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Who Knew?

September 10, 2012 - Sometimes I flatter myself into believing I have a scientific turn of mind.  The basis for such nonsense is that I love to experiment when I'm gardening and cooking.  What I like to think of as major leaps in thinking affect only me and my long-suffering husband, however.  In order to make the kind of progress that affects millions of people, it's necessary to think, not just outside the box, but outside the realm of what we believe to be possible.  I guess if I had a science background, I would know more about what is or isn't possible. 

Fortunately, the scientists at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee know how to mix apples and oranges and come up with something wonderful (or at least that's what it seems like to me).  They've extracted a protein from spinach, placed it in an aqueous solution, and poured it onto the surface of a specially-treated silicon wafer.  Voila! In so doing, the resulting photovoltaic cells produce 2.5 times more energy.

You see, the protein they extracted isn't just any old protein.  It's a photosynthetic protein, one that knows how to convert light into energy.  Heretofore, such proteins have caused plants to grow.  This time, however, a team of biomolecular engineers and chemists mixed the protein with silicon, already a component of solar cells.  The cell was put into a vacuum chamber so that the water in the solution would evaporate, leaving behind a thin film of protein..  When the protein is exposed to light, it absorbs the light's energy very efficiently.

More incredible still, these same researchers believe that even more energy can be produced by this protein, and are working to improve their results.  In the meantime, their findings have appeared in the journal Advanced Materials, and they have applied for a patent on this process.  Lead researcher David Cliffel says the discovery could lead to the development of a new type of solar cell within three years.  Though we are still at the point of having to admit that renewable energy will never take the place of fossil fuels, scientists who refuse to listen to the nay-sayers continue to do amazing things.  More power to them!

Have you ever heard of Guangzhou?  If not, it's about time.  Guangzhou is the third-largest city in China, with an almost unbelievable population of 15 million people, and it's a leader in sustainability.  Municipal governments from across the country have sent representatives to the forward-looking city in search of ideas.  Here's one that was just recently enacted: license plate auctions and lotteries that will take half the city's cars off the road.  When combined with the extensive subway system recently put into place, along with greenery in the shape of large parks, Guangzhou's city leaders show they have decided to put quality-of-life issues ahead of short-term economic growth.

Other Chinese cities have shown similar courage.  Nanjing and Hangzhou, in east-central China, are taking steps to require cleaner gasoline and diesel fuel.  A number of cities near the coast are opting to close or deny permits to polluting factories.  Believe it or not, these factories have also been turned away by poor cities in the interior unless they install expensive equipment to lower emissions.  The Chinese have long been subjected to filthy air, and have apparently decided they've had enough.  (You have to wonder to what degree the Olympics in Beijing made a difference.  Perhaps the disbelief - not to mention the coughing and watering eyes - demonstrated by thousands of visitors, made a greater impressions than anyone then realized.)  Still others are banning cars built before 2005, when emissions rules were less stringent.

It would be untrue to say that the automobile industry is without friends in government.  Beijing has been vociferous in objecting to all further restrictions on greenhouse gases generated by cars.  According to An Feng, a senior adviser in Beijing to transportation policy makers, "this has really become a battle."  Sound familiar?  Even in Beijing, however, leaders increasingly listen to public opinion, and seek a balance between the environment and social welfare on the one hand, and economic growth on the other.  Nature has taken its revenge in the form of typhoons, drought, flood, and earthquakes, and its voice is finally being heard, too.

Pollution per dollar of productivity has declined in recent years, largely due to an economic slowdown.  Emissions of sulfur dioxide, a matter of particular concern because of China's terrible problem with acid rain, have declined throughout the country.  The Natural Resources Defense Council in Beijing, once persona non grata, now receives dozens of phone calls from municipal officials wishing to clean up their cities' environments.  As one citizen of Guangzhou was heard to comment,"What do we need gross domestic product for if we don't have health?"  A question I can only wish American leaders would think to ask.


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