Peak plutonium and a fuel shortage in space

Whether or not Voyager I has actually left the solar system, one thing is certain — it never would have made it far enough to have a debate if it weren't for the help of plutonium-238. The isotope has been crucial for powering spacecraft — there's 10 pounds of the stuff in the batteries of Curiosity. But supplies are very, very limited. In fact, the US scientific stockpile is down to 36 pounds. All of it spoken for. What happens to space exploration when there's no more plutonium-238? Dave Mosher investigates at Wired.

The search for a greener rocket fuel

Hydrazine has powered rockets since WWII. Unfortunately, it's also highly toxic. Researchers in the U.S. and Sweden are working to create a better alternative, and may have a couple new fuels that could do the same job with less risk.

The future of fuel has gone to sh*%.

Everybody poops, including panda bears. (See about 0:35 in the above video for evidence.) But panda poop could turn out to be quite a bit more important than your average animal excrement. That's because scientists are "mining" it for bacteria that could help make better biofuel.

The key problem with biofuel today is that the stuff that's actually economical to produce — i.e., corn ethanol — isn't really that great for the environment. Corn farming uses a lot of fertilizer, water, and herbicide. Using corn that was previously grown for food to make fuel, instead, can lead to deforestation as people clear land to make up for the lost food farming. Some models of carbon dioxide emissions suggest that, by the time you factor in things like fossil-fuel derived fertilizers and the deforestation, a gallon of corn ethanol might not be any better for climate change than a gallon of gasoline. Not all the models agree on that. But even if corn ethanol produces fewer carbon emissions than gas, you still have to deal with the fact that growing nutrient-hungry corn on the same patch of ground over and over and over is really bad for local soil and water quality.

Cellulosic ethanol could be a much better alternative — particularly cellulosic ethanol made from native, perennial plants that don't require heavy inputs to thrive and actually improve the health of the land they're grown on. The problem: Converting those plants into fuel is, so far, a lot more expensive. Cellulose — the plant fiber that makes up things like stalks of bamboo and tall prairie grasses — is tough stuff and hard to break down.

That's where panda poop comes in. Pandas process tons of cellulose every day, right in their guts. Maybe the bacteria that work for them could work for us, too.

Read more about this research at Chemical and Engineering News

Energy emergency: Sandy profiteers sell gas, generators at predatory prices on post-apocalypse Craigslist

Gas supplies remain extremely limited in New York and New Jersey, nearly a week after hurricane Sandy, and the power's still out for many in those states and others, such as nearby Connecticut.

New Jersey governor Chris Christie signed an executive order announcing a state of energy emergency and instituting gas rationing for the purchase of fuel by motorists in 12 counties, starting today at noon.

Make way for price-gouging entrepreneurs!

Try this, to get a taste of how bad it is: search for "gasoline," "gas," or "generator" on NY Craigslist right now. Gas sales I've found on Craigslist range from $5 to $20 a gallon, but there are probably ads at higher prices. My favorite was the 55-gallon drum of gas for a thousand bucks. Unleaded! Cash only, folks.

Not only is this exploitative, it's explosive. A black market of gasoline reselling, without appropriate safety measures, seems to me like a recipe for tragedy.

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Gasoline shortage makes Sandy recovery harder for NYC

Snip from a New York Times update on the Sandy recovery in New York and New Jersey, and the impact of limited gas supplies on rescue and emergency services:

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