Bionic leaf creates its own fertiliser to fuel new ‘green revolution’

Researchers have invented a new bionic leaf that uses bacteria, sunlight, water and air to make fertilizer in the very soil where crops are grown. It is hoped that the leaf will be able to serve a vital role in kickstarting a new ‘green revolution’ like that of the mid-20th century.

The first green revolution saw a massive increase in the use of fertiliser on new wheat and rice varieties, helping to double agricultural production. Though far from a perfect solution – the  increased use resulted in serious environmental damage – the United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organization have said that the move quite possibly saved millions of lives.

However, while it served at the time, a new green revolution is required. With the world’s population expected to grow by another 2 billion by 2050, a solution to boost production without having to clear masses more land for farming is urgently required.

A multi-pronged approach will be necessary, but the bionic leaf could play a vital role.

“When you have a large centralised process and a massive infrastructure, you can easily make and deliver fertiliser,” said Dr Daniel Nocera.

“But if I said that now you’ve got to do it in a village in India onsite with dirty water — forget it. Poorer countries in the emerging world don’t always have the resources to do this. We should be thinking of a distributed system because that’s where it’s really needed.”

Nocera is known for his previous work on artificial leaves turning sunlight into liquid fuel, which we reported on here, and is now looking to turn that expertise towards the creation of fertiliser.

Previous iterations of the leaf, when exposed to sunlight, paired a water-splitting catalyst with the bacteria Ralstonia eutropha, which consumes hydrogen and takes carbon dioxide out of the air to make liquid fuel.

Radishes grown with the self-fertilising bionic leaf, right, alongside those grown with conventional methods. Image courtesy of Nocera lab, Harvard University

Last June, Nocera’s bionic leaf even reached the point of providing biomass and liquid fuel yields that greatly exceeded those from natural photosynthesis. Now, by using Xanthobacter bacteria, the leaf can fix hydrogen from itself and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to make a bioplastic that the bacteria store inside themselves as fuel.

“I can then put the bug in the soil because it has already used the sunlight to make the bioplastic,” Nocera explained. “Then the bug pulls nitrogen from the air and uses the bioplastic, which is basically stored hydrogen, to drive the fixation cycle to make ammonia for fertilising crops.”

The research team have already tested the ammonia production of the system but have found real proof in growing radishes. Using the system to grow five crop cycles, they found that the vegetables receiving the bionic-leaf-derived fertilizer weigh 150 percent more than the control crops.

With this success behind them, Nocera has said that the next step is boosting throughput to get to the point where farmers in locations such as India or sub-Saharan Africa can produce their own fertiliser.

In the face of a collapsing market, Acer goes once more unto the smartwatch breach

Despite the fact that smartwatches are generally seeing their sales plummet, Acer has decided to release a new product into the collapsing market. Taking “an elegant approach to fitness”, the Leap Ware smartwatch seems to be fairly standard fare, using an array of fitness-tracking sensors in combination with an app to keep tabs on all of the various statistics the sensors provide.

“As the pace of modern lifestyles become ever more hectic, people demand technology that can keep them on track and motivated to pursue their goals,” said MH Wang, general manager of Smart Device Products in Acer’s IT Products Business.

“The new Acer Leap Ware is designed to act as a virtual coach to help people go, track, and share, sending them reminders and alerts when they need them the most.”

Acer obviously has to promote its product but the above statement seems somewhat bizarrely unaware of the fact that not only is the company offering pretty much the exact same thing every other smartwatch does, but is are doing so in a market that is dying a fairly nasty death. With big names like Pebble going under, and Fitbit’s stock having been on a steady decline, the persistence in putting out new products is a bold move.

In October 2016, the BBC wrote about a new report by market analysts IDC that showed amartwatch shipments declined by 51.6% year-on-year. The Apple Watch held its place as the market leader, but shipped only a quarter of the units it had sold in the same period (July-September) of 2015. And of the five leading brands, only Garmin showed growth with that growth still being underpinned by low figures.

“It has become evident that, at present, smartwatches are not for everyone,” said Jitesh Ubrani from IDC. “Having a clear purpose and use case is paramount, hence many vendors are focusing on fitness due to its simplicity.”

Images courtesy of Acer

It was pointed out by experts that the period examined was before new versions were released, but there is still a clear lack in significant consumer appetite. The market has largely survived off the fitness aspects, with other products largely falling by the wayside as the novelty wears off. And Acer itself hasn’t exactly been the premium forerunner.

The Leap Ware watch certainly seems a perfectly fine entry into the marketplace. It’s got “diverse fitness tracking features thanks to an array of sensors with advanced algorithms” and supposedly has a battery life of three to five days so you don’t miss out on logging those all-important stats. My watch only tells the time and date. It also has a battery life of ten years.

There is a reasonable chance that initial sales for the Leap Ware may be strong, being all shiny and new as it is. There’s also a very good chance they will quickly plummet as Acer discovers what consumers are desperately trying to tell them: people don’t want smartwatches anymore.

For more information and discussion of the collapse of wearable technology, check out the latest issue of Factor magazine.

Premature lambs kept alive in artificial wombs

Extremely premature lambs have been kept alive in a artificial womb. The fluid-filled plastic bag reproduces the environment of the womb and replaces the function of the placenta. The scientists responsible believe the device could be used for premature babies within the next three years.

Source: New Scientist

British engineer is using recycled plastic to build stronger roads

British engineer Toby McCartney has devised an innovative process that replaces much of the crude oil-based asphalt in pavement with pellets of plastic, made from recyclable bottles. The result is a street that’s 60% stronger than traditional roads, ten times longer-lasting as well as the obvious environmental benefits.

Source: Curbed

Elon Musk’s giant tunnel boring machine arrives at SpaceX

In February, Musk was looking at purchasing a used Herrenknecht boring machine: about 26 feet in diameter, about 400 feet long, and weighing about 1,200 tons. It’s not clear if this is the same machine, but one just arrived at SpaceX’s headquarters and can now be found in the parking lot.

Source: Electrek

Surgeon claims brain transplants are just three years away

A pioneering Italian surgeon has claimed people who have had their brains cryogenically frozen could be 'woken up' within three years. The claim is being made by professor Sergio Canavero who also claims he can carry out the first human head transplant within 10 months before he begins trials on brain transplants.

Source: The Telegraph

Facebook 'observed propaganda efforts' by governments

Facebook has revealed in a new report that it observed attempts to spread propaganda on its site, apparently orchestrated by governments or organised parties. The firm has seen "false news, disinformation, or networks of fake accounts aimed at manipulating public opinion", it said.

Source: BBC

Ex-head of Google China predicts AI will take half of all jobs in a decade

The ex-head of Google China, Kai-Fu Lee, has said that AI will be bigger than all previous tech innovations put together. "These are things that are superhuman, and we think this will be in every industry, will probably replace 50% of human jobs, create a huge amount of wealth for mankind and wipe out poverty," said Lee.

Source: CNBC