ASEE First Bell – Breaking news in the engineering and technology field

Leading the News

UTexas Study Finds Methane Leaks At Drill Sites, Shows Need For EPA Regulation.

The New York Times  (12/10, Revkin) reports a study by the University of Texas and URS, a consulting firm, that examined methane emissions at the two major source points of fracking wells, “liquid unloadings and pneumatic controller equipment,” found that only about 20 percent of each equipment type accounted for 95 percent of pneumatic controller emissions and 65-83 percent of uploading emissions . Steven Hamburg, chief scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund, which helped with the study, states the finding show the need for “comprehensive regulation of new and existing sources.”

USA Today  (12/9, Rice, Today) reports on two studies published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and Environmental Science & Technology journal that found “significant quantities of methane” are being released by “millions of abandoned oil and gas wells” in the US and that “only a few active natural gas wells” emit most of the methane from active wells. The study on abandoned well found their methane emissions “can be significant,” quantifying that they may account for 4-7 percent of “human-sourced methane emissions” in Pennsylvania where the study took place; however, there is “no regulatory requirement to monitor” methane emissions at abandoned wells. The second study found that about 20 percent of the fracking wells caused “most of the known methane emissions” from those wells.

NPR  (12/9, Joyce) produced a segment featuring University of Texas scientist Dave Allen, who lead a study on methane leaks at gas fracking wells that was recently published in the Environmental Science and Technology journal. Allen and his team tested methane levels at over 100 wells and found “a small fraction of the sources are giving you the majority of emissions.” Allen said he supports regular methane surveys of sites across the country.

The Fort Worth (TX) Star-Telegram  (12/17) and National Geographic  (12/11) also ran reports on this story.

Higher Education

National Science Foundation Grant Awarded To Ohio State.

The Columbus (OH) Dispatch  (12/16) reports that Ohio State University’s Center for Emergent Materials is receiving $17.9 million in National Science Foundation over the next six years according to Senator Sherrod Brown’s (D-OH) office, after having been awarded a $10.8 six year grant in 2008. The center is one of 12 to receive such funding.

NRC Awards Worcester Polytechnic $1.1M To Boost Nuclear Research.

The Worcester (MA) Business Journal  (12/16, Saia) reports, the NRC has awarded Worcester Polytechnic Institute $1.1 million in Federal grants “to help revitalize the nuclear power industry, the school announced Monday.” The NRC award is part of $15 million in grants the NRC has awarded to 37 colleges and universities. The “money for WPI will be used for scholarships, fellowships and faculty development through its nuclear education program.” Germano S. Iannacchione, head of WPI’s physics department, said the “majority of this funding” will be used to “support the national objective for reinvigorating the nuclear power industry.” NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane said in a statement announcing the awards that there is “both a domestic and worldwide need for highly qualified nuclear professionals to keep nuclear power plants and nuclear materials safe and secure.”

From ASEE
#ASEEYoADiversity One-minute video – Freeman Hrabowski: “We need to change the culture. We assume most people wont make it in STEM.”

Support ASEE with Your Amazon Holiday Purchases
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November Prism Online – Now Open to Public
The cover story, “Corporate Blinders,” presents an engineering ethics case study.

Research and Development

Curiosity Findings Have Implications For Potential For Life On Mars.

Coverage of new Curiosity rover findings from Mars received very positive coverage. Articles focused on the implications for the presence of life on Mars, even though scientists quoted in the pieces typically noted that the observations do not necessarily mean that life exists. Typically, foreign sources highlighted that the question may be resolved not by Curiosity, but by the ESA’s ExoMars mission. Meanwhile, the new studies were often portrayed as a good scientific turning point both for the Curiosity rover and Mars exploration in general.

The AP  (12/16) reports that a team led by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Christopher Webster the Curiosity rover has observed temporary “spikes of methane” in Mars’ atmosphere over the past year, sometimes raising the amounts of methane in locations by a factor of 10. The University of Michigan’s Sushil Atreya said that this shows that there are “relatively localized” sources, although it is unclear whether these are biological in origin or not. Meanwhile, the rover also made “the first confirmation of organic carbon in a Martian rock,” although the type of organic material was not specified.

The New York Times  (12/16, Chang, Subscription Publication) reports that Curiosity project scientist John P. Grotzinger said that this is “a great moment” for the rover because of the implications for the potential for life on Mars. Furthermore, the discovery of methane is “a 180-degree flip” form a previous Curiosity finding of no methane on Mars. Michael J. Mumma of the Goddard Space Flight Center, who first discovered plumes of methane back in 2003, said the results “confirmed this startling reality that methane is being released, sporadically, and it is being destroyed quickly. … Both events are surprising.” The New York Times  (12/16, Revkin) “Dot Earth” blog points readers to the article in the New York Times print edition.

According to the Los Angeles Times  (12/16, Khan), Webster said the new finding “opens up a whole debate of methane on Mars again and life on Mars. … We thought we closed that chapter, but now we’re on to the next chapter.” Goddard’s Paul Mahaffy, a co-author on the study, said, “The methane measurements are saying something about modern Mars. … It’s alive at some level; it’s living and breathing and giving off little spurts of methane somehow.” However, some are more skeptical of the results, including Kevin Zahnle of the Ames Research Center, who said, “There is considerable methane on the rover. … They are looking for Martian methane through a cloud of their own methane. … They can’t rule out the possibility that something funny is going on.”

Meanwhile, the Christian Science Monitor  (12/16, Spotts) reports that the discovery of organics is helping operators plan for the future. According to the article, Grotzinger added that Mars exploration is now more about “testing specific ideas” than making never-before-seen discoveries in what he called a “Star Trek mode.”

Nature  (12/16, Witze) notes that India’s Mars Orbiter Mission has yet to report any results about methane in Mars’ atmosphere, which it has been mapping. However, it, and the upcoming ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, do not have “the precision of Curiosity.”

The Telegraph (UK)  (12/16, Dodds), to highlight the findings, has a timeline of the search for life on Mars.

Also covering the story are he Washington Post  (12/16, Feltman) “Speaking of Science” blog, Huntsville (AL) Times  (12/16, Roop), Reuters  (12/16, Klotz), Bloomberg News  (12/16, Chen), BBC News  (12/16, Amos), Science Magazine  (12/16, Klein) “ScienceShot,” NPR  (12/16) “All Things Considered,” Scientific American  (12/16, Billings), SPACE  (12/16, Kramer), Guardian (UK)  (12/16, Sample), New Scientist  (12/16, Grossman), AFP  (12/16, Sheridan), Sen  (12/16, Klotz), National Geographic  (12/16, Vergano), Discovery News  (12/16, Klotz), Discovery News  (12/16, Klotz), NBC News  (12/16, Boyle) website, Science News  (12/16, Wayman), Huffington Post  (12/16, So), Vox  (12/15, Stromberg), another Telegraph (UK)  (12/16, Knapton)article, a separate Telegraph (UK)  (12/16, Knapton) article, Boing Boing  (12/16, Jardin), CBC News (CAN)  (12/16), The Verge  (12/16, Lopatto), Daily Mirror (UK)  (12/16, Von Radowitz), Independent (UK)  (12/16, Griffin, Lusher), ABC News  (12/16, Fischer) website, The Inquisitr  (12/16), Open Minds  (12/16, McClellan), and the Air & Space Smithsonian Magazine  (12/16, Schulze-Makuch) website.

Shark Lookalike Unmanned Underwater Vehicle Developed By US Navy.

The Christian Science Monitor  (12/16, Mulrine) reports that the US Navy has developed an unmanned underwater vehicle called the GhostSwimmer, which is a reconnaissance robot that looks like a shark, and is researching several other underwater organism-inspired projects. Boston Engineering’s Advanced System Group director Michael Rufo said “GhostSwimmer will allow the Navy to have success during more types of missions while keeping divers and sailors safe.” The GhostSwimmer is currently intended to gather tide, current, wake, and weather condition information, but could be used for hostile reconnaissance in the future. Institute for the Study of War senior naval analyst Christopher Harmer stated “as the technology matures, we’re certainly going to use them for reconnaissance, and eventually, we’re going to weaponize them.”

Bloomberg: Harvard Professor’s Neuron-Watching Tech Could Advance Drug R&D.

In a 1,400-word analysis, Bloomberg News  (12/17, Chen) examines the implications for R&D of a new method for “converting electrical activity into fluorescent light.” The research made a splash this June when a video published online by Harvard University neuroscientist Adam Cohen in the journal Nature Methods  showed footage of a “neuron firing, letting researchers watch the signal flowing through an entire cell.” Bloomberg News says that being able to see these cells in the process of firing “may let researchers track and measure brain activity, including firing patterns of cells affected by disorders like epilepsy or multiple sclerosis.” Pharma companies such as Biogen Idec and GlaxoSmithKline “have already lined up to collaborate with Cohen’s biotechnology firm, Q-State Biosciences, hoping to advance drug development.” Biogen declined to give details on what it was working on with Cohen, but GSK has asked Cohen “to help the company study cardiac safety by looking at electrical activity in the heart.” John McNeish, GSK head of research in regenerative medicine, said it worked “beautifully.” He added, “If the experiment was done in laboratories with single-cell patch clamping, it could have taken months to do. This took a week or two. So there’s money and impact written all over it.”

Engineering and Public Policy

McConnell Says New Senate Will Start With Keystone.

Incoming Senate Majority Leader McConnell on Tuesday laid out his first priority of the new Senate – the passage of legislation forcing approval of a key pipeline project. While media coverage suggests that the legislation will likely clear the Chamber, some stories highlight the fact that it likely won’t have sufficient support to override a veto.

USA Today  (12/17, Davis) reports that McConnell told reporters on Tuesday that the Senate’s first action next year will be to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. McConnell said, “We’ll be starting next year with a job-creating bill that enjoys significant bipartisan support. First item up in the new Senate will be the Keystone XL pipeline.” USA Today says that the project has “significant” support among Republicans, as well as the backing of “some moderate Democrats.” That gives legislation pushing approval of the project its “best chance of passage in six years.”

The AP  (12/17, Ohlemacher) reports that McConnell added, “People want jobs and this project will create well-paying high-wage jobs for our people. We’re optimistic we can pass it and put it on the president’s desk.”

The Huffington Post  (12/16, Mcauliff) reports that the new legislation will be similar to a bill offered by Sen. John Hoeven (R) this year which “would mandate the construction of the pipeline,” and “almost passed in the waning days of this Congress.” It would “be nearly certain to succeed in a Republican-led Senate, much as it has repeatedly passed in the GOP-led House.”

Reuters  (12/17) reports that McConnell also said, “It’ll be open for amendment. I will hope that senators on both sides will offer energy-related amendments but there’ll be no effort to try to micromanage the amendment process.” Unlike other news services, Reuters is less certain about the legislation’s prospects, looking beyond passage and saying that the GOP will likely struggle to secure sufficient votes to overrun a potential presidential veto.

Similarly, The Hill  (12/16, Bolton) reports that defeated Sen. Mary Landrieu (D), who co-sponsored the legislation this year, predicted that it would pass only to be vetoed by the President. She added that McConnell doesn’t have the votes to override a veto.

The Washington Times  (12/17, Miller) reports that in announcing the move, McConnell took a “parting shot” at outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, criticizing the Democrats’ attempts to “micromanage the amendment process.” Politico  (12/16, Schor, Everett) reports that Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R), the incoming head of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, “said an open amendment process on Keystone XL legislation would show that Republicans are ready to change the way the Senate has been operating.”

White House Expresses Displeasure With Tech Sector’s Response To Immigration Moves.

Politico  (12/16, Tummarello) reports that sources report that the White House has given the tech sector “an earful” after “leading industry groups gave a tepid response to President Barack Obama’s immigration moves.” Politico notes that Obama “mainly focused on deferring deportation for up to 5 million undocumented immigrants and didn’t address the tech sector’s longtime goal of increasing the number of H-1B, or high-skilled, visas for foreign workers.” White House officials “said they’ve been reaching out to the tech community to explain the limits of the president’s authority on this issue and encourage a continued push for comprehensive immigration reform in Congress.”

White House Reaches Out To Tech Sector Over Lack Of High-Skill Visa Increase.

Politico  (12/16, Tummarello) reports that the White House is disappointed with tech sector leaders’ response to his executive actions on immigration over the lack of increase in H-1B high-skill foreign worker visas. The article notes that there is now consideration among industry groups that initially supported comprehensive immigration reform over supporting high-skill specific legislation once the GOP has taken control of Congress next year, despite push-back from labor unions claiming that would harm US citizen employment. The current H-1B cap is 85,000 visas per year.

Pipelines surge in Pennsylvania (NPR).

NPR  (12/16, Cusick) reported that “the surge in drilling has meant trillions of cubic feet of natural gas are being pumped out of Pennsylvania every year. And now billions of dollars are flooding into the state for new pipeline projects to move that gas to market.” The article reported “Matt Henderson, of Penn State’s Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research, says more than $10 billion in pipeline projects have already been announced for Pennsylvania.” The article notes Cabot’s proposed Atlantic Sunrise peipeline, which would bring gas “as far south for Cabot’s interests to Cove Point which is an exportation terminal, where Cabot’s looking forward to exporting to Japan.” The article also discussed opposition from locals who oppose routes that run through their communities, noting that “two dozen protesters” were arrested outside the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission headquarters last summer, the commission that oversees facillities like Dominion’s Cove Point terminal.

Southern Maryland Newspapers looks at careers of Calvert County Commissioners Clark, Shaw. An editorial by the Southern Maryland Newspapers  (12/17) looks back on the careers of Calvert County commissioners Gerald Clark and Susan Shaw, both of whom are being replaced by incoming officials next year. According to the editorial, “opinions as to why Clark lost the primary” to Republican Mike Hart “range from his unwavering support of the controversial Dominion Cove Point Liquefied Natural Gas plant expansion, to his sometimes prickly demeanor with constituents, to some voters just wanting a fresh face on the board.”

The Gaithersburg (MD) Gazette  (12/17) also carried the Southern Maryland Newspapers editorial.

President Blocks Oil, Gas Development Off Bristol Bay, Alaska.

Politico  (12/16, Martinson) reports that in a video filmed on Tuesday afternoon, the President announced “that he is barring oil and gas drilling off the coast of Bristol Bay, Alaska.” The move “to protect the ecologically sensitive region comes as Republicans in Congress prepare to challenge the administration’s plans to regulate carbon emissions.” The President said that the region is “something that’s too precious for us to be putting out to the highest bidder.”

The New York Times  (12/17, Baker, Subscription Publication) reports that the President “again used his executive authority to enact an environmental priority.” The President “first put the ecologically sensitive area of the Bering Sea — home to an important population of whales, seals and sea lions — off limits to oil rigs in 2010, but that restriction was set to expire in 2017.” The new action “made the ban permanent unless a future president acts to reverse it.”

The Washington Post  (12/17, Warrick) reports that the while the move was expected, the announcement “was a vindication for a coalition of commercial and recreational fishermen, environmentalists and some native Alaskan groups that have long opposed energy development in the area.”

Elementary/Secondary Education

Massachusetts’ Dennis-Yarmouth Schools Participate In “Hour Of Code.”

Cape Cod (MA) Today  (12/16) reports on Dennis-Yarmouth Regional School District’s participation in Code.org’s “Hour of Code” exposure initiative. The piece describes the challenging national initiative, its positive reception among students at all six DY schools, and a growing national demand for computer science education.

Detroit Public Schools Take New Approach With Trade Schools.

MLive  (12/17, Dawsey) reports on declines in Detroit trade school enrollment, prompting Detroit Public Schools to begin redesigning its career and technical programs into skilled workforce development centers for both youth and adults. The piece discusses the involvement of unions, nonprofits, and the chamber of commerce in the creation of regional centers for local business and college recruitment. The DPS plan is still in development and will require outside investment from business and colleges.

Tuesday’s Lead Stories

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