Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 7, 2013

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Issue 7, 2013

This week's headlines:

Liquid storage could make hydrogen a feasible fuel
February 27, 2013

A process for extracting hydrogen from a liquid fuel could remove one of the biggest hurdles to a 'hydrogen economy', researchers from the University of Rostock in Germany say. They have developed a catalyst that harvests the gas from methanol, a liquid fuel that — unlike hydrogen itself — can be easily transported and stored.

Hydrogen has a high energy density and is completely clean, burning to leave behind only water vapour as waste. It cannot be mined in large amounts, but proponents of a hydrogen economy say that it could be produced in vast quantities from water using excess electricity from wind turbines and solar plants. Unfortunately, hydrogen is difficult to store and transport safely unless compressed or liquefied, which is cumbersome and takes a lot of energy.

Locking the gas up in the form of solid or liquid chemicals is one answer. Many materials, however, either don’t trap much, or hold onto the hydrogen so tightly that it takes an unfeasible amount of energy to retrieve. That was the problem with methanol. It is straightforward to turn hydrogen into the liquid fuel. Methanol also traps a lot of hydrogen. Yet to release the gas, chemists have previously had to heat liquid methanol to 200 °C at 25–50 times atmospheric pressure.

The Rostock team have discovered a soluble ruthenium-based catalyst that can efficiently turn methanol into hydrogen at a mere 65–95 °C, and at ambient pressure. Although the process is still at an early stage and years away from commercialization, the researchers think that it could be enough to make methanol a viable energy carrier, delivering hydrogen for fuel cells in mobile phones, computers or even cars.

Full story: Nature Back to top

Quantum skyfall puts Einstein's gravity to the test
February 27, 2013

Dividing a falling cloud of frozen atoms sounds like an exotic weather experiment. In fact, it's the latest way to probe whether tiny objects obey Einstein's theory of general relativity, our leading explanation for gravity.

General relativity is based on the equivalence principle, which says that in free fall, all objects fall at the same rate, whatever their mass, provided the only force at work is gravity. That has been proven for large objects but whether equivalence holds at quantum scales, where gravity's effects are not well understood, isn't clear. Figuring it out could help create a quantum theory of gravity, one of the biggest goals of modern physics.

In 2010 a team at the University of Hannover monitored a quantum object in free fall, by tossing a Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC) – a cloud of chilled atoms that behaves as a single quantum object and so is both particle and wave – down a 110-metre tall tower. Now they have split and recombined the wave – all before the BEC, made of rubidium atoms, reached the bottom. This produces an interference pattern that records the path of the falling atoms and can be used to calculate their acceleration. The next step is to do the same experiment on a different kind of atom, with a different mass, to see if the equivalence principle holds.

The BEC can only be split for 100 milliseconds in the tower before hitting the bottom, so to allow tiny differences between the atom types to emerge, the work must be repeated in space, where the waves can be split for longer. By showing that a matter-wave can be split and recombined while falling, the Hannover team's result is a 'major step' towards the space version, says Charles Wang of the University of Aberdeen, UK.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

US research to be put online for free
February 27, 2013

You paid for it, so you should be able to see it. The US government has announced that all federally funded research results must be available for free online. The UK made a similar decision last year.

Most research papers are behind paywalls. Now all federal agencies that spend USD 100m annually on research and development will have to make their results freely available by a specified time after initial publication. The US government suggests 12 months as a suitable delay. According to John Holdren, director of the US Office of Science and Technology Policy, this will improve access to information while still allowing publishers to charge for early access.

The movement towards open access has been accelerating. Last July the UK government announced that all publicly funded research will be available for free starting in 2014. Furthermore, 13,000 researchers are boycotting the academic publisher Elsevier in protest at its high prices.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Media multi-tasking linked to depression
February 28, 2013

People who media multi-task are more likely to report feeling depressed or anxious, a new study at Michigan State University has found. From video games and SMS to Facebook and Twitter, the past decade has seen a dramatic increase in the use of media. While previous research has found a link between heavy media use and mental health problems, the Michigan team were interested in exploring the impact of 'how' people interact with media, specifically the degree to which they multi-task.

According to US statistics, overall media use among youth has increased by 20% during the past decade, but multi-tasking - simultaneously accessing two or more forms of media - has increased by more than 119% in the same period. Previous research has also linked multi-tasking with attention problems, which in turn has been linked to depression, so the researchers wanted to investigate this link a bit more closely.

The team surveyed 319 students to determine their level of media use, personality traits, level of multi-tasking, as well as their mood and levels of anxiety. The participants were asked about their use of television, computer-based video, music, non-musical video, video or computer games, telephone and mobile phone, instant messaging, SMS, email, web surfing, and other computer-based applications.

In their study sample they found a 70% increase in self-reported depressive symptoms between the group with lowest level of media multi-tasking and the group with highest level. When it came to social anxiety, there was a 42% increase between the groups. The researchers emphasise the findings cannot tell us whether media multi-tasking causes depression and anxiety or the other way around.

Full story: ABC Net / Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking Back to top

Holographs help firefighters spot victims through flames
February 28, 2013

Firefighters may soon be able to see through flames and find people trapped in burning buildings using a new holographic imaging technique.

Some fire departments already use infrared cameras to see through smoke, but these cameras use zoom lenses to collect and focus light. The intense infrared radiation emitted by flames can overwhelm the camera sensors and limit their use, the researchers explain.

The new technique developed by researchers from the National Institute of Optics in Italy makes use of a lens-free digital holography technology in the infrared range. Holography is a means of producing 3-D images of an object using two beams of light: an object beam and a reference beam. The object beam is shone onto the object being imaged. The reflected light is combined with the reference beam to create a pattern that encodes a 3-D image.

In the new technique a beam of infrared laser light is widely dispersed throughout a smoke-and-flame-filled room. A holographic imager records the reflected light and decodes it to reveal what lies behind the inferno. The result is a live, 3-D movie of the room and its contents. The next step is to develop a portable tripod-based system that houses both the laser source and the IR camera.

Full story: NBC News / Optics Express Back to top

Treat malware as biology to know it better
February 25, 2013

Classifying different kinds of malware is notoriously hard, but crucial if computer defences are to keep up with the ever-evolving ecosystem of malicious programs. Treating computer viruses as biological puzzle could help scientists get a better handle on the wide world of malware.

Researchers at the Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand, converted the signatures of 120 worms and viruses into an amino acid representation. The signatures are more usually presented in hexadecimals - a base-16 numbering system which uses the digits 0 to 9 as well as the letters a to f - but the amino acid 'alphabet' is better suited to machine-learning techniques that can analyse a piece of code to figure out whether it matches a known malware signature.

Generally, malware experts identify and calculate the signatures of new malware, but it can be hard for them keep up. While machine learning can help, it is limited because the hexadecimal signatures can be different lengths: The team found that using machine learning to help classify the hexadecimal malware signatures resulted in accuracy no better than flipping a coin.

But some techniques used in bioinformatics for comparing amino acid sequences take differing lengths into account. After applying these to malware, the team's average accuracy for classifying the signatures automatically using machine learning rose to 85%. Biology might help in other ways too. The researchers note that if further study shows malware evolution follows some of the same rules as amino acids and proteins, our knowledge of biological systems could be used to help fight it.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Married couple to travel to Mars
February 28, 2013

In less than five years, a married couple could be on their way to Mars in an audacious but bare-bones private mission that would slingshot them around the red planet. The voyage to Mars and back would be a cosmic no-frills flight that would take the husband-and-wife astronauts as close as 161 km to the planet, but it would also mean being cooped up for 16 months in a cramped space capsule half the size of a caravan.

The private, non-profit project, called Inspiration Mars, will get initial money from multimillionaire investment consultant Dennis Tito, the first space tourist. NASA will not be involved. Instead, the project's backers intend to use a private rocket and space capsule and some kind of habitat that might be inflatable, employing an austere design that could take people to Mars for a fraction of what it would cost NASA to do with robots, officials said.

The crew members will have no lander to go down to the planet, and no spacesuits to go out for a space walk. They will have minimal food and clothing, and their urine will be recycled into drinking water. It also involves a huge risk, more than a government agency like NASA would normally permit, officials concede.

The project aims to capitalise on the once-in-a-generation close approach of the two planets' orbits. The timeline for the 501-day mission is set out in a technical paper to be presented next month at a scientific meeting. It calls for a launch on January 5, 2018, a Mars flyby on August 20, 2018, and a return to Earth on May 21, 2019.

Full story: Sydney Morning Herald / AP Back to top