The Artistic Science

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Archive for the category “Technology”

My Robot

My Robot

In an astounding move forward this week, the University of Minnesota announced its development of a model helicopter controlled by brainwaves. Simply through imagining clenching the left or right fist the user could pilot the device successfully through a series of obstacles with relatives ease. This heralds a fantastic opportunity for people with disabilities of all kinds, from arthritis sufferers to amputees to paralytics. Furthermore extensive work is being done on the enhancement of implants which have already been shown to greatly improve cognitive ability and show a huge potential in the treatment of brain damage, particularly in stroke victims. Yet is this technological revolution restricted to the health industry or could we all one day have our own mind-controlled robots and mechanical prosthetics.

Indeed it seems even now that our smartphones are often more an extension of our own bodies than a simple piece of hardware. In a step further Google readies its revolutionary new product ‘Google Glass’ for the global market. This tiny, convenient headset enables the user to browse the Internet make calls and take video using only voice commands whilst the minuscule, transparent screen remains unnoticeable while not in use. Not only this but researchers at Tokyo university have begun work on a new device allowing a computer screen to be projected on almost any surface, making it possible to turn the palm of your hand into your phone or tablet in an instant! As the boundaries between the technological and the organic are slowly blurred it seems that the science fiction of the past is becoming the reality of the future. With the realisation of chips which allow increased memory capacity and faster thought-processes or muscle augmentations which increase power and protect against damage, how many of us could honestly say that we wouldn’t consider making use of such potentially beneficial technology? Furthermore as thought-controlled devices are continuously refined it becomes more and more likely that technology originally created to enable greater independence for disabled people will be utilised for the convenience of society as a whole.

We have not even begun to discuss the implications of AI or automated robotics, which undoubtedly advances the field even further, yet even in neglecting these schools it seems apparent that the tide of progress is pushing us ever closer to a deeper reliance on our technology than we have ever seen before. With this comes a menagerie of benefits and dangers and whether or not the shift on the whole is a positive one is certainly up for debate. What is sure is that progress moves ever forward and every development impacts our world, our society, our very lives in sometimes the most intimate of ways.

Asteroids – Fuelling Humanity’s Future

Asteroid field concept with planet

Despite playing the villains in many a Hollywood movie, asteroids are in fact our friends when it comes to space travel. On a planet of dwindling resources and increasing pollution it is looking more and more likely that we will have to colonise space in the not-too-distant future and yet we are still unable to send manned missions beyond our own moon. The main stumbling block to this feat is a lack of resources to do this on any reasonable scale. One solution is to develop faster, more efficient technology (particularly propulsion), however this only allows us to reach a little further rather than providing any kind of permanent solution. So far the human race has regarded Earth as our only resource in the universe and so we mine it for all it has in order to make the most of what we’ve got. Yet beyond our sky, space is filled with energy – electrical storms flash about atmospheres, asteroids and comets hurtle through our solar system and cosmic rays ignite planets. There is a lot out there that we can harness.

Current space-programs rely on building craft on Earth and making short trips into space. Constantly escaping and re-entering Earth’s gravity in this way requires a vast amount of fuel, not to mention the reconstruction of jettisoned engine modules and repairing of damaged components. It also places the astronauts in a significant amount of danger during both take-off and  re-entry. The practical and necessary next step is to launch craft from space with extremely specialised shuttles transporting personnel between an orbiting station and the Earth’s surface. A foundation for this has been laid with the creation of the International Space Station (ISS), beginning the era of long-term manned space missions.

With this in place we can begin to use resources outside of our planet. There are approximately 1000 known asteroids with diameters of one kilometre or greater that are easily reachable from the earth with standard spacecraft. Many of these contain valuable minerals – most notably precious metals. The composition of asteroids can largely be deduced remotely using various methods, the most useful being the measurement of its size and motion relative to gravitational fields. Once a mineral-rich asteroid has been spotted a cheap surveying drone could be sent from a station to ascertain exactly what the asteroid contains and if it is found to be a lucrative prospect a robotic mining module could be dispatched to extract the minerals and return them to the station, to either be used there or transported to the Earth below. This seems like the stuff of science-fiction but is actually very easy with current technology. The extreme elliptical orbits of asteroids means they pass very close to our planet and, unlike on Earth, heavy minerals are common near the surface – making them easy to find.

Furthermore asteroids are not only rich in materials that are rare on Earth but also contain raw materials such as iron and nickel which could be used directly in components built in space. Water found on asteroids can be used to power machines and provide radiation shielding for manned craft and electricity is easily generated from the almost constant sunlight, unimpeded by atmospheric shielding. If we are to reach beyond our planet we must start harnessing local environments. Already large organisations are preparing to move into this area and once the method for mining in micro-gravity is perfected the extra-planetary gold-rush will begin.

-Originally published in The Boar on the 6th of March 2013

(Image credit: NASA)

The Nuclear Revolution – Why the World Must Change

power station edit

Since time immemorial doomsayers have been predicting the end of the world. From Mayan calendars to nuclear war, global destruction has never been far from the thoughts of many. So of course it is only natural that we exercise scepticism when talk of climate change ripples across the planet. We like to regard our home as a safe, dependable place – the sun rises and sets each day, the tide comes in and out – but it is not necessarily so predictable. Our climate goes through cycles of global cooling and warming, ice ages come and go whilst glaciers slip across our continents and slowly melt into nothing. At the moment we are reaching a natural peak in global temperature, the unfortunate thing is that this also coincides with a time where we are producing far more greenhouse gases then ever before.

The scientific community is generally agreed that if these emissions continue it will raise the Earth’s temperature beyond its natural maximum and so shift the cycle dramatically. Some suggest that a runaway process has already begun and that reducing emissions can no longer prevent the widespread drought and global flooding caused by rising temperatures and melting icecaps. A possible solution to this is to remove greenhouse gases from our atmosphere using  ‘carbon capture’, where carbon is effectively sponged out of the air using various methods, from replanting forests to more industrial processes. Whatever the case it is clear that our current reliance on fossil fuel is not sustainable, especially given its increasing scarcity.

Virtually all energy on our planet comes either from our sun or from geothermal processes below the Earth’s crust. Even fossil fuels, being the remains of biological organisms, originally gained their energy from these sources. Obviously the most efficient method of harnessing this energy, at least theoretically, is to harness it directly rather than collecting the scraps we can obtain from various plants and animals that have already harnessed it before us. In an ideal world we would collect solar and geological energy, or at least extract it from wind and tides driven by thermal energy. Unfortunately we are yet to do so on any reasonable scale and time is rapidly running out – our resources are dwindling whilst our power demands increase dramatically and our climate is changing faster than we can adapt. Our technology is not advanced enough to practically achieve total reliance on renewable energy and even if it were, we don’t have sufficient time to establish the necessary infrastructures.

We need a powerful, reliable energy source to carry us through the next few decades until we can improve our technology and begin to build a renewable energy network. Nuclear power offers just such a solution. Current nuclear generators utilise ‘fission’, the splitting of heavy elements into lighter atoms and collecting some of the energy that was previously being used to bind the atomic nucleus together. Furthermore the technology is now available to carry out power generation via fusion (combining very light elements into heavier ones) which yields far more energy in comparison to fission and requires relatively few rare materials. The most promising form of this utilises deuterium, which can be refined from seawater, and tritium which can be bred inside nuclear reactors. Though the technology and materials are now in place, fuel cells for these reactors are very difficult to make and no method has yet been devised to mass-produce them (mainly due to the fact that they have not yet been widely used). Hence they have very high manufacturing costs which would result in providers being forced to charge higher rates, this is the primary reason as to why fusion generators have not yet been brought into general use.

A method of mass-producing fuel cells will solve this problem and make fusion a viable option and until then fission reactors are sufficient for our purposes. However nuclear reactors are not renewable and even reactors which use such abundant materials as deuterium still produce nuclear waste – a by-product that remains hazardous to environments, wildlife and people for thousands, in some cases hundreds of thousands of years. This can be safely contained, provided sufficient care is taken, but it eliminates nuclear power as an indefinite solution as there is only finite space in which to dispose of it.

So we stand at a turning point in history, if we continue to use current energy generation methods we will soon find our world a dramatically different place as major cities are submerged and nations are parched with drought. However if we blindly switch to nuclear energy without investing in renewables we will eventually be faced with a waste crisis which could lead to severe political, environmental and public health problems. It is imperative that we phase out traditional power generation and switch to nuclear as a temporary measure with a view to becoming renewable-dependent by the end of the 21st century. In the UK this is most likely to be a combination of wind and tidal energy – although tidal power has received little attention or development as most developed countries are not as coastline-dominated as Britain. In sunnier climates solar panels will be the most effective means of power generation, especially as technology improves. Whilst governments and politicians debate the next move time is ticking on, our climate is being destroyed and our resources are running out. There is hope, in fact the future looks quite bright, but hard decisions need to be made and, one way or another, our world will change very soon.

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