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Living in the Future: Spider Silk can Stop a Train, “Tricorders” on the horizon, and Carbon Storage through Adsorbtion

This week on We are Living in the Future:

Spider silk is often referred to as stronger than Kevlar, or steel – but physics students at the University of Leicester have shown that it has “super powers” too. Inspired by the movie “Spider Man 2”, where Spider Man uses his webbing to stop a speeding train, the physics students ran experiments and calculated the force the webbing would need to withstand. And while Spider Man’s webbing is unavailable for testing, it turns out that just ONE strand of silk from Darwin’s Bark Spider (which lives in Madagascar) is enough to stop a train, assuming it is anchored securely. It turns out that this spider’s silk is more than 10 times stronger than Kevlar – the material used in bullet proof vests.

You may have heard of the Space X prize – millions of dollars for those who solve the next few problems of commercial space travel. A similar prize by the X Prize foundation is now available for medicine diagnostics. They’ve called it the “Tricorder X” prize, named after the medical diagnostic device in Star Trek, and the goal is to design a non-invasive medical diagnostic device that could keep regular medical records and diagnose thirteen “core” conditions, like stroke, diabetes, or anemia, and at least three of twelve “elective” conditions, like strep throat, melanoma, or HIV. How the device does this is up to the participants in the contest, which is sponsored by Qualcomm. The hope is that any devices that come out of this contest will help reduce the number of people who go to see doctors – allowing doctors to focus on helping people who need their help, as the only way we know we needed to see a doctor is to go see a doctor for a diagnosis. The contest is expected to conclude by 2015.

Climate Change has been all over the news lately, and one of the ways of combating it has been carbon sequestration technology. But current carbon capture devices are terribly inefficient, using up to 30% of the output of the power of the powerplants they are cleaning. A new technology developed in Australia hopes to change that. Described as a “solar sponge”, the Metal Organic Framework, or MOF, “adsorbs” carbon, and releases it when exposed to ultraviolet light. It “adsorbs” instead of “absorbs” because the carbon simply adheres to the fractal structure, instead of binding with it as in absorbtion. UV light causes the structure to bend and flex, forcing the carbon off. The scientists say that a single gram of MOF has the surface area of a football field, meaning that it has a LOT of room for carbon to adhere. This invention promises to help achieve the International Energy Agency’s goals of reducing carbon by 42 Gigatons.