Saturday, April 20, 2013

Week in Science: The batteries that charge 1,000 times quicker and last 10 times longer

Week in Science: The batteries that charge 1,000 times quicker and last 10 times longer

Week in Science: The batteries that charge 1,000 times quicker and last 10 times longer

Batteries have been shoved well and truly into the spotlight this week. From sulphur and voltage spikes, to a battery technology breakthrough that could produce cells which fully charge in minutes and last for days rather than hours.

If that wasn't exciting enough, we've got black holes, super nanosuits, and the real reason we love beer, all waiting for you in another exciting Week in Science.

Microarray batteries could charge 1,000 times quicker -- Scientists may have finally made the massive breakthrough in battery technology we've all been waiting for. Miniaturisation is the key here; essentially researchers have created ranks of microbatteries, pro ducing many, many 3D electrodes combining intertwined anodes and cathodes at the microscale. That creates a much higher surface area to volume ratio, and means that electrons don't have far to flow to complete the circuit and therefore output power quicker to where it's needed.

The result is a battery that fully charges in minutes and lasts 10 times longer than current lithium-ion cells, something that would certainly boost battery life by miles in our smartphones. Unfortunately, the battery isn't quite ready for primetime, given a few safety concerns including a flammable electrolyte, but this could be the breakthrough that finally brings batteries up to scratch with the rest modern technology. [Nature Communications]

Next-generation batteries could stink like rotten eggs -- Miniaturisation may be the next hot battery technology, but sulphur might be the new material to boost it even further. A new technique called inverse vulcanisation creates new polymers out of a liquid sulphur mix, creating a new material for the potential construction of cathodes. Current generation sulphur-based batteries, although they provide good power density and low rates of self-discharge, quickly eat up their sulphur cathodes. The hope is that this new cathode sulphur polymer will solve that issue, beating lithium-ion batteries in almost all respects. While more research is clearly needed, soon your batteries could be sulphur-powered as well as being tiny. [Nature Chemistry]

Spikes throw your sensors for six -- If leaps in battery tech weren't enough this week, it seems the way you charge you current cell could make a difference to its life after all. Unlike nickel-cadmium or nickel-hydride batteries, lithium-ion batteries are meant to be able to be topped up whenever -- they don't have a memory of charge. However, new research suggests that incomplete charging and discharging does have an effect on battery life. Surprising spikes in voltage were seen from incomplete charges of batteries, meaning capacity sensors were thrown way off. That could result in your phone, or more importantly, your car, thinking you have more juice than you do in your battery, running flat without warning before you get home.

Thankfully, now that we know it's going on, battery capacity sensors can be adapted, something that's obviously pretty pressing and crucial for the burgeoning electric car market. [Nature Materials]

Micr oneedles could be the new staples -- Modern medicine really isn't all that modern sometimes -- we still use what are essentially staples to hold skin grafts and wounds together. But taking a bite out of nature, a new patch littered with microneedles could be the next generation of wound repair patch. Mimicking the spiny head of a parasitic worm, the patch's needles penetrate the surrounding skin to hold things in place. A thin hydrogel coating then swells to anchor all the needles and flesh together when in contact with water. The patches proved to have three times the adhesion strength of surgical staples, and could have far-reaching medical applications. Soon you could be patched up by something derived from a parasite, which could even deliver drugs into your system. [Nature Communications]


The first ever-lab grown kidney actually works -- Medical science made a huge breakthrough this week with the first ever working transplant of a kidney wholly grown. It was grown in just two weeks in a lab from a combination of human stem cells and rat kidney cells. The kidney was inserted into a rat where it was capable of filtering urine just like a natural kidney could. Unfortunately, it only managed 10 per cent efficiency, but it's a start. The next step is to try the same thing in pigs, which have very similar vascular systems to our own, and to get the efficiency up. It's a little while away yet, but kidneys grown to order might soon be available for human transplant, and that really will be revolutionary. [Nature]

Anti-cancer scientist jailed for faking results -- The first scientist to be convicted in the UK for breach of scientific safety laws, has just been jailed for three months. Steven Eaton, who worked for pharmaceutical firm Aptuit, was prosecuted under the 1999 Good Laboratory Practice Regulations for falsifying test results from an in-research anti-cancer drug. By selectively reporting results, he was able to show that the drug had passed tests, when indeed it had failed. The court was told that the drug could have easily caused irreparable damage to cancer patients if it had been cleared for sale. It just goes to show that there's greed and dishonesty within science, just as there is within any other industry. [BBC]

Pleasure and beer go hand-in-hand -- The reason why so many of us love beer has finally been unearthed. It's been known for a long time that alcohol releases dopamine to tickle our pleasure centres, but now the mere taste of beer has been proven to produce a similar, but totally separate response. A study that sprayed just 15ml of beer onto the tongues of volunteers showed large spikes in dopamine levels within minutes of tasting the beer. That triggers our reward response, the same one that's also initiated when you sleep or have sex, and is one of the reasons why you get cravings for beer.

The researchers also discovered that people with a history of alcoholism in the family got a much bigger surge in dopamine levels in the brain when tasting beer. That might explain why some people are predi sposed to alcoholism, and find it much harder to kick the habit. [Neuropsychopharmacology]


Nano-suits could be the new spacesuits -- What if you could be protected from the harsh vacuous environment of space by just an impossibly thin layer, like an invisible micro spacesuit. That's what researchers accidentally discovered when they bombarded a worm with electrons in the vacuum of an electron microscope. The electrons imparted energy onto the outside skin of the worm, causing it to polymerise into a nanoscopic protective layer, allowing the worm to move and survive normally in a vacuum.

Researchers then found the y could create artificial nano-suits using compounds coated onto the outside of insects in a similar manner. Scientists think that this kind of nano-suit technology could be adapted to create new spacesuits and other protective gear against the deadly environment of space. An invisible shield, barely the width of a human hair, sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie, but could turn out to be a very real possibility. [Science]


Flash, and a black hole is born -- Black holes are so named because you can't actually see them. They're black, appearing invisible in space, because they absorb all light and other electromagnetic waves, as well as all matter. However, it seems a burst of neutrinos given off by the formation of a new singularity, as a star simply implodes, might be the key to spotting them. As the neutrinos are ejected, the core of the star suddenly becomes lighter, which in turn fires a shockwave through the star's outer layers. This sends them flying off into space, glowing brightly as they do so. That process creates enough of a flash of light for us to see back here on Earth, allowing us to witness the birth of a new all-consuming black hole. [New Scientist]

A black hole, yesterday [Image    credit: NASA]

Fancy eating a tree for dinner? -- Scientists have managed to transform indigestible cellulose, what you might call fibre in your diet, into one of our staple foods, starch. Cellulose and starch are both made of chains of glucose, differing only in the way the chains are constructed. Using synthetic enzymes, researchers were able to essentially convert cellulose into starch, which is a far harder prospect than it sounds. The resulting material can then be process into all sorts of things, potentially including food, or a new source of biofuel to keep our engines running. [PNAS]


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