Why the stuff between the stars is like a glass of beer

By Nola Wilkinson  

Ever wondered what there is between the stars? Dr Naomi McClure-Griffiths not only wonders about it, she’s on a mission to find out.

Naomi is fascinated with the life of stars, the behaviour of interstellar gas, and how gas and stars interact.  “As an astronomer, I’d like to understand how the galaxy formed and how it’s living its life,” she says.

Naomi has conducted a massive survey of all the hydrogen gas in and around in the Milky Way. In doing so, she has shown is that the stuff between the stars is actually foamy.

“The galaxy is much more frothy and bubbly than we ever thought. It looks like the head on a glass of beer.”

Very large stars, 8-20 times the size of our sun, experience dramatic supernova explosions that push gas out of the galaxy via solar winds travelling at up to 1000 kilometres a second.

It is these solar winds that blow bubbles in the gas between the stars, creating a frothy, foamy appearance.

Watch this video to find out more about Naomi and her amazing work:

Naomi’s team undertook the Galactic All Sky Survey using our Parkes telescope and is planning future work using our ASKAP radio telescope.


Coal seam gas emissions lower than US: first Australian study

The methane-detecting four-wheel-drive, measuring emissions around Queensland and NSW coal seam gas wells. Tests were also done upwind of each site to avoid cows or other methane sources skewing the results. CSIRO, CC BY-SA

The methane-detecting four-wheel-drive, measuring emissions around Queensland and NSW coal seam gas wells. Tests were also done upwind of each site to avoid cows or other methane sources skewing the results.

By Damian Barrett and Stuart Day

One of the most common questions Australians ask about coal seam gas is whether the gas wells leak – and if so, how much?

In the first Australian study of its kind, new CSIRO research now gives an indication of how much those “fugitive emissions” might be, and how we can start to reduce them.

Commissioned by the federal Department of the Environment and now published on its website, the pilot study measured emissions around 43 coal seam gas production wells – six in New South Wales and 37 in Queensland – out of the more than 5000 wells currently operating around Australia. The results reveal that:

  • nearly all of the 43 wells tested showed some fugitive emissions;
  • the emissions rates were very low (in most cases less than 3 grams of methane per minute – equivalent to methane emissions from around 30 cows);
  • in many cases, those emissions could be reduced or even stopped entirely; and
  • the average measured levels from the Australian wells were 20 times lower than reported in a study of fugitive emissions from US unconventional gas sites, published last year in the leading international journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

In Australia, fugitive emissions from coal mining, oil and gas production account for about 8% of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions.

From the latest report on Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, published by the federal Department of the Environment in April this year. Quarterly Update of Australia’s National Greenhouse Gas Inventory: December 2013. Click to enlarge

From the latest report on Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, published by the federal Department of the Environment in April this year. Click to enlarge

Although those fugitive emissions are estimated and reported under the National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting Act, there has often been a high degree of uncertainty associated with these estimates in Australia – particularly from coal seam gas production.

That’s why this new research is important, as it offers a first indication of fugitive emissions from coal seam gas under Australian conditions.

Pressure regulator

The report found a particular type of pressure regulator installed at many wells was a common source of methane leakage.

The report’s results

Our new report, Field Measurements of Fugitive Emissions from Equipment and Well Casings in Australian Coal Seam Gas Production Facilities, shows that of the 43 wells studied, three had no detectable leaks.

Of the rest, 37 wells emitted less than 3 grams of methane per minute, and 19 of those showed very low emission of less than 0.5 grams of methane per minute.

However, at a few wells (6 of the 43) much higher emissions rates were detected, with one well registering emissions 15 times higher than the study average. That was found to be mainly due to methane discharging from a vent on a water line.

On closer scrutiny, some of the leaks were due to faulty seals on equipment and pumps, which could be easily fixed, while other emissions were associated with exhaust from gas-fuelled engines used to power water pumps that are not regarded as “fugitive” emissions.

We tested for emissions using a four-wheel-drive fitted with a methane analyser. The car made several passes downwind from the well to measure total emissions emanating from the site.

To ensure that other potential methane sources, such as cattle, were not inadvertently included, similar measurements were made upwind of each test site. We also took a series of measurements at each well to locate sources and measure emission rates.

The methane-detecting 4WD and its equipment

The methane-detecting 4WD and its equipment

Why worry about fugitive emissions?

Fugitive emissions occur when methane escapes from production facilities, wells, pipes, compressors and other equipment associated with coal mining or natural gas extraction. Other human induced methane emissions occur through grazing of domestic stock, agricultural production and from landfills.

In nature, methane is released from geological sources and biological processes occurring in wetlands, swamps, rivers and dams. About 15% of human emissions of methane are derived from fossil fuels.

While burning gas for energy has lower greenhouse gas emissions compared to other fossil fuels like coal, methane has a global warming impact at least 25 times that of carbon dioxide (when measured over a 100 year period).

Even small losses of methane during gas production, processing and distribution have the potential to reduce the relative greenhouse benefit of natural gas as a fuel for electricity production.

Fugitive emissions can be costly for the coal seam gas industry because escaping gas represents a loss of a valuable commodity.

What’s next for CSG emissions research?

These new findings from 43 wells are a good start, but they are clearly only the beginning, given that represents fewer than 1% of Australia’s coal seam gas wells. More measurements are required to representatively sample the remaining 99% of wells before we can make definitive statements about methane fugitive emissions in Australia.

CSIRO scientists, through the Gas Industry Social & Environmental Research Alliance (GISERA), are undertaking further research into methane emissions in Australia including understanding the natural or background emissions of methane that come from seeps in the ground in Queensland’s Surat Basin.

This research aims to identify background sources of methane and determine the best detection and measurement methods.

Results from measuring naturally occurring methane seepage, as well as the results of this new report and others, will add to the bigger picture of assessing the coal seam gas industry’s whole of life cycle greenhouse gas emission footprint. Most importantly, we hope they will provide more answers to Australians’ question about coal seam gas.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article


Ebola outbreak causes global concern

Ebola virus

An electron microscope image of Ebola virus

The World Health Organization has confirmed the current outbreak of Ebola virus in Africa is the largest recorded outbreak, killing 672 of the 1201 confirmed cases since February this year.

So it’s no surprise that there’s increasing global concern about the spread of this virus – the situation is undeniably scary. Here’s what you need to know.

What is Ebola virus?

Ebola virus, also known as Ebola hemorrhagic fever, is a highly infectious illness with a fatality rate of up to 90 per cent. The virus is feared for its rapid and aggressive nature. Symptoms initially include a sudden fever as well as joint and muscle aches and then typically progress to vomiting, diarrhoea and, in some cases, internal and external bleeding. Contrary to Hollywood’s depictions, many people do not suffer massive and dramatic blood loss. They instead die from the shutdown of vital organs like the liver and kidneys.

Prior to this current situation, the largest outbreak of Ebola virus involved 425 people in Uganda, in 2000.

Ebola virus is a zoonotic disease – one that passes from animals to people. As with the respiratory diseases SARS and Hendra virus, bats have been identified as the natural host.  There is good evidence to suggest other mammals like gorillas, chimpanzees and antelopes are most likely the transmission host to people but the way the infection passes to them from the fruit bats is still not clear.

Why is it called Ebola?

The virus was first discovered in 1976, with two simultaneous outbreaks of the disease – one near the Ebola River in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), and the other in Nzara, Sudan. Since then more than 1600 deaths have been recorded.

How does the virus spread?

The virus is transmitted from wild animals to people. It can then spread through contact with bodily fluids from someone who is infected, or from exposure to objects like contaminated needles. People most at risk include health workers and family members or others who are in contact with the infected people.

Are there any treatments available?

There is no vaccine or known cure for Ebola virus infection. As with many emerging infectious diseases, treatment is limited to pain management and supportive therapies to counter symptoms like dehydration and lack of oxygen. Public awareness and infection control measures are vital to controlling the spread of disease.

What is CSIRO doing?

We have been researching the Reston ebolavirus strain, which is endemic in parts of Asia, for several years at the Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL) as part of our mandate to study new and emerging infectious diseases to ensure we’re prepared should they ever reach Australia.

In 2013, following approval from the Australian government, we imported several Ebola virus isolates including the Zaire ebolavirus strain from Africa for research purposes.  We’re investigating the pathogenicity, or disease causing ability, of these viruses, to understand why the African strains have a high fatality rate in people, compared to the Asian strain, which does not cause human disease.

There are strict international protocols, government approvals and security measures in place to ensure such viruses are transported and imported safely.  At AAHL, all work with Ebola viruses is at the highest level of biocontainment, deep within the facility’s solid walls. Our specialist staff must work on the virus wearing fully encapsulated suits with their own external air supply.

Biosecurity level 4 spacesuit and scientist

CSIRO scientist Glenn Marsh working at the highest level of biosecurity

Although most of our research is in cell and tissue culture, in the coming weeks our scientists plan to work with ferrets, which have shown human-like responses to infection with other high-risk pathogens, to understand what makes the Ebola virus pathogenic. We believe that understanding the differences in virulence between the two closely related strains of Ebola may hold the key to developing an effective vaccine to prevent this deadly disease, or therapeutics to treat it.

Why is CSIRO involved in the global response to fight this deadly disease?

AAHL has highly specialised capabilities for working with zoonotic diseases. Scientists at AAHL first identified and characterised the deadly Hendra virus, which, like Ebola viruses, is classified as a ‘biosafety level four (BSL4) pathogen’- the most dangerous of viruses, without a known cure or vaccine. The team has since been integral in the development of the Equivac HeV vaccine, now being administered to protect horses and people in Australia.

Located in Geelong, AAHL is one of a handful of high-containment laboratories in the world capable of working on BSL4 pathogens. The facility was built to ensure the containment of the most infectious agents known. It is designed and equipped to enable the safe handling of disease agents such as Ebola virus, at the necessary high containment level.

For more information about the Ebola virus, see the World Health Organization fact sheet.


Australia’s biodiversity, how is it tracking?

Australia’s Biodiversity series – Part 3: Status and Trends

If we want to look after the species that call Australia home we first need to know what’s actually out there and, secondly, how is what’s out there changing over time. But only about a quarter of our native species have actually been formally identified.

Like many other countries, Australia lacks good scientific data sets that can tell us about the status and trend of our biodiversity. We do know that our biodiversity has been modified by land clearing, destruction of habitats, invasive pest species, burning, harvesting species from the land and sea, and climate change. But because we weren’t there collecting data when the change processes began many decades ago, it’s hard to provide an accurate assessment of the change that has occurred.

The measures that we do have, like numbers of extinct and endangered species, tell us that our biodiversity is in decline. And current monitoring efforts reveal that the pressures on our biodiversity are increasing.

In the third video of our Australia’s Biodiversity series, Dr David Yeates talks about new monitoring programs that are helping us address the biodiversity knowledge gaps so that we’re able to better manage our native fauna and flora into the future:

To find out more about the status and trend of Australia’s biodiversity, you might like to read the corresponding chapter of CSIRO’s Biodiversity Book.

Last week’s video looked at how Australia’s biodiversity came to be so unique. You can review it and the other videos in the series on our YouTube channel.


Got a question? Give us a holler.

By Jennifer Phillips

What does a dung beetle look like? Is this material fire-resistant? What research are you conducting in the field of renewable energy?

These are just some of the types of questions the friendly folk in our Client Relations contact centre regularly help find answers to. With 30,000 enquiries coming their way every year, they know A LOT about our science (and lots of other weird and wonderful things for that matter).

To understand first hand what it’s like to work on the end of our hotline, this week our Chief Executive Megan Clark jumped in to field some of your burning questions.

L-R Our Client Relations Manager Claire Manson showing our Chief Executive Megan Clark the ropes

L-R Our Contact Centre Manager Claire Manson showing our Chief Executive Megan Clark the ropes

As she quickly learnt, people contact us about all sorts of things. We’ve been at the forefront of Australian science since 1926. So when people want to go straight to the source, they tend to turn to us. Here are just some of the hot topics we regularly respond to:

Keeping you healthy
We love that Australians want to be healthier. This was made abundantly clear when our Total Wellbeing Diet book was first published. It sold a million copies and almost sent our phone system into meltdown. The release of BARLEYmax caused a similar reaction, with people calling in straight from their local supermarket aisle wanting to get their hands on the supergrain.

Testing, testing
We’re used to being contacted about our testing services, but every now and then we field a request that catches us off guard.  Like the time a caller asked if we could test the nature of an unidentified ‘floatie’ in her beverage. While this (unfortunately) fell outside our remit, we do offer many other testing services for Australian companies – from assessing the bushfire risk of a dwelling, to measuring the slip-factor at the local pool.

I’ve got an invention
We often hear from entrepreneurial members of the public who fancy themselves as the next Thomas Edison. We’ve been approached about animal-human transmogrification, invisibility shrouds and time-travelling devices, to name a few. While we weren’t able to help on these occasions our Small and Medium Enterprise Engagement Centre can assist businesses that want to use science to gain competitive advantage, improve profitability and help their business grow.

When I grow up…
Out of all the enquiries we receive, our most heart-warming often come in the form of letters from the next generation of budding scientists. Our most famous correspondent was seven-year-old Sophie, who recently wrote to us politely asking if we could make her a dragon. Our generous 3D printing experts kindly obliged. No biggie.


This is just a small insight into how we help Australians connect with our science in all kinds of wonderful and powerful ways. Contact us via CSIRO’s website or:


Cattle industry swings behind safety gate

Cattle yards play a huge part in our local farming industry. In fact, with over 28 million head of cattle grazing on our big brown land, there are more cows in Australia than people.

Not only are our cows big in numbers, they are also big in size. Weighing in at up to 450kg, the risk of our bovine friends causing serious injury, and even death, is very real – to the point where cattle handling is one of the most hazardous jobs in the livestock industry.

That’s why this National Farm Safety Week, we’re revisiting a cattle gate which was purpose built to keep our farmers safe.

Designed by NSW farmer Edward Evans, SaferGate swings away from the operator when an animal charges it. This time two years ago we put the gate through rigorous testing. How did we do this? We thought we’d use our very own ‘crash test cow’. See how it went down:

Since our bovine testing rook place in 2012, SaferGate has hit the market and been installed in over 100 cattle fences around the country.

Australian Agricultural Co’s chief operating officer Troy Setter, said his company had installed some SaferGate units last year, which had already prevented potential injury to one of his livestock staff when a beast struck the gate she was attempting to close.

“If it was a normal gate, she would have been hit and possibly seriously injured, however the SaferGate simply folded away,” Mr Setter said. “Stopping just one injury makes the investment worthwhile,” he said.

Read more about the development of SaferGate or get involved in National Farm Safety Week.


Harnessing the power of waves

Ocean waves are one of the most powerful natural forces on our planet. Dense with energy, they pack a lot of punch and travel enormous distances across our oceans.  What’s more, they’re very reliable – it is very easy to predict which way a wave will move.

It’s for these reasons that waves are being touted as the next big thing in renewable energy.

In fact, our scientists have conducted modelling that shows that waves have the potential to play a large part in Australia’s future energy mix. They could supply 10 per cent of our energy by 2050 – enough to power a city the size of Melbourne.

Ocean wave

While wave energy is an exciting possibility, the way we harness this power is still an emerging technology. More research needs to be done to understand exactly how ocean wave extraction will work and the potential impact it could have on marine environments.

The good news is that this will now be possible thanks to a $1.3 million grant announced by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA).  This funding will allow us to develop an online ‘wave energy atlas’ – an important step towards realising wave energy projects off Australian shores.

The atlas will pull together data from weather mapping, satellites, measuring stations and other sources to allow users to assess the feasibility of wave power stations in different locations. It will also display geographic information on marine usage, including stretches of oceans that are heritage listed, marine parks and shipping lanes.

With almost 80 per cent of Australia’s population living on the coast, wave energy presents a huge possibility for our country. This new resource will allow us to make informed decisions about how to best take advantage of this powerful force.

The project will be carried out in stages over the next three years and is expected to be completed in 2017. Read more about it on the ARENA website


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