Using California reservoirs like a battery // NASA’s Mars Helicopter // A gazillion ladybugs fill the sky // The fish with Dragonglass teeth // Lighter than air metal

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Week of June 7, 2019


California uses reservoirs and pumps to tackle climate change

PG&E Corp.

California has some of the most aggressive renewable energy goals in the country. The state is required to obtain at least 33% of its electricity from renewable resources by 2020, and 100% from carbon-free sources by 2045. That’s going to take a lot of energy storage, and the fact is that Lithium-ion batteries, like Elon Musk’s Powerwall, produce a few hundred megawatts of electricity at most and will not be up to the task.

Up in the Sierras, 50 miles east of Fresno, there is a natural battery of sorts that harnesses the power of gravity and has been around for over 20 years. Bloomberg writes about PG&E Corp.’s Helms Pumped Storage plant, which delivers over 1,200 megawatts every day, enough to power 900,000 homes, and it does so cleanly. It is kind of an amazing project.

The facility uses so-called “pumped-hydro storage”, basically turning existing reservoirs at different altitudes into a kind of battery. The idea is simple. Take two reservoirs at different elevations, connected by pipes or tunnels. When electricity is abundant, pump water from the lower reservoir to the one uphill. When the grid needs power, let the water flow back down through turbines.

Helms relies on energy from Diablo Canyon to power the pumps during the reverse cycle at night, but the amount of power generated when the water flows down during the day more than compensates for the power used at night, making the plant both environmentally friendly and economical. 

It’s century-old technology, but it works. There are seven in California alone. Unfortunately, they are very expensive (the projects can cost more than $1 billion to build), and there aren’t that many reservoirs around that meet the specifications to make pumped hydro work. That said, Nine projects are proposed in California. One proposed project by NextEra Energy Inc. would go near Joshua Tree National Park, but construction hasn’t started yet. 



NASA’s Mars Helicopter getting ready for its close-up 

The next big mission to Mars will carry more than the landers and rovers that we all know and love. In fact, the Mars 2020 mission will carry an actual helicopter. The advantages of a flying vehicle are obvious: you can go much farther and cross terrain that would be impossible for a ground-based system to traverse. But there’s a hitch: 

“Nobody’s built a Mars Helicopter before, so we are continuously entering new territory,” said MiMi Aung, project manager for the Mars Helicopter at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

It’s not like building a copter for Earth. The tenuous Martian atmosphere has 1% the density of Earth, so all the flight systems have to be engineered differently. And what about controlling the vehicle from Earth over large interplanetary distances? The dynamics are significantly more complicated than when driving a rover over the surface.

None of that is deterring the folks at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge, who have been testing the Mars Helicopter for the Mars 2020 launch.  It may be hovering above the red Martian landscape in 2021. However, the craft will carry no instruments. Its purpose is to prove that powered flight on Mars is possible.   



It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s a gazillion ladybugs!

There were no clouds in the sky the other day over San Bernardino County when a weather satellite picked up a large blob hovering in the air. Instead, the 80-mile by 80-mile mass was a massive cloud of ladybugs flying at between 5,000 and 9,000 feet. That’s a crazy amount of ladybugs. 

California is home to about 200 species of ladybugs, but scientists have not yet identified which species were seen in the radar image, but they say it’s likely they are Hippodamia convergens, known as the convergent lady beetle.

Los Angeles Times    NPR


The fish with Dragonglass teeth

Credit: Scripps Institution of Oceanography

The Dragonfish is a crazy-looking animal. Part of its allure is a set of dagger pointed teeth that happen to be transparent and amazingly strong. 

In fact, the teeth of the species Aristostomias scintillans are made of nanoscale-size crystal particles that make them much stronger than the teeth of other sea animals like sharks and other fish. The fish’s teeth caught the attention of scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, and led them to consider how new materials might be developed to take advantage of the crystal structures. Perhaps, like Dragonglass, they can be forged into objects with magical properties.  

New York Times

Materials Science

Lighter than air metal

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have developed a type of metal foam that is strong, but so light it can ride on a mosquito’s back. 

It’s not really foam, though. It’s called “porous metal monolith” or ultra-low density metal, and is really a spaghetti-like web of randomly connected nanometer-sized wires made of gold, silver and copper. They take the shape of miniature marshmallows and contain the same or fewer number of atoms as air. Exactly what the material might be used for is still an open question. Perhaps Patagonia will someday use the material to make backpacks for mosquitos. 

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory


The ocean microplastics problem is even worse than we thought. Way worse, say scientists at MBARI. 

Three South Koreans were nabbed poaching $600,000 worth of succulent plants. The Dudleya plants are hugely popular in Asia. 

How might California use recent winter storm to replenish aquifers? It’s harder than it might seem

Can empathy be cultivated? One Stanford scientist thinks so. 

Cal Berkeley has its own experimental forest, and it may help us better understand wildfires. 

Could California seaweed become the biofuel of the future? 

150 lakes in the Tahoe Basin are still frozen, and it’s June.

Apple’s new “Spaceship” HQ is surprisingly earthquake ready.

There’s a town in California that was built to survive wildfires.

California says coffee may not be so bad for you after all.

A huge graveyard of strange fossilized worms was discovered off the coast of California.

Astronomers aren’t happy with SpaceX’s new array of Starlink satellites.   

Drones will replace fireworks at the California state fair. 

That’s it! Have a great week, and please send your friends an invitation to sign up for the California Science Weekly newsletter. 

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