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Chilean Scientists Produce Biodiesel From Microalgae

Biodiesel made from microalgae could power buses and trucks and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 80 percent, Chilean scientists said, possibly curbing pollution in contaminated cities like Santiago.

Experts from the department of Chemical Engineering and Bioprocesses at Chile’s Catholic University said they had grown enough algae to fragment it and extract the oil which, after removing moisture and debris, can be converted into biofuel.

“What is new about our process is the intent to produce this fuel from microalgae, which are microorganisms,” researcher Carlos Saez told Reuters.

Most of the world’s biodiesel, which reduces dependence on petroleum, is derived from soybean oil. It can also be made from animal fat, canola or palm oil.

Saez said a main challenge going forward would be to produce a sufficient volume of microalgae. A wide variety of fresh and salt water algaes are found in Chile, a South American nation with a long Pacific coast.

The scientists are trying to improve algae growing technology to ramp up production at a low cost using limited energy, Saez said.

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Thailand, China to Sign $5 Billion Rail Infrastructure Agreement

In a major boost to Thailand’s transportation infrastructure, the military government is set to sign a more than $5 billion agreement with China for a high-speed rail network.

The first stage of the rail, the 252 kilometers from Bangkok to Nakhon Ratchasima, is a key step in a line that, once complete, will stretch more than 1,260 kilometers to Kunming, in China’s Yunnan province. The next stages will reach the Thai border with Laos. 

Analysts see the rail line as an extension of China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, expanding regional trade and investment. The project also highlights China’s growing regional influence.

The agreement, expected to be signed in July, follows almost two years of delays in negotiations, with final details of the contract still to be made public.

The deal has also raised widespread criticism of the government’s use of powerful clauses in an interim charter.

Economic boost for Thailand

Economists say investment in Thailand’s rail infrastructure needs to be a priority.

Pavida Pananond, an associate professor of business studies at Thammasat University, said general improvements to Thailand’s transportation network are welcome.

Several other countries, including Japan and South Korea, have put forward transportation plans and proposals for rail systems in recent years.

“It’s good for Thailand and it’s good for Thai business. I would say a clear ‘yes’ because Thailand is in dire need of better infrastructure, especially with regard to transport,” Pavida said.

Thailand, she said, faces high transportation logistics costs due to a reliance on roads.

Talks surrounding the Sino-Thai rail agreement have been bogged down for over two years due to disputes over land access to China, debate over interest charges on loans from Chinese banks, and the eligibility of Chinese engineers and architects to work on the project.

Professor of economics Somphob Manarangsan said the rail project offers the region significant economic potential and a boost in Chinese foreign direct investment.

He said Thailand is also looking to China to invest in the government-backed Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) that is targeting regional foreign investment.

“Thailand wants them [China] to move their regional supply chain outside of China to the mainland of ASEAN [Association of South East Asian Nations] area, which has Thailand at the hub, connecting to CLMV [Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam],” he told VOA.

The rail network includes a 410-kilometer section through Laos, in which China is contributing 70 percent of the total $5.8 billion cost. Laos sees the rail line as vital to enable it to export goods to the Thai seaport of Laem Chabang, near Bangkok.

Special powers raise concern

But the project has come under increasing criticism in Thailand after the military government, in power since May 2014, insisted on using powers under Section 44 of the interim charter that give the government absolute authority in policy application.

The government claims the use of the special power was to ensure Chinese investment, expertise, technology and equipment.

Former army chief and Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha told local media the use of the charter powers was to clear legal hurdles in the Thai-Sino rail project, “not a special favor to China but to Thailand’s benefit.”

But the use of the laws was challenged by organizations of Thai professional engineers and architects who said Chinese engineers were not registered to work in Thailand.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, in a commentary, said Thailand should press for open bidding on the project to ensure the country ended up with the “best bid with the best value.”

“Instead, opting for the Chinese plan is poised to violate a slew of Thai laws and undermine the government’s own good governance agenda,” Thitinan said.

Besides exemptions to Chinese engineers and architects working on the project, the charter articles also exempt state procurement laws and environmental regulations covering forest reserves, which will be set aside for the line’s construction.

Thammasat University’s Pavida said other concerns include levels of transparency on the agreement.

“People don’t know the details. People haven’t seen much information on the potential benefit, and partly, this is because the feasibility study has been done by the Chinese,” she said.

“So, if you look at that and the Chinese try to sell their technology and then we let them do the feasibility study, so they would say, ‘yes, it is feasible.’ So that’s one of the reasons why people do not have trust in the rush into this,” she said.

Analysts said the government’s push to sign an agreement comes as Thai’s Prayut is due to visit China in September to attend meetings of the BRICS — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — forum in Xiamen.

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India to Rollout Momentous Tax Reform, But Many Fear Rocky Transition

India is set to rollout a momentous tax reform at midnight Friday that will transform the country of 1.3 billion people into a single market.

The Goods and Services Tax (GST) will replace an entanglement of more than a dozen confusing levies with a single tax and bring down barriers between states.

But the transition is bringing upheaval. The new tax has sparked strikes, protests and concerns it could disrupt many businesses unprepared for a leap into the digital economy.

In markets across the country, confusion and chaos prevail among millions of small shopkeepers and traders, who have for decades maintained records in dusty ledgers and issued paper receipts to customers. Some are hurriedly investing in computers as new rules require all but the smallest businesses to submit online taxes every month.

Calculator to computer

Suresh Kumar, who runs a family owned store in a bustling neighborhood market in New Delhi, has never operated a computer and does not have an Internet connection in his shop. His customers mostly pay in cash and a calculator on his counter is the only modern gadget he has used since he opened this shop 47 years ago.

“How will I pay the salary of an accountant? I can barely cover the costs of these three men who help me,” Kumar said, pointing out that stores like his run on wafer-thin profit margins to stay in business.

The archaic accounting systems that were the method of operation of thousands of shops and traders also kept them out of the formal economy.

But as GST draws them into the tax net, government revenues are expected to get a huge boost in a country where tax compliance has been very low.

​Growing pains

The government agrees there will be growing pains due to the scale of the task ahead but points to long-term advantages. Over time, the new tax is expected to add about 2 percent to gross domestic output and vastly improve business efficiencies in the world’s fastest growing economy.

Economists say the GST will be a benefit for manufacturers, because it will free up domestic trade by cutting through a gigantic bureaucracy that involved a myriad of tax inspectors and checkpoints at state borders.

At the moment, trucks transporting goods lose an estimated 60 percent of transit time as they wait at state borders. Paying bribes was a fact of life accepted by businesses.

The tax will also make India’s $2 trillion economy more attractive to investors as it makes the economy more transparent.

More time needed

But in recent weeks many businesses have called for a postponement of the July 1 rollout, saying they did not get enough time to prepare.

K.E. Raghunathan, president of the All India Manufacturers Organization, said businesses need more time to adjust.

“The way it is being implemented, it is bound to create lots of chaotic conditions,” he said.

Underlining concerns of millions of small and medium manufacturers, he said, “they neither have the wherewithal to understand the sudden implementation and if they approach chartered accountants or consultants, it costs lots of money.”

A big concern is that the GST being rolled out by India is far more complex than that introduced by other countries where a single rate prevails. There will be four layers of taxation with rates of 5, 12, 18 and 28 percent.

Manufacturers and traders complain the different levels are creating confusion.

More than 50,000 textile traders went on strike this week. Thousands of other traders shut businesses Friday.

Many big and small retailers worried about the switchover have been offering massive discount sales across the country to get rid of their inventories.

Government pushes ahead

But the government has brushed aside concerns about businesses not being prepared for the switchover. 

“If he is still not ready, then I am afraid he does not want to be ready,” said Finance Minister Arun Jaitley recently as he rejected calls for a delay of the rollout.

Businesses say the tax rollout is the second disruption they have faced, coming months after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s radical move to scrap 86 percent of the country’s currency, which slowed the economy.

As customers pour into his shop to buy stationery and other items, New Delhi shopkeeper Vimal Jain wonders whether he will handle customers or enter transactions in a computer starting Saturday. 

“Now this is another headache,” he said. “We had barely begun to recover from demonetization and now this sword hangs over our head.”

The tax will be ushered in at a grand midnight ceremony in parliament, but even that has become contentious. Calling it a “publicity stunt,” the main opposition Congress Party and several other parties have said they will boycott the special session.

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In the Age of Smart Devices, How to Protect Yourself from Surveillance, Abuse?

As technology has become part of our daily life, it’s increasingly been used to intimidate victims of domestic violence. In Australia, an organization is helping victims discover smart devices abusers might be using to invade their privacy and control them from afar. As Faiza Elmasry has the story. VOA’s Faith Lapidus narrates.

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Experiencing Hurricane-Force Wind

The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season has arrived. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says there’s a 45 percent chance that this year’s activity will be above normal, with up to four major hurricanes. VOA’s George Putic visited the wind tunnel at the nearby University of Maryland to experience the hurricane-strength wind and check out the latest in the science of predicting the stormy weather.

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US Growth in First Quarter Better Than Expected, Global Outlook Improves

U.S. economic growth in the first quarter of 2017 was better than expected but not by much. The Commerce Department says U.S. GDP, the broadest measure of goods and services produced in the country, grew 1.4 percent from January to March, 0.2 percent faster than the previous estimate. But many analysts believe U.S. growth will improve in the second quarter. And growth prospects for the global economy are the best they’ve been in six years. Mil Arcega has more.

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Preterm Births in US Increase for a Second Year 

New government data show the health of pregnant women and babies in the U.S. is getting worse, and a report by the National Center for Health Statistics shows the number of babies born prematurely has been increasing since 2014.

Preterm American births increased in 2016 and 2015 after seven years of steady declines. Prematurity rose by 2 percent in 2016 and by 1.6 percent the year before.

Stacey Stewart, president of the March of Dimes, a nonprofit U.S. group that works to eliminate prematurity and birth defects, called the increase “an alarming indication that the health of pregnant women and babies in our country is heading in the wrong direction.”

Expand health care

Stewart called on Washington to expand access to quality prenatal care and promote proven ways to help reduce the risk of preterm birth. Noting that the U.S. Senate is considering a health care bill that many Americans believe would reduce health benefits for poor families and change coverage for maternity and newborn care, Stewart said now “is not the time to make it harder for women to get the care they need to have healthy pregnancies and healthy babies.”

In the U.S., about 400,000 babies born each year before the 37th week of pregnancy are considered preterm. No one knows all the causes of prematurity, but researchers have discovered that even late-term “preemies” face developmental challenges that full-term babies do not. Several studies show that health problems related to preterm births persist through adult life, problems such as chronic lung disease, developmental handicaps and vision and hearing losses.

African-American rates

Research also shows that African-American women are 48 percent more likely to bear a child prematurely than all other women. And African-American infants born with birth defects are much more likely to face severe outcomes, compared to other U.S. newborns.

African-American women in general are worse off than low-income white women, Stewart said.

“We want to make sure that all babies have access to opportunities to be delivered at full term,” she told VOA, “that mothers have the opportunity to have healthy pregnancies and deliver their babies full term, and we know we must do a much better job in African-American and Hispanic communities and in other communities of color,” to make sure that solutions are available.

The report from the National Center for Health Statistics, which is part of the government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, shows that preterm rates rose in 17 of the 50 U.S. states, and that none reported a decline.

The incidence of low birth weight, a risk factor for some serious health problems, also rose for a second straight year in 2016. Again, rates of low birth weight babies were higher for African-Americans than for other racial groups.

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Simple Malaria Intervention in African Schools Leads to Big Improvement in Students’ Performance

New research suggests that the ability of children in Africa to perform well in school could be dramatically improved through basic malaria education and treatment. While less fatal among older children, malaria infections often reduce a child’s ability to concentrate, as Henry Ridgwell reports.

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