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- Next Nature Researcher
When moss photosynthesize, they release nutritious fats, carbs and proteins into their roots to feed colonies of helpful, symbiotic bacteria. In the process of breaking down these compounds, the bacteria release electrons. In other words, the create electricity. Researchers at the University of Cambridge have figured out how to harness these minute electrical charges into an emerging technology called biophotovoltiacs (BPV).
Created by Alex Driver, Carlos Peralta, Paolo Bombelli, the prototype Moss Table produces enough electricity to power a small lamp. According to Peralta, the Moss Table “suggests a world in which self-sustaining organic-synthetic hybrid objects surround us, and supply us with our daily needs in a clean and environmentally friendly manner.” Small devices could be powered by houseplants or backyard gardens, while larger arrays of plants might hold promise as a new renewable source of energy, especially in remote or impoverished communities.
Think the moon looks lonely up there? In a decade or so, NASA may add a tiny playmate to keep the moon company. Last April, researchers from the Keck Institute for Space Studies presented a proposal to “capture” an asteroid and drag it into the moon’s orbit. The moon’s new mini-moon would provide NASA astronauts with a laboratory for studying the feasibility of mining asteroids for metals, using their oxygen, hydrogen and carbon to refuel spacecraft, and for figuring out ways to prevent a Cretaceous-style extinction event. Compared to the moon, the 500 ton, 20-foot asteroid would not be very big, but would be a feat of engineering to astonish the world.
Via Discover Magazine.
While Next Nature is hard at work normalizing the idea of eating lab-grown meat, a group of British design students are working to bring insect-eating into the mainstream. Though worm and insect protein is vastly more efficient and eco-friendly than vertebrate protein, most Westerners dismiss it as unclean and unappetizing. In their video, the group maps out an eight-year plan to bring bugs from a gourmet curiosity to a familiar brand – one that customers might even prefer over pork or chicken. The amount of research the group put into making palatable, marketable bug food is remarkable: from molecular-level ingredient paring to designing a network of urban insect farms, it seems they’ve left no log unturned in the quest for gastro-grubs. For a detailed break-down of the project, visit here.
Thanks to Stephen Perry for the heads-up.
A 23-year-old in China was recently puzzled why his online avatars were being killed off at disproportionate rates. After asking around, the young man eventually discovered that his own father was behind the virtual murders. It turns out that the father was concerned that his unemployed son had become addicted to gaming, and reasoned that hiring an online hitman would be as terminal a solution as a real-life assassin. The only problem? Virtual avatars usually have a pesky supply of extra lives.
With rising energy costs and our growing arsenal of iPads, smart phones, and wearable monitors, we’re always on the lookout for new ways to power our devices. Perpetua Power, an Oregon-based startup, has invented a chip that can turn heat into energy – specifically the heat from your own body. When placed against your skin, the one square-inch TEGwear thermoelectric generator outputs up to three volts. One generator is enough to power headphones or a pedometer; a battery of them sewn into your favorite jumpsuit might even provide enough power for a phone. Maybe the TEGwear chip will be the intermediate step between old-and-tired fossil fuels and our fat-powered Energy Belt.
Image and story via Fast Company.
Designer Robbie Tilton’s keyboard replaces the impersonal metal of a keyboard with lush imitation moss and wooden keys. Though it’s a good example of fake nature, Tilton’s keyboard is about more than just plastic replacements for the real thing. According to Tilton, “Tech products are often built in a clean, glass, pristine style. They’re not touchable. Tactilely, they are not that interesting.” The keyboard reintroduces some of the tactility of old nature into our unresponsive, button-filled environment.
Thanks to Daniel R. Witte for the heads-up.
Birds use whatever they can get their beaks on to build nests, including cigarette butts. Surprising new research from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México shows that instead of giving baby birds a bad case of smoker’s cough, the cigarettes in their nests might actually be helping them. The more used-up filters a nest had, the fewer nest-dwelling parasites called it home.
Since nicotine is a natural pesticide, it’s likely that trace remains of the chemical in the butts are keeping away the creepy-crawlies. The researchers still don’t know if the birds are using butts because they’re good insulators, or if they’re somehow aware of their anti-parasite properties. Birds in more wild environments have been known to line their nests with strong-smelling, bug-repelling herbs, so it’s possible they’re instinctively attracted to that special cigarette stink.
If you’ve turned to plastic Christmas trees because the real ones leave piles of needles behind, science is working to bring live conifers back into your holidays. A $1.3 million project in the US is trying to find which individual trees hold onto their needles most tenaciously. A team headed by plant pathologist Gary Chastagner is subjecting thousands of branch samples to a “rub test” and then meticulously counting the number of needles that fall off. By comparing shedding versus non-shedding pines, the team hopes to find the piece of RNA responsible for needle loss – and to develop an easy field test for identifying that trees that lack the offending nucleotide.
Genetic testing aside, the story of the commercial Christmas tree in the US is an interesting one. A tradition introduced by German immigrants, Christmas trees were mostly gathered from wild or semi-wild conditions until the 1970s. Unfortunately, harvesting all the young conifers from a forest has the side effect of letting understory shrubs and weeds to go wild. Competing for light against these quick-growing plants, pine tree saplings grew tall and spindly – a shape that’s not particularly festive. Christmas tree farms sprung up to provide the perfectly conical trees that no longer existed in the wild. Hypernature at its most festive.
No, those aren’t plastic trinkets or beads from a craft store. They’re diatoms, a group of single-celled algae, and unlike almost all of our current technologies, they can rapidly and reliably synthesize nanoscale structures. Diatoms produce incredibly complex silica shells that are riddled with a regular pattern of pores. As can be seen above, diatoms come in an incredible variety of shapes – around 100,000 species in all. Strong, easy and quick-growing, and virtually unlimited, diatoms are drawing the attention of scientists who are interested in nanotechnology.
As with many nanotechnologies, research into the use of diatoms is in its infancy. These microscopic algae have been studied for their ability of synthesize novel electrical devices, including new ways to detect pollution. A chemical process that converts their silica shells into silicon creates ready-made nano electronics. Since biologically active molecules attach to the pores in their shells, they may eventually function as a “lab on a chip” for detecting antibodies, traces of diseases, and other chemicals in the body. Diatoms also show promise in the fields of optics. Solar energy cells with diatom-based coatings capture three times more electrons that standard coatings. Genetic manipulation might refine the diatom’s natural precision engineering to create bespoke parts for nanosensors and nanoscale machines from diatoms. Further proof that guided growth is the future of manufacturing.
Sure, there’s a pill to make your sweat smell like roses, but what about a pill that makes your poop look sparkly? Part of a high/low culture collaboration with Tobias Wong and Ken Courtney, Gold Pills are a $425 indulgence that promise to fleck your doo with bits of 24K gold. First exhibited in 246 and Counting at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, these pills are now available in an unlimited edition from the CITIZEN online store.
Though disgusting, sewage is an abundant, nutrient-rich resource. Researchers at the University of West England have taken advantage of this fact by creating a robot that turns human poo into energy. The EcoBotIII has an artificial stomach that consists of layers of microbial fuel cells that digest sewage and transform them into fuel. In case you’re wondering, the robot has a “solid waste excretion mechanism“, so it can poop just like you do. The hope is that autonomous robots such as these might patrol sewer systems looking for problems, or be put to work in sewage treatment plants to drive down treatment costs.
Thanks to Yuri for the heads up.
Loosely regulated and largely untested in clinical trials, herbal medicines nonetheless do big business based on their image of being wholesome, natural, and backed by millennia of tradition. Common sense tells us that it’s healthier to swallow a flower than a pill, and wiser to consult with a kindly herbalist than with a white-coated doctor.
Biomimicmarketing is so persuasive that it can sell poison, so long as the poison is “natural”. Aristolochia, a mottled purple flower, was a common medicine in ancient Rome, Greece and Egypt, and is still an ingredient in traditional chinese remedies and in certain weight-loss supplements. Prescribed for ailments as wide-ranging as childbirth, arthritis and snakebites, for thousands of years doctors and patients managed to miss the flower’s most potent property: It will kill you.
Long for farm-fresh eggs on the table? Dream about going to bed each night worrying about racoons, rats and foxes? Like the feeling of scraping chicken shit off your hands? For the low price of €1,174, upscale cooking supplier Williams-Sonoma will furnish you with a rustic chicken coop for your backyard flock.
Like children’s playhouses, the complete line of Williams-Sonoma chicken coops enable suburbanites and weekend warriors to enact deeply emotional fantasies – except here, they’re not fantasies of princely wealth or futuristic space exploration, but of preindustrial simplicity. Most fantasies are aggrandizing. The bourgeois farmer’s fantasy is one of humility, of dirt and labor. And as with all fantasies, this one is only loosely grounded in fact.
Retailers have long known that certain smells get us into the buying mood – cinnamon or warm cookies around the holidays, for instance – even if we’re shopping for completely unrelated items. Now, scientists are beginning to zoom in on the exact smells that get consumers reaching for their wallets. Working with colleagues in Switzerland, researchers in Washington State University tested three different scents on unsuspecting Swiss shoppers to figure how smells might be tied to sales.
While the idea of an orange-basil-green tea mixture may sound alluring, a plain orange scent outperformed both the complex scent and no scent at all. The orange scent was so powerful, in fact, that customers exposed to it spent an average of 20% more. This effect is likely due to the brain’s limited bandwidth for sensory input. Any effort spent teasing apart subtle aromas, no matter how enticing, is less effort that a shopper can devote to picking out the perfect necktie. A simple scent provides the ideal level of stimulation – not too much, but not too little.
Science is enabling us to fine-tune our retail environments to make them the ideal habitats for buying. Next time you’re at the mall and get a whiff of orange, just follow your nose to the check-out line.
Story via Boing Boing. Image via Flickr user OrangeSmell.
The Namib desert gets less than a half an inch of rain per year, yet the stenocara beetle manages to survive in these punishing conditions. The beetle’s secret lies in an array of microscopic bumps and valleys on its shell. The bumps are hydrophilic (water-attracting) and the valleys are hydrophobic (water-repelling). During foggy days, tiny water droplets accumulate on the hydrophilic bumps. Once a droplet is big enough, it tumbles off the bump down into a hydrophobic trough, which funnels the water to the beetle’s mouth. Now, a company called NBD Nano is hoping to mimic stenocara’s shell to create the world’s first self-filling water bottles.
NBD Nano co-founder Deckard Sorenson says that “We see this being applicable to anything from marathon runners to people in third-world countries, because we realize that water is such a large issue in the world today, and we want to try to alleviate those problems with a cost-efficient solution.” According to him, this technology could harvest three liters per square meter per hour in an area with 75% humidity. Unfortunately, the self-filling water bottle is still years from being realized, if ever. For those of you who are impatient for a solution to the world’s water crisis, GrabCAD is holding a contest to design devices that harvest water from the air.
Story via BoingBoing. Image via GrabCAD.
In vitro meat has been billed as a way to end animal suffering, put a stop to global warming, and solve the world’s insatiable demand for animal protein. There’s no doubt that our hunger for meat is driving cataclysmic climate change, habitat loss, and overfishing. Things need to change, and change fast. But is meat cultured from animal cells, grown in a lab, and exercised with electric pulses the change we need?
Earlier this year, Mark Post of Maastrict University announced his plan to produce a €250,000 burger. While the cost is astronomical, Post promised that economies of scale would eventually make the lab meat cost-competitive with conventional flesh. However, like jetpacks, underwater cities and orbiting colonies, many scientific breakthroughs that once seemed inevitable have proven to be possible, but economically unfeasible.
We can do it. We just can’t afford it. Below are the top four reasons to believe that in vitro meat isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
In more next natural news from Hurricane Sandy, Anheuser-Busch, parent company of the American beer brand Budweiser, has been canning water for victims of the disaster. The company temporarily converted one of its manufacturing facilities from churning out bland beer to life-giving water.
The result is uncanny: A beer can with the familiar eagle logo of Budweiser, now filled with essential, non-alcoholic water. In a world where corporations often have more power than governments, it is not surprising that in times of crisis they respond faster than “official” organizations, and are better equipped to do so. See also ColaLife.
With areas of New York still without electricity, BioLite recently came to the rescue of Brooklynites by setting up a charging station with camping stoves that convert excess heat to electricity. As global warming contributes to intensifying storms, perhaps hipster survivalists will turn to small-batch, artisanal electricity, just like their great-grandparents used to make.
Joking aside, the mass migration of electricity-seeking New Yorkers from neighborhood to neighborhood proves that mobile connectivity is moving down near the base of our Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. After satisfying our needs for food, water and warmth, we immediately make sure that there’s enough juice in the iPhone to call home and check the weather report.
Via Boing Boing