Connect with us
Weed killer use may threaten dangerously reduced food production thanks to Black Grass Weed killer use may threaten dangerously reduced food production thanks to Black Grass

Environment

Weed killer use may threaten dangerously reduced food production thanks to Black Grass

Food security in the UK may be threatened thanks to the overuse of herbicides and the spreading of resistant strains of Black Grass.

Published

on

If ‘black-grass’ sounds faintly terrifying, then that may be because, according to recent research by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), it really is, undoubtedly, when it comes to the UK’s food security. More worryingly, its spread may be all our fault – due to the use of the powerful herbicides we’ve been using to fight it.

The ZSL’s research is strongly suggesting that the current generation of Alopecurus myosuroides (as black grass is more scientifically known) has generated a resistance to the weed killers traditionally used to keep it in check. Continued reliance on the weed killer approach, which farmers have trusted on so religiously in the past, could see yet more resistant strains cropping up until, eventually, these dominate the national picture.

Black grass has long been a problem for agriculture in Britain. It’s an annually growing weed that, although perfectly natural and a long term presence in wheat farming, can have a severe enough effect to wipe out farmers’ winter wheat crop. Since wheat is the staple of UK agriculture, and already black-grass is estimated to be costing 800,000 tons (or $400 million) worth of wheat production, increasing herbicide resistance could be a severe threat for the UK’s domestic food security.

[pn_btn][/pn_btn]

The scale of the problem has been highlighted by the ZSL’s research, conducted in conjunction with the Universities of Roehampton and Sheffield, which points out that the 800,000-ton figure is roughly 5% of the UK’s current wheat production. Any further loss to more herbicide-resistant black grass really could have frightening implications. Left unchecked, the herbicide-resistant black grass could spread to all wheat fields across the UK, robbing 3.4 million tons from the country’s annual wheat yield and costing farmers over £1 trillion in financial losses.

So far the one weed killer that black-grass has not developed an immunity to is glyphosate (although this comes with many other issues of its own, both for human and for crop health) but there is some evidence to suggest that the first hints of resistance are emerging to even this ubiquitous herbicide now.

To respond to the potential crisis, the researchers suggest that farmers restrict their herbicide use and diversify their black-grass battling methods to include a range of traditional and modern techniques, including direct sowing, delayed drilling, greater diversity in crop rotations, strict field hygiene and cultural control. Unfortunately, many of these methods can be labor and time-intensive. It is clear why busy farmers, who are increasingly prominent agri-business managers with vast field areas to monitor, may be tempted to stick to the old routine of liberally spraying weed killer to keep the problem at bay.

But it can’t just be left up to farmers, lead researcher Alexa Varah stresses, instead recommending that government steps in, perhaps to fund further research or advice services for struggling land managers and even, if things become that desperate, to impose statutory limits of herbicide use to bind farmers’ hands.

These issues are clearly in the air and, with Brexit set to change the nation’s funding formula for farming (which has for many years relied on EU subsidies to influence farming methods and land management) the UK government has already launched a high profile national food strategy, the first in 75 years, which looks set to recommend reforms to every part of the food chain, in the report’s own words, “from field to fork.” As such, perhaps the ZSL’s suggestions may form part of the food strategy’s ultimate findings.

The ZSL’s research is only the first national-scale study into the effect of herbicide resistance in the UK’s crop-based weeds. Further studies may yet give more in-depth insight or, more worryingly, reveal a grander scale to the threat the UK faces when it comes to domestic food security. In a world beset by global warming, where much of the Earth’s arable land has already been lost, with ever more mouths to feed and useable agricultural land only diminishing across the planet, this is an issue that governments are going to need to start taking very seriously indeed.

Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of The Sized delivered to your inbox daily. 

Advertisement

Environment

Searching for battery power at the bottom of the sea

As land based mines are either depleted or bring horrifying human rights risks, science finds new cobalt sources to mine – on the sea bed

Published

on

Searching for battery power at the bottom of the sea

Our future depends on batteries. From smartphones to computers to renewable energy, we have no reasonable picture of a civilized, post-fossil future that doesn’t revolve around them. The one major problem with that dependency on battery power is that the cobalt needed to create them can only be acquired at a horrible cost.

Rare as it is, a large chunk of the cobalt companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Google depend on for their technologies comes from mines in the Congo, mines where child labor is rife and, in some cases, children are literally worked to death. A lawsuit taken out against the above companies (as well as Dell and Tesla) has helped light a fire under big tech, with the thought that the cobalt might cost them more than just their consciences, and now great minds are turning to where else essential cobalt might be found. And, according to a news story in the Atlantic, the future may be at the sea bed.

In fact, already, companies like De Beers have begun mining diamonds and other minerals (worth millions of dollars) by using specialized ships to drag the surface of the sea bed for deposits. So far, these companies have been operating in coastal waters, since no regulation has yet been developed to allow for deep ocean mining.

However, a new mining code for international waters is set to be ratified by the United Nations this year, and it may open the floodgates to a new extractive industry targeting the rich cobalt, copper, nickel and manganese deposits on a series of deep-sea plains. The goals of their regulation will be related to the hows, not the ifs, of deep-sea mining, on mitigation of the inevitable damage, not prevention of it altogether.

To this end they have already offered exploratory licenses to thirty companies, many of which have raised mindboggling sums from venture capital to create experimental vehicles designed for exploring the untouched regions of the deep oceans for potentials to extract their minerals, doing everything from dredging for easily accessible nodules to shattering rocky undersea landscapes to extract the minerals within.

The nodules that lie on the sea bed surface are obtainable using nothing more complicated or obtrusive than vacuum hoses to suck them up. However, as you’ll know from cleaning your own house, a vacuum hose is not a precision instrument and millions of tons of sediment inevitably get drawn up in the process, this then being dumped back on other areas of the sea bed, and all over any poor sea creatures that happen to be in the area, with the potential for this sediment to drift for hundreds, or even thousands, of kilometers from the original site of extraction.

Understandably, deep-sea mining is not without ethical implications of its own, particularly when it comes to biodiversity, and experts have been quick to speak out. The extraction methods under consideration are likely to create millions of tons of polluting slurry (containing poisons like mercury and lead) that would contaminate an area of hundreds of miles around each mining site (and the extraction companies are aiming to dredge at least a thousand square miles every year).

As we live through only the sixth great mass extinction in Earth’s history, can we really afford to eliminate countless more sea bed based species, some as yet undiscovered, in the search for resources to fuel the 21st-century lifestyle? Environmentalists are not alone in suggesting that technology may not provide the answer and that perhaps we need to pay more for our consumables (to allow the supply chain to fairly pay its workers) and, quite frankly, consume less.

Certainly, something needs to be done about the supply and labor chains behind our consumer electronics, particularly smartphones which have a horrible record when it comes to production ethics (in spite of Fairphone’s attempts to make a case for ethical supply chains) but is mining the sea beds the only answer? We don’t think we’re alone in hoping that it isn’t.

Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of The Sized delivered to your inbox daily.

Continue Reading

Environment

Scientists are close to inventing spray-on solar panels

We are getting spray-on solar cells, soon.

Published

on

Scientists are close to inventing spray-on solar panels

The discovery by a team at the University of Central Florida has opened up the possibility of creating photovoltaic cells in spray form, and it’s all made possible by a strange new chemical known as perovskite.

The concept of using perovskite as a replacement for the silicon currently used is over a decade old, with the main issue being, not how to make perovskite solar cells, a process that is well underway and gaining rapidly in energy conversion efficiency, but how to make enough perovskite, cheaply and efficiently, to make the effort worthwhile.

Perovskite is an excellent photovoltaic medium for a number of reasons, including its excellent light absorption, its charge carrying capabilities and its long life, some devices using perovskite already reaching 23% power conversion efficiency and variant perovskites have been shown to have the capacity to display properties of superconductivity, giant magnetoresistance, spin-dependent transport and even catalytic properties. They can also be processed in either solid form or as a liquid – which is where the notion of applying a photovoltaic surface from a spray can, or even a paintbrush, becomes realistic.

[pn_btn][/pn_btn]

In fact, the only issue with this solar power super substance, when it comes to creating a new super-efficient generation of photovoltaic cells, is making it in a scalable, energy-efficient, and affordable way. Which is where the new research steps up to the plate.

The new breakthrough from the University of Central Florida has been through the use of machine learning and a powerful AI dedicating itself to finding the most energy-efficient, and, just as importantly, low cost, recipe for making perovskite. Any recipe would require the perovskite to be efficient at energy conversion and flexible enough to be used to coat sun-soaked surfaces to create Perovskite Solar Cells (or PSCs, for short).

The team, with their AI, are literally piggybacking all the previous research done into PSCs, feeding their AI a data set made up of the data points from previous peer-reviewed research papers to predict, based on those earlier findings, what future combinations and techniques might be most effective at making cheap, scalable perovskite.

In a paper published in Advanced Energy Materials, which made the cover story such as the buzz around it, the lead author Jayan Thomas stated his hopes that this machine learning approach would be able to investigate the physics behind the manufacturing process, in order to make more efficient and effective decisions about how to produce perovskite in the future. If the concept proves successful, this could easily lead, not just to cheaper and more readily available renewable energy, to spray on solar cells within most of our lifetimes.

And, in recent years, machine learning has already more than proved itself as a successful discoverer of new compounds in the fields of material science, chemistry and even medicine, where it is revolutionizing the discovery of new drugs through startups like Insilico Medicine, Kebotix and Benevolent AI and even heavily government-funded schemes like the Materials Genome Project.

As such, Jayan Thomas’ research is very much tapping into a resonant, and currently very successful, theme in modern material science. However, even if the hoped-for breakthrough in perovskite manufacture comes through and leads to mass PSC production, the researchers will still be running to catch up. Already companies such as Poland’s Saule and the UK’s Oxford PV have been producing PSCs, at a limited scale, for commercial operators well outside of the laboratory environment, from a hotel in Japan to office buildings to field tests in the Chinese cities Hangzhou and Ezhou.

So will we see spray on solar cells within the next decade or two? The jury is still out on that, as the AI may need to chew over one or two hundred more peer-reviewed papers. But there can be little doubt that perovskite, and the solar cells it can create so efficiently, will have to be a part of our portfolio of energy sources, as the Earth continues hotting up and renewables are called to step up and save us.

Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of The Sized delivered to your inbox daily.

Continue Reading

Environment

China getting close to workable nuclear fusion with its “artificial sun”

The Chinese are closing in on the holy grail of sustainable energy.

Published

on

China getting close to workable nuclear fusion with their "artificial sun"

Back in March, researchers in China were confidently predicting that a workable fusion reactor would be in operation by the end of 2019. We’ve reached that chronological milestone now, but has science finally caught up to the dream of replicating the energy-producing methods of the sun?

Because that’s what HL-2M tokamak, also known as the ‘artificial sun,’ is being created to do. An update in November announced that everything was ‘going smoothly’ in its construction and installation of the coil system, delivered back in June. As for whether the facility will work, when it is switched on in 2020, this remains to be seen.

Based in Chengdu, Sichuan province (famous for its hot sauces), the tokamak apparatus is intended to generate plasma that will go up to temperatures of 200 million degrees Celsius. Now, that’s some hot sauce. In its first phase, it would aim to produce 200 megawatts of power, ramping up to a whopping full gigawatt in phase two. Operations are being directed through the auspices of the Southwestern Institute of Physics, under the China National Nuclear Corporation, as part of an international project (the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or Iter, project) which has already seen very nearly a billion dollars of investment by the Chinese.

[pn_btn][/pn_btn]

The tokamak itself is a device for generating a magnetic field powerful enough to contain (and confine) a body of plasma. The fusion reaction in that plasma will then generate heat, which will be absorbed by the tokamak’s walls and transferred into creating steam to drive a turbine, just like in a conventional coal or gas-fuelled power plant. The design was first conceived way back at the dawning of the atomic age in the 1950s by Soviet scientists Igor Tamm and Andrei Sakharov, with the first working model created by Natan Yavlinsky and the name being a compound of ‘tok’ from the Russian for electrical current and ‘mag’ for magnetic field.

The HL-2M is an upgrade on the HL-2A and brings to four the number of major working tokamaks in China, although other, smaller devices have also been built and used over the several decades of China’s pursuit of fusion energy since the 1960s.

There’s little wonder China, and all of humanity, has so long kept up the attempt to crack the sun’s secret, fusion would create a near limitless supply of energy with a fuel source of hydrogen, the most abundant elements in creation.

But it’s not a simple process to replicate. Just as the sun experiences unexpected solar flares, plasma can be an unstable substance, subject to unexpected shifts. If the plasma should escape the magnetic field and touch the walls of the container, we’d all be in a whole lot of trouble. These events are called ‘disruptions’ which, although it sounds minor, can be powerful enough to briefly lift hundreds of tons of concrete and steel up in the air by a centimeter. As such, predicting the when and wheres of disruptions has become key to developing workable fusion energy.

There have been many false alarms in the search for nuclear fusion, including the supposed discovery of cold fusion (creating a fusion reaction at room temperature using deuterium) by Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann in 1989, an unrepeatable experiment that did much to sully the concept, although a Google-funded project may be set to revive this wild idea. Even tokamak style fusion is still in its infancy, with the science of fusion still not fully known, being worked out in these million-pound facilities, let alone the practicalities of making it a workable energy source.

And there are critics of the whole fusion endeavor altogether, pointing to the inevitable radioactive waste and damage, and need to shield humans from it, that comes even with fusion energy, which depends of neutron-rich forms of hydrogen, such as tritium and deuterium, that are themselves non-renewable, unlike the pure hydrogen the sun itself digests.

But nonetheless, China is investing big time and, with the rest of the world, watching with bated breath to see if this time is the breakthrough that could deliver us all infinite clean energy into the future.

Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of The Sized delivered to your inbox daily.

Continue Reading

Environment

Climate change is decimating our sealife through a strange new disease

The melting Arctic sea ice spreads a virulent and deadly virus.

Published

on

Climate change is decimating our sealife through a strange new disease

The melting ice waters of the Arctic are opening up new connections and pathways for marine species to cross into previously unexplored territories, allowing animals who have had no contact with one another before to mix – and spread diseases.

The Northern Pacific has been hit by Phocine distemper virus (PDV), a disease that went through the seal populations like wildfire in 1988 and 2002, leaving thousands dead. Much like measles, PDV is airborne, highly contagious, and spread easily by any sort of contact with an infected animal.

By 2004, it had jumped species to Alaska’s population of Northern Sea Otters. This wasn’t just a different species, it was a different ocean, making it clear that, even 15 years ago, something strange was going on. The fact that the infection rate peaked twice, in 2003 and 2009 (coincidentally both of these years were preceded by record low levels of sea ice), gave some clue as to what that might be.

In response to the worrying mystery, a long-term study has been undertaken by a team that includes Tracey Goldstein, associate director of One Health Institute at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. It has directed efforts to take blood samples and nasal swabs from over 2,500 animals, including seals, northern sea otters, and Steller sea lions.

[pn_btn][/pn_btn]

These animals are all linked by their dependence on sea ice, which they use to rest between the time they spend in water, to breed and give birth on. As the ice sheets have disappeared, the animals have been forced to extend their range in certain areas to find suitable hunting and resting grounds.

Not only that, but warmer waters will force fish and other sea creatures they catch further into the depths of the ocean, requiring the seals, otters, and sea lions to extend their range even further – and with it the spread of PDV infection.

According to NASA records, Arctic Sea ice hit its second-lowest ever level this year, meaning that more outbreaks of PDV in previously unaffected mammal communities may soon be on the horizon, as animals from the Arctic and Pacific oceans meet.

Not only that, but the Arctic’s remoteness makes it difficult for us to gauge the number already infected, as Goldstein points out, and the number of animals dead. Although it seems likely the first two outbreaks have at least halved the population of European harbor seals that were affected.

This isn’t just a problem for remote sea mammal populations as humans are dependent on hunting and fishing on the Arctic coasts. Native Alaskans are already finding their traditional hunting grounds bare (which is having a damaging effect on their traditional culture) and are being forced further and further out to sea, or even to alternative types of hunting.

In spite of this, many humans are still seeing opportunities presented by the melting ice caps, such as the opening up of previously non-existent shipping routes, including a direct route between East Asia and Europe.

Such optimism somewhat disregards the carbon emissions that are responsible for the ice sheet loss, and the global shipping industry’s responsibility for almost 3% of those emissions. That’s not even considering the impending disaster if the land-based ice sheets should melt away to nothing.

With such remote and dispersed populations of animals being PDV carriers, inoculating them all or otherwise isolating the virus would be virtually impossible, which leaves just one obvious solution to limit the spread – stop the sea ice melt.

This is a big ask, but it is one that climate scientists the world over have been clamoring for us to do, and not just for the sake of marine life (just ask the population of Tuvalu how melting ice caps affect them). If humans are to take responsibility for their role as stewards of the Earth, or even responsibility for their own future, this is a straightforward take-home message, but sadly, it does very little for the mammals of the northern oceans.

Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of The Sized delivered to your inbox daily.

Continue Reading

Environment

Mobile phones are killing the planet and they’re only getting worse

The carbon footprint of our phones is only growing with each successive new release and the resources to make them are running out fast.

Published

on

Mobile phones are killing the planet and they’re only getting worse

Even though computer use is moving away from the giant power-hungry desktop and tower devices of yesteryear into slimline, power-dieting handheld devices, the way we are using our devices is beginning to have an ever greater impact on world carbon production.

With more and more data being stored in the cloud, and every like, message, Instagram photo, and unthought out reaction to… err … Instagram photos requires more massive banks of energy-hungry servers than ever to store all this data.

Even as recently as 2007, computing and information technology accounted for just 1% of carbon emissions, but it is already three times that now and looks set to soar to 14% by 2040 unless internet companies really start to take green energy sourcing in hand.

Out of all these emissions, a casual observer might assume that the humble smartphone (ignoring its impact on cloud storage needs) would have minimal impact on carbon emissions. But you’d be wrong. The very creation of each and every phone carries a carbon footprint that adds up to as much as 95% of the emissions that its usage creates in two years (roughly 22kg of CO2 per phone).

[pn_btn][/pn_btn]

Since most mobile phone users traditionally update their phones to a new model every two years, phones are having double the impact on the environment they should have.

The fortunate fact that people are updating their phones less and less often (since the devices already do everything we want) has led to companies making their new products ever bigger, fancier, and with an ever heavier carbon footprint. Larger screens have a noticeably larger carbon footprint than smaller models (even though the carbon footprint of handsets is broadly falling). Phone companies are desperate to look like they are green and have schemes in place to show their credentials and good intentions, such as recycling programs. In reality, though, only 1% of smartphones are actually recycled.

This is particularly worrying since some of the rare elements in the phones may run out this century. Such shortages could have serious geopolitical implications, and the need to extract the lithium used in their batteries has already been suggested as one of the reasons why Evo Morales was ousted from power in Bolivia.

These wider issues aside, it is a relatively simple task to reduce the carbon footprint of mobile phones: just use them longer before we replace them. It really is as easy as that. In fact, if consumers used their phones for just a third longer, it could save as much carbon as the annual emissions of the Republic of Ireland.

Greenpeace has even brought out their own handy guide to phones and phone providers with the lowest carbon footprint.

However, as previously mentioned, the real emerging baddies when it comes to carbon emissions are data servers, and our social media-obsessed age is requiring evermore data centers to deal with our growing need for storage. They are currently using 3% of the world’s electricity and producing 2% of global carbon emissions, and are set to match the emissions of the entire USA by 2040.

But fear not, Google and Facebook have pledged to source the power for their vast data centers from 100% renewables, and Apple is already way ahead of them, as its data servers are already zero carbon for energy production.

However, even these mighty internet behemoths may only be gnats in the face of the coming data server needs of the ‘internet of things’ (IoT). The IoT has been looming on the horizon for some time now and is already pretty much upon us, with 15 billion active gadgets already in the world, but estimates suggest its power demands will expand exponentially with internet-enabled devices. But for all its need for more servers, the efficiencies created by the IoT could actually generate a net save in carbon in the long run.

So maybe the future is still mobile, but if you do a bit more recycling and reusing, and not so much social media clicking, the planet will thank you for your care.

Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of The Sized delivered to your inbox daily.

Continue Reading
Advertisement