Thursday, May 22, 2014

Responding to Oil Spills in the U.S. Arctic Marine Environment (2014)

A new video from the National Research Council explores the recent report, Responding to Oil Spills in the U.S. Arctic Marine Environment.

As the Arctic warms and sea ice retreats, Arctic waters are becoming busier and the risk of serious oil spill is increasing. This video describes the suite of technologies, infrastructure and research needed to support effective oil spill response in the challenging Arctic environment.

Find the report and related resources here, including a webinar, report in brief and downloadable maps.

Source: Division on Earth & Life Studies.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Water-Testing Pills Draw on Breath-Freshening Tech

A water sample being added to a vial for testing, using one of the new pills.

Wondering if it's safe to drink the water from your remote village's well? Typically, the only way of finding out involves sending a sample of that water off to a lab, or using testing agents that must be shipped in and kept on dry ice. Now, however, scientists from Canada's McMaster University have developed simple pills that can do the job – and they were inspired by breath-freshening strips.

PhD student Sana Jahanshahi-Anbuhi, who is one of the team members, first came up with the idea when he saw some of the strips while grocery shopping. Breath strips are made with an edible polymer called pullulan, that forms a protective solid shell when dry, but that dissolves when exposed to liquid.

He surmised that pullulan could also be used to protect the agents used to test water for pathogens. Those agents can deteriorate within hours of exposure to oxygen and temperature changes, which is why they must ordinarily be shipped and stored sealed in vials, and at low temperatures.

As it turns out, Jahanshahi-Anbuhi was onto something. The resulting pills are cheap to produce, can be kept at room temperature for months at a time, and are simply added to a sample of the local water when testing is required. If the sample changes color after being shaken, it means that the water contains harmful bacteria, pesticides, heavy metals, or other pollutants.

While the pills could be useful to people such as hikers, they should be particularly helpful to people in developing nations, that lack easy access to decently-equipped labs. It is also hoped that the technology could be applied to things like food packaging that changes color if the contents are spoiled.

A paper on the research was recently published in the journal Angewandte Chemie.

Source: McMaster University

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Wonder-Material Graphene Could be Dangerous to Humans and the Environment

Jacob D Lanphere, a Ph.D. student at UC Riverside, holds a sample of graphene oxide.

People have been waiting for some time to write a headline along the lines of "scientists discover thing that graphene is not amazing at" ... and here it is. Everybody's favorite nanomaterial may have a plethora of near-magical properties, but as it turns out, it could also be bad for the environment – and bad for you, too.

It's easy to get carried away when you start talking about graphene. Comprised of single atom thick layers of carbon, graphene is incredibly light, incredibly strong, extremely flexible and highly conductive both of heat and electricity. Its properties hold the promise of outright technological revolution in so many fields that it has been called a wonder material.

But it's only been 10 years since graphene was first isolated in the laboratory, and as researchers and industries scramble to bring graphene out of the lab and into a vast range of commercial applications, far less money is being spent examining its potential negative effects.

Two recent studies give us a less than rosy angle. In the first, a team of biologists, engineers and material scientists at Brown University examined graphene's potential toxicity in human cells. They found that the jagged edges of graphene nanoparticles, super sharp and super strong, easily pierced through cell membranes in human lung, skin and immune cells, suggesting the potential to do serious damage in humans and other animals.

"These materials can be inhaled unintentionally, or they may be intentionally injected or implanted as components of new biomedical technologies," said Robert Hurt, professor of engineering and one of the study's authors. "So we want to understand how they interact with cells once inside the body."

Another study by a team from University of California, Riverside's Bourns College of Engineering examined how graphene oxide nanoparticles might interact with the environment if they found their way into surface or ground water sources.

The team found that in groundwater sources, where there's little organic material and the water has a higher degree of hardness, graphene oxide nanoparticles tended to become less stable and would eventually settle out or be removed in sub-surface environments.

But in surface water such as lakes or rivers, where there's more organic material and less hardness, the particles stayed much more stable and showed a tendency to travel further, particularly under the surface.

So a spill of these kinds of nanoparticles would appear to have the potential to cause harm to organic matter, plants, fish, animals, and humans. The affected area could be quick to spread, and could take some time to become safe again.

"The situation today is similar to where we were with chemicals and pharmaceuticals 30 years ago," said the paper's co-author Jacob D. Lanphere. "We just don't know much about what happens when these engineered nanomaterials get into the ground or water. So we have to be proactive so we have the data available to promote sustainable applications of this technology in the future."

At this stage, the Material Safety Data Sheet governing the industrial use of graphene is incomplete. It's listed as a potential irritant of skin and eyes, and potentially hazardous to breathe in or ingest. No information is available on whether it has carcinogenic effects or potential developmental toxicity.

But researchers from the first study point out that this is a material in its infancy, and as a man-made material, there are opportunities at this early stage to examine and understand the potential harmful properties of graphene and try to engineer them out. We've got a few years yet before graphene really starts being a big presence in our lives, so the challenge is set to work out how to make it as safe as possible for ourselves and our planet.