Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 2, 2018

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Issue 2, 2018

This week's headlines:

Space drones will give satellites a new lease of life
January 24, 2018

Satellites occupying valuable space in geostationary orbit will be given a new lease of life, thanks to a recent announcement by British aerospace company Effective Space. In 2020, the company will launch a fleet of space drones, which will take over the manoeuvring of a satellite after it runs out of fuel. The technology they have developed could prove to be a crucial advance in satellite operations in the near future, and will likely ignite a hugely competitive market.

Situated some 36,000 km above the Earth's equator, the Clarke belt is home to a ring of around 600 of our most important satellites. These satellites are in geostationary orbit, meaning they never move relative to a single point on the Earth's surface, allowing them to carry out operations ranging from weather forecasting to television broadcasting.

However, space in the Clarke belt is running out. Many satellites are designed to operate for 15 years of service. After that, the spacecraft are no longer able to control their positions and effectively become space junk that wastes a valuable Clarke belt position.

However, many of these satellites have communications hardware that still works perfectly well, and they could still be in use if only they could be re-positioned. Effective Space's drones offer one of the first solutions to this problem. The firm says its nonintrusive docking mechanism allows the drones to attach to satellites that are not designed for docking. Once in position, the space drones use their ion-propulsion systems to take over the manoeuvring of the satellite, either until its hardware malfunctions or until the company that operates it decides its mission has ended.

At the end of a satellite's life, the drones would then steer it into a 'graveyard orbit', in which it would safely burn up in Earth's atmosphere, freeing up precious Clarke belt space in the process. But the space drones would not suffer the same fate - they would detach from the doomed satellite and move on to their next mission.

Full story: PhysicsWorld Back to top

New experiment could finally unite the two biggest theories in physics
January 19, 2018

An idea for an experiment that could unite the fields of quantum mechanics and general relativity has been given new life by two groups of physicists from the UK. The fact that quantum theory doesn't play well with gravity is a massive stumbling block in physics, one that has long eluded some of the greatest minds in science.

Quantum mechanics is the modelling of discrete particles as probabilities that don't truly exist until we've nailed down a measurement. The general theory of relativity describes mass acting on a continuous, seamless fabric of space and time to give us gravity.

American physicist Richard Feynman came up with an experimental design in 1957. He imagined a small mass that existed as a probability - or superposition - between two places. Put into a gravitational field, the mass should be linked to the quantum properties of gravity in a phenomenon called entanglement.

To see if the field was truly quantised in nature, Feynman suggested looking for signs of interference between the two possible locations before measuring its 'real' position. If those two possible positions interfered with one another before they disentangled from the field, gravity would have a quantum nature that could be studied.

The authors of two new papers are proposing a slightly different approach to the experiment that could iron out some of the test's shortfalls. A duo of physicists from the University of Oxford set out a proof that any two quantum systems could be entangled through a third system, but only if it too was quantised. This opens the way for a pair of masses - each in superposition - to be coupled separately by being entangled with a quantum version of a gravitational field. If gravity isn't quantum, then there's no entanglement.

Based on this principle, a second team from UCL proposed details of an actual experiment that could use a hypothetical 'quantum gravity mediator' to entangle the spin of the two separate masses.

Full story: Science Alert / Physical Review Letters Back to top

Ocean plastics raise risk of coral reef disease
January 25, 2018

When coral reefs come in contact with plastic trash in the ocean, their risk of becoming diseased skyrockets, according to a new study. Researchers examined more than 120,000 corals on 159 reefs - some polluted with plastic, others not - from Indonesia, Australia, Myanmar and Thailand for the international study in the journal Science.

The team found that the chance of disease increased from four percent to 89% when corals are in contact with plastic. Scientists are still trying to figure out why plastics are so dangerous for coral, which are living organisms that cover about 0.2% of the ocean floor - but provide crucial habitat for nearly a million species of young fish.

It could be that plastics make ideal vessels for colonising microscopic organisms that could trigger disease if they come into contact with corals, according to the scientists. Plastic items such as those commonly made of polypropylene, like bottle caps and toothbrushes, have been shown to become heavily inhabited by bacteria that are associated with a globally devastating group of coral diseases known as white syndromes.

The problem of plastic pollution is widespread in the world's oceans, and is rapidly getting worse. The researchers estimate there are 11.1 billion plastic items on coral reefs across the Asia-Pacific and forecast this to increase by 40% within seven years. That equates to an estimated 15.7 billion plastic items on coral reefs across the Asia-Pacific by 2025.

Coral reefs are already under stress due to global warming, which boosts diseases and can cause coral to bleach and die.

Full story: Yahoo! News / AFP Back to top

Biosensor promises early malaria diagnosis
January 24, 2018

A strip of chromatography paper similar to that used in rapid pregnancy tests is the basis of a bio-sensor for detecting malaria that has been developed by Brazilian researchers.

The strip, designed for early diagnosis of infection caused by the Plasmodium falciparum parasites responsible for the most aggressive and lethal form of the disease, gives a result within 30 minutes of being immersed in a solution with samples of blood, serum or saliva of an infected person. Current tests take between two to ten days to give a result.

If the paper strip changes its colour, it means that histidine-rich protein 2 (HRP2) - a protein excreted only by P. falciparum in the first days after the infection - is present into the bloodstream.

During lab tests, the device was able to detect the presence of the HRP2 even when the parasite had produced it in low quantities. The bio-sensor has been tested with blood samples of both healthy people and people infected by the parasite. The sensor needs to be tested with a larger number of samples in order to validate its results, and to verify how many samples the test can evaluate before losing its capacity to detect the HRP2 proteins.

The current cost of production for the test is estimated at USD 0.50.

Full story: SciDev / Sensors and Actuators B: Chemical Back to top

New program from MIT offers refugees a career boost
January 23, 2018

In Amman, Jordan, last week, a class of students - half of them refugees - began a one-year course of study in computer science and entrepreneurship, designed by MIT. The program will earn them a certificate that, along with internships with local companies, could help them advance to better-paying positions in the region.

The new program, launched during a Solve competition at MIT, is called the Refugee Action (ReACT) Certificate Program. Run by Executive Director Robert Fadel, who previously worked for the One Laptop Per Child project (also an MIT spinoff), the program begins with an intensive two-week session of in-person lectures in innovation, design, and entrepreneurship, led by MIT faculty members and students.

The 18 members of the initial class will then spend the remainder of the program taking a series of online classes through MITx and working about 20 hours per week as interns with companies in the region. The project, Fadel says, will 'bring an MIT-calibre education to refugees and other displaced populations, where they live.'

According to figures from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, only about 1% of refugees have access to higher education, compared to a global average of 34%, The new program is a step toward expanding that access.

Full story: MIT News Back to top

Sound waves 'can help' early tsunami detection
January 24, 2018

People in high-risk tsunami areas could soon be helped by an early- warning alarm system using sound waves that is being developed by scientists from Cardiff University.

Tsunamis are currently detected by floating buoys that are able to measure pressure changes in the ocean caused by tsunamis. However, experts say the technology relies on a tsunami physically reaching the buoys. It also requires the distribution of a huge number of expensive buoys in oceans all around the world.

Sound waves can travel over 10 times faster than tsunamis and spread out in all directions, regardless of the trajectory of the tsunami, making them easy to pick up using standard underwater hydrophones. The researchers say this is an ideal source of information for early warning systems.

In a new study the researchers show how the key characteristics of an earthquake - such as its location, duration, dimensions, orientation and speed - can be determined when the gravity waves are detected by a single hydrophone in the ocean. The sound waves move through the deep ocean at the speed of sound and can travel thousands of metres below the surface.

Full story: BBC News / Journal of Fluid Mechanics Back to top

Smart windows darken in the sun, generate electricity at the same time
January 22, 2018

Solar power has undergone a revolution in recent years, thanks to an upstart family of crystalline materials called perovskites. Now, perovskites are transforming windows, keeping them clear on cold days, but turning them dark in the hot summer sun.

Researchers report that they've created perovskite-tinted windows that not only transition based on the temperature, but also harvest power like solar cells. The new technology could one day help cool buildings by shading out sunlight and generating power to boot.

'Smart windows' that switch between transparent and opaque have been around for decades. But such windows have failed to make a broad impact in the building market, because of their higher cost, inconsistencies in their ability to block outside light, and their demand for external electrical power.

Now researchers from the University of California, Berkeley have created a cesium-based perovskite solar window that turns opaque and produces electricity when heated. The windows can switch back and forth repeatedly without a drop in performance.

Full story: Science Magazine / Nature Materials Back to top