Growing for a Drive: Researchers transform plant waste into carbon fibre for car parts

Researchers have found a way to transform plant waste left behind during industrial processes into carbon fibre that is strong enough to be used to make parts for cars or planes.

The plant waste, lignin, is left over in the form of a residue when plants and trees are used to make a variety of products, including paper and ethanol.

Conventionally it is considered a useless by-product, and often is burnt or finds its way to a landfill site, however scientists at Washington State University (WSU) have successfully developed a method to turn it into automobile-grade carbon fibre, giving it a valuable use.

“Lignin is a complex aromatic molecule that is mainly burned to make steam in a biorefinery plant, a relatively inefficient process that doesn’t create a lot of value,” said study lead investigator Dr Birgitte Ahring, a professor at The Gene and Linda Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering, WSU.

“Finding better ways to use leftover lignin is really the driver here. We want to use biorefinery waste to create value. We want to use a low-value product to create a high-value product, which will make biorefineries sustainable.”

Lignin, the plant waste the researchers used, is left over from plants and trees used to make materials such as paper

The research, which is presented today at the 254th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society, also presents a more affordable alternative to conventional carbon fibre, which is normally made from the expensive, non-renewable polymer polyarylonitrile (PAN).

“PAN can contribute about half of the total cost of making carbon fiber,” explained Dr Jinxue Jiang, a postdoctoral fellow in the Ahring laboratory at WSU. “Our idea is to reduce the cost for making carbon fiber by using renewable materials, like biorefinery lignin.”

However, while the lignin-based carbon fibre makes use of the previously ignored substance, it cannot be made entirely out of the waste material. Other researchers have attempted to make 100% lignin carbon fibre, but this is too weak to use in cars and planes.

As a result, this carbon fibre uses some PAN with the lignin to produce a strong yet affordable and more environmentally friendly product, finding that 20-30% lignin is acceptable before strength begins to reduce.

“We wanted to combine the high strength of PAN with the low cost of the lignin to produce an automobile-grade carbon fiber,” said Jiang.

The material could be used for a variety of car parts, including tyre frames

The researchers say their material could be used to make castings, tyre frames and internal car parts. However the next step will be to use it in a real-world setting within a car plant, in order to demonstrate its strength.

“If we can manage to get a fiber that can be used in the automobile industry, we will be in a good position to make biorefineries more economically viable, so they can sell what they usually would discard or burn,” said Ahring.

“And the products would be more sustainable and less expensive.”

Scientists, software developers and artists have begun using VR to visualise genes and predict disease

A group of scientists, software developers and artists have taken to using virtual reality (VR) technology to visualise complex interactions between genes and their regulatory elements.

The team, which comprises of members from Oxford University, Universita’ di Napoli and Goldsmiths, University of London, have been using VR to visualise simulations of a composite of data from genome sequencing, data on the interactions of DNA and microscopy data.

When all this data is combined the team are provided with an interactive, 3D image that shows where different regions of the genome sit relative to others, and how they interact with each other.

“Being able to visualise such data is important because the human brain is very good at pattern recognition – we tend to think visually,” said Stephen Taylor, head of the Computational Biology Research Group at Oxford’s MRC Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine (WIMM).

“It began at a conference back in 2014 when we saw a demonstration by researchers from Goldsmiths who had used software called CSynth to model proteins in three dimensions. We began working with them, feeding in seemingly incomprehensible information derived from our studies of the human alpha globin gene cluster and we were amazed that what we saw on the screen was an instantly recognisable model.”

The team believe that being able to visualise the interactions between genes and their regulatory elements will allow them to understand the basis of human genetic diseases, and are currently applying their techniques to study genetic diseases such as diabetes, cancer and multiple sclerosis.

“Our ultimate aim in this area is to correct the faulty gene or its regulatory elements and be able to re-introduce the corrected cells into a patient’s bone marrow: to perfect this we have to fully understand how genes and their regulatory elements interact with one another” said Professor Doug Higgs, a principal researcher at the WIMM.

“Having virtual reality tools like this will enable researchers to efficiently combine their data to gain a much broader understanding of how the organisation of the genome affects gene expression, and how mutations and variants affect such interactions.”

There are around 37 trillion cells in the average adult human body, and each cell contains two meters of DNA tightly packed into its nucleus.

While the technology to sequence genomes is well established, it has been shown that the manner in which DNA is folded within each cell affects how genes are expressed.

“There are more than three billion base pairs in the human genome, and a change in just one of these can cause a problem. As a model we’ve been looking at the human alpha globin gene cluster to understand how variants in genes and their regulatory elements may cause human genetic disease,” said Prof Jim Hughes, associate professor of Genome Biology at Oxford University.

Using CRISPR, UK scientists edit DNA of human embryos

For the first time in the UK, scientists have altered human embryos. Using the gene-editing tool CRISPR, the scientists turned off the protein OCT4, which is thought to be important in early embryo development. In doing so, cells that normally go on to form the placenta, yolk sac and foetus failed to develop.

Source: BBC

Tesla and AMD developing AI chip for self-driving cars

Tesla has partnered with AMD to develop a dedicated chip that will handle autonomous driving tasks in its cars. Tesla's Autopilot programme is currently headed by former AMD chip architect Jim Keller, and it is said that more than 50 people are working on the initiative under his leadership.

Source: CNBC

Synthetic muscle developed that can lift 1,000 times its own weight

Scientists have used a 3D printing technique to create an artificial muscle that can lift 1,000 times its own weight. "It can push, pull, bend, twist, and lift weight. It's the closest artificial material equivalent we have to a natural muscle," said Dr Aslan Miriyev, from the Creative Machines lab.

Source: Telegraph

Head of AI at Google criticises "AI apocalypse" scaremongering

John Giannandrea, the senior vice president of engineering at Google, has condemned AI scaremongering, promoted by people like Elon Musk ."I just object to the hype and the sort of sound bites that some people have been making," said Giannandrea."I am definitely not worried about the AI apocalypse."

Source: CNBC

Scientists engineer antibody that attacks 99% of HIV strains

Scientists have engineered an antibody that attacks 99% of HIV strains and is built to attack three critical parts of the virus, which makes it harder for the HIV virus to resist its effects. The International Aids Society said it was an "exciting breakthrough". Human trials will begin in 2018.

Source: BBC

Facebook has a plan to stop fake news from influencing elections

Mark Zuckerberg has outlined nine steps that Facebook will take to "protect election integrity". “I care deeply about the democratic process and protecting its integrity," he said during a live broadcast on his Facebook page. "I don’t want anyone to use our tools to undermine our democracy.”