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Chemists develop fast-degrading plastic for cleaner oceans
The researchers hope to develop a no-trace plastic to curtail marine pollution and ghost fishing.
- Cornell University chemists have developed a polymer with the strength of industrial-grade plastics but degrades quickly in sunlight.
- They hope the plastic will one day be used to make fishing nets that leave no environmental trace.
- Their research joins other programs and initiatives aimed at restoring our oceans.
In popular imagination, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a concentration of trash adrift lazily on the ocean. It's an entire continent of tightly packed tires, Styrofoam, syringes, water bottles, trash bags, fishing nets, Tupperware, lost toys, missing sandals, and other detritus that looks like Waterworld as envisioned by Mad Max director George Miller.
But there's a more insidious reality to the Pacific Garbage Patch. It doesn't concentrate our garbage in a central, easy-to-find location. Rather, the oceanic gyres disperse it across millions of square kilometers, whirling it wherever the winds and waves take it.
This reality makes the challenge of cleaning the Pacific Ocean daunting, to say the least. As Dianna Parker, from the NOAA Marine Debris Program, said on the NOAA Ocean Podcast: "We did some quick calculations that if you tried to clean up less than one percent of the North Pacific Ocean it would take 67 ships one year to clean up that portion."
One major source of this pollution is lost or abandoned fishing gear. Because these nets, traps, and trawls are made of industrial-grade plastics, they will take hundreds of years to degrade. During the interim, they will continue to scour the oceans in large tangled masses, chocking the waters and killing marine life as they go.
To reduce this source of marine pollution, Cornell University chemists have gone in a counter-intuitive direction: They've created a new plastic.
A lot of hard work for (hopefully) nothing
Commercial fishing nets are made of polymers that are strong but take hundreds of years to degrade.
The polymer is called isotactic polypropylene oxide, or iPPO for short. It was originally discovered in 1949, but for the past fifteen years, Bryce Lipinski, professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Cornell University, and his team have been iterating on the plastic and discovered a new polymer chain with some unique properties.
Their iPPO has a comparable ultimate tensile strength to nylon-6,6, a sturdy and strong polymer that can maintain stability under adverse conditions. For this reason, nylon-6,6 is used in zip ties, engine parts, industrial applications, and, yes, fishing nets and ropes.
Unlike nylon-6,6 and other industrial-strength polymers, however, iPPO can readily degrade under the right conditions—those conditions being any wit sunlight.
"We have created a new plastic that has the mechanical properties required by commercial fishing gear. If it eventually gets lost in the aquatic environment, this material can degrade on a realistic time scale," Lipinski said in a release. "This material could reduce persistent plastic accumulation in the environment."
To test their hypothesis, the researchers placed a 93 kilodalton (kDa) sample of their iPPO beneath an LED floodlight. The light exposed the sample to a stream of ultraviolet light with a wavelength of 365 nanometers—a wavelength range within the band of solar ultraviolet light that passes through the atmosphere to reach Earth's surface.
After 30 days of constant exposure, the sample reduced to 21 kDa, or roughly a quarter of its original size. Control samples not exposed to ultraviolet light remained unchanged.
The team published their findings last month in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.
The deadliest catch
A sea turtle caught in ghost gear.
Fishing nets and ropes produced with such a biodegradable polymer could moderate a major hazard of today's marine environments: ghost fishing.
Ghost fishing begins with lost or abandoned fishing gear. No longer under the control of fishermen, this gear, now known as "ghost gear" or "derelict fishing gear," drifts as flotsam or settles on coastal floors where it continues to serve its function of ensnaring fish and other marine animals.
A meta-analysis published in Fish and Fisheries estimates 5.7 percent of all fishing nets, 8.6 percent of all traps, and 29 percent of all lines become ghost gear each year. The Global Ghost Gear Initiative estimates the annual poundage to be 640,000 metric tons.
While fishing gear is designed to target certain species, without a fisherman to control it, ghost gear captures animals indiscriminately. Non-target species can often be caught, including protected species of turtles, seabirds, and whales.
Once caught, they often succumb to starvation, predation, or even cannibalism. Their bodies then attract other animals hoping for an easy meal, who in turn become enmeshed, creating a deadly and self-perpetuating cycle so long as the gear remains unrecovered.
Ghost fishing wrests an economic toll, too. Beyond the costs of replacing lost gear, ghost gear also culls the populations of species fishermen depend on for their livelihood.
As Lipinski notes in the release, the goal of his research is to develop a polymer that leaves no trace in the environment. Such a breakthrough may not end the dangers of ghost fishing. Nets and traps would still seize animals before they biodegrade into nothing. But such a polymer would drastically lessen the time such gear could hunt on its wayward path.
If iPPO could one day reach that goal, it could vastly improve environmental conditions in our oceans.
Not too late
Volunteers collect rubbish from the Aegean sea to protect biodiversity.
iPPO may one day improve the situation, but it is hardly a silver bullet. The gyre that creates Great Pacific Garbage Patch also sweeps up vast amounts of tiny microplastics—most too small to be seen with the naked eye yet will still last hundreds of years. These join fishing nets and everyday plastic items that wash out into the sea.
"[T]he bottom line is that until we prevent debris from entering the ocean at the source, it's just going to keep congregating in these areas. We could go out and clean it all up and then still have the same problem on our hands as long as there's debris entering the ocean," Dianna Parker said.
Again, the challenge is daunting. Yet many countries, institutions, and individuals are taking it head-on.
Last year, the Ocean Cleanup Project announced that its latest boom design was successfully capturing and collecting plastics from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The system uses the ocean's natural currents to sweep debris into the boom. Once fully operational, the system will be able to return plastics to land for recycling.
The United Nations has set its Sustainable Development Goal #14 to target marine conservation. One of its goals is to significantly reduce all marine pollution by 2025, with an emphasis on preventing land-based sources.
And a recent study in Nature found that the situation isn't hopeless. The researchers projected the recovery of damaged marine habitats by looking at past conservation interventions. They found that we could restore our oceans, resurrect dead zones, and reinvigorate marine species within 30 years. It would take a concentrated effort costing billions of dollars, but the potential rewards would be worth 10 times as much.
"Overfishing and climate change are tightening their grip, but there is hope in the science of restoration," Callum Roberts, study author and marine conservation biologist at the University of York, told the Guardian. "One of the overarching messages of the review is, if you stop killing sea life and protect it, then it does come back. We can turn the oceans around and we know it makes sense economically, for human well being and, of course, for the environment."
- Why China Isn't Taking America's Garbage Anymore—Literally - Big ... ›
- Cleaning Up the Oceans with a Vacuum Cleaner - Big Think ›
- New algorithm computes how to find those lost at sea - Big Think ›
How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
The father of all giant sea bugs was recently discovered off the coast of Java.
- A new species of isopod with a resemblance to a certain Sith lord was just discovered.
- It is the first known giant isopod from the Indian Ocean.
- The finding extends the list of giant isopods even further.
The ocean depths are home to many creatures that some consider to be unnatural.<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzU2NzY4My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNTUwMzg0NX0.BTK3zVeXxoduyvXfsvp4QH40_9POsrgca_W5CQpjVtw/img.png?width=980" id="b6fb0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2739ec50d9f9a3bd0058f937b6d447ac" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1512" data-height="2224" />
What benefit does this find have for science? And is it as evil as it looks?<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="7XqcvwWp" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="8506fcd195866131efb93525ae42dec4"> <div id="botr_7XqcvwWp_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/7XqcvwWp-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/7XqcvwWp-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/7XqcvwWp-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p>The discovery of a new species is always a cause for celebration in zoology. That this is the discovery of an animal that inhabits the deeps of the sea, one of the least explored areas humans can get to, is the icing on the cake.</p><p>Helen Wong of the National University of Singapore, who co-authored the species' description, explained the importance of the discovery:</p><p>"The identification of this new species is an indication of just how little we know about the oceans. There is certainly more for us to explore in terms of biodiversity in the deep sea of our region." </p><p>The animal's visual similarity to Darth Vader is a result of its compound eyes and the curious shape of its <a href="https://lkcnhm.nus.edu.sg/research/sjades2018/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow" style="">head</a>. However, given the location of its discovery, the bottom of the remote seas, it may be associated with all manner of horrifically evil Elder Things and <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cthulhu" target="_blank" rel="dofollow">Great Old Ones</a>. <em></em></p>
We look back at a year ravaged by a global pandemic, economic downturn, political turmoil and the ever-worsening climate crisis.
Billions are at risk of missing out on the digital leap forward, as growing disparities challenge the social fabric.
Image: Global Risks Report 2021<h3>Widespread effects</h3><p>"The immediate human and economic costs of COVID-19 are severe," the report says. "They threaten to scale back years of progress on reducing global poverty and inequality and further damage social cohesion and global cooperation."</p><p>For those reasons, the pandemic demonstrates why infectious diseases hits the top of the impact list. Not only has COVID-19 led to widespread loss of life, it is holding back economic development in some of the poorest parts of the world, while amplifying wealth inequalities across the globe.</p><p>At the same time, there are concerns the fight against the pandemic is taking resources away from other critical health challenges - including a <a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/09/charts-covid19-malnutrition-educaion-mental-health-children-world/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">disruption to measles vaccination programmes</a>.</p>
A new study explains how a chaotic region just outside a black hole's event horizon might provide a virtually endless supply of energy.
- In 1969, the physicist Roger Penrose first proposed a way in which it might be possible to extract energy from a black hole.
- A new study builds upon similar ideas to describe how chaotic magnetic activity in the ergosphere of a black hole may produce vast amounts of energy, which could potentially be harvested.
- The findings suggest that, in the very distant future, it may be possible for a civilization to survive by harnessing the energy of a black hole rather than a star.
The ergosphere<p>The ergosphere is a region just outside a black hole's event horizon, the boundary of a black hole beyond which nothing, not even light, can escape. But light and matter just outside the event horizon, in the ergosphere, would also be affected by the immense gravity of the black hole. Objects in this zone would spin in the same direction as the black hole at incredibly fast speeds, similar to objects floating around the center of a whirlpool.</p><p>The Penrose process states, in simple terms, that an object could enter the ergosphere and break into two pieces. One piece would head toward the event horizon, swallowed by the black hole. But if the other piece managed to escape the ergosphere, it could emerge with more energy than it entered with.</p><p>The movie "Interstellar" provides an example of the Penrose process. Facing a fuel shortage on a deep-space mission, the crew makes a last-ditch effort to return home by entering the ergosphere of a blackhole, ditching part of their spacecraft, and "slingshotting" away from the black hole with vast amounts of energy.</p><p>In a recent study published in the American Physical Society's <a href="https://journals.aps.org/prd/abstract/10.1103/PhysRevD.103.023014" target="_blank" style="">Physical Review D</a><em>, </em>physicists Luca Comisso and Felipe A. Asenjo used similar ideas to describe another way energy could be extracted from a black hole. The idea centers on the magnetic fields of black holes.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Black holes are commonly surrounded by a hot 'soup' of plasma particles that carry a magnetic field," Comisso, a research scientist at Columbia University and lead study author, told <a href="https://news.columbia.edu/energy-particles-magnetic-fields-black-holes" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Columbia News</a>.</p>
Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration<p>While there might not be immediate applications for the theory, it could help scientists better understand and observe black holes. On an abstract level, the findings may expand the limits of what scientists imagine is possible in deep space.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Thousands or millions of years from now, humanity might be able to survive around a black hole without harnessing energy from stars," Comisso said. "It is essentially a technological problem. If we look at the physics, there is nothing that prevents it."</p>
A popular and longstanding wave of thought in psychology and psychotherapy is that diagnosis is not relevant for practitioners in those fields.