TWIE 111: Smart Headlights Make Raindrops Disappear

This Week in Engineering - Higgs boson discovered; diamond qubits; robot struts like a person; ultrasound tweezers; graphene sheets for desalination; and smart headlights.

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Higgs boson discovered
Surely you¦ve heard by now that physicists at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN have exceeded the five-sigma confidence requirement for an official discovery of a new boson, the heaviest ever discovered, and it¦s probably the famous Higgs boson responsible for giving particles mass. The particle was found at one hundred twenty-five giga electron volts, which is about a hundred and thirty times the mass of a proton. Okay, Cern, you¦ve found the Higgs boson. Now find someone who can explain what it is to my mom. 125 giga electron volts is a mass? Explaining (giga÷ alone will take you three days.

Diamond qubits
One challenge of quantum computing is finding a medium for storing quantum bits, or qubits, often in the spin of a single atom or particle. Now, scientists from Harvard have used impurities in laboratory-grown diamonds to store a qubit at room temperature for over two seconds. Their breakthrough came when they abandoned use of one type of impurity, nitrogen-vacancy centers, which lose their coherence quickly, in favor of nearby carbon-13 isotopes. For quantum memory, two seconds is a lot -- to put it in perspective, that¦s twice as long as I¦ll remember your name after we¦re introduced at a party.

Robot struts like a person
Researchers from the University of Arizona have shown off a bipedal robot that walks heel-to-toe, just like a human. The robot uses agonist and antagonist muscle pairs, just like human legs. And control comes from a simulated half-center oscillator, a neural network of two neurons that functions as a central pattern generator. The demonstration showed that the central pattern generator helped stabilize the gait more than a purely reflexive system, paving the way for more research in both understanding and reproducing the neurophysiological mechanisms behind human walking.

Ultrasound tweezers
Biochemists and bioengineers from Penn State University have demonstrated a device for holding and moving single cells in a liquid medium using ultrasound waves. The device, about the size of a dime, uses piezoelectric materials stimulated by an electrical current to generate standing surface acoustic waves. The waves then create pressure fields in the liquid that manipulate the target. The ultrasound tweezers, which were demonstrated on a one-millimeter roundworm, should eventually be less expensive than -- and use one ten-millionth the power of -- optical tweezers.

Graphene sheets for desalination
Researchers from MIT have demonstrated through computer simulations that single sheets of graphene could be used to filter salt out of seawater. Graphene, a one-atom-thick sheet of carbon atoms, could theoretically be perforated with single nanometer holes, which are big enough for water molecules, but too small for salt or other impurities. The technology to create such tiny perforations does not yet exist, but if developed, it would allow water to be purified using much less energy than reverse osmosis. I hope one day graphene will extract enough fresh water from the sea for thirsty drought-stricken nations, but also enough salt for one heckuva margarita party.

Smart headlights
When driving through a storm at night, visibility is hindered when rays from your headlights are reflected back at you by raindrops or snowflakes. Now, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University have developed smart headlights that track precipitation and avoid shining light on it, while still illuminating the road. The system has a camera to find and track the rain drops, a projector to provide the light, and a beam splitter to combine the two, all with a thirteen millisecond response time. This is exactly what I want on my car -- so deer will stare at me, going, (Man, those are awesome headlights!÷