Date:31 December 2008 Tags:

Reports from the edge of science

Coal power without the CO2 ? The first coal-fired power plant equipped with a carbon-capture system is now operating in Germany, with the promise that virtually all the CO2 it produces will be collected, liquefied and stored underground. The 30-megawatt thermal plant, built by Swedish company Vattenfall at a cost of roughly R1 billion, is a pilot project to test the technology, which could be economically viable for widespread use by 2020.

Divorced dark matter ? The high-speed collision between two galaxy clusters has given a team of astronomers a rare chance to observe elusive dark matter separately from ordinary matter. Dark matter is an invisible substance that appears to interact with surrounding matter only through its gravitational pull. As a result, when the two galaxy clusters slammed into each other at millions of kilometres an hour, the ordinary matter slowed down, but the dark matter rushed past the collision site unimpeded. The observations allowed researchers to glean new insights into the properties of dark matter by mapping its path.

Identifying hot shots ? A technique developed at Britain’s University of Leicester allows investigators to retrieve previously hidden fingerprints from spent bullet casings. The heat generated by gunfire burns away the sweaty impressions that produce fingerprints, but it also causes a chemical reaction that leaves an image of the salty fluid on the brass of the casing. This can be revealed by applying a fine powder activated by an electric charge.

Instant light: just add rubbish ? A Harvard University spin-off called Lebônê Solutions is offering an alternative power source that developing countries can use for cheap, reliable electricity. Microbial fuel cells use bacteria that feed on soil, manure or food scraps to generate a strong enough flow of electrons to power an LED. The company recently completed a pilot programme in which they gave microbial fuel cells to several villages in Tanzania to provide low-power light and charge cellphones.

Quick mind of a fly ? A fly’s ability to avoid a swatter is due as much to brainpower as to raw speed, according to high-speed digital-imaging experiments at Caltech. Within about 300 milliseconds before a fly takes off, it compares visual information about the threat to the current position of its body, performs a calculation and moves its legs into the optimal position to prepare for an escape leap. So take your best guess at the fly’s escape route and swing the rolled newspaper there.

The word is out: developers of a secret Formula One race-car suspension are now offering the device to all teams. In 2005, engineers at the University of Cambridge in Britain developed a system exclusively for Team McLaren that adds another component to conventional suspension systems, which keep wheels firmly connected to the road even when they hit bumps.

The new system adds an inerter with a flywheel that spins as the distance between the car body and wheel assembly changes, smoothing speed-sapping tyre oscillations by storing rotational energy, not unlike a torsion spring. The device was first used by Kimi Raikkonen to win the Spanish Grand Prix in 2005, and opponents have been chasing rumours of its existence ever since.