Science Notebook

Science Notebook

Fuel consumption, spending increases

Wisconsin’s 1993 spending for fuels, just announced by the Wisconsin Energy Bureau, set records both for money spent and energy used.

Spending for petroleum products, natural gas, coal, nuclear energy and renewable forms of energy increased by $530 million, or 6.6%, in 1993 over the previous year, the largest annual increase since 1981, when oil sold for as much as $41 a barrel. Today oil sells for less than $18 a barrel.

The main causes of the increased cost was an increase in the use and price of natural gas. Wisconsin’s total energy use in 1993 increased 3.9% over the year before, reflecting a colder winter, warmer summer and an expanding economy.

New look at the birds, the bees and the flies

When male fruit flies are “feminized” with female sex genes, they court males as well as females, according to a New York University study reported in the journal Science. The results add to evidence that homosexuality has biological origins.

The authors attributed the behavior to “feminization of neural structures,” which inhibited production of chemicals that cause males to seek females.

Ralph Greenspan, the lead researcher, said fruit flies and humans obviously are vastly different. Although it’s disputed whether human sexual orientation is influenced more by genetics than by learned behavior, in flies it’s clear that biology dominates, he said.

Greenspan said research was done with the Drosophila melanogaster fruit fly and that he created mutant flies that were part female, part male. Those mutants, called mosaics, “displayed a non-discriminatory sexual preference, directing courtship at males and females alike.”

Putting the freeze on old coal fires

Fires in wastes left behind at old coal mines can burn for years, exposing nearby communities to fumes and smoke. Putting out such fires usually requires digging them out and is expensive and dangerous.

The US Bureau of Mines has proposed a technique that is cheaper and safer: Freeze them out.

Well, not quite, but close. USBM researcher Ann Kim said that if a slurry of dry ice and liquid nitrogen is injected into the waste pile, the slurry immediately vaporizes into carbon dioxide and nitrogen.

The result is twofold: The carbon dioxide cuts off oxygen supply to the fire and the slurry cools the waste, preventing its reignition.

The bureau and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources demonstrated the procedure at a coal refuse pile near Midvale, Ohio, where a fire had burned 10 years. The average temperature fell throughout the waste bank, leaving one hot spot for treatment this spring, Kim said.

You really don’t want to mess with this stuff

Vast deposits of methane are held at high pressure 1,500 feet under the ocean floor on continental shelves around the world. The methane is trapped in the pores of ice, which forms a frozen compound called gas hydrate.

“It looks like dry ice, but if you put a lighted match to it, it will burn,” said David Howell of the US Geological Survey. “It’s actually ice that burns.”

Some estimate that twice as much carbon energy is contained in gas hydrate as in all fossil fuels combined. But harvesting the energy may be a great challenge, a panel of experts said at the recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Atlanta.

Released from pressure the ice disappears within minutes. “If you bring it to the surface, it bubbles and fizzes and is gone,” said Charles Paull of the University of North Carolina.

Tampering with the hydrate deposits could cause ocean floor avalanches, leading to a sudden release of methane that “might significantly modify the global greenhouse,” said William P. Dillon of the US Geological Survey.

Compiled by Paul G. Hayes, Journal science reporter

Copyright 1995

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