A Botanical Treasure: Congo

Situated along the banks of the Congo River, the Yangambi Research Station was in its heyday a booming scientific hub, revered for its invaluable work in the Congo Basin throughout the midcentury.

It wasn’t to last. War, political instability and budget cuts were to hamper the center’s survival after Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) gained independence from its colonial ruler, Belgium, in 1960. The following decades would see skilled staff numbers dwindle, the jungle reclaim its buildings, and the center’s science work come to a stop.  But inside these crumbling walls lay a botanical treasure-trove. Yangambi’s herbarium holds Central Africa’s largest collection of dried plants. In fact, 15% of its 150,000 specimens are so rare, that they can only be found here….

Efforts from the Congolese Institute for Agronomy Research (INERA) could not keep the center running alone.   It was in 2017 that a ‘game changing’ opportunity arrived. INERA and the Meise Botanic Garden partnered with FORETS, a project coordinated by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR)and financed by the European Union…Now, the herbarium has benefitted from a facelift – including a new roof, windows and doors, and a water cistern – soon its staff will be trained in modern preservation techniques and new technologies…Digitization of specimens will enable access to researchers around the world.

Excerpts from AHTZIRI GONZALEZ, Protecting Congo’s botanical treasures, CIFOR Press Release, Jan 11, 2019

What to Do with 56 000 Drums of Nuclear Waste: Japan

At least 1.9 trillion yen ($17.12 billion) will be needed for the planned scrapping of 79 nuclear facilities, including the failed Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor, according to the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA).

However, the JAEA’s estimate, released on Dec. 26, 2018 does not include maintenance expenses for the facilities nor costs to deal with leftover uranium and plutonium, meaning the actual tally could increase by hundreds of billions of yen.  State subsidies account for the bulk of the JAEA’s budget, so taxpayers will likely foot most of the bill.  The agency plans to shut down 79 of its 89 nuclear facilities, including research reactors and test buildings, over 60 to 70 years due to aging and the huge costs needed for their continued operations under stricter safety standards.

According to the JAEA’s estimate, the cost to decommission the Tokai spent nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Ibaraki Prefecture will be 770 billion yen.  But the overall cost would reach nearly 1 trillion yen if expenses on dealing with highly radioactive liquid waste, which is left after plutonium is extracted from spent fuel rods at the plant, are included.

The problem-plagued Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, cost taxpayers more than 1 trillion yen ($8.82 billion) despite running for only 250 days during its two-decade operation. ..But the JAEA currently has no plan on how to handle plutonium stored at the facilities. In addition, no decision has been made on what to do with radioactive waste from the 79 facilities that could fill more than 560,000 200-liter drums.

Excerpt JAEA: Closing 79 nuclear facilities will cost at least 1.9 trillion yen

Planting Electronics in Brains

 An implantable brain device that literally melts away at a pre-determined rate minimizes injury to tissue normally associated with standard electrode implantation, according to research led by a team from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. …Thin, flexible neural electrode arrays with fully bioresorbable construction based on patterned silicon nanomembranes (Si NMs) as the conducting component.

“Dissolvable silicon electronics offer an unprecedented opportunity to implant advanced monitoring systems that eliminate the risks, cost, and discomfort associated with surgery to extract current devices used for post-operative monitoring,” said senior co-author Brian Litt, MD,….“This study tested the usefulness of temporary, dissolvable monitoring systems capable of providing continuous streams of data for guiding medical care over predetermined periods of time — from days to months — before dissolving.”

The device is made of layers of silicon and molybdenum that can measure physiological characteristics and dissolve at a known rate, as determined by its thickness. For example, the team used the device to record brain waves in rats under anesthesia, as well as voltage fluctuations between neurons (EEGs), and induced epileptic spikes in intact live tissue. A separate experiment demonstrated a complex, multiplexed array made from these materials that could map rat-whisker sensing capabilities at high resolution.

These electrophysiological signals were recorded from devices placed at the surface of the brain cortex (the outer layer of tissue) and the inner space between the scalp and skull. Chronic measurements were made over a 30-day period, while acute experiments demonstrated device operations over three to four hours.

The type of neurophysiologic features measured by the new device are commonly used for diagnosing and treating such disorders as epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, depression, chronic pain, and conditions of the peripheral nervous system. “….

This work was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Penn Medicine Neuroscience Center,  and others.

See Next-Gen Electrodes: Proof-of-Concept Animal Study Shows that Flexible, Dissolvable Silicon Electronic Device Holds Promise for Brain Monitoring , Press Release, May 5, 2016

See also Nature Materials

The US Military and the Peripheral Nervous System

How the Shipping Industry Gets its Way: pollution from ships

Do not give the regulated power over the regulators, unless you want consumers to lose out and producers to game the system. ..That lesson has been learned in many places around the world. National regulators are increasingly independent of the firms they regulate. But international ones still have further to go—and none further than the specialised agencies of the United Nations, such as the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) for shipping where the interests of the shipping industry are upheld d in several ways. The first is the distribution of voting rights between countries. At the IMO, for example, Panama and Liberia, with populations of just 4m and 4.8m respectively, can automatically get seats on its decision-making body as they have the world’s biggest merchant fleets.

The second is the assignment of those voting rights by individual countries. Remarkably, many governments have handed voting rights to private-sector firms… At the IMO least 17 countries have assigned their voting rights to flag registries operated by private firms, reckons Transparency International, an anti-corruption group; that adds up to about a tenth of delegates. At an IMO environmental-committee meeting in 2017, almost a third of countries were represented, at least in part, by business interests.

The third way in which producer interests are protected is through a spectacular lack of transparency. The agenda of the IMO’s council in November 2018 in London is available only to those with a password. Journalists are forbidden to report what delegates say or how they vote. There are no rules on the suitability or conflict of interests of delegates. In 2014 St Lucia appointed a Saudi billionaire without previous shipping experience as its IMO representative; a court in London judged in 2016 that the appointment was obtained in order to gain diplomatic immunity against divorce proceedings. There are no limits on the amount of gifts that can be showered on representatives. Goodies put on top of desks at an IMO assembly meeting last year were so heavy that they broke 137 sets of headphones underneath.

Such swampiness matters. The IMO is responsible for limiting emissions from ships, which were excluded from the Paris climate deal.   Some countries are interested in reform. At the imo council meeting this week Australia proposed allowing journalists to report on its meetings as a first step. The Marshall Islands has taken back some of its votes from the private firm that runs its flag registry. But more radical change is needed. Countries should send civil servants, not private actors, as their representatives. The un’s rules on conflicts of interest should be imposed. And voting rights should be allocated with the interests of consumers in mind. These lessons have been widely absorbed within borders. They ought to cross them, too

Excerpts from UN Regulatory Bodies: Agency Problems, Economist, Nov. 24, 2018, at 15

How to Hide Nuclear Bombs in the Ocean: Nuclear Submarines

The INS Arihant’s India’s nuclear submarine inaugural voyage in November 2018 was a triumphal step forward in India’s long, often tortuous quest to deploy atomic weapons at sea…  Hiding missiles in the ocean solves these problems, giving India more confidence that its forces could survive a nuclear attack from China or Pakistan, and hit back.But managing such weapons is not easy. One difficulty is ensuring that a submarine can receive orders without giving away its location. India has been building low-frequency radio stations, which use large antennas to propel signals underwater, for this purpose. Yet these are also vulnerable to attack, which is why some nuclear-armed states use airborne transmitters as well.

A second hitch is that the k-15 missiles aboard the Arihant can only fly a puny 750km, which means that the submarine would have to park itself dangerously close to China’s coastline to have a hope of striking big cities. Longer-range missiles, which could be fired from the safety of Indian waters, are in the works. But bigger missiles, and more of them, necessitate a bigger hull. That, in turn, requires that the nuclear-powered subs be fitted with bigger reactors—a fiendish technical challenge.

A third problem is keeping the Arihant safe. Nuclear submarines can only do their job if they can slip silently out of port and into the oceans. They are typically chaperoned by leaner attack submarines. But admirals complain that the navy, whose share of the defence budget has dwindled to 15%, has just 13 of these. The delivery of new French attack subs has been delayed.

Meanwhile India’s nuclear arsenal is swelling. A recent report by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a research organisation, estimates that it has 130-140 nuclear warheads, with enough fissile material for 60-70 more. The stockpile, though smaller than Pakistan’s and half the size of China’s, has roughly doubled since 2010. Many of the new warheads will go to sea. A second nuclear submarine, the Arighant, is nearing completion, and a third is in the works.

India’s Nuclear Submarines, Economist,  Nov. 17, 2018, at 44

Who to Blame for Climate Change? the Carbon Majors

 Whether the damage caused by extreme weather events can be linked to human emissions of greenhouse gases is one of the hottest topics in climate science. And that debate leads directly to another: if this link can be established, who bears the responsibility?  Both of these questions are at the center of an inquiry by the Philippine Commission on Human Rights, whose latest hearings took place in London in November 2018. It is the first time a human-rights commission has heard evidence on whether large emitters violate basic human rights by causing climate change

 Where the hearings become more unusual is in investigating the link between the damage caused by climate change and the behaviour of large industrial companies. This is predicated on recent efforts to trace greenhouse-gas emissions back to large corporate and state-owned producers of fossil fuels and cement, dubbed the “carbon majors”. The latest analysis by cdp (formerly the  Carbon Disclosure Project), a non-governmental organisation that works with companies, cities and states to measure their environmental impact, published in 2017, found that 100 of them had produced just over half of emissions since the Industrial Revolution.

The Philippine hearings will come to a close in December in Manila. The commission does not have the power to compensate victims of typhoons or to sanction emitters of carbon dioxide. According to Roberto Cadiz, one of the commissioners, that isn’t even the point. His wish is to open a dialogue about possible solutions to climate change that includes the industrial emitters. So far, however, only one side of the story is being heard. The emitters have declined to participate.

Excerpts from Climate Change: The Blame Game, Economist, Nov. 17, 2018

Saving the Sea of Galilee

The water level of the Sea of Galilee, on which Jesus supposedly walked, is a national obsession in Israel. Newspapers report its rise and fall next to the weather forecast. Lately the sea, which is actually a freshwater lake, has been falling. It is now a quarter empty. Small islands have emerged above its shrinking surface. 

For the past five years Israel has experienced its worst drought in nearly a century. That has reduced the flow of the Jordan river and other streams that feed into the Sea of Galilee. Less turnover in the lake’s water is leading to increased salinity and the spread of cyanobacteria (sometimes called “blue-green algae”, despite not being algae). As the pressure from fresh water eases, it allows in more salt water from subterranean streams. Climate change is expected to exacerbate these problems, perhaps one day making the lake water undrinkable.

Israel can probably cope. For most of its history the Sea of Galilee was its largest source of drinking water. But over the past decade the country has invested heavily in desalination plants and projects that allow it to reclaim effluents and brackish water. Since 2016 well over half of the water consumed by households, farms and industry has been “man-made”. Less than 70m cubic metres of water will be pumped out of the Sea of Galilee this year for consumption, down from 400m in the past. Some 50m will go to Jordan, which is also suffering from a severe drought.

In Jun 2018e the Israeli government authorised a billion-shekel ($270m) plan to pump desalinated sea water, mostly from the Mediterranean, into the Sea of Galilee. Work on a new pipeline began last month. A freshwater lake has never been replenished in this way, but the scientists monitoring the plan believe it will work similarly to rainfall and will not harm the lake’s unique ecosystem.  By 2020 the new pipeline is expected to pump enough desalinated water into the Sea of Galilee to stabilise its level. 

Excerpts from The Sea of Galilee: Walking on Desalinated Water, Economist,  Dec. 1, 2018