TWIE 154: Skyscraper Melts Cars

This Week in Engineering - LADEE takes off; brain to brain communication; skyscraper melts cars; DNA-assembled graphene transistors; MagLev train speed record; and heartbeat biometrics.

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LADEE takes off
In a spectacular display that could be seen all along America’s eastern seaboard, NASA’s LADEE mission became the first to launch aboard the Minotaur V Expendable Launch Vehicle.  After launch, the reaction wheels used to position and stabilize the spacecraft registered a fault and were shut down, but later the limits were disabled, and after a few hours, fault protection was selectively re-enabled.  The spacecraft was assembled from modular components in order to reduce costs, and during its 160-day mission will study the very sparse, but existent, lunar atmosphere.

Brain to brain communication
Researchers from the University of Washington have created a noninvasive human-to-human brain interface, allowing one person to control a movement of another.  In the experiment, computational neuroscience professor Rajesh Rao, wearing a cap with electrodes connected to an EEG, played a video game controlled with his mind.  In another lab across campus, assistant professor of psychology Andrea Stocco wore a similar hat connected to a transcranial magnetic stimulation machine.  When Rao imagined moving his right hand to control the game, Stocco’s right hand involuntarily pushed the space bar.  Personally, I want to see this direct brain control productized -- it’s the only way I could hope to get my kids to pick up their dang-blasted toys.

Skyscraper melts cars
A London skyscraper under construction caused some unexpected property damage, when the curved glass face concentrated sunlight onto a particular parking spot across the street and melted the paneling and side mirror of a Jaguar XJ parked there.  The building, which is known through London as the Walkie-Talkie, has a southern-facing concave reflective surface which, in retrospect, was a mistake.  The problem reflection lasts about two hours a day and will continue for a couple more weeks.  In the meantime, a temporary scaffold screen is being erected at street level.  I’m glad it happened in London -- imagine if it had been Phoenix!  We could have turned an entire city block into the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

DNA-assembled graphene transistors
Stanford chemical engineering professor Zhenan Bao and her team have proposed creating strips of graphene one atom thick and just 20-50 atoms wide to build semiconductor circuits that are both fast and very low power.  Graphene, a single layer of carbon atoms in a hexagonal pattern, is an extremely efficient conductor.  To assemble the graphene strips, the team uses DNA strands, which have roughly the same dimensions as the graphene target, and also contain carbon atoms.  Straightened DNA strands were bathed in methane gas--another source of carbon--and heated, causing freed carbon atoms to assemble into stable graphene strips.  The process is preliminary, and needs a lot of refinement.

MagLev train speed record
The concept of using magnetism to give a train both lift and thrust has been around since 1968, and over the past decade, maglev trains have started service.  Now, the Central Japan Railway Company has tested a prototype called the L-Zero on a twenty six point six mile test track, where it reached a top speed of 311 MPH.  Passengers on the test ride were mostly local journalists, who reported a smooth and quiet experience, though witnesses outside called it deafening.  The train is estimated to begin service on its route from Tokyo to Osaka in 2027.  Trains are great, but I’m from middle America.  The only time I ever see a high-speed train is during really bad action movies -- like Steven Segal sequel bad.

Heartbeat biometrics
Toronto Startup Bionym is taking pre-orders to manufacture