A Fascinating Plot Twist As Researchers Recreate Classic “Primordial Soup” Experiment

Science is built on reproducibility; if someone else can replicate your results, chances are pretty good that you’re looking at the truth. And there’s no statute of limitations on reproducibility; even experiments from 70 years ago are fair game for a fresh look. A great example is this recent reboot of the 1952 Miller-Urey “primordial soup” experiment which ended up with some fascinating results.

At the heart of the Miller-Urey experiment was a classic chicken-and-the-egg paradox: complex organic molecules like amino acids and nucleic acids are the necessary building blocks of life, but how did they arise on Earth before there was life? To answer that, Stanley Miller, who in 1952 was a graduate student of Harold Urey,  devised an experiment to see if complex molecules could be formed from simpler substances under conditions assumed to have been present early in the planet’s life. Miller assembled a complicated glass apparatus, filled it with water vapor and gasses such as ammonia, hydrogen, and methane, and zapped it with an electric arc to simulate lightning. He found that a rich broth of amino acids accumulated in the reaction vessel; when analyzed, the sludge was found to contain five of the 20 amino acids.

The Miller-Urey experiment has been repeated over and over again with similar results, but a recent reboot took a different tack and looked at how the laboratory apparatus itself may have influenced the results. Joaquin Criado-Reyes and colleagues found that when run in a Teflon flask, the experiment produced far fewer organic compounds. Interestingly, adding chips of borosilicate glass to the Teflon reaction chamber restored the richness of the resulting broth, suggesting that the silicates in the glassware may have played a catalytic role in creating the organic soup. They also hypothesize that the highly alkaline reaction conditions could create microscopic pits in the walls of the glassware, which would serve as reaction centers to speed up the formation of organics.

This is a great example of a finding that seems to knock a hole in a theory but actually ends up supporting it. On the face of it, one could argue that Miller and Urey were wrong since they only produced organics thanks to contamination from their glassware. And it appears to be true that silicates are necessary for the abiotic generation of organic molecules. But if there was one thing that the early Earth was rich in, it was silicates, in the form of clay, silt, sand, rocks, and dust. So this experiment lends support to the abiotic origin of organic molecules on Earth, and perhaps on other rocky worlds as well.

[Featured image credit: Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS, via Science History Institute]

Researchers monitor calves as they use the MooLoo, a special pen for urination.

Toilet-Training Cows Is No Bull

Human activity may be the main cause of climate change, but all these cows milling and mooing about don’t help, either. Everyone knows that cows produce methane-laden flatulence, but there’s another problem — their urine contains ammonia. The nitrogen leeches into the soil and turns into nitrous oxide, which is no laughing matter. So what’s the answer, giant diapers? No, just train them to use a toilet instead of the soil-let.

A pair of researchers from the University of Auckland traveled to a research institute’s farm in Germany with the hope of training a group of 16 calves to do their business in a special pen. The “MooLoo” is painted bright green and carpeted with artificial turf so it’s less weird for the cows. First they left the calves in the pen until they peed, and then gave it a reward of sugar water. From there, they started extended the animals’ distance from the MooLoo. Whenever the calves thought outside the box, they would be sprayed with water for three seconds. The results are kind of surprising: within an average of 15-20 urination sessions, 11 of the 16 cows had been trained successfully and were using the MooLoo 75% of the time. Watch a calf earn some sugar water after the break.

German cows mostly live in barns, but millions of other cows spend much of their time outside. So, how would that work? The researchers believe that cows could be trained to go when they gather for milking time. Makes sense to us, but how do you train cows on a large scale? Maybe with bovine VR?

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Swamp Gas Will Get You Home

The energy to power a motorcycle has to come from somewhere, be it a power station, a solar panel, a gas station, or a hydrogen plant. There have been many ways to reduce the cost of extracting that energy over the years, but we think [Gijs Schalkx] may have hit upon one of the cheapest and simplest we’ve ever seen. It may not be free gas, but it is free swamp gas! His Uitsloot (we think that’s Dutch for “From the ditch”) motorcycle gets its power from methane generated in the sediment at the bottom of the Netherlands’ many waterways.

At its heart is a venerable Honda Cub moped, we’re guessing of the 50 cc version. On its pillion is a large clear container, inside of which is a balloon filled with gas. He doesn’t go into details in the video below the break, but we’re guessing he’s injecting the gas into the Honda’s airbox from which the engine can suck the gas/air mixture. We like his gas collector, a large inner tube with a collector funnel in its centre that floats on the water. He dons some waders and pokes the sediment with a long stick to release bubbles of methane. He then uses a long hose and a bicycle pump to inflate the balloon with the collected gas. We see him zipping around the streets of Arnhem under this unconventional power, though sadly we don’t see how far a full balloon will take him.

There’s a discussion to be had as to the environmental credentials of this project, but we think given that the naturally generated methane which would find its way into the atmosphere eventually has a greater effect on the climate than the CO2 produced by the engine, he may be onto a winner. It is however not a system that would scale to more than a few drivers poking at bogs with a stick.

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Hackaday Links: April 11, 2021

Bad news, Martian helicopter fans: Ingenuity, the autonomous helicopter that Perseverance birthed onto the Martian surface a few days ago, will not be taking the first powered, controlled flight on another planet today as planned. We’re working on a full story so we’ll leave the gory details for that, but the short version is that while the helicopter was undergoing a full-speed rotor test, a watchdog timer monitoring the transition between pre-flight and flight modes in the controller tripped. The Ingenuity operations team is going over the full telemetry and will reschedule the rotor test; as a result, the first flight will occur no earlier than Wednesday, April 14. We’ll be sure to keep you posted.

Anyone who has ever been near a refinery or even a sewage treatment plant will have no doubt spotted flares of waste gas being burned off. It can be pretty spectacular, like an Olympic torch, but it also always struck us as spectacularly wasteful. Aside from the emissions, it always seemed like you could at least try to harness some of the energy in the waste gasses. But apparently the numbers just never work out in favor of tapping this source of energy, or at least that was the case until the proper buzzword concentration in the effluent was reached. With the soaring value of Bitcoin, and the fact that the network now consumes something like 80-TWh a year, building portable mining rigs into shipping containers that can be plugged into gas flaring stacks at refineries is now being looked at seriously. While we like the idea of not wasting a resource, we have our doubts about this; if it’s not profitable to tap into the waste gas stream to produce electricity now, what does tapping it to directly mine Bitcoin really add to the equation?

What would you do if you discovered that your new clothes dryer was responsible for a gigabyte or more of traffic on your internet connection every day? We suppose in this IoT world, such things are to be expected, but a gig a day seems overly chatty for a dryer. The user who reported this over on the r/smarthome subreddit blocked the dryer at the router, which was probably about the only realistic option short of taking a Dremel to the WiFi section of the dryer’s control board. The owner is in contact with manufacturer LG to see if this perhaps represents an error condition; we’d actually love to see a Wireshark dump of the data to see what the garrulous appliance is on about.

As often happens in our wanderings of the interwebz to find the very freshest of hacks for you, we fell down yet another rabbit hole that we thought we’d share. It’s not exactly a secret that there’s a large number of “Star Trek” fans in this community, and that for some of us, the way the various manifestations of the series brought the science and technology of space travel to life kick-started our hardware hacking lives. So when we found this article about a company building replica Tricorders from the original series, we followed along with great interest. What we found fascinating was not so much the potential to buy an exact replica of the TOS Tricorder — although that’s pretty cool — but the deep dive into how they captured data from one of the few remaining screen-used props, as well as how the Tricorder came to be.

And finally, what do you do if you have 3,281 drones lying around? Obviously, you create a light show to advertise the launch of a luxury car brand in China. At least that’s what Genesis, the luxury brand of carmaker Hyundai, did last week. The display, which looks like it consisted mostly of the brand’s logo whizzing about over a cityscape, is pretty impressive, and apparently set the world record for such things, beating out the previous attempt of 3,051 UAVs. Of course, all the coverage we can find on these displays concentrates on the eye-candy and the blaring horns of the soundtrack and gives short shrift to the technical aspects, which would really be interesting to dive into. How are these drones networked? How do they deal with latency? Are they just creating a volumetric display with the drones and turning lights on and off, or are they actually moving drones around to animate the displays? If anyone knows how these things work, we’d love to learn more, and perhaps even do a feature article.

Tipping Points In The Climate System: The Worst Kind Of Positive Feedback

With global temperatures continuing to break records in recent years, it’s important to cast an eye towards the future. While efforts to reduce emissions remain in a political quagmire, time is running out to arrest the slide into catastrophe.

Further compounding the issue are a variety of positive feedback loops that promise to further compound the problem. In these cases, initial warming has flow-on effects that then serve to further increase global temperatures. Avoiding these feedback mechanisms is crucial if the Earth is to remain comfortably livable out to the end of the century.

A Multitude of Causes

The issue of climate change often appears as a simple one, with the goal being to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to prevent negative consequences for human civilization. Despite this, the effects of climate change are often diffuse and intermingled. The various climate systems of the Earth interact in incredibly complex ways, and there are many mechanisms at play in these feedback effects that could tip things over the edge.

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The Worst Greenhouse Gasses You Haven’t Heard Of

Carbon dioxide has long drawn the ire of an environmentally-conscious humanity. Released from combustion of fossil fuels, levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are higher now than at any point in the past 400,000 years. With the warming effects this has on the global environment, bringing these numbers down is a primary goal of scientists and policy makers worldwide.

However, this only tells part of the story. Carbon dioxide is not alone in its role as a greenhouse gas, with many others contributing significantly to global temperature rises. As humanity struggles to keep warming below 2 degrees C over the century, strategies will be needed to tackle the problem on all fronts.

There’s A Bad Smell Around Methane

Ruminant animals are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, which is probably no surprise to some.
Source: Peter van der Sluijs, CC-BA-SA-2.0

Methane is a remarkably potent greenhouse gas, having 28 times the warming potential of CO2 by weight over a 100-year period. Historically, it’s mostly been released from natural sources, like bacteria processing organic material in stagnant watercourses, or from thawing permafrost. However, scientists now consider around 60% of methane in the atmosphere to be a direct result of human activity.

Agriculture is a major contributor in this area. Ruminant animals raised for human consumption are major methane emitters, as the microbes in their digestive systems release the gas when breaking down plant material. With the demand for meat and dairy showing no signs of slowing down, this could prove difficult to tackle. There are a variety of other diffuse sources of the gas, too. Landfills and sewage plants have significant methane emissions of their own, and it’s also often released from oil and gas drilling operations, too.

Oil and gas operations release significant quantities of methane into the atmosphere, often due to leaks or plant malfunctions. Credit: Hugh Chevallier, CC:BA:SA-2.0

Levels of methane in the atmosphere have been low compared to carbon dioxide. Methane also tends to have a short life in the atmosphere, of around 9 years. These factors have meant that methane has historically been of lower concern to environmental organisations. However, after levels plateaued from the 1990s to the mid-2000s, they have once again begun to climb precipitously. Scientists have yet to identify the cause of this rise, and it has the potential to undo hard-fought gains in the fight against global warming on the CO2 front. Theories range from a reduced level of chemicals that break down methane in the atmosphere, to increased livestock production or the rise of the hydraulic fracturing industry.

Whatever the cause of the recent rise, stemming the increase will require significant work. The Environmental Defence Fund is launching MethaneSAT in an attempt to better locate and quantify releases to the atmosphere, aiming to stem easily-fixed leaks in fossil fuel operations. Other ideas include using antibiotics to reduce animal’s methane output, or to capture the emissions from landfills and use them as an energy source. It’s likely a rigorous approach to both monitoring and emissions reduction will be required to keep methane levels in check.

Nitrous Oxide

Nitrous oxide isn’t just the favorite gas of the Fast and the Furious. It’s also a potent greenhouse gas, with 300 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide, pound for pound. With plenty of staying power, it sticks around in the atmosphere for 114 years on average. With 40 percent of NOx emissions coming from human activity, it’s a significant player as far as greenhouse gases go.

Fertilizer use in agriculture is the major contributor to nitrous oxide releases into the atmosphere. As farms push for ever-greater yields, there has been a corresponding increase in the use of nitrogen-containing fertilizers. Other lesser sources include fossil fuel combustion and various chemical production processes.

Reducing nitrous oxide emissions to any major degree is a difficult problem. Reducing farm yields is impractical if we wish to continue feeding as many people as possible. Increasing the efficiency of fertiliizer application is instead a more viable way to go. By applying fertilizers in the right way, in the right quantities at the right time, has the benefit of both reducing nitrous oxide emissions as well as cutting costs for farming operations. Other gains in this space can be made by reducing fossil fuel use by switching to renewable energy production, or cleaner burning technologies. The famous catalytic converter, introduced to gasoline-powered vehicles in the 1970s, plays a major role in reducing these emissions, and urea injection does much the same for diesel engines, which we’ve talked about before.

Sulfur Hexa-what now?

Sulfur hexafluoride is used heavily in high-voltage switchgear, as seen here in this hydroelectric installation. This circuit breaker is rated to run at 115 kV, 1200 A. Credit: Wtshymanski, public domain 

Recently, sulfur hexafluoride has come under scrutiny. Also known by its chemical formula, SF6, it’s a highly potent greenhouse gas, with a warming potential of over 23,000 times that of CO2. Prized for its performance as a gaseous dielectric medium, it’s used heavily in high-voltage circuit breakers in modern electricity grids. It enables the construction of much more compact switchgear, while remaining safe and reliable in operation.

Concentrations of SFhave begun to tick up in recent times, raising alarm bells. Speculation is that this is down to leaks of the gas from electrical equipment. As the world’s energy mix changes, grids have come to rely on more distributed generation, from sources like wind farms and solar. This mode of generation necessitates many more connections to the grid, which means more switchgear, and thus more SF6 out in the wild.

This graph shows the lifetime equivalent emissions of AirPlus versus SF6 technology. There are major gains to be had, thanks to the low global warming potential of AirPlus. Credit: 3M/ABB

Work is afoot to slow this trend before things get out of hand. A replacement has been developed in a collaboration between ABB and 3M, by the name of AirPlus. While the production process releases more CO2, over the lifecycle of an installation, AirPlus-based switchgear should have far lower impact on warming. This is due to the fact that when released into the atmosphere, AirPlus degrades under UV light exposure in just 15 days, versus 3200 years for SF6. Its global warming potential is less than 1, meaning it has less of a warming effect than even CO2, while delivering comparable dielectric performance to SF6. Variants are available for both medium and high voltage applications.

Over time, as goverments work to reduce the prevalance of SFin new installations, its likely that we’ll see AirPlus and other alternatives gain steam. The gas has already been banned in the EU for all non-electrical purposes, since 2014. Industry is typically slow to act unless there’s a strong business case, so government intervention is likely to be the game changer that pushes adoption of newer, cleaner technology in this space.

Other Fluorinated Gases

SF6 is just one of a series of fluorinated gases that have significant global warming potential. Many of these were introduced as replacements for chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which tend to eat a hole in the ozone layer. Thankfully, that problem was largely solved when production of CFCs was tailed off in 1996, but their replacements can still cause further troubles.

With lifetimes in the hundreds to thousands of years in the upper atmosphere, gases like hydrofluorocarbons and perfluorocarbons have an outsized effect on atmospheric warming, thousands of times that of CO2 on a per-molecule basis. They have applications as aerosol propellants, solvents, and fire retardants, but their primary use is as refrigerants in cooling systems. HFC-134a is the most well-known, used widely in air conditioning systems worldwide, and particularly in motor vehicles. This has led to its position as the most abundant HFC in the atmosphere.

Efforts are in place to limit the impact of these chemicals, through precautionary measures. This involves taking more care during the repair and disposal of HVAC systems, as well as designing systems to be more resilient of leaks in the first place. Recycling methods are also beneficial to ensure that where possible, these gases are captured rather then simply vented to the atmosphere. Enforcement on a broad scale remains a challenge.

Automakers are already planning to switch air conditioning systems to use gases that have less global warming potential.
Source: Mercedes Benz

Sometimes, it’s better to avoid the problem entirely. A transition away from using refrigerants like HFC-134a is in progress. The EPA has legislated that all light vehicles manufactured or sold in the USA by model year 2021 must no longer use HFC-134a. Instead, alternatives like HFO-1234yf, HFC-152a, and R-744 will be legal. The first two are mildly flammable, while the latter is simply another name for good old CO2. These refrigerants will require different technology to existing air conditioners. CO2-based systems in particular needing to operate at up to 10 times the pressure of traditional systems. However, progress in technology should allow these gases to take over, reducing the impact these refrigeration gases have on global warming.

The Fight Continues

CO2 is still the primary greenhouse gas, but it’s not the whole story. We’ve looked at a wide variety of chemicals, each with their own important roles and impact on the Earth’s atmosphere. This highlights the fact that there’s no single panacea to heading off global warming; instead, a broad spectrum approach across all aspects of human endeavour is required.

Halting the impacts of these chemicals is difficult, and will require decisive action by both government bodies, as well as cooperation from relevant industries. In some cases, there are additional gains to be had, while in others, the solution comes with high costs and painful changes. We engineered ourselves into this situation, so we can probably engineer ourselves out. Regardless, if humanity is to flourish in the next century, there remains much work to be done.

Another Kind Of Cloud: The Internet Of Farts

It’s taken as canon that girls mature faster than boys. In reality, what happens is that boys stop maturing at about age 12 while girls keep going. And nothing tickles the fancy of the ageless pre-teen boy trapped within all men more than a good fart joke. To wit, we present a geolocating fart tracker for your daily commute.

[Michel] is the hero this world needs, and although he seems to have somewhat of a preoccupation with hacks involving combustible gasses, his other non-methane related projects have graced our pages before, like this electrical meter snooper or an IoT lawn mower. The current effort, though, is a bit on the cheekier side.

The goal is to keep track of his emissions while driving, so with a PIC, an ESP8266, a GPS module, and a small LCD display and keyboard, he now has a way to log his rolling flatulence. When the urge overcomes him he simply presses a button, which logs his location and speed and allows him to make certain qualitative notes regarding the event. The data gets uploaded to the cloud every Friday, which apparently allows [Michel] to while away his weekends mapping his results.

It turns out that he mainly farts while heading south, and he’s worried about the implications both in terms of polar ice cap loss and how Santa is going to treat him next month. We’re thinking he’s got a lock on coal — or at least activated charcoal.

Our beef with this project is obvious – it relies on the honor system for input. We really need to see this reworked with an in-seat methane detector to keep [Michel] honest. Until then, stay young, [Michel].