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The Vanguard

The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Sam Worley
January 18, 2021

Researchers found ways to make water desalination cheaper, the internet friendlier, viruses more predictable, and solar cells more efficient — and, uh, spicier. Read on to find out how in this week’s coolest scientific advances.


Big Gains In The Membranes

A student researcher


What is it? A collaboration between scientists at the University of Texas at Austin and Penn State has yielded a big advance in water desalination technology.

Why does it matter? “Fresh water management is becoming a crucial challenge throughout the world,” said Enrique Gomez, a professor of chemical engineering at Penn State and the co-author of a new paper in Science. “Shortages, droughts — with increasing severe weather patterns, it is expected this problem will become even more significant. It’s critically important to have clean water availability, especially in low-resource areas.”

How does it work? Reverse-osmosis desalination — where water is pushed through a membrane to rid it of salt and other chemicals — is a widely used method, but it has its drawbacks: Chief among them, it requires a lot of energy. Researchers learned that one thing holding back more efficient desalination was membranes that are inconsistent on the nanoscale. Nanoscale uniform density, by contrast, “is the key to increasing how much clean water these membranes can create,” according to a news release from UT-Austin. The scientists found that they could increase the efficiency of membranes by up to 40%.


What Can Brown Fat Do For You?

PET scans showing brown fat in two people


What is it? A new study of 52,000 people links the type of tissue known as brown fat to a lower risk of cardiac and metabolic conditions like type 2 diabetes and coronary artery disease.

Why does it matter? White fat stores calories, but brown adipose tissue burns energy — according to The Rockefeller University, whose researchers were involved with the study, “scientists hope it may hold the key to new obesity treatments.” One obstacle to realizing those goals, though, is that brown fat is hard to locate: It’s hidden deep in the body, and shows up only on PET scans, which are expensive and expose patients to radiation. It was only in 2009 that scientists realized that adults carried brown fat, which had previously been associated with newborns and animals.

How does it work? Researchers at Rockefeller teamed up with doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center to obtain medical scans that had already been taken in the course of evaluating patients. “We realized this could be a valuable resource to get us started with looking at brown fat at a population scale,” said Tobias Becher, first author of a new study in Nature Medicine. Crunching those numbers, they found brown fat present in almost 10% of individuals. It also associated with fewer instances of medical conditions like diabetes in those people — for instance, only 4.6% had type 2 diabetes, compared with 9.5% in people who didn’t have any brown fat. The researchers found, too, that brown fat may mitigate negative health impacts of obesity.


Active Listening

Colorful weblike data visualization depicting social network fragmentation and polarization


What is it? MIT launched the Center for Constructive Communication, which will use data analytics to “better understand current social and mass-media ecosystems and design new tools and communication networks capable of bridging social, cultural and political divides.”

Why does it matter? “Social media technologies promised to open up our worlds to new people and perspectives, but too often have ended up limiting and distorting our understanding of others,” said Deb Roy, a professor of media arts and sciences, an expert on machine learning, and the director of the new center.

How does it work? Human communication may be the raison d’etre of the new center, but machines are going to pitch in: The lab aims to use AI and machine learning to, for instance, understand and map the ways that information spreads online, and develop, test and deploy strategies to halt misinformation in areas like public health and racial justice. Learn more about it here.


Going Viral

Virus Getty Images


What is it? Speaking of things computers can do — and speaking of MIT — researchers at the school enlisted computer modeling to develop a new way to predict how viruses will mutate.

Why does it matter? As MIT News explains, one reason it’s difficult to develop vaccines for influenza is that the virus causing the disease can rapidly mutate and render the vaccine ineffective — that’s why you have to go back and get a new flu shot every year. When viruses change to avoid antibodies generated by a vaccine, it’s known as viral escape. And it’s a “big problem,” said MIT professor Bonnie Berger, co-author of a new study in Science: “Viral escape of the surface protein of influenza and the envelope surface protein of HIV are both highly responsible for the fact that we don’t have a universal flu vaccine, nor do we have a vaccine for HIV, both of which cause hundreds of thousands of deaths a year.”

How does it work? Berger and colleagues started with a computer modeling technique more often associated with language: natural language processing, in which models can analyze patterns in language and eventually learn to predict how a sentence might end, for instance, based on the words in it. “The researchers’ key insight,” per MIT News, “was that this kind of model could also be applied to biological information such as genetic sequences.” In research that hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed, they’ve also used it to flag genetic sequences in SARS-CoV-2 variants for further investigation.


Red Hot Solar Power

A gloved hand holding up a tiny solar cell


What is it? Not a game of Mad Libs, but: Scientists in Germany and Sweden found a new way to boost the efficiency of perovskite solar cells, and it involves ... chili peppers.

Why does it matter? “We hope this will eventually yield a fully green perovskite solar cell for a clean energy source," said Qinye Bao, a professor at East China Normal University and a senior author of a new study in the journal Joule.

How does it work? Specifically, the key ingredient is capsaicin — the stuff that makes peppers spicy. According to a news release from Cell Press, the researchers found that “sprinkling capsaicin into the precursor of methylammonium lead triiodide (MAPbl3) perovskite during the manufacturing process led to a greater abundance of electrons (instead of empty placeholders) to conduct current to the semiconductor’s surface. The addition resulted in polycrystalline MAPbI3 solar cells with the most efficient charge transport to date.”