Tuesday, 30 June 2009

UK Sport: Garage Innovators Award

OBJECTIVE: To provide an avenue for British people to submit their ideas for innovation which, if explored, have the potential to improve the performance of British Olympic and Paralympic athletes.

The award is primarily aimed at those individuals with a passion to see the Great Britain team succeed, as the prize will enable the inventor to realise their idea, whilst enabling UK Sport to utilise any outcomes prior to 2012 during a period of exclusivity. £25,000 is on offer for an idea that has potential, and can be used to further the concept. If the inventor is unable to resource the idea development within their everyday business then UK Sport will find appropriate resources from the established Innovation Partner network and retain the inventor as an advisor. The Inventor will retain the Intellectual Property Rights of the invention.

JUDGING PANEL: Members of the UK Sport Innovation Partnership Network and other leading experts in the field of elite sport performance, including Olympic gold medallist Jason Queally, will scrutinise applications during the initial review.

PRIZES: Three finalists will be chosen by the UK Sport assessment panel and will each receive £500 for presenting their ideas at the awards event later in the year. The awards event judging panel will decide which idea has greatest potential to improve Olympic and Paralympic performance.
APPLICATION PROCEDURE: We have devised a simple application form. We are asking for an overview of your research, an explanation of the benefits to Olympic and Paralympic sports and how you would use up to £25,000 to further your idea.

IMPORTANT DATES: Applications for the 2009 Garage Innovators Award are NOW OPEN. Applications for this year's award must be submitted by 10 July 2009. Finalists will be notified in writing within two weeks of the closing date.

ENQUIRIES: Any enquiries about applying for the Garage Innovators Award, or the Ideas 4 Innovation programme as a whole, should be directed to Alison Neall. Email: Alison.Neall@uksport.gov.uk

TERMS AND CONDITIONS: The judging panel reserves the right not to award the £25,000 research funding if it feels there are no projects that warrant further investigation. Please see below for full terms and conditions.

To find out more visit UK Sport

Monday, 29 June 2009

Medicine and Engineering unite to create 21st Century healthcare technology

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and Wellcome Trust and have announced joint funding for four new Centres of Excellence in Medical Engineering to transform the future of healthcare.

Engineers have been at the forefront of medical innovation throughout the history of medicine, benefiting millions of people with tools such as implants and prosthetic limbs, devices to monitor the physiological state of patients, and instruments to maintain bodily functions, such as the implantable pacemaker. As both medicine and engineering continue to advance at great pace, it is crucial that the links between these disciplines are maintained, especially with the potential for groundbreaking advances in fields such as imaging and genetics.

In the UK, the population is ageing – people are living longer thanks to modern medicine. But as we get older, our bodies need more help to support us. Medical engineering will play an important role in meeting this growing demand.

Four interdisciplinary research teams – at Imperial College London, King’s College London, University of Leeds and Oxford University – will receive a combined total of £41 million over the next five years. The funding will help to develop integrated teams of clinicians, biomedical scientists and world-class engineers with the capacity to invent high-tech solutions to medical challenges, potentially improving thousands of patients’ lives.

  • Imperial College – Osteoarthritis: £10,951,487
    Professor Ross Ethier said: “Around 8.5 million people in the UK have osteoarthritis. It is the most common cause of chronic pain and costs the country an estimated £5.5 billion every year directly and indirectly. Our Centre will develop technologies to improve the lives of patients with osteoarthritis. For example, we will create the next generation of hip and knee replacement implants that will last longer and require less invasive surgery to fit. Tissue engineering will also contribute hugely in this area, using patients’ own cells to grow new cartilage for osteoarthritic knees. A better understanding of the disease will also lead to new technologies to diagnose and treat osteoarthritis at a much earlier stage.”

  • KCL – Medical Imaging: £10,200,355
    Professor Reza Razavi said: “Our Medical Engineering Centre will break down the barriers between engineering, the physical sciences, and biology and medicine. We will conduct world-class clinical trials to show the benefit of new discoveries in imaging technology that the centre will produce. I see patients in my clinic every day, so I have a very clear understanding of what they need to make their lives better. Medical imaging has the capacity to give my patients access to new tools for earlier and more precise diagnoses of cancer and heart disease, better targeted therapies, less invasive surgery, and improved techniques for rebuilding tissue after surgery.”

  • Leeds – “50 more years after 50”: £11,184,754
    Professor John Fisher said: “While more of us are living longer, our bones, joints and cardiovascular systems continue to degenerate as we age. At Leeds, we are looking how to help the skeleton, muscles and cardiovascular system support our bodies as we get older, through improved prosthetic implants and technologies to help our tissues regenerate. We are also looking to understand the process of degeneration so we can accurately diagnose its early stages and deliver appropriate and timely interventions. Our work is all driven by the concept of 50 more years after 50 – making our second 50 years as healthy, comfortable and active as our first.”

  • Oxford – Personalised healthcare: £8,002,101
    Professor Lionel Tarassenko said: “Much of the 20th Century was devoted to developing treatments that are broadly effective in most people. However, it has become clear that long-term conditions such as asthma, diabetes and cancer are best managed by taking into account how the individual is responding to their particular therapy. We will be developing techniques and strategies to precisely measure individuals’ response to their condition and therapies, and use those measurements to adjust and improve the way the person is being treated. This approach could have real impact on survival rates and improve the quality of life for people living with long-term conditions, from birth through to old age.”

Professor David Delpy, Chief Executive of EPSRC, said: “The Medical Engineering funding scheme has resonated with existing research programmes across the UK, but it has also stimulated new research teams to consider medical applications of emerging technology. This proves the value of the joint initiative in fostering highly potent partnerships and the new inventions that will result, which could have massive benefit for patients.”

Sir Mark Walport, Director of the Wellcome Trust, said: "Research in medical engineering has been responsible for major advances in healthcare, ranging from ultrasound scanning in pregnancy to hip and knee replacements. The opportunities for engineers and medical scientists to collaborate are endless but all too often are missed because each community operates in its own siloed compartment. I am delighted by this collaboration between the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Wellcome Trust, which will fund four interdisciplinary teams to work on major medical unmet needs."

For more information please visit EPSRC

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Fishing puts a third of all oceanic shark species at risk of extinction

The first World Conservation Union (IUCN) red list of oceanic sharks names 64 species as endangered. Sharks are vulnerable because they take decades to mature and produce few young.

Overfishing threatens to drive a third of the world's open-ocean shark species to extinction, say conservationists. Hammerheads, giant devil rays and porbeagle sharks are among 64 species on the first ever red list for oceanic sharks produced by the World Conservation Union (IUCN).

Sharks are vulnerable because they can take decades to mature and they produce few young. The scalloped hammerhead shark, which has declined by 99% over the past 30 years in some parts of the world, is particularly vulnerable and has been given globally endangered status on the red list, which means it is nearing extinction. In the Gulf of Mexico, the oceanic whitetip shark has declined by a similar amount.

Scientists estimate that shark populations in the north-west Atlantic Ocean have declined by an average of 50% since the early 1970s.

Announcing the red list of open-ocean or "pelagic" sharks and rays today, scientists called on governments to set limits for catching the animals on the high seas and to enforce strict bans on "finning" – the practice of catching sharks, cutting off their fins and throwing the bodies back in the water.

"Despite mounting threats, sharks remain virtually unprotected on the high seas," said Sonja Fordham, deputy chair of the shark specialist group at the World Conservation Union and policy director for the Shark Alliance. "The vulnerability and lengthy migrations of most open-ocean sharks call for coordinated, international conservation plans. Our report documents serious overfishing of these species in national and international waters, and demonstrates a clear need for immediate action on a global scale."

Pelagic sharks are usually caught on the high seas in tuna or swordfish fisheries. In 2007, 21 shark-fishing nations reported catching more than 10,000 tonnes of shark. The top five – Indonesia, India, Taiwan, Spain and Mexico – accounted for 42%.

At one time, sharks were considered worthless bycatch, but they are increasingly being fished on purpose to serve emerging markets for their meat and fins, which are used in soups and can fetch more than £100 per kilogram. In places such as China, shark-fin soup could once only be afforded by the elite, but the growing numbers of middle-class people in the country has driven up demand.

To satisfy the growing market, some fishermen have taken to finning sharks. There are bans on this practice in operation around the world, but Fordham said the coverage is patchy and, in any case, enforcing the bans is difficult due to a lack of policing on the high seas.

"The overarching problem for sharks is that, for a variety of reasons, they've been considered low priority and they're traditionally low value compared with something like the tuna," said Fordham. "Also public image feeds into that – I don't know if there are people clamouring for their conservation."

Most species of pelagic shark take many years to mature and have relatively few young when they do reproduce. The IUCN's report highlights a study by scientists in Canada which showed that the population of porbeagle sharks, classified as vulnerable in the red list, has been so affected by fishing that it will take at least 100 years to recover. Yet the government still allows the animal to be fished in its waters.

The global dusky shark popualtion, also classed as vulnerable by the IUCN, could take up to 400 years to recover because the animals are not sexually mature until around 20 years of age and usually raise only one offspring at a time.

Fordham said that because many of the sharks on the red list are at the top of the food chain, their extinction could also cause major local ecological problems. "We know that most of these species are top predators and we know that removing the top predators usually has negative consequences to the system as a whole."

In 2007, Julia Baum of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California, who is also a member of IUCN shark specialist group, published a study showing how a major decline in the numbers of predatory sharks in the north Atlantic after 2000 had allowed populations of cownose rays, which are their prey, to explode. The rays in turn decimated the populations of bay scallop off North Carolina. "There was a fishery for bay scallops in North Carolina that lasted over a century uninterrupted and it was closed down in 2004 because of cownose rays," she said last year.

Conserving threatened shark species might not be difficult. Last year, Peter Klimley of the University of California, Davis, found that scalloped hammerhead sharks migrate along fixed "superhighways" in the oceans, speeding between a series of "stepping stone" sites near coastal islands ranging from Mexico to Ecuador. Focusing marine reserves around these hotspots might be a cost-effective way to conserve the species.

The IUCN sharks red list is published a few days before Spain is due to host an international meeting of the managers of tuna fisheries, where many of the sharks are caught. Scientists are also meeting in Denmark this week to produce advice for authorities on how to manage populations of Atlantic porbeagle sharks. "The completion of this global assessment of pelagic sharks and rays will provide an important baseline for monitoring the status of these keystone species in our oceans," said Roger McManus, vice-president for marine programmes at Conservation International.

Source: Guardian

Design and technology teams win national Challenge to design ‘crime proof' mobile phones

Some of the UK's top designers and technology experts have been announced as winners in the £400,000 Mobile Phone Security Challenge, a national competition to create ‘crime proof' mobile phones.

The winning teams are; Proxama with Minima Design, Therefore Product Design with Imagination Technologies Limited, Rodd Design with TTP (The Technology Partnership) and Data Transfer Communications and PDD Group Limited with You Get It Back.

The four winning teams are each made up of a design and a technology lead and were selected on the strengths of their credentials. The teams will be tasked with developing new ways of securing mobile phone handsets, the data they contain, and their future use as electronic ‘wallets' when m-commerce (mobile-commerce) technology is introduced in the UK. Their innovative ideas and concepts will now be developed and refined over the coming months in steering meetings with an expert panel from across the mobile, technology and design industries.

The winning teams will aim to produce market-ready solutions which may include hardware and software for handsets, new services and other innovations, which will be showcased and promoted in early 2010, with a view to widespread and rapid take-up by the market.

The Challenge is part of ‘Design Out Crime', an initiative from the Home Office's Design & Technology Alliance Against Crime and the Design Council. The Mobile Phone Security Challenge is supported by the Technology Strategy Board. Over 50 teams applied to the complex Challenge, setting out how they would tackle making mobile phones less attractive to thieves and fraudsters while developing real market solutions.

The applications were judged by a panel of the UK's most respected experts in the fields of design and mobile telecommunications and included representatives from Vodafone and Nokia. The four winning teams will be allocated £100,000 each for research and development, and will spend the next six months developing their solutions with access to advice from a panel of experts in the mobile, technology and design industries.

According to the British Crime Survey, a mobile phone is stolen in half of all robberies. Another recent survey found that 80% of people carry information on their mobile phone handsets that could be used by criminals to commit fraud - and 16% keep their bank details saved on their phone, yet only 4 in 10 people currently lock their mobiles using a PIN. Such sensitive data includes website passwords, bookmarks, emails, personal security data and locations/addresses on map applications.

Alan Campbell, Home Office Minister said: " We have already introduced strong measures to make mobile phone theft unattractive to thieves - around 90 per cent of handsets reported stolen are now blocked within 24 hours reducing their value and the incentive to steal. However, the rapidly developing nature of mobile technology means safeguards must be incorporated at the drawing board stage if we are to stop criminals from profiting from this type of crime. I look forward to seeing the innovative solutions these teams will create in order to improve mobile phone security."

Joe McGeehan, Design and Technology Alliance Against Crime, Director of Centre for Communications Research, Bristol University said: "We've had a great response to the Challenge from some really high calibre teams. Designing out crime from mobile phones is a complex problem. I think we have selected four very able teams that will deliver a range of potential solutions over the coming months, all of them innovative and practical."

David Kester, Chief Executive of the Design Council said: "This Design Out Crime project has big social and economic relevance right now. If these top winning design and technology teams can bring innovative crime-busting solutions to the international market, that will be good for business and jobs in the UK. It could also represent another important step forward in reducing the risk and fear of modern crimes."

Iain Gray, Chief Executive, Technology Strategy Board said: "This Challenge is the first example of our partnership with the Design Council, which aims to harness the full potential of the UK's design and technology base for economic and public good. In this case, it's good news for industry and even better news for tens of millions of honest mobile phone users. I'm looking forward to seeing some exciting prototypes in early 2010."

Other activity in the Design Out Crime programme, an initiative from the Home Office's Design and Technology Alliance Against Crime and the Design Council, includes using design to tackle crime reduction and anti-social behaviour issues across business crime, housing related crime, schools and alcohol related crime.

Source: Innovate UK

Fine our more about: Designing Out Crime

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Need Hydrogen Storage? Think Poultry

Here's a case for which solving an energy problem could ease a challenging environmental problem as well. Researchers have discovered that carbonized chicken feathers could provide an inexpensive, environmentally friendly way to store hydrogen fuel for future motor vehicles. If the concept is proven--and perhaps a bigger if, accepted by the automobile industry--it could go a long way toward helping to dispose of the 2.7 billion kilograms of chicken feathers generated each year by commercial poultry operations.

Hydrogen is a leading alternative fuel for vehicles. The byproducts of its combustion are nonpolluting, and its source--water--is superabundant. One hitch is the amount of energy required to manufacture it, and another is storing enough of it onboard to give vehicles a cruising range that approaches that of gasoline or diesel fuel. Hydrogen has proven notoriously difficult to store in sufficient quantities without placing it under enormous pressure, something that greatly adds to the weight of a vehicle and adds a serious explosion hazard. The best idea so far has been carbon nanotubes--microscopic structures that can pack away large quantities of hydrogen at normal pressure within a relatively small space. But a storage tank made of the nanotubes would cost millions of dollars.

Now a team at the University of Delaware, Newark, says it has an unlikely candidate: chicken feathers. It turns out that the feathers, which are made of keratin--the same protein in fingernails and beaks--comprise strong, hollow tubes. The team, led by chemical engineer Richard Wool, had been investigating the feathers' potential for improving the performance of electronic microcircuits. The air inside the tubes helps to speed electrons along the printed wiring, but the feathers weren't stiff enough to hold the circuit boards together very well. So the team tried a heating technique to strengthen the bonds between the carbon atoms in the keratin.

As the team reported today at the 13th Annual Green Chemistry and Engineering Conference in College Park, Maryland, carbonizing the feathers gave them a strength approaching that of the nanotubes. They could also store up to 1.7% of their weight as hydrogen, about as much as carbon nanotubes could store. Moreover, the feathers cost virtually nothing to produce. "They're a nuisance commodity," says Wool.

The researchers estimate that a hydrogen-storage tank using the carbonized feathers would cost only about $200 when mass-produced. It's a major step forward, but the U.S. Department of Energy has set a target capacity for hydrogen-storage techniques of 6% of weight, so the carbonized feathers need improvement. Still, Wool is confident that the goal can be achieved. "There are all kinds of next steps," he says.

Even if hydrogen doesn't become the next primary transportation fuel, finding a safer and economical way to store the gas would still be of great value, says chemical engineer John Dorgan of the Colorado School of Mines in Golden. Hydrogen has several important nontransportation uses, he explains, such as a cooling medium in electricity generation. So the innovative storage technique developed by Wool and his team could be much less hazardous than pressurized tanks. In addition, he says, "it simply makes sense to use renewable materials to build the renewable energy infrastructure."

Source: Science Now

'Lightbulb' molecule has a bright future

A single molecule that reliably emits white light could speed the development of low-energy LEDs for the next generation of light sources and displays, say chemists.

Energy-efficient LEDs are widely tipped to become the predominant lighting source of the next decade and beyond, replacing the fast-disappearing incandescent bulb, as well as the compact fluorescent lights that are replacing them.

Likely to become the standard in this area are organic LEDs – thin films made from organic polymers that can be coated onto large areas at low cost. But generating white light from OLEDs is difficult as organic compounds within the films generate light only at very specific colours. Making white involves mixing two or more compounds to create a white light balance, and that drives up the price.

Jekyll and Hyde

Soo-Young Park at Seoul National University, South Korea, and colleagues at the University of Valencia in Spain, have created a molecule able to behave like two separate light-producing molecules. When stimulated with a voltage it produces orange and blue light that mix to create white.

Previous attempts using the same basic concept involved linking together two separate molecules into one. But, because energy is able to flow between the two molecular sub-units, one unit typically emits more light than the other, resulting in an unwanted tint.

The new molecule does not suffer that problem, and only contains one light-emitting chemical group. When connected to a voltage, this group switches to a high-energy form that emits blue light as it reverts to its original state.

Roughly half the time, though, the high-energy form picks up extra oxygen and hydrogen atoms, becoming a short-lived form that produces orange light before reverting to the original state.

A large population of the molecules reliably produces equal quantities of orange and blue light that mix to produce an even white.

Efficiency boost

"This allows us to create white emission in much the same way as creating white light from independent [lights]," says Park, potentially saving money and increasing efficiency.

"The science is excellent and very impressive," says Colin Humphreys who works on LEDs at the University of Cambridge in the UK. But, he adds, it needs an efficiency boost before it can be used in commercial lighting and displays.

Currently, the molecule converts electrons into photons at least 30 times less efficiently than commercial LEDs. Park responds that the study was more about proof of principle and that the efficiency figures will rise as the method is optimised.

Journal reference: Journal of the American Chemical Society (DOI: 10.1021/ja902533f

Source: Planet Earth

Unhealthy diets make cockroaches fat

Cockroaches get fat and unhealthy if they have an unbalanced diet while they are young. The effects of unbalanced nutrition cannot be compensated for later in life and lead to less reproductive success and shorter life as adults.


While most people try desperately to get rid of cockroaches, Dr Patricia Moore, from the University of Exeter, has been studying the bugs for the past decade.

'It's important to have biodiversity in the lab as well as in the wild,' Moore says. 'Cockroaches are unusual lab animals, but they are very different from white mice and zebra fish and we can learn different things from their development and behaviour.'

As part of her long-term project, Moore looked at how female cockroaches change their mating behaviour. 'We already knew that what they eat as adults influences reproductive decisions,' Moore says. But what about the effects of diet early in life?

To find out, Moore and colleagues from Exeter picked young female cockroach nymphs and divided them into two dietary groups. Half were fed on a good-quality balanced diet of protein-rich fish food and high-carbohydrate oatmeal, while the rest was raised on fish food only. Both groups were allowed to eat as much as they wanted. The difference in diets 'was not quantity but variety,' explains Moore.

After the last moult, when the nymphs became adults, the team switched the diets of some animals. Half of the cockroaches raised with good quality diet lost their oatmeal, while half of the bugs fed on poor standards were promoted to a good-quality diet. Eighteen days after the switch, the diet control ended and some of the surviving cockroaches were dissected. The rest were allowed to live on and reproduce.

Cockroaches get fat with unhealthy diets

The results show that the type of diet has a strong effect on cockroach development and body mass. Overall life span did not change much between groups, but cockroaches fed on poor-quality diets as nymphs took longer to mature and spent less of their lives as adults. They were also fatter than nymphs raised with good-quality diets.

Moore suggests that the cockroaches fed on poor diets meals delayed their growth and stored excess fat as an insurance against further decreases in food quality. 'This was a surprising result,' says Moore, 'but it shows the importance of a balanced diet for healthy development.'

The effects of unbalanced meals continued throughout the cockroaches' lives, even for the few that were switched to good-quality food. Females that ate a poor-quality diet were less willing to mate and less likely to produce offspring. They were also more picky and spent more time considering possible mates, write the authors on the report published today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Perhaps if the cockroaches 'are not particularly healthy, they might be waiting for better conditions to mate,' Moore suggests. But regardless of the reasons behind their behavioural change, this paper shows that 'poor diets [during early life] have an effect on the way cockroaches respond to their environment and cannot be reset later on,' she adds.

Source: Planet Earth Online

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Plant leaf pores co-evolved with carbon dioxide

cientists have found that the size and number of pores in plants' leaves depends on how much carbon dioxide (CO2) was the atmosphere when those plants first appeared.
Single stoma in fern leaf

Single pore in fern leaf.

Plants that evolved during warm periods with high CO2 have larger but fewer leaf pores than species that first appeared during cooler times.

Leaf pores, called stomata, are microscopic structures that control the exchange of water and carbon dioxide between the plant and the atmosphere. Stomata evolved when plants colonised land about 400 million years ago and have kept the same general shape ever since. But their size and number has changed quite considerably throughout their history.

'This variation was well known from the fossil record of plants, but it was never explained,' says Dr Peter Franks, from the University of Sheffield and lead author of the paper co-authored with Professor David Beerling.

To make the connection between pore size and CO2 levels, Franks and Beerling combined data from fossils, climate models and physiology. It's an 'unusual set of resources to gain a completely new insight into when, why and how modern plants evolved to grow much faster than their ancestors,' says Franks.

Change in pore size

Franks and Beerling found that variation in pore size through time is related to changes of CO2 in the atmosphere. At times when the Earth is warm and CO2 concentrations are high, new plants species evolve with large stomata, sparsely distributed through the leaf. But when the temperature is cooling down and the CO2 in the atmosphere is relatively low, new plants emerge with numerous but tiny leaf pores.

This correlation exists because lots of small stomata promote a more efficient gas exchange between leaves and the atmosphere than few bigger pores. 'Grasses are a good example,' says Franks. With small yet plentiful pores, they are a successful and relatively recent plant group, perfectly adapted to make the most of a CO2-poor atmosphere.

On the other hand, club mosses first appeared during the Devonian, about 400 million years ago, when the Earth was going through a greenhouse climate with high CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. Nowadays, 'club mosses are remnants of an ancient flora typical of warm climates, with large but few stomata,' says Franks.

The findings, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show for the first time that long-term changes in atmospheric CO2 are able to steer the evolution of plants.

Source: NERC

Robotic ferret will detect hidden drugs and weapons

A new type of robot being developed will make it easier to detect drugs, weapons, explosives and illegal immigrants concealed in cargo containers.

Dubbed the ‘cargo-screening ferret’ and designed for use at seaports and airports, the device is being worked on at the University of Sheffield with funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

The ferret will be the world’s first cargo-screening device able to pinpoint all kinds of illicit substances and the first designed to operate inside standard freight containers.

It will be equipped with a suite of sensors that are more comprehensive and more sensitive than any currently employed in conventional cargo scanners.

Recent advances in both laser and fibre optic technology now make it possible to detect tiny particles of different substances. The EPSRC-funded project team is developing sensors which incorporate these technologies and that are small enough to be carried on the 30cm-long robot, in order to detect the specific ‘fingerprint’ of illegal substances at much lower concentrations than is now possible.

When placed inside a steel freight container, the ferret will attach itself magnetically to the top, then automatically move around and seek out contraband, sending a steady stream of information back to its controller.

Current cargo-screening methods rely on a variety of separate methods, such as the use of sniffer dogs and external scanners for detecting explosives and drugs and carbon dioxide probes and heartbeat monitors to detect a human presence.

Cargo scanners currently in use at seaports and airports only generate information on the shape and density of objects or substances. The ferret, however, will be able to provide information on what they actually consist of as well.

“It’s essential we develop something which is simple to operate and which Border Agents can have total confidence in,” says Dr Tony Dodd, who is leading the project. “The ferret will be able to drop small probes down through the cargo and so pinpoint exactly where contraband is concealed.”

Working prototypes of the cargo-screening ferret could be ready for testing within two years, with potential deployment within around five years.

Source: EPSRC

UK Chemistry “World Leading” says Independent Panel

Chemistry research in the UK is world leading, internationally recognised, and well placed to tackle society’s greatest challenges according to a panel of eminent overseas researchers who have compared the strength of UK research activity with world competitors.

The International Review of Chemistry 2009, comprising of academics and industrialists from outside the UK, visited a number of UK research groups in April 2009 and had access to a wide pool of experts and supporting data to help them reach their conclusions.

Chair of the Review Panel, Professor Michael Klein from the University of Pennsylvania, said:

“There are examples of truly outstanding, world-leading and world-class work. The community is aggressively utilising all of the funding streams available through the Research Councils, charities, Europe and industry. Importantly, the top-level research is not confined to just one location. There are excellent examples of international collaboration, especially via EU programmes and a number of good examples of co-operation with industry. Multi-disciplinary research efforts are expanding.

Examples of excellent multidisciplinary research are emerging from the new Doctoral Training Centres (DTCs) and chemists in the UK are better prepared than in the past to tackle society's challenges. The panel was impressed with the calibre and intellectual strength of some of the ‘Early Career’ Scientists they met.

EPSRC Chief Executive, Professor Dave Delpy said:

“This is the second International Review of Chemistry and reflects the important contribution of this subject to the UK. This contribution enables progress by bringing a fundamental knowledge and understanding of chemistry which drives advances in many areas. Chemistry research underpins a wide range of activities that benefit society including discoveries that lead to new industries, materials and technologies as well as helping to conquer diseases. Chemistry will be indispensable in attacking the challenges of climate change, energy, and sustainability.”

The panel also found:

  • Numerous examples of vigorous and successful spin out companies, with academic-industry collaboration - a positive and distinguishing feature in the UK.

  • Outstanding facilities and equipment levels comparable with the best in Europe.

  • Good examples of local and regional university interactions and funding.

  • That the UK is seen as an attractive venue by chemists around the globe.

Chemistry is a key enabling central science - addressing issues of societal concern and contributing to economic development.

The findings of the review panel were announced at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) on Friday 12 June.

This review was part of a series of international reviews organised by EPSRC in partnership with learned societies to provide an independent assessment of the quality and impact of UK research.

Notes to Editors:

Press Release Issued by the EPRSC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council) on behalf of the International Review of Chemistry 2009.

The International Review of Chemistry was held during the period 20 – 24 April 2009.

A Town Meeting was held on Friday 12 June 2009 at the RSA, 8 John Adam Street, London, WC2N 6EZ. The meeting included a presentation of the report of the Review Panel and a discussion of the findings, in order to begin development of an action plan to take recommendations forward. The full report will be published following this activity.

For further information go to the 2009 International Review of UK Chemistry Research page.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK’s main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences. The EPSRC invests more than £850 million a year in research and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change.

Behind the scenes at the Evolution MegaLab

To commemorate the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin, researchers are conducting the largest evolutionary survey undertaken in a wild species. A yellow many banded adult Cepaea nemoralis (Al Greer)Two types of banded snails, Cepaea nemoralis and C. hortensis, are being studied by a team of collaborators in 14 countries who are asking the public across Europe to help them find out whether the snails have evolved in response to changes in their environment. The data collected will be compared with historical samples, some of them collected over 100 years ago.

"Most banded snail populations display easily identifiable differences in shell colouring and banding" says Professor Jonathan Silvertown from the Open University. "The Evolution MegaLab involves the general public in a project to discover what effect climate change and changes in bird predation are having upon the evolution of these two species."

Banded snails occur in many parts of the UK and continental Europe. The Evolution MegaLab allows members of the public to participate in the study by uploading data to the research website. The website has a variety of resources including background information on banded snails and full instructions on how to participate in the project. Participants are provided with personalised, informative feedback and can see their contribution on the website.

"Evolution MegaLab is providing the public with the opportunity to contribute to a unique scientific study," says Jonathan.

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Source: Royal Society

Do I know you from somewhere? How humans recognise kin

Humans can tell if two strangers are related, even if they are generations apart, just by looking at their faces. So say scientists writing today in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B , who believe this ability helps us to interpret situations and understand the motives of others in a social setting.

It is well documented that humans have the ability to recognise their own relatives an important tool if we are to promote our genes whilst avoiding the damaging impacts of incest. But this is the first study to actually show that humans are capable of indentifying which individuals are related, even in cases where they are more than a generation apart and have presumably not lived together.

The team of researchers from Grenoble University asked 59 subjects to look at pairs of images of faces and decide whether or not they are related. The pairs we made up from a database of images collected from 32 different families. They also timed how long it took the subjects to make the decision, as this indicates how hard they find the task.

The results showed that people can tell that even distant relatives have family ties for example a grandparent and grandchild yet we tend to find it harder to spot relatives the more distant they get.
The similarities in peoples' faces that help us to make a link between relatives can come from genetic makeup and also from environmental factors which are common to people who live together. Siblings raised on the same diet might have a similar complexion, for example.

Because people are more likely to help relatives than those who aren't kin, there is an evolutionary advantage to being able to tell if strangers are related, say the authors. The knowledge can help us to resolve or avoid problems in a range of social contexts: "Anticipating hostile alliances, enlisting aid, pacifying conflicts amongst kin, forming coalitions, punishing people or eliciting sexual favours&even trying to flatter someone may be indirectly achieved by addressing a related individual," they add.

Source: The Royal Society

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

The search for ET just got easier

Astronomers using the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC) William Herschel Telescope (WHT) on La Palma have confirmed an effective way to search the atmospheres of planets for signs of life, vastly improving our chances of finding alien life outside our solar system.

Artist’s concept of sunlight glowing through Earth's atmosphere
Artist’s concept of sunlight glowing through Earth's atmosphere
Credit:Gabriel Perez Diaz, SMM,IAC

The team from the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias (IAC) used the WHT and the Nordic Optical Telescope (NOT) to take the first transmission spectrum of the Earth - information about the chemical composition of the Earth’s atmosphere from sunlight that has passed through it. The research is published today (11th June) in Nature.

When a planet passes in front of its parent star, part of the starlight passes through the planet’s atmosphere and contains information about the constituents of the atmosphere, providing vital information about the planet itself. This is called a transmission spectrum and even though astronomers can’t use exactly the same method to look at the Earth’s atmosphere, they were able to gain a spectrum of our planet by observing light reflected from the Moon towards the Earth during a lunar eclipse. This is the first time the transmission spectrum of the Earth has been measured.

The spectrum not only contained signs of life but these signs were unmistakably strong. It also contained unexpected molecular bands and the signature of the earth ionosphere.

Enric Palle, lead author of the paper, from the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias, said, “Now we know what the transmission spectrum of a inhabited planet looks like, we have a much better idea of how to find and recognize Earth like planets outside our solar system where life may be thriving. The information in this spectrum shows us that this is a very effective way to gather information about the biological processes that may be taking place on a planet.”

The Moon during a lunar eclipse
The Moon during a lunar eclipse
Credit:Daniel Lopez, IAC

Pilar Montañes-Rodriguez, from the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias, added, “Many discoveries of Earth-size planets are expected in the next decades and some will orbit in the habitable zone of their parent stars. Obtaining their atmospheric properties will be highly challenging; the greatest reward will happen when one of those planets shows a spectrum like that of our Earth.”

The past two decades have witnessed the discovery of hundreds of exoplanets (planets beyond our solar system). Ambitious missions, ground and space based, are already being planned for the next decades, and the discovery of Earth-like planets is only a matter of time. Once these planets are found, techniques like transmission spectra will be invaluable to their further exploration.

Professor Keith Mason, Chief Executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), said, “This new transmission spectrum is good news for future upcoming ground and space based missions dedicated to the search for life in the universe. The UK is committed to cutting edge science and UK owned facilities like the WHT are helping to make many groundbreaking discoveries and expand our knowledge of the Universe. Not only do these results improve our knowledge of our own planet but we now have an effective way to search for life on the increasing number of exoplanets being found by astronomers.”

Friday, 12 June 2009

Evolution of swine flu mapped by scientists

Funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) has played an important role in enabling the rapid analysis of genetic data from the ongoing Influenza H1N1 outbreak attributed to Swine flu.

The analysis, published online (11 June) in the journal Nature, found that transmission to humans occurred several months before recognition of the existing outbreak and suggests that there is a need for systematic surveillance of influenza in pigs.

Using evolutionary analysis, scientists from the Universities of Arizona, Edinburgh, Hong Kong and Oxford, looked at the timescale of the origins and early development of the virus responsible for the current swine flu outbreak.

Dr Samantha Lycett, from the University of Edinburgh, who worked on the project and who is carrying out research into Avian influenza, funded by BBSRC, explained: "From my ongoing research into Avian influenza, I already had analysis programs set up to prepare and select downloaded virus sequences for further analysis, so was able to rapidly generate a good data set covering about 800 complete genome sequences leading up to current H1N1 outbreak."

Commenting on the research, Professor Douglas Kell, BBSRC Chief Executive said: "The ability to respond quickly and accurately in crisis situations is crucial. This research illustrates how ongoing basic bioscience research provides transferable techniques, knowledge and skills and places UK scientists at the forefront of tackling global challenges. This is a particularly nice example of the importance of the methods of genomics and bioinformatics in the solution of complex problems of biology with immediate social applications."

Visit BBSRC for more information

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Science museum's top 10 objects

Which was the more important invention - the railway revolution ushered in by Stephenson's Rocket or the life-saving achievements of penicillin?

The Science Museum in London has chosen a top 10 list of its most significant objects, as part of events marking its centenary.

The public will be invited to vote on this list of scientific breakthroughs.

These "icons" of science will become part of a centenary trail for visitors to the South Kensington museum.

There have already been expressions of support for particular objects.

Best inventions

Trevor Baylis, the inventor, says he would vote for the V2 rocket engine.

Steam engine
V2 rocket engine
Electric telegraph
Stephenson's Rocket
X-ray machine
Model T Ford
Pilot ACE Computer
DNA double helix
Apollo 10 capsule

"It's one of the greatest achievements of our time because it led to space exploration, and then satellite development, which then led to mobile phones and the astounding communication services we enjoy today," he said.

Alice Roberts, television presenter and doctor, says she would vote for the invention of the X-ray machine.

"X-rays provided the first possibility of looking inside someone's body without cutting them open, a massive medical advance."

The museum's chief curator, Tim Boon, wants the top 10 to spark debate about the value of inventions and discoveries.

The hands of George V and Queen Mary
The hands of George V and Queen Mary in an X-ray

"What did we miss, is there an alternative top ten? Some of the objects may divide opinion. Would we be better off if some of the icons, which have had negative consequences, had not been invented?"

The Science Museum's origins lay in the Great Exhibition of 1851, with funds from the industrial showcase being used to begin a network of museums and libraries in South Kensington.

The first building, known as the South Kensington Museum, was opened to the public in 1857.

The centenary being celebrated this year is the creation in 1909 of a separately administered museum in a new building, which formally adopted the title "Science Museum".

Source: BBC

For more information on the top ten visit the Science Museaum

Monday, 8 June 2009

Early rocks to reveal their ages

A new technique has been helping scientists piece together how the Earth's continents were arranged 2.5 billion years ago.

The novel method allows scientists to recover rare minerals from rocks.
By analysing the composition of these minerals, researchers can precisely date ancient volcanic rocks for the first time.

By aligning rocks that have a similar age and orientation, the early landmasses can be pieced together.

This will aid the discovery of rocks rich in ore and oil deposits, say the scientists. The approach has already shown that Canada once bordered Zimbabwe, helping the mining industry identify new areas for exploration.

Dr Wouter Bleeker, from the Geological Survey of Canada, explained that much of the geology that exists today formed around 300 million years ago when the supercontinent Pangea existed.
"We really don't understand the [Earth's] history prior to Pangea," he told a recent meeting of the American Geophysical Union in Toronto.

Early landmasses
Analysis of rocks that formed when continents drifted apart can help geologists reconstruct early landmasses.

Dr Richard Ernst, a geologist from the University of Ottawa, explained that molten magma fills the cracks formed by shifting continental plates.

The magma cools to form long veins of basalt - a volcanic rock - that has a "distinct magnetic signature" revealing the rock's orientation and latitude when it formed.

By combining this "magnetic signature" with the ages of these rocks, researchers can tell whether rocks on different continents were once part of the same volcanic up-welling.
But until now, researchers have been unable to determine the ages of many of these ancient rocks because of the difficulty in extracting the minerals used to date them.

The researchers are dealing with such small mineral crystals - typically much less than 100 microns long - that grains are far smaller than the width of a human hair.
But with the development of new techniques, minerals - such as baddeleyite - can now be successfully recovered.

Baddeleyite is useful because it incorporates large amounts of uranium into its crystal-structure, and because uranium naturally decays to lead.
Scientists also know the rate at which this happens, so they can use these minerals as radioactive "clocks".

They then need to measure the amounts of uranium and lead very precisely.
In a large, international project, researchers hope to collect and date 250 rocks from around the world, and use this information to reconstruct how these continental fragments were once together to form giant landmasses that existed 2.5 billion years ago.

Source: BBC

Brain training, chimp chat and the dark side of the Universe…

This September, the British Science Festival will be regaling Surrey with the latest exciting and thought-provoking science. Among the anticipated highlights are the British Science Association Award Lectures, which will be presented at the University of Surrey, Guildford.The Award Lectures are coveted prizes for talented communicators with an interesting story to tell about their research.

The Association has identified five early stage scientists and engineers who have demonstrated exceptional skills in communicating to non-specialist audiences to give these prestigious lectures.

The winners will present diverse subject matter - from a look at how working memory, the brain’s ‘post-it note’, is at the centre of a new scientific revolution in understanding how the brain works, to insights into dark matter. The lunchtime lectures are open to all.
For more information visit: The British Science Assoction

Innovation: Behind Microsoft's full-body gaming interface

At the E3 2009 gaming conference in Los Angeles, California, this week, Microsoft unveiled a new hands-free, full-body-control system for its Xbox 360 console, codenamed Natal. Using it, players can interact with games simply by talking and moving their body.

Microsoft also claims that it can recognise emotions, and Natal has impressed game players, developers and movie mogul Steven Spielberg alike.

It is undeniably impressive. And you have to wonder: how does Natal actually work? Microsoft is remaining tight-lipped. But we've talked to industry insiders and pulled together some material from the New Scientist archive to suggest how it could live up to the high expectations generated by partially enhanced concept videos like this one.

Camera capture

Although techniques to capture a person's movement using cameras have been in development since the 1970s, doing so without attaching markers to the person's body as Natal does is a more recent possibility.

Organic Motion is one of the few commercial companies currently offering markerless motion capture technology. Andrew Tschesnok, the firm's CEO, says his system uses as many as 14 cameras positioned around an actor to get a 3D picture of their movement in real time.

But Natal comes equipped with just two cameras. So how can it work with such a limited input?
In-depth view

A year ago, Israeli firm 3DV Systems unveiled a system that uses an infrared depth-sensing camera. The ZCam is said to be able to pinpoint the depth of an object to within 1 to 2 centimetres, and capture the information at a rate of 60 frames per minute for very smooth motion. A second, full colour camera in the device records textures and colours.

In March of this year, the company sold its assets to a third party, reportedly Microsoft. Many people have concluded that Natal's motion capture system owes a lot to the ZCam. When New Scientist asked 3DV System's CEO Zvika Klier about the possibility this week, he had no comment.

Tschesnok says the results from ZCam-like systems fall short of what he'd call true markerless motion capture – Natal can't see what's going on behind a gamer's back – but it is still an improvement over other games consoles' interfaces and will work well for Natal's needs. "In a way, it's the same effect as having a Wiimote in each hand, one on each foot and one on your head," he says.

But more is yet to come: Tschesnok predicts that the games consoles due out early in the next decade will use his multi-camera system, built into the widely used "surround sound" speaker systems to provide users with a truly immersive experience.

Voice in the crowd

People are also understandably excited about Natal appearing to recognise and respond to voices and emotions. However, while speech recognition software may be increasingly common, it still suffers from the "cocktail party" effect; where background noise and multiple voices can cause errors.

Finding a way round this issue is vital for gaming. Microsoft is targeting Natal at social and casual gamers who are likely to play in the company of others, yet few, if any, voice recognition systems have been created capable of following a single voice in a noisy room.

IBM has shown that a system that can read lips provides one way around that. That could help Natal, but would need to be tuned separately to different languages.

Research that enabled one of Honda's Asimo humanoid's to understand three voices all speaking at once even suggests that multiplayer voice control could be possible one day.

Face reading

Speech software could also feasibly be used to recognise emotions from stresses and emphasis in a player's voice. For example, software called Emotive Alert is able to classify voices into one of eight basic emotional states.

We are told, though, that Natal will use facial recognition, so it may read emotions that way too. Earlier this year, artist Tina Gonsalves teamed up with neuroscientist Chris Frith at University College London, UK, to develop an art installation that responds to the emotion of visitors, using an algorithm Frith created to read faces.

Frith told New Scientist that getting such systems to perform reliably is difficult, but not impossible. However, it is unlikely that Natal will detect more than a handful of basic emotions.

Emotional connection

Even with that limitation, a console able to sense emotions and respond to them has the potential to make gaming a much richer experience.

In 2005, an "emotionally aware" virtual fitness trainer, name Laura, was tested on groups of volunteers. Her friendly gestures and sympathetic body language were found to genuinely foster a better connection with users. This positive influence significantly increased the participants' exercise levels compared to a control group interacting with a version of Laura that didn't recognise emotions.

The Natal concept videos may seem on first viewing to show technology bordering on the fictional, but it's clear that many of the basics are within our technological reach. How many of these features gamers will see when Natal finally hits shelves, though, is unknown.

Source: New Scientist