Category Archives: Science

Science Fair Project Isolates Plastic-Eating Microbes

[from Geekdad] In the spirit of the awesome maverick science-fair project[1], I give you Daniel Burd and his amazing plastic-eating microbes.

“Almost every week I have to do chores and when I open the closet door, I have this avalanche of plastic bags falling on top of me,” he said. “One day, I got tired of it and I wanted to know what other people are doing with these plastic bags.”The answer: not much. So he decided to do something himself.

He knew plastic does eventually degrade, and figured microorganisms must be behind it. His goal was to isolate the microorganisms that can break down plastic — not an easy task because they don’t exist in high numbers in nature.

Daniel proceeded to use iterated experiments and the good old scientific method to extract the most effective bacteria and determine the optimal conditions for degrading polyethylene bags. The result was an amazing 43% degradation over six weeks, much better than the thousand years it would ordinarily take to break down the plastic. (Be sure to read the whole story for some inspiring bits of detective work.)

The best part?

Industrial application should be easy, said Burd. “All you need is a fermenter . . . your growth medium, your microbes and your plastic bags.”

The inputs are cheap, maintaining the required temperature takes little energy because microbes produce heat as they work, and the only outputs are water and tiny levels of carbon dioxide — each microbe produces only 0.01 per cent of its own infinitesimal weight in carbon dioxide, said Burd.

Well done, Daniel. I hope to see a plastic-bag compost bin on the market in a few years, or at least a Wired How-To on making one for myself. (via Mother Jones)

[1] See my previous mention of homemade aerogels. Kids these days!

Colliding Over The Hadron Decision

Hmmm, let’s see, some dudes in Hawaii are apparently VERY pessimistic. I mean really, just one little poofy black hole. What’s the worst that could happen? (But they are strangely optimistic when it comes to the justice system; I mean, really, Hawaii has international super powers?)

But, I on the other hand, tend to take a brighter view of the world. Apparently, I am not alone: When charged particles of more than 5 TeV pass through a bubble chamber, they leave a trail of candy.

Oh, XKCD, what would we do without you to put the world of science in perspective?

Explorer beat Sputnik?

A model of Explorer 1, held by JPL

It’s the fiftieth anniversary, give or take, of Sputnik and Explorer I. While the Russians might have beaten the U.S. into space, the U.S. apparently came in first place for science. Or at least according to this op-ed from the L.A. Times:

Fifty years ago tomorrow, the United States launched its first satellite, Explorer 1, into orbit. Its success may seem to be a footnote in space history, a second-place finish to the Soviet Union’s Sputnik. After all, wasn’t it Sputnik, launched four months earlier, that represented the real scientific breakthrough and sent Americans cowering in fear at the shiny Russian ball orbiting overhead?

Not exactly. Sputnik, a “hey look at me” feat of engineering, did not throw the nation’s scientists into a panic or prompt a mad scramble to match the Soviet demonstration of power. Instead, President Eisenhower, while prodding his team for results, kept an established national space program focused on the deliberate pursuit of scientific progress, and as a result, it was the runner-up that scored a more important breakthrough for pure research.

Conceived by James Van Allen of the University of Iowa and built by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge, Explorer 1 carried with it instruments to detect radiation in near space and to send data back to Earth. This mission was an extension of a vast global project — called the International Geophysical Year — that involved thousands of scientists and technicians from almost every country.

Sputnik merely orbited Earth; Explorer made the first physical discovery in space, identifying the regions of high and low radioactivity now known as the Van Allen belts. These radioactive realms offered clues for understanding atmospheric phenomena such as the aurora borealis and the way radio waves behave over long distances. The belts also suggested that space might contain unusual and unimagined hazards.

Most interesting is the point made at the end of the article about how the U.S. space program is accomplishing more for science by supporting projects such as Hubble and leaving the peopled-mission fun to the private sector.