BBC: Although researchers in the UK were the first to isolate and characterize graphene less than a decade ago, the country is falling behind in the number of graphene patents filed. According to figures compiled by the UK-based consultancy CambridgeIP, China is the country that holds the most patents (2200 of the total 7351 held worldwide); the UK holds only 54. The most corporate patents are held by Samsung in South Korea. Comprising just a single layer of carbon atoms, graphene is the thinnest material ever made. Because it is also lightweight, flexible, and durable, it has many potential applications, including in electronics, industry, and medicine. For the UK to be competitive with the rest of the world in exploiting the multifarious uses of graphene, “we need to raise our game,” said UK science minister David Willetts.
Universe Today: NASA has announced that it is adopting a new policy for test flights of the various manned spacecraft being developed by private industry. It mirrors the military’s policy of having initial test flights of new aircraft performed by commercial test pilots. Ed Mango, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, explained that it puts more emphasis on having the private companies thoroughly test and ensure the safety of their craft. The first tests of the manned spacecraft being developed by Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corp, and SpaceX are expected to occur in 2015. The three companies are currently receiving funding from NASA through the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability Initiative. Future NASA budgets will likely play a factor in how many of the projects continue to be funded after the current funding period ends in 2014.
MIT Technology Review: Flawed nanodiamonds can be used to trap, release, and manipulate photons. Because they can perform all those functions at room temperature, they could prove valuable in quantum computing. Although creating individual nanodiamonds is easy, it is extremely difficult to arrange them into the closely packed arrays necessary for information processing. To simplify the creation of such arrays, a team led by Andreas Albrecht of Ulm University in Germany has applied a technique known as DNA origami. The researchers coated nanodiamonds with a specialized protein that bonded with the proteins on other nanodiamonds to form a hexagonal pattern. The process currently creates very small clusters, but Albrecht believes it is the first step toward making the kinds of arrays needed for quantum computing.
New York Times: It is common knowledge that the days are shorter in the winter and longer in the summer. Yet, for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, January mornings seem to be particularly dark. The reason is complex and has to do with the fact that actual days are not exactly 24 hours long. And because Earth’s axis is tilted, its orbit elliptical, and its orbiting speed variable, sunrise and sunset times are not symmetrical. Hence, the difference between the time measured by a sundial and that measured by a clock—as calculated by the equation of time—can vary by as much as 16 minutes. In his New York Times article, John O’Neil discusses the complexities involved, including why sunrise stayed at 7:20am from 28 December until 11 January, while sunset got pushed later daily.
Ars Technica: Muscles function smoothly and powerfully because they are structured as bundles of stretchy fibers surrounded by a rigid structure of collagen. Mingming Ma of MIT and his colleagues have created a similar material from strands of a water-responsive polymer called polypyrrole woven into a rigid sheet of another polymer. When exposed to a wet surface, the material absorbs the water vapor, which causes the bonds between the two polymers to break and makes the polypyrrole expand. As the material flexes and turns, the wet area dries and becomes rigid again and another area becomes wet and flexes. Ma’s team took this material and added a piezoelectric layer, which created a material that generated electrical energy from the bending and flexing. The amount of energy generated was not large—just 1.0 V across a 1 MΩ resistor—nor was it fast, taking 7 minutes to fully charge a 2.2-μF capacitor. However, it’s the mechanical power density, on the order of 1 W/kg, that is a significant step forward in polymer-based electricity generation.