Tech Thursday


The study of Materials Science is not just about the materials themselves, but also about the shapes they are formed into for specific tasks.  Roark’s Formulas for Stress and Strain (first published in 1938, currently in it’s 8th Edition) is the go to text for understanding how much shape impacts strength.  The shapes (made of graphene) in the video below take this to a whole new level.

One of the strongest lightweight materials known

The whole “shape is important” is expressed at the micro level with metamaterials.  See also here (visualized with K’Nex).

I’m pretty sure everyone has heard about how strong and lightweight spider silk is, easily putting steel to shame.  The reason we haven’t been making anything out of it is because spiders aren’t exactly domesticated, and harvesting silk from the creepy little things is, well, I won’t be doing it (shudder!).  We know how spider silk works (lots of tangled up proteins), but making those proteins tangle up in the right way is tricky.  We tried getting goats to do it by splicing a spider gene into a goat’s udder, but extracting the silk proteins out of the resulting milk was expensive.  We’ve created bacteria to produce the silk, but extracting the silk was still an issue. Now a team in Sweden has figured out that the proteins are pH sensitive.  Make the aqueous solution acidic, and the silk comes right out. By the kilometer.

Speaking of silk, we can now produce silk from milk whey.

Petroleum has long been the chemical feedstock for the plastics industry, but for the past 20+ years, chemical engineers have been working to find alternative, more sustainable feedstocks for common plastics.  Like shrimp, or pine needles.  I like both because the feedstock from both sources are essentially waste products (no one eats shrimp shells, and both Christmas trees and the lumber industry have to deal with tons of needles.  Also, human proteins make for useful feedstocks.

I did not know this, but our bones have an outer coating that is effectively a viscoelastic sleeve that adds extra strength when you take a hit.  Except the sleeve is not a viscoelastic material, but rather a composite material that behaves like one.  So of course someone has figured out how to make it outside of the body, and in a more durable form.  The benefit is that most viscoelastic protective garments are actually fabric pockets with a viscoelastic fluid in the pocket, which is kinda bulky, and has the problem that the fluid layer has to be very thin, or else the fluid will pool.  This makes the garments very expensive and hard to care for.  But if the fabric itself behaves like a viscoelastic fluid…

One step closer to IronMan armor.

Knot your grandmother’s knitting.

It’s a known property of graphene that it is electrically conductive, and it has been theorized that it could be superconductive.  Now we know that it can be just by layering it with another conductive material.  No word on the temperature this works at (superconductors, even high temperature ones, only work under very cold conditions).

Time crystals?  What the what?  Is this some new age BS from fans of M. L’Engle?  Nope, what this is is a crystal whose structure is constantly oscillating without any energy input.  Let that roll around in your head for a while.

This is what you get when you let evolution play around for a few million years.  Think about it, a dollop of slime made of proteins that, when seawater dissolves their bindings, turns into a sticky, slimy net.  Now the Navy is thinking about defensive applications.  I’m thinking, stick that in a shotgun shell and you maybe you got a non-lethal defensive round.  Although, speaking of armor, how about piercing resistant fish scales.

Earth and Energy

Capturing carbon in crystals.

Defeating tsunamis with acoustic gravity waves.  Neat idea, but since we can’t generate these waves yet, it’s just a neat idea.

Hummingbird inspired residential wind turbine.  More attractive than a normal turbine, in my opinion.

Chemically storing heat is not a new idea, but this strikes me as, if not novel, certain not common.  The way this works is that Sodium Hydroxide (NaOH) absorbs heat as it dries out, and releases that heat when it gets wet.  So take a bunch of sodium hydroxide down to, say, Arizona, and let it dry out in the sun. Then pack it up and ship it to WI, where they add some water, and the NaOH releases it’s heat.  Then either store the wet NaOH until summer, or ship it back to Arizona for some more sun.

Bio and Medical

One way to prevent rejection of artificial body implants is to coat them with a surface fluids can’t stick to.

Here I thought cancer drugs caused weight loss because they affected appetite or made food taste bad.

So obvious now that you think about it.

Prickly pears and seaweed may hold the keys to disease like Parkinson’s.

Playing God, kinda (still really cool!).

A robot with a soft heart!  Err, a soft robot heart.  Sorry, misread that headline.

I always knew the vaccine autism link was full of sh*t!

Haha!  Human ingenuity strikes back at evolution!


The two acre farm in a shipping container.  Not practical in the US, but in other parts of the world, this could be handy.

I’m not entirely certain how this works, but it’s called BioClay, and it gets sprayed onto crops, and it has RNA sequences that protect against pathogens.

Cows fart and burp, a lot.  A whole lot, and it’s mostly methane, which is a nasty greenhouse gas.  Our love of beef and footballs is probably as bad as our love of big engines.  If we can make cows fart less methane, that is a net good.  Turns out we can, by adding some tropical plants to their diet.  Or seaweed.


3D printed rocket fuel!  Why is this worthy?  Because making solid rockets is a huge pain.  A solid rocket is not just a big plug of something that burns energetically, it’s a carefully shaped and multi layered column of fuel.  It has to be designed so that certain layers are burning at specific times in the flight profile, and doing so with the proper amount of thrust.  If you were to take a cross section across the cylinder, it’d look like some kind of new age art piece.  Being able to print the fuel out in the precise patterns needed will potentially make producing solid rocket boosters a whole lot cheaper, and anything we can do to lower the cost to orbit is a good thing.

Hubble caught the death of a star!  Not a nova, but rather a red giant having its last gasp and becoming a nebula.

The Russians are at it again.  They just can’t leave Wing in Ground Effect vehicles alone, although it has been a while since the last time they seriously played around with them.

Satellite radiators and origami!

Despite how a lot of SciFi treats space suits, they are pretty complex things, especially the ones that let you survive in space for a long time.  So making suits that are comfortable and useful is a big deal.  Here is Boeing’s latest offering.  Functionally, this is a P-suit, or a pressure suit.  It doesn’t have integrated environmental systems like the big, white EVA suits.  This is more for launch, recovery, or anytime you may lose pressure, but won’t be spending a long time outside of the ship.

Other Tech

I know it’s called a BIC Laser, but it’s not a new lighter or pen.  It’s a tunable, shapeable laser, and frankly, I don’t know much about it, but it sure sounds like something that would be fun to play with.

For when you need a third hand that actually follows your instructions, instead of trying to be helpful and doing something that becomes unhelpful.

Image by AJC1

Staff Writer

A Navy Turbine Tech who learned to spin wrenches on old cars, Oscar has since been trained as an Engineer & Software Developer & now writes tools for other engineers. When not in his shop or at work, he can be found spending time with his family, gardening, hiking, kayaking, gaming, or whatever strikes his fancy & fits in the budget. ...more →

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58 thoughts on “Tech Thursday

  1. On Autism – I would not be at all surprised to learn that it’s a series of different conditions, some caused by genetics, some caused by things like a messed up microbiome, and it will eventually be separated into different diagnoses. Still, good news if some people are helped by microbiome transplants.

    But yeah, I wish the “vaccines cause autism” thing would finally die for good. there have been little flare-ups of mumps locally and it seems largely traceable to vaccine-refusing parents. Normally, I wouldn’t care except herd immunity is a thing, and I know people with genuine autoimmune conditions (or kids on chemo) who CANNOT be vaccinated….and so they are at greater risk when a parent decides to take their medical advice from the likes of Jenny McCarthy.


    • At some point, the causes of mental collapse cease to be important. If the mental framework is gone, there’s not going to be much way to remediate it.
      (This is not to say that most people labeled as “autistic” deserve to be put in that category, mind).


    • Speaking of screwy gut flora, I’d be curious to see the correlation between autism and parents who constantly demand antibiotics for every sniffle (or patients of doctors who over-prescribe ABs for every sniffle). From what I remember, modern ABs can play merry hell with gut flora, and it can take a long time for it to recover, especially if the kid never gets to play in the dirt*, etc.

      *Another data point, if microbiomes are important, how many autistic kids were delivered via C-section, or live in very clean environments (rarely play in open parks or in the country).


        • Last spring I had a bout of something that mimicked IBS (probably something got screwed up with a stomach virus I had, and then I was under super-duper-mega-stress: ailing parent coupled with ailing friend coupled with budget cuts and firings at workplace).

          After several months of “Ugh, what food is going to betray me next?” and wondering if my future was a diet of ground lamb and rice*, I started taking a probiotic.

          I will never believe the people who claim probiotics are “bunk.” Not only did my digestion get better to the point where I can even eat oranges and tomato sauce again, but I could tell my mood improved.

          I’ve seen studies suggesting gut flora can affect things like depression because they alter neurotransmitter levels.

          And as gross as I find the idea of fecal transplants, if they had an admixture that would lead to reduced anxiety, I’d go for it. (It’s not bad enough to want to take meds for it, but I can tell I’m not as carefree as I could be)

          (*Allegedly the two least allergenic foods)


    • ooooh, balmy

      For the metric challenged, that’s about -269°C or -452°F.

      I find it interesting how “cold” our kind of life is (it’s because we need liquid water & molecular oxygen), but lots of places are much, much hotter.


  2. I just love these posts — exploring human ingenuity at its finest. If we can manage not to kill each other, the future looks exciting.


      • No, but seriously — next homebrew random encounter. I can see it now:

        Roll for imitative, it’s an ambush! 8 legged spider-goats drop from the ceiling, dropping silk nets upon you as they rappel down their lines Their eight legs wave menacingly with poisoned tips, and their eyes gleam with hatred. Several hold bows strung with spidersilk and arrows of chitin, the dark stained tips indicating yet more poison.

        Also roll reflex because the Spider-Goat mage just cast “Web” to further box you into the kill zone.

        FYI, can someone google how flammable spider-silk is? Because “not” is really the answer you should hope you get, because one of the Spider-goats is holding a flaming lantern and looking at the masses of silk encasing the party.


          • My DM speculated that chitin bows would probably be Mighty +1, but that by and large their weapons would be unusable for bipeds.

            In terms of nightmarish ambush predators, I think they have potential. And have TPK written all over it.

            Or good lord, a Spider-Goat rogue. Say four arms with daggers, four on the ground for stability and speed. if they have the feat “flick of the wrist” to feint an opening, then that’s three daggers doing sneak attack damage if you can’t surpass his bluff roll. Every freaking round.

            Or four daggers in the initial ambush.

            People avoid the forests of the Spider Goats. There, they reign supreme. I’d imagine the forest itself is surrounded by miles of burned and salted earth, so they can’t sneak up on people.


              • Oscar,
                of course he did. You should see what someone made out of the idea of fractal realities…

                Or a quantum planet (actually all you have to do is finish the worldbuilding on that…)

                it’s really fun knowing worldbuilders. “I spent two and a half hours giving that team the backstory — they had three people writing down what I said…”


            • My mum raised goats as a hobby; those things are undeniably chaotic evil.

              -Mom- “Now now dear, it’s not like they worship Satan.”
              -Me with holes bit in my coat- “They don’t need to! He worships them!!”


              • Goats are clever, clever beasts. I rather like goats. Of course, I rather like cats, and they are sadistic little bastards.

                One time a friend of mine talked someone into going to a party dressed as a Judas Goat. The predictable happened, obviously.


  3. Help me with Wing in Ground Effect airplanes, what is the appeal? I understand from the article that it uses less fuel than normal planes and carries heavy loads but if it only flies between 10 and 40 feet over land and hoses the ground underneath it with vortexes then is it really of much use over long distances? Wouldn’t it functionally be a giant flying vacuum cleaner that blasts stuff under it with air and crashes into large buildings, ships and changes in terrain?
    I mean I suppose if you want to tote loads over endless reaches of tundra I suppose it could be useful and that would be relevant to the Russians?


    • Oh , you like me, you really, really do…

      Wing-in-Ground Effect (or WIG) is an aircraft designed to take advantage of ground effect. There are two types of ground effect: static, which is your common hovercraft ; and dynamic, which is a WIG. What happens is that as a wing gets close to the ground (or water, or any surface that will push back against air), the high pressure system that forms naturally under the wing (see: Bernoulli) will become trapped between the wing and the ground, causing it to stagnate, which is aero speak for ‘slow way the hell down’. As the air slows down, the pressure goes up (or rather, the pressure differential between the bottom and the top of the wing increases). When in ground effect, that differential is considerable. End result, we get a whole lot more lift. Ask any pilot trying to land an aircraft with a low mounted wing and they’ll tell you that you almost have to force the plane down for those last few feet.

      Now, the vortices they are talking about aren’t aimed down, they are the vortices that form at the wing tips and stretch behind the plane. The vortices are a result of the high pressure under the wing slipping around the wing tip to the low pressure above the wing. These vortices are inevitable, but they cause drag on the wings (aka Induced Drag). Aerospace engineers counter induced drag by mounting winglets on the wingtips. This disrupts the formation of the vortex on the wing and reduces the induced drag. The vortex still forms, but now it forms a bit aft of the wing.

      WIGs, however, thanks to their proximity to the ground, have less induced drag because the vortices can not form on the wingtip. The pressure under the wing is so great that the vortex formation happens further out and aft of the wingtip, basically the vortice is shot out and away.

      Back to the design in question. This is what is known as a hybrid WIG, capable of actual flight, as well GE operation, but not optimized for either. This would let it take off from normal airfields (rather than just airfields that have very large open areas around them) and then when it’s over water, or over clear ground (tundra), it could drop down into GE and enjoy the improved efficiency. It’s also large enough that if it was over open water, it could handle small storms and the occasional wave hit. When you look at the image of it, notice it’s mostly a giant wing with some smaller wings attached. The large wing/lifting body is the WIG portion, and the smaller wings give it the extra lift it needs for true flight.

      I can go on, but the short of it is this would fill a niche between cargo airplanes and cargo ships. When you need something faster that a month, but not necessarily next day. Or when you need to get a bunch of main battle tanks from, say, mainland Russia across the Black Sea, or the Caspian Sea, or the Baltic Sea, or the Bearing Sea…


        • Exactly.

          Thing is, 50 years ago, the niche existed, but there wasn’t much call to try and fill it. People were more willing to wait.

          These days, there are a growing number of things that need to be shipped faster, but are either too big for a cargo airplane, or in sufficient quantity that multiple aircraft would be needed. So the need to fill that niche is growing.


      • When you need something faster that a month…

        There are now firms, using new ships and in particular with new more efficient engines that will guarantee 10-day delivery, Shenzhen to US West Coast.

        The obvious first questions about this for real long-haul freight would be (1) ports equipped to handle the configuration, (2) will it pass through the Suez and Panama Canals, and (3) can it meet the restrictions in the Malacca Strait? There may be overland routes that provide a suitable alternative to the Suez, but crossing Central America involves mountains. Speed limits near Singapore are on the order of 12 knots, and result in ships queuing up for passage.

        As you hint, I suspect the Russians love them for potential military applications, eg crossing a thousand miles of Siberian tundra.


          • The article (and others) suggest a maximum altitude of 12 meters above the surface. That’s not enough to clear some of the Canal infrastructure, nor the larger ships using the Canal. Presumably that also requires modest airplane-like speeds so the wings and shaped body generate lift.

            Increase that max to five hundred meters or so and you can probably arrange alternate fly-over routes with Panama. Not too far from the Canal, though; not only is the isthmus narrow there, but there’s a gap in the mountains.


            • That suggests that it isn’t a hybrid, which makes those smaller wings next to pointless. However, if that is the case, if it is a pure GEV, then it can not use conventional airfields, or at the very least the airfields it can use will be extremely limited to ones that have at least one end at the shoreline (think LAX).

              From the TsAGI site:

              The largest part of this aircraft’s flight takes place at an altitude of 3-12 m above water, ice or ground

              I take this to mean that the cruise portion of the mission profile is largely in GE, but the aircraft can leave GE for take-off and landing portions, so it could use any airport near a coastline, like San Diego or SeaTac.


    • It really *is* just the fuel. WIG craft use less fuel for their speed than ships would, and less fuel for their size than planes would(*). So if you have cargo that benefits from being delivered quickly and in quantity, WIG craft are just what you’re looking for.

      And really people are looking at these for over-water transport; that they can fly onto (smooth) land is a bonus because they aren’t restricted to port facilities, but you’re right that they wouldn’t just be flying over residential areas.

      (*) saying “faster than ships and bigger than planes” doesn’t accurately depict the situation, because ships can be fast and planes can be big, but fast ships and big planes need LOTS of fuel to be fast or big.


        • No, not even close. A ship or train will always get better mileage per ton than an aircraft (excepting maybe airships, but I bet those are still less efficient). But ships and trains are slow. You trade speed for efficiency.

          A WIG fills the gap between conventional cargo aircraft and conventional shipping.


        • “you can really get better fuel efficiency for a given weight of cargo than a ship?”

          Better than a fast ship, definitely! What makes cargo ships efficient is the volume of shipping; once you get past the cost of starting the engines and making the boat go, adding more weight to a cargo ship is practically free. But if you design a ship that goes fast–as in, fast enough to matter from a commercial standpoint–then that “cost of starting the engines” gets a lot higher, and it does start to matter if you add more weight.


          • it really is going to depend if the cost of sending something that takes 36 hours to cross the Atlantic is sufficiently less than the cost of the existing means that takes 7 hours, and worth the extra cost as sending it by the existing means that takes 9 to 10 days to cross. (and increase all the numbers by 75% for Pac times)


        • The article does a good job of outlining the engineering challenges an elevator would face. But otherwise it sounds like something I would have read back when people were thinking about transonic or supersonic aircraft.


          • XKCD informed me that orbit is really about objects going sideways (with respect to the surface of the earth) really fast. What aspect of the orbital elevator is going to impose that lateral motion? (For that matter, what aspect of the elevator is going to provide the push upwards?)

            Not to be an idiot about this, but I don’t see any talk about the basic issue — where is the delta-v force coming from? I once got a tour of a skyscraper and the delta-v came from an enormous motor in the basement, assisted by the fact that the elevator was counterweighted. Is that the idea for the space elevator — is the “elevator” metaphor accurate — or is the whole “elevator” concept a misnomer?


            • An elevator is a big string between the ground and an object it geosynchronous orbit. (Technically there’s another string on the other side of that to balance out the mass of the first string).

              Delta-v comes from crawler that ‘climb’ the string, although I believe beamed power is the default assumption for getting them to crawl.

              It’s more like someone climbing a rope hanging from the ceiling than an elevator.


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