April 24th, 2015

This week on Txchnologist, we learned about a breakthrough in artificial photosynthesis and revelations in materials that could mean safer, greener plastics and massive energy savings in building airplanes.

Now we’re bringing you the highlights from the week, along with other news we’ve been following in the world of science, technology and innovation.

Earlier in the week, we wrote about University of Georgia research that has shown biodegradable plastics made from components of milk and eggs have incredible antimicrobial properties. If their results are confirmed, the bioplastics could be used to make cleaner bandages, sutures and food packaging that quickly break down when thrown away.

Scientists in California have announced a breakthrough in developing artificial photosynthesis, a process like that used by plants to create useable chemical energy from solar power, carbon dioxide and water. The new system combines nanotechnology and bacteria to turn sunlight into useful chemicals like liquid fuel, plastics and pharmaceuticals.

MIT aerospace engineers have developed a film that could significantly reduce the energy used to build aircraft. The film, made of carbon nanotubes, can be laid on top of layers of composites applied to airplane fuselages and wings. Usually, these composite layers must be baked in giant energy-slurping ovens to fuse them together. But the new film can heat to the extreme temperatures needed by having a relative trickle of electric current applied.

University of Utah anthropologists think they know how ancient people colonized the Pacific islands starting 3,500 years ago. They believe boat-traveling migrants rowed against prevailing winds for safety and steered toward islands they could see, rather than those that were closest. The researchers arrived at their conclusions by using epidemiological models typically employed to forecast the spread of infectious disease,via Eurekalert.

Researchers from Belgium’s Ghent University and the International Potato Institute have traced genes in sweet potatoes back to a bacterium called Agrobacterium. The genes got there naturally when bacterial cells infected those of the sweet potato some time in the past. They moved into the plant’s DNA through a process called horizontal gene transfer, and the genes are now expressed with the sweet potato’s own genome. Researchers say the modern crop is an example of a naturally occurring genetically modified organism that has been eaten for millennia, and they hope this helps change the paradigm that GMO means unnatural, via Ghent University.

Top Image: The glasswing butterfly (Greta Oto) has a superpower. Its wings are transparent, and they are made in such a way that they reflect almost no light. Researchers at Germany’s Karlsruhe Institute of Technology say this phenomenon is due to nanostructures on the wing’s surface that have different heights and shapes. This nanotopography, a survival tool that keeps the butterfly from being eaten, causes low reflectance of visible, infrared and ultraviolet light at any angle. The scientists say the same engineering could be applied to lenses and electronics screens, via KIT.