The Science of 2016 (Part 2)

Reusable rockets and carbon dioxide sucking machines — we conclude our review of the year’s research highlights with a look at people’s influence on the planet, Elon Musk’s engineering feats and the promotion of science.

The Anthropocene, by

2016 could become the year in which we enter a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene. This geological time period has been proposed on the grounds of the massive influence humanity has had on the Earth’s structure and composition. A new epoch is noted by a significant change in the layers of rock. If there is minimal evidence of such a geological change then the Anthropocene is unlikely to be declared. It can be argued that humans have been impacting the planet since the start of the geological period we are currently in  –the Holocene– and that the change is steadily growing, so why turn the page now? The role we’ve played in tipping atmospheric carbon dioxide levels above 400 parts per million for the first time will likely hold the strongest case for the Anthropocene to begin this year. However other events affecting the atmosphere, biosphere and geology of the planet are also important, including the sixth great extinction and increasing levels of waste. 2016 will be a year of remarkable change, but whether it is the year of the Anthropocene, we will have to wait and see.

Absorbing Carbon Dioxide, by

In-between carbon capture and the ‘green’ technologies, stands avant-garde carbon conversion. This tech venture extracts CO2 from the atmosphere and sells it. It is certainly appealing, with CO2 levels surpassing the safe level of 350 parts per million, reaching 401.85ppm in December 2015. Climeworks, a Swiss carbon conversion start-up, is one such company that has capitalised on the ‘think green’ pressure, striking a deal with agricultural firm Gebruber Meier Primanatura AG. The deal allows extracted CO2 to be transported to Gebruber’s greenhouses, to raise plant growth rates. Although it removes a negligible amount of CO2, roughly 900 tonnes compared to the 35,700,000,000,000 tonnes released to the atmosphere each year, it is a step in the right direction. At an estimated cost of 3-4 million euros (around 100 years worth of costs in using coal burning to do the same job) the project’s business model hangs in the balance. Although an attractive technology, carbon capture is yet to prove a viable alternative to emission reductions. David Keith, executive chairman of Carbon Engineering notes: “One group of people say it’s a silver bullet and one group say it’s bullshit.”

El Niño Goes On, by

El Niño is a periodic warming of the Equatorial Pacific, known for causing an upheaval in the global climate. The consequences include heavy rainfall across the arid state of California and droughts in the West Pacific, sometimes responsible for devastating bushfires in Australia. The most recent El Niño episode began early in 2015. Scientists are saying that El Niño is likely to go on into 2016 and the worst of its chaotic weather is still to come. However this time, scientists will be better poised to study the events of this climatic event. The U.S.-European Jason-3 satellite, which was launched on 17th of January, will allow researchers to measure the height of the sea with accuracy to 1 inch. In addition, a large number of buoys, floats and robotic ocean gliders have been deployed across the Pacific to allow scientists to monitor the ocean system. “We expect to learn how El Niño evolves in greater detail than we’ve ever seen before” said Dan Cayan from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. It will be an informative year, hopefully revealing new insights into the El Niño phenomenon.

Rocket Science, by

Aerospace manufacturer SpaceX finished 2015 off in style with the first ever vertical landing of a re-useable rocket following launch and orbit into space. CEO Elon Musk aims to dramatically slash the costs of rocket launches by making rockets re-useable, saving millions of dollars and months of preparation time. 2016 began with a semi-successful attempt to land a rocket on a platform at sea, with the rocket landing just 1.3 metres from its target, prior to falling over and exploding as a leg failed. Following the explosion of one of its Falcon 9 rockets back in June 2015, SpaceX continues to have much to prove. However, the company has already made six successful re-supply missions to the International Space Station and has just been rewarded with one of three NASA contracts to re-supply the ISS until 2024. With another NASA contract to carry astronauts to the ISS by 2017, and plans to build a rocket capable of carrying 100 people to Mars, SpaceX is one to watch this year.

Speedy Travel Tech, by

Eccentric billionaire and serial entrepreneur Elon Musk, when not designing the latest Tesla electric car or launching SpaceX rockets, is busy establishing the Hyperloop, a new system of high-speed public transport that could reach speeds of up to 760 mph. Pods will be pressurised and travel inside reduced pressure tubes driven by air compressors and motors. This year will see a major test for the project as engineers and students compete in an open contest to design pods for the Hyperloop, to be tested in the summer on a Californian test track. Much of the technology is yet unproven, and with costs conservatively estimated at 6 billion dollars for a track between Los Angeles and San Francisco, it remains to be seen whether the Hyperloop will become a feasible proposition for affordable and sustainable long-distance travel.

Manchester Forum, by

In 2016, Manchester will host the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF), highlighting the city’s proud association with scientific advance and achievement. The forum’s theme is ‘Science as a Revolution’, which seeks to explore and challenge the impact of science on our daily lives. The organizers laud Manchester’s heritage as birthplace of the industrial revolution, alongside its reputation for innovation and enterprise. The conference is biennial and pan-European, bringing together over 4500 researchers to deliver “stimulating content and debate”. Between 23 and 27 July, scientists will collaborate and discuss issues regarding the environment, policy, and Turing’s legacy, amongst others.

Biomed Funding, by

The US National Institutes of Health received a welcome budget increase of 2 billion dollars this year, bringing total spending up to 32 billion dollars. This funding increase comes after a decade of cuts and stagnation to research, and in the face of new challenges—such as combating microbial resistance. The future seems increasingly uncertain in the Life Sciences; as such the budget will be spent on a broad range of issues, ranging from molecular biology to healthy eating initiatives. The largest spending increase in 12 years will allow scientists to tackle more pioneering projects: the Harvard Wyss institute is developing an ‘organ-on-a-chip’ system of culture cells for research, potentially eliminating the need for animal testing in industry.

Illustration: NASA via Wikimedia Commons

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