Engineering life with synthetic biology

The possibilities for synthetic biology are numerous. It could play a key role in resolving global environmental challenges that policy makers and regulators are struggling with. It could make industry less polluting, more sustainable and likely more profitable. This is especially true for companies with large ecological footprints who are working to decarbonise. The chemical industry could also change drastically as new forms of life could be designed to produce chemicals that otherwise would have to come from unsustainable sources like petrol.

Plastic pollution could likely become a thing of the past if replaced with bio-based instead of oil based polymers. Cheap, clean ‘next generation’ biofuels are also a major prospect that would help countries succeed in phasing out petrol based fuels altogether. Politically speaking this will take time as oil is likely not to be replaced overnight by sustainable alternatives, but synthetic biology is without a doubt a major player in energy and decarbonisation for multiple reasons.

Imagine for a moment:

Continue reading Engineering life with synthetic biology

Getting to the root of endemic livestock disease in the UK

Humans and animals share a deep relationship going back to early homo sapiens. With the exception of pets, in many cases we eat each other, but since humans have dominated the planet — normally we eat them. This has not been more the case than in livestock farming where animals are raised for food and are depended on for survival, not only for nutrition, but people’s livelihoods.

Many of the farms in the UK produce cattle and sheep for food. Endemic disease in livestock is a major global challenge, and could likely continue in future if something isn’t done to prevent livestock disease from growing and spreading in the first place.

While TB and foot and mouth catch the headlines, endemic diseases like Bovine Viral Diarrhoea (BVD) have been a major problem. 11% of BVD cases in Europe have been in the UK and the national cost has been estimated as high as £61m per year.

Whether livestock disease becomes a problem largely depends upon the practices of farmers and their advisers. Not all farming systems are the same and many of them have a history that goes back a long time. This means solving the problem of disease may not be solely down to applying the ‘right’ scientific or technological solution.

Continue reading Getting to the root of endemic livestock disease in the UK

People want to talk about climate change

What I bring to the interview is respect. The person recognizes that you respect them because you’re listening. Because you’re listening, they feel good about talking to you. When someone tells me a thing that happened, what do I feel inside? I want to get the story out. It’s for the person who reads it to have the feeling… Studs Terkel

This week is Green Great Britain Week! And to help make a difference myself, colleagues and volunteers gave a public survey on what the people of Newcastle think about climate change, in collaboration with the Priestley International Centre for Climate at University of Leeds, University of York and University of Manchester.

According to the IPCC 1.5C special report released last week, carbon emissions must be urgently reduced even more than previously thought or the devastation caused by heating up the planet above the 1.5C target could cause it to veer in the direction of unlivable.

Global surface temperature in 2017 compared to the 1981-2010 average. High latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere were especially warm, though temperatures across most of the planet were warmer than average (red colors). NOAA Climate.gov map, based on data from NOAA NCEI.

Climate change is far from easy to communicate let alone contemplate on a large scale. The 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 1998 and the four warmest years on record since 2014. Although the global temperature is rising rapidly, it isn’t uniform across the planet. While climate change impacts are certainly felt by people all over the world, how they experience them may vary. Continue reading People want to talk about climate change

Testing green approaches for urban flooding

“Thunder! Thunder! Thunder! Thunder! I was caught In the middle of a railroad track, I looked round and I knew there was no turning back”

From the song “Thunderstruck” by AC/DC

In June 2012 the city of Newcastle endured one of its greatest floods in history, infamously named the ‘Toon Monsoon’. It unleased 50mm of rainfall, the equivalent of one month’s rain falling within the span of two hours, and most of the flooding took place in the first 30 minutes. I remember it well, particularly people canoeing down Chillingham Road in the nearby neighbourhood of Heaton.

I watched most of the carnage ensue from my upper floor flat on the top of Shields Road in Byker. At the time I was safe, many were not. More than 500 homes were flooded in the city and 1200 properties in total were affected. The collective damages caused by the deluge were large and the impact of ‘Thunder Thursday’ was felt throughout the city. Now Newcastle is a demonstrator city for blue-green infrastructure focusing on practical solutions to reducing flood risk. Times have changed.

Flooding is a major problem for many cities, particularly in the wake of climate change. It is generally agreed that rainfall has and will increase as a result of the anthropogenic warming of the Earth’s atmosphere. What is less clear is how we prepare urban areas for flooding caused by intense heavy rainfall, especially if it occurs suddenly without warning. Cities are actually ideal test beds for new sustainable ways to mitigate flooding because they are usually densely populated, with mostly paved surfaces and have many buildings which are vulnerable to flooding.

Continue reading Testing green approaches for urban flooding

Visualising how matter transforms at the quantum level

 

Absolute zero is really cold – −273.15 °C to be exact. At temperatures close to absolute zero matter begins to act strangely at an atomic scale.

In nature when matter undergoes a transition from one form to another, such as a liquid into a gas, it is known as a phase transition. In physics this is well understood and is present in many of the things we encounter in nature, not to mention the formation of the universe more generally. But at the quantum level phase transitions are even more involved and fascinating.

For starters it’s challenging to view them experimentally, although it is possible to catch glimpses of what is taking place, capturing the whole picture of what is happening during a phase transition is another matter. Very different systems show the same phenomena, a concept known as ‘universality’ in physics.

Extremely cold states of matter are tested in Bose-Einstein condensates in which atoms  ‘gather’ together and behave as if they were a single atom, thereby allowing quantum effects to be visible on a much larger scale.

Condensates are incredibly exciting in physics, and are relevant across a broad range of conditions — from sub-atomic particles to the early Universe itself – leading to bizarre phenomena such as superfluidity and superconductivity, which are useful to technologies.

Continue reading Visualising how matter transforms at the quantum level

Making plastic waste history with cold plasma

Plastic wastes are a global problem. If you’ve been following the series of environmental horror stories in the media this year you know exactly what I mean. It’s bunk.

Even undiscovered species living in the deepest parts of the ocean are contaminated with plastic. Because humans bioaccumulate plastic from the environment, especially animals we eat from the sea like fish, we are sadly far from safe in this rather disturbing cycle.

At the time of writing there is no safe threshold for consuming plastics and research on whether eating plastic in certain quantities has ill health effects is ongoing. Time will tell. But in the meantime here’s an idea that may interest you:

We could prevent the majority if not all (optimistic here) waste plastics from entering the land and sea by using them as a resource.

How? One of the answers may lie in the ever so humble ‘cold plasma’.

Now before you turn your nose up and decide ‘that’s way too gross for me to handle right now’. I’m not talking about blood plasma. I’m referring to the fourth state of matter that we humans call plasma. Most of the matter in the universe is in fact plasma. I will save this epic tale for another time, but I encourage you to read about plasma here.

Ok, to put it simply, physicists define plasma as an ‘ionised gas’. But wait…I thought it was something different? It is, because in plasma electrons break free from their atoms and become highly energised. And once they do they are capable of amazing things like (wait for it) breaking down plastics into things that people use, which goes a step beyond ‘recycling’.

Continue reading Making plastic waste history with cold plasma

The future of transport – faster, integrated and electric

The future of transport was the topic of discussion at a Café Scienitifique in the Urban Sciences Building at Newcastle Helix, part of a series inspired by the 2018 Great Exhibition of the North in Newcastle. Are we fast forwarding into a future of efficient and sustainable transport for all, or are we stuck in a combustion powered dystopia for the foreseeable future with climate change nipping at our heels?

Cities are implementing smart traffic lights, rapid EV charging points, testing autonomous vehicles and flying taxis. Countries are promising to phase out internal combustion engines by 2040 or sooner. In response to this ambitious policy, many of the vehicles on the road could be electric.

Transport by rail will change, becoming faster, more sustainable and (hopefully) more affordable. With 60% of all current travel taking place in urban areas rail is likely best placed for super mass transit systems.

Myriam and Roberto presenting in the ear@Urban Cafe in the Urban Sciences Building, Newcastle Helix.

The remit of the Helix is to make our lives smarter, healthier and sustainable, combining cutting edge university research with business, industry and local communities. It is transforming a former brownfield located in the centre of Newcastle into a thriving hub for commercial enterprise, residential development, urban science and innovation. Transport is very much part of its vision for the future. Continue reading The future of transport – faster, integrated and electric