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The Vanguard

The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Amanda Schupak
February 22, 2022

Flexible sensors, rocket fuel from drugstore bleach and a generator that jolts when shaken. This week’s coolest things put power in the palm of your hand.


Fire Drill

Costa Rica Getty
Geothermal generation recently provided more than 13 percent of the electricity in Costa Rica in a single month. Top and above images credit: Getty Images.


What is it? Quaise Energy is developing a drilling technology to tap abundant, clean, renewable geothermal energy anywhere on earth.

Why does it matter? Harnessing the heat of the planet offers a clean, inexhaustible way to power homes and businesses. Current technologies largely limit geothermal power to easily reachable areas. Digging deeper would create opportunities to use geothermal most anywhere and, unlike wind and solar, doesn’t require huge swaths of land, said Arunas Chesonis, managing partner of Safar Partners, which led a $40 million round of funding.

How does it work? Mechanical drill bits wear down as they dig, limiting the depths they can reach. Quaise plans to retrofit conventional oil-drilling rigs with high-power millimeter-wave technology, which uses high-energy beams to blast through rock as far as 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) into the earth’s crust. There the company can access a constant, steady global reservoir of 500-degree thermal energy. At this temperature, geothermal steam could power a power plant previously fired by fossil fuels — and that’s what the company aims to do in 2028.


Resisting Antibiotic Resistance

MIT Resistance Mechanism
MIT chemists have discovered how the structure of the EmrE transporter changes as a compound moves through it. At left is the transporter structure at high pH. As the pH drops (right), the helices begin to tilt so that the channel is more open toward the outside of the cell, guiding the compound out. Image credit: MIT.

What is it? MIT chemists figured out the structure of a protein in bacterial cells that may contribute to antibiotic resistance.

Why does it matter? More than 70% of the bacteria that infect and often kill hospitalized patients are resistant to at least one drug used to treat them. Deeper understanding of these proteins could make it possible to design drugs capable of reversing bacterial resistance to existing antibiotics.

How does it work? It is believed that bacteria such as E. coli use proteins in their cell membranes to pump out toxic chemicals, enabling them to develop resistance to multiple antibiotic drugs. Building on previous research, the MIT team used nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy to visualize how one such protein channel changes shape to move compounds (such as herbicides and antimicrobial drugs) from inside the cell to the outside. With that knowledge, it may be possible to engineer a way to override the expulsion and force molecules to stay in. “Knowing the structure of the drug-binding pocket of this protein, one might try to design competitors to these substrates,” said Mei Hong, a professor of chemistry and senior author of a new study in Nature Communications.


Second Skin

self-healing materials
This durable, self-healing hydrogel could be used for next-gen prosthetics or soft robots. Image credit: University of Cambridge.

What is it? Researchers at the University of Cambridge have come up with a biodegradable, 3D-printable, self-healing, flexible material that could be used for next-gen prosthetics or soft robots.

Why does it matter? Stretchy, malleable materials able to sense and respond to pressure could revolutionize wearable technologies, robotics and artificial skin. But they tend to be fragile and expensive. The durable new hydrogel, reported in NPG Asia Materials, is made of cheap components and can repair damage in normal environmental conditions.

How does it work? The researchers started with a cheap, stretchy, water-filled gelatin and embedded it with pressure and temperature sensors that use sodium chloride (salt) instead of carbon ink. Water-soluble, the salt spread its conduction capabilities throughout the material. That enabled sensing capability even when the hydrogel was stretched to three times its original length. “It’s a really good sensor considering how cheap and easy it is to make,” said Thomas George-Thuruthel, a co-author on the study. “We could make a whole robot out of gelatine and print the sensors wherever we need them.”


Drugstore Rocket Fuel

3D printing for rocket fuel
Hydrogen peroxide will be pushed through the catalyst structure, testing its efficiency to turn liquid hydrogen peroxide into a propellant. Image credit: University of Canterbury.

What is it? An engineering student in England is using 3D printing to turn hydrogen peroxide into rocket fuel.

Why does it matter? With the right catalyst to create a powerful enough thrust, hydrogen peroxide can be used as a nontoxic propellant for smaller rockets. “Only a few companies are seriously considering hydrogen peroxide,” said Simon Reid, a PhD candidate at Canterbury University, who is leading the research. The compound, he said, could be a safe alternative to hydrazine, a highly flammable, likely cancer-causing catalyst.

How does it work? The key to Reid’s innovation was to create a honeycomb-like surface to host chemical catalysts that cannot be fabricated with traditional techniques. Instead he used 3D printing to fashion the structure, which is then coated with a catalyst. When liquid hydrogen peroxide is passed through, it reacts with the catalyst to create hot gas, which produces thrust. The gyroid-shaped structure, a complex surface with no straight lines, improves upon older catalyst beds by maximizing thrust and reducing the loss of catalyst. It’s also lighter — good news for space-plane makers like Dawn Aerospace, Reid’s collaborators in Britain.


Glow Stick

triboelectric nanogenerator
Schematic of the mobile stick-type water-based triboelectric nanogenerator. Image credit: Science and Technology of Advanced Materials.

What is it? Researchers in South Korea and the U.S. designed a portable water-filled wand that produces electricity when you shake it.

Why does it matter? The simple device could be used as a self-powered safety light in emergencies, or to create on-the-go charging for smartphones and other daily tech needs.

How does it work? The device consists of a negatively charged polymer cylinder with an electrode at each end and two wrapped around its middle. In tests, the tubes were either 5 or 10 inches long, and held 10 milliliters of water. When the water is shaken, it acquires a positive charge (due to a property of water called self-ionization), which it transfers to the electrodes, generating electrical energy. “Because of its simple mechanism and design, this small and lightweight device could be used in everyday life,” said Sangmin Lee, a professor at Chung-ang University in the Republic of Korea and an author of a new study in Science and Technology of Advanced Materials. “Electrical power can be produced simply by pouring water into the generator then giving it a shake.”