Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Stinky Invasive

Skunk vine was originally introduced from Asia in the late 1800s. It was going to be used as a fiber crop but it was determined that its weedy properties were going to be harmful for the skunk vine to be used in this manner. It eventually became labeled as an invasive weed because of these weedy properties. The vine is woody and doesn’t contain thorns on its vine. It also has a characteristic stinky smell when it is crushed.

Skunk vine is capable of living in many different types of habitats and can grow very tall, sometimes actually growing up into the canopy of forests it has invaded. Because it is capable of living in many diverse habitats and because it can climb up trees and shrubs, skunk vine can climb up, engulf, and strangle native trees and shrubs. Skunk vine is also capable of reproducing vegitatively or through the use of seeds. Because of this property, it is hard to get rid of.

There have been many different efforts to try to get rid of skunk vine, including physical, chemical, and biological controls. When trying to get rid of this harmful weed, it is a big problem if even stem fragments get transported because new plants can start growing from these fragments. This is one property of skunk vine that aids it in its invasiveness.

There has been a recent discovery of a beetle that could possibly be used for biological control. This beetle, Himalusa thailandensis, was found in Thailand. It was actually found chowing down on a different species of skunk vine that is closely related to the two species that are now invading southern Florida. The way that this new beetle feeds on the skunk vine, it is very detrimental to the plant. Scientists are currently trying to figure out the biology and possible ecological effects of this beetle. They are trying to determine if this beetle would really be a good biological control for eliminating the skunk vine problem in southern Florida.

For some more information on the skunk vine, visit the following website: Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Algae As The Next Biofuel

Scientists everywhere are brainstorming for the next idea for a better biofuel possibility. A $2 million grant funded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is helping with a project that believes that microalgae would be a good source as a biofuel. Where it would usually take millenia to produce crude oil, this research is speeding that process up to just minutes by heating and compressing the algae. The wastes from this process would be fed on by E.coli, which is also being researched as being used for a fuel source. The only thing that would leave the company would be the oil.

Why use microalgae? These small organisms lack leaves, roots and stems. They also have a weak cell wall, which is easy to break down compared to the other biofuel-potential plant sources. The algae are also carbon-neutral because they consume CO2 regularly and then when used as a fuel that same CO2 that was consumed is released. There is no additional carbon dioxide than what was originally taken in.

So how does the algae become fuel? It is literally pressure-cooked. This is a very simple process where the algae is heated to 300 degrees at a high pressure to keep the algae in a liquid form rather than it being released as steam. This process typically last 30 to 60 minutes until the crude oil is produced. When the algae breaks down due to the high heat and pressure levels, it releases natural oils and proteins which add to the fuel.

Once the crude oil is obtained it is in a tar-like state. The research is currently at this stage in the process, trying to determine how to change the properties of the substance to make it more of a flowing substance that would be easier to put into a car's gas tank. They are also working to clean the substance by reducing its sulfur and nitrogen levels.

An earlier article mentions that there are over 100 companies working on the algae-to-biofuel project and expects it to be a very expensive project. Once all of the technology in in store it will be up to the resource availability of the planet to keep the production of the algae based biofuels proceeding. The major required sources are water, flat land, appropriate climate, and carbon dioxide. It is being considered to use wastewater for the algae production, which helps out both areas respectively. It is expected that algal biofuel could become available within 10 years.

Sources: http://www/

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Wild Colorado

An invasive species is non-native to the ecosystem under consideration, and its introduction causes or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm. They can also cause harm to human health.

While Colorado is fighting against non-native plants, they are trying to protect their waterways. Currently the Colorado Division of Wildlife has found the invasive zebra mussel in only seven of the state's water bodies; however, they are closely monitoring the state's other 230 bodies of water. Other invasive species that they are trying to prevent the spread of include New Zealand mud snails, rusty crayfish, and aquatic noxious weeds such as the Eurasian watermilfoil. The more bodies of water that these species move into, the more of a chance they have to clog water systems and overtake ecosystems. These invasions could affect the health of the nation's forests, watersheds and rangelands, wildlife, fish, and humans.

It is likely that the zebra mussel moved into Colorado when watercraft transported them from the Great Lakes. They originally came from commercial vessels from Europe. The mussels have no natural enemies in Colorado; therefore, they outcompete native species and form monocultures. The mussels affect the survival of fish by eating the base of the food chain.
The mussels can affect humans by clogging pipes and boat motors, litter beaches, docks, rocks, and underwater features with sharp shells. Because of their damage, billions of dollars go into fixing problems caused by the mussels.

The Lower Colorado River is seeing some of the largest infestations of the mussels aside from the Great Lakes. In order to prevent the spread, the Division of Wildlife is offering free boat inspections. This offer is available at 112 locations in the state. In the past few years about 33 boats coming in from other states had zebra or quagga mussels on them.

"Take nothing. Leave nothing. That includes the critters stuck in the mud in your hiking boots."

New Markets for Wood Waste Products

Lignol Energy Corporation located in British Columbia is looking at the new generation of biofuels. They are making their ethanol the byproduct of an industrial process. The process focuses on the cultivation of a market for the natural glue and lignin that wood pulp contains. It is the lignin that makes the ethanol. However, even with the cost of oil over $100 a barrel, woodbased ethanol isn't commercially competitive. It won't be till the price of oil goes up much higher, or cellulosic ethanol must become cheaper. The company's CEO Ross MacLachlan says "from an industry perspective I think it's fair to say that the cost curve is going to fall over time."

It is well known that we need to start relying more on biofuels but need to find a way to do so without cutting into our food supply. The good news is that there is no shortage of wood waste in British Columbia. "They say that there is going to be about a billion cubic metres of wood out there [due to forest kills by the mountain pine beetle]. If you take about two-10ths of one per cent per year that's enough to meet the five-per-cent renewable fuel standard for the province of B.C. Just to take a reasonable commercial amount of that [volume of available wood], presents B.C. and Canada generally with an enormous opportunity for export to the United States and to the world."

Lignol has many more years of research behind fuel than their competitors. GE was doing fuelgrade research in the 1970s and Repap Enterprises added $100 million to this research. Lignol inherited all of this. When the prices of oil crashed after the global economic meltdown in 2008, the company decided to look into other options. Several years ago, the company's primary product was cellulosic ethanol and lignin was just a byproduct; however, their primary product today is lignin.

The pure form of lignin has the color and texture of cocoa powder in the dry form.

Read more:

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Follow up on Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata)

Like most invasive plants introduced to the U.S. from Europe and other places, garlic mustard first found it easy to dominate the natives. A new study done in 2009 shows that over time its fungus-killing toxin becomes less potent. The study suggests that evolution can alter the attributes of an invasive plant that give it an advantage over native plants. In fact, the study suggests the plant's defenses are undermined by its own success.

Most plants rely on soil fungi to supplement them with phosphorus, nitrogen and water, however, garlic mustard does not utilize any of this additional help. Instead, garlic mustard produces glucosinolates which are compounds that leach into the soil and kill off many soil fungi, especially those native to North America. This process weakens the native plants because they rely on those soil fungi. As a result, garlic mustard now grows in dense patches and stifle the growth of native plants.

The study focused on answering this question: Once garlic mustard has killed off most of its competitors, why would it invest as much energy in maintaining its toxic components? The team collected garlic mustard seeds from 44 locations, grew them in a greenhouse and tested glucosinolate levels in each. Those tests found that older populations (those that have been present in an area for more than 30 years) produced lower levels of the fungicidal compounds than younger population less than two decades old. Genetic studies suggested that these patterns were the result of natural selection. That is, the plants that produced less of the toxin were more likely to survive and reproduce in older population. The researchers then grew the garlic mustard in soil from native woodlands. After a time, they removed these plants and potted native trees in the same soil. The trees did best in pots that had held plants from older populations of garlic mustard, indicating, again, that the plants' toxin output had diminished over time, killing less of the fungus on which the native plants relied.

While this study focused on only one plant, the results indicate that some invasive plants evolve in ways that may make them more manageable over time. It also provides some information to clarify some questions we discussed about the Garlic Mustard paper in class. We were confused by figure 7 which demonstrated how some plants grew better in soil that was previously inhabited by Garlic Mustard while others didn't do so well. It could depend on how old the Garlic Mustard plants were genetically. If they originated in a area that's been dominated by Garlic Mustard for a substantial amount of time then there would be less toxin in the soil and therefore more growth would be possible.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Another Biofuel -- Tequila

A plant commonly known for its role in the production of tequila has been overlooked as a source of biofuel that would not compete with food crops. Agave plants can sustain high yields while enduring extreme temperatures, droughts and carbon dioxide increases, with little need for irrigation, according to a series of papers in a special issue of Global Change Biology Bioenergy. With around 20 per cent of the world semi-arid, and some 200 agave species growing worldwide, utilizing this plant could help combat the potential energy crisis.

Field trials of the biofuel potential of some common Mexican varieties have begun in Australia and there are vast areas of abandoned agave plantations in Africa (once used for sisal fibre production, but abandoned after synthetic fibre production came along) that might be re-established for biofuel uses. This would avoid and economic impact food and would reduce the amount of additional land that would be cleared.

There are two different varieties: Agave mapisaga and Agave salmiana. When produced their energy yields far exceed corn, soybean, sorghum, and wheat productivities; and even without irrigation they still maintain high yields, according to another paper.

Arturo Velez, a former coordinator at the National Confederation of Forestry Producers and head of the Agave Project, an initiative to scale up agave biofuel production in Mexico claims that some varieties produce twice the dry biomass per hectare of hybrid poplar, three times the sugar of sugarcane, and four times more cellulose than eucalyptus, and capture five times more carbon dioxide than the most productive ecosystem. According to Velez, Mexico has 80 million hectares of arid and semiarid areas with no productive potential in which 5,600 million tons of dry biomass could be obtained from agave. This would be enough to meet the United States' transport fuel needs.

Different agave species are already widely used in Mexico for production of tequila and bacanora (traditional drink in Mexico) and henequen fibre (textile fiber made from a native Mexican plant), but in some cases up to 80 per cent of the plant's biomass is being thrown away.

Martín Esqueda, a researcher at the Feeding and Development Research Center in Mexico, warned that agave should be sustainably managed to avoid over-exploitation of the wild populations. This has happened with angustifolia species (lavender), which is now endangered because of unsustainable use to produce bacanora according to him.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Waste Water = The New Energy Source?

Most countries spend a substantial amount of time, energy, and money, to treat wastewater so that it will not cause harm to the environment. What if all of this effort could be put into using the waste liquid as an alternative energy source? Wastewater is currently being looked at as a problem rather than a resource. If the energy from this substance can be harnassed and used, it would help water industries become more self-sufficient energy-wise. It would also help those countries that are worse off and who clean water by spending vital resources that they cannont really afford to spare. The U.S. alone uses nearly 1.5 percent of the nation's electrical energy to treat 12.5 trillion gallons of wastewater per year. So, why dump the water after cleansing rather than convert its energy into an energy resource? If this were done, it would no longer be an energy loss to manage waste water, but an energy gain.

The energy in waste water is due to the bonds in the organic molecules, ranging from small, simple chains, to large complex ones. A new freeze-dry technique is being used to recover this energy and it has allowed for better energy recovery. One other study has researched the energy found in waste water. It harnessed 20 percent less energy than what really was present because the freeze-dry technique was not used meaning that there most definitely was loss of some energy-rich compounds due to evaporation.


Saturday, March 12, 2011

Current Gas Prices

There could be a spark leading to lasting interest in alternative sources of energy due to the rising prices of oil. The latest price rage is due to problems occurring in Libya and other oil-producing nations. In addition to the gas prices, awareness and fears about climate change, pollution, and reducing resources are calling for alternative energy projects. The United States continues to depend on foreign which is also posing national security risks. For example, more than the 1.2 billion gallons of gas used a month in California comes from foreign sources. It is believed from some that if the problems with Libya and other areas continue then oil prices could rise up to more than $200 a barrel. With prices on the rise, President Obama continues to push for 80% of the energy in the United States to come from "clean" sources by 2035. Others plan to increase their green energy: California intends to have 33% of their energy by from alternative sources by 2020 and the U.S. navy plans to have half of its fleet using renewable fuel by 2020. The prices of gas will not only affects what we are paying at the pump but will also increase the cost of living. Currently, alternative energy only accounts for just 8% of the United States' consumption. Wind power accounts for only 3% of the country's electricity and solar power represents an even smaller percentage. There are roadblocks that continue to get in the way of alternative energy such as limited supply and troubles getting out of research. Most solar and wind projects are at remote sites and therefore not tied into current transmission lines. Also, public charging stations for electric cars and biofuel stations for vehicles that can run on renewable energy are still scarce. Other types of nuclear energy being pointed at include nuclear energy (however, some critics are afraid of nuclear after the effects of the recent quake in Japan). Hopefully the government, scientist, and the public will be aware and informed on the alternative energy debate and side with the option that will help our environment and communities.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Energy of the Future

As the world discovers new ways to meet its growing energy needs, energy generated from Sun and from wind are being considered as a means of generating power. Though these two sources of energy have attracted the scientists for a very long time, they are not able to decide, which of the two is a better source to generate power. Now scientists are looking at a third option that combines solar and wind power to produce enormous energy called the solar wind power.

How does the Solar wind power technology work?
A satellite is launched into space, but instead of working like a wind mill, where a blade attached to the turbine that is rotated to generate electricity, the satellite would use charged copper wire for capturing electrons traveling away from the sun at several hundred kilometers per second.

Advantages of Solar wind power:

  • The scientists say that the entire energy generated from solar wind will not be able to reach the planet for consumption as a lot of energy generated by the satellite has to be pumped back to copper wire to create the electron-harvesting magnetic field. However, the amount that reaches earth is more than sufficient to fulfill the energy needs of the planet.
  • A team of scientists at Washington State University speculate that it can generate 1 billion billion gigawatts of power by using a massive 8,400-kilometer-wide solar sail to harvest the power in solar wind.
  • One billion gigawatts of power could also be generated by a satellite having 1,000-meter (3,280-foot) cable with a sail 8,400 kilometers (5,220 miles) across.
  • The scientists feel that if some of the practical issued are solved, Solar wind power will generate the amount of power that no one including the scientists working to find new means of generating power ever expected.

Disadvantages of Solar wind power
But despite the fact that Solar wind power will solve almost all the problems, it has some disadvantages as well.

  • Large engineering difficulties will have to be solved before satellites to tap solar wind power are deployed.
  • The distance between the satellite and earth will be so huge that as the laser beam travels millions of miles, it makes even the tightest laser beam spread out and lose most of the energy. To solve this problem, a more focused laser is needed.
  • But even if these laser beams reach our satellites, it is very doubtful that our satellites in their present form will be able to tap them. The energy is there but there are practical constraints preventing the capture of the energy at this time.