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News Archive » Environmental technologies

Here you will find all articles that have been published in the weekly Science for Environment Policy News Alert.

Browse archives by year and theme below.

Tall sedge in biofiltration systems removes the majority of dissolved phosphorus from greywater

The pathways for removal of dissolved phosphorus within biofiltration systems have been examined in a new study. Over 95% of phosphorus was removed over the study period, with the majority of phosphorus stored within plants. The researchers say the findings demonstrate the value of using suitable plant species within biofiltration systems to treat polluted water.

Assessing the environmental safety of manufactured nanomaterials

Engineering at the nanoscale brings the promise of radical technological development — clean energy, highly effective medicines and space travel. But technology at this scale also brings safety challenges. Nano-sized particles are not inherently more toxic than larger particles, but the effects are complex and vary based on particle properties as well as chemical toxicity. This Report brings together the latest science on environmental safety considerations specific to manufactured nanoscale materials, and some possible implications for policy and research.

Nordic countries demonstrate the potential of low-carbon energy policies

How are Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden moving towards renewable and lower-carbon energy use? A recent study suggests the key areas for progress, to ensure Nordic countries meet low carbon goals, include more renewable and decentralised electricity supply, the development of low-carbon transport systems, improved energy efficiency in building design and industrial use of carbon capture and storage.

Microbes and enzymes: the future for bioremediation of PAH-contaminated soils?

Microbes and biocatalytic enzymes could offer useful tools for cleaning soils polluted with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), suggests a new review of remediation approaches. However, risk assessments and further work are needed before their use can be extended beyond the lab to realworld situations. This comprehensive overview of available and novel methods indicates their constraints and potential for future development and research.

Study suggests anaerobic digestion may reduce microplastics in sewage sludge

European policy permits the application of nutrient-rich sewage sludge on agricultural land as a means of recycling1. However, contamination of sludge with microplastics may pose a risk to ecosystems. This study looked at the characteristics of microplastics in sewage sludge after three types of waste-water treatment, finding that anaerobic digestion should be explored as a method of microplastic reduction.

A 50% renewable-energy smart-grid solution for the UK

A 50% renewable-energy supply, which is both profitable and secure, is possible for the UK’s electricity grid by just 2030 according to a new study. The researchers developed a plan for adapting and operating the UK’s electricity grid, designed to be flexibly controlled through smart-grid technology and to overcome uncertainties in renewable-energy supply and demand.

Renewable energy’s role in national energy security rated by new index

Researchers have developed a new indicator for policymakers, which shows the strength of renewable-energy technologies for electricity production in a country’s energy security. They compare their Renewable Energy Security Index (RESI) to the carbon footprint, in that it is easy to report and practical to use in energy policy.

Screening tool developed to assess seismic risks from geothermal energy projects

A new screening tool to assess the potential seismic risks (earthquake activity) from deep geothermal energy projects has been outlined in a recent study. The tool provides categories of seismicity risk for projects, which are dependent on factors including geological aspects, as well as social concern and location in relation to urban areas.

New online oil spill risk tool provides local, specific information for coastal managers

A new oil-spill risk-management system has been developed by researchers, which shows the likely effects of a coastal spill on the environment and economic activities for specific locations. It provides maps of oil-spill risk through a web portal and could help decision makers and emergency-response authorities protect the local environment and businesses through targeted and efficient planning and responses.

A carbon-free future for the Canary Islands possible by 2050

The Canary Islands have the potential to become carbon neutral by 2050, a new study indicates. This could be achieved by shifting to a 100% renewable energy supply, improving energy efficiency and building new grid connections between islands. Energy solutions for small island regions, such as the Canaries, could act as role models for larger systems, as well as similar islands, the researchers suggest.

Environmental DNA survey technique for deepwater fish can complement trawl surveys

A survey of deepwater fisheries off the coast of Greenland which used traces of fish DNA has produced similar results to trawl surveys and fishing catches. The ‘environmental DNA’ (eDNA) technique can therefore complement trawl data, the researchers say. It may be particularly useful for surveying large species — which can often avoid bottom trawls — or cryptic species1 in inaccessible ocean areas.

New light-based method for detecting and monitoring algal blooms

Algal blooms in inland and marine waters could be detected and monitored more accurately in future, thanks to a new assessment method. Scientists have developed a new algorithm for sensors which identify emerging blooms of cyanobacteria based on the behaviour of light reflected by the algae’s pigment. Importantly, the algorithm may reduce uncertainty in estimations of algal concentrations by distinguishing between two different types of pigment.

Which new low-carbon technologies can be developed and commercialised quickly? New research offers analysis

A new study provides clues as to which innovative low-carbon technologies will successfully get onto the market quickly. The historical analysis of 16 energy technologies — from steam engines to wind power — found that the average length of a product’s ‘formative phase’ is 22 years. This important period of innovation in a technology’s development is shorter for products which do not need extensive new infrastructure or changes to user behaviour. The findings could help policymakers identify new technologies that can be deployed more rapidly to meet short-term environmental targets.

Noise abatement approaches

As the sources and severity of noise pollution continue to grow, there is a need for new approaches to reduce exposure. This Future Brief looks at the complex and pervasive problem of noise pollution: a problem with no single solution, requiring a combination of short-, medium- and long-term approaches and careful consideration of the nature of the noise source.

Environmental DNA in rivers can assess broad-scale biodiversity

Traces of animals’ DNA in the environment, known as environmental DNA (eDNA), can be monitored to paint a picture of biodiversity, new research shows. This study used eDNA to assess biodiversity in an entire river catchment in Switzerland. Importantly, the eDNA technique allowed the researchers to detect both aquatic and land-based species in river water, making it possible to assess biodiversity over a broad scale.

Drivers of renewable energy innovation in the EU

The effects of market regulation and environmental policy on eight types of renewable energy in the EU are identified in a study which examines nearly three decades’ worth of data. The researchers found that reducing entry barriers is a major driver of renewable energy innovation and that the ability of environmental policy to promote renewable energy innovation depends on the technology; for example, quota systems appear to work better with older technologies.

Nitrification inhibitors — climate change mitigation tool recommended by the IPCC – may be less effective than previously thought

Nitrification inhibitors are thought to mitigate climate change by reducing emissions of nitrous oxide — a potent greenhouse gas — from land. However, they may not be as effective as once thought, a new study suggests. The researchers found that, while inhibitors decrease emissions of nitrous oxide, they can increase emissions of ammonia — which is later converted to nitrous oxide. They recommend these effects are considered when evaluating inhibitors as a mitigation technology.

How to increase the uptake of environmentally friendly fertilisers in Germany

Fertilisers have boosted crop yields but at the same time can have negative effects on the environment. This study investigates fertiliser ‘ecoinnovations’, with reduced environmental impact, in Germany. By gathering the views of experts, producers, traders and farmers, the researchers make recommendations for increasing uptake of environmentally friendly fertilisers, including increasing knowledge and awareness among traders and farmers.

Nitrous oxide could be removed from the atmosphere with simultaneous generation of renewable energy

Nitrous oxide (N2O) is a potent greenhouse gas and atmospheric pollutant. A new study proposes tackling both problems by removing N2O from the atmosphere using a combination of two innovative technologies — photocatalytic breakdown of the N2O to nitrogen and oxygen, and this within a solar chimney power plant that generates renewable electricity. Although some way off from commercial development, the researchers say this approach is feasible, and they outline how these two technologies can be integrated to reduce the climate impact and polluting effects of N2O emissions.

Carbon dioxide successfully stored in volcanic rock — could help mitigate climate change

Storing atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) has the potential to mitigate the impacts of changes in climate. Researchers have now developed a way to inject CO2 into volcanic rock, and tested it in Iceland. Over 95% of the injected CO2 was mineralised (converted into a solid) within two years, instead of taking centuries or millennia as previously anticipated. The technique demonstrates potential for the permanent and safe storage of CO2 within basaltic rocks.

Wave and tidal energy plants are ‘green’ technologies

Environmental impacts for a wave energy device, tidal stream and tidal range plants are potentially eight, 20 and 115 times lower respectively than for coal-generated power, averaged over five impact categories. An assessment of the amount of metal used by these technologies, however, shows an impact respectively 11 and 17 times higher than for coal- and gas-based power generators. These are the findings of a recent study, which compared the life-cycle environmental impacts of various wave and tidal energy devices with other forms of energy generation. The researchers conclude that wave and tidal energy plants qualify as ‘green’ technologies according to their definition, but that their impacts on marine ecosystems need further research.

Energy-consumption feedback cut electricity use by up to 27% in low-income Mediterranean households

Electricity consumption fell by 22–27% in low-income households participating in an energy-efficiency programme in Cyprus, France, Malta and Spain, reports a new study. Participants were provided with a range of tools and information to help them curb their energy use, including smart meters and customised reports. The results confirm the value of tailoring information to specific demographic groups.

Environmental impacts of ocean-energy systems: a life-cycle assessment

Ocean-energy technologies — which harvest renewable energy from the sea — will have a significant role to play in a future low-carbon society. A recent life-cycle analysis of different ocean-energy devices has found that life-cycle environmental impacts are caused mainly by the materials used in the mooring, foundations and structures. Improving the efficiency and lifespan of the devices, as well as improving mooring and foundations and deploying devices further out at sea, will help to further reduce the life-cycle environmental impact of ocean-energy systems, according to the study.

New computer modelling tool to identify persistent chemicals

Chemicals that persist in the environment can harm humans and wildlife. This study describes a computer modelling-based approach to predict which chemical compounds are likely to be persistent. The models were correctly able to predict persistence for 11 of 12 chemicals tested and could provide a cost-effective alternative to laboratory testing.

Seals avoid wind farms during the noisiest phase of construction

Wind farms are an important component of Europe’s shift towards a greener energy supply, but they could potentially have an impact on marine ecosystems. This study provides the first measurements of the distribution of harbour seals in relation to the construction and operation of wind farms, and makes recommendations to minimise any potential harm, including breaks in the pile-driving phase of construction.

Multiple fish-based indicators successfully evaluate water quality in 8-year study

Worldwide, programmes have been implemented to protect water quality from human pressures, often using ecological indicators as a method of evaluation. An eight-year study of a Portuguese estuary has found that indicators based on multiple measures of fish communities, such as the number and relative abundance of resident and migrant species, reflect human pressures on these transitional waters and could improve the implementation of water protection programmes.

Fuel produced from sunlight, CO2 and water: an alternative for jet fuel?

Water and carbon dioxide (CO2) can be converted into ‘solar thermochemical fuel’ using energy from the sun and very high temperatures. A new study has analysed the production of this fuel and found that, under favourable future conditions, costs could be as little as €1.28 per litre, with close to zero life-cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Although suitable as a substitute for any hydrocarbon fuel, it could be particularly useful as a much-needed alternative for energy-dense jet fuel.

Synthetic biology and biodiversity

Synthetic biology is an emerging field and industry, with a growing number of applications in the pharmaceutical, chemical, agricultural and energy sectors. While it may propose solutions to some of the greatest challenges facing the environment, such as climate change and scarcity of clean water, the introduction of novel, synthetic organisms may also pose a high risk for natural ecosystems. This future brief outlines the benefits, risks and techniques of these new technologies, and examines some of the ethical and safety issues.

Understanding how fish move can improve management of fisheries

Understanding the way fish use their habitat is necessary for a science- based approach to fisheries management, according to a new scientific review. The paper summarises the current state of knowledge and tools available to assess fish movement patterns in relation to freshwater fisheries, and recommends more systematic use of these tools to inform the management of fish populations.

Using microwaves to clean polluted soil could lead to energy savings

Researchers have experimented with microwave heating as a way of cleaning soils polluted with fuels, such as diesel and petrol. Soil type and moisture levels, as well as the strength of microwaves used, had a strong bearing on the overall effectiveness of the cleaning. The research shows that, at certain depths and in certain types of soil, microwaves can be a cost-effective way of cleaning polluted soils.

New environmental DNA method detects invasive fish species in river water

Scientists have developed a new way of monitoring Ponto-Caspian gobies, a group of widely invasive fish species, by detecting traces of the fishes’ DNA in river water. They say, in a recent research paper, that it offers a quicker, easier and cheaper way of monitoring the fish than conventional catching or sighting methods.

Satellite images as evidence in court: legal obstacles to their use in environmental investigations

Satellite images could be used as evidence in environmental crime cases in the future, a Belgian judge and researcher predicts. However, there are several obstacles to their use at present. Notably, they do not provide sufficiently detailed evidence for the courtroom.

Satellites could help prosecute environmental criminals

Satellite images can provide important evidence of environmental crime, according to a UK researcher. Satellites are now able to take near-photographic pictures of objects on Earth as small as 0.3 metres which means that individual trees, cars and industrial pipes, for example, can be monitored from space.

Environmental compliance assurance and combatting environmental crime July 2016

How does the law protect the environment? The responsibility for the legal protection of the environment rests largely with public authorities such as the police, local authorities or specialised regulatory agencies. However, more recently, attention has been focused on the enforcement of environmental law — how it should most effectively be implemented, how best to ensure compliance, and how best to deal with breaches of environmental law where they occur. This Thematic Issue presents recent research into the value of emerging networks of enforcement bodies, the need to exploit new technologies and strategies, the use of appropriate sanctions and the added value of a compliance assurance conceptual framework.

New technique developed to recycle indium from waste LCD screens

Researchers have developed a technique to recover indium, an important raw material with limited supply, from liquid crystal display (LCD) screens. The method could contribute to a resource-efficient, circular economy.

Is sustainable aquaculture possible?

Fish and shellfish farming are facing a new era of expansion in Europe. What are the environmental implications of this, and how can the sector expand sustainably? Watch the video produced by Science for Environment Policy about how aquaculture could develop in greater harmony with environmental goals.

Twelve principles for introducing sustainable energy storage to the electrical grid

Researchers have provided a set of guidelines to help policymakers, designers and operators develop sustainable solutions for energy-storage systems for electricity grids. The guidelines cover a range of energy-storage technologies and grid-integration options.

Climate-smart agri-technology innovations: how to increase uptake

‘Climate-smart agriculture’ aims to sustainably increase agricultural production and increase resilience to climate change. One aspect focuses on climate-smart technologies. This study interviewed users and producers of these technologies, highlighting barriers to adoption and possible means of overcoming them, including increasing awareness, user-focused design and changes to policy.

Mining scientific databases for emerging topics: a new tool for policy

Identifying emerging research areas and technologies is important for decision makers, but notoriously difficult to do. This study presents a new way of searching the literature to identify emerging topics, which will help policymakers, industry and funding bodies to make better decisions.

Eco-technologies: priorities for the future

Priorities for future environmental technology research and development were outlined by a study that surveyed experts in the field in 2010-11. The global environmental problems and potential solutions that new technologies could provide were identified and discussed in questionnaires and workshops. One of the main recommendations of the study was for a greater focus on flexible and cost-effective innovations that could alleviate potential environmental issues in countries with developing and emerging economies.

Research for environmental policymaking: how to prioritise, communicate and measure impact - March 2016

Up-to date scientific and technological research is vital to allow humans to adapt appropriately to our changing global environment, and current rates of environmental degradation and resource depletion. Effective research policies are essential to maintain or improve the standard of life for future populations – in Europe and globally.

Cool pavements to reduce urban heat islands: the state of the technology

Cool pavements, which can be used to reduce the Urban Heat Island (UHI) effect, where towns and cities are warmer than surrounding rural areas, have been reviewed in new research. The review found that reflective pavements can reduce temperatures by up to 20°C and are more durable than evaporative pavements, which are less effective at temperature reduction but may have other benefits, such as reducing runoff.

Constructed wetlands for removing human pathogens: factors affecting water safety

Constructed wetlands can remove disease-causing bacteria from wastewater, but their performance is highly dependent on the systems they use, a new study shows. Researchers reviewed results from a wide range of studies on constructed wetlands and found that combining different approaches increased removal of bacteria. However, further research and improvement of wetland systems is required to produce water that is safe for reuse.

German soil monitoring programme could assess impacts of GM crops

Effective regulation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) calls for monitoring of the potential environmental risks. This study explored whether the German permanent soil monitoring programme could be a useful tool for this purpose. The researchers say the programme has potential to monitor the effects of GMOs on local soil communities, but that adaptations would be necessary.

Biorenewable chemicals: a review of technologies and feedstocks

Growing demand for biorenewable chemicals could lead to conflicts with food production and unwanted environmental impacts. Against this context, this study investigated different types of feedstock and conversion technologies. The authors recommend use of only non-edible feedstock alongside green and carbon neutral conversion technologies, such as algal fermentation.

Governance of new technologies: recommendations for responsible innovation in nanotechnology

Effective risk governance is important when developing new technologies. This study assessed the approaches to governance of nanotechnology in Europe, based on a comprehensive review of literature and practices, complemented by discussions with key stakeholders. The study provides a new analytical framework for exploring the strengths and weaknesses of governance strategies and makes recommendations specific to nanotechnology.

Golden jackal should not be treated as an alien species in Europe

Expansion of the golden jackal (Canis aureus) across Europe has led to its designation as an alien species in some Member States. In the first continent-wide study of the species, researchers characterise the genetic structure of the European population and attempt to identify its origin. The results suggest the golden jackal was not introduced to European countries by humans and therefore should not be treated as alien.

Advances in freshwater risk assessment: experiences with Biotic Ligand Models

To assess the risk posed by metals in the aquatic environment, Biotic Ligand Models (BLMs) were developed, and are now considered suitable for use in regulatory risk assessments. This study reviews the advantages of BLMs and BLM-based software tools, providing examples from across the EU, and offers recommendations for their widespread implementation.

Black carbon emissions of individual cars measured under real conditions

Measurements of individual vehicle emissions are usually made in laboratory tests. In this study, researchers followed cars driving in real conditions to measure emissions of air pollutants, including black carbon and nitrogen oxides. The study shows that diesel cars contribute disproportionately to air pollution, and highlights the value of on-road measurements.

Realistic renewable energy exceeds 2070 electricity needs in most countries

Wind and solar energy are effectively limitless resources, but construction of renewable power must compete for a finite amount of land. This study uses a constrained assessment of available land to see whether global energy demand could be fully met by renewable sources. The analysis predicts that by 2070, the world could produce between 730 and 3700 exajoules of electricity per year (EJ/a1) from renewable power, which, even at lowest available land estimates, could meet 2070 electricity needs in most countries.

The German environmental specimen bank – a blueprint for EU chemicals management?

Environmental specimen banks (ESBs) first emerged in the 1960s and are now essential to environmental management across the globe. ESBs sample and archive environmental specimens and can be used to identify the distributions of chemicals within ecosystems and trace their exposure over time. This study uses the German ESB to illustrate their potential for chemicals monitoring in the EU.

Indicators for Sustainable Cities - November 2015

Urban sustainability indicators are tools that allow planners, managers and policymakers to gauge the socio-economic and environmental impact of existing urban designs, infrastructures, policies, waste disposal systems, pollution and citizens’ access to services. They allow cities to monitor the success of sustainability interventions. This In-depth Report aims to provide local government actors and stakeholders with a concise guide to the best indicator tools currently available.

Methods to increase indium supplies for the manufacture of thin-film solar cells

Shortages of indium, a key metal found in thin-film solar cells, could limit their large-scale deployment in the future. A new study has outlined four ways that indium supplies could be increased to meet future demand. For example, indium could be extracted more efficiently from zinc ores, or historic wastes containing indium could be processed to extract the element.

New flood simulation tool improves collaboration on flood management

A new tool for flood simulation and visualisation is accessible for both experts and practitioners, allowing them to collaborate better on flood planning and relief. Among other features, the new system includes 3D simulations, rainfall simulation and water flow data.

Mobile carbon capture technology removes 1000 kg CO2/day from Polish coal power plant

Power plants are a major source of CO2 emissions and contributor to global warming. This study reports on a portable technology to remove CO2 from their combustion exhaust gases. Pilot testing on a coal burning plant in Poland captured thousands of kilograms of CO2 per day. This could be a viable future means of mitigating CO2 emissions from the power generation sector.

New method for detecting microplastic particles in fish stomachs

A novel approach for identifying and isolating anthropogenic – including microplastic – particles in fish stomachs has been devised by researchers in Belgium. The new method may enable scientists and policymakers to better assess the presence, quantity and composition of particles ingested by marine life, and improve understanding of the environmental effects of marine plastic pollution.

Complying with emissions regulations: calculating the acid plume from ships’ desulphurisation equipment

Marine diesel contains sulphur compounds, which generate sulphur oxide (SOx) pollution and acid rain. Ships can use mitigating technologies to reduce their SOx emissions, but these can also have a negative environmental impact. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) introduced stringent legislation to control these, aspects of which are incorporated into EU policy. This study examined the implications of the IMO’s policy and recommends a number of design solutions to help ships comply.

Titanium dioxide-water nanofluids enhance the performance of solar collectors

Adding nanoparticles to water in solar collectors, which are used to capture the sun’s energy, can considerably improve their performance, a recent study on nanofluids has found. The energy efficiency of the collector can be increased by up to 76.6% when using water containing 0.1% by volume of titanium dioxide nanoparticles, compared with water alone.

Measuring emotional response and acceptance of wind turbines

Wind energy will likely continue to play a leading role in reaching the EU’s renewable energy targets. However, in some areas wind turbines face social opposition based in large part on the visual impact of wind turbines in the landscape. A new study outlines a novel methodology to measure emotional response to wind turbine visuals, which may assist wind farm planners in gauging public acceptance.

Mussels: Biomonitoring tools for pharmaceutical pollution in the marine environment?

Pharmaceutical pollution of marine environments has important biological consequences for aquatic organisms. This study investigated the effects on mussels of treatment with environmentally relevant levels of an antidepressant, fluoxetine, and a beta-blocker, propranolol, using biomarkers including DNA damage. The results showed that mussels are most vulnerable to these drugs in combination.

Device that emits natural warning calls reduces train-animal collisions

Animal-train collisions are an important cause of animal mortality. This study tested the ability of a device that emits natural warning calls to reduce risk of animals being hit by trains in central Poland. Animals, including roe deer (Capreolus capreolus), red fox (Vulpes vulpes) and brown hare (Lepus europaeus) escaped in most cases. The authors say the device is an effective means of risk reduction as it allows animals to escape train tracks earlier and more often.

Reducing avian collisions with wind turbines

Wind is an important renewable energy source for Europe. The wind power capacity installed in 2014 could produce enough electricity to meet over 10% of the EU’s electricity consumption. However, wind power structures can also be harmful to birds, which can collide with turbines. This study assessed methods of reducing avian collisions with wind turbines and makes several practical recommendations.

Benefits of constructed wetland ecosystem services worth more than double the costs

The economic benefits of the ecosystem services provided by constructed wetlands far outweigh the costs of maintaining them, new research has confirmed. Analysis of a wetland that treats the third largest lake in Florida, US, shows that it provides ecosystem services worth $1.79 (€1.64) million per year, against costs of less than half that figure.

Internationally coordinated use of satellites needed for managing floods

Loss of satellites providing rainfall data could have a negative effect on global flood management, according to new research. However, this could be mitigated by improved international co-operation and the use of more modern satellite technology, the authors say. The study examined the consequences for flood management of the loss of four of the existing 10 dedicated rainfall measuring satellites.

Methods to resolve conflicts between energy production and nature conservation

The drive to increase renewable energy production can sometimes be at loggerheads with the desire to preserve natural landscapes. In this study, researchers from across Europe assessed the environmental impacts of renewable energies in the Alps, making key recommendations to resolve conflicts between different users of habitats.

Energy efficiency policies for home renovations and retrofitting should consider the social factors

Policies and programmes providing technological solutions to improve household energy efficiency alone may be insufficient to actually reduce overall household energy consumption, finds new research. The research examined home renovators’ motivations, behaviours and use of green technologies. Overall, reduced energy consumption was often undermined by other considerations, such as installation and maintenance costs, aesthetic considerations and daily routines or social concerns.

Exploring the Links Between Energy Efficiency and Resource Efficiency - June 2015

Energy efficiency is at the centre of EU policy for achieving a fundamental transformation of Europe’s energy systems by 2030. This Thematic Issue reveals the complexity of the issue of energy efficiency, its links with resource efficiency and the wide range of factors influencing it, from technology to social practices.

Bumblebee survival and reproduction impaired by pesticide azadirachtin even at recommended concentrations

Bumblebees are negatively affected by the insecticide azadirachtin even at concentrations 50 times lower than the recommended levels used by farmers, recent laboratory experiments have revealed. No males hatched in laboratory colonies that were fed on recommended levels of the pesticide and, even at concentrations 50 times lower, the males that did hatch were deformed, and there were significantly fewer compared to an untreated colony.

Monitoring Nature: Research Developments - June 2015

This Thematic Issue provides a flavour of recent work by scientists in the area of biodiversity monitoring to highlight both up-to-date approaches to conservation and evaluation, and how long-term monitoring data could be used more effectively in management and policy decisions.

Using remote sensing to map natural habitats and their conservation status: key recommendations for scientists and policymakers

Monitoring and assessment of habitats is essential to evaluate biodiversity policy and improve the condition of valuable ecosystems. A new study has reviewed the value of remote sensing — using information from satellite or airborne imagery — for this purpose, and the authors make a series of key recommendations, including the importance of tailoring remote sensing output for policymakers.

DNA barcoding strengthens biodiversity monitoring

Genetic identification of species through ‘metabarcoding’ offers a reliable, cost-effective way of producing biodiversity information for policymakers and managers, concludes an international study. The researchers show how the method can be used to help assess the impacts of environmental change and management on biodiversity.

Remote penguins monitored using low-cost camera network

Scientists have successfully monitored penguins across the east Antarctic over eight years using a network of remote cameras. The research team present their results in a recent study which describes their method of remote observation as a useful, low-cost tool for monitoring a range of isolated land-breeding marine species.

Drones can be used to study birds without affecting their behaviour — with some precautions

Drones — unmanned aerial vehicles — may be used in close proximity to bird populations without causing disturbance, finds a new study. Drones hold the potential to monitor species and areas that are difficult to reach. The authors advise that, when used with caution, drones could become a valuable tool in the monitoring of species, particularly in protected areas.

The impacts of large-scale Concentrated Solar Power on the local environment

Construction of Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) plants – electricity generation which concentrates sunlight to generate heat – can have a range of negative effects on wildlife, but these effects are short lived, new research has found. Once in use, CSP plants can even have some positive effects, reducing soil erosion, for instance.

Public subsidies for electric vehicle fleets are important for adoption

Public subsidies are important in encouraging organisations to trial and expand electric vehicle fleets, according to new research. The study, based on interviews and reports from 17 organisations, found that the opportunity to test new technology was the most important factor in deciding to trial electric vehicles. However, some smaller independent companies chose not to expand their fleet because of the expense.

Pomegranate-inspired battery design doubles stored energy

A new pomegranate-inspired design is the basis of a longer-lasting lithium-ion battery created by US researchers. They designed a battery with an anode made from ‘silicon pomegranates’, which doubles the amount of energy that can be stored compared to a standard carbon anode.

Making nano-scale manufacturing eco-friendly with silk

Nanolithography — a way of making finely detailed patterns or structures, such as those found in advanced computer microchips, uses toxic and corrosive chemicals. Researchers have now shown that these could be replaced with eco-friendly silk proteins and water, eliminating the need to use and dispose of hazardous chemicals, while achieving similar levels of detail to conventional methods.

Low energy water purification enabled by nanomaterial-coated sponges

A low cost, low energy method to disinfect water using electricity has been developed by researchers by combining carbon nanotubes (CNTs) and silver nano-wires with existing materials. The technology has the potential to be used in portable disinfection devices in developing countries.

New quantum dot process could lead to super-efficient light-producing technology

Polarised light forms the basis of many technologies, such as computer monitors. However, current approaches for making polarised light are inefficient, as they produce more than is ultimately used or needed. Researchers may now have found a way to directly produce polarised light using tiny nanostructures, called quantum dots, opening the way for more energy-efficient technologies.

Solar cell efficiency boosted with pine tree-like nanotube needle

‘Dye-sensitised solar cells’ (DSSCs) are an alternative to traditional silicon photovoltaic (PV) cells. They have a number of advantages over traditional PV solar cells, including greater flexibility and lower manufacturing cost, but they are less efficient at turning sunlight into electricity. Taking inspiration from nature, new research has doubled their efficiency using pine tree-shaped nanotubes.

Nanotechnology cuts costs and improves efficiency of photovoltaic cells

Researchers have summarised the most effective ways that nanostructures can improve the efficiency and lower costs of photovoltaic (PV) solar cells in a recent analysis. Sculpting ultra-thin solar cell surfaces at the nano-scale has been found to effectively boost their efficiency.

New energy-efficient manufacture of perovskite solar cells that rivals silicon solar cells

‘Perovskite solar cells’ (PSCs) are less costly than conventional silicon solar cells, but one of their key components is energy-intensive to manufacture as high temperatures are needed. Now researchers have identified new alternative materials for this component which cut energy demands as they can be produced at low temperatures.

New 3D printing technique for environmental nanodevices

A nanoscale 3D printing technique could be useful for nanomanufacturing processes with environmental applications. The authors of a new study have found a way to control their printing process by incorporating a simple pattern into the printing surface. They say their technique could reduce costs for nanoscale printing.

The potential of new building block-like nanomaterials: van der Waals heterostructures

A new review examines the potential uses and scientific, technical and manufacturing problems facing ‘van der Waals heterostructures’ - an emerging science which uses building block-like nanomaterials. Van der Waals heterostructures are nanomaterials built by layering different materials, each one atom thick, on top of each other, to create materials with unique properties and uses.

Potential health risks from different forms of nanosized cellulose crystals

A new study has found evidence for lung toxicity of different forms of ‘cellulose nanocrystals’ (CNCs) in mice. The study suggests that physical characteristics, such as length, of the CNC relates to the type of effect it has on the lung. These nanosized crystals, made from plant-derived materials, are increasingly being used in novel applications, such as cleaning up oil spills in water and flexible electronic displays, and consumer products, which raises concerns about their potential health impacts.

Citizen scientists map air pollution with smartphones

Citizen scientists have helped to map pollution across the Netherlands using their smartphones. Their results, produced by thousands of volunteers, are presented in a study which shows how a combination of mass participation and smartphone technology can be a powerful approach to environmental monitoring.

Methane: satellite data may improve emissions estimates

Greenhouse gas (GHG) inventories are significantly underestimating methane emissions from a region in the southwest of the United States, and potentially elsewhere, a new study has found. The authors of the study suggest that satellite data could be used to identify and quantify new sources of methane, such as fracking.

Solar panel silicon recovery methods tested

A three-step chemical process could successfully recover high-purity silicon from recycled photovoltaic (PV) solar panels, new tests show. The scientists behind the research say that recycling not only helps the PV industry meet regulatory requirements, but also reduces pressure on demand for raw materials.

New ‘bird-washing machine’ dramatically improves survival of birds caught in oil spills

Oil spills can decimate seabird populations. Some birds can be saved, if the oil is washed from their feathers in time; however, this long process is stressful for the birds and requires numerous volunteers. Researchers have now developed a ‘bird-washing machine’ which reduces the washing time from two hours to four minutes. When trialled on oiled birds rescued from the Caspian Sea this resulted in a substantial increase in survival: 88.5% survival after seven days compared to 50% survival with current washing techniques.

Producing environmentally friendly biodegradable plastics from vegetable waste

Using vegetable waste to produce bioplastics can provide sustainable alternatives to non-biodegradable plastic, new research has found. The biodegradable plastic developed for this study, produced using parsley and spinach stems, cocoa pod husks and rice hulls, have a range of mechanical properties comparable to conventional plastics which are used for products from carrier bags to kitchenware and computer components.

Erratum
This article was amended 10.12.14 to give more information about the nature of trifluoroacetic acid.

Wind turbine risks to seabirds: new tool maps birds’ sensitivity to offshore farms

A new tool has been developed to map the sensitivity of seabirds to offshore wind farm development. The Seabird Mapping and Sensitivity Tool (SeaMaST), currently for use in English waters, combines information on the sensitivity of seabird species to wind turbines with data on the birds’ distribution. It provides maps that can be used for both the offshore wind farm industry and marine spatial planning.

Buildings’ future heating and cooling needs are predicted with new method

Which types of buildings will require the least energy for heating and cooling under climate change? A study in Vienna, Austria, looked at the balance between heating and cooling demand in four different types of buildings. The research provides a method that could be useful for other European cities trying to adapt to climate change.

Traffic noise pollution mapped with new mobile phone app

A new mobile phone application which can help monitor traffic-noise exposure is presented in a recent study. The app, ‘2Loud?’, can measure indoor night-time noise exposure and, given large-scale community participation, could provide valuable data to aid urban planning, the researchers say. In an Australian pilot study, nearly half of participants who used the app found that they were exposed to potentially unhealthy levels of night-time noise.

3D printing could help bring ‘hydrogen economy’ a step closer

Better hydrogen production could be on the horizon thanks to a cheap new way of making a key component of electrolysers with a 3D printer, a new study suggests. This achievement could speed-up the development of electrolysis, a method of extracting hydrogen from water.

Individual power stations' emissions can be identified from a distance

Air pollutants and greenhouse gases (GHGs) from a coal-fired power station have been correctly identified 12 km away, researchers report in a new US study. Their monitoring method paves the way for a space-based satellite system which can check emissions reported by individual power stations against actual emissions.

Cyclists map Antwerp air pollution with on-bike monitors

Cyclists with pollution monitors and GPS trackers attached to their bicycles have produced detailed maps of Antwerp’s air quality, as part of a recent study. Their data show that a gap of just a few metres between cycle lanes and cars significantly reduces cyclists’ risk of inhaling high levels of ultrafine particle pollution.

Simple Swedish device effectively reduces harmful indoor air pollution

Indoor air quality can be significantly improved using a simple device which traps harmful chemicals emitted from glues, paints and building materials, a new study has shown. Designed in Sweden, the researchers demonstrate that the 'surface emissions trap', especially effective for damp buildings, also prevents emissions from mould and can remove unpleasant odours.

New incineration-waste clean-up method brings resource and carbon benefits

Ash from waste incineration can be made safer simply by mixing it with rice husks, water and other forms of waste ash at temperatures under 100 °C, according to new research. Once dried, the end product not only locks away toxic metals lead and zinc, but also stores carbon. Furthermore, it can be used in the polymer industry to lower costs, improve polymer properties and reduce the use of natural resources.

New tool to assess the ecological impacts of offshore wind turbines

How do offshore wind farms affect marine wildlife? A new study outlines a systematic approach developed for Swedish waters that could also be useful for assessing wind energy impacts on the marine environment more widely.

What drives general acceptance of offshore wind farms?

General acceptance of offshore wind farms is most positively influenced by reductions in fossil fuel imports and contributions to global warming mitigation, and most negatively by concerns about increases in electricity price and impacts on scenic views, US research suggests. Other factors, such as reductions in air pollution, were not closely related to general acceptance even though on average the public rated them as important.

Low-carbon technology policy success factors assessed

Policies to promote low-carbon technologies are more likely to be successful if they are flexible, have clear timeframes, and are mandatory, a recent study suggests. The researchers reached their conclusions by studying cases of low-carbon policies from around the world.

Finding space for wind power in the North Sea

A new tool for minimising offshore wind energy's impacts on other activities in the North Sea has been developed. The tool identifies space for wind farms based on their priority compared to other marine activities, such as sand extraction or fishing.

A low-carbon transport system requires coherent national policy

The transition to a low-carbon transport system needs a coherent national policy framework that supports all its aspects, according to a review of transport and innovation policy in Finland. Its findings suggest that policy makers need to identify and remove contradictory policies that present barriers to achieving a greener transport system.

Single artificial wetland successfully treats different types of wastewater

The world's first full-scale artificial wetland designed to treat both sewage effluent and mine wastewater has been found to continuously remove high levels of pollutants, a recent study concludes. Treating both types of wastewater at the same time proved to be highly beneficial because they contain pollutants which are more easily removed when mixed together.

Offshore renewable energy sites provide new habitat for marine species

Offshore renewable energy sites may provide new 'stepping stone' habitats for marine species, a recent study suggests. They could allow some species to spread beyond their present range and help vulnerable creatures survive in the face of climate change. However, they may also allow harmful invasive species to spread, the researchers warn, and the effects of such projects must be assessed by examining their impacts on the ecosystem as a whole.

Disease risk predicted by new climate change adaptation tool

A tool to calculate the risk of food and waterborne diseases under current or future climate change conditions has been presented in a recent study. Free to use, the online tool can help guide climate change adaptation, such as improvements to water management, by estimating the likelihood of contracting four diseases under a range of environmental conditions.

Green technology transfer promoted by emissions standards - even in absence of trade

China does not export cars to Europe, yet it has adopted the Euro emissions standard for vehicles. A recent study argues this is because international standards can encourage foreign investors to share advanced technical knowledge with companies in developing and emerging economies – thus bringing a package of environmental and economic benefits. In China’s case, its car industry is now better prepared for future trade in a global market, thanks to this strategy.

New consumer app scores protein products for sustainability

A smartphone app has been designed to help shoppers choose more environmentally-friendly protein-rich products, namely meat, vegetarian alternatives, eggs and dairy products. The methods and data used to measure these products' lifecycle environmental impacts are presented in a recent study.

High gold prices drive expansion of mining activity in the Amazon forest of Peru

Gold mining areas in the Peruvian Amazon rainforest expanded from under 10 000 hectares in 1999 to over 50 000 hectares by 2012, and now destroys more forest than agriculture and logging combined, new research has shown. Using high-resolution satellite imaging, researchers estimated gold mining areas to be twice as large as estimated by previous studies, which did not include the combined effects of thousands of small, mainly illicit, mining operations.

Crayfish plague detection: new techniques tested

Crayfish plague, spread by invasive North American crayfish, is currently devastating native European populations. However, while the disease is commonly diagnosed on the basis of diseased animals, free-living infective spores can contaminate water bodies. In the first study to test detection techniques for this disease in natural waterways, researchers found that invasive signal crayfish release low levels of plague spores, allowing it to spread undetected.