Monday, December 15, 2014

Two new diatom species found in Lonar lake

Two new diatom species found in Lonar lake

PUNE: Scientists have discovered two new species of diatoms - a kind of algae - at Lonar Lake in Buldhana district in Maharashra.

Though the environment of soda lakes is usually considered hostile for living beings, often many photosynthesizing organisms like algae, including diatoms are recorded in these places. The Lonar crater lake is a unique saline soda lake formed when a meteor struck around 50,000 years ago, and the discovery of new species points to the thriving biodiversity of the lake.

Karthick Balasubramanian, a scientist in the plant division at Agharkar Research Institute (ARI) and one of the four researchers who discovered these species, explained that diatoms are one of the most ecologically significant group of organisms and each species is specific to their environment with unique characteristics. "These two species were found to be extremely pollution-tolerant, indicating the presence of large quantities of Nitrogen and Phosphate in the water body," he said.

Scientists from city-based ARI have been studying the microbial biodiversity of this ancient lake for more than a decade.

The two species are named Nitzschia kociolekii and Nitzschia tripudio. The first species is named afterProfessor J Patrick Kociolek, of the University of Colorado at Boulder, USA, a known face of diatom research.

"Diatoms are special types of algae that live inside 'glass houses' - they have hard outer shells made of silicon and oxygen, the same elements that make up glass," Balasubramanian said. These outer casings are made of two half cylinders that fit together like a jewellery box. Inside is a single celled organism that can carry out photosynthesis and they are responsible for almost one fourth of the oxygen produced on Earth.

The other scientists involved in the study were Alakananda Batni from Gubbi Labs, Bangalore, Paul B Hamilton from Canadian Museum of Nature, Ottawa, Canada and Jonathan C Taylor associated with North-West University, Potchefstroom, South Africa.

The species are characterized by minute structures on its surface, known as areolae on diatom valves, that helps in exchange of gases and nutrients. The areolae and the valve shape state the evolutionary pattern of common species due to extreme environments like saline conditions and nutrients.

"This discovery is also significant as this is a relatively unexplored region of peninsular India," Balasubramanian added. "These species also show environmental importance and can be used as biological indicators, as they thrive in polluted regions and could be endemic to Peninsular India."

Another species of the same organism, Nitzschia williamsii, was recently described from Bangalore lakes by the same team and has also been recorded from Lonar Lake. This indicates that several extreme waterbodies in India, like Mangrove forests, estuaries, and waterfalls, might harbor numerous species endemic to Peninsular India.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Newsweek cover - Planet Reboot: Fighting Climate Change With Geoengineering

Planet Reboot: Fighting Climate Change With Geoengineering

Walking the Plankton

The world’s oceans have countless tiny organisms called phytoplankton. Also known as microalgae, these itty-bitty plants eat carbon dioxide from the water and release oxygen into the ocean as a by-product. Once the phytoplankton blooms take up the carbon from the ocean’s surface, they sink down to the deep ocean, where the carbon is effectively sequestered. They’re so productive that scientists think phytoplankton produce about 50 percent of the oxygen humans breathe.
If we could get phytoplankton to boost their uptake of carbon, it could have a huge global impact—and would be very simple to do. When the tiny plants get a boost of nutrients from the water around them, they eat a lot more carbon. And right now the oceans of the world are low in one particular nutrient—iron—although scientists aren’t sure why. So the phytoplankton aren’t nearly as active as they could be. In fact, when big storms blow iron-rich dust into the oceans, satellites see evidence of phytoplankton blooms in areas where they normally aren’t visible.
Over the past decade there have been more than 12 small-scale experiments in which scientists (and one rogue California businessman named Russ George) dumped iron dust into the ocean to test the hypothesis that phytoplankton could be triggered to wake up and start devouring mass quantities of carbon. All of the experiments (except George’s) showed that there was some benefit to seeding the ocean with iron.
Victor Smetacek, a biological oceanographer at Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, contributed to one such study in 2009. Though he says there needs to be a lot more research into ocean seeding, he believes it’s a very promising option. “I’m talking about using a natural mechanism that has already proven itself,” Smetacek says. “We need to harness the biosphere and see where we can apply levers to lift the carpet and sweep some of the carbon under.”

Oddly, however, the ocean-seeding option seems to be a controversial one. Smetacek says that although he believes strongly in its benefits, it has never been a popular option among climate scientists. “This ocean iron fertilization is highly unpopular with technocratic geoengineers because it involves biology. But we have to get the biosphere to help,” he says. “The only thing we can do is try and nudge the biosphere as much as possible and try to open up as many carbon sinks as possible.”

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Researching diatoms as insulation material

Researching diatoms as insulation material

December 2, 2014
Dr. Mufit Akinc is leading a research effort to find and develop better insulation materials for buildings, appliances and other heating and cooling applications. Photo by the Iowa Energy Center.
Dr. Mufit Akinc is leading a research effort to find and develop better insulation materials for buildings, appliances and other heating and cooling applications. Photo by the Iowa Energy Center.
Dr. Mufit Akinc, a professor ofmaterials science and engineering at Iowa State University, and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory, are working to develop next-generation insulation materials for freezers, refrigerated trucks, buildings and other heating and cooling applications.
The idea is to replace traditional insulating materials such as foam, fiberglass and synthetic silica with better materials. Akinc figures the improvements could lead to hundreds of millions of dollars in energy savings. “This study will contribute directly to energy savings in Iowa and beyond,” Dr. Akinc wrote in a project summary.
Back in his Hoover Hall lab, Dr. Akinc and graduate students Landi Zhong and Boyce Chang are working with the support of a two-year, $76,960 grant from the Iowa Energy Center. Mark Petri, director of the Energy Center, said the grant is part of the center’s new effort to help Iowa researchers compete for much larger research grants.
“The Iowa Energy Center is funded by the state of Iowa to support economic development through advances in renewable energy and energy efficiency,” Petri said. “Anything we can do to improve thermal insulation of buildings would go far to improve energy conservation in the United States.”
Dr. Akinc and his students have focused their attention on vacuum insulation panels. The panels are just an inch or so thick and filled with an insulating powder that’s vacuum-sealed inside a foil cover. The vacuum enhances the insulating properties of the powder by eliminating the air molecules that can transfer heat. That’s how an inch-thick panel can provide as much insulating power as 10 inches of foam.
Dr. Akinc said the most common powder inside the panels is fumed silica, a synthetic nano-sized particle made from sand. But it’s expensive to make. And that makes the panels pricey for some applications, especially insulating homes and buildings. “The insulation industry is very cost-conscious and competitive – and right now the issue is cost.”
That has Dr. Akinc and his research group studying the porosity, surface area, density and other characteristics of low-cost alternatives, including glass fiber, fly ash, glass bubbles and diatomite. The most promising material so far is diatomite, the fossilized remains of single-celled algae called diatoms.
Diatoms have silica cell walls and grow just about anywhere there is water and sunshine. The skeletons they leave behind create diatomite. It’s inexpensive and filled with nanopores, just the material he has been working to find.
Dr. Akinc will soon be studying the material with an even bigger research team. The Iowa Energy Center has awarded another $20,000 to support the work of two more Iowa State researchers, Ulrike Passe, an associate professor of architecture, and Ganesh Balasubramanian, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering. They’ll collect data about the new material’s potential energy savings and manufacturability.