Cow Manure and Elephant Dung Could Be Used to Make the Paper of the Future

Kathrin Weiland
Kathrin Weiland

The average dairy cow produces 82 pounds of manure daily. For elephants, that number is up to 300 pounds. According to researchers at the University of Vienna, all that dung represents an untapped resource that has the potential to change the way we make paper.

The team of scientists presented their findings at a meeting of the American Chemical Society on March 21. Waste from cows and elephants, they say, is rich in the same cellulose that's required to make paper products. What's more, the cellulose in manure has been broken down by digestion, making it easier for paper manufacturers to process.

"Animals eat low-grade biomass containing cellulose, chew it and expose it to enzymes and acid in their stomach, and then produce manure," researcher Alexander Bismarck said in a statement. "Depending on the animal, up to 40 percent of that manure is cellulose, which is then easily accessible."

Bismarck first got the idea to make paper from manure after seeing goats graze on dry grass in a small village in Crete. As he watched the plant matter go in, he wondered if that same matter wouldn't be suitable for making paper once it came out the other end. Today most paper is made by grinding down raw wood into nanocellulose, a process that takes a lot of power. The cellulose in dung has already been chewed and worn down by acid and enzymes in the animal's digestive system, cutting out the need for all that grinding.

Following Bismarck's goat manure–inspired revelation, he and his team began working with waste from horses, cows, and now elephants. Thanks to cattle farms and elephant parks around the world, this material is an abundant sustainable resource. The dung they collect is treated with a sodium hydroxide solution to remove lignin, the glue that holds cellulose fibers together (and can also be used as fuel). From there, they filter out other impurities like proteins and dead cells and bleach whatever's left with sodium hypochlorite to create a pure, white pulp that's ready to be made into paper.

The research team is currently exploring potential applications for the material. For now, they say it could be used as reinforcement for polymer composites or as filters for wastewater. It can also be made into paper for writing, though it may be a while until you see notebooks made from elephant dung at your local office supply store.

This 'Time-Traveling Illusion' Is Designed to Trick Your Brain

A team of researchers from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have designed an illusion that might trick your brain into seeing things that aren’t there, the New Atlas reports.

Dubbed the Illusory Rabbit, it provides instructions that are simple enough to follow. Start playing the YouTube video below and look at the cross in the middle of the screen while also watching for flashes that appear at the bottom of the screen. Most importantly, you’ll want to add up the number of flashes you see throughout the video. (And make sure your volume is up.)

We don’t want to spoil the fun, so before we explain the science of how it works, check out the video and try it for yourself.

Did you see three flashes paired with three beeps? You’re not alone. This is due to a phenomenon called postdiction, which is a little like the opposite of prediction. According to a paper outlining these findings in the journal PLOS ONE, postdiction occurs when the brain processes information retroactively [PDF]. This occurs in such a way that our perception of earlier events is altered by stimuli that come later. In this case, you might think you missed the flash paired with the second of the three beeps, so your mind goes back and tries to make sense of the missing information. That's why you may see an “illusory flash” in the middle of the screen, sandwiched between the two real flashes.

For this reason, the researchers call the mind trick a “time-traveling illusion across multiple senses” (in this case, vision and hearing). It’s successful because the beeps and flashes occur so rapidly—in less than one-fifth of a second. The senses essentially get confused, and the brain tries to fill in the gaps retroactively.

"Illusions are a really interesting window into the brain," the paper’s first author, Noelle Stiles, said in a statement. "By investigating illusions, we can study the brain's decision-making process.” Researchers wanted to find out how the brain “determines reality” when a couple of your senses (in this case, sight and hearing) are bombarded with noisy and conflicting information. When the brain isn’t sure of what’s going on, it essentially makes up information.

“The brain uses assumptions about the environment to solve this problem,” Stiles said. “When these assumptions happen to be wrong, illusions can occur as the brain tries to make the best sense of a confusing situation. We can use these illusions to unveil the underlying inferences that the brain makes."

[h/t New Atlas]

How Did 6 Feet Become the Standard Grave Depth?

iStock
iStock

It all started with the plague: The origins of “six feet under” come from a 1665 outbreak in England. As the disease swept the country, the mayor of London literally laid down the law about how to deal with the bodies to avoid further infections. Among his specifications—made in “Orders Conceived and Published by the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London, Concerning the Infection of the Plague”—was that “all the graves shall be at least six feet deep.”

The law eventually fell out of favor both in England and its colonies. Modern American burial laws vary from state to state, though many states simply require a minimum of 18 inches of soil on top of the casket or burial vault (or two feet of soil if the body is not enclosed in anything). Given an 18-inch dirt buffer and the height of the average casket (which appears to be approximately 30 inches), a grave as shallow as four feet would be fine.

A typical modern burial involves a body pumped full of chemical preservatives sealed inside a sturdy metal casket, which is itself sealed inside a steel or cement burial vault. It’s less of a hospitable environment for microbes than the grave used to be. For untypical burials, though—where the body isn’t embalmed, a vault isn’t used, or the casket is wood instead of metal or is foregone entirely—even these less strict burial standards provide a measure of safety and comfort. Without any protection, and subjected to a few years of soil erosion, the bones of the dearly departed could inconveniently and unexpectedly surface or get too close to the living, scaring people and acting as disease vectors. The minimum depth helps keep the dead down where they belong.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This article originally appeared in 2012.

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