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Natural Gas On The Cob


When cooked into ethanol, corn kernels are a source of clean, green fuel. Now, the fibrous cobs left over after harvest may help solve another energy challenge: how to improve the storage of natural gas, and let more cars and trucks use the fuel as an alternative to dirtier, more costly diesel or gasoline.

Researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia (UMC) and Midwest Research Institute in Kansas City used cobs as a raw material to create high-density carbon briquettes. Riddled with ultratiny tunnels that attract and hold gas molecules, the briquettes can store natural gas at record densities and under relatively low pressure. Tanks filled with these briquettes would be lighter and cheaper to make, and could store more fuel than the clunky cylinders found in today's natural gas vehicles. "Natural gas can become a real alternative," says UMC physics professor Peter Pfeifer.

Last year, lung cancer's worldwide death toll hit nearly 2 million. The disease can be treatable, but many people die because it is diagnosed too late. Scientists at the Cleveland Clinic say they have made significant progress with an experimental device that can sniff out lung cancer based on a single exhaled breath. And the test may be sensitive enough to spot tumors long before symptoms appear.

When cancer cells begin to form, they trigger changes in the body's production and use of chemicals called volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Cleveland Clinic's device uses an array of sensors that turn characteristic colors in the presence of VOCs. The research team developed the technique by chemically analyzing the exhalations of patients with different respiratory diseases and comparing them with the breath of healthy people.

The results have proven moderately accurate in tests involving more than 100 people. The next step is to refine the technique and then test it in large populations of patients.

As evidence for global warming mounts, the debate over climate change has shifted to the price tag for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The White House and other opponents of mandatory curbs say reductions would cripple the economy. But a new analysis from Swedish utility Vattenfall with help from McKinsey suggests otherwise. "The cost is so low, the world would hardly notice," says Vattenfall CEO Lars Josefsson, an adviser to the German government.

The world must slash CO2 emissions by 27 billion tons by 2030 to keep overall warming to 2C, Vattenfall says. Five billion can come from steps—such as more insulation, higher mileage vehicles, and low energy lightbulbs—that also save money. The rest can come from cellulosic ethanol, solar and wind power, carbon capture at coal plants, nukes, and other approaches—all at a cost below $53 per ton of CO2. The bill in 2030 would be about 0.6% of global gross domestic product. "For the first time, we know what to do," says Josefsson.

— To produce X-rays bright enough to reveal the details of bones, X-ray machines must expose patients to a lot of scattered radiation, like light from a bulb. Now scientists at the University of Colorado at Boulder have developed a low-energy, tabletop device that produces focused beams similar to laser light. This advance, reported in Nature Physics, could lower radiation exposure for non-targeted areas of the body. What's more, a narrow, more focused X-ray beam has the potential to improve the resolution of X-ray images by 1,000 times or more.

— For those with shellfish allergies, even a tiny taste of shrimp can trigger nausea, dizziness, breathing troubles, or worse. Relief may be near. A research group at Ocean University of China in Qingdao has found that by applying a combination of heat and radiation—methods routinely used for food preparation—the number of allergy-causing proteins can be sharply reduced. In other words, gene modification may not be needed to produce hypoallergenic shrimp, lobster, and other shellfish, says the report in Chemistry & Industry.


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