On April 5th, 2018 we learned about

Kirigami-inspired folds and cuts enables flexible, stretchable circuits

If we ever hope to wear truly smart clothing, we’ll need to really work on how fabrics are made. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with cotton or wool, but a smart, as in computerized, jacket or shirt will need to somehow incorporate electric circuits and sensors in a way that won’t inhibit movement. Since current wiring can generally only flex by six percent before inhibiting electrical currents and efficiency, engineers are looking into techniques pioneered by Japanese papercraft known as kirigami to boost the flexibility of otherwise stiff substances.

Structures and circuits

Kirigami is a method of sculpting with both careful folds and strategic slices in each sheet of paper. While origami can create amazing shapes with just folds, making small slices in the paper can often simplify what folds are needed to achieve a similar shape. Those properties make it attractive for making 3D structures out of materials normally printed or shipped as flat sheets, almost like a pop-up book.

For electronics designers, the interest in kirigami is focused more on how cuts and folds can add flexibility to a material without losing tensile strength. Making wiring in a kirigami-inspired lattice shape allows polymers like PthTFB to be stretched and bent by 2,000 percent, without sacrificing any performance in the circuit.

A fit for electrified fabrics

Since these folds and slices are still beneficial on small scales, there are a lot of possible applications for flexible, stretchy circuits. Sensors in artificial skin could connect to nerves, displays could be build onto soft surfaces, or we could all start dressing ourselves in wearable computers. While not as inspiring as artificial skin for humans or robots, the smart clothing market is expected to be huge once these technologies mature, which is why kirigami isn’t the only kind of flexible circuit being developed these days. If you’re not into powering your shirt with papercraft, carbon-based spider silk may be the “it” textile you’ll be looking for next season.

Source: Ancient paper art, kirigami, poised to improve smart clothing, Science Daily

On April 1st, 2018 we learned about

Satellites can spot underground supplies of volcanic magma from space

The best way to find volcanic activity brewing under the ground may be to look from space. While magma and gas aren’t directly visible until a volcano actually erupts, their accumulation underground can cause the ground surrounding a volcano to deform. These deformations aren’t necessarily big enough to be noticed by the naked eye, they can be detected by special GPS sensors staked in the ground surrounding the volcano. However, these sensitive instruments can’t be everywhere at once, which is why researchers from Penn State are looking into looking for these subtle shifts in the ground from over 1000 miles above the Earth’s surface.

While a lot of information can be gleaned from visual photography, the imaging in this study was actually a form of radar. Known as Interferometric Synthetic-Aperture Radar (InSAR), this technology creates topographic maps precise enough to show changes in elevation as small as a one-third of an inch. This allowed them to track a three-inch bulge in the ground north of the Masaya volcano in Nicaragua which was attributed to a growing pool of magma that was otherwise undetected. It’s not that the traditional GPS monitors weren’t sensitive to these shifts, but that they just didn’t have the range of satellite imaging, and thus couldn’t pick up on changes in the ground two miles away from the volcano’s open crater.

Better predictions from bigger pictures

This wider range of detection then offers a number of benefits. By monitoring a larger swath of territory, we increase the odds that we’ll detect deformations in terrain that could predict eruptions before people are in danger. The Masaya volcano is known to have blasted ash and lava in a radius of 30 miles during a 1772 eruption, which is probably the kind of thing the two million people that now live within 12 miles of the volcano would like to be ready for.

Beyond human safety, getting more data about volcanic activity will help researchers better understand how volcanoes work in the first place. A build-up of magma two miles from the actual volcano shows that there’s a lot more to these systems than the cone we see on the surface. If more of that system can be tracked and measured with a satellite, it will help build more accurate models about how magma and pressure leads to eruptions in the first place. That will then make future observations, possibly from space, all the more useful in predicting eruptions in other locations around the world.

Source: Wider coverage of satellite data better detects magma supply to volcanoes by David Kubarek, Penn State News

On March 18th, 2018 we learned about

Calculating what kind of push could prevent a large asteroid from colliding with the Earth

Kids supposedly want to know why the sky is blue, but that question doesn’t grip their imaginations like potentially being killed by an asteroid hitting the Earth. It’s not illogical, since knowing that giant dinosaurs were driven extinct by an asteroid strike 65 million years ago makes it clear that such an event is a severe and nearly hopeless scenario. Factor in how hard it is to explain the statistical unlikelihood that a world-ending asteroid would hit the Earth, and it’s easy to see how a kid might think that adults are weird for not worrying about suffering the same fate as the dinosaurs. Thankfully, some adults are thinking about rocks falling from space, and working out possible responses to larger asteroids that might be headed our way.

Bumping asteroids without breaking them

101955 Bennu is an 87-million-ton asteroid that passes by the Earth every six years. It’s close enough that we can track it with some certainty, and have realized that it does stand a chance of hitting our planet on September 25, 2135. At this point there’s only a 1 in 2,700 chance that it will actually collide with Earth, which is four-times lower than your odds of dying in a car crash in the next year, but it’s a good target to explore potential safety measures that could shield us from being hit.

With an object as large as Bennu, there’s already consensus that we need to nudge it, not blow it to pieces. Aside from the difficulty of really obliterating that much mass, exploding a large asteroid would probably just mean the Earth got hit by lots of smaller rocks instead of one big one. That’s arguably better nothing, but an early adjustment to the asteroid’s orbit would be preferable, and given enough time, a tad more practical.

Adjusting orbits with HAMMERs and explosions

To alter Bennu’s orbit, one proposal is to basically launch a large, Delta IV rocket at it, tipped with a 8.8-ton spacecraft called HAMMER (Hypervelocity Asteroid Mitigation Mission for Emergency Response vehicle). As you might guess, HAMMER would fly into an asteroid like Bennu to try to slow it down and alter its orbital path a small amount. If done early enough, even a small push can lead to big shifts in the asteroid’s trajectory years later. It’s a sensible plan until you work through all the math, at which point it becomes clear that 8.8 tons isn’t going push a big asteroid far enough on its own, even if they collide years in advance. One estimate found that 34 to 53 HAMMER spacecraft would be needed to move Bennu to a safer orbit if given a 10 year lead time. If the project started 25 years before 2135, the orbit could be sufficiently adjusted with only 7 to 11 spacecraft, although that still requires an enormous amount of resources with little room for error. Developing HAMMER spacecraft isn’t a totally lost cause though, as one such craft could probably divert a 295-foot asteroid if given a 10-year head start.

If HAMMER doesn’t look practical right now, an alternative idea is to deflect asteroids like Bennu with a nuclear explosion. Again, the goal wouldn’t be to destroy the rock, but to divert it before it gets to Earth. With that in mind, a warhead would be detonated near the incoming rock, hitting one side of the asteroid with radiation. That radiation could vaporize the surface of the asteroid, essentially turning that entire face into a giant, if gentle, thruster. As vaporized rock pushes off the asteroid, it would push Bennu in the opposite direction, hopefully nudging it over just enough to miss the Earth years later.

Planning for all the possibilities

Hopefully this will all be academic by 2135. As that date approaches, astronomers will track Bennu’s orbit and be able to refine their predictions about its eventual path. Even if it never intersects the Earth, figuring out responses is still worth while though. Bennu is one of 10,000 objects that NASA tracks at this point, but they can’t see everything. It’s possible that a ten-year head start to build a response will be all our planet gets, in which case these early planning exercises will save us all a bit of very precious time.

Source: Scientists design conceptual asteroid deflector and evaluate it against massive potential threat by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Phys.org

On March 12th, 2018 we learned about

The Chirocopter drone observes bats from up close by flying among them

Bats are some of the most advanced aerialists on the planet, but they’re hard to observe in the wild. Between flying in the dark and navigating with ultrasonic sounds human ears can’t hear, it’s difficult to make observations about how bats conduct themselves without the help of technology. For a long time, that’s been done with microphones and cameras on fixed towers, although that limits the distance and viewing angles from which researchers could gather data. Now with a modified quadcopter, nicknamed the Chirocopter, biologists can gather much more dynamic, detailed data on bat behavior from within the moving center of colony of flying bats.

Observing from the air

The Chirocopter gets its name from bats’ scientific order Chiroptera, although the device doesn’t bear much resemblance to the animals it’s meant to study. Like other bat observation posts, the drone carries thermal imaging cameras and microphones to listen in on bat’s high-pitched vocalizations. The major advantage is that Chirocopter’s mobility allows it to position these tools in much closer to proximity to the animal’s its observing, allowing researchers to more easily match specific echolocation vocalizations to activity seen on the camera. This should allow them to start to ‘decode’ when a bat uses a certain squeak, and how it then uses that information to plot its trajectory, somehow avoiding collisions with the thousands of swarming animals flying around it.

Of course, Chirocopter’s four propellers aren’t exactly silent either. To avoid overwhelming their recordings with sounds of the buzzing motors, or reflecting the bats’ echolocation, Chirocopter’s microphone was housed in large, Styrofoam ball, which acted as a lightweight but effective insulator. Overall, Chirocopter was likely quite conspicuous to the bats it observed on its initial test runs, but that probably helped avoid any collisions between the flying mammals and the drone.

Chirocopter’s first tests were just outside a cave in New Mexico, recording 84 minutes of activity from a colony of Brazilian free-tailed bats. At heights ranging from 16 to 160 feet above the ground, the drone recorded 3,847 echolocation signals, or around 46 chirps per minute. When comparing that activity to what was seen on the quadcopter’s camera, researchers realized that bats were sometimes diving at speeds of up to 62 miles-per-hour.

Smarter drones and safer bats

The success of Chirocopter is suggesting a number of paths for further development. Once the methods of the bats’ flight are better understood, that data may help inform how we program future drones to fly and maneuver without collisions. In the more immediate future, researchers are looking to expand where Chirocopter will be used, such as near wind turbines that may be a health hazard for bats in flight. Chirocopter’s microphones may also be altered to target other ranges of sound, making the device useful for tracking other animals’ vocalizations, although that would also require a new name, of course.

Source: With “Chirocopter” Bat-Detecting Drone, Scientists Are No Longer In The Dark by Sarah Whittaker, Drone Below

On March 11th, 2018 we learned about

Chewing gum stays off the streets when its polymers are recycled into other plastic products

The average piece of chewing gum is tasty for less than six minutes. You might gnaw longer on the flavorless gum a bit longer, but once you toss it out, the synthetic rubber in that gum will keep it from completely biodegrading for hundreds years. When you add in the fact that cities often spend nearly 70 million dollars per year to clean used gum off of sidewalks and streets, and a few moments of tasty chewing starts to look like a major investment, at least for the community at large. Anna Bullus, a designer from England, has some ideas on how to make a dent in the impact of your chewing and bubble-blowing, which is to start recycling it into products you’ll want to keep instead of sticking on the bottom of your chair.

The fleeting flavor of chewing gum is thanks to ingredients like corn syrup or beet juice, but the component that makes it so durable in our mouths (and on our sidewalks) is polyisobutylene. It’s derived from petroleum, and is most often used for its ability to be air-tight and stretchy at the same time. As such, it turns up in gas masks, air bladders in soccer balls, car tires and even explosives like C4. With a resume like that, polyisobutylene can obviously stand up to being chomped by your teeth, but it’s also really difficult to actually destroy. For instance, swallowed gum will survive a trip through your digestive tract essentially unscathed, which means that the millions of tons of gum that ends up in landfills each year will be sitting there for ages to come.

Gathering used gum

Fortunately, polyisobutylene can also be recycled, albeit not in the blue bins you may have at your home or office. We’ve been recapturing polyisobutylene from old tires for years, and it turns out that extracting it from wads of chewing gum is a feasible process as well. So instead of sitting on sidewalks or in landfills for ages, the synthetic rubber can be remade into reusable cups, galoshes, or even shoe soles. The catch in this kind of recycling is simply getting the gum gathered up in the first place.

Getting people to specifically recycle their gum may be Anna Bullus’ major innovation. While she’s been coming up with attractive products that promote gum as a recyclable material, she’s also made Gumdrop bins, which are special bins meant to exclusively collect old chewing gum. The bright pink, spherical bins are placed at eye level, with the intent of being as conspicuous as possible so people will pay more attention to how they dispose of their gum. They’re obviously not widely available yet, but cities and campuses that have been using them have seen some success. Aside from the rain boots and other products that can be made from the recycled polyisobutylene, there’s also been a reduction in the amount of gum dropped off the ground. Since scraping gum off a sidewalk can be ridiculously expensive, simply giving people more reasons to keep their gum off the ground makes this kind of recycling cost effective.

Tasty tree sap

If you don’t have anything like gum drops in your area, your community would probably appreciate it if you at least switched to chicle-based chewing gum. Chicle is made from tree sap, making it a bit more renewable than anything made from petroleum. It also biodegrades more quickly, so while it won’t be made into shoes, it won’t be sitting on sidewalks for quite so long either.

Source: World Hacks: A surprising new afterlife for chewing gum by Dougal Shaw, BBC News

On March 6th, 2018 we learned about

Subtle audio feedback creates a sophisticated interface for blind video game players

The cars in 2017 racing-simulator Gran Turismo Sport are rendered in exquisite detail, right down to 3D heater vents inside the player’s vehicle. Lighting and reflections on the cars and environment simulate the specular properties of each material on screen. Headlights recreate the exact output of their real world counterparts, coming together for one of the most realistic looking racing games ever made.

And it’s all a waste for gamers like Edis Adilovic.

It’s not that Adilovic is a die-hard Forza fan, or only likes the silliness of Mario Kart, but that he’s blind. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t enjoy car racing games though. There are a handful of racing games that have been developed to include audio-based feedback for vision-impaired players, such as Mach 1 and Top Speed. However, the experience was slightly lacking compared to what sighted players can enjoy, which is where Brian Smith’s racing auditory display (RAD) comes in.

RAD is a system that gives players positional feedback through sound cues alone. The player is best off wearing headphones so that the audio has good stereo separation, as judging how far a sound seems to be coming from the left or right is key to the experience. When a car is getting closer to the left edge of the road, the engine noise will slide to the left, and vice versa. As the player approaches a curve, a turn number is announced, followed by a series of tones heard from the left or right to give players a sense of how far they are through a turn. It may sound simplistic, but these systems communicate a lot of nuanced information to the player, giving them more autonomy over how they play.

Instructions versus information

Previous driver assistance systems in games essentially turned driving games into reflex tests. They would often dictate explicit instructions to the player, such as “turn left now,” which meant that players could only try to hold steady until it was time to react to the next command. Players then had very wobbly-looking routes through a track, and reported that it wasn’t a whole lot of fun. Since developing a sense of mastery is a big part of why video games can be satisfying, there was a lot of room for improvement in previous audio interfaces.

By those metrics, RAD seems to be a considerable improvement, as blind players end up driving their cars on nearly the same routes as sighted players, as they’re able to use their location feedback to make choices about where they want to align their cars, rather than just react. Announcing turn numbers lets players learn a course over time, eventually figuring out which corners can be cut to improve lap times. Once acclimated to the system, blind players using RAD were able to achieve times comparable to casual sighted players. Even more importantly, testers like Adilovic reported having more fun playing with RAD, finally getting the sense of empowerment video games offer most people all the time.

Add-on interface

RAD is still in development at Columbia Engineering, and currently only runs on a custom 3D game used for testing purposes. However, it’s being built as a modular player interface that can be added to other games. Ideally, developers of major titles will be able to simply add it as an accessibility option for blind players, greatly expanding the number of titles those gamers can play. Once the racing interface is figured out, Smith plans to take the same audio concepts to other genres of games, since they should be enjoyable even if people can’t see every detail rendered on the screen.

Source: For blind gamers, equal access to racing video games by Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science, Tech Xplore

On March 5th, 2018 we learned about

The origin and appeal of Lucky Charms’ crunchy marshmallows

In 1963, General Mills Vice President John Holahan was tasked with turning one of the company’s current cereals into something kids would find a bit more “magically delicious.” If a baseline of either Cheerios or Wheaties wasn’t restrictive enough, this new product had to be developed in six months, a fair amount shorter than the two to three years of development allotted to most of the company’s products. Fortunately for Holahan, inspiration apparently struck at the grocery store, when he encountered his favorite candy and decided to add it cereal, leading to the creation of the marshmallow-laden Lucky Charms. It’s a remarkable achievement, as Lucky Charms have now been produced for over 50 years, completely eclipsing the Circus Peanut candies that inspired them.

Unpopular influence

It seems fair to say that most people wouldn’t have been inspired by Circus Peanuts like Holahan was. The peanut-shaped marshmallow-based candy did used to be more popular, but the semi-spongy texture never made it a best seller. Instead of tasting anything like a peanut, the most common flavor is banana, and even that is rumored to have been the result of a “banana oil accident.” On top of all that, they’re also tricky to make, as the wrong amount of moisture will cause them to deform or get crusty. None of this sounds especially appealing when added to a bowl of Cheerios and milk, which is probably why the marshmallows in Lucky Charms were considerably altered before going to market.

Over five decades of marketing marbits

The marshmallows in Lucky Charms have actually been engineered enough to have their own name— “marbits.” To help get kids to try their new food, General Mills launched Lucky Charms with one of the biggest advertising campaigns for a breakfast cereal, pushing ads in comic books, newspapers and on television. Lucky the Leprechaun was invented providing a theme that would then influence the shapes and bright colors of the marbits, apparently making them more appealing in the process. This marketing push worked fairly well, although it should be noted that the allure of marbit clovers, hearts, stars and moons weren’t enough to really spike sales. To really solidify the cereal’s place in the market, the recipe needed extra sugar on the cereal pieces too.

With Lucky and the appeal of marbits being established in kids’ minds and palettes, General Mills only needed to play with the aesthetics of Lucky Charms to keep interest up. Lucky the Leprechaun and the marbits have been given regular updates, giving the cereal a dizzying array of shapes and colors in its history. In roughly chronological order, marbits have been offered as clovers, hearts, stars, moons, diamonds, horseshoes, whales, balloons, Christmas ornaments, candy canes, bells, trees, rainbows, pots of gold, different moons, hats with clovers, shooting starts, hourglasses, Olympic medals, Olympic torches, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, ice skates, snowmen, stockings, mittens, Man in the Moon (blue moons with a yellow-toothed smile), wreaths, presents, crystal balls, locks, bats, ghosts, cauldrons and books. If that somehow weren’t enough novelty for breakfast, other twists have been added to some of these designs, from swirled colors to colors that change when milk is added. If that weren’t enough to hold your interest, chocolate and berry variations of the cereal have been sold, although they don’t seem to have the staying power of the standard, Cheerios-based recipe.

The crunch of sugar crystals

Aside from the supposed “lore” behind each marbit (blue moons, for example, let Lucky turn invisible), the secret to Lucky Charms is probably the particular crunchiness of its marshmallows. It’s obviously an upgrade over the spongy Circus Peanuts, but isn’t exactly what you’d get from your usual puffed marshmallow either. While the latter option would offer plenty of sugar and opportunities for coloring, they would also be more likely to make the cereal go stale in the bag thanks to their internal moisture.

However, this doesn’t mean that Lucky Charms’ marbits are simply dehydrated marshmallows. That’s probably a close approximation, but doesn’t seem to capture the crisp texture of a true cereal marshmallow. General Mills isn’t in a hurry to release the official recipe, but marbits seem to be the result of unstable corn syrup. Unlike the shelf-stable corn syrup you buy at the grocery store, a homemade corn syrup is more likely to crystallize over time. The marshmallows are still dried out, but the crystallized sugar makes sure they develop a satisfying crunch instead of just getting powerdery when eaten.

Of course, if you’re not looking to cook your own batch of homemade marbits, you can always buy a bag of cereal marshmallows instead. It may be lacking in fabulous new unicorns, but if you wanted cereal, you’d be buying Cheerios, right?

Source: Let’s Raise a Bowl to the Little Fella, Recognizing Innovation

On February 26th, 2018 we learned about

A quick look at battery leaks and longevity

“Daddy, why do batteries rot?”

While my third-grader is planning to use potatoes and lemons in an upcoming science fair project, I don’t think my five-year-old was thinking of produce when he asked this question. Most batteries are made, or at least sealed, in inorganic materials, and so they’re unlikely to become lunch for bacteria or fungus like an old apple might. A leaking alkaline battery does look a little like it’s growing mold though, so that seemed like a decent place to start with his question.

Bleeding batteries

The white crust that can build up on a battery is the byproduct of a leak in the battery’s shell. As a battery is used, ages, or just reacts to changes in temperature, the internal chemical reactions produce extra hydrogen gas. In good conditions, that gas can be vented through a gasket at one end of the battery (along the negative end of a AA battery, for instance) so that pressure doesn’t build up in the shell and cause it to burst. If the hydrogen is produced too quickly for the gasket to handle, pressure will build up and rupture the shell, allowing some of the potassium hydroxide, which is the battery’s electrolyte, will start to leak out.

Potassium hydroxide is a caustic base, and can cause eye, skin and respiratory irritation. You don’t want to touch or inhale it, which is tricky since you won’t usually see that it’s there. The white crust you do see on a leaky battery is actually potassium carbonate, which is the product of leaking potassium hydroxide reacting with carbon dioxide in the air. The resulting power is a bit like rock salt, and is basically inert. However, since it’s likely to have bits of the liquid electrolyte on it, it’s still best to avoid handling it.

Lifeless lithium-ions

Batteries that have burst shouldn’t be used, but they might not be “dead” in the way my five-year-old was thinking. Another form of battery decomposition is the way a battery can lose its charge over time, even when it’s not being used. You may have run into this with the rechargeable lithium ion batteries in your cell phone or laptop, assuming you’ve put them down long enough for them to lose their charge.

There are two main reasons for a rechargeable battery to unexpectedly turn up dead. The first is that irregular charging cycles and changes in temperature wear the battery’s cathode out faster. Since the cathode helps control the flow of electrons through the battery’s electrolyte, its degradation reduces how much the battery can be recharged. Eventually, its capacity is reduced, and your device seems to run out of juice in what feels like the blink of an eye. Alternatively, a battery that is left with no charge at all will likely trigger a protection circuit, preventing the battery from ever charging again to avoid putting power through what may be damaged cells.

Used-up alkalines

From the look on my five-year-old’s face, this wasn’t the “rot” he was thinking of. He just wanted to know why batteries in his toys get used up, which is actually a similar scenario to the depleted rechargeable batteries described above. To simplify things a bit, an alkaline battery creates power by moving electrons between the manganese dioxide cathode and the zinc anode. Those materials are consumed in this reaction, eventually leaving the battery with no way to get electricity moving again. So to return to the biological analogies my son seemed to favor, it’s a bit more like the battery runs out of food, although in the case most AAs, we don’t have a way to feed them again later.

Source: Alkaline battery, Wikipedia

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