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:
What’s the Context:
Not So Fast:
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
In life, most people try to avoid entanglement, be it with unsavory characters or alarmingly large balls of twine. In the quantum world, entanglement is a necessary step for the super-fast quantum computers of the future.
According to a study published by Nature today, physicists have successfully entangled 10 billion quantum bits, otherwise known qubits. But the most significant part of the research is where the entanglement happened–in silicon–because, given that most of modern-day computing is forged in the smithy of silicon technology, this means that researchers may have an easier time incorporating quantum computers into our current gadgets.
Quantum entanglement occurs when the quantum state of one particle is linked to the quantum state of another particle, so that you can’t measure one particle without also influencing the other. With this particular study, led by John Morton at the University of Oxford, UK, the researchers aligned the spins of electrons and phosphorus nuclei–that is, the particles were entangled.
Renewable energy, information technology, and many other industries are in a political and economic bind—they require the obscure periodic table denizens called rare earth metals, and nearly all the world’s supply of those elements comes from China. But now, for the first time in years, rare earth elements will be mined at an American site. The mining company Molycorp says it has the permits in hand to reopen a mine in Mountain Pass, California, that could soon meet much of the U.S. demand for these elements.
The materials that come out of Mountain Pass will be used to make high-strength magnets necessary for electric vehicle engines, wind turbines, and a variety of other high-tech products. However, the U.S. possesses neither the technology nor the licensing to manufacture the neodymium-iron-boron alloy necessary for their production. As such, Molycorp has partnered with Japanese firm Hitachi Metals to manufacture the magnets in the United States. [Popular Science]
After its projected 2012 opening, the Molycorp mine should produce about 20,000 tons of material per year, the company says. Right now the world’s demand stands at about 125,000 tons per year, and Technology Review reports that this number could jump to 225,000 in five years. China has a stranglehold on the rare earth market, meaning political maelstroms could disrupt the supply.
The weights, they are a-changin’.
What we’re taught in school science classes is a streamlined version of a muddier and more complicated reality, and it’s no different with something as iconic as the periodic table of elements. This week the venerable chart’s overseers decided to fiddle with the atomic weights of 10 elements, changing their values from a single set number to a range of numbers, which is messier but more accurately resembles the messy real world.
The reason for the change is that atomic weights are not always as concrete as most general-chemistry students are taught, according to the University of Calgary, which made the announcement, and the snappily named International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry‘s Commission on Isotopic Abundances and Atomic Weights, which oversees such weighty matters. [CNET]
Rare earth metals are a hot commodity in today’s high-tech world. Until recently these elements were fairly obscure members of the periodic table; now, their usefulness in everything from hybrid cars to solar panels has boosted their profile.
The 17 rare earth metals, some with exotic names like lanthanum and europium, form unusually strong lightweight magnetic materials. Lanthanum is used in the batteries of hybrid cars, neodymium is used in magnets in the electric generators of wind turbines and europium is used in colored phosphors for energy-efficient lighting. [Reuters]
Their new necessity has also provided a boost to China, where the vast majority of these elements are currently mined. China’s dominance has been brought into sharp focus over the past three weeks, when China blocked all shipments of rare earth metals to Japan in response to a diplomatic incident concerning a Chinese fishing boat in territorially disputed waters.
Beijing has denied the embargo, yet the lack of supply may soon disrupt manufacturing in Japan, trade and industry minister Akihiro Ohata told reporters Tuesday. [Technology Review]
We’ve known this for a while. We started stockpiling the stuff near Amarillo, Texas in 1925, in part for dirigible use, and stepped up reserves in the 1960s as a Cold War asset. In 1996, Congress passed the Helium Privatization Act mandating that the United States sell the gas at artificially low prices to get rid of the stockpile by 2015. This February, the National Research Council published a report estimating that, given increasing consumption, the world may run out of helium in 40 years. That’s bad news given helium’s current applications in science, technology, and party decorations–and possible future applications in fusion energy.
Now physicist Robert Richardson, who won a 1996 Nobel Prize for work using helium-3 to make superfluids, has come forward to stress the folly of underselling our supply of the natural resource. He suggested in several interviews that the gas’s price should mirror its actual demand and scarcity. He estimates that typical party balloons should cost $100 a pop.
“They couldn’t sell it fast enough and the world price for helium gas is ridiculously cheap,” Professor Richardson told a summer meeting of Nobel laureates…. “Once helium is released into the atmosphere in the form of party balloons or boiling helium it is lost to the Earth forever, lost to the Earth forever,” he emphasised. [The Independent]
If we don’t heed Richardson’s warning, here are some sources the United States might have to tap when we run out:
It’s big, it’s loud, it’s Iron Man 2, and it opens today.
Like a lot of summer blockbusters, this sequel stretches the laws of physics and the capabilities of modern technology. But, admirably, a lot of the tech in Iron Man 2 is grounded in fact.
Spoiler Alert! Read on at your own risk.
Palladium and particle colliders
Being Iron Man is killing Tony Stark. As this sequel begins, the palladium core that powers the suit and keeps Stark alive is raising toxicity levels in his bloodstream to alarming highs. It’s not hard to see why Iron Man would try palladium—the now-infamous cold fusion experiments that created a storm of hype in 1989 relied on the metal. And it’s true that palladium does have some toxicity, though it’s been used in alloys for dentistry and jewelry-making.
Having exhausted the known elements in the search for a better power source, Stark, ever the DIY enthusiast, builds a particle collider in his workshop. This is actually not crazy: Physicist Todd Satogata of Brookhaven National Lab says you can build tiny particle colliders; even whiz-kid teenagers do it.
Powering the accelerator, however, might be an issue. 2.5 miles long, Brookhaven’s superconducting collider needs 10 to 15 megawatts of power—enough for 10,000 or 15,000 homes. “For Stark to run his accelerator, he’s gotta make a deal with his power company or he’s gotta have some sort of serious power plant in his backyard,” Satogata says [Popular Mechanics].
In addition, Stark doesn’t appear to have the magnets needed to focus a beam as tightly as he does in the film, where it shreds his shop before he gets it focused in the right place. And, as we covered with the recent discovery of element 117, the ultra-heavy lab-created elements that Stark could have created in his accelerator don’t last long. However, back in 1994 when only 106 elements dotted the periodic table, DISCOVER discussed the idea some physicists have of an “island of stability” where elements we’ve yet to discover/create might be able to exist in a stable way. Perhaps Tony found it.
The guts of the suit
After a long quest, the U.S. military gets its hands on Stark’s most magnificent piece of technology, the Iron Man suit. What they saw when they looked inside was the work of special effect wiz Clark Schaffer.
The silvery suit, originally seen in the first “Iron Man,” is shown again in the new movie in an “autopsy” scene in which the government begins tearing it apart to see how it works. “[The filmmakers] wanted it to look like what you see under the skin of a jet,” said Schaffer, who, along with friend and modeler Randy Cooper, worked on the suit in Los Angeles for six weeks. “There’s an aesthetic to it. I try to make it look as functional and practical as possible but also something that has beauty to it. That was my baby” [Salt Lake Tribune].
But how might the Iron Man suit be able to stand up to the punishment Stark continually receives? Tech News Daily proposes that he took advantage of something scientists are developing now: carbon nanotube foam with great cushioning power.
Iron Man’s nemesis in this second installment is Ivan Vanko, played by the villainous and murky Mickey Rourke, who you might have seen in previews stalking around a racetrack with seemingly electrified prostheses attached to his arms. The explanation in the film is hand-waved a bit, but it seems Vanko’s weapons rely on plasma.
Scientists actually are developing weapons based on plasma, such as the StunStrike, which essentially fires a bolt of lightning, creating an electrical charge through a stream of plasma. Researchers have recently even created what appears to be ball lightning in microwave ovens, which Iron Man’s “repulsor blasts” resemble [Tech News Daily].
Drones and hacking
Vanko isn’t happy with just amazing plasma tentacles, though. Working for Stark’s rival military-industrialist Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), he develops a horde of ghastly humanoid drones for each branch of the military. That, of course, is straight out of science fact—our military relies increasing on robots, be they unmanned aerial vehicles, bots on the ground that investigate roadside bombs, or even unmanned subs currently under development.
He’s a hacker, too, seizing control of an Iron Man suit worn by Don Cheadle as Stark sidekick James Rhodes. As DISCOVER covered in December, that’s a real-life worry, too. Hackers figured out how to steal the video feeds from our Predator drones because of an encryption lapse at one step in the process.
DISCOVER: 10 Obscure Elements That Are Most Important Than You’d Think (gallery)
DISCOVER: An Island of Stability
DISCOVER: Attaining Superhero Strength in Real Life, and 2 more amazing science projects
DISCOVER: The Science and the Fiction presents the best and worst use of science in sci-fi films
80beats: A Hack of the Drones: Insurgents Spy on Spy Planes with $26 Software
Bad Astronomy: Iron Man = Win
A little square that has been left blank on the periodic table for all these years might finally be filled in. A team of American and Russian scientists have just reported the synthesis of a brand new element–element 117. Says study coauthor Dawn Shaughnessy: “For a chemist, it’s so fundamentally cool” to fill a square in that table [The New York Times].
If other scientists confirm the discovery, the still-unnamed element will take its place between elements 116 and 118, both of which have already been tracked down. A paper about element 117 will soon be published in Physical Review Letters, and scientists say the new element appears to point the way toward a brew of still more massive elements with chemical properties no one can predict [The New York Times].
Element 117 was born in a particle accelerator in Russia, where the scientists smashed together calcium-48 — an isotope with 20 protons and 28 neutrons — and berkelium-249, which has 97 protons and 152 neutrons. The collisions spit out either three or four neutrons, creating two different isotopes of an element with 117 protons [Science News].
The new element 117, takes it place between two superheavy elements that scientists know to be very radioactive and that decay almost instantly. But many researchers think it is possible that even heavier elements may occupy an “island of stability” in which superheavy atoms stick around for a while [Science News]. If this theory holds up, scientists say, the work could generate an array of strange new materials with as yet unimagined scientific and practical uses [New York Times].
Scientists have found a way to safely store notoriously dangerous white phosphorus on the atomic scale: in a cage made of atoms that can only be unlocked by a specific molecule, according to a study published in the journal Science.Containing white phosphorus, a tetrahedral formation of phosphorus atoms, will be useful because the molecule readily reacts if it comes into contact with air.
It’s not surprising, then, that it is often used in military campaigns to create smokescreens to mask movement from the enemy, as well as an incendiary in bombs, artillery and mortars [ScienceDaily]. White phosphorus is also an essential ingredient in many plant fertilizers and weed killers, so the ability to safely transport and store the molecule would also be an asset for those industries.
Researchers in Germany produced element 112 in 1996, and now that it has been recognized by the International Union for Pure and Applied Chemistry, it will be the newest addition to the periodic table of the elements. It’s currently known as ununbium, Latin for ‘one-one-two,’ but it will be given an official name before it’s added to the chart.
The new element is one of only 22 elements that are man-made, and it’s 277 times heavier than hydrogen, making it the weightiest element on the periodic table. To make it, scientists at Germany’s Centre for Heavy Ion Research fused the the nuclei of zinc and lead. The atomic number 112 refers to the sum of the atomic numbers of zinc, which has 30, and lead, which has 82. Atomic numbers denote how many protons are found in the atom’s nucleus [Reuters]. Creating new elements isn’t just a why-not-do-it challenge: It has also helped researchers to understand how nuclear power plants and atomic bombs function [Reuters].