Researchers find a way to distort laser light to survive a trip through disordered obstacles.
- Lasers are great for measuring—if they can get a clear view of their target.
- In biomedical applications, there's often disordered stuff in the way of objects needing measurement.
- A new technique leverages that disorder to formulate a custom-made, optimal laser light beam.
Understanding the problem<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzNjkxMi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzODU2NDUwMn0.S48hywSM4tiNdTudLfryQ3JLPz5p4qRI_I2a2XB5KYA/img.jpg?width=980" id="3f2d8" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="611410d6114f9f023e7bfb4a070b3342" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1440" data-height="822" />
Credit: gavran333/Adobe Stock<p>When working with lasers or any other measurement tool, "You always want to achieve the best possible measurement accuracy — that's a central element of all natural sciences," says paper co-author <a href="https://rottergroup.itp.tuwien.ac.at" target="_blank">Stefan Rotter</a> of TU Wien in a <a href="https://www.tuwien.at/en/tu-wien/news/news-articles/news/optimale-information-ueber-das-unsichtbare" target="_blank">press release</a>. A highly focused laser beam is an ideal tool for this. However, getting it through a disordered barrier without destroying the integrity of the beam is a challenge.</p><p>The researchers describe the problem using the example of the type of frosted glass one might encounter in a bathroom window. Explains Utrecht University's <a href="https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=3Ju6wZgAAAAJ&hl=en" target="_blank">Allan Mosk</a>, another co-author, "Let's imagine a panel of glass that is not perfectly transparent, but rough and unpolished like a bathroom window." To keep people from seeing into the bathroom, "Light can pass through, but not in a straight line. The light waves are altered and scattered, so we can't accurately see an object on the other side of the window with the naked eye."</p><p>This is not very different from what happens when a scientist tries to examine some tiny object inside biological tissue. The disordered stuff between the scientist and the object turns the concentrated laser beam into a complex wave pattern that scatters on its way through the visual barrier.</p>
The new solution<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzNjkxNy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDM0NTIyMn0.2QcQqImiRII5DsSCY_FruZqwdm9KGQeok2vH8nH8n5s/img.jpg?width=980" id="73e8d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="87eac5452c297f3ee356fa0ca5217625" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1440" data-height="992" />
Credit: TU Wien<p>The researchers have found that they can modify a laser's light in anticipation of the way it will travel through the disordered environment so that it hits its target on the other side with sufficient coherence for making accurate measurements.</p><p>While that optimal wave may not be a pure, pristine laser light, it's nonetheless just the light wave needed to successfully make its way through that particular barrier. The researchers were able to develop a mathematical procedure that gives them the distortion required to produce such a wave. Says first author <a href="https://scholar.google.fr/citations?user=13WGC2EAAAAJ&hl=fr" target="_blank">Dorian Bouchet</a>, also of Utrecht University, "You can show that for various measurements there are certain waves that deliver a maximum of information as, e.g., on the spatial coordinates at which a certain object is located."</p><p>Bouchet adds, "To achieve this, you don't even need to know exactly what the disturbances are. It's enough to first send a set of trial waves through the system to study how they are changed by [it]."</p><p>Returning to the glazed bathroom window example, the system would identify an optimal light wave that could travel through the disordered glass and still accurately measure movement of a person behind the glass.</p>
Testing the system<p>The researchers confirmed that their formula worked in experiments at Utrecht in which they were able to make nano-scale measurements using a laser that successfully transited a turbid plate playing the role of a disordered medium. They also tried simpler and simpler laser beams—reducing the number of photons being used—to see how far they could push their system. They found that it even with the simplest laser possible, it still performed satisfactorily.</p><p>Says Mosk, "We see that the precision of our method is only limited by the so-called quantum noise. This noise results from the fact that light consists of photons—nothing can be done about that." Still, he says, "within the limits of what quantum physics allows us to do for a coherent laser beam, we can actually calculate the optimal waves to measure different things. Not only the position, but also the movement or the direction of rotation of objects."</p>
A fairly old idea, but a really good one, is about to hit the store shelves.
- The idea of growing food from CO2 dates back to NASA 50 years ago.
- Two companies are bringing high-quality, CO2-derived protein to market.
- CO2-based foods provide an environmentally benign way of producing the protein we need to live.
The basic idea<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTQ0NTM3Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxOTc4NzE1MX0.qxFjO6GkVVEjS_VEKy4pIkrmv-gknDbBgTHourWFUcc/img.jpg?width=980" id="20397" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="fa52d13cbf404456d0a5be77ff2e091e" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1089" data-height="898" />
Credit: Big Think<p> The basic mechanism for deriving food from CO<sup>2</sup> involves a fairly simple closed-loop system that executes a process over and over in a cyclical manner, producing edible matter along the way. In space, astronauts produce carbon dioxide when they breathe, which is then captured by microbes, which then convert it into a carbon-rich material. The astronauts eat the material, breathe out more CO<sup>2</sup>, and on and on. On Earth, the CO<sup>2</sup> is captured from the atmosphere. </p>
Drawing first breath<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTQ0NTM3NS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NDQyNjAwMH0.3b4FuXhLwAqGtXzFu2dw8Gec6phKp3bxkajLOJKFOYE/img.jpg?width=980" id="03d4b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a5131ef8090c05af83989905de39c53d" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1000" data-height="780" />
Credit: NASA<p> NASA's investigation into using CO<sup>2</sup> for food production began with a 1966 report written by R. B. Jagow and R. S. Thomas and published by Ames Research Center. The nine-chapter report was called "<a href="https://ntrs.nasa.gov/citations/19670025254" target="_blank">The Closed Life-Support System</a>." Each chapter contained a proposal for growing food on long missions. </p><p> Chapter 8, written by J. F. Foster and J. H. Litchfield of the Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio, proposed a system that utilized a hydrogen-fixing bacteria, <em><a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC247306/" target="_blank">Hydrogenomonas</a></em>—NASA had been experimenting with the bacteria for several years at that point—and recycled CO<sup>2</sup> in a compact, low-power, closed-loop system. The system would be able to produce edible cell matter in way that "should then be possible to maintain continuous cultures at high efficiencies for very long periods of time." </p><p> At the time, extended missions that would benefit from such a system were off in the future. </p><p> In 2019, and with its eye toward upcoming Mars missions, NASA returned to the idea, sponsoring the <a href="https://www.nasa.gov/directorates/spacetech/centennial_challenges/co2challenge/challenge-announced.html" target="_blank">CO2 Conversion Challenge</a>, "seeking novel ways to convert carbon dioxide into useful compounds." Phase 1 of the contest invited proposals for processes that could "convert carbon dioxide into glucose in order to eventually create sugar-based fuel, food, medicines, adhesives and other products." </p><p> In May 2109, NASA announced the <a href="https://www.nasa.gov/spacetech/centennial_challenges/co2challenge/winning-teams-design-systems-to-convert-carbon-dioxide-into-something-sweet.html" target="_blank">winners</a> of Phase 1. The space agency concluded acceptance of <a href="https://www.co2conversionchallenge.org/#about" target="_blank">Phase 2</a> entries on December 4, 2020.</p>
Approaching the Finnish line<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTQ0NTM2Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0MTkyNDYzNH0.02upErPyJQO5YvKEmk-Hqrve4Prg_5cZHMaXBFCAbOQ/img.jpg?width=980" id="e593a" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="e2d8de8068bcd9f497f284d2fafc7b9c" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1400" data-height="930" />
Credit: Solar Foods<p> We've <a href="https://bigthink.com/technology-innovation/protein-from-air?rebelltitem=1#rebelltitem1" target="_self">written previously</a> about <a href="https://solarfoods.fi" target="_blank">Solar Foods</a>, a company backed by the Finnish government who <a href="https://solarfoods.fi/our-news/business-finland-greenlights-solar-foods-e8-6m-project/" target="_blank">recently invested</a> €4.3 million to help complete the company's €8.6 million commercialization of their nutrient-rich CO<sup>2</sup>-based protein powder, <a href="https://solarfoods.fi/solein/" target="_blank">Solein</a>. The company anticipates Solein will provide protein to some 400 million meals by 2025, and has so far developed 20 different food products from it. </p>
In the air tonight<blockquote class="instagram-media" data-instgrm-captioned data-instgrm-permalink="https://www.instagram.com/p/B5GXIMzgBRA/?utm_source=ig_embed&utm_campaign=loading" data-instgrm-version="13" style=" background:#FFF; border:0; border-radius:3px; box-shadow:0 0 1px 0 rgba(0,0,0,0.5),0 1px 10px 0 rgba(0,0,0,0.15); margin: 1px; max-width:540px; min-width:326px; padding:0; width:99.375%; width:-webkit-calc(100% - 2px); width:calc(100% - 2px);"><div style="padding:16px;"> <a href="https://www.instagram.com/p/B5GXIMzgBRA/?utm_source=ig_embed&utm_campaign=loading" style=" background:#FFFFFF; line-height:0; padding:0 0; text-align:center; text-decoration:none; width:100%;" target="_blank"> <div style=" display: flex; flex-direction: row; align-items: center;"> <div style="background-color: #F4F4F4; border-radius: 50%; flex-grow: 0; height: 40px; margin-right: 14px; width: 40px;"></div> <div style="display: flex; flex-direction: column; flex-grow: 1; justify-content: center;"> <div style=" background-color: #F4F4F4; 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font-family:Arial,sans-serif; font-size:14px; font-style:normal; font-weight:550; line-height:18px;"> View this post on Instagram</div></div><div style="padding: 12.5% 0;"></div> <div style="display: flex; flex-direction: row; margin-bottom: 14px; align-items: center;"><div> <div style="background-color: #F4F4F4; border-radius: 50%; height: 12.5px; width: 12.5px; transform: translateX(0px) translateY(7px);"></div> <div style="background-color: #F4F4F4; height: 12.5px; transform: rotate(-45deg) translateX(3px) translateY(1px); width: 12.5px; flex-grow: 0; margin-right: 14px; margin-left: 2px;"></div> <div style="background-color: #F4F4F4; border-radius: 50%; height: 12.5px; width: 12.5px; transform: translateX(9px) translateY(-18px);"></div></div><div style="margin-left: 8px;"> <div style=" background-color: #F4F4F4; border-radius: 50%; flex-grow: 0; height: 20px; width: 20px;"></div> <div style=" width: 0; height: 0; border-top: 2px solid transparent; border-left: 6px solid #f4f4f4; border-bottom: 2px solid transparent; transform: translateX(16px) translateY(-4px) rotate(30deg)"></div></div><div style="margin-left: auto;"> <div style=" width: 0px; border-top: 8px solid #F4F4F4; border-right: 8px solid transparent; transform: translateY(16px);"></div> <div style=" background-color: #F4F4F4; flex-grow: 0; height: 12px; width: 16px; transform: translateY(-4px);"></div> <div style=" width: 0; height: 0; border-top: 8px solid #F4F4F4; border-left: 8px solid transparent; transform: translateY(-4px) translateX(8px);"></div></div></div> <div style="display: flex; flex-direction: column; flex-grow: 1; justify-content: center; margin-bottom: 24px;"> <div style=" background-color: #F4F4F4; border-radius: 4px; flex-grow: 0; height: 14px; margin-bottom: 6px; width: 224px;"></div> <div style=" background-color: #F4F4F4; border-radius: 4px; flex-grow: 0; height: 14px; width: 144px;"></div></div></a><p style=" color:#c9c8cd; font-family:Arial,sans-serif; font-size:14px; line-height:17px; margin-bottom:0; margin-top:8px; overflow:hidden; padding:8px 0 7px; text-align:center; text-overflow:ellipsis; white-space:nowrap;"><a href="https://www.instagram.com/p/B5GXIMzgBRA/?utm_source=ig_embed&utm_campaign=loading" style=" color:#c9c8cd; font-family:Arial,sans-serif; font-size:14px; font-style:normal; font-weight:normal; line-height:17px; text-decoration:none;" target="_blank">A post shared by Air Protein (@airprotein)</a></p></div></blockquote> <script async src="//www.instagram.com/embed.js"></script><p> Another player, <a href="https://www.airprotein.com" target="_blank">Air Protein</a>, is based in California's Bay Area and is also bringing to market their own CO<sup>2</sup> protein named after the company. The company <a href="https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/air-protein-introduces-the-worlds-first-air-based-food-300955972.html" target="_blank">describes</a> it as a "nutrient-rich protein with the same amino acid profile as an animal protein and packed with crucial B vitamins, which are often deficient in a vegan diet." </p><p> The company recently <a href="https://www.greenqueen.com.hk/air-protein-bags-us32m-in-series-a-to-commercialise-climate-friendly-meat/" target="_blank">secured $32 million</a> in venture-capital funding. </p><p> Although Air Protein is actually flour—like Solein—the company is positioning Air Protein as offering "the first air-based meat," while Solein was announced first, and there's <a href="https://www.afr.com/life-and-luxury/food-and-wine/company-that-makes-meat-out-of-air-attracts-big-backers-20210108-p56sk0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">no public timetable</a> yet for the arrival of Air Protein products on store shelves. In any event, non-animal "meats" are a <a href="https://bigthink.com/technology-innovation/whopper" target="_self">hot market</a> these days with the success of Beyond Burger and Impossible Foods cruelty-free meat substitutes. </p>
Striking oil<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTQ0NTM2Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MzE3NjA3NH0.1o05KthbzT9JokT7-0UzWDq4MiLIfXJIGfPddhLNKqk/img.jpg?width=980" id="a45ef" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="143316dcc3691fcce024e83a6cbaca3f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1440" data-height="959" />
Deforestation for palm oil
Credit: whitcomberd/Adobe Stock<p> Though Air Protein's promotional materials emphasize meat substitutes that will be derived from their flour, a <a href="https://youtu.be/c8WMM_PUOj0" target="_blank">TED Talk</a> by company co-founder Lisa Dyson reveals another Air Protein product that could arguably have an even greater impact by potentially eliminating the need for palm oil and the deforestation it requires — their CO<sup>2</sup> process can produce oils.</p><p><span></span>The company has already created a citrus-like oil that can be used for fragrances, flavoring, as a biodegradable cleaner, and "even as a jet fuel." Perhaps more excitingly, the company has made another oil that's similar to palm oil. Since palm trees are the <a href="https://www.ran.org/palm_oil_fact_sheet" target="_blank">crop most responsible</a> for the decimation of the world's rain forests, an environmentally benign replacement for it would be a very big deal. Dyson also notes that their oils could substitute morally problematic coconut oil, whose harvesting has lately been reported to often involve the abuse of macaque monkeys.</p>
Putting carbon dioxide to work<p> We know we have too much of the stuff, so finding a way of utilizing at least some CO<sup>2</sup> to create foods and other products that reduce the need for destructive commercial practices is a solid win for humankind. Harkening back to its NASA origins, Dyson notes in her talk that Earth, too, is sort of a self-contained spaceship, albeit a big one. Finding new ways to productively reuse what it has to offer clearly benefits us all. </p>
The satellite would burn instead of becoming more space debris.
- Orbiting around Earth are hundreds of thousands of bits of space debris.
- Some of this stuff comes plummeting down eventually, but not enough of it.
- Wood satellites would burn up in the atmosphere without falling on anyone or anything.
It's a mess up there<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTEyMTk5Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2NTA3MjMyMH0.zsNUvN1nv_XfYSqJFYlShouIMECG83T5cgr_fjIPlGM/img.jpg?width=980" id="bbd31" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="3f0cc49ce289531245c6dbd612b172b2" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1440" data-height="960" />
Credit: JohanSwanepoel/Adobe Stock<p>NASA is currently tracking over <a href="https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/news/orbital_debris.html" target="_blank">500,000 pieces</a> of satellite debris circling the Earth. These bits of mostly aluminum junk whip around the planet as fast as 17,500 mph and constitute a floating minefield that active and manned space vehicles have to find their way through without being struck, or worse, punctured. And those are just the bits large enough to be tracked—those bigger than a marble. There are many more too small to keep an eye on. And the situation is getting worse, with projects such as SpaceX's estimated <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/spacex-starlink-internet-satellites-percent-failure-rate-space-debris-risk-2020-10" target="_blank">42,000 satellites</a> or Amazon's <a href="https://www.space.com/amazon-kuiper-satellite-constellation-fcc-approval.html" target="_blank">Kuiper project</a>.</p><p>The wood satellites being developed won't do much to solve <em>that</em> problem. However, they will help out with another one: what happens to space debris when its orbit decays and it falls back to Earth? We've been lucky so far. No serious impacts have yet been documented, but with all the discarded metal up there, it seems only a matter of time until something hits somebody or some important thing here on the ground. On top of that, some of it never falls all the way down, and is left as tiny bits of floating metal in the atmosphere. </p><p>Japanese astronaut and professor at Kyoto University Takao Doi tells the <a href="https://www.bbc.com/news/business-55463366" target="_blank">BBC</a>, "We are very concerned with the fact that all the satellites which re-enter the Earth's atmosphere burn and create tiny alumina particles which will float in the upper atmosphere for many years."</p><p>(Fun side note: During Doi's visit to the ISS in March 2008, he became the first person to throw a boomerang in space. It was designed specifically for microgravity.)</p><p>The proposed wooden satellites to be launched by 2023 will simply burn up harmlessly on their way down through the atmosphere.</p>
Wooden response<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTEyMjAzMS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NTE1NTQwOH0.A_O4xbbvLiXN9-PUSQRz3f1riARCcDeobhKztBYXC80/img.jpg?width=980" id="8cf3a" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="7f8d7406e8d6847e017d4609c28eb792" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="aerial view of forest" data-width="1440" data-height="1080" />
Credit: Geran de Klerk/Unsplash<p>If anyone knows how to construct a wood satellite, it would be Sumitomo Forestry, a company that has been foresting and developing wood products for 400 years. Their <a href="https://sfc.jp/english/" target="_blank">website</a> declares that "Happiness grows from trees." In addition to the satellite project, the company is also in the process of designing a mostly wood, $5.8 billion Tokyo skyscraper to be completed by 2041.</p><p>The proposed satellites won't be made of just any wood. The researchers consider its exact formulation to be a trade secret, releasing little in the way of detail. It is known that it will have to be resistant to the temperature extremes it will encounter in space, and the scientists are reportedly considering both the basic material to be used as well as special wood-derived coatings.</p>
Realistically speaking...<p>The wooden satellites may have some advantages in functionality. With wood not being an obstacle to various communication wavelengths, the devices <a href="https://asia.nikkei.com/Business/Science/World-s-first-wooden-satellite-to-be-launched-by-Japan-in-2023" target="_blank">may need less extensive antennae</a>.</p><p>Even so, the proposed satellites, though novel and sort of poetic, may not ultimately be of much help. Satellite casings are just a small part of the space-junk problem—their metal and plastic insides are also left up there to bang into other stuff. There are also lots of spent rocket boosters and such in orbit.</p><p>All of which brings us back to the larger issue of all the debris that never falls back to Earth, as the wooden satellites are meant to. The problem with all this stuff isn't what happens upon re-entry. It never re-enters at all, circling the planet ad infinitum as part of that great garbage dump in the sky.</p>
Australian researchers figure out a new way to apply extreme pressure and squeeze out diamonds.
- Diamonds aren't just beautiful, they're also excellent at cutting through most anything.
- Researchers have worked out how to create the gems without the high temperatures that accompany their natural formation.
- The researchers were able to create two different types of diamonds that also occur naturally.
They totally crushed it<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDgyNzYxOC9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3NTgzNDA5OH0.gjoGoK4S5r1hN0uBBN57Huqa-_QCqzpsS_bQic0HosU/img.png?width=980" id="bdf61" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="fe32f066e6fc40c8b19a793828a97b4b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1440" data-height="1135" />
The telltale clue<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDgyNzYyNi9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2NDAxODQ2Nn0.yVllyyJOAk7No8cnTPyQQMky00Q8awt0KfPDHF95ud4/img.png?width=980" id="45646" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b3d62e6d2b2a26dc2cc73b4de24519e6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1440" data-height="1000" />
Credit: kento/Adobe Stock<p>The rest of the team's formula has to do with how the pressure is applied.</p><p>Co-leader of the research, <a href="https://www.rmit.edu.au/contact/staff-contacts/academic-staff/m/mcculloch-professor-dougal" target="_blank">Dougal McCullough</a>, and his team working at RMIT used cutting-edge advanced electron microscopy to image slices of experimental diamond samples that provided a peak into their formation.</p><p>One revelation was the relationship between the two diamond types. "Our pictures showed that the regular diamonds only form in the middle of these Lonsdaleite veins," says McCulloch. "Seeing these little rivers of Lonsdaleite and regular diamond for the first time was just amazing and really helps us understand how they might form."</p><p>"The twist in the story ," says Bradby, "is how we apply the pressure. As well as very high pressures, we allow the carbon to also experience something called 'shear' — which is like a twisting or sliding force. We think this allows the carbon atoms to move into place and form Lonsdaleite and regular diamonds."</p><p>The diamonds produced by the team confirm this idea. Bradby recalls, "Seeing these little rivers of Lonsdaleite and regular diamond for the first time was just amazing and really helps us understand how they might form [in nature]."</p>
New diamonds made to order<p>"Creating more of this rare but super-useful diamond is the long-term aim of this work," says Bradby.</p><p>While many may think of diamonds only for their ornamental value, their hardness makes them excellent for cutting through most anything, and they're used in some of the world's most advanced precision cutting systems.</p><p>Bradby notes that, "Lonsdaleite [in particular] has the potential to be used for cutting through ultra-solid materials on mining sites."</p><p>Next up: flight and x-ray vision. (Joking.)</p>
While it's always been a boon to Popeye's "muskles," it looks like spinach may also have a role to play in clean future batteries.
- Scientists are seeking sustainable, clean chemicals for use in future fuel cell and metal-air batteries.
- Platinum is the current go-to substance for battery cathode catalysts, but it poses a number of problems, including high cost and instability.
- Chemists at American University have developed a new high-performance catalyst from simple spinach, although its preparation as a catalyst is anything but simple.
Cathodes and anodes, oh my<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2OTU5MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNDQ0NjA0OH0.Fe2eDSkzfzSBG3bGwDsEdrxOy14JYGuhJGjm9shhtkg/img.jpg?width=980" id="5e913" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="22095dc5998edbe5c1e27ec10b5a4cc9" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="681" data-height="836" />
Flow of energy when battery is in use, discharging
Credit: VectorMine/Shutterstock/Big Think<p>Electrons travel within a battery from one electrode, called the anode, through the battery's electrolyte — either a powder or liquid barrier — to another electrode, called the cathode. The anode releases these electrons through a chemical process called oxidation, while the cathode accepts them through another, an oxygen reduction reaction. Together, this exchange is called a "<a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Redox" target="_blank">redox</a>."</p><p>The electrons' return trip back to the anode, however, requires a "load" provided by an external device, which is fine, since that device — a flashlight, a phone, or a car, for example — operates on the energy produced by the battery's electrons passing through.</p><p>The electrons travel out from the cathode's positive terminal to the device then return to the battery's negative anode terminal. In this way the energy travels <a href="https://www.explainthatstuff.com/batteries.html#parts" target="_blank">round and round</a> the battery-device circuit. (When charging a battery, electrons go in the opposite direction connected to a charger.)</p><p>The new study is concerned with the <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catalysis" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">catalyst</a> that produces the cathode's oxygen reduction reaction.</p>
Replacing a problematic, pricey catalyst<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2OTU5Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3NTY5NjI1Nn0.z31rpM-ZPEqkoxy3mZ39q6wWNmoBtO0LNvH7qAqPBkM/img.jpg?width=980" id="40dec" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="3a29c292ad8026d129250d041f1fac9e" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="platinum bricks" data-width="1440" data-height="960" />
Credit: AlexLMX/Shutterstock<p><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fuel_cell" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Fuel cell batteries</a> and <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metal%E2%80%93air_electrochemical_cell" target="_blank">metal-air batteries</a> use the surrounding air outside the battery as their cathode. It's clean, free, plentiful, and it works, as long as there's a catalyst that can adequately prompt the requisite oxygen reduction reaction.</p><p>The most commonly used catalysts for such batteries have been based on platinum. There are problems with these, though. Of course, platinum is expensive. Also, as the study notes, "the lack of long-term stability and the vulnerability to surface poisoning by various chemicals such as methanol and carbon monoxide, call for the development of non-Pt group metal (NPGM) catalysts."</p><p>Researchers have therefore been exploring non-toxic, carbon-based catalyst alternatives since they may be more stable and exhibit resistance to surface poisoning. And because carbon is everywhere, they'd be inexpensive to produce. However, some of the materials being investigated don't do the job as well as platinum-based catalysts. The chemical reaction they produce is slow, posing a speed bottleneck to the flow of electrons.</p>
Enter spinach<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2OTYwMy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjIxNzI1MX0.Ru_hwAVllm7R2mCfu0X94MdVXpCYbZz3VjcfvsRMaTo/img.jpg?width=980" id="6321d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f8285054c63c2fc02bef8fba3b29a7cf" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1326" data-height="1280" />
Credit: Liu, et al./ACS Omega 2020, 5, 38, 24367-24378<p><span style="background-color: initial;"><a href="https://www.american.edu/cas/faculty/szou.cfm" target="_blank">Shouzhong Zou</a></span>, of American University's <a href="https://www.american.edu/cas/chemistry/" target="_blank">Department of Chemistry</a>, is the paper's senior author. The lead author is Xiaojun Liu, with Wenyue Li as co-author. Professor Zou reports:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The method we tested can produce highly active, carbon-based catalysts from spinach, which is a renewable biomass. In fact, we believe it outperforms commercial platinum catalysts in both activity and stability. The catalysts are potentially applicable in hydrogen fuel cells and metal-air batteries."</p><p>While other catalyst research has involved plants such as rice and cattails, Zou believes spinach has a few things that make it a superior candidate as a catalyst material. For one thing, it's rich in iron and nitrogen, both essential catalyst ingredients. In addition, it's easy and inexpensive to grow, and it's abundant.</p><p>Zou and his students developed spinach-based carbon nanosheets a thousand times thinner than a human hair. The process is complex, a combination of basic and advanced techniques.</p><p>To begin, the researchers washed, juiced, and freeze-dried the vegetable before grinding it by hand into a fine powder using a mortar and pestle. Next, the spinach powder was dissolved and mixed with <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melamine" target="_blank">melamine</a>, sodium chloride, and potassium chloride in water and cooked together at 120°C. This mixture was then rapid-cooled in liquid nitrogen and freeze-dried. Then it was <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pyrolysis" target="_blank">pyrolized</a> twice.</p><p>It may well have been worth the effort. Measurements of the resulting nanosheet indicated that it can out-perform platinum as a catalyst in both speed and stability. Of course, that's on top of being made from such an unassuming, inexpensive, and widely available plant.</p><p>"This work," says Zou, "suggests that sustainable catalysts can be made for an oxygen reduction reaction from natural resources." The next step for Zou and his students is to try out their spinach catalyst in prototype fuel cells to assess its performance in action. They're also looking into the use of other plant materials for catalysts.</p><p>Finally, Zou understandably hopes to develop a simple, less energy-intensive way to make their catalyst nanosheets.</p>