The Light Side: UMass Researchers Defend "Oddball Science"
February 28, 2014
Think you have it tough justifying your department budget at work? Try being a biologist working in basic science research as government spending pressures threaten to slash funding.
Writing in the February issue of the journal BioScience, on behalf of the American Institute for Biological Sciences, Patricia Brennan and three University of Massachusetts Amherst colleagues urged fellow scientists to protect funding for basic biological research projects -- some of which they admitted seem frivolous at first glance. With the federal budget shrinking, scientific programs on robotic squirrels and snail sex have become easy targets for cuts in an increasingly political environment around science funding, the UMass Amherst group said.
But Brennan et al argued that studies on duck penises, shrimp running on a treadmill, and unusual animal morphologies or behaviors have societal benefits and lead to innovation -- perhaps not immediately but definitely in the long run.
Calling on critics to rethink that such research is wasteful government spending, Brennan pointed to the numerous advances that have arisen in the fields of biomimicry, medicine, agriculture, military technology, and even criminal justice as a result of unusual animal studies. For example, she and fellow authors cited Geckskin, a resuable and glue-free adhesive that can hold 700 pounds and was invented at UMass Amherst after decades and hundreds of studies in gecko toepads and anatomy. High-performance body armor for soldiers came from studying the structural properties of mantis shrimp appendages.
“The appeal of such criticism is obvious… especially in tough economic times and when compared with applied science intended to cure disease, develop renewable energy, or improve agriculture,” the authors wrote. “The problem with this view is that it assumes that human innovation arises in a logical fashion from planned research. History says otherwise: Innovations often arise from unlikely sources.”
Brennan, in an interview with a UMass Amherst staff writer covering the story, said, “Basic science has increasingly come under attack, and there is a growing perception that studying ‘odd’ science ideas with no clear societal benefits should be stopped.”
Contrary to applied science research, which attracts private-sector investment with the expectation of profiting from direct applications, basic science research relies heavily on government funds. Commitment to unusual research with no defined benefit makes such proposals tougher to justify.
Noting statistics by the National Science Foundation, the UMass Amherst researchers said funding for organismal biology research declined from 28 percent to 17 percent of all science grants between 2001 and 2010. They added that the overall budget for such studies has increased minimally since that time.
The group of researchers said that if the inspiration, curiosity, and creativity in such projects were nixed, the ability to study nature’s ability to innovate and a major driver of the economy will suffer. And, if nothing else, they noted that such “oddball” research has the practical benefit of engaging the public for the scientific community. “[T]he abundance of organismal biology science stories reported in the news shows that the studies have mass appeal This suggests that they can play a role in education,” they wrote.
It is likely that when you think of muscles and strength, you think more along the lines of Arnold Schwarzenegger than Steve Urkel. That is where you’d be mistaken. Engineers are flexing their intellectual muscles by showing that small can be strong. Really strong.
An effort to improve artificial muscles has led to the discovery that simple materials can achieve extraordinary tasks. In article entitled “Artificial Muscles from Fishing Line and Sewing Thread,” an international research team shows that these two low-cost materials can achieve some remarkable tasks.
The idea with artificial muscles is to do what natural muscle does: contract under an applied stimulus. Finding materials that behave this way is not easy, as natural muscle is an extremely complex material. Achieving the same or more force during contraction without having to scale up the process is ideal.
The recent advancement uses coiled nylon as the functional material. This starting material is what is commonly used for fishing line or for sewing thread. The coiled nylon is created by holding one end of a filament and twisting it to create a uniform coil. When heated, that coil will contract. Sets of these coils are then woven together to form a “muscle.”
While the processing just described seems simplistic, the process really is simple. Where processing sophistication is often associated with complexity, this is a welcome breath of fresh air. The process is highly adaptable, too. By adjusting the nylon filament diameter, coiling parameters, weaving characteristics, etc, these artificial muscles can be tailored for a variety of uses.
The number of uses is expected to be inflated by the low cost and high strength. The authors state that these artificial muscles can contract by 49 percent and lift loads 100 times heavier than the human counterparts. The improvement this presents over traditional movement, especially in robotics, comes from reduced weight and complexity versus electric motors and hydraulic and pneumatic systems, along with greater configuration flexibility.
Because the strength at small size is very good, the ability to incorporate fine movement in tight spaces is possible, and the shape change effect under stimulus can be useful for more than actuation, as well. Artificial muscles are not new, but they have traditionally had limitations in regard to cost and performance, which are being addressed through continuing work. Here we have innovative ideas proving that small can be strong and strong can be cheap.
The video below shows the contraction of one of these "muscles" used to lift a weight.
This Isn't Your Father's Power Suit
Imagine a suit that can charge your phone. No, it won’t have solar panels built into it. Instead, it will be made of 3D fibers with piezoelectric properties, thanks to research being done by Dr. Navneet Soin and his colleagues at the University of Bolton in the UK. Their latest paper in the journal Energy and Environmental Science describes a wearable energy harvesting technology made of piezoelectric fibers. Unlike other micro-sized piezoelectric devices, which are brittle, uncomfortable, and costly, Dr. Soin’s “3D spacer technology” makes fibers that are resilient, lightweight, and inexpensive.
Instead of being added to the material, the energy harvesters are woven directly into the fabric. According to Soin and his colleagues, the knitted piezoelectric generator consists of polyvinylidene fluoride (PVDF) monofilament spacers (the vertical objects in the image) sandwiched between electrodes made of silver-coated polyamide multifilament yarn layers. The fabric is produced using warp knitting or welt knitting, both of which are standard textile industry techniques.
How powerful are they? With pressures of only 0.10 MPa (14.5 psi), the material generates up to 5 microwatts per square centimeter. That’s enough to power small wearable sensors and low-power personal electronic devices.
Further work will optimize the energy production and ensure durability. The research team believes that this technology could be commercially available within five years. This could give new meaning to the term “power suit.”
Las Vegas is not only a vacation mecca, it is the business convention capital of the United States. So with that comes naturally some unconventional but amazing team-building experiences, in a town known for its excesses. Along that vein, perhaps the next time you and your colleagues are in Sin City and in search of off-hours activities, playing with Caterpillar bulldozers in a giant sandbox may be in the offing.
Located about 10 minutes from the Strip, Dig This bills itself as "America's first heavy equipment playground," with a stable of 10-ton track-type bulldozers and 15-ton excavators ready to be driven and turned loose. Established a couple of years ago, Dig This has become a major Vegas attraction not only for vacationers but corporate and business groups looking for a fun way to bond.
Groups can buy supervised 90-minute or 3-1/2-hour experiences or take over the lot for the whole day. They typically build giant mounds, push and stack gigantic tires, and dig ginormous trenches together (or in games against each other) on the heavy construction haulers. Some groups opt for the adrenaline rush of "Excavator Basketball."
It's safe to say that such experiences will come with some hootin' and hollerin', and are more motivating than those teeth-gritting naked team retreats.
Top photo credit: University of Massachusetts Amherst