Story tips from the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory, March 2007

March 20, 2007

ENERGY -- Nanofiltered diesel . . .

A new material developed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Nanoscience Center could replace a costly process in the manufacture of biodiesel that consumes chemicals, water and energy and also reduces the yield of the final product. During production, catalysts must be applied to transform biodiesel from a thick and sticky substance into a fluid form that can easily be pumped into vehicles. Following this process, these corrosive catalysts must be neutralized and washed from the fuel. ORNL researchers Sheng Dai and Chengdu Liang, funded by DOE's Office of Basic Energy Sciences, have created a material of solid acid nanocatalysts that can be fixed inside a reusable column or filter through which the biodiesel can flow, straining out the catalyst materials. This nano-material shows promise for other applications as well, such as fuel cells, batteries and other energy storage and conversion technologies. [Contact: Larisa Brass, (865) 574-4163; brasslm@ornl.gov]


ENVIRONMENT -- Leaf litter revelation . . .

Freshly fallen leaves contribute less to the levels of carbon in mineral soil than was previously believed, according to the findings of a team led by Oak Ridge National Laboratory researchers Mats Fröberg and Paul Hanson. In a paper published in the March-April issue of Soil Science Society of America Journal, the researchers explain how they took advantage of a unique local release of carbon-14, which allowed them to track dissolved organic carbon movement from canopy leaves, or litter, sources. By doing so, they were able to quantify the proportion of dissolved organic carbon that originated from decomposing fresh litter. Dissolved organic carbon has an important role in the soil carbon cycle as it represents a key transport pathway for carbon in solution to move from forest floor carbon sources to the mineral soil, where it can contribute to the buildup of carbon stocks. The research, funded by the Department of Energy's Office of Science, provides another step toward predicting the fate of terrestrial carbon. [Contact: Ron Walli, (865) 576-0226; wallira@ornl.gov]


GENOMICS -- Decoding data . . .

By devising a novel computational approach to examining a large amount of data, scientists have gained insight into the intricate workings of proteins responsible for sensing their surroundings and transmitting that information inward. Despite being studied for decades, little is known about how these methyl-accepting chemotaxis proteins translate their exquisite detection abilities into a signal. The work of Igor Zhulin of ORNL's Computer Science and Mathematics Division and Roger Alexander of Georgia Tech, published recently in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, represents a giant step in this area and illustrates that genome sequencing can deliver much-needed knowledge when clever computational approaches are applied to decode genomic information. In addition to identifying a new flexible signaling portion of the protein, Zhulin and Alexander found that changes in the signaling and adaptation domains in any methyl-accepting chemotaxis protein are tightly coupled. This coupling could explain the diversity of chemotaxis mechanisms, including how an attractant of one species could be a repellent of another. This research is funded by the National Institutes of Health and Science Alliance. [Contact: Ron Walli, (865) 576-0226; wallira@ornl.gov]


CLIMATE -- Precision predictions . . .

A new adaptation of statistical tools applied to geophysical data sets show that the correlation between the variability of large river flows and the El Nino-Southern Oscillation index is much higher than previously thought. The research, published in Geophysical Research Letters (Vol. 33, 2006), reveals connections between this index and river flows in the tropics and subtropics that are 20 percent to 70 percent higher than what has been suggested by the linear equations typically employed, according to the paper whose lead authors are Shiraj Khan and Auroop Ganguly of ORNL's Computational Sciences and Engineering Division. Because rainfall turns to infiltration and runoff and ultimately finds its way to river basin outlets, researchers believe river flow measurements provide a good indication of aggregate rainfall. Ganguly noted that the nonlinear equations developed for this work are far more representative of real-world conditions and hopes these findings will spawn new research in other disciplines. This research was funded in part through ORNL's Laboratory Directed Research and Development program. [Contact: Ron Walli, (865) 576-0226; wallira@ornl.gov]
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