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October 2011 Archives

CO2+ Ingenuity = Renewable Fuel?

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catalyst.jpgAlchemists earned their fame for allegedly turning lead to gold. Real chemist Connie Lu is out to do them one better. She's hot on the trail of a way to turn carbon dioxide - the primary contributor today to global climate change - into a liquid fuel that could be used to power automobiles and more.

A member of the Department of Chemistry faculty in the University of Minnesota's College of Science and Engineering, Lu explores how metals can be used as catalysts to coax molecules into undergoing reactions that wouldn't normally happen in nature. She remembers vividly as a sophomore in college watching a metal-containing molecule split dinitrogen into two nitrogen atoms - a feat not unlike bench-pressing 500 pounds.

"It just really captured my interest that metals could be used to activate small molecules," she said. She's been finding new ways for them them to do that ever since.

With the help of an early career grant from IonE's Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment, Lu is now applying her interest and expertise to developing metal-containing catalysts that could help convert CO2 into methanol, a building block for biofuels, with a relatively low energy input.

The trick, she believes, is to use two metal atoms bonded together rather than just one as the catalyst. Easier said than done, however.

"Metal-metal bonds are unusual. They don't really exist in nature," Lu says. So she's making her own, by building molecular "scaffolds" - frameworks metals can fit into that juxtapose them closely enough to bond with each other.

Lu and her students have already developed a functional scaffold, and are now using it to make a library of metal-metal pairs, with a focus on abundant (and therefore inexpensive) metals. They'll be looking at the properties of each - and eventually, they hope, find one that  can handle the CO2 - methanol conversion in a relatively energy-efficient way.

Lu loves making new molecules for their own sake. The prospect of a planet-saving application is a big bonus.

"I think it's the act of creation that's ultimately the most fun for me and my students," she says. "[But] we're happy to know we're making them for a good purpose, that they will ultimately be useful."

Image courtesy of Connie Lu

Sticking Your Head Above the Parapet

Can scientists "go public" and still be good scientists? That's a question on the mind of many emerging environmental leaders as they ponder how to best mesh their research career with their personal commitment to make the world a better place.

Gavin Schmidt, climatologist at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, was in town last week to present the Kuehnast Lecture, an annual event sponsored by the University of Minnesota Department of Soil, Water and Climate. He stopped by IonE at the invitation of the Boreas Leadership Program to share his insights as a working scientist heavily involved in communicating about science to the broader public. 

Speaking from his own experiences as founder of RealClimate, a blog that collects and disseminates science-based information about global climate change, Schmidt encouraged his audience of graduate students and postdocs to bring their science - and its implications - to the public. But he warned it might not be pretty.

"If you're going to stick your head above the parapet - which I think you all should do - don't take it personally" when you get attacked, he said. "As you become public property, people attribute things to you out of your control." Google his name, for example, he said, and you'll find his "Internet doppelganger" being accused of "saying things I've not said, holding attitudes I don't hold, all to further an agenda that I do not subscribe to."

The challenge, Schmidt said, is that conversations about scientific topics can bring to the surface deeply held beliefs and attitudes that often trump reason. As a result, people may feel threatened and respond by attacking the information and the science behind it. "That's easier to do than adjust perceptions," Schmidt said.

How to respond? Not by butting heads, Schmidt said. "[That's] like wrestling in mud with pigs. The pigs like that, and you just get covered with mud."

Instead, he recommended, look for the hidden nugget - the valid point amid the rhetoric that can (and should) be addressed. Then address it in the context of the values and motivations of your audience. For example, if you're talking to skeptics about climate change, talk insurance. People buy homeowners insurance even if they don't believe their house is going to burn down. Addressing climate change may make sense in the same way.

Schmidt ended by encouraging his audience not to abandon their values. 

"If people have something to say, I absolutely, strongly recommend they say it," he concluded. "Scientists aren't people without values and opinions. Science is a process by which we learn about the world despite our values and beliefs. If you argue that all science is value neutral, that's an unsustainable position."

Editor's note: Gavin Schmidt was named recipient of the American Geophysical Union's  inaugural Climate Communications Prize Oct. 18. The award, which was established by AGU earlier this year, recognizes excellence in climate communication as well as the promotion of scientific literacy, clarity of messaging, and efforts to foster respect and understanding for science-based values related to climate change.

Image courtesy of Perry Rhodan via Wikimedia Commons; thanks to Libby Tilley for the idea

Let's Stop Lumping

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fungus-1.jpgSome biologists (lumpers) use broad definitions to group organisms. Others (splitters) believe in using higher resolution. Fungi and bacteria, claiming half of the kingdoms that comprise life as we know it, are usually lumped under the marquee of "microbes." This is lumping on an epic scale. As a mycologist (I study fungi) and a father, here are two reasons why I think we should stop being such lumpers and dive into the details instead.

First, splitting microbes makes sense for environmental science. I can remember being a student and visualizing microbially driven processes as inputs/outputs through a swarm of cells on a microscope slide. Then I met a fungus that was bigger than me. A single Armillaria ostoyae fungus in Oregon's Blue Mountains was shown in this research to weigh more than a blue whale and be more than 2,000 years old. This is a fungus with a personality, and it is still rotting tree roots and posing for aerial photographs. For reference, this research suggests there are 2,000 bacterial species in an average 0.5 grams of soil here in Minnesota. We are lumping mountains with molehills.

What happens if a widely distributed fungus with a unique function, such as degrading spruce lignin in boreal forests, goes extinct? If, when we think "fungi," we think of a swarm of thousands of species of microbes, we might assume a robust community with functional redundancy: No problem. But I would argue that single species can drive large environmental processes in low-diversity systems like the boreal, and extinction of a single species could be a problem. This may justify "red listing" threatened fungi as folks do in Scandinavia and elsewhere.

fungus-2.jpgSecond, there is value in knowing species as individuals. Yes, we fight off particular bacterial diseases, and certain isolates offer unique biotechnological promise. But also consider "Ötzi the Iceman," found frozen in the Italian Alps in 1991. The story goes that Ötzi was out for a walk about 5,000 years ago after having a meal of goat meat. He never made it back to camp. He froze to death with a fire-starter kit at his side (irony can be painful) containing the tinder polypore mushroom Fomes fomentarius. As tinder for starting fire it was a life-saver, and if you didn't know the fungus, you didn't get your fire going. This type of working knowledge of biota has withered since industrialization, and many of us want it back.

"Microbes," especially fungi, are a good place for you and your kids to start reclaiming that knowledge. It's the next big scientific frontier, and you usually don't have to stray too far from the sandbox to make hands-on discoveries. So dive in!

Jonathan Schilling is an associate professor in the Department of Bioproducts & Biosystems Engineering (College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences) and a resident fellow at the Institute on the Environment, where he is collaborating with forest ecologists, economists and others to improve understanding of how fungi and environmental protection can benefit each other.

Maroon + Gold = Green

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You could feel the energy in the air during the University of Minnesota's Welcome Week as some 2,200 first-year students descended on the Sustainability Fair at the Institute on the Environment in St. Paul.

By 10 a.m., more than 500 visitors had already signed an energy pledge committing themselves to a short list of actions to reduce their use of nonrenewable fuels.

Innovative Engineers, the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group, and other student organizations recruited new members.

SF5.jpgSome visitors found campus landmarks on a big floor map of the Mississippi River.

Others watched a demonstration of the impact of dams on water flow, learned how to give a bike a ride on a bus, or played sustainability-inspired (and inspiring) games for prizes.

Safe to say the event achieved its aim: to familiarize U of M students with the great green things going on around campus every day, and with the opportunities they have to join in making the University of Minnesota one of the most sustainable universities in the nation.


Coal, Climate, Health - and Communication

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coal.jpgThe world has plenty of fossil fuels. In fact, it has far more than we can afford to burn and keep our climate stable, Fresh Energy executive director J. Drake Hamilton told a full house at last week's Frontiers series talk at the Institute on the Environment.

Addressing a crowd of U of M faculty, staff and students and community members, Hamilton noted that coal in particular is too expensive from an environmental and human health standpoint. She encouraged audience members to help reduce dependence on coal for generating electricity and relieve the threat of global climate change by getting to know policy makers and communicating the basics about the environmental consequences of energy policies.

"Ask yourself as you do your research work, 'Who needs to hear about this?'" she said. "Step back and repeat what you've known for a long time: The climate is changing, humans are mostly responsible and we can do something about it."

Scientists in particular have a burden of influencing public policy, Hamilton said. "Do you know the name of your legislator? More important, does your legislator know you? That's the way you can help create positive change going forward."

Interested in learning more? View Hamilton's Frontiers in the Environment talk, check out presentations on other topics from previous seasons, and see the schedule for the rest of this year's Frontiers lineup here.

Photo courtesy Robert & Mihaela Vicol

  The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and not necessarily
  of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.


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