To deflect an asteroid, paint it white. That’s the idea that made MIT graduate student Sung Wook Paek the winner of the 2012 Move An Asteroid Competition, a contest set up by the United Nations’ Space Generation Advisory Council that sought innovative ways to deflect asteroids. Paek’s plan is to hurl pellets of white paint at an asteroid in order to make it more reflective, meaning that more photons, or particles of light, would bounce off it, rather than being absorbed. Over time, the force of those photonic collisions, combined with the initial force of the paintballs, would be enough, Paek thinks, to move the asteroid off its path toward Earth.
Screenshot of Civilization IV, a later version
of the game that MIT’s computer played.
What’s the News: Many video gamers scoff at the idea of actually reading the instruction manual for a game. But a manual can not only teach you how to play a game, it can also give you the basics of language—that is, if you’re a machine-learning computer. Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab have now designed a computer system that can learn the meaning of certain words by playing complex games like Civilization II and comparing on-screen information to the game’s instruction manual.
What’s the News: The next generation of bomb detectors may come from an unusual source: bee venom, the stuff that hurts like all get-out when you get stung. A team of researchers at MIT have used fluorescent carbon nanotubes and venom proteins called bombolitins that bind to single molecules of explosives like TNT to create an exquisitely sensitive detector.
MIT may have found the answer to astronauts’ bone loss in space: really, really tight suits.
The new suit — the Gravity Loading Countermeasure Skinsuit — aims to mimic the effect of gravity on the body. The tight catsuit wouldn’t look out of place in a superhero comic. It features stirrups that hook over the feet and it is purposefully cut too short so that it stretches over the body when worn, pulling the wearer’s shoulders down. The aim is to make sure the legs experience greater force than the torso, just as they do on Earth. [Wired UK]
The Man Vehicle Lab at MIT developed the skin-tight apparel. The researchers are testing it out aboard parabolic flights—those airplane rides that simulate weightlessness—to see if it succeeds in mitigating the harmful health effects of life in zero-G.
This weekend in watery Venice, Italy, MIT scientists will demonstrate a creation called Seaswarm, a fleet of autonomous swimming bots intended to skim the water’s surface; each bot would drag a sort of mesh net to collect the crude sitting there. According to their creators, the machines will be able to find oil on their own and talk to one another to compute the most efficient way to tidy it up.
The Seaswarm robots, which were developed by a team from MIT’s Senseable City Lab, look like a treadmill conveyor belt that’s been attached to an ice cooler. The conveyor belt piece of the system floats on the surface of the ocean. As it turns, the belt propels the robot forward and lifts oil off the water with the help of a nanomaterial that’s engineered to attract oil and repel water [CNN].
Who needs big silicon panels? MIT scientists just coated paper with solar cells, reportedly the first team to ever do that. Vladimir Bulovic, director of the Eni-MIT Solar Frontiers Research Center, unveiled them this week, and said the design was being submitted for peer review.
The printed solar cells, which Bulovic showed at a press conference Tuesday, are still in the research phase and are years from being commercialized. However, the technique, in which paper is coated with organic semiconductor material using a process similar to an inkjet printer, is a promising way to lower the weight of solar panels. “If you could use a staple gun to install a solar panel, there could be a lot of value,” Bulovic said [CNN].
Right now the solar cells on paper get just 1 to 2 percent efficiency at converting sunlight to electricity (some cells have achieved 40 percent or more in lab trials). But they carry the advantages of being flexible, and Bulovic says he could potentially use a number of different materials, not just the carbon-based dye used in these first attempts. And they’re tunable:
MIT is focusing much of its effort on quantum dots, or tiny crystals that are only a few nanometers in size. A human hair is about 50,000 to 100,000 nanometers thick. By using different materials and sizes, researchers can fine-tune the colors of light that quantum dots can absorb, a way of isolating good candidates for quantum dot solar cells [CNN].
Bulovic gives the standard warning about new technologies—it could be a decade before it’s ready for commercial development.
And once it is? There’s no telling how it could revolutionize the home solar industry, which currently relies on pricey professional installers to set up panels [Inhabitat].
DISCOVER: Sun Catcher Promises Cheaper Solar Power
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Image: Martin LaMonica at CNET
Carbon nanotubes have shown the potential to help us take better x-ray images, make cheaper hydrogen fuel cells, and replace silicon in computer chips. Add another possibility onto the pile: MIT researchers report this week in Nature Materials that they’ve used carbon nanotubes to create thermopower waves, a system they say could put out 100 times more energy than a lithium-ion battery.
Michael Strano’s team coated the tubes, which are only billionths of a meter across, with a fuel. This fuel was then ignited at one end of the nanotube using either a laser beam or a high-voltage spark, and the result was a fast-moving thermal wave traveling along the length of the carbon nanotube like a flame speeding along the length of a lit fuse [Environmental News Service]. That wave travels 10,000 times the typical speed of this chemical reaction, and the heat blasts electrons down the tubes. Voila, electric current.
This previously unknown phenomenon opens up an entirely new area of energy research, Strano says, and the technology’s potential applications are exciting. Strano envisions thermopower waves that could enable ultra-small electronic devices, no larger than a grain of rice, perhaps a sensor or treatment device that could be injected into the body. Or they might be used in “environmental sensors that could be scattered like dust in the air,” he says [Environmental News Service].