materials

Kinetica Dynamics: Skyscraper stabilizer

Kinetica Dynamics may be a young start-up, but its approach to stabilizing tall buildings is based on a well-established idea.“It’s a reinvigoration of an old vibration damping technology,” says Michael Montgomery, an engineer and the company’s co-founder and chief executive.

The technology, a polymer that diminishes vibration and shock, is bonded tightly to the structure of buildings and was first used in the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center to prevent motion sickness caused by the upper parts of the towers moving in the wind. The polymer, which was created by the US technology company 3M, was installed between the steel frames throughout the towers to dissipate vibrations. Read more in Nature.

This Scientist Is Making Batteries Out of Recycled Crab Shells

Shellfish chitin is a starting material ripe for chemical modification.

If you want to work in Mark MacLachlan’s lab, it helps to have a taste for seafood. The chemist, who works at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, is working on turning the discarded shells of shrimp, crabs, and lobsters into advanced materials that could be used in batteries, plastics, or even for growing new organs. And it is up to his students to provide a steady supply of carcasses.

“One of my students buys lobsters and crabs, eats them, and then brings the shells to work,” MacLachlan says. Another has managed to secure a free supply of shells from a seafood restaurant.

MacLachlan is after one particular component of the material that makes up the shells—chitin, a tough substance that is structurally similar to the cellulose in plant cell walls. Read more in Hakai.

Nature Outlook: Batteries

Batteries have the potential to transform the way we use energy, to make electric cars mainstream and to allow renewable energy sources, which tend to be intermittent, to be integrated into the power grid. Today’s best batteries are reaching their limits, but researchers are experimenting with new chemistries and designs. Read more in this Nature Outlook that I edited.

A drop in the river of time

Some things in science are worth waiting for.

Sometime towards the end of this year, one of the rarest events in science is expected to occur. In a display case in the lobby of the physics department at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, a small drop of black tar distillate known as pitch will detach itself from the stem of a funnel and fall into a waiting beaker below. It will be the first time a drop has fallen in 13 years, and only the ninth such drop since the experiment was set up 86 years ago.

Thomas Parnell, the university’s first professor of physics, set up the pitch drop experiment to show his students that pitch, which is brittle enough to shatter if hit with a hammer, can flow like a liquid if left to its own devices long enough. Over the course of almost a century, the experiment has survived the relocation of the university campus, extensive renovations to the physics building where it is housed and innumerable changes in university administration and staff. But it serenely carries on, despite the turmoil of the world all around it. Read more in Materials Today.

Pitch-drop custodian dies without witnessing a drop fall

Photo courtesy of University of Queensland.

Photo courtesy of University of Queensland.

John Mainstone, who for 52 years tended to one of the world’s longest-running laboratory experiments but never saw it bear fruit with his own eyes, died on 23 August after suffering a stroke. He was 78.

Mainstone had been looking after the pitch drop experiment at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia since he arrived at the university as a physics professor in 1961. The experiment, set up in 1927 by the university’s first head of the physics department, Thomas Parnell, consists of a sample of tar pitch slowly running through a funnel (see ‘Long-term research: Slow science‘). Read more in Nature.

Extreme prospects

High gold prices are making it worthwhile to look for gold in some unusual places.

Demand has never been higher, but nearly all the easy gold has already been mined. So, to maintain production, mining companies are turning to more difficult sources that would have been left in the ground if gold prices had been lower. From the depths of TauTona in the South African veldt, all the way up to Pierina in the Peruvian Andes, 4,100 metres above sea level, miners are digging deeper than ever before, going to more remote locations and politically volatile regions. Read more in Nature.