Science Briefs

November 25, 2012 

Artificial dog nose detects explosives

Portable, accurate and highly sensitive devices that sniff out vapors from explosives and other substances could become as commonplace as smoke detectors in public places, thanks to researchers at University of California, Santa Barbara.

The team led by professors Carl Meinhart of mechanical engineering and Martin Moskovits of chemistry, designed a detector that uses microfluidic nanotechnology to mimic the biological mechanism behind canine scent receptors.

“Dogs are still the gold standard for scent detection of explosives. But like a person, a dog can have a good day or a bad day, get tired or distracted,” said Meinhart. “We have developed a device with the same or better sensitivity as a dog’s nose that feeds into a computer to report exactly what kind of molecule it’s detecting.”

Results published this month in Analytical Chemistry show that their device can detect airborne molecules of a chemical called 2,4-dinitrotoluene, the primary vapor emanating from TNT-based explosives.

The human nose cannot detect such minute amounts of a substance, but “sniffer” dogs have long been used to track these types of molecules. Science Daily

Wind farm withstands wrath of superstorm

The Northeast’s energy infrastructure took a beating from superstorm Sandy, but wind turbines seem to have survived hurricane-force wind gusts just fine.

On Oct. 28, the Jersey Atlantic Wind Project stood right in Sandy’s projected path, and authorities at Infigen, which operates the five turbines just outside Atlantic City, N.J., weren’t quite sure what to expect.

But the operators punched a few keystrokes on their computers, put the turbines into “hurricane mode,” and hoped for the best.

They got it: Sandy’s wind speeds dropped below hurricane status just before landfall, but the Infigen turbines still withstood sustained winds of 65 mph or so, with gusts reaching much higher.

The turbines were undamaged, said Matthew McGowan of Infigen, and were soon generating 1.5 megawatts of electricity again.

Fossils oldest ancestor of giant panda?

Fossils of the earliest bear recorded in the Iberian Peninsula have been discovered in Spain, and researchers believe it was the oldest known ancestor of the panda bear.

Researchers found 11.6 million-year-old fossil jaws and teeth that bear a strong resemblance to the giant panda, which is now found solely in China.

The ancient bear has been named Kretzoiarctos. (The name was chosen to honor paleontologist Miklós Kretz; “arctos” is ancient Greek for “bear”).

The findings are in the current issue of the journal PLoS One.

“The origin of the lineage may not have been located in China, but in the humid forests of Europe during the middle Miocene,” said Juan Abella, a paleontologist at the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid, and the study’s first author.

During the middle Miocene, northeastern Spain, where the fossils were discovered, was humid and moderately warm, Abella said.

Kretzoiarctos was an omnivorous species and likely ate a wide variety of food, including meat, fruit, plant stems and leaves. The fossil jaws and teeth that were found indicate that the bear was also able to eat very tough plant material; today’s panda is the only living bear with these unique dietary habits.

The researchers believe that Kretzoiarctos was about the size of a sun bear and weighed approximately 130 pounds. The giant pandas of today are about double this weight. New York Times

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