Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 14, 2016

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Issue 14, 2016

This week's headlines:

Brain's 'atlas' of words revealed
April 27, 2016

Scientists from the University of California have mapped out how the brain organises language. It had previously been proposed that information about words' meaning was represented in a group of brain regions known as the semantic system. But the new work uncovers the fine detail of this network.

Volunteers listened to more than two hours of stories from a US radio programme while remaining still inside a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanner. The team collected data on changes in blood flow and oxygenation - indicators of activity - in different areas of the cerebral cortex.

The brain imaging data were matched against time-coded transcriptions of the stories. The researchers then used a computer algorithm that scored words according to how closely they are related in terms of meaning. The results were converted into a thesaurus-like map where the words were arranged on the left and right hemispheres of the brain. They show that the semantic system is distributed broadly in more than 100 distinct areas across both hemispheres of the cortex and in intricate patterns that were consistent across individuals in the study.

The maps show that many areas of the human brain represent language describing people and social relations rather than abstract concepts. But the same word could be repeated several times on different parts of the brain map. For example, the word 'top' was represented in a part of the brain that responds to words about clothing and appearance, and also in a region that deals with numbers and measurements.

Scientists could track the brain activity of patients who have difficulty communicating and then match that data to language maps to determine what their patients are trying to express.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

SpaceX targets 2018 for first Mars mission
April 27, 2016

SpaceX plans to send an unmanned Dragon spacecraft to Mars as early as 2018, the company said this week, a first step in achieving founder Elon Musk's goal to fly people to another planet. NASA, which is aiming for a human mission to Mars in the 2030s, said it will provide technical support for SpaceX's first foray, known as Red Dragon.

The announcement marks SpaceX's first target date for its unmanned mission to Mars. The SpaceX programme is intended to develop technologies needed for human transportation to Mars, a long-term aim for Musk's privately held company.

SpaceX intends to debut its Mars rocket, a heavy-lift version of the Falcon 9 booster currently flying, later this year. The company recently has made spaceflight history by returning Falcon 9 rockets to landing pads on land and sea - key to Musk's quest to develop a relatively cheap, reusable launch vehicle.

SpaceX now flies cargo versions of its Dragon capsule to and from the International Space Station under a resupply services contract with NASA. SpaceX also is upgrading the capsules to carry astronauts, with test flights to the station scheduled for 2017.

Full story: Reuters Back to top

Bathing in blue light before surgery may prevent organ damage
April 25, 2016

Reperfusion injury can happen when blood vessels are temporarily tied off during surgery, or when blocked arteries are surgically widened after a heart attack or stroke. Some damage is caused by a lack of oxygen, and further harm results when oxygen levels rebound, causing cells to become overactive, and triggering an attack by the immune system.

But blue light seems to reduce this, in mice at least. Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, have found that when mice are exposed to blue light for 24 hours before the blood supply to their liver or kidney is temporarily tied off, there is less reperfusion injury than if the mice are exposed to other types of light.

Further tests showed that blue light seems to dampen down the sympathetic nervous system, which is involved in mammal stress responses. In turn, this reduced the activity of immune cells called neutrophils, which are involved in inflicting the damage of a reperfusion injury.

The technique didn't work on mice that were blind, suggesting that blue light - which is like an intense form of daylight - has its effect via light-sensitive receptors in our eyes. The team will soon be testing the technique in people, by giving blue goggles to hospital patients and exposing them to bright white light.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Wind energy converter inspired by ancient boats
April 25, 2016

A Tunisian start-up has taken inspiration from the sailing boats of Ancient Carthage to develop a bladeless, non-rotating wind energy convertor that is more efficient than traditional turbines as well as safer and quieter. Saphon Energy says the aerodynamic bowl-shaped sail on its turbine is capable of capturing twice as much wind energy over the same swept area as a conventional turbine.

The designers looked to the old technology of sailing boats, as well as the movements of birds and fish for their design. They were inspired by the sailors of the ancient civilisation of Carthage, located close to the present-day Tunisian capital. The bladeless design uses a non-rotational sail-shaped body combined with a wind converter that follows a figure of eight pattern in the air.

All wind turbines are subject to the Betz limit of capturing 59% of the energy from wind, but its developers say the Saphonian is quite capable of surpassing this limit because it is bladeless, making it far more efficient than traditional turbines. Saphon Energy says the Saphonian will be able to convert wind to energy at around 80%. Its lower cost could make it an attractive source of off-grid energy in developing countries. The tech company hopes to put this into practice with a partnership in India.

Full story: Reuters Back to top

New water purification system could help slake the world's thirst
April 27, 2016

More than 1 billion people around the world lack access to fresh water, and the problem is growing. To slake that thirst, some wealthy communities have invested in water desalination plants that turn salt water into clean drinking water. But these plants are too expensive for most communities to afford. Now, researchers have come up with a solar-powered technique that could make small-scale desalination systems affordable, even for individual households.

The approach is a new take on an old technology known as a solar still. These stills - large containers covered by clear plastic tarps or glass enclosures - direct sunlight onto a basin of salty water. Water evaporates, leaving salts behind, and then condenses on the plastic or glass, where it is captured. The trouble is throughput. The sun evaporates water so slowly that very little fresh water is produced.

To fix the throughput problem, researchers have tried topping the salt water with floating films dotted with nano-sized metal particles, typically made from gold. Gold, however, is very expensive. Now, researchers from the Nanjing University in China have fashioned a solar absorber to work with aluminium, one of the most abundant and cheapest metals on the planet.

Their approach worked so well that the researchers were able to purify salt water up to three times faster than without the foil. Just one square meter of foil generated 2 to 8 litres of water per hour, depending on the amount of light hitting the still.

Full story: Science / Nature Photonics Back to top

Scientists push water molecules into a whole new state of matter
April 26, 2016

Physicists have managed to squeeze water molecules into a new state that doesn't adhere to the usual laws of solids, liquids, and gases. By trapping water into very tiny cracks, similar to those that also exist in nature, the researchers have managed to get its hydrogen and oxygen atoms to behave in very peculiar ways. The discovery is closely linked to existing hypotheses in quantum physics. The team behind the research isn't quite sure where their find will lead quite yet, but it should offer new insight into how water behaves in ultra-confined spaces.

Scientists from Oak Ridge National Laboratory forced water molecules down channels made from the mineral beryl, measuring just 5 angstroms across. They say similar conditions are likely to be found in the natural world too, inside soils, mineral interfaces, and cell walls, for example. Inside this molecular straightjacket (individual atoms are about 1 angstrom across), the two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom that make up a water molecule started to display strange behaviour.

Rather than being fixed, the hydrogen atoms began to appear in six different symmetric orientations at the same time, with the oxygen atom in the middle. The six different positions match the six different walls of the hexagonal channel, the scientists say. As they tunnel, the hydrogen atoms cycle between all possible positions, and the temperature is increased as a result.

What's more, the molecule's centre of mass shifts to the central oxygen atom rather than the outlying hydrogen ones. The newly symmetrical layout also means the molecule loses its electric dipole moment, which means the negative and positive charges in the atoms are no longer unbalanced, and in theory, it should no longer be interested in bonding with other atoms or molecules.

Full story: Science Alert / Physical Review Letters Back to top

Researchers accidentally make batteries that last 400 times longer
April 26, 2016

When it comes to the lab, accidents aren't usually a good thing, but an unexpected result has led chemists from the University of California in Irvine to a system that could make batteries last up to 400 times longer than the best-performing batteries today.

While the new battery would still need to be recharged, the big difference is it would keep working efficiently over 200,000 charge cycles, which is much longer than the lifespand of today's lithium batteries. The accident part is that the researchers still aren't sure exactly how the system works.

Instead of lithium, the new batteries store electricity in gold nanowires. The original aim of the experiment was simply to make a solid-state battery that used an electrolyte gel rather than a liquid to hold its charge - lithium batteries contain liquid, which makes them extremely combustible and also sensitive to temperature. But when they started experimenting with gold nanowires suspended in this electrolyte gel, they found that the system was incredibly resilient, much more than any other battery system.

The team isn't the first to use gold nanowires to store electricity along their length. But in the past, these systems had been brittle and prone to cracking. The addition of the electrolyte gel seems to have made all the difference, as well as coating the nanowires in manganese oxide. Testing showed that the new system could withstand 200,000 charge cycles over three months and only lose 5% of its capacity.

Full story: Science Alert / Energy Letters Back to top

Sarcasm spurs creative thinking
April 29, 2016

'Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit but the highest form of intelligence,' Oscar Wilde is said to have remarked. But not everyone shares his view. Sarcasm involves constructing or exposing contradictions between intended meanings. It is the most common form of verbal irony, allowing people to say exactly what they do not mean. Often we use it to humorously convey disapproval or scorn.

And yet behavioural scientists in the US have found that sarcasm may also offer an unexpected psychological payoff: greater creativity. The use of sarcasm, in fact, appears to promote creativity for those on both the giving and receiving end of the exchange. Instead of avoiding snarky remarks completely, their research suggests that, used with care and in moderation, clever quips can trigger creative sparks.

In one study, they asked 56 participants to choose a script that was sarcastic, sincere or neutral and then engage in simulated conversation with another subject, who was unaware of the script. Immediately after the participants enacted the dialogue, they were presented with tasks testing their creativity. They also presented them with a short questionnaire about their perceived sense of conflict during the conversation.

The participants exposed to sarcasm reported more interpersonal conflict than those in other groups but those pairs who had engaged in a sarcastic conversation fared better on the creativity tasks. This effect emerged for both the deliverer and recipient in the conversation but only when the recipient had picked up on the sarcasm in the script.

Why might verbal irony enhance creativity? Sarcasm's challenge is that the message sounds serious but should not be taken literally. One needs to think outside the box to generate and decipher ironic comments. That means sarcasm may lead to clearer, more creative thinking.

Full story: Scientific American Back to top