Bird Flu, Swine Flu, Human Flu

Influenza, unlike many viruses that make humans sick, can also affect birds and pigs. Generally strains of the influenza virus that causes disease in people are slightly different from those that affect birds and pigs. People and pigs can catch flu from each other, and birds and pigs can catch it from each other, but until 1997 people didn't catch ...

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Nothing Backwards About It

Almost anyone who's seen a picture of the experimental X-29 aircraft will remember it. Its unique wings make it one of the most distinctive aircraft designs ever. Rather than sticking straight out or ... Continue reading


X-Ray Images & False Color

The colors we see in the world around us are the result of the way that the human eye and brain perceive different wavelengths of light in the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum. X-rays, and ... Continue reading


How Much Coffee Will Kill You?

With the spread of Starbucks franchises all the way from Portland to Poughkeepsie, Americans are getting used to paying $3 or more for a proverbial ten-cent beverage. Of course, you get a bigger cup, ... Continue reading


Cool Fuel Cells

Astronauts have been using them for power aboard spacecraft since the 1960s. Soon, perhaps, they'll be just as common on Earth--powering cars, trucks, laptop computers and cell phones. They're called ... Continue reading


Natural Gas - The Blue Flame

NaturalGasTheBlueFlameIt is colorless, shapeless, and in its pure form, odorless. For many years, it was discarded as worthless. Even today, some countries (although not the United States) still get rid of it by burning it in giant flares, so large they can be seen from the Space Shuttle. Yet, it is one of the most valuable fuels we have. Natural gas is made up mainly of a chemical called methane, a simple, compound that has a carbon atom surrounded by four hydrogen atoms. Methane is highly flammable and burns almost completely. There is no ash and very little air pollution.

Natural gas provides one-fifth of all the energy used in the United States. It is especially important in homes, where it supplies nearly half of all the energy used for cooking, heating, and for fueling other types of home appliances. Because natural gas has no odor, gas companies add a chemical to it that smells a little like rotten eggs. The odor makes it easy to smell if there is a gas leak in your house.

The United States has a lot of natural gas, enough to last for at least another 60 years and probably a lot longer. Our neighbor to the north, Canada, also has a lot of gas, and some gas pipelines that begin in Canada run into the United States. The United States is looking for more ways to use gas, largely because it is easy to pipe from one location to another and because it burns very cleanly. More and more, we are using gas in power plants to generate electricity. Factories are using more gas, both as a fuel and as an ingredient for a variety of chemicals. While natural gas is plentiful, there is still some uncertainty about how much it will cost to get it out of the ground in the future. Like oil, there is 'easy' gas that can be produced from underground formations, and there is gas that is not so easy. If we can find better and cheaper ways to find more of the 'easy' gas and produce some of the more difficult gas, we can rely increasingly on natural gas in the future.