Skip to main content
The Vanguard

The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Sam Worley
October 21, 2018
In this week’s great leaps into the future, the world’s fastest camera captures light on the move, ultrasound levitation gets easier, fibers store energy in the body of a vehicle, and an ultralightweight glove promises to make gaming even better (and maybe improve surgery, too). Plus: probiotics beyond your morning yogurt.


Electric Cars That Are Just One Big Battery

 width= ​"A car body would then be not simply a load-bearing element, but also act as a battery," says ​Leif Asp of Sweden’s Chalmers University of Technology. Illustration: Yen Strandqvist.

What is it? Using carbon fiber, scientists at Sweden’s Chalmers University of Technology have found a way to store electricity in the body of a vehicle.

Why does it matter? “Structural batteries” hold the promise of vehicle bodies that don’t serve just a structural purpose, for instance, but can be used as reservoirs for the energy powering the vehicle. This could lead to reduction in overall weight and greater electrification, and open the door to possibilities such as electric aircraft. Leif Asp, a Chalmers professor of material and computational mechanics, said, “A car body would then be not simply a load-bearing element, but also act as a battery. It will also be possible to use the carbon fiber for other purposes such as harvesting kinetic energy, for sensors or for conductors of both energy and data. If all these functions were part of a car or aircraft body, this could reduce the weight by up to 50 percent.”

How does it work? Researchers looked into the microstructures of a number of commercially available carbon fibers, some with good electrochemical properties but not enough stiffness to be used in the body of a vehicle, and some firmer options but with less electrochemical usefulness. But they found a tradeoff: “A slight reduction in stiffness is not a problem for many applications such as cars,” Asp said. Further work for aviation, he added, could look at increasing the thickness of the carbon fiber composites — thereby compensating for their reduced electrochemical properties and increasing energy-storage capacity.



Probiotics And Antibiotics Give Resistant Bacteria A One-Two Punch

 width= Above: Colored scanning electron micrograph (SEM) of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacteria (round). MRSA is a Gram-positive, round (coccus) bacterium that is resistant to many commonly prescribed antibiotics. It is carried by about a third of the population without causing any symptoms. However, in vulnerable people, such as those that have recently had surgery, it can cause severe illness due to its high resistance to antibiotics. It can result in wound infections, pneumonia and blood poisoning. Caption and top and above images credit: Getty Images.

What is it? Scientists from MIT have found a way to combine antibiotics and probiotics to wipe out a couple of strains of drug-resistant bacteria — including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA.

Why does it matter? Antibiotics resistance is a dire problem, particularly in hospital settings. Anything that can be marshaled into the war against MRSA is to the good. The researchers envision that their technology could lead to new bandages and other dressings that contain both antibiotics and probiotics, helping protect wounds and open sores from becoming infected.

How does it work? Probiotics perform a number of important functions in the body, and scientists have known they can be used to treat wounds — where, for instance, they can outcompete harmful bacteria and secrete peptides to fend off further infection. But they tend to get wiped out themselves if antibiotics are also applied to the wound. To deliver their one-two punch of pro- and antibiotics, the MIT researchers encapsulated probiotics in a shell of a biocompatible material called alginate, shielding them from the antibiotics and allowing their delivery to where they’re needed — against MRSA and another resistant bacteria they tested, called Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Ana Jaklenec, a senior author of the study (published in Advanced Materials), said, “It was quite a drastic effect. It completely eradicated the bacteria.”



 All You Need Is Glove

What is it? A new ultralight glove — weighing less than 8 grams per finger — allows users to touch, feel and manipulate virtual objects, just like Tom Cruise in Minority Report.

Why does it matter? Well, there’s video-gaming: As one of the glove’s makers said, “Gamers are currently the biggest market” for such a product. But it also could be used in medical schools, for instance, to train surgeons.

How does it work? The haptic glove, called DextrES, was developed as a collaboration between the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, Switzerland, and ETH Zurich. It’s made of nylon, with elastic metal stripes stretching over the fingers. If a user comes into contact with a virtual object, EPFL explains in a press release, “the controller applies a voltage difference between the metal strips causing them to stick together via electrostatic attraction — this produces a braking force that blocks the finger’s or thumb’s movement. Once the voltage is removed, the metal strips glide smoothly and the user can once again move his fingers freely.” The glove was presented this week at the ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology, or UIST, in Berlin.



New Invention Bends Sound Waves, Minds

What is it? SoundBender, developed by researchers at the University of Sussex: It’s a technology that emits sound waves that are able to bend themselves around an obstacle, and also levitate an object.

Why does it matter? Sending out self-bending sound waves, the researchers have unlocked a slew of potential applications. Self-bending beams can protect certain buildings from noise, or even shield areas from earthquakes, or their uses can be somewhat more prosaic, explains Sriram Subramanian, a Sussex professor of informatics who worked on this project: “We are also pursuing how to make the device broadband so it can work for all frequencies of sound. This would allow, for instance, sending the music of a radio behind a corner or creating zones of silence in the middle of a dance floor.” And then there’s the levitation bit, which is also pretty cool. The researchers presented their invention at the UIST conference in Berlin.

How does it work? Super easy. While previous technology concerning ultrasound levitation ran into obstacles in the form of ... literal obstacles, in the path of the sound waves, the Sussex researchers were able to get around this by developing “a hybrid system that combines the versatility of phased arrays of transducers (PATs) with the precision of acoustic metamaterials while helping to eliminate the restrictions on sound field resolution and variability each of the previous approaches applied.” Got that? Now you can go make your own.


World’s Fastest Camera Captures Light On The Move 

 width= The trillion-frame-per-second compressed ultrafast photography system. Image and caption credit: INRS

What is it? “The speed of light” is shorthand for movement that’s fast beyond comprehension — but what if you could take an image of light in time as it travels and study it? That’s the promise of the newly developed world’s fastest camera, able to capture 10 trillion frames per second.

Why does it matter? The technology was developed by researchers at Caltech and at Quebec’s Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique, which puts it this way: “This new camera literally makes it possible to freeze time to see phenomena — and even light — in extremely slow motion.” In recent years scientists have been trying to one-up one another in terms of how fast their cameras can work: MIT made one that captured 1 trillion frames per second, followed by Lund University’s, which captured 5 trillion, and now, INRS and Caltech have unveiled a 10-trillion-per-second model. They’re hoping to better understand how light and matter interact and, in the words of the paper describing the newest camera, in Light: Science and Applications, “exploring the physics of the space-time duality.”

How does it work? As you can imagine, capturing phenomena as fleeting as these isn’t easy — how do you visualize something that happens in one femtosecond, or a quadrillionth of a second? Ultrashort-laser technology can gather images to a degree, but their pulses have limitations against more fragile materials. The INRS and Caltech researchers combined previous technology called compressed ultrafast technology, or CUP, with a static camera and a data-collection method used in tomography, enabling them to take a snapshot of light in real time. And they don’t expect the tech to stop there. Lead author Jinyang Liang said, “It's an achievement in itself, but we already see possibilities for increasing the speed to up to one quadrillion frames per second!” Blink and you’ll miss it.