Pulling Water From Thin Air? It’s Materials Science, Not Magic.
You’ve probably seen a magic trick in which a performer makes a playing card, coin, or even a rabbit appear out of thin air. Writing in the journal Nature Communications, researchers at UT Austin describe an experiment where they seem to pull water out of dry air—but it’s not magic, and it’s not a trick. Carefully applied materials science and engineering allows the team to extract as much as six liters of water per day from one kilogram of their polymer, even in areas with 15% humidity. That’s drier than the Sahara Desert.
The material itself contains two main ingredients. First, a konjac gum, which can be found in Asian cooking, rapidly absorbs water from the air. (In scientific terms, it’s a “hygroscopic material.”) The second ingredient, hydroxypropyl cellulose, responds dramatically to changes in temperature. So at lower temperatures, the team’s polymer film absorbs water, but can rapidly release that water when the film is heated by the sun or artificial heating.
Dr. Guihua Yu, a professor of materials science and mechanical engineering at UT Austin and one of the authors of the report, joins Ira to talk about the material, its applications, and what challenges remain before it can be put into widespread use.
An AI Partnership May Improve Breast Cancer Screenings
Reading a mammogram is a specialized skill, and one that takes a lot of training. Even expertly-trained radiologists may miss up to 20% of breast cancers present in mammograms, especially if a patient is younger or has larger, denser breasts.
Researchers have been working since the advent of artificial intelligence to find ways to assist radiologists in making more accurate diagnoses. This July, a German research team, publishing in The Lancet Digital Health, found that when AI is used to help sort mammograms into low, uncertain, and high risk categories, a partnership between the radiologist and the algorithm leads to more accurate results.
To explain how this result may be translated into real clinical settings, Ira talks to Harvard’s Constance Lehman, a longtime researcher in the field of breast imaging. She talks about the promise of AI in breast cancer screening, its limitations, and the work ahead to ensure it actually serves patients.
A Smoky Aftertaste: Keeping Wildfires Out Of Your Wine Glass
Readers who love wine: It’s time to have a serious talk. California, Washington and Oregon are three of our largest wine-producing states. They’re also some of the states most prone to wildfires.
The West Coast is in the midst of its wildfire season, which makes us wonder: How does smoke impact the wines that come from this region? And what could this mean for those who enjoy a Napa Valley merlot, or an Oregon pinot noir?
There’s an area of food science research dedicated to answering these questions. Factors like the length of smoke exposure, the chemical composition of that smoke, and the type of wine being created all factor into how the final wine product tastes. The best side of a smoked wine spectrum is a mild campfire flavor. The bad side is burning tires.
Joining Ira to talk about how scientists are working to better understand how wildfire smoke impacts wine is Dr. Cole Cerrato, assistant professor of food science at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon.
Artemis Update: What Will It Take To Make It Back To The Moon?
Sixty years ago this week, President John F. Kennedy gave an historic address at Rice University, in which he laid down a challenge to the nation and the world.
“But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”
Six decades later, going to space is still hard. This week, a flight of Blue Origin’s ‘New Shepard’ rocket experienced ‘an anomaly’ during a launch, triggering the escape system for the capsule (which, thankfully, was uncrewed.) And the Artemis 1 mission, the first test flight of America’s planned return to the moon, is on hold while a leaking fuel line is addressed.
Dr. John Blevins, the chief engineer for the Space Launch System, the massive rocket powering the Artemis 1 flight, joins Ira to provide an update on the mission, and why, after 60 years, the trip to the moon still contains so many challenges to be overcome.
This Astrophysicist Holds Star Data In The Palm Of Her Hand
When you look into the sky, the space between stars looks empty and void—but it isn’t. That’s where stars are born. And since astronomers and astrophysicists can’t reach these stellar nurseries, they rely on data collected by telescopes to peer into space.
But what if you could hold part of the galaxy in their hands? Or peer into an orb and see the birthplace of stars? By combining astrophysics and art, that’s exactly what Dr. Nia Imara does. She’s a visual artist and assistant professor of astronomy at UC Santa Cruz, based in Santa Cruz, California. Imara talks with Ira about studying stellar nurseries, how she creates stellar nursery spheres, and what she can learn from holding them in her hand.
Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.