Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 27, 2015

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Issue 27, 2015

This week's headlines:

Foam heart could pump inside you just like the real thing
October 01, 2015

Researchers inspired by soft robots have built a pumping artificial heart that could one day replace the real deal.

Recent years have seen the development of soft robots that mimic snakes and tentacles. They are made from flexible plastic and powered by compressed air that makes the bots flex and move.

But the network of tubes required to deliver air limits most of these bots to simple, flat shapes, according to researchers from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. That’s why the team build their robots out of a solid, porous plastic foam, which naturally has an inter- connected network of tubes to let air flow – just as our muscles are permeated by blood vessels. A solid coating of plastic seals everything inside like a skin.

The team tested the material with a few simple bending and extending devices that move when filled with air, then constructed a simple model of the human heart. It only has two chambers – as opposed to our four – but powering the heart with air makes it flex and pump water between them. But the foam heart doesn’t visibly beat on the outside because the plastic skin means all the expansion happens internally.

The researchers thing there device has the potential, after further development, to be a viable replacement for a heart. Existing artificial hearts have multiple moving parts, which increases the chance of failure, but this new device is just a single piece of material.

Full story: New Scientist / Advanced Materials Back to top

Africa's agriculture needs young blood, says report
October 01, 2015

Modernising Africa's agriculture sector to attract young people will help tackle youth unemployment and food insecurity, according to the 2015 African Agriculture Status Report. Despite the dominance of agriculture in many economies, outdated land-tenure systems and poor access to finance deter new entrants to farming, it said.

The report, produced by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra), warns that the continent will not solve its chronic food shortages or worrying unemployment levels among its youth without wholesale changes. The report highlights a direct link between the rising level of unemployment among the under-25s and food security concerns.

The report notes that there are a number of long-standing barriers that prevent or deter future generations of would-be agribusiness leaders. One is the lack of access to land. Another constraint is accessing finance facilities.

Figures from the African Union Commission estimate that about 65% of Africa's population is below the age of 35 years, with 10 million youths (15-35 year-olds) entering the workforce each year. It is also estimated that agriculture provides 65% of the continent's jobs. And as the world wakes up to the challenge it faces to feed a growing population that is forecast to exceed nine billion by the middle of this century, Africa holds up to 60% of the world's uncultivated arable land.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

Activist bots recruit humans to their cause on Twitter
September 30, 2015

Put down your megaphone and pick up your smartphone. A programme nicknamed Botivist rallies people to social causes via Twitter.

If you’re an activist, spreading your message to like-minded people can be tedious work, says Saiph Savage at West Virginia University in Morgantown. Bots can take those tasks off your plate.

In late April, Savage and her colleagues launched their automated activists into the Twittersphere. There were eight different bots, focused on one issue: corruption in Latin American governments. When Botivist spotted someone tweeting about the subject, a bot would send them an inspirational quote or call to action.

The researchers’ goal was to see how good the different bots were at convincing people to contribute ideas about tackling corruption.

More than 1000 people were contacted by the bots and 175 replied. Of those, 81% responded to the bots’ call to contribute ideas, suggesting that cities get tougher on crime or become more transparent. Humans could then jump into the discussion with people they already knew were interested in the issue.

The team is now working on a public version of Botivist. They are also planning another run-through to see how far the bots can move people: can they convince anyone to show up to an event in the real world?

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Mealworms could rid our oceans of plastic pollutants
October 01, 2015

Researchers from Stanford University in the US and Beihang University in China have discovered that mealworms could be an effective solution to easily biodegrade nearly any kind of plastic that is currently polluting the oceans of the world.

The team developed techniques for studying the activity, and determined that bacteria which lives in the gut of these worms have the ability to break down this plastic into tiny pieces. Additionally, researchers have also found that the worms who feed off this plastic regularly are actually quite healthy.

The team now aim to figure out a way to use these worms in the most effective way possible. Maybo mealworms are not the only microorganisms that biodegrade plastics like polypropylene, which are used in textile products, microbeads and bioplastics derived from natural sources.

Full story: Pioneer News / Environmental Science and Technology Back to top

Materials could capture CO2 and make it useful
September 24, 2015

Although progress has been made in limiting carbon emissions in some countries, particularly in Europe and North America, it's clear that finding ways to capture carbon dioxide from smokestacks - or from the atmosphere - is becoming increasingly imperative. Available systems dramatically increase the cost of electricity from plants equipped with the technology. And what to do with all that carbon dioxide after it’s separated remains problematic.

Now a team of scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California, Berkeley, have devised a method that uses super-porous molecular structures known as covalent organic frameworks, with catalysts to convert the CO2 to carbon monoxide, which can be used in making materials such as fuels, plastics and pharmaceuticals.

The new materials are based on a highly stable, porous structure that’s decorated with all of these catalysts, according to the researchers. Though it’s early stage research and nowhere near ready to scale up to power plant levels, it’s an important step toward finding practical ways to absorb and use CO2 in both waste streams and the air.

Full story: Technology Review Back to top

India launches 'mini-Hubble'
September 28, 2015

India launched its first space research observatory and several US satellites on Monday, part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's drive to expand his country's influence in the competitive global space industry.

The observatory, named ASTROSAT, will help Indian scientists intensify space exploration efforts by studying distant celestial objects and conduct deeper analyses of star systems.

ASTROSAT is seen as a smaller version of NASA's Hubble Space Telescope that was launched in 1990. It will be able to detect objects in multiple wavelengths such as X-rays, but with far lower precision than Hubble, according to the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, which developed three of the five scientific instruments aboard ASTROSAT.

The ASTROSAT instruments will transmit data to a control centre in the southern city of Bangalore that will manage the satellite during its five-year mission life.

Full story: Reuters Back to top

Belgian scientists look for biofuel clues in panda poo
September 28, 2015

Belgian researchers from Ghent University are examining the excrement of giant pandas to try to understand how they can digest tough bamboo, hoping for clues on how to develop new generations of biofuel.

The genetic make-up of endangered pandas is that of a carnivore but the animals have adapted to a diet consisting almost exclusively of bamboo.

While a few scientific studies have looked into the digestive tract of the panda, the researchers say their study is the first to focus on the microorganisms in the animal's gut.

The results of the study may point to new, cheaper, ways to produce so-called second generation biofuels made from plants and biomass not destined for consumption such as corn stalks.

Full story: Reuters Back to top