Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Robot fish cleans microplastics from water

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HUSSEIN FALEH/AFP via Getty Images
Rubbish, mainly plastic waste, floats in the Shatt Al-Arab river in the southern port city of Basra, on July 24, 2020. 

Scientists have engineered a light-activated robotic fish that can clear microplastics, or tiny plastic particles, from water.

The small tool could help rid the nation’s creeks and rivers of the particularly elusive pollution source.

The fish, whose tail is powered by a rapidly cycling laser, was able to pick up plastic particles and transport them elsewhere, according to the study in Nano Letters. 

Microplastics, which are ubiquitous and potentially hazardous, are very hard to clean from the cracks and crevices from the bottoms of waterways, a statement from the American Chemical Society explained.

The half-inch robot is made of material inspired by mother-of-pearl — the material found in clam shells — an upgrade over existing soft-bodied robots, and a skin that has the ability to self-heal, according to the statement.

Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. We’re Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Send us tips and feedback. Subscribe here.

Today we’ll explore President Biden’s likely doomed gas tax holiday and look at a push for more domestic solar panels. Then we’ll turn to a new offshore wind law in Louisiana and examine gender disparities in scientific research credits.

Biden gas tax holiday likely dead on arrival

President Biden on Wednesday officially called for a three-month federal gas tax holiday, which would lead to a slight decrease in gas prices until September.

That proposal is likely doomed, however, in part due to opposition from Democrats such as Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), our colleague Rachel Frazin reports.

If it fails, Manchin will have played a pivotal role this week in killing both the gas tax holiday and a proposed expansion to the electric vehicle tax credit.

Temporary cut: The White House proposed a temporary halt to the 18 cent-per-gallon federal gas tax as a means of cutting prices at the pump, Frazin reported.

  • That’d represent a discount of about 3.5 percent off current average regular gasoline prices, based on numbers from the American Automobile Association.
  • It would mean savings of about $2 to $3 on a typical tank of gas, based on a tank size of 12 to 16 gallons.

Dim prognosis: While the measure is supported by swing-state Democrats, opposition from across the ideological spectrum — from Manchin to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) — means it is unlikely to pass.

EV TAX CREDIT BONUS DEAD, TOO

Manchin said Tuesday that a $4,500 discount for union-made electric vehicles is “gone” from Senate Democrats’ pared-down spending package, Bloomberg reports.

  • Democrats’ proposed plan would provide a $7,500 tax credit for buying new EVs, while Manchin has long opposed a $4,500 bonus for union-made cars.
  • The senator prefers government support for hydrogen-powered vehicles, Bloomberg reported.
  • To do so, Manchin has proposed using West Virginia’s extensive natural gas resources to generate hydrogen, the Charleston Gazette-Mail reported.

Renewable firms offer $6B for US-made solar panels

A consortium of U.S. renewable energy firms has offered $6 billion to buy domestic-made solar panels — if manufacturers are willing to produce them, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Eager for panels: The group, which includes AES Corp., Clearway Energy Group, Cypress Creek Renewables and D.E. Shaw Renewable Investments, said in a news release it would buy as much as 7 gigawatts worth of U.S. solar panels annually.

  • That’s more than a quarter of what the country installed last year, the Journal reported.
  • That amount is also far greater than the 4.8 gigawatts of panels manufactured in the U.S. last year, E&E News noted, citing the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Why the offer? The group is trying to encourage manufacturers to establish or expand solar production in the U.S.

Setting up such an industry at home could help cement a domestic supply chain and reduce the country’s dependence on China and Southeast Asia for solar panels, according to the Journal. 

Independence, security: “We have to play a big role in this energy independence and security for the U.S.,” Leo Moreno, president of AES’s clean-energy business unit, told the Journal.  

Craig Cornelius, chief executive of Clearway Energy Group, said in a statement the move was “just one step toward bolstering America’s solar supply chain” while urging Congress to “seize the opportunity” to incentivize U.S. solar manufacturing.

  • Earlier this month, President Biden signed an order to exempt Southeast Asian nations from any new tariffs on solar panels for the next two years.
  • This decision came as part of an effort to strengthen the industry amid a Commerce Department investigation into whether Southeast Asian companies were being used to circumvent U.S. tariffs on Chinese firms.    

What could $6 billion mean for solar? Such an investment could help the U.S. become a significant player in solar panel production, Dan Kammen of the University of California, Berkeley, told Marketplace.  

“It’s not like we’re building this from ground zero, from scratch,” Kammen added.

Louisiana wants offshore wind to pay for production 

Wind energy companies off the coast of Louisiana will pay royalty fees to the state under a new bipartisan bill signed on Tuesday by Gov. John Bel Edwards (D). 

That financing mechanism — common to the oil industry, but almost unheard of in wind energy — could help Louisiana’s government wean itself off oil royalties, NOLA.com reported.  

Wind energy is a key part of Edwards’s ambitious plan for 5 gigawatts of offshore wind in state waters by 2035. 

Wind industry pushback: The addition of royalty fees for wind energy means wind producers will pay a fee to the state for every megawatt generated — something they don’t have to do in neighboring states like Texas or in federal waters, according to NOLA.com. 

  • That could push new wind development to those states, industry trade group Southeastern Wind Coalition told NOLA.com.
     
  • But state Rep. Jerome Zeringue (R), the bill’s sponsor, has called that claim “ridiculous”, NOLA.com previously reported.  
  • Zeringue maintained that Louisiana’s large offshore oil and gas workforce, whose skills are easily transferable to offshore wind, would ensure ample wind industry development.  

Financing the boom: With natural gas prices soaring, utilities are increasingly interested in signing multi-year power purchase agreements with builders of new wind and solar plants, The Wall Street Journal reported.

That means they are willing to commit to buying the energy if a developer can produce it, according to the Journal.

A much bigger handicap to building out wind power is bottlenecked transmission lines, and the “red tape” that makes it hard to build new ones, the Journal noted. 

A PUSH FOR BLADE RECYCLING

The Louisiana bill would also require wind companies to make a plan for decommissioning their turbines at the end of their working lives. 

What to do with them? About 85 percent of a wind turbine’s total mass — like steel, cement and copper wire — can be recycled using established channels, according to EU-based trade group WindEurope. 

But most blades — despite being made of valuable glass and carbon-fiber composites — go to landfills, WindEurope noted.  

But other alternatives exist:

Female scientists less likely to get authorship credit

Women in science are less likely than their male colleagues to be credited as authors for the research they perform, a new study has found. 

The study, published in Nature on Wednesday, found that women who worked on a given research project were 13 percent less likely than their male counterparts to appear as authors in related journal articles. 

A persistent gap: “Women are not getting credit at the same rates as men on journal articles,” co-author Enrico Berkes, a postdoctoral researcher in economics at The Ohio State University, said in a statement.  

“The gap is persistent, and it is strong,” Berkes added. 

Patents fared worse than articles. When it came to patents, the authors found an even larger gender gap: Women were nearly 59 percent less likely than men to be named on patents related to the projects they worked on. 

Linking data: To draw these conclusions, the authors said they combed through data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s UMETRICS dataset, which helped reveal precisely who was involved with and paid for various projects. 

  • That data included details about sponsored research projects for 52 higher education institutions from 2013 through 2016.  
  • Almost 129,000 people on nearly 10,000 research teams were involved in the projects.  

The authors then linked that data to patents and articles published in scientific journals to determine which individuals received credit in the patents and journals and who did not. 

Higher impact, less inclusion: When it came to what scientists consider “high-impact” articles — those that amass the most citations in other papers — the inclusion of women among the authors was even less probable, according to the study. 

“There should never be a gap in credit between men and women,” Weinberg said.  

“But you really don’t want a gap on the research that has the biggest impact on a scientific field,” he added. “That’s a huge source of concern.” 

To read the full story, please click here.

Water Wednesday

Fires give way to floods in New Mexico, Utah churches weaning their landscapes off watering and Italy seeks drought solutions from a desert country. 

From fires to floods 

  • Areas of New Mexico plagued by wildfires are now bracing for excessive flooding, which one hydrologists described to The Washington Post as “a mixed blessing.” While such downpours would help quench the ongoing fires, flash floods over burn scars can cause debris flows and landslides, the Post reported. 

Mormon temples reduce watering 

  • The Church of Jesus Christ may allow landscapes at some Latter-day Saint temples to go dormant due to U.S. West drought conditions, the Salt Lake City-based Deseret News reported. “We all play a part in preserving the critical resources needed to sustain life — especially water — and we invite others to join us in reducing water use wherever possible,” a statement from the church said. 

Preventing wildfire could save Phoenix’s water 

  • Thinning the dense trees in the Arizona’s Coconino National Forest could help safeguard Phoenix’s water supply — by cutting the risk that destructive wildfire would clog a critical reservoir with ash and sediment, The Arizona Republic reported. The cost of the operation is “a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of damage that a wildfire could cause here,” an analyst with a Phoenix utility told the Republic. 

Please visit The Hill’s Sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you tomorrow.

VIEW THE FULL EDITION HERE

Tags Biden Chuck Grassley Electric vehicles EV tax credit gas tax holiday Joe Manchin microplastics Nancy Pelosi offshore wind energy solar panels

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