Newscripts | August 7, 2006 Issue - Vol. 84 Issue 32 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 84 Issue 32 | p. 72 | Newscripts
Issue Date: August 7, 2006

Aerogels make it to the top of the world, Earliest bling, Green lawn conundrum, Goose poop goes foul

Department: Newscripts
News Channels: Environmental SCENE

Aerogels make it to the top of the world

Everest climber Parmenter stayed warm with aerogel insoles.
Credit: Michael Kodas
Everest climber Parmenter stayed warm with aerogel insoles.
Credit: Michael Kodas

Anne Parmenter, a climber sponsored by Aspen Aerogels, successfully reached the summit of Mount Everest this year, aided by aerogel-insulated shoe insoles and a sleeping pad. Aerogels are superstrong low-density porous solids made from silica, alumina, or transition-metal oxides. The space-age material feels like Styrofoam, and it's referred to as "blue smoke," owing to its hazy, near-transparent appearance.

Insulating materials work by trapping air in void spaces, and maintaining the loft of the material is critical. Losing loft is a problem for load-bearing applications, such as underfoot in shoes. Aspen's aerogel material can withstand 150 psi without losing loft, a level "well beyond the pressure exercised on the balls of the feet while running," according to the company.

Parmenter reached the tip-top of Everest on May 25, and she later reported the aerogel insoles worked well in temperatures as low as -50 oC and high winds. Parmenter noted that she didn't suffer from frostbite, although others in her climbing group did. No word on how the sleeping pad worked out.

Earliest bling

Bling is an interesting new word in the dictionary that describes jewelry and other accoutrements recently popularized by hip-hop musicians. Yet, bling apparently has been around since the dawn of modern man, no doubt known by other names or perhaps, before speech, by grunts or oohs and aahs. An international research team using chemical analysis recently concluded that seashells with bored holes found in modern-day Israel and Algeria were used as beads for blinglike jewelry or other purposes some 100,000 years ago, about 25,000 years earlier than previously dated "personal ornaments" (Science 2006, 312, 1785). The findings are helping to paint a clearer picture of when anatomically and behaviorally modern humans came into existence.

Green lawn conundrum

People like green, neatly manicured lawns and are prepared to go to great lengths to have them. A beautiful carpet of grass requires water, fertilizers, and pesticides, all of which put a strain on the environment. And typical lawn mowers spew out a fair amount of uncontrolled exhaust in defiance of the Clean Air Act.

This paradox of dirtying the environment for a green front yard is "a guilty pleasure," according to a New York Times editorial on April 25. New air standards for small engines requiring catalytic converters on mowers are being held up by political shenanigans in Congress as a favor to lawn mower manufacturers. The manufacturer of an environmentally friendly lawn mower would probably find willing buyers, the editorial concludes. Or maybe not.

Environmental historian Ted Steinberg has written a book addressing the zeal with which people pursue their patches of green. "American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn," traces the history of the lawn from its British origins to explore why people desire perfect lawns, the influence of lawn-care companies, the opportunity costs of lawn maintenance, and the environmental impact.

Goose poop goes foul

Canada geese have been thriving of late in North America, finding suitable habitat with abundant food and no predators in suburban environments. The digs are so good in many locations that geese have stopped migrating altogether. One locale hit particularly hard is Lake Tahoe, on the California-Nevada border.

The bottom of the lake is covered by two inches of goose poop in some areas, according to Department of Agriculture wildlife biologist Jack Spencer. A 10-lb goose can produce 4 lb of nitrate- and phosphate-rich manure as it waddles around each day.

Lake Tahoe is a favorite haunt for geese while they molt their primary wing feathers in the spring and can't fly. Spencer and his colleagues are trapping and relocating hundreds of geese to help mitigate the problem.

This week's column was written by Steve Ritter. Please send comments and suggestions to

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