GLIMPSES OF THE FUTURE – APRIL 2019

Glass Battery Breakthrough? If Proven, This Is A Game-Changer

A 94-year-old professor who pioneered the world-standard lithium ion battery technology has now announced a new glass battery which, he and his team claim, has triple the storage capacity of a lithium ion battery.

John B. Goodenough, an emeritus professor at the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas, Austin and his team claim the new battery also charges in minutes instead of hours and operates in both frigid and hot weather (from -20 to 60 degrees centigrade).

Early tests suggest the battery is capable of at least 1,200 charge-discharge cycles, significantly more charging cycles than a comparable lithium-ion battery, and best of all, the glass-based electrolyte will not form the dendrites that plague lithium-ion battery technology. The dendrites accumulate as part of the standard charging and recharging cycle and eventually cause a short circuit that often results in a smouldering or burning battery.

Goodenough believes this battery technology could be the breakthrough that brings the electric car into the mainstream.

“Cost, safety, energy density, rates of charge and discharge and cycle life are critical for battery-driven cars to be more widely adopted. We believe our discovery solves many of the problems that are inherent in today’s batteries,” Goodenough said in a statement published by the University of Texas at Austin. This same battery technology could also be used to store energy in both solar and wind-power systems.

Facial Recognition Systems Used To Vet UK Prison Visitors

Facial recognition and eye scanning have been deployed at British prisons“to prevent drug smuggling”.

 The Ministry of Justice said the biometric scans for visitors were designed to help staff identify people bringing in contraband.

At one prison, there were more “no shows” from visitors than usual after they learned the scans were being used.

But prison campaigners said if families were deterred from visiting, then it would be “counter-productive”.  And campaigners for human rights claim that prison visitors should be able to opt out of scanning by FPR systems.

In the trials, facial recognition technology was used at HMP Humber; iris scanners at HMP Lindholme; and identity document verification at HMP Hull.

Ministers considered the pilot programme “successful” and are considering how to roll out the technology more widely in prisons across England and Wales.

Virgin Galactic Flies First Passenger In To Space

 Virgin Galactic has returned the Unity spacecraft to the edge of space, two months after its inaugural flight, and this time it carried a test passenger.

Beth Moses, the spaceflight firm’s chief astronaut instructor, joined pilots Mike Masucci and Dave Mackay on the flight. “She will provide human validation for the data we collect. Including aspects of the customer cabin and spaceflight environment from the perspective of people in the back,” said Virgin Galactic in a tweet. The previous test flight in December was crewed by only pilots.

On this flight, the space plane went three times the speed of sound and reached 89.9 kilometres above Earth at its highest point. The Karman line – the point at which Earth’s atmosphere ends and space begins – is about 100 kilometres above the ground, though the US Air Force defines astronauts as people who have travelled beyond the 800-kilometre mark.

Unity is officially called SpaceShipTwo, a space plane that is launched on the underbelly of a larger aircraft.

Drones Useful For Finding Unmarked Graves

Drones could soon help search for murder victims in remote areas. In recent tests, drones equipped with laser scanners identified graves in Australian bushland. Now, the nation’s police want to use the technology in an ongoing case.

In the investigation, the police suspect that a missing person is buried in a densely forested area. However, all searches so far have come up empty. By using drones carrying a scanning technology called lidar, they hope to cover a larger area more quickly than they would be able to on foot.

Lidar works by pointing lasers at a target and measuring how much time it takes signals to be reflected back. The laser pulses bounce off the surfaces, such as leaves, they encounter. In this instance, they travel through gaps in the forest canopy to offer a view of the trees as well as anything buried in the soil below them.

Editing Plant Genomes Make Them 40% More Productive

An international team of researchers has, for the first time, demonstrated that by fixing a common glitch in photosynthesis, a crop’s yield can be improved by around 40 percent. The landmark study suggests that optimising a plant’s photosynthesis by gene editing could significantly increase worldwide food productivity.

Photosynthesis, the process by which a plant converts light energy into chemical energy, is not a wholly efficient process. A key stage in the photosynthesis process involves an enzyme called RuBisCO grabbing carbon dioxide molecules. However, around 25 percent of the time RuBisCO incorrectly collects oxygen molecules instead, creating a plant-toxic byproduct that disrupts the entire photosynthesis process. Photorespiration is the process plants use to remove these problematic by-products.

“Photorespiration is anti-photosynthesis,” explains Paul South, lead author on the new research. “It costs the plant precious energy and resources that it could have invested in photosynthesis to produce more growth and yield.”

This Toilet Seat Can Check Your Health

MIT researchers have invented a toilet seat which could detect signs of heart failure before symptoms appear.

The gadget fits over the top of a normal seat and contains sensors which can measure the user’s heart rate, blood pressure and oxygen levels through their legs.

Its inventors claim the product could save millions of lives and make it easier to monitor at-risk patients with accurate, real-time information.

Currently costing £1,500 each, the toilet seats aren’t cheap but they could save hospitals money and improve people’s health, the researchers said.

Simple Eye Scan Can Detect Alzheimer’s Early

 A compelling new study has reported that statistically significant differences can be identified in the retinas of patients with Alzheimer’s disease. The finding paves the way for a future where the disease could be diagnosed from a simple eyescan before major symptoms appear.

The Duke University research is centred around a non-invasive imaging technology called optical coherence tomography angiography (OCTA), which allows clinicians to rapidly examine the blood flow in tiny capillaries at the back of the retina.

Over 200 subjects were examined in the study, all comprehensively imaged using the new OCTA machines. Alongside 133 healthy control subjects, there were 39 Alzheimer’s disease subjects and 37 suffering from mild cognitive impairment (MCI). One of the key goals of the study was to identify any retinal degeneration that could be directly associated with Alzheimer’s disease, separate from more general age-related mild cognitive decline.

Spaceflight Is A Really Unhealthy Activity

There are certainly a whole host of technological hurdles to overcome before humans successfully travel to Mars, or beyond, but research is also pointing to a growing assortment of fundamental health challengesthat astronauts may face from long stretches of time in space.

A recent NASA-funded study has found dormant viruses can reactivate in the human body during spaceflight, presenting yet another physiological problem for scientists to solve before we journey out into deep space.

“NASA astronauts endure weeks or even months exposed to microgravity and cosmic radiation – not to mention the extreme G forces of take-off and re-entry,” says Satish K. Mehta from the Johnson Space Center, and senior author on the new study.

“This physical challenge is compounded by more familiar stressors like social separation, confinement and an altered sleep-wake cycle.”

Prior research has revealed prolonged space travel could result in everything from a heightened cancer risk and neurological degeneration to tissue damage in the gastrointestinal tract. It has also been suggested that spaceflight has a detrimental effect on the immune system and it is this process that scientists are hypothesizing allows dormant viruses to reactivate.

Gene-Edited Chinese Twins Were Also “Made Smarter”

New research indicates that the controversial use of CRISPR gene-editing on twin girls in China last year might have inadvertently improved their cognitive capacities, including their ability to learn and form memories, leading to a renewed debate about whether designer babies are going to become a reality in the very near future.

The twin girls, Lulu and Nana, allegedly had their genes modified prior to birth, with the stated goal of making the girls immune to HIV infection.

The gene that was supposedly modified using CRISPR is CCR5, which the HIV virus needs to inject itself into human blood cells. However, it also has well-established links to cognitive abilities in mice and memory formation and also helped the human brain recover after a stroke.

Alcino J. Silva, a neurobiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, has been studying the links between human cognition, memory formation, and CCR5 for years. In 2016, Silva and Miou Zhou, a professor at the Western University of Health Sciences in California, showed how removing the CCR5 gene from mice provided a significant boost to their memory.

After Flying Cars, Flying Motorbikes Are Here

Jetpack Aviation has leap-frogged its own flying car project with the announcement that it’s taking pre-orders now on a self-stabilizing, jet turbine-powered flying motorcycle capable of 150 mph speeds, 20 minute endurance and 15,000 ft altitudes.

The Speeder builds on JPA’s jet turbine expertise, developed over the years working on the company’s astounding JB-series jetpacks. It uses a cluster of four turbojet engines putting out a combined maximum thrust of 705 lbf – enough to lift the 231-lb (105 kg) airframe and a pilot up to 240 lb (109 kg).

Crucially, they’re also rigged up to a fly-by-wire control system that allows the Speeder to self-stabilize in the air, much like a quadcopter drone. Running on kerosene, JetA or diesel, you can get yourself between 10 and 22 minutes in the air, dependent on pilot weight and density altitude.

Volkswagen Plunges Into The Electric Vehicle Future

 Volkswagen has announced that it will accelerate development and production of electric vehicles, increasing the German car maker’s bet on new technology as profitability in China and at its core Volkswagen-brand unit is slipping.

Other auto makers are making similar strategic moves in the face of ever-tougher emissions regulation and a shift in demand from ownership to car-sharing that is expected to boost demand for electric-vehicle fleets. But the transformation is expensive, forcing many auto makers to cut costs and form partnerships with rivals to shoulder the heavy investment in innovation.

Discussing the company’s 2018 earnings with journalists, Volkswagen CEO Herbert Diess said the auto maker wouldn’t be able to avoid layoffs as it ramps up electrification in coming years. Production of an electric vehicle, he said, required 30% less labour than that of an equivalent combustion model.

WHO Meeting To Decide How To Regulate Human Genome Editing

 The World Health Organization (WHO) is meeting to develop global standards of governance for human genome editing. Although the committee has no powers to enforce compliance – it is still a matter for individual nations to decide on regulations, with China reportedly updating its rules earlier this week – the WHO committee’s recommendations will be influential and far-reaching in their ambition.

The first issue is safety. It is likely that the WHO meeting will focus on inheritable edits to human embryos, known as germline genome editing (GGE). The issue of GGE was thorny enough even before reports of the birth of twins with edited genomes in China – an intervention widely condemned as clinically unjustified and reckless.

The criticism partly stemmed from numerous mice studies suggesting that we cannot rely on genome-editing tools like CRISPR-Cas9 to make precise and predictable changes to DNA in every embryo. The conclusion is that genome editing cannot yet safely be performed on fertilised eggs for use in assisted human reproduction. But it might be safe at some point. The WHO can define standards for the evaluation of safety and efficacy in preclinical research on GGE.