The Big Freeze and planetary flight

(Karen Schaffner)

With a major research university right in our backyard, a strong military presence and innovative companies throughout the metro region, there’s often a plethora of interesting science, medical and technology news to be found in Southern Arizona. Here’s a breakdown of the most interesting recent developments.

Ice age answers

The last ice age was more than 100,000 years ago. This pivotal era changed the Northern hemisphere’s geology and biodiversity. It’s also very msyterious. For decades scientists wondered how the ice sheets formed and what sped up their formation. A new study from the University of Arizona provides an answer to how the ice may have formed at the rate and in areas it did. A longstanding theory to explain the Ice Age is a “wobbling” theory in which Earth’s orbit may have “wobbled” during its path around the Sun, causing cooler temperatures. However, the theory doesn’t fully explain how the ice sheets covered much of Scandinavia and northern Europe. “The problem is we don’t know where those ice sheets (in Scandinavia) came from and what caused them to expand in such a short amount of time,” Marcus Lofverstrom said in a press release. Lofverstrom is the lead author on the study titled, “The importance of Canadian Arctic Archipelago gateways for glacial expansion in Scandinavia.” Lofverstrom is an assistant professor of geosciences and head of the UA Earth System Dynamics Lab. Scandinavian ice sheets are puzzling to scientists because the region is warmed by the North Atlantic Current. In order to look into the Ice Age mystery, Lofverstrom created an Earth-systems model called the Community Earth System Model for the study. The model could be used to test different geological and climate scenarios. The first experiment with this model did not provide any answer but their second experiment managed to explain why Scandinavia could have frozen over. “Using both climate model simulations and marine sediment analysis, we show that ice forming in Northern Canada can obstruct ocean gateways and divert water transport from the Arctic into the North Atlantic,” Lofverstrom said in a press release. “That in turn leads to a weakened ocean circulation and cold conditions off the coast of Scandinavia, which is sufficient to start growing ice in that region.” Assistant Professor in the UA department of geosciences, Diane Thompson, said the marine sediment records from the North Atlantic show evidence of glaciers in Northern Canada thousands of years before the European side. “It is possible that the mechanisms we identified here apply to every glacial period, not just the most recent one,” Lofverstrom said.

Better batteries

University of Arizona researchers have developed a metal-free electrolyte and hope to use it to create nontoxic batteries with lots of storage power. This feat is the latest movement toward solving renewable energy problems as the economy slowly shifts in the direction of renewable energy. The team of researchers launched a startup called CarbeniumTec LLC to get this technology off the ground. “We strive to develop a sustainable, metal-free and environmentally friendly solution that addresses the increasing demand for electricity storage,” co-inventor and cofounder Thomas Gianetti said in a press release. Gianetti, the assistant professor in the department of chemistry and biochemistry, is working with CarbeniumTec cofounder and Chief Technology Officer Jules Moutet to get this technology to the public.

Sailing around Mars

Research scientist Alexandre Kling in NASA’s mars climate modeling center is teaming up with University of Arizona engineers to design a motorless sailplane to fly on the surface of Mars. The plane will rely solely on Martian wind to sail while capturing data during its flight with temperature and gas sensors, as well as cameras. Mars’ atmosphere is quite thin, making it difficult to fly. But these sailplanes are designed to fly for days on Mars’ surface. “With this platform, you could just fly around and access those really interesting, really cool places,” Kling said.