Category Archives: Science News

New polymer can store natural gas more efficiently

A better method of storing natural gas could prove to be one of the positive factors in truly counteracting the rise in global temperature caused by the misuse of coal and oil as fuels.

This is why two researchers, Mert Atilhan of Texas A&M University and Cafer Yavuz of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), are developing a new polymer that can store natural gas more efficiently than the methods used so far.

As Atilhan himself explains, “if natural gas can be stored effectively, it can be used easily, even in remote areas,” i.e. those areas where coal and oil extraction are usually the only methods used.
The traditional method of storing natural gas in compressed form requires either high-pressure compression or extreme temperature reduction.

In this new process, natural gas is absorbed by an absorbent, porous polymer at relatively low pressure, i.e. 100 to 900 psi, and at room temperature, which solves both problems.

Atilhan himself explains the path his research has taken: “With this work, we are introducing a new plastic-based material that can store natural gas very effectively. We have broken the world record for the storage of natural gas and largely exceeded the target for materials to be considered feasible, as set by the United States Department of Energy (DOE). It also has a very economical production cost, which makes it even more attractive to use in widespread applications.”


New sensor detects ice accumulation in real time

A new sensor that detects ice accumulation in real-time has been created by a group of researchers from the engineering school of the University of British Columbia Okanagan.

The sensor is capable of detecting the precise moment when ice begins to form on a surface. The new device was developed by two different teams, one dealing with microelectronics and the other with materials science, particularly ice and water repellents.

The new sensor could be used mainly on aircraft, which are usually very sensitive to ice that can form on the wings, as well as other sensitive parts of the aircraft, putting passengers and crew at risk. Even today, ice detection systems on aircraft can still be considered “rather rudimentary” and refer to mostly visual inspections on the ground before take-off, as reported by Kevin Golovin, one of the researchers involved in the project.

The new sensor, based on a planar microwave resonator, according to the researchers who created it, is mechanically robust, sensitive and easy to manufacture, as reported by Mohammad Zarifi, another UBCO researcher involved in the project: “The sensors provide a complete picture of ice conditions on any surface, such as an airplane wing. They can detect when water hits the wing, track the phase transition from water to ice and then measure the thickness of the ice as it grows, all without altering the wing’s aerodynamic profile.”

In addition, according to the same researchers, the fact that it uses technologies such as radiofrequency and microwave allows the same sensor to operate wirelessly and without physical contact.

Tissue model in laboratory reveals role of blood-brain barrier in Alzheimer’s disease

A tissue model that mimics the effects of beta-amyloid plaques, those protein aggregates are known to be a leading cause of Alzheimer’s disease, on the blood-brain barrier was developed by a group of engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The scientists, who then published a study in Advanced Science, showed the damage that beta-amyloid plaques do to this area of the brain. This damage causes harmful molecules in the bloodstream to enter the brain. In particular, researchers have shown that thrombin, a coagulation molecule normally present in the bloodstream, can enter the brain and damage neurons because of this damage.

Roger Kamm, a professor of mechanical and biological engineering at MIT and one of the authors of the study, explains the results his group obtained as follows: “We were able to clearly demonstrate in this model that beta-amyloid released from Alzheimer’s disease cells can actually compromise barrier function and, once compromised, factors are released into brain tissue that can have negative effects on the health of neurons.”

Kamm and his colleagues, including Rudolph Tanzi, a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical, began working on the project several years ago with other researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital. They grew large amounts of beta-amyloid proteins in the laboratory and at the same time developed brain endothelial cells, those cells that form the blood-brain barrier.

These two types of tissue, after 10 days of cellular growth, were connected by collagen. At this point, the researchers discovered that within 3-6 days the molecules could spread from one culture to another. In particular, the beta-amyloid proteins secreted by the neurons began to accumulate in the endothelial tissue which caused the breaking of the blood-brain barrier and allowed thrombin to pass from the blood into the Alzheimer’s neurons leading to their death.

“We were able to demonstrate this bi-directional signaling between cell types and actually solidify things that had previously been seen in animal experiments, reproducing them in a model system that we can control with much more detail and better fidelity,” notes Kamm himself, who adds that this new platform could offer new possibilities with regard to the treatment of Alzheimer’s.


Small endoscope without lenses captures 3D images of objects smaller than a cell

A self-calibrating endoscope that can produce 3D images of objects is the device created by a group of researchers at the Technical University of Dresden.

The endoscope is capable of producing images of objects smaller than a single cell and without using lenses or optical, mechanical or electrical components. With its 200 micron wide tip, this new instrument could be particularly useful for imaging within living tissue. However, the very small and thin tip, essentially the size of a needle, could allow a variety of applications not only in medicine but in research in general.

Traditional endoscopes use small cameras or light (via optical fibres) to acquire images from inside the body. It is the fiber that allows the use of very thin and small endoscopes that can therefore creep into more places.

However, these devices require quite complicated calibration processes just as the fiber collects the images. The researchers at the German institute have solved this problem by adding a very thin glass plate, which is only 150 microns thick, at the tip of a small bundle of consistent fibres.

Consistent fibers are optical fibers commonly used in endoscopy applications. The beam of those used for this new device is about 350 microns wide. When the core of the fiber is illuminated, a beam is emitted which is then reflected and can be used to measure how light is transmitted.

This function, called optical transfer, then provides the data to represent the 3D images. This new approach “allows both real-time calibration and minimally invasive imaging, which is important for in situ 3D imaging, lab-on-a-chip manipulation of mechanical cells and deep tissue optogenics in vivo,” says Czarske.

As Juergen W. Czarske, one of the researchers involved in the project, explains, this endoscope can have “minimally invasive” access as well as producing high contrast images.

Regarding possible uses, Czarske himself says: “The endoscope is likely to be particularly useful for optogenetics – research approaches that use light to stimulate cellular activity. It could also be useful for monitoring cells and tissues during medical procedures, as well as for technical inspections.”


Airborne microplastics also pollute isolated snowy areas

Pollution by microplastics does not only affect the seas and not just the more or less inhabited regions. A new study confirms that many particles of microplastics can also be found in remote regions such as the Arctic or the Alps.

According to the study, published in Science Advances and conducted by a group of researchers at the Alfred Wegener Institute, these particles are transported by air because they are very light and generally very small in size. The researchers analyzed various samples taken from isolated areas of Bavaria, the Swiss Alps and the Arctic and found high concentrations of microplastics in all of them.

While the enormous quantities of microplastics present in the oceans are usually transported by rivers that make them travel long distances, as many long distances they can make when they are transported by air and then deposited on the ground by precipitation. This is particularly the case with snow that seems particularly suitable for storing high concentrations of microplastics, as Gunnar Gerdts explains: “Snow is extremely efficient when it comes to washing the microplastics out of the atmosphere.”

According to the researchers, the fact that this plastic is transported by air in remote snowy regions is corroborated by the fact that pollen can travel long distances from mid-latitude to the Arctic. And the pollen grains have more or less the same size as microplastics particles. The same thing, among other things, can be done with the finest Saharan sand which, transported by air, can travel great distances.


Scientists discover regulatory gene of schizophrenia

A group of researchers at the Philadelphia Children’s Hospital announced that they had identified a gene that “acts as a major regulator of schizophrenia” when the brain develops during its early stage.

The researchers used special computational tools by analyzing or large collections of brain tissue. These results may be useful in treating schizophrenia, considered one of the most complex and difficult to treat neuropsychiatric disorders.

Researchers used two independent datasets of biological samples from schizophrenic parties or control subjects. They then used an algorithm developed by Columbia University to reconstruct gene transcription networks and identified the TCF4 gene, considered by the researchers themselves as a regulator of schizophrenia.

Kai Wang, a researcher at the Philadelphia Hospital and first in charge of the study, says “since hundreds, or even thousands, of genes can contribute to the risk of schizophrenia, it is essential to understand which are the most important, by controlling the central networks of the disease. Identifying the key regulators can help us achieve priority goals for new treatments in the future.”


Scientists discover that Papillomavirus can also be transmitted via blood in rabbits and mice

The disease transmitted by the papillomavirus is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases in humans. It is estimated that 79 million people are infected in the United States alone.

This disease is usually harmless and disappears on its own but sometimes it can cause effects such as warts on the genitals and in more severe cases it can progress in cervical or oral cancer. According to a new study, published in Emerging Microbes, papillomavirus can be transmitted through blood to rabbits and mice, i.e. to animals on which researchers have carried out experiments.

According to researchers at the State University of Pennsylvania, this means that there is a risk that human papillomavirus (HPV) may also be transmitted through blood, which would introduce new dangers, including those related to blood donation.

Jiafen Hu, Professor of Pathology and Medicine at the university and one of the authors of the study, states in the press release that since people receiving blood transfusions are often more immunologically vulnerable, the possibility of adding human papillomavirus to the list of viruses for which blood donors perform tests should be seriously considered.

In addition to this, of course, further research should be carried out to understand if the papillomavirus can be transmitted through the blood also with regard to humans. Animal experiments are useful to a certain extent because the human strain of papillomavirus is different from that of animals.

Hu himself adds in the press release: “We know that HPV is common and that not everyone who contracts it will have cancer. The difficult part is that many people who are carrying HPV and who are asymptomatic still have the potential to spread the virus. If a person is receiving a blood transfusion due to a health problem, you don’t want to accidentally add another one to that list.”


Study confirms that Icelandic walruses became extinct because of humans

The Icelandic walrus lived on the island of Iceland for thousands of years but died out shortly after the arrival of the first Norwegians around 870 AD. Researchers believe it was no accident: these animals were hunted and above all the ivory of their horns was marketed. Now a new study, published in Molecular Biology and Evolution, provides us with new information about it.

Icelandic, Danish and Dutch researchers have in fact analyzed the ancient DNA of some collections of bones preserved in the museum of Icelandic natural history and have performed carbon 14 dating of some remains of walruses. The study confirms first of all that this animal lived in Iceland for thousands of years and disappeared with the arrival of the first groups of Norwegians.

The researchers also compared the DNA of these walruses with contemporary walruses and confirmed that it was a single genetic progeny distinct from all other populations of both contemporary and historical walruses. According to Morten Tange Olsen, a researcher at the University of Copenhagen and one of the authors of the study, this research shows one of the first examples of extinction of a marine animal following the arrival of groups of human beings and following the exploitation carried out by the latter.

The ivory of walruses was in fact considered a luxury commodity and was in great demand both during the Viking era and during the Middle Ages in the rest of Europe. There are numerous documents describing carefully decorated walrus tusks that were marketed from Europe to the Middle East and on to India.

“More than 1000 years ago, commercial hunting, economic incentives and commercial networks were of sufficient size and intensity to cause significant and irreversible ecological impacts on the marine environment, potentially exacerbated by a hot climate and volcanism,” says Xénia Keighley, researcher at the GLOBE Institute in Copenhagen and the Arctic Centre in Groningen and principal author of the research.


Study analyzes palorchestides, an extinct giant marsupial that lived in Australia

A new study published in PLOS ONE, by researchers at Monash University, Australia, focused on marsupial palorchestides. It is an extinct group of Australian megafauna that has lived for most of the last 25 million years, mostly in eastern Australia.

They had large sizes, skulls similar to tapirs and large claws. The study focused in particular on the morphology of the limbs. After examining 60 fossils of marsupials of various ages, the researchers confirmed that the marsupials have undergone several evolutionary changes over millions of years.

The last specimens lived could have weighed more than 500 pounds. This weight was held up by very muscular limbs, especially the anterior ones, which, among other things, had also adapted to scrape leaves and branches. The forelimbs, in fact, had elbow joints fixed at an angle of about 100°: in this way, the legs, permanently bent, served as tools for collecting food.

“This study allowed us for the first time to appreciate how enormous these mega-marsupial palorquestids were, also providing the first complete view of a strange anatomy of the limbs unprecedented in the world of mammals. This research reveals even more the diversity of the great unique marsupials that once roamed Australia,” the authors of the study state in the press release.


New laser device to detect anti-personnel mines can also be used on vehicles

A new antipersonnel mine detector will be presented at the Laser Congress of the Optical Society held in Vienna. This detector could solve the problem of efficiency with regard to the detection of anti-personnel mines in the ground in moving vehicles.

Usually, vehicles are used to speed up the detection of mines, but this also lowers the level of accuracy. In a vehicle, even the best detectors are disturbed by sound or vibration from external sources. The Laser Doppler vibrometers (LDV), a very sensitive and promising new technology for the detection of anti-personnel mines and other buried objects, also suffer from this disturbance.

A group of researchers from the University of Mississippi has therefore built a new detector that, according to the press release, effectively detects buried objects even when the same detector is the movement and therefore also when it is on a vehicle.

The new device, called Laser Interferometric Differential Laser Sensor (LAMBDIS), provides the same accuracy as the LDV system while being much less sensitive to motion.

“Our new device overcomes this challenge by using a series of laser beams and then combining their signals to create a pattern of rapid detection that is also robust enough to compensate for movement and other ‘noises’ that could overwhelm other techniques. LAMBDIS provides a measurement of vibration fields with a high sensitivity, while having a low sensitivity to the entire movement of the body of the object or the sensor itself, allowing operation from a moving vehicle,” says Vyacheslav Aranchuk, project leader researcher.

The new device used detects doppler displacement using the interference of light reflected from different points on the object, as Aranchuk himself explains.