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A Trip Down Your Toilet December 10, 2010

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Brain Power, Environment, Human Body, Tough Stuff.
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Nope, I’m not giving a lesson on plumbing. But I am going to give you the scoop on a secret that starts inside your toilet, all thanks to the crew at Thames Water who are helping people stay warm this winter. What’s this secret? Well, when a toilet takes your daily (or whatever frequency..let’s not go there) offering, all that human gunk can get converted into renewable gas to heat your home.

In fact, my dog Tiko got so excited about this concept, he decided to contribute. Before we see what he got up to though, let’s first find out what’s happening in the bowels of your toilet and then follow it through the twists and turns of the pipes below.

A Good Kind Of Gas

Each time you perch on the toilet, you may soon take heart that you’re not the only one who’s a bit lighter – you’re taking a burden off the environment as well. Approximately 200 homeowners in an English town called Didcot are among the first in the UK to benefit from gas made from their own waste and supplied through the national grid to heat their houses. The future plan is to make this process available throughout the UK.

So why all the fuss to find new sources of energy? Well, the UK has a goal for 2020 to have 15 percent of the energy it produces come from renewable sources. Producing gas in this way is a strong step toward that goal. Oh, and if you’re worried your house will be smelly, fear not! The gas is odorless and your house will remain toasty.

From Flush To Finish

From the time you flush your toilet to the time your house gets heat, it’s around 23 days. Let’s take it step-by-step, based on the procedure and image below that Thames Water has generously shared.

Waste has a bit of a path to travel before making your home warm. But it’s worth the trip because it brings the UK closer to its energy goals.

  1. All the muck from toilets and stuff like sinks and dishwashers gets channeled to the Didcot works. Let me tell you, with 13.8 million customers, it’s a lot of waste!
  2. Waste gets separated into sludge and water inside settlement tanks
  3. Water is put through cleaning processes and then back to the environment it goes via a local watercourse
  4. Sludge goes a different route. It gets heated in massive containers called digesters. All the heat gets anaerobic digestion going, which is where bacteria breaks down biodegradable material. Now, we’re left with biomethane – also called biogas
  5. The gas gets collected and goes into a gas cleaning machine
  6. After the biomethane gets cleaned and smells more like normal gas, it goes to the national gas grid
  7. From here, it’s just like any other gas in the grid. Off it goes to heat up your home and fuel other things like your stove

Tiko Turds

Once Tiko heard about the capabilities of poo, he did what all good and respectable dogs do – he went to relieve himself. But instead of trotting to the door for me to let him outside, he wanted to do his part to help heat up the house. The cheeky mutt raced into the bathroom and plonked himself down on the toilet.

When Tiko found out that human waste from toilets was being used as a renewable source of energy to heat homes, he decided to help out. Now, where’s the air freshener?

I appreciate that he’s determined to help the environment but I tried to explain that nobody wants to sit on a toilet seat covered in his fur. He responded by barking at me to close the door because he wanted some privacy.

On second thought, I should be grateful I have such an environmentally conscious dog, even if he is a modest one.

Secrets Of Climbing June 1, 2008

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Animals, Environment, Evolution, Think About It.
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Treetops

Ever had a favorite tree in your yard that you liked to climb once in a while? You probably scurried up the tree and maybe hung out for a bit before carefully making your way down to your abode on the ground. We all know that some creatures like to live up in the trees but what makes the trees such a cool place to inhabit? Scientists may have found some clues as to why early primates liked to make their home in the forest canopy. It’s all about size!

Apes and monkeys – ancestors of humans – might have ended up in the trees because of their small size. Researchers have been curious for a while now about why early primates happily lived up in the trees. Why so curious? It’s because they thought that climbing used up more energy than walking. When it comes to walking, for example, smaller animals use up more energy in comparison with larger animals. Generally, we would expect the animals to live in a way that conserves energy. So, it has been somewhat of a confusing question as to why primates would make a transition to the trees if it meant that their energy efficiency was compromised.

Using A Treadmill To Investigate

Mongoose Lemur

You’re probably reading the word ‘treadmill,’ and wondering to yourself what I’m talking about! Well, treadmills can be useful for many things – not just for us humans to use as exercise equipment. In this case, researchers from Duke University in North Carolina observed primates as they walked and climbed on a special treadmill that was designed for the study. The results were surprising!

The researchers found that there was no difference in how much energy was consumed for small primates whether they walked or climbed the treadmill. This means that climbing didn’t have a higher energy consumption. In this way, the small primates could make good use of the treetop environment without compromising their energy. These early primates would have been approximately the size of a very big rat. The results were published in the journal Science and the information gives us some clues about how the ancestors of these primates ended up in the trees approximately 65 million years ago.

Yummy Food

You might be wondering what was so great about the trees? Well for early primates, moving into this new environment provided them with an abundance of tasty insects and fruits. On top of that, evolutionary changes then occurred, which means that the primates developed characteristics to help them better adapt to this new environment. For these mammals, the changes included the development of nails instead of claws. Jandy Hanna, a Duke graduate student at the time of the study, created the treadmill apparatus and measured primate activity and energy consumption. She explained:

We assumed it would be more energetically expensive for all of them to climb than to walk, so this finding was unexpected. What we have shown is that they could have made this shift into a rich environment with insects and fruits without increased energetic cost.

Ultimately, the small size of the primates meant that they could make the transition into the trees to enjoy the goodies up there. From the perspective of energy consumption, heavier animals had less incentive to climb than walk, so it was the smaller primates who had the competitive edge. Still, even if it does take more energy for humans to climb – that sure never stopped me when I was a kid and I liked climbing the tree to my playhouse.

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