Archive for March, 2014

Solar Power Can Be Harmful Too

Alternative fuel sources should be renewable and plentiful. With that reasoning solar power is one of the best alternative power sources available. So there was little wonder when the world’s largest solar power generating plant was recently opened up in the Mojave Desert. The system was run by a combination of 350,000 mirrors about the size of your garage door, aiming sunrays at three 40-story-tall towers.

The sunlight boils water in these towers, generating steam that drives special turbines to produce 392 megawatts. That is enough energy to power 140,000 homes for a year. Then came the unwanted side effect on the environment. It seems that the power generating towers of the solar plant are a hazard to the local birds.

The birds that fly into the zone between the the mirrors and the towers literally get burnt to death. The scorched birds have been found lying dead on the ground by the researchers running tests on the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System. The dead birds found over the last few months include a peregrine falcon, a grebe, two hawks, four nighthawks and a variety of warblers and sparrows.

While it is clearly impossible to stop the advance of the solar power plant, there has to be some solution to ensure that the birds do not fly into the blaze zone and get burnt. This is a problem that researchers working on the science project never imagined they would have to solve.

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Unique Solar Power Toilet

Alternative power sources have been a robust area of research for the last couple of decades as the fossil fuels that power our world are fast coming to an end. Amongst the most popular alternative power sources being researched is solar power, or harnessing the power of the sun.

There have been a number of innovative inventions that use solar power to cook food, heat up water, and even drive a car. However there is nothing quite as unique as the solar powered toilet that has been developed by Karl Linden, a environmental engineering professor and his team of students at the University of Colorado.

“Sol-Char” is a solar powered toilet in which waste is scorched by fiber-optic cables powered by solar concentrators on the roof. The byproduct it makes is called “biochar”. This is a sanitary charcoal briquette-like material that can be used as a fertilizer in agriculture and also as a soil amendment.

Here’s how it works. 8 parabolic mirrors aim the sun’s rays onto a stamp-sized collector, this is passed on to the cables which then heat up the “reaction chamber” where the poop gets scorched. The science project is still being tweaked for better efficacy, but it will be interesting to see how it finally emerges from the laboratory.



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The Eternal Question : Life on Mars

Ever since the first Mars rover landed humankind has been waiting with baited breath to find evidence of life on Mars. The closest planet may have our closest alien life forms. While the researchers have found no little green men running around the red planet, there is a lot of small stuff that can not be ignored.

A meteorite from Mars discovered in the Yamato Glacier, Antarctica, by a Japanese Antarctic Research Expedition in 2000, has been under study at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Analysis of the meteorite showed that it was formed on the surface of Mars 1.3 billion years ago. Then some powerful impact event caused it to blast off into space along with other parts of the Martian crust.

These chunks then traveled through space eventually falling to Earth as meteorites. One of these samples,  named Y000593, were recovered from the Antarctic region and it shows speroidal features embedded in a layer of iddingsite, a mineral formed by action of water.

It could be evidence of some ancient biological process that was taking place on Mars so many centuries ago but does not conclusively prove that life on the red planet does indeed exist. Perhaps the Mars rovers will have better luck than this science project in answering that question.

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Sea Anemone : Animal or Plant?

All animal life on earth is supposed to be distantly related to plant life as per evolution. So it may be possible for some aquatic living beings to confuse scientists as they try to classify them into plants and animals. One such being is the sea anemone.

Sea anemones are classified as being animals traditionally. However two new genetic studies conducted on them have found that they are technically half plant and half animal. While no one is rushing to change their traditional classification as an animal, researchers are open to discussing their more plant like traits.

Ulrich Technau  from the University of Vienna, was the project leader of one of these genetic studies conducted on cnidarians. He say that cnidarians are from an animal lineage and include corals, sea anemones, jellyfish and hydras. They branched off very early and so have retained many plant-like ancestral traits, Ulrich said, hence, in terms of the regulation of gene expression, they are somewhat mixed.

Cnidarians appear to use a plant-like system to regulate typical animal genes, many of which are shared between the sea anemone and humans. Now it does seem like a long shot to call a sea anemone cousin, but hey, this science project shows that it just may be possible.

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Robotic Fish Finally Swim Smooth

Robots have long been associated with stiff and rigid movements. The smooth gait of live beings has been difficult to perfect in robots but with the advance of technology it has become easier. The movements of the latest generation of robots is not as jerky as it used to be. Perhaps the most difference can be seen in robotic fish at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

So what makes these robotic fish different from their predecessors? For starters they have soft material on the exterior which is more flexible than the rigid materials used in the past. And the main deal is the fluid flowing through flexible channels within the body of the fish.

This robotic fish can even manage an escape maneuver by convulsing its body to change direction. Just like a real live fish would do and the robotic cousin can do it in a fraction of a second as well. So far the main focus of motion planning in a robot has been to avoid collisions with the environment.

With the robotic fish and their soft bodies there is no danger of the robot being harmed or harming anything even if they do manage to collide with something in the environment. That’s another reason why this science project related to soft robots is picking up steam.


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