AT THE CURRENT RATE of about 3,000 square nautical miles a year, it will take the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration more than 160 years to accurately survey the country’s 500,000 square nautical miles of vital commercial waters.
That’s a long time and a lot of work.
David Evans and Associates’ (DEA) Marine Science Division will be tending to some of that work over the next five years thanks to a $250 million NOAA contract awarded in September.
“A lot of the available nautical charts are based on surveys from pre-1940, and a lot of waters have never even been surveyed,” says Jon Dasler, vice president and director of marine services at DEA; the company is based in Portland and its marine division is based in Vancouver, Wash. “There’s been such a huge increase in shipping, so there’s a real push to update the nautical charts.”
Accurate data and charts, which identify hazards and the lay of the land under water, are key to safe shipping, especially as ships grow in size and cargo grows in volume. Dasler says waters are full of dangerous obstructions, like downed aircraft, lost containers and sunken barges that can wreak havoc on shipping lanes. He references as an example the infamous wreck of the Athos 1, an oil tanker that struck a ship’s anchor and then leaked 265,000 gallons of crude oil into the Delaware River in 2004.
Fishermen, pilots, construction engineers, recreational boaters and others also rely on accurate nautical charts.
The NOAA contract, divided up between seven contractors, will put DEA to work surveying vital shipping waters around the country, including some sections of the Columbia River. DEA will be hiring people, possibly acquiring other survey-related companies and investing in the latest technology, including unmanned vessels, sonar scanning tools and software, to process the massive amounts of data fished out of oceans, bays and rivers.
“It’s really about trying to update all these charts with the most current technology,” Dasler says. “There’s quite a need.”
When it comes to fundamental biological research, the fruit fly has long been the classic model organism on which scientists experiment.
Now, thanks to one of two $1.2 million federal grants, researchers at Oregon State University are creating a sort of fruit fly of their own that will be used for the study of cellulosic biofuel feedstock crops that could one day become alternative sources of fuel.
“What our project is about is really fundamental basic research that relates to cellulosic ethanol,” says Todd Mockler, an assistant professor of botany at OSU. “And for that kind of research, you need a model organism.”
Mockler’s project received a three-year, $1.2 million grant from the Department of Energy and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to basically create a DNA chip for brachypodium, a model grass that researchers can study to learn more about the biofuel crops of tomorrow.
The chip, a tiny square packed with brachypodium DNA, will be manufactured by the California firm Affymetrix and made available to researchers all over the world. Those scientists will conduct experiments to see how brachypodium can be made into a superior crop that is, say, more resistant to drought or insects. Once scientists figure out how to make those genetic modifications in brachypodium, they’ll be able to make them in closely related biofuel crops like switchgrass.
The other $1.2 million grant went to OSU forest science professor Steven Strauss, who will study the poplar tree, which itself may be a valuable biofuel crop someday.
But don’t expect to see poplar- or switchgrass-based ethanol fuels at the pump anytime soon. While Mockler sees these grants as a welcome opportunity for research, it likely will be years before alternative fuels like these play a more significant role.
“The technology isn’t mature enough yet to make billions of gallons of ethanol from cellulose for fuel,” he says. “But there are lots of possible solutions.”
List researched by Jon Bell
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