Scientists Find a Way to Make Fuel out of Plastic

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I’m a beach lover. I find peace and joy when I visit the beach. The smell of the ocean and the sounds of the waves all bring me to a place of Zen. But nothing gets me angrier than seeing washed up plastic bags, lost children’s toys and balloons scattered all along my sandy path. It immediately saddens me that we as human beings can take this beautiful earth for granted and just let plastic garbage float away to sea with a blind eye. You’ve heard it in the news over and over again about sea animals ingesting plastic or getting tangled in a mess of plastic fishing line. Some are found washed ashore and it’s too late to save them.

Plastic takes about 450 years to degrade. So think about this; If you were born in 1970, your plastic diaper is still out there somewhere in a wasteland and has another 404 years to go before it has finally disintegrated. Multiply that by how many babies were born that year whose mothers used plastic diapers on them. So, with that being said, you can only imagine how much plastic garbage is out there just piling up and not going anywhere.

Unless something is done, the problem is only going to grow bigger and bigger each and every day. However, there is some good news out there about the world’s plastic garbage problem. I was happy to read recently that scientists have successfully turned plastic waste into fuel. While it’s not going to eradicate the problem completely, it’s a start and it will help. Here are some facts about plastics:

  • Plastics are made from fossil fuels.
  • Fossil fuels are a combination of hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen formed in long chains.
  • Polyethylene (PE) is the most commonly used plastic worldwide and is a simple chain molecule (you still with me?)
  • Polyethylene holds the largest volume of annual production of over 100 million tons worldwide.
  • Polyethylene takes a very long time, (ok, almost forever) to degrade and needs a hefty chemical process for it to take on a shape or to react to anything.

Now I’m going to get a little nerdy and explain how the scientists were able to get the plastic back into a fuel. 

Turning plastic back into fuel is quite a complex process. It doesn’t react to heat because the molecule chains (also known as polymers) break down sporadically into smaller variations leaving them with their own individual properties. Because scientists know all of this stuff, they figured out how to use chemicals to speed up the reaction process. They use an iridium-rich compound to remove the hydrogen atoms from the polyethylene. The carbon atoms that are left behind start to form a bond with one another leading them to be more reactive to chemicals than their single counterparts.

Secondly, a mixture of aluminum, oxygen, and rhenium pulls the polymer apart. Once this is done, the hydrogen atoms are now put back into fragmented polymers (also known as monomers) turning the object that was once a plastic bag or a bottle into a fuel. By playing with the amount of hydrogen and carbon in a hydrocarbon polymer, it can turn it into a different chemical without using a lot of heat to get the job done! Isn’t that so cool?

By altering the speed of the reaction, it allowed the scientists to turn the plastic into a liquid fuel or type of wax. This produces a clean, low-pollutant fuel as compared to other fossil fuels. Not tapping into fossil fuels will only be a help to the environment as the plastic is recycled into something we can use. Whether or not we can turn plastic into fuel, I would still like to see way less use of plastic in general. Grocery stores shouldn’t even offer plastic bags. I always have my reusable bags on hand whenever I shop. Let’s all just try to be more conscientious of our environment for ourselves, our children, and the future of the human race.

The Science of Towing a Trailer

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We’re going to dive into a few topics in the coming weeks that you might not normally expect on a “science” site. We want to explore everyday areas where you might encounter science without even realizing it. Today we’re going to explore towing a trailer and the right way to do it so you don’t end up causing a pile up on your local interstate and having to call detroit roadside assistance.

The first factor to consider is the amount of weight that the vehicle you’re using can safely tow. If your vehicle isn’t capable of towing the weight necessary you might want to look into some tow trucks for sale. Don’t forget to factor in the weight of your cargo! An empty trailer certainly weighs a lot less than one packed to the brim with cases of water.

So what’s next after making sure your vehicle is able to tow your trailer safely? Hooking it up properly! You’ll want to make sure the chains are crossed in an X pattern underneath your hitch for safety purposes. This will prevent your trailer from hitting the road if it happens to come unhitched as you’re driving.

Once you’re all hooked up there are still steps to take before you’re ready to go. First you need to make sure the tire pressure is correct in your trailer’s tires. Next, make sure all of the lights on your trailer are working properly. At this point you’re ready to hit the road, but you still need to keep an eye on your trailer as your trip progresses. Stop after every few hours of driving to inspect the state of your trailer and connection. You don’t want disaster to strike on mile 499 of your 500 mile road trip.

Use these tips to make your next towing trip a success. Of course, if things don’t go so well you can always look into used tow trucks for sale. Safe travels!

It’s Dark, Grab Your Fishlights

From fireflies and their glowing “butts” to aquatic creatures such as jellyfish and their shimmering bodies; bioluminescence has been a huge part of the genetic make up of many members of the animal kingdom. Bioluminescence is an organism’s ability to create its own light, and it’s been fascinating the human mind for as long as the human race has known these types of animals and creatures existed. However, we’re now in the year 2016 and researchers and scientists have been able to reveal some secrets about how these sorts of animals evolved.

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The trait of bioluminescence has evolved a great deal more than what was previously thought by scientists, which has given us some insight into the trait’s usefulness at our planet’s darkest places. This ability is now thought of as a form of communication between fishes and can even act as a kind of camouflage in some instances.

Scientists and Researchers documented about 1,500 different types of bioluminescent fish species and identified a variety of ways that they can generate their light. Most of them are found in the deep sea, which makes perfect sense, seeing that it’s a portion of the ocean that’s basically pitch black. There are two primary methods for fish to create light. One is that they create chemical reactions to generate a kind of glow and the other is building a close bond and symbiotic relationship with certain bacteria that lives on or inside their bodies, which then makes the light for them.  It’s also important to note that the fish had evolved certain mechanisms in their bodies that cause the bacteria to turn the glow on or off whenever they need it. They’re in complete control!

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W. Leo Smith, assistant creator with the University of Kansas Biodiversity institute, who co-authored the paper, said “When things evolve independently multiples times, we can infer that the feature is useful. You have this whole habitat where everything that’s not living at the top or bottom of the ocean or along the edges -nearly every vertebrate living in the open water – around 80 percent of those fish species are bioluminescent. So this tells us bioluminescence is almost a requirement for fishes to be successful.”

Smith and his colleagues Matthew P. Davis of St. Cloud State University and John S. Sparks of the American Museum of Natural History discovered that all fish they had examined evolved bioluminescence between the Early Cretaceous era, some 150 million years ago, and the Cenozoic Era.

The team showed that once an evolutionary line of fish developed the ability to create or produce light they quickly branched off into many newer species.

“Many fish proliferate species when they evolve this trait – they differentiate, but we don’t know why,” Smith said. “In the ocean, there are no physical barriers to separate groups of deep sea fishes, so why are there so many species of anglerfishes, for example? When they start using bioluminescence for species recognition, they diversify into a lot more species.”

Smith and his co-authors are now working with a grant from the National Science foundation to identify special genes associated with the creation of bioluminescence in fish. Some speculate it might be a simple process since the deep-sea fish can pick up bioluminescence so quickly and efficiently.

Prosanta Chakrabarty, curator of ichthyology at Louisiana State University’s museum of natural science (who was not involved with the new study) speculates that developing the trait of bioluminescence must be easier than scientists previously thought.

Some questions have also been raised by this study, like why hasn’t this ability developed in freshwater fish, especially cave dwelling fish, who live in the dark and could probably benefit from it?

There are many more questions to be answered and soon we’ll find the answers. As with all things science, we just need to wait for the next discovery.