Tech Tuesday

Smart Phone Wars to Heat Up

Apple's rumored iPhone 5 launch next week kicks off holiday shopping season, Bayer CropScience hits wheat milestone and a better way to make ethanol.

The tech world is abuzz over the rumored announcement of the iPhone 5 (or is it the iPhone 4S) next week in the company's headquarters. While Apple has not confirmed the October 4 date - at least by today - key tech websites are talking pretty confidently about the launch.

However, no one knows exactly what Apple is up to, which is kind of refreshing these days when we apparently know everything about everyone. I'll wait to see what's coming - and maybe even purchase a phone. For those of you on the Sprint network, the word is that company is getting some version of the iPhone as part of that announcement - if you're interested.

This could be the new kickoff to the holiday shopping season - Apple usually does this mid-year, but this year it's right ahead of the busiest retail time of the year. For competitors - and face it with several phone makers building Android models Apple is a smaller player - news of a new iPhone will just force them to ramp up their game.

Should be interesting to watch.

Building Better Wheat

The wheat genome is no sissy, it's five times the size of the human genome and mapping it is a nightmare. But Bayer CropScience and Evogene announced they'd reached a milestone in their joint wheat research effort. Using Evogene's tools, they've identified more than 200,000 single-nucleotide polymorphisms (or SNPs - pronounced 'snips') across that complex genome. Those SNPs will be great mileposts in the genome map to help breeders figure out the best way to breed better wheat.

SNPs are a powerful molecular marker. Already the livestock industry is using them to identify the best breeding bulls and cows for a healthier herd. The Bayer/Evogene effort will help breeders have a better understanding of the genome.

Bayer CropScience and Evogene started their work in 2010 is part of a five-year collaboration aimed at accelerating the development and introduction of improved wheat varieties. They're focusing on yield, drought tolerance and fertilizer use efficiency. The SNP dataset was obtained from a broad collection of wheat lines from multiple locations worldwide, according to a Bayer/Evogene press statement. It'll be awhile before the first improved wheat varieties from this work hit the market, but targeted genomic tools like SNPs are a powerful tool for finding traits to improve crops.

Cheaper Way to Drier Ethanol

Ethanol, after fermentation, contains as much as 12% water, which has to be removed to make it a fuel-grade product. A lot of ethanol plants use corn grits to absorb the water, or something called a molecular sieve - which use silica-based particles with tiny pores that only retain water molecules. Both work, but a more economical method is needed.

Researchers at Purdue University, working with Archer Daniels Midland have found that tapioca pearls are ideal for removing water from ethanol. No longer is that tapioca just good for those holiday dishes that grandma makes.

Any starch will absorb water. Tapioca pearls are made of aggregated cassava starch granules that can absorb more water. In research tests it turns out tapioca collected about 34% more water than corn. Molecular sieves, while effective, eventually wear out and create waste that must be handled. Tapioca can be dried and reused, and when they wear out, they can be used to make more ethanol.

Starch-based absorbants like tapioca pearls also take up the heat during during drying, allowing that heat to be reused to evaporate water during regeneration of the drying bed. Researchers had tried several materials including corncobs and wood chips, but one researcher - Michael Ladisch, professor, agricultural and biological engineering, Purdue - was inspired watching his mother-in-law fix Thanksgiving dinner. The tapioca pearls looked similar to beads in a molecular sieve. That got the process started.

The tapioca drying method could be used in U.S. ethanol plants, but the researchers also think the technology could be applied in ethanol plants in South America and Africa where the planted used to create tapioca - cassava - is grown.

Researchers find answers in the most surprising places.

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