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The Vanguard

The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Solar panels that transform rain into energy, a 3D-printed home for $4,000, and medical bandages from sea bass scales. These are no fish tales. This is science!


It Loves A Rainy Night

Top and above: New technology that harnesses the mechanical energy of falling raindrops might make give renewable-energy fans something to smile about. Images credit: Shutterstock.

What is it? Researchers at Soochow University in China have developed a lightweight solar panel that generates electricity from rain.

Why does it matter? Solar power is an abundant and renewable source of energy that’s gaining in popularity worldwide, but it’s got a downside: Eventually the sun sets or retreats behind the clouds. While some clever souls are finding ways to store solar energy for later use, Baoquan Sun and his team are approaching the conundrum from a different angle: harnessing the mechanical energy of falling raindrops. They’re not the first scientists to take a crack at this — riboelectric nanogenerators (Tengs) have been in the mix for a while — but they say their invention’s simplicity and efficiency set it apart, as does its weight. “In future, we are exploring integrating these into mobile and flexible devices, such as electronic clothes,” Sun told The Guardian.

How does it work? The team outfitted the top of a photovoltaic cell with two transparent polymer layers. As a raindrop falls on the device and rolls off, it creates an electrostatic charge. “Our device can always generate electricity in any daytime weather,” Sun said. “In addition, this device even provides electricity at night if there is rain.” More details appear in the team’s paper, published in ACS Nano.

But Is It Scalable?

If research progresses, fish scales may start bypassing the refuse bin and heading to the lab, instead. Image credit: GE Healthcare.

What is it? A team at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore have discovered wound-healing properties in a common material that may be stinking up your garbage can this very moment: fish scales.

Why does it matter? Scientists use collagen in wound dressings because of its ability to aid tissue repair and regeneration. However, this collagen usually comes from the skins of animals such as cows, pigs and sheep, sources that can be problematic for religious and cultural reasons and because of their potential to transmit animal-to-human diseases. Fish scales offer a more neutral — and potentially less expensive — alternative.

How does it work? The researchers extracted collagen from sea bass, snakehead and tilapia scales they’d obtained from a local fish farm. Operating under the premise that this collagen would be a good drug-delivery vehicle, they modified their samples to make them water-soluble. Then they applied the collagen to mouse skin, where they discovered it promoted blood and lymphatic vessel formation, both needed for wound healing. “We descale and sell over 200 fish a day to wholesalers, restaurants and walk-in customers,” said fish farm owner Teo Khai Seng in a news release. “If these discarded fish scales can lead to successful biomedical applications in future, it would be a good use of these waste materials.”


3D-Printed Housing For The Homeless

What is it? An Austin, Texas-based robotics construction company created a ginormous 3D printer and used it to build what it’s calling the world’s first up-to-code 3D-printed house in less than 24 hours. The company, Icon, partnered with California nonprofit New Story to unveil a model home at this year’s South by Southwest festival in Austin. They say they can produce similar houses for $4,000.

Why does it matter? Affordable housing is a concern for communities across the globe. New Story envisions building these homes for families who lack inadequate housing — 1.2 billion people, according to the World Resources Institute — beginning in El Salvador.

How does it work? The team’s Vulcan 3D printer, which is made of lightweight aluminum and has a built-in generator, can print houses up to 800 square feet. It pumps out 1-inch-thick cables of concrete to form the home’s walls. Once the basic structure is in place, workers add windows, plumbing and wiring and top it all off with a roof — work that Icon eventually hopes to hand off to robots and drones.


Bionic Cells

Scientists have fused biological and nonbiological cells to create “mini chemical factories,” shown schematically here, that can perform the functions of natural cells and also produce new chemicals. Image credit: Imperial College London.

What is it? Scientists at the Imperial College London have found a way to encapsulate living cells within hardy, artificial casings. These “mini chemical factories” can perform the functions of natural cells in harsh environments, and the biological and nonbiological components can work in harmony to produce new chemicals, including drugs.

Why does it matter? “Biological cells can perform extremely complex functions, but can be difficult to control,” said lead researcher Professor Oscar Ces in a news release. “Artificial cells can be programmed more easily but we cannot yet build in much complexity. Our new system bridges the gap between these two approaches by fusing whole biological cells with artificial ones, so that the machinery of both works in concert to produce what we need.” Possible uses for this technology include photosynthetic cellular “batteries,” biological sensors, drug delivery systems and in situ drug synthesis.

How does it work? The researchers piped water and mineral oil through tiny microchannels to coax into shape droplets containing biological cells and enzymes. After applying an artificial protective coating, they test-drove their bionic creations. In what the university called a proof-of-concept experiment, the cell systems “produced a fluorescent chemical that allowed the researchers to confirm all was working as expected.” The fluorescent chemicals withstood exposure to a toxic copper solution in the majority of the artificial cells, an indication that the biological cells inside were still alive and functioning.


Planting An Idea

What is it? Researchers in Japan have 3D printed a new kind of pipette — a laboratory tool that scientists use to meter out precise measurements of liquids — based on the reproductive structures of the umbrella liverwort, a low-growing plant common throughout the world.

Why does it matter? In a paper published March 14 in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, the team touts the pipette’s simplicity and scalability and contends that it holds potential “as a functional part is soft robotics.” Study coauthor Hirofumi Wada also suggests school labs could use it as a low-cost alternative to traditional pipettes.

How does it work? The 3D-printed plastic device captures a droplet and hangs onto it via surface tension until its user tips it to release its cargo. The team calibrated it to pick up droplets of varying sizes by adding more plastic fronds and changing their length and shape.


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