With the year winding up, we thought we’d look back on the stories that struck a chord – or a nerve – in 2014. It was a mixed bag, ranging from the sublime to the implausible.
The sublime was definitely the Rosetta mission and Philae’s (not quite) perfect landing on the surface of the (not quite) evocatively-named comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. Thanks to the wonders of modern communication, never before in the field of exploration have so many people so fervently urged a fridge-sized box on legs half a billion kilometres away to succeed against the odds.
We played a back-up role in the landing. Using the DSS34 antenna, NASA’s Deep Space Communication Complex (managed by CSIRO at the Tidbinbilla site) provided ongoing back-up communication coverage between Rosetta/Philae and the anxious science team at ESA’s mission control centre in Germany.
It’s a lot more down to earth, and of more practical use at the moment, but some news about renewable energy was just as exciting. If there was one good thing about the alarmingly warm autumn eastern Australia had in 2014, it was this: a team of solar thermal engineers and scientists at our Energy Centre in Newcastle used the sunlight flooding their solar fields to produce ‘supercritical’ steam, at the highest temperature and pressure levels ever recorded using solar power.
That sounds impressive when you just say it, but to realise how impressive it is, you need to know that supercritical steam is the ultra-hot, ultra-pressurised steam used to drive the world’s most advanced power plant turbines. This is the solar energy equivalent of breaking the sound barrier. Solar thermal power plants have traditionally only operated at ‘subcritical’ levels – the heavy lifting was left to fossil fuels. But now we’ve demonstrated that the power plants of the future could feasibly use the zero emission energy of the sun to reach peak efficiency levels – and at a cheaper price. The technology’s not ready for commercialisation yet, but the breakthrough has attracted a lot of interest.
There are other kinds of stories that always attract a lot of interest, and food safety – as we’re discovering yet again with the current raw milk controversy – is one of them. Fortunately, there was a pretty positive reaction to our story on whether it’s safe to cut the mould off food. Unlike supercritical steam, the comments generated more light than heat, which is always both gratifying and a relief. We came down firmly on the side of a conservative approach (and that’s not conservative of the food, more of the health). And in response to the comments, we published a clarification about spoilage in other kinds of food – the beauty of a blog is that you can incorporate the feedback from your readers. We love intelligent, constructive comments. So a big thanks to those who made them.
We got quite a bit of interest, too, for a story about 3D-printed mouthpieces for people with sleep apnoea. Sadly, a lot of this interest seemed to be tinged with a note of desperation. While we were delighted to be able to tell a story that gave hope to so many stressed snorers and their loved ones, it wasn’t nearly as enjoyable to have to let people know they couldn’t be part of trials for the mouthpieces. On the up-side, however, Oventus, the company making the mouthguards, tells us that they’re steadily getting closer to being commercially available. Since we’ve had interest from several countries, we think they might have a hit on their hands. We just hope they’re able to help the man who told us his snoring is so bad that the cat left home. The cat would probably be grateful too. We suggested a cat hammock in the meantime.
And to continue on the camping theme, we got a lot of love for a story about backpacks. Bees with backpacks. This is just a terrific bit of research. We’ve put tiny 2.5mm sq RFID chips on the backs of 5000 bees. Now, this sounds a bit weird, but there’s an excellent reason for it. Collecting bee movement information at this scale will allow researchers to generate a four-dimensional model (three dimensions plus time) of bee behaviour and the way they move through the landscape. This is vital information: wild honey bee populations are dropping drastically or vanishing altogether. In some cases this is because of the parasitic Varroa mite. In others it’s Colony Collapse Disorder, believed to be caused by diseases and agricultural pesticides.
Everybody seems to love stories about 3D printing (and who can blame them?). We had a couple of rippers this year. First, there was the 3D-printed bike. More specifically, the bike with 3D-printed titanium parts, specifically engineered to provide ‘infinite flexibility’ and give a far superior riding experience, along with quite a bit of bike envy. It also looks seriously good, and its proud owner/designer seems to be very pleased with it. We don’t know if the man at the centre of our other big 3D printing success this year (there’s one other, but we’ll come to that later) is a bike rider, but thanks to some brilliant work by our titanium printing team, he has the option. He had cancer in his heel bone, and the standard treatment for that is to amputate the leg below the knee. Fortunately, his surgeon had seen a story we did last year, about 3D-printed shoes for horses, and wondered if it was possible to print a new heel bone to replace the cancerous one. It was. One of the strengths of 3D printing is its ability to produce complex structures quickly: within two weeks of his surgeon making the call, the new heel bone was in place. We can now reveal that we sat on that story for months, busting to tell everyone, but couldn’t until after the three-month check-up showed everything was working well. We were very relieved – but not nearly as relieved as the recipient.
Not all health problems have as quick a fix as supplying a new part. It would be good if they did, but sometimes treatment is a long haul. Overweight and obesity fits into that category, but our new Impromy™ diet program helps to make the long haul as pleasant as it can be. Our talented team worked with Probiotec Ltd to develop a holistic program that includes meal replacements. This is a big help for people with busy lifestyles: often a reason that cooking and meal preparation fall down the priority list. It’s a research-based program that builds on our Total Wellbeing Diet research and leverages it to use with smart phone technology in a community pharmacy setting.
But we’d be very grateful if you disposed of the wrappers from the meal replacements carefully. Sometimes the big science stories aren’t good news, and this one certainly wasn’t. We went looking for rubbish, and what we found was sobering. In a survey of the entire Australian coast at 100 km intervals, with help from school groups and citizen scientists, we found that our shorelines are littered with debris. About 75 per cent of it is plastic, and, in a pretty grim indictment of our throwaway culture, you can expect to find anything from a few thousand to over 40,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometre in our coastal waters. Worse, we can extrapolate from this to predict that by 2050, 95 per cent of seabirds will have plastic in their gut.
If it’s bad news you want, though, our biannual State of the Climate report is – sadly – hard to beat. It’s getting warmer. Seven of the ten warmest years on record in Australia have occurred since 1998. When we compare the past 15 years with the period between 1951 and 1980, we find that very warm months are five times as frequent. The frequency of very cool months, conversely, has dropped by about a third. Extreme fire weather risk has increased, and the fire season has lengthened across large parts of Australia since the 1970s. Autumn and winter rainfall is declining, particularly in south-western and south-eastern Australia. Heavy rainfall with the potential for flooding is projected to increase. Australian average annual rainfall has increased slightly, largely from increases in spring and summer rainfall. Unfortunately, this doesn’t offset the autumn and winter declines in southern parts of Australia: it’s mainly concentrated in north-western Australia.
We don’t want to end on such a depressing note though, so … DRAGONS! This is the implausible bit, and it was absolutely, positively our biggest hit of the year. You might remember it. Seven-year-old Sophie wrote to us, asking if we could make her one. So we, er, did. Not a flying, screeching, fire-breathing one (we haven’t got the lab space), but a 3D-printed (there it is again) titanium (there’s that again too) one. This story captured the imagination of many people (140 000 page views worth), and might even have inspired Sophie, or another child, to become a scientist. We loved the comments we got on this story nearly as much as everyone seemed to love Sophie’s original letter. The erudite discussion on the history and physiology of dragons was a delight. Thank you to all the readers and dreamers who contributed.
Now, how would we go using dragons to generate supercritical steam? Just a thought…