechanisms by which they accomplish this fine tuning are poorly understood.”  

For years, Carnegie plant biologists have been building a treasure trove of research on a system by which plants sense available nutrients. It is a sugar molecule that gets tacked onto proteins and alters their activities. Called O-linked N-Acetylglucosamine, or O-GlcNAc, this sugar tag is associated with changes in gene expression, cellular growth, and cell differentiation in both animals and plants.

The functions of O-GlcNAc are well studied in the context of human diseases, such as obesity, cancer, and neurodegeneration, but are much less understood in plants. In 2017, the Carnegie-led team identified for the first time hundreds of plant proteins modified by O-GlcNAc, providing a framework for fully parsing the nutrient-sensing network it controls.

In this most recent report, researchers from Wang’s lab—lead author Bi, Zhiping Deng, Dasha Savage, Thomas Hartwig, and Sunita Patil—and Xu’s lab—Ruben Shrestha and Su Hyun Hong—revealed that one of the proteins modified by an O-GlcNAc tag provides a cellular physiological link between sugar availability and stress response. It is an evolutionarily conserved protein named Apoptotic Chromatin Condensation Inducer in the Nucleus, or Acinus, which is known in mammals to play numerous roles in the storage and processing of a cell’s genetic material.

Through a comprehensive set of genetic, genomic, and proteomic experiments, the Carnegie team demonstrated that in plants Acinus forms a similar protein complex as its mammalian counterpart and plays a unique role in regulating stress responses and key developmental transitions, such as seed germination and flowering. The work further demonstrates that sugar modification of the Acinus protein allows nutrient availability to modulate a plant’s sensitivity to environmental stresses and to control seed germination and flowering time.

“Our research illustrates how plants use the sugar sensing mechanisms to fine tune stress responses,” Xu explained. “Our findings suggest that plants choose different stress response strategies based on nutrient availability to maximize their survival in different stress conditions.”

Looking forward, the researchers want to study more proteins that are tagged by O-GlcNAc and better understand how this important system could be harnessed to fight hunger.

“Understanding how plants make cellular decisions by integrating environmental and internal information is important for improving plant resilience and productivity in a changing climate,” Wang concluded. “Considering that many parts of the molecular circuit are conserved in plant and human cells, our research findings can lead to improvement of not only agriculture and ecosystems, but also of human health.”        

This work was supported by the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the Carnegie Institution for Science endowment.

Featured image: Photo of flowering Arabidopsis Thaliana © Shutterstock

Reference: Bi, Y., Deng, Z., Ni, W. et al. Arabidopsis ACINUS is O-glycosylated and regulates transcription and alternative splicing of regulators of reproductive transitions. Nat Commun 12, 945 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-021-20929-7

Provided by Carnegie Science

How ‘Iron Man’ Bacteria Could Help Protect the Environment (Biology)

MSU researchers show how microbes stand up to a toxic metal, opening the door for applications in recycling and remediation.

When Michigan State University’s Gemma Reguera first proposed her new research project to the National Science Foundation, one grant reviewer responded that the idea was not “environmentally relevant.”

As other reviewers and the program manager didn’t share this sentiment, NSF funded the proposal. And, now, Reguera’s team has shown that microbes are capable of an incredible feat that could help reclaim a valuable natural resource and soak up toxic pollutants.

MSU Professor Gemma Reguera

“The lesson is that we really need to think outside the box, especially in biology. We just know the tip of the iceberg. Microbes have been on earth for billions of years, and to think that they can’t do something precludes us from so many ideas and applications,” said Reguera, a professor in the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics.

Reguera’s team works with bacteria found in soil and sediment known as Geobacter. In its latest project, the team investigated what happened to the bacteria when they encounter cobalt.

Cobalt is a valuable but increasingly scarce metal used in batteries for electric vehicles and alloys for spacecraft. It’s also highly toxic to livings things, including humans and bacteria.

“It kills a lot of microbes,” Reguera said. “Cobalt penetrates their cells and wreaks havoc.”

But the team suspected Geobacter might be able to escape that fate. These microbes are a hardy bunch. They can block uranium contaminants from getting into groundwater, and they can power themselves by pulling energy from minerals containing iron oxide. “They respire rust,” Reguera said.

Scientists know little about how microbes interact with cobalt in the environment, but many researchers — including one grant reviewer — believed that the toxic metal would be too much for the microbes.

But Reguera’s team challenged that thinking and found Geobacter to be effective cobalt “miners,” extracting the metal from rust without letting it penetrate their cells and kill them. Rather, the bacteria essentially coat themselves with the metal.

“They form cobalt nanoparticles on their surface. They metallize themselves and it’s like a shield that protects them,” Reguera said. “It’s like Iron Man when he puts on the suit.”

This Geobacter cell — which looks a bit like a gray peanut in this microscope image — is speckled with a dark coating of cobalt minerals that would be toxic to many organisms. © Hunter Dulay, MSU

The team published its discovery in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology, with the research article first appearing online in late November, 2020. The Spartan team included Kazem Kashefi, an assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, and graduate students Hunter Dulay and Marcela Tabares, who are “two amazing and relatively junior investigators,” Reguera said.

She sees this discovery as a proof-of-concept that opens the door to a number of exciting possibilities. For example, Geobacter could form the basis of new biotechnology built to reclaim and recycle cobalt from lithium-ion batteries, reducing the nation’s dependence on foreign cobalt mines.

It also invites researchers to study Geobacter as a means to soak up other toxic metals that were previously believed to be death sentences for the bacteria. Reguera is particularly interested in seeing if Geobacter could help clean up cadmium, a metal that’s found in industrial pollution that disproportionately affects America’s most disadvantaged communities.

“This is a reminder to be creative and not limited in the possibilities. Research is the freedom to explore, to search and search and search,” Reguera said. “We have textbook opinions about what microbes can and should do, but life is so diverse and colorful. There are other processes out there waiting to be discovered.”

This work was supported by the NSF’s Geobiology and Low-Temperature Geochemistry Program, as well as a Hatch project grant from the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

(Note for media: Please include a link to the original paper in online coverage: https://doi.org/10.3389/fmicb.2020.600463)

Provided by Michigan State University

Study of Dune Dynamics Will Help Scientists Understand The Topography Of Mars (Planetary Science)

Researchers at the University of Campinas conducted more than 120 experiments with dunes of up to 10 cm that interact for a few minutes, obtaining a model valid for dunes on the surface of Mars that are many miles long and take more than a thousand years.

Barchans are crescent-shaped sand dunes whose two horns face in the direction of the fluid flow. They appear in different environments, such as inside water pipes or on river beds, where they take the form of ten-centimeter ripples, and deserts, where they can exceed 100 meters, and the surface of Mars, where they can be a kilometer in length or more. If their size varies greatly, so does the time they take to form and interact. The orders of magnitude range from a minute for small barchans in water to a year for large desert formations and a millennium for the giants on Mars.

Researchers at the University of Campinas conducted more than 120 experiments with dunes of up to 10 cm that interact for a few minutes, obtaining a model valid for dunes on the surface of Mars that are many miles long and take more than a thousand years to interact ©×Agência FAPESP

They are formed by the interaction between the flow of a fluid, such as gas or liquid, and granular matter, typically sand, under predominantly unidirectional flow conditions (read more at: agencia.fapesp.br/29178). 

“What’s interesting is the similarity of their formation and interaction dynamics, regardless of size. As a result, we can study aquatic barchans in the laboratory to make predictions about the evolution of the dunes in Lençóis Maranhenses [a coastal ecosystem in the Northeast of Brazil] or to investigate the origins of the topography in the Hellespontus region on Mars,” said Erick Franklin, a researcher and professor at the University of Campinas’s School of Mechanical Engineering (FEM-UNICAMP) in the state of São Paulo, Brazil.

Working with his PhD student Willian Righi Assis, Franklin performed more than 120 experiments and identified five basic types of interaction between barchans. 

The study, conducted entirely at UNICAMP, is reported in an article published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. It was supported by FAPESP via a Phase 2 Young Investigator Grant awarded to Franklin and a direct doctorate scholarship awarded to Assis.

A striking aspect of the topic is that as well as having a robust shape that appears in many different environments, barchans typically form corridors in which their sizes are approximately the same. Analysis of individual dunes suggests they should grow indefinitely, becoming steadily larger, but this is not the case. One explanation for their characteristic size in a given environment is that binary interactions, especially collisions, redistribute the mass of sand, and instead of growing continuously they subdivide into smaller dunes.

“This has been proposed in the past, but no one had extensively tested and mapped these interactions, as dune collisions take decades to happen in terrestrial deserts,” Franklin said. “Taking advantage of the fact that underwater barchans are small and move much faster, we conducted experiments in a hydrodynamic channel made of transparent material, with turbulent water flow forming and transporting pairs of barchans while a camera filmed the process. We identified for the first time the five basic types of binary interaction.”

In the experiments, the researchers varied independently each of the parameters involved in the problem, such as grain diameter, density and roundness, water flow velocity, and initial conditions. The images acquired were processed by computer using a numerical code written by the researchers. Based on the results, they proposed two maps that supplied a general classification of the possible interactions.

“Our experiments showed that when a binary collision occurs, the barchan that was originally downstream, i.e. in front, expelled a dune of an approximately equal mass to that of the barchan upstream, i.e. behind,” Franklin said. “The first impression was that the upstream barchan passed over the other barchan like a wave, but the use of colored grains helped us show this didn’t happen. Actually, the upstream barchan entered the downstream barchan, which became too large and released a mass more or less equal to the mass received.”

Interactions between the two barchans basically involved two mechanisms. One was the disturbance caused in the fluid, which bypassed the upstream barchan, accelerated and impacted the downstream barchan, which eroded. This is termed the “wake effect”. The other was the collision in which the colliding barchans’ grains merged. 

“Our experimental data showed that these two mechanisms caused five types of barchan-barchan interaction,” Franklin said. “Bearing in mind that the velocity of a dune is inversely proportional to its size, the simplest two are what we call chasing and merging.”

Chasing occurs when the two barchans are roughly the same size and erosion due to the wake effect makes the downstream dune decrease in size. The two barchans then move at the same velocity and remain at a constant distance from each other. Merging happens when the upstream barchan is much smaller than the downstream barchan. Erosion caused by the wake does not substantially decrease the size of the upstream dune, so that the barchans collide and merge, forming a single dune.

The third type of interaction is exchange, which is more complicated. “Exchange happens when the upstream barchan is smaller than the downstream barchan, but not much smaller. Here, too, the upstream dune catches up with the downstream dune and they collide. As they do so, the smaller dune ascends and spreads over the larger one. During this process, however, the fluid flow, which is deflected by the new dune, strongly erodes the front of the dune, which ejects a new dune. Because it is smaller and emerges downstream, the new dune moves faster and a gap opens up between the two dunes,” Franklin said.

The last two types of interaction happen when fluid flow is very strong. “What we call ‘fragmentation-chasing’ is when the dunes are of different sizes. The wake effect on the downstream dune is so strong that it splits into two. Both the resulting dunes are smaller than the upstream dune. The result is three dunes with gaps widening between them. The last type is ‘fragmentation-exchange’, which is similar. The difference is that the upstream dune reaches the downstream dune before its division into two is complete,” Franklin said.

The five types are easy to understand in this video. In fact, the researchers were able to construct the typology thanks to the visual support afforded by the movies described in the article. “Our results, obtained for subaqueous barchans that were centimeters in length and developed in minutes, significantly advance the understanding of the dynamics and formation of this type of dune,” Franklin said. “Through laws of scale, they enable us to transpose the findings to other environments, where sizes are larger and timespans longer. Understanding the past of Mars or projecting its distant future, both of which are currently of interest to scientists, could be greatly facilitated by these findings.”

Provided by FAPESP

About São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP)

The São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) is a public institution with the mission of supporting scientific research in all fields of knowledge by awarding scholarships, fellowships and grants to investigators linked with higher education and research institutions in the State of São Paulo, Brazil. FAPESP is aware that the very best research can only be done by working with the best researchers internationally. Therefore, it has established partnerships with funding agencies, higher education, private companies, and research organizations in other countries known for the quality of their research and has been encouraging scientists funded by its grants to further develop their international collaboration. You can learn more about FAPESP at http://www.fapesp.br/en and visit FAPESP news agency at http://www.agencia.fapesp.br/en to keep updated with the latest scientific breakthroughs FAPESP helps achieve through its many programs, awards and research centers. You may also subscribe to FAPESP news agency at http://agencia.fapesp.br/subscribe.

Leaf-cutter Bees As Plastic Recyclers? Not A Good Idea, Say Scientists (Biology)

In observational paper, team of scientists report evidence of bees in the genus Megachile using plastic in nest construction.

Plastic has become ubiquitous in modern life and its accumulation as waste in the environment is sounding warning bells for the health of humans and wildlife. In a recent study, Utah State University scientist Janice Brahney cited alarming amounts of microplastics in the nation’s national parks and wilderness areas.

Joseph Wilson, associate professor of biology at Utah State University-Tooele, handles pieces of plastic sheeting with tell-tale circular cut-outs made by leaf-cutter bees. Wilson says the solitary bees use the plastic in nest construction, which could harm their offspring. ©USU.

Bioengineers around the world are working to develop plastic-eating “super” enzymes that can break down the man-made material’s molecular structure faster to aid recycling efforts. In another research effort published in 2019, entomologists noted leaf-cutter bees were using plastic waste to construct their nests. The researchers suggested such behavior could be an “ecologically adaptive trait” and a beneficial recycling effort.

Not so fast, says USU evolutionary ecologist Joseph Wilson. Just because bees can use plastic, doesn’t mean they should.

Wilson and undergraduate researcher Sussy Jones, along with colleagues Scott McCleve, a naturalist and retired math teacher in Douglas, Arizona, and USU alum and New Mexico-based independent scientist Olivia Carril ’00, MS’06, jointly authored an observational paper in the Oct. 9, 2020 issue of ‘Science Matters’, exploring the nest building behavior of bees in the genus Megachile.

“Leaf-cutter bees are among the most recognizable of solitary bees, because of their habit of cutting circles out of leaves to build their cylindrical nests,” says Wilson, associate professor of biology at USU-Tooele. “We’ve heard reports of these bees using plastic, especially plastic flagging primarily in construction and agriculture, and we decided to investigate.”

A leaf-cutter bee carries a piece of a leaf it’s cut to build a nest cell for its offspring. Utah State University scientist Joseph Wilson says the bees may be using plastic waste in place of natural materials. ©Joseph Wilson.

The researchers don’t yet know how widespread the use of plastic by leaf-cutter bees is and they also know little about plastic’s effects on the insects.

“Building from plastic could change the dynamics and environment of the bee’s nest cells, because plastic doesn’t breathe like natural materials,” says Wilson, who produced a video about the phenomenon. “In the 1970s, some researcher let leaf-cutter bees nest in plastic straws and found ninety percent of the bees’ offspring died because of fungal growth. The plastic sealed in the moisture and didn’t allow gas exchange.”

Examples of leaf-cutter bee use of a sumac leave and two pieces of plastic flagging.

To deter bees’ use of flagging, Wilson suggests use of fabric ribbons made from natural fibers.

“These materials are biodegradable and, if used by bees, will likely avoid the harmful moisture-capturing effects of plastic,” he says.

References: Joseph Wilson, Sussy Jones, Scott McCleve, Olivia M Carril, “Evidence of leaf-cutter bees using plastic flagging as nesting material”, Matters, 2020. https://sciencematters.io/articles/202010000003

Provided by Utah State University

Room Temperature Conversion Of CO2 to CO: A New Way To Synthesize Hydrocarbons (Chemistry)

Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and their colleagues have demonstrated a room-temperature method that could significantly reduce carbon dioxide levels in fossil-fuel power plant exhaust, one of the main sources of carbon emissions in the atmosphere.

Illustration of a novel room-temperature process to remove carbon dioxide (CO2) by converting the molecule into carbon monoxide (CO). Instead of using heat, the nanoscale method relies on the energy from surface plasmons (violet hue) that are excited when a beam of electrons (vertical beam) strikes aluminum nanoparticles resting on graphite, a crystalline form of carbon. In the presence of the graphite, aided by the energy derived from the plasmons, carbon dioxide molecules (black dot bonded to two red dots) are converted to carbon monoxide (black dot bonded to one red dot. The hole under the violet sphere represents the graphite etched away during the chemical reaction CO2 + C = 2CO. ©NIST.

Although the researchers demonstrated this method in a small-scale, highly controlled environment with dimensions of just nanometers (billionths of a meter), they have already come up with concepts for scaling up the method and making it practical for real-world applications.

In addition to offering a potential new way of mitigating the effects of climate change, the chemical process employed by the scientists also could reduce costs and energy requirements for producing liquid hydrocarbons and other chemicals used by industry. That’s because the method’s byproducts include the building blocks for synthesizing methane, ethanol and other carbon-based compounds used in industrial processing.

The team tapped a novel energy source from the nanoworld to trigger a run-of-the-mill chemical reaction that eliminates carbon dioxide. In this reaction, solid carbon latches onto one of the oxygen atoms in carbon dioxide gas, reducing it to carbon monoxide. The conversion normally requires significant amounts of energy in the form of high heat — a temperature of at least 700 degrees Celsius, hot enough to melt aluminum at normal atmospheric pressure.

Instead of heat, the team relied on the energy harvested from traveling waves of electrons, known as localized surface plasmons (LSPs), which surf on individual aluminum nanoparticles. The team triggered the LSP oscillations by exciting the nanoparticles with an electron beam that had an adjustable diameter. A narrow beam, about a nanometer in diameter, bombarded individual aluminum nanoparticles while a beam about a thousand times wider generated LSPs among a large set of the nanoparticles.

In the team’s experiment, the aluminum nanoparticles were deposited on a layer of graphite, a form of carbon. This allowed the nanoparticles to transfer the LSP energy to the graphite. In the presence of carbon dioxide gas, which the team injected into the system, the graphite served the role of plucking individual oxygen atoms from carbon dioxide, reducing it to carbon monoxide. The aluminum nanoparticles were kept at room temperature. In this way, the team accomplished a major feat: getting rid of the carbon dioxide without the need for a source of high heat.

Previous methods of removing carbon dioxide have had limited success because the techniques have required high temperature or pressure, employed costly precious metals, or had poor efficiency. In contrast, the LSP method not only saves energy but uses aluminum, a cheap and abundant metal.

Although the LSP reaction generates a poisonous gas — carbon monoxide — the gas readily combines with hydrogen to produce essential hydrocarbon compounds, such as methane and ethanol, that are often used in industry, said NIST researcher Renu Sharma.

She and her colleagues, including scientists from the University of Maryland in College Park and DENSsolutions, in Delft, the Netherlands, reported their findings in Nature Materials.

“We showed for the first time that this carbon dioxide reaction, which otherwise will only happen at 700 degrees C or higher, can be triggered using LSPs at room temperature,” said researcher Canhui Wang of NIST and the University of Maryland.

The researchers chose an electron beam to excite the LSPs because the beam can also be used to image structures in the system as small as a few billionths of a meter. This enabled the team to estimate how much carbon dioxide had been removed. They studied the system using a transmission electron microscope (TEM).

Because both the concentration of carbon dioxide and the reaction volume of the experiment were so small, the team had to take special steps to directly measure the amount of carbon monoxide generated. They did so by coupling a specially modified gas cell holder from the TEM to a gas chromatograph mass spectrometer, allowing the team to measure parts-per-millions concentrations of carbon dioxide.

Sharma and her colleagues also used the images produced by the electron beam to measure the amount of graphite that was etched away during the experiment, a proxy for how much carbon dioxide had been taken away. They found that the ratio of carbon monoxide to carbon dioxide measured at the outlet of the gas cell holder increased linearly with the amount of carbon removed by etching.

Imaging with the electron beam also confirmed that most of the carbon etching — a proxy for carbon dioxide reduction — occurred near the aluminum nanoparticles. Additional studies revealed that when the aluminum nanoparticles were absent from the experiment, only about one-seventh as much carbon was etched.

Limited by the size of the electron beam, the team’s experimental system was small, only about 15 to 20 nanometers across (the size of a small virus).

To scale up the system so that it could remove carbon dioxide from the exhaust of a commercial power plant, a light beam may be a better choice than an electron beam to excite the LSPs, Wang said. Sharma proposes that a transparent enclosure containing loosely packed carbon and aluminum nanoparticles could be placed over the smokestack of a power plant. An array of light beams impinging upon the grid would activate the LSPs. When the exhaust passes through the device, the light-activated LSPs in the nanoparticles would provide the energy to remove carbon dioxide.

The aluminum nanoparticles, which are commercially available, should be evenly distributed to maximize contact with the carbon source and the incoming carbon dioxide, the team noted.

The new work also suggests that LSPs offer a way for a slew of other chemical reactions that now require a large infusion of energy to proceed at ordinary temperatures and pressures using plasmonic nanoparticles.

“Carbon dioxide reduction is a big deal, but it would be an even bigger deal, saving enormous amounts of energy, if we can start to do many chemical reactions at room temperature that now require heating,” Sharma said.

References: Canhui Wang, Wei-Chang D. Yang, David Raciti, Alina Bruma, Ronald Marx, Amit Agrawal, and Renu Sharma. Endothermic Reaction at Room Temperature enabled by Deep-Ultraviolet Plasmons. Nature Materials. Nov. 2, 2020. DOI: 10.1038/s41563-020-00851-x link: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/s41563-020-00851-x

Provided by NIST

Does Classroom Indoor Environmental Quality Affect Teaching And Learning? (Psychology)

What impact does a classroom’s indoor environment have on teaching, learning, and students’ academic achievement in colleges and universities? This is the question researchers set out to answer in their analysis of all relevant published studies.

A new study published in Indoor Air indeicates that indoor environmental quality can affect short-term students’ academic performance, with a preference for a relatively cool, bright, and quiet environment and in ambient air with low carbon dioxide concentrations. ©Dr. Brink

In the analysis published in Indoor Air, the team looked at indoor air, thermal, acoustic, and lighting conditions. The collected evidence from 21 studies showed that the indoor environmental quality can contribute to the quality of learning. Sufficient evidence confirmed that poor indoor air, thermal, acoustic, and lighting conditions negatively influence the quality of learning due to discomfort and impaired mental and physical health of students. On the other hand, optimal conditions can create an environment in which students feel more alert and pay more attention.

Study results also indicated that indoor environmental quality can affect short-term students’ academic performance, with a preference for a relatively cool, bright, and quiet environment and in ambient air with low carbon dioxide concentrations.

The influence of all parameters on the quality of teaching and on students’ long-term academic performance could not be determined, however.

“Several studies showed that there is not a single optimal indoor environmental condition for students in higher education classrooms. Conditions in which students perform at their best are task-dependent. Therefore, classrooms should provide multiple indoor environmental conditions, in order to facilitate educational processes optimally,” said lead author Henk W. Brink, PhD, MSc, of the Hanze University of Applied Sciences, in the Netherlands.

References: Brink, H., Loomans, M., Mobach, M. and Kort, H. (2020), Classrooms’ indoor environmental conditions affecting the academic achievement of students and teachers in higher education: a systematic literature review. Indoor Air. Accepted Author Manuscript. doi:10.1111/ina.12745 https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/action/showCitFormats?doi=10.1111%2Fina.12745

Provided by WILEY

New Theory Sheds Light On How The Environment Influences Human Health (Medicine)

A newly proposed component — the biodynamic interface — may better explain how humans interact with their environment.

Researchers at Mount Sinai have proposed a groundbreaking new way to study the interaction between complex biological systems in the body and the environment. Their theory suggests the existence of “biodynamic interfaces,” an intermediate entity between the two realms, as opposed to conventional approaches that analyze individual aspects of the interaction between the environment and humans in isolation, according to a paper published in BioEssays in October.

The environment impacts human health in profound ways, yet few theories define the form of the relationship between human physiology and the environment. The Mount Sinai scientists believe that such complex systems cannot interact directly, but rather that their interaction requires the formation of an intermediary “interface.” The scientists believe that this theory will lead to the establishment of a new field, “environmental biodynamics,” that will advance the way the environment and human health are studied.

The basis of their theory arose when they compared the time period when autistic children were exposed to toxins to how the children’s brains functioned afterward. At the same time, they found distinct patterns in the intake and metabolism of essential elements and toxins, which were dependent not only on the timing and magnitude of the environmental exposure but also on what was happening within the biological systems of the child’s body.

“These rhythms were driven by the properties of both the biological and environmental systems, but exhibited properties independent of either system,” said Manish Arora, PhD, the Edith J. Baerwald Professor and Vice Chair of Environmental Medicine and Public Health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “They supported the existence of an interface mediating the interaction of biological and environmental systems. The interface itself, which applies constraints and passes information between interacting systems, must be the subject of inquiry because without refocusing the attention on biodynamic interfaces, how the environment impacts health cannot be discerned.”


The study of the interface will allow scientists to better understand how complex systems like the environment and human physiology affect each other. Current methods using plain analysis are incomplete, the scientists say.

“The standard course of inquiry measures some aspect of the environment like lead in the water, and we’d link this to some aspect in human development like IQ,” said Paul Curtin, PhD, Assistant Professor of Environmental Medicine and Public Health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, an author on the paper. “We’ve learned a lot from environmental health using this approach, but it has its limits.”

This interface also considers social, behavioral, and cultural dynamics to be a particularly fruitful avenue of research. This new theory would allow scientists to assess the interface between income and other processes, including health outcomes using dynamical systems methods. It would also define how human activities could negatively influence the environment and negatively influence their own health outcomes and further environmental impacts over time.

Dr. Arora’s work was funded by a prestigious Revolutionizing Innovative, Visionary Environmental Health (RIVER) Award from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, totaling $8 million over eight years to complete research on the biodynamic interface. Alessandro Giuliani, PhD, Professor of Environmental Health at the University of Rome, has made a significant contribute to the development of the theory.

“Arora, Giuliani, and Curtin’s conjecture is potentially a major breakthrough, as knowing the factors that influence biological time may be the key to understanding why people age or mature at different rates, and how our early life experiences can influence our health as adults,” said Robert O. Wright, MD, MPH, Ethel H. Wise Professor and Chair of Environmental Medicine and Public Health and Director of the Institute for Exposomic Research at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Link to Journal Article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/bies.202000017

Provided by Mount Sinai Health System

How Bacteria Adapt Their Machinery For Optimum Growth? (Biology)

The most important components for the functioning of a biological cell are its proteins. As a result, protein production is arguably the most important process for cell growth. The faster the bacterial growth rate, the faster protein synthesis needs to take place. Because protein synthesis is the most expensive cellular process in terms of cellular resources usage, it appears reasonable to assume that the cell to increases production capacities by hosting more copies of the complicated machinery in proportion to its growth rate. This would mean that in order for growth to double, twice as many copies of all components of the translation machinery would be needed.

It has been clear since the 1960s, however, that it’s not that simple. Instead, the composition of the ‘cocktail’ of individual components in the machinery, which itself is made from proteins and RNA, varies with the growth rate. A new, complex computer model developed in Düsseldorf shows what concentrations of the individual components are needed in order to produce different synthesis rates, explaining for the first time the reasons behind the observed variations across growth conditions.

Xiao-Pan Hu, a doctoral student in Prof. Dr. Martin Lercher’s Computational Cell Biology group at the HHU, developed the model. Hu used computer modelling to encode established biochemical principles at the cellular level. The resulting model can be used to calculate the speed with which a cell can produce its components and thus predicts cell growth based on a predefined composition of its machinery.

Theoretically, each production rate can be realised using a large number of different molecule concentrations. The question is: What does nature do? Which one of the many feasible compositions do real Escherichia coli (‘E. coli’) bacteria use and why? Hu and his colleagues have based their work on a simple assumption reflected everywhere in nature: an organism generally has an evolutionary advantage if it needs as few resources as possible for its development. Consequently, the team searched through the many possible compositions for the one that is ‘cheapest’ for the cell, i.e., the one that requires the smallest possible total mass of molecules.

Comparisons with experimental data show that this assumption is correct and accurately predicts the concentrations measured in real E. coli bacteria colonies. This allowed the Düsseldorf-based research team not only to describe the data quantitatively but also to actually understand the reasons behind the data, namely that a principle found in many other areas of life also applies here.

In further analyses, the model also proved accurate for situations where the bacteria are exposed to antibiotics. In exceptional circumstances like these, the bacteria are particularly stressed and need a toolset that is arranged differently in order to grow.

The research group is currently investigating whether the findings for protein synthesis can also be applied to other cellular processes and other organisms. The models developed as part of this work should also help to design biotech procedures more efficiently. They make it possible to calculate the optimum concentrations of the individual components in the cell for the desired biological production.

References: Xiao-Pan Hu, Hugo Dourado, Peter Schubert, Martin J. Lercher, The protein translation machinery is expressed for maximal efficiency in Escherichia coli, Nat. Comm.
DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-18948-x http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-18948-x

Provided by Heinrich-Heine University Duesseldorf