Oregon State research highlights importance of large wood in streams for land-based animals

Photo courtesy of Oregon State University

Read the full story from Oregon State University.

Land managers have invested millions of dollars annually since the 1980s to place large pieces of wood back in streams, owing primarily to its importance for fish habitat. But little is known about how large wood in streams impacts birds and land-based animals.

Oregon State University scientists Ezmie Trevarrow and Ivan Arismendi are beginning to change that with a just-published paper in Biodiversity and Conservation that outlines what they observed from one year of footage from motion-triggered video cameras they set up near multiple large log jams in a creek just west of Corvallis.

Apply now for the Religion & Environment Story Project (RESP) Fellowship

The Religion & Environment Story Project (RESP) trains journalists, editors, and public-facing scholars interested in the intersection of the environment and religion. Our goal is to bridge the divide between the religion and science beats, and promote new thinking and new narratives that will inform and educate the public, especially on the climate crisis. RESP is based at Boston University and funded by a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

The Religion & Environment Story Project Fellowship supports journalists, editors, and public-facing academics who are producing – or want to learn how to produce – stories at the intersection of religion and the environment. A cohort of ten fellows will gather twice over the course of six months for practical, on-the-job training designed to develop new ways of thinking about the climate crisis and the role played by religious individuals and institutions in addressing (and ignoring) it. Participants will meet with working journalists and scholars in a collaborative seminar environment that will include wide ranging discussions on religion, spirituality, the environment, climate change, and journalism. We hope this format will inspire and inform the participants while offering peer learning and support from other journalists. It should also provide expert sources and story leads that will help fellows identify and create stories that other journalists are missing. 

RESP will cover travel, food, and lodging for our two workshops. We will also pay for a year’s membership for the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) or the Religion News Association (RNA), plus registration fees for either the SEJ or RNA annual conferences. Fellows will also receive a stipend of $1,000 after completing the program and committing to produce at least one story for a general audience. The application deadline is August 25, 2022, at 11:59 pm, ET.

Learn more about the 2021-2022 Fellows and apply for the fellowship on the RESP website.

ISTC leads extensive portfolio of carbon capture projects

ISTC engineer Stephanie Brownstein gestures toward equipment for the biphasic solvent carbon capture project at Abbott Power Plant while speaking to visitors from the Department of Energy and Doosan Corporation. Photo by Travis Tate, U of I Facilities & Services.

by Trish Barker, Prairie Research Institute

Visitors from the U.S. Department of EnergyNational Energy Technology Laboratory (DOE-NETL) recently toured multiple carbon capture projects led by the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC).

Because the unique geology of Illinois provides extensive potential to store carbon dioxide deep underground, the state is also an ideal location to develop, demonstrate, and deploy technologies to  capture CO2 from point sources, remove CO2 from the ambient air, and beneficially use CO2. ISTC scientists and engineers lead a number of carbon capture, removal, and use projects backed by funding from the Department of Energy.

map of ISTC carbon capture project locations across Illinois and Missouri

The tour included carbon capture projects at Abbott Power Plant at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign; City Water, Light & Power in Springfield, Prairie State Generating Company in Marissa, Illinois; and the Ste. Genevieve Cement Plant in Missouri. 

Abbott Power Plant

The University’s Abbott Power Plant , a cogeneration facility that simultaneously produces both steam and electricity to meet 70-75% of the Urbana campus’s energy needs, is a partner on two ISTC-led carbon capture projects.  

ISTC led a project, supported by $3.4 million from DOE-NETL, to evaluate an innovative biphasic solvent system for its efficiency and effectiveness in absorbing CO₂ from flue gas at Abbott. The system was designed based on the testing results at the laboratory scale under a previous DOE cooperative agreement. Read more about the biphasic solvent system.

A second project is based on a mixed-salt carbon capture technology developed by SRI International. This technology is being tested at engineering scale at Abbott in a 0.5 megawatt electric (MWe) equivalent pilot campaign. This project is supported by a grant of more than $18 million from DOE-NETL. Read more about the mixed-salt capture technology.

City Water, Light & Power

ISTC leads the large-scale pilot testing of a Linde-BASF CO2 solvent-based carbon capture technology at City Water, Light & Power (CWLP) in Springfield, Illinois. When the 10-megawatt capture system is built and begins to process 5 percent of the Dallman Unit 4 flue gas, it will capture more than 90 percent of those CO2 emissions. DOE has provided $47 million for this build-operate project, and the State of Illinois has pledged an additional $20 million. Read more about the large pilot project at CWLP.

A second project led by ISTC and backed by $25 million from DOE aims to design a next-generation power plant at CWLP that both reduces emissions and captures and uses carbon dioxide. The design combines a 270-megawatt ultra-supercritical coal boiler, an 87-megawatt natural gas combustion turbine generator, a 50-megawatt energy storage subsystem, and a post-combustion carbon capture subsystem. Read more about the next-generation power plant project.

ISTC is investigating the use of CO2 captured from CWLP, as well as nutrients from wastewater treatment plants to grow algae. The cultivated high-protein Spirulina can be used in animal feeds. This engineering-scale algae project is supported by $2.5 million from DOE. Read more about the algae project

Prairie State Generating Company

ISTC leads a front-end engineering design (FEED) study to retrofit the Prairie State Generating Company (PSGC) in Marissa, Illinois, with a solvent-based post-combustion carbon capture technology from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. At 816 megawatts, this is the largest carbon capture FEED study in the world, with a system projected to be capable of capturing 8.5 million tonnes of CO2 each year.Read more about the FEED study at Prairie State Generating Company.

Kevin OBrien gestures as he describes ISTC carbon capture projects for visitors from DOE and Doosan
ISTC director Kevin OBrien gestures as he describes ISTC carbon capture projects for visitors from DOE and Doosan. Photo by Travis Tate, U of I Facilities & Services. 

Ste. Genevieve Cement Plant

Cement is a ubiquitous construction material, and its production produces tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. While scientists are working on alternative cements and lower-carbon production processes, it is likely that capturing and either using or storing emissions from cement production will be necessary to meet carbon reduction targets.

ISTC leads a front-end engineering and design (FEED) study for a commercial-scale carbon capture retrofit of Holcim’s Ste. Genevieve Cement Plant in Bloomsdale, Missouri. The project focuses on Air Liquide’s CrycocapTM FG system for carbon capture and is backed by $4 million from DOE-NETL. Read more about the Ste. Genevieve carbon capture project.

Carbon removal through direct air capture

Projects to remove carbon dioxide from ambient air, called direct air capture (DAC), were not included in the recent tour but are a growing part of ISTC’s carbon management portfolio. 

ISTC leads a project, backed by a grant of nearly $2.5 million from DOE-NETL, to develop preliminary designs and determine feasibility for the first commercial-scale direct air capture and storage system (DAC+S) for CO2 removal in the United States. This 18-month project will explore the possibility of pulling 100,000 tonnes of CO2 from the air annually, using technology from the Swiss company Climeworks, which has built and operated several DAC plants in various climates across Europe. The ISTC-led team will test the large-scale DAC systems at three sites across the U.S. in order to assess how different climate conditions impact the process. Read more about the DAC+S project

ISTC and Climeworks also are collaborating on a $2.5 million FEED study of a DAC system to capture CO2 for underground storage. The California host site, a geothermal plant, will provide thermal energy to drive the DAC process; the site also is close to a proposed geological storage facility in the Joaquin Basin.   

ISTC also leads a FEED study of direct air capture technology developed by CarbonCapture Inc. at U. S. Steel’s Gary Works Plant in Gary, Indiana. This project incorporates use of the captured carbon dioxide at a nearby Ozinga ready mix concrete plant. Injecting the CO2 into the concrete as it is being mixed causes the CO2 to mineralize, locking it in the concrete and preventing it from returning to the atmosphere. By using the U. S. Steel plant’s waste heat, energy needs can be reduced. Read more about the carbon capture and use FEED study at U. S. Steel’s Gary Works Plant.  

Finally, ISTC is a partner on a project that is exploring the benefits of constructing DAC technology at Constellation Energy’s Byron nuclear energy plant in Northern Illinois. Although nuclear plants do not produce carbon emissions, the plant can provide energy to power the DAC system, which could capture 250,000 tons of CO2 each year. 

Read more about sustainable energy research and development at the Prairie Research Institute.

Cotton breeders are using genetic insights to make this global crop more sustainable

A cotton field in Lubbock, Texas. AP Photo/LM Otero

by Serina Taluja, Texas A&M University

Products derived from the cotton plant show up in many items that people use daily, including blue jeans, bedsheets, paper, candles and peanut butter. In the United States cotton is a US$7 billion annual crop grown in 17 states from Virginia to Southern California. Today, however, it’s at risk.

Cotton plants from fields in India, China and the U.S. – the world’s top three producers – all grow, flower and produce cotton fiber very similarly. That’s because they are genetically very similar.

This can be a good thing, since breeders select the best-performing plants and cross-breed them to produce better cotton every generation. If one variety produces the best-quality fiber that sells for the best price, growers will plant that type exclusively. But after many years of this cycle, cultivated cotton all starts to look the same: high-yielding and easy for farmers to harvest using machines, but wildly underprepared to fight disease, drought or insect-borne pathogens.

Breeding alone may not be enough to combat the low genetic diversity of the cultivated cotton genome, since breeding works with what exists, and what exists all looks the same. And genetic modification may not be a realistic option for creating cotton that is useful for farmers, because getting engineered crops approved is expensive and heavily regulated. My research focuses on possible solutions that lie at the intersection between these tools.

Mechanical harvesting and processing take cotton from field to baled fibers and seeds.

How to retool cotton

In a perfect world, scientists could change just a few key components of the cotton genome to make plants more resilient to stresses such as pests, bacteria, fungi and water limitations. And the plants would still produce high-quality cotton fiber.

This strategy isn’t new. Some 88% of the cotton grown in the U.S. has been genetically modified to resist caterpillar pests, which are expensive and hard to manage with traditional insecticides. But as new problems emerge, new solutions will be required that will demand more complex changes to the genome.

Recent advances in plant tissue culture and regeneration make it possible to develop a whole new plant from a few cells. Scientists can use good genes from other organisms to replace the defective ones in cotton, yielding cotton plants with all the resistance genes and all the agriculturally valuable genes.

The problem is that getting regulatory approval for a genetically modified crop to go to market is a long process, often eight to 10 years. And it’s usually expensive.

But genetic modification isn’t the only option. Researchers today have access to a gigantic amount of data about all living things. Scientists have sequenced the entire genomes of numerous organisms and have annotated many of these genomes to show where the genes and regulatory sequences are within them. Various sequence comparison tools allow scientists to line up one gene or genome against another and quickly determine where all the differences are.

Map showing U.S. states where cotton was harvested in 2017.
Cotton is grown in 13 states across the southern U.S. The western half of this belt has been in drought since 2000. USDA

Plants have very large genomes with lots of repetitive sequences, which makes them very challenging to unpack. However, a team of researchers changed the game for cotton genetics in 2020 by releasing five updated and annotated genomes – two from cultivated species and three from wild species.

Having the wild genomes assembled makes it possible to start using their valuable genes to try to improve cultivated varieties of cotton by breeding them together and looking for those genes in the offspring. This approach combines traditional plant breeding with detailed insights into cotton’s genome.

We now know which genes we need to make cultivated cotton more resistant to disease and drought. And we also know where to avoid making changes to important agricultural genes.

Analyzing cotton hybrids

These genomes also make it possible to develop new screening tools to characterize interspecific hybrids – the offspring of two cotton plants from different species. Before this information was available, there were two primary forms of hybrid characterization. Both were based on single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs – differences between species in a single base pair, the individual building blocks that make up DNA. Even plants with small genomes have millions of base pairs.

Bases are the parts of DNA that store information and give DNA the ability to encode an organism’s visible traits. There are four types of bases in DNA: adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G) and thymine (T). National Human Genome Research Institute, CC BY-ND

SNPs work well if you know exactly where they are located in the genome, if there are no mutations that change the SNPs, and if there are plenty of them. While cotton has SNPs that have been identified and verified in specific regions of the genome, they are few and far between. So characterizing cotton hybrids by focusing exclusively on SNPs would result in incomplete information about those hybrids’ genetic composition.

These new genomes open the door for developing sequencing-based screening of hybrids, which is something I’ve incorporated into my work. In this approach, scientists still use SNPs as a starting point, but they can also sequence the surrounding DNA. This helps to fill in gaps and sometimes discover new, previously undocumented SNPs.

Sequence-based screening helps scientists make more informed and robust maps of the genomes of hybrids. Determining which parts of the genome are from which parent can give breeders a better idea of which plants to cross together to subsequently create better, more productive cotton in every generation.

What cotton needs to thrive

As the world’s population rises toward a projected 9.8 billion by 2050, demand for all agricultural products will also rise. But making cotton plants more productive is not the only goal of genetic improvement.

Beyond the U.S., much of the world’s cotton is grown in low- and middle-income countries.

Climate change is raising average global temperatures, and some important cotton-producing regions like the U.S. Southwest are becoming drier. Cotton is already a crop accustomed to heat – our research plots can thrive in temperatures as high as 102 degrees Fahrenheit (39 C) – but one cotton plant requires about 10 gallons (38 liters) of water over the course of a four-month growing season to achieve its maximum yield potential.

Researchers have started to search for cultivated cotton that can tolerate drought at the seedling stage, and also in hybrid lines and genetically modified lines. Scientists are optimistic that they can develop plants that have higher drought resilience. Along with many other cotton breeders around the world, my goal is to create more sustainable and genetically diverse cotton so that this essential crop can thrive in a changing world.

Serina Taluja, Ph.D. Candidate in Genetics and Genomics, Texas A&M University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Quitting oil income is hard, even for states that want climate action

Read the full story in the New York Times.

Dozens of state and local budgets depend heavily on tax revenue from oil, gas and coal to fund schools, hospitals and more. Replacing that money is turning out to be a major challenge in the fight against climate change.

What lurks inside shipping containers

Read the full story in Hakai Magazine.

Seizure-inducing methyl bromide and carcinogenic formaldehyde are only some of the poisonous chemicals scientists found inside cargo containers.

‘The golden age of thrifting is over’

Read the full story in the New York Times.

A glut of fast fashion has made its way into local thrift stores, making it hard for women who have been purchasing secondhand for decades to find quality garments they can wear.

Why Europe is becoming a heat wave hot spot

Read the full story in the New York Times.

Two months ago, France experienced its hottest May on record, with record highs in some cities. Last month, France was blistered again, by a spring heat wave that also affected Spain, Italy and other countries. Then, this month, Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe suffered during a spell of extreme heat.

Now temperatures across Europe are soaring yet again, at or near triple digits from Spain to the British Isles and spreading east. Wildfires stoked by the heat are burning in many countries, and much of the continent is in the throes of a lengthy drought.

And there are still two months of summer left.

Scientists say the persistent extreme heat already this year is in keeping with a trend. Heat waves in Europe, they say, are increasing in frequency and intensity at a faster rate than almost any other part of the planet, including the Western United States.

Global warming plays a role, as it does in heat waves around the world, because temperatures are on average about 2 degrees Fahrenheit (1.1 degrees Celsius) higher than they were in the late 19th century, before emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases became widespread. So extreme heat takes off from a higher starting point.

But beyond that, there are other factors, some involving the circulation of the atmosphere and the ocean, that may make Europe a heat wave hot spot.

As federal climate-fighting tools are taken away, cities and states step up

Read the full story in the New York Times.

Across the country, local governments are accelerating their efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions, in some cases bridging partisan divides. Their role will become increasingly important.

‘White gold’: why shrimp aquaculture is a solution that caused a huge problem

Read the full story at The Guardian.

In the 1980s, farmers in Bangladesh went from paddies to ponds, letting salt water flood their land. Now millions are left counting the cost