Japan doesn’t have much oil, leaving the island nation heavily depended upon imports. What it does have, though, is natural gas—far under the sea in methane hydrate formations. The country said this week that it is going after those deposits, drilling test wells next year with the intention of beginning extraction before the decade is out.
What makes methane hydrate unique is that it is a seemingly frozen and yet flammable material. Formed in cold, high-pressure environments, it is found throughout the world’s oceans as well as under the frozen ground of countries with high latitudes. While global estimates vary considerably, the U.S. Department of Energy says, the energy content of methane occurring in hydrate form is “immense, possibly exceeding the combined energy content of all other known fossil fuels.” [UPI]
No one has yet pursued hydrates in a major commercial way, so their enormous potential sits untapped. Japan succeeded with a test well in Canada two years ago, and now aims to test near its home shores.
For tiny spores, there’s no defeating gravity—unless they work together.
The pathogenic fungus Sclerotinia sclerotiorum travels from place to place by shooting its spores up in the air to be carried away, the same way many plants and fungi spread. A single spore, however, can barely get airborne before it falls back to the surface. A species isn’t going to spread far with that kind of flight time, but luckily, this fungus has a solution. It blasts its spores en masse, creating a wind current that helps them all drift away to new homes.
A virus has been popping up in industrial plants and personal computers worldwide, and is now posing a looming threat over Iran, where more than 60 percent of the computers infected with the virus are located.
Some experts believe that virus, first discovered in June, was developed by high-level government programmers (possibly from the US, Israel, or Germany), and is directed toward a specific target, most likely Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant. It is believed to have been around for over a year.
The virus was written to exploit five security vulnerabilities (four of which were previously unknown, and only two of which have been patched) in a piece of software used in many different industrial systems. The virus is inserted into the system using a thumbdrive, then spreads from computer to computer.
The malware was so skillfully designed that computer security specialists who have examined it were almost certain it had been created by a government and is a prime example of clandestine digital warfare. While there have been suspicions of other government uses of computer worms and viruses, Stuxnet is the first to go after industrial systems. [The New York Times]
It’s one of Stephen Hawking‘s most famous hypotheses (though one often co-credited to other researchers): According to the rules of quantum mechanics, a black hole—from which nothing should be able to escape—actually can emit material in the form of Hawking radiation. In the thirty-plus years since the reknowned physicist made his prediction Hawking radiation has remained theoretical, but a research team now claims to have seen it right in the lab.
First, a quick refresher on Hawking radiation:
Physicists have long realised that on the smallest scale, space is filled with a bubbling melee of particles leaping in and out of existence. These particles form as particle-antiparticle pairs and rapidly annihilate, returning their energy to the vacuum. Hawking’s prediction came from thinking about what might happen to particle pairs that form at the edge of a black hole. He realised that if one of the pair were to cross the event horizon, it could never return. But its partner on the other side would be free to go. [Technology Review]
The lonesome, unpaired particles streaming away would make it appear that the black hole was emitting radiation, Hawking argued.
Twenty miles outside of Abu Dhabi, in the scorching desert of the United Arab Emirates, the new planned city of Masdar is nearly ready for its close-up. This weekend The New York Times reported from the experimental zero-carbon closed community, funded by stacks of oil money, which is now prepared to take on its first inhabitants. The urban design is simultaneously sleek and unsettling, raising the questions: Is this what the city of the future will look like, and would that be a good thing?
Masdar’s main designer, Norman Foster, hits all the notes that make green ears perk up: excluding any carbon-based energy sources, using simplified “sustainable” architecture, and learning from the lessons of the past, even going back as far as centuries-old desert settlements.
Auroras on Saturn form like those on Earth, when charged particles in the solar wind stream down the planet’s magnetic field towards its poles, where they excite gas in the upper atmosphere to glow. Some auroras on the ringed planet are also triggered when some of its moons, which are electrically conducting, move through the charged gas surrounding Saturn. [New Scientist]
California sea otters, furry frolickers of the saltwater seas, are in trouble. And the root cause is… a freshwater toxin? That’s the surprising truth, according to a study in the journal PLoS One led by Melissa Miller, a state wildlife veterinarian.
For the last several years, the otters on California’s coast have been dying in droves, and their population diminishing. No one could quite put a finger on why. Disease and starvation floated as explanations, and sharks seem to be devouring more sea otters lately. But none of these were the root cause, Miller finally found.
That’s the minuscule factor by which time speeds up if you’re elevated just one foot higher from the surface of the Earth, according to new study in Science that cleverly demonstrates Einstein‘s general relativity on a human scale. Don’t rush to move into the basement to extend your life, though: That tiny speck of a difference would account for just about a billionth of a second over the span of the year.
Gravity is the key player in this time variance:
The Florida panthers may be saved. They simply needed a little Lone Star assist.
Fifteen years ago the big cats in Florida were in dire straits, doomed to probable extinction because of genetic inbreeding and dwindling numbers. Now, though, their population is on the upswing, thanks to a program that brought in eight females from a panther population in Texas to bolster the Florida cats. Scientists who studied the experiment report in the journal Science that it has worked: Both the numbers and the genetic diversity of Florida panthers improved drastically.
Hybrids of the Florida cats and cousins of the same species from a wild-caught Texas population have twice the genetic variety and far fewer of the genetic defects that were known in Floridian panthers before the introduction, says geneticist [and study coauthor] Warren Johnson. [Science News]