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Moon Walking and Moon Racing on Earth

We've all seen videos of the Apollo astronauts doing what came to be called the "moon walk". The bounce-hop-skip maneuver they invented to navigate across the Moon's surface at 1/6th gravity, really looked like fun.  Now, using technology originally developed by NASA you can do the moon walk here on Earth at normal gravity and more importantly, for post-surgery or post-injury rehab, as well as super-human speed racing during athletic training. 

Microgravity Boosts Microbe's Virulence

Unique low fluid-shear forces that 3-D bacterial cultures encounter in space are similar to what pathogens encounter in our bodies. NASA funded work shows that microgravity enhances the disease-causing potential of a bacteria that is responsible for millions of cases of gastrointestinal illness every year. Researchers are identifying the gene activity behind this increased virulence, and laying the scientific foundations for the development of new ways to treat and prevent costly Salmonella infections.

Most people know that a weakened immune system increases an individual's vulnerability to an infectious disease, but bacteria can change their ability to infect as well. "The ability of a microbe to cause disease depends on the microbe's virulence as well as the immune status of the host," says Cheryl A. Nickerson, Ph.D., a partially NASA funded microbiologist in the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University in Tempe. Nickerson has focused for a decade on how space travel could change the interaction between microbe and host. Published studies now show that space flight or a "bioreactor" that simulates the low gravity of space flight can increase the potential of microbes to produce disease.

What's With This Green Machine - III

This is the 3rd of a series of short articles that will profile the potential impacts of science-based knowledge on our lives and humanity’s future from the quest to deal with climate change and our ultimate need for national energy independence. You can find parts I and II here.

Developing a carbon neutral, renewable energy source that would allow us to decrease our production of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, and break our addiction to the import of $400B/year of oil, is the holy grail for what we call the “Green Machine”. The non-oil energy resources list consists primarily of wind, solar, hydro/marine, geothermal, and biofuels. Two candidates that have good potential for scale-up to really significant levels are solar and biofuels.

Biofuels are seen as having three increasingly green benefit levels. First-level fuels come from current animal food crops like corn. These have been shown to take almost as much energy to produce as they provide, and may have helped raise food prices to alarming levels. Second-level fuels are non-food plants and plant by-products such as wood chips that, with the help of algae, can produce ethanol from cellulose. Potential downsides of that process include the extensive arable land-use and water required, and the difficulty algal systems have converting cellulose to fuel efficiently. Third-level fuels, considered by some to be almost visionary, would be the direct creation of a biofuel from photosynthetic algal systems that use salt water, CO2, and the sun’s energy to produce a substitute for oil.

It’s a little hard to believe, but a San Diego start-up called Sapphire Energy claims to have developed a third-level biofuel process that they say produces “Green Crude”.

For Healthier Aging, Turn Up the Volume

Maintaining mobility as we age is a key goal, since the “use it or lose it” rule seems to hold.  As long as we can stay active our systems continue to work better and we feel better.  However, many of the chronic disorders we associate with aging have a neurological component that often has a major negative impact on our mobility.  This makes healthcare costs skyrocket and dramatically decreases human productivity.     

To address these challenges, companies like Afferent Corporation, in Providence, Rhode Island, are pioneering development of a new class of neurotherapeutic devices to treat such disorders.  Its core technology enhances the function of mechanoreceptor cells involved in sensory perception as a means of restoring brain function associated with impaired balance, strokes, and diabetic neuropathy (deadening of peripheral nerves often leading to limb amputation).  James J. Collins, a professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University, led the original research based on a nerve-stimulating technology called “stochastic resonance”.  Stochastic resonance sends non-detectable electrical or mechanical “noise” to the central nervous system.  The Chief Technical Officer of the company, Jason Harry, often refers to the process as “turning up the volume” of sensory input. 

What's With This Green Machine - Part II

This is the 2nd of a series of short articles that will profile the potential impacts of science-based knowledge on our lives and humanity’s future from the quest to deal with climate change and our ultimate need for national energy independence.

Our previous article on this topic promised to explore the science behind what we call the “Green Machine” to better understand the tidal wave of “green” we now inhabit via the media.  So, here we go. 

The latest online Wired Magazine has published 10 “Inconvenient Truths” about what it means to be green with one titled, “Climate Change is Inevitable: Get Used to It” which I especially recommend.  They conclude that the climate is changing and will continue to do so, and we need to adapt to it while working hard to try and minimize it.  It’s an old story on planet Earth, but with a new science and technology insight twist.    

Climate change is a research topic too complex, broad and evolving to deal with here, but the global warming element associated with green house gas effects, is not.  It’s something we really need to understand and be able to discuss with anyone.  The U.S. Energy Information Administration story is that, “many chemical compounds found in the Earth’s atmosphere act as “greenhouse gases”…and allow sunlight to enter the atmosphere freely.”  However, “when sunlight strikes the Earth’s surface, some…is reflected back towards space as infrared radiation (heat).  Greenhouse gases absorb this…and trap the heat in the atmosphere.  Over time, the amount of energy sent from the sun to the Earth’s surface should be about the same as…the energy radiated back into space, leaving the temperature of Earth’s surface roughly constant.”  It’s also important to know that if greenhouse gases actually decreased or disappeared, life on Earth’s surface would experience an extremely uncomfortable average temperature of  –18 deg Centrigrade.    “Many gases exhibit these “greenhouse” properties [and] some occur in nature such as water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, while others are exclusively man-made”.  The last three gases listed above are also produced by human activities and are tending to increase, and there’s the rub. 

So how can we determine to what degree greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and methane, are just naturally varying or are driven by human activity?   That’s where ice cores come in.  A just-reported study in Nature, was based on recent ice cores drilled in Antarctica at depths that date back 800,000 years or 8 glaciary-interglaciary climate cycles.  Analysis of sealed gas bubbles in the ice samples allows recording of carbon dioxide and methane levels in the atmosphere at that ancient time.  These samples, plus ice cores from more recent times, allow us to understand the correlation between climate change on Earth and the overall carbon cycle (page 2, Fig. 2) consisting of mass carbon movement between the Earth and the atmosphere.   Historically, the direct relationship between the level of these two greenhouse gases and indirect temperature indicators (isotopes of oxygen) from ice cores was confirmed.  Also, reviewing ice core samples extending from the present back 800,000 years we see that the two gas levels have never been as high as today.  These data provide a precious window that helps us see where we’ve been and helps predict where we’re going.  

Representatives including state regulators, business leaders, environmentalists, and labor advocates are meeting in Salt Lake City this week to determine methods for reducing greenhouse gases by capping carbon emissions.  The Western Climate Initiative wants to roll back greenhouse gas emissions 15% by 2020, compared to 2005 levels.  They want to establish a cap-and-trade program for carbon by setting a total emission limit and those entities that exceed their assigned pollution cap could purchase carbon credits from other entities whose emissions are lower than their cap.  This activity is one of the first to actually implement such a program in the U.S. and is a trailblazer.  Determining if entities should pay for carbon emission credits is a major discussion topic. We will keep our eye on this during implementation and hopefully be able to assess its projected effectiveness in slowing global warming.  We look forward to your thoughts, so please join the discussion in the comments.

What's With This Green Machine?

This is the first of a series of short articles that will profile the potential impacts of science-based knowledge on our lives and humanity’s future from the quest to deal with climate change and our ultimate need for national energy independence.

We can’t open our eyes these days without seeing Green. We’re exhorted to “Go Green”, “Think Green”, and especially “Buy Green”. I find this Green tidal wave both encouraging and somewhat unsettling, especially from my science-based viewpoint. A recent analysis found that a high percentage of emerging Green products are considered to have a significant GreenWash or “whitewashed with a Green brush” and near useless in terms of lessening the impact on the environment. There is even a GreenWash Index available for consumers to informally rank companies and products on this category! So, let’s try to get more real.

The increasingly alarming science data accumulating about global warming from NASA’s James Hansen, Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, increasingly bizarre weather patterns, and our precarious dependency on imported oil at any price, were among the key drivers behind the Green machine. Now, a big driver is the vision of creating major business opportunities and jobs that can help provide solutions. Significant venture capital is going to Green-based entrepreneurial teams and significant marketing-related resources are being utilized by older businesses to promote their methods of saving on energy costs and generally “doing better by doing good”. In some ways, it seems that business has bought into a new Green horse and now wants everyone to bet on it. Wal-Mart, a truly global mega-business, is a good example of an older firm investing in “doing better” but also demonstrating the complexity of assessing their ultimate environmental impact and thus actually “doing good”. It’s past time for us to do some analysis of “Green” and its real implications in our lives.

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