Although it’s usually known as the enemy of effective machinery, scientists have found that rust may actually be a key resource for converting intermittent forms of renewable energy into round-the-clock power producers.
Electricity produced by solar or wind energy systems can be stored in electrolyzers, which use catalysts to create a chemical reaction that converts electricity into chemical energy. This energy can then be stored efficiently until it needs to be converted back into electricity. The catalysts that drive these reactions are normally made from rare or expensive materials, such as ruthenium or iridium, but researchers at the University of Calgary have found a way to replace these costly materials with common compounds like iron oxide, also known as rust.
“The classic challenge for renewable energy is that available supply does not always correlate with demand,” the Globe and Mail notes. “The wind may be blowing at 2 a.m., but there is little need for the energy generated at that moment – hence the interest in catalysts that can facilitate renewable energy storage and smooth out the supply problem.”
The ground-breaking discovery has the potential to dramatically increase the commercial affordability and efficiency of renewable energy sources.
“For now, the economics of electrolyzers tend favor large, commercial systems. At this scale, cutting costs even at the level of catalysts could translate into thousands of dollars of savings,” Discovery News explains. “And with the ability to store large amounts of electricity, an energy company could purchase electricity generated at night for a huge discount and sell it the next day during peak times for a premium.”
NASA Launches Drones at Volcano
No, the U.S. hasn’t declared war on volcanoes, but the national space agency is trying to find ways to track and monitor their effects. NASA recently launched 10 flights of Dragon Eye UAVs (decommissioned from the Marine Corps.) to study volcanic eruptions.
Equipped with sensors and cameras, the drones flew through the plume and along the rim of the Turrialba volcano in Costa Rica, an active volcano with a summit over 10,000 feet above sea level. The Dragon eyes are small electric unmanned aircraft weighing 5.9 pounds, with a 3.75-foot wingspan and twin electric engines, and they can carry a one-pound payload for up to an hour within a volcanic plume.
“During the flights, the team compared the data they gathered relating to the concentrations of sulphur dioxide with that from the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection (ASTER) instrument, attached to the Terra satellite,” Wired.com explains. “The plan is to develop computer models using the data to improve global climate predictions, safeguard airspace, and mitigate environmental hazards – such as volcanic smog or ‘vog’ – for people who live near volcanoes.”
NASA’s long-term goal for the project is to analyze drifting ash and gas in volcanic plumes up to 30,000 feet above sea level. Large explosive eruptions can cripple aviation, much as a volcanic eruption in Iceland in 2010 grounded flights across Europe for weeks.
Giant Robot Jellyfish to Patrol U.S. Coasts
Researchers from Virginia Tech College of Engineering have developed a giant autonomous robotic jellyfish that could soon be patrolling U.S. coastal waters.
The robot is five and a half feet wide, weighs 170 pounds, and features eight mechanical legs around a metal chassis. The machine is able to mimic the efficient underwater propulsion of a jellyfish, and even has a silicone coating that resembles a jellyfish’s outer layer. The robot was designed with support from a five-year grant from the Office of Naval Research.
“There are plenty of potential uses for a giant robot jellyfish, besides scaring the bejeezus out of swimmers,” CNET reports. “They could take part in military surveillance operations; handle cleanup duty for oil spills; or keep an eye on changes to the ocean environment. Plus, it’s a giant robotic jellyfish. That’s pretty cool in its own right.”
Here’s a video showing the jellyfish at work:
3-D Printing Synthetic Tissue
Using a 3-D printer, a team of British bio-engineers have created networks of water droplets that mimic the properties of biological cells, essentially producing a blueprint for a synthetic version of human tissue.
“Other scientists have already created 3-D printers that spit out human cells in the shape of living tissues, and some have even created facsimiles of entire organs. But Hagan Bayley, who led [the Oxford] study, thinks that there’s value in creating tissues that look and behave like living ones, but that don’t actually contain any cells,” National Geographic notes. “They would probably be cheaper and without any genetic material, you don’t have to worry about controlling growth or division.”
The 3-D printer has two nozzles that layer tiny droplets – each 65 billionths of a milliliter in volume – into oil at a rate of one drop per second. As each drop descends, it picks up a layer of lipids from the oil and merges with neighboring drops to produce a double-layered membrane, like those in human cells.
The following video shows the amazing printing process in detail:
Have a great weekend, folks.