Vol. 1 / No. 40 — A Silk Leaf, A Gigafactory, and an Impossible Engine

Silk Leaf / Photo: Julian Mechiorri
Silk Leaf / Photo: Julian Mechiorri

The Silk Leaf Project

What’s green, breathes in carbon dioxide and breathes out oxygen? The answer seems pretty obvious, but in this case it’s not just any leaf. The Silk Leaf Project, the brainchild of Royal College of Art graduate Julian Melchiorri, and produced in concert with the Tufts University silk lab, is the world’s first “man-made” leaf. Using naturally-occurring chloroplasts inserted into a silk framework, Melchiorri has made leaves that come in what’s been referred to as “better packaging” — more convenient for spaceflight or architectural use, for instance. Dezeen has a video up about it, and Gizmodo has a bit more of a rundown on the tech itself. Keep your ears to the ground on this one, because, as always, if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.

Tesla recharging / Photo: Flickr user Windell Oskay, CC BY 2.0
Tesla recharging / Photo: Flickr user Windell Oskay, CC BY 2.0


As the next part of Elon Musk’s benevolent world conquest plot, the news is out this week that the so-called “Gigafactory” — a joint Tesla / Panasonic battery-manufacturing facility — will be built in Palo Alto, California, employing 6,500 people by 2020. The expanded production capacity should help with the roll-out of the coming Tesla Model 3, which is projected to bring the electric car manufacturer’s 260-mile range to the average consumer at around $35,000 each. The NYT has more on the story, and you can learn more about the Gigafactory straight from the horse’s mouth at teslamotors.com.

(More) Affordable Solar

It seems like every week someone’s coming up with a new piece of technology to make solar power cheaper and more economically viable, and this week’s no exception. Gizmodo is reporting that a startup called Glint Photonics has created a new material that changes its reflectivity in response to heat, allowing for a much more efficient solar cell. If put into effect, it could lower the cost per kilowatt-hour from eight cents to four. All of which is great news for the environment, and troubling news for centralized power distribution, which is going to need to change its business model in the coming years if it’s to continue to run a balanced grid at a reasonable cost. 

Rolling into the Record Books

This week NASA’s Mars rover Opportunity supposedly broke a 40-year-old record: furthest miles rolled on Mars. Supposedly, by rolling 25.01 miles (40.2km), the Mars rover has beaten the previous record of 37km held by the Russian lunar probe Lunokhod 2 since 1973. But don’t count the Lunokhod 2 out yet, revised estimates last year place the distance traveled by the Russian lander at 42km, meaning that Opportunity still has  a little under 2km to go before it beats the Russian record. On the other hand, having celebrated its 10th year of activity on the surface of Mars this past January, the little rover that could is already a record-breaker. Maybe it’ll break this next one more definitively some time soon.

Tech’s Gender Problem

It’s one of the less talked-about problems with the tech industry, but that doesn’t make it any less worth talking about: recent estimates suggest only 13% of venture-capital based tech firms have even one female co-founder, and the sexism in the industry is rampant. Retelling stories that sound more like they belong in an episode of Mad Men than in modern polite society, Issie Lapowsky over at Wired has an article on the topic well worth the read. Check it out: “This Is What Tech’s Ugly Gender Problem Really Looks Like.”

NASA’s Impossible Engine

Ever heard of Roger Shawyer or the EmDrive engine? If not, that’s probably because it makes about as much sense as wearing a tinfoil hat to keep out the government mind-control rays. The long and short of it is, by bouncing microwaves around inside a closed, specially shaped conical chamber, supposedly force is produced. Scientists have been, shall we say “less than convinced” about the idea. But recent experimental results seem, at least for now, to verify that thrust is being produced. According to Gizmodo’s Spolid blog, in 2009 some Russian scientists were able to repeat the experiment, and now, well:

Now, American scientist Guido Fetta and a team at NASA Eagleworks—the advanced propulsion skunkworks led by Dr Harold “Sonny” White at the Johnson Space Center—have published a new paper that demonstrates that a similar engine working on the same principles does indeed produce thrust. Their model, however, produces much less thrust—just 30 to 50 micronewtons. But it works, which is amazing on its own. They haven’t explained why their engine works, but it does work.

I can’t wait until someone either debunks it or explains it. For now, we just have an inexplicable self-propelling microwave.

Sharing Memory

If you’ve ever been in a long-term relationship, you might have experienced a moment where your memory is helped along by your significant other’s — maybe you remember half a name and they remember the other half. Well, science seems to show now that it’s not just your imagination.

Celia Harris and colleagues at Macquarie University recently reviewed their previously published and new research on social remembering by long-term intimate couples. Their data showed that on standard tasks, such as reproducing words from studied lists, couples working together often did as well as when they worked alone. This lack of a penalty from social remembering is itself notable, but it’s just a gateway into more intriguing findings.

You can check out more about the findings by clicking the quote above, or, if you’re feeling more adventurous, by going to the paper at the journal Memory Studies.

Rest of the Best

This week saw two useful “explainers” making the rounds: Microsoft explains for beginners how quantum computing works, and the New York Times explains everything you wanted to know about Ebola but were afraid to ask; NASA has tested the James Webb Telescope’s sun-shield; Danish researchers have made a network connection that can transfer a gigabyte of data every 0.2 milliseconds; Japan has unveiled plans to have an all-robot event in the 2020 olympics; and in possibly the most important news of the week, someone’s invented a way to deliver fresh, tasty, crispy, perfect grilled cheese sandwiches to your door, thanks to science.

That’s all for today. Have a great week.

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