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Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

When I used to ride the soul-crushing trains in New York City I would often have the same recurring thought: what if we could harness the power of people pushing their way through the subway turnstiles to create an electrical charge?

Similar to the way that water can generate electricity at a hydroelectric plant when it moves through a turbine, the act of people physically pushing their way past the turnstile could do the same.  With enough people commuting perhaps we could generate enough power to cover the cost of electricity in Penn Station or across a few nearby city blocks.  And if there’s one thing that New York has an abundance of it’s people commuting.

Sadly, my dream never came to fruition but that’s okay because a group of Chinese researchers are about to do me one better for they are on the verge of creating a new bloodstream based power source.  One that would essentially place tiny hydroelectric plants inside of our bodies to harness the flow of our blood through our veins as a power supply.

As Futurism puts it:

“The team from Fudan University in China has developed a lightweight power generator that can convert flowing blood in vessels into power. This is made possible by a fiber made of carbon nanotubes, which are electroactive. In tests, this thread of fibers, called a ‘fiber-shaped fluidic nanogenerator’ (FFNG), is attached to electrodes and immersed in a solution to imitate the bloodstream. According to the researchers, ‘The electricity was derived from the relative movement between the FFNG and the solution.’”

With this technology in hand, or rather, in us, we might one day be able to generate enough electricity to power implants such as pacemakers or even our mobile devices.  It could even be a key component of future wearable devices or allow us to further embed electronics into the fabric of our clothing.

Now if only we could do something about those subway turnstiles…

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Is blood vessel power the Greatest Idea Ever?

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Here’s a quick look at everything that tickled my fancy this past week:

Nike’s custom sneakers: Attention all sneaker heads.  In the near future it may be possible to design a custom sneaker and have your newest kicks assembled for you in under an hour.

As Engadget explains, “The entire process is fairly simple: You walk into the By You Studio and put on a pair of Prestos that act as a white canvas. Then you step into a contraption that projects light onto the upper and lets you see how your designs looks in real time, right there on your feet as you’re trying them on.”

For now the process is limited to just design the “upper”, the top half of the shoe.  The quantity of colors and patterns is limited as well.  However, that’s expected to change to eventually include hundreds of options and over time the expectation is that you’ll also one day get to design the entire shoe, not just the upper.

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Storing Light as Sound: A new breakthrough could have far-reaching implications for the future of computing.

According to I Fucking Love Science, “A team of researchers from the University of Sydney has managed to convert the digital information carried by light waves into sound waves inside a microchip. This is the first time such a feat has been achieved.

This technological breakthrough is crucial in the development of photonic integrated circuits, the basis of computers that use light instead of electrons to manage and store data. If successful, these systems would not be subjected to electromagnetic interference, produce too much heat, or consume too much energy.”

This could lead to even faster computers than we have now.

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Glow in the Dark Cotton: Another day, another amazing new material.

According to Inverse, “Today’s new ‘smart’ materials range in purpose — a new polymer resin self-heals holes in space habitats, and carbon nanotube yarn can generate electricity — but they all depend on superficial coatings that turn old substances into novel tools. That’s a problem because the more they are used, the less functional they’ll become because of natural wear and tear.

Researchers are hopeful that they can solve that issue by building functionality directly into the fundamental building blocks of those materials, and it looks like they’re well on their way. In a paper published Thursday in Science, a team of researchers report that they made natural glow-in-the-dark cotton by growing it in a way that the plant incorporates fluorescent molecules into its very fibers.”

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Self-fertilizing Crops: To date the coolest synthetic biology capability that I had heard of, was the idea that in the future it may be possible to program a tree to grow directly into a chair or any other piece of furniture that you desired.  But now, there’s an even better potential by-product of synthetic biology.  The ability to synthetically engineer crops capable of fertilizing themselves.

According to Extra Crispy, “Legumes are a self-sufficient crop when it comes to fertilization. Unlike most other large crops, legume plants (like peanuts, soybeans, peas, and beans) support the growth of microbes known as nitrogen-fixers. These microbes convert nitrogen in soil into ammonia, a necessary component in photosynthesis. Since major crops like corn, rice, and wheat don’t naturally support nitrogen-fixers in growth, farmers rely on artificial fertilizer, a deeply environmentally unsustainable product. Fortunately, a synthetic biology company has committed to attempt to wean all crops from fertilizer-based growth.  Ginkgo Bioworks, a Boston-based company, is working to synthetically engineer nitrogen-fixing microbes that can live on any plant, and (like legumes) produce their own fertilizer, effectively eradicating the fossil fuel-reliant artificial fertilizers.”

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Self-Assembling Mega Robots: In the future it may be possible for robots to combine themselves into larger robots.  Maybe Elon Musk was right to fear A.I.

As Popular Science puts it, “Power Rangers had Megazord. Voltron had, well, Voltron. Individual robots that combine to form one larger, cooler—dare we say, more badass—automaton have been a mainstay of science fiction for decades. But a new study in Nature Communications suggests that morphing robots may finally outgrow the limits of fiction and find their way into our reality. The researchers were able to get autonomous modular robots—robots that have the ability to control themselves, like the Roomba vacuum cleaner—to join forces and make one cohesive megabot. The future is now.” 

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Synthetic Muscles: Speaking of synthetics and robots, we may be one step closer to creating humanoid bots featuring life-like synthetic muscles.  Westworld here we come!

As the Telegraph puts it:

“An artificial muscle that can lift 1,000 times its own weight has been created, laying the groundwork for Terminator-like humanoid robots. Scientists used a 3D printing technique to create the rubber-like synthetic muscle that expands and contracts like its biological counterpart. Heated by a small electric current, the material was capable of expanding to nine times its normal size.”

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Are any of these the Greatest Idea Ever?

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A few weeks ago I was in Chicago, marveling at the 68 ornately designed Thorne Miniature Rooms in the bowels of the Chicago Art Institute, thanks to a tip from my friends over at Atlas Obscura, when I had an epiphany.

As I gazed at each exquisitely hand-crafted miniature room, each one depicting what it would have been like to live in various times periods across a myriad of different cultures, I realized that what the world needs right now is a different take on these works of art.  Instead of miniature rooms paying homage to our old ways of life, what we need are miniature rooms that would pay homage to our current and future ways of life.  What we need, are miniature rooms designed to depict the greatest scenes in modern science.  Pint sized inspiration to lead us through these dark times.

For instance, instead of a Victorian era home we’d have a to-scale model of the International Space Station.  Instead of a castle we’d have a particle collider.  The possibilities are endless.

With that in mind, here’s a look at some of the possible scientifically themed miniature rooms that we could have:

  • The International Space Station
  • The Large Hadron Collider
  • The Moon Landing
  • Houston Space Command
  • NASA Ames Research Center
  • Any other NASA facility
  • George Church’s lab at Harvard
  • The Seastead Institute Cruise Ship
  • Asgardia Space Station
  • Apple’s New Spaceship Campus
  • Googleplex
  • Facebook’s campus
  • Amazon’s headquarters
  • Foxconn factory where the iPhone is made
  • Hyperloop test track
  • Elon Musk’s lair
  • Spaceport America
  • Einstein in a classroom
  • Doomsday Seed Vault
  • Library of Alexandria
  • Library of Congress
  • Tesla’s lab
  • Ford factory assembly line
  • Internet of Things connected home of the future
  • Plato and Socrates debating in the town square
  • The iconic electronic billboard of Times Square
  • Steve Jobs and the Woz in their garage
  • Stanford’s Campus
  • Silicon Valley
  • Sand Hill Road (venture capitalism)
  • The accidental discovery of penicillin in a lab
  • Leonardo Da Vinci painting the Mona Lisa
  • Florence, Italy in its heyday
  • Athens, Greece in its heyday
  • The Renaissance
  • Egyptian hieroglyphics
  • The first stone tablet being created
  • Cave paintings
  • Science Fiction
    • The Bridge of the Starship Enterprise
    • Emmett Brown’s garage featuring the Dolorean
  • SETI Telescope Field
  • The Hubble Telescope
  • World’s Fair grounds
  • Tomorrowland at Disney
  • Stonehenge
  • The Great Pyramids
  • Other famous archaeological sites
  • Cloud computing server farm
  • Modern bedroom of a standard 13 year old app developer
  • The first room sized computer mainframe
  • The ITER fusion reactor facility

As you can see, anywhere that innovation occurs would be fair game from the research labs where famous discoveries occurred to the old stomping grounds frequented by famous scientists.  Anywhere and everywhere that science has occurred.

Now if only I knew someone capable of making such rooms…

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Are scientifically themed Thorne Miniature Rooms the Greatest Idea Ever?

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Previously, I wrote about one touch healing, a new method developed by The Ohio State to heal wounds in a manner of seconds by applying vascular cells to the affected skin cells to kick-start the molecular rebuilding process.  Now there’s another lightning fast device on the horizon, a pen capable of detecting cancer in under ten seconds.

As New Atlas puts it:

“Distinguishing cancerous tissue from healthy tissue is a chief concern when it comes to surgery, which is why medical scientists are continually looking at new technologies to help surgeons sort the good from the bad. Over the years, we’ve seen research advances in the form of glowing compounds that light up cancerous cells and smart scalpels that offer visual and audio guidance. Now researchers at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin have developed a pen-like device that identifies cancerous tissue during surgery, boosting the chances of a successful procedure.”

So how does this amazing new technology work?!

“The pen simply needs to be held against the tissue while a foot pedal is used to kick off the process. This sees a drop of water fall onto the tissue, allowing small molecules to be absorbed into the liquid. This water is then fed into a mass spectrometer, an instrument with the ability to detect thousands of molecules and interpret the molecular fingerprints of various cancers.

Once this analysis is completed, a connected computer screen will automatically display ‘Normal’ or ‘Cancer’ within about 10 seconds, and for certain cancers, will even name the subtype, such as ‘lung cancer,’ for example. When testing the MasSpec Pen on 253 tissue samples taken from cancer patients, it proved more than 96 percent accurate and was also able to detect cancer in marginal areas between normal and cancerous tissue.”

Considering how pivotal early stage detection is for all types of cancer, this pen could be responsible for saving millions of lives.  And considering how quick and easy it is to use, it’s the kind of thing that should be readily available in every doctor’s office.  Hopefully, further testing will continue to show the same promising results and the device will be commercialized in short order.

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Is a cancer detecting pen the Greatest Idea Ever?

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Climate change is real.  There’s no denying it.  Hurricane Harvey, a devastating 1 in 500 year event, just dumped so much water onto Houston that it actually lowered the crust of the Earth in the region by 2 cm.  Less than two weeks later, Hurricane Irma, the most powerful Atlantic hurricane ever recorded, with sustained winds of over 185 mph for a record thirty consecutive hours, barrels towards South Florida after wrecking havoc in the Caribbean.  Hurricane Andrew which destroyed Homestead, Florida back in 1992 was about half the size of Irma.  The historic storm heading towards Key West right now is so large that it could literally engulf the entire state of Florida.  East Coast.  West Coast.  It doesn’t matter.  There’s no where to hide from Irma.

But that’s not all.  Irma is just one of three active hurricanes in the Atlantic right now with Katia forming in the Gulf and Jose, now a Category 3 with sustained winds of over 150 mph, coming on strong right behind it in the Atlantic.  And oh by the way, we haven’t even entered peak Hurricane season yet.  More storms could be forth coming over the next three months.  Welcome to our new normal where historic once in a generation storms occur every year, forever testing our resolve as a nation.

So is there anything we can do about it?  We are increasingly becoming more adept at playing God, at controlling our own destiny.  We create artificial intelligence, genetically modify crops, grow meat in a lab, use the CRISPR gene editing technique to alter our DNA and eradicate diseases.  We’re getting closing to curing cancer, reversing the aging process, finding life on other planets, and figuring out the secrets of the Universe from determining what dark matter is to understanding consciousness.  We can do anything we put our minds to.

It’s with that in mind that I’m confident that we could engineer a solution to climate change.  To figure out a way to stop hurricanes from ever forming in the first place.  And thankfully there’s a group of scientists working on doing just that.

The team of Chinese researchers is currently studying the feasibility of injecting sulfate into the atmosphere in an attempt to cool the planet and counteract the effects of climate change.  In theory, the sulfate aerosol particles would reflect sunlight back into space and thereby lower the temperature of water in the ocean.  Without warmer waters to serve as fuel, the quantity and intensity of hurricanes would decrease over time.  In fact, the plan would be to reduce the impact of hurricanes by 50% over 50 years.

As Futurism notes:

“In their current research model, in which the scientists tested a scenario where the sulfate injection is doubled over time, the team found that incidences of Katrina-level hurricanes could be maintained (they would be kept at the same rate that we currently see) and that storm surges, which is the rise in seawater level that is caused solely by a storm, could be mitigated by half. The researchers noted that  the volcanic eruption in 1912 of Katmai in Alaska ‘loaded the Northern Hemisphere with aerosol [sulfates], and [was] followed by the least active hurricane season on record.’”

Obviously, this plan isn’t full proof.  By trying to protect ourselves against hurricanes we could inadvertently cause other environmental impacts such as a weakening of Earth’s atmosphere.  Further research is going to be required.  New materials are going to have to be invented.  But despite the challenges it’s abundantly clear that we’re going to have to do something and soon.  Because the alternative, doing nothing, isn’t a viable option either.  This is our new normal and we have to do something about it.  The sooner we accept that, the better.

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Is a plan to prevent the formation of hurricanes the Greatest Idea Ever?

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As Hurricane Harvey continues to deluge Houston with rain, with two or three more feet still to come, we’re reminded of the devastating effects of Mother Nature at her worst.  But as horrible as the catastrophic flooding is, there’s a far greater natural threat that we have to worry about: the super volcano positioned under Yellowstone National Park in the heart of the United States, because if it were ever to erupt it wouldn’t just effect an area the size of Texas.  It would effect the entire United States.  In fact, it would effect the entire world.  And oh by the way, it’s long overdue for an eruption.

Ever since I saw Spock save an ancient civilization from an impending volcano induced cataclysm in the second movie of the Star Trek reboot, I had long hoped that there would be a similar geoengineering scheme that could save us from the Yellowstone Super Volcano.  And now, thanks to NASA, there is.

As Popular Mechanics reports, “NASA’s plan is to drill a hole into the side of the volcano and pump water through it. When the water comes back out, it’ll be heated to over 600 degrees, slowly cooling the volcano. The team hopes that given enough time, this process will take enough heat from the volcano to prevent it from ever erupting. As a bonus, the scientists are proposing to use the heated water as a source of geothermal energy, potentially powering the entire Yellowstone region with heat from the volcano that wants to destroy it. A geothermal generator could produce energy at around $0.10 per kWh, competitive with other energy sources.”

NASA won’t be the only ones pocking around the Yellowstone Super Volcano though.  According to Wired, the discovery of lithium there could make it a hot bed for mining activity.

“Electric cars and smartphones of the future could be powered by super volcanoes like Yellowstone after scientists discovered that ancient deposits within them contain huge reservoirs of lithium—a chemical element used to make lithium-ore batteries, supplies of which are increasingly dwindling.”

The article from Wired further explains the process behind how the lithium was created:

“In a study published in the journal Nature Communications, researchers from Stanford University and the US Geological Survey have found a new potential source for lithium—within America’s super volcanoes

These volcanoes are capable of producing huge eruptions, about 1,000 times bigger than average. Along with the famous Yellowstone caldera, there are three other supervolcanoes in the US, Crater Lake, Long Valley and Valles Caldera.

When these volcanoes erupt, they collapse into huge basin-like formations known as calderas. These depressions often fill with water to become lakes, with the ash and pumice ejected during the eruption spread across the caldera in ancient deposits.

In the study, the team looked to super volcanoes as a potential source of lithium because of the lithium-enriched magma that formed them. Over thousands of years, lithium leaks out of the volcanic deposits, accumulating in the caldera lake, eventually becoming concentrated in a clay.”

So as you can see, all of our prayers have been answered.  We’re finally going to be tackling the issue of what to do about the Yellowstone Super Volcano.  And everything from electric cars to smartphones to all life on earth is going to reap the rewards of this intervention.  Now, if only it would stop raining in Houston…

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Is the plan to save Yellowstone the Greatest Idea Ever?

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#1,150 – Artificial Womb

I’ve never understood why women wanted to get pregnant.  Was it because of maternal instinct? Societal peer pressure?  I suppose there are plenty of legitimate reasons why someone would want to get pregnant but all of them are devoid of reason.  Because when it comes down to it, there’s no logical reason why someone would want to get pregnant.  Start a family, yes.  Raise a child, yes.  But get pregnant, no.  Wanting to be preggers just doesn’t make any sense.

Just think about all the downsides.  When you’re pregnant you’re basically immobile.  You can’t go hiking or do any of the other things that you would have done when you weren’t pregnant.  You can’t drink alcohol.  Or smoke.  Can’t fly in your later term.  You’re constantly hungry, constantly having to deal with back pain.  Not to mention the extreme pain, serious health risks, and chance of dying that you encounter during the actual child birthing process.  Even if you make it out unscathed it could take you months or years to regain your figure if you ever do at all.

So, if I were a woman and wanted to have a family, I’d either find a surrogate to carry my child for me or I’d let someone else do all the heavy lifting and adopt a baby.  That’s the logical thing to do.  The less time spent having to deal with actually being pregnant the better.  That’s why the latest research from scientists in Philadelphia is so exciting.  For they may be on the verge of inventing an artificial womb capable of carrying fetuses to term outside of the human body.

According to Vox:

“The research remains preliminary, but in April a group of scientists at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia announced amazing advances in artificial womb technologies. The authors explained how they had successfully sustained significantly premature lambs for four weeks in an artificial womb they had designed.

This enabled the lambs to develop in a way very similar to lambs that had developed in their mothers’ wombs. Indeed, the oldest lamb — more than a year old at the time the paper was published — appeared to be completely normal.

The technology included placing the premature lambs in a “biobag” containing a bath of simulated amniotic fluid, regularly replenished, with an oxygenator circuit connected to the lamb via the umbilical cord.

The lambs were at a stage of development comparable to that of a 22- to 24-week-old human fetus. Babies born at that stage of gestation have very high mortality rates —roughly 70 percent at 22 weeks — and almost all who survive have long-term health problems. The immediate hope is that artificial wombs could raise the survival rate of human fetuses and improve their lifelong health substantially.”

What this means, is that, in theory, it may be possible to remove a fetus from a mother’s womb, at say, the 18 week mark, via a minimally invasive surgical procedure, and then transfer that fetus to the artificial womb where it would continue the gestation process on its own.  Freed of the burdens of pregnancy the mother would now be free to live her life without the burden of having to carry around another human being inside of her.  Which means more hiking, more traveling, and more sexy time!  Doesn’t that sound a whole lot better than actually being pregnant for nine months???!!

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Is an Artificial Womb the Greatest Idea Ever?

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