Archive for April, 2010

Piezoelectric Promise: Charge a Touch-Screen by Poking It With Your Finger

By Smriti Rao | April 30, 2010 4:35 pm

piezoelectricImagine a day in the future when you can charge your cell phone using your sneakers, or charge a touch-screen device merely by rolling up the flexible screen. New devices that take advantage of the piezoelectric effect–the tendency of some materials to generate an electrical potential when they’re mechanically stressed–are taking us one step closer to that reality.

Ville Kaajakari of the Louisiana Tech University harnessed this effect by developing a tiny generator that can be embedded in a shoe sole. The tiny smart device is part of “MEMS” or “micro electro mechanical systems,” which combine computer chips with micro-components to generate electricity [EarthTechling]. Each time the sneaker-wearer goes for a stroll, the compression action would power up the circuits in the generator and produce tiny bits of usable voltage. “This technology could benefit, for example, hikers that need emergency location devices or beacons,” said Kaajakari. “For more general use, you can use it to power portable devices without wasteful batteries” [Clean Technica].

For now, the amount of energy produced is very small, but the generator could theoretically be used to power sensors, GPS units or portable devices that don’t require a large amount of energy [Clean Technica]. The scientist hopes that the technology can be developed further to charge common devices like mobile phones.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics & Math, Technology

With Prostate Cancer "Vaccine," Immune System Wages War Against Tumors

By Andrew Moseman | April 30, 2010 12:40 pm

medical recordsYesterday the Food and Drug Administration gave its OK to Provenge, a new treatment for prostate cancer. It’s not a “vaccine” in the old-fashioned sense, but it could be a way to make the immune system wake up and take notice to the presence of cancer.

In a standard vaccination, a person receives an attenuated or dead version of a microorganism to spur them to produce antibodies (against, for example, the virus that causes smallpox). Provenge is not that—it doesn’t prevent prostate cancer—but it is a variation on the theme. To oversimplify quite a bit: with Provenge vaccination begins with a blood draw. Blood is then sent to the lab, where technicians extract immune cells known as antigen presenting cells (APCs) from the sample. From here, Dendreon combines the immune cells with proteins that are prevalent on the surface of prostate cancer cells. An immune boosting substance is also added into the mix [TIME]. That awakens the APCs, which doctors then inject back into the bloodstream. And once there, the APCs put white blood cells on high alert against cancer.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

James Cameron to Design a 3D Camera for Next-Gen Mars Rover

By Smriti Rao | April 30, 2010 10:57 am

Curiosity_610x408After entertaining the entire planet with the movie Avatar, director James Cameron is now taking his expertise to space–specifically to Mars. He’s helping NASA build a 3D camera for its next rover, Curiosity.

The space agency announced that Cameron is working with Malin Space Science Systems Inc. of San Diego to develop the camera, which will be the rover’s “science-imaging workhorse.” The rover, which was previously known as the Mars Science Laboratory, is scheduled for launch in 2011.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory had recently scaled back plans to mount a 3D camera on the rover, as the project was consistently over-budget and behind schedule. But Cameron lobbied NASA administrator Charles Bolden for inclusion of the 3-D camera during a January meeting, saying a rover with a better set of eyes will help the public connect with the mission [Associated Press]. Cameron, whose 3D spectacle Avatar earned more than $2 billion at box offices worldwide, had developed a special 3D digital camera system for the film, and felt the space agency could benefit from his expertise.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology

Gulf Oil Spill Reaches U.S. Coast; New Orleans Reeks of "Pungent Fuel Smell"

By Andrew Moseman | April 30, 2010 9:26 am

NOAAApril30
The moment conservationists have been dreading since the Gulf of Mexico oil spill started—that oil making landfall—appears to be upon us. This morning the Coast Guard is flying over the Gulf Coast to check out reports the crude washed ashore overnight, and more reports of oil drifting ashore are coming out of Louisiana. Crews in boats were patrolling coastal marshes early Friday looking for areas where the oil has flowed in, the Coast Guard said. Storms loomed that could push tide waters higher than normal through the weekend, the National Weather Service warned [AP].

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano set up a second base of operations to deal with potential impacts on the Gulf Coast states of Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida. Meanwhile, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal has declared a state of emergency, and said: “Based on current projections, we expect the oil to reach land today at the Pass-A-Loutre Wildlife Management Area. By tomorrow, we expect oil to have reached the Chandeleur Islands and by Saturday, it is expected to reach the Breton Sound. These are important wildlife areas and these next few days are critical” [Nature]. The city of New Orleans already reeks of a”pungent fuel smell” believed to come from the oil spill, as the Times-Picayune newspaper puts it.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment

Japan's "Solar Yacht" Is Ready to Ride Sunbeams Through Space

By Andrew Moseman | April 29, 2010 5:08 pm

Solar SailOn May 18, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) says, it will launch into space a “solar yacht” called Ikaros—the Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation of the Sun (named, of course, in honor of Icarus in Greek mythology). JAXA plans to control the path of Ikaros by changing the angle at which sunlight particles bounce off the silver-coloured sail [AFP].

Actually, the solar sail is a dual-purpose system, taking advantage of both the pressure and the energy of sunlight. The sail, which is less than the thickness of a human hair and 66 feet in diagonal distance, will catch the actual force of sunlight for propulsion as a sailboat’s sail catches the wind. But the solar sail is also covered in thin-film solar cells to generate electricity. And if you can make electricity, you can use it to ionize gas and emit it at high pressure, which is the propulsion systems most satellites use.

Potential velocity using a solar sailor has been theorized to be extremely high. “Eventually you’ll have these missions lasting many years, reaching speeds approaching 100,000 mph, getting out of the solar system in five years instead of 25 years,” said Louis D. Frieman, the Executive Director of the Planetary Society [Clean Technica]. The society has toyed around with its own solar sail.

For now, though, JAXA has a six-month test mission planned for Ikaros. If it works, they want to send a solar sail-powered mission to Jupiter and then the Trojan asteroids. That voyage would employ both the force of the sun and ion propulsion, and the Japanese are brimming with confidence: “Unlike the mythical Icarus, this Ikaros will not crash,” Yuichi Tsuda, an assistant professor at JAXA, said today [BusinessWeek].

Related Content:
80beats: Japan’s Damaged Asteroid Probe Could Limp Back to Earth in June
80beats: Spacecraft That Sails on Sunshine Aims For Lift-Off in 2010, on the Planetary Society’s own attempts at a solar sail.
DISCOVER: Japan Stakes Its Claim in Space
DISCOVER: One Giant Step for a Small, Crowded Country, on Japan’s moon aspirations
DISCOVER: Japan Sets Sail in Space

Image: JAXA

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology

Legendary Giant Earthworm Finally Appears, Disappoints Everybody

By Smriti Rao | April 29, 2010 4:58 pm

giant-palouse-earthwormIt’s an earthworm so mysterious, people compare it to the Loch Ness Monster. Rarely sighted since the 1980′s, the giant Palouse earthworm was said to grow almost three feet long, smell like lilies, and spit at predators. It was so elusive, that some even doubted its existence–but now, a team of conservationists from the University of Idaho has found several of these mysterious creatures in a prairie field.

But what a let down it was.

Contrary to popular claim, the earthworms did not smell like lilies or spit at their predators. They weren’t even particularly giant, causing lead researcher Jodi Johnson-Maynard to remark: “One of my colleagues suggested we rename it the ‘larger than average Palouse earthworm’” [The Telegraph].

The team started combing the prairie region between Idaho and Washington state last summer in search of the Palouse earthworms. It was researcher Karl Umiker who eventually struck gold–or in this case, worm. Umiker used a tool called an electroshocker, in which electricity is passed through a number of electrodes that are stuck in the soil. Umiker was “shocking” a fragment of unploughed prairie when two giant earthworms emerged from the soil–a juvenile and an  adult.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World

Frost-Covered Asteroid Suggests Extraterrestrial Origin for Earth's Oceans

By Andrew Moseman | April 29, 2010 11:36 am

AsteroidThere are millions of asteroids in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, but yesterday attention focused on just one. According to a couple of studies in Nature, a large asteroid called 24 Themis is rife with water ice and organic molecules, and the researchers say that it could be more evidence that the water so precious to life on Earth came to our planet on board such rocks.

Two research teams took infrared images of 24 Themis, which is about 120 miles in diameter and was discovered in 1853. This asteroid has an extensive but thin frosty coating. It is likely replenished by an extensive reservoir of frozen water deep inside rock once thought to be dry and desolate [AP].

The team, led by Humberto Campins, says finding so much ice on the surface was a surprise; at the asteroid’s distance from the sun—3.2 astronomical units (AU), or just more than three times further than the Earth—exposed ice has a “relatively short lifetime,” the scientists write. As a result, the idea of a below-surface reservoir seems likely. (Icy comets aren’t nearly so close to the sun on average; Halley’s comet can come within .6 AU of the sun, but then retreats to a farthest distance of more than 35 AU.)

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space

Uh-Oh: Gulf Oil Spill May Be 5 Times Worse Than Previously Thought

By Andrew Moseman | April 29, 2010 9:13 am

NOAAslickOver the last few days, estimates had held that the Gulf of Mexico oil spilling was leaking about 1,000 barrels, or 42,000 gallons, into the water each day—bad, but still not historically bad on a scale like the spill caused by the Exxon Valdez. Except now, after closer investigation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says that oil company BP’s estimate might in fact be five times too low.

Rear Adm. Mary Landry, the Coast Guard’s point person, gave the new estimate yesterday as the Coast Guard began its planned controlled burn of some of the oil. While emphasizing that the estimates are rough given that the leak is at 5,000 feet below the surface, Admiral Landry said the new estimate came from observations made in flights over the slick, studying the trajectory of the spill and other variables [The New York Times]. Because the oil below the surface is so hard to measure or estimate, NOAA’s numbers are still rough estimates, too. BP’s chief operating officer told ABC News he thinks the number is probably somewhere between the two estimates.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment

Feds Green-Light the Nation's First Offshore Wind Farm

By Smriti Rao | April 28, 2010 3:05 pm

windmill-turbine-2

The Obama administration reaffirmed its commitment to clean energy sources today by giving the green light to the controversial Cape Wind project, clearing the way for 130 wind turbines to be built off the coast of Cape Cod. The wind farm will be built in Nantucket Sound, and aims to harness the steady breezes blowing along the East coast to produce clean, albeit expensive energy.

The project had been delayed for almost a year due to opposition from local Native American tribes. Two Wampanoag tribes said the turbines, which will stand more than 400 feet above the ocean surface, would disturb spiritual sun greetings and possibly ancestral artifacts and burial grounds on the seabed, which was once exposed land before the sea level rose thousands of years ago [Boston Globe]. U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who approved the project, assured the tribes that he had ordered modifications to lessen the turbines’ impact. He also said that the approval would require Cape Wind to conduct additional marine archaeological surveys and take other steps to reduce the project’s visual impact [Boston Globe]. If not held back by any other legal hurdles, construction could begin later this year.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology

Can the Human Body Make Its Own Morphine?

By Andrew Moseman | April 28, 2010 2:32 pm

MorphineWho needs poppy plants to produce morphine? Last month scientists said they’d isolated the genes those plants use to synthesize the narcotic chemical and made it themselves in a lab. Now, in a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,  another team has suggested that we mammals might possess the pathway to create our own morphine.

Because we have receptors for the opiate in our brains (which makes it such an effective and addictive painkiller), and because morphine traces show up in our urine, scientists had long wondered if animals could produce the drug themselves. But studies using living animals yielded inconclusive results because of possible contamination from external sources of morphine in their food or in the environment [Nature]. In addition, the body breaks down and changes morphine, which complicates the task.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Mind & Brain
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