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Tech Roundup: Cleaner Gas, Superwheat, and Ancient Mice


When people debate issues like climate change and health care, they frequently talk as if tomorrow’s solutions will be built on today’s technology. That’s a mistake. As technological progress accelerates, policymakers should keep in mind that many of our most pressing problems will be solved by solutions we haven’t yet imagined.

The recent shale boom is a perfect example of a transformative tech breakthrough that seemingly appeared overnight. By combining hydraulic fracturing with horizontal well drilling, we’ve been able to access vast reserves of natural gas and oil and that were previously deemed inaccessible. Within a few years, fears of “peak oil” were gone from the headlines, replaced by questions of what we should do with all this new energy.

Of course, this has created new problems. Greens often complain about this revival’s effect on greenhouse gas emissions. But here, too scientists are already coming up with ways to burn natural gas cleaner and more efficiently. reports:

North Carolina State University researchers have identified a new mechanism to convert natural gas into energy up to 70 times faster, while effectively capturing the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2).

“This could make power generation from natural gas both cleaner and more efficient,” says Fanxing Li, co-author of a paper on the research and an assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at NC State.

This bodes well for the climate, and will help power the world’s growing economies as well. But what about feeding the growing masses driving those economies and consuming that energy? Science is making progress on that front too. The BBC reports:

British scientists say they have developed a new type of wheat which could increase productivity by 30%…The Cambridge-based National Institute of Agricultural Botany has combined an ancient ancestor of wheat with a modern variety to produce a new strain.

In early trials, the resulting crop seemed bigger and stronger than the current modern wheat varieties…The process required no genetic modification of the crops.

And we’re going to need these über-efficient crops and energy sources, because life expectancies are getting longer every year. The Times of Israel reports on a team of scientists who recently made a discovery to further extend those life expectancies:

The team from Yeshiva University’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine say that they were able to extend the lives of mice by up to 20% by teasing a small part of the brain known as the hypothalamus.

The researchers, who published their finding in the journal Nature on Wednesday, also found that they were able to keep the mice from suffering the debilitating effects of age, such as muscle weakness and memory problems.

We need more research like this, as fast as possible.

[Lab mouse image courtesy of Shutterstock]

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  • Lorenz Gude

    Judging the past by extending the present was characterized by McLuhan as driving into the future with our eyes firmly fixed in the rearview mirror. We can’t help it, but we can learn to recognize that we do it all the time. And while it is fun to invent positive futures it is also important to remember that terrible events occur too. Look at Europe’s prospects in 1913. No one knew, except perhaps Oswald Spengler, it was going to begin to destroy itself the following year. And then do it again two decades years later. The future always the surprises. Perhaps Europe, still trying to avoid the trauma of the 20th century, will surprise us and somehow pull through its current difficulties.

  • James Jones

    I hope the BBC reporter was intentionally ironic about the lack of genetic modification for the new type of wheat. When you breed new types of plant from other varieties of the plant, you are always creating a changed DNA structure for the new type of plant. This is genetic modification of the organism.
    It would be incredibly sad if the BBC reporter does not realize that humans have been genetically modifying plants and animals for thousands of years through cross-breeding.

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