We’ve got a lot of grounds to cover

Next time you’re sipping on your skinny, frothy mochachocafrappalatteccino with maple syrup and cinnamon at the local Costabucksorthree coffee shop and surfing on their EasyHack(TM) wireless internet spare a thought for the grounds. The burnt out and scalded fragments of beans gone by that in this household are recycled via the compost bins but on the industrial scale represent an international commodity waste product you might not at first appreciate but represents a truly pressing issue.

Big coffee drink image c/o Shutterstock

Thankfully, there are researchers who are working on potential alternative uses for this organic waste material. Indeed, I vaguely recall writing for New Scientist back in the early 1990s about an alternative outlet for waste coffee grounds…but it may well have been Brazil nut shells, or both. Anyway, a team based at Boumerdes University and the National Polytechnic School in Algeria know all about the problem of coffee grounds. There are an estimated two and a half billion cups of coffee consumed each day (I know at least one classic radio presenter who imbibes a goodly proportion of that number) with Algerians using about 3.5 kilograms of coffee per head annually. That’s slightly behind the US at 4.2 kg, but way behind Finland at 12 kg. UK is 2.8 kg, global average is 1.3 kg.

However you look at it, it’s a lot of grounds to cover.

The Algerian team, writing in the journal IJEWM (reference below) explain how they can use zinc chloride and phosphoric acid to convert coffee grounds into “activated carbon” at 500-700 Celsius in just quarter of an hour. The final product, they also show, can be used as a potentially sustainable filtration materials for waste water treatment to remove organic pollutants and dyes. Coffee grounds as a source of activated carbon might preclude the need for using coal, wood or peat, and co-exist with coconut shells as a source. Given that in Algeria alone there are about 300 tonnes of coffee grounds generated daily, that could be a useful feedstock for the activated carbon industry provided sustainable collection and processing infrastructure can be put in place.

Research Blogging Icon Mekarzia A. (2013). Chemical production and characterisation of activated carbon from waste ‘coffee grounds, Int. J. Environment and Waste Management, 12 (2) 154-166. DOI:

Pale Blue Dot

pale-blue-dotThe Pale Blue Dot is a photograph of planet Earth taken in 1990 by NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft (launched 1977) when it reached 6 billion kilometres (3.7 billion miles) from Earth in 1990. In the photograph, Earth is shown as a tiny dot (0.12 pixel in size) against the vastness of space. The Voyager 1 spacecraft, which had completed its primary mission and was leaving the Solar System, was commanded by NASA to turn its camera around and to take a photograph of Earth across a great expanse of space, at the request of Carl Sagan.

You can learn more about the NASA image here. The sound with which the song fades is a snippet from the NASA Voyager 1 audio repository with a little added digital delay echo just for fun. I hope it evokes the feeling of Voyager racing endlessly away from our planet. At the time of writing, the space probe was almost 18.5 billion kilometres from Earth, about 125 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun.

I’ve written a song about our Pale Blue Dot, which you can hear via my Songs, Snaps & Science site or on my SoundCloud page.

Pale Blue Dot

Although I know that the world keeps turning
It never stops, my stomach’s churning
But, I worry about how much we’re burning

The fantasy of a global village
We pull together in some kind of New Age
But there are those set on rape and pillage

I took a trip, a billion miles I was to roam
Looking back on the place that we call home…

This old planet is broken in two, f you like it or not
Some with panic deep in their hearts, Others won’t stop the rot
This old planet is broken anew, If you like it or not
But, I’m worried about it, our pale blue dot

Although I know that we can heal the divides
It will take time coming up to size
Beyond our world, she won’t hear our cries

Something happened and we don’t know why
When we look up, we can’t see the sky
And in the end, it means we just might die

This old planet is broken in two
Whether you like it or not
There is panic deep in our hearts
I’m just worried about you, our Pale Blue Dot

Getting the garlic blues

blue-green-garlicPickler Andrew Dalby responded to one of my recent tweets about not cooking asparagus in lemon juice because it discolours it. He had found that his garlic cloves turned blue when he pickled them in spiced malt vinegar. The discolouration doesn’t mean that the pickles are inedible.

Now plant material turning blue in acid (vinegar is weak acetic acid) is the basis of the litmus test and is more obvious with red cabbage, which shuttles between a deep red colour and a definite blue depending on the acidity. So, I assumed that was perhaps what was happening with the garlic, but couldn’t think what would be colourless in unpickled garlic that might go blue-green in acid.

A quick Google turned up this page in which they report that the most common pigment, anthocyanins, are colourless in raw garlic, can be red at high pH, but are blue-green at low pH. So, that might be it.

But, scientists have also homed in on amino acids as possible villains for giving garlic the pickled blues. J Cho of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Seoul National University in Korea suggests that green discolouration arises as a combination of amino acids that are yellow and blue in the presence of thiosulfinates released enzymically from the garlic to give an overall green hue.

This overturns earlier research that suggested just one blue pigment was to blame and instead suggests that eight are involved: thiosulfinates of free glycine, arginine, lysine, serine, alanine, aspartic acid, asparagine, glutamic acid, and tyrosine.

Research Blogging IconCho J., Lee E.J., Yoo K.S., Lee S.K. & Patil B.S. (2009). Identification of Candidate Amino Acids Involved in the Formation of Blue Pigments in Crushed Garlic Cloves (L.) , Journal of Food Science, 74 (1) C11-C16. DOI: 10.1111/j.1750-3841.2008.00986.x

Instructables had a Q&A on the issue back in 2011, but had presumably overlooked this research. This is probably not the end of the story as yet more research papers come up in PubMed.

Get Deceived Wisdom audio book free

You can grab a copy of my book Deceived Wisdom, as narrated by actor Kris Dyer (Radio 2, Nice Mum, Edinburgh Fringe etc), for free with the Audible introductory offer.

Sign up for a free trial here, download my book and listen on your iPhone, iPad, Android, Windows Phone or any of more than 500 compatible mp3 players. With your trial, you also get exclusive access to member sales and promotions. You can exchange any book you don’t love with their Great Listen Guarantee, no questions asked! Cancel your membership at any time. All purchased titles are yours to keep. After the 30-day trial, you will be billed just £7.99/month, which lets you choose from their catalogue of 60,000 titles. Kris does a great job on the audio book and told me at the time he did the sessions that he could barely keep a straight face while reading one particular NSFW chapter…

Here’s the sample chapter I promised you, as read by Kris Dyer, we picked “The Most Embarrassing Sting”. I have a couple more chapters to shares, so grab this one while it’s live.

Science mob to attack austerity

Austerity measures – cutbacks in other words – are taking their toll on science. A special issue of The Euroscientist brings together an analysis of the impact of austerity on scientists and their research and the growing brain drain.

The magazine is also encouraging other scientists, including those based beyond Southern Europe, to share their experiences and to discuss how crowd sourcing and citizen science might overcome the deficits caused by funding cuts.

Scientific austerity.

The Daily Fail

Periodically I receive links to stories in the British “tabloid” newspaper, The Daily Mail, from Sciencebase readers. I am yet to see anything in that paper that is worth the ink or electrons. Moreover, I wouldn’t even deem it fit to be torn up into squares and hung from a string in the lavatory for emergency use when you run out of loo roll.

This is an old clip from “Dan and Dan” singing The Daily Mail Song, if you have clipped a URL from the paper’s bizarrely popular web site, please watch, listen and learn before you share that link. We don’t call it the Daily Fail for nothing.

Let me introduce Professor Risk and Professor Risk

I met David Spiegelhalter at a conference a while back, a very engaging and charismatic chap with the real stats and the data to tell you all about true risk.

His proper title is Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at the University of Cambridge. He is in two minds literally about playing it safe or chucking caution to the wind. Decisions, decisions! Are bacon sandwiches really that dangerous and is it wise to drive when you love cycling? David shows us how to use statistics to face up to lifes major risks. There’s a little bit of “Dan & Dan” going on this video. Neat…

H7N9 bird flu

Is another bird flu on the rise? Report from Nature on H7N9 type A influenza virus and reported outbreak in China.

Scientists and public health officials worldwide are on alert after China announced on 31 March that two people had died and a third had been seriously sickened from infections with a new avian flu virus, H7N9, that has never been seen before in humans.

via Novel bird flu kills two in China : Nature News & Comment.

There are numerous subtypes of flu, labelled with an H number, referring to the specific type of protein hemagglutinin and an N number, neuraminidase enzyme type. There are 17 H antigens (H1 to H17) and nine different N antigens (N1 to N9) and any combination might be possible. The newest H antigen type, identified as H17 by researchers, was isolated from fruit bats in 2012.

Does eating fish really extend your life?

NHS Choices critiques tabloid claims for recent research on fishy life extension.

“…study has found that higher levels of omega-3 in blood at the start of the study were associated with a 27% reduction in risk of death from any cause, and a 35% reduction in risk of death from heart disease in healthy older adults (aged 65 years or older) who were not taking fish oil supplements.”

Not all fish are created equal

There are, the NHS site says, “several limitations.” For instance, omega-3 fatty acid levels were only measured at the start of the study and may not have remained steady. Moreover, cause of death may have been misclassified and there is the strong possibility that other factors may be responsible for the measured life extension.

One extra thought, just because there might have been benefits to the older generation, doesn’t mean they will necessarily apply to the next. Given that it’s not so long ago that there were warnings to avoid some types of oily fish because of global mercury contamination, it’s probably best to proceed with caution. Everything in moderation, as ever.

Does eating fish really extend your life? – Health News – NHS Choices.