Scientists Watched a New Bird Species Evolve on Galapagos in Just 2 Generations

Scientists in the Galápagos have observed something amazing: the evolution of a completely new species, in the wild, in real-time. And it took just two generations.

Back in 2017, genomic sequencing and the analysis of physical characteristics officially confirmed the new species of Darwin’s finch, endemic to a small island called Daphne Major in the Galápagos. Its discoverers nicknamed it Big Bird.

There are at least 15 species of Darwin’s finches, so named because their diversity helped famed naturalist Charles Darwin figure out his theory of evolution by natural selection – that is, mutations can help species become better adapted to their environment, and be passed down to subsequent generations.

It’s two of these species that came together in what is called species hybridisation to create an entirely new one.

big bird finch galapagos new speciesHere’s what Big Bird looks like.

While on expedition on the Daphne Major island, Peter and B. Rosemary Grant, biologists at Princeton University, noticed the presence of a non-native interloper, Geospiza conirostris.

It’s also known as the large cactus finch, and is native to other Galapagos islands, namely Española, Genovesa, Darwin, and Wolf.

As one of the larger species of Darwin’s finches, and with a different song than the three native Daphne Major species, the newcomer – a male – stood out.

“We didn’t see him fly in from over the sea, but we noticed him shortly after he arrived. He was so different from the other birds that we knew he did not hatch from an egg on Daphne Major,” Peter Grant said.

But then it mated with two females of one of those native species, Geospiza fortis, the medium ground finch. And the mating produced offspring.

Mating between different species that results in offspring isn’t that unusual – famous examples include mules, the product of mating between a male donkey and a mare. There are also ligers, a cross between a male lion and female tiger.

finches parents new hybrid speciesG. conirostris (left) and G. fortis (right).

But hybrid species are often sterile, or reproduce with difficulty – and that did not prove to be the case with these new chicks. A new lineage began – it had to.

The birds had a different song from G. fortis, as well as different beak size and shape, and these are what the finches use to attract mates. Reproductively, the new species was completely isolated, and had to mate within its own kind to survive.

But it was an uphill battle. During droughts on the island in 2002-2003, when the new lineage was in its fourth generation, all but two of the birds died.

Then they rallied.

“When the rains came again, the brother and sister mated with each other and produced 26 offspring,” Rosemary Grant said in an interview last year.

“All but nine survived to breed – a son bred with his mother, a daughter with her father, and the rest of the offspring with each other – producing a terrifically inbred lineage.”

Because the hybrid finches were bigger than the native populations, they were able to access previously unexploited food choices, and survive. At the Grants’ most recent visit to the island in 2012, they counted 23 individuals and 8 breeding pairs of the birds.

This success means, the researchers noted, that hybridisation could have occurred many times in Darwin’s finches in the past, resulting in new species that either became extinct or evolved to become the species we know today.

“A naturalist who came to Daphne Major without knowing that this lineage arose very recently would have recognised this lineage as one of the four species on the island,” said Leif Andersson of Uppsala University in Sweden, who conducted the genetic analysis.

“This clearly demonstrates the value of long-running field studies.”

Charles Darwin would have been delighted.

The World’s First Hydrogen-Powered Trains Are Now Running in Germany

This is huge.

Hydrogen fuel cells are a greener way to power vehicles. But they have also been cost-prohibitive. Now that’s starting to change – last week, German passengers boarded the world’s first hydrogen-powered trains.

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“Sure, buying a hydrogen train is somewhat more expensive than a diesel train,” said Stefan Schrank, a project manager at locomotive company Alstom, which built the trains, in an interview with Agence France-Presse, “but it is cheaper to run.”

The new trains transport passengers along 100 kilometers (62 miles) of track and can travel up to 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) on a single tank of hydrogen, reaching top speeds of 140 km/h (87 mph).

Chemistry recap: Hydrogen fuel cells generate electricity by combining hydrogen with oxygen, and their only byproduct is water. That makes the cells a promising energy source that produces zero emissions and very little noise.

Though they remain pricey, hydrogen fuel cells have advantages over batteries.

Instead of recharging, for instance, you can just refuel them like you would a gas or diesel engine. And because train schedules are highly predictable, it’s easier to build refueling infrastructure.

New research is helping cut the cost of hydrogen, and the fuel source is already in use elsewhere in the world to power buses and cars.

Trains are much heavier, though, so powering them with hydrogen instead of diesel could do much more to cut carbon emissions.

If all goes well with these first two trains, Alstom hopes to add another 12 to its Lower Saxony fleet. So while they might be the world’s first hydrogen-powered trains, they’re unlikely to be the last.

Are Tomorrow’s Fuel Cells Made of Paper? This Engineer Thinks So

Because his fuel cells are cheaper, easier and cleaner than conventional batteries.

Where others might look at substances like urine, blood and sweat and cringe, Juan Pablo Esquivel sees untapped sources of energy. Not for powering large engines but rather to produce small amounts of electricity that could play a vital role in the burgeoning telemedicine market. Today Esquivel, a 35-year-old electronics engineer, is developing miniature paper-based fuel cells at the National Centre of Microelectronics (CNM) at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (AUB), with an eye toward using them to power disposable diagnostic devices.

As we stroll the corridors of CNM, Esquivel explains the difference between typical lithium or alkaline batteries and what he’s developing: Unlike what you might use in a flashlight or computer keyboard, fuel cells require a supply of energy from an electrochemical reaction to produce electricity. This type of power source has been tested to generate energy for cars and mobile phones, but Esquivel, who started his career at the Monterrey Institute of Technology in his native Mexico, is among the first to do this work on a micro scale.

A lithium battery, a fuelium battery and a power pad photo pablo esparza

A lithium battery, a Fuelium battery and a power pad.

Not only does his approach open up the range of possible uses for these tiny fuel cells, but it also sidesteps the environmental impact from regular batteries. “We develop small, nontoxic, inexpensive fuel cells and batteries that don’t need to be recycled and could be thrown away with no ecological impact,” he explains with a Mexican accent laced with Iberian Spanish expressions.

Born in Guadalajara, Esquivel moved to Barcelona in 2005, having fallen in love with the city while doing a college backpack tour through Europe. When it was time to apply to Ph.D. programs, he was intrigued by the work being done at CNM, among the most advanced labs of its kind in Southern Europe. It proved to be the right fit: In 2013, he was named by MIT to the list of the 10 most innovative Mexican researchers under 35.

“Esquivel is like Cristiano Ronaldo, and, like Ronaldo, he’s playing for an excellent team. That’s why he gets results,” jokes Antonio Martínez, a professor at the Polytechnic University of Madrid.

They stopped focusing on hydrogen, methanol and ethanol as the only energy sources for fuel cells and started looking at bodily fluids.

The Mexican researcher confesses that he’s long been obsessed with “making things cheaper, simpler and easier.” Once his team had developed the paper-based batteries, they wanted to find a universal, everyday use for them. So Esquivel and Neus Sabaté, his thesis adviser and “scientific soul mate,” shelved their academic journals and turned instead to considering what people and the market needed.

They focused on portable, disposable diagnostic tests, such as for pregnancy, glucose and infectious diseases, that use small amounts of energy. Those devices, they noticed, rely on lithium button batteries to supply the energy necessary to analyze the samples and to display the results. But, in contrast to watches or remote controls, single-use diagnosis tests get discarded after having used less than 1 percent of their batteries’ charge — an “ecological aberration,” in Esquivel’s words.

Juan pablo esquivel holding a paper based battery photo pablo esparza (1)

Juan Pablo Esquivel holding a paper-based battery, an eco-friendly power source for single-use applications.

That was the moment that Esquivel and his colleagues connected the dots: “What if we used the samples [of saliva or blood] to feed a small fuel cell that would generate the electricity needed for the analysis and to display the results?” They stopped focusing on hydrogen, methanol and ethanol as the only energy sources for fuel cells and started looking at bodily fluids as materials capable of triggering an electrochemical reaction — and generating electricity.

Digging further, they reached two important conclusions: First, they could build their power sources using paper as the base material to transport the fluids by capillary action; and second, these power sources could be integrated, thanks to printed electronics technology, with other electronic components such as sensors and display screens to produce self-powered devices.

In 2015, with patent in hand, Esquivel, Sabaté and Sergi Gassó — who joined as a business partner — founded Fuelium, with seed money from their personal savings, funding from the Repsol Foundation startup accelerator program and grants from the Spanish government and the European Commission. The company aims to translate the outcome from their lab work for the portable diagnostic tests market, a sector Esquivel values at $1.8 billion. While he sees a clear path to market for Fuelium, he acknowledges that breaking in will be a heavy lift: Getting out of the lab is “a big challenge for a quite disruptive technology like ours,” he says. Two years since launch, Fuelium has grown to a staff of five and signed its first contract.

Emmanuel Delamarche, manager of precision diagnostics at IBM Research in Zurich, agrees that portable devices have become a “very hot area,” both in scientific and economic terms, with a trending away from remote, centralized labs and toward portable diagnostic tools that deliver faster results. “Eighty percent of the world’s population needs this kind of technology because they don’t live next to a clinical lab,” Delamarche explains.

Sabaté, who has worked with Esquivel for 12 years, is impressed by her partner’s creative mind and willingness to experiment. “He never says no to an idea,” she says, “no matter how crazy it is.”

Crazy or not, Esquivel is already working on a new idea: developing what he calls the “power pad,” which he hopes will lead to the first fully biodegradable paper-based battery. It’s an ambitious play for a “tiny, sustainable and clean” source of energy, he admits — but it’s a project, he adds with a smile, that lets him “have fun on the way.”

We Can Now Harvest Electricity From Earth’s Heat Using Quantum Tunnelling


Researchers have come up with a way we could harvest energy from Earth by turning excess infrared radiation and waste heat into electricity we can use.

The concept involves the strange physics of quantum tunnelling, and key to the idea is a specially designed antenna that can detect waste or infrared heat as high-frequency electromagnetic waves, transforming these quadrillionth-of-a-second wave signals into a direct charge.

There’s actually a lot of energy going to waste here on Earth – most sunlight that hits the planet gets sucked up by surfaces, the oceans, and our atmosphere.

This warming leads to a constant leak of infrared radiation that some estimate to be as much as millions of gigawatts every second.

Because the infrared wavelengths are so short, to harness them we need super-tiny antennas. According to the international team of researchers behind the new study, it’s quantum tunnelling that could provide the breakthrough required.

“There is no commercial diode in the world that can operate at such high frequency,” says lead researcher Atif Shamim from the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia. “That’s why we turned to quantum tunnelling.”

Quantum tunnelling is a well-established phenomenon in quantum physics where a particle can get through a barrier without having enough energy to do so.

One of the examples used most often is of a ball rolling up a hill: in classical physics, the ball needs a certain amount of energy behind it to get up the hill and over to the other side.

But in quantum physics, the ball can tunnel through the hill with less energy, thanks to the positional uncertainty that’s at the heart of everything quantum.

How does this help in the construction of nanoscale antennas? It enables electrons to be moved through a small barrier, via a tunnelling device like a metal-insulator-metal (MIM) diode, turning infrared waves into current along the way.

The scientists were able to create a new bowtie-shaped nanoantenna, sandwiching the thin insulator film between two slightly overlapped metallic arms made from gold and titanium, giving them a device capable of generating the intense electrical fields required for tunnelling to work.

“The most challenging part was the nanoscale overlap of the two antenna arms, which required very precise alignment,” says one of the researchers, Gaurav Jayaswal from KAUST.

“Nonetheless, by combining clever tricks with the advanced tools at KAUST’s nanofabrication facility we accomplished this step.”

The newly created MIM diode was able to successfully capture infrared radiation with zero applied voltage, so it only turns on when needed.

While conventional solar panels can only harvest a small chunk of the visible light spectrum, being able to tap into all that excess infrared radiation as well would represent a revolutionary shift in energy production, a “game changer” in the words of the researchers.

What’s more, unlike solar power plants, these energy harvesters could operate around the clock, whatever the weather. Other scientists are working on cracking the same problem from different angles.

Despite the huge promise, for the time being this is just another step along the road to figuring this out, and many technical challenges still lie ahead – currently, the antenna isn’t very energy efficient, for example.

“This is just the beginning – a proof of concept,” says Shamim.

Eventually, though, the tech could make a huge difference. “We could have millions of such devices connected to boost overall electricity generation,” he adds.

Source: Materials Today Energy.

Greek Yogurt Fuels Your Morning…And Your Plane?

Researchers have developed a method for turning yogurt whey into bio-oil, which could potentially be processed into biofuel for planes


Do you, like many Americans, enjoy the tangy taste and thick creaminess of Greek yogurt? Well, one day your yogurt could help fuel airplanes.

Researchers at Cornell University and the University of Tübingen in Germany have developed a method of turning yogurt whey, the liquid left behind after straining out the milk proteins, into bio-oil. This bio-oil could then potentially be processed into biofuel for vehicles, including planes.

Lars Angenent, the microbiologist and environmental engineer who led the research, says he watched the Greek yogurt craze explode in upstate New York while he was working at Cornell. Local Greek yogurt producers used fleets of trucks to haul away liquid whey – for every kilogram of yogurt, there’s two to three kilograms of whey left behind, and America produces more than 770,000 metric tons of Greek yogurt annually.

“If we treat the waste on site – that means at the yogurt plant – less trucking is needed, which reduces the carbon footprint,” Angenent says.

His lab had discovered how to convert lactic acid into bio-oil, and Angenent knew whey would be a good source for lactic acid. They tested the process and found that it did indeed work the way they’d hoped. The team recently published their research in the journal Joule.

The bio-oil produced from whey could also potentially be used as animal feed. Its natural antimicrobial capabilities could help replace antibiotics, which are commonly used to treat farm animals but bring risks of antibiotic resistance.

“[If] the bio-oil can be fed to the cows and acts as an antimicrobial, we would close the circle, and the Greek yogurt industry could become more sustainable,” says Angenent.

Angenent has created a company to explore the commercial potential of this technology, and hopes to see the bio-oil in use by 2020. He and his team are also investigating the biofuel potential of other waste liquids.

Joanne Ivancic, executive director of Advanced Biofuels USA, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting biofuels, says Angenent’s research is promising, but that the future of any biofuel depends on numerous political and economic factors.

“The commercial potential of anything that’s going to take the place of petroleum or natural gas fuels depends on the price of oil and the price of natural gas,” Ivancic says. “They have to be competitive because supportive government policy is just not there.”

Since the early 2000s, conservationists and manufacturers alike have hoped that biofuels could help deal with both climate change and issues of fuel security. But growing crops like corn and soybeans to produce ethanol, the most common biofuel, has some major environmental and social downsides. These crops require massive amounts of fertile land, displacing crops that could be used for food and sucking up resources like fertilizer and water.

So researchers have been turning to other potential biofuel sources. Some are looking at plants such as hemp and switchgrass that are less resource-intensive than corn or soybeans. Sugar beets, termed “energy beets,” by their supporters, is another crop with fuel potential, and has the added benefit of remediating phosphorous in the soil, helping to keep nearby watersheds healthy. This past summer ExxonMobil announced the creation of a strain of genetically modified algae they say produces twice as much oil as regular algae. One company is beginning to process household garbage like eggshells and coffee grounds into jet fuel. In late 2016, Alaska Airlines powered a cross-country flight with a new biofuel produced by wood scraps. Like the yogurt whey, the wood has the benefit of being a waste product that would otherwise present a disposal challenge; many of the most promising potential biofuel materials are waste products or “co-products” of other processes.

Ivancic is optimistic that increasing cultural awareness about the perils of climate change will help make these kinds of biofuels economically feasible.

“In the 1970s we recognized the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act,” she says. “If we can tap into that same kind of concern for the environment then we may get the policies and the consumer demand that we need.”

This New ‘Solar Paint’ Could Transform Your Entire House Into a Clean Source of Energy

Powering homes using clean energy is becoming easier thanks to a growing number of innovative technologies and initiatives.

Some government programs help homeowners with the financial burden of equipping their residences with energy-generating solar panels, and Elon Musk’s Tesla has developed roofing tiles that double as solar panels to give solar power generation an aesthetic boost. Now, a new innovation out of Australia is poised to make clean energy even more appealing.


A team of researchers from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) has developed a paint that can be used to generate clean energy.

The paint combines the titanium oxide already used in many wall paints with a new compound: synthetic molybdenum-sulphide. The latter acts a lot like the silica gel packaged with many consumer products to keep them free from damage by absorbing moisture.

According to a report on RMIT’s website, the material absorbs solar energy as well as moisture from the surrounding air. It can then split the water into hydrogen and oxygen, collecting the hydrogen for use in fuel cells or to power a vehicle.

“[T]he simple addition of the new material can convert a brick wall into energy harvesting and fuel production real estate,” explained lead researcher Torben Daeneke.

Though the paint isn’t expected to be commercially viable within the next five years, Daeneke told Inverse he believes the end product will be cheap to produce.

He also claims the paint would be effective in a variety of climates, from damp environments to hot and dry ones near large bodies of water: “Any place that has water vapor in the air, even remote areas far from water, can produce fuel.”

The paint could be used to cover areas that wouldn’t get enough sunlight to justify the placement of solar panels, maximising the capability of any property to generate clean energy.

Any surface that could be painted – a fence, a shed, a doghouse – could be transformed into an energy-producing structure.

When this new material finally makes its way to consumers, it’ll join the ever-growing list of innovative technologies that are moving humanity away from fossil fuels and toward a future of clean, renewable sources of energy.

This article was originally published by Futurism

Germany converting a huge coal mine into giant renewable battery

A German coal mine will be converted into giant “battery station” to store enough renewable energy to power some 400,000 homes.

The Prosper-Haniel pit in the state of North Rhine Westphalia near the Dutch border, has produced the fossil fuel for almost half a century.

But now it will find a new purpose as a 200 megawatt pumped-storage hydroelectric reservoir.

Researchers from a number of German universities are working alongside private engineering companies and the government on the project.

They believe the elevation provided by the pit will provide an opportunity for hydroelectric storage.

It is thought that water will be able flow downwards, powering turbines and generating electricity, with water pumped back up again during periods of low demand.

“In regions such as the Rhineland or the Ruhr area, the lack of relief in the landscape does not provide the necessary height differences [for hydroelectric power],” the project’s website says.

Work will begin when the mine closes in 2018.


A Company in Japan Just Broke the World Record for Solar Panel Efficiency


A team from the Japanese company Kaneko has recently announced breaking the efficiency record of solar panels—which now stands at 26.6 percent.


Solar power is certainly on the rise around the world. There are massive solar power generating installations across Asia, with countries like India and China taking turns being the home of the largest arrays.

Top 10 Countries Using Solar Power

Even the United States is making some massive strides with this source of renewable energy. In fact, solar energy is faring better than coal—even in terms of the economy. There are more people employed by the solar industry than in coal, and the price of solar power continues to fall. A trend that is likely to continue—especially if we continue to improve the efficiency of harvesting the sun’s energy.

To that end, researchers in Japan are doing their part: a team from the company Kaneko has recently announced breaking the efficiency record of solar panels—which now stands at 26.6 percent. “Improving the photoconversion efficiency of silicon solar cells is crucial to further the deployment of renewable electricity,” says the team.

The research has been published in Nature Energy.


The company’s approach—known as thin-film heterojunction (HJ) optimization—improves on a technique that layers silicon inside individual cells to minimize the space where electrons can’t exist. These spaces are call band gaps. A few more innovations allowed for the collection of a greater number of photons, leading to a more efficient panel.

Other approaches have been able to reach an even higher efficiency percentage, but they are not yet viable for consumer-friendly applications.

Continuing on this trend toward efficiency is only going to make the prices of solar power continue to drop. Improvements in production processes will speed this along as well, since panels that are cheaper to produce will cost less for the consumer. Last year, the world was able to double its solar power capacity—so just imagine what will be possible with higher efficiency capabilities.

Germany Opens New ‘Fake Sun’ Hydrogen Producing Facility

The world’s ‘largest official sun’ has just been exposed over in Julich, Germany in the Synlight building. Spanning an area of 45 feet by 52 feet on one wall of the building are 140 Xenon short-arc lamps. When these lamps are flicked on, and all are pointed at the same 20 x 20 cm area, they create a light so intense it more than 10,000 brighter than any solar radiation found on Earth, with a core temperature of over 3,000 degrees Celsius.

It’s been set up this way to mimic largely concentrated power plants that use a whole field of mirrors to focus sunlight on one particular area where it melts salt that’s then used to generate electricity through the steam it creates. Researchers are the German Aerospace Center, also known as DLR, think this same method can be used to extract hydrogen from water vapor. If successful, this could revolutionize the solar power industry by introducing a new cost efficient process that’s capable of supplying a constant source of a great, safe renewable energy – hydrogen.


The only problem now is figuring out how to do it. Although it sounds good on paper, researchers haven’t quite succeeded in making it work. So now for the team, it’s a case of lots of tinkering with the artificial light they do have to see how the best way to go about this is. It’s not the first hydrogen project to go underway. Several before it including artificial photosynthesis and biomass reactions have tried and failed, so now it’s over to the ‘fake sun’ to see what it can do.

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This New Molecule Can Collect Solar Energy Without Solar Panels.

A big step towards a carbon-neutral future.

 The discussion on climate has persisted for decades since we first discovered that there is a human-made influence on the environment. From then, many researchers have come together to finagle innovations that reduce our industrial carbon footprint.

One such innovation is the molecular leaf.

 Liang-shi Li at Indiana University and an international team of scientists discovered this novel way to recycle carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere.

With the use of light or electricity, the molecule built by the team can convert the notorious greenhouse gas into carbon monoxide. The molecular leaf is the most efficient method of carbon reduction to date.

The carbon monoxide generated by this molecule could be reused as fuel. Burning carbon monoxide releases an abundance of energy as well as carbon dioxide.

Because converting carbon dioxide back into carbon monoxide requires as much energy as is released by burning carbon monoxide, this potential cycle has been largely one way, leading to a build-up of carbon dioxide.


The team’s work could lead to reducing this carbon dioxide build-up by making the conversion cycle more efficient and by harnessing solar power.

 The molecule’s nanographene structure has a dark colour that absorbs large amounts of sunlight. The energy from the sunlight is then utilised by the molecule’s rhenium ‘engine’ to produce carbon monoxide from carbon dioxide.

The molecular leaf would help us tackle the greenhouse gas effects of carbon dioxide. Since the industrial revolution, we have raised the levels of carbon dioxide from 280 parts per million to 400 parts per million in the last 150 years.

Scientists agree that there is a 95 percent probability that human-produced greenhouse gases have increased the Earth’s temperature over the past 50 years.

 While Li is glad that his innovation is efficient at tackling greenhouse gases, he hopes to improve the molecular leaf by producing one that can survive in a non-liquid form.

The team is also looking for ways to replace the rhenium element with manganese, which is far more common and therefore much more affordable for reproduction.

But even without these improvements, the molecular leaf could be a powerful tool in the efforts to halt climate change.

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