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.”

Robot takes first steps towards building artificial lifeforms

A robot equipped with sophisticated AI has successfully simulated the creation of artificial lifeforms, in a key first step towards the eventual goal of creating true artificial life.

The robot, which was developed by scientists at the University of Glasgow, was able to model the creation of artificial lifeforms using unstable oil-in-water droplets. These droplets effectively played the role of living cells, demonstrating the potential of future research to develop living cells based on building blocks that cannot be found in nature.

Significantly, the robot also successfully predicted their properties before they were created, even though this could not be achieved using conventional physical models.

The robot, which was designed by Glasgow University’s Regius Chair of Chemistry, Professor Lee Cronin, is driven by machine learning and the principles of evolution.

It has been developed to autonomously create oil-in-water droplets with a host of different chemical makeups and then use image recognition to assess their behaviour.

Using this information, the robot was able to engineer droplets to have different properties­. Those which were found to be desirable could then be recreated at any time, using a specific digital code.

“This work is exciting as it shows that we are able to use machine learning and a novel robotic platform to understand the system in ways that cannot be done using conventional laboratory methods, including the discovery of ‘swarm’ like group behaviour of the droplets, akin to flocking birds,” said Cronin.

“Achieving lifelike behaviours such as this are important in our mission to make new lifeforms, and these droplets may be considered ‘protocells’ – simplified models of living cells.”

One of the oil droplets created by the robot

The research, which is published today in the journal PNAS, is one of several research projects being undertaken by Cronin and his team within the field of artificial lifeforms.

While the overarching goal is moving towards the creation of lifeforms using new and unprecedented building blocks, the research may also have more immediate potential applications.

The team believes that their work could also have applications in several practical areas, including the development of new methods for drug delivery or even innovative materials with functional properties.

Mac spyware stole millions of user images

A criminal case brought against a man from Ohio, US has shed more light on a piece of Mac malware, dubbed Fruitfly, that was used to surreptitiously turn on cameras and microphones, take and download screenshots, log keystrokes, and steal tax and medical records, photographs, internet searches, and bank transactions from users.

Source: Ars Technica

Drone swarm attack strikes Russian military bases

Russia's Ministry of Defence claims its forces in Syria were attacked a week ago by a swarm of home-made drones. According to Russia's MoD Russian forces at the Khmeimim air base and Tartus naval facility "successfully warded off a terrorist attack with massive application of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)"

Source: Science Alert

Las Vegas strip club employs robot strippers

A Las Vegas strip club has flown in robot strippers from London to 'perform' at the club during CES. Sapphire Las Vegas strip club managing partner Peter Feinstein said that he employed the robots because the demographics of CES have changed and the traditional female strippers aren’t enough to lure a crowd to the club anymore.

Source: Daily Beast

GM to make driverless cars without steering wheels or pedals by 2019

General Motors has announced it plans to mass-produce self-driving cars without traditional controls like steering wheels and pedals by 2019. “It’s a pretty exciting moment in the history of the path to wide scale [autonomous vehicle] deployment and having the first production car with no driver controls,” GM President Dan Ammann told The Verge.

Source: The Verge

Russia-linked hackers "Fancy Bears" target the IOC

Following Russia's ban from the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics, the Russia-linked hacking group "Fancy Bears" has published a set of apparently stolen emails, which purportedly belong to officials from the International Olympic Committee, the United States Olympic Committee, and third-party groups associated with the organisations.

Source: Wired

Scientists discover ice cliffs on Mars

Using images provided by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, scientists have described how steep cliffs, up to 100 meters tall, made of what appears to be nearly pure ice indicate that large deposits of ice may also be located in nearby underground deposits. The discovery has been described as “very exciting” for potential human bases.

Source: Science Mag