E&T news weekly #82 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the week

Friday 19 February 2016

Katia Moskvitch  Katia Moskvitch, technology editor
ASTRO-H satellite launched to study black holes

Human engineering allows us to look ever deeper into space. Just days after the team running the Advanced LIGO experiment confirmed that they detected gravitational waves – the ripples in spacetime caused by the collision of two black holes – a new satellite was launched to study supermassive black holes and other objects that cannot be studied using light.

ASTRO-H hitched a ride into orbit on an H-IIA rocket from the Tanegashima Space Centre based on a small island in the south of Japan. Built in collaboration with researchers from Japan, Nasa, the Canadian Space Agency and the European Space Agency, the new telescope will probe the sky in the X-ray and soft gamma ray portions of the electromagnetic spectrum. As it was launched, the satellite received a new name — Hitomi, which in Japanese means “eye.” Astro-H will start its observations as early as this summer – and hopefully will help us unravel a few more mysteries of the universe.

Jade Fell  Jade Fell, assistant features editor
Mind-controlled prosthetic hand patient wiggles fingers

Boys and girls, the future is here, and it’s incredible. This is the news that a test subject operating a mind-controlled prosthetic hand has been able to move individual fingers for the first time. Researchers from John Hopkins University implanted electrodes into the brain of a man with two working hands, and, by asking him to move each of his fingers in turn, were able to isolate which part of the brain was responsible for individual finger movement – the process in reverse was then used in order to move the fingers of the prosthetic hand. I can barely comprehend how it must feel to be able to move things with your mind, and god knows I’ve tried. I spent so long when I was younger attempting to move inanimate objects, and, truth be told, I never gave up hope that one day I will be successful. Ok, so this isn’t quite telekinesis, but it is still seriously cool.

Humanoid robots to manufacture planes

Friday wouldn’t be Friday if I couldn’t rejoice at yet another awesome robot story. Airbus and the Joint Robotics laboratory are developing specialist humanoid robots, with the amazing ability squeeze into confined spaces, and even climb ladders and stairs, for use on plane production lines. This story doesn’t give me much hope that the world will not one day be taken over by super-human robots, but these little guys are so cool that I don’t even care. Just look at the picture of the robot climbing a ladder! He’s adorable, and, as I am actually afraid of climbing ladders, more advanced than me, which is pretty impressive.

3D printer for human flesh can replace damaged tissue

I don’t know whether to celebrate this amazing feat of medical manufacturing, or gag at how utterly revolting it sounds.

Dickon Ross  Dickon Ross, editor-in-chief
Nasa develops system to protect grids from solar flares

Solar flares on the Sun sometimes mess up our electronic and electrical systems with geomagnetic storms back here on Earth. Power grid operators can take action to counter that electromagnetic interference and avoid power cuts but they need some warning. NASA then is developing a solar flare forecasting system that could issue storm warnings on the Sun’s weather, giving power companies time to batten down their hatches – electromagnetically speaking.

Shrimps unlock better polarisers for optical devices

In engineering, nature sometimes has the edge on anything humans can come up with – after all, it’s had millionsof years to perfect its designs whereas human solutions are rush-jobs in comparison. That’s why there’s a whole discipline called biomimetics that’s dedicated to looking at how nature has solved problems and seeing how that could be used in product design. It now turns out that our polarisers work are not how nature does it at all. The humble shrimp has a whole different way of polarising light and here’s how…

Lorna Sharpe  Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
5D glass data storage enshrines key documents of history

Somehow, I never quite trust electronic devices to store important documents. You won’t find me presenting my phone to a bus driver or railway ‘revenue protection officer’, and I keep paper copies of anything I might need to refer back to in future years. That’s why this story caught my eye. Researchers at the University of Southampton have encoded some of the most important documents of English and world culture in a glass crystal that could theoretically survive for billions of years – and, in case you’re wondering, the 5D refers to the three familiar spatial dimensions plus the size and orientation of the nanostructured dots that hold the information.

Earthquake-detecting smartphone app’s early warning network

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have developed a smartphone app that takes the information from the phones accelerometers and can distinguish between regular movements caused by walking and those caused by the Earth’s movements. Data from the app is sent back to the research team, helping them to improve its reliability and sensitivity. If enough people in seismically active zones use the app, it should be possible eventually to send out early warning alerts.

Vitali Vitaliev  Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
3D printer for human flesh can replace damaged tissue

The gruesome photo (a disturbingly pink – cut off, if not torn off? – human ear, half-submerged in a pink liquid), which accompanies this news story, reminded me of my childhood. Don’t hurry to assume that as a child I had my ears pulled repeatedly by parents and teachers for bullishness and lack of diligence: I was actually a relatively quiet and docile child (not always though as you will see as you read on). However, I did like to play with parts of human bodies, including ears similar to the pictured one! No, my parents were neither secret cannibals, nor serial killers. My Dad was actually a particle physicist and my mum was a chemical engineer, developing new plastic materials to be used in dentistry and prosthetic medicine – she had several dozen inventions patented in her name. It is my late mum, of course, who could be held responsible for my ongoing fascination with body parts. For lack of normal children’s toys in the former USSR, where I was growing up, she would often bring from her laboratory dentures, fingers, noses and, yes, ears for me to play with! They were all made of plastic and had that peculiar “chemical” smell which used to tingle my nostrils from several metres away. Until now, that sharp odour is firmly associated in my perception with science, chemistry and all kinds of laboratories. My favourite trick (as a junior schoolboy, no doubt), was to suddenly produce an ear or a finger out of my pocket in the middle of a class and wave it in the air above my head – in full view of the teacher. If the teacher was new and didn’t faint immediately, the plastic body part would be confiscated, and I would be ordered out the class to visit the headmistress, with the resulting “dvoika” (bad mark) for bad behaviour in the much-feared school Register. Well, as they say in Russia, “it was a long time ago and it never happened anyway”, albeit in this case it did. Luckily for me, no one heard of 3D printing then, and there was no question of all those foul-smelling prosthetics ever integrating with human bodies to form tissue, muscles and blood vessels, as the amazing 3D-printed organs, described in the news story, do.

British teen arrested in CIA hack investigation

And another flash of my unhealthy Soviet childhood memories. We were all aware of the CIA, that horrible American spy nest, constantly plotting something against the glorious USSR. The official propaganda often told us how devilishly clever and ingenious CIA agents were in their never-ending attempts to infiltrate our heroic Soviet society and do us all kinds of harm. We were told that we had to stay on constant alert, always be ready for all sorts of the CIA’s provocations and traps and never accept any gifts, particularly sweets, from a foreigner, for the latter’s secret mission and the most coveted dream was to poison a vigilant Soviet kid (no foreigners were allowed to visit the industrial city where I grew up, so we were safe there). If only we could then look 40 or 50 years ahead into the future and read the above news story on how a 16-year-old teenager may possibly have hacked into an email account used by CIA director John Brennan! That would have been the end of the CIA bugaboo myth, for how can one be scared of an organisation that can be easily infiltrated by a child, only slightly older that we ourselves were then?

Jonathan Wilson  Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Apple leftovers key for future energy storage

For once, an apple story that is actually about apple the fruit, not Apple the computer company. Although, now that I think of it, there is a connection. German researchers have developed a new carbon-based active material that can be manufactured from apple leftovers and used to build better energy storage systems. The apple-based material can be used as the negative electrode in sodium-ion batteries, which are currently being researched as a more environmentally friendly and cheaper alternative to lithium-ion batteries – the type typically used in consumer tech gadgets such as iPhones.

Shrimps unlock better polarisers for optical devices

The delightful image of shrimps wearing Ray-Ban Aviators has been hard to get out of my mind ever since I read this story. A study by the University of Bristol into how animals secretly communicate has led to the discovery of a new way to polarise light. Polarisers, the optical devices widely used in cameras, DVD players and sunglasses, could be improved upon by emulating the natural light reflectors found on shrimps, who typically communicate with each other using the polarisation of light in order to avoid predators because it is silent and cannot be seen by most organisms.

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