Illinois Public Media News
When the space shuttle Endeavour takes its final flight it will carry the handiwork of a Chicago-area scientist.
The shuttle will carry six postage-stamp sized samples of thin films made from specially engineered materials called grapheme and carbon nanotubes. Astronauts will mount them on the International Space Station, where they'll stay for at least six months.
The idea is to see how the nanomaterials hold up to the powerful radiation in space, which can cook normal materials, like silicon, used in computers. Northwestern University professor Mark Hersam, who created the samples, said the stakes are high for electronics in space.
"If you had a system on your spacecraft being controlled by a computer and all the sudden it didn't compute correctly, that would lead to serious problems," Hersam said.
The Endeavour was set to blast off Friday afternoon in what was expected to be the second-to-last shuttle flight for NASA, but the flight's take off was put was hold due to a technical problem.
(Photo courtesy of Andrew Campbell/Northwestern University)
Researchers in Chicago are beginning a study Tuesday that they hope will extend the life of urban trees.
All those trees you see lining shady Chicago sidestreets actually have it pretty rough. Their average lifespan is less than ten years. That's compared to fifty or sixty years for their suburban cousins.
Bryant Scharenbroch is a soil scientist with the Morton Arboretum. He said all those city roads and buildings make soil too dense.
"When you compact the soil to make it suitable for infrastructure, you're also making it kind of a hostile environment for trees," he said."
So scientists are testing out biochar, a sort of super-heated charcoal made from plant matter. Ancient Amazonians were using biochar on their crops centuries ago, but its affects on trees haven't been widely studied, said researcher Kelby Fite, with Bartlet Tree Experts.
Biochar adds nutrients into the soil, like compost, but lasts a lot longer.
"So compost may degrade in a matter of a handful of years, whereas biochar could be stable for hundreds, or even thousands of years," Fite said.
The researchers will monitor sample trees in the Bucktown neighborhood for the next couple years.
Disappointment today at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, as the museum was snubbed in its bid to host one of the retiring space shuttles.
The Adler piped the NASA announcement live into its 3-D Universe Theater. The assembled crowd offered polite applause as the winning institutions were announced: museums in Los Angeles, New York, Washington, DC and Florida.
Adler president Paul Knappanberger offered congratulations, though said he was a bit perplexed by the New York museum's success. He says it's a missed opportunity for the planetarium.
"A shuttle would have been a game changer, I think," he told reporters. "It's a national treasure, it's an icon of American achievement. I don't think any other artifact approaches that icon status."
The Adler is expected to get one of those other artifacts as a consolation prize -- the shuttle flight simulator used to train NASA astronauts. It's reportedly three stories tall and replicates the shuttle's crew compartment. Knappenberger called it the "next best thing," and said the museum will likely build a new enclosure to hold it.
Knappenberger says the failed shuttle campaign was funded almost completely with donated money and services.
(Photo courtesy of John F. Kennedy Space Center/Wikimedia Commons)
Chicago's Adler Planetarium is scheduled to find out Tuesday if it will be the future home of a NASA space shuttle.
NASA has four space shuttles it's looking to put on display. Adler Planetarium is one of 21 museums or science centers bidding to be the new home of a space shuttle.
The Smithsonian Institution has already laid claim to the oldest of the shuttles, Discovery. That leaves the fates of Atlantis, Endeavor and Enterprise up in the air. NASA estimates the cost to display one of the shuttles is around $28.8 million.
Adler Planetarium is facing off against other institutions such as the Museum of Flight in Seattle and the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. NASA is scheduled to announce the winning homes of the shuttles on Tuesday at noon from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
(Photo courtesy of John F. Kennedy Space Center/Wikimedia Commons)
Trace amounts of radiation from Japan have shown up in Illinois, but state officials say there's no reason for concern.
Minute levels of radioactive materials have been detected in both northern and central Illinois. The state's Emergency Management Agency says radioactive iodine was found in grass clippings in Will County and in an air sample collected at a lab in Springfield.
The materials are believed to be related to the troubled nuclear reactors in Japan, but Illinois' Director Jonathon Monken says the levels are extremely low and present no danger. For example, the air sample is 200,000 times lower than what is allowed for nuclear plant effluent.
Traces of iodine have shown up in other states. In Illinois, the state has stepped up its monitoring of grass, air, milk and eggs in the wake of the Japan crisis.
(With additional reporting from Illinois Public Radio)
Archaeologists have hard evidence that humans lived in North America much earlier than previously thought, and an Illinois researcher played a key role in nailing down the dates.
The earliest North Americans were long thought to be the Clovis people. Now archaeologists have dug up stone tools and debris from underneath a Clovis site in central Texas. The findings were discovered by researchers led by Michael R. Waters of Texas A&M University.
It was "like finding the Holy Grail," Waters said in a telephone interview. To find what appears to be a large open-air campsite "is really gratifying. Lucky and gratifying."
The trove of 15,528 artifacts included chipping debris from working stones and 56 tools such as blades, scrapers and choppers. The archaeologists sent samples to Steven Forman's lab at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he determined when the sediment around the objects was last exposed to sunlight.
The artifacts turn out to be about 15,000 years old - from millennia before the Clovis people. It's not the first evidence of cultures older than Clovis, but Forman says it may be the strongest.
"It appears to be that this might be kind of watershed piece of science in which people say, yes, there is really compelling evidence for pre-Clovis occupation in North America," Forman said. "It's no longer a red herring."
The small tools were "a mobile tool kit," Waters said, and of the type that could have led to the later development of the fluted points that trademark Clovis technology.
While there are other pre-Clovis sites across the country, Waters said the new find included significantly more artifacts than the others.
Anthropologist Tom D. Dillehay of Vanderbilt University, who was not part of the research team, said he is concerned that the separation of layers at the site "appears not to be as clear as the authors would have us believe."
University of Oregon archaeologist Dennis L. Jenkins said he was also initially skeptical of the find, commenting "it would have been a hard sell" from many other researchers.
Jenkins, who three years ago reported discovery of 14,000-year-old evidence of human DNA in a cave in Oregon, said he was concerned that settling or rodents had mixed up the specimens in Texas.
But, he said, Waters' team had done "incredible, meticulous scientific work." "I believe he's made the case," he said.
Jenkins said he would have preferred carbon-dating of the specimens, but that couldn't be done because there was no organic material to be tested in the newly found layer.
Steven L. Forman, of the University of Illinois, Chicago, a co-author of the paper, said the team used luminescence dating which can determine when the material was last exposed to light. They took samples by hammering black, sealed copper pipe into the layers. In a separate paper in the journal, researchers report evidence of early humans in south India more than a million years ago.
Researchers discovered more than 3,500 quartzite tools of the distinct Acheulian design used by the earliest humans in Africa starting more than 1.5 million years ago. They dated the tools to at least 1.07 million years old and some possibly 1.51 million years old.
The discovery at a site called Attirampakkam in the Kortallayar river basin helps anthropologists understand the spread of ancient people from Africa into Asia. Leading the research team was Shanti Pappu of the Sharma Centre for Heritage Education in Tamil Nadu, India.
The find is unprecedented for archaeological studies in India, said archaeologist Michael Petraglia of the University of Oxford, England, who was not part of the research team.
He said it could mean that early humans migrated out of Africa earlier than the oft-cited 1.4 million years ago, carrying the tools to southern Asia.
"The suggestion that this occurred at around 1.5 million years ago is simply staggering," he said.
The new find will likely overturn the history of ancient humans in North America. The results are out in the journal Science.
(Photo courtesy of Michael R. Waters/The Associated Press)
University of Illinois trustees have put off action on an Urbana campus wind turbine for at least three months, but speakers on both sides of the issue told trustees at their meeting in Springfield Wednesday they would prefer a quick decision.
For civil engineering student Amy Allen, the decision should be "yes". Allen, who is also president of Students for Environmental Concerns on the Urbana campus, told trustees that any further delay would just run up the cost for the wind turbine --- and perhaps kill the project entirely. She wants trustees to approve the wind turbine for its original site at South Farms.
"Re-siting the turbine and seeking an extension would kill the project," Allen said. "We ask that you approve the wind turbine at the next meeting of the board of trustees in June, or abandon it entirely, instead of consigning it to death by a thousand cuts."
But abandonment would be just fine for U of I faculty member Steven Platt. He told trustees that even if a site is found that won't disturb nearby homeowners, wind turbines are no longer on the cutting edge of energy technology.
"There are hundreds of large turbines in Illinois, thousands across the country," Platt said. "The time, if ever there was one, to erect what will amount to be a five-million-dollar symbol is long in the past."
A U of I board of trustees committee has decided to give the wind turbine project further study --- it could come up at the board's next meeting on June 9th in Chicago.
The Dewitt County Board meets Thursday night at 7 PM to consider public reaction over a measure by the Peoria Disposal Company to store a chemical substance in the Clinton Landfill known as polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.
The Clinton Landfill is owned by Area Disposal of Peoria, and in 2007 the landfill applied for permits with the Illinois and United States Environmental Protection Agency to store the toxins. The state branch of the EPA has already granted the landfill a permit, and U.S. EPA issued a draft permit.
While the U.S. EPA considers granting an official permit, the agency will hear comments on April 13 at Clinton High School about the public's response to putting toxins in the landfill. A report commissioned by the Dewitt County Board finds storing PCBs would present "a significant long-term threat" to groundwater resources in DeWitt County.
The county board may vote to present that information to the EPA during the public hearing next month. But Board Chair Melonie Tilley says that may not happen because of an agreement with Peoria Disposal stating that the board would not take a stance to "oppose or support" issuing a federal permit to the landfill.
That doesn't sit well with DeWitt resident George Wissmiller, who heads the environmental group, WATCH. Wissmiller says he does not want to see toxins stored in the landfill.
"It's going to be separated from the Mahomet Aquifer by three sheets of plastic, three feet of clay, and then an unknown number of feet of soil of unknown composition," Wissmiller explained. "All the studies I've ever seen have said that that protection will eventually fail."
Wissmiller said the DeWitt County Board has stayed neutral on the landfill PCB issue, and that sending the report to the federal EPA hearing would be a notable step for them.
The EPA banned most uses of PCBs in 1979, but they are extraordinarily persistent and can remain in the environment for a long time.
As Japanese officials scramble to stabilize nuclear reactors following last week's earthquake and tsunami, the focus has also shifted on the safety of nuclear power plants in the United States.
James Stubbins, head of nuclear engineering at the U of I, said of Illinois' 11 reactors, six are boiling water reactors similar to ones affected by the devastation in Japan. One is about 40 miles away from Urbana in Clinton. Stubbins said there is no reason to be concerned about the stability of these reactors because it is unlikely they will be faced with a tsunami, like the one in Japan.
"When we understand better what happened in Japan," Stubbins said. "We'll assess what really led to the problems and upgrade systems where necessary or upgrade methodologies where necessary to ensure that similar kinds of things can't happen here."
Stubbins said because the Clinton reactor is younger than those affected by the tsunami, it has a more up to date safety system in place.
In a recent New York Times editorial, David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists writes that the primary challenge for the Japanese reactors was losing their normal and back-up power supplies.
"The reactors were designed to cope with this situation for only eight hours, assuming that normal or back-up power would be restored within that time," Lochbaum said. "But the accident failed to follow that script, leading to serious problems cooling the reactor cores."
Lochbaum said "the one-two punch" from an earthquake and tsunami disabled numerous emergency systems.
According to Lochbaum, most reactors in the U.S. are designed to cope with power outages lasting only four hours. He said following the situation in Japan, measures should be taken to increase the chances of restoring power within the "assumed time period or providing better cooling options when that time runs out."
He noted that the incident in Japan is a reminder of the need to revisit emergency plans to make sure people are protected when a disaster hits.
A team of researchers from the University of Illinois will be going to Japan next week to survey the devastation caused by Friday's magnitude 8.9 earthquake and tsunami.
Doctoral candidate Hussam Mahmoud with the U of I's Mid-America Earthquake Center said one thing to learn from the world's 5th largest earthquake since 1900 will be how to better retrofit buildings. He said damage to newer structures will reveal flaws in design codes. But Mahmoud said Japan had already improved from prior designs, learning from the 1995 magnitude 7.2 quake near the city of Kobe that claimed more than 6,000 lives.
"Then we can see exactly what are the weak points we have in all design codes," Mahmoud said. "And the design really are no different in any countries of the world. What they have in Japan for design and the codes that we also have here, there's a lot of dissemation of information, there might be slight differences, but we're pretty much doing the same thing."
But Mahmoud said the tsunami and many fires associated with this earthquake make it very hard to assess the total loss of life, damage, and economic impact.
He said the information coming from his team's research in Japan will be distributed to thousands of agencies worldwide studying seismic activity.
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