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    These shape-shifting devices melt and re-form thanks to magnetic fields

    Shape-shifting liquid metal robots might not be limited to science fiction anymore.

    Miniature machines can switch from solid to liquid and back again to squeeze into tight spaces and perform tasks like soldering a circuit board, researchers report January 25 in Matter.

    This phase-shifting property, which can be controlled remotely with a magnetic field, is thanks to the metal gallium. Researchers embedded the metal with magnetic particles to direct the metal’s movements with magnets. This new material could help scientists develop soft, flexible robots that can shimmy through narrow passages and be guided externally.  

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    Scientists have been developing magnetically controlled soft robots for years. Most existing materials for these bots are made of either stretchy but solid materials, which can’t pass through the narrowest of spaces, or magnetic liquids, which are fluid but unable to carry heavy objects (SN: 7/18/19).

    In the new study, researchers blended both approaches after finding inspiration from nature (SN: 3/3/21). Sea cucumbers, for instance, “can very rapidly and reversibly change their stiffness,” says mechanical engineer Carmel Majidi of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “The challenge for us as engineers is to mimic that in the soft materials systems.”

    So the team turned to gallium, a metal that melts at about 30° Celsius — slightly above room temperature. Rather than connecting a heater to a chunk of the metal to change its state, the researchers expose it to a rapidly changing magnetic field to liquefy it. The alternating magnetic field generates electricity within the gallium, causing it to heat up and melt. The material resolidifies when left to cool to room temperature.

    Since magnetic particles are sprinkled throughout the gallium, a permanent magnet can drag it around. In solid form, a magnet can move the material at a speed of about 1.5 meters per second. The upgraded gallium can also carry about 10,000 times its weight.

    External magnets can still manipulate the liquid form, making it stretch, split and merge. But controlling the fluid’s movement is more challenging, because the particles in the gallium can freely rotate and have unaligned magnetic poles as a result of melting. Because of their various orientations, the particles move in different directions in response to a magnet.

    Majidi and colleagues tested their strategy in tiny machines that performed different tasks. In a demonstration straight out of the movie Terminator 2, a toy person escaped a jail cell by melting through the bars and resolidifying in its original form using a mold placed just outside the bars.

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    On the more practical side, one machine removed a small ball from a model human stomach by melting slightly to wrap itself around the foreign object before exiting the organ. But gallium on its own would turn to goo inside a real human body, since the metal is a liquid at body temperature, about 37° C. A few more metals, such as bismuth and tin, would be added to the gallium in biomedical applications to raise the material’s melting point, the authors say. In another demonstration, the material liquefied and rehardened to solder a circuit board.

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    With the help of variable and permanent magnets, researchers turned chunks of gallium into shape-shifting devices. In the first clip, a toy figure escapes its jail cell by liquefying, gliding through the bars and resolidifying using a mold placed just outside the bars. In the second clip, one device removes a ball from a model human stomach by melting slightly to wrap itself around the foreign object and exiting the organ.

    Although this phase-shifting material is a big step in the field, questions remain about its biomedical applications, says biomedical engineer Amir Jafari of the University of North Texas in Denton, who was not involved in the work. One big challenge, he says, is precisely controlling magnetic forces inside the human body that are generated from an external device.

    “It’s a compelling tool,” says robotics engineer Nicholas Bira of Harvard University, who was also not involved in the study. But, he adds, scientists who study soft robotics are constantly creating new materials.

    “The true innovation to come lies in combining these different innovative materials.” More

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    Want a ‘Shrinky Dinks’ approach to nano-sized devices? Try hydrogels

    High-tech shrink art may be the key to making tiny electronics, 3-D nanostructures or even holograms for hiding secret messages.

    A new approach to making tiny structures relies on shrinking them down after building them, rather than making them small to begin with, researchers report in the Dec. 23 Science.

    The key is spongelike hydrogel materials that expand or contract in response to surrounding chemicals (SN: 1/20/10). By inscribing patterns in hydrogels with a laser and then shrinking the gels down to about one-thirteenth their original size, the researchers created patterns with details as small as 25 billionths of a meter across.

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    At that level of precision, the researchers could create letters small enough to easily write this entire article along the circumference of a typical human hair.

    Biological scientist Yongxin Zhao and colleagues deposited a variety of materials in the patterns to create nanoscopic images of Chinese zodiac animals. By shrinking the hydrogels after laser etching, several of the images ended up roughly the size of a red blood cell. They included a monkey made of silver, a gold-silver alloy pig, a titanium dioxide snake, an iron oxide dog and a rabbit made of luminescent nanoparticles.

    These two dragons, each roughly 40 micrometers long, were made by depositing cadmium selenide quantum dots onto a laser-etched hydrogel. The red stripes on the left dragon are each just 200 nanometers thick.The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Carnegie Mellon University

    Because the hydrogels can be repeatedly shrunk and expanded with chemical baths, the researchers were also able to create holograms in layers inside a chunk of hydrogel to encode secret information. Shrinking a hydrogel hologram makes it unreadable. “If you want to read it, you have to expand the sample,” says Zhao, of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “But you need to expand it to exactly the same extent” as the original. In effect, knowing how much to expand the hydrogel serves as a key to unlock the information hidden inside.  

    But the most exciting aspect of the research, Zhao says, is the wide range of materials that researchers can use on such minute scales. “We will be able to combine different types of materials together and make truly functional nanodevices.” More

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    These chemists cracked the code to long-lasting Roman concrete

    MIT chemist Admir Masic really hoped his experiment wouldn’t explode.

    Masic and his colleagues were trying to re-create an ancient Roman technique for making concrete, a mix of cement, gravel, sand and water. The researchers suspected that the key was a process called “hot mixing,” in which dry granules of calcium oxide, also called quicklime, are mixed with volcanic ash to make the cement. Then water is added.

    Hot mixing, they thought, would ultimately produce a cement that wasn’t completely smooth and mixed, but instead contained small calcium-rich rocks. Those little rocks, ubiquitous in the walls of the Romans’ concrete buildings, might be the key to why those structures have withstood the ravages of time.

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    That’s not how modern cement is made. The reaction of quicklime with water is highly exothermic, meaning that it can produce a lot of heat — and possibly an explosion.

    “Everyone would say, ‘You are crazy,’” Masic says.

    But no big bang happened. Instead, the reaction produced only heat, a damp sigh of water vapor — and a Romans-like cement mixture bearing small white calcium-rich rocks.

    Researchers have been trying for decades to re-create the Roman recipe for concrete longevity — but with little success. The idea that hot mixing was the key was an educated guess.

    Masic and colleagues had pored over texts by Roman architect Vitruvius and historian Pliny, which offered some clues as to how to proceed. These texts cited, for example, strict specifications for the raw materials, such as that the limestone that is the source of the quicklime must be very pure, and that mixing quicklime with hot ash and then adding water could produce a lot of heat.

    The rocks were not mentioned, but the team had a feeling they were important.

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    “In every sample we have seen of ancient Roman concrete, you can find these white inclusions,” bits of rock embedded in the walls. For many years, Masic says, the origin of those inclusions was unclear — researchers suspected incomplete mixing of the cement, perhaps. But these are the highly organized Romans we’re talking about. How likely is it that “every operator [was] not mixing properly and every single [building] has a flaw?”

    What if, the team suggested, these inclusions in the cement were actually a feature, not a bug? The researchers’ chemical analyses of such rocks embedded in the walls at the archaeological site of Privernum in Italy indicated that the inclusions were very calcium-rich.

    That suggested the tantalizing possibility that these rocks might be helping the buildings heal themselves from cracks due to weathering or even an earthquake. A ready supply of calcium was already on hand: It would dissolve, seep into the cracks and re-crystallize. Voila! Scar healed.

    But could the team observe this in action? Step one was to re-create the rocks via hot mixing and hope nothing exploded. Step two: Test the Roman-inspired cement. The team created concrete with and without the hot mixing process and tested them side by side. Each block of concrete was broken in half, the pieces placed a small distance apart. Then water was trickled through the crack to see how long it took before the seepage stopped.

    “The results were stunning,” Masic says. The blocks incorporating hot mixed cement healed within two to three weeks. The concrete produced without hot mixed cement never healed at all, the team reports January 6 in Science Advances.

    Cracking the recipe could be a boon to the planet. The Pantheon and its soaring, detailed concrete dome have stood nearly 2,000 years, for instance, while modern concrete structures have a lifespan of perhaps 150 years, and that’s a best case scenario (SN: 2/10/12). And the Romans didn’t have steel reinforcement bars shoring up their structures.

    More frequent replacements of concrete structures means more greenhouse gas emissions. Concrete manufacturing is a huge source of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, so longer-lasting versions could reduce that carbon footprint. “We make 4 gigatons per year of this material,” Masic says. That manufacture produces as much as 1 metric ton of CO2 per metric ton of produced concrete, currently amounting to about 8 percent of annual global CO2 emissions.

    Still, Masic says, the concrete industry is resistant to change. For one thing, there are concerns about introducing new chemistry into a tried-and-true mixture with well-known mechanical properties. But “the key bottleneck in the industry is the cost,” he says. Concrete is cheap, and companies don’t want to price themselves out of competition.

    The researchers hope that reintroducing this technique that has stood the test of time, and that could involve little added cost to manufacture, could answer both these concerns. In fact, they’re banking on it: Masic and several of his colleagues have created a startup they call DMAT that is currently seeking seed money to begin to commercially produce the Roman-inspired hot-mixed concrete. “It’s very appealing simply because it’s a thousands-of-years-old material.” More

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    Here’s how polar bears might get traction on snow

    Tiny “fingers” can help polar bears get a grip.

    Like the rubbery nubs on the bottom of baby socks, microstructures on the bears’ paw pads offer some extra friction, scientists report November 1 in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface. The pad protrusions may keep polar bears from slipping on snow, says Ali Dhinojwala, a polymer scientist at the University of Akron in Ohio who has also studied the sticking power of gecko feet (SN: 8/9/05).

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    Nathaniel Orndorf, a materials scientist at Akron who focuses on ice, adhesion and friction, was interested in the work Dhinojwala’s lab did on geckos, but “we can’t really put geckos on the ice,” he says. So he turned to polar bears.

    Orndorf teamed up with Dhinojwala and Austin Garner, an animal biologist now at Syracuse University in New York, and compared the paws of polar bears, brown bears, American black bears and a sun bear. All but the sun bear had paw pad bumps. But the polar bears’ bumps looked a little different. For a given diameter, their bumps tend to be taller, the team found. That extra height translates to more traction on lab-made snow, experiments with 3-D printed models of the bumps suggest.

    Until now, scientists didn’t know that bump shape could make the difference between gripping and slipping, Dhinojwala says.

    Rough bumps on the pads of polar bears’ paws (pictured) offer the animals extra traction on snow.N. Orndorf et al/Journal of the Royal Society Interface 2022

    Polar bear paw pads are also ringed with fur and are smaller than those of other bears, the team reports, adaptations that might let the Arctic animals conserve body heat as they trod upon ice. Smaller pads generally mean less real estate for grabbing the ground. So extra-grippy pads could help polar bears make the most of what they’ve got, Orndorf says.

    Along with bumpy pads, the team hopes to study polar bears’ fuzzy paws and short claws, which might also give the animals a nonslip grip. More

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    This environmentally friendly quantum sensor runs on sunlight

    Quantum tech is going green.

    A new take on highly sensitive magnetic field sensors ditches the power-hungry lasers that previous devices have relied on to make their measurements and replaces them with sunlight. Lasers can gobble 100 watts or so of power — like keeping a bright lightbulb burning. The innovation potentially untethers quantum sensors from that energy need. The result is an environmentally friendly prototype on the forefront of technology, researchers report in an upcoming issue of Physical Review X Energy.

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    The big twist is in how the device uses sunlight. It doesn’t use solar cells to convert light into electricity. Instead, the sunlight does the job of the laser’s light, says Jiangfeng Du, a physicist at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei.   

    Quantum magnetometers often include a powerful green laser to measure magnetic fields. The laser shines on a diamond that contains atomic defects (SN: 2/26/08). The defects result when nitrogen atoms replace some of the carbon atoms that pure diamonds are made of. The green laser causes the nitrogen defects to fluoresce, emitting red light with an intensity that depends on the strength of the surrounding magnetic fields.

    The new quantum sensor needs green light too. There’s plenty of that in sunlight, as seen in the green wavelengths reflected from tree leaves and grass. To collect enough of it to run their magnetometer, Du and colleagues replaced the laser with a lens 15 centimeters across to gather sunlight. They then filtered the light to remove all colors but green and focused it on a diamond with nitrogen atom defects. The result is red fluorescence that reveals magnetic field strengths just as laser-equipped magnetometers do.

    Green-colored light shining on the diamond-based sensor in a quantum device can be used to measure magnetic fields. In this prototype, a lens (top) collects sunlight, which is filtered to leave only green wavelengths of light. That green light provides an environmentally friendly alternative to the light created by power-hungry lasers that conventional quantum devices rely on.Yunbin Zhu/University of Science and Technology of China

    Changing energy from one type to another, as happens when solar cells collect light and produce electricity, is an inherently inefficient process (SN: 7/26/17). The researchers claim that avoiding the conversion of sunlight to electricity to run lasers makes their approach three times more efficient than would be possible with solar cells powering lasers.

    “I’ve never seen any other reports that connect solar research to quantum technologies,” says Yen-Hung Lin, a physicist at the University of Oxford who was not involved with the study. “It might well ignite a spark of interest in this unexplored direction, and we could see more interdisciplinary research in the field of energy.”

    Quantum devices sensitive to other things, like electric fields or pressure, could also benefit from the sunlight-driven approach, the researchers say. In particular, space-based quantum technology might use the intense sunlight available outside Earth’s atmosphere to provide light tailored for quantum sensors. The remaining light, in wavelengths that the quantum sensors don’t use, could be relegated to solar cells that power electronics to process the quantum signals.

    The sunlight-driven magnetometer is just a first step in the melding of quantum and environmentally sustainable technology. “In the current state, this device is primarily for developmental purposes,” Du says. “We expect that the devices will be used for practical purposes. But there [is] lots of work to be done.” More

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    Sea urchin skeletons’ splendid patterns may strengthen their structure

    Sea urchin skeletons may owe some of their strength to a common geometric design.

    Components of the skeletons of common sea urchins (Paracentrotus lividus) follow a similar pattern to that found in honeycombs and dragonfly wings, researchers report in the August Journal of the Royal Society Interface. Studying this recurring natural order could inspire the creation of strong yet lightweight new materials.

    Urchin skeletons display “an incredible diversity of structures at the microscale, varying from fully ordered to entirely chaotic,” says marine biologist and biomimetic consultant Valentina Perricone. These structures may help the animals maintain their shape when faced with predator attacks and environmental stresses.

    While using a scanning electron microscope to study urchin skeleton tubercules — sites where the spines attach that withstand strong mechanical forces — Perricone spotted “a curious regularity.” Tubercules seem to follow a type of common natural order called a Voronoi pattern, she and her colleagues found.

    This Voronoi pattern generated on a computer has an 82 percent match with the pattern found in sea urchin skeletons.V. Perricone

    Using math, a Voronoi pattern is created by a process that divides a region into polygon-shaped cells that are built around points within them called seeds (SN: 9/23/18). The cells follow the nearest neighbor rule: Every spot inside a cell is nearer to that cell’s seed than to any other seed. Also, the boundary that separates two cells is equidistant from both their seeds.

    A computer-generated Voronoi pattern had an 82 percent match with the pattern found in sea urchin skeletons. This arrangement, the team suspects, yields a strong yet lightweight skeletal structure. The pattern “can be interpreted as an evolutionary solution” that “optimizes the skeleton,” says Perricone, of the University of Campania “Luigi Vanvitelli” in Aversa, Italy.

    Urchins, dragonflies and bees aren’t the only beneficiaries of Voronoi architecture. “We are developing a library of bioinspired, Voronoi-based structures” that could “serve as lightweight and resistant solutions” for materials design, Perricone says. These, she hopes, could inspire new developments in materials science, aerospace, architecture and construction. More

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    This stick-on ultrasound patch could let you watch your own heart beat

    Picture a smartwatch that doesn’t just show your heart rate, but a real-time image of your heart as it beats in your chest. Researchers may have taken the first step down that road by creating a wearable ultrasound patch — think of a Band-Aid with sonar — that provides a flexible way to see deep inside the body. 

    Ultrasound, which maps tissues and fluids by recording how sound waves bounce off them, can help doctors examine organs for damage, diagnose cancer or even track bacteria (SN: 1/3/18). But most ultrasound machines aren’t portable, and the wearable ones either struggle to spot details or can be used for only short periods. 

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    The new patch can work for up to 48 hours straight — even while the user is doing something active, like exercising. And the miniature device sees just as well as a more unwieldy hospital machine, researchers report in the July 29 Science. 

    “This is just the beginning,” says Xuanhe Zhao, a mechanical engineer at MIT. His team plans to make the patch wireless and able to interface with a user’s phone, which could then show the ultrasound signals as 3-D images. 

    The medical possibilities range wide. Stick a patch over a person’s heart, and the frequent images it takes could help predict heart attacks and blood clots potentially months before disaster hits, explains Aparna Singh, a biomedical engineer at Columbia University. Placed on a COVID-19 patient, the patch — which is only about the size of a quarter — could be an easy way to catch lung problems as they develop.

    “This also has a huge potential to be available for developing countries,” where limited access to hospitals can make monitoring patients difficult, Singh says. The patch costs about $100 to make. One of the researchers’ next steps will be to try to make the device cheaper. More

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    Quantum entanglement makes quantum communication even more secure

    Stealthy communication just got more secure, thanks to quantum entanglement.

    Quantum physics provides a way to share secret information that’s mathematically proven to be safe from the prying eyes of spies. But until now, demonstrations of the technique, called quantum key distribution, rested on an assumption: The devices used to create and measure quantum particles have to be known to be flawless. Hidden defects could allow a stealthy snoop to penetrate the security unnoticed.

    Now, three teams of researchers have demonstrated the ability to perform secure quantum communication without prior confirmation that the devices are foolproof. Called device-independent quantum key distribution, the method is based on quantum entanglement, a mysterious relationship between particles that links their properties even when separated over long distances.

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    In everyday communication, such as the transmission of credit card numbers over the internet, a secret code, or key, is used to garble the information, so that it can be read only by someone else with the key. But there’s a quandary: How can a distant sender and receiver share that key with one another while ensuring that no one else has intercepted it along the way?

    Quantum physics provides a way to share keys by transmitting a series of quantum particles, such as particles of light called photons, and performing measurements on them. By comparing notes, the users can be sure that no one else has intercepted the key. Those secret keys, once established, can then be used to encrypt the sensitive intel (SN: 12/13/17). By comparison, standard internet security rests on a relatively shaky foundation of math problems that are difficult for today’s computers to solve, which could be vulnerable to new technology, namely quantum computers (SN: 6/29/17).

    But quantum communication typically has a catch. “There cannot be any glitch that is unforeseen,” says quantum physicist Valerio Scarani of the National University of Singapore. For example, he says, imagine that your device is supposed to emit one photon but unknown to you, it emits two photons. Any such flaws would mean that the mathematical proof of security no longer holds up. A hacker could sniff out your secret key, even though the transmission seems secure.

    Device-independent quantum key distribution can rule out such flaws. The method builds off of a quantum technique known as a Bell test, which involves measurements of entangled particles. Such tests can prove that quantum mechanics really does have “spooky” properties, namely nonlocality, the idea that measurements of one particle can be correlated with those of a distant particle. In 2015, researchers performed the first “loophole-free” Bell tests, which certified beyond a doubt that quantum physics’ counterintuitive nature is real (SN: 12/15/15).

    “The Bell test basically acts as a guarantee,” says Jean-Daniel Bancal of CEA Saclay in France. A faulty device would fail the test, so “we can infer that the device is working properly.”

    In their study, Bancal and colleagues used entangled, electrically charged strontium atoms separated by about two meters. Measurements of those ions certified that their devices were behaving properly, and the researchers generated a secret key, the team reports in the July 28 Nature.

    Typically, quantum communication is meant for long-distance dispatches. (To share a secret with someone two meters away, it would be easier to simply walk across the room.) So Scarani and colleagues studied entangled rubidium atoms 400 meters apart. The setup had what it took to produce a secret key, the researchers report in the same issue of Nature. But the team didn’t follow the process all the way through: The extra distance meant that producing a key would have taken months.

    In the third study, published in the July 29 Physical Review Letters, researchers wrangled entangled photons rather than atoms or ions. Physicist Wen-Zhao Liu of the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei and colleagues also demonstrated the capability to generate keys, at distances up to 220 meters. This is particularly challenging to do with photons, Liu says, because photons are often lost in the process of transmission and detection.

    Loophole-free Bell tests are already no easy feat, and these techniques are even more challenging, says physicist Krister Shalm of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colo. “The requirements for this experiment are so absurdly high that it’s just an impressive achievement to be able to demonstrate some of these capabilities,” says Shalm, who wrote a perspective in the same issue of Nature.

    That means that the technique won’t see practical use anytime soon, says physicist Nicolas Gisin of the University of Geneva, who was not involved with the research.

    Still, device-independent quantum key distribution is “a totally fascinating idea,” Gisin says. Bell tests were designed to answer a philosophical question about the nature of reality — whether quantum physics really is as weird as it seems. “To see that this now becomes a tool that enables something else,” he says, “this is the beauty.” More