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The Vanguard

The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Rebecca M Oliver
May 10, 2021

Muscles for mini robots inspired by DNA, ultra-white paint that “rejects” heat from rooftops and night-vision goggles that put “The Predator” in its place. This week’s coolest things are winning the game of hide-and-seek.

 

Cold Comfort

 

Xiulin Ruan

 

What is it? Purdue University engineers have created the world’s whitest paint, with light-reflecting capabilities that can cool a building from the outside.

Why does it matter? Typical commercial white paint, like other colors, warms up in the sun. Paints designed to reflect heat bounce only 80% to 90% of sunlight and can’t cool a surface below the ambient temperature. This new paint formula reflects 98.1% of sunlight, sending infrared heat away from the painted surface. “If you were to use this paint to cover a roof area of about 1,000 square feet, we estimate that you could get a cooling power of 10 kilowatts,” said Xiulin Ruan, a Purdue professor of mechanical engineering. “That’s more powerful than the central air conditioners used by most houses.” A paper by the research team was published in ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces.

How does it work? The paint gets its extreme whiteness from barium sulfate, a chemical compound used commercially to make photo paper whiter than other standard papers. The barium sulfate particles in the paint vary in size, allowing them to scatter a broad spectrum of sunlight. The paint was shown to drop the temperature of painted surfaces by 19 degrees Fahrenheit at night and by 8 degrees during peak-sun daytime hours.

 

A Shot In The Dark

 

night vision goggles

 

What is it? The U.S. Army’s new Enhanced Night Vision Goggle-Binocular (ENVG-B) vastly improves a soldier’s ability to discern a target in all weather and lighting conditions.

Why does it matter? “The ENVG-B allows the individual soldier to see, understand, and act first during limited visibility conditions,” the Army says. Higher-resolution displays and better contrast improve separation of a target from the background, and an upgraded thermal imager works better in “degraded visual environments” like smoke, dust, pitch blackness and underground.

How does it work? Previous night-vision technologies worked by converting light particles called photons into electrons, then amplifying them as they passed through a vacuum tube and were displayed on a screen coated in green phosphor. Green was thought to be easiest on the eyes for periods of prolonged use, Gizmodo explains, but the images were low-contrast and often noisy. The ENVG-B uses white phosphor instead, boosting contrast and clarity. Additionally, augmented-reality capabilities help enhance and outline objects, and wireless connection to a weapon’s electronic scope allows a soldier to lock on to a target remotely, reducing dangerous exposure to enemies. The ENVG-B weighs just under two pounds and has a dual-tubed binocular system that Gizmodo says “allows soldiers to see in 3D at night.”

 

Power On The Rocks

 

gridscale illustration

 

What is it? Denmark’s new GridScale demonstration plant has created a way to store electrical energy produced by wind and solar sources as heat in stones. It’s capable of storing 10 megawatt-hours.

Why does it matter? Because renewable power sources like solar and wind vary at Mother Nature’s will, finding a way to store renewable energy off-grid has been an important goal. Storing energy in stones could be a cheap and efficient alternative to more conventional batteries. The GridScale energy storage system has been able to supply electricity for longer periods — “up to about a week,” according to Technology.org.

How does it work? The system uses a series of insulated steel tanks filled with volcanic basalt rock crushed to pea-sized gravel. When a surplus of wind or solar electricity reaches the facility, a system of compressors and turbines pumps heat from tanks filled with cool basalt to tanks filled with hot basalt. The cold-stone tanks get drastically colder, while the hot-stone storage heats up to around 600 degrees Celsius. When grid demand rises, the process reverses and generates electricity.

 

Mini Robot, Major Flex

 

Spinks and Foroughi robotic muscle

 

What is it? Scientists at Australia’s University of Wollongong have developed artificial muscles for miniature robots, inspired by DNA’s “supercoil” structure.

Why does it matter? As robotic devices get smaller and smaller, they face a loss of performance. “Electric motors are simply too complicated to downsize, so we look to artificial muscles to provide compact mechanical actuation,” said Geoffrey Spinks, a UOW professor and lead author of a study that produced a new type of artificial muscle, published in the journal Science Robotics. Durable mechanical muscles with fast response and high mechanical output could be valuable for advanced prosthetics, wearable devices, noninvasive surgery and industrial applications.

How does it work? “Our work describes a new type of artificial muscle that mimics the way that DNA molecules collapse when packing into the cell nucleus,” Spinks said in a university news release. By swelling twisted composite fibers, researchers were able to “unwind” the artificial muscle. Then, blocking the fiber ends from rotating caused them to “supercoil,” mimicking the way DNA strands pack into a cell nucleus, contracting by more than 1,000 times. “We have learned that by forming fibre composites where the fibre is wound into a helix provides a convenient way to store and release mechanical energy,” said study co-author Dr. Sina Naficy. “These systems offer exciting prospects for future developments.”

 

Mob Of Mutants

 

retron diagram harvard

 

What is it? Harvard scientists have created a new gene-editing tool that generates millions of mutations at once, “barcoding” each affected cell so the whole pool can be analyzed as a batch.

Why does it matter? The approach could be an alternative to gene editing with CRISPR-Cas9. The advancement, called Retron Library Recombineering (RLR), eliminates the need for each mutant to be isolated and analyzed separately, a trudging task that has slowed down genetic research. It’s also safer, as Max Schubert, co-first author of a paper on the findings, published in PNAS, explains: “RLR is a simpler, more flexible gene editing tool that can be used for highly multiplexed experiments, which eliminates the toxicity often observed with CRISPR and improves researchers’ ability to explore mutations at the genome level.”

How does it work? While the gold-standard CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing system cuts and replaces specific segments of whole DNA, RLR instead uses retrons, segments of bacterial DNA that can separate into single strands (ssDNA). Researchers introduced one strand of mutant DNA and a single-stranded annealing protein (SSAP) into a replicating cell, causing the protein to incorporate the mutation in daughter cells. The retrons’ unique genetic sequences serve as a research shortcut, identifying themselves so scientists don’t have to and allowing genetic engineers to quickly build a much larger DNA library.

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