XPRIZE Competition Poses Ocean Acidity Challenge
Sep20

XPRIZE Competition Poses Ocean Acidity Challenge

Today’s post is by Puneet Kollipara, intern at C&EN and an aquatic acidity aficionado. Humans pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, but not all of it stays in the air. About one-fourth of the released carbon dioxide dissolves into the oceans, where it has been lowering the global average pH of seawater and thereby threatening aquatic ecosystems. Unfortunately, the ocean is as complex as it is spacious, and ocean pH doesn’t change uniformly across its depth. To get the full picture, scientists need a lot of data, but current techniques for monitoring ocean pH are generally expensive, aren’t always reliable, and can’t go very deep underwater. Right now, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), for instance, has 18 ocean-chemistry monitors at various locations—more than anyone else in the world—but none of these sensors takes measurements below surface waters. “As you can imagine, that does not really represent the global oceans very well,” says Christopher L. Sabine, an oceanographer at NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory. A 22-month competition launched by the XPRIZE Foundation, a nonprofit aiming to spur technological innovation for society’s betterment, seeks to change that. The newly announced $2 million Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE calls on innovators of all stripes, both professional and amateur, to design better pH-measurement technologies. “The idea with the XPRIZE is to develop robust, inexpensive sensors that can be deployed much more easily,” says Sabine, whose NOAA lab is partnering with XPRIZE for the competition. Half of the $2 million prize will be awarded for the development of an affordable, reliable sensor, Sabine says. The other half will go toward a system that can accurately profile pH changes, including at great depths; such an instrument might start deep in the ocean and take real-time measurements as it’s lifted to the surface. Two types of instruments are currently in mainstream use for measuring ocean pH, but both have significant drawbacks. The first type, potentiometric sensors, involves probing a water sample with a device containing two electrodes. One electrode is enveloped in a semipermeable membrane that lets ions pass through, and the other is exposed directly to the water as a reference. Acid hydrogen ions flow from the seawater across the membrane, and a voltmeter measures the resulting electric-potential difference compared with the reference electrode. The sensor can use that measurement to calculate the water’s pH: The more H+ ions there are, the more that flow across the membrane, and the greater the resulting voltage. One drawback of pH electrodes, however, is that they’re very sensitive to the presence of other ions in seawater, which can also flow across...

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To Pee, Or Not To Pee? That Is The #ChemSummer Question
Jul30

To Pee, Or Not To Pee? That Is The #ChemSummer Question

I don’t really remember the first time I peed in the ocean. But it must’ve been when I was a girl, during one of my family’s numerous summer vacations to the Jersey shore. We rented the same property in Wildwood Crest year in and year out: a modest 3-bedroom apartment just blocks from the beach. What I do remember is a yearning to never leave the water, for my dad to throw me into a salty green wave one more time while shouting “Uh-oh Spaghetti-o!” I’d have to guess that it was during one of those marathon splash sessions when I first did it. If you spend enough time in the ocean that your fingers get wrinkly, your lips turn blue, and you have sand in unspeakable places, trudging back across the white-hot pavement to a rental house isn’t really an attractive bathroom option. I’m sure my parents weren’t in favor of escorting their dripping, pruney child to and fro throughout the afternoon and gave their consent. Today, my husband and I continue the Jersey shore visits—now a tradition—with my niece, taking her to the southern beaches each year for some fun in the sun … and surf. During our first year in the water, at the tender age of 8, she was hesitant. I told her she could relieve herself in the water, and she looked at me with embarrassment, the way only a child could look at an adult. Clearly, I was not hip. CLEARLY, I had missed that day of potty training. Fast-forward four years, and my darling niece pees in the ocean with the best of ‘em. It’s now my husband that needs the convincing: He refuses to go. To address his noncompliance, my niece and I have become a floating vaudeville act, forcing my husband between us as we put on a show. Me:  “Hey there, you said you had to pee.” Darling niece: “Yup. I just did.” Me: “Oh good, me too. So that’s done with. Hey hubs, you feel that warm spot?” Before I go any further, I should interject here to say that I do not advocate peeing in pools or other small bodies of water—ponds, pristine lakes in the Alps, etc. But oceans? Having so far failed with our comedic act, my niece and I this year changed tactics. We decided to turn to science (and chemistry) to reason with our reluctant (yet very tolerant) companion. Using the WiFi at the beach house, we mounted our case. Exhibit A: Urine is the vehicle by which your body gets rid of undesirable chemical compounds. But that doesn’t mean the compounds you’re...

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This Week on CENtral Science: Military Biofuels, Preserve it Like Beckham, and more
May31

This Week on CENtral Science: Military Biofuels, Preserve it Like Beckham, and more

Tweet of the Week: @carmendrahl @smbaxtersd I mean really, judging by the numbers, an alternative career today would be one where you get a faculty position.— Ryan G. Coleman (@rgcjk) May 31, 2013 To the network: Artful Science: How long should conservators protect David Beckham’s football? Cleantech Chemistry: It’s Actually Happening: Military biofuels grants Grand CENtral: Sarah Everts talks Artful Science at conservation meeting, Jyllian Kemsley moderated #chemsafety panel Newscripts: In Print: Mission to Mars, Molecular Fashion and Amusing News Aliquots The Watch Glass: Big Data, 1972-style and Bhopal Revisited and Chemical Genetics and Oil in the...

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What’s Your Solution To Drugs In The Environment?
Feb17

What’s Your Solution To Drugs In The Environment?

A guest post by C&EN European Correspondent Sarah Everts A new paper in PLoS ONE reports some alarming data: Bacteria living in the rivers fed by the waste streams of 90 drug production factories in India have high levels of antibiotic resistance genes. The work, from Joakim Larsson’s group at the University Göteburg, Sweden, was a follow-up to his team’s measurement of fluoroquinolone antibiotic and other active ingredient levels in manufacturing waste streams. In that study, sometimes the drugs turned up at therapeutic concentrations. The research shows that these low--and not so low--levels of antibiotics waste may be exacerbating microbial resistance to drugs we really can’t afford to do without. Larsson’s work is also another data point in the steady stream of reports that the drugs we use are causing side effects in the environment, with consequences ranging from feminization of fish to microbial resistance. So what’s to be done? Mae Wu and Sarah Janssen of the Natural Resources Defense Council recently wrote a snappy, pointed commentary in Environmental Science & Technology that effectively says action on the issue is mostly stalled—or in low gear at best: Identifying effective and efficient solutions is hampered by the complexity of the problem—multiple sources* contribute, only some of which are regulated, often by multiple federal agencies pursuant to various legal authorities. Furthermore significant data gaps mean that individual sources of contamination point the finger at each other without much substantiation. Advocacy groups, drinking water utilities, and government officials have introduced different initiatives to address this situation resulting in a scattershot of partial solutions rather than an overarching strategy. I wonder if Wu and Janssen would be encouraged by an email that popped in to my inbox at around the same time as Larsson’s paper: A call for researchers to suggest, by means of a websurvey, any number of pressing research questions that need answering about pharmaceuticals in the environment. The survey is being sponsored by the regulatory agency Health Canada, SETAC pharmaceuticals advisory group and a bit of funding from pharmaceutical companies, but the executors are two researchers at York University in the UK: Alistair Boxall, an environmental chemist who studies drugs in the environment, and Murray Rudd, an environmental economist who has set up similar surveys to prioritize research questions on ecosystem conservation. So go ahead-visit the survey and have your say. Rudd says he’s expecting several hundred questions from the survey which will then be whittled down to 40 top priorities at an upcoming Health Canada-sponsored stakeholders retreat in Southern Ontario. These priorities will be disseminated to policymakers, research funders, and the scientific community. Rudd acknowledges that there’s no guarantee...

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