More stories

  • in

    Researchers have unlocked the secret to pearls’ incredible symmetry

    For centuries, researchers have puzzled over how oysters grow stunningly symmetrical, perfectly round pearls around irregularly shaped grains of sand or bits of debris. Now a team has shown that oysters, mussels and other mollusks use a complex process to grow the gems that follows mathematical rules seen throughout nature.

    Pearls are formed when an irritant gets trapped inside a mollusk, and the animal protects itself by building smooth layers of mineral and protein — together called nacre — around it. Each new layer of nacre built over this asymmetrical center adapts precisely to the ones preceding it, smoothing out irregularities to result in a round pearl, according to an analysis published October 19 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    “Nacre is this incredibly beautiful, iridescent, shiny material that we see in the insides of some seashells or on the outside of pearls,” says Laura Otter, a biogeochemist at the Australian National University in Canberra.

    A pearl’s symmetrical growth as it lays down layers of nacre relies on the mollusk balancing two basic capabilities, Otter and her colleagues discovered. It corrects growth aberrations that appear as the pearl forms, preventing those variations from propagating over the pearl’s many layers. Otherwise, the resulting gem would be lopsided.

    Sign Up For the Latest from Science News

    Headlines and summaries of the latest Science News articles, delivered to your inbox

    Thank you for signing up!

    There was a problem signing you up.

    Additionally, the mollusk modulates the thickness of nacre layers, so that if one layer is especially thick, subsequent layers will be thinner in response (SN: 3/24/14). This helps the pearl maintain a similar average thickness over its thousands of layers so that it looks perfectly round and uniform. Without that constant adjustment, a pearl might resemble stratified sedimentary rock, amplifying small imperfections that detract from its spherical shape.

    The researchers studied keshi pearls collected from Akoya pearl oysters (Pinctada imbricata fucata) at an eastern Australia coastal pearl farm. They used a diamond wire saw to cut the pearls into cross sections, then polished and examined the gems using Raman spectroscopy, a nondestructive technique that allowed them to characterize the pearls’ structure. For one of the pearls showcased in the paper, they counted 2,615 layers, which were deposited over 548 days.

    This cross section of a keshi pearl shows that the round gem grows around a misshapen lump of debris.Jiseok Gim

    The analysis revealed that fluctuations in the thicknesses of the pearls’ layers of nacre exhibit a phenomenon called 1/f noise, or pink noise, in which events that appear to be random are actually connected. In this case, the formation of nacre layers of different thicknesses may appear random, but is actually dependent on the thickness of previous layers. The same phenomenon is at work in seismic activity: The rumbling of the ground seems random, but is actually connected to previous recent seismic activity. Pink noise also crops up in classical music and even when monitoring heartbeats and brain activity, says coauthor Robert Hovden, a materials scientist and engineer at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.  These phenomena “belong to a universal class of behavior and physics,” Hovden says.

    This is the first time that researchers have reported “that nacre self-heals and when a defect arises, it heals itself within a few [layers], without using an external scaffolding or template,” says Pupa Gilbert, a physicist studying biomineralization at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who wasn’t involved with the study. “Nacre is an even more remarkable material than we had previously appreciated.”

    Notes Otter: “These humble creatures are making a super light and super tough material so much more easily and better than we do with all our technology.” Made of just calcium, carbonate and protein, nacre is “3,000 times tougher than the materials from which it’s made of.”

    This new understanding of pearls, Hovden adds, could inspire “the next generation of super materials,” such as more energy-efficient solar panels or tough and heat-resistant materials optimized for use in spacecraft. More

  • in

    Lithium-ion batteries made with recycled materials can outlast newer counterparts

    Lithium-ion batteries with recycled cathodes can outperform batteries with cathodes made from pristine materials, lasting for thousands of additional charging cycles, a study finds. Growing demand for these batteries — which power devices from smartphones to electric vehicles — may outstrip the world’s supply of some crucial ingredients, such as cobalt (SN: 5/7/19). Ramping up recycling could help avert a potential shortage. But some manufacturers worry that impurities in recycled materials may cause battery performance to falter.

    “Based on our study, recycled materials can perform as well as, or even better than, virgin materials,” says materials scientist Yan Wang of Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts.

    Using shredded spent batteries, Wang and colleagues extracted the electrodes and dissolved the metals from those battery bits in an acidic solution. By tweaking the solution’s pH, the team removed impurities such as iron and copper and recovered over 90 percent of three key metals: nickel, manganese and cobalt. The recovered metals formed the basis for the team’s cathode material.

    In tests of how well batteries maintain their capacity to store energy after repeated use and recharging, batteries with recycled cathodes outperformed ones made with brand-new commercial materials of the same composition. It took 11,600 charging cycles for the batteries with recycled cathodes to lose 30 percent of their initial capacity. That’s about 50 percent better than the respectable 7,600 cycles for the batteries with new cathodes, the team reports October 15 in Joule. Those thousands of extra cycles could translate into years of better battery performance, Wang says. More

  • in

    These colorful butterflies were created using transparent ink

    You’ve heard of disappearing ink. Now get ready for suddenly appearing ink. Using a clear liquid, researchers can print a full rainbow of colors on transparent surfaces. The trick is printing the liquid in precise, microscale patterns that create structural color.

    Structural colors arise from the way different wavelengths of light bounce off microscopic imperfections on surfaces (SN: 8/17/21; SN: 6/1/16). “In nature, there are many beautiful structure colors, such as the wings of butterflies, the feathers of peacocks, the skin of chameleons and so on,” says Yanlin Song, a materials chemist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing.

    Song and colleagues printed structural colors on transparent silicone sheets using an ordinary ink-jet printer and clear polymer ink. The printer studded the silicone sheets with millions of microscopic ink domes, each of which served as a single pixel in the resulting image. Adjusting the size of a microdome changed the wavelengths of light that the dome reflected and therefore its color (SN: 3/8/19). Increasing the width of a single dome from 6.6 to 11 micrometers shifted its hue along the spectrum from blue to red and back again, the researchers report online September 22 in Science Advances.

    The denser the domes were packed, the brighter the image. And printing a medley of differently colored ink pixels across a single area created blended shades, such as brown and gray. Using the technique, Song’s team printed multicolor, photorealistic portraits of Isaac Newton, Marilyn Monroe and other famous figures.

    By printing tiny dollops of clear ink on transparent surfaces, researchers created structural color portraits of famous figures, such as Isaac Newton, Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe.K. Li et al/Science Advances 2021

    By printing tiny dollops of clear ink on transparent surfaces, researchers created structural color portraits of famous figures, such as Isaac Newton, Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe.K. Li et al/Science Advances 2021

    “I was excited to see that somebody had used [structural color] for this purpose,” says Lauren Zarzar, a materials chemist at Penn State who has studied similar structural colors cast by water and oil droplets. “They had some nice examples that I think illustrated the versatility of this mechanism.”

    Zarzar imagines using structural colors to create complex optical signatures for anti-counterfeiting features on ID cards or currency. Such shimmery, colorfast hues could also make useful materials for cosmetics, clothing or architecture, she says. More

  • in

    These weird, thin ice crystals are springy and bendy

    Try to bend an icicle and it’ll snap in two. With its tendency to crack into shards, ice’s reputation for being stiff and brittle seems well-established. But thin, pristine threads of ice are bendy and elastic, scientists report in the July 9 Science.

    To create the flexible ice, Peizhen Xu of Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China and colleagues used a needle with an electric voltage applied to it, which attracted water vapor within a chilled chamber. The resulting ice whiskers were a few micrometers in diameter or less, a fraction of the width of a typical human hair.

    Usually, ice contains defects: tiny cracks, pores or misaligned sections of crystal. But the specially grown ice threads consisted of near-perfect ice crystals with atypical properties. When manipulated at temperatures of –70° Celsius and –150° C, the ice could be curved into a partial circle with a radius of tens of micrometers. When the bending force was released, the fibers sprang back to their original shape.

    [embedded content]
    Researchers bent a tiny fiber of ice (thin white line) into a loop, showing that the usually brittle material can be flexible under certain conditions.

    Bending the fibers compresses the ice on its inside edge. The new measurements indicate that the compression induces the ice to take on a different structure. That’s to be expected for ice, which is known to morph into a variety of phases depending on pressure and temperature (SN: 1/11/09). The discovery could give researchers a new way to study ice’s properties when squeezed.

    Thin ice strands form naturally in snowflakes. Unlike the ice in the experiment, snowflakes don’t consist of single, flawless ice crystals. But small sections of the flakes could be single crystals, the researchers say, suggesting that tiny bits of snowflakes could also bend. More

  • in

    Morphing noodles start flat but bend into curly pasta shapes as they’re cooked

    This pasta is no limp noodle.

    When imprinted with carefully designed arrangements of grooves, flat pasta morphs as it cooks, forming tubes, spirals and other shapes traditional for the starchy sustenance. The technique could allow for pasta that takes up less space, Lining Yao and colleagues report May 5 in Science Advances.

    Pasta aficionados “are very picky about the shapes of pasta and how they pair with different sauces,” says Yao, who studies the design of smart materials at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. But those shapes come at a cost of excess packaging and inefficient shipping: For some varieties of curly pasta, more than 60 percent of the packaging space is used to hold air, the researchers calculated.

    Yao and colleagues stamped a series of grooves onto one side of each noodle. As the pasta absorbed water during cooking, the liquid couldn’t penetrate as fully on the grooved side, causing it to swell less than the smooth side of the pasta. That asymmetric swelling bent the previously flat noodle into a curve. By changing the arrangement of the grooves, the researchers controlled the final shape. Computer simulations of swelling pasta replicated the shapes seen in the experiments.

    [embedded content]
    Flat pasta (top) with the right pattern of grooves imprinted on it curls into traditional pasta shapes when boiled. Computer simulations of the pasta (bottom) show the same behavior.

    The technique isn’t limited to pasta: Another series of experiments, performed with silicone rubber in a solvent, produced similar results. But whereas the pasta held its curved shape, the silicone rubber eventually absorbed enough solvent to flatten out again. The gluey nature of cooked pasta helps lock in the twists by fusing neighboring grooves together, the researchers determined. Removing the silicone from the solvent caused the silicone to bend in the opposite direction. This reversible bending process could be harnessed for other purposes, such as a grabber for robot hands, Yao says.

    The pasta makes particularly good camping food, Yao says. A member of her team brought it along on a recent hiking trip. The pasta slips easily into a cramped pack but cooks into a satisfying shape. More

  • in

    Microscopic images reveal the science and beauty of face masks

    Studying fabrics at very high magnification helps determine how some face masks filter out particles better than others. And the close-ups reveal an unseen beauty of the mundane objects that have now become an essential part of life around the world.

    As scientists continue to show how effective masks can be at slowing the spread of the new coronavirus, particularly when they have a good fit and are worn correctly, some have taken microscopic approaches (SN: 2/12/21).

    “Embedded in microscale textures are clues as to why materials have various properties,” says Edward Vicenzi, a microanalysis expert at the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute in Suitland, Md. “Unraveling that evidence turns out to be a fun job.”

    Before the pandemic, Vicenzi spent his days observing meteorites, stones and other museum specimens under the microscope. But in March 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic progressed, he and colleagues from the National Institute for Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md., felt a strong desire to contribute to beating back the virus. So they started studying face-covering materials instead.

    Cotton flannel: A network of cotton fibers “hovers” above a woven surface in this view of the fabric. This chaotic arrangement gives cotton flannel fibers additional opportunities to grab particles as they flow through the fabric. E.P. Vicenzi/Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute and NIST

    Polyester-cotton blend: Disheveled natural cotton fibers (pale) contrast with nearly identical polyester fibers (blue) in this false-color image. Polyester fibers are highly organized, mostly straight and smooth, making them less effective than cotton fibers alone at trapping nanoscale particles. E.P. Vicenzi/Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute and NIST

    Rayon: Like patterns observed on rigatoni pasta, grooves run along the length of rayon fibers. Unlike cotton flannels, rayon has no apparent weblike structures formed from raised fibers, making it easier for particles to move from one side of the synthetic fabric to the other. E.P. Vicenzi/Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute and NIST

    Wool flannel: Seen in cross-section, these fibers resemble a hurricane swirl. Wool flannel can also form fiber webs that block particles, but those webs are not as effective as ones in 100-percent cotton, researchers found. E.P. Vicenzi/Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute and NIST

    N95 mask: In an N95 mask (seen in false color cross-section), a thin outer layer (top) and thick inner layer (bottom) sandwich a filtration layer (purple), which traps the smallest particles. The multilayered assemblage made of plastic is melted and blown into a weblike fabric, which makes N95s filter particles better than cloth masks, even cotton ones. E.P. Vicenzi/Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute and NIST

    Using a scanning electron microscope, Vicenzi and colleagues have examined dozens of materials, including coffee filters, pillowcases, surgical masks and N95 masks. In 2020, the team found that N95 respirator masks are the most effective at providing protection from aerosols like the ones in which SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, travels. And the researchers reported that synthetic fabrics, like chiffon or rayon, don’t trap as many particles as tightly woven cotton flannels.

    Microscopic textures can explain each fabric’s ability to filter out aerosols. The random nature of cotton fibers — with its wrinkled texture and complex shapes such as kinks, bends and folds — probably allows cotton to trap more nanoscale particles than other fabrics, Vicenzi says. In contrast, polyester fabrics have highly organized, mostly straight and smooth fibers, which makes them less efficient as face masks.

    Sign up for e-mail updates on the latest coronavirus news and research

    Cotton flannels also provide additional protection by absorbing moisture from breath, Vicenzi and colleagues report March 8 in ACS Applied Nano Materials.

    “Since cotton loves water, it swells up in humid environments, and that makes it harder for particles to make their way through a mask,” says Vicenzi. Polyester and nylon masks, on the other hand, “repel water from your breath, so there’s no added benefit.”

    Through his work, Vicenzi has explored the unseen world of face-covering materials. Some textiles remind him of food, such as rayon’s fibers that resemble the texture of rigatoni pasta. Others, like wool, remind him of atmospheric patterns such as the swirl of a hurricane.

    Vicenzi plans to keep observing face masks up close. And he hopes his research helps people decide how to best protect themselves and others during the COVID-19 pandemic. “It’s nice to use an effective material for a mask if you can,” he says. “However, wearing any mask compared to none at all makes the biggest difference in slowing the spread of pathogens.”

    Sign Up For the Latest from Science News

    Headlines and summaries of the latest Science News articles, delivered to your inbox More

  • in

    This soft robot withstands crushing pressures at the ocean’s greatest depths

    Inspired by a strange fish that can withstand the punishing pressures of the deepest reaches of the ocean, scientists have devised a soft autonomous robot capable of keeping its fins flapping — even in the deepest part of the Mariana Trench.
    The team, led by roboticist Guorui Li of Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China, successfully field-tested the robot’s ability to swim at depths ranging from 70 meters to nearly 11,000 meters, it reports March 4 in Nature.
    Challenger Deep is the lowest of the low, the deepest part of the Mariana Trench. It bottoms out at about 10,900 meters below sea level (SN: 12/11/12). The pressure from all that overlying water is about a thousand times the atmospheric pressure at sea level, translating to about 103 million pascals (or 15,000 pounds per square inch). “It’s about the equivalent of an elephant standing on top of your thumb,” says deep-sea physiologist and ecologist Mackenzie Gerringer of State University of New York at Geneseo, who was not involved in the new study.

    Sign Up For the Latest from Science News

    Headlines and summaries of the latest Science News articles, delivered to your inbox

    The tremendous pressures at these hadal depths — the deepest ocean zone, between 6,000 and 11,000 meters — present a tough engineering challenge, Gerringer says. Traditional deep-sea robots or manned submersibles are heavily reinforced with rigid metal frames so as not to crumple — but these vessels are bulky and cumbersome, and the risk of structural failure remains high.
    To design robots that can maneuver gracefully through shallower waters, scientists have previously looked to soft-bodied ocean creatures, such as the octopus, for inspiration (SN: 9/17/14). As it happens, such a deep-sea muse also exists: Pseudoliparis swirei, or the Mariana hadal snailfish, a mostly squishy, translucent fish that lives as much as 8,000 meters deep in the Mariana Trench.
    In 2018, researchers described three newly discovered species of deep-sea snailfish (one shown) found in the Pacific Ocean’s Atacama Trench, living at depths down to about 7,500 meters. Also found in the Mariana Trench, such fish are well adapted for living in high-pressure, deep-sea environments, with only partially hardened skulls and soft, streamlined, energy-efficient bodies.Newcastle University
    Gerringer, one of the researchers who first described the deep-sea snailfish in 2014, constructed a 3-D printed soft robot version of it several years later to better understand how it swims. Her robot contained a synthesized version of the watery goo inside the fish’s body that most likely adds buoyancy and helps it swim more efficiently (SN: 1/3/18).
    But devising a robot that can swim under extreme pressure to investigate the deep-sea environment is another matter. Autonomous exploration robots require electronics not only to power their movement, but also to perform various tasks, whether testing water chemistry, lighting up and filming the denizens of deep ocean trenches, or collecting samples to bring back to the surface. Under the squeeze of water pressure, these electronics can grind against one another.
    So Li and his colleagues decided to borrow one of the snailfish’s adaptations to high-pressure life: Its skull is not completely fused together with hardened bone. That extra bit of malleability allows the pressure on the skull to equalize. In a similar vein, the scientists decided to distribute the electronics — the “brain” — of their robot fish farther apart than they normally would, and then encase them in soft silicone to keep them from touching.
    The design of the new soft robot (left) was inspired by the deep-sea snailfish (illustrated, right), which is adapted to live in the very high-pressure environments of the deepest parts of the ocean. The snailfish’s skull is incompletely ossified, or hardened, which allows external and internal pressures to equalize. Spreading apart the robot’s sensitive electronics and encasing them in silicone keeps the parts from squeezing together. The robots flapping fins are inspired by the thin pectoral fins of the fish (although the real fish doesn’t use its fins to swim).Li et al/ Nature 2021
    The team also designed a soft body that slightly resembles the snailfish, with two fins that the robot can use to propel itself through the water. (Gerringer notes that the actual snailfish doesn’t flap its fins, but wriggles its body like a tadpole.) To flap the fins, the robot is equipped with batteries that power artificial muscles: electrodes sandwiched between two membranes that deform in response to the electrical charge.
    The team tested the robot in several environments: 70 meters deep in a lake; about 3,200 meters deep in the South China Sea; and finally, at the very bottom of the ocean. The robot was allowed to swim freely in the first two trials. For the Challenger Deep trial, however, the researchers kept a tight grip, using the extendable arm of a deep-sea lander to hold the robot while it flapped its fins.
    This machine “pushes the boundaries of what can be achieved” with biologically inspired soft robots, write robotocists Cecilia Laschi of the National University of Singapore and Marcello Calisti of the University of Lincoln in England. The pair have a commentary on the research in the same issue of Nature. That said, the machine is still a long way from deployment, they note. It swims more slowly than other underwater robots, and doesn’t yet have the power to withstand powerful underwater currents. But it “lays the foundations” for future such robots to help answer lingering questions about these mysterious reaches of the ocean, they write.
    [embedded content]
    Researchers successfully ran a soft autonomous robot through several field tests at different depths in the ocean. At 3,224 meters deep in the South China Sea, the tests demonstrated that the robot could swim autonomously (free swim test). The team also tested the robot’s ability to move under even the most extreme pressures in the ocean. A deep-sea lander’s extendable arm held the robot as it flapped its wings at a depth of 10,900 meters in the Challenger Deep, the lowest part of the Mariana Trench (extreme pressure test). These tests suggest that such robots may, in future, be able to aid in autonomous exploration of the deepest parts of the ocean, the researchers say.
    Deep-sea trenches are known to be teeming with microbial life, which happily feed on the bonanza of organic material — from algae to animal carcasses — that finds its way to the bottom of the sea. That microbial activity hints that the trenches may play a significant role in Earth’s carbon cycle, which is in turned linked to the planet’s regulation of its climate.
    The discovery of microplastics in Challenger Deep is also incontrovertible evidence that even the bottom of the ocean isn’t really that far away, Gerringer says (SN: 11/20/20). “We’re impacting these deep-water systems before we’ve even found out what’s down there. We have a responsibility to help connect these seemingly otherworldly systems, which are really part of our planet.” More

  • in

    The containers the U.S. plans to use for nuclear waste storage may corrode

    Containers that the U.S. government plans to use to store dangerous nuclear waste underground may be more vulnerable to water damage than previously thought. Millions of liters of highly radioactive waste from the U.S. nuclear weapons program are currently held in temporary storage units across the country. The government’s game plan for permanently disposing of […] More