Archive for the 'Technology' Category

Jan 17 2023

Living Solar Cell

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I file this one under – an interesting technology that will probably never have any significant application. I could be wrong, but see what you think. Researchers have created a “Self-Enclosed Bio-Photoelectrochemical Cell in Succulent Plants.” Essentially they made a plant into a solar cell that can generate a small amount of electricity, with the source of electrons being photosynthesis. From the press release:

The researchers created a living solar cell using the succulent Corpuscularia lehmannii, also called the “ice plant.” They inserted an iron anode and platinum cathode into one of the plant’s leaves and found that its voltage was 0.28V. When connected into a circuit, it produced up to 20 µA/cm2 of photocurrent density, when exposed to light and could continue producing current for over a day. Though these numbers are less than that of a traditional alkaline battery, they are representative of just a single leaf.

That is certainly a tiny amount of current, but the idea, obviously, is to wire in thousands of leaves, and have a field with thousands of plants. The potential advantage of this approach is that you can essentially grow your solar cell. Most of the work is done by the plant itself. This could potentially reduce manufacturing costs in both money and carbon. In addition the researchers were able to harvest a small amount of free hydrogen from the process. That is potentially more useful – if this could be optimized to produce green hydrogen, there are many possible advantages for a green economy.

But there are some significant down sides as well. First, the use of platinum cathodes is a non-starter. Whenever the word “platinum” appears in reporting about a new battery or solar technology, I know that is not going anywhere. NASA may be interested in use in satellites and probes, but they are not going to be mass produced for general use, and will not contribute significantly to changing our economy over to near-zero carbon.

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Jan 10 2023

AI Drug Development

As a science communicator with a skeptical brand, I often have to walk a fine line. New scientific and technological developments can be amazing, but they are often surrounded by hype. I want to encourage enthusiasm for science, and I want to share the amazement and joy I experience following the latest discoveries. But it is very important to separate hype from reality, to temper our enthusiasm with realism, and to not get ahead of the science. It can be a very narrowly calibrated sweet-spot, one I have to consciously pay attention to.

I have found it particularly challenging to hit this sweet spot with artificial intelligence (AI), especially recently. The past few years in particular have seen some amazing advances in AI applications, and in 2022, applications like DALLE-2, Midjourney, and ChatGPT showcased the power and disruptive potential of AI to the public. It’s hard to oversell how powerful these narrow AI applications can be, but at the same time it is easy to overhype them in other ways. I think it often comes down to this – people generally (even experts, historically) underestimate the potential of narrow AI (AI applications that have a specific function and are not conscious or have general intelligence). At the same time they tend to overestimate how soon we will see general AI, or they extrapolate linearly current AI advances into the future.

For example, with applications like Midjourney and ChatGPT, how far will applications like these go with extrapolations of current technology? They certainly will be better in 5 and 10 years, but will they transform into something truly creative? And does that even matter? Will these applications run into limits, or will they advance to be indistinguishable from human creators?

Meanwhile, programmers continue to show off the power and potential of current narrow AI technology, fueled by massive data sets and ever more powerful computers. Perhaps the most transformational applications are those running in the background of public consciousness, working to accelerate research and technological development. One area where AI is becoming particularly powerful is drug development.

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Dec 23 2022

A Quick Review of Facilitated Communication

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Facilitated communication (FC) is a technique that involves a facilitator supporting the hand or arm of a person with severe communication disabilities, such as autism or cerebral palsy, as they type on a keyboard or communicate through other means. The theory behind FC is that the facilitator’s physical support allows the person to overcome any motor impairments and communicate more effectively. However, FC has been the subject of considerable controversy and skepticism within the scientific community.

One major issue with FC is that there is little scientific evidence to support its effectiveness. Despite being used for decades, FC has never been rigorously tested in controlled, double-blind studies. This is problematic because it is impossible to determine whether the messages being communicated through FC are actually coming from the person with disabilities or from the facilitator. Some researchers have suggested that FC may be susceptible to ideomotor effect, which is when unconscious movements or responses are influenced by a person’s thoughts or beliefs. This means that the facilitator’s own thoughts and beliefs could be influencing the messages that are being communicated.

Another issue with FC is that there have been numerous cases where the messages communicated through FC have been shown to be incorrect or misleading. For example, in one well-known case, a woman with severe communication disabilities was believed to have communicated through FC that she had been sexually abused as a child. However, subsequent investigations revealed that the allegations were not true and that the facilitator had likely influenced the woman’s responses.

Given these concerns, it is important to be cautious about the validity of FC as a means of communication. While it may be tempting to believe that FC can provide a way for people with severe communication disabilities to express themselves, the lack of scientific evidence and the potential for misleading or false messages make it difficult to rely on FC as a reliable source of information. Instead, it may be more productive to focus on other, more established communication methods, such as augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices or sign language.

In conclusion, while FC may be a well-intentioned approach to helping people with severe communication disabilities communicate, the lack of scientific evidence and the potential for misleading or false messages make it difficult to rely on as a reliable source of information. Until there is more rigorous scientific evidence to support the effectiveness of FC, it is important to approach it with skepticism and consider alternative methods for communication.

Now…

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Dec 20 2022

Best Science News 2022

It’s always fun and interesting to look back at the science news of the previous year, mainly because of how much of it I have forgotten. What makes a science news item noteworthy? Ultimately it’s fairly subjective, and we don’t yet have enough time to really see what the long term impact of any particular discovery or incremental advance was. So I am not going to give any ranked list, just reminisce about some of the cool science and technology new from the past year, in no particular order. I encourage you to extend the discussion to the comments – let me know what you though had or will have the most impact from the past year.

Fusion

I have to start with the fusion breakthrough, mainly because it is the most recent in my memory and I suspect it will top a lot of lists. The National Ignition Facility managed to achieve what they call “ignition” by producing fusion that created more energy than the energy put into the fuel. This is clearly a milestone. However, this particular setup, referred to as inertial confinement, which uses 192 high power lasers to implode a container which has the fuel, is likely a dead end when it comes to commercial energy production. It was never really designed to be that, just an experiment in fusion. I doubt this will be the method we ultimately use for commercial fusion, which I also predict is still many decades away. We will see in a generation how this news is looked back upon, if at all.

Space

This was a good year for space exploration. The successful launch of Artemis I marks the beginning of our return to the moon. The SLS rocket worked, and it’s more powerful than even the Atlas V. It carried the Orion capsule past the moon and back again, successfully returning to the Earth. Returning to the moon now seems inevitable. Artemis II will launch in 2024 and carry people to the moon but not land. Artemis III will land people on the moon, in 2025 or 2026. It’s going to be exciting to watch.

The other big space news, of course, was the James Webb space telescope (JWST), which is already sending back mind-blowing pictures of the universe. We are just at the beginning of its career, which will likely last 20 years. Can’t wait to see what else it sends us.

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Dec 13 2022

Genetically Engineering Sex Selection

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I wrote one year ago about a potential technique to create offspring in animals used for research or food of just one sex. For example, the chicken industry culls several billion male chicks each year because they have no commercial value. They don’t lay eggs and they are not optimal for growing for meat. Now Israeli researchers announce they have developed a second entirely different method of sex selection in chicks.

Sex selection in animals can be extremely useful, to avoid unnecessary culling and also to increase efficiency. Often research requires either all male or all female animals of a specific genetic strain, and so those in the litter of the unwanted sex are simply culled. Of course the chicken industry dwarfs this practice with billions culled each year. The technique described a year ago involves inserting a CRISPR kill-switch into the DNA of the parent animals. Half of the kill switch is implanted in the male and half in the female. If the two halves come together in the offspring, then the embryo never develops beyond the 16-32 cell stage. For a chicken, the egg will never hatch.

For mammals, like mice and rats, females have XX chromosomes while males have XY. The female half of the kill switch is inserted into both X chromosomes of the mother, while the other half is inserted in the X chromosome of the father if you want all male offspring, or the Y chromosome if you want all female offspring. Birds are the opposite – the females have WZ chromosomes, while males have ZZ, but the principle is the same.

The Israeli team has developed a different method. They only have to genetically engineer the female parent, inserting a gene for a protein on either the W or Z chromosome for chickens. For female-only offspring they insert it on the Z chromosome of the mother, so that only the ZZ males will carry it. The resulting eggs are then exposed to a blue light for several hours, which activates the protein and prevents further development. Therefore, only the female eggs hatch. Also, the resulting females are not genetically altered in any way, since the gene was only inserted into the male chromosome. The researchers still need to publish their results so that they can be independently verified. The technique should work, but there are details we would want to see, such as the success rate. Even if a small percentage of males survive, that could still be a huge problem for the production process.

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Dec 12 2022

Fusion Breakthrough – Ignition

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Much of the discussion about how we are going to rapidly change over our energy infrastructure to low carbon energy involves existing technology, or at most incremental advancements. The problem is, of course, that we are up against the clock and the best solutions are ones that we can implement immediately. Even next generation fission reactors are controversial because they are not a tried-and-true technology, even though fission technology itself is. It certainly would not be prudent to count on an entirely new technology as our solution. If some game-changing technology emerges, great, but until then we will make due with what we know works.

The ultimate game-changing energy technology is, I think, fusion. Fusion technology replicates the processes that power stars, mostly fusing hydrogen into other forms of hydrogen and ultimately into helium. Massive enough stars can then fuse helium into heavier elements, with more massive stars fusing heavier elements until we get to iron which cannot be fused to produce net energy. But even fusing the lightest elements takes a tremendous amount of heat and pressure, which has proved technologically difficult to achieve on Earth. We have been inching closer to this goal, however, and recently the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California has inched over a significant milestone – ignition.

I wrote just last year about the NIF achieving another milestone, burning plasma. The pace of advancement seemed pretty brisk, and I speculated about how long it would be to achieve the next milestone, ignition. Well, here we are. You can read that article for background, but quickly, the NIF uses a fusion method called inertial confinement – an array of 192 powerful lasers to produce inward pressure sufficient to cause a vessel to implode, with the implosion causing sufficient heat and pressure to produce fusion. The NIF was built in 2009, but it took significant upgrades before it was powerful enough to achieve fusion in 2021. Some of the energy from fusion contributed to further fusion, a process called burning plasma. But in that experiment fusion contributed only 70% of the energy necessary to sustain fusion. That means that the fusion process was still a net energy loss. (Those powerful lasers require a lot of energy.)

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Dec 01 2022

Ancient Shipwreck Reveals Complex Trade Network

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People tend to understand the world through the development of narratives – we tell stories about the past, the present, ourselves, others, and the world. That is how we make sense of things. I always find it interesting, the many and often subtle ways in which our narratives distort reality. One common narrative is that the past was simpler and more primitive than it actually was, and that progress is linear, objective, and inevitable. I remember watching The Day the Universe Changed with James Burke when in one episode he declared that the Dark Ages were a time of great technological advancement. This seemed at odds with what I had been told, but I later confirmed this view that the so-called “Dark Ages” were maligned by later Renaissance writers congratulating their own progress.

The same is true of our image of technological advancement, that it’s objective and inevitable. This became more clear to me when researching my latest book, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Future. One story in particular is the sequence of the material ages – the stone age giving way to the copper age, then bronze age, and finally iron age. Metallurgy was clearly a huge technological advance, and did progress significantly over time. But this sequence was not strictly linear, older technologies persisted alongside newer technologies for different applications, and sometimes technological shifts are more of a lateral move than a clear advance.

The biggest example from the sequence above is the transition from relying mainly on bronze for tools and weapons to iron. Iron, it turns out, is not objectively better than bronze for many applications. Bronze is actually a very useful metal – it can be cast, it is easy to work with, it is strong, and it doesn’t rust. That last feature, not rusting, makes it superior to iron for many applications, even into the Renaissance (until the development of stainless steel). Bronze is actually stronger than iron and can be worked more easily, at a lower temperature. Until the development of carbon steel, there was no reason to favor iron over bronze. Why, then, did the change happen?

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Nov 28 2022

The Challenge of Green Aviation

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There is some good new when it comes to decarbonizing our civilization (reducing the amount of CO2 from previously sequestered carbon that our industries release into the atmosphere) – we already have the technology to accomplish most of what we need to do. Right now the world’s electricity generation is 63.3% from fossil fuels. We have the technology, through wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric, and nuclear power, to completely replace this if we wanted to.  We can debate the quickest and most cost-effective path, but there are many options that will work.

About 84.3% of total energy used by the world, however, is from fossil fuel. This includes not only electricity, but transportation, heating, and industrial use (other than through electricity). Of the transportation sector, 92% is ground vehicle (cars, trucks, and shipping). Battery electric vehicle technology is now more than capable of being the primary option for most users, with ranges >300 miles for passenger cars and 500 miles for shipping. Prices still need to come down, but they will as production ramps up.

Another way to look at this is that 73.2% of our carbon footprint comes from all energy, 18.4% from agriculture, 3.2% from waste, and 5.2% from direct industrial processes (like making cement and steel). Agricultural, waste, and industrial sources of carbon are complex, and these mostly require technological advances that we will hopefully chip away at over the next few decades. But we can rapidly eliminate that 73.2% from energy if we want to, with the exception of the 8% of transportation carbon from aviation. That remains a tough nut to crack.

The challenge of aviation is that jets and planes need to be light and have limits on size, so they require an energy source that has high energy density (energy per volume) and specific energy (energy per mass), more so than ground transportation. Right now the optimal fuel for those two features is hydrocarbons. This means that the best option for greener aviation is using biofuels (sustainable aviation fuel). Biofuels can be used with existing aircraft and have similar energy density and specific energy to existing fuels. The carbon footprint is usually not zero, but is much lower than fossil fuels. The carbon footprint of biofuels depends on the feedstock used and the methods of growing used. There are also land and water-use issues with mass-producing biofuels for aviation or other purposes. The best options are those that use waste feedstock.

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Nov 23 2022

Closed Loop Pumped Hydro

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I have been writing a lot recently about global warming and energy infrastructure. This is partly because there is a lot of news coming out of COP27, but also because both here and on the SGU there has been some lively and informative discussion on the issue. Also, this is a very complex issue and as people raise new points it sends me down different rabbit holes of information. I am trying to develop the most complete and objective picture I can of the situation.

The goal, of course, is to rapidly decarbonize the energy infrastructure of the world. We not only need to do this, we need to do it quickly and cost-effectively. Further, we need a plan for the next 30 years, and essentially we don’t have any second chances left. If we want to stay as far below 2.0 C temperature rise as possible, and even shoot for that rapidly fading hope of keeping below 1.5 C, then we have one shot. This means that if we have to course correct after 20 years, this may still improve the situation but will likely be too late to meet our climate goals.

I find that the most compelling arguments from experts to be those who advocate essentially doing everything. We should pick the low-hanging fruit, do all the win-wins, but also hedge our bets. If anything we want to overshoot.

One contentious issue has been whether or not it is feasible and advisable to plan on a 100% renewable energy infrastructure. The conversation gets complicated by some technical terms, so let me define them here.

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Nov 21 2022

Artificial Muscles

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There are some situations in which biology is still vastly superior to any artificial technology. Think about muscles. They are actually quite amazing. They can rapdily contract with significant force and then immediately relax. They can also vary their contraction strength smoothly along a wide continuum. Further, they are soft and silent. No machine can come close to their functionality.

In engineering parlance, a muscle is an actuator – a component that causes part of the machine to move. Boston Dynamics has produced some impressive results using standard actuators, but even their robots’ movements tend to be, well, robotic – a bit jerky and stilted. Compare that to the movements of a jaguar, for example. Engineers have been working on developing muscle-like actuators for years, with some progress but far from ultimate success.

One of the properties of a biological muscle is called the force-velocity relationship – the faster the muscle fibers contract the more power they produce. A second is the force-length relationship, essentially the longer the muscle the more power it creates. As a recent study points out:

However, it still remains a challenge to realize both intrinsic muscle-like force-velocity and force-length properties in one single actuator simultaneously.

In addition to these properties, to be more muscle-like we would need an actuator that can smoothly vary its power and also have soft components. There are other important properties, such as intrinsic response to load (does the system react to a load by contracting), static force (maintaining a load without moving), and the strength of the material used (how much of a strain can it take). Researchers, therefore, have been essentially trying to duplicate the structure and function of actual muscle to achieve all these properties. In the above study, for example:

This study presents a bioinspired soft actuator, named HimiSK (highly imitating skeletal muscle), designed by spatially arranging a set of synergistically contractile units in a flexible matrix similar to skeletal musculature. We have demonstrated that the actuator presents both intrinsic force-velocity and force-length characteristics that are very close to biological muscle with inherent self-stability and robustness in response to external perturbations.

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