Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 15, 2015

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Issue 15, 2015

This week's headlines:

Dutch saltwater potatoes offer hope for world's hungry
April 29, 2015

A small field on an island off the Netherlands' northern coast promises one answer to the problem of how to feed the world's ever-growing population: potatoes and other crops that grow in saltwater.

Every day, swathes of farmland somewhere in the world become unusable because of salty soil, but farmers on windswept Texel are finding solutions using traditional methods.

The team, supported by Amsterdam University, has planted around 30 types of potato and their approach is simple: anything that dies in the saline environment is abandoned, and anything that lives they try to follow up on. The experiments do not just target potatoes, but also look at how other crops grow in saltwater, including carrots, strawberries, onions and lettuce.

The plants are irrigated using pumps that manage water down to the drop, so the plant and soil salinity can be accurately measured and the effect of 'sweet' rainwater taken into account.

The world loses around 2,000 hectares of agricultural land a day to salt-induced degradation in 75 countries, caused by bad or absent irrigation, according to the UN's Institute for Water, Environment and Health. The 'salt' potatoes could transform the lives of thousands of farmers in affected regions and, in the long term, those of around 250 million people who live on salt-afflicted soil.

Full story: Yahoo! / AFP Back to top

Step forward for quantum computing
May 01, 2015

Quantum computers could offer a massive performance boost over conventional types, but progress toward commercially useful machines has been slow. Now, scientists from IBM's Watson Research Center have successfully demonstrated a new method for correcting errors on a quantum circuit.

The basic units of information in classical computers are called 'bits' and are stored as a string of 1s and 0s. But their equivalents in a quantum system - qubits - can be both 1s and 0s at the same time. In theory, this should give quantum machines much greater computational power than conventional types.

But quantum information is fragile, and errors in calculations carried out in a quantum system can creep in through interference from factors such as heat, electromagnetic radiation and defects in materials. Controlling or removing such errors is one of the great challenges for harnessing the power of quantum computing.

The IBM team was able to detect and measure two key types of quantum error (called bit-flip and phase-flip) that will occur in any real quantum computer. The team demonstrated its error-protection protocols on a quantum circuit consisting of a square lattice of four superconducting qubits on a chip roughly one-quarter inch square.

IBM says the square shape of the circuit makes it more scalable than the linear arrays that have been used by other groups.

Full story: BBC News / Nature Communications Back to top

Using water and air to run a car
April 30, 2015

Researchers at Audi are making synthetic diesel fuel using only water and air. The German carmaker announced it has created the first batch of liquid 'e-diesel' at a research facility in Dresden. The clear fuel is produced through a 'power to liquid' process, masterminded by the German clean tech company and Audi partner Sunfire. The process uses carbon dioxide captured directly from air.

Unlike conventional fossil fuels, the 'e-diesel' doesn't contain sulphur and other contaminants. The engine also runs quieter and fewer pollutants are being created, according to Sunfire.

The fuel is produced in three steps. First, the researchers heat up steam to very high temperatures to break it down into hydrogen and oxygen. This process requires temperatures of over 800 degrees Celsius and is powered by green energy such as solar or wind power. Second, they mix the hydrogen with carbon dioxide under pressure and at high temperature to create so-called blue crude. Lastly, the blue crude is refined into fuels in a similar way fossil crude oil is refined into gasoline.

Audi said its lab tests have shown the 'e-diesel' can be mixed with fossil fuels or used as a fuel on its own. Sunfire said its plant is set to produce more than 3,000 litres of the 'e-diesel' over the coming months. The company said it was aiming for a pre-tax price of between 1 and 1.20 euros per litre, compared to the current German pre-tax price of around 0.6 euros per litre of gasoline.

Full story: CNN Back to top

Long-term exposure to air pollution leads to cognitive impairment
April 26, 2015

According to a new study, long-term exposure to polluted air could cause indirect physical modifications in the brain that may lead to cognitive impairment and unnoticeable brain injury.

The study, conducted by the researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health, states that long-term exposure to air pollution - even at low levels - can lead to brain damage that precedes other neurological disorders associated with old age.

For their study, the researchers tested the effects of long-term exposure to PM2.5, or fine particles found in the air like dust, dirt, soot, smoke, and liquid that measure less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter. Between 1995 and 2005, they used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to analyze the brain health of more than 900 healthy adults over the age of 60 living around Boston and New York.

They found that a PM2.5 increase of 2 micrograms per cubic metre of air, which is a common level in metropolitan regions, was linked to a 0.32% reduction in total brain volume and a 46% increased risk of covert brain infarcts, a type of so-called silent stroke. This often presents no outward symptoms but increases the risk of future strokes. These covert brain infarcts occur deep within the brain and are linked to poor cognitive function and dementia.

Full story: Daily Science Journal / American Heart Association journal Stroke Back to top

Li-ion battery's inner workings revealed
April 28, 2015

Scientists have for the first time looked inside an overheating lithium-ion battery, using sophisticated X-ray imaging to identify ways to make the ubiquitous technology safer.

Light and rechargeable, the Li-ion battery powers our world - everything from mobile phones, cameras and computers to electric cars and recently also e-cigarettes. In rare cases, they can be dangerous, overheating and exploding. Some airlines have banned bulk shipment of Li-ion batteries after tests showed that failure in one can cause a potentially catastrophic chain reaction.

Scientists from University College London (UCL) say they now have better insight into how the failure happens. Using a combination of high-speed X-ray tomography, radiography and thermal imaging, the team was able to describe how overheating causes gas pockets to form inside the battery, deforming its inner layers. Overheating can happen due to electrical or mechanical abuse or the presence of an external heat source - for example failure of a neighbouring cell in a larger battery pack.

Depending on the cell design, there are a range of critical temperatures which, when reached, will trigger further exothermic events, which also generate heat. Once the rate of heat generation exceeds the rate of heat dissipation into the environment, the temperature of the cell starts to rise, thereafter a sequence of detrimental events propagates in a process known as thermal runaway, according to the researchers.

Full story: Yahoo! / AFP / Nature Communications Back to top

Paper turned into an eco-friendly light-emitting display
April 29, 2015

A light-emitting display has been created out of ordinary paper. It could one day make disposable displays for packaging or newspapers, using cheap and environmentally friendly materials.

Researchers from Umea University in Sweden sprayed six layers of different materials onto a piece of paper: an adhesive, four layers that carry current and turn electricity into light and a capping layer to keep it all in place. When juiced with 11 volts, the paper glows as bright as many computer displays.

The researchers say it could be a low-cost alternative to LEDs, which are usually used for illumination, and OLEDs, which are used for high-end displays. LEDs are efficient but expensive, so a cheap, eco-friendly version could have traction. The light can be printed in the same way as a newspaper, is highly flexible and, unlike glass displays, doesn't break into dangerous shards.

Other uses for light-emitting paper could include tagging goods so that they automatically light up when close to their expiry date, notifying a patient who has forgotten to take their medication, or easily tracking and identifying packages in a big pile.

Full story: New Scientist / Advanced Functional Materials Back to top

Nasa unveils shape-changing bird-like plane wing
April 29, 2015

Nasa has developed a plane wing that can change shape during flight. The US space agency says the new wing will save millions of dollars annually in fuel costs, reduce airframe weight and decrease aircraft noise during take-offs and landings. The joint project involved Nasa, Air Force Research Laboratory and private tech firm FlexSys.

During six months of testing, an aircraft featuring the experimental control surfaces was flown at fixed flap angles ranging from -2 degrees to 30 degrees for data collection purposes, Nasa said.

But the flexible Adaptive Compliant Trailing Edge (ACTE) wing is designed to go through the full range of positions during a flight, making the operation of the wing much more like that of a bird. Making the wing seamless allows for smoother airflow, which reduces friction and so cuts fuel costs.

FlexSys says its smart materials technology, which can be retrofitted to existing planes, can increase fuel efficiency by between 5% and 12%, and reduce noise on take-off and landing by up to 40%. The conventional jet wing contains ailerons, flaps, slats and air brakes, all requiring mechanical mechanisms that add weight and drag.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

Police can now tell identical twins apart - just melt their DNA
April 24, 2015

Standard DNA analysis can pin down a guilty criminal, but it can be tough if the suspects are identical twins, who share the same genetic code. But there is now a test that could tell identical twins apart in a matter of hours and reveal who that genetic material came from.

To find out if a suspect's DNA matches that recovered from the scene of a crime, forensic scientists compare parts of DNA sequences that are known to be especially variable between individuals. This isn't useful when two identical twins are both suspects. In these cases, scientists can sequence the entire genome of both individuals and look for any subtle, rare differences that may have resulted from genetic mutations, but the procedure is expensive and takes about a month.

Researchers at the University of Huddersfield, UK, have a different way - to look for modifications to the twins' DNA that have come about as a result of their lifestyles. Such epigenetic changes occur when a chemical group known as a methyl group attaches to a gene and modifies the way it is expressed. This happens as a body is influenced by a person's environment, lifestyle and disease.

The team took mouth swabs from five pairs of twins. After extracting the DNA from each sample, the group used a chemical to target parts of the DNA that did not have methyl groups attached, and change the number of hydrogen bonds at these points. Any difference in the number of hydrogen bonds should change the melting point of a compound.

When the team heated up the twins' DNA samples, they found the melting points were different - allowing them to tell the twins apart genetically. The test was also much quicker than whole genome sequencing and was done in just a few hours, according to the researchers.

Full story: New Scientist / Analytical Biochemistry Back to top