Sci-Tech

  • FirefightingFighting fires with low-frequency sound waves

    A thumping bass may do more than light up a party — it could flat out extinguish it, thanks to a new sound-blasting fire extinguisher by George Mason University undergrads. The fire extinguisher uses low-frequency sound waves to douse a blaze. Their sound-wave device is free of toxic chemicals and eliminates collateral damage from sprinkler systems. If mounted on drones, it could improve safety for firefighters confronting large forest fires or urban blazes.

  • FirefightingTethered robots to be the “eyes” of firefighters in “blind” conditions

    Researchers have developed revolutionary reins which enable robots to act like guide dogs, which could enable that firefighters moving through smoke-filled buildings could save vital seconds and find it easier to identify objects and obstacles. The small mobile robot — equipped with tactile sensors — would lead the way, with the firefighter following a meter or so behind holding a rein. The robot would help the firefighter move swiftly in “blind” conditions, while vibrations sent back through the rein would provide data about the size, shape and even the stiffness of any object the robot finds.

  • Coastal infrastructureU.K. coastal railways at increasing risk from climate change

    Footage of a railway line suspended in mid-air and buffeted remorselessly by the storm that had caused the sea wall to collapse beneath it made for one of the defining images of 2014. Scenes such as those witnessed at Dawlish in Devon are set to become more frequent as a result of climate change, and the U.K. government and rail companies must face up to difficult funding decisions if rural areas currently served by coastal lines are to continue to be connected to the rail network. For railway builders in the mid-nineteenth century the coast was cheaper, flatter, and easier than using inland sites, one expert points out. “We wouldn’t have built these railway lines where they are if we had today’s knowledge.”

  • WaterWorld population may outpace water supply by mid-century

    Population growth could cause global demand for water to outpace supply by mid-century if current levels of consumption continue. It would not, however, be the first time this has happened, a new study finds. Using a delayed-feedback mathematical model which analyzes historic data to help project future trends, the researchers identified a regularly recurring pattern of global water use in recent centuries. Periods of increased demand for water — often coinciding with population growth or other major demographic and social changes — were followed by periods of rapid innovation of new water technologies that helped end or ease any shortages. The researchers’ conclusions: Technological advances will be needed in coming decades to avoid water shortages.

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  • InfrastructureDamage-sensing, self-repairing concrete

    Skin is renewable and self-repairing — our first line of defense against the wear and tear of everyday life. If damaged, a myriad of repair processes spring into action to protect and heal the body. Clotting factors seal the break, a scab forms to protect the wound from infection, and healing agents begin to generate new tissue. Taking inspiration from this remarkable living healthcare package, researchers are asking whether damage sensing and repair can be engineered into a quite different material: concrete. Their aim is to produce a “material for life,” one with an in-built first-aid system that responds to all manner of physical and chemical damage by self-repairing, over and over again.

  • Coastal infrastructureRising sea level will double Hawaii’s coastal erosion by mid-century

    New research brings into clearer focus just how dramatically Hawaiʻi beaches might change as sea level rises in the future. Chronic erosion dominates the sandy beaches of Hawaiʻi, causing beach loss as it damages homes, infrastructure, and critical habitat. Researchers have long understood that global sea level rise will affect the rate of coastal erosion. The research team developed a simple model to assess future erosion hazards under higher sea levels, taking into account historical changes of Hawaiʻi shorelines and the projected acceleration of sea level rise reported from the IPCC. The results indicate that coastal erosion of Hawaiʻi’s beaches may double by mid-century.

  • Tipping pointsPolicy makers discount damages from future climate tipping points – but they should not

    Most methods that weigh up the costs and benefits of tackling climate change ignore climate tipping points, and especially the uncertainty surrounding them. Instead, they assume that future damages from climate change are known perfectly and can therefore be discounted at a rate comparable to the market interest rate – thus reducing the willingness to pay now to protect future generations. New research shows, however, that the prospect of an uncertain future tipping point should greatly increase the amount we are willing to pay now to limit climate change. The study argues that society should set a high carbon tax now to try and prevent climate change reaching a point of no return.

  • Space debrisUsing fishing nets to snag derelict satellites

    The European Space Agency (ESA) is testing the feasibility of removing a large item of debris in orbit — either a large derelict satellite or rocket upper stage – to help control the debris levels in busy orbits. The best method of snagging an uncontrolled, tumbling satellite is still being decided. ESA’s Clean Space initiative to reduce the impact of the space industry on the terrestrial and orbital environments is overseeing studies which include a robotic arm, a harpoon, and an ion beam – but one of humanity’s oldest technologies, the humble fishing net, may yet find a new role in space, as it appears to offer the most effective way to bring down dead satellites.

  • WaterNew membranes deliver clean water more efficiently

    Researchers have developed new membranes or micro-filters that will result in clean water in a much more energy efficient manner. The new membranes will supply clean water for use in desalination and water purification applications. The novel membrane technology uses layer-by-layer polymer assembly.

  • STEM educationU.S. engineering schools to educate 20,000 students to meet U.S. major engineering challenges

    In a letter of commitment presented to President Barack Obama at the White House Science Fair yesterday, 122 U.S. engineering schools announced plans to educate a new generation of engineers expressly equipped to tackle some of the most pressing issues facing society in the twenty-first century. Each of the 122 signing schools has pledged to graduate a minimum of twenty students per year who have been specially prepared to lead the way in solving such large-scale problems, with the goal of training more than 20,000 formally recognized “Grand Challenge Engineers” over the next decade.

  • WaterCalifornia exploring water purification, imports, and conservation as water situation worsens

    California officials are calling on residents better to manage their water usage as the state enters its fourth consecutive year of drought. An average American uses 100 gallons of water each day, and reservoirs in California only have enough water to supply this level of consumption until the end of 2015. In 2014 alone, the state’s agriculture sector lost $2.2 billion in revenue as a result of the drought. State officials acknowledge that a heavy rainfall alone will not be sufficient to restore the groundwater the state needs, so water districts are investing in water recycling plants and exploring strategies ranging from importing water to encouraging greater conservation.

  • WaterDiminished Utah snowpack threatens Salt Lake City water supply

    Studies of water use from 2005 to 2010 show that Utahans used more water for public supply than any other state, despite Utah being ranked the second most arid within the country. Significantly lower levels of Utah snowpack this winter are the biggest climate challenge now facing Salt Lake City: The Northeastern part of the country is inundated with record amounts of snow, but Salt Lake City’s snowpack is 69 percent below the 30-year average.

  • Coastal infrastructureClimate change discussion: Shifting from mitigation to adaptation

    Many infrastructure protection experts say that there is a need to discuss not only how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but also how to plan for and adapt to the inevitable consequences of those emissions, which are already changing the climate. One area in which adaptation to climate change is likely to be especially painful is in coastal areas affected by sea level rise. In some coastal regions, communities will be forced to retreat from the coast as a result of rising sea level and increasing damage from storms and flooding. Part of the problem is that policies such as disaster relief programs and insurance regulations create a system that protects many property owners from the true costs of building in risk-prone areas of the coast. “We have a system of private gains and externalized costs,” said one expert.

  • WaterAverting global water crisis

    Climate change is increasing the demand for desalinated water — by 2025,14 percent of the global population will be forced to use desalinated sea water — as greater evaporation and rising seas further limit freshwater supplies for a growing world population. Current methods to desalinate water, however, come at a very high cost in terms of energy, which means more greenhouse gases and more global warming. Carbon nanotube membranes have the potential to tackle the current and future challenges in water purification.

  • Coastal infrastructureRising seas bring heavy burden to Florida coastal economy. Can it adapt?

    By Karl Havens

    Florida is a coastal state. Nearly 80 percent of its twenty million residents live near the coast on land just a few feet above sea level, and over a hundred million tourists visit the beaches and stay in beach-front hotels every year. The coastal economy in Florida is estimated to account for 79 percent of the state’s gross domestic product, a measure of direct revenue into the economy. It now is widely accepted that climate change is causing an unprecedented rise in sea levels around the world, and that locations such as Florida, where huge infrastructure and large populations live right on the coast, are especially vulnerable. An important reality is that sea-level rise is not a future phenomenon. It has been happening slowly over the past decades, at about one inch every ten years. That’s a half foot since the 1960s and already it is taking a toll.