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Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Hubble spots possible water plumes erupting on Jupiter's moon Europa

Astronomers using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope have imaged what may be water vapor plumes erupting off the surface of Jupiter's moon Europa. This finding bolsters other Hubble observations suggesting the icy moon erupts with high altitude water vapor plumes.

The observation increases the possibility that missions to Europa may be able to sample Europa's ocean without having to drill through miles of ice.

"Europa's ocean is considered to be one of the most promising places that could potentially harbor life in the solar system," said Geoff Yoder, acting associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "These plumes, if they do indeed exist, may provide another way to sample Europa's subsurface."

Jupiter. By NASA, ESA, and A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The plumes are estimated to rise about 125 miles (200 kilometers) before, presumably, raining material back down onto Europa's surface. Europa has a huge global ocean containing twice as much water as Earth's oceans, but it is protected by a layer of extremely cold and hard ice of unknown thickness. The plumes provide a tantalizing opportunity to gather samples originating from under the surface without having to land or drill through the ice.

The team, led by William Sparks of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore observed these finger-like projections while viewing Europa's limb as the moon passed in front of Jupiter.

The original goal of the team's observing proposal was to determine whether Europa has a thin, extended atmosphere, or exosphere. Using the same observing method that detects atmospheres around planets orbiting other stars, the team realized if there was water vapor venting from Europa's surface, this observation would be an excellent way to see it.

"The atmosphere of an extrasolar planet blocks some of the starlight that is behind it," Sparks explained. "If there is a thin atmosphere around Europa, it has the potential to block some of the light of Jupiter, and we could see it as a silhouette. And so we were looking for absorption features around the limb of Europa as it transited the smooth face of Jupiter."

In 10 separate occurrences spanning 15 months, the team observed Europa passing in front of Jupiter. They saw what could be plumes erupting on three of these occasions.

This work provides supporting evidence for water plumes on Europa. In 2012, a team led by Lorenz Roth of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, detected evidence of water vapor erupting from the frigid south polar region of Europa and reaching more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) into space. Although both teams used Hubble's Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph instrument, each used a totally independent method to arrive at the same conclusion.

"When we calculate in a completely different way the amount of material that would be needed to create these absorption features, it's pretty similar to what Roth and his team found," Sparks said. "The estimates for the mass are similar, the estimates for the height of the plumes are similar. The latitude of two of the plume candidates we see corresponds to their earlier work."

But as of yet, the two teams have not simultaneously detected the plumes using their independent techniques. Observations thus far have suggested the plumes could be highly variable, meaning that they may sporadically erupt for some time and then die down. For example, observations by Roth's team within a week of one of the detections by Sparks' team failed to detect any plumes.

If confirmed, Europa would be the second moon in the solar system known to have water vapor plumes. In 2005, NASA's Cassini orbiter detected jets of water vapor and dust spewing off the surface of Saturn's moon Enceladus.

Scientists may use the infrared vision of NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled to launch in 2018, to confirm venting or plume activity on Europa. NASA also is formulating a mission to Europa with a payload that could confirm the presence of plumes and study them from close range during multiple flybys.

"Hubble's unique capabilities enabled it to capture these plumes, once again demonstrating Hubble's ability to make observations it was never designed to make," said Paul Hertz, director of the Astrophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "This observation opens up a world of possibilities, and we look forward to future missions - such as the James Webb Space Telescope - to follow up on this exciting discovery."

The work by Sparks and his colleagues will be published in the Sept. 29 issue of The Astrophysical Journal.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and ESA (the European Space Agency.) NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. STScI, which is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington, conducts Hubble science operations.

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Tuesday, 20 September 2016

On this day in science history: wire glass was patented

In 1892, wire glass was patented by Frank Schulman. Wire glass, as the name suggests, is simply a wire mesh inserted during the plate glass manufacturing process to create a single monolithic glass with properties useful where fire safety requirements apply.

In recent years, new materials have become available that offer both fire-ratings and safety ratings so the continued use of wired glass is being debated worldwide. The US International Building Code effectively banned wired glass in 2006.

Canada’s building codes still permit the use of wired glass but the codes are being reviewed and traditional wired glass is expected to be greatly restricted in its use. Australia has no similar review taking place.

Broken tempered glass showing the shape of the granular chunks. By George Slickers (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0), GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons
Wired glass is still utilized in the U.S. for its fire-resistant abilities, and is well-rated to withstand both heat and hose streams. This is why wired glass exclusively is used on service elevators to prevent fire ingress to the shaft, and also why it is commonly found in institutional settings which are often well-protected and partitioned against fire.  The wire prevents the glass from falling out of the frame even if it cracks under thermal stress, and is far more heat-resistant than a laminating material.

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Tuesday, 13 September 2016

New flexible semiconductor for electronics, solar technology and photo catalysis

It is the double helix, with its stable and flexible structure of genetic information, that made life on Earth possible in the first place. Now a team from the Technical University of Munich (TUM) has discovered a double helix structure in an inorganic material. The material comprising tin, iodine and phosphorus is a semiconductor with extraordinary optical and electronic properties, as well as extreme mechanical flexibility.

Flexible yet robust - this is one reason why nature codes genetic information in the form of a double helix. Scientists at TU Munich have now discovered an inorganic substance whose elements are arranged in the form of a double helix.

The substance called SnIP, comprising the elements tin (Sn), iodine (I) and phosphorus (P), is a semiconductor. However, unlike conventional inorganic semiconducting materials, it is highly flexible. The centimeter-long fibers can be arbitrarily bent without breaking.

"This property of SnIP is clearly attributable to the double helix," says Daniela Pfister, who discovered the material and works as a researcher in the work group of Tom Nilges, Professor for Synthesis and Characterization of Innovative Materials at TU Munich. "SnIP can be easily produced on a gram scale and is, unlike gallium arsenide, which has similar electronic characteristics, far less toxic."

The semiconducting properties of SnIP promise a wide range of application opportunities, from energy conversion in solar cells and thermoelectric elements to photocatalysts, sensors and optoelectronic elements. By doping with other elements, the electronic characteristics of the new material can be adapted to a wide range of applications.

Due to the arrangement of atoms in the form of a double helix, the fibers, which are up to a centimeter in length can be easily split into thinner strands. The thinnest fibers to date comprise only five double helix strands and are only a few nanometers thick. That opens the door also to nanoelectronic applications.

"Especially the combination of interesting semiconductor properties and mechanical flexibility gives us great optimism regarding possible applications," says Professor Nilges. "Compared to organic solar cells, we hope to achieve significantly higher stability from the inorganic materials. For example, SnIP remains stable up to around 500°C (930 °F)."

A double helix. Zephyris at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons
"Similar to carbon, where we have the three-dimensional (3D) diamond, the two dimensional graphene and the one dimensional nanotubes," explains Professor Nilges, "we here have, alongside the 3D semiconducting material silicon and the 2D material phosphorene, for the first time a one dimensional material - with perspectives that are every bit as exciting as carbon nanotubes."

Just as with carbon nanotubes and polymer-based printing inks, SnIP double helices can be suspended in solvents like toluene. In this way, thin layers can be produced easily and cost-effectively. "But we are only at the very beginning of the materials development stage," says Daniela Pfister. "Every single process step still needs to be worked out."

Since the double helix strands of SnIP come in left and right-handed variants, materials that comprise only one of the two should display special optical characteristics. This makes them highly interesting for optoelectronics applications. But, so far there is no technology available for separating the two variants.

Theoretical calculations by the researchers have shown that a whole range of further elements should form these kinds of inorganic double helices. Extensive patent protection is pending. The researchers are now working intensively on finding suitable production processes for further materials.

An extensive interdisciplinary alliance is working on the characterization of the new material: Photoluminescence and conductivity measurements have been carried out at the Walter Schottky Institute of the TU Munich. Theoretical chemists from the University of Augsburg collaborated on the theoretical calculations. Researchers from the University of Kiel and the Max Planck Institute of Solid State Research in Stuttgart performed transmission electron microscope investigations. Mössbauer spectra and magnetic properties were measured at the University of Augsburg, while researchers of TU Cottbus contributed thermodynamics measurements.

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Wednesday, 7 September 2016

On this day in science history: the first rubberised asphalt road surface was applied

In 1948, the first rubberised asphalt road surface in the U.S. was applied to 6,217-ft of Exchange Street in Akron, Ohio, a city that was home to a large rubber industry. The paving mixture contained 7 to 11 pounds of crumbled synthetic rubber per ton of asphalt. This full-scale use followed a test made on a small section resurfaced in 1947. Goodyear President Paul W. Litchfield proposed the paving material - and donated the rubber - to the city after he had seen its use in Holland, where it had been used since the 1930s and was claimed to be more durable, waterproof and safer in extremes of weather. However, by 1959, wear was judged to be no better than less expensive asphalt alone, and rubber additive is no longer used.

A synthetic rubber is any artificial elastomer. These are mainly polymers synthesised from petroleum by products. About 15 billion kilograms (5.3×1011 oz) of rubbers are produced annually, and of that amount two thirds are synthetic. Global revenues generated with synthetic rubbers are likely to rise to approximately US$56 billion in 2020. Synthetic rubber, like natural rubber, has uses in the automotive industry for tires, door and window profiles, hoses, belts, matting, and flooring.

Chemical structure of cis-polyisoprene, the main constituent of natural rubber.By Smokefoot (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Natural rubber, coming from latex of Hevea brasiliensis, is mainly poly-cis-isoprene containing traces of impurities like protein, dirt etc. Although it exhibits many excellent properties in terms of mechanical performance, natural rubber is often inferior to certain synthetic rubbers, especially with respect to its thermal stability and its compatibility with petroleum products.

Synthetic rubber is made by the polymerization of a variety of petroleum-based precursors called monomers. The most prevalent synthetic rubbers are styrene-butadiene rubbers (SBR) derived from the copolymerization of styrene and 1,3-butadiene. Other synthetic rubbers are prepared from isoprene (2-methyl-1,3-butadiene), chloroprene (2-chloro-1,3-butadiene), and isobutylene (methylpropene) with a small percentage of isoprene for cross-linking. These and other monomers can be mixed in various proportions to be copolymerized to produce products with a range of physical, mechanical, and chemical properties. The monomers can be produced pure and the addition of impurities or additives can be controlled by design to give optimal properties. Polymerization of pure monomers can be better controlled to give a desired proportion of cis and trans double bonds.

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