Extracting Water from Fog

Most of us take it for granted that water is as close as your kitchen tap. But that’s not true everywhere. Two scientists at MIT have a new method for harvesting water from fog, especially fog released from cooling towers such as those found from power plants. It turns out, harvesting water from fog isn’t a new idea. You typically insert a mesh into the air and collect water droplets from the fog. The problem is with a typical diameter of 10 microns, the water droplets mostly miss the mesh, meaning they typically extract no more than 2% of the water content in the air.

The team found two reasons for the low efficiency. Water clogs the mesh openings which can be somewhat mitigated by using coated meshes that shed water quickly. Even in the lab that only increases the yield to about 10%. The bigger problem, though, is basically only some of the droplets hit the mesh, and even those that do may not stick because of drag. Fine meshes can help but are harder to make and have low structural integrity. Their solution? Inject ions into the fog to charge the water droplets and impart the opposite charge on the mesh.

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Modular Blocks Help Fight Disease

When engineering a solution to a problem, an often-successful approach is to keep the design as simple as possible. Simple things are easier to produce, maintain, and use. Whether you’re building a robot, operating system, or automobile, this type of design can help in many different ways. Now, researchers at MIT’s Little Devices Lab have taken this philosophy to testing for various medical conditions, using a set of modular blocks.

Each block is designed for a specific purpose, and can be linked together with other blocks. For example, one block may be able to identify Zika virus, and another block could help determine blood sugar levels. By linking the blocks together, a healthcare worker can build a diagnosis system catered specifically for their needs. The price tag for these small, simple blocks is modest as well: about $0.015, or one and a half cents per block. They also don’t need to be refrigerated or handled specially, and some can be reused.

This is an impressive breakthrough that is poised to help not only low-income people around the world, but anyone with a need for quick, accurate medical diagnoses at a marginal cost. Keeping things simple and modular allows for all kinds of possibilities, as we recently covered in the world of robotics.

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Modular Robotics: When You Want More Robots in Your Robot

While robots have been making our lives easier and our assembly lines more efficient for over half a century now, we haven’t quite cracked a Jetsons-like general purpose robot yet. Sure, Boston Dynamics and MIT have some humanoid robots that are fun to kick and knock over, but they’re far from building a world-ending Terminator automaton.

But not every robot needs to be human-shaped in order to be general purpose. Some of the more interesting designs being researched are modular robots. It’s an approach to robotics which uses smaller units that can combine into assemblies that accomplish a given task.

We’ve been immersing ourselves in topics like this one because right now the Robotics Module Challenge is the current focus of the Hackaday Prize. We’re looking for any modular designs that make it easier to build robots — motor drivers, sensor arrays, limb designs — your imagination is the limit. But self contained robot modules that themselves make up larger robots is a fascinating field that definitely fits in with this challenge. Join me for a look at where modular robots are now, and where we’d like to see them going.

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AlterEgo Listens to Your Internal Voice

Recent news reports have claimed that an MIT headset can read your mind, but as it turns out that’s a little bit of fake news. There is a headset — called AlterEgo — but it doesn’t actually read your mind. Rather, it measures subtle cues of you silently vocalizing words. We aren’t sure exactly how that works, but the FAQ claims it is similar to how you experience reading as a child.

If you read much science fiction, you probably recognize this as subvocalization, which has been under study by the Army and NASA. However, from what we know, the positioning of sensor electrodes is crucial and can vary not only by speaker, but also change for the same speaker. Perhaps the MIT device has found a way around that problem. You can see a video of the system, below.

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Coaxing Water From Desert Air

From the windtraps and stillsuits of Dune’s Arrakis, to the moisture vaporators of Tatooine, science fiction has invented fantastic ways to collect the water necessary for life on desert worlds. On Earth we generally have an easier go of it, but water supply in arid climates is still an important issue. Addressing this obstacle, a team of researchers from MIT and the University of California at Berkeley have developed a method to tease moisture out of thin air.

A year after the team first published their idea, they have successfully field-tested their method on an Arizona State University rooftop in Tempe, proving the concept and the potential for scaling up the technology. The device takes advantage of metal-organic framework(MOF) materials with high surface area that are able to trap moisture in air with as little as 10% humidity — even at sub-zero dewpoints. Dispensing with the need for power-hungry refrigeration techniques to condense moisture, this technique instead relies on the heat of the sun — although low-grade heat sources are also a possibility.

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Quantum Electric Material Borrows from Japanese Basketweaving

Kagome is a pattern used to weave baskets from bamboo strips. The pattern is a symmetrical pattern of interlaced triangles that share corners. Scientists from MIT, Harvard, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have produced a kagome metal and found that it has exotic quantum properties.

Their paper, published in Nature (paywall), reports that the crystal made from layers of iron and tin atoms, causes electrons to flow in strange ways. The electrons bend into tight circular paths and flow along the edges without losing energy.

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Robotic Wood Shop Has Ambitions To Challenge IKEA

Many people got their start with 3D printing by downloading designs from Thingiverse, and some of these designs could be modified in the browser using the Thingiverse Customizer. The mechanism behind this powerful feature is OpenSCAD’s parametric design capability, which offers great flexibility but is still limited by 3D printer size. In the interest of going bigger, a team at MIT built a system to adopt parametric design idea to woodworking.

The “AutoSaw” has software and hardware components. The software side is built on web-based CAD software Onshape. First the expert user builds a flexible design with parameters that could be customized, followed by one or more end users who specify their own custom configuration.

Once the configuration is approved, the robots go to work. AutoSaw has two robotic woodworking systems: The simpler one is a Roomba mounted jigsaw to cut patterns out of flat sheets. The more complex system involves two robot arms on wheels (Kuka youBot) working with a chop saw to cut wood beams to length. These wood pieces are then assembled by the end-user using dowel pegs.

AutoSaw is a fun proof of concept and a glimpse at a potential future: One where a robotic wood shop is part of your local home improvement store’s lumber department. Ready to cut/drill/route pieces for you to take home and assemble.

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