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Eco-friendly concrete swaps out sand for activated clay
Given its status as the most widely-used manufactured material on Earth, reducing the huge environmental footprint of concrete would have significant consequences for the health of the planet. Researchers at the National University of Singapore (NUS) have put forward a new formula for stronger concrete that not only cuts a large amount of damaging materials from the equation, but makes use of upcycled waste clay at the same time.
In producing the more eco-friendly concrete, the NUS team started by taking aim at one of the primary ingredients in traditional forms of the material: sand.
This acts as the filler that combines with cement and water to give concrete its bulk and strength, but as our demand for concrete structures has grown in line with sprawling megacities and towering skyscrapers, so too has the demand for sand. A 2019 UN report revealed how increasing urbanization and infrastructure development has driven a three-fold increase in demand for sand over the last two decades, demonstrating how we are “spending our sand budget faster than we can produce it responsibly.”
With little natural sand to speak of and urban development continuing apace, the team of scientists in Singapore experimented with ways it could be replaced in the concrete mix by an alternative, more sustainable material in the form of waste clay sourced from excavation sites around the city-state. The hope was to replace as much fine sand powder as possible, which is expensive, has a large carbon footprint and is a carcinogenic through prolonged exposure.
This clay is first heated to 700 °C (1,292 °F) which “activates” its bonding potential with the concrete. Through their experimentation, the scientists found this activated clay could be used to replace up to half of the fine sand powder usually used in concrete production. The finished product, which the team describes as ultra-high performance concrete, was not only greener, but featured much improved durability and could therefore be used to reduce the size of structural elements.
“Our discovery not only reduces the consumption of valuable resources but also promotes a circular economy with the utilization of waste clay,” says Associate Professor Pang Sze Dai, who led the research. “It opens an avenue to transform this waste into a potential resource … Globally, low-grade clay is abundant. Its multi-faceted utilization in concrete as fillers can not only help curtail the carbon footprint of concrete but also reduce the cost of concrete production.”
As part of their future research, the scientists plan to investigate how other waste materials could also be used to replace concrete filler, and how locally-sourced sea sand could be used to replace imported river sand in Singapore.
The research was published in the Journal of Cleaner Production.
Source: National University of Singapore
AI tool offers clues to mystery of who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls
A new method of handwriting analysis developed by researchers from the University of Groningen is offering fresh clues as to who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls. Testing the machine learning tool on one of the most famous ancient scrolls has revealed not one but two scribes were responsible for the ancient text.
The Great Isaiah Scroll was among the first Dead Sea Scrolls to be discovered in 1946. It is one of the largest and best preserved of all the scrolls, presenting the oldest complete copy of the Book of Isaiah.
Exactly how many scribes wrote this, and other Dead Sea Scrolls, is a fiercely debated topic in religious and academic circles. To try and find some answers Mladen Popovic, a theological historian, turned to modern artificial intelligence tools.
Popovic chose the Great Isaiah Scroll at the team’s first target because it is impressively complete, spanning 17 sheets of parchment. This particular scroll also features reasonably uniform handwriting implying it is the work of a solo scribe, although a number of scholars have suggested it may be the result of at least two scribes purposely sharing similar writing styles.
To ascertain whether there was more than one scribe behind the scroll, the researchers grouped together all the uses of the Hebrew letter aleph. The single letter appears over 5,000 times in the Great Isaiah Scroll, and Popovic suggests human eyes are limited in their ability to notice small differences in handwriting styles.
Utilizing several pattern recognition and artificial intelligence techniques the research revealed changes in handwriting patterns beginning halfway through the manuscript. Some scholars have in the past hypothesized the Great Isaiah Scroll to be the work of two separate scribes and this new evidence confirms that theory.
“Now, we can confirm this with a quantitative analysis of the handwriting as well as with robust statistical analyses,” explains Popovic. “Instead of basing judgment on more-or-less impressionistic evidence, with the intelligent assistance of the computer, we can demonstrate that the separation is statistically significant.”
In the new study, published in the journal PLOS One, Popovic and his team say the significant similarities in handwriting between the two scribes on the Great Isaiah Scroll points to interesting ideas explaining how the Dead Sea Scrolls came to be. The fact that two different scribes contributed to the same manuscript, with ostensibly similar handwriting, possibly implies a school or family setting behind the creation of the scrolls.
“The similarity in handwriting between different scribes can indicate a common training shared by the scribes, perhaps in a school setting or otherwise close social setting, such as in a family context a father having taught a son to write,” the researchers hypothesize in the study. “For five documentary texts it has been suggested that the similarity in script may be the result from a common school training.”
Moving forward the novel handwriting analysis technique demonstrated in the study offers scholars entirely new ways to study ancient manuscripts. Further work will inevitably investigate more Dead Sea Scrolls and build on this finding to shed light on who wrote these fascinating artifacts.
“This is very exciting, because this opens a new window on the ancient world that can reveal much more intricate connections between the scribes that produced the scrolls,” says Popovic. “In this study, we found evidence for a very similar writing style shared by the two Great Isaiah Scroll scribes, which suggests a common training or origin. Our next step is to investigate other scrolls, where we may find different origins or training for the scribes.”
The new study was published in the journal PLOS One.
Source: University of Groningen
Perseverance makes oxygen on Mars for the first time
NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover has notched up another first by extracting oxygen from the Martian atmosphere. On April 20, 2021, the toaster-sized Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) converted carbon dioxide into about 5.4 grams of oxygen, which may one day help astronauts live off the land on the Red Planet.
Current plans for the first crewed missions to Mars require a long stay on the surface until the planets are in the right position for the return journey. Unfortunately, this will require either an enormous amount of rocket fuel and supplies or some way has to be found to harvest resources on Mars.
According to NASA, it takes 15,000 lb (7 tonnes) of rocket fuel and 55,000 lb (25 tonnes) of oxygen to lift four astronauts from the surface of Mars into orbit, and each astronaut would need a tonne of oxygen each per year for breathing. That’s far too much to bring from Earth because transporting the oxygen would require more fuel and oxygen, plus more fuel and oxygen to transport the additional fuel and oxygen, and more to transport that …
On the plus side, though the Martian atmosphere is only 100th as dense as the Earth’s, it’s almost all carbon dioxide, which is made up of one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms. With the proper equipment and enough power available, it could be entirely practical to generate oxygen from Martian CO2.
To explore this possibility, Perseverance has been equipped with the MOXIE unit to demonstrate the technology that could support future missions. The device works by running the Martian atmosphere through a HEPA filter, then compressing and heating it to 1,470 °F (800 °C) with a scroll compressor. At this elevated temperature, a ceramic oxide splits the carbon dioxide into oxygen and carbon monoxide through a process called solid oxide electrolysis.
As to the unit itself, it’s made of heat-tolerant materials and insulated with aerogels. The outer shell is coated in gold to reflect heat to protect the rest of the rover. Meanwhile, 3D-printed nickel parts help to transmit heat to and from the gases inside.
For the recent test, MOXIE went through a two-hour warmup before going into production mode, generating almost six grams of oxygen per hour in a series of sweeps. That’s enough for an astronaut to breathe for 10 minutes. A future version of MOXIE weighing one tonne could crank out many tonnes of oxygen.
MOXIE is scheduled to carry out a series of tests in three phases over the next Martian year, or over two Earth years. The first phase will focus on testing the instrument itself. The second phase will work on producing oxygen under different atmospheric conditions, and the third phase will expand into new operating modes, like varying operating temperatures.
“MOXIE isn’t just the first instrument to produce oxygen on another world,” says Trudy Kortes, director of technology demonstrations within STMD. It’s the first technology of its kind that will help future missions ‘live off the land,’ using elements of another world’s environment, also known as in-situ resource utilization.
“It’s taking regolith, the substance you find on the ground, and putting it through a processing plant, making it into a large structure, or taking carbon dioxide – the bulk of the atmosphere – and converting it into oxygen. This process allows us to convert these abundant materials into usable things: propellant, breathable air, or, combined with hydrogen, water.”
Computer modelling suggests that T. rex was a slow walker
All walking animals have something in common – their preferred walking speed is largely determined by what’s known as “resonance.” Bearing this in mind, Dutch scientists have calculated what may have been the default walking speed of Tyrannosaurus rex.
As an animal strides forward, the location of its body’s center of mass likewise rhythmically moves back and forth. In order to expend as little energy as possible, most creatures match their pace to that rhythm, the latter of which is determined by factors such as the distribution of weight to different parts of the body.
This unconscious synchronizing of walking speed with mass-shifting-rhythm is called resonance, and it’s the reason why walking at your regular pace is actually easier than walking at an unusually slow speed. Working with Prof. Knoek van Soest from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam – along with Prof. Anne Schulp from Utrecht University – Vrije human movement sciences student Pasha van Bijlert set out to determine the speed at which resonance would occur for a T. rex.
In order to do so, the scientists created a 3D computer model based on the skeleton of an adult female Tyrannosaurus rex currently on display at the Dutch National Museum of Natural History. Not only did they digitally add muscles and organs to its main body, but they also allowed for the suspension-bridge-like swaying of its huge muscular tail, which would have swung back and forth with every step.
Based on the team’s biomechanical analysis, it was estimated that the animal would have preferred to walk at a speed of 4.6 km/h (2.9 mph). This is actually close to the preferred walking speed of adult humans, which sits at about 5 km/h (3.1 mph).
“There were already some studies investigating dinosaur walking speed, but they mostly looked at the legs and ignored the tail – which is what makes dinos so unique,” says Van Bijlert. “They usually found much higher walking speeds. The one we calculated is lower, but it’s similar to that of other animals.”
A paper on the research was recently published in the journal Royal Society Open Science. And in an interesting side note, a 2020 North American study likewise determined that based on its anatomy, T. rex was likely designed more to walk than to run.
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