21 November 2019

Milky Way’s supermassive black hole exploded 3.5 million years ago: Study

An artist's impression of the massive bursts of ionizing radiation exploding from the center of the Milky Way and impacting the Magellanic Stream. Photo: James Josephides/ASTRO 3D
A supermassive black hole in the centre of the Milky Way galaxy exploded 3.5 million years ago, according to a study.

The black hole, known as Sagittarius A, or Sgr A* (pronounced Sagittarius A-sta about 4.2 million times more massive than the Sun - exploded due to nuclear activity, according to a team of scientists at Australia's ARC Centre of Excellence for All Sky Astrophysics in 3 Dimensions (ASTRO 3-D).

The burst, known as a Seyfert flare, created two huge ‘ionisation cones’ of radiation, which flared to both poles of the galaxy and out into deep space.

The impact was felt at Magellanic Stream a long trail of gas extending from nearby dwarf galaxies called the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds which lies at an average 200,000 light years from the Milky Way, said the Australian-US research team.

“The flare must have been a bit like a lighthouse beam,” said Joss Bland-Hawthorn, professor at ASTRO 3-D.

“Imagine darkness, and then someone switches on a lighthouse beacon for a brief period of time,” Bland-Hawthorn added.

The blast took place just 3.5 million years ago 63 million years after an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs.

Moreover, during the time of the explosion, our earliest ancestors the Australopithecines were roaming in Africa, revealed the study, to be published in The Astrophysical Journal. 

While Milky Way was always thought “as an inactive galaxy, with a not so bright centre”, the new study “instead opens the possibility of a complete reinterpretation of its evolution and nature”, said co-author Magda Guglielmo from the University of Sydney.

“A massive blast of energy and radiation came right out of the galactic centre and into the surrounding material. This shows that the centre of the Milky Way is a much more dynamic place than we had previously thought. It is lucky we're not residing there!” said Lisa Kewley, director of ASTRO 3-D.

The study follows a 2013 research, also led by Bland-Hawthorn, which ruled out a nuclear starburst as the cause of the massive explosive event. It had linked the event to activity in SgrA*.

Although the new study, which used data gathered by the Hubble Space Telescope, asserts SgrA* as the prime suspect more research needs to be done on how black holes evolve, influence and interact with galaxies, the researchers noted.


16 November 2019

Researchers Find More Than 1 Million Alternatives to DNA

Life on Earth uses DNA and RNA to store and utilize genetic information, but what if there’s another way? A new analysis from researchers at Emory University and the Tokyo Institute of Technology suggests a plethora of molecules could serve the same basic task of organizing and storing genetic information. They estimate more than a million possible stand-ins for DNA, some of which could help us fight disease or help us know what to expect as we search for alien life.

DNA (and RNA) consist of several components that make up the familiar double helix. There are the base pairs like adenine and guanine, a sugar (deoxyribose for DNA and ribose for RNA), and a phosphate group. The sugar and phosphate give nucleic acid an alternating sugar-phosphate backbone. We already know there are many alternatives to the five bases at work in DNA and RNA on Earth, but the new study looks at how the scaffolding of nucleic acid could vary.

The team used a computer simulation to explore a so-called “chemical space” within certain constraints. To choose the constraints, the team had to distill what makes nucleic acid molecules distinct. They settled on organic molecules that can assemble into a linear polymer with at least two attachment points, plus a place for nitrogen bases to connect. The substructure of the molecule also needs to be stable in a polymer configuration. Since these molecules don’t contain the traditional sugars and phosphorus, you can’t call them DNA — they’re some other kind of nucleic acid with potentially similar properties.

The analysis points to more than 1,160,000 potential nucleic acid molecules. That number exceeded even the most extreme estimates beforehand, but researchers can now start looking at these molecules in a laboratory setting to see if they can work as a DNA alternative. The team says this shows evolution on Earth may have experimented with several different molecular designs for storing genetic information before DNA ultimately won out.

Researchers around the world are working on therapeutic drugs that resemble nucleic acid, some of which could help combat viruses and cancer. A better understanding of these DNA alternatives could make those treatments more effective. And then there’s the importance to exobiology research. If we’re looking for evidence of extraterrestrial life, it might help to remember they could have genetic material using one of the other million possible molecules.


Young people are growing horns, thanks to phones + tablets

horns for youngs
CC BY 4.0 Example radiograph of 28-years-old male presenting with large enthesophytes emanating from the occipital squama. (Scientific Reports)

You thought 'text neck' was bad? Kids these days are growing 'enlarged external occipital protuberances.'

I used to joke that soon enough humans would evolve to have unusually large thumbs and be generally myopic because of our attachment to smartphones. But my silly sense of humor could have never imagined what is really happening, and happening surprisingly quickly: We are growing horns.

Or at least that's what scientists are suggesting after research on the emergence of "enlarged external occipital protuberances" (EEOP) amongst young people. Could this be true?

As Isaac Stanley-Becker reports for The Washington Post:
New research in biomechanics suggests that young people are developing hornlike spikes at the back of their skulls bone spurs caused by the forward tilt of the head, which shifts weight from the spine to the muscles at the back of the head, causing bone growth in the connecting tendons and ligaments. The weight transfer that causes the buildup can be compared to the way the skin thickens into a callus as a response to pressure or abrasion.

So far, the odd new bits of anatomy have garnered all kinds of names, including head horns, phone bones, spikes, or weird bumps. All are accurate, says David Shahar, a chiropractor with a PhD in biomechanics and first author of the paper.

“That is up to anyone’s imagination,” Shahar told The Post. “You may say it looks like a bird’s beak, a horn, a hook.”

The new skeletal accessory extends out from the skull, just above the neck. And its appearance has come as a surprise to the pair of scientists who conducted the study at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia.

In a previous study, the team reported the development of prominent exostosis (which the dictionary defines as a "benign outgrowth of cartilaginous tissue on a bone") jutting out from the external occipital protuberance (EOP) in 41 percent of young adults. Since this isn't usually seen in young people, they decided to do more research.

For the more recent study, they compared the EOPs in 1,200 X-rays of subjects between the ages 18 to 86. They found that a combination of sex, the degree of forward head protraction, and age predicted the presence of enlarged EOPs. Males with increased forward head protraction had more prominent exostosis; and these were for the younger males. Surprisingly, for the older subjects, the size decreased. From the study:

"Our latter findings provide a conundrum, as the frequency and severity of degenerative skeletal features in humans are associated typically with aging. Our findings and the literature provide evidence that mechanical load plays a vital role in the development and maintenance of the enthesis (insertion) and draws a direct link between aberrant loading of the enthesis and related pathologies."

They conclude that EEOPs may be linked to postures that have developed with the extensive use of hand-held devices like smartphones and tablets. "Our findings raise a concern about the future musculoskeletal health of the young adult population and reinforce the need for prevention intervention through posture improvement education," the authors write.

The horn itself may not be much of a problem, says co-author Mark Sayers. (Because, who doesn't like horns?) However, the formation is a “portent of something nasty going on elsewhere, a sign that the head and neck are not in the proper configuration,” he told The Post.

That we are contorting ourselves in service to our gadget obsessions – to the point that we are growing horn-beak-hook things in the back of our heads – just doesn't seem like something that ends well. As the authors conclude in their paper:

"An important question is what the future holds for the young adult populations in our study, when development of a degenerative process is evident in such an early stage of their lives?"

Read more at The Washington Post, and see the whole study and illustrations in Scientific Reports.

And for another take on this – as in, is this really possible? – see what our sister site MNN has to say: Will children really grow horns from too much phone use? (Though I'm sticking with horns!)


24 April 2018

An alternative to antibiotics - weakening superbugs' grip

alternative to antibiotics weakening superbugs grip

An illustration showing the beginning of a bacterial infection. At the bottom, human proteins coat the surface of a medical implant. The colorful rods are bacteria initiating the infection. The transparent structure below the center bacteria is the protein that anchors bacteria to the implant surface. (Image: NIH Center for Macromolecular Modeling and Bioinformatics)

There is a growing medical emergency in our society caused by the constant growth in the number of people affected by untreatable bacterial infections. The discovery of antibiotics in the early 20th century gave us decades of relative safety, a period that is coming to an end the antibiotics that saved millions of lives in the last century are increasingly powerless against a growing number of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more than 23,000 Americans die each year from infections caused by germs resistant to antibiotics. While this number in itself is alarming, the scary thing is that unusually resistant germs bacteria that are resistant to all or most antibiotics tested and are uncommon or carry special resistance genes are constantly developing and spreading. The scientists at the CDC, who are not prone to panic easily, call this type of bug nightmare bacteria. Lab tests in the U.S. uncovered unusual resistance more than 200 times in 2017 in these nightmare bacteria alone.

This problem is not new. Already in 2012, the then Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr Margaret Chan, has warned vividly that the growing threat of antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains may pose grave risks for society: "A post-antibiotic era means, in effect, an end to modern medicine as we know it. Things as common as strep throat or a child's scratched knee could once again kill."

Chan pointed out that there is a global crisis in antibiotics caused by rapidly evolving resistance among microbes responsible for common infections that threaten to turn them into untreatable diseases. Every antibiotic ever developed was at risk of becoming useless.

A work recently published in Science ("Molecular mechanism of extreme mechanostability in a pathogen adhesin") may offer some hope. Using a combination of laboratory experiments and GPU-accelerated supercomputer simulations, researchers discovered why staph bacteria the leading cause of healthcare-related infections can be so tough to beat.

This work could point the way to new treatments for now-invincible bacterial foes, not by developing a new antibiotic that would kill these bacteria, but by making them weaker so that they get more easily attacked by our immune system.

Staph infections are caused by staphylococcus bacteria, types of germs commonly found on the skin of healthy individuals. Most of the time, these bacteria cause no problems or result in relatively minor skin infections.

The research team showed that methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) adhere to their hosts us humans with exceptional mechanical resilience. That's what makes pathogenic bacteria so persistent.

"Understanding the physical mechanisms that underlie this persistent stickiness at the molecular level is instrumental to combat these invaders," Rafael Bernardi, a research scientist in the Theoretical and Computational Biophysics group at the Beckman Institute, tells Nanowerk.

Combining experimental and sophisticated computer simulations, Bernardi and the late Klaus Schulten from the Beckman Institute teamed up with Lukas Milles and Hermann Gaub from the Physics Department at Ludwig-Maximilian-University Munich to decipher the mechanism responsible for staph adhesion.

Using an Atomic Force Microscope (AFM), the University of Munich team was able to measure the forces that govern the interaction between an individual adhesin (a staph protein) and its human target molecule. Independently, the Illinois team investigated the same protein complex by performing computationally-intensive steered molecular dynamics (SMD) simulations, carried out using the NCSA’s Blue Waters supercomputer, deconstructing the mechanism of the interaction between staph adhesion factors and human proteins.

The scientists were surprised by the shear forces that were necessary to rupture the interaction between the bacterial and human proteins: they are much stronger than any other non-covalent interaction known. They discovered that the mechanism that makes staph bacteria cling so tightly to its human host is a series of hydrogen bonds arranged in a corkscrew shape that works like superglue to clamp bacteria protein molecules to human ones.

"It’s easy to break one hydrogen bond," says Bernardi. "What makes this attachment so strong is that you have to break all the bonds at once in order to detach the protein molecules."

"The unbinding force of a single adhesin-human protein complex measured was exceptional, about an order of magnitude stronger than any other protein-protein interaction known," he continues. "The rupture forces reached over two nanonewtons, a regime generally associated with the strength of covalent bonds, and nearly an order of magnitude stronger than most other protein-protein interactions known."

A summary of the molecular mechanism responsible for extreme mechanostability in the complex between bacterial adhesion proteins and human fibronectin proteins. (Video produced by Rafael Bernardi (University of Illinois), based on simulations results taking advantage of GPU-accelerated software NAMD and VMD)

The combination of innovative simulation methods and experimental confirmations showed that the extreme physical strength of the staph adhesion is largely independent of protein sequence and biochemical properties, but rather a built-in physical property an invasive advantage for these staphylococci.

The whole description of this unexpected mechanism is new and shows how bacteria evolved to take advantage of simple hydrogen-bonds in an remarkable way. These findings expand our understanding of why pathogen adhesion is so resilient and may open new ways to inhibit staphylococcal invasion.

Understanding the mechanism of staph infection at the molecular and now atomic level may open new avenues for an intelligent design of antimicrobial therapies. The development of anti-adhesion therapy could promote the detachment of staph bacteria, facilitating bacterial clearance by our own immune system.

"The main challenge now is to design a drug that targets this bacterial adhesion mechanism and either blocks or at least weakens it," Bernardi concludes. "As a more general aspect, the combined use of AFM experiments and SMD simulations should greatly contribute to the identification of new binding mechanisms in bacterial adhesins, thus helping to show how they regulate biofilm formation. In diagnosis and therapy, this combined approach could represent a powerful platform for the treatment of microbial infections"

Source: nanowerk

29 December 2017

DARPA, University of Michigan Team Up to Build ‘Unhackable’ Chip

unhackable chip

DARPA has announced a $3.6 million grant to a University of Michigan team with the goal of building an “unhackable” processor. Software-based security has proven incapable of meeting this goal, and while hardware models like Intel’s IME or ARM’s TrustZone have had better luck overall, these systems can be affected by major bugs themselves and don’t protect the entire contents of the microprocessor.

Todd Austin, leader of the Morpheus project at UM, likens his team’s design to a giant Rubik’s Cube. His architecture focuses on moving data stored within the chip to various randomized locations while also constantly re-encrypting stored passwords. Even if a hacker managed to find a memory block with a password in it that was vulnerable to decryption, the data won’t be there by the time the password-cracker finishes its work. Even modern GPUs, which are staggeringly good at password decryption, require time to work.

“We are making the computer an unsolvable puzzle,” Austin said. “It’s like if you’re solving a Rubik’s Cube and every time you blink, I rearrange it. What’s incredibly exciting about the project is that it will fix tomorrow’s vulnerabilities. I’ve never known any security system that could be future proof.”
future unhackable chip

Rowhammer targets either the single purple row to flip the yellow bits or can target both yellow rows to flip the purple bits.

What the Michigan team is describing would be an incredibly useful set of capabilities if it can be made to work. We’ve seen exploits before, like Rowhammer, that function precisely by targeting a given area of memory and hammering adjacent rows with repeated accesses in an attempt to flip bits within the target row (hence the name). Zero-day exploits are a common and potentially devastating problem. And frankly, it’s simply downright tiresome to be forever chasing down security bulletins and updating various applications. A chip that could juggle its memory addresses and keep data safely encrypted could be useful in a wide range of security applications.

What’s less clear is how easily the technology could be integrated into modern processors or what impact these rapid-fire data shifts would have on functionality. The DARPA SSITH project (System Security Integrated Through Hardware and Firmware) specifically states that “The strategic challenge for participants in the SSITH program will be to develop new integrated circuit (IC) architectures that lack the current software-accessible points of illicit entry, yet retain the computational functions and high-performance the ICs were designed to deliver.”

DARPA’s goal is to fund initial development on a processor design capable of preventing one or more of seven security flaws: Permission and privilege escalations, buffer errors, resource management, information leakage, numeric errors, crypto errors, and code injection. These seven types of attacks supposedly comprise a whopping 40 percent of all attack types; cutting even one or two of them out could significantly reduce security issues in the military and consumer world.


21 December 2017

Laser-Delivered Internet Could be a Game Changer for Millions of Indian Citizens.

Laser Delivered Internet

In Brief

Across India, there are large gaps in broadband internet access. A new effort by a telecom company and X, a subsidiary of Alphabet, will hopefully deliver internet to millions more using lasers.

Laser Internet

In Andhra Pradesh, a southeast state in India, a subsidiary of Alphabet called simply “X” might soon be delivering the internet with lasers. According to the company, they aim to provide “fiber optic cable, but without the cable.” The technology that makes this all happen is called free space optical communications (FSOC) technology.

To accomplish this ambitious task, X will work with AP State FiberNet, a telecom company owned entirely by the Andhra Pradesh government. X will create two thousand FSOC links, which use beams of laser light instead of traditional cables to deliver the internet over long distances. While it may seem dicey, this method is capable of being equally reliable and potentially superior to cabled delivery.

Laser Internet
(Image Credit: fancycrave1/Pixabay)

Baris Erkman, FSOC lead at X, stated in a Medium post that “because there’s no cable, this means there’s none of the time, cost, and hassle involved in digging trenches or stringing cable along poles. FSOC boxes can simply be placed kilometers apart on roofs or towers, with the signal beamed directly between the boxes to easily traverse common obstacles like rivers, roads and railways.”


A Changing Internet

Andhra Pradesh is currently home to Hyderabad, one of India’s most influential tech cities. Within the state there is some of the cheapest broadband access that exists globally; however, there are still many areas throughout India that are without regular internet access, and an estimated 900 million people are still without regular broadband access. As the UN now classifies internet access as a human right, many are working to increase access. This need will only grow as, in 2024, Hyderabad will no longer be a part of Andhra Pradesh due to the creation of a new state, which will lower connectivity and access.

The state hopes that, with the introduction of laser delivery technology and the adoption of cable-less internet, 12 million households and thousands of government organizations and businesses will have broadband internet by 2019.

This development signals two things. First, it shows how states and governments are taking more serious actions to increase broadband access around the world. Secondly, it shows how rapidly internet delivery technology is evolving. Fiber optic cables might have seemed like an ideal method a few years ago, but laser internet could be the next standard of access.


20 December 2017

Electric eels provide a zap of inspiration for a new kind of power source.

Electric eels hydrogel disks

Battery-like devices mimic how a charge builds up in the animal’s cells.

IT’S ELECTRIC  A new type of energy source made with hydrogel disks (shown) works a lot like the power-producing organs inside electric eels.

New power sources bear a shocking resemblance to the electricity-making organs inside electric eels.

These artificial electric eel organs are made up of water-based polymer mixes called hydrogels. Such soft, flexible battery-like devices, described online October 13 in Nature, could power soft robots or next-gen wearable and implantable tech.

“It’s a very smart approach” to building potentially biocompatible, environmentally friendly energy sources and “has a bright future for commercialization,” says Jian Xu, an engineer at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge not involved in the work.

This new type of power source is modeled after rows of cells called electrocytes in the electric organ that runs along an electric eel’s body. When an eel zaps its prey, positively charged potassium and sodium atoms inside and between these cells flow toward the eel’s head, making each electrocyte’s front end positive and tail end negative. This setup creates a voltage of about 150 millivolts across each cell. The voltages of these electrocytes add up, like a lineup of AAA batteries powering a flashlight, explains Michael Mayer, a biophysicist at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. Collectively, an eel’s electrocytes can generate hundreds of volts.

artificial eel cell chain of four hydrogelsGEL CELLS Each artificial eel cell is a chain of four hydrogels, from one red gel to another, sandwiched between panes of polyester and connected to other cells.

Mayer and his colleagues concocted four hydrogels that, when queued up in a particular order, mimic the function of an electrocyte. The researchers devised a couple of strategies for stringing a four-gel artificial cell to other cells. One technique involved printing hydrogel grids onto two polyester sheets, and then laying one sheet on top of the other so the hydrogels crisscrossed like zipper teeth. Alternatively, printing all the hydrogels on a single sheet and then folding the sheet stacked the gels like pancakes.

The researchers designed the four hydrogels’ chemical makeup so that as soon as all the gels of a single cell touched, their positively charged sodium atoms surged toward one end of the lineup and negative chloride atoms flooded toward the other. Much like a real electrocyte, each four-gel artificial cell generated 130 to 185 millivolts of electricity, and 612 artificial eel cells in tandem produced 110 volts about the energy of a household outlet.

polyester sheet hydrogels

TAKING CHARGE A polyester sheet with hydrogels printed in a precise configuration folds up so that the hydrogels stack similar to the cells in an electric eel’s electricity-generating organ.

Unfortunately, the artificial eel organs don’t expend their energy as efficiently as their biological counterparts, Mayer says. So the hydrogel systems built for this study could only energize very low-power instruments. “The device we’re closest to powering is probably a pacemaker,” Mayer says. But he thinks that tweaking the hydrogel setup to more closely imitate a real eel electric organ like by printing thinner gels could give these energy sources more oomph.

Mayer also wants to devise a new way to recharge the artificial organs. Researchers currently have to hook the devices up to an external power source that drives the hydrogels’ charged particles back to their starting positions, kind of like plugging a battery into a charging dock.

“The holy grail, at least to me, would be to design this thing so it can recharge itself inside the body,” Mayer says. He imagines artificial eel organs tapping into the energy stored by natural charge separations throughout the body, like between the stomach which is relatively positively charged and surrounding tissue. Such flexible, biofriendly and transparent energy sources could someday energize implanted health sensors, insulin pumps or high-tech contact lenses that project virtual displays onto the wearer’s line of sight.

T. Schroeder et al. An electric-eel-inspired soft power source from stacked hydrogels. Nature. Published online December 13, 2017. doi:10.1038/nature24670.


New Superconducting Magnet Smashes World Record

Superconducting Magnet

In Brief

The National High Magnetic Field Laboratory has created the world's most powerful superconducting magnet. Named 32 T, it's 33 percent more powerful than the previous record-holding magnet, and thousands of times stronger than refrigerator magnets.


Back On Top

The National High Magnetic Field Laboratory (National MagLab) is no stranger to breaking records. In August, the team took back the title of “world’s strongest resistive magnet” after losing it in 2014 with their Project 11 magnet that reached 41.4 teslas, a unit of magnetic field strength. On December 8, they came back once again to set a new record: this time, for the world’s most powerful superconducting magnet.

Their new superconducting magnet, created in the MagLab Tallahassee facility, created a magnetic field of 32 teslas, making it nearly 33 percent stronger than the magnet that held the previous record (and giving it the nickname of “32T”). For reference, that’s 3000 times stronger than the magnets we put on our refrigerators. According to MagLab, the world record set last week represents one of the biggest improvements made in the last 40 years.

“This is a transformational step in magnet technology, a true revolution in the making,” said Greg Boebinger, MagLab Director, in a press release. “Not only will this state-of-the-art magnet design allow us to offer new experimental techniques here at the lab, but it will boost the power of other scientific tools such as X-rays and neutron scattering around the world.”

Advanced Physics

Superconductors are already vital to the operation of a range of different devices, from MRI machines to high-speed transportation systems, and nuclear fusion reactors to enormous particle colliders. This superconducting magnet is therefore expected to help advance research in several areas, including physics, chemistry, biology, and quantum matter. To help facilitate its use, MagLab is allowing scientists from around the world to apply for the opportunity to use it.

The team doesn’t intend to stop at 32 teslas, however. One day, the superconducting magnet may be as powerful as the lab’s record-breaking resistive magnet, though MagLab engineer Huub Weijers who oversaw the magnet’s construction foresees magnets going even further beyond that.

“We’ve opened up an enormous new realm,” said Weijers in the press release. “I don’t know what that limit is, but it’s beyond 100 teslas. The required materials exist. It’s just technology and dollars that are between us and 100 teslas.”


16 December 2017

MIT scientists borrow from fireflies to make glowing plants

'Our work very seriously opens up the doorway to street lamps that are nothing but treated trees'

Scientists have created plants that glow using embedded nanoparticles in leaves, potentially paving the way for trees to replace streetlights.

Experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) hope their discovery could lead to traditional light sources being replaced with self-sustaining alternatives.

"The vision is to make a plant that will function as a desk lamp – a lamp that you don't have to plug in," said chemical engineer Professor Michael Strano, the senior author of the study.

"The light is ultimately powered by the energy metabolism of the plant itself."

To give the plants their glowing ability, Professor Strano and his colleagues used luciferase, the substance that gives fireflies their glow.

They created nanoparticles containing luciferase, as well as other, larger particles containing luciferin and coenzyme A, which combine with the luciferase to produce the desired effect.

After immersing the plants in a solution containing these particles and exposing them to high pressures, the scientists were able to produce plants that glowed for nearly four hours.

While the work is in its early stages, the team has lofty ambitions for how it could be applied in the future.

"Our target is to perform one treatment when the plant is a seedling or a mature plant, and have it last for the lifetime of the plant," said Professor Strano.

"Our work very seriously opens up the doorway to streetlamps that are nothing but treated trees, and to indirect lighting around homes."

The results of the research were published in the journal Nano Letters.

Other researchers have attempted to create glowing plants using genetic engineering.

These efforts resulted in limited success, and were restricted to a couple of species that are commonly used in genetic research.

The MIT team’s work, on the other hand, has already been tested on an array of salad leaves, including rocket, kale, spinach and watercress.

"Plants can self-repair, they have their own energy, and they are already adapted to the outdoor environment," said Professor Strano.

"We think this is an idea whose time has come.”


14 December 2017

Researcher Claims New Battery Design Could Double Range, Battery Life

PR blasts about supposed innovation in battery design is a recent story about an MIT grad who founded a battery company is worth paying attention to. Qichao Hu is the CEO of SolidEnergy, a company that’s been working to improve lithium-ion energy density for the past five years.

The problem with lithium-ion is that whether you measure by energy per kilogram or energy per unit weight, Li-ion batteries aren’t very good. The graph below also illustrates why fossil fuels are so difficult to replace. It’s not just because they pack a relatively high amount of energy though they do but because fuels like ethanol, kerosene, gasoline, and diesel are stable at room temperature and pressure (even if you need to keep a lid on them) and don’t require specialized storage or pumping procedures. Lithium-ion batteries, meanwhile, are the tiny dot at the bottom-left side of the graph. Anything that can bump them upwards or outwards is therefore an improvement and Hu thinks he has the answer.
SolidEnergy’s technology works by substituting a thin lithium foil for the larger anode used in most lithium-ion batteries. This solves one problem, by shrinking the battery form factor by ~50 percent, but it creates others. As originally designed, the battery only worked above 80C, which makes it a non-starter for most commercial applications. Pang appears to have solved this problem by adding phosphorous and sulfur to the electrolyte, which forms a thin shield over the lithium metal electrode, protecting it from forming dendrites under use. According to Hu, “Combining the solid coating and new high-efficiency ionic liquid materials was the basis for SolidEnergy on the technology side.”
Will we see this technology come to market any time soon? I don’t know, but if it performs as advertised, we may. Battery capacity is the biggest single problem in many device designs; lithium-ion energy capacity has not nearly kept pace with device hunger. Removing the anode gives such a capacity boost, it could be a net positive even if the first commercial designs are below the predicted energy density.

There’s no word on how hard it is to build these structures, but they don’t appear to rely on expensive metals (another plus), and there’s nothing particularly expensive about sulfur or phosphorous. None of this proves we’ll be packing smartphones with 2x the battery life in a year or two, but there seem to be fewer barriers to commercial introduction for SolidEnergy than we’ve seen in the past.

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