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Life on Mars: The Secret Ingredient for Biofuel?

NASA built a program for extraterrestrial vegetables way back when. Now PetroAlgae is using the lab to grow obese, oily algae.

Decades later, some of the technology developed under a NASA program to put a space station on Mars might pay dividends.

PetroAlgae, a biodiesel startup in Melbourne, Fla., has leased environmental-simulation chambers originally developed for the Mars mission. It hopes to use the chambers to discover the optimal environment for growing algae and then to create it on an industrial level.

The chambers were created in the 1970s. If NASA put a space station on Mars, the thinking went at that time, the astronauts living there would have to grow their own food. Thus, it became a high priority to create tomatoes and cucumbers that could withstand low-oxygen environments and less sunlight than normal.

After the Mars mission got canceled (see Capricorn One starring James Brolin and O.J. Simpson for one explanation of the demise of the program), NASA lost most of its interest in extraterrestrial lettuce. For PetroAlgae, or other biodiesel developers, however, it’s an ideal playground.

“You can control light, CO2, gases,” said Fred Tennant, vice president of business and development at PetroAlgae. “It was dormant. They were glad to lease it.”

The company is one of a large number of startups and established companies trying to fashion diesel or synthetic gasoline out of algae.

The National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colo., kicked off the effort in the 1980s. Some of today’s startups, such as LiveFuels, which plans to make biocrude instead of fuel out of algae, rely on technology licensed from the national labs.

Others, such as GreenFuel Technologies Corp., have sprung from university research. In GreenFuel’s case, that would be Harvard and MIT.

There are three basic business models. Some, like GreenFuel, capture carbon dioxide from smokestacks and feed it to algae in bioreactors-- essentially clear plastic bags. The algae are then harvested and converted to liquid fuel and animal feed. The companies can earn revenue from selling feedstock as well as sequestering carbon for power plants.

Others, such as LiveFuels, grow algae in open ponds. Rather than focus on a single strain of algae, these companies let lots of species bloom. Each species can grow from a different spectrum of light. The algae then gets separated from water and harvested for feed or oil.

Then there is Solazyme, which cooks algae with sugars in beer kettles. The process is similar to brewing beer. Although the added sugar boosts the production costs, Solazyme says it can make fuel faster and cheaper. Why? It doesn’t have to separate the algae from water, a problem that has vexed researchers since the beginning. The company also genetically optimizes the algae.

PetroAlgae is a bioreactor company, but also concentrates on genetic optimization. It has licensed a strain of algae from Arizona State University that is particularly greasy. Approximately 50 percent of the algae’s weight is lipid material, he said, far higher than average.

“Our little critters do nothing but eat and make oil. If you put them back in the swamp, they wouldn’t last five minutes,” Tennant said. “We bred the defenses out of them.”

And the algae strain breeds fast, he said. An acre-sized pond of PetroAlgae’s algae could conceivably produce 10,000 to 14,000 gallons of fuel a year, he asserted, higher than normal. (LiveFuels has talked about 10,000 gallons.) The algae have not been genetically modified, but they have been bred for oiliness.

“Over a billion generations, you can come up with a really oily strain that grows fast,” he said.

PetroAlgae also has obtained patents on particular stages of the algae-to-fuel process, he said.

Still, growing algae has plenty of challenges. While companies have been working on the idea of making fuel from algae for years, none have been able to make it affordably in large volumes.

PetroAlgae is owned by the XL TechGroup, an incubator that claims it tries to envision future markets and then tailor companies around those distant needs.

Many venture capitalists frown on this technique of company crafting, asserting that it mostly results in “me too” companies. Instead, they prefer companies to emerge, almost accidentally, out of a pending problem facing a grad student or engineer.

The think-tank model, however, has had a few successes.

IdeaLab came up with the idea of paid search with Overture, which subsequently was bought by Yahoo.

XL also owns TyraTech, which is creating biopesticides. TyraTech has a contract with Kraft to come up with dairy products for emerging nations that contain medicinal benefits. It is developing an experimental cheese, for instance, that can kill tapeworms.

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Mother Finds California Kings Snake in Baby’s Crib

Cari Abatemarco says she found a California King Snake curled around her 7-month-old daughter’s leg as she lay in her crib.

Abatemarco said she was visiting family in Long Island, New York when her daughter woke up crying in the middle of the night. When Abatemarco lifted her daughter from the crib, the snake fell off.

“Once I lifted her up and the snake fell off of her, she stopped crying,” she says.

Abatemarco adds that her uncle put the 1-foot-long snake into a bucket to wait for animal control.

The California King Snake is non-venomous and commonly kept as a pet. It is a constrictor.

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Obama Birth Certificate

The latest controversy stirring in the camp of the Democratic Presidential candidate revolves around a piece of paper. Barack Obama has thus far abstained from releasing his birth certificate. While in the past many would say such a small matter is an ultimately unimportant matter, in this case it has caused what seems to be a major ruckus among many voters. With the rumors dispelled earlier in Obama's fight for the candidacy coming back into play, some have become skeptical, nervous, and overall anxious over the Illinois Senator's refusal to release the document.

So why should a piece of paper cause such a major commotion? The main issue revolves around the rumors associated with the Obama campaign's withholding of the document. Among them are questions of the place of Senator Obama's birth and some hidden truth behind the Senator's name.

The first rumor is that Senator Obama was actually born in Kenya. This rumor seems to have originated in an email stating to have some hidden information about the details of the Senator's birth. According to the email, Barack Obama's mother was living in Kenya at the time of his birth. The email goes on to allege that after his birth, his mother took him to Hawaii to register the birth.

The issue was raised on, where claims of his Kenyan birth were quickly disseminated, soon becoming claims that the non-American native was running for President in an attempt to disrupt the framework of the United States. Claims of everything from Obama being some sort of conniving secret-Muslim seeking to destroy America to his being the Anti-Christ became all the rage in online forums and blogs. Yet these claims were quickly disputed, and all but forgotten . . . until now.

Now, with the refusal to release his birth certificate, Barack Obama seems to have rekindled the flame beneath this rumor. The benefit and drawback of releasing the document, then, fall along the same lines: releasing it could either prove these claims true, or quickly and efficiently prove them false.

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Brown Note - Brown Noise

Activists Preparing Against Use of ‘Brown Note’ at Dem Convention

Political activists planning protest rallies at the upcoming Democratic Convention in Denver have their stomachs in knots over a rumor about a crowd control weapon - known as the “crap cannon” - that might be unleashed against them.

Also called “Brown Note,” it is believed to be an infrasound frequency that debilitates a person by making them defecate involuntarily.

Mark Cohen, co-founder of Re-create 68, an alliance of local activists working for the protection of first amendment rights, said he believes this could be deployed at the convention in August to subdue crowds.

“We know this weapon and weapons like it have been used at other large protests before,” he said.

Cohen, who described Brown Note as a “sonic weapon used to disrupt people’s equilibrium,” cited eyewitness accounts of its use during free-trade agreement protests in Miami in 2003.

“I think these weapons were mostly intended for military use and so their use for dealing with innocent protesters seems highly inappropriate,” he said. “The idea that they might be field testing them on people who are doing nothing more than exercising their first amendment rights is disturbing.”

His group is preparing against a possible attack by Brown Note and other crowd-control measures by dispatching street medics at the convention trained in treating injuries in demonstration situations.

“It’s all we can do,” Cohen said.

So is the Brown Note a real threat?

Dr. Roger Schwenke - an expert acoustician who appeared on the Discovery Channel’s “Mythbusters” in 2004 to test the phenomenon - told there is no scientific evidence that proves such frequencies cause involuntary defecation.

“When we conducted the low frequency experiment for the Brown Note episode of MythBusters, we tested a variety of low frequencies and no involuntary gastro-intestinal motility was caused,” he said.

But Schwenke acknowledged the low-frequency exposure did cause an adverse effect. Several people — including himself — reported “abdominal discomfort,” he said, “which was easily alleviated by moving a moderate distance away from the source.”

Adding to the Brown Note rumor is a refusal by Denver’s Mayor John W. Hickenlooper to release details of what was purchased with $18 million of a $50 million federal grant the city received to pay for convention security, despite a lawsuit filed by ACLU.

Cohen’s group is calling on the administration to disclose what measures will be taken.

In a statement released to, city spokeswoman Sue Cobb said, “commenting on specific security preparations is not helpful to ensuring their effectiveness. I can say, however, that all of our security-related purchases for the Democratic National Convention will comply with federal and City requirements. We are working closely with the U.S. Department of Justice to ensure that the $50 million federal security grant is spent on personnel and equipment in the manner required by the grant.”

Denver’s police Department wouldn’t comment on the tactics that will be used during the convention, but a spokesman said that “we do support and encourage people to express their views safely and in a manner that respects the rights of others along with the laws and ordinances of our city.”

But Glenn Spangnuolo, also with Re-create 68, isn’t taking any chances. He said he has no doubt that Brown Note exists, and is preparing his group for confrontation. “Whether it causes someone to defecate in their pants or not, I don’t know that,” said Spagnuolo. “What I do know is that it causes a person to be disoriented and lose their equilibrium resulting in a nauseous feeling in their stomach.”

More troubling to Spagnuolo is the “Active Denial System” or “ADS,” a ray gun used to send high levels of microwave frequencies that cause a burning sensation the skin.

He described ADS as an “indiscriminate weapon” and said “there’s no long-term testing on what happens to the body when exposed to those kinds of microwave frequencies.”

Spagnuolo believes that Raytheon, the company that manufactures the weapon, is planning to test a limited-range civilian version on protesters in Denver before approving its use in places like Iraq.

Spagnuolo said he believes tactics like these are excessive. “I think spending millions of dollars on weapon technologies to be used on people in our community is completely wrong,” he said.

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Gennifer Flowers And Paula Jones

Gennifer Flowers and Paula Jones want to offer Internet viewers the lurid details of the encounters they claim with former President Clinton, before he won the White House — for $1.99 a pop.

The two women, whose names were widely known in the early 1990s as they claimed sexual encounters with Clinton, have created a Web site offering videos of their thoughts on Clinton, his wife Hillary and other matters surrounding their involvement with the man who was Arkansas governor at the time.

On Monday, both walked down a manicured avenue to the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, the driver of a hired limousine taking video with his cellular phone as the two chatted with an interviewer from the syndicated television program "Extra."

Afterward, both stressed their importance in Clinton's presidency, though neither women is mentioned inside Clinton's glass-and-steel library. However, Monica Lewinsky — a White House intern with whom Clinton admitted having an inappropriate relationship — is cited in an alcove dedicated to the "politics of persecution."

"It's a way we can get our story out there in our own words, without someone making their own interpretations or corrections," Jones said.

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Hunt Petroleum

XTO Energy to Acquire Hunt Petroleum for $4.2 Billion (Update1)

By Tony Cox

June 10 (Bloomberg) -- XTO Energy Corp. agreed to acquire closely held Hunt Petroleum Corp., the oil company created by the late billionaire H.L. Hunt, for about $4.2 billion, gaining wells that will boost output amid record prices.

Owners of Hunt will get $2.6 billion in cash and about $1.6 billion in XTO stock, the Fort Worth, Texas-based buyer said today in a statement. Hunt family heirs were embroiled in a fight over the trusts that owned Hunt Petroleum after the founder's oldest daughter, Margaret Hunt Hill, died last year, the Dallas Morning News reported in February.

Most of Hunt Petroleum's producing assets extend across East Texas and Louisiana, where XTO is a leading natural-gas producer, according to the statement. XTO raised its forecast for production growth this year to as much as 30 percent, based on the Hunt transaction and a $1.85 billion asset purchase announced last month.

``With the current outlook for commodity prices and our development plan, we have facilitated a history-making deal for XTO which should generate over $1.2 billion in cash flow next year,'' Chief Executive Officer Bob Simpson said in the statement.

XTO rose $2.28, or 3.4 percent, to $70 at 9:03 a.m. New York time in trading before U.S. exchanges opened. Before today, the stock had jumped 32 percent this year.

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Voodoo Envy 133

HP's new Voodoo Envy 133 notebook measures just over half an inch thin, and will start shipping for $2100 this summer.

HP today announced a new portfolio of Voodoo-branded computing devices, initially including the ultra-mobile Voodoo Envy 133 notebook and the powerful Voodoo Omen desktop.

Measuring just over half an inch thin and weighing less than 3.4 pounds, the Voodoo Envy 133 was developed using the smallest available Intel Centrino technology (compare the Voodoo Envy 133 to the Apple Macbook Air). Despite its small size, the notebook offers a wide range of functionality, and includes Ethernet and wireless connectivity, a selection of ports as well as a replaceable battery.

The Voodoo Envy 133 features a 13.3-inch LED display, multiple gesture touchpad, external eSATA optical drive, backlit keyboard and the following ports: 1x USB 2.0, HDMI, headphone/mic and a shared eSATA/USB port. The Voodoo Envy 133 also come equipped with Voodoo Aura PowerConnect, which establishes a one-to-one wireless connection between the Envy 133 notebook and an Ethernet connector located on the power supply, allowing users to roam free from the wired connection. When it comes to storage, users can choose between a 64GB solid state drive and a 80GB 4200 RPM hard disk drive.

The Voodoo Envy 133 will be available this summer for a starting price of $2100.

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