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Golden Scholars: UC Berkeley remains the top public school in the world, uncovers mysteries of radiation donuts, and proposes clean-energy solution

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Today's big news was supposed to be Berkeley's new ranking among the world's universities, but someone from the CGB team decided to jump the gun and post the news early. Thanks, guys.

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The Center for World University Rankings released their list for 2014 and UC Berkeley came in 7th overall! The list breaks it down further by several criteria, like Quality of Education and Alumni Employment.

A bit tangential and parental advisory for language and all, but one blogger says "F#*$ Stanf[u]rd."

On that note, a recent published Furd paper came to the conclusion that recent spikes in weight have more to do with exercise than diet, which was immediately "challenged" by experts in the field, including Berkeley's Patricia Crawford, who analyzed the claim quantitatively by comparing the time it takes to input a large-calorie fast-food meal vs. the duration of exercise needed to burn off those calories. Stellar job, Stanfurd.

Professor Jay Keasling continues to expand his reach beyond the lab bench by speaking to Capitol Hill about the importance of support for bioengineering research. If you're interested in funding bioengineering researchers, please contact me and I'd be happy to get you in touch with a stunningly handsome Calumnus bioengineer in need of cash moneys.

Chemistry professor Heino Nitsche passed away at the age of 64. Our condolences to his friends and family.

Not strictly-Berkeley news, but worth mentioning because this will have huge ramifications and be a big talking point in the science community. The UC system is considering eliminating a self-enforced policy of turning down financial support from sources that mandate all researchers be US citizens or permanent residents here; the UC system is considering lifting this ban due to diminished sources of research funding. "Most" Berkeley research is funded by sources that do not restrict the citizenship status of the researchers.

Happy 99th birthday to professor emeritus of physics, Nobel laureate, and father of the laser (PEW PEW PEW): Charles Hard Townes!

Intergalactic breakfast?

So... space is crazy. I know there's a beautiful fine China teapot between Earth and Mars, but I'm only just now discovering that our planet is surrounded by two giant donuts. We tried to reach CGB's resident donut expert TheBuckeyeBear for her insight, but she was too busy saying "om nom nom" for comment.

Unfortunately, it seems these donuts are less like delicious frosted pastries and more like radiation. And not even the cool radiation that can give us powers like the Fantastic Four. Lame.

Instead, these donuts—called the Van Allen radiation belt by those fancy astrologists—are a space-weather phenomenon that contain particles that are accelerated to the point of approaching the speed of light, baffling scientists. Rather than create some elaborate tale that about these being the hula hoops of two nested, dancing Greek Gods whose passion for the art of dance leads them to spin faster and faster and approach the speed of light, scientists sent probes into space to observe and report back on these radiation fields. How boring and junk.

Recent data from the Van Allen Probes suggests [this acceleration] is a two-fold process: One mechanism gives the particles an initial boost and then a kind of electromagnetic wave called Whistlers does the final job to kick them up to such intense speeds.

This initial boost seems to be caused by particles that are being propelled by electric pulses, driving them to trace along the magnetic fields that are present in the Van Allen radiation belt. From there, electromagnetic waves called Whistlers accelerate the particles to their final, light-approaching speeds.

Though there's a long history of discoveries that unexpectedly came about following space research, there's a direct application to this understanding. Radiation phenomenon like these can damage space-faring equipment, so better understanding and predicting their behavior can help us avoid catastrophic events like Gravity. (Is that what happened in Gravity? I haven't seen it.)

"It is important to understand how this process happens," said Forrest Mozer, a space scientist at the University of California in Berkeley and the first author of the paper on these results that appeared online in Physical Review Letters on July 15, 2014, in conjunction with the July 18 print edition. "Not only do we think a similar process happens on the sun and around other planets, but these fast particles can damage the electronics in spacecraft and affect astronauts in space."

Elbow grease needed for clean energy

Another week, another Scholars story about greenhouse gases, carbon footprint, clean energy, etc.

One of the greatest barriers to the widespread use of hydrogen fuel is our inability to produce hydrogen inexpensively and cleanly, but Berkeley researchers may have found a way to do so at a test scale.

Scientists are pursuing a promising pathway to generating large-scale amounts of hydrogen for clean energy production directly by splitting water using sunlight, a process called photoelectrochemical (PEC) production. Instead of splitting off the hydrogen from hydrocarbons and being left with carbon, which is typically oxidized and emitted into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, photoelectrochemical production splits off hydrogen from water, leaving clean oxygen gas. Researchers have accomplished PEC on a small scale in laboratories, but scaling up the process into hydrogen generating plants capable of supplying enough to meet the needs of industrial societies requires considerably more research and technology development.

Woohoowe may have a way to make clean energy out of just water! Waitwe're in a drought... DOOOOOOM.

Nonetheless, the Berkeley Lab is moving forward, full-steam ahead, by modelling full-scale simulations of a sample plant that would be needed to perform these reactions for meaningful productivity.

The research team modeled a facility capable of producing the hydrogen equivalent of 1 GW of continuous output, or 610 tons of hydrogen per day. All U.S. light-duty vehicles could be powered by about 160 such plants.

"This study is the first to look at a large hydrogen generation system, and to make a thorough assessment of its balance of system [BOS] requirements-its energy and materials inputs and outputs," says Jeffery Greenblatt of EETD, one of the study's authors. A couple of prior studies have evaluated smaller scale systems, about one-thousandth the size, focusing on their economics.

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Under the model's base case conditions, the plant's payback time is 8.1 years. The energy return on energy invested, at 1.7, is positive. The life-cycle primary energy balance over the plant's 40-year life is more than 500 petajoules. "One petajoule is the energy required to power 50,000 hydrogen fuel-cell cars for a year," Greenblatt points out.

"Our results show that hydrogen production based on photoelectrochemical technology has the potential to deliver significant amounts of energy," says [Roger Sathre, lead author of the study].

We're still quite a bit away from seeing this technology hit the scale envisioned here. First of all, there's no telling the science will stay consistent when scaled up, which is a sad fact of many pilot tests. Additionally, the calculations and estimations involved in modelling the finances and output of a large-scale plant may not be perfectly accurate as unforeseeable accidents may incur additional costs, but I find this to be a promising first step for an intriguing new technology.