Airplanes are getting lighter (and higher), batteries are getting more sustainable, and aging is getting postponed — or might someday, at least. Physical improvement is at the heart of this week’s best scientific discoveries.
What is it? Yet more news from Farnborough International Airshow: An aerospace engineering team from the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) unveiled Juno, the first-ever aircraft covered with a graphene skin.
Why does it matter? Graphene has been hailed as a “supermaterial” with the potential to revolutionize industry: The strongest man-made nanomaterial out there, it consists of a single layer of carbon atoms linked in a hexagonal arrangement. It’s so strong that just one atom-thick layer could support the weight of an elephant. (Plus, it can be used to make eyewear that’s positively indestructible.) It’s also highly conductive. The plane unveiled at Farnborough, whose wings span 3.5 meters, “demonstrates the great strides we’re making in leading a program to accelerate the uptake of graphene and other nano-materials into industry,” said UCLAN engineering innovation manager Billy Beggs.
How does it work? Graphene-skinned planes fly just like any others — just much more efficiently. The superstrong, superthin covering means planes will be lighter, allowing them to conserve more fuel at takeoff and landing, take on heavier payloads, and in general get better mileage on a tank of jet fuel. Because of the greater conductivity of their skin, lightning strikes are dispersed over the surface of the plane rather than damaging any one area. The UCLAN team built on earlier developments, like a graphene-skinned plane wing; they also were able to use the material internally in batteries and 3D-printed parts.
What is it? A pair of researchers from SUNY Binghamton has developed a new paper-based battery: It’s “lightweight, low-cost and flexible,” according to the university, and biodegrades easily.
Why does it matter? Standard batteries, along with various other electronics, are pretty bad for the environment unless they’re properly recycled. As the team behind the paper battery points out in a new paper in Advanced Sustainable Systems, devices like theirs “may be an excellent way to reduce the dramatic increase in electronic waste.” Paper-based batteries “attract significant attention because of their self-sustainability, cost-effectiveness, eco-friendliness, and potential for energy accessibility in resource-constrained settings,” they continue. “However, the promise of this technology has not translated into practical power applications because of its low performance.” Until now.
How does it work? The battery relies on a combination of paper and engineered polymers “incorporated into a porous, hydrophilic network of intertwined cellulose fibers.” The end result is a device, researchers say, that “exhibits a higher power-to-cost ratio than all previously reported paper-based microbial batteries.” Plus, it biodegrades readily in water — no special recycling facilities required.
What is it? Researchers from the University of Toledo have discovered that blue light, including that emitted from electronic devices, helps speed macular degeneration, an eye disease caused by damage to the central part of the retina.
Why does it matter? Macular degeneration is an incurable disease resulting in vision loss that usually starts affecting people in their 50s and 60s — some 2 million new cases are reported each year. A better understanding of the causes — particularly if those causes are related to the devices people spend more and more of their days looking at — is key to preventing and treating the condition. Ajith Karunarathne, an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UT, said, “By learning more about the mechanisms of blindness in search of a method to intercept toxic reactions caused by the combination of retinal and blue light, we hope to find a way to protect the vision of children growing up in a high-tech world.”
How does it work? Photoreceptor cells in the retina need a continuous supply of retinal, a molecule that helps them sense light and communicate its signals to the brain. Macular degeneration happens when those photoreceptor cells begin to die. Karunarathne’s lab figured out that blue light “causes retinal to trigger reactions that generate poisonous chemical molecules in photoreceptor cells,” according to UT — in other words, it turns the retinal molecules into cell killers. And when photoreceptor cells die, they generally don’t regenerate. The team hopes its findings might lead to the development of treatments like a special eye drop that can slow macular degeneration.
What is it? Scientists at the University of Exeter have created new compounds that reverse the aging of human cells.
Why does it matter? Everyone wants to feel a little younger, right? But more than that, this advance raises the possibility of treatments that can ward off age-related health problems like heart attacks and strokes, cancer, dementia, and diabetes. As one of the researchers involved in the project pointed out, it’s not about simply “extending lifespan” — it’s about helping people remain healthier for longer.
How does it work? Researchers targeted endothelial cells, which line the inside of blood vessels. As we grow older, those cells become senescent — they deteriorate and stop dividing. Co-author Lorna Harries explained, “As human bodies age, they accumulate old (senescent) cells that do not function as well as younger cells. This is not just an effect of ageing — it’s a reason why we age.” According to Exeter, the compounds Harries’ team developed zero in on mitochondria — the cells’ “power stations” — and deliver “minute quantities of the gas hydrogen sulfide” that help senescent cells generate energy they need to survive. Nearly half of the cells the team tested showed signs of rejuvenation. “This may well be the basis for a new generation of anti-degenerative drugs,” Harries said. She and her colleagues published their findings in the journal Aging.
What is it? An unmanned solar-powered aircraft has completed a voyage that its maker, Airbus, describes as “the longest duration flight ever made”: 25 days, 23 hours and 57 minutes. And boy, are its arms tired!
Why does it matter? The name of the craft is Zephyr S, and it belongs to a category of vehicles called HAPS: high-altitude pseudo-satellites. The immediate promise of a vehicle like Zephyr is that it combines services typically associated with satellites — defense, mapping, environmental, humanitarian — with the flexibility of an unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone. The vehicle can be useful in assessing disasters, obtaining high-res images of wildfires or oil spills and monitoring borders, while being cheaper to launch and maintain than a conventional satellite. (The first customer for the craft, according to Digital Trends, is the U.K.’s Ministry of Defense.)
How does it work? By getting close to the sun and staying out of everybody’s way: Zephyr S’s cruise altitude is 70,000 feet, meaning it doesn’t interfere with conventional air traffic. At night, the vehicle is powered by batteries that store solar energy while the sun is out; it has a wingspan of 25 meters and weighs a mere 75 kilograms, but is able to carry a payload of five times that. Airbus’ head of unmanned aerial systems, Jana Rosenmann, said, ”This very successful maiden flight represents a new significant milestone in the Zephyr program, adding a new stratospheric flight endurance record which we hope will be formalized very shortly. We will in the coming days check all engineering data and outputs and start the preparation of additional flights planned for the second half of this year from our new operating site at the Wyndham airfield in Western Australia.”