TWIE 137: Hydrogen From Sunlight

This Week in Engineering - Watson diagnoses cancer; military uniform electronics; quadcopters catch poles; manned mission to Mars; billboard produces drinking water; and hydrogen from sunlight.
 
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Transcript For This Video

Watson diagnoses cancer
The IBM Watson supercomputer, made famous for defeating the best humans on the game show Jeopardy!, is now being used to help oncologists at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center treat cancer patients. The supercomputer can first analyze a patientÆs electronic medical records to present the doctor only what is relevant. Then, the program uses a database of thousands of records, journals and studies to suggest what data should be acquired and what tests should be run, with suggestions of possible courses of action and estimates of their effectiveness. The program automatically incorporates new test results, and can take in new data through voice recognition. The goal of the project is smarter, more personalized care for cancer patients.

Military uniform electronics
Scientists from MIT working with the US Army have incorporated microscopic gold threads into a military uniform, demonstrating that the fabric can be an electronic device for detecting light, heat or sound. At a diameter of about a millimeter, the gold threads in the proof-of-concept garment are still too thick to be practical, and will need to scale down to about 100 microns. The devices could one day infer a woundÆs severity from temperature measurements, or respond a unique signature to a specific laser signal. IÆve got a message for the seamstress spinning gold into electronics: The impÆs name is Rumpelstiltskin! IÆve had it with these modern retellings.

Quadcopters catch poles
A team at ETH Zurich in Switzerland has released video from the Flying Machine Arena that shows quadcopters not only balancing long rods, but also throwing and catching them. A quadcopter first balances the pole in the classic computer control challenge of the inverted pendulum. Then, it tosses the pole to another quadcopter, which computes the position and trajectory of the approaching rod fifty times per second in order to catch it, performing another inverted pendulum. Hey, robots, are you taking the jobs of baton twirlers? What took you so long?!! They shoulda hit the skids in the 60Æs.

Manned mission to Mars?
A group of private investors known as the Inspiration Mars Foundation will reportedly hold a press conference announcing a manned mission to Mars and back, lasting 501 days starting in January of 2018. Led by Dennis Tito, millionaire entrepreneur and the worldÆs first space tourist, the nonprofit organization says that the so-called ôMission for Americaö should inspire the next great era of space exploration. Experts speculate that the mission will use a modified SpaceX Dragon capsule to swing around Mars without making any kind of landing. The previous Mars500 experiment proved that astronauts could live together in tight quarters long enough for just such a mission.

Billboard produces drinking water
The city of Lima, Peru has an interesting climate -- subtropical, on the coast of the Pacific Ocean, yet also in a desert. The city has very high humidity, but almost no rainfall, so drinking water often comes from often-dirty wells. Now, the University of Engineering and Technology has teamed up with ad agency Mayo Publicidad on a billboard that harvests purified water from the air, serving it up at the base. The machine contains an air filter, condenser and carbon filter so it can clean the water coming from the polluted air. I want to buy that ad space for GoldÆs Gym. See if that sweaty athlete gives anyone second thoughts about drinking.

Hydrogen from sunlight
Hydrogen is a fantastic clean fuel, but electrolyzing water takes a great deal of energy, often from conventional sources. Now, Erik Koepf, a PhD student of mechanical engineering at the University of Delaware, is harvesting hydrogen from sunlight, zinc oxide, and water. First, concentrated sunlight raises the zinc oxide to over 3500 degrees Fahrenheit, separating the zinc from the oxygen and vaporizing it. When the zinc is added to water, it reacts, becoming zinc oxide again, releasing the waterÆs hydrogen. The process consumes only water and sunlight, and the resulting hydrogen can be used in anything from fuel cells to rockets. You know what they say about sunlight -- itÆs the best disinfectant, except maybe for ignited rocket fuel. Your granite countertops might not survive, but neither will MRSA.