Saturday, 26 February 2011

Researchers develop an artificial "Super-Skin"

Powered by stretchable solar cells, with integrated sensors that are sensitive enough to feel a fly touch down on it, while at the same time being as thin as normal skin, the artificial skin developed by Stanford researcher Zhenan Bao truly is a "Super-Skin".

At the foundation of the skin is an organic transistor, made from flexible polymers and other carbon based materials. Above that, to allow touches to be detected there is a rubber layer. When pressed it changes thickness which changes the amount of current that flows through the material below. This can then be translated into sensations.
(Credit: Photos by L.A. Cicero)

There are also plans to add other kind of sensors to the material.

"With artificial skin, we can basically incorporate any function we desire," said Bao, a professor of chemical engineering. "That is why I call our skin 'super skin.' It is much more than what we think of as normal skin."

Especially detectors for chemicals are planned, and only recently they have managed to demonstrate the concept by detecting a specific type of DNA. This has applications especially in the medical science field, and a glove made from the material could help with the detection of diseases.

The applications for this type of material are endless, from replacing burned skin, to covering robotic prosthetic arms, or to allow robots to sense touches, it could be used for many things. 

Luke Skywalker's artificial hand. Things like this might soon be a reality.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

First complete millimeter-scale computer developed

Scientists from the University of Michigan have made significant advances towards such a millimeter-scale computer, a field of electronics which is expected to expand massively over the next few years.

The "computer", an eye pressure monitoring system for glaucoma patients is only a few millimeters across. Similar systems could make practically anything "smart". They could be used to track structural deficits in buildings as they develop, they could be used to track pollution or make any object traceable.

The implantable eye pressure monitor. (Credit: Greg Chen)

They are once again in line with Bell's law, which states that about once every decade there are computers that are smaller and at the same time better at what they are doing than before. The law has held up with the 1960s' mainframes through the '80s' personal computers, the '90s' notebooks and the new millennium's smart phones.

I myself expect these "millimeter computers" to be the next great advancement in computing, although they will get competition from quantum computing over the next few years and decades as well.

Especially for medical purposes there are many possible applications for these devices, not just measuring eye pressure, but possibly replacing eyes, allowing blind people to see again, or constantly monitoring bloodstreams of hospital patients, so any dangerous changes can be counteracted at once.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Bigger Brain Size due to Social Networking?

According to the "Social-Brain" theory, portions of the brain increase in size the bigger and more complex the social network around you is.

Specifically the amygdala, the central component of the limbic brain system which is known to be vital to understanding aspects of emotion, memory and social behaviour, is thought to increase in size.
To manage social contacts and aquaintances the brain needs a more capable centre for managing its "data".

Hank Grebe / Pures/tock / SuperStock

An American group of scientists has now found in humans what was before known for other animals. The bigger and more complex the "herd", the larger the volume of the amygdala.
But it is not only the brain that increases in size, other parts of the nervous system, like the optic nerve are known to improve in other animals.

Now the trouble with social networks is the depending on how they are used they can also isolate people, reversing the effect. But if these online communities are used to reinforce contacts the internet can be a great tool for "being social".

If social networks can turn shy people into masters of socialising remains to be seen. Soon MRI scans might show clues.

So. Your opinions on social networks? Helpful for keeping contacts, good for making new ones, or rather the opposite, leading to isolation?

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Lithium Intake can make you live longer

Professor Dr. Michael Ristow's team from the University of Jena along with Japanese colleagues from universities in Oita and Hiroshima have demonstrated by two independent approaches that even a low concentration of lithium leads to an increased life expectancy in humans.

Lithium is one of the many nutritional trace elements found especially in vegetables and drinking water.  It is found in the group of chemicals known as the Alkali metals, many of which are important for humans.

Periodic table showing the position of lithium. (Credit: FHWA)

In an earlier study from the US, it was shown that high concentrations of lithium were life prolonging in a specific species of roundworm, C. elegans. The concentrations used then are however not suitable for humans.

In earlier studies it has already been shown that low doses of lithium are associated with an improvement of psychological well-being and with decreased suicide rates.

Um... My main computer is in repair and this laptop is kinda slow, so I won't be able to read many of the awesome blogs that I normally read.... sorry guys. Thanks for reading my blog anyways. :)

For technorati: 5STSBSK2CSKG

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Project Icarus: Visiting Other Suns?

Answer to that question is not for many years to come. But it is an interesting question.

Project Icarus is a 5 year study, headed by scientists from the Tau Zero Foundation, a non-profit group of scientists dedicated to interstellar spaceflight. The ambition of the project is designing a spacecraft and a plan for a future space mission to another planetary system.

At the moment no technology exists that would allow such a journey in a reasonable timeframe. Icarus works with the assumption that we will one day possess technology that allows us to send probes to other stars, reaching the star within 100 years after launch. Given realistic propulsion options, and the requirement that the spacecraft can slow down to orbit its target, the target star cannot be more than 15 light-years from Earth, although given that the timeframe is 100 years, the distance will likely be much less.

The second stage of the Project Daedalus interstellar spacecraft arrives at its target star system. (Credit: Adrian Mann)

One of the factors will of course be which stars in a 15 lightyear radius will have planets. Of the 38 stellar systems (some containing more than one star) only 2 are known to have planets so far. Epsilon Eridani, 10.5 light-years away, and the red dwarf GJ 674 at a distance of 14.8 light-years.
Just outside the radius there are another 3 stars with planetary systems.
There has however to date not been a systematic survey for planets of the closest stars, which in the near future could reveal a lot more planets, by current estimates around 15 or 16.

Artists Impression of the planet Epsilon Eridani b (Credit: NASA, ESA)

Thus, although currently we cannot identify an obvious specific target for Icarus, when the time comes to actually build a starship, we will have a very good idea where to send it.

My bests bet lies with the nearest system. Even though no planets have been found there yet, due to the system being the closest to the solar system at 4.4 lightyears, it will likely be chosen as a target for the first human spacecraft to fly under the light of another star.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Spacecraft control system developed that allows spacecraft to “think” for themselves

The first ever control system that allows satellites or spacecraft to think for themselves has been developed. Professor Sandor Veres from the University of Southampton and his team of engineers have developed an artificially intelligent control system called 'sysbrain'.

Sysbrain can read special English language technical documents using Natural Language Programming (NPL). The vehicle thereby gains advanced guidance and feedback and navigation capabilities. This can be used to better prevent crashes with other objects as well as give the vehicle the ability to adapt during missions, identify problems or carry out repair works. It can also give the vehicle the option to decide for itself how to best carry out a task based on the situation.

Special English or (sEnglish or system English) is a simplified version of English that has been used since the 1950s in special American broadcasts around the world. It uses simple grammar and vocabulary, which makes it possible for sysbrain to understand it. In the future instead of writing an update for the software, we might just write a technical paper for sysbrain to read to enhance its physical and problem solving skills.
The system could not just be applied to spacecraft, but also to other types of autonomous vehicles, be that underwater, ground or in air.

This is what I'm thinking:
I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

Friday, 11 February 2011

Full control with a bionic arm

After amputations, the nerve cells in the stump remain active and healthy, at least for a while. This is now being used by a researchers to create and allow use of highly dexterious, thought controlled prothetics.

Todd Kuiken, a biomechanical engineer at Northwestern University, and his team are looking at how different patterns of brain activity can be used to control prosthetic limbs.
They do this by connecting the nerves from the stump to chest muscles. When the patient thinks about moving his chest muscles, the signals are picked up by the nerves that were previously connected to the arm and interpreted by a computer which relays the information to the bionic arm. This has the potential to give patients control over a wider range of movements than was ever possible before.

With conventional prosthetics people tend to lose control over their nerves, as they are no longer used, but with the new technology, nerve signals are becoming stronger. This could be due to the brain getting used to the rewired pathways.

Next, Kuiken's team wants to make the technology accessible to a greater number of patients. They plan to develop the system so it can be applied to less high-tech prosthetics currently on the market.

Claudia Mitchell - first woman to receive a bionic arm. (Credit: Dayna Smith - The Washington Post)

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Self Repairing Solar Cells?

Researchers at the University of Purdue have developed a solar cell that can repair itself.

The design exploits the unusual electrical properties of structures called single-wall carbon nanotubes, using them as "molecular wires in light harvesting cells," said Choi, whose research group is based at the Birck Nanotechnology and Bindley Bioscience centers at Purdue's Discovery Park.

Generally, the material works in much the same way as plants do. In a photochemical cell, a light absorbing dye, called "chromophore" degrades, much like the chlorophyll molecule in plant leaf cells.

The problem with normal solar cells is that they degrade over time. This new technology overcomes that problem in the same way that plants do: by continuously replacing the broken down molecules. In plants this happens approximately once every hour.

This design theoretically allows for indefinite use of a solar cell, as along as new chromophores are added.

The design works by using DNA strands and carbon nanotubes. DNA is used for its ability to sponatneously assemble in a structured way, and the carbon nanotubes are used as a backbone for the DNA to attach to.

Diagram illustrating the principle behind how electricity is generated. hv stands for light, while e- stands for electricity/electrons being produced. (Credit:

Although the process is only in research stage and still far away from being used on an industrial stage, it shows promise, as most initial hurdles have already been overcome.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Why the International Space Station is Valuable.

This month, the ISS will become truly international. At the moment an unmanned Russian progress space truck, and a Japanese vehicle called Kounotori are attached to the station. They came to deliver food and now serve as temporary accomodation units, and by the end of their live time will serve as garbage disposal.
Next week the European Space Agency robot delivery craft, Johannes Kepler, wich carries with it more than seven tonnes of propellant, supplies and oxygen, will join the other two craft.

The vehicle is carried into space by an Ariane 5 ES launch vehicle and give the European spaceflight programme increased independence. This will become important after the discontinuing of the NASA Space Shuttle program, later this year, when provisioning of the ISS will become dependent on the Russian Cosmodrome at Baikonur.

Artists impression of "Johannes Kepler" approaching the ISS. (Credit: ESA)

The last Space shuttle, Atlantis, will visit the ISS in June, after that other partners of NASA will supply and provide transport from and to the station.
Each shuttle launch costs NASA $ 500 million, something it can simply no longer afford. The station itself is the costliest project ever undertaken by mankind.
To say however that the station should have never been built misses the point. Occupied for more than 10 years, the station has been the only living outpost in space for that time.
Every future manned mission to space will have profited in some form from the ISS. Whether that be in how to best retrain muscles after a stay in microgravity, or experiments conducted on the effect of space on organisms.

Any future journey to the moon, or Mars, will build on lessons learned aboard the ISS.

I've realised I took a bit to come to the point here...
Anyways I'll probably write about something not space next. Although maybe the next post will be on Wednesday. I might not have enough time tomorrow.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

ESA's & NASA's Proposed Mission to Jupiter's Icy Moons

European and American scientists have been working on the joint mission which will send orbiters around Ganymed and Europa. Both moons are thought to have a liquid water ocean beneath their icy crusts, which could potentially harbour life.
The European Jupiter Ganymed Orbiter would focuss on Ganymed, the largest moon in the solar system and the only one with a significant magnetic field, which it will investigate.

The American Jupiter Europa Orbiter would instead focus on Europa, and especially on the composition of the ice field, as well as map the moon thoroughly, to identify possible future landing sites. Especially points where the ice sheeth is thinner.
It will also try to map the internal structure of the moon, which is up to now pure guesswork based on a few results. The orbiter would carry an ice penetrating radar, which could be used to estimate the thickness of the ice.
Although Europa is relatively far a way from the Sun it is kept warm by tidal heat. It's orbit around Jupiter is slightly eliptical, meaning that it is stretcehd and squashed by Jupiter's gravitational forces, which creates heat and 500 meter high tides in its interior. According to several experts life on Europa could well exist even beyond single cell microorganisms although even just finding simple bacteria would be a sensation.

Europa. The darker regions are where the water ice has a higher mineral content. (Credit: NASA)

The two orbiters will be indipendently developed by both space agencies, and each would be a significant mission in their own right. ESA is expected to name this their flagship mission for the next few years, meaning that financial support on the european side is assured. NASA has also promised support for the mission but has a larger number of other missions to pay for.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Making Use Of Carbon Dioxide

Rather than burying CO2 under ground, in recent years companies have started looking at other alternatives, specifically how to make use of the gas as a chemical starting material.
The main problem scientists have faced so far is the unreactiveness of CO2, it being a stable compound that generally doesn't do much chemically.

In Germany the company Bayer has tried to turn carbon dioxide into a chemical feedstock to make plastics, or specifically polyurethane polymers.  The interesting thing here is that these polymers are generally used for insulation of houses, meaning that they will reduce the amount of CO2 emitted in two ways: by using it up during production, and by providing better insulation, reducing loss of energy from heating etc.

Bayer MaterialScience teamed up with the CAT Catalytic Center in Aachen, Germany, to try and turn CO2 into polyol feedstocks for polyurethane plastics. (Credit: BAYER MATERIALSCIENCE)

Another, this time US based company, called Phycal, has built an algae biofuel plant. The aim is to feed the algae CO2 and receive oil produced by the plants. Phycal produces its oil by introducing algae initially grown in isolation into ponds. The ponds contain nutrients and have waste CO2 injected into them at a rate set to maintain a steady pH and optimal algal growth rate. They are then fed sugars, and start producing oils at a very fast rate. This then makes it easy to take out the oil.

'Hands down, algae is the most productive oil crop on Earth on a per-area basis. The US Department of Energy says that soybean crops produce 48 gallons of oil per acre per year, he notes, while algae could produce 1000-6500 gallons per acre per year.'
says Phycal's Jeff Bargiel

A remarkable efficiency, especially nowadays when really most countries can't afford to waste any farmable space, that could be used for food production.

Opinions? Also general question: What do you think about climate change/global warming. Man made or natural? It's kinda related, and I'm curious.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Sorry, no regular update today

Yeah, I think my offline life is calling. I have played around with the background a bit yesterday, tell me if you like it or not.
Also I haven't found a news story yet today that would interest me or inspire me to do a bit of research...  If you find something interesting regarding science, space or technology tell me in the comments and I might write about it.

Also I have added a unit converter to the bottom of the page. Someone commented a few days ago, on the maglev train "article" asking what 1200km/h are in mph, and I realised that this being a science blog, a unit converter might come in handy.

So yeah, instead of an article, have this nice picture.

No Idea who to give credit to. Found it on tumblr.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Finding Blood clots before they become dangerous

For several decades cardiologists have searched for ways to see blood clots before they cause heart attacks or other cardiovascular diseases.
Now, researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have reported that they have designed nanoparticles that find and attach to blood clots and make them visible to a new kind of X-ray technology.

There are already ways of finding out whether a person who comes to a hospital with chest pain is actually experiencing a heart attack or not, but it involves a complicated procedure and an day long stay. This new technology will reduce the wait to a few hours, and a much cheaper procedure.

It can also be used in people who have not had a heart attack yet, but who might have an increased risk factor, overweight people, or smokers for example, to detect risks, or potential blood clots, and help people avoid cardiovascular disease.

The nanoparticles work because they contain the metal bismouth, which can be seen in the body using a new kind of CT-scan, that uses the full spectrum of X-Rays meaning that it can image in colours, not just black and white as normal X-Rays do.
Bismouth is however a toxic heavy metal, and to use it without damaging tissue even more, it has been packed in a chain of fatty acid that cannot be broken apart by the body.

But the new nanoparticle does more than just confirm a heart attack/blood clot, it also shows the exact location of it, which has the potential to save countless lives.

Image of a blood clot (Credit: Massachusetts General Hospital: Vascular Centre)

Also, 100 followers. Wow, in a week! You guys are awesome :)

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

NASA's Kepler Spacecraft discovers potentially terrestrial planets in the habitable zone of stars

NASA's Kepler mission, which was launched in 2009, has found its first earth sized plants. Several of them could lie in the habitble zone of their stars, meaning in a suitable distance for them to be neither too hot, nor too cold.
Of the 54 new planet candidates found in the habitable zone, five are near Earth-sized. The remaining 49 range from double the size of earth up to larger than Jupiter.

The findings increase the number of planet candidates identified by Kepler to-date to 1,235. Of these, 68 are approximately Earth-size; 288 are super-Earth-size; 662 are Neptune-size; 165 are the size of Jupiter and 19 are larger than Jupiter.
This brings the total nomber of exoplanets found to nearly 1800. Considering that only half a century ago astronomers argued that there may not even be any planets around other stars this number is truly staggering.

In this same release, NASA scientists anounced that they found a planetary system that beares resemblance to our own, only that it seems to be shrunk down. In the planetary system Kepler-11, six planets have been found to orbit, all of them however closer to their star than Venus in our solar system.

An artist's impression of the Kepler-11 planetary system. (Credit: Photograph: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech/T Pyle/Nature Magazine)

Of course all this data has to be verified and double checked by other telescopes and astronomers, however if proven this could well be one of the biggest finds ever.
It may well be that NASA has found an Earth twin in another solar system.

I will write more about exoplanets, and specifically this batch of data from Kepler as soon as more information is found or released on it.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

China develops train that can go at 1200 km/h

The model maglev train developed in a laboratory in China can reach supersonic speeds. Although the researchers admitted that the technology is still far away from being implemented the technology is expected to be in use within the next 10 years.

Similar technology is at the moment being researched in both Swizerland and the USA. Theoretically the trains could reach speeds of up to 20,000 km/h. This is over 16 times the speed of sound, an unimaginable velocity. Realistically however there is no application for such vast velocities.

The fastest any actual maglev train has ever run was 581 km/h, a record set in Japan in 2003.

There have been speculations about a theoretical transatlantic tunnel using this kind of technology. It is estimated that the train would spend 1/3 of the trip accelerating, 1/3 at peak speed, and a 1/3 decelerating because anything else would be uncomfortable or dangerous to passengers. The total time for the trip would be just under an hour and the highest possible speed is 5,000 km/h. Still many times faster than airplanes, although it shows that speeds of 20,000 km/h are unpractical.

A meglev train is coming out of the Pudong International Airport. (Credit: Alex Needham)