Learning from Nature

Earth day image
Image Credit: Beautiful Earth Day 2018 logo from Laupahoehoe Community Public Charter School, in Laupahoehoe, HI. 

Happy Earth Day everyone! For this week’s blog, let’s take a look at how resilient Mother Nature is. With every troubling toxin, corrosive chemical and petroleum product we pollute her with, she finds new ways to come back into balance. Here’s what we’ve learned from nature recently:

Oil-eating Bacteria – For decades, scientists have been looking for bacteria and other microorganisms to find the perfect strain which can metabolism hydrocarbons found in oil and petroleum wastes. Researchers at Institut national de la recherche scientifique (INRS) in France have found a marine bacterium that may be able to do just that. Early research shows that enzymes isolated from Alcanivorax borkumensis have been able to break down many chemicals found in petroleum contaminated soils, including harsh chemicals such as benzene, toluene, and xylene. Professor Satinder Kaur Brar at the Environmental Biotechnology Laboratory stated, “the degradation of hydrocarbons using the crude enzyme extract is really encouraging and reached over 80 percent for various compounds.”  The team intends to extend their work and see if this bacterium is capable of decontaminating waste sites.

Mutant Enzyme that Eats Plastic? – Researchers from the University of Portsmouth in the UK and the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have been able to “tweak” the structure of an enzyme in a recently discovered bacterium, Ideonella sakaiensis, to enhance its ability to digest PET (polyethylene terephthalate). PET is the same material used to manufacture plastic bottles that are clogging up landfills and oceans around the world. Researchers modified the enzyme, called PETase, with additional amino acids. The new enzyme is capable of breaking down PET in just a few days. The hope is the new enzyme may help reduce our world’s escalating plastic crisis.

Plants, Fungi and Bacteria Unite! – Can organisms of different species “talk” to each other?  That may be one way of explaining the “highly complex interactions among roots, fungi and bacteria” which enable some trees to clean polluted land. Bioinformatics and plant-biology experts from McGill University and Université de Montréal discovered new genetic evidence which suggests willow trees, fungi and bacteria symbiotically take care of each other’s physical needs in a petroleum polluted environment. Specifically, willow trees “may tolerate pollution by providing sugars to symbiotic fungi surrounding their roots; the fungi, in turn, provide nutrients to hydrocarbon-degrading bacteria.” Scientists are hoping this cross-disciplinary collaboration may lead to the discovery of other “incredibly intricate solutions (to problems) present in the natural world.”

Manipulating Moisture for Mankind?

What’s for dinner? A glass of man-made water and maybe a side of crow.

Last year, I was intrigued by various articles I read involving extracting water from the air and I posted a skeptical blog on my findings. Frankly, I thought the idea was somewhat preposterous, especially when some of the discussions mentioned extracting moisture from desert environments. After all, deserts are deserts precisely because they lack moisture. So how could moisture really be extracted from anything so dry?

Yet, here it is a year later and there’s now credible research that suggests we have the capability of doing just that – generating water from the air in even the most arid environments. Let’s take a look at some new water harvesting systems being developed.

On March 22, 2018, Science Daily reported that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) had field tested a new water harvesting technology that “can extract clean drinking water right from the air, even in the driest of deserts.” This method uses metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) as a “high-surface area material” which allowed researchers to extract potable water from the air even when the humidity was as low as 10%, using a device solely powered by sunlight.

These results are very encouraging since most water-from-air devices require much higher humidity levels to operate and also require substantial power for water production. The MIT device was field tested at Arizona State University (ASU) in Tempe, AZ.

On the other side of the globe, Uravu – a technology start-up in Hyderabad, India is developing a residential water vapor collection device which can be placed on home rooftops. This two-part design “uses a proprietary water-absorbing material that sucks vapor from the air and uses solar thermal energy to convert it into water” without the need for electricity or moving parts.

The proprietary hydroscopic material absorbs water vapor overnight and stores it for conversion to liquid water by a solar collector the following day.  The solar collector rapidly heats the water vapor which changes it to a liquid as it cools.

The Uravu prototype produces about 50 liters (~13 gallons) of water per day and the company’s goal is to raise that to 2,000 (~ 530 gallons) liters per day.

Researchers out of Virginia Tech are exploring ways to improve the efficiency of fog harvesters.  The structure they created is called a fog harp. This mechanism is well named since it really looks like a primitive musical harp.  It’s essentially “a vertical array of parallel wires” which catches water vapor suspended in fog as the wind blows over the wires.

fog harp - Virginia Tech
“Study co-author Josh Tulkoff constructs a large prototype of the fog harp, which consists of a vertical array of 700 wires and is based on initial experimental results.” Photo Credit: Virginia Tech. 

 

The fog harp technology is a significant improvement over traditional fog nets which have been employed since the 1980’s in higher humidity areas. By using wires on the fog harp, investigators have been able to collect water vapor that may be lost when using the fog nets. Virginia Tech researchers noted a threefold increase their collection capacity using the fog harp as compared to fog nets.

Fog nets can be very finicky. The conundrum the scientists were looking to solve with the fog nets was really a spacing issue. “If the holes in the (fog net) mesh are too large, water droplets pass through without catching on the net’s wires. If the mesh is too fine, the nets catch more water, but the water droplets clog up the mesh without running down into the trough and wind no longer moves through the nets.” The use of parallel wires has seemingly solved this long perplexing puzzle.

All I can say is what a difference a year makes… any maybe, please pass the salt & pepper.

Happy Easter April Fools – It’s Spring!

Easter-Backgrounds-Download

I’m feeling a tad conflicted today. First of all, I rarely post any blogs written in the first person. Second, because today features two holidays eliciting almost contradictory emotions. Easter tends to be a solemn occasion, meant to remind traditional Christians of Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice.  It’s also April Fools day, a time for light-hearted prankster-isms and silliness.  So, to play it safe, I thought I’d spread some “Goods News” about a more earthly passion – taking care of our planet.

Here’s what’s hit the headlines recently:

Defiant Sustainability –  The U.S. pulling out of the Paris Climate hasn’t stopped progressive cities from shifting to lower-carbon, renewable energy sources. Ecowatch recently reported that 58 U.S. cities “have now committed to transition to 100 percent clean, renewable energy.” This transition includes both large and small cities who recognize “sustainability investment as essential to new markets, jobs and creating attractive places to live, work and do business.”

Even more encouraging, the June 2017 U.S. Conference of Mayors, “representing 250 U.S. mayors, resolved to support the procurement of 100 percent renewable energy for cities by 2035.”

Clearly, our local leaders are more in-tune with what “we-the-people” desire and need than their federal counterparts. For that, we can all breathe a sigh of relief AND fresh air!

Futuristic Ford Drinking Fountain – NPR news station Michigan Radio recently interviewed Doug Martin, a Powertrain Controls Engineer for Ford, who created a prototype drinking water dispenser that collects and uses condensate from vehicle engines. The system is called “On-the-Go-H2O”. Martin got the idea for his system from – of all places – a billboard in Peru that collects condensate off its metal surface and generates about 2500 gallons of water every 60 days.

In the radio interview, he points out the best way to collect vehicle water is from the AC unit. During early experiments, Martin mentioned he was able to collect 6 ounces of AC condensate water in 15 minutes. His prototype collects and purifies the condensate to drinking water quality for passengers. Ford is also exploring other uses for the collected condensate such as inside misting units or topping off wiper fluids.

Martin made a compelling case for who might want this feature, noting that kids and pets always need water, often at inconvenient times, like when you’re stuck in traffic.

This idea may seem crazy to some but so did the idea of selling food at gas stations in the 1940s and 1950s – now there’s a Circle K or Quik Mart on practically every city block. Martin may be a visionary with his new system and I’d say his idea clearly holds water.

Celebrating Green Victories!

 

Clovers
Image source: Synthesio.com

 

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day and the “wearing of the green”, let’s take a look at some recent positive news about the environment:

Repurposing Plastics – On March 12th, 2018, Thomas Reuters Foundation revealed an encouraging story about Watamu, Kenya, a small Indian Ocean Resort village whose new mission is to take-on plastic waste. The country banned the sale and use of plastic bags in February and the environmental ministry is planning a plastic bottle buy-back program starting in April. Some of interesting and innovative things people have been creating with plastic refuse run the gamut from fences to furniture to houses, and even a plastic ship to raise awareness about recycling plastic. See for yourself here.

From Farmland to Forests – The Jackson Hole News and Guide reported to the Associated Press on March 13th, 2018 that more than 1.5 square miles of remote ranchland from the former Upper Gros Ventre River Ranch is being added to the Bridger-Teton National Forest, completing the largest land transfer to that national forest in years. The ranchland was donated it to the Trust for Public Land at the end of 2014 by former Democratic U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl. Money from the transfer ($3 million) will be put in a “land action fund” to support the protection of open space in Jackson Hole.

Getting the Lead – And More – Out!Science Daily revealed on March 14, 2018, that researchers from Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, and colleagues from University of California Berkeley, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory may have found a commercially viable and environmentally safe way to remove heavy metals from municipal drinking water “in seconds.” The solution uses metal organic frameworks (MOFs) combined with a polymer to “quickly and selectively remove high amounts of heavy metals like lead and mercury from real-world water samples.” Samples with high concentrations of lead were reduced to 2 parts-per-billion, a level acceptable by both the EPA and the World Health Organization for drinking water.

Oklahoma Finally Faces Facts on FrackingReuters reported on February 27th, 2018 that the Oklahoma Corporate Commission established new rules to help reduce the risk of earthquakes at fracking sites in the central and southern part of the state. Fracking and related underground injection of fracking wastewaters have been repeatedly shown to cause earthquakes. Data from the Oklahoma Geological Survey revealed in 2015 there were 903 magnitude 3.0 or higher earthquakes versus just 41 of that intensity five years earlier – that’s an increase of 2,200%. Maybe it really is a good thing Scott Pruitt is in Washington instead of his home state… Good for Oklahoma, anyways.

If you know of other cool, green happenings going on, please let me know!

Ocean Blues? Microplastics and Megafauna

mantaray
Feeding manta with plastic in water, Indonesia. Photo Source: Elitza Germanov, Marine Megafauna Foundation

The top environmental news this week?  The effect of microplastics on large filter-feeding sea creatures such as manta-rays, whale sharks, and baleen whales.

A recently published study in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution (Trends) looked at how filter-feeding megafauna may be impacted by exposure to microplastics and related toxins. The results are not encouraging.

Trends researchers note that it’s difficult to measure the exact quantities of microplastics megafauna intake. The best way to accurately determine the amount ingested is by examining stomach contents. Since many of these creatures are on by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) list as globally threatened species, scientists will not harvest them.

However, investigators have developed other methods to determine microplastic intake in these creatures. Based upon these other approaches, it is estimated that “whale sharks may be ingesting 171 items on a daily basis” and the BBC reported, “fin whales in the Mediterranean Sea swallow about 2,000 microplastic particles per day.”

The Trends investigators are concerned that swallowing the indigestible plastic particles may “block nutrient absorption and cause damage to the digestive tract of animals” and that long-term exposure may “alter biological processes, leading to altered growth, development, and reproduction, including reduced fertility.”  Long-term exposure is especially disconcerting since these long-lived animals have few offspring throughout their life.

The ultimate goal of the Trends researchers is to raise awareness in communities, governments, and industry so that the impact of microplastic pollution can be lessened. They are hoping to “change behaviors around the production, management, and use of plastics.”

The message may be catching on.

In the U.S. and abroad, there has been a steady increase in concern over plastic consumption and disposal. Many cities and states are banning the use of plastic bags or encouraging consumers to bring their own reusable bags. Forester Research noted a campaign to ban plastic straws in coastal cities both in the U.S. and other countries.

The United Kingdom and the United States have banned the addition of microbeads and microplastics to cosmetics and personal care products. The Guardian reported in early January that the European Union is “waging war against plastic waste” with a goal of having “every piece of packaging on the continent (be) reusable or recyclable by 2030.” A very noble goal indeed.

Still, legal changes can only go so far to help protect our planet as well as ourselves. As long as consumer demand is strong, manufacturers will continue to meet the demand. It’s ultimately up to us to change our behavior and reduce, reuse, and recycle.

What is one thing you can do this week to help reduce our dependence upon plastics?

Downsides to Desalination

Throwing salt over your shoulder after you spill some, is a ritual that originated in ancient Rome. Back then, salt was a very precious and expensive commodity. To carelessly lose any was considered a bad omen. To rectify this terrible error, you needed to lose some of what you valued most. Times have changed and now we have an overabundance of salt.  Instead of throwing it over our shoulder to make up for misdeeds, we may be looking over our shoulder to make sure were are not caught dumping it.

SaltAs water quality continues to diminish around the world, advocates are promoting desalination as a technological solution. They point to the earth’s abundant water supplies, such as the ocean or brackish aquifers, which desalination can treat to provide another source of drinking water. Yet, these advocates tend to gloss over the environmental impacts of the concentrated salt waste that is produced.

Desalination works by removing salts and minerals from water supplies, generally using sophisticated membrane technology which is very energy intensive and quite costly. This technique not only results in producing freshwater, it also generates a concentrated brine which needs to be disposed of. In some ways, you could say desalination is just another version of “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” In the end, you still have the problem of too much salt.

Unfortunately, there is no sound way to handle the concentrated brine waste produced. Currently, many countries with coastal desalination facilities release the brine waste back into the ocean. A practice which marine biologists warn is taking a heavy toll on the ocean’s health.

In a Scientific American online article, Jeffrey Graham of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography’s Center for Marine Biotechnology and Biomedicine, noted that the highly concentrated salt waste from desalination processes “can wreak havoc on marine ecosystems.” He expressed concern that “the disappearance of some organisms from discharge areas may be related to the salty outflow.”

The same article discusses how the seawater intake process can also be detrimental to biodiversity. Desalination plants essentially vacuum up sea water through intake pipes and “inadvertently kill millions of plankton, fish eggs, fish larvae and other microbial organisms that constitute the base layer of the marine food chain.” This reduces the amount of food available for larger ocean creatures.

Some desalination supporters suggest injecting the concentrated brine deep into the ground, where it, presumably, will do no harm. However, Menachem Elimelech, a Professor at the Yale University School of Engineering and Applied Science, doesn’t believe that solution would be sustainable. In a Deutsche Wells online article, Elimelech states “If you have many many desalination plants injecting this salt into the groundwater, it may affect the groundwater 50, 100 or 500 years from now.”

Being a water resources junkie, I couldn’t agree more. Water doesn’t stay in one place and it’s impossible for us to know the exact nature of any formation that the liquid waste is pumped into. Fractures, fissures, and faults might be unseen pathways for this solution to eventually move into and contaminate productive aquifers.  Why take the chance?

Also, consider the intake material from the ocean is not just water and salt but also organic matter, bacteria, and other materials.  All these substances must be treated and removed before the sea water is run through the reverse osmosis membranes. William Phillip from the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, points out in the Deutsche Wells article that “In order to keep the membranes from clogging up with particles, the sea water has to be treated with chemicals before it is desalinated. These chemicals are then poured back into the sea.”

As the membranes do their job of removing minerals and salts, they gradually get clogged up, making them less efficient. This is where desalination starts to get expensive. It takes a lot of energy to keep pushing water molecules through the reverse osmosis membranes especially when they are blocked by other elements.

Desalination also produces three times the CO2 emissions of conventional water treatment systems. In a world struggling to come to its senses over climate change, adding more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere may not be the best solution. In a way, it may be like rubbing salt into our collective wounds.

“Free the Rivers” – Benefits of Historical Dam Removal

Long before the Standing Rock Sioux reminded us that “Water is Life!”, pre-colonial Americans deeply understood this simple truth in a way none of us can now imagine.  Rivers were their lifeblood; something they respected and ultimately put to use to make their lives easier. What resulted from their early ingenuity were thousands of dams used to operate early industrial operations, such as grist mills or sawmills. Many of these historical dams are well over 100 years old, in disrepair and no longer serve their original intended purpose. They also continue to impede the natural processes of river ecosystems. What can be done about these unneeded remnants of American history?

The Nature Conservancy (TNC), American Rivers, and other river restoration organizations have some answers. These groups are working hard to “free the rivers” by supporting dam removal projects across the country. Working in partnership with individuals, communities and government agencies, they have made great strides in restoring river habitats, improving fish breeding grounds, all while supporting the cultural and historical significance of this early American phenomenon.

This is no easy task, to be sure. Especially when you consider the magnitude of the impacts imposed on rivers by dams. The Penobscot River in Maine is a great example of how rivers can be restored. The Penobscot is New England’s second largest river with a length of 109 miles and which drains an area of 8,570 miles. Until recently, this river system had 119 dams which, the TNC noted, restricted fish migrating from the ocean to about 30 miles of navigable river.

Penobscot
Destruction of Veazie Dam on Penobscot River. Photo: Penobscot Trust/Flickr

TNC worked with several other groups to negotiate the removal of two hydropower dams and to build a fish bypass on a third dam. The results have been impressive. TNC reported in the same article, that “past counts of just a few thousand river herring have blossomed to more than 1.8 million in 2016. Researchers also documented three short-nosed sturgeon swimming farther upriver than they’ve been seen in 200 years.”

The largest dam removal project in U.S. history began in 2011 on the Elwha River in Washington. Two dams, the Elwha Dam and the Glines Canyon Dam, were removed and the river’s comeback has been vigorously studied and supported since then.

(Watch a video of the Elwha Dam destruction here.)

River recovery studies on the Elwha River have come back overwhelmingly positive. High Country News reported that in 2016, “biologists spotted chinook, steelhead, coho, bull trout and sockeye spawning upstream of the Glines Canyon Dam site for the first time in nearly a century. Pacific lamprey have returned unaided.”

However, it’s not just fish that benefit from dam removal. Entire ecosystems are being stimulated and returning to a more natural state. Sediments once held back behind the dams, are now forming beaches and helping to reshape the rivers paths. Animals, such as otter and smaller rodents, are returning to areas along the river.

Even plants have made an impressive recovery. High Country News reported “Studies conducted prior to dam removal found that there were 90 percent fewer seeds in the water below Glines Canyon Dam than above, and 84 percent fewer species represented. After the dam came down, the numbers equalized all along the channel.”

Even more encouraging is that dam removal projects seem to be on an upswing. American Rivers notes that between 1912 through 2016, 1384 dams have been removed nationwide. In 2016 alone, 72 dams were removed to help restore rivers. Overall, the United States has roughly 90,000 dams.

(American Rivers website features a map of U.S. dam removal projects here.)

A quick website review of dam removal projects in the U.S. reveals, that in addition to national groups like The Nature Conservancy and American Rivers, there are a large number of local groups emerging across the country to advocate dam removal. Groups, such as, “Free VT Rivers”, “Connecticut River Conservancy”, “Idaho Rivers United”, “River Alliance of Wisconsin”, are just a few of the many groups working to help restore river ecosystems.

It’s obvious that dam construction has played a vital role in America’s economic development and will continue to do so for a long time. However, it is encouraging to know that more and more people are supporting the dismantling of historical dams that no longer support their original intention, so-called “deadbeat dams,” as well as advocating the removal of dams that have severely impacted river ecosystems.

To learn more about the overall benefits of dam removal, visit American Rivers, The Nature Conservancy or do a web search on river restoration organizations in your state.

There are many ways to help restore rivers. What will yours be?