Innovation & Technology Weekly Roundup

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This week's headlines:

Lockheed claims breakthrough on fusion energy project
October 16, 2014

Lockheed Martin claims to have made a technological breakthrough in developing a power source based on nuclear fusion, and the first reactors, small enough to fit on the back of a truck, could be ready for use in a decade. Initial work demonstrated the feasibility of building a 100-megawatt reactor. In a statement, the company said it would build and test a compact fusion reactor in less than a year, and build a prototype in five years.

Lockheed's work on fusion energy could help in developing new power sources amid increasing global conflicts over energy, and as projections show there will be a 40 to 50% increase in energy use over the next generation, according to the company.

If it proves feasible, Lockheed's work would mark a key breakthrough in a field that scientists have long eyed as promising, but which has not yet yielded viable power systems. The effort seeks to harness the energy released during nuclear fusion, when atoms combine into more stable forms.

Compact nuclear fusion would produce far less waste than coal-powered plants since it would use deuterium-tritium fuel, which can generate nearly 10 million times more energy than the same amount of fossil fuels. Ultra-dense deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen, is found in the earth's oceans, and tritium is made from natural lithium deposits.

Full story: Yahoo! / Reuters Back to top

Mini MRI to check bone health on space station
October 15, 2014

Astronauts may soon have a portable MRI machine to keep an eye on their muscles and bones during a spell on the International Space Station. The lightweight MRI should be ready to fly by 2016. Bone and muscle loss in microgravity is a major health issue in orbit and astronauts are usually checked before and after missions. But scientists don't know how bone and muscle density change with time during a mission.

Hospital MRI machines can weigh more than a tonne thanks to their strong superconducting magnets, making them impractical for the ISS. So researchers at MRI manufacturer MRI-Tech Canada of Calgary, Alberta, and space flight hardware maker Com Dev International of Cambridge, Ontario, have developed a technique called Transmit Array Spatial Encoding or TRASE, which uses fluid as a proxy for bone and muscle mass.

Conventional MRIs found in hospitals work by inducing a magnetic field gradient across your entire body. Additional radio signals cause the protons in your body's liquids to resonate with the magnetic field and send out signals that allow their positions to be imaged. This helps medical technicians localise and examine tissues inside your body, but requires bulky equipment.

To shrink down, TRASE uses a novel radio wave timing technique that requires much smaller magnets. Instead of creating a magnetic field across the entire body, the device sends superfast radio pulses into a small area of the body, like a wrist. The pulses make protons in the body spin in a precise way that sends signals that can be interpreted as the location and density of fluid in the bones and muscle. At just 50 centimetres wide and with a mass of 50 kilograms, it is small enough to fit on an ISS experiment rack. Astronauts need only place their wrists inside to have their bones checked.

The mini MRI technology may also find applications in far-flung places on Earth.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

New accuracy record set for quantum computing
October 13, 2014

Scientists from the University of New South Wales in Australia have developed the first silicon quantum technology capable of holding data with over 99% accuracy.

The breakthrough was achieved using two different types of silicon-based quantum bits or qubits, the basic information storing element in a quantum computer.

One method is based on advances in previous research using phosphorous atoms as qubits. The team had previously only achieved 50% accuracy using phosphorus atoms in silicon.

The second method takes a new approach by turning a silicon transistor into an 'artificial atom' qubit giving an accuracy of 99.6%.

The authors were also able to increase the time over which a silicon quantum system retains information, known as coherence time.

Full story: ABC News Back to top

Carnivorous plant inspires anticlotting medical devices
October 15, 2014

Medical devices like implanted arteries or external dialysis machines keep people alive. But persistent problems exist. Blood flowing through the tubes can form dangerous clots. And bacteria that stick to surfaces could start infections.

Treatment for patients using such devices thus often includes anti-clotting agents such as heparin. But such substances have their own risk: by interfering with clotting, they can cause potentially deadly bleeding.

Recently, researchers at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University looked to the carnivorous pitcher plant for guidance. The plant's structure includes wells with surfaces too slippery for insects to crawl out of. Those surfaces inspired the development of a coating so slippery that it prevents blood and bacteria from sticking.

The team tested the coating on the interiors of tubes and catheters attached to pigs. They demonstrated that the coating did not degrade, and that blood kept flowing without clotting, for eight hours. Blood usually starts to clot in tubes in an hour. The researchers also tested whether a gecko could latch onto the coating with its notoriously sticky footpads. But not even the gecko could get a grip.

Full story: Scientific American / Nature Biotechnology Back to top

Humans may only survive 68 days on Mars
October 15, 2014

Space enthusiasts planning a move to Mars may have to wait to relocate: conditions on the Red Planet are such that humans would likely begin dying within 68 days, a new study by MIT researchers says. Oxygen levels would start to deplete after about two months and new technologies are required before humans can permanently settle on Mars.

The five-person team used data from Mars One, a Dutch-based non-profit group behind an audacious project to permanently colonize the Red Planet starting in 2024. A shortlist of more than 1,000 people from an initial pool of 200,000 applicants will be whittled down to 24 for the mission - an irreversible move to Mars, which is to be partially funded by a reality television show about the Endeavour. But conditions on Mars - and the limits of human technology - could make the mission impossible.

The first crew fatality would occur approximately 68 days into the mission, according to the 35-page report, which analysed mathematical formulas on oxygen, food and technology required for the project. Plants required to feed the space colony would produce unsafe amounts of oxygen, the authors said. Some form of oxygen removal system is required, a technology that has not yet been developed for space flight, the study concluded.

Shipping in replacement parts is an additional challenge and will likely boost the cost of the mission, which the researchers estimated to be at least USD 4.5bn. Mars One co-founder and CEO Bas Lansdorp agreed that sending spare parts to Mars could pose a problem. But he claims the researchers used incomplete data, adding that technology for Mars colonisation was nearly ready.

Full story: Yahoo! / AFP Back to top

Fish love skyscraper-style living under oil platforms
October 13, 2014

Think twice before condemning all oil and gas rigs as threats to nature. A submarine study by researchers from Occidental College in Los Angeles has found that fish are 27 times more productive under rigs than on reefs off the coast of California. And it's not just a West Coast thing. When the Californian rigs are compared with natural marine habitats all around the world, they still boast about 10 times more fish.

The team surveyed 16 oil or gas platforms and seven rocky reefs each year for five to 15 years, from 1995 to 2011. They counted how many fish, and of what size, were associated with each habitat. From this worked out the weight of fish supported each year per square metre of sea floor in each area. To avoid overestimates, they only included fish within 2 metres of each structure that were clearly resident there, excluding fish just passing through.

They report that fish were dramatically more abundant around the rigs, which ranged in productivity from 105 to 887 grams of fish per square metre of seafloor per year. That is 27 times the comparable productivity range of the deep rocky reefs they surveyed.

For comparison, the researchers also examined figures from many other studies looking at fish abundance in natural habitats. Even the most productive of these - a coral reef in Mo'orea, French Polynesia, which had a fish productivity of 74.2 grams per square metre per year, still fell way short of the abundance around the Californian rigs.

One explanation is the huge surface area of rig substructure which, unlike in natural reefs, spans the whole water column, from surface to seafloor - the marine equivalent of a skyscraper. Some of the platforms act as nurseries for young rockfish. The numbers that appeared some years was staggering, according to the researchers.

Full story: New Scientist / PNAS Back to top