20 Jul 2012

What will astronauts eat in Mars?

       As NASA gears up for a manned Mars mission in 2030s, the agency is now building a menu for the planned journey.
The menu must sustain six to eight astronauts, keep them healthy and offer a broad array of food. That’s no simple feat considering it will likely take six months to get to the Red Planet, astronauts will have to stay there 18 months, and then it will take another six months to return to Earth. Imagine having to shop for a family’s three-year supply of groceries all at once.
“Mars is different just because it’s so far away,” said Maya Cooper, a senior research scientist who is leading the efforts to build the menu. “We don’t have the option to send a vehicle with more food every six months as we do for the International Space Station.”
Astronauts who travel to the space station have a wide variety of food available to them, with around 100 different options. However, it is all pre-prepared and freeze-dried with a shelf life of at least two years. While the astronauts make up a panel that tastes the food and gives it a final OK before it blasts off, the lack of gravity means smell and taste is impaired so the food tastes bland.
What's cooking in Mars?
Still, on Mars there is a little gravity, which allows NASA to consider significant changes to the current space menu. That’s where Cooper’s team comes in. Travel to Mars opens the possibility that astronauts can do things like chop vegetables and do a little cooking of their own. Even though pressure levels are different to those on Earth, scientists think it will even be possible to boil water with a pressure cooker.
One option Cooper and her staff are considering is having the astronauts care for a “Martian greenhouse.” They would have a variety of fruits and vegetables from carrots to bell peppers in a hydroponic solution, meaning they would be planted in mineral-laced water instead of soil. The astronauts would care for their garden and then use those ingredients - combined with others such as nuts and spices - brought from Earth to prepare their meals.
The top priority is to ensure that the astronauts get the proper amount of nutrients, calories and minerals to maintain their physical health and performance for the life of the mission, Cooper said.
The menu must also ensure the psychological health of the astronauts, Cooper explained, noting studies have shown that eating certain foods such as meatloaf and mashed potatoes or turkey on Thanksgiving improve people’s mood and give them satisfaction. That “link to home” will be important to astronauts on the Mars mission, and there are currently two academic studies looking further into the connection between food and disposition.
Jerry Linenger, a retired astronaut who spent 132 days on the Russian space station in 1997, said the monotony of eating the same thing day after day is difficult. “You just wanted something different. I didn’t care if it was something I wouldn’t eat in a million years on Earth. If it was different, I would eat it,” Linenger said, recalling with a laugh how he would even drink up a Russian sour milk-like concoction for breakfast or drink some borscht because it offered variety.
Go veggie in Mars
Cooper’s team of three has already come up with about 100 recipes, all vegetarian because the astronauts will not have dairy or meat products available.
To ensure the vegetarian diet packs the right amount of protein, the researchers are designing a variety of dishes that include tofu and nuts, including a Thai pizza that has no cheese but is covered with carrots, red peppers, mushrooms, scallions, peanuts and a homemade sauce that has a spicy kick.
To keep this menu going, and get the most out of any research about food sustainability on Mars, Cooper says it is possible NASA will choose to have one astronaut solely dedicated to preparing the food.
Cooper is also building an alternate pre-packaged menu, similar to the ones for crews that do six-month stints on the International Space Station. For this option, however, the food will need to have a five-year shelf life compared with the two years now available. NASA, the Department of Defence and a variety of other agencies are researching ways to make that possible, said Cooper.
Will NASA get the fund?
One of the biggest obstacles at the moment may be the budgetary constraints. President Barack Obama’s budget proposal in February cancelled a joint US-European robotic mission to Mars in 2016, and the rest of NASA’s budget has also been cut.
At the moment, Michele Perchonok, advanced food technology project scientist at NASA, said about $1 million on average is spent annually on researching and building the Mars menu. NASA’s overall budget in 2012 is more than $17 billion.
The mission is important - it will give scientists the opportunity for unique research on everything from looking for other life forms and for the origin of life on Earth to the effects of partial gravity on bone loss. It will also let food scientists examine the question of sustainability. “How do we sustain the crew, 100 percent recycling of everything for that two and a half years?” Perchonok said.

High on Higgs

Archana Sharma: An inspiration for Indian scientists. Photo: Special Arrangement

            The Hindu Archana Sharma: An inspiration for Indian scientists. Photo: Special Arrangement
‘I never thought I would end up at the Mecca of particle physics.’ Archana Sharma, the only Indian scientist in the Higgs Boson team, talks about her journey to CERN.
The Higgs Boson experiment at CERN has created a huge buzz over the past few weeks, but it’s been even more exciting to find an Indian connection to it. Archana Sharma is the only Indian scientist who has been involved in the Higgs Boson experiment. Currently a Staff Physicist at the CERN headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, Archana finished her post-graduation from the Banaras Hindu University and her doctorate from Delhi University. She moved to Geneva for her post doctoral research.
Over a career of 23 years, all of which has been with CERN one way or the other, she has helped make CERN accessible to Indian students by facilitating student visits and providing prestigious internships. She lives with her husband in a tiny village called Russin close to CERN. Excerpts from an interview
What was your individual contribution to the CERN effort in finding the Higgs Boson?
My contribution to the CERN R&D effort has been at various levels over the years. The CERN effort is the culmination of a large number of scientists across the world and I am just one of them. Being the only permanent Indian staff at the CERN facility is a matter of pride and privilege. I worked on design and prototyping the present generation of “muon” detectors currently operational. These are crucial for the “gold plated” discovery channel for the Higgs Boson. My major task is developing radiation hard detectors for CMS for sustained operation at LHC upgrades in this decade and the next.
How did you address the challenges of being part of the CERN facility?
The initial phase was a bit tough. I was still completing studies and working at CERN on detector development, and this was quite challenging especially because I was in a foreign country with very few Indians. At that time we were a young family and there was a point where I wouldn’t do justice to anything and I felt like giving up quite a few times. It was also daunting partly because of the complexity of instrumentation and the experiments. The day to day challenges of information management, laboratory schedules learning and progressing in a foreign land was massive. I am glad I overcame it. Obviously, my family was the backbone for my success here.  
How did you address obstacles of being a woman through your academic career from India to Geneva?
Growing up as a girl in Jhansi and studying at St. Francis’ Convent, I never thought I would end up at the Mecca of particle physics. Just like any other middle class kid in India, education and emphasis on career was the only way to salvation. With both parents being teachers, the focus on performance was immense. I never dreamt of becoming a doctor or engineer, which was the pinnacle of doing well those days. My dreams lay more on the basis of being able to do something meaningful and impactful in life than to just earn money.
Being a woman made it even more challenging, given the social norms, but the support of my parents, close family and teachers was overwhelming. It made me what I am today. I chose Nuclear Physics against electronics and solid state physics at BHU simply due to the “outstanding” set of teachers. I always admired women who worked through adversities and did pioneering work. In addition, my mother is the epitome, of diligence! My father had an amazing confidence in my abilities; I wish he was here today!
Do you find more women coming through the ranks in the Indian scientific establishment?
Absolutely. Women scientists have come a long way in India. From being liabilities and ostracised, I find that many are interested in science. Parents are also excited about careers for women in science. There are also sufficient role models for them to look up to. In my current batch of interns from India, 75 per cent are girls! On an average, about 50 per cent of the Indian contingent on interns are women, which is quite telling in terms of selection criteria. I see a very bright future for Indian women in science!
You have helped Indian students intern at CERN over the years. Did you always want to give back to the country and its people?
Being in this privileged position, it was only natural. I always felt it would be beneficial for the students and it is always a pleasure to help them. Giving students an opportunity to see hands-on technology, talk to the best in the field, attend seminars by Nobel laureates, the work culture, team work and international environment helps their dreams grow. Each student represents an enormous potential; I can only be happy that I have contributed towards unleashing that potential.
Lastly, your advice to aspiring Indian scientists?
Dream and it is possible. I firmly believe that more and more scientists from India will be contributing to this effort. India’s contribution to the CERN facility is already quite substantial, and can be taken to another level. Around 150 Indian scientists have been associated in one way or another and, in the last few years, collaborations with Indian institutions and universities have grown dramatically.
Indian youngsters have the potential and I truly hope many aspiring scientists make it here to then give back a tiny bit so that the spiral of progress can continue.  There is something for every aspiring scientist to do; however small, however big. I firmly believe that every one who wants to can participate and contribute.

Post title

Rajivalochan Subramaniam at CERN (bottom right). Photo: Special arrangement

           Rajivalochan Subramaniam at CERN (bottom right). Photo: Special arrangement
Rajivalochan Subramaniam found that his real goal actually lay in high energy physics. Here's how he found it.
Born and brought up at West Mambalam in Chennai, Rajivalochan Subramaniam considered himself a failure at a U.S. university before rediscovering himself in the field of high energy physics. A Ph.D was once a distant dream for Rajiv. It is the support of his father A. Subramanian, a retired government officer, and mother Latha and his grandparents, that has enabled him to pursue his dream at CERN, Geneva.
After schooling at Sri Sitaram Vidyalaya (2001) and Shri Ahobila Mutt Oriental School (2003) in West Mambalam, where he grew up on mathematics, he studied Electrical and Electronics Engineering at the Bannari Amman Institute of Technology at Sathyamangalam. His final-year project was funded by the Tamil Nadu State Council for Science and Technology in 2007.
In August 2008, Rajiv joined the Electrical Engineering Master’s programme at Louisiana Tech University, USA, where he got partial scholarship.
In the U.S., there is an option to design one’s master’s curriculum, and Rajiv chose a combination of research and academics. “A majority of Indian students at the university chose the academics option as most of them are interested in a job. Having made a tough decision, I struggled during my first year of MS,” he says. The open book tests were more difficult than the closed book ones and the research work in electrodynamics made no sense to him. After nine months he quit that research, realising he was not cut out for electrodynamics. This statement of Einstein came to his mind then: Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid. “One year on American soil ended in the Fall of 2009. All of my educational loan was spent and I was depleted financially and morally. My self-confidence was very low during this time as I considered myself a failure,” recalls Rajiv.
It was during this hard period that he met his current adviser/professor Dr. Markus Wobisch who is involved in high energy physics. At that time he did not know that his life was going to change. Prof. Wobisch was working with the U.S. Fermi National Lab located in Chicago and Rajiv’s electrical background was good for high energy physics research. “Even for the very minor results that I showed him, he encouraged me to such an extent that I really gained confidence in life.”
This moral support pushed him to become a successful Ph.D student. Seeing his progress, the department chair, Dr. Lee Sawyer decided to involve him in mankind’s biggest collaborative experiment, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). And that is how he started working at the ATLAS detector at the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN), Geneva, exactly two years before the discovery of the Higgs boson-like particle.
In July 2010, he arrived at CERN. CERN is an underground lab which spans the Franco-Swiss border with a circumference of 27 km and is 100 metres under the ground.
At CERN, students, academicians and scientists do collaborative work for common goals. CERN tries to answer fundamental questions about the universe. The Standard Model is a basic model in modern physics. It lists and classifies all fundamental particles and forces, many of which were discovered at CERN. There were many parallel experiments at CERN and one of the main goals was to search for the Higgs boson.
The universe is filled with a field called the Higgs Field and the particles of the field are called Higgs bosons. Assume that a swimming pool is the universe and a HO molecule is equivalent to a Higgs Boson. As you cannot see water molecule in a swimming pool you cannot see the Higgs boson in the Higgs Field.
About 48 years ago, Peter Higgs and a few other scientists postulated this theory. The mathematics behind the theory was so wonderful that people started liking it .When most scientists agreed on the idea and were able to convince governments, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) experiment came to life in 1990.
The Indian government has spent USD 40 million for the experiment and about 100 Indians have played a substantial role in the experiment. The total budget of the project is $10 billion. It took 20 years of hard work by over 10,000 scientists around the world to build these pyramids of the 21st Century. Along with students from India, other Indians studying in the U.S. and universities around the world also contribute to a great extent.
“After years of hard work we started taking data in 2010 March. By the end of 2011, there was no success but we got a few hints about the mass of the particle. In 2012 March-June, we started seeing positive results,” says Rajiv who personally contributed by selecting the interesting data to be recorded for detailed study, called “trigger system” in scientific terms.

9 Jul 2012

Darkness no more!

Say solar: An eco-friendly choice.

      Say solar: An eco-friendly choice.

Project Suryaprakash helps to light up villages in Maharashtra
Two Maharashtra villages recently experienced electricity for the first time — thanks to Tata Power Community Development Trust’s (TPCDT) new initiative ‘Project Suryaprakash’. Remotely located Limbarvadi and Bhadaskonda villages in the Mulshi region of Pune benefitted from the project.
The project is one of the initiatives to facilitate the implementation of a NABARD scheme of solar energy based home lighting system (HLS). It is being provided technological support by Tata BP Solar.
“Project Suryaprakash was launched with an aim to empower the existing network of self help groups (SHGs) in the process of creating awareness and making HLS accessible to communities. As the existing network of SHG comprises mostly women, the project has been designed to empower womenfolk. Training programmes have been designed for the beneficiaries and the trainees. Mostly women will be assisting the Tata team in the installation process,” a company release stated. 
The uniqueness of the project is that the villagers themselves are doing the entire funding, training, operations and maintenance jobs and TPCDT has only been a facilitator by tying up with NABARD for government subsidy and bank loans.
According to the model, the SHG will be running the scheme, employing two persons and will be responsible for repayment of loans. TPCDT also plans to sign a memorandum of understanding with Bank of Maharashtra for financing the project.
S. Padmanabhan, chairman of TPCDT, said that the project aims at lighting up 1,000 households of various communities in Maharashtra. “We look forward to the support of various stakeholders who will be instrumental in fulfilling the lighting requirements of the targeted number of households,” he added. 

Animal death toll in Kaziranga rises to 560

A deer lies dead on a street near Kaziranga National Park in Guwahati on Saturday.

           AP A deer lies dead on a street near Kaziranga National Park in Guwahati on Saturday.
At least 560 animals, including 14 one-horned rhinos, have perished in the world-famed Kaziranga National Park during the ongoing floods in Assam.
Hog deer have suffered the most with 481 of them killed in the current floods, while 10 swamp deer, 18 sambars, 36 wild boars, five porcupines, two hog badgers, two gaurs (Indian bison), two wild buffaloes and a fox have also perished in the deluge, Assam Forest and Environment Minister Rockybul Hussain said today.
The UNESCO World Heritage Park, which hosts two-thirds of the world’s Great One-horned rhinos, was still flooded though the water was receding and more carcasses were found floating.
Speeding vehicles have also claimed the lives of about 25 hog deer, while two rhinos were killed by poachers.
The Park, located on the edge of the Eastern Himalaya biodiversity hotspot, has been flooded since June 26 and within a couple of days nearly 80 per cent of its 430 km area was inundated with only the natural and artificial highlands spared where the animals fled for shelter.
The Park, which experiences floods annually, has earlier suffered extensively in 1988 when 1023 animals had died and again in 1998 when 652 animals had perished.
The devastating floods have also caused extensive damage to roads, bridges and approaches to bridges though the actual extent of the damage was yet to be ascertained, he said.
Meanwhile, Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has appealed the Prime Minister for Rs two crore for infrastructural development in the forest department, Hussain added.

ICRISAT chief for cultivation of GM crops

‘Biotechnology is an efficient scientific solution to increase crop productivity, enhance income for small farmers’
William D. Dar, Director General of International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), has said that biotechnology will pay an indispensable role in empowering the rural sector by helping increasing the food production multi-fold to meet the needs.
Speaking at a workshop organised by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) here on Friday, Dr. Dar said biotechnology was an efficient scientific solution to increase crop productivity, to enhance income for small farmers and to improve nutrition in developing countries such as India.
“India is facing a paradoxical situation where it has over 60 million tonnes of foodgrain reserves on one hand and about 42 per cent of the country’s children are malnourished on the other due to lack of nutritious food,” he observed. There was a need to overcome such a strange situation, he felt by stressing the need to move beyond Bt cotton and embrace GM food crops, which could contribute the fight against poverty enormously.
Project Director of National Research Centre on Plant Biotechnology P. Anand Kumar said two golden rice varieties with vitamin-A -- Swarna and Jaya would be tested in open fields in 2013 and the Bt pigeon pea and chickpea would be released for field trials in 3-4 years.
Dinesh Kumar of Directorate of Oilseeds Research, S. Sivakumar of ITC Agribusiness Division, S.V.R. Rao of Nuziveedu Seeds and several others spoke.

Looking up to the sun

The kitchen complex of the Shirdi ashram has 73 parabolic dishes to capture the sun’s rays.

            The kitchen complex of the Shirdi ashram has 73 parabolic dishes to capture the sun’s rays.
India’s pilgrim centres, industries, learning centres and other institutions are increasingly looking to the sky for tapping solar energy for their kitchens that cater to thousands on a day-to-day basis. A look at the green move by M.A. Siraj
India has a large number of pilgrim centres that attract visitors from across the globe all round the year. It is a tradition that these centres, with large community kitchens, cater to the visiting clientele with variety food. Green sensibilities have entered these kitchens too, as they are tapping solar energy and slowly shedding the old energy-guzzling ways of cooking. A lot of industrial and commercial canteens are getting rid of their old ways of polluting the environment and have installed solar cooking systems.
The Saibaba Ashram at Shirdi in Maharashtra commissioned its giant solar cooking system in 2009. The kitchen complex of the Ashram has 73 parabolic dishes to capture the sun’s rays to run what is touted as the world’s largest solar cooking system to cook food for 50,000 devotees daily.
The system taps the sun’s rays to generate 3,600 kg of steam daily and saves nearly 100,000 kg of cooking gas annually. The system cost the Ashram Rs. 1.3 crore. Of this the Central Government’s non-renewable energy sector provided a Rs. 58 lakh as subsidy.
Steam cooking is clean, efficient and hygienic, especially when food is cooked for large numbers. The dish antennas concentrate solar rays on a giant reflector which transfers the heat to generate steam with temperature ranging between 550 and 600 degrees Celsius. With an automated sun tracking system, the dishes rotate continuously along with the movement of the sun, always concentrating the solar rays on the receivers. However, the dishes have to be manually rotated back each evening to the east in line with the rising sun for the next morning. As the solar system is hooked up with boilers, it can take care of a few non-sunshine hours too. But a back-up is needed for prolonged spell of rainy and cloudy days.
Emission reduction credits
At the solar-operated Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam kitchen at Tirupati where food is cooked daily for 15,000 pilgrims, the system installed in 2002 atop the shrine’s ‘Nitya Annadanam Canteen’ has adopted the solar cooking technology to drastically cut down on diesel fuel it was using till then.
The temple now sells the emission reduction credits it earns to a Swiss green energy technology investor firm, Good Energies Inc.
It not only takes care of energy and ecology but is also a source of revenue for the temple. The shrine now saves Rs. 17 lakh per annum. The system reduces the carbon dioxide emission by 1.2 tonnes per day.
The system, costing Rs. 1.1 crore, had its managing body, the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam Board, contributing half the amount while another half came as a subsidy from the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy. The solar cooking system in both these shrines was installed by Gadhia Solar Energy Systems (GSES), a Gujarat-based company.
The initiative
Gadhia Solar was set up by entrepreneur Deepak Gadhia who brought the parabolic dishes-based solar concentrators (developed by Austrian scientist Wolfgang Scheffler) and began manufacturing solar cookers at his unit at Valsad near Mumbai.
The ingenuity behind the work was identified by Rajiv Gandhi while on a visit to Germany in 1984 when Gadhia was working on heat recovery and water harvesting system in a German University.
Responding to the invitation of the Indian Investment Office under the then PMO, Gadhia and team settled down in India.

For industrial canteens

While mass cooking facilities at several shrines gave them a big break, they also set up such facilities for industrial canteens at IBM, Bangalore; Sanghi Industries, Hyderabad; Pricol Industries, Coimbatore; and public sector companies such as GACL and GSFC and also at several residential schools, Defence establishments and hospitals.
Says Gadhia, “ Temples were more open to idea of using heavenly energy for cooking, as they also had large numbers coming in for prasad. These systems are more viable there. But once the systems were installed, we soon moved on to other target groups.”
These cooking/heating facilities show the way India should go in tapping new energy sources as the country’s current installed capacity of 147,458 MW is still eight per cent short of the demand of power.
Demand growing
Energy expert A. Ravindra says demand is growing by eight per cent annually and conventional fuels are getting exhausted. It was only in 2008 that investments in the renewable energy sector in India exceeded those in the fossil fuel sector.
Following the lead of the shrine at Tirumala, the Brahmakumari Instituteat Abu Road in Rajasthan installed a solar cooking system to cook food for 10,000 persons daily in 2005.
Rishi Valley Residential School at Madanapalle, 220 km east of Bangalore, has also installed a solar cooking system for its kitchen which prepares food for 500 inmate-students.
The School’s Dining Manager Harindran says the system serves them for 300 sunny days and saves them nearly Rs. 2 lakh annually on cooking gas.
The Art of Living Foundation in Bangalore is also generating power through biogas plants and recycling the wastewater within their premises.
Other applications
Gadhia’s company has developed several applications for solar concentrators (besides cooking) such as for wastewater evaporation, air-conditioning, desalination, heating and cooling, solar incinerators for bio-medical waste for hospitals, solar crematoriums, solar driers etc. Solar systems for housing colonies and blocks are amenable to multi-tasking and can be used for heating water for bathing, for preparing drinking water (pasteurisation), desalination, steam cooking, air-conditioning and for power generation with micro-turbines.
“By doing such projects we reduce the cost of products for individuals. It is similar to having a central TV antenna instead of every household having its own antenna.
It reduces the cost and improves the efficiency and optimises the use of systems,” observes Deepak Gadhia.

The possibilities

India is blessed with abundant sunshine which offers ample opportunity to tap solar energy for the country’s growing needs. It is estimated that if solar panels were installed on only four per cent area of Thar desert in Rajasthan, India can generate power to the tune of 100,000 MW, about two-thirds of its present installed capacity. Thar desert sprawls over an area of nearly 200,000 sq. km.

5 Jul 2012

God exists


Scientists at the CERN research centre near Geneva on Wednesday unveiled their latest findings in their search for the Higgs boson, a subatomic particle key to the formation of stars, planets and eventually life after the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago. Some facts about the ‘God particle’:
What is the Higgs Boson?
The particle is theoretical, first posited in 1964 by six physicists, including Briton Peter Higgs. It is the last missing piece of the Standard Model, the theory that describes the basic building blocks of the universe. The other 11 particles predicted by the model have been found and finding the Higgs would validate the model. Ruling it out or finding something more exotic would force a rethink on how the universe is put together.
What is the Standard Model?
It is the best explanation physicists have of how the building blocks of the universe are put together. It describes 12 fundamental particles, governed by four basic forces. But the Standard Model only explains a small part of it. Scientists have spotted a gap between what we can see and what must be out there. That gap must be filled by something we don’t fully understand, which they have dubbed ‘dark matter’. Galaxies are also hurtling away from each other faster than the forces we know about suggest they should. This gap is filled by ‘dark energy’. This poorly understood pair are believed to make up a whopping 96 per cent of the mass and energy of the cosmos. Confirming the Standard Model, or perhaps modifying it, would be a step towards a ‘theory of everything’ that encompasses dark matter, dark energy and the force of gravity, which the Standard Model does not explain.

God particle-Higgs&Bose in Higgs Boson


Higgs boson

Satyendra Nath Bose
The sub-atomic particle “boson” is named after Bengali physicist Satyendra Nath Bose whose pioneering work in the field in the early 1920s changed the way particle physics has been studied. The work done by Bose and Albert Einstein laid the foundation for the discovery of the God particle. While paying tribute to Bose’s work, Paolo Giubellino, a CERN spokesperson, had said back in October last year, that “India is like a historic father of the project”. Bose specialised in mathematical physics. A Fellow of the Royal Society, he was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 1954. Bose was born in Calcutta, the eldest of seven children. His father, Bose, worked in the Engineering Department of the East Indian Railway Company. Bose never received a doctorate, nor was he awarded a Nobel Prize, though the Nobel committee recognised other scientists for research related to concepts he developed.

Peter Higgs

Higgs is best known for his 1960s proposal of broken symmetry in electroweak theory, explaining the origin of mass of elementary particles in general and of the W and Z bosons in particular. This Higgs mechanism predicts the existence of a new particle, the Higgs boson — which derives its first name from him. Higgs was born in Wallsend, North Tyneside, England. His father worked as a sound engineer for the BBC. Higgs was a professor at the University of Edinburgh.
Higgs paper about his theory was initially rejected. But this was a blessing in disguise, since it led Higgs to add a paragraph introducing the now-famous Higgs particle. In 1964, Higgs wrote two papers on what is now known as the Higgs field. The journal Physics Letters accepted the first but sent the second back. After adding a paragraph predicting the new particle, he submitted the paper to competing journal Physical Review Letters, which published it.

Scientists may announce discovery of Higgs Boson

The painting shows how a Higgs boson may look. Scientists at CERN plan to make an announcement on Wednesday - AP file photo

The painting shows how a Higgs boson may look. Scientists at CERN plan to make an announcement on Wednesday - AP file photo
It has been fancifully dubbed the angel of creation and, to the particular scorn of physicists, the god particle.
The Higgs Boson is said to have appeared out of the chaos of the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago and turned the flying debris from that primeval explosion into galaxies, stars, and planets.
Its formal discovery, according to a broad scientific consensus, would be the greatest advance in knowledge of the universe in decades.
But until now, in the four decades of research since its existence was first posited, no-one has claimed to have more than seen a hint of the Higgs Boson.
This may be about to change.
On Wednesday at the CERN particle physics research centre near Geneva, two separate teams of 'Higgs Hunters' - a term they profess to hate - may well announce they have spotted it.
Or at least something that looks incredibly like it.
"Think of it as a smoking duck," says Oliver Buchmueller, a senior scientist on one of the teams, the CMS.
"If it walks like a Higgs and it quacks like a Higgs, then we would have to at least consider the possibility that we have a prominent new member of the Boson family on our hands."
The Higgs Boson is a vital component of the 'Standard Model' - the all-encompassing 30-year-old scientific theory of how the universe works at the simplest level.
Without it, says U.S. physicist Matt Strassler, "nothing like human beings, or the earth we live on, could exist".
Why a Boson
Why is it called a Boson? Because elementary particles, the building blocks of the cosmos, come in two types - bosons and fermions - and the Higgs has been assigned to the first.
Physicists say the particle is like a wave from what would be the otherwise invisible Higgs field and would provide prime evidence that that underlying force is there.
Buchmueller, like all scientists at CERN, is silent on what might be revealed on July 4 by scientists who have analysed the product of many trillions of mini-big bangs created over the past two years in CERN's Large Hadron Collider (LHC).
"We will all just have to be patient till Wednesday," says Pauline Gagnon, a Canadian physicist on CMS' rival team Atlas, blogging from a big particle physics conference in Australia.
Last December, CMS and Atlas told a similar seminar at the sprawling CERN campus on the Swiss-French border, that they had seen "tantalising glimpses" of what could be the boson, named after 82-year-old British theoretical physicist Peter Higgs.
Since then, power in the underground LHC has been ramped up and the rate of almost light-speed particle collisions in it has been tripled in an attempt to produce something more definite.
A sense that "something" has been seen has been bolstered not only by the announcement of the CERN seminar and a live video feed to the Melbourne congress but by other linked events scheduled around the globe.
New York's Columbia University said it was holding an early-hours pyjama party in the hope of seeing "sub-atomic fireworks".
Various forms
In London, a concert hall across from the Houses of Parliament has been booked for a similar, but daytime, event. Japanese, Russian and Chinese scientists will be watching too.
At the U.S. Fermilab near Chicago, where scientists spent three decades looking for the Higgs in their Tevatron collider which was shut down last December as Washington cut off funds, another seminar has been set for Monday.
That gathering, according to the centre's daily bulletin, will hear the final "Higgs results" from the Tevatron, a much less powerful machine than the mighty LHC.
But just what will be announced at CERN - and Fermilab - remains far from clear.
To claim a discovery, scientists have to have a "5 sigma" certainty - or be sure that there is less than a one in a million chance it is a fluke.
The Higgs, both field and boson, could come in various forms, specialists say, and although one type may have been seen it may yet take time to determine exactly which one it is.
The question will probably remain open on whether it is a Standard Model version, or something else that will take scientists into the science fiction realms of "New Physics".
"It could prove to be a single child or have siblings, and what its hair colour or genetic code is would remain to be established before we know its true nature," said Buchmueller.

"This is just the beginning of a long journey"

R. Ramachandran

“As a layman, we have it,” is what Rolf Heur, Director-General of CERN, said at the end of the seminar
Yes. The long-sought Higgs boson, dubbed by lay media as ‘God Particle’ much to the dislike and discomfiture of scientists, may have been discovered. This essentially was the take home message of the much publicised and keenly awaited seminar on Wednesday at CERN, the Geneva-based European Centre for Nuclear Research. CERN houses the huge underground 27 km-long ringed particle accelerator called the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) with the search for the Higgs particle as one of its main goals.
The Higgs boson, hypothesised in the 1960s by three groups of scientists (Peter Higgs and five others) independently, is the crucial missing piece in an otherwise enormously successful theoretical framework called the Standard Model which accurately describes the fundamental particles and forces of nature. The masses of fundamental particles of nature are determined by the strengths of their interaction with Higgs. Without the Higgs particle matter in the universe will have no mass. So its existence is a vital cornerstone for describing the universe correctly.
For the lay public at large, the uncertainty signified by the use of ‘may’ above does not really matter as it arises purely from technical considerations. The two key experiments at the LHC – CMS and ATLAS – designed to look for the hypothesised Higgs particle have found unambiguous signals for the observation of a new boson. This new particle waddles like a Higgs and quacks like a Higgs. But is it the Higgs particle of the Standard Model that scientists have been searching for the last nearly four decades? At this point of time, however, LHC scientists would like to duck the question. They would like to ascertain other characteristics of the new particle before definitively dubbing it as the Standard Model Higgs.
“As a layman, we have it,” is indeed what Rolf Heur, the Director-General of CERN, said at the end of the seminar. But more correctly, he added: “[We have] observed a new particle consistent with a Higgs boson. There is a lot of work ahead of us. We also now know which direction to go. This is just the beginning of a long journey.” At the press conference that followed the seminar, Joe Incandela, the spokesperson for the CMS experiment clearly stated: “[Before the LHC shuts down for maintenance three months later], it would be difficult to say definitively that it is the Standard Model Higgs.”
While the LHC is designed to accelerate protons up to 7 TeV per beam (total collision energy of 14 TeV), since its commissioning in 2010, the beam energy has been gradually ramped up. After operating at 7 TeV (3.5 TeV per beam) till end-2011, it was increased to 4 TeV per beam (8 TeV of total energy) in April. This increase in energy, along with unprecedented performance of the accelerator, the detectors, improved techniques of analysis and the intense computation on the worldwide LHC computational grid established, is what has enabled this landmark finding within a short time of two and a quarter years since LHC went into operation.
In terms of numbers, till the end of 2011, the experiments took data from about 400 trillion proton-proton collisions at 7 TeV of total energy, when there were already tantalising hints of a Higgs-like signal at around a mass value of 125 G(iga) eV. (At relativistic energies, mass and energy are interchangeable in accordance with Einstein’s E=mc2 relation. So masses of particles are measured in units of energy. The mass of a proton is about 1 GeV.) But it was not statistically significant to call it a discovery of a particle. The statistical significance of the bump or excess of events around 125 GeV at end-2011 was only at the level of about 3 sigma, which means one-in-750 chance of being due to statistical fluctuation, which is far from the ‘golden rule’ for discovery of 5 sigma, which means there is only one-in-3.5 million chance of being wrong.
But the data taken in just 3 months (from April 5 to June 18) at 8 GeV of collision energy — from about 500 trillion proton-proton collisions — has surpassed the data taken in all of 2011 at 7 TeV. Moreover, the Standard Model predicts that at 8 TeV there is an enhancement in the probability of producing a Standard Model Higgs by a factor of 1.27, Aleandro Nisati of the ATLAS experiment said in an email response. So if you do the arithmetic of combining the effect of increased energy and that of higher proton-proton collision rate because of better accelerator performance, scientists now have 2.6 more Higgs-like events at 8 TeV for every Higgs-like event at 7 TeV in 2011.
All these have contributed to improved statistics in the data gathered, in particular for two of the five important decay channels available to Higgs — namely its decay into two photons and to four charged leptons (electrons/muons) — whose data were presented on Wednesday. These channels are considered important because these allow the Higgs mass to be measured with greater precision. The later is, in fact, called the Golden Channel because it is much cleaner compared to the other channels. The analysis had also been particularly optimised to pick Higgs-like events decaying into these final states, according to Nisati.
According to the presentations made on Wednesday by Joe Incandela and Fabiola Gianotti, the respective spokespersons of CMS and ATLAS respectively, both the experiments, which have worked entirely independently of each other, observed a “new particle” in the mass region around 125 – 126 GeV at 5 sigma level. The world physicist community had not really expected that the 5 sigma level would be attained so quickly. Both presented results from their analyses only of 2 photon and 4 lepton channels.
Specifically, the mass value given by CMS to this Higgs-like particle from is 125.6 GeV with an error window of 0.6 GeV, and that given by ATLAS is 125.3 GeV with an error bar of 0.6 GeV. It is clear that both the results are consistent with each other within experimental errors. The immediate next step for these experiments is first to analyze data from the remaining three channels of Higgs decay and check for consistency LHC before shuts down for maintenance. The larger task in months ahead is to ascertain whether the other properties of this new Higgs-like particle fit the predicted properties of the Higgs boson or is it something entirely different.

The process within the LHC

R. Ramachandran
At the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), two counter-rotating beams of protons accelerated to high energy are made to collide head-on to result in the creation of myriad particles, known and unknown. From the debris of trillions of such collisions, scientists look for signals characteristic of processes involving the Higgs boson. Higgs is a very short-lived particle with a lifetime of only about ten-thousandth of a billionth of a second. Once created, the Higgs boson will immediately decay into several channels and experiments analyse the final products of such decays and see if these really came from the decay of a Higgs boson.
What makes this task really tough is to be able to pick the right events from a large background of other processes from known physics that mimic the decay of Higgs.
A signal for Higgs means that, in a plot of events observed, a bump sticks out above the large background from other mimicking processes. But such excess of events should be statistically significant to be ascribed to a new entity such as Higgs.
That is, the bump should not be explainable by statistical fluctuation in the background if there were no Higgs, and it is indeed due to processes involving Higgs. Statistical significance is measured in terms of what is called standard deviation (called sigma).
For any discovery in particle physics, the signal should be at least at ‘5 sigma level’ over the background, which is equivalent to one in 3.5 million chance of the bump being due to statistical fluctuation.

Elusive particle found, looks like Higgs boson

Rolf Heuer, Director-General of CERN, answers a journalist's question about the scientific seminar to deliver the latest update in the search for the Higgs boson in Meyrin near Geneva on Wednesday.

  • AP Rolf Heuer, Director-General of CERN, answers a journalist's question about the scientific seminar to deliver the latest update in the search for the Higgs boson in Meyrin near Geneva on Wednesday. 
  • British physicist Peter Higgs congratulates Fabiola Gianotti, ATLAS experiment spokesperson, after her results presentation during a scientific seminar to deliver the latest update in the search for the Higgs boson at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Meyrin near Geneva on Wednesday

                AP British physicist Peter Higgs congratulates Fabiola Gianotti, ATLAS experiment spokesperson, after her results presentation during a scientific seminar to deliver the latest update in the search for the Higgs boson at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Meyrin near Geneva on Wednesday 
  • Participants applaud after the presentation of the ATLAS experiments results during a scientific seminar to deliver the latest update in the search for the Higgs boson at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research in Meyrin near Geneva on Wednesday.

              AP Participants applaud after the presentation of the ATLAS experiments results during a scientific seminar to deliver the latest update in the search for the Higgs boson at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research in Meyrin near Geneva on Wednesday. 
  • A computer screen is pictured prior to a scientific seminar at CERN in Meyrin near Geneva on Wednesday. CERN's chief is claiming discovery of a new particle “consistent with the Higgs boson” known as the “God particle”.

           AP A computer screen is pictured prior to a scientific seminar at CERN in Meyrin near Geneva on Wednesday. CERN's chief is claiming discovery of a new particle “consistent with the Higgs boson” known as the “God particle”.
  • In this May 20, 2011 file photo, a physicist explains the ATLAS experiment on a board at the European Center for Nuclear Research, CERN, outside Geneva, Switzerland. The illustration shows what the long-presumed Higgs boson particle is thought to look like.

             AP In this May 20, 2011 file photo, a physicist explains the ATLAS experiment on a board at the European Center for Nuclear Research, CERN, outside Geneva, Switzerland. The illustration shows what the long-presumed Higgs boson particle is thought to look like. 
  • A view of the LHC (large hadron collider) in its tunnel at CERN near Geneva, Switzerland. File Photo

               AP A view of the LHC (large hadron collider) in its tunnel at CERN near Geneva, Switzerland. File Photo
CERN physicists hail evidence of game-changing discovery of subatomic particle
Scientists at the world’s biggest atom smashing facility near here claimed the discovery of a new subatomic particle on Wednesday. They found it to be “consistent” with the long-sought Higgs boson, popularly known as the “God particle” that helps explain what gives size and shape to all matter in the universe.
“We have now found the missing cornerstone of particle physics,” Rolf Heuer, Director of the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN), told scientists amid cheers and standing ovation. “As a layman, I think we did it,” he said. “We’ve a discovery. We’ve observed a new particle that is consistent with a Higgs boson.”
The Higgs boson, which until now was a theoretical particle, is seen as the key to understanding why matter has mass. It is mass that combines with gravity to give an object weight. The idea is much like gravity and Isaac Newton’s discovery of it. Gravity existed even before Newton explained it. But now scientists see something much like the Higgs boson and can put that knowledge to further use.
CERN’s atom smasher, the $10-billion Large Hadron Collider on the Swiss-French border, has for years been creating high-energy collisions of protons to investigate dark matter, antimatter and the creation of the universe, which many theorise occurred in a massive explosion known as the Big Bang.
Two independent teams at CERN said they had both “observed” a new subatomic particle, a boson. Dr. Heuer called it “most probably a Higgs boson, but we have to find out what kind of Higgs boson it is.”
Asked whether the find is a discovery, he answered: “As a layman, I think we have it. But as a scientist, I have to say, “’What do we have?’”
The leaders of the two CERN teams, Joe Incandela, head of CMS with 2,100 scientists, and Fabiola Gianotti, head of ATLAS with 3,000 scientists, each presented in complicated scientific terms what was essentially extremely strong evidence of a new particle.
Dr. Incandela said it was too soon to say definitively whether what has been discovered is indeed the “standard model” Higgs that Scottish physicist Peter Higgs and others predicted in the 1960s. They did that as part of a standard model theory of physics involving an energy field where particles interact with a key particle, the Higgs boson. “The” Higgs or “a” Higgs that was the question on Wednesday. “It is consistent with a Higgs boson as is needed for the standard model,” Dr. Heuer said. “We can only call it a Higgs boson, not the Higgs boson.”
“It is an incredible thing that it has happened in my lifetime,” he said, calling it a huge achievement for the proton-smashing collider built in a 27-km tunnel.
The stunning work elicited standing ovations and frequent applause at a packed auditorium in CERN as Dr. Gianotti and Dr. Incandela each took their turn. Dr. Incandela called it “a Higgs-like particle,” and said “we know it must be a boson and it’s the heaviest boson ever found.”
“Thanks, nature!” Dr. Gianotti said to laughs, giving credit for the discovery. Later, she said that “the standard model [of physics] is not complete,” but that “the dream is to find an ultimate theory that explains everything we are far from that.”
The phrase “God particle” was coined by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman but is used by laymen, not physicists, as an easier way to explain how the subatomic universe works and got started.
Dr. Incandela said the last undiscovered piece of the standard model could be a variant of the Higgs that was predicted, or something else that entirely changes the way scientists think of how matter is formed. “This boson is a very profound thing we’ve found,” he said. “We’re reaching into the fabric of the universe in a way we never have done before. We’ve kind of completed one particle’s story... now, we’re way out on the edge of exploration.”

Indians leave a footprint in CERN

In this file photo, the globe of the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, CERN, is seen outside Geneva.

             The Hindu In this file photo, the globe of the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, CERN, is seen outside Geneva.
As all eyes are on the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, famously known as CERN, Indian scientific and technological contributions are among the many that keep the world’s biggest particle physics laboratory buzzing.
In a ‘quantum’ leap in physics, CERN scientists on Wednesday claimed to have spotted a sub-atomic particle “consistent” with the Higgs boson or the “God particle”, believed to be a crucial building block that led to the formation of the universe.
There is an intrinsic Indian connection to what is happening at CERN — Satyendra Nath Bose. It is Bose after whom the sub-atomic particle boson is named.
His study changed the way particle physics has been studied ever since. The Higgs Boson is a particle that is theoretically the reason why all matter in the universe has mass.
The name Higgs Boson came from a British scientist Peter Higgs and Bose. The work done by Bose and Albert Einstein, later added by Higgs, lead to this pioneering day.
“India is like a historic father of the project,” Paolo Giubellino, CERN spokesperson had said back in October last year when PTI visited the facility.
At the core of the CERN, spread over two countries as it is situated near the Swiss-Franco border, is the 27-km long tunnel, over 70 metres beneath the ground, where the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) or commonly referred to as the Big Bang experiment was conducted last year.
The experiment had aimed to recreate the conditions of the Big Bang, when the universe is thought to have exploded into existence about 14 billion years ago.
The CERN runs a number of experimental projects and over 100 Indian scientists are working round the clock.

Significant contribution by Kolkata institute

The Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics (SINP) said in Kolkata on Wednesday that its scientists had made significant contributions to the development of the CMS experiments at CERN.
“This led to the observation of the new particle at 125.3 GeV, consistent with a Higgs Boson as predicted by the Standard Model of Particle Physics, announced just now,” SINP Director Milan Sanyal told PTI in Kolkata.
Stating that it was a historical moment in physics and SINP took pride in being a part of the history, he said “It will require more data and intense scrutiny to establish these findings beyond any doubt.
“This is an important moment for the development of science and I am very happy that our institute, this city and our country is part of the science revolution,” Mr. Sanyal said.
He said that the core CMS team of the SINP had five faculty members — group leader Prof. Sunanda Banerjee, Prof. Satyaki Bhattacharya, Prof. Suchandra Datta, Prof. Subir Sarkar and Prof. Manoj Saran.
Most of the team members, he said, had worked for more than a decade with the CMS experiment with notable contributions in the development of the experiment right from the early stage and were actively participating in the analysis of the incoming data.
He said that the SINP was committed to contribute in all areas of the future development and in participating in the exciting physics programme of the CMS experiment in the years ahead.
Mr. Sanyal said that the SINP had joined in the CMS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider facility through a memorandum of understanding with CERN signed here during the last visit of the CERN Director-General.
“Our institute has significantly expanded its collaborative research activities at CERN since then, particularly in three experimental areas, like ALICE, CMS abnd ISOLDE,” he said.
SINP is the oldest institute in the area of nuclear physics in India.

What next after a Higgs boson-like particle?

Vasudevan Mukunth

Convincing: The chances of error in the measurements are 1 in 3.5 million, sufficient to claim a discovery.

                AP Convincing: The chances of error in the measurements are 1 in 3.5 million, sufficient to claim a discovery.
The ATLAS (A Toroidal LHC Apparatus) collaboration at CERN has announced the sighting of a Higgs boson-like particle in the energy window of 125.3 ± 0.6 GeV. The observation has been made with a statistical significance of 5 sigma. This means the chances of error in their measurements are 1 in 3.5 million, sufficient to claim a discovery and publish papers detailing the efforts in the hunt.
Rolf-Dieter Heuer, Director General of CERN since 2009, said at the special conference called by CERN in Geneva, “It was a global effort, it is a global effort. It is a global success.” He expressed great optimism and concluded the conference saying this was “only the beginning.”
Another collaboration, called CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid), announced the mass of the Higgs-like particle with a 4.9 sigma result. While insufficient to claim a discovery, it does indicate only a one-in-two-million chance of error.
Joe Incandela, CMS spokesman, added, “We’re reaching into the fabric of the universe at a level we’ve never done before.”
The LHC will continue to run its experiments so that results revealed on Wednesday can be revalidated before it shuts down at the end of the year for maintenance. Even so, by 2013, scientists, such as Dr. Rahul Sinha, a participant of the Belle Collaboration in Japan, are confident that a conclusive result will be out.
“The LHC has the highest beam energy in the world now. The experiment was designed to yield quick results. With its high luminosity, it quickly narrowed down the energy-ranges. I’m sure that by the end of the year, we will have a definite word on the Higgs boson’s properties,” he said.
However, even though the Standard Model, the framework of all fundamental particles and the dominating explanatory model in physics today, predicted the particle’s existence, slight deviations have been observed in terms of the particle’s predicted mass. Even more: zeroing in on the mass of the Higgs-like particle doesn’t mean the model is complete. While an answer to the question of mass formation took 50 years to be reached, physicists are yet to understand many phenomena. For instance, why aren’t the four fundamental forces of nature equally strong?
The weak, nuclear, electromagnetic, and gravitational forces were born in the first few moments succeeding the Big Bang 13.75 billion years ago. Of these, the weak force is, for some reason, almost 1 billion, trillion, trillion times stronger than the gravitational force! Called the hierarchy problem, it evades a Standard Model explanation.
In response, many theories were proposed. One theory, called supersymmetry (SUSY), proposed that all fermions, which are particles with half-integer spin, were paired with a corresponding boson, or particles with integer spin. Particle spin is the term quantum mechanics attributes to the particle’s rotation around an axis.
Technicolor was the second framework. It rejects the Higgs mechanism, a process through which the Higgs boson couples stronger with some particles and weaker with others, making them heavier and lighter, respectively.
Instead, it proposes a new form of interaction with initially-massless fermions. The short-lived particles required to certify this framework are accessible at the LHC. Now, with a Higgs-like particle having been spotted with a significant confidence level, the future of Technicolor seems uncertain. However, “significant constraints” have been imposed on the validity of these and such theories, labelled New Physics, according to Prof. M.V.N. Murthy of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences (IMS), whose current research focuses on high-energy physics.

4 Jul 2012

A new strategy for advanced biofuels: Drop the advanced technology

The R&D facility that was located in Broomfield Colorado. This site is being moved to be adjacent to our first commercial production plant near Alexandria, Louisiana.
      Sundrop Fuels/NYT Syndicate The R&D facility that was located in Broomfield Colorado. This site is being moved to be adjacent to our first commercial production plant near Alexandria, Louisiana.
Sundrop Fuels, a startup based in Longmont, Colo., says it has found a way to break into the notoriously difficult advanced biofuels business: It’s putting its advanced technology on hold for now, and instead building a plant for converting wood chips into gasoline. The plant will use largely off-the-shelf technology, making it easier to get loans. It’s also planning to reduce costs by using cheap natural gas to generate the high temperatures needed in the plant, rather than using concentrated sunlight, as it had originally planned.
Sundrop plans to start construction on the plant _ which will have a 50 million-gallon capacity _ later this year near Alexandria, La. It recently announced a partnership with Uhde Corporation of America, a partner of the German engineering firm ThyssenKrupp Uhde, to develop the detailed engineering plans for the plant. Uhde will also supply a gasifier that turns biomass into carbon monoxide and hydrogen, which can be converted with the help of catalysts into a variety of fuels.
Sundrop had planned to use its own proprietary gasification technology, which operates at high temperatures _ over 1,200 degrees Celsius, or hundreds of degrees higher than some other gasifiers. The heat would be generated by concentrating sunlight, rather than by burning the biomass, the approach taken by other companies. Using heat from the sun would increase the amount of biomass that ends up as fuel, reducing the cost of transporting the bulky material. Operating at high temperatures would avoid the production of tars that can gum up equipment and interfere with later steps in the process.
Sundrop will continue to use high-temperature gasification to avoid tar production, but it will use a design from ThyssenKrupp that requires the introduction of oxygen. ThyssenKrupp’s technology is more expensive than Sundrop’s gasification technology, says Wayne Simmons, Sundrop’s CEO, but it’s commercially proven, which makes it easier for Sundrop to get loans to build a plant. Sundrop plans to prove its own technology by installing one of its gasifiers in the new plant, where it will be used to make about 10 per cent of the plant’s output. Sundrop plans to use its gasifier technology on a larger scale in future natural gas-powered plants.
The decision to use natural gas rather than solar heat reduces costs: In part due to recent low natural gas prices, it’s far cheaper to burn that fuel than to build a field of mirrors to concentrate sunlight. The natural gas, in addition to heating the gasifier, will also provide a source of extra hydrogen. The ratio of hydrogen and carbon in biomass isn’t the same as in gasoline _ the hydrogen from natural gas makes up the difference, increasing the fuel yield from biomass. The other option would be a reaction that uses carbon monoxide to produce hydrogen from water _ but that would lower yields and force Sundrop to truck in more biomass.
Switching to natural gas had another benefit. As with the decision to use conventional gasification technology, it has helped Sundrop finance its first plant. It attracted $155 million in funding from natural gas producer Chesapeake Energy, which was seeking to fund technologies that would increase demand for natural gas.
The use of natural gas means emissions have increased, however. When Sundrop used solar heat, its gasoline resulted in 90 per cent lower carbon dioxide emissions than conventional gasoline. But the company says the emissions will still be 60 per cent lower than with conventional gasoline.
The higher cost of the conventional gasifier will also make it difficult to run the process profitably _ even with the benefit of cheap natural gas. “It barely works,” Simmons says. “You wouldn’t build a whole lot of these plants, because your equity return wouldn’t be good. You do make a modest profit, but nothing like when you go to our (gasification) technology at large scale. It’s more of a strategy to get into the business.”