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Scientists Figure Out How to Recycle Aluminum Foil Into an Ingredient for Biofuel

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A whole lot of aluminum foil ends up in landfills each year—some 22,000 tons in the UK alone. Like cans, aluminum foil can be recycled, but because we tend to use foil to pack food, that’s a tricky proposition. Many recycling centers won’t take dirty aluminum foil, since the contamination from greasy and oily food can damage recycling equipment. New research led by engineers at Queen's University Belfast in Northern Ireland has found another way to make use of that old aluminum foil, even if it does have food stuck to it.

As New Atlas reports, the study in Scientific Reports introduces a crystallization method that allows contaminated foil to be transformed into pure aluminum salt crystals. This can be turned into a chemical catalyst to make dimethyl ether, a biofuel that is considered a promising alternative energy source, especially to run diesel engines.

Essentially, the researchers dissolved the foil in a chemical solution that turned it into crystals, then used another chemical mixture to purify those crystals. The resulting 100 percent pure aluminum salts can be used to create alumina catalyst, a key ingredient for making dimethyl ether.

Alumina catalyst created by the tinfoil process would be cheaper than the current commercial version, according to a press release from the university. It costs about $72 per pound, compared to $183 per pound for the existing commercial catalyst.

In addition, the commercially available catalyst is made from bauxite ore, and like many materials that need to be mined from deep within the earth, obtaining bauxite is a resource-intensive process with major environmental costs. So if this technique lives up to its promise, the benefits of being able to recycle even food-soiled aluminum for a second use would be two-fold. It would save used aluminum from the landfill, and allow researchers to produce more of this biofuel without causing environmental harm.

[h/t New Atlas]

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The Prehistoric Bacteria That Helped Create Our Cells Billions of Years Ago
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We owe the existence of our cells—the very building blocks of life—to a chance relationship between bacteria that occurred more than 2 billion years ago. Flash back to Bio 101, and you might remember that humans, plants, and animals have complex eukaryotic cells, with nucleus-bound DNA, instead of single-celled prokaryotic cells. These contain specialized organelles such as the mitochondria—the cell’s powerhouse—and the chloroplast, which converts sunlight into sugar in plants.

Mitochondria and chloroplasts both look and behave a lot like bacteria, and they also share similar genes. This isn’t a coincidence: Scientists believe these specialized cell subunits are descendants of free-living prehistoric bacteria that somehow merged together to form one. Over time, they became part of our basic biological units—and you can learn how by watching PBS Eons’s latest video below.

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Buckingham Palace Was Built With Jurassic Fossils, Scientists Find
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The UK's Buckingham Palace is a vestige from another era, and not just because it was built in the early 18th century. According to a new study, the limestone used to construct it is filled with the fossilized remains of microbes from the Jurassic period of 200 million years ago, as The Telegraph reports.

The palace is made of oolitic limestone, which consists of individual balls of carbonate sediment called ooids. The material is strong but lightweight, and is found worldwide. Jurassic oolite has been used to construct numerous famous buildings, from those in the British city of Bath to the Empire State Building and the Pentagon.

A new study from Australian National University published in Scientific Reports found that the spherical ooids in Buckingham Palace's walls are made up of layers and layers of mineralized microbes. Inspired by a mathematical model from the 1970s for predicting the growth of brain tumors, the researchers created a model that explains how ooids are created and predicts the factors that limit their ultimate size.

A hand holding a chunk of oolite limestone
Australian National University

They found that the mineralization of the microbes forms the central core of the ooid, and the layers of sediment that gather around that core feed those microbes until the nutrients can no longer reach the core from the outermost layer.

This contrasts with previous research on how ooids form, which hypothesized that they are the result of sediment gathered from rolling on the ocean floor. It also reshapes how we think about the buildings made out of oolitic limestone from this period. Next time you look up at the Empire State Building or Buckingham Palace, thank the ancient microbes.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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