On February 11th, 2018 we learned about

Boiling and smushing blocks of wood can make them as strong as steel

Wood hasn’t been a big component of car design since 1912. We’ve long been accustomed to vehicles made of steel, aluminum and even plastics for their balance of strength, weight and cost, but this may change in the near future. Recent experiments with treated wood suggest that trees may have more potential than most of us would expect. As a result, we may soon be looking to wood plates as a lighter alternative to steel for our cars, trains and even infrastructure.

The strength of cellulose

The key to wood’s strength is cellulose. The natural polymer is generally structured as long, parallel fibers that not only provide strength in a tree, but also help funnel water through the plant. Researchers are looking to really maximize cellulose’s potential, starting by stripping out other components that naturally occur in a piece of wood. The latest technique involves boiling the wood for seven hours in a water-based solution of sodium hydroxide and sodium sulfite, then pressing it between heated metal plates for 24 hours. This process first removes a large portion of a a component called lignin, then eliminates the resulting gaps in the wood by smushing everything together. It’s theorized that with less lignin in the wood, the remaining cellulose can interlock, or at least form hydrogen bonds that significantly strengthen the resulting material.

The result is a remarkable block of wood with greater strength, density and relatively little weight. A block of boiled, squashed wood was only one-fifth its original width, making it three-times its original density. It was then measured as being 11.5 times stronger than before, able to stop a metal pellet moving at 67 miles-per-hour. That wouldn’t make it bulletproof, but it would be comparable to the steel found in car, just with a lot less weight to lug around.

Priced for mass production?

Impressively, the initial critiques of this engineered wood aren’t that it’s improbable, but that it should probably be even better. Other techniques focus more on steaming, heating and applying resins to wood, boosting strength almost as much as the procedure described above. Any trade-off in strength is likely made up in cost, particularly if the seven-hour boiling phase is eliminated from the process. Even if the sodium hydroxide and sodium sulfite do prove to be too expensive for mass production, the study’s authors are still happy with the knowledge gained from their work. While multiple approaches looked to remove lignin from the cellulose, we now know that leaving some lignin in wood is more effective than removing it all. As these materials continue to get refined, we’re hopefully a step closer to growing, rather than mining, the materials needed for our next car.

Source: Crushed wood is stronger than steel by Mark Zastrow, Nature

On February 7th, 2018 we learned about

Skin temperature may offer a less intrusive way to measure wildlife’s well-being

Mood rings may soon be making a comeback, at least among the animal conservation crowd. While jewelry for animals probably isn’t a great idea, the underlying principle that skin temperature is tied to a creature’s overall well-being does make sense. Thanks to improvements in thermal imaging cameras, biologists can now measure an animal’s temperature from afar, avoiding the need for intrusive practices like trapping and sedating an animal just to see how healthy it is. Even better, the gaudy rings are now unnecessary too.

The basic idea behind a mood ring is that your stress levels affect your skin temperature. As your body is stressed, or even just concentrating on a difficult problem, blood is diverted from less critical anatomy, like your fingers and nose, towards areas that are likely to need more oxygen and nutrients, like your brain and major organs. The reduced blood flow in those skinny extremities leads to lower temperatures, which in the case of a mood ring causes the liquid crystals in the ‘stone’ to change color, not unlike some thermometers.

Finding clues in birds’ faces

These changes in blood flow have now been confirmed in animals such as the blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus). Rather than rely on an object in contact with the bird’s skin, thermal imaging of their face may provide enough detail to tell which birds are doing well and which are being affected by poor nutrition or health. Blood was found to be reduced in the area around the blue tit’s eye in particular, a correlation later verified by measuring the level of cortisol, a stress hormone, in the bird’s blood.

As this method is validated in other species, it should allow for easier surveys of animal welfare without the need for a blood sample. This would be more pleasant for the animals who wouldn’t need to be captured and handled by humans, but also allow for measurements of animals that are just too difficult to capture on a regular basis. So surveys of wildlife could be expanded to a wider range of species, giving scientists a more complete picture of how a particular ecosystem is functioning.

Source: Thermal imaging can detect how animals are coping with their environment, avoiding the need for capture by University of Glasgow, Phys.org

On February 7th, 2018 we learned about

Lasers let archaeologists map miles of Mayan civilization in mere minutes

It turns out the easiest way to map an ancient Mayan city is by blasting the jungle with lasers. Traditionally, the thick canopy of the jungle would require archaeologists to find ancient structures on foot, creeping through the thick, mosquito-infested forests one step at a time. Airplane-mounted lasers are changing all that, effectively clearing out every tree and shrub that may have obscured the view of everything from irrigation ditches to hidden pyramids. Mapping that would have once taken months can now be done in less than an hour, and is understandably being hailed as a “game-changer” for archaeologists.

Looking under the trees with lasers

Importantly, these lasers aren’t actually removing any of the flora or fauna from the Guatemalan countryside. Rather than physically burning away trees, the Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) lasers shoot harmless pulses of light hundreds of times per second. Those might be absorbed by whatever they hit, but enough reflect back to the plane to measure the time and therefore distance they traveled. Like a light-based version of a bat’s echolocation, this allows a computer to build a detailed, three-dimensional view of the terrain below.

By firing different wavelengths of light, LiDAR can also detect what kind of materials the laser pulses are hitting. For example, a green, translucent leaf will scatter and absorb high-frequency photons differently than low-frequency photons, which can then be used to infer when a laser is hitting a leaf versus a stone. Combined with taking measurements from multiple angles in the airplane, a LiDAR map can then remove all the organic growth of the jungle, leaving behind a representation of the buildings and walls that were built by the Mayans over 2000 years ago.

New maps of Mayan engineering

LiDAR mapping has already yielded new advances in our picture of Mayan culture. So far, over 770 square miles of the Guatemalan jungle have been mapped, leading to the discovery of 60,000 Mayan structures. Aside from the sheer volume of new buildings to investigate, these surveys have also revealed new types of Mayan construction. While the Mayans were known to farm, advanced agricultural technology has been revealed, including extensive irrigation canals. Additionally, defensive structures like walls and watchtowers have been found, suggesting more advanced levels of warfare in Mayan society than had previously been appreciated. As more of these pieces of engineering are found, the overall picture of the ancient Mayans is becoming much richer than the sum of its parts. Or at least the parts that people had had time to map out on foot.

Source: 'Game Changer': Maya Cities Unearthed In Guatemala Forest Using Lasers by Merrit Kennedy, NPR

On January 7th, 2018 we learned about

The future of upcycled surplus food starts with salmon, sushi and smoke

How delicious does “recycled” food sound to you? If that sounds too much like coprophagia to you, maybe you’d prefer to snack on “rescued” produce? Or, like most folks in a study from Drexel Univeristy, you might give some “upcycled” food a chance, even if you do it to benefit society, more than your taste buds. However it ends up being packaged, the world is sure to see more value-added surplus food in the future, hopefully making a dent in the 80 billion pounds of food thrown away in the United States annually. While we still have to wait for our chance at upcycled granola bars, farmed fish are getting a taste of second-hand food right now.

Turning discards into fish dinners

Unlike humans, fish aren’t throwing out billions of pounds of perfectly healthy food because it doesn’t look pretty, was too big a portion, etc. Captive fish do, however, eat a lot of processed meal and pellets, which can be produced so inefficiently it can take 20 pounds of raw fish to bulk up a bluefin tuna by a single pound. Salmon are a bit more efficient to feed, but they’re still being fed fish that could just as easily feed people directly, basically making your dinner use more energy and resources than it should.

Since the fish are already being fed processed pellets instead of fresh prey, various efforts are underway to make those pellets from second-hand energy sources that wouldn’t otherwise be eaten. In Westfield, New York, this strategy has paired the Five & 20 Spirits and Brewing company with TimberFish Technologies. Instead of paying to simply dispose of the used grains and wastewater, the brewery is turning it into compost to feed microbes and invertebrates that then get fed to fish. To complete the loop, the brewery plans to add that same fish to their menu, allowing diners to drink and eat a beer-based meal. Along similar lines, other fisheries are picking up algae and discarded nut and flax seed waste from farms, upcycling components that would otherwise go to waste.

A new twist on smoked salmon

Most ambitiously, a startup called NovoNutrients is looking to upcycle air pollution into fish food. The company hopes to install equipment on industrial smokestacks to filter and capture carbon dioxide, then feed that to microbes that would produce protein for fish feed. It’s not quite the same loop as feeding fish worms fed on human food waste, but covering 20 percent of a fish’s protein needs while scrubbing air pollution still seems worthy of the “upcycling,” “rescaled” or “reclaimed” monikers.

Source: Waste Not, Want Not: Drink Beer To Feed Fish And Help Save The Planet by Alastair Bland, The Salt

On January 7th, 2018 we learned about

Chemical imaging technique takes apart a painter’s process without injuring the canvas

When you’re in the art museum, seeing that a painting is made in “oil” or “mixed media” sometimes feels more like a formality rather than useful information. Fortunately, a new technique for paint analysis promises to add a lot more useful detail to those descriptions, revealing exactly which paints were used, and even what order they were applied to the canvas. Modern paintings produced with mass-produced commercial paints probably won’t yield many surprises, but by looking at the exact pigments and layering in older paintings, art historians will gain a much richer understanding how these paintings fit into the world that produced them.

The technique is called macroscale multimodal chemical imaging, and is actually a combination of earlier forms of chemical analysis. However, the combination of hyperspectral diffuse reflectance, luminescence and x-ray fluorescence can now produce data that offer more than the sum of their parts. Instead of simply giving researchers a graph of values, the technique uses each form of analysis to create images for each type of pigment used in a painting. The visual relationship of each layer of paint is then made much more obvious, as the strokes, revisions and essentially, choices of the artist are laid out for your eyes to see.

Making sense of materials

Additionally, this technique can identify the chemical composition of each layer of pigment. Knowing how each color was sourced can then provide insight into the difficultly, cost and importance of a painting at the time it was produced. For instance, a rare blue pigment used in a portrait indicates that the patron felt it was worth investing in those materials, helping historians better understand the story behind the painting.

Finally, none of these details need to harm the painting to be analysed. Many ancient objects are quite fragile, and so there’s an interest in avoiding destructive sampling, even if those samples are tiny. When working with ancient, one-of-a-kind artwork, deconstructing the artist’s process without taking apart the painting itself should prove to be a great new addition to historian’s tool kits.

Source: A New Scientific Technique Reveals How Ancient Humans Made Art by Taylor Dafoe, Artnet

On December 31st, 2017 we learned about

Using sound to assess the size, and quality, of bubbles in sparkling wines

Sorry sommeliers, but the best way to assess a sparkling wine’s quality may involve anyone’s sense of taste or smell. When judging a specific lot of wine, the most objective measurement turns out to be the sound of the wine, or more specifically, the sound of the bubbles inside. The most desirable bubbles are tiny, which not only tickle the tongue but also resonate at a different frequencies of sound than larger bubbles, not unlike a smaller bell versus a large one. So rather than rely on people’s mouths to test a vintage’s quality, vineyards may start employing hydrophones to make sure every batch of champagne and sparkling wine is up to snuff.

You’d be forgiven if you’ve never put a glass to your own ear to listen to a glass of sparkling wine before taking a sip. Detecting the exact nuances of each batch of bubbles was surprisingly tricky for researchers as well, even with years of experience recording other sounds underwater. Early tests using standard hydrophones, or underwater microphones, were impeded by the bubbles themselves. As the carbonation would rise through a glass, the bubbles would stick and cover the outer surface of the hydrophone, significantly altering the data it could collect. A smaller, more specialized hydrophone had to be used to compensate for the bubble build-up, meaning your ear really doesn’t stand a chance at picking up the level of detail necessary to asses sparkling wine or champagne.

Tips for tinier bubbles

With some iteration, researchers were able to identify the sounds of optimally tiny bubbles, which should help vineyards more accurately judge the quality of their product. While improved quality control should be good for vineyards, this research also revealed information that can be put to use by those of us who don’t have a piezoelectric transducer-based hydrophone at home. While trying to get consistent measurements of the bubble’s resonance, researchers found that the shape and material of the wine’s container greatly influenced the size of the bubbles produced. Champagne flutes help the carbonation produce smaller, consistent bubbles, just as you’d hope. On the other end of the spectrum, a flat-bottomed Styrofoam cup did just the opposite, making for bulkier bubbles, robbing the wine of its potential.

Once you have some delightfully tiny effervescence in a proper champagne flute, the best way to prolong the carbonation is by keeping your bottle and glass consistently cold. A separate investigation into preserving carbonation in open bottles of sparkling wine looked at stoppers, spoon handles and more, and found the best way to keep the bubbles coming was to never let a bottle warm up after it had been opened. So if you have the equipment to really check your next glass of bubbly, make sure your glass, and hydrophone, are properly chilled.

Source: Pop the bubbly and hear the quality by Acoustical Society of America, EurekAlert!

On December 14th, 2017 we learned about

Portable scanners promise to expose the places where poached fossils were originally excavated

When a fossil is removed from the ground, some of the context of its original burial is necessarily lost in the process. Unless a dig site is carefully documented as the fossils are excavated, details about a fossil’s resting place are essentially lost to the ages. These problems are exacerbated when poachers strip sites of fossils to sell on the black market, as they’re usually more concerned with the commercial value of specific anatomy rather than advancing our understanding of the ancient world. As a result, specimens that might offer new insight into extinct animals like dinosaurs can’t be considered reliable, either due to a lack of context or even being a possible fake. Fortunately, portable x-ray fluorescence scanners are now being adopted to help identify these lost fossils’ original homes.

Identifying the source of illegitimate specimens

X-ray fluorescence is essentially a way to quickly identify the precise mix of minerals that can be found in any given location. First, an x-ray is fired at a soil or fossil sample, pumping energy into some of the targeted atoms’ electrons. As those electrons calm down again, they release a specific frequency of light, which the scanner can then detect and identify as a belonging to a specific mineral. En masse, the ratios of different minerals and elements can be combined to create a geochemical ‘fingerprint,’ unique to a specific site. In the field, this can be used to compare soil or rock samples from particular locations against fossils of unexplained origin. These readings are only useful if you have stone and soil samples for comparison, but now that x-ray fluorescence scanners are portable enough to take into the field, paleontologists are building a library of reference points for fossil poaching hot spots.

Of course, knowing where stolen fossils originated doesn’t prevent poaching on its own. However, as the technique has more and more successful identifications, it may deter poachers and buyers wary of having their purchases get reclaimed by their countries of origin. For example, actor Nicholas Cage made headlines when a Tarbosaurus skull he purchased was identified as being the product of poaching, compelling him to return the fossils to their rightful home in Mongolia. As identifying the origins of black market fossils gets easier and easier, this kind of corrective verification will hopefully become commonplace enough that poachers won’t bother excavating in the first place.

Restoring origins to archived specimens

Beyond making life harder for folks profiting off the theft and destruction of the world’s history, x-ray fluorescence may fill in more benign gaps in our records as well. Museum collections have plenty of specimens that were collected under the best intentions, but not the best documentation. Fossils are sometimes mislabeled, or archived with only minimal data for future scientists to reference, which makes them hard to use in comparative studies. As more geochemical data is gathered with around the world, more details about these archived specimens can be recovered. With this contextual data, paleontologists may be able to restore scientific value that was otherwise lost at the dig site.

Source: Thieves Are Smashing Dinosaur Fossils. Science Is Fighting Back. by John Pickrell, National Geographic

On December 10th, 2017 we learned about

The invention and improvements that led to the modern roll of toilet paper

If you’re old enough to read these words, you’re probably at a stage in your life where you can take things like toilet paper for granted. Using your annual quota of 50 pounds of toilet paper per year may feel easy, but like any tool, it’s something you had to be taught to use and understand (as my four-year-old is now acutely aware of.) Beyond our acclimation to wiping ourselves with paper products, there’s been technological innovation in toilet paper as well, starting with the invention of paper itself.

Early years of paper hygiene products

Just a few hundred years after paper was invented in China, their revolutionary material for writing found its way into someone’s toilet. In 589 AD, the first account of using paper for personal hygiene was documented in Korea. By 1391, paper was being produced in China for the express purpose of wiping one’s rear. That paper came in awkwardly large sheets, around two- by three-feet overall, but at least had some perfume in it to make the experience more pleasant. It wasn’t an immediate world-wide hit though, partially because these tissues were intended for the emperor’s family only. Paper was still too precious for most people to dispose of after a single use.

This early start certainly didn’t put toilet paper, scented or unscented, into everyone’s bathroom. For many parts of the world, paper was scarce enough that it wasn’t even being used in books, much less in toilets. Instead, many folks made (or continue to make) due with a variety of options that many of us wouldn’t really associate with wiping. Throughout history, the list of bathroom tissue alternatives has included stones, sponges, clay, moss, shells, sticks, hands and corncobs.

Building a better toilet tissue

By the 17th century, paper products started making their way into the bathroom in the western world, but only after it arrived in the mailbox. Newspapers and magazines were repurposed as toilet paper in the American colonies, since paper was finally cheap enough to be disposable. Dedicated toilet paper was made available in 1857 by a one Joseph Gayetty, but it faced stiff competition in the form of the Sears Roebuck catalog. The latter was mailed out for free, and came with a hole punched in the corner, making it convenient to hang in one’s outhouse. This interest in convenience may have informed the next big innovations toilet paper technology, as in 1871 Seth Wheeler started selling perforated sheets in a role rather than a tissue-style box.

That doesn’t mean the story of toilet paper was settled in 1871 though. It wasn’t until 1935 that Northern Tissue offered “splinter free” paper with a process called linenizing, reminding us of how much bravery a trip to the lavatory once required. Two-ply tissue arrived in 1942, and colored paper was available in 1954. As important as all these improvements were, toilet paper’s place in public awareness was also being updated in this time period, since at one point the whole concept of wiping one’s self was deemed too inappropriate to even bring up, much less purchase in a public setting.

Selling toilet paper to an uncomfortable public

While Joseph Gayetty was proud enough of his medicated tissues to put his name on every one, other manufacturers were a bit more hesitant to brag about their products. Thomas Seymour, Edward Irvin and Clarence Wood Scott started producing rolled toilet paper, but sold it directly to hotels and drugstores, putting their clients’ names on them instead of their own. The Scott Paper Company didn’t really acknowledge their toilet paper production until 1896, over a decade after they started selling it. At the end of the 19th century, homes started being built with indoor plumbing, meaning older methods for hygiene, like corncobs, weren’t acceptable anymore. This gave toilet paper an opening in public discourse, since the product could be advertised for how well it broke apart in plumbing, avoiding too much detail about what it did directly for consumers themselves.

The final innovation on this front came from the Hoberg Paper Company in 1928. The company started selling their toilet tissues in “ladylike” packaging, since bragging about softness and feminine qualities would be easier than getting into the specifics of cleaning one’s nether-regions. When coupled with paper sold in four-packs, the branding was enormously successful, helping keep Charmin afloat through the Great Depression and beyond. They’ve had a number of major advertising campaigns since, but they’ve all been based around notions of soft, tactile enjoyment without getting too specific about where you’re supposed to actually feel that softness. Even though toilet paper use is growing worldwide, it’s still not something most of us (over age four) want to discuss in great detail.

Source: Who Invented Toilet Paper?, Toilet Paper History

On December 7th, 2017 we learned about

Robotic tractors will soon be adding more automation to building construction

Something people don’t tell you about parenthood is how much time you have to spend lurking around construction sites. Something about the preschool brain finds huge pieces of machinery rather mesmerizing, leading to mornings where a walk or bike ride has to be put on pause so you can watch just how cool excavators really are. Workers on job sites have been pretty welcoming as well, often answering questions or just sharing my kids’ appreciation for what a bulldozer can do. Some of this dynamic my change in the near future though, because a company called Built Robotics is looking to change the scheduling of construction, and maybe even get rid of some of the folks who currently control major machines.

Unmanned machinery

Right now, Built Robotics is starting small, working on turning a standard Bobcat skid loader into an autonomous robot. Ideally, the small tractor will be delivered to a site and given instructions about the size of the future building, at which point it will start scraping out a foundation pit on its own. It will navigate the space using a combination of GPS and LIDAR, the same laser systems employed by robotic vacuum cleaners to figure out the shape of your living room. It’s a bit trickier for these robotic tractors though, since if they’re doing their job, they’ll be constantly changing the shape of the space around them, which makes establishing navigational reference points a little more complicated.

Once all these technical challenges are smoothed over, a robotic tractor promises to do the same work as people, but in a more compact schedule since nobody would necessarily be limited to the schedules a human being finds comfortable. It would also remove some humans from the job site, meaning there would be fewer people at risk of injury, which is an attractive notion. Some of those people might still be needed to help manage the robotic tractors, but only if they’re up tackling a new set of specialties.

Effects of automation

From my four-year-old’s perspective, the coming wave of robotic tractors is kind of a mixed bag. On one hand, it’s a combination of tractors and robots, which is cool by definition, even if those tractors can’t also transform into humanoid warriors. On the other hand, if these tractors are somehow quiet enough to work all hours of the day without bothering the neighbors, construction will no longer be on a preschool-friendly schedule. The compressed building schedule will probably be appealing to everyone who wants to use the resulting building, but it’ll leave us much less time to stop and gawk.

Source: This Robot Tractor Is Ready To Disrupt Construction by Matt Simon, Wired

On November 28th, 2017 we learned about

Origami-inspired robots promise significant strength in a soft, squishy shell

I’ve made a few origami frogs in the past, and while they did successfully hop, I never appreciated how close I was to making a robot. The amount of potential and kinetic energy in the frog’s flexing legs seemed negligible, but apparently carefully controlled folding can not only trigger movement, but it can offer some considerable strength as well. While my little paper frogs weren’t about to do any heavy lifting, researchers from Harvard and MIT have found that lightweight, foldable materials can do a lot of work, even moving objects 1,000 times their own weight.

Air-powered contraction and expansion

The key to these folded robots is how they turn folded materials into veritable motors. A simple example uses a strip of stiff paper or plastic, folded in a basic accordion shape. That zig-zagging strip functions as a sort of “skeleton” for the machine, but it needs an outer covering to be activated. A simple plastic bag sealed around the folded strip is sufficient to act as the machine’s “muscles,” as long as that bag has a valve that can manipulate air flow. Sucking the air out of the valve with an air pump naturally causes the bag to contract, constricting around the folded paper. As the whole machine contracts, it’s strong enough to lift a weight many times its own mass. Letting air back into the bag allows the folded strip to expand again, lowering the weight in a controlled manner. In short, it’s a simple crane, powered by lightweight materials and a vacuum pump.

A folded strip is only the beginning though, as well-placed creases and joints in the inner skeleton can make for much more complicated articulation. One prototype was a four-pronged claw that can contract with enough strength to lift a tire. Another was a multi-jointed arm, ending in a flower-shaped gripper that can open and close as air is added or removed from the system. While they promise outsized strength, each design works with very simple, zig-zagged folds in the internal plastic structures, keeping them lightweight and very importantly, squishy.

Softer and safer

We have many machines that can lift a lot of weight, but the strength exhibited by these machines is quite noteworthy for something that’s soft and relatively safe. With no hard motors, actuators, joints or power sources, these machines can be used in places that harder robots wouldn’t be appropriate, like close to the human body. Since less than an ounce of foldable machine can lift over six pounds of weight, researchers think these gentle robots could be fit to human bodies, supporting or augmenting people who need help with certain tasks. They’d need to have a way to inflate and deflate the machine, but it would still be safer and more comfortable than carrying a huge set of gears, servos or hydraulic pistons.

At this point, researchers still haven’t made a jumping frog, unfortunately. The snap you get when releasing an origami frog is actually a bit speedy for these machines, as they can only move as fast as they’re inflated. An upcoming goal instead focuses on maximizing strength and articulation, as researchers aim to build a robotic elephant trunk. Since a trunk contains no hard bones but is incredibly mobile thanks to its 150,000 muscle fascicles, or muscle sections. It will likely require some carefully coordinated folding, but it would also prove that these inflation-based “muscles” will allow for very versatile machines in the near future.

Source: Artificial muscles give soft robots superpower, Phys.org