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Red bricks can be charged, store energy

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Aug. 12 (UPI) — Chemists at Washington University in St. Louis have developed a method for converting red bricks, the ubiquitous building material, into “smart bricks” that can be charged and store energy like a battery.

Scientists published their proof-of-concept paper this week in the journal Nature Communications.

“Our method works with regular brick or recycled bricks, and we can make our own bricks as well,” co-author Julio D’Arcy said in a news release.

“As a matter of fact, the work that we have published in Nature Communications stems from bricks that we bought at Home Depot right here in Brentwood, Missouri; each brick was 65 cents,” said D’Arcy, an assistant professor of chemistry at Washington.

Designers and engineers have previously recognized the brick’s ability to absorb and store the sun’s energy, but the latest study marks the first time researchers have developed a strategy for converting a red brick into a supercapacitor.

“In this work, we have developed a coating of the conducting polymer PEDOT, which is comprised of nanofibers that penetrate the inner porous network of a brick; a polymer coating remains trapped in a brick and serves as an ion sponge that stores and conducts electricity,” D’Arcy said.

The iron oxide, or rust, that give bricks their red color works to trigger the polymerization process. Authors of the proof-of-concept paper have yet to build a chargeable brick, but their calculations suggest a smart brick could store significantly amounts of energy.

The research team proposed a range of potential applications for their smart bricks. For example, a collection of smart bricks could be linked with solar cells and used to power emergency lighting.

“Advantageously, a brick wall serving as a supercapacitor can be recharged hundreds of thousands of times within an hour. If you connect a couple of bricks, microelectronics sensors would be easily powered,” D’Arcy said.



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World’s most pristine tropical forests remain vulnerable to deforestation

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Aug. 10 (UPI) — An analysis of the planet’s healthiest, most-intact tropical forests suggests an overwhelming majority remain vulnerable to deforestation.

According to the new study, published Monday in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, just 6.5 percent of the “best of the last” tropical forests enjoy formal protections.

For the study, an international team of researchers, including scientists with NASA and the United Nations, used high-resolution satellite images to map the presence of high-quality forests across the tropics. Researchers focused on finding the most intact forests, and those with the high ecological value, not necessarily the largest.

“Every year, research reveals new ways that old, structurally complex forests contribute to biodiversity, carbon storage, water resources, and many other ecosystem services,” study author Patrick Jantz said in a news release.

“That we can now map such forests in great detail is an important step forward in efforts to conserve them,” said Jantz, a research professor at Northern Arizona University.

When researchers compared maps of currently protected tropical forests with their maps of intact, high quality forests, they found very little overlap. Historically, protection efforts have favored quantity over quality, according to the authors of the new paper.

The study determined just half of the Earth’s humid tropical forests boast high ecological integrity, the majority of which are located within the the Amazon and Congo basins.

Researchers also looked at deforestation rates and the human pressures currently threatening the tropic’s healthiest forests. Their findings suggest the best of the last tropical forests are exceedingly vulnerable.

Scientists say they hope their findings will help policy makers and forest managers better prioritize forest protection and restoration efforts. Of the 4.6 million acres of the humid tropical forests found around the globe, the authors of the new study suggest 41 percent be granted new protections.

The researchers suggest forest managers work reduce human pressures across another 19 percent. The study calls also calls for active restoration efforts in 7 percent of tropical forests.



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Peak viewing Tuesday night for Perseid meteor shower

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The wait is over. For stargazers in North America, one of the most highly anticipated and reliable meteor showers will peak this week.

The Perseid meteor shower will peak on Tuesday night into early Wednesday morning, a reliable meteor shower that puts on a show year in and year out.

The Perseids are the most popular meteor shower as they peak on warm August nights as seen from the northern hemisphere,” the American Meteor Society said on its website.

This year, spectators across the Northern Hemisphere can expect to see between 50 and 75 meteors an hour under dark skies, which averages about one meteor every minute. Areas south of the equator will still be able to see some of the Perseids, but the hourly rates will be lower.

“The Geminid meteor shower in December produces about the same number of meteors. Both showers produce about four times more than any other shower during the year typically does,” AccuWeather astronomy blogger Dave Samuhel said.

One big difference between the Perseids and the Geminids is the weather.

August typically features more comfortable stargazing weather for the Perseids compared to December’s cold and often cloudy conditions around the peak of the Geminids.

As with every meteor shower, the best time to look is when the shower’s radiant point is highest in the sky. The number of meteors able to be seen will gradually increase as the radiant point moves higher in the sky.

“They are called Perseids since the radiant (the area of the sky where the meteors seem to originate) is located near the prominent constellation of Perseus,” the AMS explained.

Contrary to popular belief, sky watchers do not need to look at radiant point to see the meteor shower — shooting stars will be visible streaking across all areas of the sky.

The radiant point for the Perseids will rise above the horizon by around 11 p.m. local time and will continue to climb higher in the sky as the night progresses. However, the moon is set to rise by around 1 a.m. local time and will bring with it natural light pollution, making it more difficult to see some of the fainter meteors.

Because of this, the best window for viewing this year’s Perseid meteor shower will occur between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. local time.

“Even though the Perseids will be most active after midnight, I encourage people to start looking once it gets dark in the evening,” Samuhel said.

“You will be more likely to see a long-lived, bright meteor fly across a large portion of the sky during the evening.”

Onlookers staying out after 1 a.m. to watch the celestial light show should look to the darkest part of the sky away from the moon.

This year, most of the western and central United States will have cloud-free conditions for the peak of the Perseids. Favorable weather is also in the forecast for much of western Canada and the Canadian Prairies.

Folks east of the Mississippi River may have some clouds to contend with, especially across the Ohio Valley to the coast of the mid-Atlantic.

Other areas, such as the Deep South, northern New England and into the St. Lawrence River Valley will have some breaks in the clouds, which could provide opportunities to spot a few shooting stars throughout the night.

Meteors will continue to be visible in the nights following the peak, so those that find themselves under clouds on Tuesday night should plan for a night under the stars later in the week when weather conditions improve. However, the number of meteors visible will gradually decrease each night.

In addition to needing clear weather, a little patience is also required for watching the Perseids.

Dedicate a solid hour to doing nothing but looking for meteors,” Samuhel said. “If you look for only a few minutes, you might not see any.”

It is important not to look at any source of light while out looking for shooting stars this includes cellphone screens.

“Make yourself comfortable. Lay back on a lounge chair or a blanket on the grass. Don’t sit in a normal chair and look up, your neck will quickly get tired,” Samuhel said.

After the Perseids pass, the next moderate meteor shower will not occur until mid-October with the peak of the Orionids.



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Researchers, growers seek vanilla production in Florida

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ORLANDO, Fla., Aug. 11 (UPI) — Growers and researchers in Florida hope the aromatic vanilla bean can provide a lucrative, high-margin crop for the state’s farmers.

The University of Florida is heading research into vanilla, which comes from a tropical orchid and carries a hefty price around the world.

The goal is to determine how well the plants grow in Florida’s subtropical climate, where the dominant crop — citrus — has suffered from destructive diseases and hurricanes that have shut groves and put growers out of business.

Already, the university reports that hobbyists, bakers and breweries are calling to line up more vanilla production.

“The interest in this as a new crop is huge,” said Alan Chambers, assistant professor of tropical plant genetics at the university’s research station south of Miami.

“Our biggest problem right now is growers can’t find enough plants. We have people calling and asking to buy the beans we’re growing, and we say you have to wait a couple of years.”

Chambers knows that vanilla can grow in Florida because four native species of the vanilla orchid plants exist, but none of the native types produces authentic vanilla.

So, he’s started with the most common commercial species, vanilla planifolia, the beans from which Madagascar and Mexico export in large quantities. Chambers has 150 of the plants ready to distribute to community center gardens and other growers as far north as Tampa.

Florida will never be able to compete globally for vanilla due to the cost of labor, but there’s a big demand for specialty vanilla, he said.

“We’d be looking at extremely high quality, similar to the limited vanilla production in Hawaii,” Chambers said. “We’re hearing from brewers, herbalists, bakers and aroma extractors.”

Chambers also helped a Miami area grower, attorney Abrahm Smith, obtain 800 of the vanilla plants for Smith’s small, 8-acre farm. They take up about one-quarter of an acre.

“It’s a hobby farm for me, but if vanilla works, it will be great because it has a very high-profit margin,” Smith said. “I should be able to make as much from that quarter-acre as I do from 6 acres of fruit trees we’ve planted.”

That high margin is what drove the crop to become one of Madagascar’s top exports, but the bean is not processed on the island. Much of the bean crop is processed when it reaches the United States, where it is primarily used as a food and drink flavoring.

The price of vanilla has fluctuated wildly in recent years with weather conditions in Madagascar, from $600 per 2.2 pounds of beans in 2018 to $350 for that amount in June.

The United States is the largest importer of vanilla beans. Given the high value of the crop, and Florida’s struggles with citrus, the University of Florida funded Chambers’ research with a $75,000 grant.

Chambers also advises a separate project led by private industry that collects funds from interested growers to provide thousands of the vanilla plants from a nursery in Orlando.



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