Tech Tuesday

Researchers Worry Over Extended Drought

Percent of land in the U.S. experiencing drought hits new record, new yeast may stop mycotoxins and building a better battery.

Fires in Texas, record heat in Oklahoma and a host of other weather-related stories have been pouring out of the Southern Plains. Turns out there's a big reason: the percent of land area experiencing exceptional drought reached record levels in August in three U.S. states - Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. And officials at the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln are concerned about how long those conditions will exist.

In Texas, more than 81% of the state experienced what is called "exceptional" drought by Aug. 31. In Oklahoma the number nears 70% and in Kansas it tops 17%. The most recent drought monitor report shows 59.3% of the United States was drought-free, while 41.7% faced some form of abnormal dryness or drought.

The monitor uses a ranking system that begins at D0 - abnormal dryness - and moves as high as D4 for exceptional drought. Exceptional drought's impacts include widespread crop and pasture losses, shortages of water in reservoirs, streams, wells and can create water emergencies. And other states are not being spared, Louisiana and New Mexico also had areas earlier this summer that hit exceptional drought status.

As harvest begins, UNL experts say information is beginning to emerge about the drought's toll. In Texas alone, the state's Extension service conservatively estimates ag losses could approach $5.2 billion. Meanwhile, the U.S. Climate Prediction Center recently forecast a 50/50 chance the La Nina conditions in the equatorial Pacific Ocean - which created this year's current drought - will return in some form this fall.

Brian Fuchs, UNL assistant geoscientist and climatologist at the Drought Mitigation Center, comments: "It's alarming to drought watchers. The fall and winter in that area is typically a time for recharging. Not if this persists."

New-Tech Yeast Cuts Mycotoxins

Worries over mycotoxins in feed compound if that feedstock goes through the ethanol-making process - which can compound the toxins in the dried distillers grains that could be fed to cattle. That's true with all grain feedstocks, but researchers at Virginia Tech and USDA's Agricultural Research Service are finding ways to prevent the problem.

Working with barley, they have shown that a newly developed transgenic yeast used during fermentation will help modify the mycotoxin in resulting animal feed products to a less toxic form. The research was published online in the September issue of Biotechnology for Biofuels.

New varieties of hulless winter barley have almost as much starch as corn and can be grown at times and in places where corn cannot, offering a flexible resource. When processed for ethanol, the grain also provides a useful animal feed - unless contaminated. The worry is trichothecene mycotoxins, which inhibit protein synethesis. The result can be immune system suppression and reproductive problems. Animals usually refuse to eat infected grain; otherwise the contaminated grain can cause animal deaths.

The researchers decided to concentrate on the most common mycotoxin in barley - deoxynivalenol or DON. Previous research on a fungus that produces DON in barley has identified several genes that convert trichothecenes to less toxic products. The research team selected two of these genes, introduced them into laboratory yeast and compared the results to commercial yeast that has been optimized to produce ethanol.

Measurements of the resulting mash and animal feed revealed that DON had indeed been converted to a less toxic form during fermentation.

A Better Battery Ahead

The future of all things battery powered may indeed rely on the lithium ion battery. These powerful and compact energy sources can be recharged over and over and are a favorite for a lot of potential applications. They can also catch fire and it would be great if they could be recharged faster. Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory may have found a solution to the recharging issue, and could make the batteries safer too.

They found that using titanium oxide they could increase the energy density, power and safety of lithium batteries while dramatically reducing recharge times. In the electric car world this could be a major discovery. Using titanium oxide in making lithium ion batteries, they found they could get a 50% recharge in six minutes while traditional graphite-based lithium ion tech would be just 10% recharged at the same current. And they also increased capacity of the batteries by as much as 50%. Combine that with the fact that oxide materials are very safe and long lasting alternatives to commercial graphite make it suited for hybrid electric vehicles and other high-power applications.

Remember, at last year's farm shows New Holland was showing off a form of electric/hybrid tractor. It's technology that could have wide-reaching applications in the future.

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