Science Briefs

The Associated PressApril 26, 2010 

The warmest March since records began

WINSTON-SALEM -- Last month was the warmest March on record worldwide, based on data going back to 1880, scientists reported last week.

The average temperature for the month was 56.3 degrees, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported. That was 1.39 degrees above the March average over the 20th century.

NOAA researchers said the warmer-than-normal conditions were especially notable in northern Africa, South Asia, Tibet, Delhi, India and Canada.

Cooler-than-normal regions included western Alaska and the Southeastern U.S., Mongolia and eastern Russia, northern and western Europe, Mexico and northern Australia.

Contributing to the heat was El Niño, a periodic warming of the tropical Pacific Ocean that has worldwide effects.

Solar cell innovation doubles output

A new solar cell technology developed at Wake Forest University has won a European patent and is moving toward U.S. patent approval.

The technology doubles energy production of flat solar cells at a fraction of the cost.

"This device can make a huge difference," said David Carroll, director of Wake Forest's Center for Nanotechnology and Molecular Materials, where the fiber cell was developed.

The new solar cells are stamped with millions of tiny plastic fibers that can collect sunlight at different angles - even when the sun is rising and setting. Flat-cell technology captures light primarily when the sun is directly above.

Where a flat cell loses energy when the sun's rays bounce off its shiny surface, the fiber-based design creates more surface area to capture the sun's rays, trapping the light in the tiny fiber "cans" where it bounces around until it is absorbed almost completely. Thus it produces more energy - about twice as many kilowatt hours per day as standard flat cells.

"We've been able to show that with a standard absorber we can collect more of the photons than anyone else can," Carroll said. "Because of the way the device works, I get more power."

Patents have been licensed to FiberCell Inc., based in the Piedmont Triad Research Park of Winston-Salem, which is producing its first large test cells.

Green sea slug can make chlorophyll

Scientists have found that a green sea slug can incorporate enough algae parts to live off sunlight, just as a plant does.

The green sea slug makes its own chlorophyll, a green pigment that fuels the chloroplasts where photosynthesis occurs.

Once it incorporates algae genes into its system, the slug, which lives in the salt marshes of New England and Canada, passes these genes on to its offspring.

Upon hatching, the babies need just one ingredient to make the whole system work: chloroplasts. All a young slug needs is a meal of algae.

Once the chloroplasts are in the green sea slug's system, the slug is capable of making its own food out of light. It might never have to forage for algae again, said Sidney Pierce, a biology professor at the University of South Florida who presented the findings.

The slugs' success at grabbing genes from another species - and incorporating them biologically - could help unlock advances in genetic technology, Pierce said.

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