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The Milky Way may be swarming with planets with oceans and continents like here on Earth

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The Milky Way may be swarming with planets with oceans and continents like here on Earth

Astronomers have long been looking into the vast universe in hopes of discovering alien civilisations. But for a planet to have life, liquid water must be present. The chances of that finding scenario have seemed impossible to calculate because it has been the assumption that planets like Earth get their water by chance if a large, ice asteroid hits the planet.

Now, researchers from the GLOBE Institute at the University of Copenhagen have published an eye-opening study, indicating that water may be present during the very formation of a planet. According to the study’s calculations, this is true for both Earth, Venus and Mars.

“”All our data suggest that water was part of Earth’s building blocks, right from the beginning. And because the water molecule is frequently occurring, there is a reasonable probability that it applies to all planets in the Milky Way. The decisive point for whether liquid water is present is the distance of the planet from its star,” says Professor Anders Johansen from the Centre for Star and Planet Formation who has led the study that is published in the journal Science Advances.

Using a computer model, Anders Johansen and his team have calculated how quickly planets are formed, and from which building blocks. The study indicates that it was millimetre-sized dust particles of ice and carbon — which are known to orbit around all young stars in the Milky Way — that 4.5 billion years ago accreted in the formation of what would later become Earth.

“Up to the point where Earth had grown to one percent of its current mass, our planet grew by capturing masses of pebbles filled with ice and carbon. Earth then grew faster and faster until, after five million years, it became as large as we know it today. Along the way, the temperature on the surface rose sharply, causing the ice in the pebbles to evaporate on the way down to the surface so that, today, only 0.1 percent of the planet is made up of water, even though 70 percent of Earth’s surface is covered by water,” says Anders Johansen, who together with his research team in Lund ten years ago put forward the theory that the new study now confirms.

The theory, called ‘pebble accretion’, is that planets are formed by pebbles that are clumping together, and that the planets then grow larger and larger.


Anders Johansen explains that the water molecule H2O is found everywhere in our galaxy, and that the theory therefore opens up the possibility that other planets may have been formed in the same way as Earth, Mars and Venus.

“”All planets in the Milky Way may be formed by the same building blocks, meaning that planets with the same amount of water and carbon as Earth — and thus potential places where life may be present — occur frequently around other stars in our galaxy, provided the temperature is right,” he says.

If planets in our galaxy had the same building blocks and the same temperature conditions as Earth, there will also be good chances that they may have about the same amount of water and continents as our planet.

Professor Martin Bizzarro, co-author of the study, says: “With our model, all planets get the same amount of water, and this suggests that other planets may have not just the same amount of water and oceans, but also the same amount of continents as here on Earth. It provides good opportunities for the emergence of life.”

If, on the other hand, it was random how much water was present on planets, the planets might look vastly different. Some planets would be too dry to develop life, while others would be completely covered by water.

“A planet covered by water would of course be good for maritime beings, but would offer less than ideal conditions for the formation of civilisations that can observe the universe,” says Anders Johansen.

Anders Johansen and his research team are looking forward to the next generation of space telescopes, which will offer far better opportunities to observe exoplanets orbiting a star other than the Sun.

“The new telescopes are powerful. They use spectroscopy, which means that by observing which type of light is being blocked from the planets’ orbit around their star, you can see how much water vapour there is. It can tell us something about the number of oceans on that planet,” he says.

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The unintended consequences of success against malaria

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For decades, insecticide-treated bed nets and indoor insecticide spraying regimens have been important — and widely successful — treatments against mosquitoes that transmit malaria, a dangerous global disease. Yet these treatments also — for a time — suppressed undesirable household insects like bed bugs, cockroaches and flies.

Now, a new North Carolina State University study reviewing the academic literature on indoor pest control shows that as the household insects developed resistance to the insecticides targeting mosquitoes, the return of these bed bugs, cockroaches and flies into homes has led to community distrust and often abandonment of these treatments — and to rising rates of malaria.

In short, the bed nets and insecticide treatments that were so effective in preventing mosquito bites — and therefore malaria — are increasingly viewed as the causes of household pest resurgence.

“These insecticide-treated bed nets were not intended to kill household pests like bed bugs, but they were really good at it,” said Chris Hayes, an NC State Ph.D. student and co-corresponding author of a paper describing the work. “It’s what people really liked, but the insecticides are not working as effectively on household pests anymore.”

“Non-target effects are usually harmful, but in this case they were beneficial,” said Coby Schal, Blanton J. Whitmire Distinguished Professor of Entomology at NC State and co-corresponding author of the paper.

“The value to people wasn’t necessarily in reducing malaria, but was in killing other pests,” Hayes added. “There’s probably a link between use of these nets and widespread insecticide resistance in these house pests, at least in Africa.”

The researchers add that other factors — famine, war, the rural/city divide, and population displacement, for example — also could contribute to rising rates of malaria.

To produce the review, Hayes combed through the academic literature to find research on indoor pests like bed bugs, cockroaches and fleas, as well as papers on malaria, bed nets, pesticides and indoor pest control. The search yielded more than 1,200 papers, which, after an exhaustive review process, was whittled down to a final count of 28 peer-reviewed papers fulfilling the necessary criteria.

One paper — a 2022 survey of 1,000 households in Botswana — found that while 58% were most concerned with mosquitoes in homes, more than 40% were most concerned with cockroaches and flies.

Hayes said a recent paper — published after this NC State review was concluded — showed that people blamed the presence of bed bugs on bed nets.

“There is some evidence that people stop using bed nets when they don’t control pests,” Hayes said.

The researchers say that all hope is not lost, though.

“There are, ideally, two routes,” Schal said. “One would be a two-pronged approach with both mosquito treatment and a separate urban pest management treatment that targets pests. The other would be the discovery of new malaria-control tools that also target these household pests at the same time. For example, the bottom portion of a bed net could be a different chemistry that targets cockroaches and bed bugs.

“If you offer something in bed nets that suppresses pests, you might reduce the vilification of bed nets.”

The study appears in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The review was supported in part by the Blanton J. Whitmire Endowment at NC State, and grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Healthy Homes program (NCHHU0053-19), the Department of the Army, U.S. Army Contracting Command, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Natick Contracting Division, Ft. Detrick, Maryland (W911QY1910011), and the Triangle Center for Evolutionary Medicine (257367).



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Drawing water from dry air

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Earth’s atmosphere holds an ocean of water, enough liquid to fill Utah’s Great Salt Lake 800 times.

Extracting some of that moisture is seen as a potential way to provide clean drinking water to billions of people globally who face chronic shortages.

Existing technologies for atmospheric water harvesting (AWH) are saddled with numerous downsides associated with size, cost and efficiency. But new research from University of Utah engineering researchers has yielded insights that could improve efficiencies and bring the world one step closer to tapping the air as a culinary water source in arid places.

The study unveils the first-of-its-kind compact rapid cycling fuel-fired AWH device. This two-step prototype relies on adsorbent materials that draw water molecules out of non-humid air, then applies heat to release those molecules into liquid form, according to Sameer Rao, senior author of the study published Monday and an assistant professor of mechanical engineering.

“Hygroscopic materials intrinsically have affinity to water. They soak up water wherever you go. One of the best examples is the stuff inside diapers,” said Rao, who happens to be the father of an infant son. “We work with a specific type of hygroscopic material called a metal organic framework.”

Rao likened metal organic frameworks to Lego blocks, which can be rearranged to build all sorts of structures. It this case they are arranged to create a molecule ideal for gas separation.

“They can make it specific to adsorb water vapor from the air and nothing else. They’re really selective,” Rao said. Developed with graduate student Nathan Ortiz, the study’s lead author, this prototype uses aluminum fumarate that was fashioned into panels that collect the water as air is drawn through.

“The water molecules themselves get trapped on the surfaces of our material, and that’s a reversible process. And so instead of becoming ingrained into the material itself, it sits on the walls,” Ortiz said. “What’s special about these absorbent materials is they have just an immense amount of internal surface area. There’s so many sites for water molecules to get stuck.”

Just a gram of this material holds as much surface area as two football fields, according to Rao. So just a little material can capture a lot of water.

“All of this surface area is at the molecular scale,” Rao said. “And that’s awesome for us because we want to trap water vapor onto that surface area within the pores of this material.”

Funding for the research came from the DEVCOM Soldier Center, a program run by the Department of Defense to facilitate technology transfer that supports Army modernization. The Army’s interest in the project stems from the need to keep soldiers hydrated while operating in remote areas with few water sources.

“We specifically looked at this for defense applications so that soldiers have a small compact water generation unit and don’t need to lug around a large canteen filled with water,” Rao said. “This would literally produce water on demand.”

Rao and Ortiz have filed for a preliminary patent based on the technology, which addresses non-military needs as well.

“As we were designing the system, I think we also had perspective of the broader water problem. It’s not just a defense issue, it’s very much a civilian issue,” Rao said. “We think in terms water consumption of a household for drinking water per day. That’s about 15 to 20 liters per day.”

In this proof of concept, the prototype achieved its target of producing 5 liters of water per day per kilogram of adsorbent material. In a matter of three days in the field, this devise would outperform packing water, according to Ortiz.

In the device’s second step, the water is precipitated into liquid by applying heat using a standard-issue Army camping stove. This works because of the exothermic nature of its water collecting process.

“As it collects water, it’s releasing little bits of heat. And then to reverse that, we add heat,” Ortiz said. “We just put a flame right under here, anything to get this temperature up. And then as we increase the temperature, we rapidly release the water molecules. Once we have a really humid airstream, that makes condensation at ambient temperature much easier.”

Nascent technologies abound for atmospheric water harvesting, which is more easily accomplished when the air is humid, but none has resulted in equipment that can be put to practical use in arid environments. Ortiz believes his device can be the first, mainly because it is powered with energy-dense fuel like the white gasoline used in camping stoves.

The team decided against using photovoltaics.

“If you’re reliant on solar panels, you’re limited to daytime operation or you need batteries, which is just more weight. You keep stacking challenges. It just takes up so much space,” Ortiz said. “This technology is superior in arid conditions, while refrigeration is best in high humidity.”



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3D-printed microstructure forest facilitates solar steam generator desalination

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Faced with the world’s impending freshwater scarcity, a team of researchers in Singapore turned to solar steam generators (SSGs), which are emerging as a promising device for seawater desalination. Desalination can be a costly, energy-intensive solution to water scarcity. This renewable-powered approach mimics the natural water cycle by using the sun’s energy to evaporate and isolate water. However, the technology is limited by the need to fabricate complex topologies to increase the surface area necessary to achieve high water evaporation efficiency.

To overcome this barrier, the team sought design inspiration from trees and harnessed the potential of 3D printing. In Applied Physics Reviews, the team presents a state-of-the-art technology for producing efficient SSGs for desalination and introduces a novel method for printing functional nanocomposites for multi-jet fusion (MJF).

“We created SSGs with exceptional photothermal performance and self-cleaning properties,” said Kun Zhou, a professor of mechanical engineering at Nanyang Technological University. “Using a treelike porous structure significantly enhances water evaporation rates and ensures continuous operation by preventing salt accumulation — its performance remains relatively stable even after prolonged testing.”

The physics behind their approach involves light-to-thermal energy conversion, where the SSGs absorb solar energy, convert it to heat, and evaporate the water/seawater. The SSG’s porous structure helps improve self-cleaning by removing accumulated salt to ensure sustained desalination performance.

“By using an effective photothermal fusing agent, MJF printing technology can rapidly create parts with intricate designs,” he said. “To improve the photothermal conversion efficiency of fusing agents and printed parts, we developed a novel type of fusing agent derived from metal-organic frameworks.”

Their SSGs were inspired by plant transpiration and are composed of miniature tree-shaped microstructures, forming an efficient, heat-distributing forest.

“Our bioinspired design increases the surface area of the SSG,” said Zhou. “Using a treelike design increases the surface area of the SSG, which enhances the water transport and boosts evaporation efficiency.”

One big surprise was the high rate of water evaporation observed in both simulated environments and field trials. The desalinated water consistently met standards for drinking water — even after a long-time test.

“This demonstrates the practicality and efficiency of our approach,” Zhou said. “And it can be quickly and easily mass-produced via MJF commercial printers.”

The team’s work shows significant potential for addressing freshwater scarcity.

“Our SSGs can be used in regions with limited access to freshwater to provide a sustainable and efficient desalination solution,” said Zhou. “Beyond desalination, it can be adapted for other applications that require efficient solar energy conversion and water purification.”



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