TWIE 127: Computer-Simulated Brain

This Week in Engineering - Computer-simulated brain; robots in cow stomachs; melt-resistant chocolate; electricity from marshlands; bladeless ceiling fan; and infrared invisibility.

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Computer-simulated brain
Chris Eliasmith of the University of Waterloo in Canada has developed a computer simulation of a small functioning brain, called Semantic Pointer Architecture Unified Network, or SPAUN. The system models 2.5 million neurons assembled into different brain regions, including the prefrontal cortex, basal ganglia and thalamus. The simulation can recognize images of numbers, remember them, and then write them down. SPAUN is currently being used to study cognitive flexibility -- how the brain switches between tasks, and work is underway for it to adapt and learn new tasks.

Robots in cow stomachs
Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and livestock is responsible for over 28% of all human-related methane emissions. Now, Australia¦s Sustainable Agriculture Flagship will install wireless electronics with infrared sensors into cow stomachs for monitoring methane production, both from burps and the other end. The devices will also be equipped with wings, allowing them to stay in the digestive tract for weeks. The research aims to determine the cattle¦s most eco-friendly diet. After all, you can¦t ask a cow about methane -- all they can tell you is to eat more chicken.

Melt-resistant chocolate
Chocolate maker Cadbury from Birmingham in Great Britain has developed a temperature-tolerant chocolate that stays firm at 104 degrees Fahrenheit -- hotter than normal chocolate¦s 93 degrees. The company has filed for a patent on the modified process, which works by grinding the sugar particles into much finer pieces, and less fat ends up coating the particles. The increased uncoated sugar surface area is believed to add to the melting point. The new chocolate will be sold in warmer climates, especially in the developing world. I say we coat this around M&Ms, to keep that candy shell from melting all over my hands. What did we ever see in M&Ms?

Electricity from marshlands
Plant-e, a startup specializing in plant-based biological electricity, has developed a plant-microbial fuel cell that generates electricity from the bacteria living around roots in the soil of marshlands. As bacteria consume the excess organic material produced by the plant, electrons are released, which are picked up by the fuel cell¦s electrode. Plant-microbial fuel cells currently generate 0.4 W per square meter of growth, but the company believes that could increase to 3.2 W in years to come. At that level, a ten by ten meter plot could power a home.

Bladeless ceiling fan
Exhale Fans has invented a new kind of ceiling fan that works with rotating plates instead of blades. The plates create a smooth laminar flow of air horizontally out from the center of the fan, instead of the vertical flow from fan blades. The design is based on the bladeless Tesla Turbine from 1913, and is currently featured on the crowdfunding site Indiegogo. The first production models could be available as early as February of 2013. A ceiling fan without blades? But, then I can¦t perform a reckless stunt, hurting myself for youtube fame!

Infrared invisibility
Researchers from the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences have discovered a way to make hot objects virtually invisible to infrared detectors, and may also be used to make a more sensitive infrared camera. Researchers coated a millimeter-thick sapphire sheet with a one-hundred eighty nanometer-thick coating of vanadium oxide, that was heated up to 154 degrees, which altered its crystal structure, changing it from insulator to conductor. The material then absorbed 99% of infrared light shone on it. Infrared invisibility? Great military application, if we ever stop fighting with predator drones, and start fighting actual Predators.