Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 34, 2012

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Issue 34, 2012

This week's headlines:

New vaccine may give lifelong protection from flu
November 25, 2012

Flu season has come early this year in parts of the northern hemisphere, and many people are scrambling to get their annual vaccination. That ritual may someday be history. In a first for any infectious disease, a vaccine against flu has been made out of messenger RNA (mRNA) - the genetic material that controls the production of proteins. Unlike its predecessors, the new vaccine may work for life, and it may be possible to manufacture it quickly enough to stop a pandemic.

We become immune to a flu strain when our immune system learns to recognise key proteins HA and NA on the surface of the flu virus. Flu constantly evolves, however, so those proteins change and your immunity to one year's strain does not extend to following year's and a new vaccine has to be produced each year. Most flu vaccines are grown in chicken eggs or cell culture, a process that takes at least six months.

Now there could be a solution. The mRNA that controls the production of HA and NA in a flu virus can be mass-produced in a few weeks, says Lothar Stitz of the Friedrich-Loeffler Institute in Riems Island, Germany. This mRNA can be turned into a freeze-dried powder that does not need refrigeration, unlike most vaccines.

An injection of mRNA is picked up by immune cells, which translate it into protein. These proteins are then recognised by the body as foreign, generating an immune response. The immune system will then recognise the proteins if it encounters the virus subsequently, allowing it to fight off that strain of flu. Vaccines that work against all flu strains could eventually be given once in childhood, like vaccines for other diseases. Meanwhile, Stitz is also working on an mRNA vaccine for rabies.

Full story: New Scientist / Nature Biotechnology Back to top

British company claims biggest engine advance since the jet
November 28, 2012

A small British company with a dream of building a re-usable space plane has won an important endorsement from the European Space Agency (ESA) after completing key tests on its novel engine technology. Reaction Engines Ltd believes its Sabre engine, which would operate like a jet engine in the atmosphere and a rocket in space, could displace rockets for space access and transform air travel by bringing any destination on Earth to no more than four hours away.

The space plane, dubbed Skylon, only exists on paper. What the company has right now is a remarkable heat exchanger that is able to cool air sucked into the engine at high speed from 1,000 degrees Celsius to minus 150 degrees in one hundredth of a second. This core piece of technology solves one of the constraints that limit jet engines to a top speed of about 2.5 times the speed of sound, which Reaction Engines believes it could double. With the Sabre engine in jet mode, the air has to be compressed before being injected into the engine's combustion chambers. Without pre-cooling, the heat generated by compression would make the air hot enough to melt the engine.

The Sabre engine could take a plane to five times the speed of sound and an altitude of 25 km, about 20% of the speed and altitude needed to reach orbit. For space access, the engines would then switch to rocket mode to do the remaining 80%. If the developers are successful, Sabre would be the first engine in history to send a vehicle into space without using disposable, multi-stage rockets. The heat exchanger technology could also be incorporated into a new jet engine design that could cut 5 to 10% off airline fuel bills.

Full story: Reuters Back to top

Mega-risks that could drive us to extinction
November 26, 2012

The end is not nigh, but it could be unless we constrain our own technological ingenuity. That's the warning from an initiative in Cambridge, UK, that wants to create a centre to focus on huge, technological hazards that could wipe out the human race at a stroke. These dangers would include robots that escape our control, nuclear war, doomsday plagues designed in laboratories, and devastation from climate change triggered by human activity.

'We're talking about threats to our very existence stemming from human activity,' says Martin Rees, a professor of cosmology and astrophysics at the University of Cambridge. Along with Cambridge philosopher Huw Price and Jaan Tallinn, inventor of Skype, he has founded the Cambridge Project for Existential Risk. Wrong focus

Rees says we focus too much on tiny risks that are widespread, such as trace contaminants in food, and too little on massive, one-off risks that could wipe us out. To counteract this, Rees, Price and Tallinn are proposing creating a Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at Cambridge. The centre would, hopefully, forestall our extinction by exploring how these mega-risks can be predicted and controlled.

'We need to take seriously the possibility that there might be a ''Pandora's box'' moment with artificial intelligence that, if missed, could be catastrophic,' says Price. That critical point might come when computers can write their own programs, he says. New concerns about 'killer' robots also emerged last month in the US, where the non-governmental organisation Human Rights Watch released a report entitled Losing humanity: the case against killer robots.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Self-filling bottle harvests water from air
November 26, 2012

Did you know that there are more than three quadrillion gallons of water just floating around in the air? Due to climate change water will become an even more precious resource in the coming decades. Although the freshwater rivers and lakes from which we source drinking water may dry up, scientists hope that advanced technology will allow them to harvest this atmospheric water as a new supply.

There is already a wind turbine concept that plucks water from desert air but that is hardly a practical investment for the average individual. Now, new developments from a company called NBD Nano suggests this technology may be in our hands sooner than previously thought. The company has pioneered a bottle that can refill itself with drinkable water harvested from the air.

NBD Nano's water bottle concept was inspired by the Namib Desert Beetle, which is capable of thriving in extremely dry environments because it is capable of absorbing water from the air.

In the novel design, the water bottle's surface is coated with hydrophilic and hydrophobic coatings, and then a fan is used to pass air over the surface. The water condenses on the surface and, eventually, the water bottle refills itself. The design could operate using a rechargeable battery or solar cell to speed-up accumulation and filter the water. NBD hopes to bring this off-grid water bottle to market by 2014.

Full story: TG Daily / EarthTechling Back to top

Scientists use sunlight to produce steam without boiling water
November 24, 2012

Steam can be used to power all sorts of things, and has for centuries. While using steam as a power source is relatively benign for the planet, the process of making steam it quite energy intensive. A team of scientists, however, think they can improve on the process. Their research has produced positive results, including a revolutionary new way to use sunlight to produce steam and other vapours without heating an entire container of fluid to the boiling point.

The secret to producing steam without boiling water lies in nanotechnology. The report explains that metallic nanoparticles illuminated by light can be brought to 100 degrees Celsius, the boiling point of water, much faster than water. Steam then forms around the surface of each nanoparticle, and eventually, the vapour escapes from the particle, forming nanobubbles that float to the top of the surface and escape as water vapour or steam.

Because millions of these nanoparticles can be easily added to water the development has major implications for industries that rely on steam. They include more energy-efficient distillation of alcohol, a new and highly practical strategy for desalination and water purification and compact solar-driven sources of steam for sterilization and sanitation in resource-poor locations.

Full story: TG Daily / EarthTechling / ACS Nano Back to top

Junk radio signals track all space debris in one go
November 29, 2012

Call it Junk FM. Rogue signals from your radio may help warn about space debris on a dangerous collision course with Earth. Stray FM signals from radios, bouncing back off space junk, could allow astronomers to track the whole population of space debris, suggest preliminary tests conducted this week at the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) radio telescope in Western Australia.

More than 21,000 pieces of debris larger than 10 cm are currently zipping around Earth at speeds of around 7 km per second, according to NASA. Friction created by brushes with Earth's upper atmosphere can sometimes cause pieces of space junk to drop from orbit, creating a small but real risk for humans. Meanwhile, millions of smaller pieces in orbit present a serious risk to satellites. This junk is tracked using traditional radar or lasers, but the system has its limits.

The MWA is a set of some 2000 radio antennas spread out over 3 km. Because of its extraordinarily wide field of view, the MWA can continuously track objects rather than just calculate their orbits from snapshots. That will improve our understanding of how much space junk exists and how much more is being created. Continuous tracking would also improve orbital modelling in general and allow better protection of space assets.

To test the radio-tracking concept, the team used the MWA to pick up FM signals rebounding off the International Space Station, which is more than 100 metres wide. The team could clearly track the orbiting lab as it moved about 8 kilometres. Now that they know it works, the technique should be easy to scale down to objects as small as 10 centimetres.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Cellphone use is contagious, study finds
November 29, 2012

Cellphone use is ubiquitous, and new research shows it may be socially contagious, too. People are more likely to pull out their phones to check their text messages or email if they are with someone who has just done the same, the study found.

Researchers at the University of Michigan watched students in dining halls and coffee shops around campus between January and April 2011. They unobtrusively observed pairs of students sitting at tables for as long as 20 minutes and documented their cellphone use at 10-second intervals.

Overall, the students used their cellphones in an average of 24% of the intervals, the researchers found. But they were significantly more likely to use their phones (39.5%) when their companion had just done so in the previous 10-second interval than without the social cue, the researchers said, adding that this behaviour was often repeated.

The team believe this pattern could be related to the effects of social inclusion and exclusion. If one person in a pair engages in an external conversation through their phone, his or her companion may feel excluded. That companion then might be compelled to connect with others externally so as not to feel left out.

The researchers note that they might not observe the same results in a study of different demographics - for example, in older adults, who may not use cellphones as habitually.

Full story: Yahoo! / LiveScience / Human Ethology Bulletin Back to top