Distilling Diesel from Sugar; Tokelau Islands Go Fully Solar

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Discovered: Brewing renewable fuels from simple sugar; New Zealand-administered islands powered only by the sun; engineers study butterfly textures; sardines dying off in the Caribbean.

Sweet, sweet renewable gas. Israel's first president Chaim Weizman also happened to be a chemist, and he invented a fermentation process nearly 100 years ago to turn starch into explosives. His method hasn't been in use much, until now, with UC Berkeley scientists reviving the process to turn simple sugars into diesel fuel. "What I am really excited about is that this is a fundamentally different way of taking feedstocks—sugar or starch—and making all sorts of renewable things, from fuels to commodity chemicals like plastics," says Berkeley professor and co-author Dean Toste. The researchers' new fuel packs more energy per gallon than much-touted ethanol, and they hope it can be commercialized within five to 10 years. [UC Berkeley]

Tokelau islands powered by the sun alone. With only 1,500 inhabitants who mostly make a living off subsistance farming, the South Pacific island territory Tokelau is a small but significant step toward a completely renewable future. Officials on the New Zealand territory say that they're now able to meet all of the island's electricity needs through the energy captured by an array of solar grids. This is a big change for the island, which previously relied on dirty diesel fuel for all of its energy needs. The switch to solar only cost New Zealand around $7m to fund. "The Tokelau Renewable Energy Project is a world first, says New Zealand foreign affairs minister Murray McCully. "Tokelau's three main atolls now have enough solar capacity, on average, to meet electricity needs." [BBC]

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What the Giant Blue Morpho butterfly can teach green engineers. Rather than trying to outsmart or improve upon designs already found in nature, Ohio State University engineers Bharat Bhushan and Gregory Bixler have turned to butterflies for answers on how to tackle their most vexing problems. For instance, the researchers were able to use electron microscope images of the Giant Blue Morpho (Morpho didius) butterfly's wings to improve the dust resistance of plastic surfaces. With previous, flat models of these plastic surfaces, only 70 percent of dust could be removed. By mimicking the butterfly's wing texture (shown to the right) to improve that figure to 85 percent.  [Ohio State University]

Climate change claims Caribbean sardines. We can chalk up some of the usual culprits in explaining why most of the Caribbean's sardines have disappeared—overfishing is one problematic factor. But at the heart of the matter, climate change is what's causing the decline, according to a team of US and Venezuelan researchers who just published a study in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science on the decline. They found that levels of plankton in the region have been dropping since 2005, thanks to slight changes is climate. Plankton forms the bedrock of the ocean's food chain, and the 87 percent drop-off in plankton levels has trickled all the way up to sardines. "The measurements in Cariaco are performed regularly, at monthly intervals, to see the trend over time for each parameter," says co-author Yrene Astor. "This revealed that water temperature has increased by 1.1 degrees Celsius [since 1996]—a very slight increase, slow but steady." [The Guardian]

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