Category Archives: Research

Image via 3D Future.

Dentists will soon be able to 3D print you a new tooth in minutes

With the advancements in 3D printing, it only seems like a matter of time until it starts to actively affect our lives. Especially prosthetics may be revolutionized by 3D printing, as we’ve already seen time and time again. Now, a group of dentists believe they can 3D print teeth using a simple and cheap technique, only taking a few minutes for it.

Image via 3D Future.

“This means that dentists can now print a tooth in 6.5 minutes,” explained Joseph DeSimone, the CEO of the 3D printing company Carbon3D and a professor of chemistry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, at the TED Conference in Vancouver last week.

The idea of reproducing a tooth on the stop is nowhere new.

“It’s been around for about 30 years,” explains Dr. Sharde Harvey, a New York City-based dentist who been using the method called CEREC(Chairside Economical Restoration of Esthetic Ceramics) since 2005.

However, with this innovation, things may be different – a lot cheaper, and a lot faster. It doesn’t use classical 3D printing, which involves printing one layer at a time. Instead, CEREC is more akin to computer-assisted sculpture than printing: it “mills” a new tooth from a piece of porcelain, based on 3D scanners and modelling software.

Needless to say, this would be very lucrative for dentists, and potentially useful for patients. It remains to be seen if, for once, going to the dentist will be cheap.



Two students created a device that extinguishes fires with soundwaves

What do fires and deep sounds have in common? Not much right now, but they might have a lot in the future.Two George Mason University students have designed a device that uses sound waves to put out fires, thus potentially eliminating the need for carrying around huge quantities of water and costly cleaning operations. Here’s how it works:

Seth Robertson and Viet Tran’s wave extinguisher is not something you see everyday (or any day, for that matter) – they managed to hit the right note to blow fires away using only amps, a speaker and a device they invented and call “collimater”. The key here is to find a frequency which blows the oxygen away, and sound in the 30 to 60 hertz range seems to do the trick. Why does this work?

Well, sound waves are pressure waves, and they can displace some of the oxygen as they travel through the air. At some frequencies, the oxygen is pushed out more effectively, basically separated from the fire. The pressure waves then goes back and forth, agitating the oxygen away from the fire, preventing it from reigniting.

Robertson and Tran are electrical and computer engineering majors, and they came up with this idea for their project because they disliked all the ideas that came from their professors. Naturally, there were many naysayers. Most professors refused to serve as their advisors. Both colleagues and professors seemed extremely skeptical and advised them to pick something else, but they persevered, and ultimately Brian Mark agreed to oversee it. But even he was not convinced at first…

“My initial impression was that it wouldn’t work,” Mark, their adviser, said. “Some students take the safe path, but Viet and Seth took the higher-risk option.”

George Mason University.


Their first design didn’t work at all – they used very high frequencies of 30,000 hertz, but even though the flames danced, they never went out. But as they moved to lower frequencies, everything smoothened out.

“I honestly didn’t think it would work as well as it did,” Tran said.

Of course, they started out small and for now, their device can only put out small fires, but there is no reason why they shouldn’t scale it. For now, they want to test it more and see if the required frequency differs for some materials – but for starters, the advantages are obvious. Sure, you need some source of energy to use it, but that’s much easier to carry than huge quantities of water or powder – and then you don’t have any cleaning to do. To make things even better, this could actually work in space – where putting out a fire is actually really hard.

“In space, extinguisher contents spread all over. But you can direct sound waves without gravity,” explains Robertson.


New Tesla Battery Could Take Your Home Off The Grid

Tesla Motors are out to change the world – and they’re doing it fast, and in style. Like many other of their projects, this one seemed to pop up out of nowhere: Tesla have designed a battery that can power your home and even larger utility buildings. In other words – it could take your house out of the grid.

The battery’s modern design promises to blend into any house. Image via Inhabitat.

When dealing with electric cars and even renewable energy, storing energy is one of the major problems – the difficulties and costs in storing solar or wind energy are part of the reason why most people stay on the grid, using conventional energy; enter the stage Tesla. The new battery they designed, and which according to founder and chief executive Elon Musk will be unveiled in a month or two, promises to not only be an efficient way to store energy, but also a way to save money.

“It’s really great. I’m really excited about it,” Musk said in February. Mass production could be only six months away, he added. He also stated that the battery will feature a chique design which will blend into any home design.

While there is no word on the price yet, this innovation is not only aimed at the eco-friendly homeowner. These batteries could be a huge benefit for those living in areas where grid power is unreliable due to power outages – basically replacing generators. But for the millions of people frustrated with their energy providers, this may finally be a way out.

“There may be a ‘tipping point’ that causes customers to seek an off-grid approach,” Morgan Stanley wrote last March. “The more customers move to solar, the remaining utility customer bill will rise, creating even further “headroom” for Tesla’s off-grid approach.”

According to inside sources, Tesla is moving to make the battery widely available as fast as possible.

“A lot of utilities are working in this space, and we’re talking to almost all of them,” said Tesla’s chief technical officer, JB Straubel. “It’s early stage stuff and a lot of these projects are very far out since the procurement cycle for utilities is so long. But this is a business that certainly is gaining an increasing amount of our attention.”

It’s been over a month since the initial announcement was made, and we’re still waiting. Hopefully, the wait won’t be in vain.

So what do you think? Are we in fact reaching a tipping point, breaking the bottleneck that prevented so many people from using renewable energy in their home? Or is this another invention meant to fail?

Listen to the full investor call here.

Image: New China TV

Chinese scientists build first hydrogen-powered tram

China is the largest polluter in the world at the moment, and they’re also reaping what they sew. But you can’t accuse the Chinese for not trying to right their ways – at least some of them; in an effort to mitigate the ridiculous amounts of smog that clouds some of China’s cities, scientists have developed the first hydrogen-powered tram.

Image: New China TV

With one gas tank, it can travel 100 km, with a top speed of 70 km/h, and can transport 380 passengers at a time. The vehicle has been in development for the past two years, and it reportedly came out of production last week, in the coastal city of Qingdao. What’s awesome about this tram is that its only emission is water. It’s also cheap to run, and a tank refill takes only 3 minutes.

“The average distance of tramcar lines in China is about 15 kilometres, which means one refill for our tram is enough for three round trips,” Liang Jianying, chief engineer of the Sifang Company, told the Xinhua news agency.

Personally, I think this is definitely a step in the right direction and I’d like to see more ideas like this, in more parts of the world – but China still has a long way to go before reaching normality. Recently, a documentary on Chinese pollution has taken the country by storm, being seen by hundreds of millions of people before being banned by the Chinese authorities. Meanwhile, smog is running rampant in the Beijing area, 20% of Chinese farmland is polluted and in many cities, air pollution can actually be seen from outer space. It’s a long way to go, and hydrogen trams aren’t going to do it alone – but it’s still something.


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Boeing develops force field reminiscent of Star Trek

Boeing, a major aircraft and military manufacturer, just secured a patent that describes a Star Trek-like force shield, meant to protect vehicles operating in war zones. I love it when engineers are inspired by science fiction – it means that the authors really did a great job, not only at foreseeing the future, but also in offering the incentive to bring these sort of contraptions to real life.

A Star Wars force shield might be an overstatement though. The patent, called “Method and system for shockwave attenuation via electromagnetic arc,” reports how the system in question might deflect shock waves. This means it can’t shield against matter, like flying bullets or shrapnel. When a wave moves faster than the speed of sound in a liquid, gas or plasma it is a shock wave. This is characterized by  nearly discontinuous change in pressure, temperature and densityof the medium. This disturbance means that shock waves are essentially energy carriers, and if you’re unfortunate enough to be near a blast shock waves might even kill you.

So, while the design isn’t meant for bullets, the fact that it might work for shock waves is impressive in itself. Here’s how it works: sensors first detect an incoming blast, then send this information to an arc generator which ionizes the air around the target to produce a plasma field. This field is distinct in temperature, density and/or composition from the surrounding medium, and this way it acts as a buffer between the shock wave and vehicle, absorbing some of the incoming energy.

According to the patent, “The arc generator may create the second medium by creating an electric arc that travels along an electrically conductive path utilizing at least one of high intensity laser pulses, pellets forming a conductive ion trail, sacrificial conductors, projectiles trailing electrical wires, and magnetic induction”.

“Such embodiments as described above may reduce the energy density of the shockwave by creating a second medium in the path of the advancing shockwave that reflects, refracts, absorbs and deflects at least a portion of the shockwave,” the patent reads.

Although the patent uses a vehicle for its case study, the technology could very well work for submarines as well since the arc generator could ionize water as well. Check out the full patent details and specs below.

Macrauchenia ("long llama"). Image: Wikimedia Commons

Darwin’s ‘strangest animals’ finally classified thanks to protein sequencing

While in South American during his 1830 expedition with the HMS Beagle, Charles Darwin came across the fossils of two peculiar hoofed species which he was unable to classify properly. One was Macrauchenia, which looked like a camel with the head of an ant eater, and the other was  Toxodon which had the body of rhino, the head of a hippo and the teeth of a rodent. So, was the Macrauchenia related to the camel or the ant eater? Who was Toxodon’s closet cousin, the hippo or the rhino? Darwin was puzzled and to no avail concluded these were  “perhaps one of the strangest animals ever discovered”. But Darwin didn’t have the tools we have today. Now, using a ground breaking technique researchers have sequenced the collagen of a myriad of South American mammals, including Darwin’s ‘strangest animals’ and finally found their real taxonomy.

Macrauchenia (“long llama”). Image: Wikimedia Commons

The two beasts are among 250 mammals that make up a family known as the South American ungulates, which lived for 60 million years on the continent and vanished only 12,000 year ago. Studying Macrauchenia and Toxodon has been difficult because: 1) few and disperse fossil fragments and 2) because researchers have never been able to isolate proper DNA samples. These simply get too damaged because of the wet climate and interfere with conventional genetic screening that is typically used to relate ancient, extinct species with another and uncover their ancestry. Here’s where collagen comes in, though – the fibrous protein that binds cells together into organs and tissues. It can last for at least 10 times as long as DNA and be used to build a collagen family tree.

Toxodon. Digital illustration: martinoraptor

A team made up of researchers at the Natural History Museum in London and  University of York, UK extracted, then sequenced collagen from 48 fossils from the remains of Darwin’s animals collected from Argentina and Uruguay. Previously, the South American ungulates were suggested to have belonged to the group Afrotheria, along with elephants and manatees. The protein sequencing, however, clearly shows that both animals belong to  Perissodactyla, a group that includes horses, tapirs and rhinos. The paper appeared in the journal Nature.

So, finally Darwin’s puzzle has been solved, but in doing so the researchers have unlocked a tool that could prove to be a lot more useful. The oldest DNA comes from an 800,000 years old ice core. Collagen can survive for at least four millions years, and in cold conditions maybe even 20 million years. With this in mind, the technique employed in this study could be used study other extinct groups where DNA is not an option, like is the case of dwarf elephants and enormous rodents of the Indonesian island of Flores, or Australia’s giant lizards and kangaroos.

Artist impression of the "Carolina Butcher," Carnufex carolinensis. Credit: JORGE GONZALES

Croc ancestor was the top two-legged predator on Earth, long before T. Rex and other dinosaurs

Long before T-rex claimed the top dog spot among terrestrial predators, a vicious crocodile ancestor that walked on its hind legs was at the top of the food chain during the Triassic. The fossils of the Carnufex carolinensis, also known as the the “Carolina Butcher,” were discovered decades ago  in the Pekin Formation, a geological formation in North Carolina’s Chatham County. It was only recently that researchers reanalyzed the fossils and concluded they were dealing with an all new predator that roamed the Earth several million years before dinosaurs were even around.

Artist impression of the “Carolina Butcher,” Carnufex carolinensis. Credit: JORGE GONZALES

Lindsay Zanno, an assistant professor at North Carolina State University and the lead author of a paper describing the research, was among those who first analyzed the ancient fossils. She and her team dated the ancient croc as being 231 million years old. Using a high-resolution surface scanner, the team mapped the croc’s skull and created a 3-D model which revealed it was littered with dozens of blade-like teeth. In all likelihood, it used them to slice meat from the bones of the animals it killed or scavenged.

The model also showed that the Carolina Butcher stood at least 9 feet tall and most likely walked on two legs, judging from the forelimb to skull ratio (very similar to T. Rex). Sometime in the Late Triassic, however, the beasts went extinct following a massive wipe-out. In the end, its place was taken by large dinosaurs. But the smaller ancestors of crocodiles made it through the extinction, and eventually evolved in today’s crocs and alligators.

Reconstructed skull of Carnufex carolinensis.

The discovery is important since it fills an evolutionary gap. Even so, there are still unknowns further up the ladder, like who’s the common ancestor of the dinosaur line and the crocodile line?

A paper was published in the journal Scientific Reports.