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Saturday, June 30, 2012

WSU Researchers Create Super Lithium-Ion Battery, Could Hit Market Next Year

Washington State University (WSU) researchers have developed a new technology that could triple the capacity of lithium-ion batteries, which as anyone who owns a cell phone or laptop knows, can be frustratingly limiting.

Grant Norton and student, David Mackay. 
Photo by WSU Photo Services.

Led by Grant Norton, professor in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, the researchers have filed patents on the nanoscale-based technology, which also allows the batteries to re-charge many more times and more quickly than current models. They expect to bring it to the market within a year.

Thin, super lithium-ion battery
Credit: WSU

In particular, the researchers have developed an anode made of tin, rather than the carbon used currently. Rechargeable lithium ion batteries are made up of two electrodes, the cathode and an anode. During charging, the lithium ions move from the cathode to the anode. The anode holds the lithium ions and stores the battery’s energy. When the battery is used, the ions move from the anode to the cathode, discharging electrons and creating an electric circuit.

The new tin anode has the potential to store almost three times the energy of graphite.

Uttara Sahaym 

Norton and postdoctoral researcher Uttara Sahaym developed the novel material a little over a year ago while working on a project to mitigate tin whiskers, which are literally tiny whiskers that grow on tin-plated electronics. The whiskers, which can sometimes grow as long as 10 millimeters, are a pesky problem in microelectronics because they create short circuits that can cause catastrophic damage. Yet, despite the fact that tin whiskers have been causing problems for more than 60 years, researchers have been unable to come up with ways to entirely avoid them.

Norton and his group decided to turn the problem on its head and see if they could control the growth of tin whiskers, instead of trying to get rid of them. They applied the work to developing a tin-based anode for batteries.

The researchers developed a method for growing tin nanoneedles directly onto copper foil using a standard electroplating process that is commonly used in industry. Electroplating means the tin-based anode costs less than regular graphite anodes with triple the energy storage capacity. The end product battery will look exactly the same as the current batteries, so that manufacturers don’t have to redesign their electronic devices to make room for a new battery.

tin nanoneedles 
Credit: WSU

With support from the WSU College of Engineering and Architecture’s Emerging Technology Fund, which is funded by private donations, the researchers have started building and testing the batteries.

Contacts and sources: 
By Tina Hilding

Rats Laugh When Tickled, Animal Emotions Provide Clues to Autism, Other Disorders Says WSU Researcher

Animals might not analyze their emotions the way humans do, but they do experience them, according to Jaak Panksepp, a professor and researcher at Washington State University.

Credit: WSU

A relatively new addition to WSU's Department of Veterinary and Comparative Anatomy, Pharmacology and Physiology, Panksepp believes "people don't have a monopoly on emotion; rather, despair, joy and love are ancient, elemental responses that have helped all sorts of creatures survive and thrive in the natural world."

Since arriving at WSU, he has ushered in a new area of study called "affective neuroscience." It involves the study of the basic processes that create and control moods, feelings and attitudes in both people and animals.

"This doesn't imply that animals think about their feelings like people do," said Panksepp, "but they do experience them in similar ways."

Born in Estonia, he brings with him an extensive portfolio of both domestic and international neuroscience credentials. He also is already something of a celebrity, having been featured on MSNBC and in Psychology Today.

Panksepp's research goal is to offer a scientific strategy for understanding the basic emotional feelings in the mammalian brain, including humans, by accurately studying the instinctual emotional behaviors of animals. He is developing the idea that emotional feelings are closely linked to the instinctual actions animals exhibit.

"All animals have instinctual behaviors, so therefore we target the instinctual circuits," he said. "We can stimulate a circuit - say by gently tickling a rat - to essentially ask the animal if he likes the circuit on or off (rats like it on). They always choose one way or the other. Mother Nature built it in such a way that a feeling component is part of the instinctual system.

Practically speaking, this understanding of animal behavior and the neurochemistry behind emotion may help lead to breakthrough treatments for an array of psychological disorders such as schizophrenia, depression, autism, sleep problems and more, Panksepp said.

In the late 1970s and early 80s, he and his colleagues developed the first animal model for autism. Later, they tested autistic children in Salzburg using an opiate blocking drug called naltrexone. Given very low doses of naltrexone, which mildly shift chemical balances in the body and brain, Panksepp and his team found that some children became more cheerful and responsive.

"We are working with the body's own chemistry in these studies," he said, "so there are few side effects. In general, the drug increases social desire and we speculate that some autistic children have a higher than normal opiate level in their brain, causing them to become socially aloof. In effect, they have become addicted to themselves," he said.

Panksepp is also toying with the idea that low dose naltrexone might be effective in mood regulation, which may be something he plans to investigate in the future. By blocking the opioid system only at night, they effectively hope to encourage the brain's natural opioid system to become more active during the day.

With millions of questions yet to answer in this new area of study, Panksepp plans to continue his investigations at WSU and to collaborate with researchers there and many other universities. He is most interested in the organization of the "social brain" and social emotions - joy and sadness - especially by focusing on the emotional sounds of animals.

In his recent work, Panksepp has found that young rats make chirping sounds outside the range of human hearing, especially while playing. These high-pitched sounds appear to have a deep ancestral relationship to infantile human laughter - the essence of social joy, he said. The brain systems that generate these play sounds feel good, since the animals like to have those brain areas "tickled". The work provides a greater understanding of positive emotions that may eventually help in the development of better antidepressants.

But finding a species in which he could study both systems effectively at the same age has proved to be difficult. Panksepp's group recently started to focus their research on the degu - a small, guinea pig-like rodent native to Chile. The playful degus have a wide repertoire of vocalizations which are the basis for many of Panksepp's current studies at WSU.

Panksepp is a world leader in the new science of how emotions are controlled by the brain. Beside his current work with positive social emotions, he has also helped show how specific brain mechanisms that control desire, anger and separation distress are organized in the brain, and that many animals even have subtler emotions such as the "quest for nurturance and the desire to offer care" - just as anyone who has ever owned and loved a dog might suspect.

Jaak Panksepp, WSU professor and researcher, seeks to offer a scientific strategy for understanding the basic emotional feelings in the mammalian brain, including humans, by accurately studying the instinctual emotional behaviors of animals. He is developing the idea that emotional feelings are closely linked to the instinctual actions animals exhibit.

Contacts and sources: 
By Robert Strenge
Washington State University

Earth from Space: Arid Atacama

The southern Atacama Desert is pictured in this Envisat image, with the border of Chile (west) and Argentina (east) running down the middle.

The Atacama is believed to be the driest desert in the world, and the lack of cloud cover in this image highlights the dry climate.
Atacama Desert
Just off the coast, the cold surface of the South Pacific Ocean leads to a cooling of air masses, resulting in cloud formation and precipitation over the water. These clouds can clearly been seen in the image, though they rarely reach the land.

This phenomenon is common in several coastal areas such as the North American deserts of the southwestern United States and Mexico, or the Namib Desert on the west coast of southern Africa.

Because of the plateau’s high altitude, low cloud cover and lack of light pollution, it is one of the best places in the world to conduct astronomical observations and home to two major observatories.

Some areas of the desert have been compared to the planet Mars, and have been used as a location for filming scenes set on the red planet.

ESA recently tested a self-steering rover in the Atacama, which was selected for its similarities to martian conditions.

The desert also has rich deposits minerals like copper, and is home to the world’s largest natural supply of sodium nitrate.

East of the desert plateau are the Andes mountains and some greener areas of northern Argentina, though still very arid. The population is concentrated around water courses, water being distributed by canals and irrigation ditches.

This image was acquired by Envisat’s MERIS instrument on 4 March. 

Source: ESA  

The Image of the Week is featured on ESA Web-TV, broadcast online every Friday at 10:00 CEST.

First-Ever Focused Images Of The High-Energy X-Ray Universe

NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, has snapped its first test images of the sizzling high-energy X-ray universe. The observatory, launched June 13, is the first space telescope with the ability to focus high-energy X-rays, the same kind used by doctors and dentists, into crisp images.

Soon, the mission will begin its exploration of hidden black holes; fiery cinder balls left over from star explosions; and other sites of extreme physics in our cosmos.

NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, has taken its first snapshots of the highest-energy X-rays in the cosmos (lower right), producing images that are much crisper than previous high-energy telescopes (example in upper right). NuSTAR chose a black hole in the constellation Cygnus (shown in the skymap on the left) as its first target due to its brightness. 
NuSTAR's First View of High-Energy X-ray Universe
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech   

"Today, we obtained the first-ever focused images of the high-energy X-ray universe," said Fiona Harrison, the mission's principal investigator at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, who first conceived of NuSTAR about 15 years ago. "It's like putting on a new pair of glasses and seeing aspects of the world around us clearly for the first time."

NuSTAR's lengthy mast, which provides the telescope mirrors and detectors with the distance needed to focus X-rays, was deployed on June 21. The NuSTAR team spent the next week verifying the pointing and motion capabilities of the satellite, and fine-tuning the alignment of the mast.

The first images from the observatory show Cygnus X-1, a black hole in our galaxy that is siphoning gas off a giant-star companion. This particular black hole was chosen as a first target because it is extremely bright in X-rays, allowing the NuSTAR team to easily see where the telescope's focused X-rays are falling on the detectors.

In the next two weeks, the team will point at two other bright calibration targets: G21.5-0.9, the remnant of a supernova explosion that occurred several thousand years ago in our own Milky Way galaxy; and 3C273, an actively feeding black hole, or quasar, located 2 billion light-years away at the center of another galaxy. These targets will be used to make a small adjustment to place the X-ray light at the optimum spot on the detector, and to further calibrate and understand the telescope in preparation for future science observations.

Other telescopes, including NASA's Swift and Chandra space telescopes, and the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton, will look at 3C273 in coordination with NuSTAR, helping to further calibrate the telescope.

The mission's primary observing program is expected to commence within two weeks.

"This is a really exciting time for the team," said Daniel Stern, the NuSTAR project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "We can already see the power of NuSTAR to crack open the high-energy X-ray universe and reveal secrets that were impossible to get at before."

Throughout its two-year prime mission, NuSTAR will turn its focused gaze on the most energetic objects in the universe, producing images with 100 times the sensitivity and 10 times the resolution of its predecessors operating at similar wavelength ranges. It will take a census of black holes both inside and outside of our Milky Way galaxy, and answer questions about how this enigmatic cosmic "species" behaves and evolves. Because it sees high-energy X-rays, NuSTAR will also probe farther into the dynamic regions around black holes, where matter is heated to temperatures as high as hundreds of millions of degrees, and will measure how fast black holes are spinning.

This image comparison demonstrates NuSTAR's improved ability to focus high-energy X-ray light into sharp images. The image on the left, taken by the European Space Agency's INTEGRAL satellite, shows high-energy X-rays from galaxies beyond our own. The light is "unresolved," meaning that individual objects creating the light -- in particular, the active supermassive black holes -- cannot be distinguished.

The image on the right shows a simulated view of what NuSTAR will see at comparable wavelengths. NuSTAR will be able to identify individual black holes making up the diffuse X-ray glow, also called the X-ray background. The observatory will have 100 times better sensitivity than its predecessors, and 10 times sharper resolution. It will probe deeper into the mysterious regions surrounding black holes, and will discover never-before-seen black holes enshrouded in dust.
The image on the left, taken by the European Space Agency's INTEGRAL satellite, shows high-energy X-rays from galaxies beyond our own. The image on the right shows a simulated view of what NuSTAR will see at comparable wavelengths. 
Image credit: ESA/NASA/JPL-Caltech
Other targets for the mission include the burnt-out remains of dead stars, such as those that exploded as supernovae; high-speed jets; the temperamental surface of our sun; and the structures where galaxies cluster together like mega-cities.

NuSTAR is a Small Explorer mission led by Caltech and managed by JPL for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The spacecraft was built by Orbital Sciences Corporation, Dulles, Va. Its instrument was built by a consortium including Caltech; JPL; the University of California, Berkeley; Columbia University, New York; NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.; the Danish Technical University in Denmark; Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Livermore, Calif.; and ATK Aerospace Systems, Goleta, Calif. NuSTAR will be operated by UC Berkeley, with the Italian Space Agency providing its equatorial ground station located at Malindi, Kenya. The mission's outreach program is based at Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, Calif. NASA's Explorer Program is managed by Goddard. JPL is managed by Caltech for NASA.

For more information, visit http://www.nasa.gov/nustar and http://www.nustar.caltech.edu/ .

Contacts and sources:
Whitney Clavin  
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Hubble Sees A Vapor Of Stars

Relatively few galaxies possess the sweeping, luminous spiral arms or brightly glowing center of our home galaxy the Milky Way. In fact, most of the Universe's galaxies look like small, amorphous clouds of vapor. One of these galaxies is DDO 82, captured here in an image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Though tiny compared to the Milky Way, such dwarf galaxies still contain between a few million and a few billion stars.

DDO 82, also known by the designation UGC 5692, is not without a hint of structure, however. Astronomers classify it as an "Sm galaxy," or Magellanic spiral galaxy, named after the Large Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf galaxy that orbits the Milky Way. That galaxy, like DDO 82, is said to have one spiral arm.

In the case of DDO 82, gravitational interactions over its history seem to have discombobulated it so that this structure is not as evident as in the Large Magellanic Cloud. Accordingly, astronomers also refer to DDO 82 and others of a similar unshapely nature as dwarf irregular galaxies.

DDO 82 can be found in the constellation of Ursa Major (the Great Bear) approximately 13 million light-years away. The object is considered part of the M81 Group of around three dozen galaxies. DDO 82 gets its name from its entry number in the David Dunlap Observatory Catalogue. Canadian astronomer Sidney van den Bergh originally compiled this list of dwarf galaxies in 1959.

The image is made up of exposures taken in visible and infrared light by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. The field of view is approximately 3.3 by 3.3 arcminutes.
Galaxy DDO 82 
Image credit: ESA/NASA

Want Bigger Plants? Get To The Root Of The Matter And Get Bigger Pots

Plant scientists have imaged and analyzed, for the first time, how a potted plant's roots are arranged in the soil as the plant develops. In this study, to be presented at the Society for Experimental Biology meeting on 30th June, the team has also found that doubling plant pot size makes plants grow over 40% larger.

This image shows the roots of a barley plant in a cylindrical pot imaged by MRI 44 days after sowing. Blue roots are in the outer 50 percent of the pot volume, yellow roots are in the inner 50 percent of the pot volume, the stem of the barley plant is in red.
Credit: Jonas Bühler

From their 3-D MRI root scans, the researchers observed that potted plants quickly extend their roots to the pot's walls. It is likely that the plants use their roots to 'sense' the size of the pot, although the details of how the roots relay the message about the pot's size remain the plants' secret.

They also looked at 65 independent studies across a wide range of species including tomato, corn, pine tree, cactus, wheat, and cotton plants, and found that all species reach larger sizes when grown in a bigger pot. On average, doubling pot size allowed plants to grow 43% larger.

Dr Hendrik Poorter (Forschungszentrum Jülich, Germany) who led the study, said: "There has been commercial interest in seeing how small pots can be, but our aim was to see how big a pot needs to be to avoid affecting plant experiments."

This image shows the roots of a sugar beet growing in a cylindrical pot, imaged by MRI 44 days after sowing. Roots in blue grew in the outer 50 percent volume of the pot, roots in yellow grew in the inner 50 percent pot volume, and the storage organ of the sugar beet is in red.
Credit: Jonas Bühler

Contacts and sources:
Catie Lichten
Society for Experimental Biology

Friday, June 29, 2012

Amazing 579 Million Year Old Animal Nursery Preserved In Volcanic Ash

A volcanic eruption around 579 million years ago buried a 'nursery' of the earliest-known animals under a Pompeii-like deluge of ash, preserving them as fossils in rocks in Newfoundland, new research suggests.

A team from the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, in collaboration with the Memorial University of Newfoundland, looked for evidence of life from the mysterious Ediacaran period (635-542 million years ago) in which the first 'animals' – complex multicellular organisms – appeared.

 Juvenile example of the rangeomorph fossil Charnia, measuring just 17 millimetres in length. Note the fine detail of the branches
 Credit: OU/Jack Matthews 

The team discovered over 100 fossils of what are believed to be 'baby' rangeomorphs; bizarre frond-shaped organisms which lived 580-550 million years ago and superficially resemble sea-pen corals but, on closer inspection, are unlike any creature alive today. This 'nursery' of baby rangeomorphs was found in rocks at the Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve in Newfoundland, Canada.

A report of the research will appear in the July issue of the Journal of the Geological Society.

The fossil remains of rangeomorphs are often described as 'fern-like' and where exactly they fit in the tree of life is unclear. Because they lived deep beneath the ocean where there would have been no light they are not thought to be plants but they may not have had all of the characteristics of animals. Mysteriously, their frond-shaped body-plan, which might have helped them gather oxygen or food, does not survive into the Cambrian period (542-488 million years ago).

Juvenile Trepassia wardae showing the fine detail of its branching pattern. This specimen is just 3 millimetres wide. 
Nursery of earliest animals found in fossils in rocks at Mistaken Point
Credit: OU/Alex Liu 

'The fossilised 'babies' we found are all less than three centimetres long and are often as small as six millimetres; many times smaller than the 'parent' forms, seen in neighbouring areas, which can reach up to two metres in length,' said Professor Martin Brasier of Oxford University’s Department of Earth Sciences, one of the authors of the report. 'This new discovery comes from the very bottom of the fossil-bearing rocks, making it one of the oldest bedding planes to preserve 'animal' fossils in the whole of the geological record.

'We think that, around 579 million years ago, an underwater 'nursery' of baby Ediacaran fronds was overwhelmed, Pompeii-style, by an ash fall from a volcanic eruption on a nearby island that smothered and preserved them for posterity.'

Possible new fossil form. This organism has a long curved stem with fine 'branches' at its tip; these branches are some of the smallest organic features preserved at this locality. 
Nursery of earliest animals found in fossils in rocks at Mistaken Point
Credit: OU/Alex Liu 

Dr Alexander Liu of Cambridge University’s Department of Earth Sciences, an author of the report, said: 'These juveniles are exceptionally well preserved, and include species never before found in rocks of this age, increasing the known taxonomic diversity of the earliest Ediacaran fossil sites. The discovery confirms a remarkable variety of rangeomorph fossil forms so early in their evolutionary history.'

The find reinforces the idea that 'life got large' around 580 million years ago, with the advent of these frond-like forms, some of which grew up – in better times – to reach almost two metres in length.

Jack Matthews of Oxford University photographing rangeomorph fossils in the rocks at the Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve, Newfoundland. 
Nursery of earliest enimals found in fossils in rocks at Mistaken Point
Photo: OU/Alex Liu 

Professor Brasier said: 'We are now exploring even further back in time to try and discover exactly when these mysterious organisms first appeared and learn more about the processes that led to their diversification in an 'Ediacaran explosion' that may have mirrored the profusion of new life forms we see in the Cambrian.'

View of rocky shore at Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve, Newfoundland. 
Nursery earliest animals found in fossils at Mistaken Point - view shown here
Photo: OU/Martin Brasier

Contacts and sources:
Jack Matthews
Oxford University 

New Fuel Cell Keeps Going After The Hydrogen Runs Out

Imagine a kerosene lamp that continued to shine after the fuel was spent, or an electric stove that could remain hot during a power outage.
Shriram Ramanathan's laboratory setup for testing solid-oxide fuel cells. 

Shriram fuel cell testing setup
Photo by Caroline Perry, SEAS Communications. 

Materials scientists at Harvard have demonstrated an equivalent feat in clean energy generation with a solid-oxide fuel cell (SOFC) that converts hydrogen into electricity but can also store electrochemical energy like a battery. This fuel cell can continue to produce power for a short time after its fuel has run out.

"This thin-film SOFC takes advantage of recent advances in low-temperature operation to incorporate a new and more versatile material," explains principal investigator Shriram Ramanathan, Associate Professor of Materials Science at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). "Vanadium oxide (VOx) at the anode behaves as a multifunctional material, allowing the fuel cell to both generate and store energy."
Each dark speck within the nine white circles at left is a tiny fuel cell. An AA battery is shown for size comparison.
New fuel cell keeps going after the hydrogen runs out
Photo by Caroline Perry, SEAS Communications

The finding, which appears online in the journal Nano Letters, will be most important for small-scale, portable energy applications, where a very compact and lightweight power supply is essential and the fuel supply may be interrupted.

"Unmanned aerial vehicles, for instance, would really benefit from this," says lead author Quentin Van Overmeere, a postdoctoral fellow at SEAS. "When it's impossible to refuel in the field, an extra boost of stored energy could extend the device's lifespan significantly."

Ramanathan, Van Overmeere, and their coauthor Kian Kerman (a graduate student at SEAS) typically work on thin-film SOFCs that use platinum for the electrodes (the two "poles" known as the anode and the cathode). But when a platinum-anode SOFC runs out of fuel, it can continue to generate power for only about 15 seconds before the electrochemical reaction peters out.

The new SOFC uses a bilayer of platinum and VOx for the anode, which allows the cell to continue operating without fuel for up to 14 times as long (3 minutes, 30 seconds, at a current density of 0.2 mA/cm2). This early result is only a "proof of concept," according to Ramanathan, and his team predicts that future improvements to the composition of the VOx-platinum anode will further extend the cell's lifespan.

Left: Each dark speck within the nine white circles at left is a tiny fuel cell. An AA battery is shown for size comparison.   Right: One of the nine circles is magnified in this image, showing the wrinkled surface of the electrochemical membrane

(Photo by Caroline Perry, SEAS Communications.) . (Micrograph by Quentin Van Overmeere.)

During normal operation, the amount of power produced by the new device is comparable to that produced by a platinum-anode SOFC. Meanwhile, the special nanostructured VOx layer sets up various chemical reactions that continue after the hydrogen fuel has run out.

"There are three reactions that potentially take place within the cell due to this vanadium oxide anode," says Ramanathan. "The first is the oxidation of vanadium ions, which we verified through XPS (X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy). The second is the storage of hydrogen within the VOx crystal lattice, which is gradually released and oxidized at the anode. And the third phenomenon we might see is that the concentration of oxygen ions differs from the anode to the cathode, so we may also have oxygen anions being oxidized, as in a concentration cell."

All three of those reactions are capable of feeding electrons into a circuit, but it is currently unclear exactly what allows the new fuel cell to keep running. Ramanathan's team has so far determined experimentally and quantitatively that at least two of three possible mechanisms are simultaneously at work.
Three possible mechanisms (left to right) can explain the operation of the vanadium oxide / platinum fuel cell after its fuel has been spent. The illustration represents a simplified cross-section of the SOFC: the top layer is the cathode (made of porous platinum), the middle layer is the electrolyte (yttria-stabilized zirconia, YSZ), and the bottom layer is the VOx anode. During normal operation, the hydrogen fuel would be at the bottom of this diagram. 

(Image courtesy of Quentin Van Overmeere.)

Ramanathan and his colleagues estimate that a more advanced fuel cell of this type, capable of producing power without fuel for a longer period of time, will be available for applications testing (e.g., in micro-air vehicles) within 2 years.

This work was supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), a postdoctoral scholarship from Le Fonds de la Recherche Scientifique-FNRS, and the U.S. Department of Defense's National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship Program. The researchers also benefited from the resources of the Harvard University Center for Nanoscale Systems (a member of the NSF-funded National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network) and the NSF-funded MRSEC Shared Experimental Facilities at MIT.

Purple plasma is visible through the window of this vacuum deposition chamber. The equipment is used for creating the extremely thin-layered electrodes and electrolyte on a wafer of silicon.

 (Photo by Caroline Perry, SEAS Communications.)

Contacts and sources: 

Nanomedicine: Speeding Up Bone Growth By Manipulating Stem Cells

If you break a bone, you know you'll end up in a cast for weeks. But what if the time it took to heal a break could be cut in half? Or cut to just a tenth of the time it takes now?Qian Wang, a chemistry professor at the University of South Carolina, has made tantalizing progress toward that goal.

Wang, Andrew Lee and co-workers just reported in Molecular Pharmaceutics that surfaces coated with bionanoparticles could greatly accelerate the early phases of bone growth. Their coatings, based in part on genetically modified Tobacco mosaic virus, reduced the amount of time it took to convert stem cells into bone nodules – from two weeks to just two days.

Qian Wang at work among plants that host some of the building blocks of his nanomolecular scaffolds.
Qian WangCredit: University of South Carolina

The key to hastening bone healing or growth is to coax a perfectly natural process to pick up the pace.

"If you break a rib, or a finger, the healing is automatic," said Wang. "You need to get the bones aligned to be sure it works as well as possible, but then nature takes over."

Healing is indeed very natural. The human body continuously generates and circulates cells that are undifferentiated; that is, they can be converted into the components of a range of tissues, such as skin or muscle or bone, depending on what the body needs.

The conversion of these cells – called stem cells – is set into motion by external cues. In bone healing, the body senses the break at the cellular level and begins converting stem cells into new bone cells at the location of the break, bonding the fracture back into a single unit. The process is very slow, which is helpful in allowing a fracture to be properly set, but after that point the wait is at least an inconvenience, and in some cases highly detrimental.

"With a broken femur, a leg, you can be really incapacitated for a long time," said Wang. "In cases like that, they sometimes inject a protein-based drug, BMP-2, which is very effective in speeding up the healing process. Unfortunately, it's very expensive and can also have some side effects."

In a search for alternatives four years ago, Wang and colleagues uncovered some unexpected accelerants of bone growth: plant viruses. They originally meant for these viruses, which are harmless to humans, to work as controls. They coated glass surfaces with uniform coverings of the Turnip yellow mosaic virus and Tobacco mosaic virus, originally intending to use them as starting points for examining other potential variations.

But they were surprised to find that the coatings alone could reduce the amount of time to grow bone nodules from stem cells. Since then, Wang and co-workers have refined their approach to better define just what it is that accelerates bone growth.

Over the course of the past four years, they've demonstrated that it's a combination of the chemistry as well as the topography of the surface that determines how long it takes a stem cell to form bone nodules. The stem cells are nestled into a nanotopgraphy defined by the plant virus, and within that nanotopography the cells make contact with the variety of chemical groups on the viral surface.

Wang and his team are now asserting control over these variables. In the most recent effort spearheaded by Lee, they built up a layer-by-layer assembly underneath the virus coating to ensure stability. They also genetically modified the viral protein to enhance the interaction between the coating and the stem cells and help drive them toward bone growth.

Their efforts were rewarded with bone nodules that formed just two days after the addition of stem cells, compared to two weeks with a standard glass surface. They're also carefully following the cellular signs involved with success. BMP-2 is involved, but as an intrinsic cellular product rather than an added drug.

"BMP-2 is bone morphogenetic protein 2. It can be added as a protein-based drug, but it's a natural protein produced in the cell," said Wang. "We see upregulation of the BMP-2 within 8 hours with the new scaffold." They also find osteocalcin expression and calcium sequestration, two processes associated with bone formation, to be much more pronounced with their new coatings.

"What we've seen could prove very useful, particularly when it comes to external implants in bones," said Wang. "With those, you have to add a foreign material, and knowing that a coating might increase the bone growth process is clearly beneficial."

"But more importantly, we feel we're making progress in a more general sense in bone engineering. We're really showing the direct correlation between nanotopography and cellular response. If our results can be further developed, in the future you could use titanium to replace the bone, and you might be able to use different kinds of nanoscale patterning on the titanium surface to create all kinds of different cellular responses."

Chuanbin Mao, a professor in the department of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Oklahoma who was not involved in the work, wrote in an e-mail that he was "amazed and excited" by the results. "The display of peptides on viruses, including Tobacco mosaic virus, is a powerful approach for studying how engineered virus particles can direct stem cell differentiation."

"The discovery that the display of a cell adhesion peptide on Tobacco mosaic virus can enable the rapid differentiation of stem cells into bone-forming cells is very important for guiding scientists in designing a scaffold that can induce rapid bone formation in regenerative medicine.

Contacts and sources: 

Cotton T-Shirt May One Day Power Electronic Gadgets

Over the years, the telephone has gone mobile, from the house to the car to the pocket. The University of South Carolina's Xiaodong Li envisions even further integration of the cell phone – and just about every electronic gadget, for that matter – into our lives.

He sees a future where electronics are part of our wardrobe.

"We wear fabric every day," said Li, a professor of mechanical engineering at USC. "One day our cotton T-shirts could have more functions; for example, a flexible energy storage device that could charge your cell phone or your iPad." 

Xiaodong Li (foreground) demonstrates the flexibility of a swatch of activated carbon textile.
Xiaodong Li ACT flexible
Credit: University of South Carolina

Li is helping make the vision a reality. He and post-doctoral associate Lihong Bao have just reported in the journal Advanced Materials how to turn the material in a cotton T-shirt into a source of electrical power.

Starting with a T-shirt from a local discount store, Li's team soaked it in a solution of fluoride, dried it and baked it at high temperature. They excluded oxygen in the oven to prevent the material from charring or simply combusting.

The surfaces of the resulting fibers in the fabric were shown by infrared spectroscopy to have been converted from cellulose to activated carbon. Yet the material retained flexibility; it could be folded without breaking.

"We will soon see roll-up cell phones and laptop computers on the market," Li said. "But a flexible energy storage device is needed to make this possible."

The once-cotton T-shirt proved to be a repository for electricity. By using small swatches of the fabric as an electrode, the researchers showed that the flexible material, which Li's team terms activated carbon textile, acts as a capacitor. Capacitors are components of nearly every electronic device on the market, and they have the ability to store electrical charge.

Moreover, Li reports that activated carbon textile acts like double-layer capacitors, which are also called a supercapacitors because they can have particularly high energy storage densities.

But Li and Bao took the material even further than that. They then coated the individual fibers in the activated carbon textile with “nanoflowers” of manganese oxide. Just a nanometer thick, this layer of manganese oxide greatly enhanced the electrode performance of the fabric. "This created a stable, high-performing supercapacitor," said Li.

This hybrid fabric, in which the activated carbon textile fibers are coated with nanostructured manganese oxide, improved the energy storage capability beyond the activated carbon textile alone. The hybrid supercapacitors were resilient: even after thousands of charge-discharge cycles, performance didn't diminish more than 5 percent.

"By stacking these supercapacitors up, we should be able to charge portable electronic devices such as cell phones," Li said.

Li is particularly pleased to have improved on the means by which activated carbon fibers are usually obtained. "Previous methods used oil or environmentally unfriendly chemicals as starting materials," he said. "Those processes are complicated and produce harmful side products. Our method is a very inexpensive, green process."

Contacts and sources: 
By Steven Powell

NASA Explains Why Clocks Will Get An Extra Second On June 30

Distances on Earth can be measured with great accuracy by using the technique of Very Long Baseline Interferometry, which was originally developed to study distant astronomical objects called quasars. 
Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
› Download in high resolution from NASA Goddard's Scientific Visualization Studio

If the day seems a little longer than usual on Saturday, June 30, 2012, that's because it will be. An extra second, or "leap" second, will be added at midnight to account for the fact that it is taking Earth longer and longer to complete one full turn—a day—or, technically, a solar day.

"The solar day is gradually getting longer because Earth's rotation is slowing down ever so slightly," says Daniel MacMillan of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

June 30 will be one second longer than the typical day. Rather than changing from 23:59:59 on June 30 to 00:00:00 on July 1, the official time will get an extra second at 23:59:60.
Credit: NASA

Scientists know exactly how long it takes Earth to rotate because they have been making that measurement for decades using an extremely precise technique called Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI). VLBI measurements are made daily by an international network of stations that team up to conduct observations at the same time and correlate the results. NASA Goddard provides essential coordination of these measurements, as well as processing and archiving the data collected. And NASA is helping to lead the development of the next generation of VLBI system through the agency's Space Geodesy Project, led by Goddard.

With this antenna at Kokee Park on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, NASA makes regular VLBI (Very Long Baseline Interferometry) measurements that are used in the time standard called UT1 (Universal Time 1). 
Credit: U.S. Navy/PMRF

From VLBI, scientists have learned that Earth is not the most reliable timekeeper. The planet's rotation is slowing down overall because of tidal forces between Earth and the moon. Roughly every 100 years, the day gets about 1.4 milliseconds, or 1.4 thousandths of a second, longer. Granted, that's about 100 or 200 times faster than the blink of an eye. But if you add up that small discrepancy every day for years and years, it can make a very big difference indeed.

"At the time of the dinosaurs, Earth completed one rotation in about 23 hours," says MacMillan, who is a member of the VLBI team at NASA Goddard. "In the year 1820, a rotation took exactly 24 hours, or 86,400 standard seconds. Since 1820, the mean solar day has increased by about 2.5 milliseconds."

By the 1950s, scientists had already realized that some scientific measurements and technologies demanded more precise timekeeping than Earth's rotation could provide. So, in 1967, they officially changed the definition of a second. No longer was it based on the length of a day but on an extremely predictable measurement made of electromagnetic transitions in atoms of cesium. These "atomic clocks" based on cesium are accurate to one second in 1,400,000 years. Most people around the world rely on the time standard based on the cesium atom: Coordinated Universal Time (UTC).

Another time standard, called Universal Time 1 (UT1), is based on the rotation of Earth on its axis with respect to the sun. UT1 is officially computed from VLBI measurements, which rely on astronomical reference points and have a typical precision of 5 microseconds, or 5 millionths of a second, or better.

"These reference points are very distant astronomical objects called quasars, which are essentially motionless when viewed from Earth because they are located several billion light years away," says Goddard's Stephen Merkowitz, the Space Geodesy Project manager.

For VLBI observations, several stations around the world observe a selected quasar at the same time, with each station recording the arrival of the signal from the quasar; this is done for a series of quasars during a typical 24-hour session. These measurements are made with such exquisite accuracy that it's actually possible to determine that the signal does not arrive at every station at exactly the same time. From the miniscule differences in arrival times, scientists can figure out the positions of the stations and Earth's orientation in space, as well as calculating Earth's rotation speed relative to the quasar positions.

Originally, leap seconds were added to provide a UTC time signal that could be used for navigation at sea. This motivation has become obsolete with the development of GPS (Global Positioning System) and other satellite navigation systems. These days, a leap second is inserted in UTC to keep it within 0.9 seconds of UT1.

Normally, the clock would move from 23:59:59 to 00:00:00 the next day. Instead, at 23:59:59 on June 30, UTC will move to 23:59:60, and then to 00:00:00 on July 1. In practice, this means that clocks in many systems will be turned off for one second.

Proposals have been made to abolish the leap second and let the two time standards drift apart. This is because of the cost of planning for leap seconds and the potential impact of adjusting or turning important systems on and off in synch. No decision will made about that, however, until 2015 at the earliest by the International Telecommunication Union, a specialized agency of the United Nations that addresses issues in information and communication technologies. If the two standards are allowed to go further and further out of synch, they will differ by about 25 minutes in 500 years.

In the meantime, leap seconds will continue to be added to the official UTC timekeeping. The 2012 leap second is the 35th leap second to be added and the first since 2008.

For more information about NASA's Space Geodesy Project, including VLBI, visit,

Contacts and sources:
Elizabeth Zubritsky
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

Hi-C To Investigate Activity In Solar Atmosphere

NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. is leading an international effort to develop and launch the High Resolution Coronal Imager, or Hi-C, on a sounding rocket from the White Sands Missile Range at White Sands, N.M. Hi-C is a next-generation suborbital space telescope designed to capture the highest-resolution images ever taken of the million-degree solar corona. Key partners include the University of Alabama at Huntsville, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, University of Central Lancashire in Lancashire, England, and the Lebedev Physical Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences. 

Hi-C will image the Sun at a 5x higher resolution (0.1 arcsec/pixel image) than any previously done. The mission will demonstrate the technology necessary to collect 150-kilometer-resolution images of the sun in the extreme ultraviolet spectrum. Using a resolution 5 times greater than any previous imager, Hi-C will observe the small-scale processes that exist everywhere in hot magnetized coronal plasma. Below image is 0.5 arcsec/pixel. 
Credit: NASA

Understanding the sun's activity and its effects on Earth's environment is the critical scientific objective of Hi-C, which will provide unique, unprecedented views of the dynamic activity in the solar atmosphere.

The telescope is slated for launch in July 2012. It will fly aboard a Black Brant sounding rocket to be launched from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

The mission will demonstrate the technology necessary to collect 150-kilometer-resolution images of the sun in the extreme ultraviolet spectrum. Using a resolution 5 times greater than any previous imager, Hi-C will observe the small-scale processes that exist everywhere in hot magnetized coronal plasma. Additionally, the mission is designed to study the mechanisms for growth, diffusion and reconnection of magnetic fields of the corona, and to help understand the coupling of small-scale dynamic and eruptive processes to large scale dynamics.

A major scientific impact of Hi-C will be to place significant new constraints on theories of coronal heating and structuring, by establishing whether or not there is additional fine structure below the current level of resolution.

"This instrument could push the limits on theories of coronal heating, answering questions such as why the temperature of the sun's corona is millions of degrees higher than that of the surface," said Marshall heliophysicist, Dr. Jonathan Cirtain, who is Principle Investigator, on the Hi-C mission.

"Hinode has shown that current instrumentation used for coronal structure studies has insufficient resolution to separate individual features along the line-of-sight," Cirtain said. "Hi-C will accomplish this measurement, with margin".

Contacts and sources:  

Curvy Mountain Belts

Mountain belts on Earth are most commonly formed by collision of one or more tectonic plates. The process of collision, uplift, and subsequent erosion of long mountain belts often produces profound global effects, including changes in regional and global climates, as well as the formation of important economic resources, including oil and gas reservoirs and ore deposits. Understanding the formation of mountain belts is thus a very important element of earth science research.

(A) Block diagram depicting the effect of lithospheric bending around a vertical axis and the resultant strain field (modified tangential longitudinal strain). Strain ellipses depict arc-parallel shortening in the inner arc and arc-parallel stretching in the outer arc. Note the different behavior of the mantle lithosphere in the inner and outer arcs and the increase in thickness of mantle lithosphere below the inner arc and thinning below the outer arc. (B) Snapshot illustration of arc development starting with a linear belt resulting from a Gondwana–Laurentia collision.
 (C) Second snapshot illustrating oroclinal bending, which causes lithospheric stretching in the outer arc and thickening beneath the inner arc (Gutiérrez-Alonso et al., 2004). (D) The final stage of oroclinal bending, depicting delamination and collapse of thickened lithospheric root beneath the inner arc, replacement of sinking lithosphere by upwelling asthenospheric mantle, and associated magmatism in the inner and outer arc regions. (E) Two tomographic views of the analogue modeled mantle lithosphere geometry after buckling around a vertical axis where the lithospheric root is developed under the inner arc (top—frontal view from the concave part of the model; bottom—view from below); 3-D coordinate axes given. (F) Tomographic 3-D image of the delaminated lithospheric root obtained with analogue modeling; 3-D coordinate axes given.

One common but poorly understood aspect of mountain belts are the many examples of curved (arcuate) mountain ranges. The Appalachian range in Pennsylvania, the Rocky Mountains in central Montana, the Blue Mountains in Oregon, the Bolivian Andes of South America, and the Cantabrian Arc in Spain and northern Africa are among many examples of noticeably curved mountain belts.

The cause of these curvy mountains is among the oldest topics of research in geology, and there is still extensive debate on what mechanisms are most important for making a curvy mountain range.

Field photo taken from the northern hinge zone, looking south, of the doubly plunging La Cueta Syncline, located between Asturias and León, in northern Spain. Notice the dramatic change in strike of the fold limbs from NE-SW in the foreground to N-S in the center of the photo to NW-SE in the southern plunging hinge zone. The Devonian St. Lucia and Portilla limestones delineate the La Cueta Syncline, a typical sinuous structure from the hinge zone of the larger Cantabrian Orocline. Photo taken by Stephen T. Johnston. See related article, p. 4–9.
Cover image 
© The Geological Society of America, Inc.

A common question is whether these presently curvy mountain ranges were originally straight and then later bent or whether they were uplifted in more or less their present shape.

Another important aspect of the origin of these curved mountain ranges is the thickness of the rock units involved in their formation. Some workers have proposed that these ranges are composed of relatively thin slices of crustal rocks (limited to several kilometers in thickness), while others have argued that at least some of these curvy ranges involve the entire thickness of the lithospheric plates (30 to 100 km thick). One of the most promising ways to answer these questions utilizes comparisons of the orientation of structural features in rocks (fault planes and joints), records of the ancient magnetic field directions found in rocks, and the timing of deformation and uplift of the mountain belts.

An international group of researchers from Spain, Canada, and the United States, led by Dr. Gabriel Gutiérrez-Alonso, have presented a compelling study of one of the best examples of curved mountain ranges: the Cantabrian Arc in Spain and northern Africa. They have compiled an extensive collection of fault and joint orientation data and directions of the ancient geomagnetic field recorded by Paleozoic rocks collected in Spain.

The Cantabrian Arc was formed during the collision of a southern set of continents (Gondwanaland [present day Africa-South America-Australia-India-Antarctica]) with a northern set of continents (Laurentia [present day North America and Eurasia]) to produce the supercontinent Pangea. In a nutshell, their combined study has found that the curved pattern of the Cantabrian Arc was produced by the bending of an originally straight mountain range.

The main line of evidence supporting this view is the patterns of rotation that are obtained from the directions of the ancient geomagnetic field recorded by the rocks of these mountain ranges. Combined with an analysis of the faults and joints in the rocks, and the ages of rocks that have variations in the amount of rotation indicated by the magnetic directions, the age of the bending of the Cantabrian Arc is confined to a relatively narrow window of geological time between 315 and 300 million years ago.

Gutiérrez-Alonso and colleagues compare the age range of this mountain bending event to the ages of igneous activity and uplift of the region and propose that widespread changes in the deeper (mantle) portion of the lithospheric plate in the area are coeval, and likely linked to, the rotation of the Cantabrian Arc to produce its characteristic sharp curviness. Based on this linkage, they propose that this, and perhaps many other, curvy mountain ranges are produced by rotation of entire portions of the lithosphere of tectonic plates, rather than just thin slices of crustal rocks.

Buckling an orogen: The Cantabrian Orocline
G. Gutiérrez-Alonso et al., Depto. de Geología, Universidad de Salamanca, Plaza de los Caídos s/n, 37008 Salamanca, Spain. Posted online 27 June 2012; doi: 10.1130/GSATG141A.1.

This article is online now at www.geosociety.org/gsatoday/archive/22/7/. GSA Today articles are open access online; for a print copy, please contact Kea Giles atkgiles@geosociety.org. Please discuss articles of interest with the authors before publishing stories on their work, and please make reference to GSA Today in articles published.

Henry Scharfe And His Robotic Clone

Humanoid robots can walk down the street in ten years and live with humans without them being aware they are electronic in nature, said a professor at the University of Aalborg (Denmark), Henrik Scharfe last Friday in Lima, who has created a robot with the same appearance. 


ExpoTic During the inauguration of 2012, the first international exhibition and conference infrastructure and technological innovation that took place in Lima, Scharfe presented Geminoid-DK, a robot created in his image and likeness, capable of imitate your facial movements and conversations with your ideologue.

At a conference, Scharfe said his robotic clone, which currently sits and connected to a computer, you can walk down the street and interact with other people "in just a decade, if at that time advanced infrastructure is built, converging sources technological and took laboratory robots. " 

Contacts and sources:
Plantforma SINC

Maya Scholar Deciphers Meaning of Newly Discovered Monument That Refers to 2012

Panel referring to date of December 21, 2012

Credit: University of Texas

A publishing and entertainment empire has arisen around the supposed Mayan “end date” of December 21, 2012. But a second reference to the date, discovered only recently in Guatemala by a team including UT’s David Stuart, further debunks the theory that the Maya expected the world to end. In this slideshow, including images from National Geographic, see the discovery at La Corona and read how the Maya used the date simply as “a literary device.”

Archaeologists working in the jungles of Guatemala have discovered an ancient Maya text that refers to the so-called end date of the Maya calendar, Dec. 21, 2012. The hieroglyphic inscription was unearthed in April at the ruins of La Corona, located in the dense rainforest of northwestern Guatemala, and deciphered by David Stuart of The University of Texas at Austin during his research at the site in May.

The text is one of many found this year by an international team led by archaeologists from Tulane University and the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala. Among their discoveries are portions of the longest text ever discovered in Guatemala, carved on multiple staircase steps and recording 200 years of La Corona’s history, now being closely studied by Stuart and his colleagues. The discovery, perhaps the most significant hieroglyphic find in decades, was announced at a news conference held this morning at the National Palace in Guatemala City.

The stone referring to the year 2012 was carved to commemorate a royal visit to La Corona (which the ancient Maya called Saknikte’) by the ruler Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’ from the great Maya capital of Calakmul on Jan. 29, 696 A.D. Before the discovery, this ruler was thought by scholars to have been killed in battle, when Calakmul was defeated by its great rival, Tikal. But the new find makes it clear that Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’ was visiting allies — such as La Corona — in the wake of this defeat, possibly soothing their fears after such a significant military loss.

Why the reference to the year 2012? “The reason mostly has to do with the cosmological dimensions of ancient Maya politics and kingship,” says Stuart. “Calakmul’s king had only recently celebrated an important ending of 13 K’atun calendar cycle, in the year 692 (, and in this text he is called a “13 K’atun lord.” The scribe has used this important ritual fact to project forward to when the next higher period of the Maya calendar will also reach 13 — a sacred Maya number — which will come on Dec. 21, 2012 (”

It is in this context that we have only the second reference to the “end date” in the entire corpus of ancient Maya writing, according to Stuart. This text uses the 2012 date to put this king’s troubled reign and accomplishments into a larger cosmological framework

Marcello Canuto (Tulane University) and UT Professor David Stuart. 
Credit: University of Texas

“This new evidence suggests that the 2012 date was an important calendrical event that would have been celebrated by the ancient Maya; however, they make no apocalyptic prophecies about it whatsoever,” says Marcello Canuto, director of Tulane’s Middle American Research Institute and co-director of the excavations at La Corona. Since 2008, Canuto and Tomás Barrientos of the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala, have directed excavations at La Corona. Stuart was part of a 1997 expedition that first explored and documented the ruins, when he named it La Corona (“The Crown”) after a distinctive building seen in the forest there — a line of five closely spaced small pyramids.

Stuart’s decipherments at La Corona come shortly after another significant find announced earlier this year — the discovery of a painted structure at the ruins of Xultun, Guatemala, containing what is thought to be the work space of a scribe or calendar priest. Stuart collaborated with William Saturno of Boston University, who directs the Xultun excavations, to decipher the unique paintings found on the walls of the small structure.

“I was at the ruins of Xultun when the paintings were initially discovered in 2010 and also during spring break this year,” Stuart says. “As the paintings were being uncovered in 2011, I was sent scans and photographs of the images and began deciphering the mathematical and astronomical tables last summer.”

The structure is covered with tiny red and black numbers and hieroglyphs, unlike any seen before at other Maya sites. These appear to be notations, written by the scribes as they were working and carrying out calendrical calculations, similar to a modern mathematician’s office whiteboard. Some numbers appear to represent the various calendrical cycles charted by the Maya — the 260-day ceremonial calendar, the 365-day solar calendar, the 584-day cycle of the planet Venus and the 780-day cycle of Mars, reports lead excavator Saturno. Saturno and Stuart reported their findings in a paper they co-authored for the journal Science titled, ”Ancient Maya Astronomical Tables from Xultun, Guatemala.”

Stuart’s main contribution was to read and reconstruct the numbers, many of which were poorly preserved. He also identified the nature of the tables as ancient tools for calendrical calculations, including lunar cycles. Finally, he carefully copied the texts so colleagues and future scholars can also study them. His field time in March involved working directly with the paintings and texts before they were closed and eventually reburied — the best means of ensuring their preservation in the remote jungle.

David Stuart and Marcello Canuto examining looted panels.
Credit: University of Texa

“It was incredible being in an ancient room where scribes and calendar priests were once working on their calculations, perhaps even discussing them,” says Stuart. “The day after I reconstructed the very damaged lunar table from Xultun, I shared the exciting news with undergrads who were in the UT study abroad program in Antigua, Guatemala.

“As a fun exercise, I had the students figure out the how the ancient Maya would have written each column in the table, using bars and dots. On the whiteboard in our classroom we wrote the table as it would have originally looked — 27 columns of Maya numbers. It was the first time it had ever been reconstructed visually, and it was a really special moment.”

Stuart is the David and Linda Schele Professor of Mesoamerican Art and Writing at The University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of the popular book on the Maya calendar, “The Order of Days: The Maya World and the Truth about 2012.” Stuart’s research is supported by the Schele research fund from the College of Fine Arts at The University of Texas at Austin and through the Casa Herrera research facility in Guatemala, where he does much of his work throughout the year.

Contacts and sources: 
Story By Paola Bueche, College of Fine Arts

UT Austin Researchers Demonstrate First Successful 'Spoofing' Of UAVs

A University of Texas at Austin research team successfully demonstrated for the first time that the GPS signals of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone, can be commandeered by an outside source — a discovery that could factor heavily into the implementation of a new federal mandate to allow thousands of civilian drones into the U.S. airspace by 2015.

Unmanned aerial vehicles 
File:Group photo of aerial demonstrators at the 2005 Naval Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Air Demo.jpg
Credit: Wikipedia

Cockrell School of Engineering Assistant Professor Todd Humphreys and his students were invited by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to attempt the demonstration in White Sands, New Mexico in late June. Using a small but sophisticated UAV along with hardware and software developed by Humphreys and his students, the research team repeatedly overtook navigational signals going to the GPS-guided vehicle.

Known as "spoofing," the technique creates false civil GPS signals that trick the vehicle's GPS receiver into thinking nothing is amiss — even as it steers a new navigational course induced by the outside hacker. Because spoofing fools GPS receivers' on both their location and time, some fear that most GPS-reliant devices, infrastructure and markets are vulnerable to attacks. That fear was underscored — but not proven — when a U.S. military drone disappeared over Iran late last year and showed up a week later, intact, and in the care of Iranians who claimed to have brought the vehicle down with spoofing.

The recent demonstration by University of Texas at Austin researchers is the first known unequivocal demonstration that commandeering a UAV via GPS spoofing is technically feasible.

"I think this demonstration should certainly raise some eyebrows and serve as a wake-up call of sorts as to how safe our critical infrastructure is from spoofing attacks," said Milton R. Clary, a senior Department of Defense (DoD) Aviation Policy Analyst at Overlook Systems Technologies, which is working with the federal government to develop programs that identify and mitigate spoofing attacks.

Humphreys said his research team wanted to demonstrate the potential risks associated with spoofing early on in the Federal Aviation Administration's task to write the mandated rules that will allow government and commercial drones in the U.S. airspace by 2015.

"We're raising the flag early on in this process so there is ample opportunity to improve the security of civilian drones from these attacks, as the government is committed to doing," Humphreys said.

Prior to the White Sands demonstration, Humphreys and his students worked with university athletics officials to perform a trial run at the Darrell K. Royal stadium.

High school students visiting campus for the university's My Introduction to Engineering summer camp watched the demonstration and were able to ask Humphreys and his students questions about their work.

Humphreys began the research on GPS security prior to joining The University of Texas at Austin three years ago, but he said the research received a crucial boost of momentum and financial support from the university and the Cockrell School of Engineering.

"What's great at The University of Texas at Austin is this structure and culture in place that supports incoming professors with the funds to do risky types of research — the kind that's so bold and forward-thinking that it might not have an outside sponsor to fund it yet," Humphreys said. "It's a distinct and valuable trait of the university that benefits me, my students and the types of research we can pursue."

The interdisciplinary research coupled undergraduate and graduate students from aerospace engineering and electrical and computer engineering; specifically, from the Center for Space Research and the Wireless Networking and Communications Group. Over the course of the project, students designed hardware and software, and learned to improvise on the spot when things didn't always go their way.

"During the demonstration at White Sands I was so impressed by how resourceful my students were in the face of technical setbacks we had in the beginning," Humphreys said. "They kept a steady hand and we prevailed in the end, which really showed me the flexibility of these young and bright minds."

Daniel Shepard, an aerospace engineering graduate student who lead the UAV spoofing effort, said he was grateful for the opportunity to do the hands-on research beginning when he was an undergraduate student.

"It's rewarding to lead research that has an impact on improving national security, and, on a personal level, this specific project had a lot of value for me because I was working on things, like software development, that I typically wouldn't be involved with as an aerospace student," Shepard said. "The unique fusion of electrical engineering and aerospace engineering has been very valuable for cultivating my engineering expertise."

During the spoofing demonstration at White Sands, the research team took control of a hovering UAV from about a kilometer away. Next year, they plan to perform a similar demonstration on a moving UAV from 10 kilometers away.
Contacts and sources:
Melissa Mixon
University of Texas at Austin

Yao Yang: When Will China's Economy Overtake The US Economy?

Professor Yao Yang, director of the China Center for Economic Research at PKU, cited several facts to predict China's economic preponderance over the US. Excerpts follow:

Prof. Yao Yang
 (PKU National School of Development)

The audio edition (blubrry.com)

Is China poised to surpass the United States to become the world’s largest economy? The International Monetary Fund recently predicted that the size of China’s economy would overtake that of the US in terms of purchasing power parity (PPP) by 2016.

But a recent co-authored study by Robert Feenstra, an economist at the University of California, Davis, shows that global economic leadership would pass to China in 2014. And, even more radically, Arvind Subramanian of the Peterson Institute of International Economics argues that China actually surpassed the US in PPP terms in 2010.

Purchasing power parity measures a country’s income using a set of international prices applied to all economies. Prices in developing countries are usually lower than in the developed countries. Therefore, their income could be underestimated if calculated only according to the exchange rate. Income measured in PPP helps to avoid this problem.

But estimating PPP income raises its own set of problems. One consists in the fact that every country has a different consumption basket, with the greatest disparity between developing and developed countries. For example, foods usually account for 40% or more of household expenditure in a typical developing country, whereas the figure is less than 20% in most developed countries.

The purpose of PPP comparison is to measure a country’s real quality of life. In this case, it can be thought of as comparing each country’s aggregate good, composed of the goods in each country’s consumption basket. But this aggregate good does not have the same components across countries. That is, PPP calculations effectively compare apples with oranges.

This argument may sound technical, but it has profound implications for cross-country comparisons of life quality. Suppose we compare two countries. One of them is agriculture-based, and people consume only food, while the other is industry-based, and people not only consume food but also buy clothes. The share of their expenditure on these two items is 20% and 80%, respectively.

Suppose, further, that per capita nominal income at the market exchange rate in the second country is four times higher than in the first. Food prices are the same in the two countries, while in the second country, the price of cloth is five times higher than the price of food.

In this example, the price of the aggregate good in the second country is 4.2 times the price of the aggregate good in the first country. Further calculation reveals that, in PPP terms, a person in the second country is 5% poorer than a person in the first country!

This absurd result is possible only because PPP is comparing two different consumption bundles. But the consumption basket of an average Chinese is vastly different from the consumption basket of an average American, so PPP comparisons between China and the US can be misleading.

PPP gives an answer to the following question: how much does a Chinese need to earn to maintain his quality of life in China when he moves to the US?

But this question is neither intuitive nor realistic. When it comes to the comparison of purchasing power in the international market, a more sensible question is: how many goods can a Chinese buy in the US using the income he earns in China? One must rely on nominal income to provide an answer to this question. In this case, a 10% appreciation of RMB increases the purchasing power of a Chinese person in the US by exactly 10%, whereas his life quality does not change in PPP terms.

But China would surpass the US in a relatively short period of time even if we measured both countries’ economies in nominal terms. Assuming that the Chinese and US economies grow, respectively, by 8% and 3% in real terms, that China’s inflation rate is 3.6% and the US’s is 2% (the averages of the last decade), and that the RMB appreciates against the dollar by 3% per year (the average of the last six years), China would become the world’s largest economy by 2021. By that time, both countries’ GDP will be about $24 trillion, perhaps triple the size of the third largest economy, either Japan or Germany.

Assuming 8% growth for China may or may not be a sure bet. But if China grew by 9-10% in the first five years and by 6-7% in the next five years, the target for an average of 8% between now and 2021 would be met.

The world has already begun to demand that China assume greater responsibility for the global economy’s health. As China’s economy continues to grow and eventually matches the US's GDP, this demand will become stronger. By almost all recent estimates, China has little time to prepare.

Contacts and sources: 
Peking University

Easter Island Drug Raises Cognition Throughout Life Span

Cognitive skills such as learning and memory diminish with age in everyone, and the drop-off is steepest in Alzheimer's disease. Texas scientists seeking a way to prevent this decline reported exciting results this week with a drug that has Polynesian roots.

The researchers, appointed in the School of Medicine at The University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio, added rapamycin to the diet of healthy mice throughout the rodents' life span. Rapamycin, a bacterial product first isolated from soil on Easter Island, enhanced learning and memory in young mice and improved these faculties in old mice, the study showed.

Easter Island Moai 
File:Moai Rano raraku.jpg
Credit: Wikipedia

"We made the young ones learn, and remember what they learned, better than what is normal," said Veronica Galvan, Ph.D., assistant professor of physiology at the Barshop Institute for Longevity and Aging Studies, part of the UT Health Science Center. "Among the older mice, the ones fed with a diet including rapamycin actually showed an improvement, negating the normal decline that you see in these functions with age."

The drug also lowered anxiety and depressive-like behavior in the mice, Dr. Galvan said. Anxiety and depression are factors that impair human cognitive performance. Lead author Jonathan Halloran conducted scientifically reliable tests to accurately measure these cognitive components in the rodents.

Venturing into the open

Mice are burrowers that prefer tunnels with walls. To observe behavior, Halloran used an elevated maze of tunnels that led to a catwalk. "All of a sudden the mice are in open space," Halloran said. "It's pretty far from the floor for their size, sort of like if a person is hiking and suddenly the trail gets steep. It's pretty far down and not so comfortable."

Mice with less anxiety were more curious to explore the catwalk. "We observed that the mice fed with a diet containing rapamycin spent significantly more time out in the open arms of the catwalk than the animals fed with a regular diet," Halloran said.

The second test measured depressive-like behavior in the rodents. Mice do not like to be held by their tails, which is the way they are moved from cage to cage. Inevitably they struggle to find a way out. "So we can measure how much and how often they struggle as a measure of the motivation they have to get out of an uncomfortable situation," Dr. Galvan said.

Rapamycin acts like an antidepressant

Some mice barely struggle to get free, but if an antidepressant is administered they struggle a lot more. This behavior is very sensitive to the action of antidepressants and is a reliable measure of whether a drug is acting like an antidepressant, Dr. Galvan said.

"We found rapamycin acts like an antidepressant — it increases the time the mice are trying to get out of the situation," she said. "They don't give up; they struggle more."

The reductions of anxiety and depressive-like behavior in rapamycin-treated mice held true for all ages tested, from 4 months of age (college age in human years) to 12 months old (the equivalent of middle age) to 25 months old (advanced age).

Feel-good chemicals elevated

The researchers measured levels of three "happy, feel-good" neurotransmitters: serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. All were significantly augmented in the midbrains of mice treated with rapamycin. "This is super-interesting, something we are going to pursue in the lab," Dr. Galvan said.

Dr. Galvan and her team published research in 2010 showing that rapamycin rescues learning and memory in mice with Alzheimer's-like deficits. The elevation of the three neurotransmitters, which are chemical messengers in the brain, may explain how rapamycin accomplished this, Dr. Galvan said.

Rapamycin is an antifungal agent administered to transplant patients to prevent organ rejection. The drug is named for Rapa Nui, the Polynesian title for Easter Island. This island, 2,000 miles from any population centers, is the famed site of nearly 900 mysterious monolithic statues.

This study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Alzheimer's Association and the Ellison Medical Foundation, became available online June 28 as a manuscript in press in the journal Neuroscience. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0306452212006720?v=s5

Contacts and sources:
Will Sansom
University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio