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The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Scientists have come up with a faster way to charge electric vehicles wirelessly, tiny flying robots can haul up to 40 times their weight, and data might travel with unprecedented security with a little help from quantum physics. It’s giddyup or get out of the way in this week’s coolest scientific discoveries.



Baby, You Can Charge My Car

ORNL’s unique wireless coils and power electronics are co-optimized to safely transfer large amounts of electricity across an air gap at 97 percent efficiency. Caption and image credit: Genevieve Martin/Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Dept. of Energy.

What is it? Researchers at Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory have demonstrated a 120-kilowatt wireless charging system for electric vehicles.

Why does it matter? Given that they don’t need gasoline or diesel to run, electric cars are crucial to a reduced-carbon future. One obstacle to their widespread adoption is that charging them takes longer than filling up a car’s gas tank, and nobody wants to while away the hours at a roadside charging station waiting for their battery to fill. At ORNL, researchers have set a goal to develop technology that delivers 350 to 400 kilowatts and can reduce charging time to 15 minutes or less. (Right now, Digital Trends reports, an electric vehicle like a Nissan Leaf can take up to four hours to charge from empty with a 7KW home charger.)

 How does it work? The system works across a 6-inch air gap, with a coil on one end that takes energy from the grid and converts it to high-frequency alternating current. This current generates a magnetic field that sends the electricity across the gap to another coil, where it’s converted back to direct current and stored for use.



A Mathematical Model Explains Why People Go With The Flow

“No one had taken the computational information from a collective model (numerical solutions of, say, thousands of equations) and used it to exactly determine an individual’s behavior (reduced to one equation),” according to  the U.S. Army Research Laboratory. Image credit: Getty Images.

What is it? Scientists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory have developed a computational model to predict individual behavior, reporting their findings in Frontiers in Physics.

Why does it matter? According to the Army, this hasn’t been done before: “No one had taken the computational information from a collective model (numerical solutions of, say, thousands of equations) and used it to exactly determine an individual’s behavior (reduced to one equation).” The paper’s co-authors, Bruce West and Malgorzata Turalska, had previously worked on an inverse problem: how individual behavior can influence a group. “Turning the question on its head allowed us to pursue the holy grail of social science for the Army,” West explained, “which has been to find a way to predict the sensitivity of individuals to persuasion, propaganda and outright deception.” In real life, this could help explain why people are susceptible to terrorist recruitment, for instance, or explain behavior during Army basic training.

How does it work? Researchers applied a fractional calculus to human behavior that previously had been used mostly for complex physical problems, such as  turbulence or fluid dynamics. They tested the model to see how people engage in decision-making when alone — say, when choosing whom to vote for — versus how they operate in a group, and how group dynamics can trickle down to individual behavior. “Whatever the behavior of the individual before joining the group, the change in behavior is dramatic after joining,” the scientists found. “The strength of the influence of the group on an individual’s behavior is compressed into a single number.”



Not Just Another Brick In the Wall

Scientists in South Africa unveiled the world’s first bio-brick made using human urine. In picture are (from left) the Department of Civil Engineering’s Dr Dyllon Randall and his students, Vukheta Mukhari and Suzanne Lambert. Caption and image credit: University of Cape Town.

What is it? In the first accomplishment of its kind, scientists at the University of Cape Town have created a bio-brick out of human urine.

Why does it matter? As a way to recycle human waste, for one. Plus, the UCT team’s bricks form at room temperature, whereas regular bricks need to be fired in kilns — so this technology has the potential to replace one kind of emission (carbon) by taking advantage of another. And urine luck if you can figure out how to reuse liquid waste specifically: It’s rich in nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. (In fact, it was one guy in the 1600s collecting thousands of gallons of urine — long story — who discovered the element phosphorus.)

How does it work? By making a solid fertilizer out of the urine’s phosphorus, and putting the rest through a process called microbial carbonate precipitation. The engineering whizzes at UCT colonize sand with a bacteria that makes the enzyme urease, which breaks down the urea found in urine while producing calcium carbonate. Following this process, the researchers can shape the sand — with gloves on, probably — into any form, like columns or bricks. Dyllon Randall, who supervised the project, said it’s similar to how seashells are formed.



The Echo Of A Gecko In New Flying Microbots

What is it? Are you tired of the same old routine — going to bed at night and not ever having to worry about tiny flying robots opening the door to your bedroom? Well, take heart: Now tiny flying robots can open doors, as well as lift and pull objects up to 40 times their weight.

Why does it matter? The fact that it’s almost Halloween notwithstanding, they could have plenty of real-world, nonspooky applications, such as lifting pieces of debris in disaster situations, or carrying cameras to evaluate dangerous areas.

How does it work? The FlyCroTug, as the robot is called, was developed by researchers at Stanford University and Switzerland’s Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, and is bio-inspired: It takes its cues from the feet of geckos and insects. FlyCroTugs have nonsticky adhesives on their grippers, as geckos do, that create intermolecular forces between them and the surface they’re gripping. They’re also inspired by the makeup of wasps, including the ratio of flight-related muscle to total mass. The new machine is further described in a new issue of Science Robotics.



The Most Secure Way To Move Data? Quantum Teleportation

What is it? Outside Chicago, researchers from Argonne National Laboratory and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory are testing a concept to create a truly unhackable computer network — using the principles of quantum physics.

Why does it matter? Cybersecurity is a growing concern for businesses, individuals and governments — “malicious cyber activity” cost the U.S. government up to $100 billion in 2016. In hopes of creating networks that are absolutely secure, the Fermi-Argonne collaboration, comprising some 70 and engineers calling themselves the Chicago Quantum Exchange, hopes to harness the tricky laws of quantum mechanics. For instance, when particles are “entangled” in a quantum system, whatever happens to one can happen to the other, even if they’re miles apart. Einstein called this behavior “spooky action at a distance.” The scientists can also take advantage of the fact that measuring a quantum particle necessarily alters it, allowing them to build cyber systems that would know as soon as somebody tries to tamper with them.

How does it work? The team is making use of an old link built in the 1980s to test data transfer. It stretches 30 miles underground between Argonne and Fermi, with all of its fiber optic cables still intact — one challenge for an experiment like this is that entangled particles can’t interact with their environment, so these kinds of ideas have so far been tested only on small scales in the lab. Fermi’s Joe Lykken said, “This is the first time anyone has even planned to carry out a quantum network like this: a permanent, functioning quantum teleportation network at long distances in the United States.”

Top image: When particles are “entangled” in a quantum system, whatever happens to one can happen to the other, even if they’re miles apart. Einstein called this behavior “spooky action at a distance.” Image credit: Getty Images.

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