Breakthroughs and trends in the world of technology
Arts and Sciences
With the pandemic shuttering museums and theaters, artists have found inspiration—and new ways of reaching audiences—in the digital world. Dutch sculptor Anton Bakker, for example, creates large math-based abstract sculptures. Initially designed using a computer program he created, some remain virtual pieces while others are forged into physical bronze or steel sculptures at a foundry using his digital files, the Washington Post reports. Some of his latest pieces were made for a show at New York’s National Museum of Mathematics, which got canceled. So Bakker “installed” them at the Eiffel Tower and other famous world sites and invited the public to view them at an online gallery (globalsculpturepark.com). Visitors can use their phones to access the website’s augmented-reality app to virtually place a sculpture in their kitchen or backyard. At the microscopic level, a relatively new medium is gaining popularity: agar art. Made from naturally colorful microorganisms living atop the food gel in a petri dish, these intricate designs spurred the American Society for Microbiology to launch an annual agar art contest in 2015. NPR recently ran a feature on Balaram Khamari, an Indian microbiology doctoral student who won one of the awards. His winning piece uses a variety of bacteria—Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus aureus, and Enterococcus faecalis—to depict the national bird of India, a peacock. Says Khamari: “Science and art are not really separate subjects.” – Thomas K. Grose
When ice shelves calve (discharge chunks of ice into the ocean), the newly uncovered seafloor gives scientists a chance to study and better understand these unique polar ecosystems, the BBC reports. But timing is everything, and sea ice often can prevent ships from reaching these sites. The German research vessel Polarstern, operated by the Alfred Wegener Institute, recently got lucky. It already was nearby when a city-size chunk of Antarctica’s Brunt Ice Shelf recently broke loose in the eastern Weddell Sea, forming the A74 mega-iceberg. The Polarstern sped to the site and spent five hours trolling the seabed using an Ocean Floor Observation and Bathymetry System, a large device fitted with sophisticated instruments. The team collected nearly 1,000 high-resolution images and long sequences of video. It also discovered a seafloor teeming with wildlife. Many rocks have fallen out of the ice, and each is colonized by slow-growing sponges and bryozoans. Sea cucumbers, fish, and octopuses abound. Because Polarstern is doing long-term research in that part of the Weddell, its research crew likely can return regularly to look for any changes in the ecosystem. – T. G.
©Alfred Wegener Institute/Tim Kalvelage
Go with the Flow
When air rushing along the fuselage of an aircraft no longer can glide smoothly, it pulls roughly away from the craft, causing drag and turbulence. But a team of aeronautics and astronautics engineers at the University of Washington has uncovered a new law of fluid mechanics called the law of incipient separation. It essentially holds that the closer the airflow gets to the breakaway point, or separation, the less drag there is. “The best scenario is to be as close to separation as possible without crossing the line, because peak performance in control and efficiency is right before separation,” explains Antonino Ferrante, the associate professor who led the investigation. He says he intuited that the law exists—“nature follows laws that are just waiting to be discovered”—and his graduate students worked out the simulations and data analysis to prove it. The new law defines the maximum slope of a fuselage to avoid airflow separation. Aircraft designers should be able to use the law to calculate the maximum slope of a fuselage and not exceed it to keep the flow attached. That could result in more fuel-efficient, less polluting aircraft. – T. G.
©Cessna Citation X – N299CX – Gears Up – Wells Fargo Bank Na Trustee Corporate Jet – Waukegan Regional Airport by tncountryfan is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
In late February, social-media platforms were bursting with the blinking, smiling visages of long-dead people. The short videos were created using an artificial intelligence-based app called Deep Nostalgia that was made available by DNA-testing company MyHeritage. The vast online gallery features poignant portraits of deceased parents reanimated for a few seconds as well as historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln and Marie Curie. Some clever users made the heads of famous paintings and statues move, while others cranked out creepy men whose bushy beards don’t budge when their faces turn. The technology, created by facial-recognition company D-ID, uses prerecorded “driver videos” of real people to train the algorithm to animate photographs. Initially, the Deep Nostalgia AI used 10 drivers but since April 5 has employed 20, enabling nods of approval, a kiss and a wink, and other novel expressions. Though harmless and entertaining, the technology relies on similar algorithms to those used to create “deep fakes,” or altered videos of celebrities and politicians. MyHeritage says it purposely did not include speech so Deep Nostalgia couldn’t become a malicious tool. So far, the app has proved popular, generating more than 72 million animations. Cue the Mona Lisa grinning. – T. G.
Recycling typically involves one type of material, be it plastics, paper, or glass. But a new initiative led by engineers at Australia’s University of New South Wales in conjunction with Mirvac, a leading property group, has devised a way to combine two dissimilar waste products—glass and textiles—into a unique type of “green” ceramics that can be used to make a variety of building products. The team recently unveiled a showcase apartment at Sydney’s Olympic Park that incorporates the ceramics in everything from floor and wall tiles to shelving, light fixtures, furniture, and artworks. All were fabricated from ceramics churned out by the school’s Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology using what it calls MICROfactorie technology. Glass, which can be recycled numerous times, gives the material strength while textiles provide color and aesthetics. Globally, 11 billion tons of waste is annually sent to landfills, Mirvac notes, and green ceramics could help provide “a valuable second life for the mountains of glass and clothing” that otherwise would be dumped. – T. G.
©Mirvac and UNSW SMaRT Centre
Close to the Bone
Imagine if a surgeon could repeatedly practice an operation anytime, anywhere—perfecting technique with zero risk to a patient. That is the promise of a virtual-reality training program developed by Vancouver, British Columbia-based PrecisionOS. The brainchild of orthopedic surgeon and CEO Danny Goel, the VR tool consists of a head-mounted display and two handheld wands that provide realistic views and sense of touch on a virtual patient. Created with the help of surgeons, software engineers, and specialists in computer graphics, gaming, and 3-D modeling, the device is particularly valuable in keeping skills sharp during the pandemic, when many hospitals have canceled or reduced elective surgeries. “Learning how to perform a procedure like a knee replacement demands consistent exposure,” Goel explains. When surgeries drop, “there can be a significant loss of skills.” University of Toronto orthopedics professor Peter Ferguson tried out the device in his living room, inserting a metal pin to fix a virtual broken leg. “My wife said I looked sort of ridiculous,” he told CBC TV, “but I was amazed at how realistic it was.” Indeed, Ferguson was so impressed that he persuaded the head of the medical faculty to order a dozen of the devices, making Toronto one of more than 20 medical schools in North America that are now clients. Though PrecisionOS currently focuses on orthopedics, plans call for expanding its repertoire to cover everything from heart surgery to ICU procedures. With continual advances in computing power, Goel says “this technology is only scratching the surface of its potential.” – Pierre Home-Douglas
Tower of Power
Wind power is clean and green, but turbine blades are noisy and can harm birds and other wildlife. Spanish start-up Vortex Bladeless has designed a solution that’s generating buzz. Its bladeless turbine makes use of the vortex shedding effect, a fluid dynamics phenomenon in which wind flowing around an object—a semitruck, a skyscraper, or an aircraft—creates alternating whorls and downwind zones of low pressure that can cause damaging oscillations. Cofounder and engineer David Yáñez says he got the idea eight years ago while watching a film of the 1940 Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse. The company’s aerogenerator is a tall, slender cylinder made from carbon- and glass-fiber-reinforced resins. It is tethered to a base by an elastic rod and quivers in the breeze like a bobblehead doll. The resulting vibrations produce electricity. The device’s resemblance to a certain personal device quickly earned it a saucy nickname: Skybrator. But the appeal of small, easily maintained wind turbines that are quiet, need no oil, and lack gears and bearings is no joke. Aerogenerators could fill a niche similar to solar panels, supplying power in urban or residential areas, Yáñez tells the Guardian newspaper. The prototype stands just under 10 feet, but the company expects to offer a range of sizes once it begins taking orders. Norway’s national energy company, Equinor, is picking up good vibrations and plans to offer development support via its technology accelerator program. – T. G.
Knocks on the Noggin
Microscopes and other imaging tools used to study brain injuries and diseases do a poor job of depicting the organ’s intricacies, says Badri Roysam, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston. So he and researchers at the National Institutes of Health aim to develop a new device based on innovative brain-mapping technology, according to the campus newspaper the Daily Cougar. Their goal: speed up drug development by displaying the brain’s reactions and any side effects in real time. The technology will use biomarkers and immunostaining methods to map in detail unhealthy brain tissue, then use a supercomputer to generate quantitative readings of the images. Roysam notes that there are more than 40 million concussion cases a year but no effective treatments. Nor are there effective drug therapies for stroke and Alzheimer’s patients. Meanwhile, electrical and computer engineers at Western Michigan University have invented a highly sensitive pressure-sensor cap that could help protect athletes from traumatic brain injuries by ensuring their helmets fit properly. The sensors are made from a porous, silicon-derived polymer sandwiched between two fabric-based conductive electrodes. When pressure is applied, the porous material compresses, causing a capacitance change as the space between the electrodes narrows. The sensor cap could assist athletes buying off-the-shelf helmets and enable manufacturers to design customized ones. – T. G.
©Jeff Lautenberger/UH Engineering
The sun’s energetic emissions not only affect the weather on Earth but also in space. Scientists continually monitor conditions because electromagnetic radiation from solar flares and coronal eruptions can disrupt satellite communications and cause surges in power lines. Recently, NBC News reports, a multinational group of researchers poring through satellite observations taken over the North Pole in August 2014 caught sight of a heretofore unknown phenomenon: a space hurricane. The 620-mile-wide spiral raged for some eight hours 125 miles above the pole. But unlike cyclones here on Earth that release rain, this one dropped a deluge of electrons. The tempest might have gone unnoticed had the scientists not spotted clues in data culled from different instruments and put all the pieces together. Now that space hurricanes are known to exist, the team will conduct additional studies to determine how often the sun creates them and whether smaller, shorter storms occur more regularly. No word on plans to name the big blows. – T. G.
Crave live concerts after a year of COVID-19 cancellations? Grammy-winning audio engineer Jody Elff’s streaming platform could be music to the ears of homebound classical fans, who can satisfy their symphonic cravings with nothing more than a set of headphones and an inexpensive virtual-reality viewer, according to the Washington Post. A decade ago, Elff launched a small company that offers underfunded arts organizations low-cost live-streaming platforms. Before the pandemic, he was working on adding binaural audio and 360-degree video to his systems. When lockdowns began preventing his wife, British composer Anna Clyne, from traveling to rehearsals at U.S. venues premiering her latest work, Elff put his development efforts into overdrive. The result is Ted, an off-the-shelf mannequin head that occupies one seat in a concert hall, capturing every sight and sound with its high-definition 360-degree camera and array of microphones. Post music critic Michael Andor Brodeur, who tested the system, declared the immersive experience of watching and listening to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra rehearse Clyne’s “stirring newer work” Stride “just ‘live’ enough to detach you from the living room.” Elff believes Ted has a future well after the pandemic’s over: “You can sell out your 2,000 seats in the hall, but now let’s go sell 10,000 more to virtual viewers.” – T. G.
The biblical story of Noah’s ark has inspired a project to create a vast repository of plant and animal life in a vault beneath the surface of the moon. A team led by Jekan Thanga, a University of Arizona assistant professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering, recommends storing seeds, spores, sperm, and egg samples—50 of each—from some 6.7 million species, 335 million samples in all. There’s an earthly model: The Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, the so-called doomsday vault, holds hundreds of thousands of frozen embryonic plants to help safeguard the world’s agricultural gene pool. But Thanga fears that war, rising sea levels, or other climate catastrophe could wipe out this inheritance, so he and his student team are studying ways to turn the moon’s lava tubes—massive caverns formed 3 to 4 billion years ago by underground lava streams—into cold storage. Because some seeds and stem cells must be kept at temperatures as low as 320 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, which would freeze metal, the team designed floating shelves made from cryo-cooled superconductor materials held in place via quantum levitation using a powerful magnet. Electricity would come from solar panels on the surface, powering robotic caretakers that jet around the vault. The research has so far been funded by NASA, suggesting this lunar ark is no fish tale. – T. G.
©SpaceTREx Laboratory, University of Arizona
Show of Force
For more than a decade, materials scientists and engineers at the University of Illinois Urbana–Champaign have been working with force-sensitive molecules they developed called mechanophores. Added to materials, the polymers produce a quick, vivid, reversible color change when pressure is applied—potentially providing a built-in warning of impending failure. Up to now, however, the color change always occurred or faded too slowly to be of use. By changing how the mechanophores bond to polymer chains, using a new arrangement called an oxazine structure, the researchers recently were able to produce an instantaneous color change that immediately disappears with the force’s removal. The addition of mechanophores to materials as molecular-level probes will enable engineers to better monitor, detect, and quickly respond to overstressed structures undergoing testing in the lab and eventually in the field. Ultimately, this chemistry could have biomechanical applications, such as monitoring how human bodies react to external forces at the cellular level. – T. G.
Hundreds of billions of dollars a year are spent treating osteoarthritis, a debilitating degenerative joint disease characterized by loss of articular cartilage, which afflicts 1 in 7 American adults. Because no precise tools exist to measure cartilage health, doctors can assess only from X-rays whether it has worn away and recommend treatment—often total hip or knee replacement. “Imagine trying to develop a drug to lower cholesterol levels without a technique to measure cholesterol levels,” says Michael Albro, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University who is creating a device that can detect signs of trouble early enough to intervene. His Raman arthroscope, which is inserted into the patient’s joint with a hypodermic needle, is based on the effect discovered in 1928 by Indian scientist C. V. Raman. It uses small shifts in the wavelength of a light bouncing off molecules to rapidly determine a material’s chemical composition and structure. In ex vivo models, the technology proved highly accurate in detecting degeneration. Now Albro’s multidisciplinary and multiuniversity team is planning to advance to animal testing and, ultimately, clinical trials. The hope is that the diagnostic tool also will help develop and assess the efficacy of new treatments. Says Albro: “The ‘magical’ drug to stop arthritis may already exist—we just need a way to identify it.” – T. G.