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There is something about spectacles that seems both timeless and retro – after all they have been around for many, many years relatively unchanged. The only recent leap-forward in eye-wear tech was the Google Glass which was a much-hyped launch but ultimately a flop. As a wearer of spectacles myself, it was with some excitement that I noted a new innovation from a company called TouchFocus; in short, they are launching spectacles that allow users to switch focus with touch of the finger. For people suffering from presbyopia (natural loss of ability to focus on nearby objects that occurs with age), a single pair of glasses or contact lenses can no longer provide them with clear vision at all distances. Although glasses with progressive or multi-focus lenses, such as bifocals or trifocals, have been developed, many people have problems getting used to these lenses because of their restricted field of vision. As such, this novel tech is squarely aimed at this market segment, which generally skews to an older population.

So how does it work? Well at first glance, TouchFocus appears to be simply a pair of stylish spectacle, but hidden inside the frame is an electric circuit. With a touch to a sensor installed in the temple, the liquid crystal lenses are activated which allow the eye-wear to change focus from distance to close by instantaneously. The product is powered by a long-lasting, easily chargeable battery.

Sounds simple enough right? I liked this example of product innovation as this would be a perfect example of a product article that an interviewer might ask you to review and comment on during an interview, even for someone planning to focus on the biological sciences. While you might have no idea what “liquid crystal lenses” are, you should be able to leverage your chemistry and physics background to at least put forward a hypothesis as to how these lenses might work. At the very least, all students should have a good working knowledge of the human eye and how the lenses in our eyes are able to refocus light by changing shape via manipulation of surrounding muscles. From that starting point, could you come up with a sensible idea? Spend some time thinking through possibilities before heading over to the company’s website to learn more about how it works. Can you think about other applications where this technology could be applied?

On the 12th of August 2018, following technical problems and delays, the Parker solar probe finally started its record-breaking mission towards the sun. Named after the astrophysicist Eugene Parker, the solar probe is programmed to fly into the sun’s corona (an aura of plasma surrounding the star) and ultimately come within 6.1 km of the sun’s surface. Travelling at around 724,000 kph, the probe will hitchhike on Venus’ gravitational orbit seven times to come closer and closer to the sun.

Several measures have been put in place to protect the probe and its equipment from the scorching temperatures. The spacecraft will be protected by a state-of-the-art carbon heat shield, and has built-in sensors to rapidly compensate in case it turns and exposes its equipment to the full heat of the sun. Although the plasma that makes up the corona reaches well into the millions of degrees Centigrade, the probe will only be exposed to a breezy 1,400°C due to the very thin structure of the corona, which means that the probe won’t actually touch that many of the superheated plasma particles; “think of putting your oven on and you set it at 400 degrees, and you can put your hand inside your oven and you won’t get burned unless you actually touch a surface”, explains Nicola Fox, a solar scientist at Johns Hopkins University and part of the Parker probe team.

Through this ground-breaking mission, scientists hope to solve some of the sun’s best-kept secrets, for example; why is the corona so much hotter than the surface of the sun? And what lies behind the solar wind, the term coined in the 1950s by Eugene Parker to describe the gas that speeds away from the sun at over a million miles per hour?  When Parker first proposed this idea, he was scorned by the scientific community. But in time, research came to vindicate him, and we now know that such a wind does indeed exist and has a significant impact on the solar system. “We’ve had to wait so long for our technology to catch up with our dreams,” says Fox. “It’s incredible to be standing here today.” Parker himself is rather more prosaic: “I’ll bet you 10 bucks it works”.

Applicants for Physics, Natural Sciences, or Engineering might be interested in learning more about the solar probe’s mission and the research and questions that lie behind the mission. Those particularly interested in astrophysics may wish to read Eugene Parker’s 1958 paper on solar wind.

‘Slippery rail’ is a condition suffered by many railway tracks in Autumn and Winter. More commonly known in the UK as ‘leaves on track’ (a phrase that sends dread to a British commuter’s heart), this condition is caused by a mulch of moist, decomposing leaves. The fallen leaves are travelled over by trains, crushing them and releasing pectin (a bio polymer used as a gelling agent in the making of jams). This creates a slippery surface which causes trains to have to slow down, as they have difficultly braking effectively, which causes delays.

In a year, Network Rail has to handle £4.5 million of passenger delay costs, £10 million of track repair, and £5 million of expenditure on vegetation management due to fallen leaves. The trees responsible for the problem were originally planted near railway lines deliberately for their beneficial sound deadening properties!

Technologies are been developed, however, to combat this expensive leaf problem. Train lasers, created over a five year period by Malcolm Higgins (a Royal Navy Lieutenant Commander), were first realised after Higgins listened to a report on train delays on BBC Radio Four and thought that ‘there must be a better way’.

These tiny lasers, attached to train wheels, vaporise leaves on the track. Previous solutions had included everything from hand scrubbing the leaves to using water or sand jets, but these solutions also resulted in damage to the line. The lasers are still in a trial phase, but, due to the short wave length of the beams, the tracks are unharmed by the process. The beams are also more cost efficient and effective than the old water jets. In the initial testing phases, the vibrations caused by the motion of the trains meant that the lasers weren’t accurate enough to hit the leaves. Those used on today’s trains have a higher pulse rate than the originals and used fibre optics.

Aspiring Biology students might wish to investigate the plant properties of pectin further. Those hoping to pursue and academic career in Physics could delve more into the many uses for laser technology. Engineers might be interested in investigating railway engineering work and its causes.

Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS), hailed as the ‘Get Out of Jail (CO2) Free’ technology for traditional fossil fuel energy, is threatening to stage a repeat of the $885bn – nil defeat that Norway’s Sovereign Wealth Fund inflicted on the UK. Beginning in the early 1980’s, Norway’s state operated Statoil contributed to a national piggy bank, which today can comfortably mop up the cost of looking after its aging population of 5m, whilst the UK’s stake in the North Sea paid into no such scheme.

CCS comprises a range of technologies that holds the potential of locking up to 90% of CO2 emissions from point sources underground. Once CO2 has been captured at point of emission, liquefied and transported via a vast array of pipelines, it is locked underground in suitable geological formations, saline aquifers or exhausted oil fields where it gradually mineralises through chemical reactions with the host rocks.

Whilst much of the required infrastructure for utilising disused North Sea oil fields and their connecting pipelines remains in place, the UK government must strike whilst the iron is hot. Scottish Carbon Sequestration and Capture, the UK’s largest CCS research group has recently announced that by 2022 the UK could be pumping 2m tonnes of CO2 underneath the North Sea per year. But after dropping its £1bn grant scheme in 2015, the UK government needs to follow the lead of the Scottish Government’s September announcement to fund more CCS feasibility studies in order to capitalise on the North Sea opportunities before Norway does, again.

Students considering Engineering and Earth Science disciplines might be wise to look at CO2 trapping methods at point sources and the chemistry of COmineralisation in depleted oil fields, saline aquifers, and mafic and ultra mafic formations.  

Elon Musk, the cheeky little Tony Stark-esque scamp, is at it again, and this time it’s back to rockets. Elon Musk was last in the news as the man who joked about making flamethrowers to fight the uprising zombie army on Twitter, and then went and sold 20,000 of the things at $500 a pop, selling out inside three days. Now that he’s done making more money off an off-hand tweet than you ever would to your 85 followers, he’s turning his attention back to some serious business.

Today, he launches his Falcon Heavy rocket, which will become the world’s most powerful launcher, over twice as powerful as the leading competitor’s.  It will have the ability to put just a shade over 64 tonnes of payload into orbit, and is being powered by three of his own Falcon 9 rockets.

What’s the payload, I hear you ask? Good question. In true Elon Musk form, he’s put his own Tesla, complete with a Stig-like dummy in the driving seat, in the payload space, and is expecting to launch it into Mar’s orbit. It will, unsurprisingly, be playing Space Oddity on loop as it flung into the eternal darkness of space.

Musk, however, is not entirely confident about the launch. Given that maiden rocket launches often end in failure, he is wary about the outcome. He says that it will be ‘either a great rocket launch or the best fireworks display they’ve ever seen’. Though he may be underplaying Great Yarmouth’s New Year’s firework celebration of 2014, every hotel around the Kennedy Space Centre has been sold out, as viewers from across the world flock to watch the event.

Students thinking of going for Physics or Engineering should be looking at the physics behind rocket launches, about how the stages of acceleration work, and the physics behind elliptical orbits. Kepler’s Second and Third Laws are particularly useful to have a look at.

To prevent the devastating climate change forecast in the next century we must make transport greener.  In the last decade we’ve seen more and more electric cars on the road, yet are these cars all equally green? And is electric always better?

It’s true that in the United States, an electric car produces less than half the CO2 of it’s conventional counterpart.  But not all electric cars are equally green. Nor are electric cars always better than a petrol powered alternative. 

While electric cars are marketed on the notion of having ‘zero emissions’ the reality is they often carry a heavy carbon toll.  In fact, the Tesla Model S, in its lifecycle, produces 61,115kg of carbon dioxide. While this is far better than a similarly sized petrol alternative, like the BMW 7 Series (producing 103,851kg over its lifetime) it is worse than the smaller Mitsubishi Mirage.  Electric is not always better, and it certainly is not ‘zero emissions’.

In the EU and the US the regulatory environment recognises all electric vehicles as ‘zero emission’. The drive toward electric vehicles, while disregarding the production emissions of these vehicles, neglects disparity between them and the vast environmental impact of their production.  Some manufacturers are trying to address this. BMW’s i3, the greenest car available in terms of lifecycle emissions, is made from carbon fibre produced using hydroelectric power.  It is assembled at a plant powered by wind and fitted with seats made from recycled bottles. The dye is made from olive leaves and the door panels are made from sustainably sourced plants. Even the keys are made from kastor beans. And while this has produced the most green electric car on the market, all the emission savings pale in comparison to those produced by the battery. 

Electric cars rely on massive lithium batters. By 2025 it’s expected these will double in capacity from 20 to 40 kilowatt hours. Good for range, but bad for the environment. They depend on two rare elements, Cobalt and Lithium, that must be mined more and more to keep up with demand. 60% of Cobalt comes from the DRC where mines have contributed to land degradation, deforestation and pollution.

As governments rightly drive manufacturers toward a greener future, consumers are left to compare which ‘zero emission’ car is closest to the claim.

At 6.15 on Wednesday the 20th of September, Maria made landfall on the Island of Puerto Rico.  Carrying winds of over 155 miles per hour, Maria is the first Category 4 storm to hit the Island since 1932.  On some parts of the Island 30 inches – two and a half feet – of rain fell in one day.  By the end of the 20th of September power and cut from the entire Island.

Now, three weeks after the devastating storm hit, Elon Musk and his car and battery manufacturing company Tesla say they can restore and rebuild the island’s power infrastructure through renewable sources.

Crucial to the plan is the battery technology developed by Tesla for use in their electric cars. These batteries are already deployed on small islands such as Ta’u in American Samoa and tend to work in conjunction with Solar City (another Musk company) solar panels.  For Musk and the Tesla brand, this is the perfect opportunity to deploy a flagship model of it’s capability.  The emergent opportunity serves the dual purpose of demonstrating the ease, efficiency and efficacy of renewables while forcing the technology and economic value of Tesla’s technology into the public sphere.

While Musk has entered talks with governing officials in Puerto Rico, Alphabet, the parent company of Google, has been granted approval to float large balloons over the Island to restore cellular service.  In the context of a federal government immobilised by a President’s unwillingness to act corporations are stepping in.

But at what cost? Are their motives philanthropic, or will Tesla monetarise its monopoly on the Puerto Rican electricity grid? And when companies fill the breach of governments in times of crisis, what is the long-term cost?

AI is booming, with machines that can recognise patterns or rules and provide an automated response becoming increasingly popular across a range of industries, from retail to financial services.

For years, software company NeuCo have been developing optimisation technologies – a form of artificial intelligence (AI) – that can make power plants more efficient. This will enable computers to monitor the hundreds of fine-grained controls that may be altered in, for example, a coal-fired power plant, and learn how to adjust them in a more effective way.

Human operators in such facilities are tasked with overseeing all kinds of minutiae, such as the level of oxygen in the furnace, the frequency of the soot blowers that keep tubes in the system clean, or the build-up of slag that, if left unchecked, can grow into huge boulders ready to break off and wreck the equipment.

Peter Kirk, former chief executive of NeuCo states “There’s too much data and it overwhelms the human ability to respond; instead, a computer can take over. Machine learning allows software to identify small changes that improve the efficiency and stability of the coal-firing system. The result” Mr Kirk says, “is sometimes an efficiency improvement of about 1%. That might not sound like much, but coal power plants are massive carbon emitters. I mean, that’s 1,000 cars coming off the road”.

GE Power plans to develop this technology, which has already been used in many plants around the world. They also plan to use similar technology with wind turbines. The idea is to better predict the likely output from turbines, based on weather patterns, so that maintenance days can be more accurately scheduled for times when they are less likely to be operational.

Computer Science and Engineering students should further explore how AI is being used in a range of industries and the challenges involved in programming. PPE students should consider the philosophical and economic debates around the use and impact of artificial intelligence. Psychology students should explore whether we can ever fully replicate the human brain and the ethical issues linked to this.

Inspired by nature, (and one has to assume, the shame of constantly being upstaged by Morgan Freeman’s character in The Dark Knight) scientists Alireza Ramezani, Soon-Jo Hung and Seth Hutchinson have teamed together to build a flying robot that looks and flies like a bat.  

Bats have one of the most complicated and intricate flying mechanisms in the animal kingdom, which allows them to swoop and dodge through extremely crowded caves where they are afforded very little room. Scientists wanted to replicate both their speed and extreme maneuverability, and so they started by studying the biomechanics of the animal itself.

They found that bats had 40 different joints in their wings, along with bones that would deform with individual wing flaps. Their first task when building their robot was to simplify the structure massively; no robot with that many actuated joints would be able to fly well. They decided to have four movable joints in the flight, and then developed an elastic silicon-based membrane skin to spread over the joints. Check out the video of it moving here. It’s incredibly interesting. 

While the bat is able to glide for long distances, and execute things like bank rolls and dives, it is unable to fly upwards or perch. These are things that the scientists working on this project will want to do going forward, potentially   

Engineers and physicists should look up the principles of flight, and how lift is generated in aeroplanes and how this is different to the lift generated by birds and insects. Biologists should look at how different animals fly, and how wingspan affects different birds and animals. Materials Science students can look at modern trends in creating alloys and composites that mimic animal structures and properties.

Imagine driving in a world with….

Less traffic and pollution whilst you sail smoothly along, free from the stress of navigating your way to an unknown destination.

Personal Rapid Transit as an alternative means of travel is not a new concept. Since the 1970s, numerous global companies have developed Personal Rapid Transit Systems (PRT) for accelerated transportation, from West Virginia University, to more recent systems such as the Ultra PRT network at Heathrow International airport and the Masdar City pod car system in Abu Dhabi. The reality of pod cars as a means of personal transportation to replace conventional cars is now more imminent than ever. Last year Uber launched its first ground-breaking driverless fleet. Over the last 12 years, Nissan have been developing autonomous cars which they estimate will be introduced in another 5 years from now. Yet whilst pod cars offer the impressive benefits of convenient, affordable and safe travel it is worth considering some of the stumbling blocks that still exist. Driverless cars are currently run using a network of cameras and roof-mounted sensors that could be impeded by rain or snow. Furthermore, concerns of privacy and protection from hacking will need to be mitigated. It is likely that pod cars will still be run on fuel, so radical reductions in emissions may not be an immediate benefit of the new transport. Yet, driverless cars will make the transition to electric vehicles easier, make cities more appealing and incentivise car sharing.


Applicants for Physics, Natural Sciences and Engineering may like to research the current technology behind the driverless cars, whilst applicants for Land Economy, and Geography could consider the implications of pod cars on urban development. Those applying for Law may be interested in researching the recent law suit filed by Google, claiming the Uber stole information to develop the driverless technology.

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