SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY

The big Green Fuel lie
Daniel Howden
The ethanol boom is coming. The twin threats of climate change and energy security are creating an unprecedented thirst for alternative energy with ethanol leading the way.

Hope of cancer drug
A study has opened the way for a new generation of drugs to combat the genes that give rise to the growth of cancer tumours.

Trends
Optics on a chip

In work that could lead to completely new devices, systems and applications in computing and telecommunications, MIT researchers are bringing the long-sought goal of “optics on a chip” one step closer to market.


Prof Yash Pal

Prof Yash Pal

PROF YASH PAL
THIS UNIVERSE

Why do we not find any straight-lined features in the natural state of the universe — anywhere in the universe?
This is an interesting observation. Yet I could pick an argument with you. You have to define two things. How long should the line be to be qualified as a line? If you would allow me to look at the microscopic universe I could point towards a myriad of crystals.

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The big Green Fuel lie
Daniel Howden


The ethanol boom is coming. The twin threats of climate change and energy security are creating an unprecedented thirst for alternative energy with ethanol leading the way.

That process is set to reach a landmark on Friday when the US President, George Bush, arrives in Brazil to kick-start the creation of an international market for ethanol that could one day rival oil as a global commodity.

The expected creation of an “Opec for ethanol” replicating the cartel of major oil producers has spurred frenzied investment in biofuels across the Americas. But a growing number of economists, scientists and environmentalists are calling for a “time out” and warning that the headlong rush into massive ethanol production is creating more problems than it is solving.

There is a darker side to this green revolution, which argues for a cautious assessment of how big a role ethanol can play in filling the developed world’s fuel tank.

The prospect of a sudden surge in demand for ethanol is causing serious concerns even in Brazil.

The ethanol industry has been linked with air and water pollution on an epic scale, along with deforestation in both the Amazon and Atlantic rainforests, as well as the wholesale destruction of Brazil’s unique savannah land.

Fabio Feldman, a leading Brazilian environmentalist and former member of Congress who helped to pass the law mandating a 23 per cent mix of ethanol to be added to all petroleum supplies in the country, believes that Brazil’s trailblazing switch has had serious sideeffects.

“Some of the cane plantations are the size of European states, these vast monocultures have replaced important eco-systems,” he said. “If you see the size of the plantations in the state of Sao Paolo they are oceans of sugar cane. In order to harvest you must burn the plantations which creates a serious air pollution problem in the city.”

The conditions for a true nightmare scenario are being created not in Brazil, despite its environment concerns, but in the US’s own domestic ethanol industry.

While Brazil’s tropical climate allows it to source alcohol from its sugar crop, the US has turned to its industrialised corn belt for the raw material to substitute oil.

The American economist Lester R Brown, from the Earth Policy Institute, is leading the warning voices: “The competition for grain between the world’s 800 million motorists who want to maintain their mobility and its two billion poorest people who are simply trying to stay alive is emerging as an epic issue.”

By arrangement with The Independent, London'

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Hope of cancer drug

A study has opened the way for a new generation of drugs to combat the genes that give rise to the growth of cancer tumours.

Scientists have carried out the widest survey yet of the genetic errors that cause tumours to grow. The findings will be used to design anti-cancer drugs targeted at counteracting mutations in a patient’s DNA.

All cancers are thought to result from an accumulation of mutations in one or another of the 30,000 genes in the human genome. These mutations cause a cell to multiply uncontrollably to form a tumour that can then spread to other parts of the body.

Scientists have identified about 350 genes that have been implicated in the development of different cancers but, until now, have not had a clear idea about how many mutations in these genes were directly involved in triggering cancer.

The latest study analysed 200 samples of cancerous tissue, surveying 500 genes and sequencing more than 250 million letters of the 
DNA code.

An international team of more than 60 scientists led by Michael Stratton of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge identified 158 mutations in 120 genes that they believe can be implicated in cancer development.

Professor Stratton said the number of mutations that appear to be involved in driving the growth of cancerous tumours was larger than expected, but ultimately the technique will allow scientists to acquire a complete catalogue of all the mutations involved in each class of cancer. – The Independent

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Trends
Optics on a chip

In work that could lead to completely new devices, systems and applications in computing and telecommunications, MIT researchers are bringing the long-sought goal of “optics on a chip” one step closer to market.

In the January 2007 inaugural issue of the journal Nature Photonics, the team reports a novel way to integrate photonic circuitry on a silicon chip. Adding the power and speed of light waves to traditional electronics could achieve system performance inconceivable by electronic means alone.

The MIT invention will enable such integrated devices to be mass-manufactured for the first time. And, depending on the growth of the telecom industry, the new devices could be in demand within five years, said co-author Erich P. Ippen, the Elihu Thomson Professor of Electrical Engineering and Physics.

Human skin is a zoo

It appears that the skin, the largest organ in our body, is a kind of zoo and some of the inhabitants are quite novel, according to a new study. Researchers found evidence for 182 species of bacteria in skin samples. Eight percent were unknown species that had never before been described.

It is the first study to identify the composition of bacterial populations on the skin using a powerful molecular method. Not only were the bacteria more diverse than previously estimated, but some of them had not been found before, says Martin J. Blaser, M.D., Frederick King Professor and Chair of the Department of Medicine and Professor of Microbiology at NYU School of Medicine, one of the authors of the study.

“The skin is home to a virtual zoo of bacteria,” he says. This study is published February 5, 2007, in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Bridge on Grand Canyon’s edge

An Indian tribe fastened a massive glass-bottomed walkway to the edge of the Grand Canyon on Wednesday as part of an ambitious tourism centre that has angered environmentalists and some tribal members. The Hualapai (pronounced WALL-uh-pie), an impoverished tribe of about 2,200 people at the canyon’s remote western edge, allowed a private developer to construct the $30 million Skywalk in hopes of luring tourists to the region.

The tribe will open it to the public later this month, charging $25 per person in addition to other entry fees.

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PROF YASH PAL
THIS UNIVERSE 

Why do we not find any straight-lined features in the natural state of the universe — anywhere in the universe?

This is an interesting observation. Yet I could pick an argument with you. You have to define two things. How long should the line be to be qualified as a line? If you would allow me to look at the microscopic universe I could point towards a myriad of crystals. They arrange themselves in planes and rows of atoms that are pretty straight. In geology you encounter a large number of lineaments and faults that extend over hundreds and thousands of kilometers. Perhaps you would allow me to assume that whenever I have a flat plane it is but a translation of a straight line. Our world is full of marble and sandstone slabs that are pretty plane. I know that they must have some curvature due to the fact that they were originally laid out as slabs of sediment on the surface of the earth and therefore have to incorporate the curvature of the earth!

Having said all this we should be grateful that the universe has made use of a variety of shapes in abundance, even though the patterns seem to be repeated in many forms. If you are interested in identifying morphological forms on other celestial bodies that would indicate a non-natural or human artifact, there might be several choices. The astronauts who first went to the moon said that the only human structure they could discern on the earth was the Great Wall of China. That is not very straight, though. Our highways and railway lines might not be visible from that far but would show up. I am mentioning all this to give tangential support to your observation — it is easy to identify linear features on earth using remote sensing satellites.

Why doesn’t the earth shake when there is so much traffic of buses, railways and landing aircraft?

Actually it does. But the shaking is so tiny that it is not detectable. An elephant does not stumble every time a fly lands on it. The mass of the earth is so much that the momentum imparted by all the events you have mentioned would not cause any large-scale movement, though ground nearby would shake a little. Your do alter the motion of the earth every time you jump, but like the elephant encountering a fly it hardly feels it.

Seismologists do use the propagation of earth vibrations caused by very heavy hammers hitting its surface. These vibrations can be detected as compression waves very far away from their origin.


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