An illustration of the descent
While the Cassini probe has been taking the gorgeous pictures of Saturn we know and love, its little buddy and traveling companion, the Huygens lander, has been on the surface of the moon Titan. A just-published reconstruction of what happened when Huygens hit Titan’s surface eight years ago gives insight into what the ground on the methane-soaked body is like: something like damp sand, or perhaps crusty snow.
If you’ve ever poured hot water into a Pyrex glass dish and been shocked to see it fracture before your eyes, a new report may give you some insight into what’s going on. Pyrex glassware, which came out in 1915 and was long marketed as “icebox to oven” cookware that did not expand or compress when exposed to high heat or low temperatures, is no longer made of that hardy borosilicate glass. And the new stuff, scientists publishing in the American Ceramics Society Bulletin have found, doesn’t stand up well to some of the temperature changes involved in cooking.
Infected wood, soon to be carpeted in white fungus
File this under “news luthiers can use”: A Swiss materials scientist reports that siccing certain species of fungi on wood intended to be made into violins can result in instruments with superior sound quality, purportedly as lovely as that of a Stradivarius.
The gel doing an impersonation of a trampoline in the video above is a new synthetic material from Harvard engineers, a substance that stretches to more than 20 times its length and can withstand more force than human cartilage, the resilient tissue that cushions our joints.
Mother-of-pearl is surprisingly difficult to mimic. Cheap plastic watch faces don’t count—they may look like the inside of a seashell, but real mother-of-pearl, or nacre, to give its scientific name, is made of thousands of layers of calcium carbonate, with an intricate, interlocking crystal structure.
Because of that, it is phenomenally tough, and engineers would like to be able to use it as an industrial coating. Recently, a team of scientists devised a way to make microscopic layers of calcium carbonate accrete into a very similar crystal structure, mimicking the process that takes place in shellfish. You can see the result above: a sheet of material with the sheen and the strength of real mother-of-pearl.
Image courtesy of Nature Communications
Let’s face it, ketchup bottles suck. When you get down to an almost empty the bottle, plastic ones burp and splat all over your clothes, and glass ones have you awkwardly whacking the “57” on the Heinz bottle. That’s why this video of ketchup sliding effortlessly with a tip wrist is so impressive—even surreal.
This little bit of magic is the effect of LiquiGlide, a superslippery coating developed by physicists at MIT. The lab headed by Kripa Varanasi initially began researching coatings that could prevent clogs in deep sea oil pipes and ice from sticking to airplane wings. Other research groups have also come up with nonstick coatings that follow the same broad principle: the coating is actually a thin layer of liquid, which allows things to slip right off.
What’s something that everyone hates? That’s the question that undergrads at Case Western University asked recently while brainstorming their entry for a materials science competition. Their answer: potholes. And their answer to the problem of how to fill them cheaply and easily? Basically, corn starch and water.
It’s not as strange as it sounds: the corn starch putty is a non-Newtonian fluid, a class of fluids that behave very differently from water. In the case of the putty, when it’s placed in an oddly shaped receptacle, like a pothole, it will flow like a liquid into all the nooks and crannies. But the second you push on it, with a car, for instance (or, as you can see in the above video, your feet), it turns solid, resisting compression and giving drivers a smooth ride.
How a living material of cheese fungi sandwiched between plastic sheets works.
The crusty rind of cheeses like Camembert provide more than texture: they are miniature fortress walls, made of fungus, that protect the cheese’s creamy insides from bacterial invasions. Now, taking inspiration from this delicious snack, chemical engineers at ETH Zurich in Switzerland have shown that such a fungus can be enclosed in porous plastic and will digest spills, with implications for creating antibacterial surfaces from living material.
The team sandwiched a layer of Penicillium roqueforti—from, you guessed it, Roquefort cheese—between a plastic base and a top sheet of plastic with nanoscale pores that allowed gas and liquids to move through, but did not allow the fungus to spread. Then, they mimicked a kitchen spill by pouring sugary broth on the surface and watched as, over the course of two weeks, the captive fungus gradually consumed the entire spill, leaving the surface clean. As shown in the figure above, the fungi can go dormant when there is no food around, so if one had a countertop of such a material, you wouldn’t need to keep spilling sugar on it to keep the fungi happy. Read More
Each fluid reveals a different letter.
What’s the News: Scientists have developed a chip that can instantaneously identify fluids applied to it, just from their unique surface tension. In a handheld device, it could help toxic site remediators figure out what that ominous clear liquid is. And there’s a bonus for the kids-in-the-treehouse user demographic: different secret messages can appear on the chip depending on what fluid is applied.