Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Avian enthusiasts brave rain for annual bird count

Ed Vine's tan baseball cap reads: "Life is Simple. Eat. Sleep. Bird." But on Sunday, that wasn't the clearest sign of the Berkeley resident's enthusiasm for the unconventional hobby of birding. It was the fact that - despite the wind and rain and cold, and even with flooded, muddy trails that threatened to swallow boots whole - he got out at the crack of dawn to take part in the East Bay's annual Christmas Bird Count. "We tend to say 'wow' a lot," admitted Vine, 60, a researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, after a chorus of appreciation was offered up for a great blue heron that lived up to its name. More>

One of the World's Biggest Telescopes Is Buried Beneath the South Pole

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin are putting the finishing touches on a giant underground telescope buried beneath the South Pole to help understand said phenomena. Accordingly called the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, completion is expected to occur at 8 p.m. CST, once the last of more than 5,000 optical sensors is buried as much as two miles below the permanent ice cap covering Antarctica. The sensors are buried across one cubic kilometer of Antarctica's frozen tundra; weight-wise, that's a gigaton of ice. Just what exactly will this telescope observe? Tiny subatomic particles called neutrinos: They’re like a neutron, in that they hold no charge, but they’re the size of an electron. Neutrinos are important because they’re the byproduct of nuclear reactions, meaning if you retrace them to their origins, you could happen upon some interesting things. Berkeley Lab scientists and engineers including Bob Stokstad and Spencer Klein of the Nuclear Science Division, Dave Nygren and Jerry Przybylski of the Physics Division, and many others played a key role in proposing, designing, and testing the key components that made IceCube possible. More>

Scientists Take Plasmon Lasers Out of Deep Freeze

Researchers at UC Berkeley have developed a new technique that allows plasmon lasers to operate at room temperature, overcoming a major barrier to practical utilization of the technology. The achievement, described Dec. 19 in an advanced online publication of the journal Nature Materials, is a "major step towards applications" for plasmon lasers, said the research team's principal investigator Xiang Zhang, faculty scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. More>

Friday, December 17, 2010

Mutation-prediction software rewarded

A computer program that predicts the effects of gene mutations has earned its author a doctorate, a stack of journal publications — and now a dancing wind-up toy named Molly. Yana Bromberg, a bioinformatician at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, won the toy for her program, SNAP, in an experimental contest that culminated on 10 December in Berkeley, California. The competition, called the Critical Assessment of Genome Interpretation (CAGI), asks researchers to predict the biological effects of different mutations, and compares their results against unpublished experimental data. The contest was conceived by Berkeley Lab physical bioscientist Steven Brenner, and John Moult, a computational biologist at the University of Maryland in Rockville. Their goal is to accelerate the development of software that can quickly interpret large amounts of genetic data — for example, the whole genome sequence of a tumour from a biopsy. More>

Solar industry sees strong growth in 2010

The Solar Energy Industries Assn., a trade group, said Thursday that commercial solar customers in the U.S. reached 103 megawatts of capacity in the third quarter, a 38% jump from the same period in 2009. Overall, more than 27,000 homes and businesses set up solar-power systems. Already in the U.S., the average cost of photovoltaics has fallen 30% to $7.50 a watt in 2009 from $10.80 in 1998, according to a report from the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. More>

When smokers move out, carcinogens remain

Thirdhand smoke hasn’t yet made its way into the Surgeon General’s warnings, but researchers are focusing on the issue, particularly something called tobacco-specific nitrosamines. As nicotine lingers in an indoor environment, it oxidizes into carcinogenic nitrosamines. That chemical reaction was documented in a laboratory setting by researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley and the findings published earlier this year. The paper, titled “Formation of carcinogens indoors by surface-mediated reactions of nicotine with nitrous acid, leading to potential third-hand smoke hazards,” appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. More>

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Home solar costs falling with industry scale

A Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory study finds that the price of installing residential solar photovoltaic systems has fallen due to cheaper solar panels and improved industry efficiency. The study (PDF) published today finds that system installation costs fell 30 percent from 1998 to 2009. The data, representing 70 percent of grid-tied solar electric installations across the U.S., also noted that "dramatic" cost reductions have been seen in 2010. More>

Top 100 Stories of 2010 #85: Robot Skin Can Feel Your Touch

Artificial organs keep us alive, artificial arms build our cars—and soon artificial skin may allow robots or prosthetics to respond to our every touch. This past year, two independent groups made notable advances in that direction. Berkeley Lab's Ali Javey attached a grid of nanowire transistors to a polyimide film placed atop a layer of rubber. The resulting electronic skin recognizes pokes and prods as changes in electric resistance. Meanwhile, at Stanford University, materials scientist Zhenan Bao and collaborators cut pyramid-shaped holes in an elastic polymer to produce variations in capacitance, the ability to hold an electric charge. In tests, the material could “feel” objects as light as a butterfly. More>

'Synthetic biology' holds promise, but vigilance needed

Far more promise than peril lurks in "synthetic biology," the emerging technology of man-made life, a presidential panel reports today. Aimed at providing humanity with cheaper drugs, fuel and food, the technology also carries with it fears of bioengineered super-plagues should one of these new life forms escape from the lab. In May, President Obama called for the panel report after researchers reported in the journal Science that they had inserted a man-made genetic blueprint into a bacteria, which then reproduced with the new genes. "It is vital that we as a society consider, in a thoughtful manner, the significance of this kind of scientific development," Obama wrote, requesting the report. Major players in the field such as human genome pioneer Craig Venter, who headed the team behind the May study, have suggested that man-made microbes might someday produce synthetic gasoline. Others, such as Berkeley Lab's Jay Keasling, have led efforts to create microbes that make malaria drugs. More>

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

DOE Installs Cool Roof, Saves Taxpayers $2,000 in Energy Costs

Secretary of Energy Steven Chu today announced the completion of a new 25,000-square-foot cool roof on the Department of Energy's headquarters west building in Washington, DC. The design added no extra cost to the roof replacement project, and is projected to save taxpayers an annual $2,000 in energy costs. Researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab estimate that if just over three quarters of our nation's commercial buildings were retrofitted with cool roofs, the U.S. would save enough energy on air-conditioning to reduce CO2 emissions by about 6 million metric tons each year. That's like taking more than a million cars off the road. More>

Does China Face a ‘Peak Coal’ Threat?

China’s ravenous appetite for energy puts the country at risk of reaching a point of “peak coal,” when demand for coal will outstrip domestic production capacity, a growing number of experts believe. China now consumes approximately 47 percent of coal produced globally but by most estimates has just 14 percent of global coal reserves. Meanwhile, demand has risen by about 10 percent per year for the last decade, putting the country on an “unsustainable” path, according to a recent report by C.L.S.A. Asia-Pacific Markets, a Hong Kong-based brokerage firm. Coal might be abundant globally, but if China cannot substantially raise its domestic production, increasing imports enough to meet demand may be hard to accomplish in the short-term, putting the country in a potential supply bind. “I think China is the vulnerable player here — they don’t really have a lot of options,” said David Fridley, a staff scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and deputy leader of the laboratory’s China Energy Group. More>

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A future with cheap coal should be reassessed

In a recent article in Nature, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory scientist David Fridley argues that coal prices around the world will likely soar in coming years, due partly to explosive demand from China, and that energy policies relying on the conventional wisdom of plentiful cheap coal need to be reconsidered. Published as a comment titled “The End of Cheap Coal” in an issue of Nature, Fridley and co-author Richard Heinberg say that world coal reserves are far less abundant than has been assumed, referencing a series of recent studies that suggest that the peak of world coal production could be only years away. More>

Tiny channels carry big information

They say it's the little things that count, and that certainly holds true for the channels in transmembrane proteins, which are small enough to allow ions or molecules of a certain size to pass through, while keeping out larger objects. Artificial fluidic nanochannels that mimic the capabilities of transmembrane proteins are highly prized for a number of advanced technologies. However, it has been difficult to make individual artificial channels of this size – until now. Researchers with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)'s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have been able to fabricate nanochannels that are only two nanometers (2-nm) in size, using standard semiconductor manufacturing processes. Already they've used these nanochannels to discover that fluid mechanics for passages this small are significantly different not only from bulk-sized channels, but even from channels that are merely 10 nanometers in size. More>

Friday, December 10, 2010

Dark Matter Rush: Physics Gives Gold Mine New Life

LEAD, South Dakota — The gold rush glow has long faded from South Dakota, but a different kind of precious material is drawing crowds to the Black Hills. An old mine that produced billions of dollars in gold may be North America's best shot at finding dark matter. ... The National Science Foundation selected the Sanford Underground Laboratory at Homestake as the site of the new Deep Underground Science and Engineering Lab (DUSEL) in 2007, and physicists have already started moving in. Wired.com visited the mine-turned-lab to see the first glimmers of the dark matter rush. More>

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A Science Experiment in South Pole Ice Searches For Clues About Dark Matter

Every December since 2004, engineers have flown to the South Pole to drill 8,000-foot-deep holes in the ice. The team lowers cables, each strung with 60 disco-ball-size light sensors, into the holes and let them freeze over. So far they have completed 79 such holes, set in a grid half a mile on each side, and plan to drill the final seven this month. The result will be the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, a cube of ice packed with 5,320 sensors looking for cosmic particles. More>

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Richmond wants to attract Berkeley lab campus

Richmond wants to become home to the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory's second campus, a project that could bring jobs, revenue and economic resurgence. City leaders are lining up local support and plan to answer the lab's call for interested parties to submit their qualifications and prove why they would be an ideal location. Other cities trying to woo the lab include Alameda, which sees its naval air station as an ideal location. More>

Cancers imaged and monitored using firefly glow

US scientists have developed a new glowing probe that can signal the presence of hydrogen peroxide in the body, an indicator of tumours or disease. The advance could allow the progression of tumours to be tracked in living animals. Hydrogen peroxide is widely used in the body for signalling pathways, but is also given off by many cancers. Christopher Chang of Berkeley Lab's Chemical Sciences Division has been working on molecules that indicate the presence of hydrogen peroxide for a few years, and have looked to nature to improve their previous work by taking inspiration from fireflies. More>