Scientists working to advance the frontier of knowledge frequently also need to invent their tools along the way. Sometimes these are interesting little hacks to get a job done. Recently some researchers found ancestors of moths and butterflies older than any previously known by analyzing tiny scales found alongside ancient pollen. They needed a tool to manipulate these scales: separating them from surrounding debris, transferring them to microscope slides. The special tool was a needle tipped with a single human nostril hair.
As ancient insects were the published paper‘s focus, their use of nose hair tipped needle was only given a brief mention in the “Materials and Methods” section. Interviews by press quoted researchers’ claim that nose hair has the right mechanical properties for the job, without further details. Not even a picture of the tool itself. What properties of insect scales made them a good match with the properties of nose hair? Was there a comprehensive evaluation of multiple types of hair for the task? Would we regret asking these questions?
Novel approaches to fine-tipped tools would be interesting to examine under other contexts, like the tweezers we use to build surface-mount electronics. As SMD parts continue to shrink in size, will we reach a point where hair-tipped tools are the best DIY alternative to an expensive pick-and-place machine? It would be another creative approach to deal with the challenges of hand-built SMD. From simple but effective mechanical helpers, to handy 3D printed tools, to building hybrid Manual + CNC pick-and-place more affordable than their fully automated counterparts.
[via Washington Post]
Outlawed now in some places, or only available to tote your purchases at a ridiculous premium, the billions of “T-shirt” bags used every year present a serious waste management problem. Whether blowing across the landscape like synthetic tumbleweeds, floating in the ocean as ersatz jellyfish, or clogging up municipal waste streams, finding a way to deal with them could really make a difference. And finding a bug that eats polyethylene and poops antifreeze might be a great first step in bioremediating the mess.
As with many scientific discoveries, learning about the useful and unexpected eating habits of the larval stage of the Greater Wax Moth Galleria mellonella can be chalked up to serendipity. It began when biochemist [Federica Bertocchini] cleaned a wax moth infestation from her beehive. She put the beeswax-loving pests in a plastic bag, later finding they had chewed their way out. Intrigued, she and [Paolo Bombelli] ran some experiments using the bugs. They showed the mechanism wasn’t just mechanical and that the worms were digesting the polyethylene, to the tune of 92 mg consumed for 100 worms in 12 hours. That’s about 1,000 times faster than bioremediation with bacteria.
Furthermore, the bugs excrete ethylene glycol, a useful industrial chemical, in the process. Finally, to see if the process can scale, the researchers showed that a homogenate of wax moth larvae could digest PE sheets. This could lead to an industrial process if the enzymes involved can be isolated and engineered. The letter describing the process is a fascinating read.
While this one may not a classically hackish way to deal with plastic recycling, the potential for this method is huge. We look forward to seeing where this goes.
[Images: César Hernández/CSIC]
Harvard University has had the flying robot insect market covered for a long time. However, their robot bee, while cool, was starting to bum them out. They wanted to put the battery and brain on the robocritter and have it fly around without a tether. Technology just wasn’t moving fast enough for them, so they’ve picked a different bug, this time a moth.
The Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University is known for its Flying Winged Micro Air Vehicles or FWMAV. Which is a pretty good example of what happens when you let engineers name things. This FWMAV, weighs in at a hefty 3grams and has a 16mm wingspan. It also has propulsion, sensors, communication, brains, and power on board. Pretty impressive, the heaviest item is the motor!
The moth can produce 4g of thrust, and they’ve shown it capable of staying aloft once launched with a small catapult. Since they’ve proven that it can at least fly, the next steps are to figure out the dynamics of moth-based flight. Right now it stays pointed in the right direction with a very tiny tail fin like on an airplane. Real moths manage this feat with independent wing control, which the robot doesn’t have yet.
It will be a while before a we’ll see robot moths bumping into our computer monitors a night, stealing our passwords, but it’s a really cool exercise in robot miniaturization.
Continue reading “Robot Moth Is Learning To Fly Like A Real Moth”