News Feature | September 22, 2021

Bright Ideas: 9/22/21 — NASA & LISA To Catch Ripples in Gravitational Field, Nikon Picks 'Small World' Winners

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By Abby Proch, Editor

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If you’ve ever wondered what an embryonic rat neuron, butterfly wing, or live oak leaf looks like up close, here is your chance. Captured by Jason Kirk of the Baylor College of Medicine’s Optical Imaging and Vital Microscopy Core, an image of a live oak leaf’s trichomes, stomata and vessels held the top spot of over 1,900 entries in the Nikon Small World 2021 Photo Competition.

Kirk used 60X objective lens magnification and combined color-filtered transmitted light and diffuse reflected light to capture about 200 images, which he then layered and edited with color to create his vibrant fuchsia and teal final image, according to Nikon press release.

In other imaging news, a new polarimetric imaging method is clearing up pictures taken through smoke, fog and murky water. Researchers with Tianjin University in China claim their method can enhance image contrast while still upholding image integrity and mitigating noise, according to EurekAlert!. The method does not require background area to estimate backscattered light, unlike existing methods, says researchers.

Next steps involve taking the experiment into an environment — say ocean water instead of water diluted with milk — with hopes that the method will have real-world applications in underwater rescue, archaeological exploration and farming.

Last week, we discussed how self-darkening windowpanes can stave off sunlight’s often undesired ability to penetrate windows and heat up building interiors. This week, researchers at the University of Michigan are on the path to delivering a photovoltaic window that converts solar radiation into usable energy, rather than blocking it altogether.

Professor Stephen Forrest’s team is using carbon-based materials to suck up sunlight, but the problem is that those organic materials tend to degrade rather quickly, rendering them useless after several weeks. But with a treatment of zinc oxide — to block the UV light much like sunscreen does for skin — and a few buffers to maintain materials’ integrity, the tech could prove quite effective.

At 40% transparency, the carbon-based window treatment delivers 10% efficiency, compared to 18% of traditional solar panels. The team hopes to increase the transparency to 60% with little to no degradation in performance and a possible increase in efficiency up to 15%. At 30 years, the treatment is expected to maintain 80% of its original performance, according to the report.

In astronomy news, a low-power laser and fiber-optic amplifier are teaming up to help NASA and LISA seek out ripples in gravitational fields caused by neutron stars and black holes, says Phys.org. LISA, the European Space Agency-led Laser Interferometer Space Antenna mission, plans to deploy and position three spacecrafts — each housing two, 2-watt lasers — 1.5 million miles away from and pointing at one another. Embedded within the laser beams will be a time-code signal that will measure any interference, down to a few hundred picowatts. 

If all goes as planned, ripples — even as small as a picometer — will alter the distances between the detectors, and scientists hope to measure those changes to determine just how big of a collision had happened. Or will happen. The idea being that researchers could see the collisions before they happen, said Thomas Hams, program scientist for LISA at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

In other laser news, Google-offshoot Alphabet successfully sent broadband through a roughly 3-mile laser across the Congo River in Africa. Part of Project Taara, the data transmission project provided connectivity between Brazzaville in the Republic of the Congo to Kishasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a route that typically takes a 250-mile detour using traditional fiber optic cables, according to a report by MSN.

Project Taara aims to improve high speed internet availability and, in this case, successfully transmitted nearly 700TB of data in 20 days with 99.9% availability, according to MSN. To put it in perspective, that’s like watching the FIFA World Cup match in HD 270,000, said the report.

Lastly in laser news: The secret to juicier meat might not be with marinades or slow cooking, but with lasers. Engineers at the Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science are moving beyond their usual 3D foot printing projects to explore cooking with lasers.

According to Food Ingredients First, the team at Columbia is using blue light (445 nm) and infrared light (980 nm and 10.6 μm) to cook chicken. They found that blind taste-testers preferred the laser-cooked meat — a 3mm thick, 3D-printed chicken patty — to a sample cooked on a stove. The team considers the new tech something to pursue as part of their larger goal of bringing 3D-printed foods to the masses. Although they consider the technology relatively low-tech, it doesn’t yet have user-friendly software or interfaces that would enable a seamless fit into everyday life.

Finally, in business news, Jenoptik will expand its micro-optics and sensor production with a $81.9 million cleanroom facility in Dresden, Germany. Construction is slated for 2022 with operations beginning in 2025, according to a company press release. The photonics group specializes in micro-optics and sensors for use in semiconductor lithography systems.