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UPI NewsTrack Science and Technology News

April 3, 2013 at 6:58 PM   |   Comments

'Pre-life' chemistry on Saturn moon?

PASADENA, Calif., April 3 (UPI) -- NASA scientists say complex organic chemistry in unexpected areas of the atmosphere of Saturn's moon Titan could eventually lead to the building blocks of life.

A laboratory experiment at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., simulating the atmosphere of the ringed planet's largest moon, shows that such chemistry exists lower in the atmosphere than previously thought, suggesting another region on the moon that could brew up prebiotic materials.

"Scientists previously thought that as we got closer to the surface of Titan, the moon's atmospheric chemistry was basically inert and dull," laboratory researcher Murthy Gudipati said. "Our experiment shows that's not true.

"The same kind of light that drives biological chemistry on Earth's surface could also drive chemistry on Titan, even though Titan receives far less light from the sun and is much colder. Titan is not a sleeping giant in the lower atmosphere, but at least half awake in its chemical activity."

Titan has a thick, hazy atmosphere with hydrocarbons, including the organic molecules methane and ethane.

"We've known that Titan's upper atmosphere is hospitable to the formation of complex organic molecules," researcher Mark Allen said. "Now we know that sunlight in the Titan lower atmosphere can kick-start more complex organic chemistry in liquids and solids rather than just in gases."

In previous laboratory experiments, organic molecules like those found on Titan were exposed to liquid water and over time developed into biologically significant molecules, such as amino acids and the nucleotide bases that form RNA.

"These results suggest that the volume of Titan's atmosphere involved in the production of more complex organic chemicals is much larger than previously believed," Edward Goolish, acting director of NASA's Astrobiology Institute, said. "This new information makes Titan an even more interesting environment for astrobiological study."


Iceland volcanoes said growing threat

LONDON, April 3 (UPI) -- British researchers say some Icelandic volcanoes could produce eruptions just as explosive as those in the Pacific Rim, with disruptive ash clouds.

Previously, scientists had thought that Icelandic magma was less "fizzy" -- containing less volcanic gases like carbon dioxide -- than that in Pacific Ocean volcanoes, and expected much less explosive eruptions by comparison.

However, research by Britain's The Open University and Lancaster University said they've found evidence of Icelandic magma twice as "fizzy" as previously believed, increasing the likelihood of future eruptions like that of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in 2010 that created ash clouds that disrupted air travel over large parts of Europe.

The researchers analyzed pumice and lava from an eruption at Iceland's Torfajokull volcano about 70,000 years ago to search for evidence of the levels of gases from water and carbon dioxide in the eruption.

"I was amazed by what I found," Lancaster University doctoral student Jacqui Owen said. "I measured up to 5 percent of water in the inclusions, more than double what was expected for Iceland, and similar in fact to the values for explosive eruptions in the Pacific 'Ring of Fire'.

"We knew the Torfajokull volcanic eruption was huge -- almost 100 times bigger than recent eruptions in Iceland -- but now we also know it was surprisingly gas-rich."

The researchers said their study shows Icelandic volcanoes have the power to generate the fine ash capable of being transported long distances and cause disruption across Europe.

With worrying evidence of increased volcanic activity, "Iceland's position close to mainland Europe and the north Atlantic flight corridors means air travel could be affected again," Lancaster researcher Hugh Tuffen said.


Australia braces for more extreme weather

CANBERRA, Australia, April 3 (UPI) -- Australia will get more, and worse, extreme weather resulting from climate change and should act now to "halt the trend," the country's Climate Commission said.

The global climate system, warmer and moister than it was 50 years ago, is bringing increased heat and making extreme weather events more frequent and severe, the commission said in a report Wednesday.

Last summer was Australia's hottest ever, including the longest and most extreme heat wave on record, the Bureau of Meteorology said.

The effects of extreme weather have a dramatic impact on communities and infrastructure, with the cost often running to billions of dollars, Australian officials said.

"Only strong preventative action now and in the coming years can stabilize the climate and halt the trend of increasing extreme weather for our children and grandchildren," China's official Xinhua News Agency quoted the climate commission's chief Tim Flannery as saying.

Australia can expect more heat waves, fires, cyclones, heavy rainfall and drought unless action is taken, Australian Greens party leader Christine Milne said.

The release of the report "should end climate denial and put higher greenhouse reduction targets and adaptation to existing warming on the political agenda," she said, calling for the restoration of funding for planning to deal with the issue.

"The cost of not acting on climate change is greater than the cost of acting."


Scientists make hydrogen fuel from plants

BLACKSBURG, Va., April 3 (UPI) -- U.S. scientists say their method of extracting large quantities of hydrogen from any plant could create a low-cost, environmentally friendly fuel source.

Researchers at Virginia Tech said they have succeeded in using xylose, the most abundant simple plant sugar, to produce a large quantity of hydrogen in a method that can be performed using any source of biomass.

"Our new process could help end our dependence on fossil fuels," Y.H. Percival Zhang, a Virginia Tech professor of biological systems engineering, said. "Hydrogen is one of the most important biofuels of the future."

This environmentally friendly method of producing hydrogen utilizes renewable natural resources, releases almost no zero greenhouse gases and doesn't require costly or heavy metals, a university release reported Wednesday.

Other researchers say the discovery has the potential to have a major effect on alternative energy production.

"The key to this exciting development is that Zhang is using the second most prevalent sugar in plants to produce this hydrogen," said Jonathan R. Mielenz at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, who is familiar with Zhang's work but not affiliated with the project.

"This amounts to a significant additional benefit to hydrogen production and it reduces the overall cost of producing hydrogen from biomass."

Most hydrogen for the commercial market is presently produced from natural gas, which is expensive to manufacture and generates a large amount of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, researchers said.

"It really doesn't make sense to use non-renewable natural resources to produce hydrogen," Zhang said. "We think this discovery is a game-changer in the world of alternative energy."

Topics: Mark Allen
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