Sightlines

Innovations: Can China’s Super-Sensitive New Telescope Talk to E.T.?

Innovations: Can China’s Super-Sensitive New Telescope Talk to E.T.?

Do You Have Any Tigers to Declare?

Last year, 1,175 rhinos were poached in South Africa, up from just 13 in 2007. This slaughter fuels a booming black market for animal products: In 2014, the United Nations estimated the illegal wildlife trade to be worth between $50 billion and $150 billion annually. A slew of factors — poverty, weak regulations, even weaker law enforcement — makes poaching difficult to eradicate in the field.

Some governments are hoping to tackle illicit networks at the world’s airports, where poached products are smuggled. Certain items, such as tiger skins and elephant tusks, are easy enough for customs agents to identify, but they have to be spotted in declared shipments or stashes of goods that authorities happen to flag. Most illegal wildlife trade is more discreet: Hides are turned into leather, for instance, while horns are ground down and put into medicine capsules. This makes it nearly impossible for officials to determine if an illegal product is right under their noses.

To help them, Jon Wetton, a geneticist at the University of Leicester, has developed a portable, on-the-spot detection system that can rapidly analyze the DNA of any biological sample. Typically, genetic analysis would be done in a lab by a refrigerator-sized machine and take about 24 hours. Wetton, though, has devised a technique that relies on a new handheld genome scanner from Oxford Nanopore Technologies, known as the MinION. Once fully functional, it could inspect a sample — powder, skin, blood, bone — and identify its provenance in just an hour.

Here’s how it works: First, the MinION sequences a specimen’s DNA and searches for “genetic barcodes,” or small stretches of material unique to certain species. Then, via a standard USB, the device plugs into a computer, where software analyzes the barcodes and checks them against an expansive database of DNA markers. “The aim is to have a universal species identification tool,” Wetton tells Foreign Policy, “so we can test anything from a piece of bush meat to a shipment of caviar.” The first tryout of the system is scheduled tentatively for February 2017 at London’s Heathrow Airport.

Down the road, Wetton hopes his innovation could be used in remote locales, employing a pocket-sized gadget from MinION’s creators that would prep biological samples for sequencing anywhere — including jungles and savannahs. Wetton is already in talks with the Kenya Wildlife Service, whose rangers have to send biological material taken from suspected poachers in national parks to distant labs for testing. Wetton says his technology could ensure that rangers get an immediate answer to the question, “What’s that bloodstain on your knife?”

Blowing Bubbles

Submarines are still stuck in the slow lane. Because they have to push through resistant water, even the fastest subs top out at about 40 miles per hour. But that’s without supercavitation, in which a bubble of gas, produced in the nose of the ship, envelops the entire submarine. This effect protects the watercraft from drag and allows it to achieve high speeds. The first supercavitating torpedo was designed by the Soviet Union back in the 1960s and reportedly blasted at 200 miles per hour. That missile was only about 27 feet long, however. No navy has succeeded in developing a bubble system that can encompass an
entire sub.

Part of the problem is pulsation, or the way a bubble continuously expands and contracts. This can cause the vehicle to get wet and thus slow down. But now, researchers at Pennsylvania State University have modulated the release of gas from an object’s nose, discharging it at a frequency that can cancel out pulsations. The U.S. Office of Naval Research helped fund the project — but it’s keeping tight-lipped about when the Navy might deploy the technology in its submarine fleet.

Vitamin Power

Many renewable energy advocates think the best way to store solar and wind energy may be to use what are known as “flow batteries,” which hold liquid electrolytes in tanks and then pump them through a reactor to produce electricity. A major advantage of these batteries is that they can be adapted easily to suit particular applications, whether one requires storing a tiny amount of energy that needs to be released in a single burst, a huge amount discharged in a trickle, or any other combination of circumstances. A disadvantage is that the commonly used liquids — such as vanadium and bromine — are expensive, corrosive, or toxic to humans.

A Harvard team has made a flow-battery breakthrough that takes inspiration from the human body. The vitamin B2 helps store energy in humans, so researchers decided to copy its molecular structure. The result is an organic molecule that, in liquid form, can store energy within a flow battery, replacing nasty materials with a safe, organic substitute. The new material should be cheap and easy to synthesize in large quantities; the researchers estimate they could use it to make a flow battery for one-third the cost of current ones. This is great news for developing nations hoping for reliable, renewable, and affordable energy sources to light up remote communities currently off the grid.

E.T., Phone China

In July, workers finished installing the last of 4,450 aluminum panels inside a dish the size of 30 soccer fields in China’s Guizhou province. Officially named the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST), the structure should be ready to enable gazing at the cosmos in September. Also known as the “Heavenly Eye,” it is the world’s largest single-dish telescope, with an area 2.5 times larger than its nearest competitor, and therefore the most sensitive. What’s more, all the panels can be tilted to change the dish’s shape and catch radio waves coming from all directions.

FAST will help Chinese researchers detect weak radio signals from the distant reaches of the universe and study astrophysical mysteries, such as the nature of dark matter and gravitational waves. It will even search for evidence of extraterrestrial life, looking for signals from exoplanets circling alien suns.

5,007

That’s how many species are included in a first-of-its-kind global survey of mammals carrying infectious diseases that can jump to humans. By mapping the distribution of plague-afflicted critters, researchers at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y., and the University of Georgia have been able to identify hot spots where outbreaks are likely.

Photo: The Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) is as large as 30 soccer fields. Credit: Getty Images