Silverton windfarm’s output will be equal to taking 192,000 cars off the road

From The Guardian, February 10, 2017 (Image: @PaulDCocker via Flickr)

After years in planning, construction on the Silverton windfarm in western New South Wales is finally set to begin after the sale of the project from AGL to its Powering Australian Renewables Fund (PARF).

The deal will see AGL pay just $65 a megawatt hour for the first five years of the windfarm’s operation, effectively undercutting current prices for coal-generated electricity.

“It’s a very low price, which demonstrates the amazing innovation and cost curve that renewable energy is on,” says Alicia Webb, director of large-scale energy at the Clean Energy Council, the clean energy industry’s peak body. Read more…

Extreme fire weather forecast for Australia and the Mediterranean

From Cosmos Magazine, February 7, 2017 (Image: bertknot via Flickr)

Extreme wildfires are set to surge as the number of days that foster these catastrophic events climbs from 20% to 50% in disaster-prone regions, a new study warns.

David Bowman, a fire ecologist from the University of Tasmania in Australia, and colleagues examined temperature data recorded by instruments onboard NASA’s Aqua and Terra satellites and found population distribution also affected the development of disastrous wildfires.

The work, published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, presents a “real wake-up call”, Bowman says. Read more…

“Climate change is about to smash us in the face.”

How acid warps your thoughts and feelings

From Cosmos Magazine, January 27, 2017 (Image: Mesaj via Flickr)

Eight decades since Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann first cooked up the psychedelic drug lysergic acid diethylamide – LSD or “acid” – and half a century on from its heyday during the 1960s counterculture, how LSD messes with our brain is still little understood.

But two new studies published today help to reveal those brain regions affected and neurochemical receptors responsible for LSD’s mind-altering effects. Read more… 

Killer whale menopause evolved from mother-daughter conflict

Killer whale Shawn McCready.jpg

From Cosmos Magazine, January 13, 2017 (Image: Shawn McCready via Flickr)

Menopause is an evolutionary anomaly. Only in three species – humans, orcas and short-finned pilot whales – does female reproduction grind to a halt part-way through life.

For orcas (Orcinus orca), a new study published in Current Biology shows that menopause isn’t just a quirk of nature, but a reproductive strategy that specifically evolved to match their social structure. Read more…

Solar cooling systems take heat out of summer’s hottest days

solar-collector-allanjderFrom The Guardian, December 20, 2016. (Image: allanjder via Flickr)

As Australia settles in for another long hot summer, the demand for air-conditioning is set to surge. In fact, with the World Meteorological Organisation stating that 2016 is likely to be the hottest year on record, it’s no surprise an estimated 1.6bn new air conditioners are likely to be installed globally by 2050.

Powering all these units will be a challenge, especially on summer’s hottest days. In Australia, peak demand days can drive electricity usage to almost double and upgrading infrastructure to meet the increased demand can cost more than four times what each additional air-conditioning unit costs.

Yet an emerging sector of the solar industry is turning the searing heat of summer into cooling by using solar heat or electricity. Read more…

Will the internet of things sacrifice or save the environment?

From the Guardian, December 12, 2016. (Image: Kevin Dooley via Flickr)

The internet of things (IoT) – that ever-expanding ecosystem of digital sensors, home appliances and wearable smart devices – attracts its fair share of attention. Speculation is rife on how the 23bn-odd (and counting) “things” will improve quality of life, streamline business operations and ultimately fuel economic benefits to the tune of up to $11tn per year by 2025.

Less often considered is the cost to the environment of such a vast network of devices. With the full extent of the IoT far from being realised, even experts are divided on whether it will spell doom or salvation for the environment. Read more… 

How microbes affect you from brain to bowel

From Cosmos Magazine, September 5-9, 2016. (Photo: Lactobacillus casei by AJC1 via Flickr)

Not a day goes by without some new study proclaiming the importance of our microbes to our health. It’s hard to keep up, and hard to sort the wheat from the chaff, the mildly interesting association from the water-tight causal link. I recently wrote a five part series that looks at the current state of microbiota research – what evidence is solid, and what needs further investigation.

Microbes and you: a partnership millions of years old

We are not alone. Our bodies are teeming metropolises of microscopic life – and the microbes that call us home influence everything from bowel to brain.

Over the past decade, technological advances in the lab have allowed us to take a census of our microbial entourage – known as the microbiota – like never before. Instead of seeing only the small fraction of microbes from our skin or poo that blossom on a petri dish, we can now blend, extract and read the genetic essence – the DNA – of all microbes, called the microbiome, to get a better idea of who’s there.

The picture that has emerged is one of staggering complexity. Read more…

How bugs in your gut can make you fat (or thin)

Tinkering with gut microbes causes more than a tummy ache. They can wring more calories from food and boost fat cell production – all from day one.

By far the majority of our companion microbes, weighing an impressive 1.5 kilograms and containing more than 1,000 species, reside in our gut, mostly in the large intestine.

As soon as a baby is born – and perhaps even before – microbes move in. Many are seeded from bacteria in the mother’s birth canal if it’s a vaginal birth or from her skin if it’s a caesarean birth. Read more…

Microbe tenants help – and hinder – your immune system

Obesity isn’t the only condition linked to imbalanced gut microflora. A host of autoimmune and inflammatory conditions – inflammatory bowel disease, coeliac disease, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus – are also associated with changes to gut microbial ecosystems.

(Indeed, obesity is often described as an inflammatory condition for the widespread immune reaction that accompanies excess weight.)

Connecting the dots between altered gut microbes and disease is a lively area of research. Scientists are working on the ‘chicken or egg’ problem: does disrupting the gut microflora cause the disease, or does having the disease lead to changes in gut microflora?

In many cases, it is likely that a complex interplay between genetics and environmental triggers – including the microbes in our guts – is involved. Read more…

Mood, mind and memory – can gut bacteria meddle with the brain?

The microbes in your gut may be tiny, but their influence appears to extend as far as the brain, affecting mental health, stress levels, memory and cognitive abilities. Yet many of the most compelling results illustrating the microbiota-gut-brain axis, as it has become known, have only been seen in animals.

The potential for gut microbes to affect mood is probably best illustrated by an experiment conducted at McMaster University in Canada. Mice devoid of a microbiota were effectively given ‘personality make-overs’ via poo transplants. Timid mice became more brazen, and once daring mice retreated into shyness, taking on the anxiety profiles of their donors.

Human-to-rodent poo transplants also work. Read more…

Bugs as drugs – medicine’s next frontier

Microbiome research is providing tantalising clues about how we might change our microbiota to improve our health. But translating findings from the lab into clinical treatments is a slow and arduous process.

The most dramatic illustration of how our microbiota can be used in the clinic is the case of the poo transplant, also known as faecal microbiota transplantation. Read more…