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The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Scientists made a sheet of gold that’s a million times thinner than a fingernail and could be a boon to electronics and medicine, the U.S. got its first 100% solar-powered airport, and researchers in Maryland created an elaborate questionnaire designed to stump even the most sophisticated artificial intelligence. The future is bright in this week’s coolest scientific advances, even if the bots have some catching up to do.


Tiny Treasure

The two-atom-thick sheet of gold has a highly organized lattice structure, and was dubbed “gold nanoseaweed” by researchers because it appears green in water. Image credit: University of Leeds. Top image credit: Shutterstock.

What is it? At England’s University of Leeds, researchers created a form of gold that’s a million times thinner than a human fingernail. Just two atoms thick, it’s “the thinnest unsupported gold ever created” and, like the supermaterial graphene, is considered a two-dimensional material since it’s just a couple of atom layers sitting one atop the other.

Why does it matter? Gold nanoparticles already have a wide array of uses in electronics, medical devices and other fields; the new ultrathin material can serve similar purposes, but 10 times more efficiently, giving manufacturers more bang for their buck with an expensive precious metal. Leeds professor Stephen Evans, who oversaw the research, said, “Gold is a highly effective catalyst. Because the nanosheets are so thin, just about every gold atom plays a part in the catalysis. It means the process is highly efficient.” The material could also be used in medical diagnosis, water purification and — because the ultrathin sheets are flexible — electronics applications like bendable screens and electronic inks.

How does it work? The researchers took chloroauric acid, which contains gold, and applied a “confinement agent,” a chemical that encourages the formation of the gold into two-atom sheets. The sheets turn out in the shape of fronds, and appear green in water, so the researchers dubbed their creation “gold nanoseaweed.” The results are described further in Advanced Science.


Halting Cancer In Its Tracks

The technique worked particularly well on metastatic triple-negative breast cancer cells, which don’t respond to other treatments like hormone therapy. Image credit: Shutterstock.

What is it? Low-intensity electromagnetic fields might slow the spread of some breast cancers to other areas of the body, according to a new study by researchers at The Ohio State University.

Why does it matter? Cancer is, basically, abnormal cell growth that makes its way through the body — that’s one reason it’s so dangerous. “A cancer cell has a tendency to do the most destructive thing imaginable,” said OSU engineering professor Jonathan Song, co-author of a new study in Communications Biology. “One very destructive thing these cells do is migrate to distant areas of the body. And what we learned here is that it seems by treating them with a certain class of electric field we are altering their potential to spread somehow.”

How does it work? The electromagnetic fields worked by “preventing the formation of long, thin extensions at the edge of a migrating cancer cell,” according to an OSU press release. The researchers built a device called a Helmholtz coil to apply the energy uniformly and found that it particularly repelled the spread of metastatic triple-negative breast cancer cells — a kind that otherwise doesn’t tend to respond to treatments like hormone therapy. This is just an initial step: Song and his colleagues only tested the technique on cells in a lab. “But what we showed, biologically, is that these cancer cells are becoming profoundly less metastatic, which is a very important finding,” he said.


Solar Airfield

The Chattanooga airport is the first in the U.S. to run on 100% solar power. Image credit: Shutterstock.

What is it? This summer Tennessee’s Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport became the first airport in the U.S. to generate enough solar power to completely meet its energy needs.

Why does it matter? Airports consume a tremendous amount of energy — you know, all those people waiting around charging their phones — so going solar has obvious environmental benefits. The project also demonstrates the growing ability of technology to store energy generated by solar for use hours later, after the sun goes down; at Chattanooga it’s kept in two 250-kilowatt batteries, according to Energy News Network. The city’s manager of smart grid development, Jim Glass, said, “Energy storage is going to really take off in the next several years as costs continue to drop. We’re trying to learn as much as we can now so that when it becomes cost-effective we’ll have a good idea of what we want to do and what kind of technology we want to use.”

How does it work? The three-phase project to install the solar farm kicked off in 2010 and wrapped up this summer with the completion of the 2.64-megawatt array, located just next to the airfield, which produces enough electricity to power 160,000 light bulbs. Interested parties may keep up with the farm’s production online, at a page that tracks how much juice the panels are generating moment by moment. So far, the farm has generated energy equal to 1.3 million gallons of gas.


Out-thinking Artificial Intelligence

What is it? Researchers at the University of Maryland have created 1,213 questions designed to stump artificial intelligence programs — just to remind the bots who’s in charge.

Why does it matter? Just kidding! It’s actually to make the bots even savvier for whenever they decide to rise up against us. The project stems from a typical AI problem: Computers can store incredible amounts of information and ably answer many questions, but they have some trouble with nuance and can be tripped up by linguistic challenges humans have no trouble with — like paraphrasing, or distracting or unexpected elements. Regarding the tough questions, as a news release from UMD put it, “The system that learns to master these questions will have a better understanding of language than any system currently in existence.” I don’t see what could go wrong, Dave.

How does it work? The project is also notable because the questions were designed jointly by humans and AI. People would write a question for computers to answer, and the computers would, in turn, highlight key words or phrases that helped them figure out the questions. Then the researchers swapped out those words or phrases for something harder. When the questions were tested in a tournament between human players and computers, even the “weakest” human teams won. The research team described its work further in the journal Transactions of the Association for Computational Linguistics.


Homemade UFO

What is it? Maybe all those UFOs that Navy pilots keep spotting aren’t from some far-flung planet after all — maybe they’re just from Romania? In that country, anyway, a pair of tinkerers have just unveiled the prototype of a fully functional flying saucer.

Why does it matter? The result of two decades of work, the machine is the creation of engineer Razvan Sabie and aerodynamicist Iosif Taposu, who call it ADIFO — short for all-directional flying object. In his first interview with American media, Sabie told Vice that the machine is “natural born for supersonic flight” and could lead to aircraft with unique abilities to move effortlessly back and forth, up and down through the air. A guide that Sabie and Taposu put together about the craft says, “The only limit to maneuverability is the pilot’s imagination.”

 How does it work? Though the craft does closely resemble a flying saucer, the inspiration for its shape was actually “the back cross-section of a dolphin’s airfoil,” or flipper — it’s not the first time that animal’s anatomy has been studied by aerodynamicists. The craft uses four ducted fans for takeoff, landing and slow-speed maneuvering, and a pair of jet engines for horizontal thrust; another set of thrust nozzles allow it to rotate or move sideways in flight. The 4-foot prototype points the way forward, though there’s still a lot of work to do, as Vice notes: “At the moment, what they’ve made is a glorified quadcopter, albeit with features that current quadcopters don’t have.”

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