Physics Today’s online staff summarize the most important and interesting news about science from the world's top media outlets.
MIT Technology Review: On 9 October in Squamish, British Columbia, a company called Carbon Engineering opened a facility to convert atmospheric carbon dioxide into carbon-neutral fuel. Currently, the facility uses already-existing technologies to extract CO2 gas from the air at the rate of about one ton per day. In about one year, an electrolyzer will be added to split water to obtain hydrogen that will then be combined with the CO2 to make hydrocarbon fuels. David Keith of Harvard University, who is also the founder of Carbon Engineering, says the process will not likely have a significant impact on the level of CO2 present in the atmosphere, so the facility shouldn't be viewed as a solution for reducing greenhouse gas levels. The primary use of the facility will be producing vehicle fuel that isn't sourced from petroleum oil.
Ars Technica: On 7 October, NASA announced a program that would make more than 1200 of the agency's patents available to startup companies for licensing with no upfront fees. The program, dubbed Startup NASA, is the agency's newest attempt to share its research with the public. In the past the agency has auctioned licenses and sold exclusive licensing rights. This time around, the licenses are freely available for three years to startups that intend to commercialize the technology. However, the licenses aren't exclusive; if a company successfully brings a product to market, it will pay standard net royalties.
Science: On Thursday, the House of Representatives' science committee approved legislation that would increase the committee's oversight of the NSF grant approval process. The bill is a shortened version of a bill that passed the full House in May but has not been taken up by the Senate. Both bills require NSF to explain why all approved grants are "in the national interest." According to committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX), he has reviewed several past grants that don't meet that definition. The support for the bills has been mostly partisan, with many Democrats believing that Smith just wants to suppress certain types of research. Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) thinks that the bill "substitutes the political process for the scientific process."
New York Times: On Thursday, California governor Jerry Brown signed legislation that bans plastic microbeads in consumer products. Microbeads are often included as exfoliants in face and body cleansers. However, when washed down sinks and showers, the beads pollute water supplies and can harm wildlife. Several other states have passed similar legislation, but California's law goes the furthest by also banning biodegradable alternatives.
New Scientist: Volcanoes can release large amounts of aerosol particles into the stratosphere. That can significantly alter rainfall, but the extent and impact of the change is still unclear. To get a better picture of the effects, Carly Iles and Gabriele Hegerl of the University of Edinburgh in the UK looked at historical flow volumes for 50 major rivers around the world. They found that for two years after major eruptions, rivers experienced significant changes in flow rate. In wet, tropical areas such as the Amazon, Nile, and Congo, river flow rates decreased by up to 10% of their average flow. In drier, subtropical regions, the river flows increased by as much as 25%. This difference emphasizes the potent effects of volcanic aerosols: By blocking sunlight, they allow less heat to reach the atmosphere, which alters circulation patterns and the distribution of rainfall.
BBC: SpaceIL, the Israeli team competing for Google's Lunar X Prize, is the first group in the competition to file a verified launch contract with the X Prize organization. The group has reserved a space on a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch in 2017. The Lunar X Prize, established in 2007, offers a $20 million award to the spaceflight team that can build a probe able to land on the Moon, travel at least 500 m, and return high-resolution images and video to Earth. Originally, the deadline for claiming the prize was the end of 2012, but it was extended to 2015. Earlier this year the foundation said it would extend the deadline to the end of 2017 if one of the competing teams filed a verified launch contract. Now that SpaceIL has done so, the other teams have until the end of 2016 to file their own launch contracts.