Coal, Renewables

Doin’ the Funky Chicken

Issue 9 and Volume 112.

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A bird best known for its comical mating dances in which it patters around like a jittery wind-up toy has found itself pitted against an unlikely environmental foe in northwest Oklahoma.

Wind turbines are expected to be built all over the lesser prairie chicken’s habitat in coming years. Biologists fret the development could push the birds onto the endangered species list or even into extinction.

That’s not because the birds fly into the turbine blades. Instead, they can’t really strut their mating dance stuff when there’s something tall nearby. Lesser prairie chickens usually won’t go near wind turbines, much less breed in their midst, according to information gathered through radio collar tracking. The birds see the turbines and transmission lines much as they see trees: namely, as hideouts for hawks and eagles.

Maps of wind power potential overlap almost exactly with the lesser prairie chicken’s Oklahoma habitat. Eighty-seven of the 96 known lesser prairie chicken breeding circles in the state are within five miles of “excellent” wind farm territory, according to a federal report.

The birds mate only in those locations, called leks. The mating circles are at relatively high elevations where the birds’ dances and calls can easily be seen and heard by potential mates, said a biologist at the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.

Fill It Up…with Bacteria, Please!

It’s a matter of Hydrogen Highway meeting Bacteria Byway. Scientists in the UK have shown how bacteria could be used as a future fuel. The research, published in the journal Bioinformatics, could have implications for the way we produce sustainable fuels in the future.

Like all living creatures, bacteria sustain themselves through their metabolism, a huge sequence of chemical reactions that transform nutrients into energy and waste.

Using mathematical computer models, the Sheffield University-based research team mapped the metabolism of a bacteria called Nostoc. This particular bacteria fixes nitrogen and, in doing so, releases hydrogen that might potentially be used as fuel. Fixing nitrogen is an energy-intensive process and it wasn’t entirely clear how the bacterium produces the energy it needs in order to perform. The new computer system maps how the process happens.

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Dr Guido Sanguinetti, from the University’s Department of Computer Science, who led the study, said, “The research uncovered a previously unknown link between the energy machinery of the Nostoc bacterium and its core nitrogen metabolism. Further investigation of this pathway might lead to understanding and improvement of the hydrogen production mechanism of these bacteria.” It will certainly be some time before a pool of bacteria powers your car, Sanguinetti said, but this research may be a step toward sustainable fuels.

Solar’s Baby Steps

Ausra, a California-based solar thermal power plant developer, opened a 130,000-square-foot factory in Las Vegas earlier this year to produce components for its solar thermal plants. At full capacity, the plant can manufacture 700 MW of electricity generation equipment annually.

Sound like a lot? Maybe not. SRI International, a nonprofit research and development institute, figures that to produce 100 percent of the United States’ electricity from renewable sources within 10 years would require building 9,400 100-MW solar thermal power plants at a rate of 2.5 per day.