Archive for March, 2011

Obama's Energy Talk: New Ideas, or Same Old Song and Dance?

By Patrick Morgan | March 31, 2011 6:11 pm

What’s the News: President Obama gave a major address outlining his plan for U.S. energy security yesterday. His major goal is quite ambitious: to cut American oil imports by one-third by 2025. And towards that goal, he listed a number of initiatives that many news organizations see as a rehashing of old ideas, however good they might be. According to The Economist, “it is hard to see his recycled list of proposals as anything more than a reassurance to the environmentally minded, and to Americans fretting about rising fuel prices, that the president feels their pain.”

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment

From White Dwarfs to Dark Matter Clouds, the Universe May Have Many Homes for Habitable Planets

By Patrick Morgan | March 31, 2011 3:06 pm

What’s the News: While the Kepler spacecraft is busy finding solar system-loads of new planets, other astronomers are expanding our idea where planets could potentially be found. One astronomer wants to look for habitable planets around white dwarfs, arguing that any water-bearing exoplanets orbiting these tiny, dim stars would be much easier to find than those around main-sequence stars like our Sun. Another team dispenses with stars altogether and speculates that dark matter explosions inside a planet could hypothetically make it warm enough to be habitable, even without a star. “This is a fascinating, and highly original idea,” MIT exoplanet expert Sara Seager told Wired, referring to the dark matter hypothesis. “Original ideas are becoming more and more rare in exoplanet theory.”

How the Heck:

  • Because white dwarfs are much smaller than our Sun, an Earth-sized planet that crossed in front of it would block more of its light, which should make these planets easier to spot. So astronomer Eric Agol suggests survey the 20,000 white dwarfs closest to Earth with relatively meager 1-meter ground telescopes.
  • And because white dwarfs are so cool, a planet in a white dwarfs habitable zone would be very close, meaning its transit would happen very fast. Agol says we’d only need to watch a star for 32 hours to pick up on any transiting, habitable planets.
  • One leading theory about dark matter is that it’s made of theoretical particles called WIMPS (weakly interacting massive particles). It’s thought that when WIMPs collide (if, of course, they exist), they would explode. Astronomers think that these WIMP explosions could possibly heat a planet enough to make it habitable.
  • There are no immediate plans to test the dark matter hypothesis, which is quite theoretical, and any plan to find dark matter-fueled planets would need to look far from here: our part of the universe doesn’t have nearly enough dark matter to bring a planet to habitability.

What’s the Context:

Not So Fast:

  • It’s not at all clear if white dwarfs have any planets, and if so, whether any of them could possibly support water or life as we know it. For one thing, planets in the habitable zone would be tidally locked with the star—permanent scalding daylight on one side; permanent frozen nighttime on the other.
  • Taking 32 hours to find a planet orbiting a white dwarf may seem like a short time, but when you’re looking at tens of thousands of stars, it adds up. Agol told UW Today, “This could take a huge amount of time, even with [a network of telescopes].”
  • And just like star-orbiting planets have their Goldilocks zones (not to hot or too cold), dark matter-containing planets would need the right amount of dark matter to be habitable. “It’s not something that’s likely to produce a lot of habitable planets,” Fermilab researcher Dan Hooper told Wired. “But in very special places and in very special models, it could do the trick.” 

References: Eric Agol. “TRANSIT SURVEYS FOR EARTHS IN THE HABITABLE ZONES OF WHITE DWARFS.” doi: 10.1088/2041-8205/731/2/L31

Dan Hooper and Jason H. Steffen. “Dark Matter And The Habitability of Planets.” arXiv:1103.5086v1

Image: NASA/European Space Agency

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Top Posts

Carbon-Nanotube Cancer Detector Can Catch Even a Single Marauding, Malignant Cell

By Patrick Morgan | March 31, 2011 7:56 am

What’s the News: Scientists have developed a new carbon nanotube device (pictured above) that’s capable of detecting single cancer cells. Once implemented in hospitals, this microfluidic device could let doctors more efficiently detect the spread of cancer, especially in developing countries that don’t have the money for more sophisticated diagnostic equipment. Any improvement in detecting cancer’s spread is important, says MIT associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics Brian Wardle, because “of all deaths from cancer, 90 percent are … from tumors that spread from the original site.”

What’s the Context:

  • The researchers’ original microfluidic device from four years ago featured tens of thousands of microscopic silicon posts coated with tumor-sticking antibodies: when cancer cells bumped into the posts, they’d stick. But if cancer cells didn’t bump into a silicon post, they’d go undetected. The group says their new version is eight times better.
  • When cancer cells migrate, there are “usually only several [cancer] cells per 1-milliliter sample of blood” containing billions of other cells, making cancer exceedingly difficult to detect.
  • This new dime-sized microfluidic machine works in the same way, but the solid silicon tubes were switched out for highly porous carbon nanotubes. This allows the blood to actually flow through the tubes instead of just around them, increasing the likelihood of catching a cancer cell.
  • In other cancer detection news, some are using dogs to sniff out cancer and others use genetic tests to figure out cancer risks.
  • Combating cancer ranges from new cancer-fighting drugs to just ignoring cancer (sometimes).

Not So Fast: The process of commercializing a technology like this takes quite a while; the previous version from four years ago is being tested in hospitals now and is may be commercially available “within the next few years.”

Next Up: The scientists are currently tweaking the device to try to catch HIV.

Reference: Grace D. Chen et al. “Nanoporous Elements in Microfluidics for Multiscale Manipulation of Bioparticles.” Small. DOI: 10.1002/smll.201002076

Image: Brian Wardle/MIT

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Technology

DARPA Puts Out Call for a DNA-Embedded Genetic Surveillance Machine

By Valerie Ross | March 30, 2011 5:07 pm

What’s the News: DARPA wants to fund research into technologies that could be built into the genome of microorganisms and keep track of any changes made to the organism’s genes, according a call for proposals the agency made earlier this month. In other words, DARPA wants to “turn on Track Changes” in certain viruses and bacteria.

What’s the Context:

  • This genetic surveillance technology would help safeguard intellectual property, DARPA says. (See this PDF for the full description of the request.) Patenting genes has proven controversial enough on its own, so high-tech policing of these patents is unlikely to go down easy.
  • Second, this technology could be used for “providing secure access” to dangerous pathogens or “proprietary microorganisms.” In other words, they want it to password-protect bugs, for reasons of health and/or commerce.
  • DARPA isn’t shy about asking for proposals that are more than a bit off the wall: how to make a cannon that can fire people onto a tall roof, for instance, or a Jestons-esque flying car.

How the Heck: No idea. And, judging by its description, DARPA isn’t too sure either. The agency is asking for “multidisciplinary research proposals” and gives a nod to “possibly utilizing a cryptographical or complex mathematical approach.”

Image: Wellcome Images / Peter Artymiuk

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Technology

Astronomers Say Milky Way Has Around 2 Billion “Earth Analog” Planets (That’s the Bad News)

By Patrick Morgan | March 30, 2011 1:35 pm

What’s the News: Based on early Kepler data, astronomers say that the Milky Way galaxy may house at least two billion Earth-like planets—one for every several dozen sun-like stars. As NASA researcher Joseph Catanzarite told Space.com, “With that large a number, there’s a good chance life and maybe even intelligent life might exist on some of those planets. And that’s just our galaxy alone — there are 50 billion other galaxies.” But while 2 billion sounds like a lot, it’s actually far below many scientists’ expectation; Catanzarite says his teams’ findings actually show that Earth-like planets are “relatively scarce.”

How the Heck:

  • Using mathematical models to plot the size and orbital distance for all the potential planets spotted during four months’ worth of Kepler data, astronomers extrapolated the data and calculated that 1.4 to 2.7% of the Milky Way’s sun-like stars may have an Earth analog.
  • Two percent of the Milky Way’s roughly one hundred billion sun-like stars means that “you have two billion Earth analog planets in the galaxy,” Catanzarite told National Geographic.

What’s the Context:

Not So Fast:

  • MIT astronomer Sara Seager says that the team “completely underestimates the frequency of Earths.” The calculations are based on only four months of Kepler data—too early to be making an accurate projection.
  • There’s also the fact that Kepler can only detect the size and orbital distance (and occasionally the masses) of planets, which doesn’t tell you whether life as we know it could actually live there; Venus, for example, would roughly like Earth to aliens peering at us from many light-years away, but because of its atmosphere’s runaway greenhouse effect, it’s way too hot to be habitable.

Next Up: The astronomers plan on calculating an even more accurate number once all of Kepler’s data is in.

Reference: Joseph Catanzarite and Michael Shao. “The Occurrence Rate of Earth Analog Planets Orbiting Sunlike Stars.” arXiv:1103.1443v1 Image: Kepler/NASA

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space

New Battery Produces Energy Using the Ions in Plain Old Seawater

By Patrick Morgan | March 30, 2011 10:15 am

What’s the News: Scientists have created the first rechargeable battery that uses seawater and freshwater to generate electricity. If installed into every ocean-discharging river in the world (that’s not a realistic scenario—just a frame of reference), the process could produce 2 terawatts, or about 13% of worldwide electricity use. As the researchers write, this battery is “simple to fabricate and could contribute significantly to renewable energy in the future.”

How the Heck:

  • Dubbed the “mixing entropy battery,” this gadget generates current by harnessing the salinity difference between salt and freshwater.
  • Freshwater is first funneled into the battery, which houses a positive and negative electrode.
  • After the battery is charged by an external energy source, the freshwater is switched out for seawater, whose added ions increase “the electrical potential, or voltage, between the two electrodes. That makes it possible to reap far more electricity than the amount used to charge the battery,” according to Stanford News.

What’s the Context:

Not So Fast:

  • As a major energy source, the battery is limited by supply of and access to freshwater.
  • While the researchers say that the process has little environmental impact, future ocean-river batteries need to proceed with caution because estuaries, where freshwater and seawater combine, are “environmentally sensitive areas.”
  • Another limiting factor is the negative electrode, which is made of expensive silver.

Next Up: Noting the limited supply of freshwater on Earth, lead author Yi Cui says that “we need to study using sewage water … If we can use sewage water, this will sell really well.”

Reference: Fabio La Mantia et al. “Batteries for Efficient Energy Extraction from a Water Salinity Difference.” Nano Letters. doi: 10.1021/nl200500s

Image: Nano Letters

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology

Amazon Gets the Jump on Apple and Google by Launching Cloud Music Service

By Patrick Morgan | March 29, 2011 12:33 pm

What’s the News: Amazon has launched a fully working music locker and playback system this week. The cloud system allows users to upload digital music to the Web and play it on their computers and Android phones, giving Amazon a decided edge over its rivals. “Amazon has won the race of the big three to deliver a fully cloud-supported music option,” writes Tech Crunch’s MG Siegler.

Why the Hype:

  • Dubbed “Cloud Drive,” Amazon’s cloud storage service not only stores music, but also videos, photographs, and other documents.
  • Users receive the storage space equivalent of 1,200 tracks (5GB), though you can upgrade, paying as much as $1,000 for 1 TB of storage space, enough for about 70 hours of HD video.
  • Amazon provides free storage for every album purchased via Amazon MP3.
  • You’ll also get 20 free gigabytes for a year when you buy an album on Amazon MP3.
  • The playback service is called “Cloud Player,” and according to TechCrunch, “will let people listen to, download and make playlists from the music they store on Cloud Drive from any Web browser or from an app on Android devices.” It also works with Blackberry and Palm mobiles.

What’s the Context:

Not So Fast:

  • Amazon’s cloud service doesn’t stream music to iOS devices, which means you won’t see it on your iPhones, iPads, and iPod touches. (You can download music to iOS devices—not nearly as smooth an interface.)
  • Although Cloud Player works on Chrome, Safari IE 8 and above, and Firefox 3.5 and above, it doesn’t work on Opera.
  • It’s only for U.S. users right now.
  • And you can’t use mobile devices to upload music.

Next Up: Amazon may be first, but it’s not going to be the only major company with cloud music storage for long: Both Apple and Google are expected to launch their own locker systems soon.

Image: Amazon

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology

Discovered: Genetic Misfires That Lead to Acute Myeloid Leukemia

By Patrick Morgan | March 28, 2011 5:34 pm

What’s the News: Scientists have identified three gene mutations that lead to acute myeloid leukemia, a cancer that afflicts white blood cells, which may lead to better cancer drugs in the future. As Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute hematologist George Vassiliou told the BBC, his team’s study “found critical steps that take place when the cancer develops. Identifying the biological steps … means we can look for new drugs to reverse the process.”

How the Heck:

  • The researchers discovered the major mutation by switching on the Npm1 gene in mice: They observed that about one third of the mice went on to develop leukemia.
  • They knew some other genes were involved because not all the mice contracted cancer. So next, they randomly mutated mouse genes, and then analyzed the mutations in the ones that developed cancer, identifying two other mutations in the process. The second mutation affected cell growth and division and the third affected the cell’s environment.

What’s the Context:

Not So Fast: Researchers caution that it could take decades before new cancer-fighting drugs based on this study come on the market. This present study only used mice as subjects.

Reference: George S Vassiliou et al. “Mutant nucleophosmin and cooperating pathways drive leukemia initiation and progression in mice.” Nature Genetics. doi:10.1038/ng.796

Image: Wikimedia Commons / Bruce Wetzel

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Living World

Physicists Find New Way to Store Quantum Information in Impure Diamonds

By Valerie Ross | March 28, 2011 4:39 pm

What’s the News: Physicists have worked out a new method of storing information in the quantum states of atoms in diamond crystals. The scientists linked the spin of individual nitrogen atoms in the diamond—impurities at the jewelry counter, but boons in the physics lab—to the spin of nearby electrons. They could form a quantum link between the spin of the nitrogen atom and the spin of a nearby electron, letting the electron store information more stably than if it were spinning on its own.

How the Heck:

  • When a nitrogen is next to an empty spot in a diamond’s carbon framework, it lets off an extra electron, leaving that electron free to have its quantum played around with.
  • Using what they call “intense microwave fields” [PDF], the physicists were able to link the spin of a nitrogen atom to a neighboring electron, a pairing sparked by magnetic fields.

What’s the Context:

  • Scientists have been looking at diamonds—with and without nitrogen impurities—as a quantum computing material for several years, in part because it can store quantum memory at room temperature, not the far-below-freezing temps required by some other materials.
  • Some have even proposed the idea of diamond supercomputers, which would store millions of times as much data as today’s machines.
  • One hurdle in quantum computing is getting the information to last long enough to use it. In the recent study, the nuclear spin stayed coherent for more than a millisecond—enough time for a ten petaflop supercomputer to do ten trillion operations.

Not so Fast:

  • Don’t start rooting around in your hard drive for a rock just yet; diamond-based quantum computing is still a long way off.

Reference: “Quantum control and nanoscale placement of single spins in diamond.” David D. Awschalom, invited talk, American Physical Society March Meeting 2011

Image: Flickr / Swamibu

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology

Scientists Create World's 1st Practical Artificial Leaf, 10X as Efficient as the Real Thing

By Patrick Morgan | March 28, 2011 2:23 pm

What’s the News: This week, scientists say that they’ve passed a chemistry milestone by creating the world’s first practical photosynthesis device. The playing-card-sized photosynthetic gadget uses sunlight to split water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen, which can then be used to produce energy, and is reputedly 10 times more efficient than a natural leaf. Researchers say they expect it to revolutionize power storage, especially in remote areas that don’t currently have electricity. “A practical artificial leaf has been one of the Holy Grails of science for decades,” says lead researcher Daniel Nocera, who’s presenting this research at the National Meeting of the American Chemical Society this week.

How the Heck:

  • The artificial leaf uses nickel and cobalt as catalysts to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen by facilitating oxygen-oxygen bonding.
  • Oxygen and hydrogen molecules are then sent to a fuel cell that can produce electricity. If the device is placed in a one-gallon bucket of water in bright sunlight, it can reportedly produce enough electricity to power a house in a developing nation.

What’s the Context:

  • The very first artificial leaf was created by John Turner of the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, over a decade ago. The device lasted for only one day and was made of expensive metals, making it impractical.
  • This new artificial leaf uses nickel and cobalt, which are relatively cheap, and has so far operated continuously for at least 45 hours, making it the first practical artificial leaf.
  • In 2008, Nocera announced a way of splitting water using cobalt and platinum, a breakthrough at the time. Now, by using nickel instead of the more expensive platinum, he’s made the entire process economically feasible, in addition to combining everything into a working prototype.
  • Nocera has appeared in Discover before, including his National Science Foundation briefing on energy storage.
  • Many more labs are also working on artificial photosynthesis.
  • 80beats has covered other green energies, from wind turbines to natural gas.

Next Up:

  • Scientists are working to increase the device’s efficiency still higher.
  • Tata Group, an Indian conglomerate, plans on creating a power plant based on this research within the next year and a half.

Reference: Daniel Nocera et al. 241st National Meeting of the American Chemical Society. March 27-31, 2011 Anaheim, California, USA

Image: Wikimedia Commons / Daniel Schwen

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World, Technology
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