Put A Pullet In Your Tank
The search for alternative fuels to gasoline has led to surprising possibilities—for instance, the
waste oil from making French fries. But one of the most unusual alternative fuel candidates might be chicken fat. Yes, chicken fat, also called schmaltz. So if you make chicken soup you might have a valuable resource in your kitchen—besides the actual soup.
Chemical engineers at the University of Arkansas report that when chicken fat is combined with methanol under very high temperatures and pressure (known as supercritical conditions) they got biodiesel. The method converted 89 percent of the chicken fat to biodiesel. The research was done as part of a master’s thesis project by chemical engineering student Brent Schulte.
Many people have high hopes for biodiesel as a replacement for fossil fuels, because it uses renewable resources such as plant oils, or in this case chicken fat, of which there is certainly no shortage. The hunt for biodiesel may mostly take place outdoors. But the potential of French fry flotsam and chicken fat also means the search can sometimes end in the kitchen.
Parasitized Ants Get Berry Sick
When is an ant like a piece of fruit? When it’s infected by a parasite. Researchers affiliated with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute discovered this bizarre occurrence in Central America as they were studying the gliding ability of a certain species of ant. They found some colony members with bright red swollen abdomens. The scientists took specimens back to the lab and discovered they were full of hundreds of nematode eggs. The bright red bellies look suspiciously like the brilliant red and pink berries that proliferate in the rainforest.
Researchers think that the nematode makes the ant look like fruit to get birds to eat the ants. Birds usually keep the ants off their menu because of armor and a bad chemical taste. The birds then spread parasite eggs in their droppings. Ants forage through bird droppings for seeds. They feed the infected droppings to ant larvae, beginning the infection process all over again. The red-bellied ant is the first known case of a parasite causing fruit mimicry. One of the researchers was surprised that something “dumb as a nematode” can manipulate its host in such a sophisticated
way. But evolution works no matter how dumb organisms are.
Scratching Brings Mental Satisfaction
When you have an itch, nothing feels better than a good scratch. Now scientists from Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center think they know why. The scientists were wondering why raking fingernails across skin brings us such pleasure. So they looked to the brain. More precisely, they looked in the brain. Using advanced imaging techniques, the scientists looked to see which parts of the brain are most active when people scratch. Or, in this case, when people are scratched
by a guy in a white lab coat with a special scratching brush.
What they found is: scratching does not activate areas of the brain normally associated with pleasure. Although it did boost the activity of the prefrontal cortex, which can be involved in compulsive behavior—that makes sense. But the major effect of scratching was to decrease the activity of brain regions associated with unpleasant sensory experiences. So scratching seems to relieve the unpleasant feelings that accompany, well, itching. Yes, in a landmark study that appears in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology: scratching gets rid of the itch. Me, I’m holding out for the study that shows that people bang their heads against the wall because it feels so good when you stop.
Harnessing Power Wasted While
Last month, the journal Science reported that a Swedish company was planning on using the body heat generated by commuters in a Stockholm train station to warm a nearby office building. If that sounds too…personal, they’re not the only ones thinking about ways to reuse wasted energy. A team of scientists from Ann Arbor, Pittsburgh and British Columbia have come up with a way to tap pedestrian power. They’ve created a device, which straps onto your knees, that can harvest
energy from your stride the same way hybrid electric vehicles recycle power during braking.
Their report, which appears in the February 8 issue of Science, shows that walkers can generate about five watts of power without so much as breaking a sweat. That’s enough energy to run 10 cell phones or two computers at once, which could be good news for people who live in countries where access to electricity is spotty. The bad news is: the device could enable commuters to talk on the phone, listen to music, email their friends, play video games, check their stock quotes, and photograph themselves doing it, just by pacing back and forth waiting for their morning latte. We beseech them not to—on bended knee.
Better Beams Give More Big Bang For Buck
Physicists at the Brookhaven National Laboratory have been able to send information ahead of particle beams racing at nearly the speed of light. And the message to the beams is: Get in line. This technique has been developed at other labs but never used before with particle beams traveling in discrete bunches. These bunches are important in recreating that singular moment, the Big Bang.
In these experiments, there are two different sets of ions, electrically charged particles, zooming towards each other around a 2.4 mile track. They collide into one another to recreate conditions
that provide info about the Big Bang. But the ions spread out as they move. And this means that there are fewer collisions.
In a technique called stochastic cooling, scientists first measure fluctuations in the beams of ions. Then they send signals even faster than these particles to devices up ahead that can kick these particles back into shape. Researchers say this technique allows them to create these collisions much more frequently and cheaply than other methods. And so they can get more and better data about what our universe might have been like just after it came into existence.
Nets Drive Evolution of Small Fish
Being a big fish in a small pond is more likely to get you noticed. That’s good news if you’re, say, the best pitcher in your little league division. But it’s not so good if you’re an actual fish. Because bigger fish are the ones that tend to get caught. Not only is that bad news for the fish, but it may be bad for the whole fish population. Or so say scientists from Australia and Canada in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They find that fishing for the largest individuals targets the fastest growers, leaving behind their slower-growing counterparts. Which means that current fishing practices may favor the evolution of slower-growing fish.
The scientists stocked two small lakes in British Columbia with two strains of rainbow trout: one that grows quickly and is more aggressive in chasing down food and another that grows slowly and tends to be more cautious. They then used commercial gillnets to fish the lakes and found that they bagged the bolder fish three times faster than the shy ones, which were left behind to multiply. So we could inadvertently be breeding fearful small fry that are nearly impossible to catch. Which would make them…hard-to-see food.
Conversing the Galapagos
The history of science is inextricably linked to the Galapagos and its influence on Darwin. In 2001, an oil tanker hit a reef in the Galapagos Islands and spilled potentially disastrous amounts of oil on one of the world’s most historic nature reserves. Today, the Galapagos are starting down a path to do away with imported oil. Ecuador, which owns the islands, recently installed three wind turbines, in cooperation with the UN and major energy companies. Wind power will replace half of the diesel previously needed. But there are challenges.
First, the electrical grid must be updated to accommodate the intermittent power supplied by wind. And there are also ecological issues. One of the original proposed sites contained nests of birds known as petrels. But after they moved the site, researchers realized they knew little about the flight patterns of petrels. So they initiated a study. Once it was determined that the birds would fly safely out of the way of giant turbine blades, construction began. The addition of solar power could make the Galapagos nearly energy independent by 2015—and free from any further oil
Pavement Changes Weeds Seeds
For worse or for better, humans are changing the course of evolution. On February 26, we talked about how fishing practices may be driving the evolution of smaller, harder-to-catch trout. This week brings news that urbanization has changed the way weeds make seeds. The results appear in the current online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Scientists in the South of France were studying the sort of weed you see cropping up around the base of trees planted along city sidewalks. The weed, called Crepis sancta, can make two different kinds of seed: one that’s light like a dandelion seed with a feathery little parachute that gets carried by the wind;
and another that’s heavy and just drops to the ground.
The scientists compared weeds that were growing in these small urban patches to ones growing in an open field. They found that the urban weeds produced fewer of the fluffy seeds than their country cousins, which makes evolutionary sense because in a city setting, drifting seeds are more likely to hit pavement than soil. In the long run, though, that strategy might not be healthy. Because plants benefit from spreading their seeds. So that’s bad news for the weeds. But
maybe not so bad news for the sidewalks.