Author Archives: Eann Patterson

We are ecosystem engineers

Decorative photograph of common cuscusHumans have been ecosystem engineers since the Pleistocene, more than 12,000 years ago.  There is evidence of a tree-dwelling possum, the common cuscus, being introduced to the Solomon Islands from New Guinea more than 20,000 years ago as a game species [1].  The ecosystem is a complex system and there are unintended consequences of our engineering.  For instance, the burning forests and grasslands about 8,000 years ago changed reflectivity and absorption of heat in parts of Eurasia which altered the pattern of monsoons in India and parts of South East Asia.  The palaeobiologist, Thomas Halliday has suggested that we are such effective ecosystem engineers that is impossible to think about a pristine Earth unaffected by human biology and culture [2].  The challenge now is to re-engineer the ecosystem so that it remains habitable.  This involves handling the complexities of  the ecosystem, human society and their interactions.  The philosopher, Nabil Ahmed has written, in the context of his native Bangladesh, that it is impossible to differentiate between land and rivers, human population, grains and forests, politics and markets because they all coalesce as a single entity resulting from the legacy of interaction between politics and natural actors [3].  Everything is interconnected – more than we realise.

References

[1] Abate RS & Kronk EA, Climate change and indigenous peoples: the search for legal remedies Cheltenham UK: Edward Elgar, 2012.

[2] Halliday T, Otherlands: A world in the making, London: Allen Lane, 2022.

[3] Ahmed N, Entangled Earth, Third Text, 27:44-53, 2013.

Image: Exhibit in the Museo Civico di Storia Naturale di Genova, Via Brigata Liguria, 9, 16121, Genoa, Italy; by Daderot, CCO 1.0 licence

Label-free real-time tracking of individual bacterium

Images from the optical microscope showing the tracks of bacteria interacting with a surfaceAntimicrobial resistant (AMR) infections are already the third leading cause of death in the USA and are predicted to kill 50 million people per year by 2050.  It is the next pandemic starting already.  We have been using our capability to track nanoparticles in an optical microscope [see ‘Slow moving nanoparticles‘ on December 13th, 2017 and ‘Nano biomechanical engineering of agent delivery to cells‘ on December 15th, 2021] to track individual bacterium as they interact with surfaces to form biofilms.  Bacterial biofilms are complex colonies of bacteria that are highly resistant to antimicrobial agents and can cause life-threatening infections.  We have used our label-free, real-time tracking capabilities to explore the dynamics and adhesion of bacteria to surfaces and found that viable bacteria adhered to the surface but continue to move with rotary or sliding motions depending on the mechanics of their attachment to the surface.  Bacteria that were killed by contact with the surface did not move once they were attached to the surface.  The image shows examples of these motions from our paper published last month.  Our ability to detect these differences in the dynamics of bacteria will allow us to detect the onset of the formation of biofilms and to quantify the efficacy of antimicrobial surfaces and coatings.

Image: Figure 4 – Tracks (yellow lines) of the sections (purple circles) of four E. coli bacteria experiencing: (a) random diffusion above the surface; (b) rotary attachment; (c) lateral attachment; (d) static attachment. The dynamics of the four bacteria was monitored for approximately 20 s. The length of the scale bars is 5 μm. From Scientific Reports, 12:18146, 2022.

Source:

Giorgi F, Curran JM & Patterson EA, Real-time monitoring of the dynamics and interactions of bacteria and the early-stage formation of biofilms, Scientific Reports, 12:18146, 2022.

Ice caps losing water and gravitational attraction

Map of the world showing population density is greater in the regions furthest from the polesI have written previously about sea level rises [see ‘Merseyside Totemy‘ on August 17th, 2022 and ‘Climate change and tides in Liverpool‘ on May 11th, 2016] and the fact that a 1 metre rise in sea level would displace 145 million people [see ‘New Year resolution‘ on December 31st, 2014].  Sea levels globally have risen 102.5 mm since 1993 primarily due to the water added as a result of the melting of glaciers and icecaps and due to the expansion of the seawater as its temperature rises – both of these causes are a result of global warming resulting from human activity.  I think that this is probably well-known to most readers of this blog. However, I had not appreciated that the polar ice caps are sufficiently massive that their gravitational attraction pulls the water in the oceans towards them, so that as they melt the oceans move towards a more even distribution of water raising sea levels further away from the icecaps.  This is problematic because the population density is higher in the regions further away from the polar ice caps, as shown in the image.  Worldwide about 1 billion people, or about an eighth of the global population, live less than 10 metres above current high tide lines.  If we fail to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Centigrade and it peaks at 5 degrees Centigrade then the average sea level rise is predicted to be as high as 7 m according to the IPCC.

Image: Population Density, v4.11, 2020 by SEDACMaps CC-BY-2.0 Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Source: Thomas Halliday, Otherlands: A World in the Making, London: Allen Lane, 2022

Admiral’s comments on fission hold for fusion 70 years later

Last month the US Energy Secretary, Jennifer Granholm announced a successful experiment at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in which 192 lasers were used to pump 2.05 mega Joules of energy into a capsule heating its contents to 100 million degrees Centigrade causing fusion of hydrogen nuclei and the release of 3.15 mega Joules of energy.  An apparent gain of 1.1 mega Joules until you take account of the 300 mega Joules consumed by the 192 lasers.  The reaction in the media to this fusion energy experiment and the difficulties associated with building a practical fusion power plant, such as the Spherical Tokamak Energy Production (STEP) project in the UK (see ‘Celebrating engineering success‘ on November 11th, 2022) reminded me of a well-known memorandum penned by Admiral Rickover in 1953.  Rickover was first tasked, as a Captain, to look at atomic power in May 1946 not long after first human-made self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction was initiated in Chicago Pile #1 during an experiment led by Enrico Fermi in 1942.  He went on to become Admiral Rickover who directed the US Navy’s nuclear propulsion programme and the Nautilus, the first nuclear-powered submarine was launched in 1954.  With thanks to a regular reader of this blog who sent me a copy of the memo and apologies to Admiral Rickover, here is his memorandum edited to apply to fusion energy:

Important decisions about the future of fusion energy must frequently be made by people who do not necessarily have an intimate knowledge of the technical aspects of fusion.  These people are, nonetheless, interested in what a fusion power plant will do, how much it will cost, how long it will take to build and how long and how well it will operate.  When they attempt to learn these things, they become aware the confusion existing in the field of fusion energy.  There appears to be unresolved conflict on almost every issue that arises.

I believe that the confusion stems from a failure to distinguish between the academic and the practical.  These apparent conflicts can usually be explained only when the various aspects of the issue are resolved into their academic and practical components. To aid in this resolution, it is possible to define in a general way those characteristics which distinguish one from the other.

An academic fusion reactor almost always has the following basic characteristics: (1) It is simple. (2) It is small.  (3) It is cheap. (4) It is light. (5) It can be built very quickly. (6) It is very flexible in purpose . (7) The reactor is in the study phase.  It is not being built now.  On the other hand, a practical fusion reactor can be distinguished by the following characteristics: (1) It is being built now.  (2) It is behind schedule. (3) It is requiring an immense amount of development on apparently trivial items. (4) It is very expensive. (5) It takes a long time to build because of the engineering development problems. (6) It is large. (7) It is complicated.

The tools of the academic-reactor designer are a piece of paper and a pencil with an eraser. If a mistake is made, it can always be erased and changed.  If a mistake is made, it can always be erased and changed.  If the practical-reactor designer errs, they wear the mistake around their neck; it cannot be erased.  Everyone can see it. 

The academic-reactor designer is a dilettante.  They have not had to assume any real responsibility in connection with their projects.  They are free to luxuriate in elegant ideas, the practical shortcomings of which can be relegated to the category of ‘mere technical details’.  The practical-reactor designer must live with these same technical details.  Although recalcitrant and awkward, they must be solved and cannot be put off until tomorrow.  Their solutions require people, time and money.

Unfortunately for those who must make far-reaching decisions without the benefit of an intimate knowledge of fusion technology and unfortunately for the interested public, it is much easier to get the academic side of an issue than the practical side. For the large part those involved with academic fusion reactors have more inclination and time to present their ideas in reports and orally to those who will listen.  Since they are innocently unaware of the real and hidden difficulties of their plans, they speak with great facility and confidence.  Those involved with practical fusion reactors, humbled by their experiences, speak less and worry more.

Yet it is incumbent on those in high places to make wise decisions, and it is reasonable and important that the public be correctly informed.  It is consequently incumbent on all of us to state the facts as forth-rightly as possible.  Although it is probably impossible to have fusion technology ideas labelled as ‘practical’ or ‘academic’ by the authors, it is worthwhile both authors and the audience to bear in mind this distinction and to be guided thereby.

Image: The target chamber of LLNL’s National Ignition Facility, where 192 laser beams delivered more than 2 million joules of ultraviolet energy to a tiny fuel pellet to create fusion ignition on Dec. 5, 2022 from https://www.llnl.gov/news/national-ignition-facility-achieves-fusion-ignition