September 7, 2008

News: model plants, beyond carbon, and gardens of all sorts

The succulents in the Ruth Bancroft Garden were not only "praised by garden enthusiasts as a demonstration of what can be grown with little water," their preservation precipitated the founding of the Garden Conservancy. Ruth Bancroft celebrated her 100th birthday last week.

Tree enthusiast and botanist, Diana Beresford-Kroeger, posits that trees play a positive role in human health in two ways. One, chemicals released by trees in the natural course of things have beneficial effects on humans who come into contact with these chemicals. And the other, which has received more professional support and research, is the role of trees in ameliorating poor environmental quality, like storing carbon and filtering pollutants.

Trees can also filter odors and sound. These properties have been studied by George W. Malone, Ph.D. and colleagues from the University of Delaware. The researchers tested their "vegetative filter" model in the Delmarva Peninsula, home to numerous hog farms and relatively new residential development. Dr. Malone and his team observed that a "three-row plot of trees of various species and sizes reduced total dust by 56 percent, ammonia 53 percent, and odor 18 percent." Species arrangement is important. The first row should be planted with deciduous or waxy-leaved species while the second and third rows should be planted with evergreen [coniferous?] species.

When plants are not providing ecosystem services, they are serving as the models for energy storage. Matthew Kanan and Daniel Nocera of MIT used photosynthesis as a model to store "solar-made electricity in batteries, " reports The Economist. Kanan and Nocera used cobalt and phosphates to split water into its components - hydrogen and oxygen. If energy is needed at night (when the sun is down), hydrogen "could be burned or run through a fuel cell to create power." This is similar to what plants do with sugar: excess energy is transformed into sugar which can be used at a later time regardless of the presence of the sun. Read the MIT press release here.

Writing of energy, the Times ran two articles on wind energy in late August and early September. The first discussed the storage limitations of the existing grid. The second article featured the increasing popularity rooftop turbines.Rooftop turbines have been installed at Jay Leno's home, the Brooklyn Navy Yards, and the Logan International Airport (Boston). The price tag of a personal turbine is daunting (ex: $6500 for an AeroVironment, six were installed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard). For older buildings looking to achieve energy savings, recladding the facade is an alternative. Why?

A well-sealed facade minimizes heat loss, and modern glass is better able to filter the sunlight so that it more effectively illuminates the interior. Such qualities can help reduce electricity use, especially on hot summer days when the strain on coal-burning power plants in most intense.

Carbon is often the elemental focus of climate change debates, but Times writer Richard Morgan reported on recent studies that are making the case for the role of nitrogen in climate change.

There's a great danger in doing something like, oh, overfertilizing a cornfield to boost biofuel consumption, where the carbon benefits are far outweighed by the nitrogen damage (Dr. Viousek, Stanford University)....Look, I can start a talk by saying, 'There are 14 global warming pollutants, and we have a different solution for addressing each of them.' And it's true. But you start to lose people (Al Gore, former vice president, Noble Laureate).

It has been seasonably warm in Berkeley this week; mid-August to mid-October is summer in the East Bay. My oasis is the front stoop - two chairs and many potted plants. Oasis can be found in New York's backyards*, in a community garden* and a "bargain backyard"* in the Bronx, and in "Michigan pond gardens" in Detroit.

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