Engineer

Grain traits traced to ‘dark matter’ of rice genome

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Domesticated rice has fatter seed grains with higher starch content than its wild rice relatives — the result of many generations of preferential seed sorting and sowing. But even though rice was the first crop to be fully sequenced, scientists have only documented a few of the genetic changes that made rice into a staple food for more than half the world’s population.

New research now finds that a sizeable amount of domestication-related changes in rice reflects selection on traits that are determined by a portion of the genome that does not transcribe proteins.

Grain traits traced to 'dark matter' of rice genome
Grain traits traced to ‘dark matter’ of rice genome

Xiaoming Zheng, a biologist with the Institute of Crop Sciences at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, is the first author of newly published paper in Science Advances, “Genome-wide analyses reveal the role of non-coding variation in complex traits during rice domestication.” Qingwen Yang and Jun Liu, also from the Institute of Crop Sciences in the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, and Kenneth M. Olsen from Washington University in St. Louis are also communicating authors of this paper.

Noncoding RNAs are suspected to play very important roles in regulating growth and development, but they’re only beginning to be characterized.

“Despite almost 20 years of genomics and genome-enabled studies of crop domestication, we still know remarkably little about the genetic basis of most domestication traits in most crop species,” said Olsen, professor of biology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University.

“Early studies tended to go for ‘low-hanging fruit’ — simple traits that were controlled by just one or two genes with easily identifiable mutations,” Olsen said. “Far more difficult is figuring out the more subtle developmental changes that were critical for a lot of the changes during crop domestication.

“This study offers a step in that direction, by examining one regulatory mechanism that has been critical for modulating domestication-associated changes in rice grain development.”

Diversity of traits

A large proportion of the DNA in the chromosomes of many plants and animals comprises genes that do not encode instructions for making proteins — up to 98% of the genome for any given species. But this genetic information is poorly understood. Some scientists have called this stuff the ‘dark matter’ of the genome, or even dismissed it as ‘junk DNA’ — but it appears to have played an out sized role in rice development.

In this study, researchers found that key changes that occurred during rice domestication more than 9,000 years ago could be tied back to molecules called long-noncoding RNAs (lnc RNAs), a class of RNA molecules with a length of more than 200 nucleotides.

About 36 percent of the genetic information recorded in the rice genome can be tracked back to non coding regions, but more than 50 percent of the diversity of traits important to agriculture is linked to these same areas, the researchers found.

“For the first time, the lnc RNAs in noncoding region of cultivated rice and wild rice was deeply annotated and described,” Zheng said.

“Our transgenic experiments and population genetic analysis convincingly demonstrate that selection on lnc RNAs contributed to changes in domesticated rice grain quality by altering the expression of genes that function in starch synthesis and grain pigmentation,” she said.

Working with several hundred rice samples and more than 260 Gbs of sequence, the researchers employed sensitive detection techniques to quantify and robustly track lnc RNA transcription in rice. The new study validates some previously identified lnc RNAs and also provides new information on previously un described molecules.

This new study adds fuel to speculation by some researchers that most adaptive differences between groups of plants or animals are due to changes in gene regulation, and not protein evolution.

“Based on our findings, we propose that selection on lnc RNAs could prove to be a broader mechanism by which genome-wide patterns of gene expression can evolve in many species,” Zheng said.

This rice study also opens eyes and possibly new doors for producing new crops and grains through precision breeding.

Scientists find iron ‘snow’ in Earth’s core

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The Earth’s inner core is hot, under immense pressure and snow-capped, according to new research that could help scientists better understand forces that affect the entire planet.

The snow is made of tiny particles of iron — much heavier than any snowflake on Earth’s surface — that fall from the molten outer core and pile on top of the inner core, creating piles up to 200 miles thick that cover the inner core.

Scientists find iron 'snow' in Earth's core
Scientists find iron ‘snow’ in Earth’s core

The image may sound like an alien winter wonderland. But the scientists who led the research said it is akin to how rocks form inside volcanoes.

“The Earth’s metallic core works like a magma chamber that we know better of in the crust,” said Jung-Fu Lin, a professor in the Jackson School of Geosciences at The University of Texas at Austin and a co-author of the study.

The study is available online and will be published in the print edition of the journal JGR Solid Earth on December 23.

Youjun Zhang, an associate professor at Sichuan University in China, led the study. The other co-authors include Jackson School graduate student Peter Nelson; and Nick Dygert, an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee who conducted the research during a postdoctoral fellowship at the Jackson School.

The Earth’s core can’t be sampled, so scientists study it by recording and analyzing signals from seismic waves (a type of energy wave) as they pass through the Earth.

However, aberrations between recent seismic wave data and the values that would be expected based on the current model of the Earth’s core have raised questions. The waves move more slowly than expected as they passed through the base of the outer core, and they move faster than expected when moving through the eastern hemisphere of the top inner core.

Scientists find iron 'snow' in Earth's core
Scientists find iron ‘snow’ in Earth’s core

The study proposes the iron snow-capped core as an explanation for these aberrations. The scientist S.I. Braginkskii proposed in the early 1960s that a slurry layer exists between the inner and outer core, but prevailing knowledge about heat and pressure conditions in the core environment quashed that theory. However, new data from experiments on core-like materials conducted by Zhang and pulled from more recent scientific literature found that crystallization was possible and that about 15% of the lowermost outer core could be made of iron-based crystals that eventually fall down the liquid outer core and settle on top of the solid inner core.

“It’s sort of a bizarre thing to think about,” Dygert said. “You have crystals within the outer core snowing down onto the inner core over a distance of several hundred kilometers.”

The researchers point to the accumulated snow pack as the cause of the seismic aberrations. The slurry-like composition slows the seismic waves. The variation in snow pile size — thinner in the eastern hemisphere and thicker in the western — explains the change in speed.

“The inner-core boundary is not a simple and smooth surface, which may affect the thermal conduction and the convections of the core,” Zhang said.

The paper compares the snowing of iron particles with a process that happens inside magma chambers closer to the Earth’s surface, which involves minerals crystalizing out of the melt and glomming together. In magma chambers, the compaction of the minerals creates what’s known as “cumulate rock.” In the Earth’s core, the compaction of the iron contributes to the growth of the inner core and shrinking of the outer core.

And given the core’s influence over phenomena that affects the entire planet, from generating its magnetic field to radiating the heat that drives the movement of tectonic plates, understanding more about its composition and behavior could help in understanding how these larger processes work.

Bruce Buffet, a geosciences professor at the University of California, Berkley who studies planet interiors and who was not involved in the study, said that the research confronts longstanding questions about the Earth’s interior and could even help reveal more about how the Earth’s core came to be.

“Relating the model predictions to the anomalous observations allows us to draw inferences about the possible compositions of the liquid core and maybe connect this information to the conditions that prevailed at the time the planet was formed,” he said. “The starting condition is an important factor in Earth becoming the planet we know.”

NASA maps inner Milky Way, sees cosmic ‘candy cane’

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A feature resembling a candy cane appears at the center of this colorful composite image of our Milky Way galaxy’s central zone. But this is no cosmic confection. It spans 190 light-years and is one of a set of long, thin strands of ionized gas called filaments that emit radio waves.

This image includes newly published observations using an instrument designed and built at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Called the Goddard-IRAM Superconducting 2-Millimeter Observer (GISMO), the instrument was used in concert with a 30-meter radio telescope located on Pico Veleta, Spain, operated by the Institute for Radio Astronomy in the Millimeter Range headquartered in Grenoble, France.

NASA maps inner Milky Way, sees cosmic 'candy cane'
NASA maps inner Milky Way, sees cosmic ‘candy cane’

“GISMO observes microwaves with a wavelength of 2 millimeters, allowing us to explore the galaxy in the transition zone between infrared light and longer radio wavelengths,” said Johannes Staguhn, an astronomer at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore who leads the GISMO team at Goddard. “Each of these portions of the spectrum is dominated by different types of emission, and GISMO shows us how they link together.”

GISMO detected the most prominent radio filament in the galactic center, known as the Radio Arc, which forms the straight part of the cosmic candy cane. This is the shortest wavelength at which these curious structures have been observed. Scientists say the filaments delineate the edges of a large bubble produced by some energetic event at the galactic center, located within the bright region known as Sagittarius A about 27,000 light-years away from us. Additional red arcs in the image reveal other filaments.

“It was a real surprise to see the Radio Arc in the GISMO data,” said Richard Arendt, a team member at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and Goddard. “Its emission comes from high-speed electrons spiraling in a magnetic field, a process called synchrotron emission. Another feature GISMO sees, called the Sickle, is associated with star formation and may be the source of these high-speed electrons.”

Two papers describing the composite image, one led by Arendt and one led by Staguhn, were published on Nov. 1 in the Astrophysical Journal.

The image shows the inner part of our galaxy, which hosts the largest and densest collection of giant molecular clouds in the Milky Way. These vast, cool clouds contain enough dense gas and dust to form tens of millions of stars like the Sun. The view spans a part of the sky about 1.6 degrees across — equivalent to roughly three times the apparent size of the Moon — or about 750 light-years wide.

To make the image, the team acquired GISMO data, shown in green, in April and November 2012. They then used archival observations from the European Space Agency’s Herschel satellite to model the far-infrared glow of cold dust, which they then subtracted from the GISMO data. Next, they added, in blue, existing 850-micrometer infrared data from the SCUBA-2 instrument on the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope near the summit of Maunakea, Hawaii. Finally, they added, in red, archival longer-wavelength 19.5-centimeter radio observations from the National Science Foundation’s Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array, located near Socorro, New Mexico. The higher-resolution infrared and radio data were then processed to match the lower-resolution GISMO observations.

The resulting image essentially color codes different emission mechanisms.

Blue and cyan features reveal cold dust in molecular clouds where star formation is still in its infancy. Yellow features, such as the Arches filaments making up the candy cane’s handle and the Sagittarius B1 molecular cloud, reveal the presence of ionized gas and show well-developed star factories; this light comes from electrons that are slowed but not captured by gas ions, a process also known as free-free emission. Red and orange regions show areas where synchrotron emission occurs, such as in the prominent Radio Arc and Sagittarius A, the bright source at the galaxy’s center that hosts its supermassive black hole.

ESO observations reveal black holes’ breakfast at the cosmic dawn

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Astronomers using ESO’s Very Large Telescope have observed reservoirs of cool gas around some of the earliest galaxies in the Universe. These gas halos are the perfect food for super massive black holes at the centre of these galaxies, which are now seen as they were over 12.5 billion years ago. This food storage might explain how these cosmic monsters grew so fast during a period in the Universe’s history known as the Cosmic Dawn.

“We are now able to demonstrate, for the first time, that primordial galaxies do have enough food in their environments to sustain both the growth of super massive black holes and vigorous star formation,” says Emanuele Paolo Farina, of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany, who led the research published today in The Astrophysical Journal. “This adds a fundamental piece to the puzzle that astronomers are building to picture how cosmic structures formed more than 12 billion years ago.”

ESO observations reveal black holes' breakfast at the cosmic dawn
ESO observations reveal black holes’ breakfast at the cosmic dawn

Astronomers have wondered how super massive black holes were able to grow so large so early on in the history of the Universe. “The presence of these early monsters, with masses several billion times the mass of our Sun, is a big mystery,” says Farina, who is also affiliated with the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching bei München. It means that the first black holes, which might have formed from the collapse of the first stars, must have grown very fast. But, until now, astronomers had not spotted ‘black hole food’ — gas and dust — in large enough quantities to explain this rapid growth.

To complicate matters further, previous observations with ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter/sub millimeter Array, revealed a lot of dust and gas in these early galaxies that fuelled rapid star formation. These ALMA observations suggested that there could be little left over to feed a black hole.

To solve this mystery, Farina and his colleagues used the MUSE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope in the Chilean Atacama Desert to study quasars — extremely bright objects powered by super massive black holes which lie at the centre of massive galaxies. The study surveyed 31 quasars that are seen as they were more than 12.5 billion years ago, at a time when the Universe was still an infant, only about 870 million years old. This is one of the largest samples of quasars from this early on in the history of the Universe to be surveyed.

The astronomers found that 12 quasars were surrounded by enormous gas reservoirs: halos of cool, dense hydrogen gas extending 100,000 light years from the central black holes and with billions of times the mass of the Sun. The team, from Germany, the US, Italy and Chile, also found that these gas halos were tightly bound to the galaxies, providing the perfect food source to sustain both the growth of super massive black holes and vigorous star formation.

The research was possible thanks to the superb sensitivity of MUSE, the Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer, on ESO’s VLT, which Farina says was “a game changer” in the study of quasars. “In a matter of a few hours per target, we were able to delve into the surroundings of the most massive and voracious black holes present in the young Universe,” he adds. While quasars are bright, the gas reservoirs around them are much harder to observe. But MUSE could detect the faint glow of the hydrogen gas in the halos, allowing astronomers to finally reveal the food stashes that power super massive black holes in the early Universe.

In the future, ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope will help scientists reveal even more details about galaxies and super massive black holes in the first couple of billion years after the Big Bang. “With the power of the ELT, we will be able to delve even deeper into the early Universe to find many more such gas nebulae,” Farina concludes.

Engineers show how an autonomous, drifting DeLorean can improve driver safety

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As the DeLorean rolled to a stop and the cloud of tire smoke cleared, Jon Goh peeked out the sliver of the passenger-side window to see dozens of gathered spectators cheering and high-fiving the successful test.

The crowd, and anticipation, had built throughout the afternoon, while Goh, a recent mechanical engineering Ph.D. graduate from Stanford, had been outlining a kilometer-long obstacle course in traffic cones at Thunderhill Raceway in Northern California. The sun was setting fast, but Goh and his co-pilot, another grad student named Tushar Goel, couldn’t wait until morning to take a shot at the twisty course. Besides, MARTY, the driver, didn’t need to see the track—it needed only GPS coordinates and the algorithms on Goh’s laptop to chart its path.

Engineers show how an autonomous, drifting DeLorean can improve driver safety
Engineers show how an autonomous, drifting DeLorean can improve driver safety

MARTY is a 1981 DeLorean that Goh and his colleagues at Stanford’s Dynamic Design Lab converted into an all-electric, autonomous drift car. Four years ago, MARTY drifted—the style of driving where the car moves forward even though it’s pointed sideways—through its first donuts with inhuman precision. Since then, Goh and team have been busy welding and coding to prepare MARTY to apply those basic drifting skills to an intense driving course, and unbelievably everything had worked perfectly. MARTY screeched its way through turns and quick zigs and zags in just a few minutes, kicking up smoke and bits of rubber, without nicking a single cone along the course.

As the cheering continued, satisfaction washed over Goh. Completing the “MARTYkhana” course on the first attempt was awesome, but he knew that the one-of-a-kind data gleaned from the run could transform the capabilities of autonomous driving systems found in cars today.

Going beyond the limits to get into control

MARTYkhana—a riff on the “gymkhana” autocross racing format regarded as the master test of a driver’s ability—is hardly a stunt. Conducting research in high-speed, complicated driving conditions like this is a bread-and-butter approach of the Dynamic Design Lab, where mechanical engineer Chris Gerdes and his students steer autonomous cars into challenging driving situations that only the top human drivers can reliably handle. On-board computers measure the car’s response over dozens of runs, and the engineers translate those vehicle dynamics into software that could one day help your car quickly dodge a pedestrian that darts into the road.

Most automated vehicles on the road have been designed to handle simpler cases of driving, such as staying in a lane or maintaining the right distance from other cars.

“We’re trying to develop automated vehicles that can handle emergency maneuvers or slippery surfaces like ice or snow,” Gerdes said. “We’d like to develop automated vehicles that can use all of the friction between the tire and the road to get the car out of harm’s way. We want the car to be able to avoid any accident that’s avoidable within the laws of physics.”

Training an autonomous car to drift is a surprisingly good method for testing a car’s ability to drive evasively. Under typical conditions, a driver points the car where they want to go and uses the accelerator and brake pedals to control the speed. When drifting, whether intentionally or not, this goes out the window.

“Suddenly the car is pointed in a very different direction than where it’s going. Your steering wheel controls the speed, the throttle affects the rotation, and the brakes can impact how quickly you change directions,” Goh said. “You have to understand how to use these familiar inputs in a very different way to control the car, and most drivers just aren’t very good at handling the car when it becomes this unstable.”

Commercial vehicles are outfitted with Electronic Stability Control systems that try to prevent cars from entering these unstable states, but this is where drifters thrive. They harness this instability to maneuver the car in more agile and precise ways that allow them to scorch through a narrow obstacle course without so much as grazing the barriers.

By studying the habits of professional drivers and testing those same control maneuvers in MARTY, the Stanford team has enabled the car to use a greater range of its physical limits to maintain stability through a broader range of conditions, and the mathematics involved could allow autonomous systems to maneuver with the agility of a drift racer in emergencies.

“Through drifting, we’re able to get to extreme examples of driving physics that we wouldn’t otherwise,” Goh said. “If we can conquer how to safely control the car in the most stable and the most unstable scenarios, it becomes easier to connect all the dots in between.”

A ground-up transformation

—they knew they wanted a car with rear-wheel drive that would allow the freedom for endless upgrades, and they wanted it to have a certain cool factor.

“The way we see it, if you’re going to build a research vehicle, why not do it with some style?” likes to say, nodding to the classic line from Back to the Future.

A DeLorean ticked all those boxes. If you were to look underneath MARTY’s iconic stainless steel shell, you’d find very little DeLorean at this point. The underpowered drivetrain has been replaced by stout batteries and electric motors developed by Renovo. The original suspension was too squishy to hold a decent drift, so the team designed and fabricated components that could stand the task. Mechanical controls for steering, braking and throttling were replaced by electronic systems. There’s a roll cage.

A pair of GPS antennae dot the roof and track the car’s location to within an inch, and the whole operation runs on computers tucked behind the seats. Entering the course layout, MARTY calculates the smoothest drift route possible in a matter of seconds. It takes far longer to set up the traffic cones.

Drives like a human

The first MARTY-related journal paper was recently published and defines the system that the car uses to control its angle and position precisely in basic drifting conditions. The controller design was far more straightforward than expected, Goh said, and is open access to allow others to repeat the approach.

Other papers in the works will detail the techniques the team developed that use the car’s full steering range, which is what allows it to complete more complicated routes, such as MARTYkhana. And the team continues to experiment with how incorporating front and rear brakes can open up even more capabilities for the autonomous system. Altogether, this work allows MARTY to make sharper turns in succession even more quickly, which will further help train it to navigate extreme conditions.

“The results so far are rather outstanding,” Gerdes said. “The stability control systems of modern cars limit the driver’s control to a very narrow range of the car’s potential. With MARTY we have been able to more broadly define the range of conditions in which we can safely operate, and we have the ability to stabilize the car in these unstable conditions.”

Drifting is as much an art form as a technical skill, a detail Gerdes has emphasized since the beginning. It’s why he’ll gush over how impressed he is that his students have programmed MARTY to drift on par with professional drivers.

“It’s really impressive how snappy the car can make those transitions and also how precise it could be,” said Fredric Aasbo, the 2015 Formula Drift World Champion. “Because that’s the trick as a driver. That’s what we’re all trying to figure out.”

Engineer discovers mighty power in small solar energy invention

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Today’s commonly used silicon solar cells are heavy and bulky, and take up a lot of space to produce power. Newer models, made from soft materials that are flexible and versatile, are cheaper to produce but also much less efficient than their pricier counterparts.

Susanna Thon, a Johns Hopkins assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, is working to develop solar cells that marry affordability and efficiency. “If you want to install solar farms in cities, which is where we actually need power, you would love to be able to use these really high-efficiency technologies because that would reduce the amount of the area that you need to generate a reasonable amount of power. But they’re just too expensive,” Thon says. “And you can’t use the cheapest materials, because they just don’t work that well at large scale.”

Engineer discovers mighty power in small solar energy invention
Engineer discovers mighty power in small solar energy invention

A few years ago, Thon had an idea to develop cost-effective, scalable solar concentrators specifically for these newer models of solar cells. Traditional solar concentrators use big lenses and mirrors to collect large amounts of light and focus them down onto a smaller area. Thon and her team took that concept, swapped the heavy mirrors for a light silicon-containing plastic, and shrank the concentrators down to a sleek one-inch square. “We miniaturized the whole design,” she says. Using a microconcentrator, Thon says, solar cells can absorb more light and increase power output by up to 20 times—or more depending on the specific application.

The team 3-D-printed molds for microconcentrator lens arrays—grids of these tiny concentrators—then crafted lenses out of a flexible silicone polymer. The result is a thin, transparent sheet of bumps resembling the shape of an inverted egg carton that can be bonded on top of solar cells.

These compact concentrators could be cheaply and easily scaled to cover a larger area, Thon says, making them promising for commercial use.

Thon and her team filed a patent for their initial design, and now they’re working to improve the technology to better collect both direct and indirect sunlight. “There’s lots of light out there from the sun that gets scattered off of clouds or off of buildings, or you might want to mount a solar cell on the side of a building, where it’s not going to be pointed directly at the sun at all times,” she says.

Pac-Man-era microchip could help gobble up nuclear warheads

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When Russian nuclear inspectors traveled to the U.S. in the early 2000s, they were not allowed to directly examine classified nuclear weapon components, Professor Alex Glaser said. Instead, the inspectors were shown a radiation detector’s green light as confirmation that components were real.

The Russians were not convinced, Glaser said, noting that one said the only thing the test proved was that the Americans had a green LED with a battery connection.

Details about nuclear weapons remain among the world’s most highly guarded secrets. An expert dismantling a weapon, or even witnessing its destruction, can learn much about the warhead. On the other hand, without examining the weapon, it’s difficult to convince inspectors that a real weapon was destroyed. This has long been considered a problem for disarmament —how can countries convince others that a nuclear weapon is gone without revealing details about its arsenal?

Pac-Man-era microchip could help gobble up nuclear warheads
Pac-Man-era microchip could help gobble up nuclear warheads

“With a closet full of electronics and walls of concrete in between, for the Russians, the American’s device had no meaning whatsoever,” said Glaser, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and international affairs at Princeton University. “If you own the weapon, you build the machine, and you control the inspection environment, you can design a machine that always gives you a green light when you want it to.”

Despite numerous attempts, scientists have yet to design a trusted verification device for use in nuclear disarmament. But as Glaser and Moritz Kütt, a former post-doctoral research associate at Princeton, reported in October in PLOS One, an unlikely technology may be key to solving this decades-old problem: vintage electronics, specifically, simple 6502 microprocessors from the 1970s. It’s the same chip used in early home computers and arcade machines that ran games like Pac-Man.

“In terms of computing power, this is all you need,” Kütt said. “Because the processor is so primitive, scientists can literally check every transistor in the circuit, which could help confirm that the chip is authentic.”

Around 14,000 nuclear weapons exist in nine countries today, down from a high of around 60,000 weapons in the late 1980s. If further reductions are to be achieved, negotiators will likely need tools to verify that the U.S. and Russia are reducing their stockpiles as promised. Those two countries account for 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons, with over 6,000 warheads each, and are disinclined to take each other’s word. Dismantlement of retired weapons may therefore require verification—but how to do this is an exceedingly difficult challenge.

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Starting in the 1990s, researchers tried to solve this problem by creating trusted measurement systems that act as information barriers. Such devices need to satisfy two key requirements: they must prevent classified information from leaking out, and they must not contain any hidden switches that give false readings. “Think of it as a game between two parties,” Kütt said. “You just can’t be sure the other side hasn’t found a way to defeat your system, especially when the resources that each party can dedicate to the task are essentially unlimited.”

Early prototypes were enormously complicated, making authentication of the device and its results difficult to verify. Simplification seemed the way forward. But possible solutions—such as a recent British/Norwegian proposal—have fallen victim to complexity.

“Someone will add a bell and a whistle here or there, and it becomes a device that, at the end of the day, no one really understands completely,” Glaser said. This is only further reinforced by the intricacy of contemporary electronics.

Glaser—a vintage video game collector who teaches a hands-on class at Princeton on nuclear disarmament—realized that the 6502 microprocessors running his favorite arcade machines could offer a solution. “We’ve been working with these chips for 40 years, so we know them in and out,” he said. “They’re so simple that it basically would be impossible to build in a backdoor.”

He and Kütt paired a simple radiation detector with a 6502 microchip and programmed the device to confirm that an item’s radiation signature matches an expected result by displaying a green light. Their prototype system accurately detected subtle changes in gamma-radiation signatures from standard sources that simulate warheads. All of the researchers’ designs are open-source and cost about $250. The 6502 microchip is just one possible example, Glaser said; he and Kütt picked it because it’s extremely simple and common, but other early processors could be candidates as well.

Kütt and Glaser’s work has practical value, according to David Wehe, a professor of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences at the University of Michigan, who was not involved in the research.

“Information barriers are absolutely essential if we ever hope to restart meaningful negotiations on nuclear disarmament,” Wehe said. “Scientists are rarely at the forefront during those discussions, so treaty negotiators need to have these technical arrows in their quivers.”

For now, Glaser and Kütt see their device as a simple proof-of-concept, but one that they hope starts a broader conversation in the international community.

“We’ve put something on the table and can now say, “If you really want something simple, here’s a benchmark,'” Glaser said. “‘Can you make it even simpler, or can you defeat it?'”

Chicago to Cleveland in 32 minutes? A hyperloop system could make that possible. But first, the technology has to work

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A hyperloop, a high-tech, high-speed transportation system, could take you from Chicago to Cleveland in 32 minutes, or less time than it takes to watch two “Hot in Cleveland” episodes on your phone.

That kind of speed—10 times faster than a car, more than twice as fast as a plane—could bring an explosion of economic growth, according to a new study.

Building a hyperloop system to carry passengers between Chicago, Cleveland and Pittsburgh could lead to more than 900,000 jobs and $47.6 billion in increased income, according to the Great Lakes Hyperloop Feasibility Study being released Monday by the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency, which coordinates regional transportation spending.

Chicago to Cleveland in 32 minutes? A hyperloop system could make that possible. But first, the technology has to work
Chicago to Cleveland in 32 minutes? A hyperloop system could make that possible. But first, the technology has to work

“I think it would be a great opportunity for transforming transportation and the way we live and work and play,” said Grace Gallucci, executive director of the Cleveland-based agency. The agency shared the cost of the $1.3 million study with Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, or HyperloopTT, a California company interested in developing the route.

The technology is still in development, so the timeline for when the system could be built is still a mystery. It’s hard to get too hyped over something still being tested.

“A service this fast would be exciting, but the obstacles still seem enormous,” said Joseph Schwieterman, a DePaul University transportation expert.

The obstacles include technical challenges, the problem of acquiring right-of-way, and legal and regulatory issues, Schwieterman said.

A hyperloop consists of a passenger pod traveling through a metal tube maintained at a partial vacuum. Magnets cause the pod to move and levitate over the track once it picks up enough speed, explained Dirk Ahlborn, CEO and founder of HyperloopTT.

Removing air from the tube eliminates wind resistance and friction, allowing the pods to reach speeds as high as 700 mph while using little energy. Gallucci said that by using solar panels, the system could actually create more power than it uses, and feed it back into the grid.

By removing the air inside the tube, a low-pressure environment is created, similar to what an airplane encounters at high altitudes. “You can go faster with much less energy if you don’t have a lot of resistance,” Ahlborn said.

HyperloopTT is just one of the companies working on the technology—others are Virgin Hyperloop One and entrepreneur Elon Musk’s The Boring Company. Musk proposed building something like a hyperloop between downtown and O’Hare International Airport, but without using a vacuum. Mayor Lori Lightfoot didn’t support the project, and it appears to be dead.

Other hyperloop routes are being considered around the nation and the world, including in Missouri, Colorado, India and the United Arab Emirates.

HyperloopTT is testing the technology in a 320-meter tube in Toulouse, France. It has a passenger capsule that’s 9 feet in diameter and similar to the body of a regional jet airplane, Ahlborn said.

HyperloopTT plans to test the pods, with people inside, in the first half of next year. Ahlborn plans to be among the first riders, along with Henriette Ardouin, a 101-year-old French woman who remembers how her father doubted airplanes could fly, and who appears in a Hyperloop promotional film.

Ahlborn is confident that the system—which uses existing technology developed by the aerospace industry—will be safe. The biggest challenge is getting the right regulations in place to allow implementation, he said.

“You can’t build anything unless you have the green light from the government,” said Ahlborn, whose company is working on insurance issues and safety guidelines.

The Ohio study was conducted by Transportation Economics & Management Systems, also known as TEMS, a transportation industry research firm. The Illinois Department of Transportation and the Indiana Toll Road were among the agencies that collaborated on the project.

The study looked at three possible routes between Chicago and Cleveland, and two routes between Cleveland and Pittsburgh.

Gallucci said the Cleveland-Chicago route is the best in the country for a hyperloop pilot, since it’s less than 400 miles, the land is mostly flat and there is already a lot of car and plane traffic between the two cities. Both cities have plenty to offer each other, including large research hospitals, symphonies, art museums and universities, said Gallucci, a former Regional Transportation Authority official.

“There’s an opportunity for someone who lives in one city to go to work in another,” Gallucci said.

There’s also a right-of-way available along the Interstate 80/90 Tollway, which would eliminate much of the need for land acquisition, Gallucci said. The proposed Chicago routes range from 315 miles to 337 miles, depending on alignment, and would run mostly along I-80/I-90, the study said. The trips would range in time from about 32 to 47 minutes, at speeds of 439 to 593 mph.

The project would not require operating subsidies, and could be financed entirely by a private company, the study found. The study imagines a possible build-out period between 2023 and 2028, from initial site work to heavy construction to testing.

A hyperloop system also offers environmental benefits, cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 143 million tons over the next 25 years, the study said. Ahlborn said it is easier for people to choose to be “green” if they have a green alternative that costs the same or less than the polluting one.

A flight to Cleveland can cost between $150 and $500, depending on the day and the airline, and take an hour and twenty minutes, not counting time spent at the airport. A car trip would take five to six hours, and cost around $57, including the cost of gas and tolls, according to the tollguru.com web site. Amtrak would take six hours and cost $60 to $92, depending on the day.

“It’s great when you find alternatives that are actually better, and use green alternatives to do better business,” Ahlborn said.

The current study does not address where the stations would be, land acquisition or the cost of fares, though Gallucci said the goal is to make them affordable. She said stations, which could be downtown or at airports, would link to public transit.

After the study is released Monday, the results will be submitted to the U.S. Department of Transportation, and there will be a 45-day comment period and peer review. Next will be an environmental impact study and preliminary engineering.

Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, said he wishes transportation officials were looking at high-speed trains between Cleveland and Chicago, instead of an unproven technology.

“We know the trains work,” Harnish said. Countries that already have high-speed trains, which run at sustained speeds of 150 mph or more, include England, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and China.

Gallucci said her agency would consider high-speed rail between Cleveland and Chicago if approached by a private sector company. But no such company has come forward, while HyperloopTT has.

Pac-Man-era microchip could help gobble up nuclear warheads

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When Russian nuclear inspectors traveled to the U.S. in the early 2000s, they were not allowed to directly examine classified nuclear weapon components, Professor Alex Glaser said. Instead, the inspectors were shown a radiation detector’s green light as confirmation that components were real.

The Russians were not convinced, Glaser said, noting that one said the only thing the test proved was that the Americans had a green LED with a battery connection.

Details about nuclear weapons remain among the world’s most highly guarded secrets. An expert dismantling a weapon, or even witnessing its destruction, can learn much about the warhead. On the other hand, without examining the weapon, it’s difficult to convince inspectors that a real weapon was destroyed. This has long been considered a problem for disarmament —how can countries convince others that a nuclear weapon is gone without revealing details about its arsenal?

Pac-Man-era microchip could help gobble up nuclear warheads
Pac-Man-era microchip could help gobble up nuclear warheads

“With a closet full of electronics and walls of concrete in between, for the Russians, the American’s device had no meaning whatsoever,” said Glaser, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and international affairs at Princeton University. “If you own the weapon, you build the machine, and you control the inspection environment, you can design a machine that always gives you a green light when you want it to.”

Despite numerous attempts, scientists have yet to design a trusted verification device for use in nuclear disarmament. But as Glaser and Moritz Kütt, a former post-doctoral research associate at Princeton, reported in October in PLOS One, an unlikely technology may be key to solving this decades-old problem: vintage electronics, specifically, simple 6502 microprocessors from the 1970s. It’s the same chip used in early home computers and arcade machines that ran games like Pac-Man.

“In terms of computing power, this is all you need,” Kütt said. “Because the processor is so primitive, scientists can literally check every transistor in the circuit, which could help confirm that the chip is authentic.”

Around 14,000 nuclear weapons exist in nine countries today, down from a high of around 60,000 weapons in the late 1980s. If further reductions are to be achieved, negotiators will likely need tools to verify that the U.S. and Russia are reducing their stockpiles as promised. Those two countries account for 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons, with over 6,000 warheads each, and are disinclined to take each other’s word. Dismantlement of retired weapons may therefore require verification—but how to do this is an exceedingly difficult challenge.

Pac-Man-era microchip could help gobble up nuclear warheads
Pac-Man-era microchip could help gobble up nuclear warheads

Starting in the 1990s, researchers tried to solve this problem by creating trusted measurement systems that act as information barriers. Such devices need to satisfy two key requirements: they must prevent classified information from leaking out, and they must not contain any hidden switches that give false readings. “Think of it as a game between two parties,” Kütt said. “You just can’t be sure the other side hasn’t found a way to defeat your system, especially when the resources that each party can dedicate to the task are essentially unlimited.”

Early prototypes were enormously complicated, making authentication of the device and its results difficult to verify. Simplification seemed the way forward. But possible solutions—such as a recent British/Norwegian proposal—have fallen victim to complexity.

“Someone will add a bell and a whistle here or there, and it becomes a device that, at the end of the day, no one really understands completely,” Glaser said. This is only further reinforced by the intricacy of contemporary electronics.

Glaser—a vintage video game collector who teaches a hands-on class at Princeton on nuclear disarmament—realized that the 6502 microprocessors running his favorite arcade machines could offer a solution. “We’ve been working with these chips for 40 years, so we know them in and out,” he said. “They’re so simple that it basically would be impossible to build in a backdoor.”

He and Kütt paired a simple radiation detector with a 6502 microchip and programmed the device to confirm that an item’s radiation signature matches an expected result by displaying a green light. Their prototype system accurately detected subtle changes in gamma-radiation signatures from standard sources that simulate warheads. All of the researchers’ designs are open-source and cost about $250. The 6502 microchip is just one possible example, Glaser said; he and Kütt picked it because it’s extremely simple and common, but other early processors could be candidates as well.

Kütt and Glaser’s work has practical value, according to David Wehe, a professor of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences at the University of Michigan, who was not involved in the research.

“Information barriers are absolutely essential if we ever hope to restart meaningful negotiations on nuclear disarmament,” Wehe said. “Scientists are rarely at the forefront during those discussions, so treaty negotiators need to have these technical arrows in their quivers.”

For now, Glaser and Kütt see their device as a simple proof-of-concept, but one that they hope starts a broader conversation in the international community.

“We’ve put something on the table and can now say, “If you really want something simple, here’s a benchmark,'” Glaser said. “‘Can you make it even simpler, or can you defeat it?'”

Chicago to Cleveland in 32 minutes? A hyperloop system could make that possible. But first, the technology has to work

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A hyperloop, a high-tech, high-speed transportation system, could take you from Chicago to Cleveland in 32 minutes, or less time than it takes to watch two “Hot in Cleveland” episodes on your phone.

That kind of speed—10 times faster than a car, more than twice as fast as a plane—could bring an explosion of economic growth, according to a new study.

Chicago to Cleveland in 32 minutes? A hyperloop system could make that possible. But first, the technology has to work
Chicago to Cleveland in 32 minutes? A hyperloop system could make that possible. But first, the technology has to work

Building a hyperloop system to carry passengers between Chicago, Cleveland and Pittsburgh could lead to more than 900,000 jobs and $47.6 billion in increased income, according to the Great Lakes Hyperloop Feasibility Study being released Monday by the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency, which coordinates regional transportation spending.

“I think it would be a great opportunity for transforming transportation and the way we live and work and play,” said Grace Gallucci, executive director of the Cleveland-based agency. The agency shared the cost of the $1.3 million study with Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, or HyperloopTT, a California company interested in developing the route.

The technology is still in development, so the timeline for when the system could be built is still a mystery. It’s hard to get too hyped over something still being tested.

“A service this fast would be exciting, but the obstacles still seem enormous,” said Joseph Schwieterman, a DePaul University transportation expert.

The obstacles include technical challenges, the problem of acquiring right-of-way, and legal and regulatory issues, Schwieterman said.

A hyperloop consists of a passenger pod traveling through a metal tube maintained at a partial vacuum. Magnets cause the pod to move and levitate over the track once it picks up enough speed, explained Dirk Ahlborn, CEO and founder of HyperloopTT.

Removing air from the tube eliminates wind resistance and friction, allowing the pods to reach speeds as high as 700 mph while using little energy. Gallucci said that by using solar panels, the system could actually create more power than it uses, and feed it back into the grid.

By removing the air inside the tube, a low-pressure environment is created, similar to what an airplane encounters at high altitudes. “You can go faster with much less energy if you don’t have a lot of resistance,” Ahlborn said.

HyperloopTT is just one of the companies working on the technology—others are Virgin Hyperloop One and entrepreneur Elon Musk’s The Boring Company. Musk proposed building something like a hyperloop between downtown and O’Hare International Airport, but without using a vacuum. Mayor Lori Lightfoot didn’t support the project, and it appears to be dead.

Other hyperloop routes are being considered around the nation and the world, including in Missouri, Colorado, India and the United Arab Emirates.

HyperloopTT is testing the technology in a 320-meter tube in Toulouse, France. It has a passenger capsule that’s 9 feet in diameter and similar to the body of a regional jet airplane, Ahlborn said.

HyperloopTT plans to test the pods, with people inside, in the first half of next year. Ahlborn plans to be among the first riders, along with Henriette Ardouin, a 101-year-old French woman who remembers how her father doubted airplanes could fly, and who appears in a Hyperloop promotional film.

Ahlborn is confident that the system—which uses existing technology developed by the aerospace industry—will be safe. The biggest challenge is getting the right regulations in place to allow implementation, he said.

“You can’t build anything unless you have the green light from the government,” said Ahlborn, whose company is working on insurance issues and safety guidelines.

The Ohio study was conducted by Transportation Economics & Management Systems, also known as TEMS, a transportation industry research firm. The Illinois Department of Transportation and the Indiana Toll Road were among the agencies that collaborated on the project.

The study looked at three possible routes between Chicago and Cleveland, and two routes between Cleveland and Pittsburgh.

Gallucci said the Cleveland-Chicago route is the best in the country for a hyperloop pilot, since it’s less than 400 miles, the land is mostly flat and there is already a lot of car and plane traffic between the two cities. Both cities have plenty to offer each other, including large research hospitals, symphonies, art museums and universities, said Gallucci, a former Regional Transportation Authority official.

“There’s an opportunity for someone who lives in one city to go to work in another,” Gallucci said.

There’s also a right-of-way available along the Interstate 80/90 Tollway, which would eliminate much of the need for land acquisition, Gallucci said. The proposed Chicago routes range from 315 miles to 337 miles, depending on alignment, and would run mostly along I-80/I-90, the study said. The trips would range in time from about 32 to 47 minutes, at speeds of 439 to 593 mph.

The project would not require operating subsidies, and could be financed entirely by a private company, the study found. The study imagines a possible build-out period between 2023 and 2028, from initial site work to heavy construction to testing.

A hyperloop system also offers environmental benefits, cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 143 million tons over the next 25 years, the study said. Ahlborn said it is easier for people to choose to be “green” if they have a green alternative that costs the same or less than the polluting one.

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A flight to Cleveland can cost between $150 and $500, depending on the day and the airline, and take an hour and twenty minutes, not counting time spent at the airport. A car trip would take five to six hours, and cost around $57, including the cost of gas and tolls, according to the tollguru.com web site. Amtrak would take six hours and cost $60 to $92, depending on the day.

“It’s great when you find alternatives that are actually better, and use green alternatives to do better business,” Ahlborn said.

The current study does not address where the stations would be, land acquisition or the cost of fares, though Gallucci said the goal is to make them affordable. She said stations, which could be downtown or at airports, would link to public transit.

After the study is released Monday, the results will be submitted to the U.S. Department of Transportation, and there will be a 45-day comment period and peer review. Next will be an environmental impact study and preliminary engineering.

Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, said he wishes transportation officials were looking at high-speed trains between Cleveland and Chicago, instead of an unproven technology.

“We know the trains work,” Harnish said. Countries that already have high-speed trains, which run at sustained speeds of 150 mph or more, include England, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and China.

Gallucci said her agency would consider high-speed rail between Cleveland and Chicago if approached by a private sector company. But no such company has come forward, while HyperloopTT has.