May 2013



This week, I’ve spotted another clever use for existing scientific technology…

A system for automatically detecting, locating and tracking forest fires makes use of spectrometry, seeking out the distinctive spectral signature of burning organic material.  Deployed in Portugal, the system helps to protect 700 km2 of national park.

Forest fires are a significant problem, responsible for a number of fatalities as well as severe economic impact from loss of property and livestock. In 2012, the US National Interagency Fire Centre recorded 67,744 wild fires, affecting over 9 million acres, and massive bushfires are a common occurrence in Australia. Early detection can dramatically reduce the damage done by a wildfire, and as such, fire detection has often adopted scientific developments.

In the early 20th Century, fires were spotted by human lookouts stationed on towers, who would report back by any means available; carrier pigeon, heliograph, telephones and radio communications all featured. As technology developed, instant aerial photographs and infrared scanning improved detection and satellite communications improved reporting of incidents.

Automated and integrated systems followed soon after, including wireless sensor networks and satellite surveys such as Envisat and the European Remote Sensing Satellite, both capable of identifying hotspots of infrared radiation.

Modern remote fire detectors should be fast, cheap, reliable and able to pinpoint the location of a newly started fire. To try to meet these aims, the Forest Fire Finder, developed by Portuguese company NGNS, incorporates detection, analysis and communication tools into one potentially solar-powered unit. (more…)

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The potential applications of scientific processes are not always obvious at the time of their development…

Microfluidics, the precise control of fluids used in lab-on-a-chip applications, could wick away sweat to help keep you fresh and dry, according to engineers at the University of California, Davis.

Lab-on-a-chip devices rely on being able to move, mix or separate extremely small volumes of fluid to perform combinations of laboratory tasks in a very compact space, often no larger than a few square centimetres. Developing new devices requires a good understanding of how fluids will move through defined channels, and how to manipulate this flow to maintain the required reactions.

Inspired by this, graduate students Siyuan Xing and Jia Jiang in the Micro-Nano Innovations lab (cleverly abbreviated to MiNI) developed a new textile that incorporates hydrophilic threads into a highly-water repelling fabric. The threads attract and channel water, or sweat, allowing it to be moved from its source (in this case, perhaps your armpits) to another location on the outside of the garment. From there, it can simply run off or evaporate, meaning the fabric can remain dry, comfortable and breathable.

(more…)

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Last week a new science festival came to town. For 3 days, 15 different pubs in London, Oxford and Cambridge invited local scientists to share their work with the punters for a Pint of Science. Each city hosted talks on the brain, the body and biotechnology and I attended two of the biotechnology evenings held in Cambridge.

pint of science

On Wednesday, Colin Davidson and Chris Lowe asked ‘Can you live without your mobile?

With the UN predicting that there will be more phones than people in the world by the end of 2014, and the majority of the growth in mobile phone use now in the developing world, both Colin and Chris are interested in exploiting the concept of mobile healthcare for the benefit of society.

Their talks reminded me of some of the research we’ve covered in Chemistry World, including this app for detecting food allergens.  Mobile phone based technologies are (obviously) more portable and often easier to use, so ideal for improving or monitoring health in traditionally poorly served hard-to-reach areas.

Apparently Android is ahead of Apple when it comes to the development of mobile technology for science – good to know; I’m in the market for a new smartphone…

The overriding conclusion of the evening was that the role smartphones play in helping to alleviate modern healthcare problems is only going to increase, so for mobile healthcare at least, the future really is bright.

(more…)

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Camouflage has been used by military forces since the ancient Roman Empire. It seems obvious that matching the colour of your vehicle to the environment will make you a far less visible target. But using modern scientific techniques, camouflage can be far more than simply painting a vehicle to blend into the background.

Foxhound light patrol vehicle in Army Brown. Courtesy of AkzoNobel.

Foxhound light patrol vehicle in Army Brown. Courtesy of AkzoNobel.

AkzoNobel, a paints and coatings company based in the Netherlands, has announced a new paint for British Army vehicles that not only works as camouflage, but can help to protect soldiers against chemical attacks.

British army vehicles have been painted with sand coloured camouflage since before the Second World War. Warfare has changed a lot since then, so it’s about time they were redecorated. To devise a new colour scheme, the Ministry of Defence collected samples of soil and rocks from Afghanistan, along with high resolution imagery. The new hue was given the, perhaps uninspiring, name of Army Brown.

Army Brown is similar to the tan colour used by the US and Australian militaries, and designed to work well both in arid environments and amongst vegetation.

Tasked with developing the paint, AkzoNobel decided to build in more functionality, and designed a water-based solution that would protect the vehicles from corrosion and is capable of absorbing chemical warfare agents. Thanks to the inclusion of a specific resin, the paint can also be peeled off and disposed of when contaminated or if a quick change of colour is required.

(more…)

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 It’s good news!! Chemistry World has been shortlisted for best specialist site for journalism in the Online Media Awards. The awards are well known within the media industry and nominees in other categories include Channel 4 News, Sky News, Al-Jazeera English and the BBC.

Chemistry World is in good company in the specialist category and faces tough competition from the Press Gazette, the Guardian data website and Nursing Times.

The awards ceremony will take place in London on 12 June and we will know then whether we won or not. Wish us luck!

Bibiana Campos Seijo

PS: For the full list of nominations and to see who we are up against you can go here.

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What more can you say about solar photovoltaics (PV)? They basically tick all the boxes – completely clean, cheap, limitless, there’s enough to power the world and, most importantly, they’re bendy – and we are now so close to seeing it do its thing in a big way. In some ways, you could compare it to a promising young athlete (Gareth Bale, perhaps, for the football-minded) – you’re not sure just how good they can become, but they’re already exciting to watch.

Despite this, some feel that the technology is still not getting the support it needs from business to reach its potential. ‘For some reason, [solar energy] is never a big mix in the predicted 2020 or 2050 calculations,’ says Henry Snaith at the University of Oxford, UK. ‘I don’t think people who do the calculations really figure in the potential for technological evolution and development advancement.’

The best is yet to come

Snaith’s recent work certainly demonstrates this kind of evolution. Whilst working on a class of dye-sensitised solar cells (DSSCs) modified with perovskites, he made a crucial discovery. He found that some perovskites, which were being used as the sensitiser component, could themselves transport charge, making one of the key components of DSSCs redundant, greatly reducing energy loss.

(more…)

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Kids’ chemistry sets seem to be making a comeback (check out our great feature on chemistry sets), complete with the old gender stereotypes. Tesco is the latest retailer to come under fire for sexism, after it placed a toy chemistry set in the ‘boys’ category in its online shop. (more…)

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We all love a cartoon. Animation is a fiddly and time consuming but I can remember the fun of making flip books. Taking it up a notch, IBM researchers have some more expensive kit than my notepad and pen, and now they’ve used it to make an ‘atomic movie’.

Scanning tunnelling microscopes can image individual molecules on a metal surface, and drag those same atoms and molecules around to make letters and images. Stop-motion animators today make an image, take a picture, change the image slightly, take another picture, and repeat that cycle until they have enough frames to make a film. Put the two together and you get ‘The boy and his atom’ premièring today on YouTube and certified by Guinness World Records as the smallest ever movie. The cast ? Carbon monoxide molecules.

In total the movie is made of 242 frames and I love how you can see the ripples in electron density that surround ‘Adam’ and his bouncy little friend. I’d love to know how long the entire process took, not just the imaging but the tidying up of the image and the putting it together. Using such big machinery cooled down to low temperatures to keep the molecules where they’re put is pretty expensive and labour intensive, so I’m not sure atomic animation will be taken up by Hollywood just yet. But as a demonstration of the control IBM now has over single atoms and molecules the video is pretty neat. IBM has also released a video with some more behind the scenes detail which you can watch here.

My verdict? Well I just tried to make a flip book of a thumbs up, but I think I’ll leave the animation to the professionals. Good job. What do you think?

Laura Howes

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