Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Turning Over a Fake Leaf in Energy Research

They’re calling it an “artificial leaf,” although that’s not technically accurate.  It’s small and thin, and like a leaf, it uses water along with energy from the sun to produce fuel, but aside from that, it’s really not much like a leaf at all.  What it is is a new, advanced form of solar panel capable of cheaply producing lots of energy, and it might just be the future of solar energy. 

How does it work?  A real leaf (pictured left) performs photosynthesis – pulling together water and carbon dioxide and using the energy from the sun to turn those ingredients into fuel for the plant.  This “artificial leaf,” brainchild of a collection of researchers at MIT, harnesses the power of sunlight and uses it to cut water in half!  Actually, into three pieces – with the help of special catalysts, this leaf splits H2O into two H’s and an O.  The free H (hydrogen) can then be used as a fuel source.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Earthquakes - Past, Present, and Future

In the aftermath of the March 11th disaster in Japan, the topic of the earthquake is still making headlines.  I’m not going to talk about the Japanese earthquake much here, because it’s been done a thousand times by now, and by better-informed people than myself.  One of those people is Donald Prothero, who wrote up a very thorough description of the event.

But let’s talk about earthquakes.  Anyone who knows earthquakes will tell you that they are dangerous and terrifying for two main reasons.  First, they can be incredibly powerful and extremely destructive, and we’ve seen examples of this countless times.  And second, they are largely unpredictable.  Our instruments often determine that a big quake is coming only seconds before it hits.  Despite decades of study, an accurate predictive model for earthquakes still remains the unachieved holy grail of seismology.

But a new study from researchers in Tel Aviv is a step in the right direction.  Actually, at first glance it sounds more like a step in the opposite direction.  Instead of working on a model to predict earthquakes in the future, they’re developing a model to study earthquakes of the distant past.