Week In Review: New Toys

UNC-TV Science Week in Review: November 21, 2013
New Toys

With Thanksgiving and the holiday season fast approaching, my parents and friends have begun asking me what I want this year. It’s always a hard question to answer because who doesn’t love new stuff? A new TV to watch football on, a tablet to watch football, a phone to watch football on...

Researchers get excited about new toys too. Scientists like things that help them better answer questions, and engineers like things that can help them more easily do a job. This week, the holidays came early for North Carolina researchers.

A Dusty Old Dino Brain
Just what every paleontologist wants this year - a way to figure out what dinosaur organs looked like, so that they can figure out more accurately how they lived. The problem is that soft tissues, like organs, decay too quickly to make really good fossils: leaving us with bones and endocasts (the incredibly faint impressions that the organs leave on the bones). So far scientists have been really good at using endocasts to figure out what the outside of organs like the brain looked like, but to get a really good understanding, they need to figure out what was on the inside.

So Duke professor Erich Jarvis came up with a method to get inside. He took the closest things we have to dinosaur ancestors and descendants (alligators and birds) and imaged their brains, looking specifically for what happens when each of those animals hears noises. Then, they took the two animal brain images, made a compilation of the two and fit it to the endocasts of dinosaur brains.

After repeating this process for Allosaurus, Tyrannosaurus Rex and Archaeopteryx, Jarvis concluded that these dinosaurs had the capability to communicate through sound. There’s no way to know whether they actually did, but based on their brains, Jarvis says it was possible.

A Wireless Charger
Engineers from NC State University recently published a paper in IEEE Transactions of Power describing a system whereby they can charge batteries without any cords.

Here’s how it works. They constructed a series of transmitters that broadcast a low energy electromagnetic signal. The device you want to charge has a complementary receiver. When the transmitter and receiver link up, the transmitter ups its power to send more energy to the receiver and when the receiver moves on, the transmitter turns back down again. This system therefore recognizes when the new charging device is near and uses less energy when it is by itself.

Professor Srjdan Lukic says he thinks the system could be a prototype for electric cars. By setting up transmitters along a roadside, a car passing by could continually charge while it drives along.

Drones for Canopy Research
I know some of my friends really want remote control planes or helicopters to fly around their yards. Researchers from Wake Forest University just got two of their own, but they plan to fly those a little further from home. 

Biologist Miles Silman will use the two drones to study the canopy of South American cloud forests. Because the forests have very few in-roads and studying the canopy from the ground is extremely difficult, Silman hopes the drones will provide a better look.

His first drone is a helicopter. It can hover, fly for 20 minutes and carry a heavy video camera or thermal imaging camera to view animals behavior in the high canopy. The second drone is more of a plane. It can soar high above the canopy at 50 miles per hour for an hour and take pictures of the formations of the canopy.

A Shiny New Building

Scientists at UNC Wilmington unwrapped their big present early. On November 18, 2013, UNC Wilmington opened its new Biotechnology Building in the CREST Research Park. Apart from housing new state-of-the-art labs, UNCW officials hope the new building will attract emerging biotech companies to the area to foster collaboration between industry and the University.

... And a Shiny New Toilet

Yep. Designers at RTI recently received additional funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to further the development of a no-plumbing-required toilet for use in the developing world.

This toilet would be a one-stop shop for sustainable waste disposal. By the virtue of it being a self-contained toilet, it would keep waste from entering the water supply. It would also have a filtration system that could recycle any water put in it for non-drinking uses like showering and cleaning. Finally, it would also be able to convert the solid waste into a biofuel for extra energy. 

While not exactly a throne, it would provide many needed services to a developing nation. Click here for more info on the project.

- Daniel Lane

Daniel Lane covers science, medicine and the environment as a reporter/writer. He is currently pursuing a master's degree in medical and science journalism at UNC - Chapel Hill.