Spending Bill Gives Green Energy Its R&D Budget—But That’s Not All It Needs

Computers and iPhones don’t go to heaven. Instead, 80 percent of US electronic waste ends up in landfills or incineration furnaces. Materials scientist Victoria Chernow thinks that science will be able to change that. She says there might be a way to salvage the more than five pounds of gold, nearly 2,000 pounds of copper, and 55 pounds of silver hidden in a haul of 100,000 smart phones—using microbes. Basically, synthetic probiotics that act as tiny garbage collectors.

Chernow is a fellow at the Advanced Research Projects-Energy, an agency created by the Bush administration in 2007 that got its inaugural $400 million budget during the stimulus package in 2009. Its mission is to incubate disruptive energy technologies—like Darpa, but for energy instead of the military. President Trump’s proposed budgets for 2018 defunded ARPA-E. But in the spending bill Trump signed on Friday afternoon, ARPA-E got a budget bump, up to $353.3 million up from $306 million in 2017.

Which [...]  read more


How Much Energy Can You Store in a Rubber Band?

How much energy can you store in a rubber band? Obviously, the answer depends on the size of the rubber band.

I’m talking about, of course, the energy density or specific energy of an energy storage material. The energy density is defined as the energy per unit volume, and the specific energy is the energy stored per unit mass. I recently wrote about energy density of gasoline vs. batteries when they’re used to power cars. But, you know, theoretically, you could power a car with anything—including rubber bands. How do you determine the energy density in one of those?

Let me start with a simple rubber band that I will stretch. The cool thing about rubber bands it that they are mostly like an ideal spring—but not exactly. Both springs and rubber bands have a special property: It takes more force to stretch them the farther you pull. Or you could say the force a band pulls back is [...]  read more

Montecito Is Everything Bad About Climate Change in a Single California Town

Montecito is coming back to life this morning. The 9,000 person town to the east of Santa Barbara has been empty since Tuesday, when mandatory evacuations forced residents out of their homes for the fifth time in four months.

This week it was a channel of tropical moisture called the Pineapple Express, dumping bands of intense rain and triggering flash floods throughout Southern California. In January it was a once-in-a-200-year storm that dropped half an inch of water in five minutes, unleashing massive mudslides that ripped houses from their foundations and killed 27. In December it was the deadly Thomas Fire that incinerated 280,000 acres—the largest wildfire in California history.

To some, Montecito might just seem like a town hit by a string of superlatively bad luck. But to people crunching the numbers it looks less like an outlier and more like an inevitability of climate change. If you want to see what California [...]  read more

Will Cutting Calories Make You Live Longer?

More than a decade ago, researchers at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge began recruiting young, healthy Louisianans to voluntarily go hungry for two years. In addition to cutting their daily calories by 25 percent, the dozens who enrolled also agreed to a weekly battery of tests; blood draws, bone scans, swallowing a pill that measures internal body temperature.

All that sticking and scanning and starving was in the name of the Comprehensive Assessment of Long-Term Effects of Reducing Intake of Energy, or Calerie—the largest human clinical trial ever to look at the effects of calorie restriction on aging. The National Institutes of Health-funded study also included sites at Washington University in St. Louis and Tufts in Boston. But only the Pennington participants had to also spend 24 sedentary hours inside a sealed room that recorded the contents of their every breath.

These are the measures that scientists (and some study participants) are willing [...]  read more

Facebook’s New Data Restrictions Will Handcuff Even Honest Researchers

Last week, when news broke (again) that Cambridge Analytica had allegedly misused 50 million Facebook users’ data, it immediately raised a difficult question: When a company possesses information about some 2 billion people, is its chief obligation to share that information, or protect it?

The answer’s not as obvious as you might think. To social and computer scientists, Facebook is arguably the most valuable data repository on earth. Insight into many of the most pressing issues of our time, from social media’s role in political processes to technology’s impact on individual wellbeing, could well reside on the social network’s servers—a fact that has led many scientists and policymakers to call for more permeable borders between public researchers and Facebook’s private data hoard.

But then Cambridge Analytica happened, and gave a lot of researchers a scare: Tapping into Facebook’s data is already [...]  read more

In San Francisco’s Big Oil lawsuit, Climate Science Gets a Day in Court

Chevron would like you to know that it believes in climate change. It also believes people cause it by burning carbon-based fuel—the kind Chevron extracts from the ground, refines, and sells. In fact, Chevron believes all this so hard that today its lawyer said so, in a federal court in San Francisco. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change? Yup. They’re right.

That’s not as up-is-down as it might sound; Chevron representatives have said as much before. The follow-up questions, though, will be the tricky part. Because what was at stake in that courtroom was not whether the effects of climate change—sea level rise, ocean acidification, weather extremes, wildfires, disease outbreaks—are people’s fault. It was whether a lawsuit could show that specific effects (floods) are specific people’s fault. Specifically, the people at Chevron.

…and BP and ExxonMobil, because San Francisco and Oakland are suing [...]  read more

MIT Unleashes a Hypnotic Robot Fish to Help Save the Oceans

Like a miniaturized Moby Dick, the pure-white fish wiggles slowly over the reef, ducking under corals and ascending, then descending again, up and down and all around. Its insides, though, are not flesh, but electronics. And its flexible tail flicking back and forth is not made of muscle and scales, but elastomer.

The Soft Robotic Fish, aka SoFi, is a hypnotic machine, the likes of which the sea has never seen before. In a paper published today in Science Robotics, MIT researchers detail the evolution of the world’s strangest fish, and describe how it could be a potentially powerful tool for scientists to study ocean life.

Scientists designed SoFi to solve several problems that bedevil oceanic robotics. Problem one: communication. Underwater vehicles are typically tethered to a boat because radio waves don’t do well in water. What SoFi’s inventors have opted for instead is sound.

“Radio frequency communication underwater just works for a few centimeters,” says [...]  read more

Medicare Now Covers Genetic Cancer Testing

This year, nearly 1.7 million Americans will be diagnosed with cancer. Most will find out in the usual way; after having tiny blobs of tissue slurped up through a needle, smeared and stained on a slide, and put under the discerning eye of a pathologist. But starting this week, Medicare patients with advanced cancers will have access to a more 21st century diagnostic: Their cells can now be sequenced, matching patients with the drugs most likely to make a difference.

On Friday, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services announced that the federal healthcare program will cover the costs of cancer gene tests that have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Even if you’re not of retirement age, you should think this is a big deal. Private insurers take their marching orders [...]  read more

Climate Change Will Not Make Us Nicer

This story originally appeared on CityLab and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

In 1748, the French philosopher Montesquieu published The Spirit of the Laws, a survey of political systems that argued for the separation of powers and citizens’ rights to due process. It was quickly translated into multiple languages, and Montesquieu’s ideas about liberty had a strong influence on the framers of the American Constitution.

In the book, after discussing taxes and before considering slavery, Montesquieu set out a theory that climate differences help to shape human societies. Based on pre-modern medicine, Montesquieu believed that cold air constricts the body’s “fibers” and increases blood flow, while warm air relaxes those same fibers. “People are therefore more vigorous in cold climates,” he wrote. “This superiority of strength must produce various effects; for instance, a greater boldness, that is, more courage; a greater sense of superiority… .”

More than [...]  read more

How the Jaegers in *Pacific Rim Uprising* Violate Physics

It’s time for another giant robot-like machine that battles other huge stuff—yes, it’s the release of Pacific Rim Uprising. The movie comes out on Friday, March 23, and while I don’t know much about the plot, I do know that humans pilot super large Jaegers that are almost 300 feet tall. So now is a good time to bring up the physics of scale—or how big things are not like small things.

Let me start with some human-sized action. Suppose I have a human that either jumps or gets hit and then goes flying through the air. Once an object is off the ground, there is essentially only one force that influences the motion—the downward gravitational force. With negligible air resistance, this gravitational force makes objects accelerate (not move) downward, changing their vertical velocity at a rate of -9.8 m/s2. The horizontal velocity during this time remains constant since there are no horizontal [...]  read more