Highlights from the Week's News

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Congress Appears Pumped to Fight Climate Change

June 05, 2022

Support for Heat Pumps Could Help Cut Consumer Bills and Carbon

News broke last week that we passed a grim milestone. There is now more CO2 in the atmosphere than at any time in at least four million years. The amount of carbon reached nearly 421 parts per million because of power plants, transportation, farming practices—and a less talked about source—buildings.

Outdoor section of a heat pump | Credit: Kristoferb

Maintaining indoor spaces, from furnaces and air conditioners to hot water heaters, relies heavily on fossil fuels and produces roughly one-fifth of total global greenhouse gas emissions. While we can do things to make buildings more efficient with light bulbs or energy-saving appliances, one crucial way to decarbonize is to go all electric. To that end, two bills have been introduced in Congress to transition to clean energy solutions and promote "heat pumps."

Despite its name, heat pumps can both cool a building in the summer and warm it in winter. It operates like a refrigerator, which pumps warm air out to keep food fresh. But heat pumps go both ways and suck warm air in to heat a room. (Visit for a full explainer on how they work.)

One of the bills in Congress is the “Installing Clean Efficient Energy Hastens Our Transition” or ICEE HOT Act, and it creates a rebate system for heating and cooling distributors to promote electric systems. The other bill, the Heating Efficiency and Affordability through Tax Relief or (HEATR) Act, provides tax credits for manufacturers to produce efficient heat pumps that consumers can afford.

Heat pumps are up to four times more efficient than conventional equipment and would save consumers money on their energy bills while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. According to a study by the University of California, Davis, residential heat pumps reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 38–53 percent over a gas furnace. Residential heat pumps reduce 20-year global warming potential emissions by 53–67 percent.

So, as the planet warms and demand for air conditioning rises, pumping up the adoption of heat pumps will be central to combating the climate crisis.

Scientists Have Discovered the Largest Living Organism on Earth

Scientists might have discovered the largest living organism on Earth—and it’s ancient—perhaps 4,500 years old. A team from the University of Western Australia and Flinders University discovered a single seagrass plant in Shark Bay off Western Australia that extends for about 110 miles—the same distance from Los Angeles to San Diego.

Shark Bay seagrass, Posidonia australis | Credit: Rachel Austin/University of Western Australia

The expanse of the seagrass is much larger than the Pando aspen grove in Utah, which consists of 40,000 trees all connected by their roots, and was, up until now, thought to be the biggest known living organism.

The seagrass plant in Australia (Posidonia australis) has been cloning itself by creating new shoots off its root system and may be sterile—reproducing asexually. The plant can survive wide temperature ranges, from 17 to 30 degrees Celsius, and grow in seawater that has twice the normal salt content. It can exist in darkness or extreme light, yet keeps on going.

The researchers said that they confirmed that the plant was a single organism by sampling and comparing the DNA of seagrass shoots across the bed. While it has been resilient, in the last decade, the Shark Bay seagrass has shrunk by about seven square miles because of cyclones and rising temperatures from climate change.

The research was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

This Remarkable Weed’s Seed Uses Parachutes to Travel up to 60 Miles

Home improvement stores have shelves full of chemicals that kill dandelions, which many consider to be unsightly blemishes on green lawns. But if not sprayed with chemicals, many people eat the plant in salads as all parts of the dandelion are healthy. They contain antioxidants, can reduce inflammation, and manage blood pressure.

The plants are not native to North America, and it’s likely that they were brought over by European settlers because of their nutritional and medicinal content. And they spread quickly because of how they disperse their seeds, which according to new research led by Imperial College London, has a lot to do with humidity.

After the yellow flowers bloom, they develop into the familiar puff balls most of which are the hairy bristles that connect to the seeds. The bristles act like a parachute, and as the seeds break free of the plant, they catch the wind. The parachutes can open and close. When it's drier, they stay open and take the seed on a ride possibly for miles. But in wetter conditions, they shut and the seed drops. Dandelion seeds are some of the best flyers in the natural world and can travel as far as 60 miles.

The scientists found that the center of the parachutes sense the environment by absorbing water molecules from the air and then respond. The lead author of the study, Dr. Naomi Nakayama, said their findings show how the seeds make the most important decision of their lives—to stay or to go seek a better habitat.

If you’re wondering whether the research has any practical application, the scientists say that the dandelion’s response to humidity could help engineers create robots to move multiple fingers and arms with very simple yet functional designs. The way the seed parachute changes in some areas but not others can help us understand how to shape movement in soft robots and biological tissue.

The study was published in Nature Communications.

Edible Cement from Food Waste

Food waste is a huge problem worldwide. Not only do people go hungry, but discarded items took a lot of land, water, and energy to produce, only to have them rot in landfills and emit greenhouse gases that harm the climate. But, according to the Associated Press, researchers in Japan have found a new use for food waste—constructing a building out of it.

Tokyo University researchers Yuya Sakai, left, and Kota Machida, right, check on dried vegetables and fruit peels before pulverizing them to particles at their university laboratory in Tokyo, on May 26, 2022. The university's researchers have developed a technology that can transform food waste into “cement" for construction use. | Credit: Chisato Tanaka

A team from Tokyo University has developed the world’s first cement using tea leaves, orange and onion peels, coffee grounds, and Chinese cabbage. They say their product is nearly four times stronger and more flexible than ordinary concrete and has the potential to create a sustainable substitute for cement production, which accounts for eight percent of the world’s carbon emissions.

The process is simple, they say—just dry the food, make it into powder, then heat-press in a mold. And the kicker? It’s edible, although a person would have to break it into pieces and boil it first.

Beyond cement, the researchers see the potential to transform food waste into household products. Last year, they launched a company called Fabula Inc. to develop furniture, dishes, and utensils from the material. They’re weaving the food’s colors, aromas, and textures into the designs. So now you’ll be able to have your plate…and eat it too.