Every now and again, a cool scientific discovery comes along that doesn’t have an obvious apologetic connection but warrants mention simply because it’s interesting. Here’s a selection of three recent scientific discoveries that caught my attention.
Cool Discovery #1: Energizing batteries
Electronics companies continually pursue better ways to power the myriad portable electronic devices on the market such as iPods, cell phones, and PDAs. Longer lasting, more efficient batteries certainly help, but they also require regular recharging. Recharging a device is typically nothing more than an inconvenience. But during prolonged power outages (due to storms, earthquakes, etc.), an uncharged electronic device becomes useless—imagine being without your cell phone in an emergency situation. Energy-harvesting rubber electronic chips could provide just the answer. These chips are composed of piezoelectric ceramic nanoribbons embedded into silicone rubber sheets. Mechanical energy such as walking and even breathing causes the chips to flex. These chips then convert that energy into electrical power—and they do so with great efficiency. The energy harnessed by this cutting-edge technology could possibly power a plethora of small electronics devices, from cell phones to pacemakers.
Cool Discovery #2: Nuclear reactor upgrade
On a safety-related front, research at Los Alamos National Lab (LANL) could lead to safer nuclear reactors. The extreme temperatures, corrosive conditions, and radiation environment surrounding nuclear reactors cause damage to the construction materials used to build the reactors. This damage starts at very small scales (on the order of tens of nanometers) but grows with continued exposure. Unless repaired periodically, the damage can lead to reactor failure and radiation leaks. On the other hand, periodic repairs cost money and cause downtime for the reactor. To solve this problem, LANL scientists generated a computer simulation of certain self-healing nanocrystalline materials made from particles, in this case copper, which have diemsions less than 100 nanometers or 10-7 meters. . The simulations demonstrated that the nanocrystalline materials move the damage from the material surface into the bulk of the material and then repair the damage. Now the question is how to make such self-healing materials.
Cool Discovery #3: Now you see me, now you don’t!
H. G. Wells’ Invisible Man and Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak both display humanity’s long-standing fascination with making things disappear. Real-life scientists move ever-closer to realizing that fantasy. In particular, a team of German scientists has developed a material that cloaked a bump on a gold reflector. Previous work by other researchers demonstrated invisibility in a two dimensional plane or at wavelengths much longer than optical. In the German experiment, the gold bump was invisible at viewing angles up to 60 degrees and using infrared wavelengths near the visible spectrum.
A separate discovery utilizes a different kind of “invisibility cloak”: one that protects structures from the destructive capacity of natural disasters. Objects in the ocean are susceptible to damage from tsunamis. Research shows how a dike structure built in a specific pattern diverts the energy of tsunami waves around the object in the center of the dike—effectively making it “invisible” to the oncoming wave. This technology could protect off-shore platforms, coastlines, and even small islands! Similar studies reveal that concentric rings of plastic could shield land-based structures from earthquake damage.
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