Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day…

…but teach a man to fish, and he’ll sit in a boat and drink beer all day.

-== We interrupt this blog post to bring you this important announcement: Happy Birthday, Dad!==-

(His birthday was actually yesterday, but this week of school has been grinding me pretty hard and I’d forgotten all about it. He must be so proud – his son can handle a couple of semesters of biochemistry, complex microbial science, working with dangerous chemicals in a lab…but doesn’t seem to know how to use a simple calendar…I am filled with shame.)

We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog post:

This here critter is our resident fish. “He” is a classic specimen of real, old-fashioned, Honest-to-Aquaman Carassius auratus auratus – the Goldfish. And not one of those poor mutant freaks who can barely swim, either. No this here fish was rescued from the overcrowded “feeder goldfish” tank of a local Wal-Mart®. Handsome, ain’t he? I had a tough time getting even this good of a picture – every time I get near the tank he swims back and forth in front of me frantically, perhaps worshipping me as the magical fishfood god. He’s been here for about three years now, so I think he’s having a much longer life than most of them.

I’ve had no time to get into it, but part of the reason for having a fish is that I have a casual interest in aquaculture. That is, while I don’t currently have any intention of becoming a professional full-scale fish-farmer, the subject is interesting and, I think, very important in the near future. Once we figure out where we’re going to end up living next year and get settled in somewhere, I have considered trying to do the aquaculture equivalent of a backyard garden, though.

I think aquaculture is going to become extremely important in the relatively near future, as we run into the combination of overfishing of natural stocks, water shortages, contamination of natural waters with pollutants that build up in naturally-existing populations of fish, and the overall effects of climate change. I think understanding how to raise healthy and nutritious aquatic food without wasting water or causing environmental problems is going to be a useful set of knowledge to have. (There, see, not only do I love kittens and puppies and want to make the world a better place, but I’m also interested in Sustainable Environmental Practices™. While feeding the hungry. [Uphill. In the snow. With no shoes…]).

You may be wondering what interest an ex-professional-computer-nerd microbiologist would have in tending a pond full of eukaryotes. Well, aside from the obvious “Hey, I can have more than one interest, you know”, there actually is a lot of microbiological activity involved in the natural processes of the fishes’ homes. Plus, of course, the aforementioned beer doesn’t ferment and bottle itself, you know.

Since one of my interests in this context is water conservation, my main interest is in figuring out how to maintain a healthy “closed” system. In an aquaculture context, a “closed” system is one that you don’t normally add substantial amounts of water to. (An example of an “open” system might include raising fish in pens floating in a natural lake, or having a constant stream of fresh ground or river water pumping through your tanks). This poses certain problems, since you have to feed the fish, and this adds an ever-increasing load of potentially uneaten fishfood and especially of eaten fishfood – that is, fish wastes.

Fishfood being digested by either fish or bacteria ends up adding ammonia to the water, which is poisonous to the fish (and crawdads and whatever else is in there). Also excreted is carbon dioxide, which makes the water more acidic, and unused food also dumps sulfur and phosphorous into the system.

If you’ve ever had a fishtank, you may know about the ammonia. Certain kinds of Oxygen-using bacteria can actually get some of their biochemical energy from turning reduced nitrogen into oxidized nitrogen, ultimately turning the ammonia (NH3) into much less poisonous nitrate (NO3). These bacteria tend to colonize the tank’s filter, where they do their thing using the oxygen in the water that flows through. Even nitrate is dangerous if it builds up too much, though. In an aquarium, they usually recommend just taking out some of the tank’s water and replacing it with fresh water every week or two to get rid of the build-up. I’d show you pictures of the bacteria, but I still can’t afford a decent microscope. (sniffle.)

Anyway, I want to build a denitrification column one of these days. There are bacteria that can “breathe” nitrate in place of oxygen, and in the process they can reduce the nitrate back down to plain old harmless nitrogen gas, which just bubbles out of the water. If you build a long, tall tube full of something like gravel that bacteria can grow on, and then pump the water through it slowly, oxygen-breathing bacteria near the bottom of the tube rapidly use up the oxygen in the water, leaving the nitrate. With no oxygen further up the tube, bacteria that can breathe the nitrate instead can grow like crazy, and exhale the extra nitrogen out of the system.

That’s one way of avoiding the need to use up as much fresh water as you’d need if you relied only on replacing the water to get rid of the nitrate.

I’ll save the sulfur and phosphorous parts for another day. Meanwhile, I think the next podcast or two will deal with MRSA, since it’s been in the news so much lately. I normally find the neglected non-medical microbiology more interesting, but the biochemistry and genetics involved with Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (not to mention S. aureus itself) is pretty interesting, and I find the media discussions of it unsatisfying.

Stay tuned…

#1 on Google!

Over on’s The World’s Fair, the author has started an amusing meme.

It goes like this: the challenge is to find 5 sets of search terms for which your own blog or site is the #1 hit on a Google search. Note that it is acceptable to quote specific phrases but of course it’s more impressive if you don’t. Here are 8 that (as I type this) for which this blog is the #1 hit (links go to the blog address that is the hit):

There was at least one other which I’m having trouble remembering at the moment. Perhaps I’ll update later if I remember what it was.

Microbial Fuel Cell netcast…

It’s only my first attempt at anything like this, so constructive comments are welcome…

(Hopefully you can see the embedded audio player here…)For those of you just tuning in, this is a 90-second explanation of Why Microbial Fuel Cells work. A longer (though still simple) explanation can be found at a slightly older post here.[Update: this was featured in the November 6, 2007 broadcast! Hooray, I can now claim to be an international “radio personality”!]Presuming hosting this file doesn’t kill my bandwidth, I’ll leave it up here. BelowAbove, you should see an embedded flash player (assuming you have Macromedia® Flash® player installed) which you should be able to click on to start the audio. I’ll also place a direct download link below. It should be noted that like everything else on this blog (unless otherwise specified), this audio is also available under the Creative Commons non-commercial/attribution/share-alike license, so as long as you have no problem with the terms of that license you are welcome to copy, redistribute, put up on bittorrent, host a public performance, turn into an interpretative dance art project, or whatever else you might want to do with it so long as you give me credit for it, don’t use it for commercial purposes, and distribute any derivative works of it under the same terms.

You can download the audio directly from here – right-click on the link and select “save link as…”. Ogg Vorbis format available on request…

Poor-boy science: should I build my own electrophoresis platform?

I want to build my own little electrophoresis gizmo to play with.

I did pick up a small tube of powdered graphite and some liquid tape. With this, I should be able to make a waterproof electrically-conducting glue that I can use for the electrodes. I’ve got numerous old “wall-wart”-type power adapters that I ought to be able to use for power supply.

The main thing I’m trying to work out in my head before I start trying to actually put this together is exactly how I’m going to arrange it so that I can have either a thin gel or a piece of paper or other fibrous material in between the electrodes so that I can best separate things.

I suppose it’s kind of bizarre, but this is actually part of the ongoing Expired JellO® projects. I was wondering to myself what actual changes might possibly occur in a packet of dry gelatin mix over time, and how would I be able to tell?  My previous experiments have shown no indication that there are any easily detectable differences (no obvious changes in taste or texture, no strange eerie glow, no acquisition of superpowers upon eating it…) so I’ll have to look more closely.

It occurred to me that just maybe over time the strands of protein that make up gelatin might get damaged by oxidation from the air in the pouch (or do they seal the pouch in a relatively inert gas, like argon or nitrogen?). This isn’t something one can really tell just by looking, obviously. One MIGHT be able to tell indirectly by making fresh and “expired” packets of gelatin with the same precisely-measured amount of water, poured on at the same precisely-measured temperature, and ideally with the same amount of mixing. Believe it or not, there are actually special scientific devices for measuring the firmness of gels like this. The hypothesis would be that expired gelatin might end up “degraded” into smaller strands of protein than a fresh packet, and that this would be reflected in a reduced firmness of the gel, or perhaps reduced water-holding capacity.

However, I don’t have access to precise devices for measuring things like that, and in any case since I suspect the difference would be pretty minimal, I’m not sure any difference in firmness would really be detectable with any kind of instrument I could cobble together on my own. What to do?…

I thought that if I had a way to subject a sample of dissolved gelatin to electrophoresis, I could then use a protein-staining substance to see how broad of a range of protein-fragment sizes were existent, or perhaps even spot distinct fragments if oxidative damage tended to happen at the juncture between particular amino acids or something.

I’m not quite sure why, but I have a strong desire to do this experiment from scratch as a “hillbilly biotech” exercise (including building the equipment and obtaining my supplies from grocery or hardware stores rather than specialty scientific supply places).

There are special protein staining compounds I can use at the end to see where my bits of protein ended up after electrophoresis. “Coomassie Brilliant Blue“, for example, but they don’t have that down at the grocery store. (And if you think that’s a funny name for a dye, consider “Light Green SF Yellowish”…)

Then, I ran into a post indirectly about henna over on It seems the natural orange-staining ingredient in henna, called lawsone, may be specifically a protein-staining substance. I’m not certain about this, but a dark-orange protein-staining dye would work for my purposes I think. If so, that solves my need to get a protein stain from an ordinary store.

It’ll be a little while before I can try to put this plan into action, but I think I’ll be able to get to it in the next month or two.

In other news, I think I’ll try to post my “Microbial fuel cells in 90 seconds” audio sometime tomorrow. Then I can work on more. Anybody want to hear me attempting to explain something in 90 seconds? So far I’ve considered MRSA, and perhaps how cow flatulence threatens the world’s climate (which is also a microbiological topic). I’m sure there must be plenty of other possible topics. Any suggestions?

P.S. Who wants audio in Ogg Vorbis format in addition to mp3?

Electricity-breathing bacteria! (Microbial fuel cells)

I made a 90-second “pod”cast of why microbial fuel cells work. I don’t yet know if This Week in Science is or was interested in playing it. [Update: this was featured in the November 6, 2007 broadcast! Hooray!] Either way, once I find a way to make it available without killing my bandwidth I shall. I’ll probably do more of them – if nothing else I obviously need the practice.

It was oddly difficult getting myself to actually talk to the microphone – more so than actually publically speaking to real people. I’m not sure why. It strikes me as something I’ll get over quickly once I’ve done it a few times, and my voice won’t sound quite so bland in the future.

In any case, microbial fuel cells are possibly the topic that got me really interested in a college education in applied biotechnology. I’ve been meaning to do a post on why they work for a while, so here’s one, in somewhat more detail than the 90-second audio version.

First, some quick review: We all remember that atoms are made of positively-charged protons, uncharged neutrons, and negatively-charged electrons, right? Protons and usually neutrons in the middle, and electrons hovering around. When atoms chemically react with each other, they’re really just having a fight over who gets to keep the electrons. When the reaction is over, some kinds of atoms or groups of atoms will have gained at least partial custody of electrons that used to belong to some of the other atoms or groups of atoms. The ability of a kind of atom to take electrons away from other atoms is called “electronegativity”. The second most electronegative element in the universe just happens to be a major part of our atmosphere – Oxygen.

As bacteria break down food molecules to get biological energy, there are electrons left over along the way. The bacterial cells have specific carrier molecules that take these extra electrons away, where they can be later dumped elsewhere into any of a variety of other useful biological reactions that need them. The one we’re concerned with today is called the Electron Transport Chain.

In many bacteria, and in the mitochondria of plants, fungi, and animals, the Electron Transport Chain regenerates a huge amount of a cell’s biochemical energy. The extra electrons get sucked into the beginning of this chemical chain, and as they are pulled along, the force of this pull drives a process which regenerates the cells’ main energy-carrying molecule, called ATP. This process is “respiration”, and it’s also exactly the reason you need to breathe oxygen. Humans need so much energy just to remain alive that we couldn’t survive without the huge amount of extra energy that respiration provides.

What drives this whole chain is some chemical at the other end pulling the electrons out. In aerobic organisms, this is oxygen. Some bacteria can use other chemicals, like nitrates, sulfates, and ferric iron (yes, there are bacteria that can breathe rust…) None of these chemicals provide quite as much energy as oxygen does, but it’s better than nothing and gives bacteria that could be damaged by oxygen something to breathe.

Normally, this last step happens inside the cell, but some bacteria have ways of extending this last step so that the final hand-off of the electrons happens outside itself. Some bacteria even make electrically-conducting biological “nano-wires” that this can happen through. Others make “shuttle” molecules that can pick up electrons, dissolve out of the cell, hand off the electrons somewhere outside, and then dissolve back into the cell to pick up more.

Now, we can make a microbial fuel cell. An electrode is put where the bacteria are growing – without oxygen – and a wire runs from this, out of the area where the bacteria are and to another electrode which is exposed to oxygen. It’s like an electric snorkel for bacteria. From the electrode and through the wire, the oxygen sucks electrons away from the bacteria. An electrical device stuck between the ends of the wire can use this energy exactly the same way that it could use the energy from electrons being sucked from one end of a battery to another.

Interestingly, the common “simple stain” Methylene Blue can also act as an artificial “shuttle” molecule. When reduced (carrying extra electrons) methylene blue is actually colorless, and I would swear I’ve seen protocols somewhere that use this to measure just how active a yeast culture is, and one of the demonstration microbial fuel cell setups actually uses a culture of yeast in methylene blue rather than a microbe that can naturally breath through electrodes.

By the way, if you thought you could tell a human from a realistic humanoid robot bent on world domination by the fact that only humans eat, I’ve got bad news for you. One interesting application of microbial fuel cells is Gastrobots. Literally, robots with digestive systems, where bacteria breaking down the contents of the “stomach” act as a microbial fuel cell to power the robot.

I hope you find this explanation useful and interesting. If you have (or even if you haven’t) please let me know. I can’t necessarily tell if I’m doing anybody any good without feedback!

Stir-fried random…

Just a few brief random comments for the moment:

  • Am I the only one who is already completely sick and tired of the word “spooky”?
  • I think I’ve figured out what Descartes’ problem is. He’s gone on this meditation where he’s convinced himself that as far as he knows, nothing exists…except for himself. I think what happens next is that he gets horribly lonely, so when he realizes that his thoughts also exist with him, that’s when he developed that unwholesome passion for them and inability to bear leaving them that I’d previously mentioned. “But what kind of thing am I? I’m a thing that thinks. A thinking thing is what I am. But what kind of thing is that? Oh, yeah, I already said, it’s a thinking thing. Did I mention I was a thinking thing that thinks thoughts?….”. Okay, Descartes, we got it the first time…
  • One of my fellow “college science bloggers whose obscurity currently keeps them low in the vote totals” actually has a pretty neat blog. The Biourbanist focusses on features and attributes of urban areas. Well worth adding to your RSS feeds, I think. After you’ve already voted for me, of course…
  • I am currently attempting to put together my first netcast, in which I shall attempt to crunch an explanation of why microbial fuel cells work, in a form hopefully comprehensible to anyone with a good junior-high-school science education (or a mediocre high-school education, which is probably sadly more common), that fits into 90 seconds. Wish me luck.

More to follow…
UPDATE: Got the “pod”/netcast done – a real blog post on the subject of Microbial Fuel Cells to go with it may be found here tomorrow (Tuesday, October 16th) sometime, so long as nothing unexpected happens…

Yatta! I Fail to Reject the Null-Scholarship!

(Oops, got so excited I got carried away with the title. Fixed now.)

I am thrilled to notice this morning that I am in the running for the College Blogging Scholarship, honestly, if this even attracts a larger population of active readers, I’ll consider that alone an excellent “Runner-Up” prize.

Not that the scholarship money wouldn’t be much appreciated…but more about that later.

For the moment though: Hello, current and new readers, to the internet’s self-proclaimed foremost authority on Expired JellO, among other things. I suppose that since I’m asking people to vote for me, I should probably give a quick description of myself and this blog. I’ll keep it short for the moment:

My actual name is Sean Clark; the explanation for the “Epicanis” handle deserves a post of its own. I am a “non-traditional” student at Idaho State University, working on finishing my long-overdue B.S. in Microbiology. This is actually the 5th college institution I’ve attended. It’s not that I’ve been kicked out of the others or anything, just that I keep having to move and start over. I’m finally in one place here long enough to actually finish the degree. Where I end up doing my graduate work depends on where (and if) we end up moving next year – I’ll post about this if anybody’s interested.

My primary interest is in “applied” microbiology, particularly non-medical biotechnology. I’ve been convinced for many years that non-medical applications of microbial biotechnology are underappreciated and somewhat neglected, and I’d rather people not have to get sick before they can benefit from whatever I might come up with…

Incidentally, Hillary Clinton agrees with me (“we should increase investments in non-health applications of bio-technology” – see paragraph 23). Whether that helps or harms my position no doubt depends on your political opinions, but still, I appreciate that someone with some kind of official authority agrees with me. And, hey, maybe this means I’ll be able to find a decent job during or after graduate school. Anybody think the Office of Technology Assessment will be hiring again soon?…

This blog itself is primarily concerned with sharing some of my education, and science in particular, as an exercise in communicating science. I, for one, think I’ve gotten better as the blog has progressed.

A couple of important points: This is a blog, not a magazine: participation is encouraged. If nothing else, the voting for the scholarship looks like it goes on for a couple of weeks, so if you are thinking to yourself “Gosh, I’d vote for you, but you don’t talk enough about X” or “you talk too much about Y” or “I hate the background color of the webpage” or whatever, now’s your chance to speak up. You do not need to be logged in to comment (but I do screen comments, so spammers: you’re wasting both your time and mine), so please do. Also consider subscribing to the RSS feed, found in the upper-right area of the page.

I try to update at least a couple of times each week, though lately I’ve managed to maintain a nearly daily pace. Participation helps here, as comments from readers helps me come up with additional topics to post on. I’m getting a lot of enjoyment out of blogging, so I’ll post as often as I reasonably can…

One last quick note on using this blog: I try to put title tags on most special bits of posts, like images and links. And…bits of text like this, which you might think of as “inline footnotes”. If you hover over anything with that thick-dotted-underline, you should see some additional information. As of a week or two ago, if you click on them, the entire extra text will pop up in a separate box where you can read it all, assuming you don’t have javascript turned off. I haven’t yet gotten around to going back and doing this to the previous bits like this, but I will eventually.

So, again, welcome. Comments, questions, and suggestions will help me improve the blog, and are therefore strongly encouraged. Oh, yes, and please vote for me. Otherwise, I’m going to have to resort to selling blood plasma and begging outside of scientific conferences. Thanks.

Libel! Blasphemy! Slander!…

Injustice! Perfidy! HUMBUG!

Periodically, someone puts up a “could you pass a grade-school science class” quiz. The one linked to the image below goes to one that I just broke down and took, purely out of curiousity. Take a look at this outrage!:

JustSayHi - Science Quiz

Oh, sure, it LOOKS good, but what you don’t see is that it only gave me a 96%, implying that I missed one (it was a short quiz)! Sure, the quiz was very much in the modern fashion for “standardized testing” (aka the “No Child Left Awake” project) where the emphasis is on memorizing stuff for a test rather than actual comprehension. So, I thought, maybe I hadn’t correctly memorized which word was correct for one of the word-memorization questions. But, no, according to the “answer sheet”, the one I supposedly got wrong was this one:

(Note: If you’re planning to actually take that quiz, do so now before you read on and I give away one of the answers…)

“How do mammals respire?”

The options were:

  • Aerobically
  • Anaerobically
  • Both aerobically and anaerobically

Come on, I may hardly ever concern myself with perverse eukaryotic systems but…never mind just “mammals”, as far as I know, all eukaryotes (animals, plants, and fungi) only possess aerobic (oxygen-requiring) respiratory systems.

However, the “answer sheet” for the quiz claims that the answer is “Both aerobically and anaerobically”.

So….they’re wrong. I’m pretty sure what what they were intending to ask, given this answer, is “what kind of metabolism do mammals have?”, in which case their answer is correct.

See, “respiration” is only one part of the cellular energy-generating system. Specifically, it’s our friend, the Electron Transport Chain, which (to grossly oversimplify) harnesses the energy of oxygen sucking electrons off the end of the chain various biochemicals to recharge molecules of ATP. That’s not the only way a cell can get ATP, though. What the quiz authors are presumably alluding to is that there are non-oxygen-requiring biochemical pathways that animal cells can take to make energy – such as the one your muscles use when they can’t get enough oxygen, which involves production of lactic acid, which in turn gets blamed for the “burn” sensation you get when you work your muscles hard.

So, the authors of this quiz are bad, bad people, besmirching my reputation and harming my precious self-esteem by giving me less than 100% on that quiz!

On a related subject: breathing causes cancer in Sprague-Dawley™ rats!

No, seriously, it’s true – try raising one group of Sprague-Dawley™ rats with air, and one group with no air, and examing both populations 150 days later. I guarantee you’ll find many more cancerous growths in the “with air” group than in the group that was denied air to breathe…

What brought this outburst on? It was this blog article. “No, It’s for Real: Aspartame Causes Cancer”, the post proclaims. They’re talking about This study(pdf). Go ahead, take a look, but in particular, look at the tables of actual data, not the paper’s abstract. In particular, take a look at Figure 1, especially “D” and “E” (showing survival rates for the different groups of Sprague-Dawley™ rats as the study progressed), and at the number of “tumor-bearing animals” in Table 2.

Notice that at around 120 days on the survival graphs, the groups with the highest percentage of members still alive were the groups receiving the most aspartame in their feed. It’s worth noting that the highest-Aspartame group there was getting roughly the equivalent of a human drinking <em>thousands</em> of cans of diet soda every day. Also note, in fairness, that both graphs seem to show little difference between the groups, so rather than assuming that Aspartame makes Sprague-Dawley™ rats live longer, I would tend to assume that there’s really not much difference.

Notice also that in terms of the percentage of Sprague-Dawley™ rats that developed one or more tumors, there were fewer of them in the group that got the equivalent of 500 mg/kg of aspartame: which scaled up to human terms means about 200-250 cans of diet soda EVERY DAY worth of aspartame.

You may be wondering why I keep mentioning Sprague-Dawley™. It’s because this is a particular commercially-bred strain of rat that’s popular with labs for this kind of thing. One point that isn’t always mentioned is this: Sprague-Dawley™ rats are known to be prone to developing cancer spontaneously. This can be handy if you’re doing studies of “borderline” carcinogens. The hope is that if something has even a tiny ability to cause cancer, you’ll be able to measure the effect in a population of critters known to get cancer at the drop of a metaphorical hat, when in a human population the incidence might be so rare that you can’t distinguish it from random chance. To my admittedly-not-big-on-the-biochemistry-of-perverse-eukaryotes mind, this study really seems to show that there’s little or no effect – and certainly no dose-dependent effect – of aspartame even on cancer-prone lab rats.

I don’t know what it is, but “artificial sweeteners”, and especially aspartame, seem to generate such passionate hatred in some people. It reminds me a great deal of people’s reactions to “genetically modified” crops. People just really want to hate it. The authors of this paper are obviously trying REALLY hard to show somehow that aspartame is a dangerous poison, despite the inconclusive-appearing actual results. Though I suppose one could argue that they showed Aspartame to be at least as much of a deadly poison as Expired JellO®.

And now that I have exposed my readers to several times the Recommended Daily Allowance of Humbug, I bid you all a good night – I have Art History and Philosophy to attend in the morning…

Environmental Chemistry Field Trip – Day 1, Part 3

There were two more stops on the first day of the field trip. After Appolinaris Spring, we stopped off at the “Sheepeater Cliffs”, named after the local natives’ use of mountain-goats for food. I did get a picture of the small cliff, but who cares. You’ve seen one columnar basalt formation, you’ve seen them all, right?

Oh, well, in case you haven’t seen even one yet, here’s one:

Columnar Basalt Formation: Sheepeater Cliffs, Yellowstone National Park

It’s actually kind of interesting – despite the fact that Yellowstone is essentially one gigantic crater left by a volcano explosion, lava doesn’t seem to be a common feature at all. The reason seems to be that the volcanic explosion was an explosion of steam, not melted rocks. Put simply, water seeps down into the ground and gets trapped on top of magma, which is naturally extremely hot. The water can’t boil away as steam, though, because it’s trapped under all that rock, which keeps the pressure high enough that it stays liquid even when it’s superheated. Then, one day (about 600,000 years ago, if I remember correctly) somewhere a crack opened up enough to start letting the water flow out. When it got out from under all the rocks, the reduction of pressure let the superhot water suddenly explode into a cloud of steam. As the water shot out as steam, it let off some of the pressure on the water still trapped underground, which could then also explode into steam….and the whole area got flung into the air on the exploding, superhot steam. Kind of like the way a perfectly innocent looking bottle of heavily carbonated beverage can suddenly erupt in a spray of bubbles if you open it too suddenly.

Or at least, that’s my I’m-not-a-Geologist understanding of the process. The point is, melted rocks aren’t really a big part of the park area’s surface, so it’s interesting to see the basalt cliffs here. The giant hexagonal columns are actually huge crystals of that formed as the melted rock solidified.

This was just a brief stop, though. We piled back into the field-trip vehicles and headed for the Mammoth area of the park. I was originally going to cram that stop into this post, too, but I’m still editing it down to make it less pedantic. Unless my Vast Horde of Loyal Readers would LIKE pedantic…

Incidentally, the College Blogging Scholarship submissions are done as of midnight tonight. Or midnight tomorrow morning, depending on whether you think of midnight as the end or beginning of a day. Finalists get announced on Monday. Here’s hoping I’ll be one of them. That also means that if anyone has any suggestions or comments about how I’m running the blog, the topics I’m picking, and so on, now would be a good time to speak up…

Meanwhile, a couple more posts on the field trip coming up (possibly another one later today) and then I’ll move on to other topics.

Environmental Chemistry Field Trip – Day 1, part 1

I can think of a number of things to complain about with regards to living where I do. However, it is nice that we live near enough to Yellowstone to day-trip there. In fact, it’s close enough for my local college to take field-trips there – which we did.

Environmental Chemistry spent the weekend there, examining the area, discussing the chemistry of the natural waters and geothermal features, and collecting samples (yes, we had a permit for this…).

We started with a stop by the side of the Madison River to collect a sample of the surface water. Clear, cool (12°C, or about 55°F), mildly basic (pH of about 8.0), and a TDS reading of about 300ppm, which is roughly the same as mildly to moderately hard tapwater, I suppose.

sampling water from the Madison river

The sampling device -seen being hurled over the water here – is kind of interesting – it’s a hollow tube (a bit of plastic pipe) with two spring-loaded balls that slam shut on either end to trap the water inside when you tug on the string. That lets you throw the device out and trigger it when it gets to the precise spot that you want to take a sample from.

We made a brief stop at Beryl Spring afterwards. We didn’t do any sampling here, but we did talk about acid-sulfate water systems. “Reduced” sulfur – as Hydrogen Sulfide gas – comes boiling out from underground along with steam, and ends up being oxidized by oxygen from the air to become sulfate in the end – combining with the water and forming sulfuric acid.

Sulfur-encrusted pipe at Beryl Spring

Of course, it doesn’t go from sulfide to sulfate all at once. There’s a stop along the way as elemental sulfur. The whitish-yellow stuff here is crystals of elemental sulfur. The black stuff you see is…also crystals of elemental sulfur. The difference is just how the atoms of sulfur collect together. The black form is actually a little less stable than the yellow, so it tends to form first, but then slowly convert to the yellow form over time as the sulfur atoms settle into a more stable arrangement. Being a chemistry class, we didn’t really discuss the possible microbial activity that might be involved here. Note the small patch of dark-green there. I suppose this could be a “Green Sulfur Bacteria“, which does something like photosynthesis except that it makes sulfur instead of oxygen in the process. These are normally anaerobic but perhaps the concentration of hydrogen sulfide (H2S) and carbon dioxide gas coming out of the ground right there is enough to crowd out the oxygen. Alternatively, it could just be a heat-loving cyanobacterium or something.

I really wish I wasn’t too poor to buy a good field microscope to go along with the good lab microscope that I am also too poor to buy…

The last two stops of the day – Appolinaris Spring and Narrow Gauge Spring – will be in the next post…