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5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Norwegian engineers are planning to build the world’s first shipping tunnel to ease passage through treacherous seas, their Australian colleagues came up with an energy storage design inspired by fern leaves that is 30 times more capable than existing technologies, and scientists in China built a soft robot from silicone muscle that can swim with the fish. Dive right in. Engineering is awesome!

 

 

Heirs To Thor’s Hammer

Top and above: The shipping tunnel will enable ships to avoid “the most exposed, most dangerous area along the coast of Norway.” Images credit: Kystverket

Norway is building the world’s first ship tunnel through the Stadhavet peninsula about 100 miles north of Bergen. The roughly mile-long tunnel (1,700 meters) will cut through a mountain of rock and will enable ships to avoid “the most exposed, most dangerous area along the coast of Norway,” according to the Norwegian Coastal Administration. The tunnel will be 26.5 meters wide and 49 meters tall. The authority plans to excavate “approximately 8 million tons of blasted rock.” Construction could begin in 2019, and the tunnel could open in 2023.

 

Fern-Found Inspiration Could Supercharge Energy Storage

“Experiments have shown our prototype can radically increase their storage capacity – 30 times more than current capacity limits,” says RMIT’s Gu. Image credit: Getty Images.

Scientists at Australia’s Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) have found inspiration in fern leaves and designed a new type of electrode that “could boost the capacity of existing integrable storage technologies by 3,000 per cent.” According to the university, “the graphene-based prototype also opens a new path to the development of flexible thin film all-in-one solar capture and storage, bringing us one step closer to self-powering smart phones, laptops, cars and buildings.” The team studied the leaves of the western swordfern because they are “densely crammed with veins, making them extremely efficient for storing energy and transporting water around the plant,” said Min Gu, leader of the Laboratory of Artificial Intelligence Nanophotonics at RMIT. “Our electrode is based on these fractal shapes – which are self-replicating, like the mini structures within snowflakes – and we’ve used this naturally-efficient design to improve solar energy storage at a nano level.” Gu said that “the immediate application is combining this electrode with supercapacitors, as our experiments have shown our prototype can radically increase their storage capacity – 30 times more than current capacity limits.” The results were published in the journal Scientific Reports.

 

This Graphene Membrane Is Worth Its Salt

“The pore size in the membrane can be precisely controlled which can sieve common salts out of salty water and make it safe to drink,” the university said in a news release. Image credit: University of Machester

Graphene also has made news in England. Researchers at the University of Manchester have used a graphene membrane to build a desalination sieve that can turn seawater into drinking water. Graphene is a light, strong and conductive marvel material made from carbon atoms that often looks like chicken wire. Filters have long been among its many eclectic applications, but creating them has proved difficult because graphene membranes tend to swell in water. The Manchester team discovered a way to stabilize them and avoid swelling. “The pore size in the membrane can be precisely controlled which can sieve common salts out of salty water and make it safe to drink,” the university said in a news release. “When the common salts are dissolved in water, they always form a ‘shell’ of water molecules around the salts molecules. This allows the tiny capillaries of the graphene-oxide membranes to block the salt from flowing along with the water. Water molecules are able to pass through the membrane barrier and flow anomalously fast which is ideal for application of these membranes for desalination.” The university said the technology had “the potential to revolutionize water filtration across the world, in particular in countries which cannot afford large scale desalination plants.” The research was published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

 

Dr. Data

“We worked on some prototype algorithms and found that, given a few data points, they were able to make predictions that were pretty accurate,” says Stanford’s Bharath Ramsundar. Image credit: Getty Images.

Stanford University chemistry professor Vijay Pande and his students are using artificial intelligence to improve new drug development. The team is focusing of gathering valuable information from small amounts data available early in drug discovery. “We’re trying to use machine learning, especially deep learning, for the early stage of drug design,” Pande told Stanford News. “The issue is, once you have thousands of examples in drug design, you probably already have a successful drug.” The researchers represent each molecule as connections between atoms that contain information about their properties. Next, they deploy an algorithm trained to make predictions about toxicity and side effects. “We worked on some prototype algorithms and found that, given a few data points, they were able to make predictions that were pretty accurate,” according to Bharath Ramsundar, a graduate student in Pande’s lab and co-author of the study. “Right now, people make this kind of choice by hunch,” he said. “This might be a nice compliment to that: an experimentalist’s helper.”

 

This Robot Can Swim With The Fishes

(A) Tilted view of the fish showing the onboard system for power and remote control. (B) Live snapshots of the swimming of the robotic fish under remote control (voltage of 8 kV and 5 Hz). Image credit: Department of Engineering Mechanics, Zhejiang University, Hangzhou.

Scientists at Zhenjiang University in Hangzhou, China, have developed a 9.3-centimeter-long, remotely controlled manta ray-like soft robot that can operate for three hours on a single charge. Using muscle-like silicone membranes, “the fish is driven solely by a soft electroactive structure made of dielectric elastomer and ionically conductive get,” the team wrote in the journal Science Advances. “The electronic fish can swim at a speed of 6.4 centimeters per second…which is much faster than previously reported [for] untethered soft robotic fish driven by soft responsive material.” Applications could include “lifelike bots that can explore the ocean, monitor water quality, and discover new creatures,” according to the journal Science.

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