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Monster energy project wants to use Loch Ness as a giant battery

Sat, 07/07/2018 - 09:00

Enlarge / Loch Ness, seen from Fort Augustus in Scotland. (credit: Getty Images (Jeff J Mitchell))

A company called Intelligent Land Investments (ILI) is proposing a huge 2.4 gigawatt-hour pumped hydroelectric project right next to the shores of Loch Ness in Scotland. The project, called "Red John" after the Scottish name for a source pool in the area, could deliver up to 400 megawatts of power for six hours—a feat that Wired UK says could double Scotland's already-considerable wind capacity.

Pumped hydro is an old concept, and such systems have been used to store energy long before utility-scale chemical batteries were economically feasible. Pumped hydro projects need a lower reservoir as well as a higher reservoir. When electricity is plentiful, pumps work to lift water from the lower reservoir to the higher reservoir; when electricity is scarce, operators use gravity to send water from the higher reservoir through a turbine and back down to the lower reservoir, generating greenhouse-gas-free electricity.

A diagram of the Red John project. (credit: Intelligent Land Investments)

The advantage of pumped hydro is that it's disbatchable. While wind turbines and solar panels require the wind and sun to make electricity, energy from pumped hydro is ready whenever we want it. Scotland in particular has been aggressive about adding offshore wind to its energy mix, but you can only build out so many wind turbines before you need to add energy storage or develop massive transmission projects, because if the wind slacks in one region, power has to be added to the grid to maintain a constant frequency.

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Elon Musk has an idea for saving boys stranded in a Thailand cave

Fri, 07/06/2018 - 09:55

Elon Musk. (credit: Tesla Club Belgium)

Elon Musk is sending a team of engineers to Thailand to see if they can help authorities racing to save a dozen boys and their coach who are stranded in a cave there.

"SpaceX & Boring Co engineers headed to Thailand tomorrow to see if we can be helpful to govt," Musk tweeted just after midnight, California time, on Thursday night. "There are probably many complexities that are hard to appreciate without being there in person."

"Boring Co has advanced ground penetrating radar & is pretty good at digging holes," Musk wrote in an earlier tweet on Thursday.

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Rocket Report: Japanese rocket blows up, NASA chief ponders purpose of SLS

Fri, 07/06/2018 - 07:00

Enlarge / We need your help to produce a new newsletter to chronicle the dynamic launch industry. (credit: Aurich Lawson/background image United Launch Alliance)

Welcome to Edition 1.07 of the Rocket Report! This week there's a lot of news from the small booster side of the things, as well as some interesting comments from the NASA administrator about the future of the Space Launch System rocket.

As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don't want to miss an issue, please subscribe using the box below. Each report will include information on small-, medium-, and heavy-lift rockets as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.

Relativity Space eyes military contracts. Relativity, which intends to 3-D print both its rocket engines and the boosters themselves, hopes to win both commercial and military contracts. The company's chief executive, Tim Ellis, told SpaceNews, the Pentagon favors nimble suppliers that can manufacture products fast. He said, “They need the ability to reconstitute constellations quickly. This is super important based on conversations we’re hearing at the government level.”

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Trump tweet: EPA head Scott Pruitt is resigning

Thu, 07/05/2018 - 16:51

Enlarge / Former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency Scott Pruitt. (credit: Getty Images)

On Thursday, President Trump tweeted that Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt had submitted his resignation.

Pruitt had been considered among the most loyal of Trump's appointees, but the former Oklahoma Attorney General made headlines over the past several months with repeated scandals over extravagant spending. Pruitt reportedly used agency funds to buy hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of tactical pants and other security-related items. He also used agency resources to help his wife find a job and even to help him purchase a used Trump hotel mattress. Questions about who Pruitt promoted and how raises were doled out also caused significant damage to Pruitt's public image. Thirteen different federal investigations had been opened up into the administrator's conduct.

Trump's tweet mentioned none of this Thursday afternoon, however. "I have accepted the resignation of Scott Pruitt as the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency," the President tweeted. "Within the Agency Scott has done an outstanding job, and I will always be thankful to him for this. The Senate confirmed Deputy at EPA, Andrew Wheeler, will..."

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Energy shifts could mean China’s carbon emissions are done growing

Thu, 07/05/2018 - 16:26

Enlarge (credit: Jonathan / Flickr)

After a couple decades of dramatic economic growth, China (with its population of almost 1.4 billion) is now emitting more greenhouses gas that any other single nation. That means that China’s emission trends are incredibly important to watch if you care about the future of climate change. After China signed onto the Paris Agreement in 2015 and pledged to ensure its emissions would stop increasing by 2030, a surprising thing happened: it became apparent that China’s emissions had already dropped.

So what’s going on? Has China met its pledge 15 years early or is this just a bump in an otherwise rising road caused by a temporary economic downturn? Much has been made of this question, and a team of researchers led by Dabo Guan and Jing Meng added a new analysis to the discussion this week.

The team’s first step is to update annual emissions totals (through 2016). A number of different groups have produced estimates, and this updated version comes in at the low end. It also makes 2013 stand out as a slightly stronger peak, with 2014-2016 clearly lower.

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Second Novichok poisoning in Britain raises alarm, questions over contamination

Thu, 07/05/2018 - 15:11

Enlarge / SALISBURY, ENGLAND - JULY 05: Police officers stand at a cordon around a supported housing project in Salisbury after a major incident was declared when a man and woman were exposed to the Novichok nerve agent. (credit: Getty | Jack Taylor)

British officials are consulting with allies over a possible response to Russia after officials confirmed on Wednesday a second case of poisonings on British soil with a nerve agent in Russia’s Novichok series.

In the new case, a couple—which multiple media outlets have identified as Charlie Rowley, 45, and Dawn Sturgess, 44—became ill and lost consciousness on Saturday in Amesbury, a town in Wiltshire, England. Their location was just a few miles away from where former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his adult daughter, Yulia, were poisoned in March with a Novichok agent. On Wednesday, Scotland Yard reported that a chemical analysis identified the same Novichok agent as the cause of the new poisonings.

Britain’s home secretary Sajid Javid on Thursday called on Moscow to explain “exactly what has gone on” and said that the country will be “consulting with our international partners and allies following these latest developments.”

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A hydrogen-powered research boat has many advantages over diesel, lab says

Thu, 07/05/2018 - 12:05


Sandia National Laboratories says a hydrogen fuel cell-powered research boat is technically and economically feasible today.

The lab network has released a report describing the specifications of an ideal hydrogen fuel-cell research vessel. Currently, research boats are largely powered by diesel, but a shift to hydrogen fuel cells could offer some significant advantages over traditional technologies. Not least among these could be a complete reduction in carbon dioxide and other emissions that contribute to global warming and sea pollution during use.

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The case for Enceladus as the best place to look for life beyond Earth

Thu, 07/05/2018 - 08:51

Enlarge / Planetary scientist Carolyn Porco speaks on stage at the National Geographic Awards on Thursday, June 14, 2018, at Lisner Auditorium in Washington, D.C. (credit: Taylor Mickal/National Geographic)

In its quest to find extant life in the Solar System, NASA has focused its gaze on the Jovian moon Europa, home to what is likely the largest ocean known to humans. Over the next decade, the space agency is slated to launch not one, but two multi-billion dollar missions to the ice-encrusted world in hopes of finding signs of life.

Europa certainly has its champions in the scientific community, which conducts surveys every decade to establish top priorities. The exploration of this moon ranks atop the list of most desirable missions alongside returning some rocky material from Mars for study on Earth. But there is another world even deeper out in the Solar System that some scientists think may provide an even juicer target, Saturn’s moon Enceladus. This is a tiny world, measuring barely 500km across, with a surface gravity just one percent of that on Earth. But Enceladus also has a subsurface ocean.

“I have a bias, and I don’t deny that,” says Carolyn Porco, one of the foremost explorers of the Solar System and someone who played a key imaging role on the Voyagers, Cassini, and other iconic NASA spacecraft. “But it’s not so much an emotional attachment with objects that we study, it’s a point of view based on the evidence. We simply know more about Enceladus.”

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The Internet-demanded, partially scientific testing of Ultra-Ever Dry (in HD!)

Wed, 07/04/2018 - 08:26

The video that started this journey.

It's Independence Day in the US, and much of our staff is at work near a grill with ketchup and mustard handy instead of office supplies. Though now that we mention condiments, everyone's favorite hotdog toppings did once crossover into Ars daily life. Back in 2013, a certain hydrophobic sealant called Ultra-Ever Dry swept through a niche portion of the Internet thanks to what seemed like a too-good-to-be-true demo video that went viral. Being the rigorous reviewers we are, Ars couldn't sit this one out. So for today's holiday, we're resurfacing this hands-on look at Ultra Ever Dry—ketchup and mustard included. The piece originally ran on May 21, 2013; it appears unchanged below.

You've seen the video, right? An image of what looks like an azure-colored metal floor plate appears, backed by some "Streets Have No Name" guitar knock-off. A mysterious hand is getting ready to soak this thing with a squeeze bottle full of water, but the first squirt yields puzzling results. Water beads up and shoots off the surface, leaving the plate bone-dry. Then the title: "What is Ultra-Ever Dry?"

That sequence has played out nearly two million times through YouTube (it's literally more popular than some official Justin Bieber offerings). The video is an endless cycle of items shrugging off water, mud, oil, dirt, paint, and other stickiness with eye-popping ease. Ultra-Ever Dry claims to be a "revolutionary super hydrophobic coating that repels water and refined oils using nanotechnology." Clearly, either the company has made a pact with the devil and gained supernatural powers, or it's got some awesomely talented materials people.

We were just as amazed as most of you were, and we knew we had to try this stuff out. Two hundred dollars and one expense report later, I had a box full of Ultra-Ever Dry cans sitting on the floor of my office, ready to be applied to things various and sundry.

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Pfizer raises prices on 100 drugs—again—despite backlash from public, lawmakers

Tue, 07/03/2018 - 12:35

Enlarge / Pfizer's little, blue Viagra tablets get big price tag that have people seeing red. (credit: Getty | Bloomberg)

Despite public and political pressure, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer keeps raising the prices of its drugs—standing apart from some of its rivals who have vowed to rein in periodic price hiking.

Around 100 of Pfizer’s drugs got higher list prices this week, the Financial Times first reported. The affected drugs include big sellers, such as Lyrica pain capsules, Chantix smoking-cessation medication, Norvasc blood-pressure pills, and the lung-cancer treatment Xalkori.

The price hikes mark a second round of increases for Pfizer this year. While many of the price changes in the individual rounds hover at or under 10 percent—many at 9.4 percent—the hikes collectively boost many drugs’ prices by double-digit percentages for the year overall. For instance, Chantix’s price jumped nearly 17 percent this year; Pfizer gave it a 9.4 percent increase in January and another seven percent boost July 1, bringing the list price of a 56-tablet bottle to $429, the Wall Street Journal noted. Likewise, Pfizer’s erectile dysfunction drug Viagra saw a 9.4 percent increase July 1 after a similar hike in January. Those hikes bring the list price of a month’s supply to $2,211.

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Inside the all-American voyage to the last world in the Solar System

Tue, 07/03/2018 - 07:00

New Horizons revealed Pluto as a mysterious world, with icy mountains and very smooth plains. (credit: NASA)

Three years ago, when the New Horizons spacecraft sped toward Pluto on July 4th and began sending humans their first clear images of the tiny world at the end of the Solar System, it all seemed preordained.

Of course NASA would fund and build a spacecraft to complete its initial survey of the Solar System and visit the only “planet” found by an American. (For the purposes of this article, we will set aside the debate over Pluto’s planethood.) But as ever in spaceflight, the end result almost invariably looks far simpler and smoother to the casual observer than the messy reality experienced by those actually doing it.

For example, anyone tuning in to watch a spacewalk on NASA TV will see splendid views of Earth in the background as two astronauts float around holding funny tools, slowly unscrewing this, or installing that. It all looks so easy. Yet those six or seven hours in space represent the culmination of years of training, and the EVA activity itself is as physically punishing for the astronauts in their bulky spacesuits as running a marathon.

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Tesla strikes another mammoth energy storage deal in California

Mon, 07/02/2018 - 18:50

Enlarge / A collection of Powerpacks deliver 20MW/80MWh next to the Mira Loma substation in Southern California. (credit: Megan Geuss)

Late last week, California utility Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) asked the state to approve four lithium-ion battery storage projects. Three of which would be owned and operated by a third party, and one, built by Tesla, would be owned and operated by PG&E itself.

One of the projects—spearheaded by energy company Vistra (which recently merged with Dynegy)—could become the world's first grid-scale, lithium-ion battery installations to store more than a gigawatt-hour of energy.

Tesla's project is also huge. It would deliver 730MWh of energy, but Tesla's contract with PG&E suggests the utility could opt to increase the size of the battery to 1.1GWh.

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Brain injury, sound-attack fears spread in China as more Americans evacuated

Mon, 07/02/2018 - 15:12

Enlarge / United States Consulate General Guangzhou, China; this is where an employee reported experiencing unexplained sounds and pressures that led to a brain injury. (credit: US Deparment of State)

The US State Department evacuated at least 11 more Americans from China amid reports of bizarre sounds and sensations that have been associated with mild traumatic brain injury, according to The New York Times. And cases of sound attacks appear to be spreading to additional diplomatic stations throughout the country.

Meanwhile, officials reported two additional “medically confirmed” cases of similar mysterious health incidents in Cuba at the end of last month, according to a series of reports by the Associated Press.

The new cases in Cuba bring the total number of Americans affected there to 26. The older cases date as far back as late 2016, while the new casesone confirmed last week and the other confirmed the week before that—stem from an incident in May. The newer cases occurred at a diplomatic residence in which both affected individuals were present. The two individuals were said to suffer similar neurological symptoms that others from the US diplomatic community stationed in Havana had experienced.

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European rocket chief: Trump rhetoric strengthens our commitment to space

Mon, 07/02/2018 - 07:18

Enlarge / Alain Charmea, left, at the signing of a contract to develop the Ariane 6 launcher. (credit: European Space Agency)

KOUROU, French Guiana—In June, when President Donald Trump told his military leaders to create a new branch of the military dedicated to space, the words rippled across the US military and political landscape. Soon after, the generals said they would work to comply with the order. At rallies, Trump's crowds began to chant, "Space Force! Space Force!"

But chatter about America's desire to dominate space did not stop there. Trump's declaration reached even this remote coast of South America, where the Amazon River muddies pristine Atlantic waters, and jungle dominates the landscape.

Last Friday morning, Alain Charmeau met with a handful of reporters at the Hotel des Roches in Kourou, the small town outside the European Space Agency's spaceport near the equator. As the head of the Paris-based Ariane Group, Charmeau oversees Europe's family of launch vehicles, including the Ariane 5 rocket. During the discussion, Charmeau addressed a number of different topics, including the recent speech where Trump directed his generals to separate current responsibilities for military spaceflight from the US Air Force.

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The lost standing stones of Devon are still hiding from archaeologists

Sun, 07/01/2018 - 12:00

Enlarge / Some of the stones were still visible in the 1970s. (credit: Frances Griffith, Devon County Council via Historic England)

A mysterious set of standing stones in southwest England, lost since the 1990s, will remain missing a little longer. But thanks to the search for them, archaeologists have new data about the ancient landscape on which the stones were built, which may shed light on the culture that left them behind.

Sometime between 4,500 and 3,000 years ago, people living in southwest England near present-day Devon carefully arranged 18 small pieces of sandstone—each about a foot high and nine inches wide—in two parallel rows. The rows were 113 feet long, with six feet of space between the stones. Their ancient builders settled each stone into a carefully dug pit, and the stones stood for thousands of years on Isley Marsh, a low-lying stretch of land near the sea. But now no one has seen the stones in over 20 years.

The disappearing stones

A power station was built near the stones in the 20th century. Its construction had changed the flow of water and sediment through the Taw Estuary and Isley Marsh, but its operations helped keep the Taw Estuary's channel relatively clear of silt. When the power station shut down in the 1980s, the silt began flowing into the marsh with each incoming tide, slowly burying the ancient standing stones.

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The final launch of SpaceX’s Block 4 rocket looked stunning

Sun, 07/01/2018 - 11:00

Enlarge / The sunrise launch of SpaceX's CRS-15 mission was spectacular. (credit: SpaceX)

On Friday, SpaceX launched its final Block 4 version of the Falcon 9 rocket, and it did so during the pre-dawn hours along the Florida coast. Sunrise and sunset launches are always a playground for photographers and especially so for the talented Trevor Mahlmann, who periodically shoots flights for Ars.

The launch marked the 12th successful flight for SpaceX this year—11 Falcon 9 flights, and one Falcon Heavy mission. Meanwhile, the Block 5 version of the Falcon 9 rocket has been optimized for reusability. Its only flight so far was in May of this year and was a success. From now on, SpaceX intends to fly only these advanced boosters.

The Dragon spacecraft which launched Friday is due to dock with the International Space Station on Monday, carrying 2.7 tons of cargo. Until then, we'll be content with the launch images below.

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Gravitational waves and the slow pace of scientific revolutions

Sat, 06/30/2018 - 18:45

Enlarge / For years, people weren't sure if gravitational wave were a necessary product of relativity. (credit: Fermilab)

LIGO's detection of gravitational waves came almost exactly a century after Einstein had formulated his general theory of relativity and an ensuing paper mathematically describing the possibility of gravitational waves. Or at least that's the story as it was presented to the public (including by yours truly). And in some ways, it's even true.

But the reality of how relativity progressed to the point where people accepted that gravitational waves are likely to exist and could possibly be detected is considerably more complicated than the simple narrative described above. In this week's Nature Astronomy, a group of science historians lays out the full details of how we got from the dawn of relativity to the building of LIGO. And, in the process, the historians show that ideas about scientific revolutions bringing about a sudden, radical shift may sometimes miss the point.

Has your paradigm shifted?

The popular conception of scientific revolutions (to the extent that it exists) was shaped by Thomas Kuhn. Kuhn described a process where data gradually pushes an existing theory into crisis, allowing nearly everyone to see it doesn't work. After a period of crisis, a revolution takes place and a new theory emerges. The theory's ability to solve all the problems that precipitated the crisis quickly draws support, and a new period of theory-driven—in Kuhn's language, "paradigm-driven"—science begins.

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Medical board puts infamous doc on probation for toddler vaccine exemption

Fri, 06/29/2018 - 18:40

Enlarge / Dr. Robert Sears in his Capistrano Beach, CA office on Aug 8, 2014. Among his many books on pediatrics, Sears has written The Vaccine Book, in which he discusses possible side effects from vaccines. (credit: Getty | Don Bartletti)

Dr. Robert Sears, a pediatrician infamous for promoting alternative vaccine schedules that allow parents to delay or entirely avoid the life-saving jabs, has been placed on a 35-month probation by the Medical Board of California.

The punishment stems from an accusation filed by the board in 2016 claiming Sears demonstrated gross negligence in the case of a two-year-old. The board alleged that Sears gave the young patient an exemption from all future vaccinations without reviewing any of the child’s medical records, including those that indicate which vaccines the child had received and any subsequent reactions the child suffered. Sears instead relied on an account from the child’s mother, who said the child went limp and that the child’s kidneys and intestines “shut down” after vaccinations.

The board also cited Sears for later examining the child for a head injury after the child had reportedly been “‘hit on head with hammer’ by Dad.” Sears failed to follow up with standard neurological testing, the board wrote.

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Why Curie’s no Einstein: A subtle gender bias in science

Fri, 06/29/2018 - 15:41

Enlarge / Who's this? If your answer didn't include "Albert," you're pretty typical. (credit: Columbia University)

When we talk about the most famous scientists, we're often on a last name basis. For figures like Darwin and Einstein, first names and even titles like "professor" seem irrelevant. We know who they are, and a single name is enough to conjure up all they accomplished.

But can you think of any female scientists where the same is true? A new study suggests that using a scientist's surname may be helping perpetuate a bias against female scientists. A variety of studies show that people are more likely to refer to males only by their last name. And a separate set of experiments indicate that people will attach more prestige to anyone deemed worth of being referred to by their last name.

True in politics and science

The studies were performed by Stav Atira and Melissa Ferguson of Cornell. The first set asked a relatively simple question: is there any evidence of a gender bias in referring to people by their last name?

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Ars on your lunch break, week 3: Mary Lou Jepsen on AI and spooky brain scans

Fri, 06/29/2018 - 12:00

Enlarge / Insert brain here (for a little while longer, at least). (credit: University of Queensland)

Today we present the second and final installment of my wide-ranging interview with holographer, former Oculus CTO, and current entrepreneur Mary Lou Jepsen. Part One ran yesterday—so if you missed it, click right here. Otherwise, you can press play on the embedded player, or pull up the transcript—they're below.

Today we open by talking about some astounding work of University of California-Berkeley neuroscientist Jack Gallant—he trained an AI system to infer what test subjects were viewing on a video screen just by watching their brains light up on an MRI. The AI’s inference videos are grainy, but they're often creepily accurate. Jepsen first saw his work several years ago, then presented it at TED as part of a main-stage talk in 2013.

fMRI technology was improving at a respectable pace back then—but nothing resembling Moore’s law—so the days of nodding off in an MRI and receiving a 4K-quality video of your dreams upon awakening seemed extremely distant. But if Jepsen actually finagles all she intends, they could be nigh.

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