Innovation & Technology
Weekly Roundup

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This week's headlines:

MIT breaks a world record for nuclear fusion
October 19, 2016

Scientists working at MIT's Alcator C-Mod experimental fusion reactor have broken the world record for fusion pressure. This achievement came on the day the reactor was scheduled to be shut down.

Nuclear fusion power has long been sought as an alternative to current energy sources, but the extreme conditions required for it to work have made efficient fusion power impossible to obtain. Fusion reactions are the power source that fuels the Sun, and the only way fusion power can reliably work is in high-pressure and high-temperature environments like the Sun's core. MIT's Alcator C-Mod experiment was an attempt to create those conditions in a laboratory.

Recently, the experiment succeeded, generating two atmospheres of plasma pressure. This pressure brought the plasma to a temperature of 35 million degrees Celsius, close to the threshold of 50 million needed for commercial fusion power.

MIT's reactor has been performing fusion experiments for more than 23 years, but due to budget cuts it was shut down a few weeks ago.

Full story: Yahoo! / Siliconrepublic Back to top

Scientists accidentally turn CO2 directly into ethanol
October 19, 2016

If scientists can figure out how to convert atmospheric carbon dioxide into fuel - and do it at an industrial scale - it would, quite literally, change the world. Last month, we hit the highest levels of atmospheric CO2 in 4 million years, and it is now permanent, meaning we will never be able to drop to 'safe' levels again.

But if we can turn CO2 into a fuel source, we can at least slow things down, and now researchers from Oak Ridge National Laboratory have developed a process that can achieve this with a single catalyst.

The had put together a catalyst using carbon, copper, and nitrogen, by embedding copper nanoparticles into nitrogen-laced carbon spikes measuring just 50-80 nm tall. When they applied an electric current of just 1.2 volts, the catalyst converted a solution of CO2 dissolved in water into ethanol, with a yield of 63%.

This result was surprising for a couple of reasons: firstly, because it's effectively reversing the combustion process using a very modest amount of electricity, and secondly, it was able to do this while achieving a relatively high yield of ethanol - they were expecting to end up with the significantly less desirable chemical, methanol.

The researchers explain that they were able to achieve such high yields because the nanostructure of the catalyst was easy to manipulate and adjust to get the desired results. The team says that since the catalyst is made from inexpensive materials, and can operate at room temperature with modest electrical requirements, it could be scaled up for industrial level use.

Full story: Science Alert / ChemistrySelect Back to top

California is covering mountains with sensors to fight drought
October 19, 2016

Sierra Nevada mountains used to be reliable natural water towers. Winter storms would coat them with a thick blanket of snow, which would melt as temperatures rose through spring and summer. Gravity carried meltwater down to cities for free. But climate change means water managers can no longer rely on the melt flow. Drought is the new normal, and snow falls less often and tends to come in bursts.

In an attempt to take control of the state's water cycle, a project called SierraNet is covering California's mountains with networks of sensors. It will report snow and water conditions in unprecedented resolution, and allow monitoring of the unpredictable watersheds. The data will help California to manage its water and the hydroelectric dams that depend on it.

SierraNet distributes a mesh network of sensor packages that measure snow depth, humidity and air temperature, as well as solar radiation, soil temperature and soil moisture content. These sensor packs use a low-powered radio to relay the data they gather back through the mesh to a higher-powered base station. This makes sure readings get through even if one link fails.

Pacific Gas and Electric, an energy company that manages 360 megawatts of hydroelectric power on the river, has worked with SierraNet to carpet its Feather river watershed with sensors. It wants to use the new stream of data to help manage its dams. If the company knows how much water is sitting in the mountains, it can plan ahead and produce energy when the market most needs it.

This is becoming increasingly important as California adds more solar panels and wind turbines to the grid - predictable and controllable electricity supplies are needed to fill lulls in renewable production.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Maggots under microscope for superbug-killing secretions
October 18, 2016

Maggots could help tackle the looming crisis of antibacterial resistance, according to researchers from Swansea University, who found that certain molecules in the secretions of green bottle fly maggots are highly effective at killing some species of bacteria.

The wound cleaning ability exhibited by these insects has a long history in medicine with battlefield surgeons in particular using them to help clean up infected and dead flesh. But it's the minute secretions that these maggots leave behind that could hold the key for viable new medicines to help combat so-called superbugs like methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

The Swansea researchers are using maggot larvae of the common green bottle fly, Lucilia sericata. To collect their secretions, several hundred maggots are placed in a container of sterile water and left overnight. When the maggots are filtered out from the water the following day, the resulting liquid is of a greater volume than what was initially added and holds the molecules the team is after.

Previous clinical trials have examined maggots' efficacy in speeding up cleaning and healing of infected wounds. In 2009, a team from the University of York recruited 267 patients with venous leg ulcers and treated them either with maggots or hydrogel, a standard wound-cleaning product. They found a significant benefit of using maggots in terms of wound debridement and clearing of dead tissue, but could not show any significant difference in healing outcomes or cost.

Full story: Reuters Back to top

Scientists seek to map all human cells in vast atlas
October 14, 2016

Scientists launched a global initiative last Friday to map out and describe every cell in the human body in a vast atlas that could transform researchers' understanding of human development and disease. The atlas, which is likely to take more than a decade to complete, aims to chart the types and properties of all human cells across all tissues and organs and build a reference map of the healthy human body, the scientists said.

The project is currently led by a team from MIT and Harvard in the US and the Sanger Institute and Wellcome Trust in Britain. The plan is for research teams and funders worldwide to collaborate. By making the atlas freely available to scientists the world over, the scientists hope to transform research into human development and the progression of diseases such as asthma, Alzheimer's and cancer.

The human body is made of trillions of cells - the fundamental units of life - which divide, grow and take on distinct functions in the embryo, eventually leading to different cell types such as skin cells, neurons or fat cells. Technological advances in a field known as single-cell genomics means researchers can now separate individual cells from different tissues and organs, analyse their properties and measure and describe which molecules are produced in each.

Full story: Reuters Back to top

Device lets you grow your own food from plant cells
October 20, 2016

Researchers from the Technical Research Centre of Finland (VTT) have invented an appliance that grows food ingredients - basically, all the healthy compounds found within veggies - using plant cells inside a bioreactor.

The team says the system, known as the CellPod, works by growing plant cell material from a seed culture, producing proteins, fibres, and other plant-based compounds, to give the user the benefits of a greenhouse on their kitchen counter - no farm required.

Instead of growing entire plants, like traditional gardening and farming does, the CellPod works by growing undifferentiated plant cells, creating enough plant matter to be harvested about once a week. In other words, the CellPod allows people to grow the healthy compounds inside the plant without the need for cultivating an entire tree, shrub, or seedling.

While the team says they have so far been able to grow Arctic bramble cells, cloudberry cells, and stone bramble cells, they note that the taste is lacking. Rather than supplying an entire meal, the CellPod aims to be a good way to nutritionally boost meals by adding some of the cell-grown plant materials to already prepared meals tasting foods - almost like a supplement.

Full story: Science Alert Back to top

Graphene protects glass from corrosion
October 19, 2016

Cloudy wine glasses could be a thing of the past, thanks to researchers at the Institute for Basic Science in Daejeon, Korea.

The researchers have developed a graphene coating that protects glass from the corrosion and weakening that occurs when hydrogen ions from water penetrate the glass surface, causing its silicate structure to dissolve. Graphene could be the ideal coating to prevent glass corrosion because it is extremely thin - just one atom thick - chemically inert, transparent to light and also very tough.

The researchers tested this hypothesis by growing sheets of graphene on a copper substrate and then transferring it to both sides of pieces of glass. After 120 days of immersion in hot water, the graphene-coated glass samples suffered no change in fracture strength and surface roughness. In comparison, uncoated samples underwent significant corrosion.

Full story: Physics World / Nano Letters Back to top