Science, technology & design

The new material world

Our material world is changing, thanks to new, oddly-named materials being considered or developed in science labs: shrilk, chitin, aerogel, nanofoam, even skutterudites. Here are seven of them.

Memory glass is a futuristic method, with shades of Superman, of storing data in fused quartz. Glass is resistant to heat, chemicals and stress, and even bullets. Physicists at Harvard say they could write information on to it using intense lasers and then, by exposing the material to light, examine the pattern of spots coming off the defects. Hitachi plans to bring fused quartz to market next year. UK scientists claim it’s possible to record data in five dimensions – three spatial, plus intensity and polarization of the laser. This would make the storage density eight times’ deeper than Hitachi’s version.

Shrilk combines the second most abundant (after plant cellulose) organic polymer, chitin, with a protein in spider silk to create a tough, flexible, flame-retardant material. It is stronger than either component alone. Shrilk is as resilient as aluminium alloys, but breaks down on a compost heap within weeks. Scientists at Harvard are looking for commercial partners as this material has the ability to replace plastic, even plastic bags.

Stanene is a type of topological insulator – it conducts electricity without producing too much heat caused by unnecessary collision of electrons. The way topological insulators work is electrons pass surface atoms and spin-off coupling occurs, which prevents U-turns or entering the body of the material. Stanene is like graphene, a thin sheet of tin only one atom thick, ideal for processor chips. If it becomes commercial, your phone could stay cool and charged for months.

Aerogels are solids lighter than air that make them good for insulation. A 1cm thickness of aerogel can replace 5cms of foam insulation, making it ideal for windows, rather than double glazing, and also good for winter sports clothing. A new type of aerogel is nanofoam, made with a framework of metal atoms rather than polymers. They offer high surface area – up to 3000 sqm in a single gram - and they conduct electricity. Perhaps one day, aerogels will be used to suck up environmental pollutants.

Self-healing polymers can heal, regenerate and disintegrate themselves. Researchers at IBM are working on a polymer that, when heat is applied, can reform broken bonds between hydrogen atoms. Polyhexahydrotriazine (PHT), as a solid or gel, combined with super-strong carbon nanotubes, provides an alternative to metal car parts. The ideal is to find materials that can regenerate themselves completely, which would mean one part of the polymer is breaking down while another part reconstructs. This is still blue sky.

Skutterudites contain atoms from rare earth elements with cobalt and antimony to create compounds that trap heat while electricity flows. General Motors is working on a prototype pick-up with a thermoelectric generator that gets its energy from the exhaust to power the radio and headlights etc. The same could be used to charge the battery of a hybrid car. China has most of the rare earth elements but Japanese researchers have made a cheaper version, using nickel and iron. They are also investigating calcium, which is more easily available. Skutterudites can endure temperatures up to 550 degrees C.

Wood doesn’t seem very high-tech, but a 14-storey, 49-metre apartment building in Norway (The Tree) will be built by late 2015 – of wood-derived materials. The viability of ‘plyscrapers’ is being investigated because wood is easy to get, produces little waste, and can be renewable if harvested properly. Scientists at Cambridge University are looking at the molecular structure of different species of tree to see if it is possible to develop polymers to add to wood, or even genetically engineer stronger trees. Wood and its derivatives may also be used as biofuels.

Ref: New Scientist (UK), 11 October 2014, ‘Wonder stuff’ by J Cartwright et al.
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Search words: memories, glass, quartz, shrilk, plastic, chitin, flexible, electrons, topological insulators, aerogel, ‘nanofoam’, self-healing polymer, regeneration, thermoelectric, skutterudites, wood, plyscraper.
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Wearable health monitors

Thanks to lifelogging and wearable computing, you don’t need to go to the doctor to find out how you are. Apple, Samsung, Google and Microsoft are making apps and devices that monitor your health and activity - and make predictions, using the data collected.

Fitbit was an early example of wearable activity tracker. A newer one is Vida, which works with Apple’s HealthKit to collect data from wearable devices to create a picture of someone’s health. Subscribers pay $US15 a week for regular sessions within the app with nutritionists or nurses – cheaper than going to the doctor and preventative too. It is especially good for people with chronic conditions like cancer or heart disease, which currently consume 75% of US healthcare spending.

Google is working with MIT on its latest project, Baseline, to build a library of behaviours and environments that can prevent or cause disease. The idea is to develop tools for monitoring people so we understand what kinds of conditions affect our health. A blue-sky project is to use iron nanoparticles that attach to molecules in the blood that are linked to cancer or heart disease. A magnetic watch can then count the nanoparticles pulled towards it, to assess how far the disease has gone. Google has moved far beyond being a search engine, by searching within the human body itself.

A doctor working on Baseline described it as the “beginning of an age of interrogation of the human being in real time”. We think ‘interrogating’ anyone sounds alarming. While we are thinking about language (see War by any other name, or PR pays better than journalism) perhaps we could call it ‘deep curiosity’.

Ref: New Scientist (UK), 8 November 2014, ‘A check-up in your pocket’ by H Hodson.
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Search words: health, check-up, Fitbit, Apple, Samsung, Vida, lifelogging, coaches, chronic disease, monitoring, Baseline, diagnostics.
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Hacking medical implants

Hackers are becoming more imaginative in their skills and could now hack into medical devices to hurt their wearers. The TV drama, Homeland, killed off a fictional vice-president by just this method and, if this was designed to worry people, it did. US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is investigating more than 20 medical devices, such as pacemakers, defibrillators or bedside intravenous fluid pumps, to check for possible security flaws.

Use of tiny, networked devices has grown in recent years. They manage a number of chronic conditions, such as low pulse rate, and communicate wirelessly with computers so that doctors can collect valuable data without seeing the patient unless necessary. It is precisely this wireless communication that could make them vulnerable to hackers.

An American team employed to investigate found 300 medical devices made by 40 companies had unchangeable passwords. This could in theory allow a hacker to login and change critical settings.

Forensic medicos and security specialists are developing software that can tell a pathologist if someone has interfered with a device before death. They are drawing up a list of all the possible medical events that could occur to someone with an implanted defibrillator, including all the ways it can be manipulated to go wrong. This way, it can be flagged as suspicious if the person dies while wearing it.

There is no recorded case of death or injury because of a cyber-attack on medical devices. But thanks to programs like Homeland, security of these devices is bound to be stepped up.

Ref: Daily Telegraph (UK), 6 November 2014, ‘Terrorists could hack pacemakers like in Homeland, say security experts’ by S Knapton.
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Search words: cyber-attack, medical device, pacemaker, defribillator, hacker, Homeland, networking, wireless, forensics.
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Public crowdfunding of science

Funding of science is a vexed topic because, like most funding, it is never enough. The US government spends around 2.9% and the UK, only 1.7% (below the global average of 2.04% of GDP). The Australian government has recently cut public funding for science. In most countries, the private sector still spends more than their governments do.

Enter crowdfunding. There is a trend for academic scientists to look to the public for direct funding of their research and crowdfunding is a quick and effective way to raise money for subjects that pique our curiosity. For example, the effects of LSD on the brain, what the dodo did with its strange beak, and, Lunar Mission One, a moon lander that will study rock deep under the lunar surface. The project raised 600,000 UK pounds on Kickstarter with 36 hours to go. Very generous supporters will be able to send a strand of their hair for DNA and even bury their photos on the moon. Africa2Moon will use crowdfunding for the first phase, with organisers hoping to inspire the next generation of engineers and scientists in Africa.

Other crowdfunding websites for science include PetriDish, SciFund Challenge, RocketHub and Walacea. A young scientific adviser set up Walacea in 2013 because she saw how difficult it was for young scientists to get funding – only 10-20% of applications are successful. Young people don’t need encouragement to go into science, but they do need to be funded.

Crowdfunding fills this gap and it can operate alongside government and business funding, rather than replace it. The last thing anyone wants is for mainstream funding to be withdrawn. The Campaign for Science and Engineering (UK) is concerned crowdfunding may encourage poor quality science that would not be scientifically robust enough to get any funding.

Perhaps crowdfunding will work better for projects that are publicly appealing rather than academically rigorous, and carry more risk than mainstream funding agencies would usually accept. But it allows the public to be more involved in knowing about research and raise the image of scientists and their crucial contribution to the modern world.

Ref: The Guardian (Aus), 3 January 2014, ‘Crowdfunded science: harnessing the wisdom of the crowd, or selling out?’ by R Gray.
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Search words: crowdfunding, science, controversial, moons, dinosaurs, popularity, funding, government, business, young people, research.
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Analytical underwear

Wearable electronics is a trend with a bright future, especially now that electronics can be not merely worn, but woven into your clothing. This is the future of textiles. While they won’t seem too important for attending your next dinner party, they are changing life for the British and Canadian armed forces, high performing athletes, and X-ray technicians, to name a few.

Conductive fibres are flexible and do not snap when bent, the way metal wires do. Therefore they can potentially be used in place of metal wires wherever feasible. It also means they can be woven into fabrics, turning the garment into an electronic device, or allowing it to ‘speak’ to a worn device. For example, soldiers can wear clothes with conductive fibres to bring power to their equipment, rather than carrying heavy cables and batteries. (This is probably true for the police too.)

Nottingham Trent University (UK) has used silver-coated thread to embroider antennae onto shirts. They are not visible and can be used to transmit and receive radio signals on a device worn by the user. It may be possible to weave in RFID tags one day, as some companies would prefer them to be less obvious.

Get ready for clothing with senses. Adidas now knits conductive fibres into stretchy garments to make “textile electrodes”, small areas that pick up signals from the heart or other muscles. These data transmit to a small gadget snapped into a sports top that then passes them wirelessly to a user’s mobile phone. These ‘sensor garments’ are ideal for an athlete to communicate their physical condition with their coach. Adidas is also creating workout tops that use elastic conductive fibres to measure the wearer’s breathing, also important for gathering performance statistics. This kind of technology may be used for older people, to measure how well they are coping with exercise. X-ray technicians could wear lighter garments with conductive fibres to protect them from X-rays.

Another use of conductive fibres is in planes. If all metal wiring —some 320km of cable and braided shielding—were replaced with conductive material, planes would be much lighter and cheaper to fly ($US2,200 saved for each kilo lost). ARACON is manufactured by coating synthetic Kevlar with copper, nickel and silver, and is lighter, stronger and more elastic than metal wire. Down on the street, power lines could be replaced with conductive fibres, which would make them a third or so lighter and at least several times stronger, especially useful in an area prone to storms.

On a lighter note, one lingerie manufacturer is considering their use in panties, with the ability to change colour when the wearer gets warmer. (See 'Timeline of Emerging Science & Technology' - analytical undies).

Ref: The Economist Technology Quarterly (UK), 8 March 2014, ‘An uncommon thread’. Anon.
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Search words: wearables, conductive fibres, Intelligent Textiles, combat fatigues, antenna, RFID, Adidas, ‘textile electrodes’, athletes, gyroscope, RIP (respiratory inductive plethysmography), aircraft, ARACON, Zylon, X-ray, lingerie.
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