Science Briefs

May 26, 2013 

Duke’s better recipe for clean hydrogen

Duke University engineers have developed a novel method for producing clean hydrogen, which could help wean society off of fossil fuels and their environmental implications. Their study appears in the Journal of Catalysis.

Hydrogen is ubiquitous in the environment, but producing and collecting molecular hydrogen for transportation and industrial uses is expensive and complicated. Also, a byproduct of most current methods of producing hydrogen is carbon monoxide, which is toxic to humans and animals.

The Duke engineers used a new catalytic approach to reduce carbon monoxide levels to nearly zero in the presence of hydrogen and the harmless byproducts of carbon dioxide and water. They also demonstrated they could produce hydrogen by reforming fuel at much lower temperatures than conventional methods, which makes it a more practical option.

Catalysts are agents added to promote chemical reactions. Current methods depend on gold nanoparticles’ ability to drive the process as the sole catalyst. The Duke researchers made both iron oxide (rust) and the gold the focus of the catalytic process.

Titilayo Shodiya, a graduate student at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering, is the paper’s first author. Duke University

What Chinese farmers ate before rice came along

Archaeological thinking has held that the advent of rice cultivation along the Lower Yangtze River is what marked the beginning of agriculture in southern China. But a discovery in southern subtropical China uncovered evidence that people living there 5,000 years ago – before domesticated rice arrived there – may have practiced agriculture.

A new method of starch analysis on ancient grinding stones is behind the finding, according to Hew Barton of Britain’s University of Leicester. The project was done in collaboration with the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

“The survival of organic material is really dependent on the particular chemical properties of the soil, so you never know what you will get until you sample,” Barton said. “At Xincun we really hit the jackpot. ... While some of the starch granules were species we might expect to find on grinding and pounding stones – i.e., some seeds and tuberous plants such as freshwater chestnuts, lotus root and the fern root – the addition of starch from palms was totally unexpected.”

Several types of tropical palms store prodigious quantities of starch that can be bashed and washed out of the trunk pith, dried as flour, and eaten. It is not particularly tasty, but is nontoxic, reliable and can be processed year-round.

The research is published in PLoS ONE.

Swine flu detected in elephant seals

Researchers at the University of California at Davis have discovered swine flu in California elephant seals, but the marine mammals don’t exhibit any large runny noses.

The scientists tested nasal swabs from more than 900 marine mammals from 10 different species between 2009 and 2011 and detected the H1N1 virus in free-ranging northern elephant seals off the Central California coast.

H1N1 started in pigs and emerged in people in 2009, spreading into a worldwide pandemic. The World Health Organization now considers it a seasonal virus and under control. Sacramento Bee

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