Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 22, 2012

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Issue 22, 2012

This week's headlines:

Nuclear power could come from the oceans
August 22, 2012

Nuclear reactors could soon be fuelled with uranium harvested from the ocean, thanks to a new material. Developed at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), HiCap combines high-capacity reusable adsorbents and high-surface-area polyethylene fibres. It vastly outperforms today's best adsorbents, which perform surface retention of solid or gas molecules, atoms or ions, says the team, and also effectively removes toxic metals from water.

The discovery could mean that it is for the first time economically viable to extract some of the ocean's estimated 4.5bn tons of uranium. Although it is spread very thinly the sheer volume means there would be enough to fuel the world's nuclear reactors for centuries.

Scientists around the world have been attempting to extract uranium from the oceans at a reasonable cost since the 1960s - until now, without success. But the ORNL team believes it has finally done it, by making the adsorbents from small-diameter, round or non-round fibres with high surface areas. By tailoring the diameter and shape of the fibres, they can significantly increase surface area and adsorption capacity.

ORNL has also come up with a new way of manufacturing the adsorbent fibres that means they can recover metals more quickly and with increased adsorption capacity. When HiCap adsorbents are placed in water, the uranium's quickly trapped. When they are taken out, the metals are extracted using a simple acid elution method, and the adsorbent treated and reused.

Full story: TG Daily Back to top

Robot learns to recognise itself in the mirror
August 22, 2012

Nico spends a lot of time looking in the mirror. But it's not mere vanity - Nico is a humanoid robot that can recognise its reflection - a step on the path towards true self-awareness. In fact, Nico can identify almost exactly where its arm is in space based on the mirror image.

Researchers at Yale University have taught Nico to recognise the arm's location and orientation down to accuracy of 2 centimetres in any dimension. It is a feat of spatial reasoning that no robot has ever accomplished before.

Nico is the centrepiece of a unique experiment to see whether a robot can tackle a classic test of self-awareness called the mirror test. What does it take to pass the test? An animal has to recognise that a mark on the body it sees in the mirror is in fact on its own body. Only dolphins, orcas, elephants, magpies, humans and a few other apes have passed the test so far.

Precise recognition of where its body is in space will be key if Nico is to get to grips with the mirror test, which by its nature is performed in 3D. Before it does, though, the robot will need to learn more about itself. The team plan to teach Nico how to recognise where its torso and head are, what shape they are, and their colour and texture so it can see and react to the mark on its body. Nico already understands how to connect movement of its limb to motion in its reflection, another important skill it achieved in an experiment in 2007.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Researchers identify gene that improves rice yields in poor soil
August 22, 2012

A gene that raises rice yields by enhancing root growth and nutrient absorption in low quality soils has been identified in a species of rice in India and successfully introduced into other rice varieties.

Scientists and rice breeders have known for years that Kasalath rice is unusually efficient at nutrient absorption, but only now have they succeeded in identifying the gene responsible for this important trait.

Researchers at the International Rice Research Institute in Manila described how they identified the gene after analyzing part of the Kasalath DNA where it was thought to be located and comparing it with other rice varieties without the trait.

Using conventional breeding methods, they introduced the gene into a few rice types in Indonesia, the Philippines and Japan and found that it raised yields by up to 20%.

The gene, PSTOL1, allows rice crops to thrive in soil that has low levels of phosphorus, a nutrient that promotes root growth, winter hardiness and hastens maturity. Plants deficient in phosphorus are often stunted.

Full story: Reuters Back to top

Scientists convert a 53,000-word book into DNA
August 16, 2012

In a scientific first, Harvard University researchers successfully transformed a 53,426-word book into DNA, the substance that provides the genetic template for all living things. The achievement could eventually lead to the mass adoption of DNA as a long-term storage medium.

The experiment aimed to demonstrate the viability of storing large amounts of data on DNA molecules. Since the data is recorded on individual nucleobase pairs in the DNA strand, DNA can actually store more information per cubic millimetre than flash memory or even some experimental storage techs.

The researchers started with the book's content, which included the text, 11 images and a javascript program, and converted it to binary code. Then they assigned every 0 and 1 a nucleobase. After that they started synthesizing the DNA strand, which would be 5.27m bases long. They made the journey by splitting it into small steps, each 96 bases long. When they were done, the book was a tiny speck of synthesized DNA that had about one-millionth the weight of a grain of sand.

Reading the DNA book was possible with a commercially available DNA-sequencing tech. After arranging the sequence, it was easy to decode it back to binary code, and then the complete book as an HTML file. The errors introduced by the process were just 10 bits out of 5.27m total.

Besides the storage density, DNA storage has two more advantages. The first is longevity; DNA lasts for thousands of years. The second is future-proofing: Since DNA is the basis of all life, future societies will always have technologies available to read it.

Full story: Mashable /IEEE Spectrum / Science Back to top

Will artificial vocal cords restore singing voices?
August 20, 2012

When vocal cords are damaged the impact can last a lifetime. It is not like a replacing a violin or restringing a guitar. It is why researchers are getting excited by the prospect of 'artificial vocal cords'. A team of US scientists believe they will be able to test the synthetic tissue, which would be injected into damaged vocal cords, next year.

When the lungs force air our through the vocal cords, the two folds of tissue vibrate to produce noise. If they are damaged, by straining them too hard or through surgery, the body's natural response is to create scar tissue. This is not as flexible as natural vocal cord tissue, leaving a person sounding hoarse.

Scientists at MIT have been trying to develop an artificial material which mimics vocal cords as closely as possible. They have tested a gel, called polyethylene glycol 30, which can flutter around 200 times per second - about the same speed as a woman during a conversation.

One of the challenges will be to get the artificial tissue to integrate properly with the natural vocal cords and work as a single unit, according to the researchers. The gel would last only for a relatively short time, so regular injections - possibly up to five a year - are thought to be needed.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

Heat-proof face paint to withstand bomb heat
August 22, 2012

If you thought your make-up's UV protection was good, how about face paint that can withstand the intense heat of a bomb blast? US researchers have created a camouflage face paint that may soon be used by soldiers and firemen to shield them from extreme heat.

As well as waves of pressure, exploding bombs emit blasts of heat that can exceed 600 °C. Such a blast may only last a couple of seconds, but that's long enough to cook human skin. A soldier's conventional camouflage make-up only makes matters worse as it contains oil and wax.

The US Department of Defense funded the researchers at the University of Southern Mississippi to tackle the problem. The team upgraded camouflage face paint by replacing its carbon base with silicone. Silicone is non-flammable as it absorbs heat outside of the spectrum produced by intense flames.

The new formula not only guarded skin for the 2 seconds required to withstand a bomb's heat blast, but protected naked hands and feet for 15 seconds before mild, first-degree burns appeared. This gives soldiers vital time to move away from burning areas.

The research team is putting together a colourless version for firemen. They're also working on a formula that could be used to fire-proof clothes and tents.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Bonobo genius makes stone tools like early humans did
August 21, 2012

Kanzi the bonobo continues to impress. Not content with learning sign language or making up 'words' for things like banana or juice, he now seems capable of making stone tools on a par with the efforts of early humans. Researchers of the University of Haifa sealed food inside a log to mimic marrow locked inside long bones, and watched Kanzi try to extract it. While a companion bonobo attempted the problem a handful of times, and succeeded only by smashing the log on the ground, Kanzi took a longer and arguably more sophisticated approach.

Both had been taught to knap flint flakes in the 1990s, holding a stone core in one hand and using another as a hammer. Kanzi used the tools he created to come at the log in a variety of ways: inserting sticks into seams in the log, throwing projectiles at it, and employing stone flints as choppers, drills, and scrapers. In the end, he got food out of 24 logs, while his companion managed just two.

Perhaps most remarkable about the tools Kanzi created is their resemblance to early hominid tools. Both bonobos made and used tools to obtain food - either by extracting it from logs or by digging it out of the ground. But only Kanzi's met the criteria for both tool groups made by early Homo: wedges and choppers, and scrapers and drills.

The findings will fuel the ongoing debate over whether stone tools mark the beginning of modern human culture, or predate our Homo genus. They appear to suggest the latter - though critics will point out that Kanzi and his companion were taught how to make the tools. Whether the behaviour could arise in nature is unclear.

Full story: New Scientist / PNAS Back to top