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This method could pave the way for cheaper next-generation thin-film and flexible electronics. The work, which describes the results for films of several different compositions, appeared on Sunday in the journal Nature Materials.

The thin-film electronics behind today’s flat-panel displays are made of chaotically structured, or amorphous, silicon. But amorphous silicon is reaching its performance limits, and a new class of materials—amorphous oxides— will soon be making its commercial debut. Electrons in amorphous oxides can zoom through the material dozens of times as fast as they do in amorphous silicon, making for faster electronics. And unlike amorphous silicon, oxides carry current the same way in every direction, making them better candidates for bendable electronics like flexible solar arrays and roll-up displays.

To make these thin films, engineers primarily rely on ”sputtering,” in which vaporized material is flung at its target inside a vacuum chamber. This process would potentially be less costly if the material could be applied as a solution instead. But fans of the solution-based method have had to confront some inconvenient physics. Heat must be applied to condense the metal oxide, and the material performs best after it has been heated above 300 °C, which is about 100 degrees too hot for most flexible plastics.

Now Mercouri Kanatazidis, Tobin Marks, Antonio Facchetti, and Myung-Gil Kim of Northwestern University, in Evanston, Ill., think they’ve come up with a fix: replacing the external heat of an oven with the internal heat of a chemical reaction.

Many thin-film metal oxide solutions are made using water and metal-containing salts. When the temperature rises high enough, the oxygen atoms bind with the metal to form a chaotic tangle of metal-oxygen bonds. The team found that if they included a fuel like acetylacetone or urea in the mix, they could raise the internal energy of the mixture. Boosting the temperature to just 200 °C triggered a combustion reaction and enough self-generated heat to anneal metal-oxide films.

One of the team’s biggest challenges was finding a way to deal with structural changes created through the combustion process. The internal heat can create voids in the resulting films. These voids are useful for sensors and catalysts that require a lot of surface area, says team member Facchetti, who is also affiliated with Polyera Corp., in Skokie, Ill. But the gaps are counterproductive for thin-film electronics because they reduce the overlap between the atoms’ electron clouds and thus hinder the ability to transport current. ”One of the major challenges was to make sure we could make a film that is very dense,” Facchetti says. The team ultimately found it could circumvent the void problem by alternately depositing and annealing thin layers to build up the film.

One device made using the technique—an indium oxide transistor—boasted an electron mobility of 6 square centimeters per volt second, roughly 10 times that of thin-film amorphous silicon devices. That’s a heartening figure but one that will have to be backed up with more experiments, says John Wager of Oregon State University, in Corvallis, Ore. ”If the extra energy from combustion-based synthesis really does give you better-performing devices at low temperature, then that’s really nice,” Wager says. (See the feature article by John Wager and Randy Hoffman in the May 2011 issue of IEEE Spectrum for more on amorphous oxide semiconductors.)

One big question that will need to be answered in future work, Wager says, is how stable these devices can be. The threshold voltage needed to turn on thin-film transistors tends to drift with use, and that behavior ”tends to be more problematic at low temperature,” he says. ”If their combustion synthesis leads to more stable transistors, that could be really big.”

Source: spectrum

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Non solo vi è acqua sulla Luna, ma è molta di più di quanto si pensasse: sembra infatti che il nostro satellite ospiti, sotto la sua superficie, una quantità di acqua pari a quella presente nello strato superiore del mantello terrestre. A tre anni di distanza dal clamoroso annuncio della Nasa che stabiliva una volta per tutte la presenza del prezioso liquido sulla nostro satellite, lo stesso gruppo di ricercatori pubblica su Science la non meno sorprendente precisazione.

Autori dello studio sono i geologi della Brown University (Providence, Usa) e della Carnegie Institution di Washington, che per anni hanno analizzato i campioni di suolo lunare riportati dalla missione Apollo 17 della Nasa. Le loro conclusioni arrivano dall’analisi delle cosiddette inclusioni fuse, ovvero piccole bolle di roccia fusa intrappolate all'interno di cristalli nelle rocce prodotte dalle colate laviche. Si tratta quindi di campioni di magma che, non avendo subito gli effetti delle alte temperature, conservano ancora  tutte le sostanze volatili - tra cui l'acqua - alle stesse concentrazioni in cui si trovano nel mantello lunare.

Detail-luna acqua

Osservare queste pietre, formatesi con le eruzioni vulcaniche di circa tre miliardi di anni fa, è come guardare direttamente l'interno della Luna. I geologi hanno analizzato i cristalli con una microsonda ionica, uno strumento che determina la composizione chimica dei minerali, rilevando elementi presenti anche solo in tracce. Una volta misurata la concentrazione di acqua, gli scienziati sono riusciti a stimare la quantità del liquido presente nel mantello. E, sorpresa, i risultati dicono che potrebbe essere compresa tra 615 e 1410 ppm (parti per milione): cifre paragonabili a quelle del mantello terrestre (500-1000 ppm), e superiori di circa cento volte rispetto alle stime precedenti.

“Nel 2008 avevamo stabilito che il contenuto di acqua nel magma lunare avrebbe dovuto essere simile a quello della lava proveniente dal mantello superiore della Terra. Ora abbiamo provato che è realmente così”, ha detto Alberto E. Saal, tra gli autori dello studio. Tuttavia i ricercatori invitano alla cautela: questi dati non significano che la Luna sia davvero piena d'acqua, ma solo che vi sono dei luoghi in cui è più abbondante. Punto fondamentale, questo, perché altrimenti verrebbe a cadere la teoria più accreditata sull'origine della Luna, secondo cui il satellite sarebbe un frammento della Terra, sbalzato lontano dal pianeta quattro miliardi di anni fa, in seguito all'impatto con un oggetto di dimensioni simili a quelle di Marte. Un evento di tali proporzioni, infatti, avrebbe fatto evaporare tutta l'acqua presente sulla Luna. “Se tutta la Luna presentasse una quantità d'acqua equivalente a quella che abbiamo analizzato, allora la teoria dell'impatto gigante sarebbe compromessa. Come quest'acqua sia poi arrivata sul satellite, è un problema del tutto aperto”, ha concluso Saal.

Fonte: galileonet.it - Riferimenti: Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1204626; Nasa

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 Una dintre cele mai grave maladii dintre cele existente la ora actuala si din pacate una dintre cele mai raspandite, este diabetul. Foarte multi oameni sunt afectati de aceasta boala perfida, cu efecte devastatoare pe termen lung si care transforma viata suferinzilor intr-un cosmar. Desi s-au introdus, in ultimii ani, numeroase medicamente menite sa atenueze efectele bolii, un leac total nu s-a gasit si diabeticii continua sa suporte un intreg sir de privatiuni. O descoperire de ultima ora le va imbunatati, in buna masura, situatia, gratie ei agonia testelor zilnice de sange parand sa devina, in curand, o amintire...

Inventia la care ne referim consta intr-un senzor minuscul, implantat in ochiul bolnavului de diabet; dispozitivul contine o substanta chimica speciala care emite o lumina fluorescenta atunci cand intra in contact cu glucoza. Daca nivelul de glucoza din sange este ridicat, lumina fluorescenta va straluci mai puternic. Acest tip de lumina, similara celei infrarosii, nu poate fi vazuta de ochiul uman dar poate fi lesne detectata de un dispozitiv de citire care converteste datele obtinute in cifre, oferind nivelul exact al glucozei in sange. Diabeticii nu trebuie sa faca altceva decat sa tina, pret de cateva secunde, aparatul in dreptul ochiului si nivelul glucozei apare pe afisajul electronic al dispozitivului.

Procedura de implantare dureaza doar trei minute!

Dupa cum se stie, diabetul afecteaza la ora actuala zeci de milioane de persoane si probabil ca aproape la fel de multi au boala fara sa stie. Boala apare atunci cand pancreasul fie inceteaza sa mai produca insulina, fie produce, dar in cantitate insuficienta. Insulina este esentiala pentru a ajuta celulele musculare sa absoarba glucoza din hrana si sa o foloseasca drept combustibil, pentru nevoile energetice ale organismului. Fara un nivel corect de insulina se produce hiperglicemia, ce poate afecta ireversibil rinichii, ochii, inima etc.

Desi cele doua tipuri de diabet, care afecteaza in ultima vreme tot mai multi oameni de varsta mijlocie, pot fi adesea controlate prin dieta, cei cu diabet de tip I au adesea nevoie de o doza zilnica de insulina, pe tot parcursul vietii. Ei trebuie sa-si preleveze mostre de sange de pana la patru ori pe zi, pentru a se asigura ca nivelul de glucoza e stabil. Desi pentru unii acest lucru a devenit o rutina, multi se plang ca necesitatea constanta a acestor teste constituie o imensa povara.

In primul rand lor le era adresat dispozitivul numit GlucoWatch, brevetat in Marea Britanie, care masura nivelul de zahar din fluidele pielii. Inconvenientele sale erau ca  bateriile aveau nevoie de trei ore pentru a se incarca iar pacientii se plangeau adesea de iritatii ale pielii. Noul dispozitiv realizat de compania germana EyeSense va fi mult mai fiabil, intrucat se bazeaza pe un senzor ocular fabricat dintr-un gel pe baza de apa, neiritant, si care contine lectina si fluorofor. Doctorul aplica doua-trei picaturi de anestezic in coltul ochiului si apeleaza la un ac pentru a implanta senzorul in ochi.

Procedura nu dureaza mai mult de trei minute. Cand nivelul de glucoza creste, aceasta substanta interactioneaza cu lectina din interiorul implantului si astfel se elibereaza fluoroforul, ale carui molecule emit o lumina fluorescenta. De trei ori pe zi pacientul trebuie sa indrepte un dispozitiv de citire, numit fluorofotometru, spre ochi, iar acesta converteste instantaneu intensitatea luminii detectate in cifre. Cinci voluntari au testat deja implantul iar rezultatele au reflectat cu multa acuratete nivelul de glucoza din sange. Singurele probleme ar fi ca, dupa cate se pare, pretul implantului si al flurofotometrului vor fi destul de ridicate iar implantul nu va putea rezista decat un an, ulterior fiind necesara inlocuirea lui.

GABRIEL TUDOR - magazin.ro

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In the arid Namib Desert on the west coast of Africa, one type of beetle has found a distinctive way of surviving. When the morning fog rolls in, the Stenocara gracilipes species, also known as the Namib Beetle, collects water droplets on its bumpy back, then lets the moisture roll down into its mouth, allowing it to drink in an area devoid of flowing water.

What nature has developed, Shreerang Chhatre wants to refine, to help the world's poor. Chhatre is an engineer and aspiring entrepreneur at MIT who works on fog harvesting, the deployment of devices that, like the beetle, attract water droplets and corral the runoff. This way, poor villagers could collect clean water near their homes, instead of spending hours carrying water from distant wells or streams. In pursuing the technical and financial sides of his project, Chhatre is simultaneously a doctoral candidate in chemical engineering at MIT; an MBA student at the MIT Sloan School of Management; and a fellow at MIT's Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship.

Access to water is a pressing global issue: the World Health Organization and UNICEF estimate that nearly 900 million people worldwide live without safe drinking water. The burden of finding and transporting that water falls heavily on women and children. "As a middle-class person, I think it's terrible that the poor have to spend hours a day walking just to obtain a basic necessity," Chhatre says.

A fog-harvesting device consists of a fence-like mesh panel, which attracts droplets, connected to receptacles into which water drips. Chhatre has co-authored published papers on the materials used in these devices, and believes he has improved their efficacy. "The technical component of my research is done," Chhatre says. He is pursuing his work at MIT Sloan and the Legatum Center in order to develop a workable business plan for implementing fog-harvesting devices.

Interest in fog harvesting dates to the 1990s, and increased when new research on Stenocara gracilipes made a splash in 2001. A few technologists saw potential in the concept for people. One Canadian charitable organization, FogQuest, has tested projects in Chile and Guatemala.

Chhatre's training as a chemical engineer has focused on the wettability of materials, their tendency to either absorb or repel liquids (think of a duck's feathers, which repel water). A number of MIT faculty have made advances in this area, including Robert Cohen of the Department of Chemical Engineering; Gareth McKinley of the Department of Mechanical Engineering; and Michael Rubner of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. Chhatre, who also received his master's degree in chemical engineering from MIT in 2009, is co-author, with Cohen and McKinley among other researchers, of three published papers on the kinds of fabrics and coatings that affect wettability.

One basic principle of a good fog-harvesting device is that it must have a combination of surfaces that attract and repel water. For instance, the shell of Stenocara gracilipes has bumps that attract water and troughs that repel it; this way, drops collects on the bumps, then run off through the troughs without being absorbed, so that the water reaches the beetle's mouth.

To build fog-harvesting devices that work on a human scale, Chhatre says, "The idea is to use the design principles we developed and extend them to this problem."

To build larger fog harvesters, researchers generally use mesh, rather than a solid surface like a beetle's shell, because a completely impermeable object creates wind currents that will drag water droplets away from it. In this sense, the beetle's physiology is an inspiration for human fog harvesting, not a template. "We tried to replicate what the beetle has, but found this kind of open permeable surface is better," Chhatre says. "The beetle only needs to drink a few micro-liters of water. We want to capture as large a quantity as possible."

In some field tests, fog harvesters have captured one liter of water (roughly a quart) per one square meter of mesh, per day. Chhatre and his colleagues are conducting laboratory tests to improve the water collection ability of existing meshes.

FogQuest workers say there is more to fog harvesting than technology, however. "You have to get the local community to participate from the beginning," says Melissa Rosato, who served as project manager for a FogQuest program that has installed 36 mesh nets in the mountaintop village of Tojquia, Guatemala, and supplies water for 150 people. "They're the ones who are going to be managing and maintaining the equipment." Because women usually collect water for households, Rosato adds, "If women are not involved, chances of a long-term sustainable project are slim."

Whatever Chhatre's success in the laboratory, he agrees it will not be easy to turn fog-harvesting technology into a viable enterprise. "My consumer has little monetary power," he notes. As part of his Legatum fellowship and Sloan studies, Chhatre is analyzing which groups might use his potential product. Chhatre believes the technology could also work on the rural west coast of India, north of Mumbai, where he grew up.

Another possibility is that environmentally aware communities, schools or businesses in developed countries might try fog harvesting to reduce the amount of energy needed to obtain water. "As the number of people and businesses in the world increases and rainfall stays the same, more people will be looking for alternatives," says Robert Schemenauer, the executive director of FogQuest.

Indeed, the importance of water-supply issues globally is one reason Chhatre was selected for his Legatum fellowship.

"We welcomed Shreerang as a Legatum fellow because it is an important problem to solve," notes Iqbal Z. Quadir, director of the Legatum Center. "About one-third of the planet's water that is not saline happens to be in the air. Collecting water from thin air solves several problems, including transportation. If people do not spend time fetching water, they can be productively employed in other things which gives rise to an ability to pay. Thus, if this technology is sufficiently advanced and a meaningful amount of water can be captured, it could be commercially viable some day."

Quadir also feels that if Chhatre manages to sell a sufficient number of collection devices in the developed world, it could contribute to a reduction in price, making it more viable in poor countries. "The aviation industry in its infancy struggled with balloons, but eventually became a viable global industry," Quadir adds. "Shreerang's project addresses multiple problems at the same time and, after all, the water that fills our rivers and lakes comes from air."

That said, fog harvesting remains in its infancy, technologically and commercially, as Chhatre readily recognizes. "This is still a very open problem," he says. "It's a work in progress."

Source: EurekAlert

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Spintronics — also known as magnetoelectronics — may replace electronics as the medium of choice for computer memory. The discovery of a mechanism that produces permanent magnets at room temperature, without any external influence, may soon improve the design of spintronic devices. Takumi Ohtsuki from the RIKEN SPring-8 Center, Harima and his colleagues in Japan, made the discovery in a class of material called a dilute ferromagnetic oxide.

Mediating magnetism

A representation of a thin film of Co:TiO2 in which ferromagnetism arises because titanium 3d electrons (green) travel around the material aligning the spin of cobalt atoms (pink) so that they all point in the same direction. The blue and brown spheres correspond to titanium and oxygen atoms, respectively. Credit: 2011 Takumi Ohtsuki

Ferromagnetism is the mechanism responsible for making some materials magnetic without any external influence. In a ferromagnet, the axes about which a majority of the electrons spin are all parallel, but the underlying cause for this alignment is not always clear. A dilute ferromagnetic oxide is an oxide material doped with a small amount of a transition metal, which represents a marriage between magnetic materials and those used in electronics. Crucially, and unlike the ferromagnetic-semiconductors, dilute ferromagnetic oxides remain in a ferromagnetic state at room temperature.

Some materials have ferromagnetic constituents but exhibit no magnetism. However, some ferromagnets consist of substances that, on their own, are nonmagnetic. A full understanding of this enigma is vital for designing efficient spintronic devices and requires determining which electrons, or other type of charge carrier in a material, mediate the ferromagnetism. To resolve this question in dilute ferromagnetic oxides, Ohtsuki and his co-workers examined one commonly used example: cobalt-doped titanium dioxide (Co:TiO2). “Several mechanisms have been suggested for the origin of ferromagnetism in Co:TiO2, but no firm conclusion has been established,” says Ohtsuki.

The researchers used a powerful material characterization technique known as x-ray photoemission spectroscopy. A beam of x-rays, in this case from the SPring-8 synchrotron radiation facility, excited electrons from the sample of Co:TiO2. “The number of excited electrons versus their kinetic energies provided detailed information about the atomic composition and electronic state of the material,” explains Ohtsuki.

Ohtsuki and his team established that ferromagnetism is mediated by the electrons in the third shell—so-called 3d electrons—of the titanium ions (Fig. 1), a mechanism that has never been considered as a possibility by scientists before. The titanium 3d electrons align the spin of the cobalt atoms as they travel through the material.

The team’s discovery enhances the likelihood that dilute ferromagnetic oxides will be used as spintronic devices. “Our results have proven that magnetism and conductivity are correlated in Co:TiO2 thin films,” explains Ohtsuki. “This could make them applicable to magnetic random access memory (MRAM) or spin transistors.”

Source: PhysOrg

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Next-generation soap!

Waterborne disease kills three children every minute. This handheld device, called Kopper – which costs only $A2.50 to make – could prevent some of these deaths.

Designed by Balin Lee, a graduate of the University of Western Sydney, it removes 99.99 per cent of all parasites, viruses and bacteria found in contaminated water.

The device works by squeezing water through a microfilter, removing anything larger than 0.1 micrometre, which includes Escherichia coli and Giardia. It then fries anything left with electrolysis, which splits the oxygen and hydrogen molecules, removing tinier pathogens in the water.

Kopper is powered by piezoelectric generators that convert kinetic energy into an electrical current: powering the device requires only a few shakes.

(Image: Balin Lee/SRD Change)

Slum reshaping, breathing buildings and next-generation soap are just some of the ideas on display at the annual SRD Change Exhibition in Sydney, Australia. The show flaunts the best in sustainable and environmental design aiming "to create products and services that focus on tangible and positive benefits for society in every possible aspect", says Greg Campbell, the SRD Change curator.

Source: NewScientist.com

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A rivelare l'evento è stata l'individuazione dei raggi gamma (Grb) relativi all'esplosione da parte del satellite Swift della Nasa. Si tratta del più antico fenomeno cosmico mai osservato e, forse, dell'oggetto più lontano nel tempo e nello Spazio conosciuto finora. Il team internazionale di astronomi che sta studiando i Grb, di cui fanno parte due italiani dell’Istituto Nazionale di Astofisica (Inaf), ha presentato al congresso nazionale dell’American Astronomical Society (conclusosi ieri a Boston) i primi dati; lo studio sarà poi pubblicato su The Astrophysisical Journal.

Dopo la segnalazione da parte del satellite Swift, avvenuta il 29 aprile del 2009, le prime osservazioni terrestri sono state effettuate grazie ai telescopi Grond e Vlt, installati sulle Ande cilene. Subito dopo è entrato in azione anche il telescopio Gemini, sul vulcano Mauna Kea, nelle Hawaii, coordinato da Antonino Cucchiara, ricercatore italiano trasferitosi da poco a Berkeley. Per dissipare ogni dubbio sulla distanza dell'esplosione è stato chiamato in causa anche il telescopio spaziale Hubble, che ha fornito un'immagine a colori del cielo nelle vicinanze della sorgente dei Grb. Tutti i dati raccolti da questi strumenti sono stati esaminati da un gruppo di ricercatori guidato da Lorenzo Amati dell’Inaf-Iasf di Bologna; Ora i risultati sono stati resi pubblici.

L'esplosione sarebbe avvenuta esattamente 13 miliardi e 104 milioni di anni fa, quando l'Universo era ancora molto giovane. I due lampi di raggi gamma che ne sono scaturiti – ognuno della durata di una decina di secondi – hanno attraversato lo Spazio raggiungendo solo qualche settimana fa la Terra, a distanza di sei giorni l'uno dall'altro. Unificati sotto il nome di GRB 090429B, si contendono il titolo di "oggetto più lontano nell'Universo" con un altro lampo di raggi gamma chiamato GRB 090423 e con due galassie: Lehnert e Bouwens (la più quotata).

“La scoperta di un’esplosione cosmica così distante, avvenuta in un’epoca in cui l’Universo aveva meno del 4 per cento dell’età attuale, è di grande interesse per lo studio della sua storia”, ha commentato Paolo D'Avanzo dell’Osservatorio Astronomico Inaf di Brera, coatuore dello studio.

Fonte: galileonet.it - Riferimenti: Inaf

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By Admin (from 08/08/2011 @ 14:00:16, in ro - Observator Global, read 1253 times)

 Fara indoiala, cea mai faimoasa spioana a tuturor timpurilor, devenita celebra, este adevarat, nu atat prin abilitatile sale de culegere a informatiilor cat mai ales prin calitatile fizice si modul in care a stiut sa le puna in valoare, Mata Hari ramane si astazi o figura controversata. Unii o considera o martira, altii o tradatoare dar cert este ca trupul ei de serpoaica nu lasa pe nimeni indiferent. Venita pe lume in casa unui palarier sarac din orasul olandez Leenwarden, pe numele ei adevarat Margaretha Geertruida Zeele a fost inca de mica tentata de aventura si o mitomana inraita.

Dupa divortul parintilor si moartea mamei, Margaretha este trimisa de nasul sau la Scoala Normala de Educatoare din Leyden, unde il seduce pe director; ajunsa in grija unui unchi din Haga, citeste in ziar, la rubrica Matrimoniale, anuntul unui ofiter din Indiile Olandeze, scris de fapt in gluma, de un prieten al acestuia. Dar ofiterul, un scotian pe nume MacLeod, care are aproape 40 de ani, este cucerit de farmecul adolescentei si o ia de sotie. Pe 30 ianuarie 1897, Margaretha da nastere unui baietel si pleaca impreuna cu acesta si cu sotul ei in Indiile Olandeze, unde se va naste si fiica lor, Jeanne Louise. Din nefericire, cei doi copii sunt otraviti si doar fata scapa; acuzata pe nedrept de aceasta tragedie, Margaretha divorteaza si pleaca la Paris, pentru a poza pictorilor vremii.

Nereusind, incepe sa-si expuna trupul aproape gol, dansand, si multi o considera precursoare a striptease-ului modern. Devenita celebra datorita comportamentului ei extravagant, adopta numele de Mata Hari, care in limba malaeza inseamna „Ochiul zilei”. Cand izbucneste primul razboi mondial, ea se indragosteste de un ofiter rus si patrunde in lumea spionajului si a contraspionajului. Avand amanti cu functii inalte, obtine usor informatiile  necesare, pe care le transmite germanilor, desi oficial lucra pentru francezi. Nici pana astazi nu se stie daca demascarea sa a fost pusa la cale de germani insisi, care nu aveau incredere in aceasta femeie versatila. Pe 15 octombrie 1917, Mata Hati a fost impuscata de catre un pluton de executie francez, crezand totusi pana in ultima clipa ca totul este o farsa.

GABRIEL TUDOR - magazin.ro

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Geoff Dembicki reports extensively on the growing political influence of Alberta's oil sands industry and other climate change-related issues for TheTyee.ca, an award-winning online newspaper based in Vancouver, Canada.

Driving south from Vancouver, Canada, towards Seattle, the scenery is perfectly pastoral with rolling hills and grazing cows. But suddenly, dominating the horizon, the view is interrupted by a phalanx of refinery towers shooting white-gray plumes into the sky. These industrial spires of BP's Cherry Point refinery loom high over Whatcom county, a lush border region a little more than 100 kilometers north of Seattle.

Washington State's largest refining complex provides jet fuel, gasoline and diesel to markets up and down the west coast of North America. I had driven there on a rainy morning last month, hoping to learn more about the economic alchemy that transforms crude oil from Alberta's oil sands and elsewhere into ever ubiquitous aluminum beverage cans.

Photo by Dustin Hicks

Cherry Point plays a little known but critical role in the manufacture of these cans - in fact one-sixth of the world's output would not be possible without an industrial substance produced here in massive volumes each day.

Every year 100 billion soda, beer, and juice cans are cracked open by North Americans each year, almost one can for every person every day. That vast market suggests that transitioning off fossil fuels to halt climate change will be more complicated than the oft-proclaimed solution of switching to a greener forms of transportation.

From Alaska to Alberta

Inside a low brick building at the front of the BP refinery, I shook hands with Bill Kidd, BP's local director of external affairs. “How're you doing?” he exclaimed with a broad smile that made lines appear at the corners of his eyes.

The 52-year-old Kidd, dressed smartly in sleeveless black sweater, slacks and white dress shirt, led me to what passes here as a spacious corner office. Here he explained how Cherry Point is a showcase of North America's oil-boom past and its more troubled future. With the dwindling of easy oil that has gushed from the ground for the last century, the energy industry is in a full-bore search for rich, new reserves, including the oil sands of western Canada.

Built by the Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) in 1971 specifically to process crude oil shipped from Alaska's North Slope, Cherry Point was acquired by British Petroleum after the two companies merged in 2000. Today BP (the company dropped the original name in 2001) has become North America's largest oil and gas producer. The company generated profits of US$16.6 billion in 2010 even after a deadly explosion at its offshore Gulf of Mexico Macondo rig created the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.

For over a decade, the massive Prudhoe Bay reserves and other frigid deposits nearby helped supply refineries on the west coast. Indeed Cherry Point still memorializes those early glory days with a four-foot tall sculpture of a flower with sheet metal petals surrounding an old Prudhoe Bay drill bit.

But production, which peaked at 2.1 million barrels per day in 1989, “has fallen off a cliff,” Kidd told me. Today, daily yield has plummeted to just over 600,000 barrels.  

The refinery now sources only half its oil from Alaska, with places as varied as West Africa and Russia helping make up the difference, Kidd said. Most significantly, up to 14 percent of Cherry Point's current crude supply can be traced back to Alberta's vast oil sands reserves, according to trade research conducted by the Borealis Centre for Environment and Trade Research, based on data from the U.S. Department of Energy.

“How much we use specifically is sensitive information,” Kidd told me when I asked him about the figure. “But that is not an outlandish number.”

From Crude to Can

About 90 percent of the crude oil that gets pumped into Cherry Point comes out as gasoline, diesel and jet fuel - the bread and butter of North America's refining industry. But the Washington state complex is unique in that it is one of the world's leading providers of a substance essential to the aluminum industry.

When transportation fuels are separated from crude oil, they leave behind a tarry residue. Break down that substance with high temperatures and pressure, and it becomes petroleum coke, a valuable industrial solid. Petcoke, as it is known, gives off intense heat when it burns, making it ideal for the production of cement, steel and certain specialty chemicals. It is also extremely carbon-intensive, releasing almost double the greenhouse emissions of natural gas.

At Cherry Point, some of this petcoke is sent via conveyor belt to the calciner, a collection of large hearths that Kidd compared to a “2,300F degree coffee roaster.”

The finished product, “calcined coke,” is then loaded onto tankers and shipped to aluminum smelters in Australia, Brazil, New Zealand, Canada, and South Africa, according to Borealis. Those smelters in turn outsource their metal to beverage can producers around the world.

When you follow the supply chain all the way back, “one in six aluminum cans is made using BP Cherry Point's calcinated coke,” the company's website brags.

It used to be that most of the refinery's output stayed onshore, Kidd said. Only a generation ago, the U.S. aluminum industry was thriving, shipping 7.3 million tons of metal in 1973, up 21 percent from the year before.

But a booming trend towards global trade hit domestic smelters fast and hard. “Nearly all our aluminum in the next century is probably going to come from offshore countries,” a spokesperson from Ferndale's smelter, only a few kilometers south of Cherry Point, lamented in 1986. The industry could not escape the same economic factors that killed off domestic steel production: relatively high labor and energy costs.

Energy Security

Tune into any discussion on the future of U.S. oil supply and you're going to hear the phrase “energy security” an awful lot. . The debate's gained even more urgency since the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) announced late last year that world conventional oil production likely peaked in 2006.

Critics of continued reliance on fossil fuels argue that these dwindling conventional oil reserves mandate a switch to renewable or even nuclear power. The oil industry however is banking on a different strategy. Notably Republican legislators in the U.S., oil industry lobbyists and Canada's own prime minister, Stephen Harper, have seized onto this fear as a way to promote the oil sands business.

Cherry Point, by relying on the oil sands for up to 14 percent of its crude supply, is helping push the shift from crude oil to unconventional sources. And though the refinery isn't currently considering the pricey upgrades that would let it process even more, BP's Kidd said the prospect isn't too hard to imagine.

“This refinery was built when you had a huge pool of crude in Alaska, the biggest gasoline markets in the world in California and we were right in between. Now you're just moving the supply a little bit east,” he said. “I think it's reasonable to think that more [oil sands] will come this way.”

The refinery's supply-chain narrative - once mighty oil fields in decline, greater reliance on higher-carbon unconventional sources - is being replayed globally. Other North American refineries - such as BP's Whiting complex in Indiana - have invested billions of dollars to handle fast-growing shipments of oil sands crude.

The plan to bring the oil industry into line with changing conditions also includes Keystone XL, a proposed 3,200 kilometer mega-pipeline that travels south from the Canadian province of Alberta to refineries lining the Gulf coast of Texas.

Supporters such as TransCanada, the company proposing to build it, say Keystone XL would “reduce dependence on foreign oil from the Middle East and Venezuela,” and thereby “improve U.S. energy security.”

Toxic “Mordor”

One of the main reasons why environmental activists oppose this strategy is the impact that the extraction of oil sands have on the province of Alberta, a thousand kilometers to the north west of Cherry Point.

There are up to an estimated 2.5 trillion barrels of crude waiting to be extracted in Alberta. This makes the oil sands North America's largest single source of petroleum, far surpassing Saudi Arabia. But developing those reserves is not an easy - or pretty -- task. Each barrel of oil sands crude must either be clawed from frigid muskeg bogs with industrial-scale shovels, or melted out of underground formations with high-pressure steam and toxic chemicals.

A United Nations water advisor in 2008 compared the region's strip-mined panoramas and sprawling toxic lakes to Mordor, the fictional dark realm of Middle Earth created by J. R. R. Tolkien.

“The air is foul, the water is being drained and poisoned and giant tailing ponds line the Athabasca River,” Canadian environmentalist and author Maude Barlow said at the time.

Alberta's oil sands industry also produces 23 percent more greenhouse gas emissions per barrel than more conventional operations such as those in Prudhoe Bay, a recent European Union report estimated.

The provincial government has argued that report is “unfair” because it uses out-of-date figures. And in 2009 outgoing premier Ed Stelmach told an economic forum in Geneva, Switzerland, that “no matter which extraction method is used, Alberta has some of the most stringent environmental regulations in the world.”

Climate Change Threat

The other reason that critics cite in opposing the oil sand industry is global warming. Only days after I drove to Cherry Point, delegates from more than 180 countries were gathering in Bonn, Germany, for two weeks of climate talks. The mood on day one was sombre as they were confronted by an IEA report showing that greenhouse gases were at record highs, despite 20 years of attempts to control them.

“A serious setback,” is how the IEA's chief economist, Fatih Birol, described the figures.

Part of the reason is that global oil consumption is not going down even though supplies of easy-to-access conventional oil, the very commodity that made a global trade in aluminum cans possible, likely peaked five years ago, as the IEA pointed out last November.

Instead the IEA expects that oil sands, oil shale and extra heavy crude - among the most greenhouse gas-intensive fuel sources on the planet - are filling the gap and are projected to make up roughly 11 percent of global supply by 2030.

This trend “risks tipping the world over the brink in terms of climate damage,” according to a 2010 report by Friends of the Earth Europe.

Yet a radical shift in global efforts to fight climate change -one of the most pressing crises in human history -- seems less and less likely each year. If the world's nations can't limit the Earth's average temperature rise to two degrees above pre-industrial levels, scientists predict that everything from global agriculture to the world's coastal cities will be in peril.

Many environmentalists believe the Obama administration can make a difference by canceling TransCanada's Keystone XL proposal, a pipeline that would pump 800,000 barrels of high-carbon Alberta oil sands crude into the U.S. every day.

“The best way to build energy security in America is through clean, home-grown sources of energy that won't run out -- such as wind and solar for electric vehicles and fuel efficiency and smart growth to reduce our dependence on oil,” Natural Resources Defense Council's Susan Casey-Lefkowitz wrote earlier this year.

Yet switching power and transportation sources are only part of the answer. Closing up my interview at the Cherry Point refinery, I asked Kidd how North America can possibly square its global warming goals with a fossil fuel industry so ubiquitous it's difficult to imagine life without it.

“Obviously,” he replied, the smile now gone from his face, “we're going to have to do something radically different.”

I asked Kidd one final question: “Could we have a global pop, beer and juice can industry without crude oil?”

“Nope,” he replied. “Hydrocarbons in general are incredibly ubiquitous in our economic engine. It isn't just transportation fuel that will be the issue.”

On my drive back to Vancouver I saw crude oil wherever I looked - like an invisible coating on every concrete overpass, eighteen-wheeler semi-truck and pop can discarded on the side of the road.

The question of “energy security” had never seemed so complex.

Source: CorpWatch.org

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The National Renewable Energy Laboratory is the Department of Energy's green tech incubation lab, so perhaps it's no surprise that the research agency is attempting to lead America to greener pastures by example. The NREL just put the finishing touches on its new Research Support Facility (RSF) in Golden, Colo., -- the largest zero-energy office building in the nation -- hoping other developers will follow its lead.

The 220,000 square-foot facility will be home to more than 800 employees when it opens its doors in August, and is expected to achieve platinum LEED certification, the highest distinction a building can get from the U.S. Green Building Council. To create a structure that consumes no more energy than it produces in a year, the engineers behind the office complex took into account both the technologies of the future and the building practices of the past.

For instance, before electric lighting and climate control became ubiquitous architects situated and designed buildings to take advantage of natural light, with lots of windows that also provided ventilation. A slender 60-foot width and an east-west orientation allow lots of natural daylight to illuminate interior spaces of the RSF. That centuries-old building practice is coupled with smart technology that constantly compares interior and exterior temperatures, and even sends messages to occupants' computer screens when its time to open or close the windows for optimum natural climate control.

The building is also built largely of recycled or reclaimed materials, and the exterior is designed to absorb heat from the sun that can then either contain the heat during the day during warmer months or release it into the building during cooler months. The interior climate is further controlled using an radiant system that uses water pipes embedded in the floor to circulate either hot or cold water.

Of course, the NREL's new green building pales in comparison to China's ambitious 800,000 square-foot "Sun Dial" office building or the scope of projects like Masdar City outside Abu Dhabi. But it's a good -- and good looking -- first step toward better building practices. To make sure the drive for net-zero architecture doesn't stall in Golden, the NREL will be offering its design for the building to developers for free starting this fall.

Source: PopSci

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