Mining And Refining: Helium

With a seemingly endless list of shortages of basic items trotted across newsfeeds on a daily basis, you’d be pardoned for not noticing any one shortage in particular. But in among the shortages of everything from eggs to fertilizers to sriracha sauce has been a growing realization that we may actually be running out of something so fundamental that it could have repercussions that will be felt across all aspects of our technological society: helium.

The degree to which helium is central to almost every aspect of daily life is hard to overstate. Helium’s unique properties, like the fact that it remains liquid at just a few degrees above absolute zero, contribute to its use in countless industrial processes. From leak detection and welding to silicon wafer production and cooling the superconducting magnets that make magnetic resonance imaging possible, helium has become entrenched in technology in a way that belies its relative scarcity.

But where does helium come from? As we’ll see, the second lightest element on the periodic table is not easy to come by, and considerable effort goes into extracting and purifying it enough for industrial use. While great strides are being made toward improved methods of extraction and the discovery of new deposits, for all practical purposes helium is a non-renewable resource for which there are no substitutes. So it pays to know a thing or two about how we get our hands on it.

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Modern Toilet Generates Energy

Environmental Engineering [Prof Jaeweon Cho] at South Korea’s Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology specializes in water and waste management. He has developed an energy-generating toilet called BeeVi (pronounced beevee) that recycles your waste in three ways. Liquid waste is processed in a microbial reaction tank to make a liquid fertilizer. Solid waste is pumped into an anaerobic digestion tank, which results in methane gas used to power a silicone oxide fuel cell to make electricity. The remaining solids are composted to make fertilizer. The daily waste from one person is about 500 g, which can generate about 50 L of methane.

The BeeVi toilets, located on the UNIST campus, pay students in a digital currently called Ggools, or Honey Money in English. Each deposit earns 10 Ggools, which can be used to purchase coffee, instant noodles, and other items (one Ggool is equivalent to about $3.00 value). The output from this pilot project is used to partially power the building on campus, and to fertilize gardens on the grounds. If you want to learn more, here is a video lecture by [Prof Cho] (in English).

Waste management is an area of research around the world. The Gates Foundation has been funding research into this field for ten years, and has held a number of expos over the years highlighting innovative solutions, most recently being the 2018 Reinvent the Toilet Expo in Beijing. We wrote a piece about the future of toilets last year as well.

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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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