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Talk nerdy to me

This week saw the first photograph of a black hole and the fiery destruction of Notre Dame's spire, but a few other things have been happening in labs around the world. Namely, water that doesn’t freeze, snow that generates electricity, a new species of human, and a future of space travel that looks decidedly community-minded.

Real x-ray vision

X-ray specs are the kind of thing you expect to see advertised in the back pages of a comic book. But they may soon be a reality. Arizona State University engineer George Trichopolous is developing a special camera paired with goggles that employ millimeter and terahertz waves to see through walls and look around corners.

<strong>Looking around obstacles</strong> will enable rescue or surveillance in areas and buildings where access is limited. Courtesy Tiago Allen.Millimeter wave technology is used in airport scanners to see through passenger’s clothes to detect weapons. Located between microwaves and infrared in the electromagnetic spectrum, terahertz waves can penetrate materials that aren’t good conductors—such as wood, plastic, and drywall.

But Trichopolous intends to use these waves as a mirror, bouncing them off surfaces in order to see around walls where physical access is limited. Combined with virtual reality, this could be a powerful tool for firefighters, allowing them to look through walls and see around corners to find trapped victims.

A skull you can see through

The See-Shell device allows researchers to see global changes in a mouse brain. Changes in brightness correspond to neural activity. Subtle flashes are periods when the whole brain suddenly becomes active. Researchers are still trying to understand the reason for such global coordinated activity. Courtesy College of Science and Engineering, UMN.

X-ray goggles might help rescue workers see through walls, but what about when you want to see through bone? Neuroscientists have made great leaps in understanding how the brain works, but they still struggle with making real-time observations because our thick skulls get in the way. The answer? A transparent window into the brain.

Called See-Shell, this 3D-printed skull implant allows researchers to now watch activity in the entire brain surface in real time. They have already used it to study how the brain reorganizes after mild concussions, and in the future hope to investigate degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Not so special after all

Speaking of skulls, some 50,000 year-old bones recently unearthed in the Philippines point to a more complicated history for humanity than anthropologists used to think. Found in a cave on the island of Luzon, the fossils represent a new species of human, named Homo luzonensis.

<strong>Learning more about our origins.</strong> Anthropologist Philip Piper inspects the cast of a third metatarsal bone from a new species of hominin. Courtesy, Lannon Harley, Australian National University. The seven tiny teeth that were part of the find indicate that Homo luzonensis was likely under four feet tall, similar to the “Hobbit” species Homo floresiensis, discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003. Another unique feature is a curved toe bone, which indicates an ability to both walk on two legs and easily climb trees. 

The new species may have reached Luzon intentionally on a raft or been washed up there by a tsunami or similar event. The other big question is – Why did they disappear, and did Homo sapiens play a role in their fate?

When ice doesn’t freeze over

We all know that water freezes at 32o Fahrenheit/0o Celsius. But now scientists in Switzerland have discovered a way to prevent water from freezing, even at temperatures as low as -263o Celsius.

<strong>Natural antifreeze.</strong> A new process that can prevent water from freezing even at extremely cold temperatures was inspired by bacteria that live in extreme environments. It will allow scientists to better study molecular structures by preventing the formation of ice crystals.Inspired by bacteria that can survive in extremely cold environments, the scientists synthesized a new class of lipids (fat molecules) that form a net-like membrane which encloses water, preventing ice crystals from forming.

In a normal freezing process, the formation of ice crystals damages membranes. But the new lipidic mesophase is non-destructive and preserves molecules in their original state. This natural antifreeze will help scientists better study molecular structures using cryogenic electron microscopy.

Electric snow

When water does freeze, it sometimes falls to earth as snow. A pain to shovel from the driveway, but great for making snow angels. And now, perhaps, a source of electricity.

<strong>Snow power.</strong> A new device that can generate electricity from falling snow may increase the output of solar panels by counteracting the dip in energy production when panels are covered with snow. Courtesy 1010 Climate Action. <a href='https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en'>(CC BY 2.0)</a>A new 3D-printed triboelectric nanogenerator, AKA ‘TENG’, can generate electricity from snow via static electricity. Snow is positively charged and gives up electrons. When falling snow comes into contact with silicone, which is negatively charged, it produces a charge that TENG captures, creating electricity. “You create electricity out of essentially nothing,” says UCLA scientist Richard Kaner.

Solar panels often fail to operate in the winter, when they are covered with snow. Adding the new device to solar panels could counteract that effect, providing continuous power even when it snows. TENG also has potential for monitoring athlete performance in winter sports, such as cross-country skiing.

Space travel for all

Some people build barbeques in their backyards. More ambitious types might attempt a pergola or even a trebuchet. But one man in Manchester, England is building a rocket.

The future of space travel? The 2018 launch of Starchaser Industries’ Skybolt 2 missile in Northumberland National Park. Company founder Steve Bennett believes he is just a few years away from launching people into space. Courtesy Daily Mail.

Steve Bennett and a small team of volunteers are working towards making affordable commercial suborbital flights a reality. They hope that their latest project, a 12-metre rocket named Nova 2, will someday take passengers into space—at least for a few minutes.

Starchaser Industries has been in business since 1992 and has successfully launched several test rockets, all while relying on donations and ‘friends of friends’. Bennett views his lack of wealth more as an opportunity than an obstacle. He thinks the future of space travel will be community-based, and he’s looking for more volunteers. Any takers?

 

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