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Science
THE MATERIAL WORLD
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Thursday 16:30-17:00
Quentin Cooper reports on developments across the sciences. Each week scientists describe their work, conveying the excitement they feel for their research projects.
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Listen to 12 October
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QUENTIN COOPER
Quentin Cooper
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Thursday 12 October 2006
A forest of poplar trees (Photo courtesy of Jake Eaton, plant materials manager, Potlatch Corp.)
Purdue researchers believe that hybrid poplars and similar trees planted like row crops could be processed into ethanol as an alternative fuel.
(Photo courtesy of Jake Eaton, plant materials manager, Potlatch Corp.)

The View From the Centre of the Universe

For 400 years, our apparent place in the Universe has been being steadily displaced.

First it was Galileo and Copernicus who realised that the Earth was not at the centre. Then astronomers showed that the Sun was just one star among billions in one galaxy among billions. Now it seems that the whole universe may be just one bubble in a multiverse foam.

But, say astrophysicist Joel Primack and his science philosopher wife Nancy Abrams in a new book, our perspective is still from the centre of the Universe. For the first time in history, they say, we have the necessary tools, observations and ideas to create a science-based cosmology that explains not only how the universe works, what it is made of and how it began, but also what our place in it really is.

They say we are right at the centre of the cosmos as we perceive it – both at the centre of the space we can see and the lifetime of our solar system. We are also at about the middle of the range of sizes from the cosmic to the sub-atomic and, for the first time, we are on the verge of understanding the world at scales way above and below our own.

Understanding our place in the scale of things, they tell Quentin Cooper, will help us develop a global perspective.

Fuel of the Future that Grows on Trees

The poplar tree is sometimes unpopular because it can grow 90 feet in six years, but grow it by the field-full and you have a potential fuel for the future.

The clever bit is turning it into petrol. Clint Chapple, Professor of Biochemistry at Purdue University, is using GM techniques to do just that.

He’s hoping that with a little genetic modification he will be able to turn a single large tree into up to 100 gallons of carbon-neutral transport fuel.

Professor Tony Bridgewater, from Aston University, is focussing on technology, turning vegetation, trees, grasses and plants into fuel. He specialises in fast pyrolysis, which is a bit like the traditional way of making charcoal, only faster and through a complex machine.

Quentin Cooper finds out whether biofuels are the way ahead for the UK and elsewhere.
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