Friday, February 16, 2018

Tiny Membrane Key to Safe Drinking Water

Date: February 14, 2018
Source: CSIRO Australia
Summary: Using their own specially designed form of graphene, 'Graphair' scientists have supercharged water purification, making it simpler, more effective and quicker.

Sydney's iconic harbour has played a starring role in the development of new CSIRO technology that could save lives around the world.

Using their own specially designed form of graphene, 'Graphair', CSIRO scientists have supercharged water purification, making it simpler, more effective and quicker.

The new filtering technique is so effective, water samples from Sydney Harbour were safe to drink after passing through the filter.

The breakthrough research was published today in Nature Communications.

"Almost a third of the world's population, some 2.1 billion people, don't have clean and safe drinking water," the paper's lead author, CSIRO scientist Dr Dong Han Seo said.

"As a result, millions -- mostly children -- die from diseases associated with inadequate water supply, sanitation and hygiene every year.

"In Graphair we've found a perfect filter for water purification. It can replace the complex, time consuming and multi-stage processes currently needed with a single step."

While graphene is the world's strongest material and can be just a single carbon atom thin, it is usually water repellent.

Using their Graphair process, CSIRO researchers were able to create a film with microscopic nano-channels that let water pass through, but stop pollutants.

As an added advantage Graphair is simpler, cheaper, faster and more environmentally friendly than graphene to make.

It consists of renewable soybean oil, more commonly found in vegetable oil.

Looking for a challenge, Dr Seo and his colleagues took water samples from Sydney Harbour and ran it through a commercially available water filter, coated with Graphair.

Researchers from QUT, the University of Sydney, UTS, and Victoria University then tested and analysed its water purification qualities.

The breakthrough potentially solves one of the great problems with current water filtering methods: fouling.

Over time chemical and oil based pollutants coat and impede water filters, meaning contaminants have to be removed before filtering can begin. Tests showed Graphair continued to work even when coated with pollutants.

Without Graphair, the membrane's filtration rate halved in 72 hours.

When the Graphair was added, the membrane filtered even more contaminants (99 per cent removal) faster.

"This technology can create clean drinking water, regardless of how dirty it is, in a single step," Dr Seo said.

"All that's needed is heat, our graphene, a membrane filter and a small water pump. We're hoping to commence field trials in a developing world community next year."

CSIRO is looking for industry partners to scale up the technology so it can be used to filter a home or even town's water supply.

It's also investigating other applications such as the treatment of seawater and industrial effluents.

Story Source:
CSIRO Australia. "Tiny membrane key to safe drinking water." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 14 February 2018. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/02/180214181846.htm.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Pride Tops Guilt as a Motivator for Environmental Decisions

Date: February 13, 2018
Source: Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs
Summary: A lot of pro-environmental messages suggest that people will feel guilty if they don't make an effort to live more sustainably or takes steps to ameliorate climate change. But a recent study finds that highlighting the pride people will feel if they take such actions may be a better way to change environmental behaviors.

A lot of pro-environmental messages suggest that people will feel guilty if they don't make an effort to live more sustainably or takes steps to ameliorate climate change. But a recent study from Princeton University finds that highlighting the pride people will feel if they take such actions may be a better way to change environmental behaviors.

Elke U. Weber, a professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, conducted the study -- which appears in the academic journal PLOS ONE -- along with Ph.D. candidate Claudia R. Schneider (who is visiting Princeton's Department of Psychology through the Ivy League Exchange Scholar Program) and colleagues at Columbia University and the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Past research has shown that anticipating how one will feel afterward plays a big role in decision-making -- particularly when making decisions that affect others. "In simple terms, people tend to avoid taking actions that could result in negative emotions, such as guilt and sadness, and to pursue those that will result in positive states, such as pride and joy," said Weber, who also is the Gerhard R. Andlinger Professor in Energy and the Environment.

Pro-environmental messaging sometimes emphasizes pride to spur people into action, Weber said, but it more often focuses on guilt. She and her colleagues wondered which is the better motivator in this area. To find out, they asked people from a sample of 987 diverse participants recruited through Amazon's Mechanical Turk platform to think about either the pride they would feel after taking pro-environmental actions or the guilt they would feel for not doing so, just before making a series of decisions related to the environment.

The participants were prompted to think about future pride or guilt by one of three methods. Some were given a one-sentence reminder -- which remained at the top of their computer screens as they completed a survey -- that their environmental choices might make them either proud or guilty. Others were given five environmentally friendly or unfriendly choice scenarios and asked to consider how making each choice might make them feel pride or guilt. Still others were asked to write a brief essay reflecting on their future feelings of pride or guilt over a real upcoming environmental decision. In the end, there were six groups: one for each of the three reflection methods and within each one section that considered future pride and another that reflected on future guilt.

Next, the participants were asked to make five sets of choices, each with "green" (environmentally friendly) or "brown" (environmentally unfriendly) options. In one scenario, for example, they could choose a sofa made from environmentally friendly fabric but available only in outdated styles, or they could pick a more modern style of sofa made from fabric produced with harsh chemicals. In another scenario, they could pick any or all of 14 green amenities for an apartment (such as an Energy Star-rated refrigerator), with the caveat that each one added $3 per month to the rent. A control group made the same decisions without being prompted to think about future pride or guilt.

The results revealed a clear pattern across all of the groups. "Overall," Weber said, "participants who were exposed to anticipation of pride consistently reported higher pro-environmental intentions than those exposed to anticipated guilt."

A likely explanation, she said -- one that's backed up by a great deal of past research -- is that some people react badly and get defensive when they're told they should feel guilty about something, making them less likely to follow a desired course of action. Thus, guilt-based environmental appeals run the risk of backfiring.

"Because most appeals for pro-environmental action rely on guilt to motivate their target audience, our findings suggest a rethinking of environmental and climate change messaging" to harness the power of positive emotions like pride, Weber said.

Story Source:
Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. "Pride tops guilt as a motivator for environmental decisions." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 13 February 2018. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/02/180213120429.htm

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

A Biological Solution to Carbon Capture and Recycling?

E. coli bacteria shown to be excellent at CO2 conversion


Date: January 8, 2018
Source: University of Dundee
Summary: Scientists have discovered that E. coli bacteria could hold the key to an efficient method of capturing and storing or recycling carbon dioxide. They have developed a process that enables the E. coli bacterium to act as a very efficient carbon capture device.


Rendering of bacteria.
Credit: © 7activestudio / Fotolia

Scientists at the University of Dundee have discovered that E. coli bacteria could hold the key to an efficient method of capturing and storing or recycling carbon dioxide.

Cutting carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to slow down and even reverse global warming has been posited as humankind's greatest challenge. It is a goal that is subject to considerable political and societal hurdles, but it also remains a technological challenge.

New ways of capturing and storing CO2 will be needed. Now, normally harmless gut bacteria have been shown to have the ability to play a crucial role.

Professor Frank Sargent and colleagues at the University of Dundee's School of Life Sciences, working with local industry partners Sasol UK and Ingenza Ltd, have developed a process that enables the E. coli bacterium to act as a very efficient carbon capture device.

Professor Sargent said, "Reducing carbon dioxide emissions will require a basket of different solutions and nature offers some exciting options. Microscopic, single-celled bacteria are used to living in extreme environments and often perform chemical reactions that plants and animals cannot do.

"For example, the E. coli bacterium can grow in the complete absence of oxygen. When it does this it makes a special metal-containing enzyme, called 'FHL', which can interconvert gaseous carbon dioxide with liquid formic acid. This could provide an opportunity to capture carbon dioxide into a manageable product that is easily stored, controlled or even used to make other things. The trouble is, the normal conversion process is slow and sometime unreliable.

"What we have done is develop a process that enables the E. coli bacterium to operate as a very efficient biological carbon capture device. When the bacteria containing the FHL enzyme are placed under pressurised carbon dioxide and hydrogen gas mixtures -- up to 10 atmospheres of pressure -- then 100 per cent conversion of the carbon dioxide to formic acid is observed. The reaction happens quickly, over a few hours, and at ambient temperatures.

"This could be an important breakthrough in biotechnology. It should be possible to optimize the system still further and finally develop a 'microbial cell factory' that could be used to mop up carbon dioxide from many different types of industry.

"Not all bacteria are bad. Some might even save the planet."

Not only capturing carbon dioxide but storing or recycling it is a major issue. There are millions of tonnes of CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere every year. For the UK alone, the net emission of CO2 in 2015 was 404 million tonnes. There is a significant question of where can we put it all even if we capture it, with current suggestions including pumping it underground in to empty oil and gas fields.

"The E. coli solution we have found isn't only attractive as a carbon capture technology, it converts it into a liquid that is stable and comparatively easily stored," said Professor Sargent.

"Formic acid also has industrial uses, from a preservative and antibacterial agent in livestock feed, a coagulant in the production of rubber, and, in salt form, a de-icer for airport runways. It could also be potentially recycled into biological processes that produce CO2, forming a virtuous loop."

Story Source:
University of Dundee. "A biological solution to carbon capture and recycling? E. coli bacteria shown to be excellent at CO2 conversion." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 8 January 2018. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/01/180108101359.htm

Friday, January 5, 2018

One-Step Catalyst Turns Nitrates into Water and Air

Date: January 4, 2018
Source: Rice University
Summary: Engineers have found a catalyst the cleans toxic nitrates from drinking water by converting them into air and water.


Rice University's indium-palladium nanoparticle catalysts clean nitrates from drinking water by converting the toxic molecules into air and water.
Credit: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

The research is available online in the American Chemical Society journal ACS Catalysis.

"Nitrates come mainly from agricultural runoff, which affects farming communities all over the world," said Rice chemical engineer Michael Wong, the lead scientist on the study. "Nitrates are both an environmental problem and health problem because they're toxic. There are ion-exchange filters that can remove them from water, but these need to be flushed every few months to reuse them, and when that happens, the flushed water just returns a concentrated dose of nitrates right back into the water supply."

Wong's lab specializes in developing nanoparticle-based catalysts, submicroscopic bits of metal that speed up chemical reactions. In 2013, his group showed that tiny gold spheres dotted with specks of palladium could break apart nitrites, the more toxic chemical cousins of nitrates.

"Nitrates are molecules that have one nitrogen atom and three oxygen atoms," Wong explained. "Nitrates turn into nitrites if they lose an oxygen, but nitrites are even more toxic than nitrates, so you don't want to stop with nitrites. Moreover, nitrates are the more prevalent problem.

"Ultimately, the best way to remove nitrates is a catalytic process that breaks them completely apart into nitrogen and oxygen, or in our case, nitrogen and water because we add a little hydrogen," he said. "More than 75 percent of Earth's atmosphere is gaseous nitrogen, so we're really turning nitrates into air and water."

Nitrates are toxic to infants and pregnant women and may also be carcinogenic. Nitrate pollution is common in agricultural communities, especially in the U.S. Corn Belt and California's Central Valley, where fertilizers are heavily used, and some studies have shown that nitrate pollution is on the rise due to changing land-use patterns.

Both nitrates and nitrites are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, which sets allowable limits for safe drinking water. In communities with polluted wells and lakes, that typically means pretreating drinking water with ion-exchange resins that trap and remove nitrates and nitrites without destroying them.

From their previous work, Wong's team knew that gold-palladium nanoparticles were not good catalysts for breaking apart nitrates. Co-author Kim Heck, a research scientist in Wong's lab, said a search of published scientific literature turned up another possibility: indium and palladium.

"We were able to optimize that, and we found that covering about 40 percent of a palladium sphere's surface with indium gave us our most active catalyst," Heck said. "It was about 50 percent more efficient than anything else we found in previously published studies. We could have stopped there, but we were really interested in understanding why it was better, and for that we had to explore the chemistry behind this reaction."

In collaboration with chemical engineering colleagues Jeffrey Miller of Purdue University and Lars Grabow of the University of Houston, the Rice team found that the indium speeds up the breakdown of nitrates while the palladium apparently keeps the indium from being permanently oxidized.

"Indium likes to be oxidized," Heck said. "From our in situ studies, we found that exposing the catalysts to solutions containing nitrate caused the indium to become oxidized. But when we added hydrogen-saturated water, the palladium prompted some of that oxygen to bond with the hydrogen and form water, and that resulted in the indium remaining in a reduced state where it's free to break apart more nitrates."

Wong said his team will work with industrial partners and other researchers to turn the process into a commercially viable water-treatment system.

"That's where NEWT comes in," he said. "NEWT is all about taking basic science discoveries and getting them deployed in real-world conditions. This is going to be an example within NEWT where we have the chemistry figured out, and the next step is to create a flow system to show proof of concept that the technology can be used in the field."

NEWT is a multi-institutional engineering research center based at Rice that was established by the National Science Foundation in 2015 to develop compact, mobile, off-grid water-treatment systems that can provide clean water to millions of people and make U.S. energy production more sustainable and cost-effective. NEWT is expected to leverage more than $40 million in federal and industrial support by 2025 and is focused on applications for humanitarian emergency response, rural water systems and wastewater treatment and reuse at remote sites, including both onshore and offshore drilling platforms for oil and gas exploration.

Additional study co-authors include Sujin Guo, Huifeng Qian and Zhun Zhao, all of Rice, and Sashank Kasiraju of the University of Houston. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy and the China Scholarship Council.

Source: Rice University. "One-step catalyst turns nitrates into water and air." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 4 January 2018. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/01/180104160819.htm

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Fish Exposed to Treated Wastewater Have Altered Behavior

Date: December 5, 2017
Source: McMaster University
Summary: Researchers have found that fish living downstream from a wastewater treatment plant showed changes to their normal behavior --- ones that made them vulnerable to predator --- when exposed to elevated levels of antidepressant drugs in the water.



New research points to the ongoing problem of prescription medications, personal care products and other drugs that end up in the watershed and the impact they have on the natural environment.
Credit: Image courtesy of McMaster University



A team of researchers from Environment Canada and Climate Change Canada and McMaster University have found that fish living downstream from a wastewater treatment plant showed changes to their normal behaviour -- ones that made them vulnerable to predators -- when exposed to elevated levels of antidepressant drugs in the water.

The findings, published as a series of three papers in the journal Scientific Reports, point to the ongoing problem of prescription medications, personal care products and other drugs that end up in the watershed and the impact they have on the natural environment.

"Fish can be seen as the canaries in the coal mine," says Sigal Balshine, a professor in the Department of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour at McMaster and one of the authors on the papers. "The fish that make their homes in the receiving waters downstream from wastewater treatment plants absorb these chemicals and therefore can be our water sentinels."

For their research, the team caged gold fish at various sites in Cootes Paradise watershed -- designated as a Great Lakes Area of Concern by an international environmental commission -- and at a control site in Jordan Harbour, which is located between Beamsville and St. Catharine's on the shores of Lake Ontario.

Their analysis found several commonly prescribed antidepressants, known as serotonin uptake/reuptake inhibitors, in the blood plasma of the fish that were caged in the Cootes Paradise Marsh, downstream from the Dundas Waste Water Treatment Plant.

The drugs, say researchers, increased the levels of serotonin in the fish, which in turn affected their swimming behaviour. In short, the fish caged closest to the source of the drugs were bolder, less anxious, were more willing to explore, and more active overall than the fish caged at Jordan Harbour.

Because the affected fish were less anxious, their altered swimming patterns could make them more susceptible to predators. They began moving again faster following a simulated predator attack.

"Taken together, our results suggest the fish downstream of waste water treatment plants are accumulating pharmaceuticals and personal care products at levels sufficient to alter neurotransmitter concentrations and to also impair ecologically-relevant behaviours," says Jim Sherry, a research scientist with Environment Canada and lead author of the study.

Researchers also point to other molecular changes in the fish which point to drug induced injury to the liver and compromised lipid metabolism.

With an abundance of rivers, lakes and oceans, researchers suggest that most Canadians don't appreciate the seriousness and need for safe water reuse.

"Over one billion people on our planet lack access to clean drinking water and a number of serious water borne diseases are caused by improper water treatment," says Balshine. "Water treatment and reuse must be a top priority for municipalities, regions and countries and so understanding the impacts of water treatment on ecosystem function is necessary first step to ensure that we have a sufficient water supply, maintain our biodiversity and protect the health of our ecosystems."

The study was funded by the Great Lakes Action Plan (Phase V) and the Build in Canada Innovation Program.

Source: McMaster University. "Fish exposed to treated wastewater have altered behavior." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 5 December 2017. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/12/171205092134.htm

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Filter May Be a Match for Fracking Water

Superhydrophilic Membrane Cleans Fluids for Reuse

Date: September 25, 2017
Source: Rice University
Summary: A superhydrophilic filter has proven able to remove more than 90 percent of contaminants from water used in hydraulic fracturing operations at shale oil and gas wells.


A superhydrophilic filter produced at Rice University can remove more than 90 percent of contaminants from water used in hydraulic fracturing operations. In this image, 'produced' water from a Marcellus shale fracturing site is at left, the retentate (carbon removed from the feed) is at center, and filtered 'permeate' water is at right. The hydrophilic treatment keeps the filter from fouling and restricting flow while rejecting contaminants.
Credit: Barron Research Group/Rice University

A new filter produced by Rice University scientists has proven able to remove more than 90 percent of hydrocarbons, bacteria and particulates from contaminated water produced by hydraulic fracturing (fracking) operations at shale oil and gas wells.

The work by Rice chemist Andrew Barron and his colleagues turns a ceramic membrane with microscale pores into a superhydrophilic filter that "essentially eliminates" the common problem of fouling.

The researchers determined one pass through the membrane should clean contaminated water enough for reuse at a well, significantly cutting the amount that has to be stored or transported.

The work is reported in Nature's open-access Scientific Reports.

The filters keep emulsified hydrocarbons from passing through the material's ionically charged pores, which are about one-fifth of a micron wide, small enough that other contaminants cannot pass through. The charge attracts a thin layer of water that adheres to the entire surface of the filter to repel globules of oil and other hydrocarbons and keep it from clogging.

A hydraulically fractured well uses more than 5 million gallons of water on average, of which only 10 to 15 percent is recovered during the flowback stage. "This makes it very important to be able to re-use this water," Barron said.

Not every type of filter reliably removes every type of contaminant, he said.

Solubilized hydrocarbon molecules slip right through microfilters designed to remove bacteria. Natural organic matter, like sugars from guar gum used to make fracking fluids more viscous, require ultra- or nanofiltration, but those foul easily, especially from hydrocarbons that emulsify into globules. A multistage filter that could remove all the contaminants isn't practical due to cost and the energy it would consume.

"Frac water and produced waters represent a significant challenge on a technical level," Barron said. "If you use a membrane with pores small enough to separate, they foul, and this renders the membrane useless.

"In our case, the superhydrophilic treatment results in an increased flux (flow) of water through the membrane and inhibits any hydrophobic material -- such as oil -- from passing through. The difference in solubility of the contaminants thus works to allow for separation of molecules that should in theory pass through the membrane."

Barron and his colleagues used cysteic acid to modify the surface of an alumina-based ceramic membrane, making it superhydrophilic, or extremely attracted to water. The superhydrophilic surface has a contact angle of 5 degrees. (A contact angle of 0 degrees would be a puddle.)

The acid covered not only the surface but also the inside of the pores, and that kept particulates from sticking to them and fouling the filter.

In tests with fracking flowback or produced water that contained guar gum, the alumna membrane showed a slow initial decrease in flux -- a measure of the flow of mass through a material -- but it stabilized for the duration of lab tests. Untreated membranes showed a dramatic decrease within 18 hours.

The researchers theorized the initial decrease in flow through the ceramics was due to purging of air from the pores, after which the superhydrophilic pores trapped the thin layer of water that prevented fouling.

"This membrane doesn't foul, so it lasts," Barron said. "It requires lower operating pressures, so you need a smaller pump that consumes less electricity. And that's all better for the environment."

Story Source:
Rice University. "Filter may be a match for fracking water: Superhydrophilic membrane cleans fluids for reuse." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 25 September 2017. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/09/170925104714.htm.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Diverse Landscapes are More Productive and Adapt Better to Climate Change

Date: September 4, 2017
Source: University of Zurich
Summary: Ecosystems with high biodiversity are more productive and stable towards annual fluctuations in environmental conditions than those with a low diversity of species. They also adapt better to climate-driven environmental changes. These are the key findings environmental scientists made in a study of about 450 landscapes harboring 2,200 plants and animal species.

Ecosystems with high biodiversity are more productive and stable towards annual fluctuations in environmental conditions than those with a low diversity of species. They also adapt better to climate-driven environmental changes. These are the key findings environmental scientists at the University of Zurich made in a study of about 450 landscapes harbouring 2,200 plants and animal species.

The dramatic, worldwide loss of biodiversity is one of today's greatest environmental problems. The loss of species diversity affects important ecosystems on which humans depend. Previous research predominantly addressed short-term effects of biodiversity in small experimental plots planted with few randomly selected plant species. These studies have shown that species-poor plant assemblages function less well and produce less biomass than species rich systems.

Extensive Study with About 2,200 Species in 450 Landscapes

Researchers participating in the University Research Priority Programme "Global Change and Biodiversity" of the University of Zurich now demonstrate similar positive effects of biodiversity in real-world ecosystems in which mechanisms different from the ones in artificial experimental plots are at play. Using 450 different 1-km2 landscapes that spanned the entire area of Switzerland, they investigated the role of the diversity of plant, bird and butterfly species for the production of biomass, which was estimated from satellite data.

Biodiversity is Important for the Functioning of Complex, Natural Ecosystems

"Our results show that biodiversity plays an essential role for the functioning of extensive natural landscapes that consist of different ecosystem types such as forests, meadows or urban areas," study leader Pascal Niklaus from Department of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies says. The analyses showed that landscapes with a greater biodiversity were more productive and that their productivity showed a lower year-to-year variation.

Biodiversity Promoted the Adaptation of Landscapes

The satellite data analysed by the scientists revealed that the annual growing period increased in length throughout the last 16 years, an effect that can be explained by climate warming. The prolongation in growing season was considerably larger in more biodiverse landscapes. These relations were robust and remained important even when a range of other drivers such as temperature, rainfall, solar irradiation, topography, of the specific composition of the landscapes were considered. "This indicates that landscapes with high biodiversity can adapt better and faster to changing environmental conditions," Niklaus concludes.

Story Source:
University of Zurich. "Diverse landscapes are more productive and adapt better to climate change." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 4 September 2017. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/09/170904165641.htm