Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 1, 2009

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Issue 1, 2009

This week's headlines:

Artificial molecule evolves in the lab
January 08, 2009

A new molecule that performs the essential function of life - self-replication - could shed light on the origin of all living things. The laboratory-born ribonucleic acid (RNA) strand also evolves in a test tube to double itself ever more swiftly.

Rather than start with RNA enzymes - ribozymes - present in other organisms, the team created its own molecule from scratch, called R3C. It performed a single function: stitching two shorter RNA molecules together to create a clone of itself. Further tinkering made this molecule better at copying itself, but eventually clogged up in shapes that could no longer sew RNA pieces together. To improve R3C, the researchers redesigned the molecule to forge a sister RNA that could itself join two other pieces of RNA into a functioning ribozyme. That way, each molecule makes a copy of its sister, a process called cross replication. The population of two doubles and doubles until there are no more starting bits of RNA left.

The researchers sought to evolve their molecule by natural selection. They did this by mutating sequences of the RNA building blocks, so that 288 possible ribozymes could be built by mixing and matching different pairs of shorter RNAs. What came out bore an eerie resemblance to Darwin's theory of survival of the fittest: a few sequences proved winners, most losers. The victors emerged because they could replicate fastest while surrounded by competition.

Full story: New Scientist / Science Back to top

US scientists learn how to levitate tiny objects
January 07, 2009

Scientists at Harvard University in Massachusetts have found a way to levitate the very smallest objects using the strange forces of quantum mechanics, and might use it to help make tiny nanotechnology machines.

The researchers have detected and measured a force that comes into play at the molecular level using certain combinations of molecules that repel one another. The repulsion can be used to hold molecules aloft, in essence levitating them, creating virtually friction-free parts for tiny devices. Detection of this force opens the possibility of a whole new class of tiny gadgets, according to the scientists.

The discovery involves quantum mechanics, the principles that govern nature's smallest particles. By altering and combining molecules, tiny machines could be devised which could have applications in surgery, manufacturing food and fuel and boosting computer speed.

Full story: Reuters / Nature Back to top

Coffee next in line as biofuel source
December 31, 2008

Coffee grounds - currently wasted or used as garden compost - could become a cheap and environmentally friendly source of biodiesel and fuel pellets. Spent coffee grounds contain 11-20 per cent oil, depending on their type. This is competitive with other major biodiesel feedstocks such as rapeseed oil (37-50$), palm oil (20$), and soybean oil (20%).

Scientists at the University of Nevada, Reno, used an inexpensive process to extract oil from the coffee leftovers from a multinational coffeehouse chain. This oil was then converted into biodiesel, which could be used to fuel cars and trucks.

The world's coffee production is more than 7.2 million tonnes per year, according to US Department of Agriculture figures cited in the study. This could yield about 340 million gallons of biodiesel, say the researchers. The process would be ideal for countries where coffee is produced. A lot of defective coffee beans are discarded into the landfills every year. Processing these beans as well as coffee grounds would be an economical approach, according to the researchers.

Full story: / Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry Back to top

Breakthrough turn-on for hydrogen power
January 07, 2009

Producing hydrogen from biofuels has been dogged by difficulties and usually hydrogen is created using natural gas in fossil fuels, which produces large amounts of CO2. Now scientists from the University of Aberdeen say they have achieved a leap forward in the process.

Using a catalyst, the researchers have converted ethanol fermented from biofuels into hydrogen. Although this has been done before, it has never been effective and produced waste products such as poisonous carbon monoxide. The catalyst used by the researchers is made from the rare metals rhodium and palladium. Although these are expensive, only very small quantities are needed. However, the disadvantage to the process is that it requires temperatures of about 500C in order to work.

The process starts with fermentation. Crops are fermented using yeast, producing ethanol and water. Then the catalyst is added to the mix of ethanol and water, at temperatures of about 500C, which converts it into hydrogen and carbon dioxide.

Full story: The Scotsman / ChemSusChem Back to top

A low-energy water purifier
January 08, 2009

Access to clean water is severely limited in many parts of the world, and while desalination plants can separate freshwater from sea and brackish water, they typically require large amounts of electricity or heat to do so. This has prevented desalination from being economically viable in many poorer cities and countries. Oasys, a Yale University spinoff, is driving one effort to change all this. Its researchers have developed a novel desalination device that reduces the energy needed to purify water to one-tenth of that required by conventional systems.

The most common approach to desalination is reverse osmosis, which involves forcing a solution through a semipermeable membrane using hydraulic pressure or thermal evaporation. The energy required to do this has spawned new thinking on lower-energy technologies. Oasys is using what it calls engineered osmosis. It establishes an osmotic pressure gradient instead of using pressure or heat to force water through a purifying membrane. The approach exploits the fact that water naturally flows from a dilute region to one that is more concentrated when the two solutions are separated by a semipermeable material, thereby saving the energy normally needed to drive the process.

In Oasys's system, a 'draw solution' is added on one side of the membrane to extract clean water from dirty water. The solution used by Oasys is designed to have a high osmotic pressure and be easy to remove through heating.

Full story: Technology Review Back to top

Controlling rotor speed smooths wind power supply
January 07, 2009

A way to make wind power smoother and more efficient that exploits the inertia of a wind turbine rotor could help solve the problem of wind speed variation, according to new research. Wind is intermittent so the power output of wind farms can be variable. Proposed measures to smooth these fluctuations usually involve the installation of batteries or capacitors to store electricity on good days and release their energy on still days or when wind speeds are too high for system stability.

Now, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee have come up with a different solution. They have devised a novel control method that can mitigate power fluctuations using the inertia of the wind turbine's rotor as an energy storage component. Simply put, they have created a braking control algorithm that adjusts the rotor speed so that when incoming wind power is greater than the average power, the rotor is allowed to speed up so that it can store the excess energy as kinetic energy rather than generating electricity. This energy is then released when the wind power falls below average.

This approach, the team explains, precludes the need for external energy storage facilities such as capacitors and the additional infrastructure and engineering they entail. Their method also captures wind energy more effectively and so improves the overall efficiency of wind farming potentially reducing the number of turbines required at any given site.

Full story: / International Journal of Power Electronics Back to top

New tool enables powerful data analysis
January 08, 2009

A powerful computing tool that allows scientists to extract features and patterns from enormously large and complex sets of raw data has been developed by scientists at University of California, Davis, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The algorithm is compact enough to run on computers with as little as two gigabytes of memory.

As the size of data sets has burgeoned, hand-in-hand with computer capacity, analysis has grown increasingly difficult. A mathematical tool to extract and visualize useful features from data sets has existed for nearly 40 years - in theory. Called the Morse-Smale complex, it partitions sets by similarity of features and encodes them into mathematical terms. But working with the Morse-Smale complex is not easy.

The new algorithm divides data sets into parcels of cells, then analyses each parcel separately using the Morse-Smale complex. Results of those computations are then merged together. As new parcels are created from merged parcels, they are analysed and merged yet again. At each step, data that do not need to be stored in memory are discarded, drastically reducing the computing power required to run the calculations.

Full story: Eureka Alert / IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics Back to top

Artificial butterfly flaps like a pro
January 05, 2009

Flying insects continue to inspire roboticists. Early in 2008, US researchers added an artificial control system to the brain of moths, effectively creating remote controlled cyborg insects. Meanwhile, others are busy creating winged robots that flap around like real insects.

A few months ago, Dutch researchers designed a robotic dragonfly with a wingspan of just 10 centimetres. And now there's a robotic butterfly to add to the collection, courtesy of the Shimoyama-Matsumoto Laboratory at the University of Tokyo. The 'butterfly' is simply a rubber band-powered ornithopter, with wings created from a polymer membrane and supported by plastic veins. But it does a remarkably good impression of a butterfly once it's in the air. Its simple design would make a great DIY kit.

The study helped the researchers work out the best design for flying in a forwards direction, and their robot has clearly mastered the art. It still seems to only lose rather than gain altitude, but presumably further study will crack that problem.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Could your social networks spill your secrets?
January 07, 2009

Data-mining techniques are being used by marketeers and security services to extract sometimes private information by assembling huge amounts of data from web visits, emails, purchases, and more. Now researchers at Google caution that by becoming entangled in ever more social networks online, people are building up their own piles of revealing data. And as more websites gain social features, even the things users strive to keep private won't necessarily stay that way.

As a hypothetical example, combining public information on, say, the business social network LinkedIn with that on another like MySpace could reveal that one of your key business contacts spends their free time in full Kiss makeup, even their two profiles are kept relatively anonymous and are not linked directly in any way. That approach is dubbed 'merging social graphs' by the researchers. In fact, it has already been used to identify some users of the DVD rental site Netflix, from a supposedly anonymised dataset released by the company. The identities were revealed by combining the Netflix data with user activity on movie site IMDb.

The Google team's proposed solution is a kind of privacy warning system. When you sign up for a new online service, it would take a look on the internet and let you know if there's a risk that the new information you are uploading could be used to make connections about you.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Invention: Software research assistant
January 02, 2009

Having to become quickly knowledgeable about something you know little about is a problem many people will be familiar with. Now Ari Rappaport at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem thinks he has a solution.

He has written a computer program that analyses a section of text and then searches the internet for relevant background information from dictionaries, maps, encyclopaedias and video and image databases.

It then creates an annotated version of the text, stuffed with links to the background material. This should dramatically improve a reader's ability to understand the text, Rappaport says.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top