Innovation & Technology
Weekly Roundup

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This week's headlines:



Solar powered device harvests drinking water from dry air
April 13, 2017

A new device the size of a coffee mug can generate drinkable water from desert air using nothing but sunlight. The device is able to harvest the equivalent of a can's worth of water in an hour, according to researchers from MIT and the University of California, Berkeley.

Thanks to a special material, the new device pulls water from air with as low as 20% relative humidity. The material is composed of electrically charged metal atoms linked by organic molecules. This metal-organic framework, christened MOF-801, creates a network of microscopic, spongelike pores that can trap such gases as water vapour. At room temperature, water vapour collects in the pores. As temperatures rise, the water escapes.

The team's prototype includes a layer of MOF-801 mixed with copper foam. Left in the shade, this layer collects water vapour from the air. When moved into direct sunlight, the layer heats up and the water vapour escapes into an underlying chamber. A condenser in the chamber cools the vapour, converting it into a potable liquid. This entire process takes around two hours.

Laboratory tests of the device harvested 2.8 litres of water per day for every kilogram of MOF-801 used. As it is now, the device could be used as a personal water source in dry regions without water-producing infrastructure or the system could be scaled up to produce enough water for a whole community.

Full story: Science News Back to top


Tiny chip could end animal testing
April 15, 2017

A future without animal testing is getting closer. On Tuesday, the US Food and Drug Administration agreed to a research-and-development collaboration with Emulate, a company that makes 'organs-on-chips' technology. The hope is that instead of testing new drugs or supplements on animals, researchers can use Emulate's chips.

Each chip is about the size of a human thumb and contains tiny channels filled with living human cells that imitate the functions of different organs. For example, Emulate can build a chip that recreates how a human lung might react to certain medications. The results of tests that use these chips would ideally be more accurate than those conducted using a culture of lung cells or an animal's lung.

Animal testing is a critical part of drug development. Before a drug makes it to the FDA, the company behind it has to show how the drug works in animals - specifically whether it is toxic. Scientists run tests on different animals and bring that data to the FDA in the form of an Investigational New Drug application. If the FDA signs off, the company can then start testing the drug in humans.

To start, the collaboration between the FDA and Emulate will focus on the company's Liver-Chips, which are meant to show how an animal's liver may react to a certain drug. The liver is where most drugs get broken down on their way out of the body.

Animal testing may not disappear, but if the collaboration is successful, it could at least reduce the number of animals used in preclinical research.

Full story: Science Alert / Business Insider Back to top


Entire nervous system of an animal recorded for the first time
April 11, 2017

The firing of every neuron in an animal's body has been recorded, live. The breakthrough in imaging the nervous system of a hydra - a tiny, transparent creature related to jellyfish - as it twitches and moves has provided insights into how such simple animals control their behaviour.

Instead of a brain, hydra have the most basic nervous system in nature, a nerve net in which neurons spread throughout its body. Even so, researchers still know almost nothing about how the hydra's few thousand neurons interact to create behaviour.

To find out, researchers from Columbia University in New York City genetically modified hydra so that their neurons glowed in the presence of calcium. Since calcium ions rise in concentration when neurons are active and fire a signal, the researchers were able to relate behaviour to activity in glowing circuits of neurons.

The team found that no neuron was a member of more than one circuit. This suggests the animal has evolved distinct networks for each reflex - a primitive arrangement, much less complex than our own interconnected nervous systems. Nevertheless, the hydra is the first step towards breaking the neural code - the way that neural activity determines behaviour.

The team hope that seeing how the circuits work in real time might lead to new insights into the human brain and tell us more about mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, for example.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top


Ultrasonic clothes dryer 'halves drying time'
April 19, 2017

A tumble dryer that is claimed to dry clothes twice as fast has been developed in the US. The machine uses high-frequency sound waves instead of heat to dry laundry. As well as speeding up the drying process, it is expected to use up to 70% less energy than conventional dryers.

The dryer has been developed by scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Tennessee, in partnership with General Electric. The inner lining of the drum of the machine is fitted with small sheets that convert an electric signal into vibrations. These are at a high enough frequency that they can shake the water out of clothes, in the form of a cold mist. The water is driven into the outer part of the drum, where it flows down to a collection tank.

According to the US Department of Energy, which supported the project, standard clothes dryers take an average of 50 minutes to dry a medium-sized load. The prototype model can dry the same amount of laundry in about 20 minutes. Another advantage of the ultrasonic technology is that it appears to generate far less lint.

Most of the lint created in conventional tumble dryers is the result of tiny fibres being dislodged from clothes by the hot air stream. As well as causing extra wear on the fabric, the heat can fade clothes over time.

Full story: BBC News Back to top


Start-up hopes to cut plastic waste with innovative water balls
April 13, 2017

Small transparent spheres filled with natural or flavoured water could help provide a solution to London's plastic waste problem, according to Skipping Rocks Lab, the company behind the technology.

With many cities around the world struggling to dispose of vast numbers of used plastic water bottles, the biodegradable 'Ooho balls' have begun quenching the thirst of consumers at special events in San Francisco and London.

The balls, which resemble large bubbles, have a jelly-like membrane made of plant and seaweed extracts. Skipping Rocks Lab says the membranes decompose after four to six weeks if not consumed. Skipping Rocks, who spent three years developing Ooho, said they produce up to 2,000 balls a day but hope to increase that figure, extend the shelf-life of the product and improve the resistance of the membranes.

The company aims to target, among other consumers, marathon runners, who will be able to dispose of the Oohos mid-race without concerns about the environment. It is also considering encapsulating alcohol for a whole new market.

Full story: Reuters Back to top


Browser plug-in gives access to millions of scientific papers for free
April 21, 2017

If you're of the mindset that knowledge should be freely accessible to as many humans as possible, paywalls for academic journals can be downright frustrating. Now a free browser extension is promising to bust through those paywalls wherever possible.

'Unpaywall' was launched earlier this month by the open source not-for-profit Impactstory - funded by the US National Science Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation - and it is already making a splash in the traditional publishing industry.

Once installed on a Chrome or Firefox browser the plug-in will start displaying a little lock symbol whenever the user is on the landing page of an article in an academic journal.

If the plug-in can find a freely accessible full-text copy of the desired paper, the lock symbol turns from grey to green, and can be clicked to get the PDF. If the lock is gold the article already has an open access licence. The full-text copies the plug-in serves up are totally legal.

The plug-in works by scouring a database of over 90 million digital object identifiers (DOIs), looking for publicly accessible copies of papers on pre-press servers and university websites. This is what sets it apart from the 'pirated' route of the infamous Sci-Hub, which sources the same published content by decidedly greyer methods.

Full story: Science Alert Back to top


What all those scientists on Twitter are really doing
April 20, 2017

In the first broad look at the behaviour of thousands of scientists on Twitter, researchers have found that women are better represented on the social-media site than on scientific papers. The study is a more representative look at how scientists use the site than previous work. Past studies have targeted specific fields or groups of researchers to analyse their behaviour on Twitter.

To find a broad range of tweeting researchers, information scientists from Indiana University Bloomington started with a list of scientific titles from the US Bureau of Labour Statistics and Wikipedia. They then combed Twitter lists for people with these titles. This initial search generated a group of 'seed' scientists. The team then searched lists that contained these seed researchers, looking for more people with scientific titles.

The team repeated the process until they stopped finding new researchers on the Twitter lists. They ended up with 45,867 scientists from around the world. The team used this list in their analysis of who the scientists were, what they were tweeting about and who was in their Twitter networks.

They found that social and information scientists were over-represented on Twitter, compared with the US workforce, but mathematicians and life scientists were under-represented. The team also found that the ratio of female to male scientists on Twitter (0.62) was greater than the ratio of female to male authors on US-based scientific papers (0.43). The team also found that scientists mostly interact with others from their field.

The top 20 websites the scientists were sharing on Twitter, included other social-media platforms as well as The New York Times and The Guardian. The only scientific URL in the top 20 was nature.com.

Full story: Nature / PLOS ONE Back to top