Science delivers vault for clean energy

Published in Horizon, 5 Oct 2015

The biggest challenge in making renewable energy viable for the mass market is finding ways to store energy when the skies are dim and the wind doesn’t blow, and that problem may be solved sooner than you think.

Unless energy can be squirrelled away at times of plenty to be unearthed at times of scarcity, clean technologies like solar and wind power will always need significant amounts of backup from conventional sources.

That’s a big issue, not least because the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive requires Member States to fulfil at least 20 % of their renewable energy needs by 2020, and it’s one of the main challenges in making renewable energy viable for the mass market. […]

The rest of this article is available here.

Muons: the other beamline

Published in Physics World, 1 Oct 2015

For 70 years scientists have been turning to neutrons to investigate a wide range of materials. In many ways neutrons are the ideal probes, having a wavelength that enables them to scatter off atoms, and a zero charge that allows them to penetrate materials deeply without being diverted by electrons or atomic nuclei. With all the success of neutron scattering in physics, chemistry and biology, it is hardly surprising that, the world over, there are in the region of 20 neutron sources currently in operation.

Yet the prevalence of neutron sources can sometimes obscure the success in materials science of another subatomic particle: the muon. Unlike neutrons, muons do not scatter off materials when they travel through them, and so they do not provide much information about atomic structure. Instead, muons behave as incredibly sensitive magnetic and electric probes, fit to explore the phenomena behind all sorts of applications such as computer storage, batteries, high-temperature superconductivity and semiconductors. […]

To read the rest of this article, please contact Jon Cartwright for a pdf.

Study claims US faculty are likelier to hire women

Published in Physics World, 1 June 2015

A study has found that US faculty members are twice as likely to hire female over male tenure-track applicants in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). The study, carried out by psychologists Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, does not specifically address physics and has divided opinion about so-called positive discrimina- tion, or affirmative action.

The authors invented three candidates: one well-qualified woman, one well-qualified man and one less-qualified man. They presented the candidates on paper – including fictitious CVs, letters of recommendation and interview scores – to more than 870 faculty members in biology, engineering, economics and psychology. To mask the fact that two of the fictitious candidates were identical aside from their sex, the researchers mixed up their descriptions. For instance, sometimes they described the female candidate as an “analytic powerhouse” and her male counterpart as “socially skilled and creative”, and sometimes the other way round. […]

To read the rest of this article, please contact Jon Cartwright for a pdf.

Graphene band gap heralds new electronics

Published in Chemistry World, 29 Sep 2015

Scientists in the US and France have produced graphene with a record high band gap of half an electronvolt (0.5 eV), which they claim is sufficient to produce useful graphene transistors. The band gap owes itself to highly periodic bonding on a silicon carbide substrate.

Graphene, a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb-shaped lattice, exhibits a range of superlative properties. Since it was discovered in 2003, it has been found to have exceptional strength, thermal conductivity and electric conductivity. The last property makes the material ideal for the tiny contacts in electronic circuits, but ideally it would also make up the components – particularly transistors – themselves. […]

The rest of this article is available here.

Inhaled nanoparticles target lung cancer

Published in MPW, 23 Sep 2015

Nanoparticles inhaled, rather than injected, into the body are much more effective at boosting radiotherapy. That is the conclusion of a group of US scientists, who have performed calculations to gauge the difference between the two nanoparticle entry routes when treating lung cancer (Phys. Med. Biol. 60 7035).

Lung cancer has a particularly high mortality rate compared with other cancers, with five-year survival rates of only about 16%. It is often treated in a two-pronged attack of radiotherapy and chemoradiotherapy, but these can lead to severe side effects. […]

The rest of this article is available here.

Societal choices affect carbon dioxide budgets

Published in ERW, 23 Sep 2015

An international group of scientists has shown that the energy choices we make as a society – such as whether or not we choose to invest in low carbon technologies like nuclear energy, bioenergy and carbon capture – affect the amount of carbon dioxide we can release into the atmosphere before triggering dangerous climate change.

Joeri Rogelj of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Austria, and colleagues have found that, generally, the shunning of any technologies that attempt to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, such as carbon capture, could actually boost carbon budgets by as much as 10% until 2100. […]

The rest of this article is available here.

Europe’s power grids readied against cyber attack

Published in Horizon, 18 Sep 2015

Alternative transmission lines and encryption protocols could steel Europe’s power grids against a cyber attack – the big question is where to deploy them.

Little has changed in power grids since the first national ones were established in the 1930s. But now scientists, engineers and other experts are rethinking European networks.

The vulnerability of power grids to hackers was demonstrated in 2010, when a computer worm known as Stuxnet derailed nuclear centrifuges in Iran. The worm – which is thought to have been developed by an advanced nation state – was the first known cyber attack on physical infrastructure. […]

The rest of this article is available here.

Many US cities warmer than surroundings

Published in ERW, 16 Sep 2015

A large-scale study of how urban areas affect the climate has revealed that US cities are, on average, nearly 2°C warmer than their surroundings in the summer. In cities built within forests, such as Washington DC and Atlanta, mean daytime land surface temperatures were up to 3.3°C warmer than their environs, the researchers found, whilst those built on arid lands, such as Phoenix, were about 2.2°C cooler.

“Urbanization has an uneven impact on surface climate,” said Lahouari Bounoua of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, US. “It’s small in area but its effects are permanent [on] the surface temperature, the surface water partitioning and the carbon sequestration … I think we could achieve an optimal balance between [these effects] if we consider the balance of the fractions of impervious surface area versus vegetation, and more importantly the type of vegetation.” […]

The rest of this article is available here.

‘Weather penalty’ pollution led to 20,000 US deaths in last 20 years

Published in ERW, 14 Sep 2015

Excess pollution arising from weather changes over the past two decades has led to more than 20,000 deaths in the US, according to researchers. Their result, from a study exploring the effect of weather conditions on ozone and fine particulate matter, suggests that pollution-related deaths will continue to rise in the future.

Every year in the US, there are thousands of deaths thought to result from ozone and more than 100,000 deaths linked to fine particulate matter. The presence of these pollutants in the atmosphere is affected by factors like temperature, wind speeds, water vapour pressure and precipitation. Scientists predict that, with temperatures rising and air currents becoming more stagnant in the US, the amount of ozone and particulate matter will rise. […]

The rest of this article is available here.

Why scientists are making human cells emit laser beams

Published in Horizon, 10 Sep 2015

Scientists have been able to engineer human cells to emit a unique laser ‘barcode’, a breakthrough that could help to track the spread of cancer cells throughout the body.

The short history of cell lasers goes back to 2011, when physicists Dr Malte Gather and Professor Seok-Hyun Yun of Harvard Medical School, US, engineered human cells to make them express a fluorescent protein, and placed them between a pair of tiny mirrors.

When the scientists pumped the cells with a blue laser, the cells re-emitted the light as green. This light reflected back and forth between the mirrors to form a coherent beam, just like a normal laser. […]

The rest of this article is available here.