Category Archives: Environment

Exceptional Bioethanol

One of the videos that particularly struck me from Chemistry class was “Bioethanol,” from the Periodic Table of Videos. In the video, Professor Poliakoff discusses his travels in Brazil, a country known for its high use of ethanol fuel, as well as his discovery regarding the use of bioethanol versus common gasoline. He found that while Brazilians domestically produced an abundant supply of ethanol fuel for use, most citizens continued to use regular gasoline to fuel their cars because it was more cost-effective (meaning that their cars could run on more kilometers per gallon with gasoline than with ethanol, and the difference in price between the two fuels was minimal). Poliakoff then went on to provide an economic explanation for this – because ethanol is fermented from sugar, and because sugar is also consumed in the diet, there is an increasing demand for sugar in both industries. Thus, the costs of producing bioethanol from sugar increase, and in turn, its price as a fuel increases. He then briefly mentioned that an alternative to using sugar in the production of ethanol could be cellulose, a material that is not specifically used for food (Haran, n.d.).Upon mentioning this, he piqued my interest and I decided to further investigate bioethanol and cellulose. This brought me to my question: How is bioethanol manufactured from cellulose, and to what extent is the use of cellulosic ethanol a cost-effective solution to preserve our environment?

(Bioethanol for Sustainable Transport, n.d.)
(Bioethanol for Sustainable Transport, n.d.)

To begin, I conducted background research on bioethanol, otherwise known as ethanol. Ethanol, whose chemical formula is C2H5OH, belongs to the chemical family of alcohols. It is “a colorless liquid and has a strong odor.” (European Biomass Industry Association, n.d.) A number of incentives have fostered the use of ethanol as an alternative fuel source. Among the most pressing of these include the increasing greenhouse gas emissions and harmful pollutants such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide to the environment (Derry et al., 2008), the increasing scarcity of fossil fuel resources, and the growing dependence on foreign imports of oil (CropEnergies AG, 2011). All these concerns for developed countries, such the United States and those in the EU, that result from excessive consumption of fossil fuels contribute to the utilization of ethanol as a cleaner alternative energy source for automobiles. Ethanol releases energy according to the following equation when combusted:

CH3CH2OH (l) + 3O2 (g) –> 2CO2 (g) + 3H2O (g)

(Derry et al., 2008)

There are three main steps in manufacturing ethanol. The first is the formation of “a solution of fermentable sugars,” the second is the “fermentation of these sugars to ethanol,” and the third requires the “separation and purification of the ethanol, usually by distillation.” (Badger, 2002) Traditionally, the fermentable sugars used to produce ethanol come from either sugar crops, such as sugar cane or sugar beet, or cereal crops, such as maize or wheat (European Biomass Industry Association, n.d.). Fermentation of these sugars occurs when microorganisms, such as yeast, ferment the C-6 sugars (commonly glucose) obtained from the crops by using them as food and producing byproducts that include ethanol (Badger, 2002). However, because these sugar crops and cereal crops are also necessary for human consumption, they can be relatively expensive to use for production of ethanol.

(Warner & Mosier, 2008)

So, a third mechanism of developing ethanol for fuel has been developed, using cellulose, the waste residues from forests and the parts of plants that are not needed for food. Also known as Lignocellulosic or Cellulosic bioethanol, this biofuel is considered less expensive and “more energy-efficient than today’s ethanol because it can be made from low-cost feedstocks, including sawdust, forest thinnings, waste paper, grasses, and farm residues (i.e. corn stalks, wheat straw, and rice straw).” (Detchon, 2007) As a person who never likes when things go to waste, I was delighted at the fact that we could create fuel from cellulose, which in turn helps to save so many of our natural resources and eliminate much of our waste. To my dismay, however, I discovered that this advantage is accompanied with many costly limitations.

Cellulose, like starch, is composed of long polymers of glucose, which can be used for fermentation in producing ethanol. However, the structural configuration of cellulose is different from that of starch, and this, combined with its encapsulation by lignin, a material that covers the cellulose molecules, makes hydrolysis of cellulosic materials very difficult because the process requires the aid of enzymes or specific reaction conditions or equipment (Badger, 2002).

(Warner & Mosier, 2008)
(Warner & Mosier, 2008)

The three main methods of cellulosic hydrolysis are acid, thermochemical, and enzymatic hydrolysis (Badger, 2002). For the purposes of this blog post, I will focus on the latter form, involving enzymes, which are “biological catalysts.” Enzymes are introduced into a reaction to provide an alternative pathway with a lower activation energy so that the reaction can take place (Derry et al., 2008). However, enzymes must be able to make contact with the reactants of the reaction, which is quite difficult to achieve with cellulose molecules. Thus, a “pretreatment process” is needed to separate the tightly-bound sugars that comprise cellulose. These processes are often energy-intensive, and are thus associated with high costs (Badger, 2002). In addition, the costs of the enzymes are also currently quite high, although biotechnology research is gradually decreasing their costs (Novozymes, as cited in Detchon, 2007) The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) uses a process known as simultaneous saccharification and co-fermentation (SSCF) to hydrolyze cellulose. A “dilute acid pretreatment” to “dissolve the crystalline structure” of the cellulose is first employed. A portion of the “slurry” that results is then placed into a vessel that grows a cellulase enzyme, while another portion is placed into another vessel to grow a yeast culture (Badger, 2002). In this process, sugar conversion and fermentation occur simultaneously, rather than consequentially, to yield the product of ethanol as quickly as possible, usually a few days (Lynd, 1999 as cited in Warner & Mosier, 2008). However, SSCF still requires expensive enzymes in order to occur, and because the process lasts a few days, the reactor vessels must run for long periods of time (Badger, 2002).

So, simply from observing the process of SSCF, I realize that the industrial creation of ethanol from cellulose is a tiresome process. The reactions needed to convert a molecule of cellulose into its glucose constituents are both costly and time-consuming, contrary to what I had believed would have been quite simply a breaking down of a polymer of glucose. There are numerous implications to this issue, and this brings me to the second part of my question: to what extent is the use of cellulosic ethanol a cost-effective solution to safeguard the environment? Here I discovered the advantages and disadvantages of cellulosic bioethanol. Firstly, greenhouse gas emissions from ethanol-fueled cars are reduced by 85% to 94% compared to those running on regular gasoline. Cheap feedstock that is non-related to food materials is another added benefit of bioethanol created from cellulose, since the question of food vs. fuel is eliminated. And, much of the infrastructure adapted for ethanol fuel use is already in place – roughly 2,000 stations serving E85 (a fuel containing 85% ethanol and 15% petrol) and most automobiles are already built to run on both gasoline or ethanol-based fuel. What’s even more favorable to the environment from using bioethanol is that because ethanol is an organic compound, it is highly biodegradable, making fuel spills much less hazardous than regular gasoline spills (Green the Future, 2008).

Furthermore, the overall benefits gained from using bioethanol made from any other means also cannot be ignored – for example, lower carbon emissions, less reliance on foreign oil reserves, and conservation of finite fossil fuel resources (CropEnergies AG, 2011).

These pros do no exist without their cons, however. I also found that in addition to the high costs of production of cellulosic ethanol that may make it relatively expensive for consumers, there were other disadvantages as well. Commercialization of this type of ethanol is limited, as most production plants are pilot plants and find it difficult to transition to full-scale commercial plants. In addition, because ethanol absorbs water, it is easily contaminated as a fuel and thus is difficult to transport. The high costs of production also could not be outweighed by ethanol-run automobile performance, since it takes about 1.4 gallons of E85 to run the same distance as it would take 1 gallon of regular gasoline (Green the Future, 2008). This was also the main reason, as stated by Poliakoff, that Brazilians continued to use regular gasoline as opposed to bioethanol – their cars simply ran more efficiently on petrol.

From analyzing both sides of the argument, I have come to the conclusion that even though bioethanol seems to have its many disadvantages, the biofuel has come a long way in improving the welfare of our environment. The implications of a better environment per se are perhaps enough to convince me to purchase ethanol as the source of fuel for my car (when I get one, eventually). But also, because cellulosic materials are often wasted and abundant in nature, I find it simply fascinating that we have come across yet another resource with which to provide energy to sustain our lifestyles. Of course, though, I am careful not to jump to the conclusion that this is a panacea to the global peril of climate change, because I know that exploitation of our environment will lead to destruction of it. But now I have understood that even the smallest of steps taken to achieve ecological sustainability can have drastic rewards for the wellbeing of society.


Badger, P.C. (2002). Ethanol from Cellulose: A General Review. Trends in new crops and new uses, 1, 17-21. Retrieved from

CropEnergies. (2011). Bioethanol report [Brochure/report]. Retrieved from

Derry, L., Clark, F., Janette, E., Jeffery, F. Jordan, C., Ellett, B., & O’Shea, P. (2008). Chemistry for use with the IB diploma programme: Standard level. Port Melbourne, Victoria: Pearson Education Australia.

Detchon, R. (2007). The Biofuels FAQs: The Facts about biofuels: ethanol from cellulose. Retrieved from

European Biomass Industry Association. (n.d.). Bioethanol Production and use [Brochure]. Retrieved from

Green the Future. (2008). Cellulosic Ethanol: Pros and cons. Retrieved from

Haran, B (Producer). (n.d.). Bioethanol [Video episode]. United Kingdom: University of Nottingham. Retrieved from

Warner, R.E. & Mosier, N.S. (2008). Ethanol from Cellulose Resources. Retrieved from

Image Sources:

Bioethanol for Sustainable Transport. (n.d.). CO2 cycle for bioethanol [Image]. Retrieved from

Warner, R.E. & Mosier, N.S. (2008). Fermentation of glucose to carbon dioxide and ethanol [Image]. Retrieved from

Warner, R.E. & Mosier, N.S. (2008). Structure of cellulose polymer [Image]. Retrieved from

Cleaning Water, Step by Step

After listening to and reading India’s blog post about water pollution, I decided to further investigate the methods used to clean the water we drink and bathe with. Covered in her blog post, she mentioned pollutants within the water such as bacteria, chlorine, nitrates, and heavy metals. With all these particles and microbial life swimming in our tap water, it’s a miracle we aren’t ridden with diseases. I began to wonder, what do private firms and the government do to remove and minimize all these pollutants?

Huangpu River Pollution
Huangpu River Pollution

So I began my search on the companies who clean Shanghai’s water supply. Veolia Water is one of the major companies who purify and distribute water to households around Pudong. Veolia first extracts their water from underground aquifers and surface water bodies. These areas are protected to prevent pollution. All the water then passes through a purification process, which includes coarse and fine screening, flocculation and settling, filtration, ozonation and chlorination. (Veolia Water, 2010)

Screening is a process in which water is ran through different sized screens to stop rocks and other larger objects from entering the rest of the system. It then moves into a system called flocculation and settlement. Within water, there are usually small clay or dirt particles are suspended, giving water the yellowish, brownish look. These particles are often negatively charged, preventing them from clumping together. Hydrated ammonium alum (NH4Al(SO4)2Ÿ 12H2O) is  added to the water to neutralize the negative charges, allowing particles to combine and form larger particles called flocs. The water passes through a paddle chamber that assist flocculation of particles. The following chamber allows the larger particles to settle due to gravity, removing the majority of the clay. (Drinking Water Treatment – Flocculation, n.d.)

Flocculation of Clay Particles
Flocculation of Clay Particles

After flocculation, water is passed through a gravel and sand filter that removes the remaining clay particles. However, this does not remove metal ions, nitrates, or microbial life from the water. Ozonation, the process of bubbling ozone through water to purify it, is often performed to clean water but is more costly than adding chlorine as a disinfectant. Ozone, O3, is synthesized by the use of UV light or electrical discharges. Bubbling ozone through the water kills microbial life. It also reacts with metal ions such as Iron and Manganese, creating insoluble metal oxides, which can be filtered out. (Oram, n.d.) Unlike ozonation, chlorination is relatively inexpensive and will continue disinfecting after leaving the water purifying plant. Chlorine is added into the water, which kills microbial life; however, it doesn’t remove metallic ions. (Drinking Water Treatment – Disinfection, n.d.)

Once the water leaves the purifying plant, it is transported to households across Shanghai, but chlorine and nitrates still remain within the water. In addition, faulty and leaky pipes allow contamination of minerals and other compounds into the water system.  To combat this, some houses have granulated active carbon filters and water softeners. Water passes through grains of active carbon (organic material or coal treated with heat) to react and trap chlorine and some trihalomethanes (THMs, carcinogens), preventing them from being consumed or absorbed by the skin while bathing. (Water Treatment Using Carbon Filters, 2012)

Water softeners are used to reduce calcium and magnesium ions. Although these metals are not harmful to the body in small amounts, they cause pipes to calcify and clog up, decreasing water pressure. Calcium and magnesium ions are replaced with sodium ions found on the ion exchange resin sites found within the filter. (Skipton, 2008)

Despite all these processes, nitrates still persist within the water. Currently, the only way to remove nitrates would be through reverse osmosis or demineralization, both of which require lots of energy and are expensive to maintain. (Runyan, 2011) Often, some people use faucet filters to further purify the water. These are often carbon filters, which still don’t remove nitrates from the water supply.

With all these methods used to purify the water, it still comes down to the question, is tap water in Shanghai safe to drink? Or is any tap water safe to drink for that matter? Ultimately, it becomes the individual’s decision. How much does one trust the government and others to handle their water? Do the benefits outweigh the cost of purchasing distilled water? Judgment of these crucial matters always lies within the person.


Drinking Water Treatment – Disinfection. (n.d.). Tech Alive Home Page. Retrieved March 25, 2013, from

Drinking Water Treatment – Flocculation. (n.d.). Tech Alive Home Page. Retrieved March 25, 2013, from

Oram, B. (n.d.). Ozone Water Treatment, Ozonation, Ozonator Dirty bad tasting water, contaminated colored water, unfiltered water, bad smelling water. Private Well Owner Drinking Water Pennsylvania Ground Water Research . Retrieved March 25, 2013, from

Runyan, C. (2011). Nitrate in Drinking Water. NMSU: College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. Retrieved March 25, 2013, from

Skipton, S. (2008, October 8). Drinking Water Treatment – Water Softening (Ion Exchange). NebGuide. Retrieved March 25, 2013, from

Veolia Water | Production and supply of drinking water. (2010). Veolia Water | The world leader in water services and water treatment. Retrieved March 25, 2013, from

Water Treatment Using Carbon Filters (GAC). (2012, August 1). Health State MN. Retrieved March 25, 2013, from

The Hole in Our Ozone

Remember back in 2006 when there was a big panic about the news of a hole in our ozone? However as time past, the talks about this hole gradually died down. Recently I came across a news article that states, “Some scientists believe the ozone layer, protecting earth from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, could be recovering.” (Valente, 2012). At the moment since Earth is the only known home for human beings, it is important for us to understand and protect the environment we call home for our future generations. Therefore I decided to do some further research and reading into our Earth’s Ozone layer.

For those of you who don’t know what the Ozone is, here is a brief summary. The Ozone layer is a thin layer of gas that naturally occurring in the Earth’s stratosphere, an area roughly 20-50km above the Earth’s surface. (Figure 1) This layer of ozone protects us from the harmful UV radiation from the sun. (Wilson, 2013) UV radiation has high energy and a short wavelength therefore it can penetrate the skin, manipulating DNA, which in result can cause cancer and other skin disorders. (Office of Air and Radiation, 2010).

The location of the Stratosphere
The location of the Stratosphere (Figure 1)

What exactly is the Ozone layer made of? How does it prevent the penetration of UV radiation? The ozone is composed of the 3 different allotropes of oxygen, O, O2, and O3. These atoms and molecules undergo the Ozone Oxygen Cycle, where the molecules are broken down into atoms and atoms rejoin to make molecules. (Wilson, 2013). Here are some photographical representations of this process:

Under UV light, O2(g) ---> 2 O(g)
Under UV light, O2(g) ---> 2 O(g)
O(g) + O2(g) ---> O3(g)
O(g) + O2(g) ---> O3(g)

Both processes are exothermic. The light energy from UV light is transferred in to thermal energy or heat therefore being absorbed, preventing it from reaching the Earth’s surface. (NASA, 2008)

The Ozone hole is found above Antarctica and covers averagely around 17.9 million square kilometers. (Welch, 2012). (Figure 2)The hole is not a physical or literal hole but an area where there is severe depletion of Ozone. As National Geographic states, “Chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) used by industrialized nations for much of the past 50 years, are the primary culprits in ozone layer breakdown.” Because CFC’s are quite nonreactive as they are they are nontoxic, noncorrosive, nonflammable, and very stable. They were found in fire extinguishers, as propellants in aerosols, solvents in electronics manufacture, coolants for refrigerators and air conditioners and as foaming agents in plastics.

Biggest measured hole, Sept 22 2012, 21.2 million square kilometers
Biggest measured hole, Sept 22 2012, 21.2 million square kilometers

CFC’s easily rise to the stratospheric level on earth. In Antarctica, especially during the cold winter nights where there is no sunlight, a polar vortex, strong circular winds, isolates the air in the polar region that traps the CFC in the stratosphere.  (Carver, 1998) When the sun finally comes out again, and the UV light hits the clouds of CFC’s it breaks it down into atoms of chlorine and bromine. These acts as catalyst in the destruction of ozone

O3—>O2 + O

Cl + O3—>ClO + O2

ClO + O—>Cl + O2

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, One chlorine atom can break apart 100,000 ozone molecules, and bromine is 40 times more destructive. These atoms destroy much of the ozone over Antarctica, by causing an imbalance of ozone to the natural cycle. (Wilson, 2013). Luckily as of 2000, the Montreal protocol demands the removal of CFC in production of products. However even after regulations have been put into place for the ban of these harmful chemicals, the hole hasn’t had significant improvements. Paul Newman, a chemist from NASA predicts, “the ozone layer above Antarctica likely will not return to its early 1980s state until about 2060.”(LiveScience, 2012)


LiveScience. (2012, Oct 25). Antarctic Ozone Hole Is The Second Smallest Since It’s Been 20 Years. Huffington Post. Retrieved from:

Valente, M. (2012, Nov 24). Hopes grow on shrinking ozone hole. Aljazeera. Retrieved from:

Welch, C. (2012). The Ozone Hole (weblog). Retrieved from:

Wilson, T.V. (2013). Can We plug the hole in the ozone layer? HowStuffWorks. Retrieved from:

National Geographic. (n.d.). Ozone Depletion. National Geographic:Environment. Retrieved from:

Carver, G. (1998). Part III. Science of the Ozone Hole. University of Cambridge Centre for Atmospheric Science. Retrieved from:

Office of Air and Radiation. (2010, June). UV Radiation. U.S Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved from:

University of Wisconsin. (2008, Sept. Chemical of the Week: Ozone. Retrieved from:

National Weather Service. (2007). Layers of the Atmosphere. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Retrieved from:

Plastic- Why “Purchase”?

A few days ago, while I was at Cityshop waiting for the cashier to finish up her job, I was asked whether or not I wanted a plastic bag. I nodded as if it was an obvious answer, when the cashier added, “You will need to pay extra.” Since a few years ago, additional charge has been added to almost all plastic bags in China to reduce the use of plastic and promote alternative ways to transport groceries. Why? I vaguely knew that plastic took a long time to erode so when they are dumped into the ocean or buried in the soil, it caused harm to marine life, etc.  So I decided to do further research on the chemistry of plastic.

There are many properties of plastics. According to the official website of the Nobel Prize, the Greek word of plastic means “to mold”. This fits the properties of plastic perfectly as all plastics, during production, are “soft and moldable”, allowing productions such as carriers of vaccine. (Nobel Media AB, 2007) Additionally, plastics have low density and electrical conductivity, transparency and toughness. (Rodriguez)

So what are plastics? They are synthesized materials manufactured in factories. They are made up of small organic molecules that contain carbon compounds from petroleum and natural gas, and even from fibers, corn, or banana peels. These molecules are monomers that combine with other monomers and form polymers, long molecule chains. What is interesting about polymers is that they in a way imitate nature, for example DNA that carries genetic information. (Nobel Media AB, 2007) This covalent bond can be shown by the two types of chemical compositions of plastic: linear Carbon-chain and Heterochain polymers. Carbon-chain has only linear Carbon atoms in the backbone chain, while the latter compounds contain carbon, oxygen, nitrogen or sulfur atoms in the backbone chains. (Rodriguez)

Carbon-chain Polymers
Carbon-chain Polymers

(Picture 1: Examples of Carbon Chain)


(Picture 2: Example of Heterochain-polymers)

Now that we know the properties and structures of plastic, we need to find out more on how they are made through the process of polymerization. As mentioned earlier, plastics are made up of carbon molecules, or the ethylene molecule (C2H4). Nobel Media also mentions that Polymerization begins by joining monomers into a polymer chain through a catalyst (results in chemical reaction without any permanent chemical change). The resulting polymers are called resin, and or polyethylene resin in the case of polymerization of ethylene. Resins are then purchased by factories, and added into different additives to form the properties of intended product, for example plastic bags that I “purchased” at Cityshop, fibers for sweater, etc. (Nobel Media AB, 2007)

There are two types of plastics, Thermoplastics and Thermosets. According to Nobel Media, 80% of plastics produced are thermoplastics and 70% most widely used. The reason would be that thermoplastics can be reshaped, melted, and easy to recycle due to its long and linear polymer chains that are weakly bonded and easily broken. Thermosets on the other hand cannot be reshaped due to their cross-linked structure and strong chemical bonds that prevent reshaping of the plastics. This is hard to recycle, so they are crushed into a fine powder to use as fillers in reinforced thermosets. (Nobel Media AB, 2007)

After all the information, I have learned that the plastic bag I “purchased” at Cityshop was a type of thermoplastics, meaning it can easily be recycled and reformed into another product. However, if that is where the story ends, consumers like me should not even need to pay for the widely used plastic bags. Therefore, I did some more research on the effects of plastics in the environment that might have caused the discouragement of using plastic bags.

It turned out that plastic contributed to environmental issues in a lot of ways. First, according to Nobel Media, the production of plastics involved excessive energy and water use. What this means is that the production of plastic itself contributes to climate change affecting both humans in depletion of natural resources and the extinction of wildlife, a major global issue today. Secondly, according to Chemistry Daily, plastic cannot be broken down completely, even though some biodegradable plastics can be mixed with starch in order to degrade more easily. When the carbon that is “locked up” in the plastics is released into the atmosphere, the greenhouse gas emission once again contributes to global warming. In addition to global warming, the increasing production of plastic will also increase in the existence of plastic and its harmful consequences. In addition, even if plastics decay, some produce acidic gases when they decay. This results in the building up of a sealed environment. (An environment that does not “connect to the external environment and runs on the closed loop.” (Biksa) ) A few days ago as I was searching through a topic for Economics IA, I found an article related to the effect of plastic use on marine life. Dr Boxall said in an interview for BBC, “These plastic particles are like sponges, they’re a bit like magnets for other contaminants, things like Tributyltin, the anti-fouling material. The tiny plastic particles absorb these materials and effectively become quite toxic.” This implies that excessive use of plastic not only affects humans directly, but also indirectly by affecting marine lives that humans consume. In the long term, global warming will no longer be the only major issue in the world, but also marine life pollution.

Plastic in Sea
Plastic in Sea

(Picture 3: Tiny pieces of Plastic found in the sea)

For many years for humans, we have been taking advantage of the distinct properties such as lightness and durability of plastics. It is true that there were certain benefits that allowed ease in handling daily materials in the short term, however, in the long term, we will have to face the consequences of not looking ahead for the environmental causes. So next time you go to Cityshop, would you “purchase” a plastic bag, or would you just bring along an alternative bag to reduce the use of plastics?


Biksa, E. (n.d.). Simply hydroponics and organics. Retrieved from

Chemistry daily. (2007, April 01). Retrieved from

Lister, T., & Renshaw, J. (2004). Conservation chemistry: An introduction. London: Royal Society of Chemistry Publishing. Retrieved from decay chemistry&source=bl&ots=u9Aa2j0LGm&sig=a_ebfKDR9PX01iXYX8d2YHMalZc&hl=en&sa=X&ei=ti8QUfHJDPKx0QGwxoGoAg&redir_esc=y&hl=zh-CN&sourceid=cndr

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Rodriguez, F. (n.d.). Plastic. In Britannica. Retrieved from’

Watts, S. (n.d.). What are long term threats of plastic in our seas? Retrieved from


Rodriguez, F. (n.d.). Plastic. In Britannica. Retrieved from’

Watts, S. (n.d.). What are long term threats of plastic in our seas? Retrieved from

It’s Raining … Bacteria?

A few days ago, I was browsing the Internet when I came across an article stating that several common species of bacteria were discovered in hailstones that fell from near by storm clouds in the atmosphere. This is fascinating for me because it counters my previous assumption that most bacteria are land bound, and those that exist in the atmosphere, existed at low altitudes. I’ve always assumed that the higher the altitude, the more extreme the environment it is for bacteria to survive.

The article stated that a group of researchers in Denmark analyzed hailstones from 2009 and found that it contained, “several species of bacteria that tended to reside on plants, as well as thousands of organic compounds normally found in soil.” (Ghose, 2013) The discovery of microorganism life in clouds is revolutionary because it use to be difficult to study since rain was easily contaminated when it falls from the sky. Hail, however, freezes the microorganisms on the inside, making it easy to study just by sterilizing the outer, contaminated layers. (Rumaithi, 2013). In fact, the hailstones not only contained several species of bacteria typically found in plants and soil, but also thousands of organic, carbon compounds, the same number compounds found in a typical river. (Ghose, 2013). The researchers explained that some of the bacteria are able to act as bases for ice crystals to attach to in the storm clouds. When enough ice crystals have attached to the bacteria, they will fall as either rain or snow, depending on the temperature. (Ghose, 2013) In addition, researchers also found that the bacteria are able to produce a pinkish pigment that will allow the bacteria to adapt to the high energy and high frequency of the ultraviolet (UV) rays in the atmosphere (Ghose, 2013). In fact, the Bactillus Subtilis, a common strand of bacteria commonly found in soil, possess, dark-red pigments, which are 10 times more resistant to UV rays. (Moeller, R., Horneck , G., Facius, R., Stackebrandt, E., 2005)(Wikipedia, n.d.) The pigment protects the bacteria from UV ray by preventing a dangerous reaction between two molecules of thymine, an important base in the structure of DNA. (Rammelsberg, 1998)

Picture 1: A picture of hailstones.

To understand how bacteria can be found in the storm clouds, it must first be understood how the storm clouds are formed. The storm clouds, known as cumulonimbus clouds, have temperatures below 0˚C and are known for “producing lightning and other dangerous severe weather, such as gusts and hail”, (Wikipedia, n.d.) When the cumulonimbus clouds are formed, the hotter air with the lower density, since the molecules will be more spread out, will be pushed (by density laws) upwards by the denser, colder air wedging underneath, creating an upward force (Ophardt, 2003). Researchers theorized that the bacteria from nearby ecosystems would be swept into the cumulonimbus clouds by the updraft force, where it would be attached by ice. (Ghose, 2013)

Picture 2: A picture of a cumulonimbus cloud

The discovery of microorganisms in the Earth’s atmosphere can open multiple possibilities and theories. For example, researchers suggest that this discovery can create the theory that, “ bacteria could influence weather patterns. They may be growing in clouds, increasing in number and then not only modifying the chemistry in the clouds but also in the atmosphere indirectly.” (Ghose, 2013). I believe that this means that if bacteria were found to be responsible for weather pattern, the weather can be predetermined and manipulated by changing the growth of bacteria in the atmosphere. Secondly, the discovery of bacteria in the cumulonimbus clouds shows that bacteria can survive in extreme cold temperatures. It raises a question for myself about how effective is cold temperature at preventing the growth of bacteria. It shows that keeping the bacteria in freezing temperatures may not be the most effective way the inhibiting bacterial growth. Clearly, there is still so much about bacteria and their roles on our everyday life that we do not know about.

Assorted Hail Stones. [Photography]. Retrieved from Encyclopædia Britannica Image Quest.

Cumulonimbus Storm Cloud Seen From Below. [Photography]. Retrieved from Encyclopædia Britannica Image Quest.

Ghose, T. (2013, January 23). Storm Clouds Crawling With Bacteria. Live Science.
Retrieved January 23rd, 2013, from

Moeller, R., Horneck , G., Facius, R., Stackebrandt, E. (2005, January 1). Role of Pigmentation in Protecting Bacillus sp. Endospores Against Environmental UV Radiation. US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. Retrieved January 25, 2013, from

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Lifesaver: No, not the candy.

Lifesaver Bottle

For the Group 4 project, my group and I had attempted to make a water filtration system using activated carbon. Although we were semi-successful, our filtration model was not ideal for practical use. However, as Group 4 came to an end, I still couldn’t get the thought out of my head: Today, “nearly one billion people” ( lack access to healthy and safe drinking water. The recent floods in Pakistan not only devastated the country, but also left many villagers with no option other than “drinking water straight from the flood” (lifesaver).

The fact that my group was not able to produce a practical filtration system only added fuel to my fire and was the catalyst in my search for an alternate filter. That’s when I found the Lifesaver. At the core, the Lifesaver bottle is a simple and effective way for soldiers, floovictims, and even everyday hikers to attain safe drinking water from dirty water. The process is simple: Scoop dirty water into the bottle, pump the bottle a few times, and receive clean water (waterpurifier). Fortunately for us, the science behind it is just as simple: The bottle uses a block of activated carbon, the same filter source as my Group 4 project, that “removes viruses, bacteria, parasites, cysts, fungi and other microbiological pathogens from water” (waterpurifier).

The Lifesaver bottle mitigates many of the limitations that our Group 4 filtration design had. In our project we did not know if the filtration was actually working until we did several tests to the water to measure the level of pathogens. In addition to that, our activated carbon had to be replaced after every trial because reusing the same carbon did not filter the water. Our filter could only take a limited amount of water at a time before it stopped successfully filtering the dirty water. All of these complications are successfully dealt with in the design of the Lifesaver bottle. When the carbon cartridge is near the end of its life, it will take more pumps to produce the water. Eventually, when the water can no longer be filtered no amount of pumps will produce water. The “scoop and go” method of the bottle gives the innovation a clear convenience that our design lacked. Instead of having to replace the carbon frequently a single cartridge will provide “access to safe drinking water for up to 16 months” (fox). In terms of quantity of water, after a certain amount of pumps to the bottle, instead of over-pressurizing the “flip lid” will bulge and eventually release a jet of water (waterpurifier).

Safe drinking water produced

There are many implications that arise from this innovation. For one, sending aid would be much easier and less expensive because a single plane of the Lifesaver bottles can “provide 500,000 people with access to safe drinking water” (fox). Perhaps, as sending aid becomes more convenient and inexpensive, countries will be more willing and generous in the ways they help. The pressure gauge  of the bottle also has applications. For example, these bottles could be used by soldiers not only to have access to safe drinking water but also because the jet of water that releases from over pumping can be directly applied to wounds, washing away “washing away contaminants and fragments that might otherwise stick to the wound” (waterpurifier).

Perhaps the biggest implication of this innovation is its simplicity. The lack of adequate drinking water is such a substantial problem in the world that it is one of the UN’s seven goals. Although the problem is so huge, it amazes me that the solution can be so simple. The implication here is that big science is not always needed to solve big problems. As science students this is important for us to know because it reminds us that creative and innovative thinking can produce substantial results.


“Lifesaver Bottle – Portable Water Filter Bottle.” Lifesaver Bottle – Water Purification Systems. Web. 09 Nov. 2011. <>.

“‘Lifesaver’ Bottle Purifies Water in Seconds | Fox News.” Fox News – Breaking News Updates | Latest News Headlines | Photos & News Videos. Web. 09 Nov. 2011. <,2933,354735,00.html>.

“Review of Lifesaver Water Bottles | Lifesaver Portable Water Purfifiers.”Comparing Water Purifiers | Best Water Filtering Options. Web. 09 Nov. 2011. <>.

“ » One Billion Affected.” Web. 09 Nov. 2011. <>.

Nanotechnology: A Source of Free Energy?

Recently, I have been researching on alternative energy sources as part of a Chemistry related science club presentation. Solar panels, hydroelectric dams, wind turbines, geothermal heat pumps, were the first ideas that popped into my mind. We commonly hear about these forms of technology that are used to harness the renewable energy sources that are available to us and significant research and development have vastly improved our efficiency in utilizing these sources. However, many of these options are of larger scales and as an individual consumer, we may not have the capability or accessibility to switch towards these renewable sources even if we wanted to. Researching further into smaller scale forms of renewable energy technology, I found that innovations of all sizes are taking place, the most interesting of which is in the nascent field of nanotechnology used in harnessing solar power.

A Ted Talks by Justin Hall-Tipping, founder of a nanotechnology based energy research company called Nanoholdings, discusses some of his latest creations on how to “generate, transmit, store, and use”(Nanoholdings) solar power. Initially, he began with a common problem of the transfer of heat energy through windows in a home. The picture below illustrates how in the summer, the energy coming from the sun is heating the home that we are trying to keep cool, while in the winter, the heat is escaping from the home we are trying to keep warm.

Screen shot 2011-11-09 at 11.22.52 PM

Aiming to give consumers the ability to control the heat transfer occurring through their windows, Nanoholdings’s nanotechnology material uses Carbon, which undergoes a reaction where “graphite is blasted by a vapor, and when the vaporized Carbon condenses, it condenses back into a different form…called a Carbon nanotube”(Hall-Tipping).

Screen shot 2011-11-09 at 11.37.02 PMScreen shot 2011-11-09 at 11.37.44 PM

Vaporizing Carbon                             Structure of Carbon Nanotube

The unique thing about this nanotube is that it is “a hundred thousand times smaller than the width of one of your hairs” and “a thousand times more conductive than Copper”(Hall-Tipping). Because Carbon at the nanoscale behaves and looks very differently, instead of being black and solid, it is actually transparent and flexible. Combined with a plastic during manufacturing, this Carbon nanotube can actually undergo permanent changes in color by using merely “two volts from a millisecond pulse” (Hall-Tipping) per color change. If this material were used on a window, in its colored state, it will reflect away all heat energy from the sun, helping to insulate a cool home. Vice versa, while in its transparent state, it will allow all heat energy from the sun to pass through, helping to warm a home.

Screen shot 2011-11-09 at 11.41.19 PMScreen shot 2011-11-09 at 11.41.26 PM

Transparent Carbon Nanotube            Colored Carbon Nanotube

Another ongoing project at Nanoholdings called “NIRVision”, uses nanotechnology like above to develop “flexible, thin films…to convert infrared light into visible light”(Nanoholdings). Similar to how more modern night-vision goggles work, a “photo-detector film converts invisible infrared light into electrons…these electrons stimulate an optical film like a thin flexible display, to create a visible image”(Nanoholdings). As we know, the flow of electrons is a source of electrical energy. Hall-Tipping goes on to describe how if we combined the film created in NIRVision with the Carbon nanotube illustrated above, then we would have a material that takes “infrared radiation and converts it into electrons” (Hall-Tipping) and because of its flexibility and transparency, we would be able to attach it to any surface to ultimately become a free source of clean energy.

The applications of this nanotechnology-developed material are endless, as a free source of clean energy is the solution to both our rising energy demand and our Earth’s rising temperature. Unfortunately, this material is still being tested and until we are able to efficiently manufacture it at a low cost to the environment, we must continue our gradual movement towards renewable sources of energy and a more environmentally conscious mindset. Similar to Steven’s post on the revolutionary perspective of silk, Nanoholdings was able to take one of the most common and abundant elements, Carbon, view it from a different perspective, and alter it in a way as to develop a material with new and desired properties. An even greater implication lies in how Hall-Tipping is able to combine two different technologies with different applications and generate a new one with completely new applications. Developing brand new technology may be life changing, but sometimes the most sublime of solutions can lie in how well we can take advantage of what we already have.

Works Cited

Hall-Tipping, Justin. “Justin Hall-Tipping: Freeing Energy from the Grid | Video on” TED: Ideas worth Spreading. TED Conferences, Oct. 2011. Web. 09 Nov. 2011. <>.

Nanoholdings. “Nanoholdings – Portfolio – New Technologies – Nirvision.” Nanoholdings. Nanoholdings LLC. Web. 09 Nov. 2011. <>.

Bug Repellent


Bzzzzz. Bzzzzz. Bzzzzz. SMACK!! Mosquitos – maybe the most annoying pest to ever fly, are the always the ones that ruins my sleep. As usual, mosquito visited me during midnight and woke me up. The sound that mosquito emits right beside my ear disturbed my sleep. So I picked up bug repellent and sprayed it to myself. Bug repellent was very effective. Within few minutes, it nullified mosquitos, and I could go back to sleep peacefully. But then, I started to wonder what is bug repellent and how it works.

In order to understand how bug repellent works, I thought that it is important to understand how mosquitoes detect us as targets. Mosquitoes contains three different sensors: chemical sensors, visual sensors and heat sensors, which allow them to target their prays. Among those three sensors, mosquitoes largely rely on their chemical sensors. “Scientists have identified several proteins found in mosquitoes’ antennae and heads that latch on to chemical markers, or odorants, emitted from our skin.” (Knight) And mosquitoes use these proteins to detect carbon dioxide and lactic acid, which are the gases that mammals and birds emit as part of their normal breathing.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

What is bug repellent? There are two different types of bug repellents: natural and synthetic bug repellent. Basic idea of each repellent can be deduced from its own names. Literally, natural repellent is from nature and synthetic repellent is a mixture of chemical substances. Although natural repellent is much more safe than synthetic repellent, people prefer to use synthetic repellent because it is much more effective and lasts longer than natural repellent. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends people to use repellent that contain active ingredients that the EPA approved their safety. Some examples of active ingredients are DEET, and Picaridin.

Then how does mosquito repellent actually work? When chemical substances i.e. DEET or Picaridin, from the repellent are sprayed on a surface of skin, those chemical substances prevent mosquitos’ bites by disturbing their ability to detect protected surface. So basically, mosquitos are no longer able to detect us using their chemical sensor. But bug repellent is effective for limited amount of time because repellent is not on the surface it is sprayed permanently.

What are the implications of knowing this? These days the most dangerous living organism is, with no surprise, mosquito. According to Illinois Department of Public Health, every year, “mosquitoes transmitting malaria kill 2 million to 3 million people and infect another 200 million or more.” (“Illinois Department of Department of Health”) Nearly half of world’s population is at risk for malaria. By developing the technology of getting away form mosquito bites, people can lower the risk of getting malaria. Although bug sprays or repellents are widely supplied to urban area, since the major areas, where people suffer from malaria, are not developed, people there do not have access to bug repellents. So it is important to find out natural repellents, which can be found naturally and is not harmful to children. Also, in the course of developing efficient bug repellents, just as other inventions came about accidentally, scientists may be able to invent malaria vaccination.

Word Count: 520


“Mosquitoes and Disease.” Illinois Department of Department of Health. Illinois Department of Department of Health, March 29, 2007 . Web. 7 Oct 2011. <>.

“Active Ingredients Found in Insect Repellents.” The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), September 10, 2009. Web. 7 Oct 2011. <>.

“Repellents are an important tool to assist people in protecting themselves from mosquito-borne diseases..” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, October 13, 2009. Web. 7 Oct 2011. <>.

Freudenrich, Craig. “How Mosquitoes Work.” How Stuff Works. How Stuff Works, n.d. Web. 7 Oct 2011. <>.

Knight, Meredith. “Why do mosquitoes bite some people more than others?.” Scienceline. Scienceline, September 10, 2007. Web. 7 Oct 2011. <>.

Failed Experiment Leads to Serendipity

How Algae is Converted into Energy
How Algae is Converted into Energy

As many of you know, The IB Group 4 project was not too long ago for us. Our goal was to investigate how to help better the fight against poverty; so, my group decided to investigate a renewable source of energy, more specifically, algae. Now algae had already been known as a bio-fuel, but there are some difficulties in cultivating and growing enough algae for this to be a sufficient substitute for more commonly used fuels. We were to determine what pH value of water would the algae growth rate be the greatest. After much investigation, we determined that it would be best to test pH levels of 8-12. We took 5 different samples of the same species of algae and placed them into 5 different containers of different pH levels (from 8 to 12). Each container had the same variables affecting the algae growth; the humidity was constant, the amount of sunlight was constant, the amount of nutrients was constant. Naturally, it is our duty as scientists to ensure that the variables are controlled to ensure the data we collect retain its integrity.

But when deciding how to determine which algae had grown the fastest, we were stumped. We could not take the mass of the algae because algae absorb water and we do not want water masses and we could not measure the volume of the algae because it does not take a rigid shape. We had met our first roadblock.

Finally, Mr. Smith suggested that we use a bomb calorimeter to measure the energy given off when the algae are burned. Theoretically, the more massive the algae, the more energy will be given off. So we were back into action mode. We extracted the algae from their containers and placed each sample into an incubator to evaporate any remaining water.

The next day, all the water had evaporated from the algae. We promptly set up the calorimeter, stuck a needle into a cork, prepped a stopwatch, prepared the distilled water and lit the algae. It did not burn. We poked and prodded for minutes at a time but the algae refused to catch fire. We had failed. Lost in a world of our own misery my team looked down, ashamed of our brief role as scientists as I continued to light the algae without reward. And then something clicked. I could see the heads of my group mates slowly rise up as they realized what we have created. Algae that does not burn! More excited than ever, we decided to test our flame resistant plant by placing it on a stack of very flammable paper towels and lighting it. What we found was astounding. Not only, were the algae flame resistant, but it also helps preserve what was underneath. The paper towel surrounding the algae were all burnt, but the paper towel directly underneath was untouched.


But why is this important? How does it help fight poverty? Usually, a substance known as Asbestos is integrated into building material to give that object a fire resistive property, but what my group 4 had done was create an organic substitute for asbestos. Though we do not know any side effects from using the algae to retard flames, we do understand that long term exposure to asbestos causes cancerous diseases as well as non-cancerous diseases to the throat, lungs and in some cases, the heart (shown above). We also must reinforce the fact that Algae is an organic substance, meaning it is both easily accessed and environmentally friendly. Hopefully, our findings are significant enough to call for further investigation such as determining how to reproduce such algae, and determining possible health risks from exposure. Perhaps in the future, houses will be lined with algae instead of asbestos.


“Algae Growing Conditions.” Growing Algae. Web. 25 Sept. 2011. <>.

Kriscenski, Ali. “POWER YOUR CAR WITH ALGAE: Algae Biocrude by LiveFuels.”Inhabitat – Green Design Will Save the World. 22 Oct. 2007. Web. 25 Sept. 2011. <>.

“What Are Asbestos-Related Lung Diseases?.” National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, May 01, 2011. Web. 25 Sept 2011. <>.

Future Energy Source?

Hydrogen Fuel Cell

When I was using simple chemicals to produce electricity during my chemistry class, I had a sudden remembrance of a video that I watched during a biology class. It was based on a revolutionary technology, the hydrogen fuel cell. Ever since I watched the video, I was fascinated by hydrogen fuel cells. It seemed like an ultimate solution to the problems we face today regarding environment and energy. As a result I decided to explore deeper into the science behind the technology and evaluate its effects and

the implications. To begin with, what exactly is a fuel cell? By definition a fuel cell is “a device that produces a continuous electric current directly from the oxidation on of a fuel, as that of hydrogen by oxygen.” When looking at the definition, it can be inferred that a fuel cell doesn’t necessarily require hydrogen. But why is it that in 2003, President Bush specifically announced a program called the Hydrogen Fuel Initiative? Well hydrogen is the lightest and the most abundant chemical element, constituting around 75% of the world’s chemical elemental mass. Also hydrogen is high in energy yet when used produces almost zero pollution. In addition, the fuel cell will produce pure water that can be reused in the process. These characteristics of hydrogen make it the most ideal candidate as a fuel source for a fuel cell. Also according to DOE Hydrogen Program, “Hydrogen-powered fuel cells are not only pollution free, but also can have two to three times the efficiency of traditional combustion technologies.”

Well now that we know why hydrogen fuel cells are ideal, lets take a look at how it works. A single hydrogen fuel cell consists of an electrolyte in between anodes and cathodes with two bipolar plates on each side (connects one fuel cell to another). When hydrogen is produced through electrolysis, it is supplied to this fuel cell. When the hydrogen enters and contacts with the platinum on the catalyst, it splits into electrons and protons. The protons move across the electrolyte, also called the proton exchange membrane, and meet with oxygen that is provided from the outer environment. During this process, the electrons that were separated from the hydrogen are sent to an outer circuit where it produces electricity that is used in motor or other material. At the end of the outer circuit, the electrons meet again with the protons and oxygen. At this moment, the protons, electrons and oxygen react to form pure water. This reaction is exothermic thus produces heat at the same time. The water produced can be reused through electrolysis to supply hydrogen to the fuel cell again. If this circuit continues, then not only will the fuel cell be able to produce electricity constantly, but also fuel cells will be able to reuse the product thus saving our limited resources.

If we just consider these benefits of hydrogen fuel cell, we wonder why it hasn’t been introduced to developing countries. Well there are also negative sides of a hydrogen fuel cell. Many of the parts in a hydrogen fuel cell are costly. As a result even though the technology can be useful in the long run, it will be difficult to spread the usage of it. Also another problem is that the whole process of electrolysis requires electricity from another source for example through burning coal. This will counter the whole purpose of creating a hydrogen fuel cell. To consider all sides to this, we must also take into account the countries or even companies that rely on selling oil. For example Saudi Arabia is ranked first in the production of petroleum and second in exporting oil to the US. Although hydrogen fuel cell won’t completely replace petroleum, expansion of such technology will have a huge impact on countries like Saudi Arabia.

The implication of this technology is huge. Despite its cost, the hydrogen fuel cells can effectively reduce pollution in metropolises. As a result understanding such revolutionary technology and attempting to improve it may possibly alleviate the devastating impacts of global warming. Even when we approach this technology using ethic’s common good approach, although it may harm some countries, it will do more good than harm to our global society. Also we are living in a world with limited resources and by using a method that will produce its own fuel, we will be able to allocate our resources more efficiently. Before this research, I was only interested in hydrogen fuel cell because someone else has told me about it. But as I reached the end of this journey, I saw the huge implication behind such technology and became fascinated with it. The idea that a single technology based on simple chemistry concepts can revolutionized the world amazed me and drew me more into the magical world of science. Also, I realized that every second we are moving towards working WITH the nature to protect what we’ve been taking for granted.


US department of energy.” US department of energy. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Oct 2011. Nice, Karim. “How Fuel Cells Work .” how stuff works. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Oct 2011.

Saudi Arabia.” U.S. Energy Information Administration. n. page. Print.