The HINDU Notes – 29th April 2018 - VISION

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Sunday, April 29, 2018

The HINDU Notes – 29th April 2018

📰 Modi, Xi detail measures to resolve border issue

India, China will pursue sharper strategic communication in era of protectionism

•India and China have decided to reboot efforts to resolve their border row so that they can focus on Asia’s rise in a post-western world.

•In a media briefing on the first informal summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale signalled that the two countries were now set for a simultaneous process, which would include additional measures to ease tensions and concrete steps to resolve the differences on the frontiers.

•“While one of the areas of focus was to maintain peace and tranquillity [on the borders], I think the work of the Special Representatives (SRs) on finding a solution to the boundary question will continue unabated,” Mr. Gokhale said.

•The two leaders acknowledged that India and China “have wider and overlapping regional and global interests,” meriting sharper “strategic communication”.

•Analysts say the progress in resolving border differences would be a game-changer for boosting ties between the neighbours which are facing headwinds of protectionism from the Trump administration.

•Mr. Gokhale said the two SRs, who are steering the boundary talks, would meet “in due course” to take up the boundary issue. The Foreign Secretary highlighted that talks on the resolution of border differences would be based on principles and parameters anchored in a 2005 agreement.

📰 Draft mission to kick-start renewable energy storage

Draft mission to kick-start renewable energy storage
Power grids currently do not integrate renewable energy sources

•The draft National Energy Storage Mission expects to kick-start grid-connected energy storage in India, set up a regulatory framework, and encourage indigenous manufacture of batteries, according to a member of the expert committee set up by the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) last month.

•The draft sets a “realistic target” of 15-20 gigawatt hours (GWh) of grid-connected storage within the next five years, according to Debi Prasad Dash, director, India Energy Storage Alliance (IESA), an industry body that is a part of the committee. Power grids do not currently use storage options that would help in smoothly integrating renewable energy sources.

•The draft has been submitted to the Ministry, and will be released for public feedback in the next few months, said Mr. Dash. He added that the mission will focus on seven verticals: indigenous manufacturing; an assessment of technology and cost trends; a policy and regulatory framework; financing, business models and market creation; research and development; standards and testing; and grid planning for energy storage.

Inherently intermittent

•Renewable energy sources now make up almost one-fifth of India’s total installed power capacity. However, as power grids increase their share of solar and wind energy, the problem remains that the peak supply of renewable sources does not always meet peak demand, explained P.C. Pant, a senior scientist with the MNRE. For instance, solar energy generation may be at its peak at noon, but unless stored, it will not be available when needed to light up homes at night. Moreover, renewable sources are inherently intermittent: there are days when the wind doesn’t blow or the sky is cloudy.

•Batteries could help store surplus energy during peak generation times, but are more immediately needed to stabilise the grid when shifting between renewables and the baseload thermal capacity. “Once the installed capacity of renewables reaches 100 GW [from the current 65 GW], it will become critical to incorporate storage options,” said Mr. Pant.

•The Solar Energy Corporation of India (SECI) expects to issue tenders for grid-connected storage by the end of the year, said its managing director Jatindra Nath Swain. For its own 160 MW plant in Andhra Pradesh, the SECI will issue tenders for a storage option by the end of July, he added. “Up to 10% of [solar] power can be injected into the grid without storage,” he said. “After that, storage will become a necessity.”

Cancelled tenders

•However, industry players complain that the SECI as well as the NTPC and the NLC cancelled at least nine earlier tenders for grid storage in 2017. “This sends a negative signal both to global manufacturers and Indian companies who are looking to diversify into lithium ion battery manufacturing,” said Mr. Dash. He added that the Central Electricity Authority is considering regulation to make storage mandatory for large scale solar projects ranging between 100 MW and 200 MW.

•SECI’s Mr. Swain indicated that price concerns were the reason for the cancellation of bids. Adding storage options could result in solar power spiking Rs. 3-4 per unit above its current low price of Rs. 2.44 per unit, making it unattractive to distributors.

•Ït is important to look beyond mere capex costs, and also consider life cycle costs, and the distributor’s costs due to grid instability and transmission and distribution losses, emphasised Rashi Gupta, director, Vision Mechatronics, one of several players assembling lithium ion cells into battery packs in India. Currently, the lithium ion cells needed for battery storage are not manufactured in India, although major players, including Indian Oil Corporation and Exide, are working to develop indigenous manufacturing capacity.

📰 U.S. again places India on ‘watch list’

‘Health Ministry creating uncertainty for pharmaceutical companies’

•The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative has once again placed India on ‘Priority Watch List’ in its annual Special 301 Report on the state of intellectual property protection.

•The report has slammed the Indian Health Ministry for “creating uncertainty in the pharmaceutical market” by demanding that pharmaceutical companies provide details of how they were using the granted patents.

•The latest report states: “India remains on the Priority Watch List this year for long-standing challenges in its IP framework and lack of sufficient measurable improvements, particularly with respect to patents, copyrights, trade secrets, and enforcement, as well as for new issues that have negatively affected U.S. right holders over the past year.”

•The report comes at a time when the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has demanded elimination of ‘Form 27’ — a statutory requirement unique to India’s patent law that mandates patent holders to declare how a monopoly is being exercised in the country.

•The report called India’s implementation of the patent act as restrictive. “Companies across different sectors remain concerned about narrow patentability standards, the potential threat of compulsory licensing and patent revocations, as well as overly broad criteria for issuing such licences and revocations under the India Patents Act,” it says.

‘Unfair move’

•Aid organisation Médecins Sans Frontières said it unfairly targeted India at the urging of pharmaceutical corporations as the country is the “pharmacy of the developing world” and supplies affordable medicines globally. “ ...the U.S. government is doing pharma’s bidding and bullying other countries into taking actions that would restrict generic competition and limit access to affordable, lifesaving drugs,” it said.

📰 The lowdown on rising fuel prices

What is it?How did it come about?Why does it matter?What lies ahead?

•The prices of petrol and diesel in Indian cities have risen to their highest level since late 2013. This has come as a surprise to many since the price of crude oil, a major ingredient in the production of domestic fuels, is now significantly lower than what it was in late 2013. It is notable that Brent crude oil was trading at over $100 a barrel in 2013, compared to its current price of $75.

•Even when international crude oil prices fell steeply in 2014 and 2015 — as low as $30 — domestic fuel prices failed to come down as much. Whenever crude oil prices have increased, the prices of domestic fuels have been raised steadfastly.

•There is no strict rule that lower international crude oil prices must lead to lower domestic fuel prices. This is because, under a free pricing regime, petrol and diesel are priced according to what consumers are willing to pay rather than based on input costs. At the same time, there are other ways in which input costs can indirectly influence the retail price.

•When the price of crude oil is high, oil companies are forced to cut down on their supply to the retail market in order to drive up the prices to competitive levels. It is worth noting that crude oil prices have been on an upward trajectory ever since January 2016 when it hit rock bottom; the agreement between members of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to cut down production in late 2016 has added to its momentum.

•High taxes are another factor that can discourage producers from bringing enough supply to the retail market, leading to higher prices. This has predominantly been the case in India. When crude oil prices fell drastically in 2014 and 2015, for instance, the government increased the amount of taxes by more than Rs. 10 a litre on both petrol and diesel. While this increased the amount of revenue collected by the government, it prevented retail fuel prices from falling as much as international crude oil prices.

•The rising prices of petrol and diesel increase the burden on citizens, affecting to some extent the government’s popularity. It also quite often brings into question the government’s policy when it comes to taxing basic fuels. More than half of the money that is paid by the consumer goes to the government in the form of taxes. Some have speculated that the government might compromise on its fuel deregulation policy, which allows oil marketing companies (OMCs) to price their output freely.

•Not surprisingly, the shares of the government-owned OMCs have witnessed a sharp fall in recent weeks. The current price rise will thus act as a litmus test for the government’s commitment to reforms in the energy sector. Further, to the extent rising fuel prices have to do with the decreasing supply in the world market, it has a negative impact on economic growth.

•The price of domestic petrol and diesel going forward is likely to depend on the price of crude oil in the international market as well as the policy preferences of the government as it heads into a series of elections in 2018 and 2019. While rising geopolitical tensions have been used to explain the rise in crude oil prices this month, where oil prices are headed next is anybody’s guess.

•The oil bulls believe that OPEC countries will drive oil prices even higher in order to meet their increasing revenue needs. The sceptics of the recent rally, on the other hand, expect American shale oil producers to rein in any further rise in oil prices quite soon. If international crude oil prices fail to stabilise or fall, the government may decide to look at either reducing taxes on these fuels or forcing OMCs to incur losses by selling at lower prices.

📰 A blow to ‘last hope’ drug

Colistin-resistance in humans is mainly due to antibiotic use in veterinary feed

•The food we eat may be hosting strains of bacteria that are resistant to the most powerful antibiotics and this could make it harder for our bodies to combat severe infections.

•“It is nothing new,” says Dr. Abdul Ghafur, Technical Advisory Member, National Antibiotic Policy, talking about the detection of colistin-resistant bacteria in food samples in India. “Only we looked for it, so we found it.” Colistin is a last-resort antibiotic, a life-saver for humans.

Study’s findings

•The Chennai-based expert led an investigation to look for evidence for such contamination in everyday food in the city and reported the team’s findings at the European Congress of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases in Madrid, Spain, earlier this week. The study involved professionals from Apollo Hospitals, Christian Medical College, Vellore, and several private laboratories.

•“Our samples, chicken, fish, meat and vegetables, were sourced from Chennai. We were the first in India looking for colistin-resistance and we found it. But wherever you take samples from, you will find it. I guarantee [it],” he says, with emphasis.

•Dr. Ghafur and his team have also discovered a mutation called mgrB that makes the bacteria Klebsiella pneumoniae resistant to colistin and helps them make their way into people.

•Generally, resistance to bacteria is caused by altered genes. In strains of the E-coli bacteria, mobilised colistin resistance (mcr) mutations are the culprit. “But we have now discovered a mutation in the chromosome, in Klebsiella of food origin and the presence of ‘jumping genes’, where DNA sequences move from one location on the genome to the other, that will help convey the mgrB mutation from food to humans,” Dr. Ghafur reasons.

•Even if the food is cooked, thereby killing the bacteria, storage and handling of the food products are processes by which it is passed on to people, rendering them helpless if they should ever need the colistin antibiotic to save their lives.

The farm link

•The expert, who is a long-time advocate for the rational use of antibiotics, is now convinced that colistin-resistance in humans is not so much because of indiscriminate use of the antibiotic in hospitals, as it is because of its use in veterinary feed.

•“Sub-therapeutic, low doses are being fed to farm animals as growth promoters. It’s very cheap, but extremely dangerous because it leads to colistin-resistance in people. Animals do not need colistin but for humans, it may be a life saver.”

•While China has banned the use of colistin in veterinary use, the use of antibiotic growth promoters in animals is banned in the European Union since 2006.

•While India does not have laws prohibiting this, Dr. Ghafur says that he has information that the Agriculture Ministry may impose a similar ban.

•But independent organisations in India have long been highlighting their concerns over resistance through indiscriminate antibiotic use in animal farms.

•A 2017 document by the Centre for Science and Environment states that antibiotic misuse in food-animal production is one of the key causes of antimicrobial resistance (AMR). It not only spreads resistant bacteria but is also carried into human food streams. Industrial-scale food producers engage in intensive farming of animals, which characteristically involves rearing them in high stocking densities and also using high chemical inputs.

•The emergence of resistance is a natural process. However, it accelerates and spreads through antibiotic misuse and overuse. Indiscriminate antibiotic use exerts greater evolutionary-selection pressure on bacteria, which causes susceptible populations to die and resistant ones to survive. At a cellular level, resistance is acquired through mutations in bacteria and could lead to structural and chemical alterations that render the antibiotic ineffective, the document explains.

•It has been a year since the National Action Plan on AMR was launched in India, and it is important to now restrict the use of colistin as a growth promoter, Dr. Ghafur says. “The government must act firmly to ban imports of colistin and its raw materials into the country and restrict its use in the food industry. It is not as if the public can do anything about this. It’s not really in their hands,” he adds.

📰 Closing in on rabies

•Rabies is caused by a dangerous virus. A bite or even a scratch from an infected animal — 99% of the time, it is a dog — and the victim will, after an incubation period of anywhere between a week and a year, develop the disease’s tell-tale symptoms: fever, headache, nausea and death. Despite rabies being 100% preventable on the one hand and South East Asia’s substantial progress in driving down the disease’s burden in recent years on the other, it still remains an issue. More than 26,000 people in the region die of rabies every year. Eight of the 11 countries in the region account for around 45% of the world’s rabies burden, with over 1.5 billion people at risk of exposure. More than 6 million patients receive at least one dose of the rabies vaccine every year.

•Targeted and diverse initiatives have achieved strong results. For example, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Thailand have sharply cut rabies-related infection and mortality using mass canine vaccination campaigns and improving access to life-saving, post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) treatments. In India, similar initiatives in Goa, Sikkim, Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Tamil Nadu have saved countless lives. All World Health Organisation-South East Asia countries have, meanwhile, phased out the production and use of nerve-tissue vaccines; six have introduced cost-effective, intradermal vaccination schedules to improve the accessibility, affordability and availability of the modern rabies vaccine.

Zero by 2030

•But to reach the target of zero human rabies deaths by 2030, intensified action which includes better access to PEP tools is needed. To help make that happen, the World Health Organisation (WHO) convened a meeting in May, in Kathmandu, Nepal, with representatives of rabies-endemic countries from the WHO South East Asia, WHO Western Pacific and WHO Africa. There were also global health partners such as the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation, or GAVI, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations and the World Organisation for Animal Health. Together they will look at how progress against rabies can be accelerated and access to PEP improved.

•But a range of measures are needed as the Global Strategic Plan to Prevent Human Deaths from Dog-Transmitted Rabies by 2030 outlines and the South East Asian Region’s own Strategic Framework has long laid stress on.

Canine vaccination

•To begin with, vaccinating dogs, a prime reservoir of rabies, is a good point to start from. Sustainable vaccination of at least 70% of the canine population in any given area will achieve herd immunity, thereby ensuring that the transmission of rabies among dogs and then on to humans is no longer a threat. This requires countries to develop efficient vaccine procurement systems as well as sustainable logistics and infrastructure for canine vaccination. It also requires high-level leaders to fully grasp that mass canine vaccination and animal birth control is the most efficient way to prevent dog-mediated rabies.

•Addressing sociocultural perceptions and practices associated with the disease is likewise essential. Public information campaigns are critical to building awareness of what responsible dog ownership looks like, and preventing and treating bites or scratches when they occur. Key to this process is increasing awareness of PEP’s life-saving potential and the need to take immediate action once a bite or scratch happens. Importantly, awareness campaigns should be tailored to the needs of children who are particularly vulnerable to the disease.

•Sustaining high-level commitment to achieving zero deaths in humans from rabies is fundamental. In this the resolve demonstrated by Princess Chulabhorn of Thailand, who has committed her country to achieving zero rabies deaths by 2020, is to be commended. So too is the high-level commitment of Bhutan and Sri Lanka as well as a number of State governments in India.

📰 Novel technique to detect paraffin oil contamination in coconut oil

IIT Madras team found paraffin oil contamination was as high as 10%

•Using a novel approach, researchers at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras have for the first time been able to use mass spectrometry to analyse various saturated and unsaturated hydrocarbons directly from solutions. Ionising the constituent molecules of a hydrocarbon sample for detection using mass spectrometry has not been easy till date as hydrocarbons do not tend to lose or gain electrons to form ions.

•Using the novel technique — laser-assisted paper spray ionisation mass spectrometry — the research team led by Prof. T. Pradeep from the institute’s Department of Chemistry could detect various hydrocarbons, importantly, paraffin oil contamination in coconut oil samples. Though it is common knowledge that vegetable oils are adulterated, the extent of contamination with paraffin oil was as much as 10%. “It was shocking to see such high levels of mineral oil contamination in coconut oil meant for cooking,” says Prof. Pradeep. “We could detect down to 1% paraffin oil present in coconut oil.”

•The results were published in the journal Analytical Chemistry.

•Detecting ions using paper spray ionisation mass spectrometry is known already. In this method, a regular filter paper containing the sample is subjected to high electrical potential and the charged droplets and the ions derived from them are analysed using a mass spectrometry. But this method cannot be used for detecting hydrocarbons.

Humble but handy

•So the researchers turned to the humble laser pointer used commonly during presentations to turn the stubborn hydrocarbons to emit ions for the measurement. Tiny amounts of the sample to be analysed were added to the filter paper kept at about 10 mm from the mass spectrometer and subjected to an electrical potential of 1 kV. Ionisation of hydrocarbon molecules began the moment the tip of the paper containing the sample was exposed to the laser.

•The hydrocarbons molecules present in the sample get trapped between the cellulose fibres that make up the paper. “And when an electrical potential is applied, the molecules experience an intense electric field. This is because the molecules are trapped between the fibres which are about 10 microns apart,” says Prof. Pradeep.

•“When 1 kV potential is applied, the electric field experienced by the molecule is comparable to the field experienced by electrons moving around the nucleus, but not sufficient enough for them to jump out. When we shine the laser, the small energy supplied is enough to cause ionisation,” explains Prof. Pradeep.

•Different potentials had to be applied to cause different hydrocarbons to get ionised for the same laser. “If we modify the filter paper by coating it with carbon nanotubes, then the fibres will be in the nanometer range and the applied potential can be reduced to even 1 volt,” says Pallab Basuri from the Department of Chemistry, IIT Madras and first author of the paper. “This throws open new possibilities for detecting food adulteration, water quality and environmental contamination.” The detection limit of the analytes is in the range of nanogram quantities.

•According to Basuri, the paper strips containing the samples can be shipped to the place of analysis from remote locations. By varying the composition of the paper and structure of the fibres, it may be possible to store the paper strip containing the sample for future analysis.

📰 Researchers mechanically divide liposomes in the lab

These are initial steps in their goal to build artificial cells

•Growth and division are the fundamental characteristics of living cells. Yet the basic components essential for the functioning of these life processes remain shrouded in mystery. To answer this question, Siddharth Deshpande, a postdoctoral researcher at Cees Dekker’s lab at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands dreams of constructing an autonomous, artificial cell using a bottom–up approach. Dr. Deshpande and team have now achieved a part of their goal by mechanically dividing liposomes, which are compositional equivalents of cell envelopes.

•All living cells are enclosed in a lipid envelope. Thus, a liposome, which is a lipid bubble filled with water, is the simplest mimic of a living cell. Generating pure liposomes in a controlled fashion in the lab is not simple. To achieve this goal, Dr. Deshpande designed tiny fluid chambers with dimensions in the order of one-millionth of a metre to form stable liposomes. He reported this bubble-blowing method called octanol-assisted liposome assembly (OLA) in Nature in 2016 and in Nature Protocols in 2018.

•The team’s next mission was to split these liposomes into ‘daughter’ liposomes. In the past, researchers have used different methods to divide liposomes. However, all these methods suffered from leaky daughter liposomes and asymmetric splitting.

Simple approach

•In their latest study, published in ACS Nano journal, he kept the approach simple. “I thought why not collide them [liposomes] against a sharp wall inside the chamber to break them in two,” he said. He designed a wedge in the microfluidic chamber that physically blocked the newly formed liposomes as they progressed down the channel. By adding a fluorescent dye to the water inside the liposomes, the researchers visualised their fate using a microscope.

•Although the technique sounds simple, the journey was not devoid of challenges. Splitting any sphere into multiple stable ones poses an inherent issue: the smaller spheres have a larger surface area to volume ratio than the parent sphere.

•This means that either the surface area of the liposomes had to be increased or their volume had to be decreased to compensate for the change in surface area to volume ratio after division. The team overcame this issue by exploiting the fact that the liposome membrane permits passage of water. They flushed in a high-salt solution in the chamber to create an osmotic pressure difference. Consequently, the liposome exuded water with a resultant reduction in its volume.

•“Combining growth and division would be truly fantastic,” said Deshpande regarding their plans of creating a truly autonomous artificial cell. Achieving the same would be interesting from a synthetic biology perspective and could further the understanding of cellular function.

📰 Strengthening the shield

Experts bat for aggressive, three-pronged approach to immunisation coverage

•The Indian government’s aim of achieving 90% full immunisation coverage two years before the target of 2020 is ambitious, but experts feel that wider immunisation coverage is the only effective way to prevent avoidable diseases and the deaths and disability that arise due to them. To achieve this there is an intensified focus on two groups: those who are partially immunised and those who have never been.

•Dr. Pradeep Haldar, Deputy Commissioner of Immunisation, Immunisation Division, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, says that there is a need for sustained outreach to those who are missing out at some level: “65% of children are getting fully immunised, 27% are getting partially immunised and it is nothing at all for 8%. Our challenge now is the 27% population who should be pushed towards full immunisation as well as reaching out to the 8%.”.

•India launched the Universal Immunisation Programme (UIP) in 1985. Given that it had only 65% full immunisation coverage, the government launched Mission Indradhanush with an intensified approach to achieving full immunisation. Here, the government has identified 201 high-focus districts in 28 States that have the highest number of partially-immunised and un-immunised children. Under the UIP, the government provides free vaccination to prevent 11 vaccine-preventable diseases such as diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio, measles, severe forms of childhood tuberculosis, hepatitis B, and meningitis and pneumonia caused by Haemophilus influenzae type B. There are also vaccines for rubella and rotavirus diarrhoea being provided in select States; the Japanese Encephalitis vaccine is made available only in districts where it is endemic.

Battling myths

•“It is strange that despite all these vaccines being provided free of cost, there are still so many children who don’t get vaccinated,” says Dr. Nitin Shah, head of the paediatric department, at Hinduja Hospital, Mumbai. According to Dr. Shah, in an ideal situation, many more vaccines being offered in the private sector could become part of the national programme. “But the programme has budget limitations. Also, the vaccines that are currently part of the programme need to reach [people] more widely,” says Dr. Shah, who was on the immunisation committee of the Indian Academy of Pediatrics (IAP), in 2006. The private sector offers vaccines for chicken pox, hepatitis A, typhoid, the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine and influenzas.

•According to Dr. Samir Dalwai, who is on the national executive board of the IAP, an aggressive, three-pronged approach to increase immunisation coverage is needed. “The scientific community of doctors has to propagate vaccination as much as possible. When a doctor says it, it holds a lot of value for the people. Second, we need an ambassador such as [actor] Amitabh Bachchan to spread awareness. His credibility helped turn around the polio scenario for our country,” says Dr. Dalwai.

•Finally, the non-profits and the media have to drive the movement forward. “It is worrisome that even today, parents harbour many myths about vaccination. One of the most common is that vaccination is the cause of neuro-developmental disorders such as autism and other learning disorders. These myths need to be busted and mindsets need to be changed,” he says. Another widespread myth around immunisation is that it causes impotency.

Using the polio model

•It is the success of the polio campaign that has led experts to believe a turnaround is possible. “The learning from polio eradication is now being implemented in the micro-planning that is being done for other vaccines,” says Dr. Naveen Thacker, a Kutch-based paediatrician (in Gujarat), who is also the president of the Asia Pacific Pediatric Association. While some activists aver that children are being excessively inoculated to cater to the interests of the pharmaceutical sector, Dr. Thacker calls it a ridiculous argument. “We are losing lakhs of children to preventable diseases. Should we let these children die because of such theories?” Nearly 1.2 million children under the age of five die every year due to preventable diseases. It is the same age up to which full immunisation is completed.

📰 How Oman’s rocks could help save the planet

Carbon mineralisation could remove some of the heat-trapping carbon dioxide that humans have pumped into the air

•In the arid vastness of this corner of the Arabian Peninsula, out where goats and the occasional camel roam, rocks form the backdrop practically every way you look.

•But the stark outcrops and craggy ridges are more than just scenery. Some of these rocks are hard at work, naturally reacting with carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turning it into stone.

•Veins of white carbonate minerals run through slabs of dark rock like fat marbling a steak. Carbonate surrounds pebbles and cobbles, turning ordinary gravel into natural mosaics.

•Even pooled spring water that has bubbled up through the rocks reacts with CO2 to produce an ice-like crust of carbonate that, if broken, re-forms within days.

•Scientists say that if this natural process, called carbon mineralisation, could be harnessed, accelerated and applied inexpensively on a huge scale — admittedly some very big “ifs” — it could help fight climate change. Rocks could remove some of the billions of tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide that humans have pumped into the air since the beginning of the Industrial Age.

•And by turning that carbon dioxide into stone, the rocks in Oman would ensure that the gas stayed out of the atmosphere forever.

•“Solid carbonate minerals aren’t going anyplace,” said Peter B. Kelemen, a geologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who has been studying the rocks here for more than two decades.

•Capturing and storing carbon dioxide, is drawing increased interest. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that deploying such technology is essential to efforts to rein in global warming. But the idea has barely caught on: There are fewer than 20 large-scale projects in operation around the world, and they remove carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels at power plants or from other industrial processes and store it as gas underground.

•What Kelemen and others have in mind is removing carbon dioxide that is already in the air, to halt or reverse the gradual increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration.

•Although many researchers dismiss direct-air capture as logistically or economically impractical, especially given the billions of tons of gas that would have to be removed to have an impact, some say it may have to be considered if other efforts to counter global warming are ineffective.

•If billions of tons of CO2 are to be turned to stone, there are few places in the world more suitable than Oman, a sultanate with a population of 4 million and an economy based on oil and, increasingly, tourism.

•The carbon-capturing formations here, consisting largely of a rock called peridotite, are in a slice of oceanic crust and the mantle layer below it that was thrust up on land by tectonic forces nearly 100 million years ago. Erosion has resulted in a patchy zone about 200 miles long, up to 25 miles wide and several miles thick in the northern part of the country, including here in the outskirts of Ibra, a dusty inland city of 50,000. Even the bustling capital, Muscat, on the Gulf of Oman, has a pocket of peridotite practically overlooking Sultan Qaboos bin Said’s palace.

•Peridotite normally is miles below the earth’s surface. When the rocks are exposed to air or water as they are here, Kelemen said, they are like a giant battery with a lot of chemical potential. “They’re really, really far from equilibrium with the atmosphere and surface water,” he said.

•The rocks are so extensive, Kelemen said, that if it was somehow possible to fully use them they could store hundreds of years of CO2 emissions. More realistically, he said, Oman could store at least a billion tons of CO2 annually. (Current yearly worldwide emissions are close to 40 billion tons.)

•While the formations here are special, they are not unique. Similar though smaller ones are found in Northern California, Papua New Guinea and Albania, among other places.

•The rocks here may be capable of capturing a lot of carbon dioxide, but the challenge is doing it much faster than nature, in huge amounts and at low enough cost to make it more than a pipe dream.

•One possibility, Kelemen said, would be to drill pairs of wells and pump water with dissolved CO2 into one of them. As the water traveled through the rock formation carbonate would form; when it reached the other well the water, now depleted of CO2, would be pumped out. The process could be repeated over and over.

•Experiments and eventually pilot projects are needed to better understand and optimise this process and others, Kelemen said, but so far Omani officials have been reluctant to grant the necessary permits.

•The researchers may need to go elsewhere, like California, where the rocks are less accessible but the state government has set ambitious targets for reducing emissions and is open to new ways to meet them.

📰 New plants from Western Ghats

Most species are seen only close to the mountain range

•In just four months, nine new plants have been discovered in the Western Ghats, according to papers published in journals. Apart from the discoveries of the world’s smallest land fern and two shrubs of the rattlepod family reported in The Hindu, six species including two balsams, two shrubs belonging to the mint family (Lamiaceae), a herb of the coffee family (Rubiaceae) and 10-cm-tall Sonerila, a flowering plant commonly found in the tropics, have been discovered.

•Their stunning pink blooms make some Sonerilas well known as ornamental plants. Sonerila lateritica however, is a rock-loving wild herb that researcher S. Resmi at the University of Calicut and her colleagues discovered in the laterite hills of Ponkunnu in Kerala's Kozhikkode district. Only two populations of the plant were found in the area, write the researchers in their study in the journalPhytotaxa.

Rare balsam

•Kozhikkode is also home to a new balsam species, Impatiens saulierea, which the researchers discovered from wet, rocky surfaces in Kakkayam’s evergreen forests. Its occurrence in only a small area could make it an endangered species, write researcher Bince Mani of St. Thomas College, Kottayam, and colleagues, in their study published in Phytotaxa . Another balsam described in the same study, Impatiens josephia, is found in Kerala’s Idukki district where it grows on wet slopes of evergreen forests.

•In Idukki district’s Kulamavu evergreen forests, V.S. Hareesh and Mamiyil Sabu from the University of Calicut and their colleagues collected Ophiorrhiza jacobii,a herb that belongs to the coffee family. Clearing of roadsides – where the plant predominantly grows – could be a threat here, write the authors of the study published in The Nordic Journal of Botany.

•It was again in Idukki district – on wet slopes near the popular tourist location of Munnar’s Lockhart Gap – that the University of Calicut scientist P. Sunojkumar and his colleague found the 60-cm-tall herb Plectranthus sahyadricus (mint family) flowering. It is near this area that the Kochi–Danushkodi National Highway – which passes through the Lockhart Gap – is currently being widened. “Road expansions could definitely be a threat,” says Sunojkumar. The results were published in the journal Phytotaxa.

•In another study published in Phytotaxa, the scientist also describes a new shrubAnisochilus kanyakumariensis from Maruthwamala in Tamil Nadu’s Kanyakumari district.

•Scientists used morphological features to tell each plant apart from similar-looking species. All new plants are currently known only from the localities they have been collected from.

•“More field surveys in the Western Ghats would surely lead to more such discoveries,” said Sabu.

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