Monday, December 27, 2010

California Rare-Earth Mine Reopens

"Within two years the mine could be producing 20% of the amount of rare earths we import from China."

by Emma Woollacott

A US company has received permission to reopen a large rare earths mine, easing fears that the country was becoming too dependent on Chinese imports of the substances needed for mobile phones, solar cells and other technologies.

While rare earths aren't actually particularly rare, they are hard to extract, and China currently enjoys a near-monopoly - over 90 percent of rare earths are mined and processed there.

During the autumn, the country warned that it was considering the introduction of stringent export regulations, leading to fears that this could seriously hamper the US tech industry. It's already raised export tariffs.

But now Molycorp says it's reopening its Mountain Pass mine in California, with the aim of producing as much as 20,000 tons of rare earths - equivalent to about 20 percent of China's output.

It's signed joint venture agreements with Hitachi Metals for the manufacture of neodymium-iron-boron (NdFeB) alloys and magnets.

"These joint ventures are an integral part of Molycorp’s 'mine-to-magnets' business plan, and they move our Company and the United States one step closer to realizing the strategic goal of re-establishing a complete rare earth manufacturing supply chain in the US," said Mark Smith, Molycorp’s CEO.

Colorado-based Molycorp is the only rare earth oxide producer in the western hemisphere, but currently only produces around 3,000 metric tons of commercial
rare earth materials per year. The new mine and processing facility will increase this amount seven-fold over the next two years, producing high-purity oxides, metals, alloys, and permanent magnets.


U.S. Rare Earth Mine Resumes Active Mining

By Michael Kan, IDG News

Friday, December 24, 2010

New solar fuel machine 'mimics plant life'

By Neil Bowdler Science reporter, BBC News

A prototype solar device has been unveiled which mimics plant life, turning the Sun's energy into fuel.

The machine uses the Sun's rays and a metal oxide called ceria to break down carbon dioxide or water into fuels which can be stored and transported.

Conventional photovoltaic panels must use the electricity they generate in situ, and cannot deliver power at night.

Details are published in the journal Science.

The prototype, which was devised by researchers in the US and Switzerland, uses a quartz window and cavity to concentrate sunlight into a cylinder lined with cerium oxide, also known as ceria.

Ceria has a natural propensity to exhale oxygen as it heats up and inhale it as it cools down.

If as in the prototype, carbon dioxide and/or water are pumped into the vessel, the ceria will rapidly strip the oxygen from them as it cools, creating hydrogen and/or carbon monoxide.

Hydrogen produced could be used to fuel hydrogen fuel cells in cars, for example, while a combination of hydrogen and carbon monoxide can be used to create "syngas" for fuel.

It is this harnessing of ceria's properties in the solar reactor which represents the major breakthrough, say the inventors of the device. They also say the metal is readily available, being the most abundant of the "rare-earth" metals.

Methane can be produced using the same machine, they say.
Refinements needed

The prototype is grossly inefficient, the fuel created harnessing only between 0.7% and 0.8% of the solar energy taken into the vessel.

Most of the energy is lost through heat loss through the reactor's wall or through the re-radiation of sunlight back through the device's aperture.

But the researchers are confident that efficiency rates of up to 19% can be achieved through better insulation and smaller apertures. Such efficiency rates, they say, could make for a viable commercial device.

"The chemistry of the material is really well suited to this process," says Professor Sossina Haile of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). "This is the first demonstration of doing the full shebang, running it under (light) photons in a reactor."

She says the reactor could be used to create transportation fuels or be adopted in large-scale energy plants, where solar-sourced power could be available throughout the day and night.

However, she admits the fate of this and other devices in development is tied to whether states adopt a low-carbon policy.

"It's very much tied to policy. If we had a carbon policy, something like this would move forward a lot more quickly," she told the BBC.

It has been suggested that the device mimics plants, which also use carbon dioxide, water and sunlight to create energy as part of the process of photosynthesis. But Professor Haile thinks the analogy is over-simplistic.

"Yes, the reactor takes in sunlight, we take in carbon dioxide and water and we produce a chemical compound, so in the most generic sense there are these similarities, but I think that's pretty much where the analogy ends."
The PS10 solar tower plant near Seville, Spain. Mirrors concentrate the sun's power on to a central tower, driving a steam turbine The PS10 solar tower plant near Seville, Spain. Mirrors concentrate the sun's power on to a central tower, driving a steam turbine

Daniel Davies, chief technology officer at the British photovoltaic company Solar Century, said the research was "very exciting".

"I guess the question is where you locate it - would you put your solar collector on a roof or would it be better off as a big industrial concern in the Sahara and then shipping the liquid fuel?" he said.

Solar technology is moving forward apace but the overriding challenges remain ones of efficiency, economy and storage.

New-generation "solar tower" plants have been built in Spain and the United States which use an array of mirrors to concentrate sunlight onto tower-mounted receivers which drive steam turbines.

A new Spanish project will use molten salts to store heat from the Sun for up to 15 hours, so that the plant could potentially operate through the night.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Parking lot note

I wrote to the driver of the Jeep Cherokee parked in front of me at the grocery store this morning, but fortunately never had to deliver:

Hoping the driver would return to their vehicle before I slipped my message under their wiper blade to avoid possible self incrimination, I looked up from my yellow pad as a red-haired, middle-aged woman walked up to the driver's side door. I stepped out of my car with a proud 'Excuse me, ma'am' and relayed my observation. She paused with a smirk and said "That must be the one I hit this morning, I'll deal with it when I get home" and drove away with Lucky, the wavering white feathers patched together with raspberry jam.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Google launches Latin translation tool

Google has added Latin to its list of languages on Google Translate
By Claudine Beaumont, Technology Editor 11:07AM BST 30 Sep 2010

Google Translate supports more than 50 languages, including minority languages such as Welsh and Haitian Creole, and the addition of Latin is sure to please scholars and traditionalists.

In a blog post, written entirely in Latin, Jakob Uszkoreit, a senior engineer at Google, said that Latin was far from a “dead language”.

“There are many Latin language learners,” he wrote. “Over 100,000 American students take the National Latin Exam every year and many more learn Latin all of the world. And there is a wealth of information originally written in it.”

He said that while Google recognised that the Latin translation tool would rarely be used to decipher emails or captions on YouTube videos, it would enable web users to read many of the crucially important philosophical and scientific texts originally written in this language.

“There are tens of thousands of scanned books written in Latin on Google Books, and many more contain Latin quotes and proverbs,” he wrote.

Friday, December 10, 2010

US cable: Cuba to be insolvent within 2-3 years

By PAUL HAVEN, Associated Press Paul Haven, Associated Press – Fri Dec 10, 12:04 pm ET

HAVANA – A newly released confidential U.S. diplomatic cable predicted Cuba's economic situation could become "fatal" within two to three years, and detailed concerns from other countries' diplomats — including China — that the communist-run country has been slow to adopt reforms.

The cable was written in February, months before Cuban President Raul Castro announced a major revamp of the island's economy, laying out plans to fire a half-million state workers and open up the island to expanded forms of private enterprise.

The cable, sent by the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, which Washington maintains instead of an embassy, was released Friday by WikiLeaks. It was apparently written by America's chief diplomat on the island, Jonathan Farrar.

There was no immediate reaction from the Cuban government, but the cable's release is not likely to help improve U.S.-Cuban relations already strained by the long detention of an American contractor on suspicion of spying — not to mention 50 years of Cold War animus.

It details a breakfast meeting held by the Interests Section's chief economic officer with diplomats from some of Cuba's main trading partners, including China, Spain, Canada, Brazil and Italy, as well as France and Japan, both of which are among the island's top creditors.

"All diplomats agreed that Cuba could survive this year without substantial policy changes, but the financial situation could become fatal within 2-3 years," the cable said, adding that Italian diplomats cited sources within the Cuban government as predicting that the island "would become insolvent as early as 2011."

Even the Chinese diplomat expressed what the cable referred to as "visible exasperation." It said the Chinese were particularly annoyed by Cuba's insistence on retaining majority control of any joint venture.

"No matter whether a foreign business invests $10 million or $100 million, the GOC's (Government of Cuba's) investment will always add up to 51%," the cable quoted the unidentified Chinese commercial counselor as saying.

The Chinese also complained about problems getting loans repaid, and in particular a Cuban request to extend from one year to four years the amount of time it has to repay credit.

It is no secret that Cuba's financial situation is increasingly dire. Raul Castro has warned that the state can no longer afford to subsidize nearly all forms of Cuban life. The government provides free health care and education, and nearly free transportation, housing and utilities. All Cubans also receive a ration book that provides them with some basic food, though not enough to live on.

Most islanders work for just $20 a month in a state-dominated economic system riddled with inefficiency.

Yet the country has survived the collapse of the Soviet Union, which caused the near-failure of its economy, as well as a 48-year U.S. trade embargo, the retirement of revolutionary leader Fidel Castro in 2006 and countless other bumps along the way.

And the cable's confidence that the government would not enact economic reforms did not pan out. The reforms announced by Raul Castro in September are considered the most significant in a generation. Still, it is unclear if they will be enough to save the island's perennially weak economy.

The cable said Cuba's attempts at agricultural and other reform up to that point had been ineffective, and said more changes were unlikely. It said the country seemed determined to give the more control over state-run businesses to the military, and particularly Agriculture Minister Ulises Rosales del Toro, whom the cable described as Raul Castro's most trusted general.

The cable said the situation would worsen dramatically should there be economic or political problems involving Cuba's top ally, Venezuela, which the dispatch said was "increasingly unstable." It quoted the French diplomat at the meeting as saying Hugo Chavez's country "is in flames" and "a source of serious concern for Cuba."

Cuba receives billions of dollars worth of oil a year from Venezuela at greatly subsidized prices in exchange for the services of Cuban doctors and other help.

"There is little prospect of economic reform in 2010 despite an economic crisis that is expected to get even worse for Cuba in the next few years," the cable said, citing Cuba experts. It closed with a scathing criticism of the leadership of a government ruled by aging brothers Fidel and Raul Castro since they overthrew dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959.

The government's "direction and leadership remains muddled and unclear, in great measure because its leaders are paralyzed by fear that reforms will loosen the tight grip on power that they have held for over 50 years," it said.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

George Lucas Wants to Resuscitate Dead Actors Using Computers

From the horrible ideas department comes the news from George Lucas that he's buying "the film rights to dead actors." You know, so he can resurrect them virtually for upcoming movies. Oh, come on, George.

Yes, there may someday be yet another Star Wars reissue, but this time with Alec Guinness referencing Facebook to Luke. You know, so a new generation of kids will be able to "get it!"

Look for actors to start laying out their film rights in their wills to prevent this from happening pretty much ASAP. Because when you're dead, you don't have the power to say no to George Lucas.

On the contrary, what actor for money, would NOT want this kind of shot at true immortality? What an ego boost for this narcissistic egotistical crowd. Look for their agents to be negotiating the right price, and their press agents to be putting the best face on whatever the negotiations yield.

Solar-Powered Hornet

Oriental hornets powered by 'solar energy'
By Matt Walker
Editor, Earth News

The Oriental hornet has a unique ability to harvest solar energy, scientists have discovered.

The large wasp species has a special structure in its abdomen that traps the sun's rays, and a special pigment that harvests the energy they contain.

The discovery helps explain why these hornets have a large yellow stripe across their body and why they become more active as the day gets hotter.

It also changes our understanding of how insect metabolism can work.

Xanthopterin works as a light harvesting molecule transforming light into electrical energy

The discovery, reported in the journal Naturwissenschaften, was made by a team of researchers working in Israel and the UK, led by Dr Marian Plotkin of Tel-Aviv University.

Wasps are usually most active in the early morning, when they are around twice as active as at any other point in the day.

Oriental hornets (Vespa orientalis), which range from the Near East to India, are most active in the middle of the day.

Scientists have also long observed that Oriental hornet workers, which dig out nests underground, correlate their digging activity with the intensity of sunlight.

However, it was unclear why these Oriental hornets behave in this way.

Warming up

That was until one biologist, the late Professor Jacob S Ishay, proposed that the insects may somehow be capable of harvesting solar radiation.

Dr Plotkin's team has now tested this hypothesis, with remarkable results.

Using an atomic force microscope, they examined the fine structure of the hornet's cuticle, hard layers of which form the insect's outer body, or exoskeleton.

The part of the cuticle coloured brown is made from an array of grooves, with a height of just 160 nanometres.

The structure of the yellow part of the hornet's body is different.

This is made from a series of oval-shaped protrusions, each containing a pinhole-sized depression. Each protrusion is just 50nm tall and interlocks with another.

Further tests revealed what these structures do.

Essentially, say the researchers, they stop light being reflected off the hornet's body. Instead the light is trapped, and harvested for energy.
Oriental hornet (image: Dûrzan Cîrano)
The yellow pigment harvests light

The brown part of the insect's body has the best anti-reflectance properties, helping to split any sunlight that falls upon it into several beams travelling in different directions.

The cuticle also contains a second thin sheet-like structure, with a series of sheets stacked on top of each other, with decreasing thickness from top to bottom.

Stacked together in every layer are rod-like structures composed of chains of a polymer called chitin. These rods are embedded in a protein matrix.

This intricate structure further serves to trap light within the cuticle, forcing it to bounce between different layers.

Capturing the sun

But the ability of the hornets to harvest solar energy does not stop there.

Within this cuticle is a pigment that actually captures the energy of the sun's rays.

"The pigment melanin gives the hornet its dominant brown colour. The pigment xanthopterin, in the head and abdomen in a form of stripes and bands, gives the Oriental hornet its bright yellow colour," explains Dr Plotkin.

"Xanthopterin works as a light harvesting molecule transforming light into electrical energy."

The hornets' ability to convert sunlight in this way could explain why they become more active during the middle of the day, when the light intensity is highest.

"We assume that some of the energy is transformed in a photo-biochemical process which aids the hornets with their energy demanding digging activity," Dr Plotkin told the BBC.

The solar-powered hornets have one further unique claim.

Until now, insects were thought to perform metabolism in an organ known as the fat body, which performs a similar function to the human liver.


Visit the journal Naturwissenschaften to learn more about hornets harvesting solar energy

Most of the fat body is in an insect's abdomen surrounding the gut, where it can quickly take up absorbed nutrients, though some is scattered elsewhere.

"We have found that the main metabolic activity in the Oriental hornet is actually in the yellow pigment layer," says Dr Plotkin.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

FCC Proposes Pay-as-you-go Internet option

Pay-as-you-go Internet option draws scrutiny
By Cecilia Kang / The Washington Post
Published: December 08. 2010 4:00AM PST

WASHINGTON — As details emerge about the Federal Communications Commission’s controversial proposal for regulating Internet providers, a provision that would allow companies to bill customers for how much they surf the Web is drawing special scrutiny.

Analysts say pay-as-you-go Internet access could put the brakes on the burgeoning online video industry, handing a victory to cable and satellite TV providers.

The practice is legal, but had been discouraged by the FCC and by protests from consumers and public interest groups. But wireless companies are moving rapidly in that direction — all major cell phone providers offer subscribers tiered data plans.

AT&T doesn’t offer flat-rate wireless plans for new customers.

And although FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said last week that his so-called Net-neutrality proposal would generally prohibit broadband service providers from tampering with Internet traffic, he added that he is open to new billing models that charge by how much data a user consumes.

Public interest groups say that trend will lead to a widening gap in Internet use in which the wealthiest would have the greatest access. And it could place limits on how much consumers use Web video, which eats up an enormous amount of bandwidth and could carry higher costs under a tiered pricing plan.

“The question is how this will be enforced because it has the potential to do a lot of harm,” said Art Brodsky, communications director for Public Knowledge.

By blessing tiered pricing practices, Genachowski said he wanted to strike a balance between consumer protection and promoting “network investment and efficient use of networks, including measures to match price to cost such as usage-based pricing.”

An FCC official said in a statement that it would be a “cop on the beat” for “arbitrary, anti-consumer, or anti-competitive tiered pricing plans.”

Vote set for Dec. 21

The FCC will vote Dec. 21 on the proposal, which could tilt fortunes toward cable and telecom companies battling to keep users from abandoning paid television services for new Internet options such as Apple TV and, analysts say. Those providers are struggling to manage overburdened networks that are seeing a surge in streaming video traffic from sites such as Netflix, which alone occupies 20 percent of all peak broadband traffic in the United States.

“If people are forced to pay per kilobit, it’s like they are forced to pay per word of a book,” said Todd Weaver, chief executive of Ivi, a Seattle-based video streaming company.

Craig Moffett, an analyst at Bernstein Research, wrote in a note to investors Tuesday that the impact of pay-as-you-go broadband access “can’t be overstated.”

“Usage-based pricing will preserve, and even enhance, the economics of cable’s infrastructure — even if consumers eventually get some, or even all, of their video content over the Web,” Moffett wrote.

At a UBS investors conference Tuesday, Comcast chief executive Neil Smit said the cable and Internet giant doesn’t have plans to move to usage based pricing. The firm, which is seeking regulatory approval for its merger with NBC Universal, has a cap on Internet use to 250 gigabytes — enough data to provide hours of streaming video viewing.

Kyle McSlarrow, president of the trade group Nation Cable and Telecommunications Association, wrote in a blog post that usage-based pricing gives cable companies the flexibility they need to experiment with new business models.

“A usage-based pricing model, for instance, might help spur adoption by price-sensitive consumers at the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder,” he wrote.

It is also a way for cable firms to prevent users from “cutting the cord,” or canceling their television services, analysts say.

Genachowski’s draft proposal is vague on language about how broadband providers could charge partners to serve up their sites faster, according to one source at the FCC who has seen a draft of the rules. Known as “paid prioritization,” the FCC’s proposal could make it easier for Time Warner Cable, for example, to strike a deal to serve up faster downloads of

Bandwidth hogs

With tiered usage caps, that could lead to higher Internet charges for subscribers of bandwidth-hogging sites such as Netflix.

“Usage-based pricing is a clear positive for cable, telecom and wireless providers, but it also might be a concern for Netflix,” said MF Global analyst Paul Gallant. “Depending on where the tiers were set, usage-based pricing on wire line broadband could end up deterring some people from dropping cable for over-the-top video.”

Netflix has argued against paid prioritization of services over the Web. In its third-quarter conference call, Chief Executive Reed Hastings said the company is watching usage pricing with concern.

“We have some vulnerability depending on cap usage and what happens,” he said.