Innovation & Technology
Weekly Roundup

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This week's headlines:

Light stored as sound for the first time
September 18, 2017

Australian scientists have stored light-based information as sound waves on a computer chip - something the researchers compare to capturing lightning as thunder. This conversion is critical if we ever want to shift from our current, inefficient electronic computers, to light-based computers that move data at the speed of light.

Light-based or photonic computers have the potential to run at least 20 times faster than your laptop, not to mention the fact that they won't produce heat or suck up energy like existing devices. This is because they would process data in the form of photons instead of electrons.

Coding information into photons is easy but finding a way for a computer chip to be able to retrieve and process information stored in photons is difficult because it's too fast for existing microchips to read. This is why light-based information that flies across internet cables is currently converted into slow electrons. But a better alternative would be to slow down the light and convert it into sound. And that's exactly what researchers from the University of Sydney have now done.

This means that computers could have the benefits of data delivered by light - high speeds, no heat caused by electronic resistance, and no interference from electromagnetic radiation - but would also be able to slow that data down enough so that computers chips could do something useful with it. The team did this by developing a memory system that accurately transfers between light and sound waves on a photonic microchip - the kind of chip that will be used in light-based computers.

Full story: Science Alert / Nature Communications Back to top

New method for testing blood with sound waves developed
September 20, 2017

Scientists have developed a new method for testing blood via sound waves, which could lead to a compact, portable testing kit that's simpler and more straightforward than the equipment in use today. The test targets exosomes - tiny packets released by cells to carry messages around the body, including information about disease. Intercept those packets, and you can learn a lot about the body's health.

Existing test methods like ultracentrifuges or chemical tags also risk damaging the blood samples along the way, something which won't happen with the new technique, according to the international team of researchers who developed it.

Blood is passed through a very small channel and exposed to two tilted acoustic transducers, and as the sound waves from these transducers meet, they form pressure points. These points can be used to divert cells into different channels depending on their size, and here the researchers use two of the devices: one to sort out the cells and platelets from the blood, and one to isolate the exosomes with higher frequency sounds.

Exosomes have previously been flagged up as markers for cancer, kidney problems, and neurodegenerative disease, among other health issues - so getting a device that can be taken anywhere and can pick out exosomes from blood quickly would be a big win.

Using the new device, scientists were able to process a 100-microlitre, undiluted blood sample in less than 25 minutes. What's more, it could help doctors analyse the condition of hard-to-reach organs - such as the placenta during pregnancy - by extracting and quickly testing blood samples.

Full story: Science Alert / PNAS Back to top

Could we store carbon dioxide as liquid lakes under the sea?
September 18, 2017

As well as cutting our emissions of CO2, it is becoming increasingly likely that we will have to actively remove the gas from the air to keep Earth's temperature at a safe level - which is now agreed to be no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above that in preindustrial times.

But where should we put the carbon? Most attention has focused on burying it underground, perhaps by injecting it into depleted oil and gas fields. This approach has been tested and seems to work, but it is unclear whether people will accept this fix.

Now Steve Goldthorpe, an energy analyst based in New Zealand, has suggested a radical alternative: dump the CO2 in deep ocean trenches, where it can sit permanently as a liquid lake. The crucial point, says Goldthorpe, is that once the CO2 reaches a depth of about 3000 metres, its density exceeds that of water - so it will naturally sink to the bottom and stay there.

Goldthorpe used Google Earth to explore the seabed and identify a suitable storage site. He found a deep ocean trench around 6 kilometres down, called the Sunda trench, just south of the Indonesian archipelago.

Full story: New Scientist / Energy Procedia Back to top

Scientists make alcohol out of thin air
September 16, 2017

Researchers from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands say they have found a way to make alcohol out of thin air, and the technique might even save the world in the bargain. While this research sounds like a great way to get tipsy sans tipping - and hypothetically it could be - it's actually all about repurposing the dangerous levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Carbon capturing involves various technologies for extracting carbon emissions from things like coal-fired power plants before they have a chance to drift away and escape into the atmosphere. One of the ways of doing this is what's known as carbon capture and storage (CCS), in which treated atmospheric carbon can be pumped underground where over time it fuses into solid rock.

But an emerging alternative to carbon sequestration called carbon capture and utilisation (CCU) may prove to be a lot more useful to humanity than just channelling our emissions into the ground. Instead, CCU seeks to repurpose carbon dioxide into other chemicals that we can use, like baking soda, or alternative fuel sources.

The Delft researchers have come up a new method for controlling a process called electroreduction, which is used in CCU to turn CO2 into other kinds of molecules. Different metals used during electroreduction can be used to produce different chemical results. By changing these metals, and altering the lengths of the nanowires used for electroreduction, the electric potential in the reaction can be tuned, meaning it's possible to make any carbon-based product we want.

Those products could include ethanol (C2H5OH) - the kind of alcohol we consume in alcoholic beverages - plus other forms such as methanol, and other molecules too, such as formic acid (HCOOH), which could help power fuel cells in the future.

Full story: Science Alert Back to top

Handheld scanner divines how nutritious your food really is
September 20, 2017

Farmers can now zap their crops with a handheld scanner to instantly determine nutritional content, which could prove crucial in mitigating the effects of climate change on food quality. It also brings similar consumer gadgets a step closer - so we can find out what is in our food for ourselves.

The device, called GrainSense, analyses wheat, oats, rye and barley by scanning a sample with various frequencies of near-infrared light. The amount of each type of light that is absorbed allows it to precisely determine the levels of protein, moisture, oil and carbohydrate in the grain. This technique has been used for decades in the lab, but this is the first time it has been available instantly on a handheld device.

GrainSense requires a sample of just 50 to 100 kernels and can reveal their composition in about 5 seconds. This information, along with the GPS coordinates of where the measurements were taken, is linked to a mobile app. Farmers can use the app to assess the impact of changing conditions, such as extreme weather and soil quality, on the quality of their crops from year to year.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

3D-printed alloys could lead to lighter planes that fly further
September 20, 2017

A new process for 3D-printing things could pave the way for lighter, faster aircraft that potentially fly further on the same amount of fuel.

Today's aeroplanes are held together with thousands of metal rivets and fasteners. That's because the lightweight but strong aluminium alloys used for their frames are considered unweldable. Try to weld them and you get a phenomenon called hot-cracking, in which the finished alloy weakens and fractures as it cools. This and other adverse welding effects also stand in the way of 3D-printing high-strength aluminium alloy parts. When researchers have tried, the resulting laser-fused mass flakes away at the welding area like a stale biscuit.

But now researchers at HRL Laboratories in Malibu, California, seem to have overcome this long-standing problem, after developing a way to 3D-print the two most commonly used types of high-strength aluminium alloys. These alloys are not only highly desirable for aircraft, but also for cars and trucks. In addition, the method opens up the possibility of using 3D-printing processes in a similar way to create high-strength steels and nickel-based superalloys. Nano-coating

The team's trick was to coat the metal particles with specially selected nanoparticles that seed and create a framework of the desired alloy microstructure as the laser-heated metal solidifies. As it cools, the molten alloy follows the crystalline pattern set by these nanoparticles, preventing hot-cracking. That means the final, manufactured part retains its full physical strength.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Initiative to build African science journalism capacity
September 19, 2017

A two-year programme has been launched to build the capacity of science journalists and improve science coverage in Africa. It was launched this month recognising the important role of science journalism in promoting Africa's socioeconomic development.

The project is being funded by the African Academy of Sciences (AAS) with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and in partnership with the African Federation of Science Journalists (AFSJ) and the South African Science Journalists Association.

The project will focus on AAS' strategic focus areas including health and wellbeing, climate change, food security and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It will target journalists from Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa in the first phase. After the project's successful implementation in the four countries, it will be opened to more countries in Africa such as Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

Through the project, journalists will be mentored in science reporting by senior science journalists in Africa, and in the rest of the world, to refine and improve their pitches, help them build stories and write credible articles.

Full story: SciDev Back to top