A TEXT POST

Crystal of the Week: Sodium Chloride!

Whether jumping in the ocean’s waves or noshing on some salty chips at a family picnic, during the dog days of summer, it’s pretty easy to appreciate this week’s #CrystaloftheWeek in celebration of International Year of Crystallography. Yes, this week we revel in the wonders of possibly the most valuable crystal in the world – so valuable that at times, it has even been used as currency!  We’re talking about sodium chloride. And those not in a chemistry lab probably know it better as table salt.

Yes, sodium chloride seems to be everywhere, but that hasn’t always been the case. People have mined it and found ways to evaporate ocean water to create sea salt “farms.”  And while it was the first “seasoning” to flavor bland foods, it also has been used to keep foods safe for long periods with its use in pickling, canning, curing and even drying meats and fish to prolong storage, especially prior to the invention of refrigeration. And, this practice continues today in many cultures, where it’s still customary to cook with salted cod rather than fresh fish to create certain stews and other meals.

For crystallographers, sodium chloride crystals represent the simplest crystal design: translucent and a perfect cube. And according to the Morton Salt company, salt has an estimated 14,000 specific industrial uses. “Several hundred of these are direct uses such as food seasoning, curing of animal hides or the preparation of saline solutions for intravenous injection. However, the greatest number of applications is indirect through the use of thousands of chemicals derived from a dozen or so basic chemicals produced from salt. Salt also plays important roles in the manufacture of steel, aluminum components, lubricants, rubber tires, seat covers, vinyl tops, paint removers, soap, textiles, ceramics, inks and dyes to name a few.” In fact, less than 10 percent of the salt that is manufactured is used in food. 

One of the most interesting aspects of salt water is the buoyancy it brings to a swimming experience. In extreme places such as the Dead Sea or even some mineral baths like one at the Königliche Kristall -Therme am Kurpark in Schwangau, Germany, one finds it nearly impossible to sink in the briny fluid with approximately 31 percent and 12 percent salt concentrations, respectively. 

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

A VIDEO

Professor Marjorie Skubic from the University of Missouri has created a suite of health care technologies that identify when an individual falls in their home or when their physical behavior changes over time. 

However, how does a physician at a hospital know about and use information gathered by devices like those designed by Skubic for the home? And likewise, how does information about a patient’s condition in the hospital get incorporated into technologies like Skubic’s when they return to their home? 

As part of the Smart America Closed Loop Healthcare team, Skubic worked to connect the technologies she’s created with those developed by other teams with similar health care goals. The team’s ultimate aim is to “close the loop” of health care coverage so devices, data and doctors’ diagnoses can be integrated for the good of the patient.

A VIDEO

Meet Russell - a humanoid robot developed by mechanical and computer engineer Nilanjan Sarkar and psychologist Zachary Warren of Vanderbilt University. His purpose is to work with autistic children on their ability to imitate others. Read more.

A TEXT POST

Drones for disaster relief

At the Smart America Expo in June, Yan Wan from the University of North Texas exhibited unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) she developed that are capable of providing wireless communications to storm-ravaged areas where telephone access is out.

Typical wireless communications have a range limit of only a hundred meters, or about the length of a football field. However, using technology Wan and her colleagues developed, Wan was able to extend the Wi-Fi reach of drones to five kilometers, or a little more than three miles. The secret is designing directional antennas that can rotate and adjust automatically to assure a strong connection.

"This technology would be very useful in disaster scenarios when the cell towers are down and there’s no communication infrastructure," Wan said. "However, in order to enable the information dissemination between the rescue teams and control centers, we need to have a structure available to make this happen. And this is what we’re trying to provide."

In a grant from NSF, Wan is applying similar technology to next-generation aviation systems. One day, Wan’s research will enable drone-to-drone and flight-to-flight communications, improving air traffic safety, coordination and efficiency.

The Smart America Expo brought together leaders from academia, industry and government to demonstrate the ways that smarter cyber-physical systems (CPS)—sometimes called the Internet of Things—can lead to improvements in healthcare, transportation, energy and emergency response, and other critical areas.

A VIDEO

Engineers and co-founders Matt Silver and Justin Buck are bringing their research from the lab to the market. Their system, called EcoVolt, generates methane gas from wastewater by leveraging what is called “electromethanogenesis.” Read more.

A TEXT POST

How Weird Water-Phobic Materials May Help Save The Earth

Engineers can now create materials that repel liquids so well they’re called superhydrophobic, i.e. they have a serious water phobia. With funding from the National Science Foundation, this booming area of research has the potential to benefit society in a big way. (Plus, it makes for amazing visuals.)

Pluck fresh drinking water from the air

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Image credit: James Anderson (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

A beetle in the Namib Desert of Africa uses its textured back to gather drinking water from the fog-filled morning wind. If researchers can perform some beetle biomimicry, that would mean a new source for water in dry areas.

Quickly test for tainted water

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Image credit: Aritra Ghosh, Ranjan Ganguly, Thomas M. Schutzius, Constantine M. Megaridis, “Wettability patterning for high-rate, pumpless fluid transport on open, non-planar microfluidic platforms,” Lab Chip 14, 1538-1550 (2014) — Reproduced by permission of The Roya

Plastic strips with superhydrophilic (a.k.a. water-loving) centers and superhydrophobic surroundings can combine or separate fluids and have the potential to serve as platforms for new diagnostic tests. Doctors could use the disposable strips to field-test water samples for E. coli, for example.

More efficient cooling for power plants

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Image credit: Constantine M. Megaridis, Aritra Ghosh, Ranjan Ganguly, Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, University of Illinois at Chicago

Superhydrophobic coatings speed up the rate at which water vapor can condense on a surface, which could save energy and water by making cooling equipment used in power plants more efficient.

Reduce possible medical contamination

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Image credit: Aritra Ghosh, Ranjan Ganguly, Thomas M. Schutzius, Constantine M. Megaridis, “Wettability patterning for high-rate, pumpless fluid transport on open, non-planar microfluidic platforms,” Lab Chip 14, 1538-1550 (2014) — Reproduced by permission of The Roya

As superhydrophobic materials become cheaper, their potential as disposable medical devices grows. Tiny amounts of fluid, such as blood, can be mixed and measured on a paper strip, and then discarded.

Laugh in the face of gravity

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Image credit: Constantine M. Megaridis, Aritra Ghosh, Ranjan Ganguly, Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, University of Illinois at Chicago

At the micro-scale, who needs a pump? Surface tension causes liquids to travel uphill on the path of least resistance.

Make airplane wings impervious to ice

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Image credit: James C. Bird, Rajeev Dhiman, Hyuk-Min Kwon and Kripa K. Varanasi

Engineers are looking to nature to learn how to reduce the time it takes for a water droplet to bounce away from a surface. The less time water spends in contact with a cold surface like an airplane wing, the less likely it is to freeze and ice over.

Reduce corrosion

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Image credit: James C. Bird, Rajeev Dhiman, Hyuk-Min Kwon and Kripa K. Varanasi

Less contact time also means less opportunity for water or toxins within the water to degrade or dirty surfaces. This could mean longer-lasting roofs and solar panels.

Lead to even weirder, bigger ideas
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Image credit: Constantine M. Megaridis, Aritra Ghosh, Ranjan Ganguly, Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, University of Illinois at Chicago

Humans have been experimenting with water for thousands of years and we’re still finding new ways to use this most essential resource. Know of some other ways engineers are making water work for us? Tell us about them!

A VIDEO

Hurricane Sandy was the deadliest of the 2012 hurricane season and is the second costliest hurricane in U.S. history. University of Washington civil engineer Dorothy Reed and her team are studying how Hurricane Sandy affected the New York metropolitan area’s infrastructure in order to find a way to make communities less vulnerable to such a storm. Read more.

A PHOTO

The evolutionary history of penguins and how they made the transition from land to sea is not as well known as that of many of its marine counterparts, such as whales.

Researchers like Daniel Ksepka of North Carolina State University are mining rich fossil deposits from ancient coastal areas in New Zealand and South America to fill in the missing pieces in the history of these popular birds. They’ve already discovered two new species of penguin from fossils. Read more

Meanwhile, new research has shown that emperor penguins are in danger of dramatic declines by the end of the century due to climate change and will soon qualify for endangered status. Read more

Caption: A line of emperor penguins in Antarctica.
Credit: Glenn Grant, NSF
A VIDEO

CoBots - short for “Collaborative Robots” - are literally help on wheels. Computer scientist Manuela Veloso and her team at Carnegie Mellon University are developing these autonomous indoor service robots to interact with people and provide help on the go. Read more.

A VIDEO

Astronomers Marc Buie and John Keller are involving citizen scientists from throughout the western United States to look out to the Kuiper Belt, a ring of icy debris that litters the solar system out beyond Neptune. They are looking to determine the sizes of Kuiper Belt objects as they pass in front of distant stars. Read more.

A VIDEO

People don’t usually think of mathematics as an occupation that requires survival skills, but they might change their minds if they saw Kenneth Golden and his research team in action. He and his team at the University of Utah are developing mathematical formulas to help scientists make more accurate predictions about how quickly sea ice will melt as our planet continues to warm. Read more.

A TEXT POST

Crystal of the Week: Zinc Oxide!

Yo sunbathers, golfers, tennis players and lifeguards! Here is a #CrystaloftheWeek that should definitely have you celebrating the International Year of Crystallography: zinc oxide.  Yes, that ubiquitous white cream on the tip of so many sun lovers’ noses at this time of year does make an outstanding skin protector, able to reflect the sun’s ultraviolet rays rather than absorbing them like the rest of the sunscreen ingredients in today’s sunscreens. However, zinc oxide is incredibly versatile and does so much more.

Literally, that summertime white face paint is only touching the surface of zinc oxide’s many uses. Sure, households have long seen zinc oxide’s value in anti-dandruff shampoos, antiseptics, and treating persistent diaper rash in powders and creams. But, zinc oxide is remarkably versatile.  It whitens paint. It improves cigarette filters. It’s a coating that prevents metal corrosion. And most exciting of all is how its crystalline structure is being studied in several electronic applications.

Yes, you may be off celebrating zinc oxide at the pool, beach or soccer pitch, but zinc oxide is hard at work in an assortment of labs where researchers look at optimizing its naturally occurring conductive, reflective and binding attributes into semiconductors, better lasers and sensors, and even as potential ingredient to ultimately creating quantum computers.

Photo credits: Bryan; Department of Energy’s Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory.