The day when roads will harness solar energy is drawing near

There are some 60 million kilometers (37.3 million miles) of roadways in the world, just sitting there. But adapting these surfaces to do anything besides passively carry traffic has proved difficult and prohibitively expensive.

However, an idea has gained traction in the last few years: embedding solar cells in roads. In 2014, an American couple launched the Solar Roadways project and collected more than $2 million on the crowdfunding site Indiegogo. Their effort, however, is much farther from reality than the Netherlands-based consortium SolaRoad, which has been operating a 70-meter (230-foot) cycle path that generates enough electricity for one or two households.

Read more on Quartz, published May 15, 2015.

Image by SolaRoad.

Curious Bends  –  the mirror man, leaderless science, Modi’s love for the environment and more

1. To prescribe or not to prescribe

There is a saying in Tamil that goes “if your family can’t discipline you, the world will”. That would be the story of the slipshod trio of Wockhardt, Ranbaxy and Sun Pharma, three Indian pharma companies whose drugs have been banned by the US Food and Drug Administration (USFDA), leaving Indian doctors and patients facing a dilemma nobody deserves. On the one hand, these companies’ drugs have no substitutes in the market. On the other, neither their quality checks nor the government regulatory body’s are trustworthy. While culpability swings from deficient manpower to lax rules, what drugs are doctors prescribing? (4 min read)

2. Science in India suffers from a lack of leadership

The Indian Institute of Science wants to construct India’s biggest particle accelerator, but for years the desire has not even materialised into a concrete plan. The difficulty? It cannot afford the cost of construction of nearly Rs. 2,000 crore without help from the central government. But the excuse belies a more visceral problem: the Indian science community has a vacuum at its helm, and it shows. Other developing nations are doing much better. Brazil, arguably India’s peer, is already building its second synchrotron. (4 min read)

3. The man who cycles in Cambodia treating phantom pain with mirrors

He has held more than 20 jobs before this, from being an English teacher in Saudi Arabia to being a body-double in a German film. However… “In the autumn of 2010, Stephen was living in a basement apartment in Vancouver when it struck him that his calling might be mirror therapy. He’d go where there were amputees in pain, give them a mirror and teach them how to use it. Cambodia was his first destination because it had an inordinately high number of amputees, and it was small and flat, which was important because Stephen was planning to bicycle with his mirrors.” (27 min read)

+ The author, Srinath Perur, is a Bangalore-based science and travel writer.

4. Fast turnaround of environmental approvals will cost us dearly

Any developmental project in India requires a government-approved environment impact assessment (EIA). However, two things can decidedly worsen its trustworthiness. First, the company whose project is to be assessed can choose who performs it, no doubt a controversial facility. Second, as the newly installed Indian government seems to be doing, assessments can be “fast-tracked” at the expense of quality. As a result, both biologically diverse and endangered ecosystems around the country are under increased threat. (5 min read)

5. The science bit of India’s budget

Biotechnology, education and renewable energy research are the big winners in the 2014 Union Budget in India, at least in absolute terms. Relatively, however, the rise in funding (4%) is diminished by the rate of inflation (8%), while the slew of new IITs and IIMs are likely to exacerbate a spate of teacher deficiency. Also hanging in the balance is the approval for scientific mega-projects. Nonetheless, scientists are optimistic that things will improve by September, when the government will issue revised estimates of funding figures. (2 min read)


Chart of the week

After the awful 2013 communal riots in Muzaffarnagar, polling in the constituency was strongly and predictably polarised. In most polling booths, the party that won also secured more than 90% of the votes. But was this the case across all of the state of Uttar Pradesh? Apparently not, as this analysis and chart shows. Western UP had the most polling booths where the contest was a winner-takes-all, but the extent of polarisation became visibly moderated toward the east. More on this at

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Rain clouds: From dust to lawn

Clouds turn to rain when water droplets and ice crystals that make them up get too big to resist the pull of Earth’s gravity. This is often caused by particles that disturb the maelstrom of droplets and crystals to become seeds around which cloud matter coalesces. Once this happens, the seeds grow rapidly and eventually fall to the ground.

The seeds can be caused by the passage of exotic things like cosmic rays. More often, though, they are dust particles lofted high into the air. A study in 2009 showed that dust from Taklimakan desert in China, whisked above 5,000 metres, circumnavigated the globe in just 13 days. Because dust needs large horizontal distances to attain sufficient altitude, it might then cause rainfall half-way across the world.

For example, the Rocky Mountains in America push water vapour to higher altitudes that help form clouds. At that point, the theory goes, the clouds run into particles swept in from Africa and Asia. To find if that is indeed what happens Kaitlyn Suski and her colleagues at the University of California, San Diego, examined dust and clouds in Californian skies, to the Rockies’ west. They report their findings in Science.

Ms Suski needed to confirm that dust particles reached heights of about 3,000 metres or more to be able to intercept rain clouds. She also had to verify that they originated in Asia and Africa. She collected samples in an aeroplane equipped with a mass spectrometer, which can accurately determine the dust’s chemical composition. These chemical signatures were then compared with those found in Asian and African deserts. As a cross-check, Ms Suski used data from satellites like CALIPSO, which tracks dust particles’ atmospheric peregrinations.

Perhaps more interesting, Ms Suski also found that rain clouds contained bacteria, though it proved impossible to pin down their origins. Tiny living organisms can float in the atmosphere for a long time, feeding on trace carbon and any other nutrients they bump into. They can also act as cloud seeds.

In 2010 researchers in Norway concluded that bacteria are not as important to rainfall as dust is. But calculations by Ms Suski and her colleagues suggest that their rainmaking powers are amplified when they mingle with desert dust. Deserts may be some of the harshest places on the planet to live, but, if Ms Suski is right, they may be the enablers of life everywhere else.

First published on

Reference: Creamean et al. Science 2013. Dust and Biological Aerosols from the Sahara and Asia Influence Precipitation in the Western U.S.

Image credit: The Economist