Saturday, December 27, 2014

Eruptions, comets and a see-through mouse all captured the imagination in 2014

By Nature
Incredible discoveries in 2014 arose from researchers' relentless pursuit of answers about the world. From the far reaches of space to the depths of the oceans, Nature's selection of this year's most striking images document both natural disasters and technological wonders.


Dawn and dusk in Iceland turned blood red earlier this year as volcanic pollution filled the skies. The Holuhraun fissure — near the erupting Bárðarbunga volcano — belched out thousands of tonnes of sulphur dioxide every day, surprising scientists who were expecting ashy expulsions similar to the Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2010.


Jupiter's moon Europa, as it would look to human eyes. NASA reprocessed a series of images taken by the Galileo space probe in the late 1990s, adjusting the colours to create this realistic, high-resolution view of the moon's icy terrain.


Mount Ontake, an active volcano some 200 kilometres west of Tokyo, has long been a popular tourist destination in Japan. Despite careful monitoring by scientists, an eruption on 27 September caught many off guard, spraying ash and debris over the surrounding region and killing more than 50 people. Rescue teams battled thick ash to search for survivors in remote lodges near the mountain's peak.


Tentacles coiled in a pose never seen before, this ‘dumbo octopus’ of the genus Grimpoteuthis was captured on camera in April in the Gulf of Mexico. Researchers on the US vessel Okeanos Explorergot this rare glimpse of the creature by piloting a remote-controlled submersible to a depth of some 2,000 metres.


The world was on tenterhooks in November as the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft attempted to put the Philae lander on the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. Before successfully completing the tricky manoeuvre, Philae sent back this picture of itself closing in on its target as they both moved through space at more than 50,000 kilometres per hour.


The 12,000-year-old skull of a teenager from Mexico sits on a rotating platform, enabling divers to take a three-dimensional scan of the remains. Found deep inside submerged caves in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, the skull is part of a remarkable collection of ancient bones that are helping to shed light on how humans spread across the Americas. Difficulties in removing the remains meant that divers had to analyse them in situ.


These staring eyes of a Phidippus audax jumping spider secured third place in Nikon’s Small World photography competition for Noah Fram-Schwartz of Greenwich, Connecticut.


Why scan bodies if you can just make tissue transparent? This mouse has been rendered see-through by a team in Japan using a chemical cocktail and computational imaging, one of a growing number of methods that reveal organs without dissection.


It remains unclear why Japanese artist Azuma Makoto attached a bonsai tree to a balloon and launched it into the upper layers of the atmosphere. But the result of his ‘Exobiotanica’ project, which has now sent numerous plants into space, was a series of beautiful pictures like this one.


These picolitre-sized silicone-oil droplets were snapped by researchers at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. Lighting up the droplets with 8-nanosecond-long laser pulses, the team took images 600 nanoseconds apart to capture how the falling droplets formed.


The eerie green glow in this image from Emas National Park in Brazil emanates from the bioluminescence of click-beetle larvae living on a termite mound — and from the flight paths of adult beetles. Photographer Ary Bassous’s long exposure made him the winner in the invertebrates category of this year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, run by London's Natural History Museum and BBC Worldwide.

365 days: Images of the year 2014

Simplifying The Energy Needs For The Future

Photo: Shah Tissue Engineering and Additive Manufacturing Lab and Northwestern University

Making ceramic fuel cells with a 3-D printer would be a quick and easy way to manufacture the devices and could lead to new fuel cell designs that do a better job of converting a gas into electricity, according to researchers at Northwestern University.

The lab of Ramille Shah, assistant professor of materials science and engineering, has developed new inks that a single 3-D printer can use to create the individual components of the solid oxide fuel cell—cathode, anode, electrolyte, and interconnects. The inks are a mixture of ceramic particles that make up 70 to 90 percent of the mix, a binder, and a cocktail of solvents that evaporate at different rates. The ink for the electrolyte, for example, is made of yttrium-stabilized zirconia (YSZ) particles, while the anode is YSZ plus nickel oxide.

When the machine prints a line with one of these inks, a highly volatile solvent in the mix evaporates immediately, so the printed piece turns from a liquid to a solid instantly. The other solvents, however, evaporate more slowly, leaving the printed line hard enough to maintain its shape but soft enough that the next layer melds with it to form a single piece. The printing is done at room temperature, but just like when making a ceramic vase, the printed piece has to be fired at up to 1250° C to make it denser and smoother. To make sure the different parts of the printed fuel cell all shrink at the same rate during firing, the team tweaks the composition of the individual inks, and adds iron oxide in some layers.

“We can get really densely packed particles in the printed structure,” says Adam Jakus, a Ph.D. student in Shah’s lab, who described the work at the Materials Research Society’s fall meeting in Boston this week.

Solid-oxide fuel cells operate at high temperatures, so they don’t require catalysts and work with a variety of gases, including methane. They could be used to provide power to the electricity grid.

Using 3-D printing to build fuel cells of a standard design could be an easier manufacturing process than having to join the separate parts together, says Jakus. But, he says, the real promise could come from 3-D printing’s ability to create shapes that standard manufacturing processes can’t. For instance, they’ve printed flat sheets of the ceramic materials, which can be rolled or folded into different shapes before firing. Instead of the standard stack of fuel cells, they could be built in concentric circles, or be interwoven, creating more surface area and therefore easier transport of charge. Jakus, though, focuses on the inks, and will leave it up to colleagues who are experts in fuel cells to experiment with new designs.

Meanwhile, he’s developing similar inks for other uses, such as 3-D printed ceramic bone replacements that mimic the mechanical properties of actual bone. The team has also made an ink that allows 3-D printing of graphene.

Engineers Invent Inks for Making 3-D Printed Fuel Cells

This is How Jaguar Wants to Make Blind Spots Disappear

Jaguar's getting into the vaporware game with this augmented reality windshield concept, but the fundamental idea is sound … and really cool. Jaguar imagines that instead of a small area for a HUD, images could be projected on the whole windshield. This is what Jaguar thinks its Virtual Windscreen concept might look like in function, and the video below shows three interesting applications of the technology.

First, there are the racing and braking line overlays—you're familiar with these if you've ever played a console racing game with the assists on. As in the game world, this could be a nice, safe introduction to a new course, and one that wouldn't put an instructor at risk. Next, there are the ghost car overlays, also familiar from racing games. Lastly, the virtual cone function is a neat idea and could be a helpful training tool. Imagine a very fast straight and an unfamiliar car; perhaps a nice virtual cone chicane could help keep things under control without having to physically alter the course.

A few months ago, Jaguar showed off a virtual windscreen concept that brought displayed the sort of information overlays normally seen in racing games on a physical windshield via a head-up display.

Think braking lines, race-competitor names and times, and a lap timer—all projected onto the glass. This is where Jaguar Land Rover's head is at, and so plans to cook up a "virtually transparent" A-pillar shouldn't come as much surprise.

The technology at the core of the "virtual urban windscreen", as JLR calls it, is much the same—projected overlays on the windshield track objects of interest—in this case a pedestrian at risk of getting hit—and highlights them for the driver.

The new bits here are the screens embedded in the A-pillars, which allow the system to track and project a warning halo around the object even as it passes behind the pillar and onto the windshield.

External cameras capture the images displayed on the pillars. Think of it as n evolution of the sort of tech you may have seen already in the form of around-view monitors that stitch multiple camera views together to create a comprehensive overhead POV.

Other neat details in this demonstration are transparent B-pillars for over-the-shoulder lane checks, HUD overlays showing POIs, traffic-light countdown timers, and "follow me" ghost-car navigation guidance that replaces arrow-based navigation cues.

This is a research project, not a demonstration of existing technology, which is why it's rendered in CGI just like the original virtual windscreen concept.

Jaguar is looking into the technology but there's no word as to whether a real-world demonstrator has been constructed yet. Hopefully, Jaguar invests enough to get this off the ground, because anything that helps keep drivers' eyes up and on the road is welcome.

The Virtual Screen OF Jaguar

The Flying Drones And The Future

The sky may look very different in a few decades. This week’s Big Future takes a look at how the world will change as drone technology spreads, filling the world’s rooftops and skies. Tech giants like Amazon and Google are testing them out as delivery robots, but those early implementations are just scratching the surface.

A flying security guard

Companies like Skycatch are currently developing drones that could act as automated guard dogs. When a motion detector is triggered, the drone would take flight and check out the scene, beaming back a live video feed so you can decide whether to follow up with a call to the police or even an onboard weapon.

An eye in the sky

The Supreme Court has ruled that citizens have no expectation of privacy when it comes to aerial filming — so for the time being, camera drones are fair game. It’s easy to imagine tabloids using them as propeller-powered paparazzi, tasked to follow a celebrity’s every move around town.

Be the drone

Things really get wild when you start to combine drones with virtual reality. Add an Oculus Rift to a quadcopter with an HDMI output and you can experience a drone’s-eye-view of a race over a raging river or inside an active volcano.

The Big Future: How will drones change the skies?

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