By: Rose Hendricks, University of California, San Diego

We humans have collectively accumulated a lot of science knowledge. We’ve developed vaccines that can eradicate some of the most devastating diseases. We’ve engineered bridges and cities and the internet. We’ve created massive metal vehicles that rise tens of thousands of feet and then safely set down on the other side of the globe. And this is just the tip of the iceberg (which, by the way, we’ve discovered is melting). While this shared knowledge is impressive, it’s not distributed evenly. Not even close. There are too many important issues that science has reached a consensus on that the public has not.

Scientists and the media need to communicate more science and communicate it better. Good communication ensures that scientific progress benefits society, bolsters democracy, weakens the potency of fake news and misinformation and fulfills researchers’ responsibility to engage with the public. Such beliefs have motivated training programs, workshops and a research agenda from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine on learning more about science communication. A resounding question remains for science communicators: What can we do better?

A common intuition is that the main goal of science communication is to present facts; once people encounter those facts, they will think and behave accordingly. The National Academies’ recent report refers to this as the “deficit model.”

But in reality, just knowing facts doesn’t necessarily guarantee that one’s opinions and behaviors will be consistent with them. For example, many people “know” that recycling is beneficial but still throw plastic bottles in the trash. Or they read an online article by a scientist about the necessity of vaccines, but leave comments expressing outrage that doctors are trying to further a pro-vaccine agenda. Convincing people that scientific evidence has merit and should guide behavior may be the greatest science communication challenge, particularly in our “post-truth” era.


Achieving a More Efficient Catalyst

Nanoporous goldA new study out of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory shows that catalysts derived from nano-structured materials are as good as gold.

According to the study, led by past ECS member Juergen Biener, restructuring nanoporous gold alloys result in more efficient catalysts.

Nano-structured materials have shown promising qualities for improving catalyst activity and selectivity, but little is known about the structural changes that the materials undergo that can create or prevent efficient catalyst function.

This from LLNL:

The team used ozone-activated silver-gold alloys in the form of nanoporous gold (npAu) as a case study to demonstrate the dynamic behavior of bi-metallic systems during activation to produce a functioning catalyst. Nanoporous gold, a porous metal, can be used in electrochemical sensors, catalytic platforms, fundamental structure property studies at the nanoscale and tunable drug release. It also features high effective surface area, tunable pore size, well-defined conjugate chemistry, high electrical conductivity and compatibility with traditional fabrication techniques.


Waste waterA new study led by ECS member Haluk Beyenal reveals a novel type of cooperative photosynthesis with potential applications in waste treatment and bioenergy production.

The research details a unique metabolic process observed for the first time in a pair of bacteria, which could be used to engineer microbial communities. Beyenal and his team honed in on a bacterium known as Prosthecochloris aestaurii, which is able to photosynthesize by using sunlight and elemental sulfur or hydrogen sulfide.

This from Washington State University:

The researchers noticed that P. aestuarii tended to gather around a carbon electrode, an electricity conductor that they were operating in Hot Lake. The researchers isolated and grew P. aestuarii and determined that, similar to the way half of a battery works, the bacterium is able to grab electrons from a solid electrode and use them for photosynthesis. The pink-colored Geobacter sulfurreducens meanwhile, is known for its ability to convert waste organic matter to electricity in microbial fuel cells. The bacterium is also used in environmental cleanup.


Static Electricity’s Tiny Sparks

By: Sebastian Deffner, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

Static electricityStatic electricity is a ubiquitous part of everyday life. It’s all around us, sometimes funny and obvious, as when it makes your hair stand on end, sometimes hidden and useful, as when harnessed by the electronics in your cellphone. The dry winter months are high season for an annoying downside of static electricity – electric discharges like tiny lightning zaps whenever you touch door knobs or warm blankets fresh from the clothes dryer.

Static electricity is one of the oldest scientific phenomena people observed and described. Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus made the first account; in his sixth century B.C. writings, he noted that if amber was rubbed hard enough, small dust particles will start sticking to it. Three hundred years later, Theophrastus followed up on Thales’ experiments by rubbing various kinds of stone and also observed the “power of attraction.” But neither of these natural philosophers found a satisfactory explanation for what they saw.

It took almost 2,000 more years before the English word “electricity” was first coined, based on the Latin “electricus,” meaning “like amber.” Some of the most famous experiments were conducted by Benjamin Franklin in his quest to understand the underlying mechanism of electricity – which is one of the reasons why his face smiles from the US$100 bill. People quickly recognized electricity’s potential usefulness.

Of course, in the 18th century people mostly made use of static electricity in magic tricks and other performances. For instance, Stephen Gray‘s “flying boy experiment” became a popular public demonstration: He’d use a Leyden jar to charge up the youth, suspended from silk cords, and then show how he could turn book pages via static electricity, or lift small objects just using the static attraction.


Corroded pipelinesCorrosion is a dangerous and extremely costly problem. Because of it, buildings and bridges can collapse, oil pipelines break, and water sources become contaminated. Currently, the global cost estimated to repair corrosive effects comes in around $2.5 trillion per year.

But researchers in the field of corrosion science and technology like Robert Kelly, the 2016 winner of ECS’s Corrosion Division H. H. Uhlig Award, are looking to change the way we deal with the effects of corrosion from reactive to predictive.

“One of the sayings about corrosion is that we can explain everything and predict nothing,” Kelly says. “We’re looking to turn that around.”

Corrosion time machine

Kelly, AT&T Professor of Engineering in the University of Virginia’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, is working with his team to better understand what’s controlling the localized corrosion process with a newly designed accelerated test that can predict the corrosive effects on certain materials when they’re put into their natural environment.


By: Andrew Maynard, Arizona State University and Dietram A. Scheufele, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Scientific communicationTruth seems to be an increasingly flexible concept in politics. At least that’s the impression the Oxford English Dictionary gave recently, as it declared “post-truth” the 2016 Word of the Year. What happens when decisions are based on misleading or blatantly wrong information? The answer is quite simple – our airplanes would be less safe, our medical treatments less effective, our economy less competitive globally, and on and on.

Many scientists and science communicators have grappled with disregard for, or inappropriate use of, scientific evidence for years – especially around contentious issues like the causes of global warming, or the benefits of vaccinating children. A long debunked study on links between vaccinations and autism, for instance, cost the researcher his medical license but continues to keep vaccination rates lower than they should be.

Only recently, however, have people begun to think systematically about what actually works to promote better public discourse and decision-making around what is sometimes controversial science. Of course scientists would like to rely on evidence, generated by research, to gain insights into how to most effectively convey to others what they know and do.

As it turns out, the science on how to best communicate science across different issues, social settings and audiences has not led to easy-to-follow, concrete recommendations.


What is Blue Energy?

Blue energyWater and energy are inextricably linked. The two have shared a long technological and symbolic connection, which has led to what researchers in the field call the energy/water nexus.

The energy/water nexus refers to the relationship between the water used for energy production and the energy consumed to extract, purify, and deliver water. During the PRiME 2016 meeting in October, researchers from across the globe gathered together for the Energy/Water Nexus: Power from Saline Solutions symposium to discuss emerging technologies and how the interplay between water and energy could affect society now and in the future.

“It’s very hard to say energy and not say water in the same sentence. They are completely interconnected systems,” says Andrew Herring, co-organizer of the symposium and Colorado School of Mines professor. “You cannot have clean water without energy, and to have clean water, you have to have energy.”

Some of the most common research topics in the water/energy nexus are water purification, desalination, and cooling efforts to create energy sources. However, there is another subcategory of this field that is overlooked but could play a vital role in the development of future technologies: blue energy.

Potential of blue energy

The concept of blue energy – otherwise known as osmotic power – was developed upon the realization that through electrochemistry, researchers can create a concentration cell with salt water on one side and fresh water on the other, which results in a novel way to power devices.


By: Richard E. Peltier, University of Massachusetts Amherst

DIY Sensor

In an experiment sponsored by Intel, a Portland, Oregon household uses a low-cost sensor to measure air quality and stream real-time data online. Intel Free Press/Wikipedia, CC BY-SA

Until recently, measuring air pollution was a task that could be performed only by trained scientists using very sophisticated – and very expensive – equipment. That has changed with the rapid growth of small, inexpensive sensors that can be assembled by almost anyone. But an important question remains: Do these instruments measure what users think they are measuring?

A number of venture capital-backed startup or crowd-funded groups are marketing sensors by configuring a few dollars’ worth of electronics and some intellectual property – mainly software – into aesthetically pleasing packages. The Air Quality Egg, the Tzoa and the Speck sensor are examples of gadgets that are growing in popularity for measuring air pollutants.

These devices make it possible for individuals without specialized training to monitor air quality. As an environmental health researcher, I’m happy to see that people are interested in clean air, especially because air pollution is closely linked with serious health effects. But there are important concerns about how well and how accurately these sensors work.

At their core, these devices rely on inexpensive, and often uncertain, measurement technologies. Someday small sensors costing less than US$100 may replace much more expensive research-grade instruments like those used by government regulators. But that day is likely to be far away.

New territory for a known technology

Pollution sensors that measure air contaminants have been on the market for many years. Passenger cars have sophisticated emission controls that rely on data collected by air sensors inside the vehicles. These inexpensive sensors use well-established chemical and physical methods – typically, electrochemistry or metal oxide resistance – to measure air contaminants in highly polluted conditions, such as inside the exhaust pipe of a passenger vehicle. And this information is used by the vehicle to improve performance.


PhotosynthesisResearchers from the University of California, Riverside recently combined photosynthesis and physics to make a key discovery that could lead to highly efficient solar cells.

Nathan Gabor, a physicist, began exploring photosynthesis when he asked himself a fundamental question in 2010: Why are plants green? This question probed him to combine his physics training with biology.
Over the past six years, Gabor has been rethinking energy conversion in light of these questions. His goal was to make solar cells that more efficiently absorb intermittent energy from the sun and increase past the current 20 percent efficiency. In this, he was inspired by the plants that had evolved over time to do exactly what he hoped solar cells would be able to do.

This from University of California, Riverside:

[The scientists] addressed the problem by designing a new type of quantum heat engine photocell, which helps manipulate the flow of energy in solar cells. The design incorporates a heat engine photocell that absorbs photons from the sun and converts the photon energy into electricity.

Surprisingly, the researchers found that the quantum heat engine photocell could regulate solar power conversion without requiring active feedback or adaptive control mechanisms. In conventional photovoltaic technology, which is used on rooftops and solar farms today, fluctuations in solar power must be suppressed by voltage converters and feedback controllers, which dramatically reduce the overall efficiency.

Read the full article.

At the core of the research, Gabor and his team are looking to connect quantum mechanical structure to the greenest plants.

BacteriaBy using mild electric current, a team of researchers from Washington State University has demonstrated the ability to beat drug-resistant bacterial infections – a technology with the potential to treat chronic wound infections.

Lead by ECS member Haluk Beyenal, the team combined an antibiotic with electrical current to kill the highly persistent Pseudomonas aeruginosa PAO1 bacteria. That very same bacteria can seen in infections of the lung, cystic fibrosis, and even chronic wounds.

“I didn’t believe it. Killing most of the persister cells was unexpected,” Beyenal says. “Then we replicated it many, many times.”

The 21st century has brought new light to strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. In many cases, this bacterial resistance is caused by the widespread use of antibiotics in the 20th century. According to the Centers for Disease Control, at least 23,000 deaths per year are attributed to antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections.


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