Category Archives: Inventions

These nanobots powered by magnets can successfully remove water pollutants

Surface water, including lakes, canals, rivers, and streams, is a key resource for agriculture, industries, and domestic households. It’s quite literally essential to human activity. However, it’s also very susceptible to pollution, and cleaning it up is rarely easy. But we may have a new ally in this fight: nanobots.

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.

According to the UN, 90% of sewage in developing countries is dumped untreated into water bodies. Industries are also to blame, as they dispose of between 300 and 400 megatons of polluted water in water bodies every year. Nitrate, used extensively by agriculture, is the most common pollutant currently found in groundwater aquifers.

Once these pollutants enter into surface water, it’s very difficult and costly to remove them through conventional methods, and hence, they tend to remain in the water for a long time. Heavy metals have been detected in fish from rivers, which hold risks to human health. Water pollution can also progress to massive disease outbreaks.

The use of nanotechnology in water treatment has recently gained wide attention and is being actively investigated. In water treatment, nanotechnology has three main applications: remediating and purifying polluted water, detecting pollution, and preventing it. This has led to a big demand lately for nanorobots with high sensitivity

However, there’s a technical challenge. Most nanorobots use catalytic motors, which cause problems during their use. These catalytic motors are easily oxidized, which can restrict the lifespan and efficiency of nanorobots. This is where the new study comes in.

A new type of nanorobot

Martin Pumera, a researcher at the University of Chemistry and Technology in the Czech Republic, and his group of colleagues developed a new type of nanorobots, using a temperature-sensitive polymer material and iron oxide. The polymer acts like small hands that pick up and dispose of the pollutants, while the oxide makes the nanorobots magnetic.

The robots created by Pumera and his team are 200 nanometers wide (300 times thinner than human hair) and are powered by magnetic fields, allowing the researchers to control their movement. Unlike other nanorobots out there, they don’t need any fuel to function and can be used more than one time. This makes them sustainable and cost-effective.

In the study, the researchers showed that the uptake and release of pollutants in the surface water are regulated by temperature. At a low temperature of 5ºC, the robots scattered in the water. But when the temperature was raised to 25ºC they aggregated and trapped any pollutants between them. They can then be removed with the use of a magnet.

The nanorobots could eliminate about 65% of the arsenic in 100 minutes, based on the 10 tests done by the researchers for the study. Pundera told ZME Science that the technology is scalable, which is why with his team he is currently in conversations with wastewater treatment companies, hoping to move the system from bench to proof-of-concept solutions.

The study was published in the journal Nature.

Who invented school?

School is an institution that is hated (especially during exams) by millions of kids around the world — but at the same time billions of adults remember it as the ‘good old days’. For all its good and bad, society as we know it couldn’t exist without schools — and we’re not just talking about the building, we’re talking about the entire system and environment that allows us to pass knowledge to younger generations and prepare them for what’s to come in the real world (at least in theory). But who actually invented school?

Image credits: Max Fischer/pexels

From old school to modern schooling system

Ironically enough, for all the information you can find in schools, no textbook mentions exactly when and how the idea of a school originated. This is mostly because it depends on how exactly you define a school. For instance, in ancient Greece, education was somewhat democratized, and education in a gymnasium school was considered essential for participation in Greek culture, but it was reserved only for boys (and often, not all boys). In ancient Rome, rich children were tutored by private professors, but neither of these is a school in the sense we consider today — public, formal education that is compulsory, open, and available to all — though you could argue that in some sense, school dates from ancient times, and the organized practice of teaching children dates for thousands of years.

Compulsory education was also not an unheard-of concept in ancient times –though it was mostly compulsory for those tied to royal, religious, or military organizations. In fact, Plato’s landmark The Republic, written more than 2,300 years ago, argues in favor of compulsory education, though women and slaves were not truly a part of Greek society.

Much information about schooling is also lost to the shroud of time. For instance, there is some indirect evidence about schools in China existing at least 3,000 years ago, but this comes from “oracle bones” where parents would try to divine whether it was auspicious for their children to go to ‘school’ — and there’s little information about what these schools were like.

It’s not just the Chinese, Greeks, and Romans. The Hindus, for instance, had developed their own schooling system in the form of gurukuls. In 425 AD, the Byzantine empire in Rome came up with the world’s first known primary education system dedicated to educating soldiers enrolled in the Byzantine army so that no person in the army faces problems in communicating and understanding war manuals. Different parts of the world had developed different types of education — some more efficient than others.

In Western Europe (and England, in particular), the church became involved in public education early on, and a significant number of church schools were founded in the Early Middle Ages. The oldest still operating (and continuously operating school) is The King’s School in Canterbury, which dates from the year 597. Several other schools still in operation were founded in the 6th century — though again, you could argue whether they were true schools as they were only open to boys.

Albert Bettannier’s 1887 painting that depicts the scene of an old European school. Image credits: Deutsches Historisches Museum Berlin/Wikimedia Commons

Furthermore, compared to the modern schools, education in the above-mentioned institutes was more focused on religious teachings, language, and low-level or practical skills only. Many of them even used to operate in a single room with no set standards and curriculum, but as humanity progressed ahead people started to realize the need for an organized system to educate the future generations. 

For more than ten centuries, schools maintained the same general profile, focused mostly on a niched set of skills and religious training. In the 9th century, the first university was founded in Fez, Morocco. However, that too was founded as a mosque and focused on religious teachings. The oldest university still in operation, the University of Bologna, in Italy, was founded in 1088. It hired scholars from the city’s pre-existing educational facilities and gave lectures in informal schools called scholae. In addition to religion, the university also taught liberal arts, notarial law, and scrivenery (official writing). The university is notable for also teaching civil law.

However, the university is not necessarily the same as a school — it wasn’t a public “for all” education system, but rather a “school” for the intellectual elite. For schools to truly emerge as we know them today, we have to fast forward a few more centuries.

Compulsory, free education for all

In 1592, a German Duchy called Palatine Zweibrücken became the first territory in the world with compulsory education for girls and boys — a remarkable and often-ignored achievement in the history of education. The duchy was followed in 1598 by Strasbourg, then a free city of the Holy Roman Empire and now part of France. Similar attempts emerged a few decades later in Scotland, although this compulsory education was subject to political and social turmoil.

In the United States — or rather, in the colonies that were to later become the United States — three legislative acts enacted in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1642, 1647, and 1648 mandated that every town having more than 50 families to hire a teacher, and every town of more than 100 families to establish a school.

Prussia, a prominent German state, implemented a compulsory education system in 1763 by royal decree. The Prussian General School Regulation asked for all young citizens, girls and boys, to be educated from age 5 to age 13-14 and to be provided with a basic education on religion, singing, reading, and writing based on a regulated, state-provided curriculum of textbooks. To support this financially, the teachers (often former soldiers) cultivated silkworms to make a living. In nearby Austria, Empress Maria Theresa introduced mandatory primary education in 1774 — and mandatory, systemized education was starting to take shape in Europe. Schools, as we know them today, were becoming a thing.

Meanwhile, the US was having its own educational revolution.

In 1837, a lawyer and educator Horace Mann became the Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education in the newly-formed United States. Mann was a supporter of public schooling and he believed that without a well-educated population political stability and social harmony could not be achieved. So he put forward the idea of a universal public education system for teaching American kids. Mann wanted a system with a set curriculum taught to students in an organized manner by well-trained subject experts. 

Without undervaluing any other human agency, it may be safely affirmed that the Common School…may become the most effective and benignant of all forces of civilization.

Horace Mann, Father of the Common School Movement

Mann employed his “normal school” system in Massachusetts and later other states in the US also started implementing the education reforms that he envisioned. He also managed to convince his colleagues and other modernizers to support his idea of providing government-funded primary education for all. 

Due to his efforts, Massachusetts became the first American state in 1852 to have a mandatory education law, school attendance and elementary education were made compulsory in various states (mandatory education law was enacted in all states of the US by 1917), teacher training programs were launched, and new public schools were being opened in rural areas. 

At the time, when women were not even allowed to attend schools in many parts of the world, Mann advocated the appointment of women as teachers in public schools. Instead of offering religious learning to students, Mann’s normal schools were aimed at teaching them reading, writing, grammar, arithmetic, geography, and history. He believed that school education should not incorporate sectarian instructions, however, for the same reason, some religious leaders and schoolmasters used to criticize Mann for promoting non-sectarian education.

The innovative ideas and reforms introduced by Mann in the 1800s became the foundation of our modern school system. For his valuable contribution in the field of education, historians sometimes credit him as the inventor of the modern school system.

However, as we’ve seen, the history of schools is intricate, complex, and very rich. There is no one “inventor” of school — the process of arriving at the school systems we have today (imperfect as they may be) took thousands of years of progress, which was not always straightforward.

Shocking facts about school education

Now that we’ve looked a bit at the history of the school, let’s see how things are today — and why there’s still plenty of work to be done in schools around the world.

Image credits: Pixabay/pexels
  • A study conducted by the Institute of Education in the UK suggests that quality of primary education is more crucial for an individual’s academic progress, social behavior, and intellectual development as compared to factors including his or her family income, background, and gender. Another study highlights that students who receive good elementary education and have a positive attitude about the significance of their performance in primary and middle school are more likely to earn well and live a better life than others in the future.  
  • A UNESCO report reveals that school education up to nine years of age is compulsory in 155 countries but unfortunately, there are more than 250 million children in the world who are still not able to attend school. 
  • According to International Labour Organization (ILO), due to poverty and lack of educational opportunities, 160 million kids are forced into work across the globe and about 80 million of them work in unhealthy environments. Thousands of such kids are physically and sexually abused, tortured, and are even trained to work under drug mafia, criminal groups, and terrorist organizations. Some studies reveal that child labor is also associated with school dropout in less developed countries. Due to poor financial conditions, many individuals at a young age start giving preference to economic activities and lose interest in costly education opportunities. However, an easily accessible and high-quality school education model that could allow children (from poor families) to pursue education without compromising their financial security can play an important role in eliminating child labor.
  • African nation South Sudan has the lowest literacy rate in the world. Only 8% of females in this country are literate and overall only 27% of its adult population is educated. 98% of the schools that offer elementary education in Sudan do not have an electric power supply and only one-third of such schools have access to safe drinking water. 
  • City Montessori School (CMS) located in Dehradun, India is hailed as the largest school in the world. The CMS campus houses 1,050 classrooms in which more than 50,000 students attend classes every day. 

For Horace Mann, schools were a means to produce good citizens, uphold democratic values and ensure the well-being of society. Though not all schools are able to achieve these goals, the power of school education can be well understood from what famous French poet Victor Hugo once said, “He who opens a school door, closes a prison”.

Flyboard Air from Zapata.

Hoverboards are now real — and the science behind them is dope

What could be the coolest way of going to work you can imagine? Let me help you out. Flying cars — not here yet. Jetpacks — cool, but not enough pizzaz. No, there’s only one correct answer to this question: a hoverboard.

A whole generation of skateboarders and sci-fi enthusiasts (especially Back to the Future fans) have been waiting for a long time to see an actual levitating hoverboard. Well, the wait is over. The future is here. 

Franky Zapata flying on Flyboard Air. Image credits: Zapata/YouTube.

There were rumors in the 90s that claimed hoverboards had been invented but were not made available in the market because some powerful parent groups are against the idea of flying skateboards being used by children. Well, there was little truth to those rumors — hoverboards haven’t been truly developed until very recently. No longer a fictional piece of technology, levitating boards exist for real and there is a lot of science working behind them.

A hoverboard is basically a skateboard without tires that can fly above the ground while carrying a person on it. As the name implies, it’s a board that hovers — crazy, I know.

The earliest mention of a hoverboard is found in Michael K. Joseph’s The Hole in the Zero, a sci-fi novel that was published in the year 1967. However, before Michael Joseph, American aeronautical engineer Charles Zimmerman had also come up with the idea of a flying platform that looked like a large hoverboard.

Zimmerman’s concept later became the inspiration for a small experimental aircraft called Hiller VZ-1 Pawnee. This bizarre levitating platform was developed by Hiller aircraft for the US military, and it also had a successful flight in 1955. However, only six such platforms were built because the army didn’t find them of any use for military operations. Hoverboards were feasible, but it was still too difficult to build them with the day’s technology.

Hoverboards were largely forgotten for decades and seemed to fall out of favor. Then, came Back to the Future.

A page from the book Back to the Future: The Ultimate Visual History. Image credits: /Film

The hoverboard idea gained huge popularity after the release of Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future II in 1989. The film featured a chase sequence in which the lead character Marty McFly is seen flying a pink hoverboard while being followed by a gang of bullies. In the last two decades, many tech companies and experts have attempted to create a flying board that could function like the hoverboard shown in the film.

Funnily enough, Back to the Future II takes place in 2015, and hoverboards were common in the fictional movie. They’re not quite as popular yet, but they’re coming along.

The science behind hoverboards

Real hoverboards work by cleverly exploiting quantum mechanics and magnetic fields. It starts with superconductors — materials that have no electrical resistance and expel magnetic flux fields. Scientists are very excited about superconductors and have been using them in experiments like the Large Hadron Collider.

Because superconductors expel magnetic fields, something weird happens when they interact with magnets. Because magnets must maintain their North-South magnetic field lines, if you place a superconductor on a magnet, it interrupts those field lines, and the magnet lifts the superconductor out of its way, suspending it into the air.

A magnet levitating above a high-temperature superconductor, cooled with liquid nitrogen. Image credits: Mai Linh Doan.

However, there’s a catch: superconductors gain their “superpowers” only at extremely low temperatures, at around -230 degrees Fahrenheit (-145 Celsius) or colder. So real-world hoverboards need to be fueled with supercooled liquid nitrogen around every 30 minutes to maintain their extremely low temperature. 

All existing hoverboards use this approach. While there has been some progress in creating room-temperature superconductors, this technology is not yet ready to be deployed in the real world. But then again, 30 minutes is better than nothing.

Some promising hoverboards and the technology behind them

In 2014, an inventor and entrepreneur Greg Henderson listed a hoverboard prototype Hendo hoverboards on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter. The Hendo hoverboard could fly 2.5 cm above the ground with 300 lb (140 kg) of weight but just like maglev trains, it required a magnetic track made of non-ferromagnetic metals to function. 

The hoverboard followed magnetic levitation, a principle that allows an object to overcome gravitation and stay suspended in the air in the presence of a magnetic field. However, the hoverboard didn’t go into mass production because Henderson used the gadget only as a means to promote his company Arx Pax Labs.

A year later, another inventor (Cătălin Alexandru Duru) developed a drone-like hoverboard prototype (which is registered under the name omni hoverboard) and using the same approach, he set a Guinness World Record for covering maximum distance with an autonomous hoverboard. During his flight, Alexandru covered a distance of about 276 meters and reached a height of 5 meters. 

ARCA CEO Dumitru Popescu controlling his ArcaBoard through body movement. Image Credits: Dragos Muresan/Wikimedia Commons

In 2015, Japanese auto manufacturer Lexus also came up with a cool liquid-nitrogen-filled hoverboard that could levitate when placed on a special magnetic surface. The Lexus hoverboard consists of yttrium barium copper oxide, a superconductor which if cooled down beyond its critical temperature becomes repulsive to magnetic field lines. The superconductor used both quantum levitation (and quantum locking) to make the hoverboard perfectly fly over a magnetic surface.

The same year in December, Romania-based ARCA Space Corporation introduced an electric hoverboard called ArcaBoard. Being able to fly over any terrain and water, this rechargeable hoverboard was marketed as a new mode of personal transportation. The company website mentions that ArcaBoard is powered by 36 in-built electric fans and can be easily controlled either from your smartphone or through the rider’s body movements.   

Components in an ArcaBoard. Image Credits: ARCA

One of the craziest hoverboard designs is Franky Zapata’s Flyboard Air. This hoverboard came into the limelight in the year 2016 when Zapata broke Cătălin Alexandru Duru’s.Guinness World Record by covering a distance of 2,252.4 meters on his Flyboard Air. This powerful hoverboard is capable of flying at a speed of 124 miles per hour (200 km/h), and can reach as high as 3000 meters (9,842 feet) up in the sky. 

Flyboard Air comes equipped with five jet turbines that run on kerosene and has a maximum load capacity of 264.5 lbs (120 kg). At present, it can stay in the air for only 10 minutes but Zapata and his team of engineers are making efforts to improve the design further and make it more efficient. In 2018, his company Z-AIR received a grant worth $1.5 million from the French Armed Forces. The following year, Zapata crossed the English Channel with EZ-Fly, an improved version of Flyboard Air.

While ArcaBoard really went on sale in 2016 at an initial price of $19,900, Lexus Hoverboard and Flyboard Air are still not available for public purchase. However, in a recent interview with DroneDJ, Cătălin Alexandru Duru revealed that he has plans to launch a commercial version of his omni hoverboard in the coming years.

3D-printed components are now in use at US nuclear plant

At the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) Manufacturing Demonstration Facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), two unusual components were assembled — and by assembled, I mean 3D-printed. The two channel fasteners are now in use at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant Unit 2 in Athens, Alabama.

ORNL used novel additive manufacturing techniques to 3D print channel fasteners for Framatome’s boiling water reactor fuel assembly. Four components, like the one shown here, were installed at the TVA Browns Ferry nuclear plant. Credit: Framatome

Not too long ago, 3D-printing was an innovative but still new technology that promised to change the world — at some point in the future. Well, that point in the future has come. Not only is the technology mature enough to be used, but it’s mature enough to be used in a crucial system where failure is simply not acceptable.

“Deploying 3D-printed components in a reactor application is a great milestone,” said ORNL’s Ben Betzler in a recent press release. “It shows that it is possible to deliver qualified components in a highly regulated environment. This program bridges basic and applied science and technology to deliver tangible solutions that show how advanced manufacturing can transform reactor technology and components.”

“ORNL offers everything under one roof: state-of-the-art printing capabilities, world-class expertise in machining, next-generation digital manufacturing technologies, plus comprehensive characterization and testing equipment,” said Ryan Dehoff, ORNL section head for Secure and Digital Manufacturing.

The components are a good fit for the task. The channel fasteners have a relatively simple geometry, which works excellently with an additive manufacturing application (which is what “3D printing” commonly refers to). Fuel channel fasteners have been used for many years in boiling water nuclear reactors. They attach the external fuel channel to the fuel assembly, ensuring that the coolant is restrained around each fuel assembly.


[Also Read: The first ever 3D-printed steel bridge opens in Amsterdam]


Growing up

3D printing has matured dramatically in recent years, and the fact that the nuclear industry is increasingly looking towards it speaks volumes about that.

The components were developed in collaboration with the Tennessee Valley Authority, French nuclear reactor Framatome, and the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy. This was funded by the Transformational Challenge Reactor, or TCR, program based at ORNL.

Currently, the TCR aims to further mature and implement innovative technologies (and algorithms such as artificial intelligence) to its components and projects.

“Collaborating with TVA and ORNL allows us to deploy innovative technologies and explore emerging 3D printing markets that will benefit the nuclear energy industry,” said John Strumpell, manager of North America Fuel R&D at Framatome. “This project provides the foundation for designing and manufacturing a variety of 3D-printed parts that will contribute to creating a clean energy future.”

The change has been made for a couple of months now, and operations at the Browns Ferry plant resumed on April 22, 2021. The components appear to operate as intended, and they will remain in the reactor for six years with regular inspections during this period.

This is just one example of the projects that involve 3D printing for nuclear reactors. ORNL are looking at ways to extend the viability and operations of nuclear plants, while also deploying new components that would make plants more efficient and robust.

3D printing is reshaping what’s possible with nuclear energy, and could very well have an important part to play in our transition towards a sustainable, low-carbon future. At the very least, it’s bound to make nuclear energy cheaper and more competitive with fossil fuels.

“There is a tremendous opportunity for savings,” said John Strumpell, manager of U.S. fuel research and development at Framatome, in a previous press release earlier this year. Indeed, 3D printing seems ready to enter the market.

Scientists develop world’s thinnest technology – only two atoms thick

Researchers at Tel Aviv University have engineered what is currently the single smallest and thinnest piece of technology ever seen, with a thickness of just two atoms. The new invention uses quantum-mechanical electron tunneling, which allows information to travel through the thin film, and is able to store electric information, making it potentially applicable to all sorts of electronic devices.

In a screenshot from video released by Tel Aviv University on June 30, PhD student Maayan Wizner Stern uses tweezers to hold an electronic storage unit that is two-atoms thick. (Screen capture: YouTube)

Moshe Ben Shalom, who was involved in the project, said the research started from the team’s curiosity about the behavior of atoms and electrons in solid materials, which has generated the technology used by many modern devices. They tried to “predict and control” the properties of these particles, he added in a statement. 

“Our research stems from curiosity about the behavior of atoms and electrons in solid materials, which has generated many of the technologies supporting our modern way of life,” says Dr. Ben Shalom. “We (and many other scientists) try to understand, predict, and even control the fascinating properties of these particles as they condense into an ordered structure that we call a crystal. At the heart of the computer, for example, lies a tiny crystalline device designed to switch between two states indicating different responses — “yes” or “no,” “up” or “down” etc. Without this dichotomy — it is not possible to encode and process information. The practical challenge is to find a mechanism that would enable switching in a small, fast, and inexpensive device.

Modern devices have small crystals with a million atoms (one hundred atoms in height, width and thickness). This new development means that the crystals can be reduced to just two atoms thick, allowing the information to flow with greater speed and efficiency — which, if equal or comparable performance can be achieved, would make devices much more efficient.

For the study, the researchers used a two-dimensional material – one-atom-thick layers of boron and nitrogen, arranged in a repetitive hexagonal structure, drawing inspiration from graphene. They could break the symmetry of this crystal by artificially assembling two such layers “despite the strong repulsive force between them” due to their identical charges, Dr. Shalom explained. 

“In its natural three-dimensional state, this material is made up of a large number of layers placed on top of each other, with each layer rotated 180 degrees relative to its neighbors (antiparallel configuration)” said Dr. Shalom in a statement. “In the lab, we were able to artificially stack the layers in a parallel configuration with no rotation.” 

Maayan Wizner Stern, a PhD student who led the study, said the technology could have other applications beyond information storage, including detectors, energy storage and conversion and interaction with light. She hopes miniaturization and flipping through sliding will improve today’s electronic devices and allow new ways of controlling information in future devices. 

The new technology proposes a way for storing electric information in the thinnest unit known to science, in one of the most stable and inert materials in nature, the researchers said. The quantum-mechanical electron tunneling through the atomically thin film could boost the information reading process far beyond current technologies.

Researchers also expect the same approach to work with multiple crystals, potentially offering even more desirable properties. Wizner Stern concludes:

“We expect the same behaviors in many layered crystals with the right symmetry properties. The concept of interlayer sliding as an original and efficient way to control advanced electronic devices is very promising, and we have named it Slide-Tronics.”

The study has been published in the journal Science. 

Ukraine seizes spirit made from apples grown near the Chernobyl nuclear site

Would you drink an “artisanal spirit” made from apples grown near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant? A group of researchers from the United Kingdom has just finished producing the first 1,500 bottles. They assure us the drink is completely safe and radiation-free and hope to get it soon on the UK market.

But there’s a problem. The Ukrainian government just seized it all.

Image credits: Chernobyl Spirit Company

The bottles are now in the hands of prosecutors who are investigating the case. The researchers argue they are wrongly accused of using forged Ukrainian excise stamps.

Atomik!

The Chernobyl Spirit Company aims to produce high-quality spirits made with crops from the nuclear disaster exclusion zone. This is a more than 4,000-square kilometer area around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant that was abandoned due to fears of radioactive contamination after the devastating nuclear accident there in 1986.

The event is considered the world’s worst nuclear disaster and exposed millions of people to dangerous radiation levels in large swathes of Ukraine and neighboring Belarus. Jim Smith, a UK researcher, has spent years studying the transfer of radioactivity to crops within the main exclusion zone, alongside a group of researchers.

They have grown experimental crops to find out if grain, and other food that is grown in the zone, could be used to make products that are safe to consume, hoping to prove that land around the exclusion zone could be put back to productive use. This would allow communities in the area to grow and sell produce, something that’s currently illegal due to fears of spreading radiation.

Image credits: Chernobyl Spirit Company

Smith and his team launched in 2019 the first experimental bottle of “Atomik,” a spirit made from the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Since then, they have been working with the Palinochka Distillery in Ukraine to develop a small-scale experimental production, using apples from the Narodychi District – an inhabited area after the nuclear accident.

“There are radiation hotspots [in the exclusion zone] but for the most part contamination is lower than you’d find in other parts of the world with relatively high natural background radiation,” Smith told the BBC. “The problem for most people who live there is they don’t have the proper diet, good health services, jobs or investment.”

The drink was initially produced using water and grain from the Chernobyl exclusion zone but the researchers have now adjusted the recipe and incorporated the apples. It’s the first consumer product to come from the abandoned area around the damaged nuclear power plant, the argue, excited about the opportunities that it represents.

The aim of selling the drink, Smith explains, is to enable the team to distribute most of the money to local communities. The rest will be reinvested in the business, as Smith hopes to provide the team with an income to work on the project. The most important thing for the area now is economic development, not radioactivity, he argues.

The researchers are now working hard to get the shipment released. Elina Smirnova, the lawyer representing them in court, said in a statement that the seizure was in violation of Ukrainian law, and accused the authorities of targeting “a foreign company which has tried to establish an ethical ‘white’ business to primarily help Ukraine.”

Japanese metallic tail can help keep the elderly upright

It’s not how we imagined our foray into cyborg life, but it’s impressive nonetheless: a research team in Japan has developed an artificial, robotic tail, whose primary goal is to help elderly or impaired people keep their balance, but could ultimately serve multiple purposes.

Image credits: Keio University.

Millions of years after human ancestors lost their tail through evolutionary processes, a team of Japanese researchers wants to bring it back — through science and engineering.

Having a tail can have numerous advantages, particularly when it comes to keeping balance. Fast-running creatures such as cheetahs use it to maintain balance and take curves more efficiently. Some species of climbing monkeys also use it for the same purpose, though in slightly different ways.

However, while having a tail can be an advantage, it can also be a disadvantage and get in the way. Humans lost their tail because it was almost useless for their lifestyles — it simply wasn’t efficient to use resources for a tail, given how few advantages we got from it. We still carry vestigial bones indicating that we once sported such a member.

For a team of researchers in Japan, tails may still have a lot to offer. It’s a simple concept, researchers say.

“The tail keeps balance like a pendulum,” said Junichi Nabeshima, a graduate student and researcher at the university’s Embodied Media Project, demonstrating the robotic device attached to his waist with a harness.“When humans tilt their body one way, the tail moves in the opposite direction.”

Of course, actually bringing the concept to life is a whole different challenge, but so far, results are encouraging.

Dubbed Arque, the one-meter device mimics the tails of animals such as cheetahs, which use their tails to steer and maintain balance while running and climbing. Even though the device’s wearers won’t be running like cheetahs, the principle is quite similar.

The robotic tail uses four artificial muscles and compressed air to move on eight axes. It’s still in the lab for now, as researchers test ways to make it more flexible, reliable, and robust.

As the country grapples with its ever-increasing population age, Japan wants to help keep the elderly active and safe. But in addition to keeping them up and about, developers also say the tool could be used in industrial applications, for instance to balance warehouse workers carrying heavy loads, or ease some of the load off their spine.

“I think it would be nice to incorporate this further developed prosthetic tail into daily life, when one seeks a little more help balancing,” Nabeshima said.

This camera can film 3-D movies at 100 billion frames per second

Researchers at Caltech in the US have figured out how to record videos of light moving in three dimensions for the first time. The camera is capable of shooting videos at up to 100 billion frames per second.

To put that into perspective, the average smartphone is limited to just 60.

A three-dimensional video showing a pulse of laser light passing through a laser-scattering medium and bouncing off reflective surfaces. Credit: Caltech

Researcher Lihon Wang had previously developed technology that can reach blistering speeds of 70 trillion frames per second — fast enough to see light traveling by. But there was a problem with that. Just like the camera in a cell phone, it could only produce flat images.

Now, he decided to take it a step further and move into 3D.

The new device uses the technology that Wang has been exploring for years, and is fast enough to take 100 billion pictures in a single second. If the entire world took as many photos as possible in a single second, we still wouldn’t reach this performance. Wang calls this “single-shot stereo-polarimetric compressed ultrafast photography,” or SP-CUP.

With the CUP technology, all the frames of a video are captured in one action without repeating the event. This makes a CUP camera extremely quick. Now, Wang has added a third dimension to this ultrafast imagery, essentially making the camera “see” just as humans do.

When we look at our surroundings, we perceive that some objects are closer and others are farther away. This is possible because of our two eyes, as each sees objects and their surroundings from a different angle. The information from these two images is combined by the brain into a single 3-D image. The SP-CUP camera works in essentially the same way, Wang added in a press release.

“The camera is stereo now. We have one lens, but it functions as two halves that provide two views with an offset. Two channels mimic our eyes,” Wang said in a statement. Just like the brain does with the signal it gets from the eyes, the computer that runs the camera processed data from the two channels into a 3-d movie.

The camera also has the ability to see the polarization of light waves, something that humans can’t. This refers to the direction in which light waves vibrate as they travel. Ordinary light has waves that vibrate in all directions but polarized light has been altered so all the waves vibrate in the same direction. This has a myriad of scientific applications, the researchers explain, from polarized sunglasses, LCD screens, and camera lenses to optical laboratory measurements.

The camera’s combination of high-speed 3-D imagery and the use of polarization information makes it a powerful tool that may be applicable to a wide variety of scientific problems, Wang said. He hopes it will help researchers better understand the physics of sonoluminescence, a phenomenon in which sound waves create tiny bubbles in water or other liquids.

“Some people consider this one of that greatest mysteries in physics,” Wang said. “When a bubble collapses, its interior reaches such a high temperature that it generates light. The process that makes this happen is very mysterious because it all happens so fast, and we’re wondering if our camera can help us figure it out.”

The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.

Hong Kong researchers say they’ve developed an antiviral coating that lasts for 90 days

The coating has been under development for 10 years, it lasts for 90 days, and a 50 ml bottle would cost around $9.

The antiviral coating could be used on commonly-used surfaces such as elevator buttons, door handles, school benches, or ATMs. Image credits: Jason Dent.

The coating, called MAP-1, can be sprayed on multiple types of surfaces, including surfaces which are often used by the public, such as elevator buttons and handrails, researchers at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) say.

“These places are frequently touched, and, at the same time, serve as a very effective medium for transmission of diseases,” said HKUST Adjunct Professor Joseph Kwan, one of the chief researchers in the team that developed the product.

The coating is non-toxic for humans and the environment and has already been approved for mass consumption. The antiviral coating is expected to hit the shelves next month.

Unlike common disinfectants, this coating lasts for up to 90 days, and MAP-1 is also boosted by heat-sensitive polymers that release disinfectants when touched by humans, Kwan explains.

The coating underwent clinical tests at a Hong Kong hospital and a home for the elderly, where it proved to be efficient.

The coating is already being used against the novel coronavirus. With the help of a local charity, the non-toxic coating was sprayed in the homes of more than a thousand low-income families in the city, to help protect them against COVID-19

“I feel like it has strengthened our protection against the virus,” said Law Ha-yu, a mother of two who lives in a 110-square-foot subdivided unit that was recently sprayed with the coating.

The coating is also not very expensive. Applying the coating at an entire school would cost between HK$20,000 ($2,600) to HK$50,000, depending on the size of the sprayed area. The company also announced that smaller bottles of 50ml and 200ml will be introduced for domestic use, with prices ranging from HK$70-250 — a price that will be accessible to most households.

Hong Kong has been exemplary in its management of the coronavirus situation, completely flattening the curve and reporting only a couple of new cases for the past few days. In total, Hong Kong has had 1,038 infections despite having one of the earliest outbreaks.

Robotaxis, still on the agenda of Tesla for this year

If there’s one thing that usually drives Elon Musk at Tesla, that’s innovation. But sometimes that goes faster than regulatory procedures, as seen now with the plan to launch robotaxi vehicles.

Credit Tesla

Last year, Musk announced a plan to launch one million vehicles for a self-driving ride-sharing network by the end of 2020. It’s an extension of Tesla’s “Full Self-driving Capability” plan to improve its Autopilot system in all its vehicles produced since 2016 — leading to those vehicles being capable of self-driving.

Now, amid the coronavirus outbreak disrupting factories across the globe, Tesla’s CEO said that he still believes in the company’s ability to deliver on the functionality of the robotaxi fleet by the end of the year. Nevertheless, this will depend on regulatory approval, he added.

Tesla currently offers Autopilot, which is a very competent suite of advanced driver assistance systems when appropriately used, but it’s nowhere near capable of “full self-driving” as Tesla likes to call it – something that would come before the end of the year if all goes well.

Since the autopilot system was launched in 2016, there are also quite a few Teslas in the market that don’t have this feature, meaning the company will have to send an over-the-air update with Autopilot to compatible cars. This will then make them capable of running as robotaxis.

Tesla’s aim is to enable owners to add their properly equipped vehicles to its own ride-sharing app, which will have a similar business model to Uber or Airbnb. Tesla will take 25 to 30% of the revenue from those rides, Musk said. In places where there aren’t enough people to share their cars, Tesla would provide a dedicated fleet of robotaxis.

“I feel very confident predicting that there will be autonomous robotaxis from Tesla next year — not in all jurisdictions because we won’t have regulatory approval everywhere” Musk said last year, without detailing what regulations he was referring to.

The US federal government does not have any laws regulating autonomous vehicles. There are only voluntary guidelines. And if the vehicles are not altered in any way on the hardware side — such as removing the steering wheel or pedals, for instance — it’s unclear how the federal government could limit Tesla.

The concept of autonomous vehicles has been around for quite some time with several tech companies including Google, Uber, and even Apple said to be involved with self-driving automobiles. In many cases, ambitious plans for rapid deployment have run into unexpected problems.

A new smart toilet can read your “anal print”

Using built-in technology, a smart toilet is essentially is a device with a diverse range of features that allows interacting with the user, such as a heated seat and automatic dryer. They can be found in smart homes and high-tech regions across the world.

Credit Standford

While the features so far developed might be useful, a group of researchers decided to take this to the next step and develop a proof-of-concept smart toilet module designed to monitor a user’s health based on their urine and stools.

The device would be able to identify users through an anal scan using a camera tucked under the seat before checking their waste for disease markers including early signs of cancer, said the U.S.-led team who developed the prototype.

“Our concept dates back well over 15 years,” said in a statement Sanjiv Sam Gambhir, professor and chair of radiology at Stanford. “When I’d bring it up, people would sort of laugh because it seemed like an interesting idea, but also a bit odd.”

The system mounts on a conventional sit-down toilet and utilizes cameras to measure the user’s feces. At the same time, a pressure sensor built into the toilet seat monitors the bowel movement’s duration. Both of these measures can reveal conditions like chronic constipation and irritable bowel system.

At the same time, users who stand to urinate can have their velocity, flow, and duration measured by camera, while test strips automatically extend into the stream for urinalysis, which can ascertain a variety of chemical levels and tests for numerous substances.

The system then uploads all of the user’s results to a protected cloud. Individual users are identified via a fingerprint scanner embedded in the flush lever as well as by “anal print”. A camera on the toilet module images the user’s anus, allowing an algorithm to link the anus image to a specific person on subsequent use.

“The toilet will ultimately function as the daily clinic for continuous monitoring of human excreta, feeding data into models of human health that can be used for screening and subsequent diagnostics,” the researchers argued

The current module is nowhere close to being in stores as it’s expensive, too inaccurate for everyday use, and unable to provide urinalysis for those who sit to pee. Nevertheless, it’s the first step, as the researchers hope to improve their design in the coming years.

“We aim to include multiple, clinically relevant assays in our system: microfluidics observation of cellular components from urine, physical, quantitative analysis of defecation, and sample-to-answer type biochemical analysis of stool, including genomics and microbiomics,” they argued.

MIT researchers develop smart diaper alert

The Internet of Things (IoT) — a term that encompasses everything “smart” or connected to the internet — has already crept into many aspects of our daily activities.

Now, it’s reached diapers.

Credit MIT

The diaper change — a given of parenthood. Parents must check diapers at all times and change whenever necessary. But that might become a little easier thanks to a new sensor.

MIT researchers want to revolutionize diapers with a curious system of “smart” labels capable of warning caregivers when they detect a certain degree of moisture around them.

The invention is basically an alert system based on a sensor. It yses an absorbent hydrogel capable that changes its electrical conductivity when it gets wet, expanding and allowing a passive radio frequency identification (RFID) tag placed under it to transmit a wireless signal to a reader located within a 1-meter radius.

This RFID signal reader then sends a notice to the parents’ smartphone, letting them know that a diaper change is due.

Simply put, it’s a diaper alarm.

The idea is not new, but unlike previous attempts, it doesn’t require batteries in the RFID transmitter thanks to the hydrogel system. Furthermore, it is much cheaper: according to its creators each sensor would cost about two cents, which would allow them to be easily installed both in diapers as in other household objects to detect humidity. According to the researchers, this is the first-time hydrogel is proved to work as an antenna for moisture sensing in diapers.

Most diapers found now in stores have strips that indicate the level of wetness, changing their color accordingly. To step it up, companies are working to develop new wireless wetness sensors that attach to the diaper with a battery. Such sensors would cost over 40 dollars, much more expensive than the MIT alternative.

The new invention was tested by placing a tag within the bottom layers of a diaper and then wrapping the diaper to a doll – which was filled by saltwater. The dolls were placed at different distances from the RFID reader, proving the sensor activated and communicated with the reader when the diaper was wet. The system seemed to work in all situations, without any noticeable issues.

The sensor developed by MIT may also be helpful to identify health problems like incontinence, they claimed. Nurses at neonatal units looking after many babies at the same time would find it especially useful and It could even be added into adult diapers and not just for babies, they argued.

“Diapers are used not just for babies, but for aging populations, or patients who are bedridden and unable to take care of themselves,” Pankhuri Sen, a research assistant at MIT said in a press release. “It would be convenient in these cases for a caregiver to be notified that a patient, particularly in a multibed hospital, needs changing.”

The research, published in the IEEE Sensors Journal, didn’t address how feasible it would be to recycle a diaper with the new sensors. A whopping 187 billion nappies are thrown away each year, but unlike bottles or cans, they are almost impossible to recycle.

Babies use between 2.500 and 3.000 diapers in just their first year of life, needing them until they are potty trained. Conventional-single use diapers are not biodegradable and are manufactured mainly with plastic-based ingredients. They can take up to 500 years to decompose in a landfill.

Researches have been long looking for alternatives to recycle diapers. For example, in Italy, a pilot plant was set up last year to recover the plastic elements from the diapers. The plant was backed-up by one of the world’s leading producers of disposable diapers.

Flying ‘Robotic pigeon’ brings us closer to bird-like drones

Strong and muscular fliers, pigeons are naturally suited to handle the blowy winds between buildings in large cities. That’s why engineers have now turned to them for inspiration, adding pigeon flight feathers to an airborne robot called PigeonBot.

Credit Standford University.

The robotic pigeon integrates true elements of traditional flying machines with elements of biology. David Lentink and colleagues at Stanford University didn’t try to build a machine to act like a bird, which would have been highly challenging. Instead, they closely studied biological mechanisms to learn how birds fly.

“I really wanted to understand how birds change the shape of their wings,” said David Lentink to Popular Science, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford and a co-author on a new study which was published in the journal Science Robotics.

Credit: Lentink et al.

Lentink and the team studied common pigeons, looking at their skeletons and feathers. They discovered that the birds control the flight through about 40 feathers, using four “wrist” and “finger” joints to steer their movements. With that knowledge, they recreated the same mechanisms but in a drone driven by propellers.

Image credits: Chang et al (2019) / Science Robotics.

The drone’s body is formed by a foam board frame, with an embedded GPS and a remote-control receiver. The maneuverable wings have actual feathers from pigeons attached. Previous prototypes had carbon and glass fiber but were much heavier, something now solved with the new wing design.

The PigeonBot’s flying capabilities are enabled by a propeller, a fuselage, and a tail. It has motors, a pair per each wing, that can adjust each of the artificial wings and the feathers at two different joints. The researchers can use a remote to move the wing and lead to the robot to turn and bank, mimicking a real pigeon.

“We determined that birds can steer using their fingers,” Letnink said. Both birds’ wings and human arms share basic structural similarities, he and his team argued. For example, wings have humerus, radius and ulna bones and at each wingtip, birds have finger-like anatomy that can move 30 degrees.

Developing the PigeonBot had its challenges and lessons learned for the researchers. One discovery was that the robot works best when all the feathers come from the same bird. Also, incorporating them into the machine required maintenance, specifically smoothing the feathers by hand.

There are parallels between the PigeonBot and actual planes. That’s why Letnik believes that airplanes of the future will make use of morphing wings by incorporating lessons from pigeons and other birds. “You won’t see a feathers airplane but you’ll find mart materials in them,” he argued.

Scientists create gold one million times thinner than a fingernail

One million times thinner than a human fingernail — that’s how thin is the new form of gold created by a group of scientists at the University of Leeds. It’s the thinnest unsupported gold ever created.

Credit: Flickr

The material is essentially regarded as 2-D (like graphene) because it comprises just two layers of atoms sitting on top of one another. This form gives the newly discovered gold the potential to be used more efficiently, with wide-scale applications in the medical and electronic industries.

The gold flakes are flexible, which means they could be used in bendable screens, electronic inks and transparent conducting displays, plus tests indicate that the material is 10 times more efficient as a catalytic substrate than the currently used gold nanoparticles.

“This work amounts to a landmark achievement. Not only does it open up the possibility that gold can be used more efficiently in existing technologies, but it is also providing a route which would allow material scientists to develop other 2-D metals,” said Dr. Sunjie Ye, lead author of the paper, published in the journal Advanced Science.

Synthesizing the gold nanosheet takes place in an aqueous solution and starts with chloroauric acid, an inorganic substance that contains gold. It is reduced to its metallic form in the presence of a ‘confinement agent’ – a chemical that encourages the gold to form as a sheet, just two atoms thick.

Because of the gold’s nanoscale dimensions, it appears green in water—and given its shape, the researchers describe it as gold nano-seaweed. Images taken from an electron microscope reveal the way the gold atoms have formed into a highly organized lattice. Other images show gold nano-seaweed that has been artificially colored.

The invention billed as a “landmark achievement” by researchers, also sheds more light on the creation of 2D materials altogether. According to the team, the method used to create the gold “could innovate nanomaterial manufacturing,” and the researchers are now focusing on ways to scale up the process.

Graphene, for example, was the much-lauded poster child of 2D materials when it was created in 2004 — but has faced a number of hurdles in large-scale use. With 2D gold, however, its potential is much clearer, researchers say.

“I think with 2-D gold we have got some very definite ideas about where it could be used, particularly in catalytic reactions and enzymatic reactions,” Professor Stephen Evans, who supervised the research, said. “We know it will be more effective than existing technologies—so we have something that we believe people will be interested in developing with us.”

Sustainable, edible straws made from wild grass are zero-waste alternative

After some Thailand supermarkets used leaves as packaging, south-east Asia is highlighting another innovation that could reduce plastic consumption: grass straws.

All image credits: Ống Hút Cỏ.

Straws might not seem like much, but they’ve become so ubiquitous that they’re posing a serious problem. According to one estimate, the US alone is producing 500 million straws every day, most of which end up in landfills or even worse — the oceans.

The world is starting to take action against plastic straws, with the UK banning plastic straws, and the European Union banning all single-use plastic. But in other parts of the world, action is much slower. With this in mind, Vietnamese entrepreneur Tran Minh Tien started producing straws from sedge grass. Particularly, a species called Lepironia Articulata, locally known as co bang.

Co bang grows naturally and in abundance in the Mekong Delta region in southwestern Vietnam, but Tien is farming it to ensure a steady producing. It’s already hollow, so it kind of naturally works as a straw, but the plant requires some processing for mass production. The plants are cleaned and cut to a fixed size of 20 cm (8 inches). Then, a rod is used to also clean them on the inside, and they are washed and rinsed one more time.

They can be sold “fresh” in this condition, and can be stored for up to two weeks in a refrigerator in airtight bags. But more commonly, the plants are also dried in the sun for three days and then baked in the oven. This way, the straws can be kept for up to six months at room temperature.

In both cases, the straws are also edible and packed in bunches using banana leaves, to avoid using plastic packaging. The straws are also fully biodegradable and compostable.

Currently, a bundle of 100 dry straws costs 100,000 Vietnamese dong ($4.3), and one fresh straw costing 60,000 Vietnamese dong ($2.6). The price is substantially larger than plastic straws, for which a bundle of 100 goes for around $1. It remains to be seen whether the higher price will be a strong disincentive or whether this idea will catch on.

At the moment, these grass straws are currently only available for sale in Vietnam.

Researchers 3D print a miniature heart — using a patient’s own cells

The heart is still too small to be useful, but this represents an important proof of concept, researchers say.

We’ve all seen how 3D printers can be used to produce a wide variety of materials, but human body parts weren’t exactly on the expectation list — and a heart is probably the last thing you’d expect. But in a new study, researchers from Tell Aviv University have done just that: they’ve 3D printed a miniature version of a human heart, using material from a patient.

“It’s completely biocompatible and matches the patient,” said Tal Dvir, the professor who directed the project.This greatly reduces the chances of rejection inside the body,

Dvir and colleagues harvested fatty tissue from a patient, then separated it into cellular and non-cellular components. The cellular components were then reprogrammed into stem cells and subsequently turned into heart tissue cells. The non-cellular cells were also processed and used as a gel that served as the bio-ink for printing.

The process was lengthy. A massive 3D printer sent a small stream of this bio-ink to print, and the cells were then left to mature for another month. For now, the heart is very small and doesn’t “work” — but this is still an important breakthrough. Previously, only simple tissues had been printed.

A simplified diagram of the heart-printing process. Image credits: Tel Aviv University.

“We need to develop the printed heart further,” Dvir said. “The cells need to form a pumping ability; they can currently contract, but we need them to work together. Our hope is that we will succeed and prove our method’s efficacy and usefulness.”

The potential for this invention is tremendous. Cardiovascular diseases are the number one cause of death in industrialized nations, and heart transplants face a number of hurdles, ranging from the lack of donors to challenging surgery and potential rejection. This would not only ensure that there is always a donor (the patient himself) but also eliminate the risk of rejection.

A human-sized heart might take a whole day to print and would require billions of cells, compared to the millions used to print these mini-hearts, Dvir said. This is still just the very first stage of the project, but it’s still a promising one. Even though it will be a long time before functional hearts can be produced thusly, researchers are also considering printing “patches” to address localized heart problems.

“Perhaps by printing patches we can improve or take out diseased areas in the heart and replace them with something that works,” Dvir concluded.

The study “3D Printing of Personalized Thick and Perfusable Cardiac Patches and Hearts” has been published in Advanced Science.

NASA’s new futuristic airplane wing could revolutionize flight

A team of engineers has assembled and tested an innovative new type of wing. The structure, assembled from hundreds of tiny identical pieces, can change shape during flight to help pilots better control planes. The new futuristic wing is lighter, more efficient, and more maneuverable than currently existing wings.

Image credits: Eli Gershenfeld, NASA Ames Research Center.

It’s remarkable that our technology has developed so much that we take flying for granted. A dream for countless human generations across history, flying has become routine in our modern world. Nonetheless, modern aircraft are tremendously complex machines. Now, NASA wants to make them even more impressive, by taking wing design to the next level.

Flying involves several stages: takeoff, cruising, maneuvring, landing, and so on — each of which has its own optimal wing parameters. In order to be able to perform all these stages effectively, conventional wings compromise and sacrifice efficiency.

Furthermore, conventional wings require movable fin-like surfaces (called ailerons), which allow pilots to control the plane — if you’ve ever traveled on the window seat right above the wings, you’ve probably seen them. These ailerons reduce wing efficiency even more.

Engineers now believe they can address both issues by having a wing that shifts and deforms in its entirety based on temporary requirements.

Image credits: Kenny Cheung, NASA Ames Research Center.

The new wing features a radically different design, consisting of hundreds of tiny identical pieces. These pieces are huddled inside the wing, in an open, lightweight lattice framework, and this whole structure is covered with a thin layer of polymer material. It’s far lighter than conventional wings, which means that it uses less energy.

But the key aspect is that this flexible design allows it to morph into different shapes based on whatever the plane is doing (taking off, landing, etc). It’s a self-adjusting, wing-reconfiguration system.

While the prototype was hand-built by a team of graduate students (how would anything in science get done without graduate students?), the whole thing can be built using 3D printing and robotic assembly, meaning it is very scalable. This process is currently being documented in an upcoming paper.

Image credits: Credit: Kenny Cheung, NASA Ames Research Center.

As a comparison, the new wing lattice has a density of 5.6 kilograms per cubic meter. By comparison, rubber, which has a similar stiffness, has a density of 1,500 kilograms per cubic meter.

The wing was tested at NASA’s high-speed wind tunnel at Langley Research Center, where it performed even a bit better than predicted.

 

In addition to planes, this technology could also be used in wind turbine blades spacecraft, and even bridges. It’s without a doubt one of the most promising technologies of the year.

Chip combining CRISPR and graphene can detect genetic mutations in minutes

Two of the most promising novel techniques have been used together with remarkable results. US researchers have combined CRISPR with electronic transistors made from graphene to create a new hand-held device that can detect specific genetic mutations in a matter of minutes.

“We have developed the first transistor that uses CRISPR to search your genome for potential mutations,” said Kiana Aran, an assistant professor at KGI who conceived of the technology while a postdoctoral scholar in UC Berkeley bioengineering professor Irina Conboy’s lab. “You just put your purified DNA sample on the chip, allow CRISPR to do the search and the graphene transistor reports the result of this search in minutes.”

The novel system immobilizes the CRISPR complexes on the surface of graphene-based transistors. These complexes search a genome to find their target sequence and, if the search is successful, bind to its DNA. This binding changes the conductivity of the graphene material in the transistor, which picks the change and relays it to a handheld reader. Image credits: Keck Graduate Institute (KGI).

Genetic scissors

Genetic analysis has developed tremendously in recent years. Not only has it become a relatively common scientific and medical practice, but commercial companies are even offering genetic tests readily available to customers. Over 20 million have already reportedly taken at-home genetic tests.

When these tests are looking for genetic mutations, they “amplify” the DNA segment of interest millions of times to have a better look at it. This process (called polymerase chain reaction or PCR) is time and equipment-intensive, which means that samples have to be sent to a lab and subjected to analysis by expensive and delicate equipment. This is where CRISPR and graphene enter the scene.

The CRISPR-Cas9 system brought in an unprecedented precision, allowing researchers to snip threads of DNA at very precise locations — something often called “genetic scissors.”

“CRISPR-Chip has the benefit that it is really point of care, it is one of the few things where you could really do it at the bedside if you had a good DNA sample,” said Niren Murthy, professor of bioengineering at UC Berkeley and co-author of the paper. “Ultimately, you just need to take a person’s cells, extract the DNA and mix it with the CRISPR-Chip and you will be able to tell if a certain DNA sequence is there or not. That could potentially lead to a true bedside assay for DNA.”

But in order for it to work its magic, the Cas9 protein needs to first locate the spots it needs to cut. Graphene, a single atomic layer of carbon, is extremely electrically sensitive and small enough for this type of application. Researchers attached a deactivated Cas9 protein (one which finds the targeted DNA segment, but doesn’t cut it) and tethered it to transistors made of graphene. When the protein finds the spot, it binds to it and triggers a change in the electrical conductance of the graphene. In turn, this changes the characteristics of the transistors, and this change can be detected with a hand-held device. Ultimately, this allows the detection of genetic mutations within minutes, using relatively simple equipment, in less than an hour.

“Graphene’s super-sensitivity enabled us to detect the DNA searching activities of CRISPR,” Aran said. “CRISPR brought the selectivity, graphene transistors brought the sensitivity and, together, we were able to do this PCR-free or amplification-free detection.”

The handheld device. Image credits: Keck Graduate Institute.

To demonstrate the equipment’s potential, researchers analyzed blood samples from patients suffering from Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD). DMD is a genetic disorder characterized by progressive muscle degeneration and weakness — one of nine known types of muscular dystrophy. Diseases such as DMD are thought to be caused by mutations throughout the dystrophin gene — but this is one of the longest in the human genome and spotting mutations can be costly and time-consuming using PCR-based genetic testing. This is where the novel CRISPR/graphene technology can make a huge difference.

“As a practice right now, boys who have DMD are typically not screened until we know that something is wrong, and then they undergo a genetic confirmation,” said Conboy, who is also working on CRISPR-based treatments for DMD.

“With a digital device, you could design guide RNAs throughout the whole dystrophin gene, and then you could just screen the entire sequence of the gene in a matter of hours. You could screen parents, or even newborns, for the presence or absence of dystrophin mutations — and then, if the mutation is found, therapy could be started early, before the disease has actually developed.”

Researchers also say that things can be scaled up to the point where a handheld device would scan for multiple genetic disorders at the same time. Rapid genetic testing could also be used to help doctors develop individualized treatment plans for their patients, Murthy said. For example, genetic variations make some people unresponsive to expensive blood thinners, like Plavix.

Rapid genetic testing could also be used to help doctors develop individualized treatment plans for their patients, Murthy said. For example, genetic variations make some people unresponsive to expensive blood thinners, like Plavix.

“If you have certain mutations or certain DNA sequences, that will very accurately predict how you will respond to certain drugs,” Murthy concludes.

The study has been published in nature biomedical engineering

Steam Power Might Help in Space Exploration

WINE prototype. Credit: HONEYBEEROBOTICS LTD.

WINE prototype. Credit: HONEYBEEROBOTICS LTD.

A vast array of gas fuels have been used in the launching and transportation of spacecraft with liquid hydrogen and oxygen among them. Other spacecraft rely heavily on solar power to sustain their functionality once they have entered outer space. But now steam-powered vessels are being developed, and they are working efficiently as well.

People have been experimenting with this sort of technology since 1698, some decades before the American Revolution. Steam power has allowed humanity to run various modes of transportation such as steam locomotives and steamboats which were perfected and propagated in the early 1800s. In the century prior to the car and the plane, steam power revolutionized the way people traveled.

Now, in the 21st century, it is revolutionizing the way in which man, via probing instruments, explores the cosmos. The private company Honeybee Robotics, responsible for robotics being employed in fields including medical and militaristic, has developed WINE (World Is Not Enough). The project has received funding from NASA under its Small Business Technology Transfer program.

The spacecraft is intended to be capable of drilling into an asteroid’s surface, collecting water, and using it to generate steam to propel it toward its next destination. Late in 2018, WINE’s abilities were put to the test in a vacuum tank filled with simulated asteroid soil. The prototype mined water from the soil and used it to generate steam to propel it. Its drilling capabilities have also been proven in an artificial environment. To heat the water, WINE would use solar panels or a small radioisotopic decay unit.

“We could potentially use this technology to hop on the moon, Ceres, Europa, Titan, Pluto, the poles of Mercury, asteroids — anywhere there is water and sufficiently low gravity,” The University of Central Florida’s planetary researcher Phil Metzger stated.

Without having to carry a large amount of fuel and assumably having unlimited resources for acquiring its energy, WINE and its future successors might be able to continue their missions indefinitely. Similar technology might even be employed in transporting human space travelers.

Mermaids offer a rare view of our oceans’ subsurface

In this case, however, MERMAIDS are seismic sensors, deployed around the world’s oceans.

Floating seismometers dubbed MERMAIDs — Mobile Earthquake Recording in Marine Areas by Independent Divers — reveal that Galapagos volcanoes are fed by a mantle plume reaching 1,900 km deep. This photo shows one rising to the surface. Image credits: Yann Hello, University of Nice.

Most of what we know about the Earth’s inside comes from seismic studies. Just like a doctor analyzes your body using ultrasound, seismic stations can pick up waves from earthquake to image the interior of the planet or deduce some of its characteristics. The problem, however, is that most of our planet is covered in water — and we don’t have too many seismic stations in water.

“Imagine a radiologist forced to work with a CAT scanner that is missing two-thirds of its necessary sensors,” said Frederik Simons, a professor of geosciences at Princeton. “Two-thirds is the fraction of the Earth that is covered by oceans and therefore lacking seismic recording stations. Such is the situation faced by seismologists attempting to sharpen their images of the inside of our planet.”

With this in mind, Simons and Guust Nolet (now Professor of Geoscience and Geological Engineering) developed a new type of seismic sensor: a hydrophone. The hydrophone’s earthy cousin, the geophone, is routinely used in surveys to detect subsurface resource. Both types of sensors are essentially a very precise microphone, capable of picking up the sounds of distant earthquakes — or to be more technical, to pick up acoustic energy from earthquakes. The resulting hydrophone was fitted with a GPS and sensors for temperature and water salinity and was mounted on a platform called a MERMAID (Mobile Earthquake Recording in Marine Areas by Independent Divers).

MERMAIDs can dive down to depths as large as 3,000 m and are easily launched from even commercial or amateur vessels. They drift passively, usually at around 1,500 m deep, and whenever they detect an earthquake, they quickly rise to the surface to accurately gather GPS data and transmit data via satellite. They are currently the first marine instruments capable of transmitting seismic data in (almost) real time.

A bathymetric map of the Galápagos hotspot
region. Yellow dots show the location of MERMAIDs when the earthquakes were recorded. Image credits: Nolet et al.

The first fleet was launched in 2017 and now, an international team of researchers has presented the first scientific results.

For starters, MERMAIDs are useful to help scientists monitor abyssal currents — but that’s not even their main function. A more striking find is that the volcanoes on the Galápagos are fed by a so-called mantle plume: a magmatic source 1,200 miles (1,900 km) deep, connected to the surface volcanoes via a narrow conduit that is bringing hot rock to the surface.

These mantle plumes were first proposed in the 1970s as an important part of plate tectonics. Their existence has been confirmed in the meantime, but they have largely resisted attempts at seismic imaging because they are found in oceans, far away from seismic stations. The existence of this mantle plume was also indicated by abnormally high water temperatures.

In addition to filling in some missing puzzle pieces, the MERMAID network could also help geophysicists settle a long-lasting mystery about the Earth, which (thankfully) refuses to cool down.

“Since the 19th century, when Lord Kelvin predicted that Earth should cool to be a dead planet within a hundred million years, geophysicists have struggled with the mystery that the Earth has kept a fairly constant temperature over more than 4.5 billion years,” Nolet explained. “It could have done so only if some of the original heat from its accretion, and that created since by radioactive minerals, could stay locked inside the lower mantle. But most models of the Earth predict that the mantle should be convecting vigorously and releasing this heat much more quickly. These results of the Galápagos experiment point to an alternative explanation: the lower mantle may well resist convection, and instead only bring heat to the surface in the form of mantle plumes such as the ones creating Galápagos and Hawaii.”

The paper, “Imaging the Galápagos mantle plume with an unconventional application of floating seismometers,” by Nolet et al., has been published in Scientific Reports. doi: 10.1038/s41598-018-36835-w.