Breakthroughs and trends in the world of technology
A Graceful Exit
When University of Pennsylvania Museum staff installed the Sphinx of Rameses II in 1926, using carts, horses, ropes, and pulleys to bring it through a window, they didn’t realize they were creating a problem for themselves. Over the decades, as the museum accumulated more treasures, new wings were added and a wall replaced the window. When renovation plans called for relocating the 12.5-ton red granite sphinx—a lion with a human face bearing the pharaoh’s likeness—no easy way out existed. Cue Robert Thurlow, Penn Museum’s special projects manager, an interdisciplinary team of engineers, and four hoverboards. With 3-D scanning, the team obtained the precise volume, dimensions, and density of the sphinx, and then worked on how to move it. “Wheels would have been tricky because of point load and friction going uphill,” says Thurlow. “We had to find a way to lower the force needed to move it, as much as possible.” He reached out to Seattle aerospace company Aeorgo, which specializes in moving aircraft. The company supplied four 2×2 air-caster dollies to support each corner of the 3,000-year-old symbol of New Kingdom power. The hover dollies “reduced the force to a little over a ton.” Guided by Thurlow’s team, the sphinx skimmed 300 feet along the gallery floor and through an open courtyard before coming to rest in the museum’s new entranceway. It will be the first thing visitors see when the new hall opens in November. – Jennifer Pocock
©Raffi Berberian/Penn Museum
Modern technologies have helped discover and illuminate an ancient ship that’s been buried on the seabed of the Baltic Sea for more than 500 years—from around the time Columbus first headed to the New World. A decade ago, a sonar survey of the area by the Swedish Maritime Administration found an unexplained blob on the seafloor, the New York Times reports. Earlier this year, a robotic camera surveying the area for a possible undersea natural gas pipeline determined it was a mystery hulk. So back in March, scientists used tethered robots to further document the ghost ship. The archaeological team used bright lights to illuminate the Renaissance-era wreckage, then took thousands of high-resolution photographs. Next they used computers to merge the pictures into nearly 3-D images with sharp detail. The lack of oxygen in the frigid waters has helped keep the vessel largely intact, and many other items can be spotted on its deck, including a wooden bilge pump and an anchor, the paper says. The wreck is between 52 and 60 feet in length, and it likely plied the seas in the late 15th century or early 16th century. But its name and provenance remain unknown. Its exact location is being kept a secret to protect it from scavengers. The research team plans to make another trip to the wreck to try to retrieve a wooden plank. If the effort succeeds, that ancient wood can be dated by laboratory tests to give the team a better idea of when the ship was built and put to sea. – Thomas K. Grose
©MMT/Deep Sea Productions
The race to bring quantum computers to market is on, even though the technology is still very much in its infancy and commercially available machines are still a long way off. Nevertheless, International Business Machines Corp. (IBM), Google, and Microsoft are striving to develop machines that would greatly outpower today’s strongest conventional supercomputers. And, Bloomberg reports, IBM is also working to ensure its machines will have a huge and ready market in Africa. The company is setting up coding camps across the continent to train hundreds of engineers and scientists in the still-experimental science of quantum coding, the news service says. IBM’s Africa investment aims to build capacity in quantum computing on the continent, figure out potential commercial applications, and spark private-sector research, one executive tells Bloomberg. IBM has optimistically said it expects to begin generating revenues from quantum computing by 2021. Earlier this year at a consumer electronics show in Las Vegas, it unveiled the experimental Q System One, a system that could eventually be used to model financial data or optimize fleet operations for deliveries. A South African academic tells Bloomberg that Africa was largely left out of the industrial revolution and much of the digital one, so it’s keen to ensure it’s in the quantum revolution from the get-go. IBM’s immediate plans are to train 200 students in South Africa. – T. G.
Into the Hot Zone
Disposing of radioactive waste is a dangerous chore for humans. But when the cleanup began at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, site of a 2011 meltdown, the job also proved hazardous for robots. Some got struck by debris, some broke down, and many had circuits destroyed by intense radiation, the Economist reports. The need for improved robots to handle such tasks has led to the creation in Britain of the National Center for Nuclear Robotics, led by the University of Birmingham. One of its research projects makes better use of artificial intelligence. While humans retain oversight, the system gives the bots more autonomy to figure out how best to grasp and move radioactive objects to disposal bins. Other researchers are designing tactile sensors for robot fingers that are resistant to extreme radiation and finding ways to toughen electronics against radiation damage. The magazine notes that nuclear cleanup operations aren’t just necessary after disasters like Fukushima. Many countries that possess nuclear arsenals and power plants also have stockpiles of radioactive waste that need to be recycled. A decommissioned plant and reprocessing site in Sellafield, England, for instance, needs to be dismantled and cleansed. Without better robots, that effort will take decades. – T. G.
©University of Birmingham Robotics Lab
Humans and all other multicellular organisms rely on multifunctional circulatory systems to survive. The blood that pumps through our vascular system not only regulates body temperature; it also transports cells that fight infections. But most robots are made of isolated components that each perform a single task. One, for instance, may power the machine, while another controls its motions. That’s inefficient, Robert Shepherd, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell University, tells Smithsonian magazine. He has invented a robotic lionfish that uses a pseudo-vascular system for power and movement. The robo-fish, of course, doesn’t have blood and veins; instead its tubes are filled with an energy-dense hydraulic fluid that keeps its battery powered and its fins flapping. This is more efficient, Shepherd tells Smithsonian, because batteries that just provide energy also add weight. Many robots have water-filled hydraulic systems to move some parts. But his lionfish uses a fluid that’s capable of storing energy. It also uses a zinc iodide redox flow battery that has within it a liquid electrolyte solution that can keep the battery charged while acting as a hydraulic fluid to move the robot’s tail and pectoral fins. Shepherd’s lionfish, the magazine says, can swim against current in a saltwater tank. It has swum for two hours, but it could, in theory, operate for up to 36 hours. And its energy performance was three to four times better than a traditional bot using water-based hydraulics. Shepherd says the next step is to safely scale up the energy density of the lionfish’s battery. – T. G.
Many potentially fatal ailments, including cancers and cardiovascular diseases, can be successfully diagnosed and treated with the latest medical advances, but the affected organs and cells often remain damaged from the initial disease. That’s led to a global tissue-engineering market—estimated to be worth $11.5 billion by 2022—for repair therapies. One hurdle, however, has been an inability to monitor and test the performance of engineered tissues. Now, bioengineers at Purdue University have developed a tissue scaffold embedded with 3-D-mapping technology that can track the behavior of engineered tissue, which should help improve the success rate of repair therapies. The Purdue scaffold contains stacks of sensor arrays that measure the electrophysiological activities of cells and tissue, and then use that data to produce 3-D maps of that activity. To protect the electronic instrument from the human body’s wet environment, the Purdue device is “ultra-buoyant,” allowing it to stay afloat on the cell culture medium and isolated from any moisture. – T. G.
©Chi Hwan Lee/Purdue Engineering
A multinational team, led by researchers at Hong Kong’s City University, has developed a mechanism that can transport droplets of liquid on a hard surface at high speed and against gravity—even uphill, which is a first. The researchers devised a surface that’s superamphiphobic, or water- and oil-repellent, according to the Engineer, an online publication. When drops of water hit its surface, they immediately spread out, retracted and rebounded from the surface. As a result, electrons separate from the droplets and create a negative charge on the surface, the team reports. The density of the surface charge can be gradually changed to form a gradient by varying the height from which the droplets fall. Then, when one droplet is placed on the surface, the charged gradient becomes a driving force, allowing the droplet to self-propel toward the direction of the higher charge density. Once created, the Engineer says, the gradient can be easily changed, so the droplet’s motion can be programmed along a desired pathway. The technique doesn’t require a flat or rigid surface, and it can transport liquids with low surface tension and low dielectric constant, which includes blood and salt solutions. The team suggests that its technique could be applied to microfluidic lab-on-a-chip devices, or in engineering applications that use fluid dynamics. – T. G.
The meltwaters beneath Greenland’s 1.2-mile-thick ice sheet are lubricating the flow of glaciers, models show. That means, as Earth heats up, the amount of ice that ends up in the ocean increases. If all the ice on Greenland melted, it could raise global sea levels by 23 feet. But Cardiff University researchers say that as helpful as the models are, they are in great need of better data about the behavior of the meltwaters. So this summer, a Cardiff team headed for Greenland to plant two sensor-laden “cryoeggs” underneath the country’s ice, the BBC reports. Each cryoegg is a sphere 5 inches in diameter, weighing 2.6 pounds. Crammed inside of each are three sensors to measure water temperature, pressure, and conductivity. A radio transmitter will send that data to above-ground researchers. It all runs on a battery that should last a year. One of the cryoeggs will be positioned in an area where a glacier is likely to roll over it so researchers can determine if it can still generate a signal afterward, the BBC says. Having wireless sensors is important. Past efforts to monitor the waters have used tethered instruments, but they risk having their cables cut by fast-moving glaciers. Meanwhile, scientists say that as worrisome as the melting Arctic is, the ice melt going on in Antarctica is even more alarming. National Science Foundation-funded research at Georgia Tech has recently discovered that instability in Antarctic ice speeds up melting and could cause a greater than predicted increase in global sea levels. Five Antarctic glaciers have doubled their ice-loss rate over the past six years, Georgia Tech has determined. – T. G.
Ben Hamm loves his cat, Metric, but not the dead or half-dead birds, rodents, and other prey he likes to drag into the house. So the Amazon senior product manager came up with an automatic cat flap that uses artificial intelligence to recognize if Metric is slinking home with a dead critter in his mouth, the BBC reports. When the flap detects prey, it locks itself for 15 minutes and sends Hamm a text alert. Hamm used two Amazon tools to build his better cat door: DeepLens, a video camera created to be used in machine-learning experiments, and Sagemaker, a service that allows consumers to buy third-party algorithms or build their own and tune them with their own data, the BBC says. To train his software, Hamm used supervised learning, which teaches a computer to recognize patterns in images—in this instance, 23,000 of them. The results at first were less than perfect: At one point, the flap locked Metric out when he was prey-free, and 1 in 7 times the cat managed to carry a critter inside. The finished system is more accurate and also sends a donation to the National Audubon Society—Hamm calls it “blood money”—each time it nabs Metric red-handed. – T. G.
A Spark to Start-Ups
Nuclear fusion remains a long-hoped-for dream. It holds the prospect of clean, unlimited electricity that produces only small amounts of radioactive waste with no risk of a power plant meltdown. But the process itself takes as much energy as fusion can generate. Given the complexity and cost of “achieving gain,” fusion projects have mainly been large, government-funded efforts, like the multinational $25 billion International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor under construction in southern France. ITER expects to begin operations in late 2025 and to produce power a decade later. But now private enterprise is entering the picture, the Economist reports. Commercial projects aiming to bring fusion power to market include MIT spinout Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS); Tokamak Energy of Oxford, England; General Fusion in Vancouver, Canada; TAE Technologies of California; and First Light Fusion, a University of Oxford spin-off. Some companies are relying on a Russian invention called a tokamak, a massive, doughnut-shaped machine. Within it, deuterium- and tritium-fueled plasma is created, contained, and compressed by gigantic electromagnets that force their nuclei to combine. But other firms are developing radical new technologies. All hope to achieve gain within a few years, and several promise to be delivering grid power by the 2030s. Each of these companies has a chance of reaching its goals, Fusion Power Associates, a trade group, tells the magazine. – T. G.
Red Planet Sees Green
Global warming may one day make Earth uninhabitable. But the greenhouse effect may have the potential to make Mars safe for humans. A new study by researchers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, Harvard University, and the University of Edinburgh indicates that regions of Mars might be made habitable using a thin shield fashioned from silica aerogel, a material that mimics a greenhouse. Models and experiments show that a 2- to 3-centimeter-thick cover of silica aerogel could transmit enough visible light for photosynthesis while blocking hazardous ultraviolet radiation. That would permanently raise temperatures beneath the shield above the melting point of water without requiring an internal heat source. Because silica aerogel is 97 percent porous, light moves through it easily, but infrared radiation is trapped, greatly slowing the conduction of heat. It’s a passive material as well, so it wouldn’t need much energy, maintenance, or moving parts to warm an area for long periods of time. The team envisions construction of small islands of habitability, perhaps domes or self-contained biospheres, with tests planned in the dry valleys of Antarctica or Chile, which have Mars-like climates. – T. G.
The body’s immune response to an infection can sometimes go dangerously into high gear, triggering a rapid heart rate, fever, shortness of breath, and lead to septic shock. That’s when blood pressure falls to the point where organs shut down. In U.S. hospitals, sepsis kills nearly 250,000 patients a year. Earlier detection would help. Levels of the biomarker interleukin-6 (IL-6), a protein, begin to rise in sepsis patients hours before other symptoms appear. But even elevated levels of IL-6 are at concentrations too low for traditional assay devices to detect. Moreover, these devices are big, expensive machines that need a milliliter sample of blood and take hours to produce results. Newer devices are portable and need only microliters of blood, and can deliver results within 30 minutes. But they’re expensive, too, and also don’t easily detect IL-6. A new sensor designed by MIT engineers might result in a faster, more efficient diagnosis. It’s a microfluidics-based system that can pinpoint clinically-significant amounts of IL-6 in around 25 minutes using less than a finger prick of blood. In one of its microfluidic channels, microbeads laced with antibodies capture the biomarker from the blood sample. Only beads that have captured IL-6 then flow through the other channel and attach themselves to an electrode. Running a voltage through the electrode produces an electrical signal for each IL-6-coated bead, and those signals can be converted to a concentration level. Doctors can use a pipette to load the device with a blood sample, press a button, and get a reading. – T. G.
Redressing the Balance
European women who earn STEM degrees have a harder time than men finding employment in their fields. Their chances of landing such jobs are roughly 10 percentage points lower than for men with the same qualifications. On average, 41 percent of EU scientists and engineers are women, varying from a high of 57 percent in Lithuania to 25 percent in Hungary and Luxembourg. In the Netherlands, where women account for 39 percent of engineers and scientists, Eindhoven University of Technology—one of Europe’s top engineering schools—is trying to overcome its longtime “implicit gender bias” in hiring academic staff. In July, the school began an 18-month program of opening up vacancies for permanent academic positions only to women for the first six months of recruitment. Male candidates will only become eligible if no suitable female candidates apply. The school, which expects to hire 150 academics over the next five years, wants at least half of all newly hired assistant professors—and 35 percent of new associate and full professors—to be women. In addition, each new female hire will receive an extra $111,540 stipend to spend on mentoring and research. “It has long been known that a diverse workforce performs better,” notes Eindhoven’s rector, Frank Baaijens. “It leads to better strategies, more creative ideas, and faster innovation.” – T. G.