Technology news in October


Plastic Recycling That Works

The technology could help the world dispose of its plastic waste, which is otherwise difficult to recycle. Image credit: University of Oxford.

What is it? Collaborating with colleagues around the globe, researchers at the University of Oxford developed a one-step, low-cost method for converting plastic waste into hydrogen gas.

Why does it matter? Difficult to recycle, discarded plastic is ending up in waterways around the world, in a growing environmental catastrophe. It’s good to be able to meaningfully reuse that waste — even better if it can be turned into hydrogen, a clean fuel that yields only water as a byproduct. Oxford chemistry professor Peter Edwards said the new technology “offers a potential route to the challenge of the plastic waste Armageddon, particularly in developing countries as one route to the hydrogen economy — effectively enabling them to leap-frog the sole use of fossil fuels.”

How does it work? After pulverizing plastic into particles, Edwards and colleagues mixed the particles with “a microwave-susceptor catalyst of iron oxide and aluminum oxide,” according to an Oxford news release. “The mixture was subjected to microwave treatment and yielded a large volume of hydrogen gas and a residue of carbonaceous materials, the bulk of which were identified as carbon nanotubes.” The method, which “demonstrates that over 97% of hydrogen in plastic can be extracted in a very short time, in a low-cost method with no CO2 burden,” is described further in Nature Catalysis.

Cracking The Ultimate Language Barrier

The AI system can decipher “lost” languages based on relatively little information. Image credit: S.R.K. Branavan.

What is it? Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, or CSAIL, have designed a system that can help decipher “lost” languages — that is, ancient languages whose particulars are so unknown that they can’t be read today.

Why does it matter? Deciphering lost languages can help modern-day researchers understand a linguistic system; it can also unlock information about the people who spoke the languages. One of the challenges in this area is languages that don’t appear to be related to any others, which might otherwise offer a point of comparison for those trying to decipher them. As MIT News put it, “The team’s ultimate goal is for the system to be able to decipher lost languages that have eluded linguists for decades, using just a few thousand words.”

How does it work? The MIT system, which can also help illuminate connections between different languages, works based on a few general principles of historical linguistics: for instance, the fact that given sounds rarely just appear or disappear from a linguistic system, but instead may evolve into other sounds. The MIT team developed a “decipherment algorithm” that, according to MIT News, “learns to embed language sounds into a multidimensional space where differences in pronunciation are reflected in the distance between corresponding vectors. … The resulting model can segment words in an ancient language and map them to counterparts in a related language.”

Untangling Alzheimer’s

What is it? A team of scientists at the University of South Florida Health is at work on a vaccine that could halt the progression of Alzheimer’s disease in elderly patients.

Why does it matter? Research has shown that immunotherapies — therapies that boost the immune system’s own disease-fighting capabilities — hold promise against Alzheimer’s.

How does it work? The vaccine under development, which has been tested in mice, targets neurotoxic forms of the peptide amyloid beta, which clumps between nerve cells in the brain and is one of the primary pathologies of Alzheimer’s. “This therapeutic vaccine uses the body’s own immune cells to target the toxic [amyloid beta] molecules that accumulate harmfully in the brain,” said Chuanhai Cao, who is leading the research.

Touch And Go

What is it? Researchers at the U.K.’s University of Birmingham used a type of wave more commonly associated with earthquakes to create “the first scaling law for touch sensitivity,” which could lead the way to new advances in virtual reality.

Why does it matter? Mathematician Tom Montenegro-Johnson, who led the research, said, “Touch is a primordial sense, as important to our ancient ancestors as it is to modern-day mammals, but it’s also one of the most complex and therefore least understood. While we have universal laws to explain sight and hearing, for example, this is the first time that we’ve been able to explain touch in this way.”

How does it work? Montenegro-Johnson and colleagues specifically studied Rayleigh waves, seismic waves that were thought to only travel along surfaces. The researchers discovered, though, that the waves travel through skin and bone and are felt by the body’s receptor cells: “Using mathematical modeling of these touch receptors, the researchers showed how the receptors were located at depths that allowed them to respond to Rayleigh waves. The interaction of these receptors with the Rayleigh waves will vary across species, but the ratio of receptor depth vs. wavelength remains the same, enabling the universal law to be defined.”


Another Earth

A “digital twin” of the entire Earth could help policymakers envision the effects of climate change — and model fixes for it. Image credit: Getty Images.

What is it? Digital twin technology is all the rage — companies including GE use it, for instance, to create computer-simulated models of machines, allowing them to help predict wear and tear and schedule maintenance. Now the European Union is taking that general principle and applying it to a much, much, much larger object: the Earth itself.

How does it work? The overall cloud-based “platform” of Destination Earth will include “digital replicas of various aspects of the Earth system,” per the EU, including ocean circulation, food security and weather forecasting — and many other planetary subsystems. One goal will be to capture the planet’s atmosphere at a resolution of 1 kilometer, which will enable researchers to unlock the “third dimension” of climate modeling, as another researcher told Science: convection. The project will be implemented over the next decade, starting in 2021.