Author Archives: Stoa

What You Can Do with $1 Million: Saving the New Zealand Parrot

Scientists in New Zealand have genetically sequenced every adult kakapo.  The kakapo, a cuddly bird that lives in New Zealand, is not designed for survival. Weighing up to 4kg, it is the world’s fattest and least flighty parrot. It mates only when the rimu tree is in fruit, which happens every few years.  It evolved in the absence of land-based predators, so instead of soaring above the trees it waddles haplessly across the dry forest floor below. When it stumbles across something that might kill it, it has the lamentable habit of standing still….Such oddities turned the kakapo into fast food for human settlers—and for the cats, rats and possums they brought with them. It seemed extinct by the 1970s, until scientists stumbled on two undiscovered populations in the country’s south. These survivors were eventually moved to small predator-free islands, where the Department of Conservation has spent decades trying to get them to breed…Its patience may finally be rewarded. The rimu was in fruit this year, and more than 80 chicks hatched after a bumper crop, making this the best breeding season on record. Many have survived into adolescence, increasing the number of adult kakapos by a third, to 200 birds.

But another threat to the kakapo is a lack of genetic diversity, because of low numbers and inbreeding. This is one reason why fewer than half of kakapo eggs hatch. By sequencing the genome of every living bird, scientists can identify closely related individuals and prevent more inbreeding by putting them on different islands. Well-matched birds cannot be forced to mate, but artificial insemination is also proving effective. Every bird is fitted with a transmitter to track its slightest movement. If a female mates with an “unsuitable” male, the process can be “overridden” with another bird’s semen. Time is of the essence, so drones are being used to whizz kakapo sperm to the right place.

All these efforts cost almost nz$2m ($1.3m) this breeding season. Yet the kakapo’s future still looks precarious. Earlier this year a fungal disease tore through the population. And tiny as the number of kakapos is, space is running out on the two islands where most of them live. New predator-free havens must soon be found. 

Excerpts from How eugenics is saving a pudgy parrot, Economist, Aug. 31, 2019

Zero Radioactive Leakage: China Experiments with Nuclear Waste Disposal

China has chosen a site for an underground laboratory to research the disposal of highly radioactive waste, the country’s nuclear safety watchdog said in September 2019.
Officials said work would soon begin on building the Beishan Underground Research Laboratory 400 metres (1,312 feet) underground in the northwestern province of Gansu, in the middle of the Gobi desert.

(a) Enttrance Beishan Underground Research Laboratory
(b) Ramp Beishan Underground Research Laboratory

Liu Hua, head of the National Nuclear Safety Administration, said work would be carried out to determine whether it was possible to build a repository for high-level nuclear waste deep underground….Once the laboratory is built, scientists and engineers will start experiments to confirm whether it will make a viable underground storage facility…

Gobi desert

Lei Yian, an associate professor at Peking University’s school of physics, said there was no absolute guarantee that the repositories would be safe when they came into operation.
Leakage has happened in [repositories] in the US and the former Soviet Union … It’s a difficult problem worldwide,” he said. “If China can solve it, then it will have solved a global problem.”
China is also building more facilities to dispose of low and intermediate-level waste. Officials said new plants were being built in Zhejiang, Fujian and Shandong, three coastal provinces that lack disposal facilities.

Excerpts from Echo Xie , China earmarks site to store nuclear waste deep underground,  South China Morning Post, Sept 5, 2019

How to Manage Water Like Money and Fail: Australia

Australia’s Darling River…provided fresh water to farmers seeking to tame Australia’s rugged interior.  No longer. The Darling River hasn’t flowed for eight months, with long stretches completely dried up. A million fish died there in January 2019.  Kangaroos, lizards and birds became sick or died after drinking from toxic pools of stagnant water.  Australia’s water-trading market is drawing blame. The problems with the system, created more than a decade ago, have arisen as similar programs are being considered in the U.S.

Water crises are unfolding across the world as surging populations, industrial-scale farming and hotter temperatures deplete supplies.  Australia thought it had the answer: a cap-and-trade system that would create incentives to use water efficiently and effectively in the world’s driest inhabited continent. But the architects of water trading didn’t anticipate that treating water as a commodity would encourage theft and hoarding.   A report produced for a state resources regulator found the current situation on the Darling was caused by too much water being extracted from the river by a handful of big farmers. Just four license holders control 75% of the water extracted from the Barwon-Darling river system.

The national government, concerned that its water-trading experiment hasn’t turned out as intended, in August 2019 requested an inquiry by the country’s antitrust regulator into water trading.  Anticorruption authorities are investigating instances of possible fraud, water theft and deal making for water licenses. In one case, known as Watergate, a former agriculture minister allegedly oversaw the purchase of a water license at a record price from a Cayman Islands company co-founded by the current energy minister. The former agriculture minister said he was following departmental advice and had no role in determining the price or the vendor. The energy minister said he is no longer involved with the company and received no financial benefit from the deal.

Since 2007, Australia has allowed not only farmers but also investors who want to profit from trading to buy and sell water shares. The water market is now valued at some $20 billion.    But making water valuable had unintended consequences in some places. “Once you create something of real value, you should expect people to attempt to steal it and search for ways to cheat,” says Mike Young, a University of Adelaide professor. “It’s not rocket science. Manage water like money, and you are there.”  Big water users have stolen billions of liters of water from rivers and lakes, according to local media investigations and Australian officials, often by pumping it secretly and at night from remote locations that aren’t metered. A new water regulator set up in New South Wales investigated more than 300 tips of alleged water thefts in its first six months of operation.  In 2018, authorities charged a group of cotton farmers with stealing water, including one that pleaded guilty to pumping enough illegally to fill dozens of Olympic-size swimming pools.  Another problem is that water trading gives farmers an incentive to capture more rain and floodwater, and then hoard it, typically by building storage tanks or lining dirt ditches with concrete. That enables them to collect rain before it seeps into the earth or rivers.

The subsequent water shortages, combined with trading by dedicated water funds and corporate farmers, have driven up prices. Water in Australia’s main agricultural region, the Murray-Darling river basin, now trades at about $420 per megaliter, or one million liters, compared with as low as $7 in previous years.  David Littleproud, Australia’s water-resources minister, says 14% of water licenses are now owned by investors. “Is that really the intent of what we want this market to be?” he asks. “Water is a precious commodity.”

Excerpts from Rachel Pannett , The U.S. Wants to Adopt a Cap-and-Trade Plan for Water That Isn’t Working, WSJ, Sept. 4, 2019

Free Markets? No! Subsidies for Nuclear Industry

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced on Aug. 15, 2019 the launch of the National Reactor Innovation Center (NRIC). The new initiative will assist with the development of advanced nuclear energy technologies by harnessing the world-class capabilities of the DOE national laboratory system.  Authorized by the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act, NRIC will provide private sector technology developers the necessary support to test and demonstrate their reactor concepts and assess their performance. This will help accelerate the licensing and commercialization of these new nuclear energy systems.

“NRIC will enable the demonstration and deployment of advanced reactors that will define the future of nuclear energy,” said U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry. “By bringing industry together with our national labs and university partners, we can enhance our energy independence and position the U.S. as a global leader in advanced nuclear innovation.”  NRIC will be led by Idaho National Laboratory and builds upon the successes of DOE’s Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) initiative… 

The Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act was signed into law in 2018 by President Donald J. Trump and eliminates some of the financial and technological barriers standing in the way of nuclear innovation. It directs DOE to facilitate the siting of advanced reactor research demonstration facilities through partnerships between DOE and private industry. The House Energy and Water Development committee has allocated $5 million in the FY2020 budget for NRIC, which plans to demonstrate small modular reactor and micro-reactor concepts within the next five years.

Excerpts from DOE,  Energy Department Launches New Demonstration Center for Advanced Nuclear Technologies, Press Release, Aug. 15, 2019

How to Change the World: Take Seeds to Space and Irradiate them with Cosmic Rays

With 19% of the world’s population but only 7% of its arable land, China is in a bind: how to feed its growing and increasingly affluent population while protecting its natural resources. The country’s agricultural scientists have made growing use of nuclear and isotopic techniques in crop production over the last decades. In cooperation with the IAEA and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), they are now helping experts from Asia and beyond in the development of new crop varieties, using irradiation.

While in many countries, nuclear research in agriculture is carried out by nuclear agencies that work independently from the country’s agriculture research establishment, in China the use of nuclear techniques in agriculture is integrated into the work of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS) and provincial academies of agricultural sciences. This ensures that the findings are put to use immediately.

And indeed, the second most widely used wheat mutant variety in China, Luyuan 502, was developed by CAAS’s Institute of Crop Sciences and the Institute of Shandong Academy of Agricultural Sciences, using space-induced mutation breeding. It has a yield that is 11% higher than the traditional variety and is also more tolerant to drought and main diseases.  It has been planted on over 3.6 million hectares – almost as large as Switzerland. It is one of 11 wheat varieties developed for improved salt and drought tolerance, grain quality and yield.

Through close cooperation with the IAEA and FAO, China has released over 1,000 mutant crop varieties in the past 60 years, and varieties developed in China account for a fourth of mutants listed currently in the IAEA/FAO’s database of mutant varieties produced worldwide.

The Institute uses heavy ion beam accelerators, cosmic rays and gamma rays along with chemicals to induce mutations in a wide variety of crops, including wheat, rice, maize, soybean and vegetables….Indonesia’s nuclear agency, BATAN, and CAAS are looking for ways to collaborate on plant mutation breeding

Space-induced mutation breeding
 
Irradiation causes mutation, which generates random genetic variations, resulting in mutant plants with new and useful traits. Mutation breeding does not involve gene transformation, but rather uses a plant’s own genetic components and mimics the natural process of spontaneous mutation, the motor of evolution. By using radiation, scientists can significantly shorten the time it takes to breed new and improved plant varieties.

Space-induced mutation breeding, also called space mutagenesis, involves taking the seeds to space, where cosmic rays are stronger, and these rays are used to induce mutation.  Satellites, space shuttles and high-altitude balloons are used to carry out the experiments. One advantage of this method is that the risk of damaging the plants are lower than when using gamma irradiation on earth.

Excerpts from How Nuclear Techniques Help Feed China, IAEA, Apr. 4, 2019

The Biopiracy Backlash

Indonesia‘s rich biodiversity and complex geology have lured scientists from abroad for centuries. But a law adopted on 16 July 2019 by Indonesia’s parliament may convince some to go elsewhere. The legislation includes strict requirements on foreign scientists doing research in Indonesia, including the need to recruit local collaborators and a near-ban on exporting specimens, along with stiff sanctions, including jail time, for violators.

Muhammad Dimyati, director-general of research development at Indonesia’s Ministry of Research, Technology, and Higher Education (commonly known as RISTEK) in Jakarta, says the law is needed to protect Indonesia’s natural resources and develop the country’s research enterprise. But some Indonesian scientists fear the consequences. “Our international collaborations will be stifled,” says Berry Juliandi, a biologist at Bogor Agricultural University and secretary of the Indonesian Young Academy of Science. Indeed, marine biologist Philippe Borsa of the French Research Institute for Development in Montpellier says the law—and an increasingly unfriendly climate for foreign researchers—is a reason for him not to return to Indonesia, where he has studied the phylogeography of stingrays.

The new law also establishes the National Research Agency, a giant new institution that may subsume most government research centers, including the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) in Jakarta. Details still need to be fleshed out, but some scientists worry the new agency will concentrate too much power in a few hands. The law’s most contentious provisions, however, are those that apply to foreign researchers.

From now on, their research has to be “beneficial for Indonesia.” They need to get ethical clearance from an Indonesian review board for every study, submit primary data and published papers to the government, involve Indonesian scientists as equal partners, and share any benefits, such as the proceeds from new drugs, resulting from the study. Researchers can’t take samples or even digital information out of the country, except for tests that cannot be done in Indonesian labs, and to do so, they need a so-called material transfer agreement (MTA) using a template provided by the government.

In most cases, violators will lose their research permit, but some offenses carry steeper penalties. Scientists who fail to obtain a proper permit will be blacklisted for 5 years; repeat offenders risk a $290,000 fine. Failure to comply with the MTA requirements is punishable by 2 years in prison or a $145,000 fine. ..Indonesia has become increasingly concerned about biopiracy.  In 2018,, for instance, a dispute erupted over a genetic study of Sulawesi’s “sea nomads”—an indigenous fishing group that appears to have evolved bigger spleens to store oxygenated blood during long dives. Indonesian researchers called it an example of Western “helicopter science.”. 

Megalara garuda

A 2017 document introducing the new law, signed by RISTEK Minister Mohamad Nasir, singled out another alleged example: the discovery of Megalara garuda, a giant venomous wasp, on Sulawesi, published in 2012 by entomologist Lynn Kimsey of the University of California (UC), Davis, along with a German researcher who found the same insect in a Berlin collection. LIPI entomologist Rosichon Ubaidillah tells Science that he and a junior colleague collected the wasps and that he suggested the name garuda—a mythical bird and national symbol of Indonesia—during a visit to UC Davis. But neither of them was a co-author on the paper; Ubaidillah was mentioned in an acknowledgement, his colleague not at all. Kimsey violated a memorandum of understanding between LIPI and UC Davis, he adds. LIPI, enraged, asked Kimsey to return the wasps she took home.

Excerpts from Dyna Rochmyaningsih, Indonesia gets tough on foreign scientists, Science, July 26, 2019

Greening Natural Gas: How to Record Gas Leaks with Hand-Held Cameras

Energy companies are producing record volumes of natural gas, thanks in part to the U.S. fracking boom. They have ambitious plans to make the cleaner-burning fuel a big part of the global energy mix for decades to come by sending tankers of liquefied gas around the world.But growing public concern over leaks and intentional releases of gas and its primary component, methane, threaten to derail the dominance of gas in the new energy world order.  Methane is far more potent than carbon dioxide in contributing to climate change. That makes it particularly harmful to the environment when it is discharged into the atmosphere.

In the U.S. alone, the methane that leaks or is released from oil and gas operations annually is equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions from more than 69 million cars, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis using conversion formulas from the Environmental Protection Agency and emissions estimates for 2015 published last year in the journal Science….The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations body, says methane is even more potent than the estimates the EPA uses. By its calculation the annual releases would be equal to those of about 94 million cars, or roughly a third of the nation’s registered vehicles.

About 2.3% of the natural gas produced in the U.S. escapes directly into the atmosphere due in part to leaky equipment or intentional discharges, according to the Science study, which analyzed 2015 emissions. (Some discharges are legally permitted.) At that rate, it would have amounted to about $7.6 million worth of gas lost each day last year.  Another roughly $4.5 million in U.S. gas went up in smoke each day in 2018, World Bank data show, as energy companies burned fuel  (a practice known as flaring) they couldn’t move to market or chose not to ship because the cost of doing so would have exceeded the price the gas would fetch in some regions. Many companies drill primarily for oil and treat the gas released in the process as a byproduct.

Leaking and flaring are a global problem. As gas displaces coal for electricity production in the U.S. and other countries its side effects are drawing more attention, not just from environmental activists but investors fretting about how gas will compete over the long term against renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, which are dropping in price.

President Trump’s administration has moved to relax existing federal requirements for monitoring and fixing leaks. Still, from oil giants to the independent drillers powering the shale boom, companies are scrambling to rein in emissions over concerns from their executives, shareholders and environmentalists that gas waste could undermine the argument for gas as the “bridge fuel” to a cleaner future of renewables.

Methane is invisible to the naked eye, so companies detect leaks with infrared cameras and lasers. That can be a tall task—the gas can seep out of countless places, from wells to pipelines to storage facilities.  As a result, energy companies are increasingly supplementing manual inspections with aerial monitoring to survey large swaths of land checkerboarded with oil and gas infrastructure.  In West Texas, BP has begun monthly flights over its wells by a drone equipped with methane-detection equipment.   The company also is looking to cut back on flaring, which many companies do in the Permian Basin of Texas and New Mexico because they lack access to pipelines to move the product to market….BP is investing in a new gas-gathering and compression system that will allow it to send more gas to customers instead of burning it away…

Kairos,  a company, specializes in identifying larger methane releases by flying small planes about 3,000 feet above the ground. …Kairos has received funding from the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, an industry organization whose members include Exxon Mobil Corp. and Chevron Corp. The companies in the organization have pledged to collectively cut average methane emissions to less than 0.25% of gas sold by 2025.

One reason companies are stepping up monitoring is that environmental activists are watching, using technology to record leaks as they seek to boost public awareness of methane emissions.  Sharon Wilson, an organizer for the advocacy organization Earthworks, visits the Permian almost every month to monitor leaks from oil and gas sites, using a hand-held infrared camera. She submits the footage as evidence in state regulatory complaints against energy companies and often posts it on YouTube…Earthworks has filed more than 100 complaints in Texas and New Mexico since the beginning of 2018. State regulators issued violations or compelled operators to make repairs or install new equipment in fewer than 10% of the instances as of July, according to estimates by the group.

Excerpts from Rebecca Elliott, The Leaks that Threaten the Clean Image of Natural Gas, WSJ,  Aug. 10, 2019