Scientific News (May 2017)

Vaping for beginners

Impressionable children as young as 12 are more likely to vape than smoke cigarettes, not only because they are attracted to the various flavours –  they also do not contain tobacco which to them apparently makes it safe.  There is growing evidence to suggest that this isn’t the case.

Recent research has proved vaping is not risk free, and tests have shown that vaping has introduced new risks to users. These risks including damaging immunity, causing ‘smokers’ coughs and body sores with lower aged users.  Fresh new data has also suggested that E-cig vapours may also contain cancer-causing chemicals like formaldehyde and acetaldehyde.  Researchers want teenage users to be made more aware of the potentially harmful substances in E-cigarettes.  Recent reports have suggested that adolescents and young adults tend to ignore the risks involved.

Lab studies have left researchers bemused following laboratory studies. A group of scientists grew lung fibroblasts in petri dishes (fibroblasts are special cells within the human body that repair damaged or injured tissue) and added these to growing cells in order to mimic an open wound.  They then exposed these growing cells to E-cigarette vapours. Under normal circumstances, the fibroblasts would start to shrink the wound; the next part of the healing process would then involve cells called mitochondria – cellular engines that reinforce the actions of the fibroblasts that would cause a wound to eventually heal.  Once the cells were introduced to the E-cigarette vapours, the scientists found that the the mitochondria were destroyed by the chemicals used in vaping, which would result under normal circumstances in a wound staying open.  Obviously, these lab tests have caused further concern regarding vaping and the affects it has on the human body.

In more recent tests, Catherine Hess at the University of California has discovered traces of metal toxins within E-liquids, in which five separate brands were tested. Nickel, chromium and manganese were found, causing further concerns that link E-cigaratte chemicals with cancer, due to the effects of chromium, nickle and  manganese – in particular their effects on the central nervous system. It is not clear how much of the toxins ended up in the vapour, and more research is required in order to gauge the effects of exposure to these chemicals when a user is inhaling, as well as the affects of long term exposure.

Low prices, desirable packaging and the increasing expense of buying tobacco make E-cigarettes attractive to teens.  Even with the 18 year old minimum age to purchase in force, the trend amongst teen vaping is that usage is in fact rising.

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No Kiln Needed on Mars

Imagine being able to mould your own bricks, plates and vases from soil without the use of a kiln.  Well, one day this could be a reality, especially if you’re living on Mars, according to scientific engineers. The planet’s red soil will literally need moulding with pressure equivalent to a hammer blow in order to compact it into the desired shape.  NASA has funded recent studies shown by a team at The University of California, San Diego following Congress’ passing a bill in readiness for a pioneering manned mission to Mars in 2033.  Astronauts will need very little equipment whilst building their habitats during the proposed manned missions.   Whereas previous plan included a nuclear-powered brick kiln and chemistry equipment to enable settlers to turn organic compounds found on Mars into binding polymers. According to researchers, the soil on Mars’ surface contains iron oxide, which not only gives the Martian soil its signature reddish hue, but also acts as a binding agent.

Small round soil pallets using simulated Martian soil measuring approximately an inch in height were cut into shapes representing bricks. Investigations in the assembly process with various styles of scanning equipment have showed that small iron particles coated the larger rocky basalt particles within the material. These iron particles have clean, clear facets that can be easily combined with each other using high pressure. The strength of these bricks has also been tested and the findings have shown that they will be as strong as steel-reinforced concrete.

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Cassini takes the plunge

Diving in between clouds and Saturn’s rings, the Cassini spacecraft has started to send data back to Earth following its approach to the ringed giant last Wednesday. The Cassini spacecraft in fact will be completing a total of 22 plunges towards Saturn in the next five months, often with no radio contact to Earth.

Radio transmission was regained on Thursday, enabling vital ground breaking data to be returned to NASA’s 70m wide Deep Space Network (DSN) antenna based at Goldstone, California. High resolution images of Saturn’s wings are being taken, with images picking out features as small as 150m across.

This ground breaking mission does not come without risk.  Due to the speed at which Cassini is moving – speeds in excess of 70,000mph – mean that should a tiny ice or rock particle come in contact with the tiny craft, catastrophic damage would occur.  Because of this, the probe has been commanded to direct its radio dish forward, acting as a shield.  The direction of the probe in flight means that the dish is pointing away from the Earth, which is the main reason that radio contact is limited.

Dr Earl Maize, Nasa’s Cassini Programme Manager explained in a recent interview that this is the closest a spacecraft has been to Saturn, and how pleased the team have been since the first successful ‘dart’ between the rings of Saturn.

With another 21 dives scheduled, NASA researchers are hoping that this mission will finally unlock key questions about the make-up and history of this huge world.    It is hoped that the scientific data captured will show the composition, structure and dynamics of the atmosphere and ring systems surrounding Saturn. One of the key objectives of the mission is to determine the composition of the rings themselves with a view to dating these.  It has been assumed until now that the larger of the rings is the oldest in place around the planet.

This is the first opportunity that NASA have had to actually get inside the rings  Previous missions have sent vessels outside of the rings, enabling these to be viewed from a distance.  The images that Cassini is able to send back to Earth will be studied by scientists carefully, enabling them to take detailed measurements of the rings and Saturn’s gravitational field and their effects on the rings of ice encircling the planet.

Nicolas Altobelli, Project Scientist for Nasa’s Cassini Mission Partner, the European Space Agency expressed caution to the results of the mission.   “We still need to understand the rings’ composition. They are made of very nearly pure water-ice. If they’re very old, formed at the same time as Saturn, how come they still look so fresh when they’re constantly bombarded with meteorite material?”

It has been rumoured that the rings surrounding Saturn are in fact relatively young, and that they are actually the remains of a giant comet that were drawn into Saturn’s atmosphere after a collision, breaking into innumerable fragments.

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The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has funded researchers from Kingston University in London in leading the development of an ‘advanced imaging technology’ that mimics the human eye. The £1.3 million project will also involve London’s King College as well as University College, London and run for 3 years.

Global technology firms Samsung, Ericsson and Thales are project partners, along with Mediatek, a semiconductor company and iniLabs, who describe themselves as Neuromorphic Sensor Specialists.

Researchers will investigate possible applications of these new ‘neuromorphic’ sensors, artificial sensors that imitate the working principles or structures of their biological counterparts.  The ultimate aim is to create a  vision sensor that operates analogously to its human counterpart.

Professor Maria Martini, leading the Kingston Team said, “Conventional camera technology captures video in a series of separate frames, or images, which can be a waste of resources if there is more motion in some areas than in others,” she said. “Where you have a really dynamic scene, like an explosion, you end up with fast-moving sections not being captured accurately due to frame-rate and processing power restrictions and too much data being used to represent areas that remain static.”

The project will see scholars and experts working closely with brand new dynamic visual sensors, with a view of introducing new state of the art cameras, capturing images in the same way as the human eye. Researchers will use the information gathered and examine how data from these high specification state of the art cameras could be taken, compressed and transferred between other machines at a lower cost of energy. By mimicking the biological mechanism of the mammallian eye, researchers will learn to understand how the eye processes information, quickly and efficiently whilst detecting changes in the condition of light.


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Energy saving could reveal a whole new world of opportunities and possibilities, not only for surveillance cameras, but also the use of drones and robots especially in inaccessible areas. The project could be gamechanger within the next generation of bionic devices, especially with regards to retinal implants.

Researchers are also looking at how this ground-breaking technology could be incorporated and work as part of the Internet of Things (IoT) and their incorporation into smart devices around the home and office.

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Scientific News (April 2017)

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