Super-strong, super-stretchy material to be used as artificial skin

A new stretchy material has been developed that can lift an object one-thousand times its weight while still maintaining the ability to revert back to its original shape, when heated at body temperature.

Scientists at the University of Rochester believe that because of its flexibility their shape-memory polymer will be used as artificial skin but could also be useful when applying sutures, for body-heat assisted medical dispensers and for use as a wearable self-fitting apparel.

“Our shape-memory polymer is like a rubber band that can lock itself into a new shape when stretched,” said lead researcher, Mitch Anthamatten. “But a simple touch causes it to recoil back to its original shape.”

Image and featured image courtesy of Adam Fenster, University of Rocheste

Image and featured image courtesy of Adam Fenster, University of Rocheste

The shape-memory polymer works by controlling the crystallisation that occurs when the material is cooled or stretched.

As the material is deformed, polymer chains are stretched, and small segments of the polymer align in the same direction in small areas called crystallites.

These crystallites fix the material into a temporarily deformed shape, but as the number of crystallites grows, the polymer shape becomes more and more stable, making it increasingly difficult for the material to revert back to its initial shape.

To avoid the material becoming fixed in a deformed state the research team inserted molecular linkers to connect the individual polymer strands.

Anthamatten’s group discovered that linkers inhibit, but don’t stop, crystallisation when the material is stretched.

By altering the number and types of linkers used, as well as how they’re distributed throughout the polymer network, the university researchers were able to adjust the material’s structure and precisely set the point at which the material’s shape can be reverted.

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As well as being able to stretch and revert back to its original shape the new material has been optimised so that it can store as much elastic energy as possible.

As a result, the shape-memory polymer is capable of lifting an object one-thousand times its weight. For example, a polymer the size of a shoelace – which weighs about a gram – could lift a litre of soda.

“Tuning the trigger temperature is only one part of the story,” said Anthamatten. “We also engineered these materials to store large amount of elastic energy, enabling them to perform more mechanical work during their shape recovery”

Full details of the shape-memory polymer can be found in the Journal of Polymer Science Part B: Polymer Physics.

Amnesty International warns “us vs them” rhetoric driving global rollback of human rights

Amnesty International has warned that an increasingly divisive “us vs them” politics is driving a rollback in global human rights in a damning report published today.

The report, entitled The State of the World’s Human Rights, covers 159 countries and warns that the growing “politics of demonization” in the US, Europe and some other parts of the world is directly influencing a decline in worldwide human rights that will continue unless action is taken.

“Divisive fear-mongering has become a dangerous force in world affairs,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International.

“Whether it is Trump, Orban, Erdoğan or Duterte, more and more politicians calling themselves anti-establishment are wielding a toxic agenda that hounds, scapegoats and dehumanises entire groups of people.

“Today’s politics of demonisation shamelessly peddles a dangerous idea that some people are less human than others, stripping away the humanity of entire groups of people. This threatens to unleash the darkest aspects of human nature.”

US President Donald Trump was one of the politicians accused of driving the “politics of demonisation”. Images are screenshots from a video, below, released by Amnesty International to accompany the report

The report argues that that this rhetoric directly influenced the behaviour of governments in 2016, enabling governments over the past year to justify mass surveillance and torture; ignore war crimes; undermine rights to asylum; limit freedom of expression; murder alleged drug users and increase “draconian” police powers.

It highlights the shift in acceptable political narratives as a driving force for these actions.

“In 2016, these most toxic forms of dehumanization became a dominant force in mainstream global politics,” added Shetty. “The limits of what is acceptable have shifted. Politicians are shamelessly and actively legitimizing all sorts of hateful rhetoric and policies based on people’s identity: misogyny, racism and homophobia.”

The report warns, however, that the rise in rhetoric has also led to a lack of human rights leadership at a global level, allowing infringement on human rights in other countries to go unchecked.

“With world leaders lacking political will to put pressure on other states violating human rights, basic principles from accountability for mass atrocities to the right to asylum are at stake,” said Shetty.

War crimes were committed in at least 23 countries last year, with human rights crises occurring in countries including Syria, Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan, Central America, Central African Republic, Burundi, Iraq, South Sudan and Sudan. In 22 countries, people were killed while peacefully protecting human rights.

“Even states that once claimed to champion rights abroad are now too busy rolling back human rights at home to hold others to account,” he added. “The more countries backtrack on fundamental human rights commitments, the more we risk a domino effect of leaders emboldened to knock back established human rights protections.”

2017, then, does not look promising in terms of human rights.

“The international community has already responded with deafening silence after countless atrocities in 2016: a live stream of horror from Aleppo, thousands of people killed by the police in the Philippines’ ‘war on drugs’, use of chemical weapons and hundreds of villages burned in Darfur,” said Shetty. “The big question in 2017 will be how far the world lets atrocities go before doing something about them.”

With governments unwilling to take action, and this “us vs them” narrative continuing to grow, people cannot rely on governments to defend human rights, and will need to take matters into our own hands.

“We cannot passively rely on governments to stand up for human rights, we the people have to take action,” he said.

“Every person must ask their government to use whatever power and influence they have to call out human rights abusers, In dark times, individuals have made a difference when they took a stand, be they civil rights activists in the USA, anti-apartheid activists in South Africa, or women’s rights and LGBTI movements around the world. We must all rise to that challenge now.”

Without action, other groups will be the scapegoats of the future, he warned.

“The first target has been refugees and, if this continues in 2017, others will be in the cross-hairs. The reverberations will lead to more attacks on the basis of race, gender, nationality and religion,” said Shetty. “When we cease to see each other as human beings with the same rights, we move closer to the abyss.”

Only 6% of space enthusiasts would like to live in the first low-Earth orbit settlements

A new survey has found that only 6% of respondents would be happy to live in a proposed Equatorial Low Earth Orbit (ELEO) settlement, where humans live in a small cruise ship-like space station at a similar orbit to the ISS.

Four conditions were set for respondents to assess and while at least 30% said they agree with at least one of them, the number shrank significantly when it came to those who could accept all the conditions.

These were that the settlement itself would require permanent residence, would be no bigger than a large cruise ship, would contain no more than 500 people and would require residents to be willing to devote at least 75% of their wealth to move in.

The example settlement used in the survey is Kalpana Two, pictured, a conceptual cylindrical space habitat visualised by Brian Versteeg. Measuring 110 m x 110m it would rotate to provide simulated gravity on the “ground” and zero-gravity near the cylinder’s core where occupants can ‘fly’, and would be capable of housing 500 – 1,000 people

The study, conducted by researchers from San Jose State University (SJSU) and the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) sought to assess the desirability of such a settlement. Previous similar studies had suggested early space settlements would need to be significantly smaller than believed, and located far closer to Earth.

The research was conducted via an Internet survey made available to the public between 8 January 2016 and 17 June 2016. The survey, using Qualtrics software, received 1,075 responses and was distributed via an email list, social media and spac- related organisations. It should therefore be noted that the respondents are not representative of the general population: 95% actually identified as space enthusiasts.

“95% of respondents were self-described space enthusiasts and 81% were male. 70% were from North America and 20% from Europe,” the study authors Al Globus, from SJSU, and Tom Marotta, from AST, wrote in the research paper.

“This is not surprising as the authors made no attempt to select a random sample of any particular group, but rather to simply distribute the survey as widely as we could.”

Kalpana Two, the conceptual space station the survey was based on. Images courtesy of Brian Versteeg

The paper itself is rather enthusiastic about the 6% figure, pointing out that while it is a low percentage of those who responded, if considering it 6% of those who globally identify as “space enthusiasts” there are likely more than enough to fill these early settlements.  The authors also acknowledge that such a number is not all that surprising given the demands of the move.

However, while the enthusiasm and optimism is laudable, it’s worth noting that those principally willing to give up the most were small in number and tended to fall on the wealthier spectrum. So while the possibility of the project exists, it seems that, as with all commercial space projects so far, it would principally have to cater to the rich.

Moreover, when responding to the main attraction of life in space, “the most common remark was simply that it was ‘in space’ not any particular characteristic of living in space”. There seems in the responses to be a certain enthusiasm that may not hold up in the actual moment of decision.

The fact that people like the idea of living in space is no surprise; the survey however does little to assuage the realities of the situation. Enthusiasm is promising, however the main result of this survey seems to be that blind optimism is only truly backed up by vast amounts of money.