Breakthroughs and trends in the world of technology
The wildfires that devastated California, Oregon, and Washington filled the September skies with thick, toxic smoke, turning Portland into the world’s most polluted city for several days and filming over the East Coast sun with a fog-like haze. Worried about their local air quality, residents snapped up Wi-Fi-enabled pollution monitors sold by PurpleAir, a Utah tech company, according to Bloomberg CityLab. While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regularly provides air-quality updates in cities, its monitors are often many miles away from where people live. PurpleAir’s laser-based sensors track fewer pollutants and lack the accuracy of the EPA’s monitors, but they offer hyper-localized readings and more frequent updates. Data from some 9,000 PurpleAir sensors worldwide also feed into an interactive pollution map. A PurpleAir user group on Facebook already has more than 1,200 members, many of them “self-described computer nerds” who discuss how to solder extra wires to a monitor, upgrade the circuit board, and connect the sensors to smart-home devices. The company welcomes and encourages such hobbyist hacking. However, as CityLab notes, most PurpleAir users are not techies who want to tinker but residents affected by wildfires seeking a clearer idea of how much smoke and particulate matter they might inhale—so they can plan outdoor activities accordingly. – Thomas K. Grose
Venus, our closest planetary neighbor, has long played second fiddle to Mars, at least in film and literature. However, a new study suggests that the chance that life exists on its superheated surface, where temperatures reach 800 degrees Fahrenheit, is greater than on the Red Planet. Using data from a pair of telescopes in Hawaii and Chile, researchers reported last month that they had found phosphine, a foul-smelling gas associated with life on Earth, within Venus’s sulfuric clouds. Phosphine can be made in the lab—it was used as a chemical agent in the First World War. It’s also a by-product of life, contained in the guts of some animals and cropping up in swampy, low-oxygen environments. The researchers speculate that some type of single-cell microbe may be producing the Venusian phosphine. But how could bacteria survive where toxic clouds of sulfuric acid are a billion times stronger than the Earth variety? One hypothesis is that the microbes have some sort of armored coating that allows them to live within sulfuric acid droplets. But as the BBC notes, that invites such questions as: How do they eat or exchange gases? Resolving that conundrum will likely require a probe to take in situ measurements or bring back an aerosol sample. NASA is considering two more Venus missions, one as early as 2026. The world may have to wait a few more years to see if our “evening star” is ready to join Earth on the stage of life. – T. G.
Researchers at Purdue University have invented a way to print self-powered keyboards, keypads, and other human-machine interfaces on paper or cardboard. The team, led by Ramses Martinez, an assistant professor of industrial engineering, first makes the paper omniphobic to oil, dust, and water by covering it with highly fluorinated molecules. This process allows the paper to be printed with multiple layers of circuits without smearing the ink. The treated materials can then be fashioned into vertical-pressure sensors that derive power from energy harvested each time they’re pressed. Martinez sees no reason why the technology can’t be implemented with conventional large-scale printing techniques to turn paper or cardboard into smart packaging. For instance, a consumer could, with the touch of a finger, verify whether the contents of an old box of cereal is still safe to eat. Martinez’s team also demonstrated that a sheet of paper can be turned into a music player capable of choosing a song and changing the volume—giving notepads a whole new meaning. – T. G.
Lost in Cyberspace
Online, open-access scholarly journals have been proliferating. But a recent study cautions that just because a digital publication exists doesn’t guarantee it will always be available, according to Nature. Over the past two decades, 176 open-access journals have gone missing from the Internet, taking most of their articles with them, says the study led by Mikael Laakso, an information scientist at Finland’s Hanken School of Economics. Most of the titles vanished within five years of a journal’s becoming inactive (when it stopped publishing papers), but a third went AWOL within a year. That “life cycle,” the researchers say, indicates that another 900 currently inactive online journals may soon disappear. While the social sciences and humanities accounted for more than half the titles, journals covering life, health, and physical sciences as well as mathematics were also among the missing. Several digital archives exist to preserve defunct journals, and tens of thousands of them are curated in preservation programs. However, as Laakso tells Nature, dozens of publications are not archived anywhere and are essentially extinct. The study likely underestimates the problem, since it didn’t include subscription journals because of the difficulty in collecting data behind paywalls. – T. G.
Set in Stone
Keeping the world from warming more than 2 degrees Celsius will depend on not only curbing carbon dioxide emissions but also capturing CO₂ already in the atmosphere. Along with burying the carbon underground or reforesting large swaths of the planet, researchers are investigating another possibility: using industrial waste to mineralize CO₂—turning it into carbonates, or carbon-based rocks, that permanently lock away the greenhouse gas. In a recent deep dive into the subject, Science looked at the efforts of several researchers. Gregory Dipple is a University of British Columbia geologist who has been conducting experiments to mix CO₂ with the alkaline-rich slurry, or crushed rock waste, created by a Canadian diamond mine, and transform it into a carbon-based mineral. If the process works, it could in theory also be applied to similar slurries that result from many other industrial activities, including mining and cement, steel, iron, and aluminum manufacturing. Research from Britain’s Heriot-Watt University estimates that 4 to 6 gigatons of CO₂ a year could be trapped in rocks created by industrial waste. Many hurdles must be overcome, however. As Science points out, huge government incentives would be needed to commercialize mineralization to levels necessary to make a difference, and engineers would have to devise ways to process the wastes without releasing the heavy metals and radioactivity locked within them. Still, mineralization holds the allure of helping to ease two big environmental problems simultaneously. – T. G.
Next time you indulge in a piña colada or any other coconut-flavored beverage or food, raise a toast to those who risk their lives climbing 50-foot palm trees to lop off one bunch. Researchers at Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham University in India have designed a robot that could make coconut harvesting safer, IEEE Spectrum reports. Called the Amaran, the machine’s ring-shaped body can embrace tree trunks of varying diameters and shinny up via eight wheels. Its robotic arm then deploys to snip off coconuts. Current models are operated by humans using joysticks, but future models will be more autonomous. When tested against a seasoned 50-year-old harvester, Amaran was slower—taking an average of 21.9 minutes to harvest one tree, including 14 minutes for set up, versus 11.8 minutes for the human. But while the pro could harvest 15 trees a day before tiring, the robot managed 22. Cheers to endurance! – T. G.
©Amrita Multimedia Team
Human history records three types of natural disasters that can cause agricultural and economic collapse: droughts, floods, and locusts. Sadly, all remain scourges today. Locust swarms can cover hundreds of square miles and chomp every crop they encounter, including wheat, rice, corn, oats and sugar cane. In a finding that could lead to a remedy, investigators at the Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, recently figured out what causes one of the most dangerous types of locusts to swarm. Their study fingers a chemical called 4-vinylanisole (4VA), a pheromone produced by the bug, according to Reuters. Locusta migratoria is a migratory locust and the world’s most prevalent. It releases 4VA from its hind legs. Other locusts detect it with their antennae and then sense it in their odor receptors. The pheromone sends a powerful signal, no matter the locust’s sex or age, and its release can trigger a swarm when just a handful of solitary locusts happen to come together. More research is needed to determine if 4VA also causes other varieties of locust to swarm, in particular Schistocerca gregaria, a desert locust that currently is blighting East Africa and the Middle East. Insecticides commonly used to kill locusts also endanger humans. But now researchers can work on new, safer remedies that target 4VA, such as chemicals that block its effects or a synthetic 4VA that lures locusts into traps. – T. G.
©Professor Le Kang
Schools Get Inventive
After welcoming students back to campus this fall, many universities have become test beds for new technologies to detect and contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. Some could end up in use nationwide. Rochester Institute of Technology, for example, is one of several schools using a system developed at Syracuse University to test wastewater from residence halls several times a week for genetic traces of the virus. If COVID-19 is detected, students from that dorm are tested and any positive cases isolated. Several schools have developed tracking apps. The University of Arizona’s Covid Watch uses Bluetooth technology to anonymously track students’ movements and send notifications to anyone who comes within close range of a positive case, the New York Times reports. The Universities of Alabama and Virginia are piloting a similar app, while MIT Media Lab’s PathCheck is undergoing trials at Vassar College, Southern Methodist University, and Texas Christian University. Some campuses also are piloting speedier COVID-19 tests, such as the saliva test created at the University of Illinois that can spit out results within five hours. Meanwhile, Boston University biomedical engineering Ph.D. student Jessie Song is addressing the shortage of coronavirus test swabs by 3-D printing several prototypes. Once an optimal design is ready, it will undergo a clinical trial at Boston Medical Center. – T. G.
Despite great progress against many forms of cancer, early detection—which typically leads to better outcomes—remains a problem. In a welcome breakthrough, an international team of researchers led by bioengineers at the University of California–San Diego, has come up with a noninvasive, highly accurate blood test that can flag five common types of cancers—stomach, esophageal, colorectal, lung, and liver—up to four years earlier than current tests. In samples collected from patients who were asymptomatic at the time, the PanSeer test, as it is called, was able to detect cancer in 91 percent of them. Those patients were eventually diagnosed with cancer one to four years afterwards. In samples taken from 113 patients who had already been diagnosed, the test accurately detected cancer 88 percent of the time. It also had a success rate of 95 percent in correctly spotting cancer-free samples. The samples were collected as part of a decade-long longitudinal study that began in 2006 at China’s Fudan University. Initially, the PanSeer test would be conducted on people at high risk for those cancers, but ultimately it could be part of routine annual medical checkups for everyone. – T. G.
Split the Difference
The U.S. nuclear power industry has built only a handful of new reactors over the past 30 years. Public antipathy and safety concerns are one reason, but money is the bigger factor. Nuke plants typically cost enormous sums to build and often take years to complete. While relatively cheap to operate, a facility’s massive upfront costs result in higher consumer electric bills. The small modular reactor (SMR) could change that calculus. It can be built in a factory production line, then shipped to its ultimate site. And because it is modular, several units can be connected, LEGO-like. As Scientific American explains, each unit generates a small amount of power, say 50 or 60 megawatts, compared with more than 1,000 MW for traditional reactors. A dozen-module SMR plant could generate 600 MW of electricity, or enough to keep the lights burning in a midsize city. Proponents of SMRs say their design cuts costs and construction time and makes them safer. Dozens of SMR plants are now being planned around the world. Last month, Portland’s NuScale Power, an Oregon State University spin-off, received design approval from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for its SMR. The company now can apply to the NRC to build and operate a modular plant. Nuclear power critics are skeptical that NuScale’s reactor will be any quicker or cheaper to build than traditional types. A real-life test should settle the debate: NuScale is scheduled to deliver its first reactor to the Idaho National Laboratory in 2027 and have it up and running two years later. – T. G.
Engineers and scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) recently snagged the world record for the largest photographs ever taken: 3,200 megapixels each. To display just one would require 378 4K ultra-high definition TVs. The largest pictures were snapped by a jumbo digital camera. Its focal plane is the size of an SUV, space.com reports, and has an array of 189 individual sensors, or charge-coupled devices (CCDs). SLAC says that it was a huge challenge to mount, secure, and sync the CCDs. The camera’s resolution is equally impressive: It can spot a golf ball 15 miles away. The subject of the first photos was a headshot of Romanesco broccoli, a type grown in Italy that’s light green and has a spiky, geometric shape that resembles a sea creature. Turns out that the vegetable’s complex patterns offered a good test of the device’s ability to capture the detail required for its ultimate destination: the Vera C. Rubin Observatory, now under construction in Chile. There, the camera will snap panoramas every few nights for a decade to produce a colossal map of the sky, the BBC says. The map will note the positions of billions of stars and galaxies and also furnish scientists with massive amounts of data that could help unlock the mysteries of dark matter. – T. G.
Current medical-imaging technologies provide unprecedented views inside patients’ bodies, but they have drawbacks, from radiation to expense. Engineering and computer science researchers at the Universities of Nottingham, Edinburgh, and Southampton are working to develop an infrared light device that will offer safe, inexpensive, and fast high-resolution medical images. Funded with a $7 million government grant, the InLightenUs project will draw on physics, artificial intelligence, and a form of light microscopy to develop a noninvasive diagnostic tool. Light microscopy, though already in use, can peer only 1 millimeter beneath the skin. The goal of InLightenUs is to use infrared lasers that produce invisible light and ultimately peer to a depth of 10mm, so they can scan bones and joints. In a two-step plan, the initial devices would be handheld for use in hospitals or doctors’ offices. By 2050, the scanner will be scaled up to walk-through size and be capable of producing highly detailed 3-D images of what lies beneath the skin. – T. G.
©Dr. Tania Mendonca, Optics and Photonics Group, University of Nottingham
Five years after detecting the space-time ripples that Einstein had theorized would result from the most violent events in the universe, the National Science Foundation-funded Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and its European counterpart, Advanced Virgo in Italy, have the first confirmation of another cosmic phenomenon: midsize black holes. Scientists have long speculated on the existence of intermediate-mass black holes (IMBH), but verification has proved elusive. Last month, LIGO and Virgo researchers reported that a set of waves detected back in May occurred 7 billion light years away, when two black holes merged and created an IMBH, according to Astronomy. It’s hypothesized that midsize black holes are a stepping-stone between stellar-mass black holes—those that are 100 solar masses or less and created by the collapse of a huge star—and supermassive black holes, which are millions to billions of solar masses. This newly detected black hole weighs 142 solar masses. “This demonstrates that there is now at least one intermediate mass black hole in the universe,” Cole Miller, a University of Maryland astrophysicist, tells ScienceNews. The black hole’s progenitors were, respectively, 85 and 65 times the mass of the sun. Researchers now are scratching their heads to explain why the collision didn’t cause the two black holes to blow themselves apart instead of creating a new one. The importance of such discoveries was underscored this month when the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to three pioneering black-hole researchers: Oxford’s Roger Penrose, Reinhard Genzel of UC Berkeley and the Max Planck Institute, and UCLA astronomer Andrea Ghez – T. G.