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Talk nerdy to me

This week on Talk Nerdy to Me, we explore how kelp could lessen the acidification of the ocean, the building blocks of life found on a comet, COVID-19 transmission tracing, and more!

Kelp help

Humans have been pretty rough on Earth’s oceans. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) the acidity of the oceans has increased by 30 percent since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

 <strong>Kelp forests</strong> like this one play a major role in sucking up the carbon dioxide that is acidifying the oceans.

Major changes to Earth systems like this are wreaking havoc on local wildlife, which is why researchers from Stanford are so keen to study kelp. Able to grow five inches every day, kelp plants produce oxygen and suck up the carbon dioxide in the water that is leading to acidification.

By using sensors and techniques that allow them to study pH levels at the top and bottom of kelp forests, the researchers are able to better understand how these plants function as a part of the overall ecosystem. In the future, the scientists hope that we might be able to unlock how to turn kelp forests into “blue carbon” options, which involves trapping carbon dioxide in underwater vegetation systems.

Life amongst the stars

To the best of our knowledge, life is a unique feature of Earth. That said, a growing body of evidence is pointing to the possibility that life exists outside of our home planet. Researchers at Queen Mary University of London have recently added to this evidence with their discovery that a certain amino acid could have formed before stars did.

<strong>A comet's coma</strong> is the hazy cloud that surrounds the comet's icy nucleus. The coma is formed when the comet gets close enough to the sun to melt some of the ice into a cloud of gas and dust particles. Solar radiation pushes this cloud outward, which means a comet's tail will always face away from the sun.

Sometimes called the “building blocks of life,” amino acids help with the creation of proteins and the synthesis of hormones. Glycine, one of these amino acids, was the subject of this research. 

Following a study of a certain comet’s coma, the scientists discovered that glycine could be made without the need of energetic radiation such as those put off by UV rays. Through this process, which is called dark chemistry, the scientists point to the conclusion that glycine forms in interstellar clouds long before the arrival of fully fledged stars. This could mean that amino acids like glycine are preserved in icy comets before planets like Earth are even formed.

COVID cities 

Computers are playing an important role in the fight against COVID-19. We’ve previously written about how machine learning can help predict the evolution of a specific patient’s illness, but these kinds of models can extend well beyond an individual’s fight with this disease.

<strong>Major cities</strong> like New York were ravaged by the early stages of the pandemic. Now that the dust has settled a little, scientists are starting to dig into what we learned during this scary time.

Researchers at Stanford have created a computer model that predicts the spread of COVID-19 within cities. By combining various demographic data, epidemiological estimates, and anonymized cellphone location data, the researchers were able to learn a lot about how this disease spreads. 

For example, the researchers found that the risk associated with buying groceries is twice as high in non-white populations than it is for white people. What’s more, the model provides evidence that the initial stay-at-home orders reduced trips outside an individual’s home and helped stem the spread of infection.

More clean fuel options

If we want to effectively fight climate change, we’ll need to start moving away from fossil fuels. These new clean energy strategies will involve innovations in solar technology, wind energy capture, and a host of new ideas to explore. 

<strong>The climate crisis</strong> will require us to completely change our energy consumption habits. We'll need renewable sources like wind and solar, but ammonia-hydrogen conversion offers yet another clean alternative to fossil fuels.

One of these newly researched energy solutions is the conversion of ammonia into hydrogen. Hydrogen fuel is a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels, but it is very difficult to liquify. Ammonia, on the other hand, is much easier to liquify and can therefore be stored and transported more effectively than hydrogen.

Knowing this, researchers developed electrochemical systems that are able to convert ammonia into fuel-cell-ready hydrogen at the point of delivery. What’s more, this process only requires a relatively low temperature of 250 degrees Celsius to work right, as opposed to the 600 degrees other processes demand. This, along with the easily scalable nature of the researchers’ new method, makes ammonia-to-hydrogen conversion a viable solution.

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