Water: Why it Matters

Without water there is no life. If it does not flow out of the tap from the municipal dam or high mounted tank we have to catch the rain or pull it out of the nearby stream. In arid areas that nearby stream may be many meters underground. Water from these aquifers takes years to filter down the subterranean system. Once it is pumped onto the surface and used for irrigation or domestic consumption most of it finds its way into the sea[1]    

Underground water is replaced by seepage from mountainous snow and ice melt and rain. Ancient civilizations engineered sophisticated collection systems for catching and holding rainwater in arid zones. The Nabataeans controlled the water supply by use of dams, cisterns and carved channels in the rock faces surrounding the city of Petra. Although it did experience flash flooding which the Siq (shaft naturally funneled into the Wadi Musa[2]

The Siq, near Petra, Jordan. Photo by Filippo Cesarini on Unsplash

Apparently an earthquake in 363 AD destroyed much of the infrastructure and the city and its trade declined.

The driest regions of Earth give clues to water capture and retention. The infamous Atacama Desert of Chile has extremely low humidity. There rocks support endolithic microbes on their surface which are the source of water. David Kisailus from the University of California, Irvine, located bacteria on gypsum in the Atacama. The rock predominately hydrated calcium sulfate was etched by the cyanobacteria and dehydrated it to anhydrate. Spectroscopy revealed that the bacteria secreted an acidic extracellular deposit that may have altered the chemistry to release the water from the rock.[3]

Another approach observed in the high sand dunes of the Atacama is the water catching technique of the people of Falda Verde. Mostly the only moisture to fall on the western slopes of the Andes bordering the Atacama arrives as mist from warm ocean air condensing in the cool high altitude. Nets are erected to catch the water droplets which are channeled into tanks. Across the Atlantic the highly specialized beetle Stenocara gracilipes or Namib Desert beetle survives by collecting water particles on its lumpy textured back. To drink it faces up wind raising its body angle to 450, water gathers on its hard outer wings with Hydrophilc lumps.


The head-stander beetle (Onymacris unguicularis) is a species of fog basking beetle that is native to the Namib Desert of southern Africa. By Didier Descouens – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
Black Darkling Beetle at Epupa Falls, In the Namib Desert rain is rare, coastal fog is abundant finds one of the Tenebrionidae family

When enough water combines into droplets big enough to overcoming the electrostatic attraction of the lumps and the 30 km/h sea breeze, the drop rolls down the waxy hydrophobic channels into the beetles’ mouth parts. Their performance is that efficient they can collect water from dew settling.[4] Some of the tenebrionidae have hairs around their necks to transfer the droplets around to their mouths.

Man controls the majority of Surface Freshwater

Most of the world’s fresh water is found in icecaps and glaciers, 30 percent is in artisian basins. Reservoirs and constructed dams account for only 0.38 percent of water storage on the Earth’s surface, but they manage 57 percent of the change of all fresh surface water availability. [5] Fresh water is threatened by over development of impermeable surfaces like concrete, bitumen, and buildings that increase run-off into storm water drainage. The Earth does not have the opportunity to soak it up in plants, soils, or seep into aquifers. The vast majority of Earth’s fresh water is unavailable to its living species.[6]

The scale of human intervention has dramatic effects on water shortage in natural ecosystems. Till recently the Menindee lake system had no water flow in it for five years.[7]

Fish kill adjacent to Menindee Lakes

“Of all the volume changes in freshwater bodies around the planet – all the floods, droughts and snowmelt that push lake levels up and down – humans have commandeered almost 60 percent of that variability,” Laurence Smith environmental scientist from Brown University.[8]

Storage basin for hydropower, Germany. By Bildagentur Zoonar

The Human interference with the world’s water cycle is on a par with the impact on our atmosphere and land habitat. As the world warms the water in lakes, rivers, streams and our dams will evaporate to a greater extent. The water vapor once airborne can move usually to a cooler air source to condense as snow or rain. Some will fall on mountains and return to water courses to be returned to the water cycle but the moisture that falls into the saline oceans is no longer of use to most of us. 

Almost all of the longest rivers have water controlling barriers; only 21 have a clear passage to a sea. Animals depend on fresh water habitat like; crayfish, mussels and fresh water spawning fish are disappearing at a faster rate than marine species and even faster than rainforest species. Over one billion of the human species want for clean drinking water and more than twice that many people rely on unsanitary waste disposal[9].

Repercussions for rivers

River flow from and through watersheds (catchment landscapes) picking up sediment, nutrients and pollution, carrying then depositing them down stream. Chemicals like nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium common in fertilizers, road sediment and household drainage accumulates at the low areas. These additions will influence the natural balance of plants and animals.

Dams interrupt free flow into standing pools, likely straightening and deepening a river bed. The impact can reduce water quality, block fish migration, and inhibit reproduction of freshwater species.

Contaminated river runs through city, waste is discarded river bank, lack of waste collection services. Kathmandu, Nepal. By Jose Carrillo

 Chemicals from agriculture, industrial sites, sewerage and urban run-off can pollute water courses. Detection can be subtle only apparent after years of toxic accumulation resulting in disease and deformities in amphibians, and cancer in people. The rivers of the Colorado, the Murray have numerous instances of water shortage disasters. After 15 years of diminishing snow falls on the Rockies Lake Powell serving 40 million people has been draught stricken since 2012. Interstate authorities argue over water distribution from the Tennessee River and the Chattahoochee  and the Flint  and the Apalachicola Rivers.[10],[11]

Lower reaches of the Murray River in drought

Pumping water out of underground aquifers, rivers and creeks, and wetlands for irrigation, urban consumption or industrial purposes can decimate water sources. Wildlife is can be wiped out and human communities reduced to arid or salt clogged conditions.  With the increase of climate affecting chemicals in the atmosphere rainfall is less predictable. And extreme weather events are most likely to occur; flooding will be more hazardous, and dry spells longer and more intense. Humans have choices and alternatives, wild animals depend on freshwater in their habitat.

Responsibility

Where does the responsibility for your freshwater lie?

The individual user could check the source, the supply infrastructure and individual receptacles are free of introduced or in-built contamination. The Romans never identified lead water pipes as a hazard.

The water supply company (or authority), the local municipal council, state governments are usually considered responsible. Some councils simply gave up and supply commercially package drinking water after ‘fracking’ practices were used to separate natural gas from the ground structure.

Freshwater – Biodiversity

Eco-systems in freshwater host populations for 12 percent of animal species and 40 percent of fish. These habitats have a large array of fish, amphibians, mollusks, crustaceans and insects which provides sustenance for large flocks of endemic and migratory birds. Plants are an essential contributors to the freshwater eco-systems giving food and shelter for animals.

However because they are vulnerable to run-off pollutants and drainage, they exhibit up to 15 times greater extinction rates than in marine habitats.[12]

After three years draught, floods from northern states brings water flow to Minindee lakes 2020

The diversity of freshwater habitats is affect by the local topography. Rainfall at a river’s headwaters [source] flows downhill through the area where all water from tributary streams drain into the same river system known as its water shed. This moving water flows through varying geography. The less steep the slope in the land the longer the water will seep into it. The slower moving water courses see a variety of wetlands; marshes, sloughs, soaks and bogs, or seasonal pools known as vernal pools.

Where no outlet is found water accumulates as a pond or lake. Some water will infiltrate the ground and contribute to the subterranean water system.

Ice and snow can contain water for centuries before melting to release water at high altitudes to add another diversity to water cycles.

Freshwater Habitats

RIVERS

High altitude rivers become aerated

The steepness of the gradient, preferred by hydro engineers, controls the composition of the water course. At speed water forces all but large rocks to roll and move down stream. The size of particles like pebbles grit and silt settle into the river bed as the water slows.

Locations below cascades have excellent aeration and waste is moved on. Such a site suits salmon egg lodging between pebbles. Shallow pools with slow currents suit small fish, crustaceans, amphibians and mollusks. Consequently wetlands attract birds and small mammals. Riparian vegetation affects microhabitats providing shade and cooling and protection within the root structures. Plants attract insects which encourages microorganisms in the decaying leaf litter. Each stream has dissolved minerals eroded from the geology it flowed through which influences the types of wildlife it supports.

PONDS and LAKES

Frogs spawning by James Wainscoat unsplash

Often thought of as closed systems like a pool with little outflow. Where a water outflow does not exist, fish, mollusks, crustaceans and all but large amphibians stay in them. When there is little flushing action toxins are accumulate, as can invasive species of plants or animals which frequently out compete with local natives.

WETLANDS

Minidee Lakes full 2020

Nature’s drainage areas provide habitat for fish, mollusk, crustacean and amphibian nurseries. We usually identify the wading birds foraging amongst the tussocks. These flood areas are extremely effective filter systems.

Man Made Water Systems

BIOSPHERE

A soviet scientist, Vladimir Vernadskiy in 1926  wrote about his concept for a biosphere. It was a closed ecological system in order to support life separated from Earth’s conditions. The sort of infrastructure you would need to colonize another planet. I recall the water cycle in a 1980’s biosphere becoming that rich in nutrients that the only way to purify the water to an acceptable clarity was to run the water over plain glass panes where algae formed and filtered out the unwanted nutrients in the algae’s slimy layers.

The atmospheric containment was that good that oxygen levels reduced to high altitude levels and carbon dioxide concentration was 45 percent higher than normal, largely due to soil bacteria reacting to their confined habitat exhaling huge amounts of carbon dioxide.

Concrete used in the biosphere construction contained calcium hydroxide, the excess CO2 instead of being processed by the plants and photosynthesized into oxygen, reacted with the calcium hydroxide in the concrete walls to produce calcium carbonate with water.

Ca(OH)2 + CO2 à CaCO3 + H2O

Quite unpredictable as was the mass death rate of most of the plants animals and insects selected to inhabit the biosphere, some species thrived, like cockroaches. The large introduced ant found its way in and dominated all other ants. Vine species like the morning glory chocked the life out of all other plants. The 8 scientists were unable to sustain an adequate production of food despite having all prescribed agricultural requirements. Additional seeds stocks and food was imported at critical times. The natural systems it appears are not that simple or obvious.[13]

DAMS

Dams are seen as a necessary structure to provide reliable clean water and produce ‘clean’ energy from the water fall driving turbines. Let us look at the infamous Three Gorges Dam project in the upper reaches of the Yangtze River, Central China.

People relocated: 1,000,000

Factories submerged: 1,600

Continuous flow halted

Generates 80,000 gigawatt per hour of ‘clean’electricity.

Dam – photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

 Dams interrupt the continuous flow of rivers but at times of flooding they may have to release more water through the spillways to ease the pressure on the dam wall structure.

That structure halts anadromous fish like salmon trying to swim upstream to spawn. Wealthy counties can build fish ladders like a series of locks or rapids.

DAMS IN FLOOD

Dams interrupt the continuous flow of rivers but at times of flooding they may have to release more water through the spillways to ease the pressure on the dam wall structure.

That structure halts anadromous fish like salmon trying to swim upstream to spawn. Wealthy counties can build fish ladders like a series of locks or rapids.

VENERAL POOLS

The seasonal pool depends on underlying impermeable soils, often derived from volcanic flows. Spring is usually when these bodies of water are full. They provide a growth season for plants and animals. Peculiar plants have air containing stems that are buoyant, others have leaves that have adapted to float. As the water evaporates plants set seed which form concentric rings of flower shows. During the dry months amphibians dig deep into the mud to time their dormant phase.

Migrating birds will look to the vernal pools for nourishment and resting places alone their routes. These types of wetlands are threatened by drainage for agriculture or urban development, bush clearing for fire prevention, off-road vehicle use and most human activities. Legal protection for endangered species may give some leverage for protecting these aquatic eco-systems.

Photographer, Derry Moroney captured dendritic drainage patterns in Lake Cakora, New South Wales. Oil of the tea tree (melaleuca alternifolia) is said to be in the water.

FRESHWATER STUDIES

Chemical

Acidity / Alkalinity; ph level

Nutrients and their source; where they are derived.

Physical

Turbidity; haziness / cloudiness

Erosion; evidence, causes

Depth of stream and flow rate

Biology

Netting to catch concentration of plankton

Quadrant sample count

Leaf Litter by Sergio Rola on Unsplashed

Transect lines count and record occurrences of animal behavior. Leaf Litter; undersides and spaces between leaves, reveal insects and micro-organisms. Further information at Leaf Pack Network

STREAM STUDY: Water quality: clarity, temperature, and pH

Plants: numbers and varieties of plants in and adjacent to water.

Animals; numbers and species in and adjacent to water.

Human evidence: pollutants, litter or change of flow, drainage.

Seasonal change: Multiple surveys at various times. Further information at UGSU or EPA

Endangered Species in Peril: Further information at UsFWS and AuEnv and WWF and HSI and EES and NCA and AuGeo .

Water Cycle

The process and forms water takes on its journey around the Earth, from our oceans where heat from the sun evaporates the water as vapor into the air. At the molecular scale the water molecule that leaves the surface of the liquid draws another molecule to the surface where it heats and is also evaporated.

The minerals or salts the water molecules were carrying are left behind, increasing concentrations in the water body. The air above becomes progressively more humid.

The airborne water vapor travels upward and perhaps inland carried by air currents. Going higher the vapor molecules becomes colder, condense, cluster around suspended particles and form into clouds. Water vapor is clear so invisible in normal conditions, water droplets in clouds can be seen. When the mass of water is great enough precipitation occurs, as rain, or snow, or ice depending on the surrounding air temperature. The water descends and gravity acts to make it flow through the topographical landscape. Individual droplets combine to form creeks then rivers toward the lowest topographical locale.

Hydrological Cycle

Water taken from the cycle

Percolation occurs when water passes into another layer of medium like soil layers or caverns. As water infiltrates through soil and rock, pollution is filtered out. Consequently aquifers are valued water sources. [ I cannot understand why counties permit the intermingling of subterranean layers by fracking to dislodge natural gas.]

Sublimation tends to occur in snow covered mountains in spring when temperatures warm the ice and snow into water vapor.

Water that has infiltrated the root system of plants is taken up to assist photosynthesis and cellular respiration, then release water vapor from the underside of their leaves by a process of transpiration. Water is also taken up by animals for cellular respiration and released from the body through urination, exhalation and sweat.

Transfer of minerals

Freshwater descending through the water shed erodes and carries downstream materials from the edges and bottom of the stream. Those natural materials can be particles of soil, decaying plant or animal parts or unnatural chemicals or waste. Storms increase the accumulation of pollution into waterways.

The Special Properties of Water

Collectively they make water unique. One oxygen and two hydrogen atoms satisfy each other’s electronic potential to bond in the Y configuration. Some say it looks like a head with ears, but the diagram below shows the balance ionic charge (polarity) and the angles of attraction allow the molecule to behave like a magnet. The oxygen end (negative) attracts positively charged atom or molecules, and the Hydrogen end (positive) attracts negatively charged atoms and molecules. This bipolar attraction allows water to be an effective solvent.

Property Water Molecule Bonding from USGS.gov

Water will dissolve salts like NaCl, and glues like gelatin. The negative (oxygen) side of water molecule will lightly bond with the positive (hydrogen) side of other water molecule. These are called hydrogen bonds which cause water molecules to stick together and in the liquid state give water its surface tension.

Strider insect on water from Penn. State Uni.

This attraction referred to as cohesion allows water to flow through plant tissue and blood vessels by capillary action. At the surface of a vessel or drop water will appear to be curved or dome shaped.

Ware droplets on leaf, photo by Clipart library

Water can exist in three states at relatively normal conditions. A liquid at room temperature because of the hydrogen bonds previously mentioned. They continually break and form with other water molecules as the water moves.

Ice is formed, when water is cooled below 0o Celsius with average air pressure at sea level. Water as a gaseous vapor can turn directly into a solid. Frost forms from the water vapor in the air. Water molecules arrange with hexagonal crystals in solid ice, which takes up more space than very cold water where the molecules are tightly packed. Ice partially floats because it is slightly less dense than the cold water surrounding it. Consequently water expands on freezing and tends to freeze from the top down.

Ice crystals, photo by freepik

Water vapor is the gaseous form also known as aqueous vapor. It is lighter (less dense) than air, so it rests above the atmosphere with the other ‘greenhouse’ gases like methane and carbon dioxide, and provides an insulating effect on the atmosphere. Tropical areas with high humidity will experience warm nights as aqueous vapor prevents the heat of the day to escape. In cold air aqueous vapor is quickly condensed into fog or mist or can form dew or frost on the ground. If all the Earth’s water vapor were condensed the surface of the planet would be covered by one inch of water.

Movement of Water

Condensation is the change from gaseous vapor to liquid droplets. Rain drops or snowflakes can be airborne we see in clouds.

Pressure can also activate condensation. Contact with cold surfaces an initiate condensation to liquid.

Precipitation in the atmosphere occurs when it is saturated with water vapor which then condenses and into drops heavy enough to gravitate to Earth’s surface. Saturation can be from the addition of more vapor or cooling in the air.

Fresh water annually on Earth’s surface amounts to 500,000 cubic kilometers (km3), unfortunately 395,000 km3 falls onto our oceans. Note that rain evaporated from the already existing water sources.

Although the rain may have been pure initially but if its fall path goes through other substances in the atmosphere like, ammonium, nitrogen and sulphur it may form ‘acidic rain’.

Evaporation is the transformation of liquid water to aqueous vapor. The transfer requires an amount of energy (heat) which is used, called evaporative cooling. When water evaporates from open bodies of water like a dam, the depletion rate, measured annually can be as high as 120 inches depth. Evaporation leaves behind substances which have entered the water sources like polluting chemicals, and may render them in toxic concentrations in those open reservoirs.  Transpiration is how plants release water vapor from their leaves mainly and also stems, flowers and roots. A mature large tree may lose hundreds of gallons of water in a day which is up to 90 percent of the water absorbed through its roots. The under surface of leaves which are dotted with pores called stoma, which give off water vapor are bounded by guard cells that open and close the openings.[14]

Section through a typical leaf showing the cell structure

Botanists have measured how much water a plant requires to grow, as an example cropping plants transpire from 200 to 1,000 litres of water (up to 1,000 kilograms) for every kilogram of dry material they produce, useful knowledge in arid regions.

Useful for us to know is that fresh water cannot just appear from the skies. The same water that occupied the surface and atmosphere of our planet millions of years ago is the water we see covering Earth today.

Underground Water Resources

This map of the United States shows the different types and locations of aquifers which provide half of U.S. drinking water and also water to agriculture, industry and the environment. Over 75 years drilling and pumping has dramatically reduced the quantity held within underground aquifers.

Aquifers in mainland United States

Libyas Aquifers

An aquifer is an underground geologic unit that is saturated with water that has sufficient permeability to yield that water to wells. A misconception exists that an aquifer is simply a large underground lake sandwiched between rock at both its top and bottom. This only exists in limestone caverns. The diagram below represents two different types of geologic materials, with different aquifer properties. As you can imagine, the well-sorted material allows water to move quickly through it (larger pore space), while the poorly sorted material requires a bit more energy and time for water to travel through it (see diagram below).[15]

Geology of Libya – Source Colorado Geological Survey

This study is to examine the physico-chemical quality of the Libyan Murzuq groundwater, to find the extent of its pollution and compare the quality standards for drinking water. Samples from 13 boreholes and the water wells of Sabha, in the Libyian localities. The criteria studied were  temperature, conductivity, salinity, acidity – alkalinity and hardness. The total dissolved solids (TDS) including presence of; Aluminum, Fluorine, Potassium, Sodium, Calcium, Magnesium, Iron, Copper, Manganese, Chloride, Sulfate, Silica, Nitrates, Nitrites, Ammonium, Ammonia, Nitrogen, Bicarbonate, Phosphate, Calcium Carbonate. Analysis showed that the groundwater of Murzuq was within the limits of Libyan Standards. However, some elements’ analysis showed high conductivity and concentrations of; TDS, Potassium, Sodium, Iron, Copper, Chloride, and Manganese. Questions persist to decide whether to limit the use of those waters for drinking.

Aquifer system of Libya showing Murzuq aquifer 7 and other aquifers 1 to 15

More on the Murzuq basin and Water resourses in the Arab Regions see Further Reading below.

Groundwater and Water Management

Dr. Ralf Klingbeil of the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR) Hannover, Germany, published (Nov 2012) a set of slides on the topic;

Groundwater and Water Management Issues in the Middle East for the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA).

Download the PDF to appreciate the diversity and extent of the problems involved in maintaining a supply of drinkable water for all.

Replenish Groundwater

Dr Stuart Khan says more innovation is needed to achieve improved water security[16]

 Natural cycle: How large quantities of waste water can be replenished naturally. Groundwater is currently being replenished in Western Australia and Queensland.

Australian Groundwater Resources LINK

Salt Water

Fresh water only accounts for 2.5 percent of the Earth’s total water, which leaves 97.5 percent of our water occupying 71 percent of the Earth’s surface. Even now some underground water reserves are highly brackish. Most of New Mexico’s underground water requires treatment for its saline concentrations.[17]

Earth’s Surfaces

Desalination of water

Two common methods of removing salt and impurities from water are forced distillation and reverse osmosis.

Forced distillation is the heating of the water until it evaporates then collected and condensed to liquid. The contaminant elements need to be physically separated from the water vapor by a filtration or trapping.

Reverse osmosis pumps water through a membrane that selectively filters away the salt ions. A cheaper method than paying for the energy required to heat water to boiling point.

Forward osmosis is more effective than reverse osmosis, it uses the movement of water molecules through a membrane into a ‘draw solution’. The draw solution is more concentrated in a special salt which is then evaporated using a low-grade heat.

Carbon nanotubes positioned in an impervious membrane restricts water flow through the tubes where an electric charge is applied that repels the positively charged salt molecules in sea water. The neutrally charged water molecules can pass through the tubes without the salt. This process requires relatively low pressure pumping. (I don’t know what happens to the negatively charged chloride ions, hopefully they are attracted to the electric charge and hold to the tube charged surface?) Biomimetics as the name suggests mimics the live cell membrane called aquaporin, a protein that conducts water in and out of other cells. The aquaporin like nano devise applies a positive charge at the protein’s aperture which repels the salt molecules.

More on water and water management like the synthetic mangrove in Further Reading below.

References


[17]  Alley, William M., Desalination of Groundwater, 2003. http://pubs.usgs.gov/fs075-03/


[16]  Dr Stuart Khan says more innovation is needed to achieve improved water security, Matthew Kelly, Newcastle Herald News, 2 Aug 2019. LINK


[15] :http://www.GeologyofLibya.com/


[14] Water Cycle and Water Reservoirs, by Anica and Abraham Miller-Rushing, Marcia Matz, Enviromental Literacy Guide, National Geographic


[13] This Is The Largest Earth Science Experiment. What Went Wrong? Youtube.com


[12]  Revenga and Mock, study 2000.

[10] Needing Water, Georgia Stirs Up a 200-Year-Old Dispute With Its Northern Neighbor. Austyn Gaffney NRDC Oct. 29 2019

[11] Disappearing Lake Powell underlines drought crisis facing Colorado River. Chris McGreal, The Guardian 18 May 2015

[9]  WWF worldwildlife.org, freshwater systems


[8] Science and Technology.Brown.Edu/news/2021-03-03/water


[5]  Humans Now Control The Majority of All Surface Freshwater Fluctuations on Earth, Peter Dockrill, 7 March 2021, Science Alert.com

[6]  National Geographic Resource library Educator Guide Earth’s Freshwater

[7] Menindee’s massive Lake Pamamaroo fills just in time for town struggling after drought, fish kills, Declan Gooch, 15 June 2020, ABC.net.au.


[4]  The Racing Stripe Darkling beetle Wikipedae Stenocara gracilipes

[3]  Huang, W. et al. Mechanism of water extraction from gypsum rock by desert colonizing microorganisms. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 117, 10681–10687 (2020)


[1] Groundwater and Climate Change, WRL Technical Report 2017/04 May 2017 by D J Anderson

[2] “Robert Fulford’s column about Petra, Jordan”.  Robertfulford.com.1997-06-18. Archived from the original on 2015-09-24

Further Reading

Design elements and water flow in the synthetic mangrove

Capillary-driven desalination in a synthetic mangrove, Yunkun Wang, Jongho Lee, Jay R. Werber, Menachem Elimelech, Science Advances  21 Feb 2020: Vol. 6, no. 8, eaax5253 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aax5253 LINK

The schematic diagrams show the mangrove tree (left), the synthetic mangrove device (right), and their water transport mechanisms (center insets). In natural mangroves, capillary pressure created by evaporation into substomatal cavities (top left inset) brings about upward water transport through xylem channels (middle left inset) and desalination by aquaporin water channels in root cell membranes, which exclude salt from saline water in the soil (bottom left inset). The highly negative pressure in the root, Proot, overcomes the osmotic pressure of the saline water (πo), which enables water uptake through the root filtration system (i.e., Proot − πroot < Po − πo). The synthetic mangrove as shown comprises a nanoporous AAO membrane, a silica frit, and an RO membrane, mimicking the leaf, stem, and root of natural mangrove trees, respectively. Negative capillary pressure in the nanopores of the AAO membrane (top right inset) is the driving force for water transport through the silica frit (middle right inset) and desalination of saline water by a semipermeable RO membrane (bottom right inset). Hydrogel membranes are also used as leaves. Membranes were sealed using rubber O-rings, shown in black. Magnetic stirring is used to enhance mixing of the saline feed water and minimize concentration polarization at the membrane surface. Pleaf and Proot, xylem sap pressure at the leaf and root, respectively; Po, pressure in the soil or feed water; πroot, osmotic pressure of xylem sap at the root; πo, osmotic pressure of soil or feed water (~25 bar for seawater); γ, water surface tension; θ, water contact angle on nanopore wall; dp, nanopore diameter.

Water purification

Yellow Iris located in ‘treatment pond’.

The yellow iris (I. pseudacorus) is often used in water purification. The roots are usually planted in a substrate (e.g. lava-stone) in a reedbed-setup. The roots then improve water quality by consuming nutrient pollutants, such as from agricultural runoff. This highly aggressive grower is now considered a noxious weed and banned in some states of the US where it is found clogging natural waterways.

Biomimicry Desalination. True to its global hydrohub reputation, Singapore is hoping to reduce current energy requirements for membrane desalination from 3.5kWh down to a miraculous 0.8kWh/m3. May 1st, 2012, Harry Seah is the chief technology officer of PUB in Singapore. LINK

Demi Sec: Spanish Lessons for Australia in managing Dry-Climate Historic Parks and Gardens

Link: The Pratt Foundation and ISS Institute Overseas Fellowship

Water in volcanic locations: New Zealand lava fields
Wind blown seed catches in a lava field.
Seedling of the New Zealand Christmas tree (Metrosideros excelsa) takes hold.

Moari named pohutukawa is a coastal evergreen tree of the myrtle family that produces a display of red flowers of massed stamens. Its ability to survive even perched on rocky, precarious cliffs has positioned it in New Zealand culture as a chiefly tree. The tree makes nectar available to native birds and unfortunately very attractive to the introduced brushtail possum.

Groundwater of Egypt

Groundwater of Egypt: “an environmental overview” pub 12 Sept 2007

M. R. El Tahlawi, A. A. Farrag & S. S. Ahmed 

Although Egypt has the great Nile River, which is the main supply of water, Egypt’s water is limited to 55.5 billion m3 per annum. Owing to the rapid growth of the population and the increasing consumption of water in agriculture, industry, domestic use, etc., it is expected that Egypt will rely to some extent on groundwater to develop the new projects such as Tushka in Upper Egypt and East Oweinat. Issues related to groundwater in Egypt are identified with the common geological features associated with formation of the aquifers and demonstrating the location of the main resources of groundwater, followed by the main objective of this paper, which is addressing the environmental issues related to groundwater in Egypt. Several studies have been reviewed and personal communication made with the authorities to introduce this work and provide an overview of the groundwater quality problems in Egypt with examples from different parts of the country.

Main Groundwater Aquifers in Egypt by Hussein Abdel-Shafy
Murzuq basin is located on the southwestern of Libya – by Driss Belghyti

Murzuq basin is located on the southwestern of Libya (Figure above) between Jabal Fezzan (28°N), Jabal Qussa (16°E), Chad-Niger (South) and Algeria (West). The wells penetrated from top to bottom, Quaternary deposits, the Nubian sandstone (Lower Cretaceous age) and upper part of the post Tassilian deposits, Jurassic (Touratine Formation) and Triassic (Zarzaitine Formation).

High Naturally Occurring Radioactivity from Fossil Groundwater in the Middle East

High levels of naturally occurring and carcinogenic radium isotopes have been measured in low-saline and oxic groundwater from the Rum Group of the Disi sandstone aquifer in Jordan. The combined 228Ra and 226Ra activities are up to 2000% higher than international drinking water standards. Analyses of the host sandstone aquifer rocks show 228Ra and 226Ra activities and ratios that are consistent with previous reports of sandstone rocks from different parts of the world.

  • Reference Project: Radioactivity in the Deep Aquifer System in Jordan  Avner Vengosh, Daniella Hirshfeld, David Vinson, Gary Dwyer and others DOI:10.1021/es802969r

Recognizing the vast uses of water in human life, the presence of α and β particles emitting radionuclides in groundwater of northern Saudi Arabia has been evaluated as a means of water quality assessment of the region. A liquid scintillation counting technique was used to determine the gross α/β, and 228Ra radioactivities in water samples, while the radioactivity concentrations of 234,238U and 226Ra were determined using alpha spectrometry after the separation process. Present results show that all water samples contain a higher level of gross α and β radioactivity than the WHO recommended limits; the average gross α activity is about 7 times greater than the limit value of 0.5 Bq L-1, while the average gross β activity value is about 3.5 times greater than the limit value of 1 Bq L-1. Correlations of TDS and pH with gross α and β radioactivity in the studied samples were investigated

Ref; Assessment of radioactivity contents in bedrock groundwater samples from the northern  region of Saudi Arabia DOI: 10.1016/j.chemosphere.2019.125181

 Fahad I Almasoud , Zaid Q Ababneh , Yousef J Alanazi, Mayeen Uddin Khandaker , M I Sayyed 

Groundwater availability and water demand sustainability over the upper mega aquifers of Arabian Peninsula and west region of Iraq.  pub 8 Jan 2020. Salih Muhammad Awadh, Heba Al-Mimar & Zaher Mundher Yaseen

The current research is devoted to highlight the past, present and future status of groundwater characteristics over the Arabian Peninsula (AP) and west region of Iraq. The Umm er Radhuma, Rus Dammam and Neogene deposits are the major hydrostratigraphic units supplying the main groundwater resources in the AP. Water shortage is still a major problem for many countries in the world, including oil-producing countries such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia (SA), the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Oman and Bahrain. The withdrawal of groundwater has been reflected in salinization of agricultural soils, leading to an increase in high-cost technologies such as desalination of seawater to provide suitable water for diverse sectors. Hence, the use of seawater desalination as a major source of water is unavoidable, and country development requires the use of renewable energy as protection of the environment. The need to conserve and use groundwater resources efficiently is highly essential owing to the fact that it is the only natural source of water in such developing countries of global importance. The review comprises various essential components related to groundwater variability including the hydrogeological aspects, climate change, drawdown and abstraction, rainwater harvesting, desertification and population increment.

Main Groundwater Aquifers of Arabian Peninsula

Transboundary Water and Transboundary Aquifers in the Middle East: Opportunities for Sharing a Precious Resource Published 2010

R. Klingbeil, M. Alhamdi

Surface and groundwater resources in the Middle East are to a large extent transboundary. While much attention is given to the surface water and river courses crossing national boundaries in the region little has been achieved in understanding the sometimes hydrogeological complex transboundary aquifer systems. Much political attention is given to the rivers Euphrates, Tigris, Jordan and Nile as they connect Arab and non Arab countries. However, also between the Arab countries surface and groundwater crosses political boundaries and only few regional organizations address the need for improved internal Arab cooperation on shared water resources. An overview of confirmed and potential transboundary shared surface water and aquifers between ESCWA member countries and between ESCWA member countries and non member countries will be presented. Often detailed hydrogeological knowledge is still limited at national or trans-national level on the individual transboundary shared aquifer, some bilateral or multilateral cooperation between riparians (water course and aquifer states) have been taken place and are taking place in the region. In most cases the principles underlying the UN 1997 Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses and the UN General Assembly 2008 Resolution on the Law of Transboundary Aquifers as well as basic principles of IWRM applied in a transboundary context are already considered to some extend as guidance for individual cooperation mechanisms that may eventually develop into bilateral, multilateral or regional agreements and/or conventions. ESCWA supports its member countries towards bilateral as well as regional cooperation mechanisms through a number of tools such as the cooperation through the Committee of Water Resources and activities of the ESCWA work plan, shared water resources assessments and guidance, development of negotiation skills, dispute resolution and regional advisory services responding to specific requests from member countries.

Proven and potential transboundary / shared aquifers between ESCWA member countries or between ESCWA member countries and neighboring countries (presented with circles and ovals, location and size only indicative, as full horizontal extent often not fully defined), based on WHYMAP (2008)

Raising the Dead Sea

Dead Sea Level evolution since 1800.

The project to channel water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea has fascinated people for the past one hundred and fifty years. It was brought back to the fore in 2005 by the three neighboring countries: Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The stated goals are to halt the decline of the Dead Sea (fig. above) and to save it from environmental damage (fig. below), to desalinate water and produce affordable energy for all three countries, creating a symbol of peace through a tripartite cooperation (World Bank, 2005). However, the project, at a cost of over $11 billion over twenty years, requires regional stability that is far from being achieved.

HYDROGEN

Our great luminary, the Sun powers its emissions by the fusion of hydrogen where the two hydrogen atoms combine, or fuse to become a helium atom. The fusion of the two hydrogen atoms into a helium atom releases energy. The hydrogen nucleus components of neutrons and protons combine to form the helium nucleus. The energy required to bind the two hydrogen atoms is more than the strong nuclear force needed to hold the helium atom together. Einstein applied the term ‘missing mass’ also called mass defect to describe the energy released when the new nucleus was formed.

When hydrogen is burnt for power, i.e. combined with oxygen the product is water (unless it is burnt in air then nitrogen oxides are also produced). But coal and petrol produces carbon dioxide CO2, carbon monoxide CO, and a host of ‘nasties ‘  like; oxides of sulphur and nitrogen which dissolve in rain water and become acidic.

Carbon based fuels have been compressed in the Earth’s crust for millions of years, now in a hundred years we are releasing their burn by-products into our own air we breathe.

Photo synthesis the process plants use to power their conversion of water H2O and carbon dioxide CO2 into oxygen O2 and sugar CH2O is explained in detail in part3 Energy.

Ah but oil companies make a lot of money selling carbon based fuels to us. And the sun does not shine at night.

Hydrogen is the most common fuel source in our universe. Our sun uses 500 million metric tons each second. [1]

What are the products from burning hydrogen? Is it just water?

Do we have to change our engine technologies to burn hydrogen? Yes our atmosphere is 79% nitrogen.

Who processes hydrogen for sale? These are questions that come to my mind.

scheme of a fuel cell by Sergey Merkulov

The fuel cell

Hydrogen consumed in a fuel cell, produces electric energy the by driving a turbine just like a power station. Hydrogen can be produced from a variety of domestic resources, such as natural gas, nuclear power, biomass, and renewable power like hydro turbine, solar and wind. Hydrogen can be stored so it can transfer the energy produced from other sources. The fuel cell has become a favored option for all transportation and electricity generation applications.[2]

The hydrogen clean fuel can be produced by a number of diverse methods. The most economical are natural gas reforming (a thermal process), and electrolysis. Other methods are solar-driven and biological processes.

Making Hydrogen

THERMAL PROCESSES

A high temperature processes to produce hydrogen involves a process of steam reacts with a hydrocarbon fuel to produce hydrogen. Many hydrocarbon fuels can be reformed to produce hydrogen, including natural gas, diesel, renewable liquid fuels, gasified coal, or gasified biomass. Today, about 95% of all hydrogen is produced from steam reforming of relatively low-cost natural gas.

Natural gas contains methane (CH4) that can be used to produce hydrogen with thermal processes, such as steam-methane reformation and partial oxidation.

Steam-methane reforming

 Methane reacts with steam (7000 to 10000C) under pressure (3–25 bar) in the presence of a catalyst to produce hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and a relatively small amount of carbon dioxide. Heat and pressure must be supplied to the process for the reaction to proceed. A further process of water-gas shift is carried out.

Steam-methane reforming reaction
CH4 + H2O (+ heat) → CO + 3H2

Water-gas shift reaction

The produced carbon monoxide is mixed with more steam and a catalyst to produce carbon dioxide and more hydrogen. Then a final process step called “pressure-swing adsorption,” carbon dioxide and other impurities are removed from the gas stream, leaving essentially pure hydrogen.

Water-gas shift reaction
CO + H2O → CO2 + H2 (+ small amount of heat)

Partial Oxidation

Where natural gas is reacted with air, there is insufficient oxygen to convert the methane and other hydrocarbons completely to carbon dioxide and water. The resultant produces primarily hydrogen and carbon monoxide, nitrogen and a relatively small amount of carbon dioxide and other compounds.

Then in the water-gas shift reaction, the carbon monoxide reacts with water to form carbon dioxide and more hydrogen.

In partial oxidation heat is given off. This method is faster than steam reforming and requires a smaller reactor vessel. However this process initially produces less hydrogen per unit of the input fuel than is obtained by steam reforming of the same fuel.

Partial oxidation of methane reaction
CH4 + ½O2 → CO + 2H2 (+ heat)

Water-gas shift reaction
CO + H2O → CO2 + H2 (+ small amount of heat)

Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle FCEV

Petroleum consumption and emissions from FCEVs are lower than for gasoline-powered internal combustion engine vehicles. Water vapor is said to be the only exhaust product. If you include the production of hydrogen from natural gas, delivery and storage logistics, then atmospheric emissions are halved and petroleum consumption is only 10 percent of petrol driven vehicles.

2020 Toyota Mirai; mid-size hydrogen fuel cell car manufactured by Toyota, one of the first such sedan-like vehicles to be sold commercially.

ELECTROLYTIC PROCESSES

Water can be separated into oxygen and hydrogen through a process called electrolysis. Electrolytic processes take place in an ‘electrolyzer’, which functions much like a fuel cell in reverse—instead of using the energy of a hydrogen molecule, like a fuel cell does, an electrolyzer creates hydrogen and oxygen from water molecules.[3]

Hydrogen Production: Electrolysis Electrolysis is a promising option for hydrogen production from renewable resources. Electrolysis is the process of using electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. This reaction takes place in a unit called an electrolyzer which is well-suited for small-scale distributed hydrogen production to large-scale, central production facilities that could be link into a system of other non-greenhouse-gas-emitting forms of electricity production.[4]

Learn more about electrolytic hydrogen production.

How Does it Work?

Like fuel cells, electrolyzers consist of an anode and a cathode separated by an electrolyte. Different electrolyzers function in slightly different ways, mainly due to the different type of electrolyte material involved.

This Process is being considered because hydrogen produced via electrolysis can result in zero greenhouse gas emissions, depending on the source of the electricity used. The source of the required electricity—including its cost and efficiency, as well as emissions resulting from electricity generation—must be considered when evaluating the benefits and economic viability of hydrogen production via electrolysis.

Amalgamation with renewable electricity generation
Hydrogen production via electrolysis could be working when excess electricity is produced from wind farms or solar installations. Instead of curtailing the electricity as is commonly done, it is possible to use this excess electricity to produce hydrogen through electrolysis. The hydrogen in storage is available to produce electricity when wind or sun is not available.

SOLAR-POWERED Hydrogen Production

Sunlight as the driver for hydrogen production has a few processes, including photo-biological, photo-electro-chemical, and solar-thermo-chemical.

Photo-biological processes use the natural photosynthetic activity of bacteria and green algae to produce hydrogen.

Photo-electro-chemical processes use specialized semiconductors to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen.

 Solar-thermo-chemical hydrogen production uses concentrated solar power to drive water splitting reactions often along with other species such as metal oxides.

BIOLOGICAL PROCESSES

Biological processes use microbes such as bacteria and microalgae and can produce hydrogen through biological reactions. In microbial biomass conversion, the microbes break down organic matter like biomass or wastewater to produce hydrogen, while in photo-biological processes the microbes use sunlight as the energy source.

Microbial hydrogen production

Microorganisms have the ability to consume and digest biomass and release hydrogen referred to as microbial biomass conversion processes. Research in biomass conversion could result in commercial-scale systems becoming suitable for local distribution, semi-central, or central hydrogen production scales, depending on the organisms (feedstock) used.[5]

Bacteria convert corn stover* to hydrogen in a fermentation reactor at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Photo by Sarah Studer

HOW DOES IT WORK?

Microorganisms, such as bacteria, break down organic matter to produce hydrogen. The organic matter can be raw biomass sources like refined sugars, corn stover*, and even wastewater. Because no light is required, these methods are sometimes called “dark fermentation” methods.

(*Stover consists of the leaves, stalks, and cobs of maize plants left in a field after harvest. Such stover makes up about half of the yield of a corn crop and is similar to straw from other cereal grasses.)

Photobiological hydrogen production

Microorganisms —such as green microalgae or cyanobacteria—together with sunlight split water into oxygen and hydrogen ions. Challenges for this pathway include low rates of hydrogen production and the fact that splitting water also produces oxygen, which quickly inhibits the hydrogen production reaction and can be a safety issue when mixed with hydrogen in certain concentrations.

Some photosynthetic microbes use sunlight as the driver to break down organic matter, releasing hydrogen, this is known as photofermentation. The algae and bacteria could be grown in water that cannot be used for drinking or for agriculture, and could potentially even use wastewater. Its challenges include a very low hydrogen production rate and low solar-to-hydrogen efficiency, making it a commercially unviable for hydrogen production. In time photobiological production may provide economical hydrogen production from sunlight with low- to net-zero carbon emissions. [6]

A researcher examines a natural cyanobacterial culture for hydrogen production using sunlight and water in a bench top bioreactor. Photo from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory
Photobiological hydrogen production from cyanobacteria Anaebena variabilis

The objective of the Samueli Engineering UCLA project is to perform a comprehensive study to simultaneously mitigate carbon dioxide and produce hydrogen. It offers a cheap, efficient, scalable, autonomous, and reliable system for producing hydrogen from microbial consumption of carbon dioxide and absorption of solar light.[7]

How it works

Algae to Hydrogen

Anabaena variabilis are: filamentous, heterocystous cyanobacteria.

  • Feature high hydrogen production capacity in the absence of nitrogen.
  • Considered to be good carbon dioxide consumer.
  • Approximately 5 mm in diameter and 100 mm long.
  • Their genome has been sequenced.

Photobioreactor Description and Operation

The UCLA Engineering project has designed, built, and now are operating a fully instrumented photobioreactor. The following measurements are systematically performed:[8]

EnvironmentIn the liquid phase-In the gas phase
Incident light intensity gas in-flow rate-Temperature – pH, dissolved O2 – nitrates-, ammonia- out-flow rate, pressure, -gas composition (O2, H2, CO2, and N2 )

The photobioreactor is operated using two stages. Switching from Stage 1 to Stage 2 takes place when the nitrate concentrations in the liquid phase vanishes.

Stage 1: Carbon Dioxide Consumption and Bacterial Growth

  • presence of nitrates and nitrogen.
  • sparging with 95% air and 5% CO2 at 170 mL/min.
  • irradiance: 65-75 umol/m2/s.

Stage 2: Hydrogen Production

  • absence of nitrates and nitrogen.
  • sparging with pure Argon at 45 mL/min.
  • irradiance: 150 umol/m2/.

Results

  • The growth phase lasted 110 hours.
  • The H2 production phase lasted more than a week.
  • The light to hydrogen energy conversion efficiency reached 0.5%.
  • The light to biomass energy conversion efficiency was 4.7%.

Solar Thermochemical Processes

Thermochemical water splitting uses high energy chemical reactions to produce hydrogen and oxygen from water. This is a long-term technology pathway, with potentially low or no greenhouse gas emissions.

The temperatures needed to split water molecules into their atomic constituents are 500° to 2,000°C. The heat could applied from either solar installations or the waste heat of nuclear power the reactions.

Reflective solar installations already in operation.

Parabolic Solar Mirror, China
Solar reflective power Port Augusta, photo ABC au

The chemicals used in the process are retained within each cycle, a closed loop that consumes only water and produces hydrogen and oxygen.[9]

At the heart of these water splitting reactors is a thermo- chemical cycle of oxidation and reduction of cerium oxide particles

Reduction: 2Ce(IV)O2  –> Ce(III)2O3 + ½ O2

Oxidation: Ce(III) 2O3 + H2O ® 2Ce(IV)O2 + H2

Net Reaction: H2O –> ½ O2 + H2

Or a multi-step thermo-chemical cycle using copper chloride

Dissociation: 2Cu2OCl2 –> 2CuCl + ½ O2

Hydrolysis: 2CuCl2 + H2O –> 2 Cu2OCl2 + 2HCl

Electrolysis: 2CuCl + 2HCl + (electric input) –> 2CuCl2 + H2

Net Reaction: H2O –>  O2 + H2

Thermochemical and Hybrid Water Splitting Technologies

Sulphur is a redox active element in the two step cycle.

H2SO4 –> H2O + SO2 + ½O2  (Thermochemical; 800-900oC)

SO2 + 2H2O –> H2SO4 + H2 (electrochemical; 80-120oC)

Net Reaction: H2O –> H2 + ½O2  [10]

Photo – Electro – Chemical Processes

Photo-Electro-Chemical Water Splitting: Hydrogen Production

Using photo-electro-chemical (PEC) materials in specialized semiconductors the energy in light causes the molecules in water to break their covalent bonds and separate into hydrogen and oxygen.

This is a long-term approach with the aim of eliminating greenhouse gas emissions.

The semiconductor materials used in the PEC process are similar to those used in photovoltaic solar electricity generation, but for PEC applications the semiconductor is immersed in a water-based electrolyte, where sunlight energizes the water-splitting process.  The National Renewable Energy Laboratory provides a demonstration. NREL Photoelectrolysis

Photo-electro-chemical Electrode system
Photo-electro-chemical Particle system

So far panel style reactors have been trialed, owing to the similarities with established photovoltaic panel technologies.[11]

PEC reactor design schemes

Why Is This Pathway Being Considered?

PEC water splitting PEC reactor design schemes achieve high conversion efficiency at low operating temperatures using cost-effective thin-film and/or particle semiconductor materials.

Photoelectrode sheet with ion exchange paths providing gas separation
Tubular PEC reactor

Gallium indium phosphide (GaInP) is a semiconductor. As an electrode its surface could be responsible for the observed corrosion inhibition. Thus, the p-GaInP2 should last much longer when working in pH1 NH4NO3[12]Gallium arsenide (GaAs) is a III-V direct band gap semiconductor with a zinc blende crystal structure.[13]

Particulate Photocatalyst Water-Splitting Panel for Large-Scale Solar Hydrogen Generation.

T. Takewaki holds patents related to this project , published: January 17, 2018. A demonstration of a potentially inexpensive sunlight-powered watersplitting reactor using a fixed Al-doped SrTiO3 photocatalyst. The panel filled with only a 1-mm-deep layer of water capable of rapid release of product gas bubbles without forced convection. A flat panel reactor with 1 m2 of light accepting area could achieved a solar-to-hydrogen energy conversion efficiency of 0.4% by water splitting under natural sunlight irradiation.[14]

Particle PEC reactor
Research Focuses on Overcoming Challenges

Improvements in efficiency, durability, and cost are still needed for market viability. Design parameters receiving attention include,

  • Enhanced sunlight absorption and better surface catalysis.
  • Durability and lifetime are being improved with more rugged materials and protective surface coatings.

Hydrogen Fuel Cell

Hydrogen and Oxygen Fuel cell by Fouad A. Saad. Shutterstock

Inside a fuel cell

A fuel cell works much like an electric battery, converting chemical energy into electrical energy using the movement of charged hydrogen ions across an electrolyte membrane to generate current. There they recombine with oxygen to produce water – a fuel cell’s only emission, alongside hot air.

Although less efficient than electric batteries, today’s fuel cells compare favourably with internal combustion engine technology, which converts fuel into kinetic energy at roughly 25 per cent efficiency. A fuel cell, by contrast, can mix hydrogen with air to produce electricity at up to 60 per cent efficiency.

FCEVs also present relatively low barriers to entry in terms of societal changes, as they operate and perform similarly to conventional vehicles, refuelling at stations in minutes and driving for 500 to 600 kilometres on a single tank, all with no harmful emissions.

Making hydrogen

The hydrogen fuel itself can be produced with ever-increasing cost-effectiveness through electrolysis, by splitting water into its constituent hydrogen and oxygen atoms. This generates two useful gases and, when powered by green energy, makes hydrogen production a carbon-neutral enterprise.

At present, however, just 2 per cent of the 600 billion cubic meters of hydrogen manufactured each year around the world is produced by water electrolysis, while 98 per cent is produced from natural gas, with carbon dioxide as a by-product.

More than 90 per cent of this hydrogen is used as a building block for fertilisers or is consumed within the oil, refining and wider petrochemicals industry.[15]

The development of the hydrogen economy, therefore, relies on government investment in the initial phases. Investment in both hydrogen production and distribution infrastructure is needed, alongside the renewable power projects required to supply carbon-neutral energy.

The Toyota Mirai, the world’s most popular FCEV (pictured earlier), was launched in the UAE back in October 2017, when the country’s first hydrogen station was opened by a partnership of local Toyota distributor Al-Futtaim Motors, Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City and France’s Air Liquide.

The hydrogen economy is taking off in Japan, where 100 refuelling stations have already been established, and the government aims to have 800,000 FCEVs on the road by 2030, alongside a 90 per cent reduction in the cost of hydrogen by 2050.

Electric competition

Recent funding into the research and development of electric vehicle (EV) technology has vastly outstripped that of water electrolysis and fuel cell technology.

This situation has been driven by the rapid development of more efficient and cost-effective electric battery technology, lowering the potential costs of electrified transport systems.

EV and hybrid vehicles have an additional edge in terms of overall energy efficiency. Batteries now lose only about 17 per cent of the initial input of electrical energy through inefficiencies when charging and discharging, while the cycle of using electrical energy to split water into its constituent atoms and recombining hydrogen with air inside a fuel cell wastes more than 50 per cent.

Installing EV charging points at key locations, such as at facility car parks, is also simpler and promises governments more immediate and obvious returns than the more complex task of establishing hydrogen distribution infrastructure.

The upshot of this is that, to date, while EV and plug-in hybrid vehicle sales number in the millions, the most popular model of FCEV, the Toyota Mirai, has sold just 5,000 units.

Transport niche

FCEV technology could be especially useful for commercial applications where bulkier vehicles need to travel long distances, carry heavy loads and refuel with minimal downtime.

Trials in hydrogen have been conducted on everything from public buses and forklifts to trains, planes and boats. For such applications, especially with the larger craft, electric batteries would need to be problematically large. Hydrogen could also be used to replace some of the compressed natural gas used in domestic applications, with minimal changes to existing infrastructure.

A study by Swansea University in the UK found that up to 30 per cent of domestic gas could be safely replaced with hydrogen, thereby reducing carbon emissions by 18 per cent, with no changes to existing infrastructure.

In Europe, the ‘EUTurbines’ group of manufacturers has pledged to make their gas turbines run on up to 20 per cent hydrogen gas by 2020, and develop turbine technology to allow all manufactured units to run, or be retrofitted to run, on 100 per cent hydrogen gas, and be carbon-neutral, by 2030.

Rising efficiencies

Globally, the cost of hydrogen is already coming down, partly in line with the fall in the cost of renewable energy, but also due to improvements in water electrolysis and hydrogen fuel cell technology.

The Paris-based International Energy Agency expects the cost of producing hydrogen to fall by a further 30 per cent by 2030, but the rapid reduction in the cost of recent photovoltaic solar energy projects in the Middle East could mean the local cost of commercially producing hydrogen will fall even faster. As investment in hydrogen infrastructure grows and net costs continue to fall, the hydrogen economy could prove to be an indispensable tool in the transition away from hydrocarbons.


[15] Ref: No 15 https://www.power-technology.com/comment/standing-at-the-precipice-of-the-hydrogen-economy/


[14] Ref No 14: https://www.cell.com/joule/pdf/S2542-4351(17)30224-6.pdf


[12] Ref no 12  : https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0360319912016291

[13] Ref no 13: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gallium_arsenide


[11] Ref no 11: https://www.energy.gov/eere/fuelcells/hydrogen-production-photoelectrochemical-water-splitting


[10] Ref 10: HydroGEN overview https://www.osti.gov/servlets/purl/1567808


[9] Ref 9:https://www.energy.gov/eere/fuelcells/hydrogen-production-thermochemical-water-splitting


[8] Ref 8: https://www.seas.ucla.edu/~pilon/Bioreactor.html


[7] Ref 7: https://www.seas.ucla.edu/~pilon/Bioreactor.html


[6] Ref 6: https://www.energy.gov/eere/fuelcells/hydrogen-production-photobiological


[5] Ref 5: https://www.energy.gov/eere/fuelcells/hydrogen-production-microbial-biomass-conversion


[4] Ref 4: https://www.energy.gov/eere/fuelcells/hydrogen-production-electrolysis


[3] Ref 3: https://www.energy.gov/eere/fuelcells/fuel-cells

[2 Ref 2: https://www.energy.gov/eere/fuelcells/hydrogen-fuel-basics


[1] Ref 1: Bethe, Hans A. (April 1950). “The Hydrogen Bomb”Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists6 (4): 99–104, 125–. Bibcode:1950BuAtS…6d..99B.

Hydrogen further reading

Mauritus Oil Spill

Oil spill Mauritus, NBC New

The volunteers have ignored a government order to leave the clean-up operation to local officials, potentially risking a fine or other punishment. NGOs asked volunteers on Tuesday not to risk their health cleaning up the oil on the coast but to concentrate on boom-making instead.

High winds and waves are pounding the Japanese bulk carrier, which is showing signs of breaking up and dumping its remaining cargo into the waters surrounding the postcard-perfect island off the east coast of Africa.

Oil spill cleanup Mauritius, Ben Pillay, NBC News

Nearly 2,000 metric tons of oil, diesel and petroleum lubricants could inundate the lagoon if the Wakashio breaks apart, and experts believe it’s a matter of hours.

“The situation is very critical. Cracks have expanded over the course of the day,” said Dr. Vassen Kauppaymuthoo, the island’s premier oceanographer.

“The situation’s about to get 10 times worse. It’ll be a major catastrophe,” he said.

The oil is traveling up the coast, Kauppaymuthoo told NBC News, which could lead to huge stretches of lagoon being affected.

“It’ll take decades to rehabilitate the lagoon, and it’ll never be as it was before the spill. We have thousand-year-old coral here, protected species in our waters,” he added.1

Ref no 1: nbc news

Clean up of oil spill, Mauritius. image Willow-River Tonkin

 Hydrogen Production: Natural Gas Reforming

Link: Energy.gov. Hydrogen-natural-gas-reforming

Fuel production

Z‐Scheme Photocatalytic Systems for Solar Water Splitting

Boon‐Junn Ng Lutfi Kurnianditia Putri  Xin Ying Kong  Yee Wen Teh Pooria Pasbakhsh Siang‐Piao Chai

Hitherto, numerous attempts are made to imitate the natural photosynthesis of plants by converting solar energy into chemical fuels which resembles the “Z‐scheme” process.

Link: onlinelibrary.wiley.com

Related Report:

Stored hydrogen

Link: https://www.hydrogenics.com/technology-resources/hydrogen-technology/fuel-cells/

Stored hydrogen can also be used to run heavy duty mobility and everyday fuel cell vehicles. By recombining hydrogen and oxygen, a flow of electrons is created that result in electricity that can be used to run electric engines.

Hydrogen + Oxygen = Electricity + Water Vapor

Pic: pictures>science energy>hydrogen> Hydrogen and oxygen fuel cell , by Fouad A. Saad
reactions:  Cathode: O2 + 4H+ + 4e → 2H2O    Anode: 2H2 → 4H+ + 4e    Overall: 2H2 + O2 → 2H2O

A fuel cell is a device that converts chemical potential energy (energy stored in molecular bonds) into electrical energy. A PEM (Proton Exchange Membrane) cell uses hydrogen gas (H2) and oxygen gas (O2) as fuel. The products of the reaction in the cell are water, electricity, and heat. This is a big improvement over internal combustion engines, coal burning power plants, and nuclear power plants, all of which produce harmful by-products.

Since O2 is readily available in the atmosphere, we only need to supply the fuel cell with H2 which can come from an electrolysis process (see Alkaline electrolysis or PEM electrolysis).

The four basic elements of a PEM Fuel Cell:

The anode, the negative post of the fuel cell, has several jobs. It conducts the electrons that are freed from the hydrogen molecules so that they can be used in an external circuit. It has channels etched into it that disperse the hydrogen gas equally over the surface of the catalyst.

The cathode, the positive post of the fuel cell, has channels etched into it that distribute the oxygen to the surface of the catalyst. It also conducts the electrons back from the external circuit to the catalyst, where they can recombine with the hydrogen ions and oxygen to form water.

The electrolyte is the proton exchange membrane. This specially treated material, which looks something like ordinary kitchen plastic wrap, only conducts positively charged ions. The membrane blocks electrons. For a PEMFC, the membrane must be hydrated in order to function and remain stable.

The catalyst is a special material that facilitates the reaction of oxygen and hydrogen. It is usually made of platinum nanoparticles very thinly coated onto carbon paper or cloth. The catalyst is rough and porous so that the maximum surface area of the platinum can be exposed to the hydrogen or oxygen. The platinum-coated side of the catalyst faces the PEM.

New Power Process graphic by Cummins.com

Advantages of the technology:

  • By converting chemical potential energy directly into electrical energy, fuel cells avoid the “thermal bottleneck” (a consequence of the 2nd law of thermodynamics) and are thus inherently more efficient than combustion engines, which must first convert chemical potential energy into heat, and then mechanical work.
  • Direct emissions from a fuel cell vehicle are just water and a little heat. This is a huge improvement over the internal combustion engine’s litany of greenhouse gases.
  • Fuel cells have no moving parts. They are thus much more reliable than traditional engines.

Electrolyzer Generates Green Hydrogen from Wind Power

Link: https://fuelcellsworks.com/news/electrolyzer-generates-green-hydrogen-from-wind-power/

Key Step Toward Cleaner, More Efficient Mass-Production of Hydrogen From Water

Link: https://scitechdaily.com/key-step-toward-cleaner-more-efficient-mass-production-of-hydrogen-from-water/

Development of cost-efficient electrocatalyst for hydrogen production

Link: https://phys.org/news/2020-10-cost-efficient-electrocatalyst-hydrogen-production.html

New insight brings sustainable hydrogen one step closer

Link: https://phys.org/news/2020-10-insight-sustainable-hydrogen-closer.html

Microwaving plastic waste can generate clean hydrogen

Link: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2256822-microwaving-plastic-waste-can-generate-clean-hydrogen/

Scientists Build Tiny Microbial Factories That Produce Hydrogen by Photosynthesis

Link: https://scitechdaily.com/future-energy-source-scientists-build-tiny-microbial-factories-that-produce-hydrogen-by-photosynthesis/

Eco-Friendly Fuel Cells Powered by Instant Hydrogen Production

Link: https://scitechdaily.com/eco-friendly-fuel-cells-powered-by-instant-hydrogen-production/

Zero-emission fuel: Tackling storage issues of hydrogen

Link : https://blog.novomof.com/blog/zero-emission-fuel-tackling-storage-issues-of-hydrogen

Solar, hydrogen and fuel cells combined › H2-international

Link: https://www.h2-international.com/2020/05/15/solar-hydrogen-and-fuel-cells-combined/

Designing from Nature’s Template

Search for the Protein Sequence

The Office of Naval Research awarded a three year grant to the team at Washington University to investigate ‘layered nano-structures’  like the abalone shell infamous for its strength and resilience. Clement Furlong supervisor to Rich Humbert and leader of Medical Genetics stated ‘Once we sequence the protein we’ll have to find a way to produce lots of it’1.

Abalone mollusks raw with shell

Collecting it is hard on the abalone population and scraping the muscle out of its shell then processing it truncates the protein molecules or worse. Alternatively the familiar E. coli bacteria could be employed to manufacture the protein. We have it in our own gut. It has been used by bacteria, yeast, mold for making wine, brewing beer, leavening bread and culturing cheese. Bacteria is grown in vats to produce food additives, antibiotics, industrial chemicals, vitamins and more.

  • B1       Thiamin
  • B2       Riboflavin
  • B12     [anaemia] present in fish, meat, poultry, eggs. B6       present in pork, poultry, fish, bread, whole cereals, eggs.

Biotechnology

Insulin manufacture for example we take a human gene and splice it into E.coli. Then the E.coli-modified actually produces the insulin. In times gone tons of pork was processed to refine purified insulin2. Both hormone and protein, insulin is a sequence of 51 amino acids, differing from pork’s insulin in only one. By the 1970’s scientists were stringing together nucleic acids in arrangements to synthesize human genes including the insulin gene. A gene is a section of DNA with instructions to make a particular protein. Scientists inserted a synthesized gene into a small loop of a carrier DNA to guide the production of a protein.

Researcher mixed DNA, polymerase, and oligonuclotides mixture in PCR tubes. By unoL

The DNA ring needs to be inserted into an organism with the biological capabilities needed to assemble a protein. Researchers at Genetech announced in 1978 that they had a strain of E.coli bacteria produce the insulin protein by giving it a human gene2.

Escherichia coli also known as Ecoli bacteria health science concept by Ezume Images

Once the protein is sequenced, the dip-and-coat procedure for making nacre (abalone). From the protein template they will insert that DNA into E.coli. Then hope the E,coli follows the coded instructions in the template DNA to produce proteins to order in a bio-reactor supplied with water, food and air.

Fishing for templates

A key discovery in molecular biology is the procedure to find the gene or portion of the gene that is responsible for producing the required protein. The code for the protein that templates crystalline production is in the abalone’s cell, in a DNA segment. Finding it is the key.

The OLIGIO machine

To get the protein with the code we need; a seeker code that keys into the desired code can be made using a machine that links together a sequence of nucleotide molecules which are the elements of a DNA code. The oligio machine drips the adenine [A], the thymine [T], the guanine [G] or the cytosine [C] onto the carbon based chain to produce the coded seeker protein which will attach to the protein chain needed, referred to as the complimentary DNA [cDNA]. Nucleotide A will compliment T, and nucleotide C will compliment G. So the seeker protein will attach to a cDNA on a much longer protein chain. Then hopefully the whole protein is intact and more hopefully a compliant strain of E.coli will take the cDNA and produce the protein needed for the form work for the crystal.

Biolytic Dr. Oligo 192 : DNA – RNA Oligonucleotide Synthesizer

To determine whether the E,coli is producing the desired protein scientists use another biological probe – an antibody just like those produced by our immune system. Rather than inject ourselves with mollusk protein they use a rabbit to produce an antibody to attach and interfere with the mollusk protein. Instruments will identify where the antibodies are conglomerating. Then that cluster of E.coli can be distributed onto more dishes to grow their colonies of the desired protein.

The question arises will crystals grow as well on differing protein structures? Trial and testing will only answer that.

Using the natural method of growing crystals

Galen Stuckey of the department of Chemistry and Daniel Morse of the department of Molecular and Cellular Developmental Biology at the University of California found as the Washington team found that insoluble proteins congregated at the bottom of the beaker instead of going into solution and were not giving up their amino acid sequence. Stuckey and Morse determined they would make a protein analogue to stand in for the real abalone protein3.

First job was to get the analogue protein to stick to a surface that could support crystal growth. They chose Langmuir – Blodgett film4.

diagram: L – B film

With the aid of chemical, ‘hooks’ the protein sheet embeds into the fatty layer of B-L film. While negatively charged ‘pleats’ of the protein molecules hang down into the water creating landing sites for the ions of the crystal medium5.

Being able to arrange the placement of the nucleation sites Morse can basically direct what kind of crystal will grow crystals. Peter C. Rieke material scientist is trying to grow crystals on a thin film. Made in a laboratory, film called ‘self assemble monolayers (SAMS)6. Instead of being suspended on water they are coated onto glass slides. And the chemical charged groups are part of the film itself. The charge groups are positioned where they are functionally needed. The films are a mosaic of positive or negatively charged shapes that serve as landing sites for the ions from solution to attach and grow crystals.

Potentially different types of crystals could grow on the same film. The process is still two dimensional where as the mollusk’s build crystalline structures between the abalone’s body and its outer shell.

Rieke uses a polystyrene substrate, common plastic used for bottles and caps, it is a polymer analogous to the biopolymer the mollusks employ for nucleation. (More on nucleation see further reading) He has tried the old calcium carbonate, lead iodide, calcium iodate and iron oxide6. Application for crystalline structures are being considered for high specification components in vehicles, windows in lightweight electric cars, and coating for gearing where abrasion and corrosion resistant surface treatments are required. A two bath dipping process, first coat with the template protein the second the mineralized ionic crystal would revolutionize the coating technology from information storage to drive trains.

3D Crystal Containers

Stephen Mann biomineralization expert in Bath, England is creating three dimensional protein sheaths using balloon like shapes to mineralize small particles. Single celled magneototactic bacteria produce perfect crystals wrapped in organic membrane. An example of a magnetic presence in a chemical reactor without the magnets clumping together, neutralizing themselves7. Ferritin is the protein that sequesters iron oxide in the human body, which prevents rust being in our cells.

He has made organic balloons of various shapes and has used jelly like polymer that can be inserted with minerals giving the hardness quality with the flexibility of the polymer7.

Fabbers

3D printing using using computer aided design build up precise objects by adding cross-sectional layers one at a time. Paul Calvert is involved with developing ‘print heads’ that will deliver layers of differing materials or solutions, for example chalk and proteins. Composite materials could be incorporated in gradients to interlace joins making them stronger14.

Sandstone colored by compounds of iron and manganese. photo by Geogif

High Tech Organics

Resiliant materials are created constantly in living organisms, skin, tendons, blood, cellulose, a variety of adhesives. Organic compounds are based on carbon chain molecules. Life forms make them to order and the form definitely follows their function. There is no by product or residual waste, native life cannot afford extraneous consumption or energy.

Herbert Waite’s research while affiliated with University of California, Santa Barbara worked with mussels (Mytilus edulis ). The only response available to the sessile mussel Mytilus edulis in order to avoid predators or desiccation during aerial exposure is valve closure. The posterior adductor muscle is able to remain contracted for several days at low energy cost9. If you had tried to take one you would notice how hard they are to remove from their chosen location. M. edulis’ attachment is made up of tethers called byssus with discs on their ends called plaques they use to locate themselves in the tidal zone8.

Mytilus edulis attached to surface with its multi-filament byssus. from NSF gov news media images 60mus7706

Engineers have determined that if you want something to stay put in a wave battered coast by itself it needs to be of the order of 40 tonne. The M.edulis sends out a flesh tongue like extremity and creates a thread and plaque with adhesive tether called ‘byssus complex’. Glands secrete collagen protein (as in tendons) into a groove in the tongue that acts as a mold. The thread and plaque self assemble and harden in the groove and then a gland near the tip of the tongue squirts adhesive protein between the plaque and the surface of its residential site8. A few minutes is all it needs. The bi-valve can repeat the tethering to oppose the wave pressure. Then it can open its shell to allow filtering of the turbulent sea water to extract nutrients13. M.edulis produces an adhesive that can be applied in brine and bonds extremely well to any surface. Pushing its tongue onto the surface squeezing out water it then deposits a mucus seal around the edges of contact. Next the muscles in the tongue pull off the contact zone to form a cavity with partial vacuum (like a bell shaped suction cup). The thread and disc are cast then adhere to the surface10.

Mussel attached to surface by its Byssus components. from Silverman and Roberto 2007 Ref 28

We would make separate parts as we perceived the functions required and us an applicable glue (polymer sealant probably) to stick them on. The bi-valve now manufactures the solid foam disc (plaque) that is formed in the grooved mold from different proteins that squirt out of the cavity. It thickens to foam (like Styrofoam) which suits the characteristics a mussel would want in its foot (byssus), flexible and fracture resistant8.

The thread of M.edulis’ byssus is similar to our manufactured polymer entwined cord. Single fibres twisted or woven together to share a load on the whole cord, rope or cable. Herbert Waite when studying the byssus found not one collagen based protein but hundreds all slightly different in composition. Along the collagen chain each molecule has a section that is springy (like a tendon) and another section more rigid (like skin). The proportion of rigidity to spring depends on where the molecule is situated along the byssus thread. The molecular selection arrangement of M.edulis makes its byssus have more capacity in its properties than mono-molecular collagen10.

Modern manufacturing is riddled with fasteners, screws, bolts, rivets, anchors, ties and adhesives. Nature ‘blends gradients so that the fiber has no single vulnerable point’ Paul Calvert would say14.

The byssus of the mussel is like grissle but still food (protein) for any organism with voracious appetite. Fully aware of this M.edulis applies a clear sealant of yet another protein this time impervious to microbes. But not permanently so, the mussel will move on at will leaving its byssus. The protein sealant will breakdown in two to three years allowing the microbes to devour the protein morsel11,12. Again nature’s mussel waste is used. Our present petrochemical plastics are relatively indestructible. Yet they break into small chips and particles in sun light, yet they remain indigestible by organisms.

Underwater a turtle eating a plastic bag, by Willyam Bradberry

Plastic containers will remain in landfill and contaminate most habitats long after we have decayed. Consumer products that only need a short life cycle could be made from naturally grown materials like cellulose, silk, collagen, rubber or chitin (as in crab shells) and seal them with a resilient coating that does breakdown to digestible condition for microbes in land fill to consume and return the material to the food cycle.

The adhesive exuded by M.edulis has protein chains with molecular hooks that Velcro-like link onto similar molecules. The integrity of the molecular cross linking is fully achieved with the aid of a catalyst specific for that purpose. Just to recap the lowly mussel M.edulis forms its own fibre, plaque, adhesive and sealant.

Common mussel attached to shore by Jacob Campbell -unsplash

Companies are chopping up mussels, purifying the protein and using the mollusk’s protein to coat glass slides as a cell and tissue adhesive. I am reminded of the pearl diving industry of the Red Sea. Five hundred clams were collected and prized open for every natural (grit irritant) pearl collected. The mussel is a filter feeder so has little control about what it ingests. The same protein that forms the adhesive that glues its byssus to metal or rock or painted surfaces also adheres to the heavy metal particles M.edulis takes in. So when it leaves a site it leaves the byssus with its metal toxins behind.

We have the silk worm, cotton, wool for textiles, thread and yarn. And then there is spider web filament (silk) once used for drawing open flesh wounds to gather the skin lesions. Silk is collected by boiling the cocoon with the silk worm grub (pupae) inside to unravel the filament strands. Do we have factories of spiders fed on insects to issue extrusions of their super thread? They could deliver 30 meters at one shift.

Golden Orb Web Weaver Spider – by Stacey Ann Alberts.
“Ambushing its prey whilst dangling from its complex web of super strength and invisible death”

The golden orb weaver (Nephila clavipes) produces six fibers (silks) each each concocted in its own gland extruded through an individual spinneret15. Spiders perform various functions with their silk18; radiating webs with fine silks coated with glue, dense sticky sheets, invisible snares, a single strand with adhesive ball slung at its prey. Males impregnate pheromones onto their silks; some wrap the silk with sperm to be fertilized by the female, notorious for attacking their suitor and wrapping him into a silk sarcophagus. Some males impregnate their silk with an immobilizing agent16.

In some conditions inorganic materials will orderly combine with organic materials to form a rigid crystalline structure. In liquid state molecules will align in orientation but be fre to move location that can be called liquid crystal. An indication of crystal form in a material is its refractive index (R.I.). The RI of silk 17 is known but for spider silk it is much higher. The spider has the ability to combine different material types into one composite.

Spider silk has properties far exceeding those of steel, weight for weight five times the tensile strength. And five times the impact resistance of Kevlar as well as being more elastic than nylon (more on the unintended effects of Kevlar in Further reading). It also resist freezing becoming rigid so being less likely to break. Spider silk starts out at as liquid protein in a gland sack, water soluble before it is extruded through one of its 6 groups of nozzles (spinnerets) at the back of its abdomen15.

Spinnerets of a Wasp Spider by Kurt Hohenbichler

Christopher Vinney of Seattle postulates the proteins are grouped in balls with the water resistant amino acids on the molecular chain congregating at the center, with the water attracting amino acids on the circumference. Then when the protein balls are squeezed through the spiders’ nozzles the balls burst spreading the molecules out, giving them opportunity to realign. In this instance the water attracting molecules hooking on to each other in the linear form, and the water resistant amino molecules on the outside of the elongated clusters, giving the spider silk its water proof quality and linear strength19.

Randolph V. Lewis does not agree and strongly suggests the silk is a combination of at least two protein strains20.

Golden Orb web Spider on its web by Albie Venter

David L. Kaplan works on biomolecular materials at the Development and Engineering Center of Army Research at Natick, Massachusetts and has investigated the spider’s glandular proteins. The 9000 DNA sub units are repetitive and highly likely to be deleted and recombine when reproduced by good old E.coli.

His team synthesizes small proteins of the DNA with the oligio machine, duplicate them and stuck them together with an enzyme – ligases to make longer protein chains. After extensive cajoling E.coli accepted the synthesized DNA and the bacteria did produce the protein.

Schematic view of silk production
Nephila  clavipes web composed of three different spider silk proteins and their structures. The coloured boxes indicate the structural motifs in silk proteins. An empty box marked ‘?’ indicates that the secondary structure of the ‘spacer’ region is unknown. Note: MaSp1 or MaSp2: major ampullate spidroin 1 or 2; MiSp1 and 2: minor ampullate spidroin1 and 2; Flag: flagelliform protein21.

To design the fibre they need decipher which amino acid combinations deliver which physical characteristics. Randolph Lewis worked with the wild gene, the team from the University of Wyomng (UW) use genetic engineered probe to catch portions of the two proteins and then inset those gene fragments into E.coli for replication and dutifully proteins were expressed and even woven at a fibre20. But as yet they could not compete with spider silk thread.

In a collaborative project with the University of Notre Dame and Zhejiang University in China, UW researchers have genetically engineered silkworms to spin silk containing spider silk proteins. Those fibers are stronger than fibers normally spun by silkworms and almost as tough as spider silk22. It is only the golden orb (Nephila clavipes) they make reference of; there is most likely other spiders producing silks of different and possibly better properties yet to be identified, their habitat being slashed and burnt.

Extinction is a modern catastrophe, various rhinoceros populations were counted in tens of thousands in the 1960’s now found in a few hundreds.

White rhinoceros de-horned to deter poachers killing to harvest their horn. By Simon_g

Rhinoceros horn is still used as dagger handles for Yemeni men, powdered to cure stomach aches, skin blemishes, poor libido, rheumatism, gout, other disorders and even poor singing24. Made of keratin the multi layered quill like fibres (spinacles) are bound with another type of keratin serving as mortar. When it fractures, as it may well do when a male charges head on, it appears to self heal.

Rhinoceros horn sold on the black market for use in traditional Chinese medicine by Paul Fleet
Janbiya is a traditional dagger and a mandatory attribute of Yemeni men by Dmitry Chulov

Dental surgeons take bone and treat it so that only the hydroxyapatite is left. To build up the jaw bone beneath an implant, the patients’ bone cells come in contact with the hydroxyapatite they detect that it does not contain calcium and the bone cells set to work calcifying the repair work23.

Further Reading

Nucleation: Crystallography

Written by The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica

Nucleation, the initial process that occurs in the formation of a crystal from a solution, a liquid, or a vapour, in which a small number of ions, atoms, or molecules become arranged in a pattern characteristic of a crystalline solid, forming a site upon which additional particles are deposited as the crystal grows.

Ice in lakes and rivers, a sheet or stretch of ice forming on the surface of lakes and rivers when the temperature drops below freezing (0° C [32° F]). The nature of the ice formations may be as simple as a floating layer that gradually thickens, or it may be extremely complex, particularly when the water is fast-flowing. 

Kevlar manufacture is not environmentally friendly is to understate its effects. Polyaramid kevlar is derived from petroleum based chemicals thrown into concentrated sulphuric acid and subjected to considerable temperature and pressure to convert it into liquid state crystal. More pressure is applied to order their line up as they are extruded. The expenditure of energy is exorbitant and the by-products and waste are unmentionably poisonous.

Referenced footnotes

Ref 1: Janine Benyus, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. P99. W.Morrow (2002)

Ref 2: Erika Gebel, PhD. Making insulin, Diabetes forcast.com

Ref 3: Springer Handbook of Crystal Growth pp.  CHAP- Protein Crystal Growth Methods DOI: 10.1007/978-3-540-74761-1_47 Issn 1349-7979

Ref 4: Chemically Modified Electrodes, Grant A. Edwards,  Marc D. Porter, in Handbook of Electrochemistry, 2007,  8.3.1.1 Structural description and preparation.

Ref 5: Reaction Kinetics and the Development and Operation of Catalytic Processes L. Gradoń, T.R. Sosnowski, in Studies in Surface Science and Catalysis, 2001

Ref 6: Spatially Resolved Mineral Deposition on Patterned Self-Assembled Monolayers Peter C. Rieke, Barbara J. Tarasevich, Laurie L. Wood, Mark H. Engelhard, Donald R. Baer, Glen E. Fryxell, Connie M. John, David A. Laken, Milt C. Jaehnig. Langmuir 1994, 10, 3, 619-622 Pub: March 1, 1994

Ref 7:  Template mineralization of self-assembled anisotropic lipid microstructures. Douglas D. Archibald & Stephen Mann. Pub Nature vol 364 – 29 July 1993

Ref 8:  J. Herbert Waite The Formation of Mussel Byssus: Anatomy of a Natural Manufacturing Process Researchgate.net/scientific-contributions/39781681

Ref 9: https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/biochemistry-genetics-and-molecular-biology/mytilus-edulis

Ref 10: Force distribution and multi-scale mechanics in the mussel Byssus. Article Oct 2019 Noy Cohen, J.Herbert Waite, Robert M. McMeeking, Megan T. Valentine. Waite Researchgate.net/scientific-contributions/39781681

Ref 11: Translational bioadhesion research: embracing biology without tokenism

Article Oct 2019  J. Herbert Waite Researchgate.net/scientific-contributions/39781681

Ref 12: Intertidal exposure favors the soft-studded armor of adaptive mussel coatings

Article  Dec 2018. Christopher A. Monnier,  Daniel G. DeMatini, J.Herhert Waite Researchgate.net/scientific-contributions/39781681

Ref 13: Mussel adhesion – Essential footwork, Article Feb 2017, J. Herhert Waite Researchgate.net/scientific-contributions/39781681

Ref 14: Mann, S. & Calvert, P. Synthesis and biological composites formed by in-situ precipitation. Journal of Material Science # 23, 3801–3815 (1988).

Ref 15: Higgins, L. (2017). Nephila Life Cycle. Department of Biology, University of Vermont [online] Uvm.edu. Available at: http://www.uvm.edu/~lehiggin/LifeCycle.html [Accessed 14 Feb 2020].

Ref 16:  Hill, E.; Christenson, T. (1981). “Effects of prey characteristics and web structure on feeding and predatory responses of Nephila clavipes spiderlings”. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology. 8 (1):1–5. doi:10.1007/bf00302838

Ref 17: Ref 17: Optical Materials pub Elsevier Volume 78, April 2018, Pages 407-414 A comparative study of the refractive index of silk protein thin films towards biomaterial based optical devices. A.Bucciarellia, V.Mullonib, D.Maniglioa, R.K.Palc, V.K.Yadavallic, A.Mottaa, A.Quarantaa

Ref 18: Phillips, Campbell (23 November 2011). “Golden orb web spider spins ant-repellent silk”. Australian Geographic.

Ref 19: Christopher Vinney and Brad L. Thiel Hierarchical Molecular Orde in Silk Secretions and Fibers, Chapt 15 Industrial Biotechnological polymers, pub Technomic, Edited C.G.Gebelein C.E.Carraher Jnr.

Ref 20: Randolph V. Lewis, Elastic Spider Silk Proteins PN (1998)

Ref 21: David L. Kaplan 1, Olena Tokareva 1, Valquíria A. Michalczechen-Lacerda 2, Elíbio L. Rech 3. Recombinant DNA production of spider silk proteins Microbial Biotechnology (2013) (6), 651–663. 1: Department of Biomedical Engineering, Tufts University. 2: Department of Cell Biology, Campus Universitario Darcy Ribeiro, Institute of Biology, University of Brasilia. 3: Embrapa Genetics Resources and Biotechnology, Biotechnology Unit, Parque Estação Biológica.

Ref 22: Don Jarvis, the UW molecular biology professor  UW Researchers Engineer Silkworms to Produce Stronger Silk January 6, 2012. Pub www.uwyo.edu/uw/news/2012

Ref 23: Gabriel Fernandez de Grado,  Laetitia Keller,   Ysia Idoux-Gillet, Quentin Wagner,  Anne-Marie Musset,  Nadia Benkirane-Jessel,  Fabien Bornert, and Damien Offner. Bone substitutes: a review of their characteristics, clinical use, and perspectives for large bone defects management. Journal of Tissue Engineering. 2018 Jan-Dec; 9: 2041731418776819.

Ref 24: SavetheRhino.org, rhino-info, threats, poaching-rhino-horn (accessed 26 Mar 2020)

Ref 25:  Sarikaya, M., Steinberg, B. & Thomas, G. Optimization of Fe/Cr/C base structural steels for improved strength and toughness.Metall. Trans. A 13, 2227–2237 (1982).

Ref 27: Izrailev, S., Stepaniants, S., Balsera, M., Oono,Y.& Schulten,K. Molecular dynamics study of unbinding of avidin-biotin complex. Biophys. J. 72, 1568–1581 (1997).

Ref 28: BUREAU OF RECLAMATION Technical Service Center, Denver, Colorado Materials Engineering and Research Laboratory, 86-68180 Technical Memorandum No. MERL-2013-43 Review of Mussel Adhesion Mechanism and Scoping Study

Why design from nature? Part 4: CREATING

Making the Built Environment

Manufacture of paper, plastics, chemicals and metals produce 71% of toxic emissions in the U.S.1 Materials were produced by nature; timber, rock, clay, reeds for thatch, hide, wool, silk, and bone. Then man began to make things and it labeled the times; the Stone age, the Bronze age, the Iron age, fantastic plastic age, and now the age of silicon.

Bamboo fence live in pot
Bamboo hut, photo Fran Hogan

Nature has four laws for manufacture.

  1. Life friendly process
  2. Ordered hierarchy in structure.
  3. The elements self assemble
  4. Template crystalline forms with proteins.

For millennia we made things out of natural materials and once they out lived their useful life it mattered little if they were discarded to decay and absorb into another life. The modern synthetic materials have a hard act to follow. The iniquitous prizing open of an abalone shell reveals a mother of pearl lining on a substance twice as tough as any high tech ceramic. A spider’s web weight for weight is four times stronger than steel. The adhesion a mussel exudes to fasten itself to rock or reef in salt water needs no preparation and sticks to anything. Rhinoceros horn is capable of repairing itself yet contains no living cells. Add to that list bone, wood, skin, wool, tusk, antler, tendon and heart muscle. I have to ask; why compete?

Turtle Photo by Adolfo Félix

Modern material extraction, processing and production of consumer goods have a commercial expense but add to that the rehabilitation of habitat from terra-forming and the toxicity of their waste accumulate an immense cost.

Bottles in the reservoir mountain, poor culture of consumption to achieve the progress of modern civilization gives a negative impact on the surrounding nature. Ecological catastrophe in the background of Carpathians. photo; AdobeStock

Ordered hierarchical structure

Biomimetics is either emulating or duplicating biosystems using mostly synthetic compounds and following traditional molecular chemical procedures2-4. With development in molecular5,8 and nanoscale6  engineering biomimetics has entered the molecular realm. Using natural molecular processes with nanoscale constructs molecular biomimetics is using hybrid methodology.7

Characteristic properties to be considered are; mechanical in nano-structured composites, magnetic properties of single domained particles, electro-conductivity of low dimensional semi-conductors, and properties in solution of colloidal suspensions10,11.

The control of nanostructures and ordered assemblies of materials in two and three dimensions still remains elusive 8 -11. Natural biomaterials are highly organized and often hierarchical in structure, with intricate nano-architecture that make a variety of functional soft and hard tissues. Rich Humbert and Mehmet Sarikaya of Uni. Of Washington have studied abalone nacre as a structural crystalline material.

Illustrations follow of biologically synthesized complex materials with details as you would see with a scanning electron microscope.

Humbert and Sarikaya also compared tendons for their elasticity and rat’s tooth for toughness.

Mouse enamel is hard, wear-resistant material with highly ordered micro/nano architecture consisting of hydroxyapatite crystallites that assemble into woven rod structure (inset: schematic cross-section of a human tooth)

In aquatic environments tissues are synthesized where physical conditions are moderate. The animal producing the tissue provides genetic input through its DNA and more likely physiological direction. The natural choice of molecule evolved by selection as a protein. Their molecules have a large carbon based chain where other molecular groups attach in various arrangements to the chain. Other carbohydrates and lipids can do the structural building. Proteins are versatile they collect and transport raw materials and they assemble molecular units, for example amino acid groups. Into ordered nuclei and substrates3,4,12. This is probably achieved through the excitation of electron revolving around nuclei attaining higher energy state and changing position to align with other compatible nuclei.

Engineered materials are made using a combination of processes like melting, solidification, thermo-mechanical working. Fire and temperature treatments are both energy demanding procedures. Or place materials in solution and apply vacuum deposition and growth processes16,17.

In total contrast biological systems have lengthy evolutionary selection processes which has given appropriate molecular recognition to an ordered process to build as required by the organism18,19.

Nautilus creature Photo by Shaun Low

Using biomimetic processes, hybrid materials could potentially be assembled from molecules using recognition abilities of proteins. As it is we know proteins assemble molecular units that fit by way of attraction of opposite charged sites and repulsion of like charged sites along the protein chain. An inorganic surface-specific polypeptide could serve as a binding agent to control the organization and acquire the desired functions of material parts.

The building of combined functional structures is possible with biomimetics. Genetic DNA coding dictates the molecular pattern in the protein that then becomes the template for building. Proteins can be used as adhesives to link synthetic units like nano-particles, polymer or other molecular structures into molecular templates. Given suitable physical and chemical opportunity biological molecules assemble themselves into an ordered structure as seen in natural structures, then possibly a hierarchical structure as seen in the shells of mollusks.

Rich Humbert and Mehmet Sarikaya of Washington University have studied the nacre(mother –of-pearl) of the abalone shell an incredibly tough structure, tendons are extremely pliable and strong and the impact resilient rat’s tooth as examples of high caliber protein based materials.

Present understanding of repetitious folding of protein molecules and surface adhesion chemistry is sufficient to deliver design of proteins20. To work around the choice of complex proteins data bases of generated peptides can be perused for binding properties to inorganic surfaces by using phage (eating and combining) and cell-surface display techniques21. ( see Further Reading below ) In the future it is plausible to facilitate a molecular erector manufacturing kit to make proteins designed to link to a specified inorganic surface that could self assemble into intricate structures composed of inorganics and proteins22.

Scientist like Paul Calvert of Arivona University, Materials laboratory in Tuscan “ … want to grow lattices with perfection in crystal size, shape, orientation and location especially in the ceramic world of insulation, bearings, wear and temperature resistant coatings and where specific optical, electrical and chemical requirements are needed. In the nano-world brittleness is the main issue.”23

Bones are crystals of calcium phosphate deposited in a polymer matrix. Diatoms – micro sea creatures – look like snowflakes, have skeletons made of silica glass shaped by the organic membrane of their bodies. Teeth in general, the spines of sea urchins, the shells of sea snails are very hard24, and are all formed of inorganic crystalline structures. The lamprey’s teeth are extra hard crystals to gnaw through rock. A bacterium Magnetotactic has managed to grow crystals of iron-oxide – magnetite in micro vesicles(balloons) inside its body.25 The magnetite vesicles line up in a chain assisting the bacteria to orientate itself toward the magnetic center of the planet, the anaerobic zone where they find their food source in bottom sediment26.

Magnetite nanoparticles (20 nanometers across) formed by magnetotactic bacterium (Aquaspirillum magnetotacticum) are single-crystalline, single-domained and crystallographically aligned.

The abalone emits a thin smear of polymer in its shell this matrix mortar is made of polysaccharides(sugars). Then the outer layer cells of the mollusk secret an organic mix in which the shell matrix proteins determine the mineralogical and crystallographic make up of the shell. This enables the formation of the hexagonal units within the shell structure27.

Growth edge of abalone (Haliotis rufescens) displaying aragonite platelets (blue, under a nanometer diam.) separated by organic film (orange) that eventually becomes nacre (mother-of-pearl). This is a layered, tough, and high-strength biocomposite .

Counter intuitive ordering of Structure

The Haliotidae family abalone’s cells secrete proteins and polysaccharides (other species may use lipids) into the fluid medium surrounding them. These polymers self assemble into three dimensional compartments that define the space to be mineralized. In the abalone’s case compartment after compartment is formed, layer upon layer is applied each off-set from the lower to achieve overlapping and interlocking structure.

Inside each compartment seawater – saturated with calcium ions and carbonate ions – eventually making a calcium carbonate crystal. The ions being charged are attracted to oppositely charged chemical groups protruding from the walls of the compartments. When the first layer of ions settle the pattern is established for the whole crystal.

The mollusk releases template proteins into the compartments. The protein polymers self assembly to line the walls in an array of negatively charged landing sites awaiting the positively charged ions in the sea water.

Protein molecules are very long chains with hundreds of amino groups. Each amino acid has a differing charge arrangement and those various charge arrangements pull the prtein to fold in a preferred shape when floating in the cell’s fluid.

The folded arrangement of the protein influences the amino acid behavior in water. Neutral, water repelling amino acids burrow into the center of a protein complex. Charged, water attracting amino acids go to the periphery. The amino acid groups interact similarly with one another, some repelling, some attracting to bond, What eventually develops is a form uniquely suited to its function.

A protein may have a structural role like assembling tissue or bone others may have a function like hemoglobin, insulin, neuron receptors, antibodies, enzymes(orchestrate and speed up chemical reactions), having shapes ideally suited to their task.

For the abalone’s shell the protein chain folds into regular zigzag shape which bonds with another ‘saw-tooth’ protein to form a piano accordion like pleated sheet. One face of the sheet sticks out into the room, the other bonds with the floors, walls and ceiling surfaces of the compartments. Daniel Morse, director of Marine Biology Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara has determined that the groups that bond to the walls are neutral (glycine and alanine) and those projected into the space are negatively charged (aspartate). The bond points (landing sites) on the pleats are defined by the folded points of the protein molecules which is regulated by the position of the amino acids every few nanometers. The Sea solution makes the charged ions float onto the oppositely charged bonding points of the pleats.

Abalone shell exhibiting the nacre, shutterstock

The arrangement of the first layer of ions determines the pattern of the crystal growth – rhomohedral in the case of the nacre(inner shell surface) – prismatic crystals form the outer shell. The crystal shape and its orientation gives the material qualities of light reflection and absorption or conductivity or hardness. Fourteen different crystal shapes have been found in natural materials.

Self Assembly

If you could apply a selection of protein into a cavity, allow the protein molecules to fold and layer the walls of the space. You could pump a solution of the desired ions into the cavity and the crystals would self-assemble to form the desired coating of the fourteen known kinds. This assembly is enabled by like charges repelling and opposite charges attracting. The electrostatic attraction holds the molecules together until more permanent bonds are locked into the key arrangements by catalysts like enzymes. All this assembly can only take place if molecules are available usually in a free moving fluid like air or water.

Templates

Template is a term for the appropriate sequenced protein that will orchestrate positioning and alignment of constituent molecular parts. The prime candidate for making them is E. coli bacteria. Humans have used bacteria, yeast, moulds for making beer, wine, bread, and matured cheese. Today it is used industrially  for food additives, antibiotics, chemicals and vitamins.

This topic continues in Designing from Nature’s Template {hyperlink here} the next Living Design Article.

Further Reading

Phage display is a laboratory technique for the study of protein–protein, protein–peptide, and protein–DNA interactions that uses bacteriophages (viruses that infect bacteria) to connect proteins with the genetic information that encodes them. In order to determine a peptide with affinity to a molecule of interest an iterative process of affinity binding and washing, called panning, is needed to yield an end result with a high concentration of high affinity peptides28.

Referenced footnotes

Ref 1: Efficiency Revolution: Creating a sustainable materials economy. J.E. Young & A.Sachs.

Ref 2: 5. Mann, S. & Calvert, P. Synthesis and biological composites formed by in-situ precipitation. J.Mater. Sci. 23, 3801–3815 (1988).

Ref 3: 6. Sarikaya,M.& Aksay, I. A. (eds.) Biomimetics: Design & Processing of Materials (American Institute of Physics,New York, 1995).

Ref 4: 7. Mann, S. (ed.) Biomimetic Materials Chemistry (VCH,New York, 1996).

Ref 5: 9. Drexler, K. E.Nanosystems (Wiley Interscience,New York, 1992).

Ref 6: 13. Ball, P. Life’s lessons in design. Nature 409, 413–416 (2001).

Ref 7: 14. Ferry,D. K. & Goodnick, S. M. Transport in Nanostructures (Cambridge Univ.Press, Cambridge, UK, 1997).

Ref 8: 15.Harris, P. J. Carbon Nanotubes and Related Structures (Cambridge Univ. Press,Cambridge, UK, 1999).

Ref 9: 16. Bachtold, A.,Hadley, P.,Nakanishi, T. & Dekker,C. Logic circuits with carbon nanotubes transistors. Science 294, 1317–1320 (2001).

Ref 10: 17. Gittins,D. I., Bethell,D., Schiffrin,D. J. & Michols, R. J. A nanometre-scale electronic switch consisting of a metal cluster and redox-addressable groups.Nature 408, 67–69 (2000).

Ref 11: 18.Muller, B.Natural formation of nanostructures: from fundamentals in metal heteroepitaxy to applications in optics and biomaterials science.Surf. Rev. Lett.8, 169–228 (2001).

Ref 12: 20. Lowenstam, H. A. & Weiner, S. On Biomineralization (Oxford Univ. Press,Oxford, UK, 1989).

Ref 13: 21.Mayer, G. & Sarikaya,M.Rigid biological composite materials: Structural examples for biomimetic design. Exp.Mech. 42, 395–403 (2002).

Ref 14: 22. Fong, H., Sarikaya, M.,White, S. & Snead, M. L.Nanomechanical properties profiles across DEJ in human incisor teeth. J.Mater. Sci. Eng C 7, 119–128 (2000).

Ref 15: 23. Sarikaya,M. et al. Biomimetic model of a sponge-spicular optical fiber-mechanical properties and structure. J.Mater. Res. 16, 1420–1428 (2001).

Ref 16: 24. DeGarmo, E. P., Black, J. T. & Kohner, R. A.Materials and Processes in Manufacturing (McMillan,New York, 1988).

Ref 17: 25. Sarikaya, M., Steinberg, B. & Thomas, G. Optimization of Fe/Cr/C base structural steels for improved strength and toughness.Metall. Trans. A 13, 2227–2237 (1982).

Ref 18: 26. Ponting,C. P.& Russell,R. R. The natural history of protein domains. Ann. Rev.Biophys. Biomol. 31, 45–71 (2002).

Ref 19: 27. Izrailev, S., Stepaniants, S., Balsera, M., Oono,Y.& Schulten,K.Molecular dynamics study of unbinding of avidin-biotin complex. Biophys. J. 72, 1568–1581 (1997).

Ref 20: 28. Schonbrun, J.,Wedemeyer,W. J.& Baker,D. Protein structure prediction in 2002.Curr.Opin. Struct. Biol. 12, 348–354(2002).

Ref 21: 29. Brown, S.Metal recognition by repeating polypeptides.Nature Biotechnol. 15, 269–272 (1997).

Ref 22: 11. Sarikaya,M. Biomimetics:Materials fabrication through biology. Proc.Natl Acad. Sci. USA 96, 14183–14185 (1999).

Ref 23: Janine Benyus, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. P99. W.Morrow (2002)

Ref 24:  Craig Welch Sea change: vital part of food web dissolving. Seattle Times photos S.Ringman

Ref 25: Richard B. Frankel and Dennis A. Bazylinski: How magnetotactic bacteria make magnetosomes queue up. digitalcommons.calpoly.edu

Ref 26: R. P. Blakemore, R. B. Frankelt & Ad. J. Kalmijnt: South-seeking magnetotactic bacteria in the Southern Hemisphere. digitalcommons.calpoly.ed

Ref 27: Xiaorui Song, Zhaoqun Liu, Lingling Wang and Linsheng Song, Proteins and Cellular Orchestration in Marine Molluscan Shell Biomineralization, pub: Frontiers in Marine Science. 2019

 Ref 28: 2018.igem.org/Team:Uppsala/Phage_Display

Why design from nature? Part 3: ENERGY

Our Sun Radiates Energy

The algae we see in green pond scum converts sunlight energy for its entire requirements at up to 95 percent efficiency, which is four times greater than solar photo-voltaic panels can manage.

Weed covered Melaleuca swamp

Duckweed also known as water lentils or water lenses come from four species (Spirodela, Landoltia, Lemna, Wolffiella and Wolffia) are small floating aquatic plants. They are monocotyledons meaning a flowering plant that bears a single cotyledon (embryo seed leaf)1. The small round thin leafed plants seen on slow moving waters is very fast growing which tends to obscure its microbial and phytoplankton reduction, and high nutrient and metal accumulation characteristics.

When the water is frozen it lies on the bottom consuming its own starch. In mid spring it surfaces and there reproduces copies of itself. It can cover acres of water in a few months all powered by sunlight.

Joseph Priestly is known for his descriptions of the isolation and identification of oxygen and other gases such as ammonia, sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxide and nitrogen dioxide2. But in 1771 he performed a demonstration in a jar bell, placing in it a mint plant with a burning candle. The candle flame used up the oxygen and went out. After 27 days, Priestley was able to re-light the candle. He was not aware that sun light was the unknown ingredient. It was later that In 1779 Jan Ingenhousz found out that in the presence of light, plants give off bubbles from their green areas, while in the shade these bubbles stop. He determined this gas to be oxygen.

Our sun broadcasts vast amounts of energy in an array of wavelengths. Green plants, some algae and bacteria can use a small portion of that light to energize the process of separating the hydrogen from water (thus releasing oxygen). The hydrogen is then in a form to combine with carbon dioxide to produce a simple energy rich sugar.  Animals (including us) use oxygen and the sugars to utilize the energy and emit carbon dioxide and water. These two processes occur every day, all day.

Our sun’s fusion of hydrogen delivers enough light energy to power all our needs without burning any fuel. Coal, petroleum oil, and natural gas are all created by compressing the remains of 600 million years of growth of plants and animals. The plants do the real work of converting solar radiation and storing it in greenery, grass, foliage and timber. To access that energy we burn the plant products; internally inside our cells or externally in fire. By burning the fossilized carbon fuels we release in one day what took one hundred thousand (100,000) years to form3.

The Mystery of Photo Synthesis

IN 1912 Italian chemistry professor Giacomo Ciamican wrote in Science Magazine, he wrote of smoke stacks making way for ‘forests of clean glass tubes’ which would copy the ‘guarded secrets of plants’ using their natural processes to fuel our world.

Man has not fully understood the process known as photo synthesis it remains tucked away in the molecular arrangement of atoms in cells referred to as chloroplasts It is all to do with being green. Pigments in chlorophylls and carotenoids are light sensitive. Molecules in the structure of the membrane of chloroplasts act like antennae and collect photons of energy.

Light to energy > How nature does it

Chloroplast

Inside a plant’s chloroplast inside its skin refered to as membrane are organs called a thylakoid. These thylakoids line up in a stack called a granum. Inside a thylakoid are thousands of chlorophyll molecules standing like a forest of tennis rackets awaiting a serve of photons. The various types of chlorophyll (a,b,c,d,e) absorb different wavelengths of light energy.

The broad end of the chlorophyll molecule is exposed to the photons and gets its electrons energized. This occurs in two photosynthesis systems simultaneously, we start with photosynthesis 2 (PS II).

PS II. A photon  with the 680 nanometer wavelength (nm.λ ) contacts the chlorophyll antenna, an electron orbiting the chlorophyll molecule is energized into a higher orbit. When the electron is whisked away it is replaced by an electron from a ‘Z’ donator molecule. The energized electron jumps from acceptor molecule to acceptor molecule. Then it is promoted to the PS I where it meets at central chlorophyll.

PS I. The charged electron goes to a chlorophyll that has received a photon with the 700 nm.λ The electron transfer keeps hopping to acceptor molecule to acceptor molecule eventually a charged electron is found outside the thylakoid membrane.

Electrons excited by photon energy are powering these cycles.

This is the difference between a sack of chemicals and a living leaf. The concentration of molecules and charge is different to the concentration and charge outside the membrane and can be referred to as a potential difference. The membrane provides the tension between unequal concentrations and charge.

The membrane potential accomplishes a lot in plants feeding and refueling the entire plant. Splitting water, giving off O2+ and leaving H+ inside the membrane to form NADPH,

H+ + e + NADP+ –> NADPH   So then outside the membrane,

Electron after electron are passed onto nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate (NADP+) transforming it into NADPH which has the ability to donate electrons to other molecular compounds.

So NADPH donates an electron to carbon dioxide (CO2). However it needs energy to entice the H+ ions to form CH2O, sugar. [Now the potential difference either side of the membrane goes to work.]

Molecular interchange of ATP and ADP
ATP molecular structure

2NADPH + CO2 –> CH2O (sugar) + 2NADH with the enzyme channeling the coupling factor ADP –> ATP.

The hygrogen ion H+ gets through the thylakoid skin with an enzyme ‘channel’ referred to at a coupling factor. The positive charges escape through this coupling by turning Adenosine diphosphate, (ADP) to adenosine triphosphate (ATP) by adding the third phosphate to the other two with a high energy bond, which is the storage site of the energy gained from the sun’s photons.

Biochemist Thomas A. Moore has suggested applications of such an organic battery.

  • Hooking a chain of dipolar molecules to create a current.
  • Splitting water into hydrogen [a clean fuel] and oxygen.
  • Use it as a power pack to power solar based manufacturing.
  • Use it as a near light speed switch for computing.

Sustaining us today

Both animals and plants respire 4, I point this out to emphasis the cyclic nature of the whole ecological system.5 This diagram simplifies the process of cellular respiration.

Photosynthesis produces 300 billion tonnes of sugar a year6,7. Within the thylakoid stacks called a granum is the reaction center which is composed of a number of molecular groups called ‘cofactors’ within a tangle of protein referred to as the ‘protein pocket’. The cofactor localities outline a wishbone shape with a chlorophyll pair at the center with cofactor limbs facing each other symmetrically. An electron uses the cofactor limbs to transfer through the membrane incredibly fast.

Purple bacterium Rhodopseudomonas viridis a sun harvesting microbe is structurally far simpler than green plants believed to be kin to the first photo synthesizers 3 billion years ago. It has fewer unknown black boxes in its photo synthesis system.8 The purple bacterium can switch its reaction center from photo synthesis to respiration, oxidizing its food as animals do.

Converting the sun’s energy is all about storing the energy like we do charging a battery [NiCd, lead-acid] with an electric current. The battery’s potential difference, its charge needs to be stable if it is to be able to do work for us like making a light glow or running a drill. The same applies to photosynthesis, that potential difference either side of the membrane needs to be stable long enough to do chemical work in forming sugar and starch which are chemical energy store houses.

Neal Woodbury a chemist works with x-ray crystallography studies the light reaction center of R. viridis. He works on modeling the reaction mechanism in the photo synthesis of light photons energizing the relocation of electrons.  If you are not going to replicate the energy reaction center in thylakoids what molecules are you to use. Carotenoids are the pigment in the thylakoid’s antennae; porphyrins are similar to chlorophyll and also found in antennae. Some success was recorded when porphyrin was paired with an acceptor molecule quinone. The excited electron from porphyrin did move to orbit the quinine, but it extremely quickly returned to the porphyrin. Putting some distance between the charge differences seemed a strategy to employ.

So a third molecule, a catalyst was added to the donor and acceptor molecules to have a triad like shown below. The photosensitizer-(P) accepts a photon charge to energize an electron which transfers to the acceptor a proton reducing catalyst-(A), and an electron is taken from the donor-(D) which gets it by splitting water into oxygen molecule and hydrogen ions. 

The state of the triad with one catalyst oxidized on one end and the second one reduced on the other end of the triad is referred to as a charge separation, and is a driving force for further electron transfer, and consequently catalysis, to occur. The different components may be assembled in diverse ways, such as complexes with weak inter-molecular forces, compartmentalized cells, or linearly, covenant bonded molecules.9

general Triad scheme by PatriciaR

The pental is a five part donor – donor – donor – acceptor – acceptor molecular line up. The chemical signature is C – PZn – P – Q – Q  where C = carotene, PZn = Porphyrin with zinc, P = porphyrin, Q = naphthoquinone, Q= benzoquinone. It works when

  1. PZn receives photon energy.
  2. PZn loses its excitation to P.
  3. P transfers an electron to Q.
  4. PZn transfers an electron to P
  5. C transfers an electron to PZn , at the same time, Q transfers an electron to Q.

If the charge separation is spaced far enough, the natural tendency to return to its original location will be overcome.

For energy to be gained from the sun we need excitation to power electron transfer and hold the positive – negative charge (potential difference) in a stable location. The human species needs a means of storing high energy potential. Hydrogen is the choice in portable fuel cell development.

Getting hydrogen from water does not look difficult. Nature does it by photon excitation of electrons passed off to NADP+ then transforming into the electron donor NADPH. Provided we have H+ ions and a constant supply of electrons we have a clean fuel to collect.

 Water does offer up its hydrogen in the presence of a hydrogenase (biocatalyst). However after a few hours the hydrogenase is exhausted by the availability of oxygen and the reaction ceases.

Computers store and transmit electronic bits (I or O) one signal at a time. In the generations to come there will be 3D networks of switches, the signal will be encoded in light wave lengths. They will need light sensitive switched, perhaps a devise like a pentad which changes its charge distribution (the electron – vacancy positions) in response to light frequency.

Membrane polarization – is common in all biological functions. Photozymes – James Guillet of the University of Toronto works on ways to get light to the reaction center. In plants it is done with pigment antennae. Sunlight is diffuse – like drizzle instead of hard rain. The energy units – photons are hard to collect. Plant leaves, algae, photosynthesizing bacteria all use antennae to attract photons to their reaction center. About 200 pigment ‘tennis racket’  shaped molecules turn their porphyrin ring to face the light rays.

When a photon hits anywhere in the array, it excites an electron in porphyrin to a higher orbit, the energy (not the electron) moves to an adjacent porphyrin ring poised to receive the energy. Like energy from sound waves vibrating nearby materials.

The second photon infusion – having so many antennae there is more chance of receiving that second energy hit in close succession, so that will power a change. A good reaction center is powerless without the photons arriving as needed, i.e. almost simultaneously.

Guillet has managed to get naphthalene chains to conduct photon energy with the aim of using the chains as energy conduits to a reservoir to hold enough energy to split molecules like breaking the bonds in H2O –> 2H + O2-. Guillet found anthracene to be an effective receptacle to put at the end of a naphthalene chain. It proved to be as good at converting photons to potential energy as natural photosynthesis antennae.

Natural life systems have some common tactics whether it exists in plants absorbing nutrients, flowers growing into fruit, or the working of a brain. They use chemicals in an aquatic solution acting as the best solvent. Industrialized man uses solvents although called organic only because they contain carbon, have proved hazardously toxic.

The problem with naphthalene molecules is they does not stay suspended in water very long. A solution is to attach some hydrophilic molecules to the chain of naphthalene forming a hydrophobic package. Soap exhibits contrary characteristics. Its molecule has one end that is attracted to water while the other end is not water accepting and groups with other water non-accepting ends of molecules forming a molecular spiky ball. These soap molecular spheres are called micelle. The water hating cores attract other water resistant molecules nearby like greasy stain molecules which gather with the water resistant centers of the micelles and are washed away from fabric fibers.

Guillets new polymers form pseudo-micelle with energy gathering at their core. These pseudo-micelle act like catalysts or enzymes – photozymes. PSSS-VN made of two Sodium styrenesulfonate and two vinylnaphthalene. Tested on pyrene and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs are resistant to breaking down in sunlight). The photozymes can attract the PCBs in low concentrations and break off the chlorine from the PCB rendering them a less toxic state for further biodegradation. Doing chemistry in water using sunlight is most effective at the upper layer and diminished with depth. Nature shows us a solution on most quiet waterways, the surface clouding algae. It was the infamous duckweed that inspired James Gillet to develop little dish shaped discs that float on water. The discs hold the biochemical ingredients to be excited by sunlight and react in water. The product is scooped up from the water when required.

Referenced footnotes

Ref 1: www.sciencedirect.com/topics/earth-and-planetary-sciences/duckweed

Ref 2: www.brlsi.org/joseph-priestley-man-who-discovered-oxygen

Ref 3: Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2020) – “Fossil Fuels”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https://ourworldindata.org/fossil-fuels’

Ref 4:  West, John B. (1995). Respiratory physiology– the essentials. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins. pp. 1–10. ISBN 0-683-08937-4.

Ref 5: Stryer, Lubert (1995). “Photosynthesis”. In: Biochemistry (Fourth ed.). New York: W.H. FreeMan and Company. pp. 653–680. ISBN 0-7167-2009-4

Ref 6:  scienceillustrated.com.au/blog/features/2050-the-year-of-instant-oil

Ref 7: quizlet.com/173406978/chapter-7-photosynthesis-honors-biology

Ref 8: Deisenhofer, Johann and Michel,Hartmut. The photosynthetic reaction centre from the purple bacterium Rhodopseudomonas viridis. Biosci Rep. 1989 Aug;9(4):383-419.

Ref 9: Andreiadis, Eugen S.; Chavarot-Kerlidou, Murielle; Fontecave, Marc; Artero, Vincent (September–October 2011). “Artificial Photosynthesis: From Molecular Catalysts for Light-driven Water Splitting to Photoelectrochemical Cells”. Photochemistry and Photobiology87 (5): 946–964. doi:10.1111/j.1751-1097.2011.00966.x. PMID 21740444.

Why design from nature? part 2: Food

Nature’s credibility for success –                           

Cooperation is sustainable

Whales were not saved by an understanding of population thresholds. Once their blubber was discovered to distill into an efficient fuel oil they were hunted to near extinction in a single generation. Whale blubber for oil was replaced by the petroleum industry and vegetable oil substitutes. Forests are not preserved for their diversity. They are saved when the cost of extraction outweighs the immediate financial gain. When the red cedar or the huon pines are gone from the forests, distance and remoteness are their best ally. Similarly fish stocks are not being managed for future availability; we are caging them in floating farms on the oceans or inland ponds.

Forest devastated, glade stumps remains.

The notion of limits is a dare to humans. It comes down to ideology. Is the earth our mine site? Or, is it our home? Will we discover nature’s secrets and exploit them at the expense of other species and their habitat? On seeing vultures gliding in flight, the Wright brothers were inspired to invent the mechanical wing. Flying machines were soon adapted to another devastating war machine. Will we see the natural environment as our mentor? A self sustaining system to be protected, to learn from and emulate.

Do we have the intelligence, humility and compassion to work with nature? A ten year old Swedish girl, Greta Thunberg has taken a leading stand to publicize the need for action to reduce climate change. A pity the repeal in October 2017 of the Clean Power Plan in the US, or in September 2018, the Climate Risk Disclosure Act, or in July 29, 2019, the introduction of the Climate Equity Act, a bill that proposed to protect the health and economic well-being of all Americans for generations to come, attracted so little publicity.

The Earth is its own food resource

Aerial view of the Amazon rain-forest canopy

Nature runs on sunlight and uses all its waste. So if we and this planet are to continue to flourish, questions arise.

  • How do we grow our food?
  • What do we grow?
  • How should we make our materials?
  • How should we power our lives?
  • How should we heal ourselves?
  • How should we conduct business?

The industrialization of agriculture has seen an end to diversity. Vast monocultures of sugarcane, rice, macadamias consume the landscape. Crop growers sow broad acreages with single variety species, all at the same stage of growth. When a crop fails the loses are disabling. The eternal optimists, farmers are at risk from pests, parasitic species and disease, winds, erosion, drought, fire, rain, hail and flood.

Farmer plows his tractor through a degraded pasture and Carcará hawks seek food in the rural lands of Arco-Iris, in Sao Paulo State.

A number of farmers in the prairie lands are maintaining the native vegetation. They are finding the native grasslands are resistant to erosion because the perennial grasses are deep rooted. Pest infestation damage is short lived because the numerous plant species are able to contend with the pests’ preferences. And the grasses do not require artificial chemicals for protection or nutrition; they do need sun and some rain. But they are less reliant than annual crops for water in their growth cycle.

Bison on Prairie – Custer State Park, South Dakota, USA.

No need for cultivation, seeding or fertilization on the prairies. In fact they mulch their own waste discarded dead fiber. The grasslands’ own genetic modification occurs on site from year to year. If agriculture co-existed with the native habitat then it would depend on where you are.

Here in north eastern New South Wales just nestled below the Border Ranges that sees the warm air of Queensland meet the cool wet south easterlies of coastal Australia an average rainfall of sixty inches a year, sub-tropical rain-forest would soon (in one generation) re-establish itself after the historic falling of the red cedar, followed by clearing for cattle. Now replaced by a mono-culture of macadamia plantations. Managers clear all vegetable matter from their manicured plantation rows to allow the nuts to be mechanically gathered from the ground. Considerable energy is then expended removing the dehiscent husk to reveal the nut shell, the hardest seed coating known to dietary science. This and a combination of processing drives to cost the consumer eight times that of its harvested value. 

Macadamia plantation, Northern Rivers region NSW, Australia.

Others would consider grassed plains as their native habitat or dry woodland. Not to forget vast areas of shrub dotted desert.

Native plants of the Southern Mojave Desert corral Lost Horse Mine Road in Joshua Tree National Park.

Lazar leveled fields to assist the mechanical tilling, watering and harvesting by massive diesel powered vehicles may well see the ‘Dust Bowl’ of the Mid West of the 1930’s drought revisit. Then cows used the soil dunes to walk over fences. And what the wind took never came back like a tidal sand might deposit. In the Southern hemisphere New Zealand’s Alps sometimes wear a pink coating of Australian top soil blown across the Tasman Sea. It takes three hours to fly the colloquial ‘ditch’.

Sustaining us today

Planting crops commenced 10,000 years ago, break open the top soil, rake over the bed for seed, nurture to green shoots and think life is wonderful when you got the fruit. Some certainty developed in human life. Crops grew every year. Our children had a regular food supply and did not rely on the chance and gamble of the hunt and forage. Then we had more babies and we needed more grain. More of everything we came to expect, food variety, clothing, shelter, beasts to do our labor and transport. We needed surplus to sell and pay for imported luxuries.

Crops became vital, we gave them every advantage, removed competing plants, lavished fertilizers, killed any threatening pest, and selected the best producing crop variety. In doing so we removed their resilience and genetic diversity to enable the species to adapt to changes in their environment. Top soil is extremely difficult to replace once it is lost. I have heard it said that top one inch of your soil took one hundred years to establish in a forest. Tilling the top soil radically disturbs the soil structure inhabited by micro flora and micro fauna that glues it into colloidal communities. A structure that is the circulatory system for the earth, delivering nitrogen with rain. An arrangement of soil particles that clump and create passage for water and air to come and go. Providing spaces and passage ways for water, gases, nutrients, roots and the vast populations of organisms that convert matter into solution.

Soil cut-sandstone, stones, clay, sand structure and slice of sand with sedimentary layers.

Dry air blowing across the ground pulls moisture out of it. Powder dry soil becomes air borne dust, blown away. If rain does fall the drainage filigree is not there to direct the water to roots. It sheets and floats in rivulets carrying soil to the flood plains, rivers and the sea. The soil is neither moist nor capable of fertility. Fungi cannot assist roots, organisms cannot break down decayed material into nutrients, bacteria cannot deliver nitrogen to the roots of plants.

The ‘dust bowl’ of the Mid West plains of the 1930’s was a tradegy. Washington D.C. responded by setting up the Soil Conservation Service which oversaw the planting of perennial deep rooted grasses, but have we learned? Soil loss from industrialization of cropping is only one in a great list of faux pars committed on the colonial landscape by a European vision of what agriculture should be. The introduction of inappropriate seed crops; rice with its over reliance on water, and sugar cane heavily in need of artificial fertilizers. And into the second decade of the 21st century cane farmers still think it is acceptable to set light to the landscape to burn the trash, unwanted outer leaves because it interferes with production process to create refined sugar. No wonder at the high incidence of diabetes in Western society.

Introduced species, rats, rabbits, hoofed beasts including deer damage the soil surface and destroy ripperian zones on creek banks. One property owner wiped out a local platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) population just in case one of his cows broke a leg in one of the semi-aquatic monotreme’s burrows on the creek banks in his property. Worthy of placing on our coinage but not in our back yard. The Sydney Museum has a full length fur coat made from the pelts of platypus to remind us. Discarded dogs and cats create havoc among native species endangering further their survival. Camels, the jury is still out conferring on their legacy. Central Australian entrepreneurs export them to Arabia.

We have had the industrial revolution, now we have what a clever marketing executive has named the ‘green revolution’, bringing hybrid strains of plants that will ‘dramatically improve yield’. Save a portion of last year’s seed for sowing? Why? The new highly productive seed is much better. Except it is infertile and you will need to buy it every season. Thousands of varieties that naturally adapt season by season to local climatic conditions were discarded for one ‘super yield’ hybrid.

Platypus Ornithorhynchus anatinus

Chemical protection

Pests and weeds in a field of a single variety will need pesticides and herbicides. Unfortunately they do not kill all pests nor all weeds. Some survive to infiltrate next year’s crop. Stronger doses of poison are applied on our crops and landscape. One supplier is offering pesticide pre-treated seed at a cost. Dozens of seed supply businesses have been bought out by petro-chemical companies.

Machines have replaced labor but farms have incurred considerable debt to fund them. The constant pressure of repayments on loans forced farmers into broad acre agri-business; lazar leveled fields for the super cultivators, one species for efficiency, and continuous cropping with high fertilizing additives adding more expenditure. No switching to replenish soils with legumes. Chemical fertilizer is the quick fix to treat the symptom, instead of treating the disease of soil degradation.

The petro-chemical companies provide a protective ring to ensure a high yield. The spraying of herbicide and pesticide escalates. Now glyphosate1 can be detected in every commercial food2. Farmers were lead to believe hybrid seeds immune to herbicide; no more concern over residual herbicide in the soil.  They can use as much as they want. Health implications arise, carcinogenic probably.

The net result of all this specialization is fewer and fewer people on the land; less vision, less observation, less intellect, less creativity directed at farming. As well as biological monoculture the rural landscape has little diversity in thought.

Wes Jackson director of the Land Institute works at ‘devising agriculture that is more resilient to human folly’. Modern agriculture is totally independent of the natural systems and habitat. The domesticated animals in feed lots were once wild. Their eco-systems were fuelled by sun light. They promoted their own fertility when seasonal conditions were favorable. Pests they learned to cope with strategic behavior or grew resilient.

Ben Smith geneticist at Nth. Carolina State voiced, ‘We need wilderness as a standard against which to judge our agricultural practices.’ A single native patch of Kansas prairie had 231 species4; grasses, sunflower, legumes, fern like forms, nitrogen fixers, deep rooted, shallow rooted, quick growers in spring, pest resistant, beneficial insect attractors, butterflies, and bees to pollinate. Below ground level thousands of species; ants, centipedes, soil bugs, worms, bacteria and molds burrowing, eating, excreting, depositing nutrients in the humus matrix available for root absorption. 

Below ground level is entwined with plants and above ground with animals. Plant a new species or introduce a new animal the earth community responds to that change. It will adapt, but catastrophic change, living systems will stop functioning.

When you plow, spray pesticides and harvest you change a great deal. Beneficial micro-organisms that help deter insects or assist in pollination or root development are all gone. ‘Our goal at the land Institute is to design a domestic plant community that behaves like a prairie, but that is predictable enough in terms of seed yield to be feasible for agriculture,’ says ecologist Jon Piper. Almost all plant species are perennial; their roots remain to hold the soil together in wind and rain. The diversity of natural pastures has many species, some as summer grasses, some as nitrogen fixing legumes. Different species flourish in differing conditions.

Yucca elephantides utilized as a hedge.

Yucca elephantipes closely related to Yucca aloifolia and gloriosa.6 Similar to the Joshua Tree (Yucca brevifolia) the largest of the species.

The Mid West prairie has yucca3 which does well in the dry and the big Bluestem goes skyward in the wet. Pests will target a preferred species, but when confronted with many species they will have more difficulty multiplying their populations. The prairie has four classic plant types; warm season grass, cool season grass, legumes and composites. Cool season is generally early spring flowering with seed setting and blowing off by spring’s end. The warm season grasses flourish through mid summer. The legumes like; oats, claw, sensitive brier and lead plant fix nitrogen which benefits all of the plants. Composites like golden rod, compass and asters can flower any time throughout the season.

Studies of assembled plant communities suggest that in order to sustain themselves persistently they need no fewer than eight species. Land Institute scientists under the direction of Wes Jackson are looking for perennials that may be encouraged to yield food crops.

Method one chooses a wild perennial and enhance its seed production. Method two, take a crop bearing annual and cross it with a perennial that copes with winter conditions in nature. Look for good rhizome development – the underground runner that allows plants to store starch for the dark season.

Likely candidates like

  •        Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis) a perennial that has produced seed consistently at 800lbs per acre, its tall seed pods are attractive to deer and quail.
  •        Eastern gamagrass (Tripsacum dactyloides) a warm season grass, related to corn.
  •        Mammoth wildrye (Leymus racemosus) a cool season relative of wheat.
  •        Maximilan sunflower (Helienthus maximilianii) a composite with oily seed.
  •        Johnsongrass (Sorghum halepense), is a perennial in the grass (Poaceae ) family, native to the Mediterranean region.
  •        Grain sorghum (Sorghum bicolor), also known as great millet, durrajowari, or milo, is a grass species cultivated for its grain, used human consumption, animal feed, and ethanol production. Sorghum originated in Africa, and is now cultivated widely. S. bicolor is typically an annual, but some cultivars are perennial. It grows in clumps that may reach over 4 m high. The grain is small, ranging from 2 to 4 mm in diameter. 
  •         Wild senna (Cassia hebecarpa) a lugume that forms seed pods which will attract turkeys.

Most cropping is conducted with exotic species or their hybrids from Europe or Mexico. American native species cultivated are sunflowers, cranberries, blueberries, pecans, concord grapes and Jerusalem artichokes.

James Drake and Stuart Pimm of the Uni. Of Tennessee have studied plant communities and analyze what is necessary for these assembled plants to live in equilibrium. They have come to a hypothesis that it is all about history. The community needs to have evolved, some arrivals grow, some die out. Animal involvement needs time to reach a state where change can be survived by some suffering but others flourishing.

Plants in these communities are not competing for the same things as an identical plant would have to. And they are better situated to resist insect and disease attack. Insects are presented with a diverse array of foliage and chemical strategies to fend them off in a poly-culture. Where as in a monoculture, once the insect discovers its attractive sweet parts it spends all its opportunities consuming. Diseases are more complex and finding a host is not as easy.5 Where legumes are present in the assembly the tiny nodes on the roots convert airborne nitrogen into plant food for themselves and others nearby.

Locations differ in their ecosystems so the natural native habitat will differ due to factors like; sunlight cycle, ground conditions, weather patterns, animals and bird life, plant diversity. Permaculture advocate Bill Mollison said, ‘ask not what you can wring from the land, but what the land has to offer.’ Bioneers John and Nancy Todd founded the Alchemy Institute in 1969 using ‘living spaces and food production systems using nature as a model. The forest-in-succession concept for a self sustaining farm.’ The succession in a forest optimizes the use of;

  •        space [pioneer plants take root in exposed places],
  • biotic elements [microbes, fungi, earth bound insects and worms breakdown humus, leaf litter, animal remains into compounds the plants consider nutritious.]
White thread like fungus generated from wet and humid soil.

The jungles of Cost Rica are a bountiful paradise of luxuriant vegetation and sun ripened edible foods. But colonialist cleared them to plant European crops. They did well at first but subsequent tropical deluges leached the nutrients from the soil. From then crops diminished in yield. Botany professor Jack Ewel of the Uni. Of Florida with a colleague Corey Berish cleared two plots in the tropical jungle then let then reseed and naturally regenerate to native jungle. One they left to nature the other they dug up the regrowth and replaced it with a human food variety that had the same physical characteristics as the native. Taking natures’ sprouting as their guide they replaced annual for annual, herbaceous perennial for perennial, tree for tree, vine for vine.  The domesticate jungle plot appeared and behaved like its native neighbor. They both displayed fine root systems and identical fertility measurements.  The natural habitat of Heliconia paradise plants, annual gourd vines, sweet potato and other Convolvulaceae family plants, legume vines, shrubs, grasses were replaced by plantain, squash varieties, and yams. Subsequent years fast growing fruit and nut trees like Brazil, peach and palms were planted. Two control plots both cleared one planted with rotating crops, both soon lost their fertility because the nutrients were not replaced by leaf and humus decay.

Robert Hart, permaculturalist published guidelines for harvesting systems that would mimic rainforest ecosystems. He included ‘cassava, banana, cacao, rubber, and timber trees like cordial and swietenia. Ultimately his system would have three tiers to function as a rainforest where plenty of leaves and roots shielded the soil from torrents, nutrients were stored in biomass, vegetable matter was recycled into the soil. Use plants that had symbiotic relationships with other inhabitants like fungi. Deep rooted plants used nutrients from different parts of the soil.

In his book Gary Nabhan looks to the Papago and Cocopa peoples of the American South West where rainfall is erratic and seasonal. The patchy vegetation congregates in fanning clusters. By planting in the flooding alluvial fans they avoided the need to irrigate. As well as annuals the Papego also planted succulents, grasses and woody plants for food and fiber. They also left mesquite trees about their sites for their leguminous properties.

Ecological accounting

By isolating the agricultural system and counting all the inputs and outputs you can determine if they will sustain themselves. Firstly the must be able to support farmers and their communities. Secondly you need to measure more than financial units, someone has suggested using kilocalories; you need to tally energy and land resource consumption, and their sustainable replacement. That should account for issues involved with fertilizers, fuel, transportation, health, as well as the obvious chemical contamination, atmospheric contamination and their costs to the wider community.

Further Reading

Robert Hart, British permaculturalist, Forest Gardening: Cultivating an Edible Landscape

Ronald L. Myers and John J. Ewel, Ecosystems of Florida

 Wes Jackson, Alters of Unknown Stone: Science and the Earth.

Alfred Howard, An Agricultural Testament

J. Russel Smith, Tree Crops: A permanent Agriculture

Gary P. Nabhan, Gathering the Desert. Rodale Press, Organic Gardening Magazine, New Farm, and Preservation.

Referenced footnotes

Ref 1: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glyphosate IUPAC name: N-phosphonomethyl glycine

Ref 2: http://anh-usa.org/glyphosate-breakfast-report/#_ftn9

Ref 3: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yucca

Ref 4: Janine Benyus. Biomimcry

Ref 5: Jeremy Burdon, ecologist, conducted one hundred studies of paired plant communities.

Ref 6: http://tropical.theferns.info/viewtropical.php

Edible Uses: Fruit – raw or cooked. A thick, succulent mass of bitter-sweet juicy flesh. The fruit is up to 10 cm long and 4cm wide.
Flowers – raw or cooked. Eaten as a vegetable. They are delicious raw, or can be dried, crushed and used as a flavouring. A crisp texture.
Flowering stem – peeled and boiled. Used like asparagus.

Medicinal The fruit is purgative.The boiled and mashed root, mixed with oil, has been used as a salve in the treatment of various complaints.
The plant is used in the treatment of earache. Ethanolic extracts from the leaves contain saponins and possess anti-inflammatory activity.

Why design from nature? part 1: Evolve

Nature’s credibility for success –                           

The Earth is its own resource

Stromatolites, tidal coast Western Australia

Stromatolites – Greek for ‘layered rock’ – are microbial reefs created by cyanobacteria (formerly known as blue-green algae are a division of microorganisms that are related to the bacteria but are capable of photosynthesis. They are prokaryotic and represent the earliest known form of life on the earth. From Oxford). 

Oxygenic photosynthetic bacteria perform photosynthesis in a similar manner to plants. They contain light-harvesting pigments (as chlorophyll does for plants), absorb carbon dioxide, and release oxygen.1  Stromatolite deposits are formed by sediment trapping and binding, and/or by precipitation activities of the microbial communities (Awramik 1976). The microbes are active on the surface layer of the Stromatolites, while the underlying build-up is a lithified [hardened into stone] remnant of former microbial surface communities, that could be interpreted as a trace-fossil.

These deposits built up very slowly: a single one metre structure may be 2,000 to 3,000 years old. But the tiny microbes that make up modern Stromatolites are similar to organism that existed 3.5 billion years ago. Stromatolites have thrived for almost 85% of the earths history, they play a crucial role in regulating sedimentation and global biogeochemical cycles.

Proterozoic Stromatolite

Microbial lithfication represents the major evolutionary advance that enabled stromatolites to thrive for so long. Stromatolites are essentially a buildup of microbial mats that grew on top of each other with the upper most layer being occupied by bacterial colonies however not all lithifying mats form stromatolites, just those that form layer upon layer. Microbial mats form extensive platforms for trapping and cementing sediment. They are vertically laminated, sedimentary biofilms. Found in ares such as lagoons, marine subtidal zones, lakes, fresh water rivers and hypersaline ponds

Sustaining us today

Agricultural practices evolved gradually to replace hunting and gathering cultures with a few remote exceptions like the San and the Inuit whose habitat provides all the need to sustain them.  

World over indigenous peoples and their native habitat is being displaced by super sized technologically advanced machines to rip out what ever efficiently fashionable resource they crave; gold, silver, metallic ores, oil and coal. One million years after the first humans formed tribal culture we are still scrapping away vegetation, humus and nutrient rich top soils to mine coal.             That soil from its first terrestrial inputs has taken 4 billion years to evolve. Life in all its wondrous forms has spread to cover the planet. Plants converted sun’s energy to simple sugars providing nutrients for insects that flew to cross pollinate. Fish thrived on animals that eat the tidal sediment, and birds navigated over the waters and caught the fish. Their waste was all recycled as nutrients for plant life.

Junction Creek rainforest Tasmania remnant of Gondwanna

The failures fossilized, survivors are the winners that live with what nature provides without burning the fuel that was fossilized millions of years ago.

Scientific revolution

Global expedition for trade sustained an interest in natural science. Botanist Joseph Banks2 brought extensive collections of rock samples and wildlife back from eastern North America. He also returned to England with experience of transport across oceans. The British benefitted from James Cook’s pacific surveys, substantially funded by Banks the philanthropist who took a staff of eight; naturalists, artists, tenant servants, and his own library of natural history. They gathered large collections of specimens recorded detailed observations at; Rio de Janeiro, Tierra del Fuego, Tahiti, New Zealand and the eastern coast of Australia, New Guinea coast, the island of Savu, Jakarta, the Cape of Good Hope and St Helena. The findings of his collections and journals eventually became available to; the Navy Board; the Royal Society, the Society of Arts, the Dilettante Society, the Society of Antiquaries, the Royal Institution, the Engineers’ Society, the Literary Club, the Horticultural Society, the Institut de France, the Linnean Society, the British Museum, the Board of Longitude, the Coin Committee and Committee of Trade of the Privy Council.

Banksias thrive in this parched land

He paid collectors to acquire specimens from the Cape, West Africa, the East Indies, South America, India, Australia. Further from the voyages of Cook’s , Bligh’s voyage to the South Seas, and George Vancouver’s voyage more collections were gathered included in the 7000 new exotic plants for collections of King George III now exhibited at Kew Gardens. I applaud the extent of his collections of drawings, seeds, live plants as a genetic resource for the enrichment of botanical knowledge.

Industrial revolution

Smoke belching chimneys over factories black from soot was the sight of the workplace for most city workers of the late 18th century. Machines we know from their iconic names;

  • Spinning Jenny wound thread on multiple spindles,
  • Water Frame powered spinning machines,
  • Industrial Power Loom displaced the flying shuttle and mechanized fabric weaving,
  • Bessemer process for smelting manganese steel. The converter blasted the charge of pig iron with heated air liquefying the steel to pour it off separate from the residue.
Bessemer smelter and process
  • Newcomen’s atmospheric engine converted steam to pumping action, modified by,
  • James Watt’s Steam Engine employed to pump water out of mines.
  • Dynamite made of nitroglycerin, sorbents and stabilizers one of which was “diatomaceous earth”, which is a soft rock mostly made of fossilized algae.. Invented by chemist and engineer Alfred Nobel 1860’s it rapidly gained wide-scale use as a more powerful alternative to black powder. 
  • Seed drill is a horse drawn devise that sows the seeds for crops by delivering them into the soil at the proper seeding rate and burying them to a specific depth. This ensures that seeds will be distributed evenly to maximize crop growth.
  • Puddling was an important step in processes of making appreciable volumes of high-grade bar iron during the Industrial Revolution. In the early puddling method, molten iron in a reverberatory furnace was stirred with rods, which were consumed in the process.
Stephenson’s Rocket locomotive fueled by coke

Mechanisation to increase productivity was in full swing making more quickly drove industry to new highs. Flour milling had used the water wheel for centuries, but then the steam engine arrived then materials and products could be transported in bulk.

            Now we have the petro-chemical and genetic engineering revolutions. ‘Predetermine DNA to do our bidding, then we feed it into the juggernaut of technology’ monopolizing vast areas to produce crops where nothing is allowed to compete for resources

            An ecological tenant that even humans must abide; ‘a species cannot occupy a niche that appropriates all resources.’3 Our habitats the cities and their surrounding agricultural plains are not self sustaining, they require great volumes of inputs from other zones, hence they are unstable. And chaos theory tells us a system which is unstable is likely to change.

            Natural evolution leapt in breakouts of climatic crisis after long plateaus of constancy. Particulate clouds in a sunless winter after an asteroid exploded in the Mexican Gulf off the Yucatán Peninsular ended a 100 million year reign of the mega fauna. The understanding of natural science is doubling every 5 years, the impetus is coming from technology like satellite sensing, drone photography, neutron microscopic vision and we see more clearly the patterns of systems. Innovations have already been achieved in some form from observation of nature.

Spider lily
Gothic lantern roof, Ely Cathedral

Ceiling structures reminiscent of plant forms.

Convection cooling towers similar to the nests of Grass cutter ants (LINK Blog) and termite mounds.

Circulation towers Yadz Iran.

Radar similar to multi frequency echo sounding of bats.

Not only a wheel can be found in a rotary motor that propels the flagellum of ancient bacteria, our friend the E.coli.4

Diagram of a Flagellum in an E. Coli cell.5

Light from bioluminescent algae splash chemicals together to illuminate their bodies, similar to fire flies sometimes seen in forest habitats. There are more than 150 varieties and they each have their own flashing code for attracting mates.

Fireflies New Hampshire

Arctic fish and some frogs have the ability to freeze solid then flaw without damaging their organs. Black bears hibernate all winter without poisoning themselves on their urea. While Polar bears roam all winter with fur coats of hollow transparent hairs that insulate their bodies like the glass heat exchangers we use to heat water from sunlight.

Camouflage, chameleons and cuttlefish hide without moving, changing the patterns of their skin to instantly blend into their surroundings.

Bees, turtles and birds navigate without maps. While whales, penguins and seals dive for long periods without aid of scuba equipment.

Dragonflies out maneuver helicopters. Hummingbirds cross over the Gulf of Mexico on less than 1/10th oz of fuel. Ants carry weights greater than their body weight in humid heat.

Referenced footnotes

Ref 1: photosynthesiseducation.com/photosynthesis-in-bacteria/

Ref 2: adb.anu.edu.au/biography/banks-sir-joseph-1737

Ref 3: Janine M. Benyas, Biomimcry

Ref 4:  mcb.harvard.edu/research/remodeling-flagellar-motors-berg-lab/

Ref 5: Systems Microbiology, Biological Engineering, MIT. Photo ref: David Schauer, and Edward DeLong. 20.106J Systems Microbiology. Fall 2006. Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT OpenCourseWare.