Thursday, April 06, 2017

Innovation: Drinking from the ocean, making fertilizer

While the politicians wage war on each other in Washington, innovators are alive and well and making the world a better place. Witness:

Graphene membrane.
Drinking water from the sea. Graphene sieves can turn seawater into drinking water. Graphene is a thin layer of pure carbon; it is a single, tightly packed layer of carbon atoms that are bonded together in a hexagonal honeycomb lattice. New research demonstrates the real-world potential of providing clean drinking water for millions of people who struggle to access adequate clean water sources. Scientists have developed membranes capable of sieving common salts.

Previous research found that if immersed in water, graphene-oxide membranes become slightly swollen and smaller salts flow through the membrane along with water, but larger ions or molecules are blocked. Scientists have now developed these graphene membranes and found a strategy to avoid the swelling of the membrane when exposed to water. The pore size in the membrane can be precisely controlled which can sieve common salts out of salty water and make it safe to drink.

Bionic leaf.
Feeding the world. To help spur the next agricultural revolution, researchers have invented a "bionic" leaf that uses bacteria, sunlight, water and air to make fertilizer in the very soil where crops are grown. The artificial leaf is a device that, when exposed to sunlight, mimics a natural leaf by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen. This led to the development of a bionic leaf that pairs the water-splitting catalyst with the bacteria Ralstonia eutropha, which consumes hydrogen and takes carbon dioxide out of the air to make liquid fuel. Last June, scientists reported switching the device's nickel-molybdenum-zinc catalyst, which was poisonous to the microbes, with a bacteria-friendly alloy of cobalt and phosphorus. The new system provided biomass and liquid fuel yields that greatly exceeded that from natural photosynthesis.

Adding salt formulation to a mask.
Fighting epidemics. A researcher has developed a way to treat common surgical masks so they are capable of trapping and killing airborne viruses. Airborne pathogens like influenza are transmitted in aerosol droplets when we cough or sneeze. Surgical masks may well trap the virus-laden droplets, but the virus is still infectious on the mask. Merely handling the mask opens up new avenues for infection. The researcher developed a salt formulation and applied it to the masks. As a droplet evaporates, the virus suffers fatal physical damage when the salt returns to its crystalized state. Masks capable of killing viruses would save lives in an epidemic or pandemic. 

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