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Are Electricity-Eating Bacteria The Next Big Thing In Alternative Energy?

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by Michael Keller

There’s a large and growing list of renewable energy projects pumping out cleaner electricity these days. Photovoltaic panels produce direct current and solar concentrators drive steam turbines using sunlight. Wind turbines churning out megawatts of power dot the landscape of many countries. Other projects are looking to light communities through tides, running rivers and even the heat of the Earth.

Creating current is all well and good for energizing homes, businesses and even motor vehicles, but when it comes to flying airplanes or turning the screws on big ships, batteries storing alternative-energy-produced electricity just can’t yet deliver the power needed. That’s why these large machines still need combustible liquids like diesel, aviation fuel and bunker oil that pack a bunch of energy into small volumes to drive their engines.

For these and other high-power applications, renewable energy needs to up its oomph. The best way to do that would be to concentrate sunlight’s energy, for instance, into a machine that converts it directly into fuel. For well over a century, we’ve been using a version of this that comes out of the ground in the form of petroleum products, which are the hydrocarbon-rich remnants of organic matter that lived eons ago. The ancient organisms that form our fossil fuels are the concentrated distillates of sunlight.

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Txch This Week: Recreating Pressure At Jupiter’s Core On Earth And Smartphone Psychology

by Annie Epstein

This week on Txchnologist, we were reacquainted with Don Wetzel, the New York Central Railroad engineer who in 1966 piloted an experimental train powered by two jet engines bolted to its roof. His adventure culminated in the vehicle reaching a speed of almost 184 mph, which set the record as the world’s fastest jet-powered train. Today, the M-497 is still America’s fastest train and Wetzel’s story remains a fascinating one.

On the international front, researchers in Denmark are putting the Danish healthcare system to good use. They have just published a  study encompassing the medical history of the entire country’s population over 15 years. Using Big Data analytics that crunched the medical history of roughly 6.2 million Danes, researcher Søren Brunak and his team examined disease trajectories and followed the diagnostic paths of a variety of diseases, finding links between the diagnosis of maladies like asthma and diabetes. Korean researchers, meanwhile, are busy perfecting the TransWall, a two-sided translucent touchscreen. It allows people to interact with it and each other, and provides audio and tactile feedback to users. The holographic screen was created to facilitate gaming and social interaction.

Engineers are taking inspiration from nature’s planes and creating smaller flying machines modeled off of bats, birds, and bees. Animals use flexible flight surfaces to maneuver in the air, and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research wants to replicate this flight method to create tools for surveillance and warfare.

In the world of virtual reality, Brown University researchers are examining the dynamics of group behavior by observing individual participants placed in virtual crowds. Experimental psychologist William Warren says humans naturally coordinate movements with the people around them, similar to other animals that travel in formations like birds or fish.

Now we’re bringing you the news we’ve been following this week in the world of science, technology and innovation.

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"Paradigm Shift" Reported In Making Biofuel From Plants

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by Michael Keller

The possibility of using nonfood plants to cheaply and sustainably fuel our vehicles may have just veered into the fast lane.

Scientists report they have successfully genetically engineered bacteria to convert complex carbohydrates in tough grasses directly into ethanol, a type of alcohol that can fuel internal combustion engines.

“Making biofuel from plants is really important because it’s carbon neutral—the same CO2 you put in to grow it comes out when you burn it,” says Janet Westpheling, a University of Georgia genetics professor who led the research. “It’s one of the reasons why the future of energy in this country has to rely at least in part on plants.”

At the heart of the work conducted at UGA and Oak Ridge National Lab, is what Westpheling calls a paradigm shift in approaching a longstanding problem in producing biofuels.

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Tobacco Plants Coaxed To Grow Potential Anti-Cancer Drug

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by Michael Keller

Researchers are reporting the world is one step closer to a future where disease therapies are grown on farms like spinach or lettuce is today. After more than a decade of work, scientists in Austria and Germany have coaxed plants to produce protein antibodies identical to those made by humans.

These antibodies, called immunoglobulin M (IgM), are being produced in the leaves of genetically modified plants. The advance is a feat of applied science because human IgM is a complex protein molecule—the largest antibody present in the circulatory system—that is released by the immune system to fight infection when it is first detected. The European team’s work caused plants to grow a specific variety of IgM that kills tumor cells and is a potential anti-cancer drug.

“This work happened in several steps. First we saw one thing, and then another small piece came together,” Herta Steinkellner, a molecular biologist and engineer at Vienna’s University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, tells Txchnologist. “When I think back now, I’m so surprised. This was high-risk research that we didn’t expect to work, and then it worked. Amazing.” 

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