• , ,

    GM’s new electric cars may upstage Tesla

    GM plans to take its electric-car development to the next level with the rollout of a new electric-car model that it says will be 30% cheaper than its existing all-electric Chevrolet Bolt, thanks to innovations in battery technology and other engineering areas. GM CEO Mary Barra discussed her company’s electric-car plans Wednesday in an investor conference, in which she said that the new GM electric car will become available in 2021 and will be the basis for at least 20 new battery-powered vehicles by 2023.

    Chevrolet is one of six car brands owned by GM. Buick, Cadillac, GMC, Holden, and Wuling are the others. Barra said that the upcoming electric-car model GM is developing will be flexible enough to accommodate nine different body styles in multiple sized, brands, and segments in the United States and worldwide.

    Barra said that the new platform will cut the cost of lithium-ion batteries from $145 per kilowatt-hour to less than $100, partly by integrating the batteries into the vehicle’s floor. The company expects to sell a million electric cars a year by 2026.

    “We are committed to a future electric vehicle portfolio that will be profitable,” Barra said.

    It may also pose a formidable challenge to Tesla, whose production lines have been plagued by delays. The company has delivered only 260 Model 3s after launching the model last summer, and it has no set date for starting production of its upcoming Model Y.

    Electric cars have a long history at GM. The first electric car in the modern era was a GM model: the Impact, a concept car that GM presented at a Los Angeles auto show in 1990. The company debuted the Volt in 2010 and the Chevrolet Spark electric vehicle in 2011. Chevrolet produced the first Bolt in 2016.

  • ,

    Smartphone addiction could change brain chemistry, study reports

    Being addicted to the internet and constantly using smartphones could harm brain chemistry, according to new research presented at the Radiological Society of North America’s annual meeting in Chicago.

    The new study comes from scientists at Korea University, who found that “internet-addicted” teenagers tend to have an imbalance of chemicals in their brain. Such an imbalance is similar to the ones noted in people with anxiety or depression.

    The team made this discovery by using magnetic resonance spectroscopy — a form of MRI that can reveal changes in the chemical composition of the brain — to analyze the brains of 19 internet-and-smartphone-addicted teenagers, and 19 non-addicted teenagers. Researchers used questionnaires to measure whether or not teens were addicted.

    The data showed that teens with internet and smartphone addiction had a clear overabundance of a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in one region of the limbic system. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, which means it blocks nerve cells from firing. While that can be helpful, too much of it in the wrong areas can also lead to issues.

    “When the normal function of the limbic system is disturbed, patients can develop anxiety, depression or addiction,” explained Max Wintermark, a professor of radiology and the chief of neuroradiology at Stanford University who was not involved in the study, according to Live Science.

    This research is important because it sheds light on potential effects of the growing popularity of screens and mobile devices. There have been several studies showing how alcohol can lead to chemical imbalances throughout the brain, but this is the first to look at the effect of screens. 

    Simply using the internet for a lot of the day does not constitute an addiction. Rather, according to the American Psychiatric Association, those addicted excessively use the internet in a way that interferes with their everyday life. Rates of such addiction in young people range from less than 1 percent to 18 percent.

    The subjects in the recent study took standardized tests that diagnosed internet and smartphone addiction. Those who were addicted typically said their smartphone and internet use got in the way of their daily routines, social lives, sleep, and productivity. They also had significantly higher scores in depression, anxiety, insomnia, and impulsivity than the control group.

    The study was thorough, but also small. That means it is too early to say that the chemical imbalances observed in the teens’ brains were linked to clinical problems such as anxiety and depression. Further testing on a larger group is needed before such claims can be made.

    The study has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

  • , ,

    Falcon hunting techniques could one day be used to make drones, study reports

    The hunting technique of peregrine falcons could one day be used to develop visually guided drones that could knock rogue, unmanned aerial vehicles out of the sky, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports.

    The new technology comes from researchers at Oxford University, who began their research by analyzing the way peregrine falcons rapidly dart and move to hunt their prey.

    To get an in-depth look at that process, the team equipped eight of the birds with both video cameras and global positioning system devices. They then monitored and tracked their movements over four field seasons to get a deep understanding of the way the birds flew.

    “It was very exciting to study these sleek, formidable aerial predators, and to watch them as they chased down our maneuvering lure towed behind a small remote-controlled airplane – then, through our computer modelling, to reveal the secret of their attack strategy,” said study co-author, Caroline Brighton, a researcher at Oxford University, according to Tech Times.

    The research showed that the falcon’s trajectories followed a process known as proportional navigation, which is used by most visually guided missiles. As a result, further study of the birds could help scientists combine the hunting techniques into new technology. That would then allow them to use the navigation to develop new types of visually guided drones that would be able to safely remove potentially dangerous drones from areas such as airports, prisons, and protected airspace.

    The technique would improve security, especially because it does not require any information on a target’s speed or distance to be successful. Instead, it simply needs information about the rotation of the attacker’s line of sight to the target. That combination could come together and lead to much more efficient machines.

    “We think that the finer details of how peregrines operate could certainly find application in small drones designed to remove other drones from protected airspace,” said study co-author Graham Taylor, a professor at Oxford University, according to Bloomberg.

  • , ,

    Bacteria-printed solar cells are able to generate electricity

    Researchers at Imperial College London have used an inkjet printer to turn cyanobacteria into solar cells, a study published in the journal Nature Communications reports.

    Cyanobacteria are unique micro-organisms that have been on the Earth for billions of years. They are photosynthetic organisms that use sunlight to create energy. Though that energy is a food source for the bacteria, it also can be harnessed in different ways. In the study, the team used it to turn the tiny organisms into solar cells that are able to generate electricity in both dark and light conditions.

    In the past, the problem with solar cells is that they need constant sunlight to generate electricity. The bacteria get around that issue, which greatly increases the cell’s applications and creates an environment-friendly source of power.

    “Our biophotovoltaic device is biodegradable and in the future could serve as a disposable solar panel and battery that can decompose in our composts or gardens,” said study co-author Marin Sawa, a researcher in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Imperial College London, in a statement. “Cheap, accessible, environmentally friendly, biodegradable batteries without any heavy metals and plastics – this is what we and our environment really need but don’t have just yet, and our work has shown that it is possible to have that,” Sawa added.

    Though biophotovoltaic cells are efficient, they are expensive and require a lot of labor to create. That makes them difficult to build on a large scale.

    The researchers in the study overcame that issue by using a common inkjet printer to print the cells on paper. First, they embedded the cyanobacteria onto an electrode surface from a bulky liquid reservoir. Then, they developed a cyanobacteria ink that can be printed onto electrically conductive carbon nanotube. That gave them a way to create large amounts of living bacteria in a relatively short amount of time.

    The team states the bacteria live throughout the entire process, which means they can still perform photosynthesis, and the electricity they generate can be harvested over a 100-hour period.

    “A bio-solar panel made in this way, the approximate size of an iPad, could power a simple digital clock, and in separate experiments, a small LED light bulb,” the team wrote, according to International Business Times.

    While the process can only generate a small amount of energy, it has a lot of potential. Scientists hope that bacteria could one day be used to power much more than just a clock. Future studies will hopefully tap into greater applications.

  • , ,


    Amputee monkeys can use brains to control robotic limbs

    Researchers from various U.S. universities have discovered how the brain adapts in order to fully use a robotic limb.

    Many recent studies have analyzed humans controlling robotic arms with their brains. However, none of those studies looked at the exact way a brain needs to change in order to use such a limb.

    The team in the recent study shed light on that by hooking up rhesus monkeys that had lost a limb early in life to a robot arm-controlling brain-machine interface. This allowed them to monitor changes in the brain as the animals gradually learned to function with their new arms. Not only did they find the brain does indeed change, but they also showed the monkeys be taught to control the devices over time. 

    “We have successfully demonstrated that learning to use a cortically-controlled brain-machine interface to perform a complex, sequential task is possible in chronically amputated animals,” the authors wrote in the study, according to Gizmodo.

    To reach their conclusion, researchers implanted a series of electrodes into the monkeys’ motor cortex, on either the same or opposite side of the amputated limb. They then randomly assigned a set of brain cells to control reaching and grasping in the arm, and trained the monkeys to use the arms in ten to twenty sessions.

    While the monkey with the implant on the opposite side of the brain from the amputated limb figured out the arm faster, all of the primates were eventually able to use it. In addition, the physical makeup of the brain changed as the amputee monkeys learned to control the limb.

    At the start of the study, the animals only had a few connections between their neurons. However, as they learned, that cell network became more and more dense. That showed significant improvement, and the team believes the monkeys would have done better with more training.

    This finding is important because it gives more evidence to the idea that the brain reorganizes its neurons to adapt to different tasks. Knowledge of that process could aid future research and help amputees control robotic arms with new brain devices.

    “What’s more exciting is that brain-machine interfaces can be used to actually change the brain,” said senior author Nicholas Hatsopoulos, according to TechCrunch. “How it reorganizes with training or exposure. Just like it reorganizes when you learn to play tennis or the piano. It’s a motor skill you’re learning.”

    The research is published in Nature Communications.

  • ,

    Artificial muscle makes soft robots stronger

    Scientists from Harvard University and MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) have created artificial muscles that allow soft robots to lift objects that are up to 1,000 times their own weight, a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports.

    Soft robotics has made large strides over the past decade. However, while recent advancements have enabled the machines to bend and flex in new ways, the softer materials typically come with reduced strength.

    The new origami-inspired muscles in the study get around that obstacle and could one day lead to much more efficient machines.

    “We were very surprised by how strong the actuators [aka, “muscles”] were,” said study co-author Daniela Rus, the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT, according to Phys.org. “We expected they’d have a higher maximum functional weight than ordinary soft robots, but we didn’t expect a thousand-fold increase. It’s like giving these robots superpowers.”

    Making muscle-like actuators is one of the largest challenges in engineering. Now that it has been overcome, scientists can potentially build nearly any robot for almost any task.

    Each artificial muscle consists of an inner “skeleton” made from materials like metal coil or a sheet of folded plastic surrounded by air or fluid and sealed inside a plastic or textile bag. A vacuum inside the bag causes the muscles to move by forcing the “skin” to collapse onto the skeleton. That tension drives the motion, and allows the device to work without any other external human input. 

    In the study, the team created dozens of different muscles with materials ranging from metal springs to packing foam to sheets of plastic. They then experimented with different skeleton shapes to create muscles that can contract down to 10 percent of their original size, lift a flower off the ground, and twist into a coil.

    Those experiments showed the muscles can move in many ways, and are able to operate with a high amount of resilience. Not only that, but the technology can generate roughly six times more force per unit area than mammalian skeletal muscle, and is both lightweight and easy to make. A single muscle can be constructed within ten minutes using materials that cost less than $1.

    Another important property is that the actuators are highly scalable, meaning they can be constructed at different sizes. That is important because it greatly increases their potential applications. The team believes they could one day be used for a wide variety of tasks, including miniature surgical devices, wearable robotic exoskeletons, transformable architecture, deep-sea manipulators, and large deployable structures for space exploration.

    “The possibilities really are limitless,” added Rus, in a statement. “But the very next thing I would like to build with these muscles is an elephant robot with a trunk that can manipulate the world in ways that are as flexible and powerful as you see in real elephants.”

  • , ,

    A third of Americans still buy and rent video

    The video store isn’t ancient history just yet. In an annual survey by the research firm NPD Group, one-third of U.S. respondents said that they still rent or buy movies on DVD in addition to streaming movies on-screen.

    The survey, part of NPD Group’s annual Entertainment Trends in America report, interviewed more than 7,000 U.S. consumers about their entertainment choices in August 2017. Americans watched an extra hour of TV and movies per week this August compared to August last year, the survey found. And they watched more on DVD: In last year’s survey, only 26% said that they had rented or bought movies.

    Many respondents said that they use streaming services such as Netflix or Amazon Prime, but they turn to renting or buying for certain films. The reasons why included some films not yet being available on streaming, or because the users wanted to own the movie on DVD for sentimental reasons.

    DVDs of family films were especially popular, respondents indicated, explaining that their children like to watch the films over and over again. Some also said that picture quality on the DVDs was better than what they could get on a streaming service.

    “When it comes to entertainment, few consumers limit themselves to one single option,” said  Graham Gee, NPD’s president of video entertainment, in a statement. “Going out to the movies, watching cable TV, and viewing DVDs at home are still very popular activities, even as subscriptions to streaming services rise.”

    Netflix DVD rentals accounted for many of the DVD rentals, with around 3.5 million customers who pay extra to rent DVDs by mail. But some local video stores still survive, as well as around a dozen Blockbuster stores.

  • ,

    Lightning creates nuclear reactions through antimatter

    Researchers at Kyoto University have proved that lightning bolts work as natural particle accelerators, a new paper published in the journal Nature reports.

    Scientists first suspected that lightning bolts could accelerate particles back in 1925, when they postulated that energized, radioactive particles could zip through a thunderstorm. However, they had no way to prove such a process existed. In the recent study, the team overcame that by discovering that lightning’s particles emit energy at precise wavelengths, which can be detected.

    As lightning strikes, electrons speed between either two clouds, or a cloud and the Earth’s surface. However, those particles do not travel through empty space. Rather, they crash into multiple atmospheric gas molecules along the way. That then heats the gas into plasma, which glows with a type of electromagnetic radiation known as blackbody radiation.

    Though humans can notice some of that glow, many emissions — such as X-rays and gamma-rays — take place at frequencies that cannot be detected by the human eye.

    By using instruments to look at those beams of invisible energy, the team found that the rays excite ambient nitrogen and oxygen in the atmosphere. That then knocks out neutrons from the molecules they encounter and creates nuclear fission.

    This works because of the molecules nitrogen-14 and oxygen-16. Both of those are stable and freely float around in the atmosphere. However, when the above process removes a neutron from each — creating nitrogen-13 and oxygen-15 — it causes them to become unstable. From there, they rapidly decay and fire off an additional neutrino and positron.

    That then causes the neutrinos to stream away, while the positrons go on to collide with ambient electrons. That meeting of matter and antimatter culminates in a bright flash of energy, Live Science reports.

    “Usually people think lightning can interact with electrons in atoms,” Teruaki Enoto, a researcher from Kyoto University, told ScienceAlert. “The photonuclear reactions indicate that lightning also interacts even with nuclei if gamma rays have sufficiently high energy to knock out neutrons from the nuclei.”

    This research is important because, not only does it shed light on a new process, but it gives insight into potential uses for lightning. However, there are still many questions that still need to be answered. For instance, the photonuclear reaction, while interesting, does not appear to match an event scientists observed in 2009. It is also not yet clear how much of the isotope is produced in this way. The team hopes to continue monitoring the natural phenomena to see what else they can learn.

  • , ,

    NASA launch tests new ‘space lasers’

    A new space-based laser communications technology will get a test run Sunday morning, when spaceflight developer Orbital ATK launches a payload of experimental satellites to the International Space Station. The satellites will be outfitted with communications devices that transfer data via lasers at 200 megabits per second.

    Data transmissions at those speeds would be many times faster than the transmission rates of today’s satellite and spacecraft systems, according to NASA. The space agency said in a statement that Orbital’s laser satellites, if successful, could lead to “significantly enhanced communication speeds between space and Earth and a better understanding of laser communication between small satellites in low-Earth orbit.”

    The launch is scheduled for 7:14 AM EST Sunday from Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Orbital will send a pair of the satellites, called NanoRacks CubeSats, into space using its Cygnus spacecraft.

    The Cyngus will have a laser device, as will the ground station down on Earth. Orbital will try to establish communications between the two satellites using all four laser devices. The satellites will additionally perform “proximity” maneuvers close to each other using steam-based propulsion systems, star trackers, and cameras to navigate.

    NASA looks forward to not only see how well the lasers work, but also how well the small satellites can coordinate their flight operations. It said that the missions could lead to new uses for small satellites, such as enhanced communications among whole networks of Earth-orbiting satellites, higher-resolution imaging of Earth, and better tracking capabilities for Earth-based GPS for the military, tech companies, and weather and climate monitoring.

  • , ,

    Continental shifts may warm atmosphere, study reports

    Researchers from the GFZ German Research Center for Geosciences in Potsdam have discovered that continental break-up — also known as rifting — may significantly increase atmospheric CO2 concentrations, a new study published in Nature Geoscience reports.

    There are several factors that influence the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. While humans play a big role, the gases are affected by a wide range of geological and biological processes as well. This new look at rifting is another example of such processes.

    Earth’s carbon distribution is highly unbalanced. In fact, just one-hundred-thousandth of the total CO2 on the planet is found in atmosphere, biosphere, and oceans. The rest is deep in the Earth. Even so, the two carbon stores are not isolated from each other. Rather, they go through a constant exchange over millions of years.

    In the past, researchers postulated the exchange occurs with both tectonic plates, which take large amounts of carbon with them into the deep mantle, and volcanism, which releases CO2 up from the Earth and into the atmosphere. However, the team in the new study reports that might not be true.

    The researchers found that, while volcanic activity at the bottom of the ocean floor does indeed release CO2, the main carbon input from depth to the atmosphere occurs in continental rift systems.

    “Rift systems develop by tectonic stretching of the continental crust, which may lead to break-up of entire plates,” explained lead author Sascha Brune, a researcher at GFZ, according to Phys.org. “The East African Rift with a total length of 6,000 km is the largest in the world, but it appears small in comparison to the rift systems which were formed 130 million years ago when the supercontinent Pangea broke apart, comprising a network with a total length of more than 40,000 km.”

    The team made this discovery by using plate tectonic models of the past 200 million years to reconstruct how the global rift network evolved over time. This allowed them to prove the existence of two major periods of enhanced rifting that occurred between 130 and 50 million years ago.

    Then, researchers used numerical carbon cycle models to simulate the effect of increased CO2 degassing from the rifts. This revealed that both rifting periods correlate with higher CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere at that time. That finding not only helps scientists better understand the today’s climate shifts, but it also sheds light on the natural carbon shifts that occur throughout the world.

    “The global CO2 degassing rates at rift systems, however, are just a fraction of the anthropogenic carbon release today,” added Brune, in a statement. “Yet, they represent a missing key component of the deep carbon cycle that controls long-term climate change over millions of years.”