Science and Technology in the News
by Mad Rocket Scientist
Now that the tool I’ve been furiously running a bug hunt on for the past two months is finally out the door (it was “done” a while ago, until we handed it to a tester who took the idea of failure testing seriously), I thought I’d put up a post about some stuff I’ve seen in the news.
So first up, Materials Science!
Reading in the Economist this morning, I noticed a bit about the Detroit Auto Show and how car companies are moving to lighter materials, primarily Aluminum (AL) and Carbon Fiber Reinforced Plastic (CFRP). Honestly, this has been a long time coming, but why has it taken so long? Well, that depends on which material you are talking about.
With regard to Aluminum, price has been the big reason auto makers have avoided using it, but as our mining and smelting processes improve, as well as our ability to recycle it, the price of AL is coming down, such that auto makers can now see themselves using it. The other reason it has been avoided is because Aluminum is highly reactive and it corrodes easily. Cars with AL chassis will either need extremely durable protective coatings, or the cars will need to be washed almost daily in any area where salt is used on winter roads (when I was a mechanic on Navy LCAC, the AL hulls would get washed top to bottom after every mission, and if we were deployed in a ship, they got washed every other day, mission or no).
Like AL, price has been a big reason Detroit has avoided CFRP, and also like AL, the price of CFRP is coming down such that it is attractive. However, CFRP has one other challenge; it is NOT a metal and working with it can be a challenge. Let me explain it this way; when a certain large aerospace company decided to build its new aircraft out of mostly CFRP, it wound up being over-weight because the engineers, as well as the regulatory bodies involved, treated CFRP as if it was Black Aluminum. They knew how to analyze and certify those shapes and structures, so that is how it was done. They designed the plane almost the same way they designed previous AL planes, and then started finding all sorts of weak spots that needed to be bulked up (adding weight). This might strike you as strange, since CFRP is far stronger by weight than AL or Steel. The problem is, however, that a structure with a shape that best uses the material capabilities of a metal is not usually a structure that is shape optimized to use the material capabilities of something like CFRP. So an AL wing has ribs and spars to carry the load, where the elements are beams of one fashion or another; but a CFRP wing may not do very well in that configuration, and the old ideas of ribs and spars, or even conventional beams, may need to fall away.
Also, CFRP does not fail in any way similar to a metal. Designing a crash worthy car out of CFRP will be a challenge and it will require engineers and designers to let go of decades of experience and learn all new ways of doing things. As will the line workers, who will have to be re-trained. As will the repair shops, who will need to learn how to work with CFRP and AL (one can be welded, although it is more difficult than welding steel, and the other cannot be welded at all and repairs are problematic).
Finally, auto makers have to overcome the consumers idea that AL and CFRP are somehow inferior to good, old fashioned, tough steel. Not a simple task by any measure.
In the world of emerging materials, I present Q-Glass! Not actually a glass, but rather a unique way for metals to order their molecular structure. Practical applications for such a material are not readily apparent, but it’s pretty cool, nonetheless.
Another material that gets a lot of media play without a lot of general scientific understanding is Carbon, good old number 6 (“I am not a number! I am a FREE ELEMENT! Sometimes… OK, rarely… Fine, I admit, I like to hang with my homeys and do complex square dances! I don’t want to be a radical!”). Carbon is interesting (if you never took Chemistry, or have successfully blocked those memories, skip this paragraph) because it is very happy to bond to itself and share electrons, and with 6 electrons available (4 in the outer shell, 2 in the inner), it can form some very interesting bonds and assume some well-ordered shapes. What it really likes to do is form into hexagonal arrangements with other carbon atoms using single or double covalent bonds (sharing one or two electrons between atoms).
So far, Carbon gives us:
- Graphite (pencil lead, lock tumbler lubricant)
- Diamonds (some pretty, most just incredibly hard and useful for cutting other hard things)
- Buckyballs (soccer ball shaped carbon molecules that do a good job trapping other molecules and sub-atomic particles)
- Nanotubes (open up the top and bottom of the Buckyball to form a cylinder and then stack said cylinders to form a carbon nanotube, useful in energy storage, stronger materials, sensor technology, etc.)
- Graphene (unroll a nanotube into a sheet of ordered carbon atoms one molecule thick that looks like chicken wire and has properties similar to Nanotubes)
And now we can add Carbyne to the list, a chain of carbon atoms with alternating double and triple bonds. It’s tougher than diamond, but still flexible, and chemically very stable (the original thought was that it would be explosively unstable). It is not a material we should expect to see used in a macro way anytime soon, but in the world of nano-molecules and machines, this is a pretty big deal, and further proof that being a carbon based life-form is actually pretty cool (stick that in your pipe and smoke it, all you Hortas out there!).
People often make a big deal of the fact that humanity has advanced so far, so fast, but we seem to have stalled a bit in our big advancements, even though we are running with Seven League Boots in the world of electronics and computers. Still, people like seeing large projects move the goal-posts, like moon landings and space shuttles and space stations. Rest assured, engineers the world over have plans and details for scores of massive, amazing projects (think Space Elevator!). We are anything but idle in that regard. However, one of the biggest problems we face in the engineering world these days with regard to such bold projects is that we’ve hit the bleeding edge of what our available materials can do, and it is getting frustratingly difficult to move that edge along. Well, MIT and Harvard are trying to change that with the Materials Project. A massive publicly available database of all known materials and a way to explore new ideas for novel materials to try and add to it. The hope is that people will be able to bend their collective will to not duplicating effort, and to pushing the edge forward. It certainly can’t hurt!
Let’s see, what else do we got…
Oh, how about filling your walls with wax! Crazy, right? Well, if you do it right, the wax absorbs heat during the day and melts, keeping your house cool. Then at night, as it cools and re-solidifies, it gives up that heat and helps heat your house. Of course, gotta do something about the fact that the wax is, you know, flammable. Don’t worry, the article discusses other approaches using Phase Change Materials. It’s worth a read.
A new class of super-capacitors for handheld devices. Gold molecules that can help us capture and use stray CO2. How about a solar ball that just looks cool while producing power, even in moonlight. Another new Fuel Cell for a distributed power grid.
Hrmm, since we seem to be straying into power and environment, let’s keep going with that. Here’s an Omni-directional wave-power generator. That’ll be useful for my Seastead. How about replacing street lights with bio-engineered glowing trees (yes it’s a link from Reason, no the power of Hayek won’t compel you to become a libertarian)? Save power, plant more trees, look cool doing it!
Here we have one article from September saying we are almost at a nuclear fusion break-even, and then in October, we apparently did it. Still a long road to go, but that is a milestone! Good thing too, because, as Germany is busy learning, Wind and Solar just cannot keep pace with our growing energy demands, and the price is too high for the population to bear. Of course, this results in Germany mining and burning more coal.
Related: What to do with Nuclear Waste? Seems we know very well how to safely dispose of nuclear waste. The problem is that such disposal actually, you know, gets rid of it. Too bad the crap is valuable and we don’t want to get rid of it; rather, we want it stored for future use. A four part series linked here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.
A couple of social impact stories. I’ve mentioned this before, but anti-GMO activists do not cover themselves in glory when they agitate against humanitarian efforts. Yes Monsanto, et. al. have done some exceptionally crappy things (aided by Obama et. al.), but not all GMOs are equal, some exist to help alleviate suffering, not line pocketbooks. It is important to pick your battles well.
Speaking of alleviating suffering, how about a 100% effective malaria vaccine! (PS don’t tell the anti-GMO crowd, but vaccines are GMOs!).
Finally, transportation! So SpaceX got their rocket to launch straight up, fly sideways, then return and land on the pad. I don’t think I can adequately express to anyone here just how incredibly difficult it is to do something like that with a rocket. Those engineers seriously earned themselves a round of beer on all of us.
And last but not least, Science Fiction author and Astrophysicist David Brin has a blog where he talks about all sorts of ideas (such as Sousveillance, or the Transparent Society). It’s worth a gander.
OK, that’s all I got right now. I have a post about the Police in the US, but it needs work and I haven’t had the time or energy to devote to finishing it (luckily it will be a relevant issue for a long time, sad to say). Now I need to get back to work, finish commenting the tool I just wrote, and get started on the next one in the queue.