Lighter Planes and Climate Gains

Agricultural fields of Mexico. (Image: Flickr/Wonderlane)

Agricultural fields of Mexico. (Image: Flickr/Wonderlane)

Yukiko Ogawa, from Japan’s National Institute for Materials Science, is on a mission to create lightweight metals. Steel is the most commonly used structural material, but it has a lot of iron, which is heavy. Magnesium-based alloys could present new opportunities. The benefits are clear: lighter planes will save fuel, lighter electronics will increase computing power per unit volume, and lighter medical devices will decrease strain on elderly patients. The problem, however, is that magnesium has poor “formability” – it can’t be molded into shape very easily. Ogawa circumvented this issue by adding occasional atoms of scandium into the crystal structure, modifying its shape. The resulting alloy was twice as strong and could “snap back” to a previous conformation, potentially signifying “a new generation of lightweight metals.”

Mexico’s cultural connection with corn runs deep, but when Javier Larragoiti-Kuri visited a cornfield as a child, he witnessed a new layer of the industry. He didn’t like what he saw. Farmers were only using the corn kernels for food – a tiny percentage of the overall biomass – while “the rest of the plant became agricultural waste,” burned to ash. Larragoiti-Kuri, now a scientist at the Universidad Iberoamericana, hoped to kill two birds with one stone, addressing the corn waste issue while improving Mexico’s dire nutritional issues. He’s isolated a natively occurring yeast organism, which can ferment corn stover into xylitol, a low-calorie sugar substitute. By avoiding biomass burning, up to 40% of the country’s carbon dioxide emissions could be mitigated, and less glucose could help the 10 million Mexicans with diabetes. Not a bad outcome of a school field trip.

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