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Source: University of Tokyo

 
Issue no. 10, 2010
Published: Mar 19, 2010

Scientists supersize quantum mechanics
Climate 'fix' could poison sea life
Crystals + sound + water = clean hydrogen fuel
Spider silk research could lead to new super-materials
Scoreboard shows more innovation needed in Europe
Researchers create 3D invisibility cloak
Graphene wrap allows study of live bacteria
Forensic role for hand bacteria
Blind soldier uses tongue device to 'see'

Scientists supersize quantum mechanics
A team of scientists from the University of California, Santa Barbara, has succeeded in putting an object large enough to be visible to the naked eye into a mixed quantum state of moving and not moving.

The team cooled a metal paddle of around 30 micrometres long until it reached its quantum mechanical 'ground state' - the lowest-energy state permitted by quantum mechanics. They then used the rules of quantum mechanics to simultaneously set the paddle moving while leaving it standing still. The experiment shows that the principles of quantum mechanics can apply to everyday objects as well as atomic-scale particles.

According to quantum theory, particles act as waves rather than point masses on very small scales. This has dozens of bizarre consequences: it is impossible to know a particle's exact position and velocity through space, yet it is possible for the same particle to be doing two contradictory things simultaneously. Through a phenomenon known as 'superposition' a particle can be moving and stationary at the same time - at least until an outside force acts on it. Then it instantly chooses one of the two contradictory positions.

But although the rules of quantum mechanics seem to apply at small scales, nobody has seen evidence of them on a large scale, where outside influences can more easily destroy fragile quantum states. Large quantum states could tell researchers more about the relationship between quantum mechanics and gravity - something that is not well understood.
Nature    Mar 17, 2010 back to top

Climate 'fix' could poison sea life
Fertilising the oceans with iron to absorb carbon dioxide could increase concentrations of a chemical that can kill marine mammals, a study by researchers at San Francisco State University has found.

Iron stimulates growth of marine algae that absorb CO2 from the air, and has been touted as a 'climate fix'. Now researchers have shown that the algae increase production of a nerve poison that can kill mammals and birds. They say this raises 'serious concern' over the idea.

The toxin - domoic acid - first came to notice in the late 1980s as the cause of amnesiac shellfish poisoning. It is produced by algae of the genus Pseudonitzschia, with concentrations rising rapidly when the algae 'bloom'. The toxin accumulates in animals such as fish that are themselves immune, but can poison animals higher up in the food chain.

One company - Climos - aims eventually to deploy the iron fertilisation technique on a commercial basis. A Climos spokesman agreed that further research on domoic acid production was needed.

For the San Francisco State University team, the potential impact on sea life is something that regulators and scientists must take into account when deciding whether to allow further studies or deployment.
BBC News    Mar 16, 2010 back to top

Crystals + sound + water = clean hydrogen fuel
Every drop of water is stuffed with the greenest of fuels, hydrogen, but getting it out is a challenge. A new material raises the prospect of doing so using noise pollution - from major roads, for example. A team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison made crystals of zinc oxide that, when immersed in water, absorb vibrations and develop areas of strong negative and positive charge. These charges rip apart nearby water molecules, releasing hydrogen and oxygen gas.

The researchers generate hydrogen using a new variation on piezoelectric crystals - materials that generate a voltage when strained and which are being investigated as a way to generate electricity from movement. The new crystals, however, are designed to be submerged, so the charge they generate instead pulls apart water molecules to release hydrogen and oxygen gas, a mechanism the team calls the piezoelectrochemical effect.

The team grew thin microfibers of highly flexible zinc oxide crystals that flex when subjected to vibration. They showed that ultrasonic vibrations under water cause the fibres to bend between 5 and 10 degrees at each end, creating an electrical field with a high enough voltage to split water and release oxygen and hydrogen. Growing fibres with different dimensions changes the type of vibration they absorb best.

Lab tests suggest the material can convert 18% of the energy it absorbs from vibration into energy locked up in hydrogen gas.
New Scientist / Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters    Mar 16, 2010 back to top

Spider silk research could lead to new super-materials
Researchers at MIT found that spider silk employs a unique crystal structure that converts an otherwise weak material into one stronger and less brittle than steel or ceramics. They believe in future it may be possible to create new classes of materials that are both incredibly flexible and strong out of cheap, ordinary elements.

A key property of spider silk is its combination of strength and 'ductility' - its ability to bend or stretch without breaking. Most man-made materials, in contrast, sacrifice strength for ductility. Ceramics, for instance, are strong yet brittle.

The MIT team studied the fundamental properties of spider silk using computer models to simulate its structure. The silk is made from proteins including some that form thin flat crystals called beta-sheets. The researchers found that the size of the crystals was critical. When they measured about three nanometres across they made the silk ultra-strong and ductile. But if the crystals grew to five nanometres the material became weak and brittle.

Spider silk is strong despite its components being connected by naturally weak hydrogen chemical bonds. The geometry of the crystals allows the hydrogen bonds to work co-operatively, shielding each other against external forces, according to the researchers.
Daily Telegraph / Nature    Mar 14, 2010 back to top

Scoreboard shows more innovation needed in Europe
The European Commission published the 2009 European Innovation Scoreboard (EIS) this week. The EIS provides a comparative assessment of the innovation performance of the EU Member States.

Most Member States until 2008 were steadily improving their innovation performance. The economic crisis may, however, be hampering this progress. Early indications show that the worst hit are Member States with lower levels of innovation performance, potentially reversing the convergence process witnessed over recent years.

Meanwhile, the latest statistics show that the EU is having difficulty in catching up with the US in innovation performance, although it maintains a clear lead over the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China, despite rapid improvements in China.

The EIS report was prepared by UNU-MERIT for the EC's Directorate-General for Enterprise and Industry with support from the EU's Joint Research Centre, the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), Birkbeck College, University of Urbino and the Centre for Science and Technology Studies (CWTS).
UNU-MERIT    Mar 19, 2010 back to top

Researchers create 3D invisibility cloak
Scientists from Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany and Imperial College London have created the first device to render an object invisible in three dimensions. They used the cloak, made using photonic crystals with a structure resembling piles of wood, to conceal a small bump on a gold surface.

Invisibility cloaks have already been developed, but they only worked on two dimensions. The 'cloak' invented by the European team is the first to work on three dimensions.

It is composed of special lenses that bend light waves to suppress light as it scattered from the tiny bump the researchers were trying to make disappear, the study says. The invisibility cloak and the bump were both minute. The cloak measured 100 microns by 30 microns and the bump it hid was 10 times smaller. The researchers are working now to recreate the disappearing bump on a larger scale.
ABC / AFP / Science    Mar 19, 2010 back to top

Graphene wrap allows study of live bacteria
A team of scientists at Kansas State University in Manhattan has wrapped bacteria in one-atom thick sheets of carbon known as graphene. The carbon cloak could one day help researchers to image tiny cells at higher resolution than is currently possible.

To image samples at high resolution using transmission electron microscopy, they must be placed in a vacuum, where they are exposed to fast-moving electrons. This is problematic for living specimens. The vacuum can cause them to dry out and die, whereas the electrons rip apart hydrogen bonds that help to hold together molecules inside the microbes.

Graphene may offer some protection. The researchers began with graphene flakes, to which they applied a common lectin protein that would cause the flakes to bond to certain kinds of bacteria known as Gram-positive bacteria. The group then put the treated graphene into a beaker filled with two types of Gram-positive bacteria. Within seconds, the tiny sheets wrapped themselves around the organisms.

The researchers then put their shrink-wrapped bacteria under the transmission electron microscope. Preliminary results indicated that the bacteria were doing well, especially when compared with unprotected controls. Because graphene is an electrical conductor, the electrons could penetrate the shell, but it also offered protection. Graphene is an excellent thermal conductor, and the researchers suggest that it might be shunting blistering heat away from the bacteria. It also seems to seal the bacteria off from the corrosive environment of the vacuum.
Nature    Mar 18, 2010 back to top

Forensic role for hand bacteria
Bacteria living on people's hands could be used in forensic identification, in the same way as DNA, say scientists from the University of Colorado. They discovered that the 'communities' of bacteria living on a person's skin are different for each individual.

The team took swabs from keyboards and were able to match the bacteria they found to the computer owners. Even on the hands of the most scrupulously clean people, about 150 different species of bacteria can be found. And these numbers are not significantly affected by regular hand-washing.

The team was able to match samples of bacteria from three computer keyboards to each computer's owner. They also saw very clear differences between those samples and samples taken from random volunteers. Hand bacteria, they found, can survive at room temperatures for up to two weeks and the bugs could be identified even when fingerprints were smudged, or there was not enough DNA to obtain a profile.

The scientists say that this emerging technology is 70-90% accurate, and that this will increase as it is refined over time. It could soon provide an additional forensic tool that could be used to corroborate other evidence.
BBC News / PNAS    Mar 16, 2010 back to top

Blind soldier uses tongue device to 'see'
A UK soldier who was blinded by a rocket propelled grenade in Iraq three years ago has been fitted with a device that allows him to 'see' with his tongue, enabling him to visualise shapes, read words and walk unaided.

The soldier has been selected by the UK Ministry of Defence to test the BrainPort miniature video camera and sensory equipment, which could revolutionise treatment for blind patients. The device works by converting visual images into a series of electrical pulses that are relayed to the tongue. The differing strengths and patterns of the tingles can be interpreted to build up a picture of surroundings and enable users to navigate around objects.

The device consists of a tiny video camera attached to a pair of sunglasses. It is linked by wires to a plastic lollypop-like sensor which users place on their tongue to receive the electrical impulses. The BrainPort sends information to 400 points on the tongue connection. Designers plan to upgrade this to 4,000 points, providing a clearer image.
The Guardian    Mar 15, 2010 back to top
 
         
  © UNU-MERIT