Canberra Skeptics Argos 10: April 2004

N.B. The next function: Tuesday 13th April

Social evening at the Wig and Pen, Civic from 7.45 pm


Argos No 9 was replete with errors. For those wanting a copy of Ron Wells' book, his email address is in fact <>. The title of Alan Wade's talk has been changed, and the date for Lynne Kelly's talk has been brought forward − see below.

Diary dates

Easter 9-12 April

Tues 13th April, 7.45 pm. Social evening at the Wig and Pen, Civic.

Thur 13th May, 7.30pm. Alan Wade :"Fire and water − a virtual reality" RSL, Civic.

Sun 13th June, 7.00pm. Gluhwein and Pizzas. Venue to be arranged.

Fri 18th June, 7.30pm. Dr Jill Gordon: "A sceptical view of psychotherapy" Canberra Bridge Club, 60 Duff Place, Deakin (behind the Deakin Shops).

Thur 8th July, 7.30pm. Lynne Kelly: "Science and the paranormal − a writer's perspective". RSL, Civic.

Fri 13th Aug, 7.30pm. Social evening at the Wig and Pen, Civic.

Sat 21st Aug, 1.00pm. Forum on Global Warming. CSIRO Discovery Centre

Sat 21st Aug, 7.00pm. Dinner and Debate "This house believes Global Warming is a Good Thing"

Sun 22nd Aug, 10.30am. Ride for the Planet. Hall to Parliament House.

International Skeptics conference will be held in Italy, at Padua (which is 30 mins drive from Venice) from October 8-10, 2004.


Computer Viruses

Please note that many viruses are in circulation today that can 'spoof' or 'fake' the senders email address, making it appear the message comes from a trustworthy source such as igriffit or vicki.moss. Be assured, my computer is updated manually each morning using Symantec's Intelligent Updater [] and all incoming and outgoing mail is thus screened for the most recent viruses. Furthermore, our Outlook Express Address list starts with a string of zeros as a name and email address: this I am told makes poaching of email lists by hackers much more difficult. So any message with a suspicious title and message (with or without an attachment) purporting to be from me, vicki.moss or, should be double deleted unopened (use <shift> plus <delete> then <y>). All emails should have a title which meaningfully identifies the contents; that from us will start <Canberra Skeptics…..>

From the Committee

The Committee welcomes Jim Foley into its ranks. Jim will be looking after the Internet site.

The Accounts for the last financial year (approved as an interim report at the AGM) have been finalised. The operating surplus to June 2003 was a few cents short of $600, and net assets a few cents short of $3,261. Anyone wishing a copy of the detailed statement of accounts please let us know.

Subscribers to The Skeptic in the ACT should be aware that $5.00 of their subscription is passed on each year to their local branch. So, esteemed readers, sign up your friends/relatives for the discounted annual subscription as a Christmas/Birthday present and help your local Branch!

Planning for the August Forum is under control. To date, five first class speakers have agreed to participate. When the list is finalised you will be the first to know. Bjorn Lomborg was happy to speak at the Forum, but his A$25,000 appearance fee we felt a trifle steep. An email asking him to charge a little less was read, but has gone unanswered.

Ramblings from the President.

Part 1. Nanobes - alien underworld: just a lot of spin?

In January a member suggested we have a talk on "nanobes" following a repeat (on January 13th 2004) of a TV program first put to air on the ABC on 21 August 2002. I missed both − fortunately. Entitled "Alien Underworld" the credits for this program enthused ( )….

"Ten times smaller than any living creature... with a bizarre appetite for plastic and with relatives that may have come from Mars... Nanobes are very strange creatures indeed. A young Australian geologist has possibly made one of the most significant biological discoveries of the last 100 years. Dr Philippa Uwins is currently battling a hostile international scientific community, desperately seeking funding for vital research and yet continuing to make breakthroughs in what has been called the 'Jurassic Park' of bacteria. Working on a routine consulting project for a petrolium (sic) company, Dr Uwins stumbled across mysterious structures measuring mere millionths of a millimetre in her rock samples. When she discovered the structures were not mineral, but biological, her nanobes became instant media celebrities. Is Dr Uwins on the trail of a revolutionary new life form, or are her "nanobes" literally too small to live? In years to come, will she be hearlded (sic) as a pioneer who unravelled a key to the secret to life, or just another in a long line of scientific 'crackpots'?"

The background to this program is described by Dr Uwins and her colleagues in a paper in American Mineralogist (Vol 83 (1998) pp1541-50). [

1998/Uwins_p1541-1550_98.pdf]. Philippa Uwins observed structures ranging in size from 20 to over 150 nanometres (dubbed "nanobes") in Western Australian oil-containing sandstone derived from a depth of 3400-5100m and at a temperature of 117 -170 o C. She suggested these might represent communal organisms dependent on each other. She claims stains demonstrate the presence of both DNA and RNA in her nanobes. In the article the authors described growth at ambient temperatures of colonies of these nanobes on the surface of copper, polystyrene and glass substrates exposed, during storage, to the mineral samples. Growth on the freshly fractured sandstone was observed over a period of 2-3 weeks.

Well, as a microbiologist, I am highly sceptical that the 20-200 nm diameter structures Dr Uwins has observed are nanobacteria growing in oil saturated sandstone.

Firstly the size is a problem. I do not believe cells growing on mineral deposits, even ones laced with organic material such as oil, could, at 20-50 nm diameter, contain the required synthetic machinery for life as we know it. The smallest known bacteria (Mycoplasma, Nanobacteria) are 150 nm diameter, but when "starved" may drop to 50 nm diameter. Mycoplasma and Nanobacteria are basically parasitic on other higher organisms or live in a rich organic environment, and can dispense with the synthesis for themselves of many essential cell components. In contrast, some bacteria can use minerals as an energy/nutrient source, but to do this, requires a complex array of enzymes and membranes under control of DNA/RNA: they are much larger than Mycoplasma and contain thousands of genes, as every organic molecule they posses has to be made from carbonates, salts and water. Viruses are smaller life forms. For example influenza virus (100 nm diameter) and poliovirus (25-30 nm diameter) are known to contain only a few proteins and some RNA nucleic acid. The amount of RNA packaged into a poliovirus particle codes for a few genes only and, even if the virus contains enzymes for replicating the RNA (as does flu virus), the building blocks for this have to be acquired from elsewhere i.e. other living cells, or a complex nutrient soup. A free-living organism in oil shale could not do this and would have to be considerably bigger.

Second the staining for RNA and DNA is a problem. The authors give no indication they used strict aseptic technique; indeed, as we will see, they clearly demonstrate they didn't. The sandstone samples were described as "freshly" fractured. Left lying around just a few hours in air (before the reported storage in a "dessicator" (sic) for 24h) would result in contamination with settled microorganisms and if handled, or breathed on, contaminated with normal microbial flora immediately. So the staining could be of these, or − as asserted by others − non-specific and an artefact.

Thirdly the authors incubated their samples in Petri dishes at laboratory temperature (22 oC). Growth on the freshly fractured sandstone was observed over a period of 2-3 weeks. Now, organisms adapted to live at high temperatures and pressures (a depth of 3400-5100m and a temperature of 117 -170 oC) have a very special chemistry and just do not grow at ambient temperatures and pressures. The authors dismissed, on the basis of their elemental composition, the possibility that the observed structures were minerals saturated at high temperature and pressure coming out of solution under laboratory conditions. Fair enough if there really were microbes growing on the sandstone − but is that where they actually came from?

Fourthly the Achilles heel of all this research is poor technique. It was not done using strictly aseptic technique and the authors admit that contamination was possible. Indeed they describe growth of colonies on fingerprints on the polystyrene petridish! Examination of the micrographs shows filaments of variable diameter greater and less than 200 nm and of considerable length. I have often observed what appear to by microcolonies of a mould with very fine filaments growing in stored unsterile petridishes in a humid atmosphere − probably using, as nutrient, the lubricant needed to get the polystyrene dishes off the machine used in their manufacture and/or plasticiser used in the moulded plastic (and not using the polystyrene itself as nutrient). Oil rich sandstone would be an even better substrate, and condensed oil vapour on the surface of glass and plastic Petri dishes containing the stored samples would provide a growth medium for contaminating moulds. In my view these growths are certainly not derived from the samples as the authors claim, but, from the laboratory atmosphere or during drilling or in transit to Brisbane.

It's amazing what gets past the reviewers into the peer-reviewed literature these days. And it's amazing how some journalists get sucked in by University spin merchants. I could give a talk debunking nanobes if readers wish − but it would tend to be rather technical, and difficult to make entertaining. Let me know if you want one.

One thing students of small round structures in mineral deposits rarely acknowledge is that bacteria can in fact store materials in subcellular deposits. Polyphosphate is stored in "volutin granules", iron in "magnetosomes" and carbohydrates as polyhydroxybutyrate. Where these complex with counter ions in sedimentary deposits they may well be preserved as regular spherical deposits 20-50 nanometres in diameter. These may be evidence of early bacteria, but not of the bacterial cells themselves.

Part II. Is oil on the way out?

With the Forum on Global Warming fast approaching, I am boning up on various subjects, such as alternatives to oil. I heard on the news the other day its price is high, in part, because of the demand for oil from China. It seems car ownership is increasing rapidly there. China, not having much oil of its own, and not constrained by the capitalist's need to maintain a massive automotive industry wedded to gasoline, would be the obvious place for the development of electric vehicles (EVs). To date, EV development has been held back by inadequate battery design. Are EVs now a reality and has China beaten the rest of the World in producing a decent one?

A biologist tends to be somewhat isolated in the Pharmaceutics Department of a College of Pharmacy. As a consequence, rather than talking about things such as tablet dissolution rates, I spent my lunchtime studying the reference texts present in the tearoom. About 20 years ago, while gazing at the electrochemical series, I concluded that, could such a battery be devised, one using lithium and fluoride would be the lightest and most powerful. So having gathered together some lithium, lithium fluoride and a non-aqueous polar solvent (dimethylsulphoxide) a stick of graphite and some platinum wire, I set about testing my ideas. The outcome of the experiment was that the platinum wire dissolved − so the project was abandoned as an expensive exercise beyond my technical ability.

I am now happy to report that the Chinese, building on the first lithium batteries invented some 15 years ago, appear to have solved the technical problems and have designed a lithium fluoride battery claimed to be better than other lithium batteries − and vastly superior to the lead acid batteries we presently use in our cars. They have patented a colloid solid-state chromium fluoride lithium (Cr-F-Li) battery claimed to be able to produce 720 watts per battery kilogram for US$0.02 per watt, with a battery life of 1100 recharges (or more realistically 500 with an 80% depth of discharge): the standard lead acid battery produces 30 watts/kg at a cost of US$0.16/watt with 400 recharges (; accessed 24th March, 2004, and copied, fortunately − see below). I have no idea how this Cr-F-Li battery works, as finding their patents on the web has so far eluded me. If any readers of the Argos know, I would be delighted to hear.

The 2008 Olympic games in Beijing are to be the "Green Games" and the Chinese are planning to use a fleet of electric buses powered by these Cr-F-Li batteries to cart the tourists around. Thunder Sky Green Power Source (Shenzhen) Co, founded in 1998, has developed an air conditioned electric bus seating 43 able to run 400km upon a full charge ( They claim to have also used these batteries in electric bikes, scooters, motorcycles, cars, pilotless planes, one-man gyrocopters, torpedos, electric trains, submarines and tanks. This company states it won the "Golden Prize on (sic) the London International Patent Technology Expo" for its battery (possibly late in 2001, judging by the website). An extensive Google search failed to find any information on such an expo, but did reveal that reports of an award of a "Golden Prize" at a "Patent Technology Expo" is not uncommon on Chinese websites.

The problems with the Cr-F-Li battery as far as I can judge are that it is better at stop-start output (as in city traffic) than continuous output (as in highway cruising), and it is no good for drag racing or sports cars, so would not appeal to the testosterone driven. It requires a battery "management module" while in use, and also requires a special device to vary the input during recharging. And the price is rising, being given as US$0.16/watt − the same as lead acid batteries − on Everspring's website on 25 March! [Just a coincidence? − or because I accessed their site the previous day?] A single 200 AmpHour battery with only a 90-day warranty will cost you around US $312 plus freight! A small car needs 46 of these batteries together weighing 253 kg and costing around US$16,000: a medium sized car needs 72 batteries, weighing 396 kg and costing US$22,000 ( For a large car you'll need 138 batteries of the 300 Ah variety (

Rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are believed by many to be responsible for global warming. Alternatives to the internal combustion engine, they believe, are clearly needed. So, though it would be nice if our vehicles all went electric, the cost and weight of batteries − despite the developments outlined above − is still clearly a limiting factor. And if the electricity (not derived from braking) used to recharge the batteries is generated from non-renewable sources, then the carbon emission problem is just placed at arms length − at the power stations burning fossil fuel. Fuel cells using hydrogen to power EVs have been developed, but storage of large amounts of hydrogen is difficult. And it too needs electricity for its manufacture from water. In the interim, a hybrid vehicle with four wheel-based electric motors (acting as generators while braking) powered by a small petrol or diesel generator in combination with batteries and/or large capacitors (to produce extra power when needed) could be the way to go. Some of these are around. If interested, do a Google on <hybrid vehicle "wheel motor">. But they are expensive. And "no doubt" it's the motor manufacturers and the oil industry that's keeping them so. Ah, aren't conspiracy theories fun!

Pete Griffith

April 2004