Breakthroughs and trends in the world of technology
Many human tasks offloaded to robots will require a sense of touch. Toward that goal, mechanical engineering researchers at Cornell University have devised a “stretchable skin” that uses a fiber-optic sensor made from low-cost LED lights and dyes that can detect deformations, including pressure, bending, and strain. Ideally, the technology could enable robots to understand tactile sensations as humans do. For now, however, the team hopes to apply its invention to the motion-tracking technology used for physical therapy and sports medicine, which currently can’t detect force interactions. The researchers also have used the sensor to devise a 3-D-printed glove that will potentially provide a sense of touch to augmented and virtual reality systems. Meanwhile, a team of Swiss, Swedish, and Canadian researchers is applying genomics, neuroscience, computer modeling, and biorobotics to understand how salamanders can regrow damaged spinal cords that retain full functionality. Cracking the code could one day enable robots to be programmed so they can continue to work even if their electronic or mechanical hardware is damaged. – Thomas K. Grose
Humans spend a lot of money to maintain their interior environments at a comfortable temperature. Heating and cooling buildings also generates a whopping 28 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, so engineers are constantly trying to find ways to reduce or eliminate the need for power-hungry HVAC systems. One long-cherished idea was to devise an exterior paint that could reflect sunlight and keep buildings cooler. But until now, reflective paints didn’t cool surfaces beyond ambient temperatures. However, a new type of white paint developed by mechanical engineers at Purdue University is able to reflect 95.5 percent of sunlight and cool its daytime surface temperature to an average of around 1.7ºC (35.06ºF) less than the ambient temperature, the BBC reports. The paint’s key ingredient is a large amount of calcium carbonate of differing particle sizes. Meanwhile, mechanical engineers at the University of North Texas have invented a safer and more sustainable building insulation than the conventional polyurethane-based products now in wide use. Current materials release volatile compounds into the air that can make people ill and contribute to climate change. Conventional foams also don’t quickly break down once they’re disposed of and can remain in the environment for a thousand years. The North Texas material uses a corn-based polylactic acid with cellulose fibers and supercritical CO2 mixed in, so it contains no volatile organic compounds. Besides being safer, the foam is 12 percent more efficient in keeping buildings warm or cool, and 90 percent of it biodegrades within 50 days. – T. G.
How do you spell relief? For female astronauts aboard the International Space Station, the answer involves field testing a $23 million unisex toilet that NASA designed for better comfort but also lets them boldly go—same as their male counterparts. Waste in space is no joke, particularly since any stray business will float around the cabin. Near-zero-gravity toilets use air flow to pull urine and feces away from the body into separate containers—the former via a funnel attached to a hose, the latter directly into the bowl. Current commodes don’t let astronauts deploy funnel and seat simultaneously, and women must pee standing up. By contrast, the Universal Waste Management System (UWMS) allows for “dual ops.” It takes into consideration the fact that women urinate in a downward direction, typically from a sitting position, notes Melissa McKinley, project manager for the new loo. At 100 pounds, the new titanium toilet is lighter and smaller than current ISS commodes. It also has an improved system for recycling water-based waste. As astronaut Jessica Meir jokes: “When it comes to our urine on ISS, today’s coffee is tomorrow’s coffee.” NASA, flush with fresh ideas from its Lunar Loo Challenge that wrapped up in October, now has launched into designing a toilet for use on the moon. – T. G.
A few years ago, the Batesville School District in Arkansas—which encompasses six schools and 3,200 students—was struggling with a budget deficit that kept salaries low and made it hard to retain teachers. But in 2017, Entegrity, a Little Rock energy-efficiency company, conducted an audit that found the district’s annual utility bills exceeded $600,000, according to the Energy News Network. Outfitting Batesville High School with 1,400 solar panels and updating lights, windows, and heating and cooling systems at every district school could save the system $2.4 million over 20 years, Entegrity estimated. The district bought in—and slashed its yearly energy consumption by 1.6 million kilowatts, turning its $250,000 budget deficit into a $1.8 million surplus and powering salary hikes of between $2,000 to $3,000 per educator. According to a report by Generation 180, a nonprofit that advocates for clean energy, some 7,300 U.S. schools now rely on solar to save money, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and introduce students to renewable energy. Nearly 80 percent of school districts let energy companies handle the logistical and financial challenges of shifting to solar, according to the report, so the districts have no upfront expenses and benefit from immediate cost savings. That’s a green dream come true. – T. G.
Peter Dearman, an inventor in England, was working on an idea for a car fueled by liquid air instead of liquid hydrogen a few years back when he suddenly realized the technology was well-suited for large-scale electricity storage. Highview Power, an energy storage company, is now building a $114 million liquid-air storage facility near Manchester based on his concept, the BBC reports. The 50-megawatt plant—backed with a $13.4 million investment from the U.K. government—will be capable of powering around 50,000 homes for five hours. The Highview plant will use excess energy from wind farms to compress air to the point it becomes liquid at minus 196 degrees Celsius. When the electrical grid needs a boost, the liquified air is warmed, turning it back into a rush of gas that turns an electricity-producing turbine. Green energy from solar and wind is, of course, intermittent, which makes finding ways to store excess power for use during peak demand periods essential. Power companies often rely on firing up natural gas plants to meet demand when renewable sources fall short. But that still releases greenhouse gases. Batteries cannot store energy produced from renewables for long periods, plus they are expensive and made from rare minerals. Dearman tells the BBC that while batteries are more efficient than his invention—liquid-air storage is 60 percent to 70 percent efficient—his energy-storage method works for longer periods and is cheaper. Air, after all, is free. – T. G.
Chirps Off the Old Block
The cicada Neotibicen pruinosus is known as the scissor grinder because of its signature metallic sound. Its wings are also extremely water-resistant. Now a multidisciplinary team at University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign has figured out a way to copy and print the wings’ unique nanostructures—a complex pattern of pillar-shaped bumps—that allow the insects to effectively repel water and avoid a buildup of surface bacteria. The team used a new version of nanoimprinting lithography to make a template of the patterns. That often costly and labor-intensive process usually requires toxic chemicals that would ruin the cicada’s wings. The researchers got around that problem by painting the wings with a harmless quick-drying nail polish, letting it cure at room temperature, and then coating it with a metal or polymer. The nail-polish template then dissolved, leaving behind a replica on the metal or polymer. To test the process, the researchers made copies of the cicada-wing template using both copper and an organic polymer called PDMS. The process may eventually be used to create high-tech waterproof materials. – T.G.
The global steel industry emits up to 8 percent of overall greenhouse gas emissions, primarily due to the coking coal used to convert or “reduce” iron ore to molten iron. So LKAB, a government-owned Swedish mining company, has teamed up with Swedish steelmaker SSAB and Vattenfall, a government-owned power company, to develop carbon-free iron ore. Known as direct reduced iron (DRI), it is produced using clean hydrogen power. LKAB says it plans to invest $47 billion in the joint venture, called HYBRIT, according to London’s Financial Times. The goal is to have net-zero carbon emissions within 25 years by using DRI in electric arc furnaces and getting rid of coke-fueled blast furnaces. LKAB also announced it has produced the world’s first iron ore pellets using 100 percent bio-oil instead of coal and conventional oil. The company says the use of biofuel at one of its pelletizing plants reduced carbon dioxide emissions by as much as 40 percent in a trial of HYBRIT last June. Other European steelmakers, including ArcelorMittal, are also looking into using hydrogen to produce steel. Analysts quoted by the FT caution that coke blast furnaces will likely still account for half of all steel production by 2050—largely because of a lack of access to sufficient inexpensive renewable energy. Moreover, many relatively new coke furnaces in India and China won’t need replacing for another 30 to 50 years. – T. G.
Sniffing Out Superspreaders
Public health officials now stress that COVID-19 is mainly spread via the air by respiratory droplets or aerosols expelled when those infected talk, cough, or sneeze. Mechanical engineering researchers at the University of Central Florida, using computer-generated models and simulations, have determined that a person’s physiology can affect how far a sneeze will propel droplets or how long they will linger in the air. People with stuffy noses or a full set of teeth, for example, will send droplets out faster and further than those who regularly blow their noses or have gaps in their smile. The model determined that congested nasal passages or a full set of clackers represent restricted exits that force droplets out at greater velocity. The researchers, who hope their findings may help efforts to control the spread of the virus, also simulated three saliva types: thin, medium, and thick. They found that thinner saliva created aerosols that remained airborne longer than those made by thicker saliva. The UCF team now is working on a type of cough drop that would thicken people’s saliva to reduce the chances they could infect others with their sneezes or coughs. – T. G.
Ban the ‘Bot
For seven years, the advocacy group Human Rights Watch has led a global campaign to abolish autonomous weapons systems. So far, around 57 countries and 113 nongovernmental organizations have joined the effort to develop an agreement akin to the 2010 global pact that outlawed land mines and cluster bombs, reports Deutsche Welle, a German state-run news organization. But many countries, including the United States, Russia, Britain, Israel, and South Korea, oppose the idea and say such a treaty is premature. Now Austria has kicked off a diplomatic initiative to design an ethical framework for battlefield robots of the future. “We have to create rules before killer robots reach the battlefield of this Earth,” Alexander Schallenberg, Austria’s foreign minister, told Welt am Sonntag, a German Sunday newspaper. Austria, he says, wants to organize a conference in Vienna in 2021 to start a process that could lead to an international convention on the use of artificial intelligence for combat. “The decision on life and death should ultimately be made by a person with his entire moral-ethical understanding,” Schallenberg says, “and not an algorithm of zeros and ones.” – T. G.
Most of the weight for electric vehicles comes from their heavy battery packs. A few months ago, Tesla owner Elon Musk announced that his pioneering EV company would soon be integrating lithium-ion batteries into the chassis of its cars to provide not only power but also support—a redesign that could trim weight by 10 percent. Teams of engineers worldwide seek to drive even greater reductions by making car bodies a medium for storing energy. These so-called structural batteries would eliminate the need for embedded power packs and instead use materials that are energy-storage devices, according to Wired magazine. Perhaps the leading team in this area is headed by Emile Greenhalgh, a professor of composite materials at London’s Imperial College, and Leif Asp, a professor of material and computational mechanics at Sweden’s Chalmers University of Technology. Greenhalgh tells Wired that structural batteries are essentially weightless because the car is the battery. They could offer massive performance gains and make cars safer because they do away with thousands of energy-dense, flammable cells. Greenhalgh and Asp designed and made a trunk for a Volvo using a material composed of two layers of carbon fiber infused with iron oxide and magnesium oxide, separated by an insulating layer. They then covered it in laminate and molded it to the right shape. It was a supercapacitor, not a battery, so it used an electrostatic charge instead of a chemical reaction. But Greenhalgh says it was a proof of concept and necessary half-step toward doing the same thing with a battery. – T. G.
Awash in Discoveries
The moon harbors more water than initially thought, two new NASA studies confirm. While it’s been known for several years that ice exists in the shadowy zones near the poles, where the sun never reaches, one study now finds that some 15,400 square miles of lunar shadowlands are cold enough to harbor ice—a 20 percent increase over previous estimates, National Geographic reports. The second study found “unambiguous evidence” that water molecules are widespread within grains of lunar soil even in sunlit areas. Beyond sustaining human habitation, an abundance of water would give mission planners more options for siting future bases and potentially make it possible to manufacture rocket fuel on the moon rather than sending it up from Earth. Meanwhile, China notched a third unmanned moon landing on December 1—the first mission to collect rock samples in 40 years. China expects to start operating its own manned space station by 2022 and has a goal of sending humans to the moon by 2029. NASA plans to send astronauts—including the first woman—back to the moon in 2024, with the aim of facilitating manned missions to Mars and beyond. – T. G.
Global Food Supply
The French are famous for cuisine. So perhaps it’s fitting that Amiens, a city north of Paris, is where French start-up Ynsect is building a second vertical farm to cultivate hundreds of millions of beetles. Don’t expect to dine on these delicacies anytime soon, however. They’re fodder for pets, livestock, plants, and, most important, salmon raised in fish farms, the world’s fastest growing food-production system, Fast Company reports. Studies show that fish that feed on insect larvae reach maturity faster, eat less, and survive more easily, potentially yielding larger harvests while freeing up cropland currently devoted to protein-rich feedstock such as soy. Beetles also are a good source of protein for pets and livestock. Billed as the world’s largest insect farm, the fully automated facility will have 130-foot ceilings and rooms stacked with trays full of mealworm larvae once it starts operating in 2022. Robots will feed, hatch, harvest, and process the larvae, while an artificial intelligence system will monitor the environment to maintain perfect growing conditions. Another green bonus: Mealworms thrive on local crop waste. While Ynsect isn’t ruling out growing insects for human consumption at some point, even daring gourmands may never acquire a taste for bugs à l’orange. – T. G.
What is your cat trying to tell you? Akvelon, a Washington State software engineering firm, has released a smartphone app that records and then tries to translate the sounds your cat makes, reports the BBC. But felines don’t speak a universal language. Rather, they tailor meows to their owners, so sounds are unique to each cat. Accordingly, the MeowTalk app requires pet owners to create a sound database its machine-learning software can learn from. Owners can choose among 13 phrases, ranging from “feed me” to “leave me alone.” The more the app is used, the more accurate its interpretations. The aim is to eventually develop a smart collar that would translate each meow and use a recorded human voice to say it aloud in English via a tiny speaker. MeowTalk is still in development, but the beta version can be downloaded from both Apple’s and Google’s app stores. One cat behaviorist tells the BBC that because the app relies on the owner’s labeling translations, there likely will be a lot of miscommunications, “which could give owners the wrong impression about what the cats are feeling” and “be detrimental to the cat, the owner, and their relationship.” User reviews are mixed. “If you don’t take it too seriously, it’s a really fun app,” noted one reviewer. Another was annoyed at “getting the translation ‘I’m in love’ 90 percent of the time.” Not exactly the cat’s meow. – T. G.