TWIE 156: Snake Rovers on Mars

This Week in Engineering - Spider silk muscles; wine-powered microprocessor; snake rovers on Mars; jet engine temperature sensor; self-healing polymer; and skeleton crew satellite launch.

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Spider silk muscles
Spider silk is stronger by weight than steel, and is also stretchable, while carbon nanotubes are electrical conductors that are also stretchable.  Now, Florida State University physicist Eden Steven and colleagues coated strands of spider silk with carbon nanotubes, and found the resulting material has a lifting strength about 50 times stronger than muscle.  The best adhesive between the silk and nanotubes turned out to be drops of water put under pressure from two teflon plates.  The coated silk could still stretch up to 50% of its original length.  To demonstrate possible applications, the researchers also made a heartbeat sensor, which measured the change in resistance with the stretching of the coated silk strands.

Wine-powered microprocessor
Engineers at Intel, working on very low power electronics, demonstrated a small microprocessor powered by a single glass of wine.  The system was demonstrated by Genevieve Bell at the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco, where they explained it was essentially the same as lemon battery demonstrations -- the wine was poured into a glass with copper and zinc connections, giving enough microwatts to power an accelerometer with communications processing.  The goal of the project is to advance microwatt device architectures.  Pretty good, but if the microprocessor was running Windows programs on Linux with some sort of emulatora That would be so meta.

Snake rovers on Mars
Sometimes, all-terrain Martian rovers get stuck in sand, like NASA’s Spirit rover did in 2009.  Now, researchers at SINTEF in Trondheim, Norway, funded by the European Space Agency, have build prototypes of rovers that move like snakes.  The rover would actually start out as a functioning arm of a wheeled rover, but it could be disconnected and lowered to the ground to crawl around independently.  The arm could later be reattached.  The rovers could someday be used on Mars, or on moons like Titan.  I say, don’t send robot snakes.  Send robot Snake Plisskins. “But, I thought Mars was dead!”

Jet engine temperature sensor
Some machines, like jet engines and nuclear reactors, run at extremely high temperatures, but must be regulated very accurately, and sensors over time tend to degrade, causing measurement drift.  Now, researchers from the University of Cambridge have developed a new inexpensive thermocouple shown to reduce drift by eighty percent at twelve hundred degrees Celsius, and by ninety percent at thirteen hundred degrees. The thermocouple has a conventional nickel alloy outer wall to reduce oxidation, and an inner wall of a different nickel alloy to prevent contamination.  The device could reduce maintenance costs and repairs for very high temperature engines.

Self-healing polymer
A team of materials scientists from the IK4-CIDETEC Research Center in Spain have developed a new self-healing polymer that can be cut with a razor and then left to sit at room temperature for two hours, when the cut cannot be pulled apart.  The technology could be used to improve the reliability and lifetime of common plastic parts.  While the current material is very soft, the researchers are looking into developing a harder version.  Oh, is self-healing plastic less scary than self-healing liquid metal?  Imagine a plastic T-1000 that won’t freeze or shatter or melt and can safely hang out in the microwave.  Be afraid.

Skeleton crew satellite launch
On September 14, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, used a crew of only eight people with two laptops to launch a satellite aboard an Epsilon rocket.  Safety checks were automated with new artificial intelligence.  The mission was a small s