Sunday, 1 January 2017


Spidey senses and super-strong metal: 2016's accidental discoveries
By Michael Franco,
New Atlas, 31 December 2016.

For the most part, scientific discoveries are the result of rigorous methods of intellectual inquiry. Every once in awhile though, a chance discovery, accident or some plain old happenstance injects itself into the scientific method. While that can mean defeat for a particular experiment, occasionally, it can lead to new breakthroughs. After all, that's how Vaseline, penicillin and the microwave oven came about. While not quite as significant as those discoveries, 2016 had its share of accidental findings. Here we take a look at five of them.

1. Spidey senses


At Cornell University, researchers had tunneled into the brain of the jumping spider with microelectrodes in order to better understand the animal's visual perception system. While they were monitoring its neuro-electric activity, one of the researcher's chairs squeaked and the electrodes registered a spike in the animal's brain. Wondering why that was, they began to investigate the spider's audio neurons instead and found that the critter could sense sounds from as far away as three meters (9.8 ft) and that it was particularly sensitive to frequencies that matched those of a parasitic wasp that was its biggest predator. The researchers say that the chance discovery could lead to mimicking the spider's hair-like sensors in hearing aids to improve their functionality.

2. Monster metal


At Rice University, researchers conduct experiments on creating magnetic substances out of non-magnetic materials (because, science). As part of those experiments, once a potential substance is created, it is ground up so that it can be examined with X-rays. When Emilia Morosan, a professor of physics at Rice tried to grind up a gold and titanium alloy for investigation though, she found the task nearly impossible. "When we tried to grind up titanium-gold, we couldn't," she said. "I even bought a diamond-coated mortar and pestle, and we still couldn't grind it up." It turns out that Morosan and her team had stumbled upon an incredibly strong alloy by happenstance, consisting of one part gold and three parts titanium, and then proceeded to examine its unique properties which, they say, could make it perfect for use in medical implants.

3. Odd rods


Researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory were trying to create magnetic nanowires. What they got instead were nanorods that behave strangely when it comes to their love/hate relationship with water. It seems that the accidentally forged rods actually expel water when the humidity is between 50 and 80 percent, sort of like reverse sponges. Finding it strange that the rods actually lost weight as the humidity went up, the researchers thought their equipment was malfunctioning and went in for a closer look with a microscope. Sure enough, they saw water gathering between the nanorods, then evaporating as the atmospheric humidity increased. While they're still not sure why this is, one theory is that humidity draws the nanorods together, which causes the droplet sizes to shrink to just 1.5 nanometers wide, a distance at which water has previously been shown to spontaneously evaporate. "Now that we've gotten over the initial shock of this unforeseen behavior, we're imagining the many ways it could be harnessed to improve the quality of our lives," says David Heldebrant, an author on a paper describing the results. One possible use might be sweat-expelling clothing.

4. Through a glass


Silicon works great in our electronics, but before it can be functional, it needs to undergo a process called doping, that imbues with charged particles. The process is delicate and expensive. Graphene, the one-molecule-thick wonder material would likely work better than silicon, but doping it has proved difficult. However, when researchers at the Brookhaven National Laboratory were working on a graphene-based solar cell, they placed a sheet of graphene on top of soda-lime glass, which is the same as the glass used for bottles and windows. Lo and behold, the graphene suddenly become doped to the perfect level because sodium ions in the glass had transferred to the material. The researchers had inadvertently found a way to easily dope graphene without the need for chemicals, high temperatures or vacuum chambers. Their next step is to show that they can precisely control the doping percentages and, if they can, better electronics and batteries might be on the horizon.

5. Metal makers

Antimony crystal. Credit: Materialscientist/Wikimedia Commons.

The process of metal smelting - extracting metal from ore - typically requires extreme heat, the production of which can lead to planet-warming greenhouse gases. A chance discovery at MIT, however, just might lead to an easier and more eco-friendly way of manufacturing metal. Researchers there were trying to come up with a new battery and were experimenting with a liquid version of one using antimony sulfide. When they went to charge the battery by running an electrical current through the liquid, it didn't work. Instead though, they found that they did produce a liquid version of the metal antimony that was 99.9 percent pure. The process also released sulphur, which was able to be contained instead of released to the atmosphere where it could bond with oxygen to become the pollutant sulphur dioxide. The researchers say their electric metal-making process should be able to work on metal oxide ores where the process would separate out the metal and release harmless oxygen to the air - no heat required.

Top image: The jumping spider's hair-like sensors that hear at a distance. Credit: Cornell University via YouTube.

[Source: New Atlas. Edited. Some images added.]

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