Frontiers in the Environment: Fall 2010 Archive
Biochemical Bloodhounds: Using Enzymes to Detect Toxins
Larry Wackett, Distinguished McKnight Professor, BioTechnology Institute
(9/22) Toxic chemicals have always been with us, but today’s toxins are more problematic than ever: They are often made by people instead of by plants, bacteria, or other living things, and are found in places and even as part of objects we generally assume are safe. How can we detect toxins’ presence and so avoid harm? Wackett is working on enlisting enzymes to sniff out the presence s-triazine ring compounds, a major class of manmade chemicals used as disinfectants, dyes, drugs, monomers, pesticides, and explosives. His talk will focus on melamine, which was used as a food adulterant and hit the news in 2008 for sickening hundreds of thousands of children in China. Wackett will show how fundamental enzyme research provided the key ingredient for a melamine test kit as well as valuable insights into the mechanism of melamine toxicity. View presentation
Hooked on Halorespiration: How, Where, and So What?
Paige Novak, Associate Professor, Civil Engineering
(9/29) Chlorinated organic molecules are some of the world's most hazardous compounds, causing effects from cancer to obesity. Developed by humans for uses such as degreasing, insulation, and fumigation, they now contaminate tens of thousands of sites in the U.S. alone. About 15 years ago, scientists discovered bacteria that were able to "breathe" some of these chlorinated compounds and thereby detoxify them. Astoundingly, some of these so-called halorespirers actually require chlorinated compounds to live. Scientists and engineers have since debated how these organisms came to be, whether they have a niche in uncontaminated environments, and how we can best harness their abilities. Novak will talk about her work trying to unravel the natural role of halorespirers in hopes of developing better clean-up methods. View presentation
Eight-Track Tapes, Compact Discs and Solar Cells
Eray Aydil, Professor, Chemical Engineering and Materials Science
(10/6) At least a dozen existing technologies produce solar cells with overall power conversion efficiencies ranging from 5% to 40%. Given that these technologies are available, the question arises as to whether society should invest in research to develop even more new technologies, or just work to improve existing ones. Aydil will make the case that we should continue research on new types of solar cells, basing his argument on the decision in the 1970s to develop new recording technologies beyond the eight-track tape – a decision that led to compact discs and eventually to digital formats. Even though new technologies are uncertain, Aydil will argue, they are worth pursuing on the chance they may lead to even more efficient solar cells at much lower cost, revolutionizing renewable energy. View presentation
Fuelish Choices: Improving Sustainability of Transportation
Jason Hill, Assistant Professor, Bioproducts & Biosystems Engineering
(10/13) Biofuels are touted as a means of achieving energy independence, reducing climate change, cleaning the air, and renewing rural communities. But do they? When we fill our tank with ethanol or biodiesel, are we simply trading one set of problems for another? Jason Hill will explore the consequences of our various transportation fuel options, including "none of the above" - a telling comparison with the fossil fuel and greenhouse gas reductions we could achieve by driving less and improving vehicle efficiency. View presentation.
Property Rights on the New Frontier: Climate Change, Natural Resource Development, and Renewable Energy
Alexandra Klass, Professor, Law
(10/20) As a historical matter, natural resource development law often focused on granting private property interests in natural resources such as water, minerals, and oil and gas, to encourage development of those resources. The pollution control laws of the 1970s and 1980s, by contrast, attempted to limit property rights in land and resources in order to protect the environment and reduce harmful emissions to air, water, and land. Climate change, of course, is a pollution control problem with a natural resource development solution, namely, the need to create new renewable energy sources to replace petroleum, coal, and natural gas and new technologies to eliminate CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use. Professor Alexandra Klass will analyze the history of natural resource law and pollution control law to provide some insights into current efforts by states to create wind easements, solar easements, and other property rights in the use of or access to renewable resources. View research paper.
CO2 – Use It Or Lose It!
Martin Saar, Assistant Professor, Geology and Geophysics
(10/27) Carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels is widely considered the main culprit behind current global climate change. As a result, renewable energy sources that emit little to no CO2 hold great promise for slowing down global warming. One such energy source, geothermal energy, involves injecting a fluid into the ground to carry heat to the surface for electricity generation. In an intriguing twist, it turns out that CO2 can be used as the working fluid in this process - in fact, it can extract heat with an efficiency roughly twice that of water, all else being equal. At the same time it's being used in this way, CO2 can be permanently sequestered below ground, reducing the concentration in the atmosphere. Therefore, rather than "losing CO2" to the atmosphere, we can "use CO2" to produce renewable energy. A geothermal power plant constructed around this concept would have a negative carbon footprint - that is, it would not only not release CO2, but actually sequester CO2 while generating electricity. View presentation.
Animal Translocation – The Public Health Implications of Moving Animals and Animal Products
Jeff Bender, Associate Professor, Veterinary Public Health
(11/13) Millions of animals cross the US border annually - some legally, some illegally. In addition, within-country movement of animals and animal products has been linked to outbreaks impacting human health and regional economies. The drive for demand for animals and animal products has impacts on the environment. Jeff Bender will provide an overview of this issue relating recent case studies and the need for a thoughtful discourse considering the need for food and the cultural implications of changing trade and movement policies. View presentation.
Emerging Technologies and the Environment: The Right Pushmi-Pullyu?
Jennifer Kuzma, Associate Professor, Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs
(11/10) Explore the role of emerging technologies such as bio-, nano-, and syn bio in addressing pressing global environmental problems. What is the right balance for using emerging technologies (Ets) with unknown consequences when they show promise but also may present irreversible harm? What is driving their use now? Who should make decisions about their use in the future and what should those decisions be based upon? Case studies, for example of nanoparticles for pollution remediation and synthetic organisms for cleaner fuels, will be presented, along with Prof. Kuzma's current policy sciences research studying governance systems for ETs in the environment. View presentation.
Lester Brown Was Half Right: What We Can Learn from China’s Food System
Jim Harkness, President, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy
(11/17) China faces the challenge of feeding 22% of the world’s population on 9% of its arable land. What does this really mean for China’s farmers, the environment and the world? And what can we learn from China’s experience as we grapple with challenges of development, environment and hunger? Harkness, who lived and worked in China for 16 years before joining the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, examines the challenges of feeding China and explains why, despite two decades of dire warnings, China’s growing appetite has not brought famine to the rest of the world…yet.
China's Challenges: Energy, Environment, and Development
Elizabeth Wilson, Associate Professor, Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs
(12/1) China's economic growth is fueling rapid development and a rapid increase in energy use and associated environmental emissions. With Chinese electricity demand growing at 9-13% a year, Chinese policy has been reshaping the way that energy is made and used. New investments in energy efficiency, renewable energy, nuclear and coal are proceeding at record breaking levels, and efforts to combat environmental pollution are evolving rapidly. Wilson, who spent the 2009-2010 academic year at Tsinghua University, will discuss the context, policies and challenges which are shaping the Chinese energy revolution. View presentation.
A New Green Machine: The Future of Sustainable Enterprise
Tim Smith, Associate Professor, Bioproducts & Biosystems Engineering
(12/8) How can private enterprise engage in solving today and tomorrow's environmental problems? What will it take to get current technology into the hands that need it most? Who's driving consumptive use and reuse patterns around the world? Where do informational and physical flows combine to save the atmosphere? These questions are often too complex for any single person, organization or government to answer. We need a new "green" machine - a global system of doing work that leverages the competitive, innovative nature of capitalism with the collaborative spirit of social progress. Dr. Smith will discuss how new collaborative forms of innovation, exchange and governance are needed to meaningfully shift how we organize for sustainability. View presentation.