Platinum and power

One of the classes I took in university was on electrochemistry and fuel cells. It was very interesting, but was also a reality check on the hype of hydrogen fuel cells vs. the reality. One item in particular that stood out for me was that the catalyst required for efficient, low temperature hydrogen fuel cell operation was platinum. While platinum isn't the most expensive metal out there, gold having passed it in price not too long ago, it's way up there. As I recall, the raw platinum required to make a fuel cell cost a significant fraction of the cost of a normal car, and that was before they processed it into a useful catalyst. Since then, they've improved the structure here and there and reduced the amount of platinum required bit by bit, but it's still a lot.

Not long ago, however, some researchers in Finland figured out a way to reduce the amount of platinum by more than half.

Rusty mittens

Just for fun, and because it's winter, I thought I'd look at mitten heaters, specifically the non-reusable type that comes with a warning not to take the plastic off until you're ready to use them. You've probably seen them sold with outdoor recreation stuff, such as camping gear. They're little cloth pockets with a powder inside, and you can stuff them inside your shoes or mittens to help keep warm.

There are a few ingredients in that powder, but only one produces heat. I think the others moderate the speed of the reaction so it lasts about a half hour, instead of getting a lot hotter and only lasting a few minutes.

The source of heat is a multi-step, electrochemical reaction: rust.

Fake snowflakes

You know how they say no two snowflakes are alike?

It turns out that they're so sensitive to the conditions they form in, and are also fragile in a turbulent area, that the odds of two snowflakes growing in precisely the same way and having the exact same collisions breaking pieces off as they go are pretty small.

There are, however, a few main shapes of snowflakes that all snowflakes follow.

Science fiction fans, rejoice!

All I can really say about this is, WOW.

NASA's Kepler team has found loads of planet candidates to date (about 2300) by measuring variations in brightness in the star as the planet orbits. They've confirmed a bunch of them as well, so we know there are other planets out there. And just in case you think 2300 is a low number considering how many stars are in the sky, keep in mind that the Kepler telescope has been staring at a patch of sky about the size of your outstretched hand the entire time. I don't know about you, but I can't even see 2300 stars in that kind of an area, and the Kepler telescope has found that many planet candidates.

Now they've found one in its star's habitable zone - where liquid water can exist.

If you take a look at their news story, they show our solar system with the habitable zone defined - Venus is too close to the sun to be habitable, but Earth and Mars are both in the right area. This is why they've been sending robots to Mars to look for evidence of past water. Past water, because Mars' atmosphere is much too thin to retain enough heat to have present water, but it does have present ice in the form of its polar ice caps (as well as solid CO2, dry ice).

It remains to be seen whether this planet has an atmosphere which will hold in enough heat to maintain liquid water, but at least its orbit is in the right place for this even to be an option. Composition of some planets' atmospheres (mostly the early Jupiter-sized ones so far) has been studied using infrared absorption spectra, which is a whole level of nifty that I would need to study for a while to understand.