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Spaghetti Bridge-Building Competition Gives Students a Taste of Engineering 

Bad food puns aside, this quick and quirky article spotlights a group of high school students on their quest to build the strongest bridge out of a very unlikely material. Put on by John Hopkins University, this month-long summer program takes 100+ of the best and brightest teens from around the world to build the strongest span out of one of the most brittle of substances: dry spaghetti. The month ends with a friendly competition to see which span holds up the best. This year, first place goes to "I Can't Believe It's not Linguine" as their span was able to support 97 pounds. Not bad for a half pound of spagehetti and a little glue.

Said team member 17-year-old Elise of San Antonio, "We're raising it just to kill it, like a farm animal". Clearly - a vegetarian...

Nitrogen-Doped Graphene Boosts Lifetimes Of Lithium-Sulfur Batteries 

Despite the relatively recent hype, electric cars have been around for a long time (since the early to mid-1800's). We can thank French physicist Gaston Planté for the creation of the acid-lead battery in 1859. Now flash forward 150 years... Prompted by rising fuel costs and environmental concerns, auto companies are scrambling to design and manufacture the next great electric or electric-hybrid vehicle. The acid-lead batteries are big, heavy and have their own set of environmental issues (more than 40,000 metric tons go to landfills each year), so along came the lithium-ion battery... and then the lithium-sulfur battery.

Reported to be able to store up to three times more energy for a given weight, this has become the perfect battery to further extend the range of the electric vehicle. Unfortunately, it has its issues. The storage capacity has a tendency to diminish rapidly and the electrodes, reacting with the sulfur, have been known to expand and crack apart. Enter Yuegang Zhang, a chemist at the Chinese Academy of Science and his collegues who  found a better conductivity solution: dope the graphene oxide with nitrogen. 

While the performance of  Zhang's new batteries has been the best so far, there is still a way to go before they are commercially viable. Still - it's pretty cool! 

Ground Transportation: 3 Emerging Trends in Automotive Engineering 

Who would be hip to the latest going-ons within the auto industry other than the staff at The Ohio State University's Center for Automotive Research (OSU CAR)? Here's their shake down:

  1. Battery Systems (good seque from the last article, no?)
  2. Downsizing and turbocharging
  3. Advanced Combistion Modes

No surprise that with the rising cost of fuel and environmental concerns, it's all about improving engine efficiency and fuel economy. Plus, any excuse for a turbocharger is a good excuse for me!

Life Sciences:
Bioengineers create 3D brain-like tissue to study chemical and electrical changes 

Before you start getting any ideas about growing some brain cells for a less "intellectually endowed" friend or co-worker - remember that this is brain-like material, not real brain. In other words - don't try this at home!

Scientists have been growing neurons in petri dishes for awhile, but it unfortunately lacks the 3rd dimension necessary to realistically replicate the complex structural organization of brain tissue. You see - the brain is made up of two main components: grey matter (nueron cell bodies) and white matter (axon bundles). These two components act differently when affected by injury or disease. In this respect, the petri dish method only tells a small part of the story.

Recently though, researchers tried a combination of two biomaterials with different physical properties: a spongy scaffold made out of silk protein and a softer, collagen-based gel. The result is a functional network of nuerons and axons! "This work is an exceptional feat," said Rosemarie Hunziker, Ph.D., program director of Tissue Engineering at NIBIB. 

Experiments now being conducted will track tissue response to traumatic brain injury in real time as well as repair. Testing responses to drugs and examining brain dysfunction will also be possibe.

Origami robotics: Here's how to fold your own 'metamaterial' at home

Now here's something you can try at home: Take a piece of common paper and fold it into a Miura-ori. What is a Miura-ori you ask? Good question!

It's a bit of Japanese paper folding art that engineers are looking at with earnest.

The Miura-ori is unique in that the material it's made from takes on vastly different characteristic once properly configured (henceforth the term metamaterial). The pattern is basically just a collection of parallelograms, but once folded, the paper becomes unusually springy. What's even better, is that the stiffness can be adjusted by popping out certain folds. Too stiff? No problem - just pop the fold back into place and you are back to where you started. 

The properties of this metamaterial grabbed the attention of a few researchers who build a self-folding robot that can "assemble" itself and crawl away in four minutes. Pretty cool... and a little creepy!




Image courtest of Michelle Lowry.

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