Breakthroughs and trends in the world of technology
Bare-nosed wombats, which are short-legged Australian marsupials, have many unique qualities. Chief among them: cube-shaped poop. Their output is prodigious, too. Each animal drops up to 100 packages per day, four to eight 2-centimeter loads at a time. In 2018, Patricia Yang, then a mechanical engineering postdoc at Georgia Tech and now at Stanford University, conducted a study indicating that the cubical dung was formed at the exit door of the animal’s digestive system, Smithsonian magazine explains. In a new follow-up study, Yang’s team determined that the poop becomes cube-shaped earlier on, within the last 17 percent of the intestine. For the new study, Yang’s team dissected two wombats to take a closer look at the structure and texture of their intestines, then created a 2-D mathematical model to show how alternating stiff and soft regions in the digestive tract can mold corners and produce square-shaped feces. Scientists speculate that cube-shape poops evolved because they are less likely to roll off rocks and logs, making it easier for wombats to mark their territory. The effort to fathom wombat plumbing was not idle curiosity. The research could yield new ways to detect colon cancer or give engineers fresh ideas on how to manufacture and shape products. – Thomas K. Grose
©David Hu and Scott Carver
Block • Paper • Scissors
Only about 9 percent of the millions of tons of plastic manufactured each year gets recycled, leaving the world awash in waste. Nzambi Matee, 29, a former petroleum engineer in Kenya, sees enormous potential. According to Colossal, an arts and sciences website, Matee quit her job three years ago to launch Gjenge Makers, a start-up that mixes discarded plastics with sand to make bricks that can be used for construction or patios. The textured bricks, made from a machine she prototyped while studying at the University of Colorado–Boulder, are more durable than concrete and have a melting point higher than 350º C. So far, Gjenge Makers has recycled more than 20 tons of plastic, generating 1,000 to 1,500 bricks a day, and now seeks to expand across Africa. Meanwhile, Coca-Cola, vodka maker Absolut, and brewer Carlsberg are pilot-testing bottles made from paper, the BBC reports. Coke’s trial will focus on 2,000 bottles of AdeZ, a fruit drink, to be distributed in Hungary in June. The bottles, developed by Danish company Paboco, still have a thin plastic liner to protect the paper from carbonated beverages. But designers hope to develop a plant-based inner coating so that the entire bottle—including caps—can be easily recycled along with other types of paper. – T. G.
That Sinking Feeling
Rising sea levels caused by global warming aren’t the only threat to coastal cities. Their weight is hastening cities’ submersion, a new U.S. Geological Survey study suggests. The agency’s report—authored by geophysicist Tom Parsons—examined greater San Francisco, calculating the area may have sunk by as much as 3.1 inches over the past century. By 2050, sea levels around the Bay Area could rise an estimated 11.8 inches, so the subsidence is cause for alarm. The USGS study considered all of the buildings and their contents in the San Francisco Bay Area to arrive at a total weight of 1.6 trillion kilograms, or 3.5 trillion pounds. Such a load could bend the lithosphere on which the city sits and possibly also change the relative levels of the fault blocks that comprise the Earth’s surface. Parsons warns that his weight estimates are likely conservative, since they exclude transportation infrastructure, vehicles, and the area’s 7.75 million people. The USGS says its findings can be extrapolated to argue that similar subsidence is happening to other cities around the world, though the amount of sinking would vary based on local geology. It’s a heavy-duty study. And it will likely make scientists recalculate which cities are under the greatest threat from rising seas—and whether they will both sink and swim. – T. G.
Blue, the world’s favorite color, is rarely found in nature. And some of what we do see—butterflies, blue eyes, or the sky—are reflections of light that give an impression of blue. That’s why, as the New York Times reports, all the blue paints and dyes we use today were created in chemistry labs. And new shades are few and far between. For example, the inorganic blue pigment cobalt blue emerged from the lab of French chemist Louis Jacques Thenard 99 years ago. And that was the most recent discovery—until 2009. That year, Mas Subramanian, a professor of materials science at Oregon State University, accidentally discovered a new shade he calls YinMn Blue, named for its three chemical components: yttrium, indium, and manganese. Subramanian was working on inventing a material that could be used for electronic devices when he put a sample of the mixture into a furnace and baked it at 2,300º Fahrenheit. When he took it out, it had changed into a brilliant, intense shade of blue he had never seen before. Now, nearly a dozen years later, YinMn Blue is finally hitting the commercial market. (It takes a lot of time to win regulatory approval and figure out how to scale up production of a new blue.) Beauty has its price, however. YinMn Blue sells for nearly $179 an ounce. It’s nontoxic, so it won’t harm the environment. In other words, it’s the blue that’s also green. – T. G.
©Oregon State University
In January 1959, 10 university students and a sports instructor trekked into the Soviet Union’s Ural Mountains to ski and mountaineer. One student, Yuri Yudin, experienced joint pain and headed back. The other nine, led by engineering student Igor Dyatlov, 23, never returned. As National Geographic recounts, search teams eventually recovered their widely scattered corpses. Some had smashed chests and skulls. Others were missing eyes, and one victim’s tongue was gone. An investigation at the time blamed an “unknown natural force,” but the incident generated conspiracy theories ranging from secret military tests to a Yeti attack. A 2019 Russian probe concluded the main culprit was an avalanche but could not explain the lack of physical evidence. Now two Swiss researchers, using computer models and simulations, have bolstered the avalanche theory. Alexander Puzrin, a geotechnical engineer at one of Switzerland’s federal institutes of technology, has published research demonstrating the possibility of a gap ranging from minutes to hours between an avalanche and the event that triggered it. Puzrin teamed up with Johan Gaume, a snow avalanche simulation expert at another federal lab who makes simulations look realistic using tricks gleaned from animators of the 2013 Disney film Frozen. The pair also used data from car crash experiments General Motors conducted in the 1970s that studied the effects of blunt forces on cadavers. They concluded that heavy bursts of frigid air known as katabatic winds triggered a small, icy avalanche—probably less than 16 feet long, which would leave no traces—hours later. The study doesn’t explain everything; the researchers can only surmise that scavenging animals ate the missing eyes and tongue. The Dyatlov Pass mystery may never be fully solved. – T. G.
Denmark, which built the world’s first offshore wind farm nearly 30 years ago, is moving ahead with its largest construction in history: a $34 billion public-private investment to create an “energy island” some 80 kilometers off the North Sea coast. As the majority stakeholder, the government initially will receive 3 gigawatts of electricity from 200 offshore wind turbines and distribute it via the grid to the mainland, CNBC reports. Ultimately, the hub’s capacity will expand to 10 GW, enough to power 10 million homes. The island is slated to grow to 460,000 square meters (roughly the size of 12 football fields) and eventually direct some of its power to neighboring countries such as Britain, Germany, and the Netherlands, the BBC says. Plans also call for producing hydrogen for the shipping, aviation, and heavy-transportation industries. No word yet on whether the island will sport an artificial beach and luxury resort. – T. G.
©The Danish Energy Agency
Greens See Red
Chemical engineering researchers at MIT have designed spinach plants that can detect if a chemical used in explosive devices is present in groundwater and then dispatch an alert, Euronews reports. The researchers modified spinach leaves with carbon nanotubes capable of fluorescing with increasing degrees of intensity when the plant’s roots encounter nitroaromatics, compounds commonly employed in landmines. If the chemicals are detected, the leaves emit a signal that is read by an infrared camera, which e-mails a warning. The bomb-detecting spinach is part of ongoing research in plant nanobionics, or the engineering of electronic components and systems into plants to give them detection capabilities. Plants have extensive root networks and are constantly sipping groundwater and transporting it to their leaves, which makes them ideal chemical detectives. Other researchers are looking into using plants to detect air pollution or monitor environmental conditions, perhaps sniffing out pathogens or pollutants. Meanwhile, Sam Nester, a musician and artist, has created an art installation called Arcadia at Virginia’s George Mason University. The project uses electronic sensors attached to plants to capture their natural biorhythms. Nester then uses MIDI to convert those electrical impulses into a constantly changing stream of music and lights. The resulting display, which one faculty member hails as “letting us hear the songs of the plants,” is being livestreamed (http://bit.ly/3uGuQkE). Boogie on, begonia! – T. G.
Aviator Amelia Earhart set off in 1937 to become the first pilot to circumnavigate the Earth at the equator, only to disappear with navigator Fred Noonan somewhere over the Pacific Ocean between New Guinea and Howland Island. Last October, Daniel Beck and his 11-year-old son Logan were watching a documentary about Earhart. The program mentioned an aluminum panel found in 1991 on Nikumaroro, another island some 300 miles from Howland, that might be connected to her flight. Beck, who manages an engineering program at Penn State’s Breazeale Nuclear Reactor, had a eureka moment: the neutron technology used at his center might be able to discover more about the badly weathered panel. Beck and Kenan Ünlü, a professor of nuclear engineering, are now using neutron radiography and neutron activation analysis to analyze the external and internal composition of the aluminum patch. For instance, a neutron beam from the reactor can be passed through the sample onto an imaging plate, revealing paint, writing, or numbers no longer visible to the naked eye. Neutron activation analysis can precisely identify the makeup of the material to a parts-per-billion level of sensitivity. Beck and Ünlü will reveal their findings later this year after conducting more comprehensive experiments. It’s doubtful they will have definitive confirmation of the panel’s provenance, Beck says, but the new information “will provide more data about what the patch is.” – T. G.
Raising the Steaks
Americans love meat. U.S. beef consumption averages around 27 billion pounds a year, including 50 billion burgers. But as the Washington Post reports, issues ranging from health concerns to climate change and animal welfare are making diners more open to alternatives. Plant-based “meat” already is a grocery store staple. Coming next: lab-cultivated meat derived from either animal tissue cultures or cells. The Post says 70 companies are planning to market beef and other alt-meats, including poultry and seafood. In February, Israeli start-up Aleph Farms showed off its first 3-D printed rib-eye steak made from living animal cells. Meanwhile, BlueNalu of San Diego says it will market cell-based seafoods later this year. Israel’s Future Meat Technologies and two Dutch companies, Meatable and Mosa Meat, which make products using tissue harvested from live or slaughtered animals, expect to begin offering their fare next year. Aleph, whose technology was developed with researchers at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, claims its bioprinted rib-eye steak will have the texture, taste, and fatty marbling of the real McCoy. Will meat-loving Americans bite? – T. G.
Red Rover, Red Rover
The fourth rock from the sun is entertaining a swarm of earthly visitors these days. Up to now, just four space agencies—those of the United States, Russia, the European Union, and India—had successfully launched missions to Mars. In February, within days of each other, the United Arab Emirates and China joined the ranks. The UAE’s Hope orbiter began circling the Red Planet on Valentine’s Day, quickly sending back a stunning picture of the Olympus Mons volcano. It’s an impressive achievement for a country that only set up its space agency in 2014. Hope is expected to orbit Mars for 687 days, one Martian year, and will monitor its atmosphere using three scientific instruments. The goal: achieve a better understanding of Martian weather. China’s Tianwen-1 spacecraft eased into orbit on February 10 and sent home “selfie” video clips. Besides the orbiter, Tianwen-1 comprises a lander and a rover. Both are expected to attempt to reach the surface in May or June. Meanwhile, NASA’s Perseverance rover, which blasted toward Mars last July aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, autonomously executed a well-engineered, flawless Mars landing on February 18. The tricky procedure required Perseverance to slow down to a snail’s pace within seven minutes of hitting the Martian atmosphere at over 12,000 mph. An onboard robotic guidance system helped the rover avoid setting down on rough terrain. Perseverance, which has sent stunning panoramas of its landing site within the Jezero Crater, as well as the first audio clips of Martian winds, is now gearing up to scour its prime spot for clues that life once existed on the planet. – T. G.
©UAE Space Agency
Go with the Flow
Hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (sometimes called plugless EVs) have a problem: bulky, high-pressure storage tanks to safely hold the gas. Researchers at Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Technology and Advanced Materials have developed a way to store hydrogen in a paste, according to the industry website electrive.com. The so-called “power paste” is based on a solid magnesium hydride that allows the hydrogen to be safely stored at room temperature and pressure. When squeezed out of a replaceable cartridge, the paste is mixed with precisely measured amounts of tap water from a tank to produce gaseous hydrogen that the fuel cell then converts into electricity. Because only half of the hydrogen comes from the paste—with water supplying the other half—its overall energy storage density is 10 times that of batteries. The paste can also flow and be pumped, so conceivably could be injected into vehicles at filling stations without having to build costly infrastructure to store gaseous hydrogen at high pressure or in liquid form at super-cold temperatures. Ultimately, the researchers say, the paste could be a way to power drones for longer than 20 minutes or to run appliances like coffeemakers and toasters in campers. – T. G.
Pigs are clever critters, from hunting truffles to leading the revolution in George Orwell’s allegorical classic, Animal Farm. Now scientists at Purdue University’s Center for Animal Welfare Science have discovered that pigs can even learn to play video games. As the BBC reports, the researchers set up a game that allowed four test pigs—Hamlet, Omelette, Ebony, and Ivory—to guide an on-screen cursor into a wall by moving a joystick with their snouts. Each time they hit the target, a dispenser awarded a food pellet. Eventually, the dispenser broke, but the pigs persisted, playing and improving their game when prompted with encouraging words. That the pigs grasped the connection between the joystick and the game “is no small feat,” contend the researchers, who were impressed that the pigs could play the game at all. While monkeys and chimpanzees perform better in similar experiments, the pigs’ nearsightedness and lack of thumbs didn’t leave them too ham-handed. – T. G.
Blast from the Past
Ninety years ago, archaeologists investigating a decorated cave in France uncovered a conch shell from the Upper Paleolithic period with a chopped-off tip. Now, modern imaging technologies have revealed clues about the seashell’s purpose. A multiuniversity study used CT scans and other imaging to suggest that the object, housed in the Muséum de Toulouse, was an early trumpet—approximately 18,000 years old. The shell’s outer lip had been smoothed, perhaps to make it easier to hold. The missing tip provided a blow hole, but its jagged edges would have made the conch painful to play. The researchers detected traces of a resin or wax around the opening that indicate an attached mouthpiece. They also found red fingerprint smudges that contained the same pigment used to color paintings carved into the cave walls. While not the oldest instrument ever discovered—flutes made from animal bones date back 40,000 years—the horn is a rare example, perhaps the only one from the Paleolithic period, of a musical instrument made from a large shell. As one archaeologist tells Wired magazine, evidence that ancient cave dwellers made music and art indicates “these were really complex people.” – T. G.