Innovation & Technology Weekly Roundup

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This week's headlines:

Chinese DNA experiment ignites ethical controversy
April 24, 2015

Biologists in China have carried out the first experiment to alter the DNA of human embryos, igniting an outcry from scientists who warn against altering the human genome in a way that could last for generations. The experiment used a controversial technique called CRISPR/Cas9, and represents a biological version of the 'find and replace' function on a word processing program.

Scientists introduced enzymes that first bind to a mutated gene, such as one associated with disease, and then replace or repair it. The team from Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou experimented on 86 one-cell human embryos, all from fertility clinics, that because of chromosomal defects were unable to develop into a baby. Their target was a gene called HBB, which can cause the blood disease beta thalassemia.

About a dozen embryos did not even survive the genome-editing and of the surviving embryos, many showed 'off-target' effects meaning genes other than HBB were altered. Other embryos suffered 'untoward mutations' and only a handful of embryos contained the healthy DNA meant to repair the defective HBB genes.

Scientists warn that altering the DNA of human sperm, eggs, or embryos could produce unknown effects on future generations, since the changes are passed on to offspring. They distinguish this type of so-called germ line engineering from that which alters the DNA of non-reproductive cells to repair diseased genes.

A call for a global moratorium on such experiments was delivered last month by Chief executive of California-based Sangamo BioSciences, Edward Lanphier, and part of a group of scientists. Mr Lanphier said there have been 'persistent rumours' of this kind of research taking place in China and this paper 'takes it out of the hypothetical and into the real'.

Full story: ABC News / Reuters Back to top

Carbon dioxide could be turned into a huge underground battery
April 20, 2015

What if we transformed CO2 from being a waste product into being a huge battery to help even out our energy supply? We could make carbon storage pay off, while solving problems of intermittent energy supply from renewables. A design by researchers from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory would be able to store the excess energy produced by renewable and conventional power sources when demand is low and, at the same time, lock up the major cause of global warming – CO2.

The team proposes storing that excess energy in two forms: pressure and heat. Excess electricity would power a pump that injects supercritical CO2 – a hybrid state of liquid and gas – into underground brine in sedimentary rocks between 1 and 5 kilometres below the surface. Supercritical CO2 can drive turbines much more efficiently than steam and can take a lot of squeezing and heating – improving its capacity to store energy.

Another set of pipes tap into the brine in the sedimentary rocks. As the CO2 is pumped in, it will displace some brine, which is collected at the surface. Surplus energy can also be used to heat the brine and circulate it down into the deep rocks, which are able to store the heat effectively.

When the heated brine comes into contact with the CO2, it causes it to expand, thereby increasing the pressure of the stored CO2. The heat energy can be gathered by allowing the CO2 to depressurise, spinning supercritical CO2 turbines, which are 50% more efficient than the steam equivalent. The team's modelling suggests that the system could regather up to 96% of the heat stored.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Free home heating offered by e-Radiators
April 21, 2015

A Dutch energy firm is trailing a scheme that offers both the promise of free energy to home-owners and a cheap alternative to large data centres for computing firms.

Dutch start-up Nerdalize has teamed up with energy providers Eneco to launch its e-Radiator prototype, which is being tested in five Dutch homes as an alternative heating device. The e-Radiator is a computer server that crunches numbers for a variety of Belgian firms - while the resultant heat will heat the rooms in which they are situated. Nerdalize believes the scheme could be a commercially viable alternative to traditional radiators. Nerdalize's founders thought up the scheme after crowding around a laptop to keep warm after a home thermostat broke.

The e-Radiators stored in the test homes are being used to run complex calculations and other computer-intensive jobs for an array of companies and research institutions. Nerdalize will pay the bill for powering the radiators, allowing Eneco customers to stay warm for free. Nerdalize say that the scheme is also environmentally friendly, because energy is effectively used twice in the new system.

In addition to saving money by negating the need for large data centres, large computer firms will also benefit from no longer needing to use energy to cool the servers down.

The trial will be monitored throughout the year, and once completed the companies will decide whether to extend the system.

Full story: Reuters Back to top

World’s most powerful telescope set to launch in 2018
April 23, 2015

NASA is building the biggest telescope the world has ever seen, and it will give scientists the opportunity to 'see' cosmic events that occurred 13.5 billion years ago - just 220 million years following the Big Bang. Named the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), it will be 100 times more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope, and is tipped to be fully operational within the next three years.

The JWST includes a mirror 6.5 metres in diameter, which is three times the size of Hubble’s mirror, and it will have 70 times its light-gathering capacity. It will include four cameras and spectrometers, the latter of which is designed to take in light, break it down into its spectral components, and digitise the signal as a function of a wavelength for scientists to interpret.

Unlike Hubble, which has spent the last 25 years orbiting Earth, the James Webb Space Telescope will go all the way out to one of the Lagrangian points - a set of five equilibrium points in every Earth-Moon System - 1.5 million kilometres away. This will keep it far enough away from the Sun so it’s not too hot, and will shelter it from radiation and prevent it from being blinded by its own infra-red light. The telescope is expected to launch in October 2018.

Full story: Science Alert Back to top

Space debris to be wiped clear using lasers
April 19, 2015

According to NASA, there are up to 500,000 pieces of debris of different sizes, currently orbiting Earth. This space debris is a collection of defunct parts of old satellites, rockets and spacecraft, which has been a major headache for space agencies around the world. It can travel at enormous speeds and cause serious damage to satellites and even the ISS.

However, Japanese researchers from the Riken research institute have developed an accurate, fast and cheap method of tracking and removing space debris from the orbit. The plan combines data from the super-wide field-of-view EUSO telescope with a high-efficiency laser system that shoots high power beams and removes the objects.

According to the researchers, the infrared telescope of the Extreme Universe Space Observatory (EUSO) will track space junk that move at very high speed. The intense laser beam when focused on the object will produce high-velocity plasma ablation and reduce its orbital velocity, deflecting it for a reentry into the earth’s atmosphere. The process, also called plasma ablation, would result in one side of the object heating up and turning into plasma, which would eventually create thrust and cause the debris to burn up.

The researchers are planning a small proof-of-concept experiment on the ISS, with a small, 20-centimetre version of the EUSO telescope and a laser with 100 fibres.

Full story: Daily Science / Acta Astronautica Back to top

The next phase in printing: 4D
April 22, 2015

Just as you got used to the idea that toys, homewares, even guns can be built with 3D printers, the next phase is upon us. Researchers are already building objects with 4D printing, where time becomes the fourth dimension. Imagine medical devices that can transform their shape inside the body, water pipes that expand or contract depending on water demand and self-assembling furniture.

Researchers at the University of Wollongong in Australia have built an autonomous valve that opens in warm water and closes in cold water. The valve is made out of four types of hard or soft hydrogels fabricated at the same time using a 3D printer. Inside the valve's structure a series of actuators respond to hot or cold water to open and close the valve.

In the US researchers at MIT's Self-Assembly Lab are exploring 4D printing to manufacture furniture that can build itself.

In 2012 DARPA researchers created implantable medical device that could deliver anti-microbial treatment to a wound site but would dissolve when no longer needed. The electronic devices were made of ultra-thin silicon, magnesium and silk that could dissolve in the body, reducing the risk of a secondary site infection.

Full story: Sydney Morning Herald Back to top