TWIE 117: Solar Flare Prediction

This Week in Engineering - Solar flare prediction; amphibious tank; tidal power plant; printing resolution record; cameras for kitties; and molecule-thin semiconductor.

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Solar flare prediction
A radioactive element¦s rate of decay was once thought to be constant, but scientists have recently noticed a slight variation in the decay rate with Earth¦s distance from the sun. Now, Purdue physicist Ephraim Fischbach has correlated a change in radioactive decay rates to solar flares, and suggests that we may be able to predict solar flares a day and a half before they happen. Scientists are unsure why the decay rates change, although one suspect is solar neutrinos. A solar flare warning system could help astronauts and satellites prepare for dangerous radiation storms.

Amphibious tank
DARPA has released video of a prototype vehicle called CAAT, or Captive Air Amphibious Transporter, which rides on tank treads filled with air, and works both on land and on water. The vehicle was developed for the Tactically Expandable Maritime Platform -- or TEMP -- program, and may one day help deliver humanitarian aid from cargo ships to disaster areas. The prototype is built to just a one-fifth scale. I say, add a rope, a harness, a boom, and a frat boy, and it¦s also a state-of-the-art spanking machine for Delta Chi pledges.

Tidal power plant
The first U.S. commercial power plant to run on the current of ocean tides begins operating this week. The Ocean Renewable Power Company installed a 34-ton rotating turbine on the seafloor of the Cobscook Bay in Maine, with power going directly to the grid through an underwater cable. Up to 20 turbine units could be installed over the next four years, which would power about 1500 homes. The hardest part of the project was the harsh environment, including corrosive salt water and harsh Maine winters. Also, there are lobsters.

Printing resolution record
Researchers from Singapore have developed a method of color printing using the dimensional parameters of metal nanostructures, instead of ink. The color image was printed at 100,000 DPI, which, the researchers claim, is the optical diffraction limit -- if pixels were any closer, the light would diffract and the image would blur. The technology may one day generate microimages for security, optical filtering or data storage.

Cameras for Kitties
The University of Georgia has created KittyCam, a research project equipping 55 free-roaming house cats with small video cameras to track their behavior. The cameras are waterproof and equipped with LED lighting to record activity at night. A part of the National Geographic Society¦s CritterCam project, the research has shown that the cats that hunted averaged two kills in the week, four of the cats adopted a second set of owners, and many cats were documented engaging in dangerous behaviors. You know what, researchers? You¦d engage in a risky behavior or two, if somebody neutered you as a kitten and you had nothing else to live for.

Molecule-thin semiconductor
Graphene, a one-atom-thick two-dimensional layer of carbon has exceptional properties, but has never made a good semiconductor. Now, researchers from MIT have developed a way to create sheets of a different molecule -- molybdenum disulfide -- which has a band gap that would make it suitable for electronics. The MIT team has already created several basic electronic building blocks out of the sheets, including an inverter, a NAND gate, and even a ring oscillator. Look, I don¦t need electronics one-molecule thin. My iPhone is brittle enough at a half-inch. Now, if that one molecule can survive a dunk in a toilet, I¦m in.