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Nothing is more fun than a science-based field trip. We went on a field trip on Friday to Arizona State University's Polytechnic Campus. After getting off the bus, our first stop was the Laboratory for Algae Research and Biotechnology, where we met Dr. Milton Sommerfeld, a scientist who studies algae.

You might think algae would be pretty boring. After all, it is that stuff that turns your pool green or grows on the sides of your fish tank, making it hard to see the fish. It is slimy and sometimes really smelly. Who would spend their life studying something like that?

We learned algae is actually exciting stuff and may have a huge impact on our future. In fact, that green goo may soon be golden. It turns out certain kinds of algae contain a lot of natural oils in their cells. The oils can be extracted and turned into a form of biofuel (fuel that comes from recently living things).

Algae have a lot of advantages over other sources of biofuel. First of all they aren't a crop, so making them into fuel does not take food away from people (although one of the by-products of the extraction process is a protein powder that may some day be used for food, too.) The algae can be grown in wastewater from farms high in manure or other forms of water that may not be suitable for drinking. They can be grown in areas that aren't good for farming. And they produce more oil per acre than soybeans.

Of course there are costs too. The algae grow in large tanks, sort of like fish tanks. Electrical pumps are needed to circulate the water in the tanks. Dr. Sommerfeld's group is looking into a way to produce the electricity using solar panels. Extracting the oil also requires some energy, but as the techniques are modified and perfected the process will likely become more efficient.

After visiting the laboratory and seeing all the tanks full of brightly colored algae, it is not hard to imagine cars, trucks and planes running on biofuel in the near future.

For more information, see this recent article from Arizona State University's Research Magazine.

September update: Check for more recent post and link to newspaper article.

I have two ideas for today and they both have to do with fat.

First, did anyone read the Weekend Fun for making cheese? One of the cautions was to watch out because the milk can suddenly bubble up and over the pan when heating. I have had that experience a couple of times. I began to wonder why milk would act this way whereas water does not.

The answer goes back to the fact that oil and fat float on water. While heating, the milk fat forms a layer at the surface, repressing the activity of the liquid underneath. At boiling temperatures the fat layer splits all of a sudden, allowing the liquid underneath to roil up violently. Soymilk, with added oils, can have the same reaction.

How would you test this idea? I would suggest seeing whether heating nonfat milk had the same reaction. Then add oil to nonfat milk and do the test again. What happens? Do you have any other ideas?

The next part has to do with another kind of fat. Take a look at this article on how the species of bacteria in your gut during early childhood may determine whether you are obese later on.

I knew a little about how important gut microorganisms are in other creatures. My favorite critters, the insects, have many bacteria and/or protozoa inside them performing all sorts of roles. For example, termites can't really digest the wood they eat. They carry tiny organisms inside that are able to digest wood. Without them, the termites would starve.

Obviously we have a lot to learn about our own relationships with microorganisms.

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When I saw the little bee checking out me and my camera, I wondered what he saw. I did a little looking around the Internet and found a cool website by Andy Giger that gives our best guess for what a bee sees when it looks at an object. Since he says the images are available for downloading, here is what the bee might see when it looks at my face.

The images are black and white because bees see color differently than we do. They do not see red (one reason so many bird flowers are red) and they see colors in the ultraviolet range which we can't see. If I was wearing red lipstick, the bee would have probably seen something closer to black or dark gray.bee eye view