Giant ants given special protection

A rare British “skyscraper city” made by ants has been given the equivalent of listed building protection and a place on maps to safeguard it from forestry work.

Nests up to two metres (seven ft) high, constructed from millions of conifer needles in Northumberland woodland, will be monitored during the felling of “intrusive” 20th century conifers amid the ancient oaks of Holystone, near Rothbury.

Naturalists have plotted the whereabouts of 69 of the structures, made over years by successive colonies of the hairy northern wood ant. The red and black-coloured species is Britain’s largest, but on a human scale the nests dwarf the ants by a greater measure than the Empire State Building.

The new protection at Holystone, one of only three Forestry Commission colonies of the ant in the north-east, is designed to safeguard the nests during the removal of 10,000 tonnes of timber. “The work will help the restoration of ancient woodland which is one of our priorities,” said Richard Pow of the Forestry Commission.

Holystone is one of the most important ancient sites in the 200,000 acres of Commission land in the north-east. Areas immediately surrounding the conical nests will be left untouched, as the ants select sites carefully. Building and maintenance is done by worker ants which seek clearings to "sunbathe", before going inside the nests to release heat and keep unhatched eggs warm.

Nick Brodin, regional biodiversity officer for Natural England, said: “It’s great news that these amazing ant nest stacks in Holystone Wood will be safeguarded thanks to satellite technology, which has given each one an exact GPS location.”  The hairy northern wood ant is one of the more exotic locators of England’s north south divide, with colonies confined to areas north of the river Trent.

Martin Wainwright
The Guardian

Gasification to generate clean fuels

Millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide could be prevented from entering the atmosphere following the discovery of a way to turn coal, grass or municipal waste more efficiently into clean fuels.

Scientists have adapted a process called “gasification” which is already used to clean up dirty materials before they are used to generate electricity or to make renewable fuels. The technique involves heating organic matter to produce a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide, called syngas.

However gasification is very energy-intensive, requiring high-temperature air, steam or oxygen to react with the organic material. Heating this up leads to the release of large amounts of carbon dioxide. In addition, gasification is often inefficient, leaving behind significant amounts of solid waste at the end of the process.

To find out how to make the process more efficient, researchers led by Marco Castaldi, at the department of earth and environmental engineering at Columbia University, tried varying the atmosphere in the gasifier. They found that, by adding CO2 into the steam atmosphere of a gasifier, significantly more of the biomass or coal was turned into useful syngas.

The technique has a double benefit for the environment: it provides a use for CO2 that would otherwise escape into the atmosphere and, after the hydrogen is siphoned off from the syngas, the remaining carbon monoxide can be buried safely underground.

Alok Jha
The Guardian