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The Vanguard

The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Sam Worley
September 23, 2018
In the future envisioned in this week’s coolest things, we’ll be using photosynthesis to harvest unlimited sustainable energy while emotionally sensitive robots fetch supplies from the cupboard and weirdly agile insect-inspired drones buzz around our heads. Plus: A strong magnetic field holds the possibility of fusion power, and astrophysicists dig under the surface of “nuclear pasta.” Astro, we’re not in “The Jetsons” anymore. 

Strong Magnetic Field Holds The Possibility Of Fusion Power

 width= Sparks fly at the moment of activation. Four million amps of current feed the megagauss generator system, hundreds of times the current of a typical lightning bolt. Image credit: Shojiro Takeyama. Caption credit: The University of Tokyo.

What is it? Physicists from the University of Tokyo’s Institute for Solid State Physics have created the strongest-ever magnetic field that’s controllable — an important detail given what happened the last time anyone tried this.

Why does it matter? A magnetic field stronger than 1,000 teslas — that’s a measure of magnetic strength, not a thousand-car pileup — can “open up some interesting possibility,” said physicist Shojiro Takeyama, whose team published its research in Review of Scientific Instruments. “You can observe the motion of electrons outside the material environments they are normally within. So we can study them in a whole new light and explore new kinds of electronic devices. This research could also be useful to those working on fusion power generation” — an important possibility as the world hopes to transition toward more sustainable energy sources. One method of producing fusion power requires an incredibly strong magnetic field on the order of what Takeyama was able to cook up.

How does it work? Using a technique called electromagnetic flux compression and a custom-made machine called a megagauss generator, which is fed by four million amps of current — hundreds of times that of a typical lightning bolt. Thus equipped, Takeyama’s team was able to create a magnetic field of 1,200 teslas; a release from the University of Tokyo notes that while this is not the strongest magnetic field that’s ever come out of a lab, that honor goes to a 2,800-tesla field created by Russian physicists in 2001, which subsequently “blew up their equipment and the uncontrollable field could not be tamed.” The control of a strong field marks an important step toward being able to harness, and ultimately benefit from, such energy.


In Texas Hospitals, The Bot Goes On  

 width= “As a friendly, sensitive, and intuitive robot, Moxi not only alleviates clinical staff of routine tasks but does so in a non-threatening and supportive way that encourages positive relationships between humans and robots.” Image credit: Diligent Robotics.

What is it? Introducing Moxi, a “social-intelligence-endowed” “support task robot” designed by Diligent Robotics and now making its debut in Texas hospitals.

Why does it matter? Burnout in the healthcare industry “feels inevitable,” Diligent Robotics CEO and co-founder Andrea Thomaz wrote in a blog post, with an average turnover rate of 20 percent for registered nurses in their first year in the field. And clinical staff spend about a third of their time on “non-care activities like gathering medical supplies or restocking supply rooms” — time they could otherwise spend attending to patients. The hope is that by having Moxi focusing on the more routine stuff, the bot will make life a little easier for harried hospital staff. It’ll help, too, by greeting folks in the hallway and learning to be responsive to staff needs and movements. As Thomas wrote, “As a friendly, sensitive, and intuitive robot, Moxi not only alleviates clinical staff of routine tasks but does so in a non-threatening and supportive way that encourages positive relationships between humans and robots.”

How does it work? Moxi comes equipped with a number of bells and whistles — not just a single arm to retrieve supplies, but a head and face that can move its LED eyes toward a nurse who is addressing it; the robot’s eyes can turn into heart or rainbow emoji if the situation calls for it, and the bot says, “Hello there” to people passing in the hall. In an interview with VentureBeat, Thomaz said, “Part of what we’re learning in our pilot deployments over the next several months is how exactly a support task robot like Moxi would best fit into an existing workflow, because every hospital you go to, nurses have a particular way that they do things.”


Physicists Dig Into The Ingredients Of Nuclear Pasta 

 width= Top and above: Neutron stars are formed when regular stars die, exploding into supernovae and collapsing into a bundle of unbelievably dense neutrons — a neutron star the size of Los Angeles can weigh twice as much as the sun. Image credit: Getty Images.

What is it? The material beneath the surface of a neutron star is called nuclear pasta, but recent findings have reaffirmed that it is not edible: At 10 billion times stronger than steel, nuclear pasta might actually be the strongest stuff in the universe.

Why does it matter? Neutron stars are formed when regular stars die, exploding into supernovae and collapsing into a bundle of unbelievably dense neutrons — a neutron star the size of Los Angeles can weigh twice as much as the sun. The forces at work during this process can lead to some pretty funky shapes, which astrophysicists have sometimes likened to pasta: gnocchi, spaghetti, et al. Neutron stars’ density is well-known, but a trio of researchers from the U.S. wanted to investigate further and have just published their findings in Physical Review Letters. The work could help illuminate phenomena like the gravitational waves observed last year when astrophysicists saw two neutron stars colliding. Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University in Montreal, said, "A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models. With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"

How does it work? The researchers arrived at their conclusions after conducting an impressive amount of computer simulation: 2 million hours of processor time, according to a McGill release, “or the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU.”


Robo-Fly Illuminates Both Robots And Fruit Flies

 width= DelFly Nimble in stationary (hovering) flight. Image and caption credit: Henri Werij, TU Delft.

What is it? At Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, researchers designed an “untethered, flapping-wing robot with impressive agility that can mimic fruit fly maneuvers” — basically a drone that flies convincingly like an insect.

Why does it matter? Scientists often look to the natural world for inspiration, and here they were impressed by the fruit fly’s seemingly effortless ability to avoid death by, say, swatting: Those are some enviable evasive maneuvers. Guido de Croon, leader of the lab that created the tiny robot (and published its results in Science), said, “Insect-inspired drones have a high potential for novel applications, as they are light-weight, safe around humans and are able to fly more efficiently than more traditional drone designs, especially at smaller scales.” Previous models have been insufficiently agile or prohibitively expensive; this one is much nimbler — in fact it’s called the DelFly Nimble — and can be built with off-the-shelf materials. 

How does it work? By minutely examining insects’ flight maneuvers, de Croon’s team was able to apply what they’d learned to their drone version: The robot’s wings, flapping 17 times per second, allow it to hover the way a fly would, and change direction on a dime to avoid danger. But replicating insect motion artificially also works the other way. It gives scientists greater insight into how flies do what they do, and the maneuvers observed in the robo-fly help biologists understand, for instance, “how fruit flies control the turn angle to maximize their escape performance.”


An Idea For Sustainable Energy Takes Root

What is it? University of Cambridge researchers, collaborating with colleagues at Germany’s Ruhr University Bochum, have figured out how to “rewire” the process of photosynthesis — perhaps paving the way toward “a green and unlimited source of renewable energy,” according to a press release from Cambridge.

Why does it matter? Photosynthesis is the process by which plants convert the sun’s rays into energy to feed on. They’re largely focused on extracting nutritive molecules like glucose, letting off oxygen as a byproduct — but what if that energy could be converted into something more broadly sustainable and useful, such as hydrogen? That’s what the team based out of Cambridge was looking at, as part of a burgeoning field of science called semi-artificial photosynthesis.

 How does it work? Via a two-step process: First the team used synthetic dyes to increase light absorption, then wired their light-absorbing enzymes up to a photoelectrochemical device that diverted that absorbed energy into the production of hydrogen, rather than sugars. “We are both matching up synthetic and biological components that complement each other very nicely, and combining them at a device level that has the potential to revolutionize the production of renewable fuels and sustainable chemicals in the long term,” said energy and sustainability professor Erwin Reisner, who oversaw the work. “Though what we have done is a proof-of-concept demonstration only at this stage, and though it is still a very fragile system and would not be easily scalable, we do now have a very exciting platform to play with.” The full paper was published earlier this month in Nature Energy.