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How iCRAG’s research will form the bedrock of our green future

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Sam Cox takes a look inside the iCRAG research centre to find out how people can continue to extract what we need from the Earth without destroying it.

People move quickly. They live, work and adapt. Rocks, of course, are much slower. Continents will shift and their plants and weather systems will change. But, compared to their human inhabitants, such changes are nearly imperceptible. Years of research and study have proven the Earth isn’t quite so still.

In 2018, Greta Thunberg first appeared in the media spotlight, marking a new era of fresh voices in a decades-old battle. Carrying the mantel of Rachel Carson and the environmental movement, she represents the continuation of a debate that is influenced both by science and public opinion.

It is this interaction that is the core of iCRAG, the Science Foundation Ireland research centre for applied geosciences, which in February 2021 received €28m in SFI funding for the next five years.

For the rock-steady nature of the Earth and its components, it might seem strange that the conversation is so fraught. The minerals, ores and materials that form our Earth, that build our structures and run our machines are both protected and utilised in a balance that isn’t easy to reconcile. Environmental conservation doesn’t always equal preservation, as green energy relies on rare metals from the Earth that may be necessary to extract.

The interaction of these, both in their acquirement and in their use, goes on to influence our entire Earth system. As water flows through mountains and into the streams and rivers that feed our oceans, distant geographical areas become connected in all of their elements. What we put in and what we take out shifts the system’s balance, forcing it to seek a new equilibrium.

Explained in such terms, geology rockets in importance. Talk about the need for clean water and the public listens. Describe the lithium batteries for the future phones and electric cars that can fuel Elon Musk’s dreams, and investment flows. But mention the lithosphere, the atmosphere, the biosphere and any other geology-heavy terms, and the conversation often shuts down. iCRAG is about keeping that conversation going.

Out of the ashes, a carbon capture solution arises

Hosted by University College Dublin, iCRAG’s location on a small island may seem a disadvantage in becoming a major global contributor in research. Its size, however, has proven advantageous. ‘Small enough to test, big enough to prove,’ is the phrase repeated time and again.

The use of analogues means that areas of research in Ireland can be applied to Africa and North America. Why travel to inaccessible heights to measure the weathering of silicates when the Wicklow Mountains offer the opportunity – small enough to test, but big enough to prove.

This is what palaeobotanist Prof Jennifer McElwain, a principal investigator at iCRAG, hopes to do. Using fossilised plants, McElwain reconstructs the history of the gases in the atmosphere. By looking at the chemical composition of these plants, she tracks the course of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere over millions of years. At iCRAG, she hopes to combine different fields in order to create geoengineering solutions for the climate crisis.

Enhanced chemical weathering involves utilising a process that naturally occurs over hundreds of thousands of years. When rainwater falls, the bare rock is chemically worn down. This leads to calcium and magnesium silicates going into streams, flowing down into rivers and, eventually, the ocean. When this water reaches the ocean, the silicates are replaced by carbon, resulting in a carbon trap and the reduction of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

McElwain and her team hope to replicate this process by adding volcanic ash to crops. As lime is often added to Irish soils, ash could be used to achieve similar results. These crops would break down the silicates, run off into the water and speed up the trapping of carbon. Crop health improves. The climate improves. No large expenses are needed. It is straightforward and effective – at least as a concept.

“We have the theory, but we need to do the experiments and to work out what plants and what level of ash is needed, and how deep to bury the ash,” said McElwain. “We need to work out what combination that will give the maximum amount of carbon taken out of the atmosphere.”

And so, a geochemist, a hydrologist, a plant physiologist and a social scientist walk into a lab. Based near the docks of Dublin, they have six climate control chambers towering three metres high. The chambers are filled with soil and ash. Instruments are fed through to monitor the chemical balance, and measure how different compositions interact with the plants on trial.

‘If we come up with a geoengineering solution, ethically, we may not want to go ahead with it’
– PROF JENNIFER MCELWAIN

Any climate in the world can be brought into the lab inside of these chambers. How plants fare in the American Badlands can be compared to the Irish grasslands. Even the conditions of Mars could be imitated. There is complete control of day-night cycles, heat and humidity. Researchers can investigate how to create the optimum carbon trap. They can observe what the silicates are doing and how ash is affecting the process.

Once these results are in, the team will move to experimental field plots, constantly checking in with both the science and the social side. What are the farming practices currently in place? How would this science impact these practices? Measuring the presence of magnesium in the run-off isn’t enough – the central question is what that magnesium run-off would mean for the land and its people.

Long before the construction of McElwain’s towering climate chambers, she travelled to Sicily in order to see the volcanic ash in its resting place – tales of 2,000-year-old lava versus its older 20,000-year-old sibling. Nestled into this volcanic rock are the plants and ash that could be key to the climate crisis.

“You can read things in a book, but I keep drawing on having been in Sicily with a volcanologist. I’ll read about a particular plant family and my mind will immediately think of seeing that plant on the most extreme slopes of [Mount] Etna, exposed to sulphur and bare ash, no soil. And I’m thinking, my goodness, that plant family – how does it do that? How does it concentrate different heavy metals? How does it survive?”

She added: “I should say first off, the most important step is we stop burning fossil fuels and move towards green energy technology. That is number one, and if we come up with a geoengineering solution, ethically we may not want to go ahead with it.” This may seem like a contradiction given the time, effort and resources put into the work, but it emphases how iCRAG refutes an ivory tower model of science and strives to know how their solutions will affect the real world and its inhabitants.

Marrying the social to the science

Difficult questions like these are the reason Prof Murray Hitzman leads iCRAG. While he would go on to demonstrate a worldwide array of both academic and industry experience in geology,. Hitzman’s initial qualification was a bachelor’s degree in geology and anthropology from Dartmouth College in 1976. His studies of minerals were secondary to his fascination with culture and its evolution. In an effort to go to Guatemala on an underfunded anthropology study, Hitzman agreed to a more readily resourced geology field trip in the same area. And so he studied both – finding more integration and relevance than he expected.

This social science origin is central to iCRAG’s now-core philosophy. The use of minerals and their extraction from the ground has a massive impact on a society and its development. Since its foundation, iCRAG has been reimagined as a group that could lead the way in decarbonisation – a “non-trivial exercise” said Hitzman.

“Most people just think about the energy side, and that’s really complicated. But of all the materials that are needed … we have to rebuild the buildings to make them energy efficient. We have to redo our fleets of transportation to make them run on new types of energy. All these things, the amount of materials we’ll need, is astounding. How do we do that without screwing up the planet? It’s difficult but it’s doable.”

Hitzman described the “perfect electrochemistry” of cobalt that can’t be matched by any of its peers. What was once thought of as an unwanted by-product can now be harnessed to pave the way for renewable energy. His descriptions of sulphur-eating bacteria and their behavioural habits are filled with a deep passion and resonance with his work. Conveying this to politicians and policy-makers is difficult, but he highlighted the importance of bringing this science to life.

Engaging with the Earth

One such example in Ireland is underwater acoustic research. While we may think of Ireland as a landmass, the national border stretches far into the ocean. To map this, a big gun is used to make an airblast (“a big ‘pop’ underwater”) that puts pressure on the bottom of the ocean. This goes into the earth and bounces around. These bounces are measured, and the seabed is mapped.

While these blasts cannot be heard on the surface, there was concern about what the process would do to marine life. The effect of loud acoustics on populations of porpoises, whales and fish was outside the remit of geologists, so iCRAG hired marine biologists to investigate, leading the research to be paused until more is known. Stratification caused by temperature and salinity meant that the sound moves at different velocities. Not only that, but just like on the Earth’s surface, the bottom of the ocean has canyons and mountains and topography. And just as they would above sea level, these valleys echo underwater.

New problems require novel solutions. Rather than disrupting wildlife using traditional methods in the field, iCRAG has instead used the natural sounds of the earth to create similar maps.

As seismic activities and ocean waves generate vibrations, the researchers hone into this ‘heartbeat of the planet’ using sensors in a titanium pressure tube. These sensors are designed to float to the water’s surface once their deployment is finished, allowing them to be collected without disturbing sea life. Named with the help of Irish schoolchildren as part of a public engagement programme, sensors such as Allód, Quakey and Wilson return to the researchers with minimal waste and zero wildlife interference – tapping into the natural world without disrupting it.

‘Science without buy-in from society is meaningless’
– PROF MURRAY HITZMAN

On referencing Annals of the Former World, the Pulitzer Prize-winning work of John McPhee on the geology of North America, Hitzman lights up. He says the author has done colossal amounts for bringing geology to life for the lay public. The idea of preservation versus conservation, and how to extract resources that are necessary for helping the global environment, is central to McPhee’s writings on environmentalist David Brower.

McPhee brought a spark to the topic and a human consideration that Hitzman has integrated into his own approach. Rocks move slowly and people move quickly, but the job of the iCRAG director is to anticipate both and adjust accordingly.

He said, “Science without buy-in from society is meaningless. You have to marry the social science, the psychology and how people behave with the scientific knowledge.” Sometimes, this entails naming titanium ocean sensors in the classroom to bring the research to life. Other times it involves merging ancient resources like volcanic ash with modern farming practice.

All of the work, however, involves recognising the Earth is far from inert and, using geological science, we can meet the needs of both the planet and all those who inhabit it.

By Sam Cox

Sam Cox was named the science and technology winner in the 2020 National Student Media Awards (Smedias). This award category is sponsored by Science Foundation Ireland and includes a €1,000 bursary to support and encourage up-and-coming science and technology journalism.

The 2021 Smedias are now open for entries. The deadline for applications is 15 April 2021.

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Repligen to create 130 new jobs in Waterford site expansion

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The project adds to the 74 people already employed at the Artesyn Biosolutions facility acquired by Repligen in 2020.

Repligen Corporation is undertaking an expansion of its Waterford site which will see 130 new jobs created, Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Leo Varadkar, TD, has announced.

The life sciences company is building a new 3,000 sq m facility which will be a centre of excellence for single-use consumable products used in bioprocessing applications. The site currently hosts a 1,000 sq m facility employing 74 people, which was established by Ireland’s Artesyn Biosolutions before that company was acquired by Repligen last November.

Repligen Corporation is a multinational that produces bioprocessing products for use in the pharmaceutical manufacturing process. Headquartered in Massachusetts, the company has sites across the United States and in Estonia, France, Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands, as well as here in Ireland.

According to the company, the new building will be certified silver on the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system from the US Green Building Council. The consumable products manufactured there will be used in filtration and chromatography systems during the production of vaccines and other biopharmaceutical products.

Commenting on the announcement, Varadkar said: “This is excellent news from Repligen with the creation of 130 new jobs in Waterford. It comes on foot of a major jobs announcement by Bausch and Lomb. Waterford is on the move as a centre for jobs and investment.

“I wish the team the very best with their expansion plans.”

James Bylund, senior vice-president at Repligen, added: “We are thrilled to continue the collaboration with the Irish Government and the IDA that was initiated by the Artesyn team. This build-out is an important step in expanding our capacity and establishing dual manufacturing sites for key single-use consumable products used in manufacture of biological drugs.

“With its LEED Silver designation, the facility is closely aligned with our commitment to responsible growth and sustainability.”

Dr Jonathan Downey, managing director at the Waterford facility, said: “Having delivered beyond our commitment in 2019 to bring new jobs to the region through our development of high-end manufacturing capabilities, we are energised and excited about our integration with Repligen and this next phase of growth.

“In addition to our expansion of Artesyn products, and the transfer of manufacturing of certain of Repligen’s current products to our Irish operations, we expect to be utilising the Irish sites to advance additional research, development and innovation programs.”

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Emmanuel Macron ‘pushes for Israeli inquiry’ into NSO spyware concerns | France

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Emmanuel Macron has reportedly spoken to the Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett, to ensure that the Israeli government is “properly investigating” allegations that the French president could have been targeted with Israeli-made spyware by Morocco’s security services.

In a phone call, Macron expressed concern that his phone and those of most of his cabinet could have been infected with Pegasus, hacking software developed by the Israeli surveillance firm NSO Group, which enables operators of the tool to extract messages, photos and emails, record calls and secretly activate microphones from infected devices.

The leaked database at the heart of the Pegasus project includes Macron’s mobile phone number.

NSO has said Macron was not a “target” of any of its customers, meaning the company denies he was selected for surveillance using Pegasus. The company says that the fact that a number appeared on the list was in no way indicative of whether that number was selected for surveillance using Pegasus.

The Pegasus project could not examine the mobile phones of the leaders and diplomats, and could therefore not confirm whether there had been any attempt to install malware on their phones.

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What is in the Pegasus project data?

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What is in the data leak?

The data leak is a list of more than 50,000 phone numbers that, since 2016, are believed to have been selected as those of people of interest by government clients of NSO Group, which sells surveillance software. The data also contains the time and date that numbers were selected, or entered on to a system. Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based nonprofit journalism organisation, and Amnesty International initially had access to the list and shared access with 16 media organisations including the Guardian. More than 80 journalists have worked together over several months as part of the Pegasus project. Amnesty’s Security Lab, a technical partner on the project, did the forensic analyses.

What does the leak indicate?

The consortium believes the data indicates the potential targets NSO’s government clients identified in advance of possible surveillance. While the data is an indication of intent, the presence of a number in the data does not reveal whether there was an attempt to infect the phone with spyware such as Pegasus, the company’s signature surveillance tool, or whether any attempt succeeded. The presence in the data of a very small number of landlines and US numbers, which NSO says are “technically impossible” to access with its tools, reveals some targets were selected by NSO clients even though they could not be infected with Pegasus. However, forensic examinations of a small sample of mobile phones with numbers on the list found tight correlations between the time and date of a number in the data and the start of Pegasus activity – in some cases as little as a few seconds.

What did forensic analysis reveal?

Amnesty examined 67 smartphones where attacks were suspected. Of those, 23 were successfully infected and 14 showed signs of attempted penetration. For the remaining 30, the tests were inconclusive, in several cases because the handsets had been replaced. Fifteen of the phones were Android devices, none of which showed evidence of successful infection. However, unlike iPhones, phones that use Android do not log the kinds of information required for Amnesty’s detective work. Three Android phones showed signs of targeting, such as Pegasus-linked SMS messages.

Amnesty shared “backup copies” of four iPhones with Citizen Lab, a research group at the University of Toronto that specialises in studying Pegasus, which confirmed that they showed signs of Pegasus infection. Citizen Lab also conducted a peer review of Amnesty’s forensic methods, and found them to be sound.

Which NSO clients were selecting numbers?

While the data is organised into clusters, indicative of individual NSO clients, it does not say which NSO client was responsible for selecting any given number. NSO claims to sell its tools to 60 clients in 40 countries, but refuses to identify them. By closely examining the pattern of targeting by individual clients in the leaked data, media partners were able to identify 10 governments believed to be responsible for selecting the targets: Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Hungary, India, and the United Arab Emirates. Citizen Lab has also found evidence of all 10 being clients of NSO.

What does NSO Group say?

You can read NSO Group’s full statement here. The company has always said it does not have access to the data of its customers’ targets. Through its lawyers, NSO said the consortium had made “incorrect assumptions” about which clients use the company’s technology. It said the 50,000 number was “exaggerated” and that the list could not be a list of numbers “targeted by governments using Pegasus”. The lawyers said NSO had reason to believe the list accessed by the consortium “is not a list of numbers targeted by governments using Pegasus, but instead, may be part of a larger list of numbers that might have been used by NSO Group customers for other purposes”. They said it was a list of numbers that anyone could search on an open source system. After further questions, the lawyers said the consortium was basing its findings “on misleading interpretation of leaked data from accessible and overt basic information, such as HLR Lookup services, which have no bearing on the list of the customers’ targets of Pegasus or any other NSO products … we still do not see any correlation of these lists to anything related to use of NSO Group technologies”. Following publication, they explained that they considered a “target” to be a phone that was the subject of a successful or attempted (but failed) infection by Pegasus, and reiterated that the list of 50,000 phones was too large for it to represent “targets” of Pegasus. They said that the fact that a number appeared on the list was in no way indicative of whether it had been selected for surveillance using Pegasus. 

What is HLR lookup data?

The term HLR, or home location register, refers to a database that is essential to operating mobile phone networks. Such registers keep records on the networks of phone users and their general locations, along with other identifying information that is used routinely in routing calls and texts. Telecoms and surveillance experts say HLR data can sometimes be used in the early phase of a surveillance attempt, when identifying whether it is possible to connect to a phone. The consortium understands NSO clients have the capability through an interface on the Pegasus system to conduct HLR lookup inquiries. It is unclear whether Pegasus operators are required to conduct HRL lookup inquiries via its interface to use its software; an NSO source stressed its clients may have different reasons – unrelated to Pegasus – for conducting HLR lookups via an NSO system.

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The Macron-Bennett phone call reportedly took place on Thursday, but was first reported by Israel’s Channel 12 News on Saturday evening after the end of Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest.

The prime minister’s office has declined to comment on the phone call or the two leaders’ conversation. According to Channel 12, an unnamed source said Bennett had stressed that the alleged events occurred before he took office in May, and that a commission was examining whether rules on Israel’s export of cyberweapons such as Pegasus should be tightened.

The Pegasus project – a consortium of 17 media outlets, including the Guardian – revealed last week that government clients around the world have used the hacking software sold by NSO to target human rights activists, journalists and lawyers.

The investigation has been based on forensic analysis of phones and analysis of a leaked database of 50,000 numbers, including that of Macron and those of heads of state and senior government, diplomatic and military officials, in 34 countries.

In multiple statements, NSO said the fact a number appeared on the leaked list was in no way indicative of whether it was selected for surveillance using Pegasus. “The list is not a list of Pegasus targets or potential targets,” the company said. “The numbers in the list are not related to NSO Group in any way.”

But the list is believed to provide insights into those identified as persons of interest by NSO’s clients. It includes people whose phones showed traces of NSO’s signature phone-hacking spyware, Pegasus, according to forensic analysis of their devices. The analysis was conducted by Amnesty International’s security lab, which discovered traces of Pegasus-related activity on 37 out of 67 phones that it analysed.

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What is the Pegasus project?

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The Pegasus project is a collaborative journalistic investigation into the NSO Group and its clients. The company sells surveillance technology to governments worldwide. Its flagship product is Pegasus, spying software – or spyware – that targets iPhones and Android devices. Once a phone is infected, a Pegasus operator can secretly extract chats, photos, emails and location data, or activate microphones and cameras without a user knowing.

Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based nonprofit journalism organisation, and Amnesty International had access to a leak of more than 50,000 phone numbers selected as targets by clients of NSO since 2016. Access to the data was then shared with the Guardian and 16 other news organisations, including the Washington Post, Le Monde, Die Zeit and Süddeutsche Zeitung. More than 80 journalists have worked collaboratively over several months on the investigation, which was coordinated by Forbidden Stories.

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While the rest of the world grapples with the seismic consequences of the revelations, in Israel reaction has been muted. Meretz, a leftwing party long in opposition but now part of the new government coalition, has asked the defence ministry for “clarification” on the issue, but no party is seeking a freeze of export licences or an inquiry into NSO’s close links to the Israeli state under the tenure of the former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The defence minister, Benny Gantz, has defended export licences for the hacking tools, claiming that “countries that purchase these systems must meet the terms of use”, which are solely for criminal and terrorism investigations.

But as the mammoth impact of the disclosures has become clearer, the diplomatic pressure on Israel is mounting. On Thursday, the senior Israeli MP Ram Ben-Barak – a former deputy head of the Mossad spy agency – confirmed that the Israeli defence establishment had “appointed a review commission made up of a number of groups” to examine whether policy changes were needed regarding sensitive cyber exports.

US defence officials have also asked their Israeli counterparts for more details on the “disturbing” disclosures stemming from the Pegasus project, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported on Saturday.

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Google fixes ‘Chromebork’ one-character code typo that prevented Chrome OS logins • The Register

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Bug of the week Google has fixed a bug in Chrome OS version 91.0.4472.165 that surfaced on Monday and prevented some users from being able to login to their systems.

Chrome OS downloads updates automatically but doesn’t apply them until reboot, so only those who restarted their Chromebooks to ingest the force-fed broken update were affected.

Earlier this week, the internet titan on its Google Workplace status page said, “Our engineering team has identified an issue on Chrome OS 91.0.4472.165. The rollout of this version was halted.”

As a workaround for those bitten by the bug, Google advised users: to “powerwash” their Chrome OS devices back to factory settings; to rollback the Chrome OS device to a previous version via USB; or to remove the affected account and add the account back to the device. All three mitigations, however, clear local data on the device.

The programming blunder consists of a single missing character, an ampersand (&), that was inadvertently omitted from the Chrome OS C++ code. That oversight changed the logical AND operator (&&) in this conditional statement to a bitwise AND (&):

if (key_data_.has_value() && !key_data_->label().empty())

That means, for one thing, both sides of the conditional statement would be evaluated every time, rather than the right-hand-side call to empty() only being made if the left-hand-side has_value() returned true. In any case, omitting the ampersand changed the behavior of Chrome OS’s code.

The typo was committed to the Chrome OS source on July 2, 2021, and didn’t affect anyone until this week. The typo was discussed on Reddit earlier this week.

Google’s patch, Chrome OS 91.0.4472.167, was issued on Wednesday and has been rolling out gradually per Google’s release pattern.

“Affected devices can login via guest mode or an account that hasn’t signed into the device and follow the steps in this [Help Center] article to download the update,” said Google.

This is the second Chrome OS version 91 update to go awry this month. An update to version 91.0.4472.147, issued on June 30, 2021, proved problematic for certain hardware configurations, causing extreme CPU usage. Google undid the offending update about a week ago but the problematic code has yet to be dealt with. ®

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