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ESA Tests Satellite-Snagging Nets for Orbital Trash Removal

Space junk is a serious problem, and not just in the movies. While avoiding the creation of space junk in the first place by designing spacecraft from the beginning to deorbit themselves is probably the most realistic long-term solution, the interim may require active measures to mitigate some of the trash that's already up there.

The European Space Agency has been developing a mission to capture and deorbit a piece of debris, and their latest test involves launching weighted anti-junk nets in microgravity.

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Electromagnetic Arc Generator Could Protect Against Shockwaves with Plasma

Over the past few millennia, we humans have been steadily perfecting more and more violent ways of hurting each other. At the same time, we've been almost as steadily perfecting more and more reliable ways of protecting ourselves.

We’re at the point where physical barrier technologies are capable of stopping most projectile weapons, so predictably, weapons that rely on shockwaves (that can pass through physical barriers) are becoming more prevalent. In response to this, Boeing has filed a patent on a system that can mitigate or prevent damage from an incoming shockwave, using electromagnetic arc generators. Here’s how it works.

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Iceland's Giant Genome Project Points to Future of Medicine

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When the first Viking explorers began settling Iceland, none could have imagined that their descendants would pioneer the future of modern medicine by surveying the human genome. Fast forward 1000 years to today, when an Icelandic company has revealed its success in sequencing the largest-ever set of human genomes from a single population. The new wealth of genetic data has already begun changing our understanding of human evolutionary history. It also sets the stage for a new era of preventive medicine based on individual genetic risks for diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

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Path to Better OLEDs, Organic Solar Cells Found

Researchers say they might have a way to  significantly enhance the performance of  organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) and some kinds of solar cells. They’ve discovered how to precisely order the molecules that make up the organic glasses that serve as the active semiconductor components in these devices.

Glasses are solids that lack the regular order of crystals. The most familiar kind of glass is based on silica, but other kinds of glass exist as well, such as organic glasses based on carbon.

Although one might expect the disorderly structure of glasses to orient their molecules in no particular direction, recent studies have found that molecules in organic glasses can be oriented in specific ways. This orientation can improve the efficiency and lifetime of the devices they are used in.

Organic glasses are typically produced in vacuum chambers from vapors that condense in thin films on a substrate. Now researchers find the substrate temperature is the key factor behind controlling molecular orientation within those glasses.

Scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Chicago investigated the effect of substrate temperature on glasses of three organic semiconductors often used in electronics. They found they could easily and routinely impose order on these organic glasses by controlling substrate temperature, and that all three molecules could produce glasses with high levels of molecular orientation. The molecular orientation that results in the glasses is a remnant of the molecular orientation present in a liquid layer that can form on the substrate.

The researchers suggest these findings could optimize the performance of nearly any device based on organic glasses. They detailed their findings online 23 March in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Controlling Qubits in Silicon at Picosecond Speeds

Among the many candidates for storing quantum bits, or qubits, are electrons, atoms, molecules and quantum dots. However, over the last few years, researchers have been focusing on storing quantum bits in silicon as a promising avenue towards realizing a quantum computer. Now, researchers from the University of Surrey, University College London, Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, the Radboud University in Nijmegen, and ETH Zürich/EPF Lausanne/Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland have reported the ability to control the quantum state of qubits embedded in silicon and readout the result by a simple electrical measurement. A paper describing their findings appears in the 20 March edition of Nature Communications

The qubits are phosphorus atoms trapped inside the silicon layer. Because the spin state of the outer electron of these atoms can remain in a state of superposition of the two possible spin states, these qubits are therefore called “orbital qubits.” They can retain a superposition state for a fraction of a millisecond before they are disrupted. The researchers demonstrated that they could switch the quantum state of the phosphorus atoms with laser pulses in about a picosecond (10-12 s), which is a thousand times faster than achieved with previous similar experiments. The advantage of these short pulses is that in future computers, operations could be performed easier on qubits that retain their quantum state for a very short time, says Ben Murdin, a physicist at the University of Surrey and corresponding author of the paper.

The researchers also reported that they could determine the quantum state of a qubit by measuring the amount of current passing through the silicon. The point of the experiment, says Murdin, is to show that it’s possible to use completely standard commercial silicon, and a simple voltmeter for the readout of quantum superpositions. "It's the first electrical detection of orbital qubits in silicon,” he says. And the only piece of fancy equipment that’s required is the laser.

Murdin notes that electrical readouts of quantum states have advantages for other quantum technologies too. "I don't know how to make a quantum computer, but this method would help enormously if you want an atomic clock or a quantum magnetometer,” the Surrey professor says.

Solid State Refrigerators

Materials that cool and heat when stress is applied and released could led to new solid-state refrigerators that are more efficient and environmentally friendly than conventional fridges, researchers say.

Air conditioners, refrigerators, and freezers burn through energy, accounting for roughly one-third of all electricity that U.S. homes use. A normal cooler uses a pump to squeeze refrigerant gas, turning it into a liquid. This liquid then expands in tubes lining the cooler, taking heat with it. Unfortunately, the most effective refrigerant gases are freon-based compounds banned internationally 15 years ago because they destroy the ozone layer. Freon’s replacements are hardly better; they are environmentally unfriendly global warming gases more than 1,000 times worse than carbon dioxide.

To sidestep these environmental effects entirely, scientists at the Technical University of Denmark explored so-called elastocaloric materials that change temperature when they are compressed and when they decompress. They detailed their findings in the 24 March online edition of the Journal of Applied Physics

When squeezed, the materials’ crystal structures change, they heat up, and subsequently expel this heat into their surroundings. When the stress is removed, and the crystal structure of the elastocaloric material reverts, the material cools down and draw heat away from the compartment that is to be cooled. The researchers basically turned the shape memory effect, where a change in temperature can make a material change its shape, on its head.

The Danish researchers found that wires made from a super-elastic alloy that was 48.9 percent nickel and 51.1 percent titanium could be repeatedly compressed and decompressed with a reproducible elastocaloric effect over a wide range of temperatures. They added that a 2014 U.S. Department of Energy report suggested that elastocaloric cooling shows the most potential among all non-vapor-compression cooling technologies.

The scientists noted that over the expected lifetime of 10 years, an elastocaloric material has to stand up to 100 million cycles of compression and decompression. Although no elastocaloric material is currently this durable, the Danish group says that recent nickel-titanium thin films doped with copper and cobalt have shown promise. That formula has withstood more than one million cycles, while showing good levels of cooling function and no fatigue.

The scientists say the next step is to build a prototype to demonstrate the potential of these materials. 

Scientists Want to Mine Sewage For Technologically Important Metals

Human waste is a useful source of energy. Schemes abound for converting treated waste into biogas for heat, generating electricity, or conversion into biofuels for cars and rockets.

Apparently, the contents of your toilet are also a goldmine. Solid waste can contain copper, silver, gold as well as rare-earth elements like palladium and vanadium that are used in electronics. Scientists at the US Geological Survey are now trying to find out just how much of these useful metals Americans are flushing down their toilets every year, and how they could be recovered. They are presenting details at the American Chemical Society national meeting this week.

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Light Emitting Fibers for Crazy Clothes

Thin light-emitting fibers that can be woven into textiles could be made into glowing clothes and other wearable electronics, researchers at Fudan University in Shanghai say.

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First Prototype of a Working Tricorder Unveiled at SXSW

“Don’t worry, I’m not going to take off all my clothes,” said Robert Kaul, president and CEO of Cloud DX, as he unbuttoned his shirt in front of a crowd at SXSW Interactive last week.

Kaul was showing off the components of his entry in the Tricorder Xprize, the $10-million competition that requires teams to develop a sci-fi medical scanner worthy of Star Trek. Each device must be able to diagnose 15 different medical conditions and monitor vital signs for 72 hours.

Cloud DX was ready to unveil its prototype at SXSW, but all ten finalist teams must be nearly done tinkering with their devices. They’re required to turn in their entries on 1 June in preparation for a six-month round of consumer testing.

The XPrize is partnering with the medical center at the University of California, San Diego on that consumer testing, since it requires recruiting more than 400 people with a variety of medical conditions. Grant Campany, director of the Tricorder XPrize, said he’s looking forward to getting those devices into hands of real patients. “This will be a practical demonstration of what the future of medicine will be like,” said Campany at that same SXSW talk, “so we can scale it up after competition.” 

Around his neck, Kaul revealed a sort of electronic collar that forms one component of the Cloud DX system; the other pieces of hardware sat on a table before him. In a one-on-one with Spectrum just before the talk, Kaul gave me a closer look at his Tricorder prototype, which has four pieces:

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NASA's LEAPTech X-plane Will Fly with 18 Electric Motors and Tiny Wings

NASA’s X-plane program has, for the past 70 years, demonstrated some of the most exciting and innovative aircraft ever flown, including rockets and robots, scramjets and spacecraft (and lots more). It’s always worth paying attention when a new X-plane is announced, and NASA has just given us a hint of what the X-57 might beLEAPTech, an experimental demonstrator that replaces the single large motor on light aircraft with 18 (!) tiny ones, all mounted on an impossibly skinny little wing.

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