Sabre rattling: A rocket revolution

20th Jul 2013 | 08:00

Sabre rattling: A rocket revolution

A special Brit Week in Science

Welcome to a special Brit Week edition of Week in Science. From blue marbles to an intelligent knife, we've got it all this week thanks to industrious Britons and their amazing discoveries.

Britain has been at the forefront of scientific discovery for centuries. From physics and chemistry to biology and nanomaterials, the UK is a research powerhouse. We've had some truly great Britons change the world with their science, including the likes of Darwin and evolution, and Newton and gravity to name but just a few. And that doesn't even cover the engineering greats that made a lot of the modern world happen.

So, let's quit waffling and let's get cracking with this week's British-led science news, with a bit of science history thrown in for good measure.

Britons discover the first exoplanet colour is ocean blue

A team of astrophysicists, lead by Tom Evans from the University of Oxford, have finally been able to identify the colour of an exoplanet first discovered back in 2005.

You see, most planets are observed in non-visible wavelengths of light like infrared. That gives stargazers the size, shape and other properties of the various planets, but not the colour of them. Unfortunately, Hubble's resolution just isn't high enough to discern planet from star at that distance. Instead the Brits waited until the planet passed behind its star, allowing them to find out which wavelengths of light were lost at that precise moment. The result turned out to be a deep ocean blue, despite the planet not actually having oceans owing to it being a giant ball of gas. Still, we now know we're not the only deep blue marble floating through the galaxy. [APJL]

Did you know we discovered penicillin?

British scientific success isn't a new thing. Penicillin, the drug that kick started the antibiotics revolution, was discovered in good old Blighty. The story goes that back in 1928 a biologist was studying Staphylococcus bacteria on a traditional petri dish in an old lab in St Mary's Hospital (now part of Imperial College London), when he left the window open. A fungal spore flew through the window and landed on the uncovered plate.

That biologist was Sir Alexander Fleming, who discovered that the bacterial lawn on the plate showed a halo effect, with a circle totally devoid of bacteria surrounding the now growing tiny speck of blue-green mould. The reason for the halo was that the fungus secreted an antibiotic agent into the medium within the petri dish, which killed off the surrounding bacterial cells. That chemical was later isolated and turned into penicillin (named after the Penicilliumfungus), the starting point of modern antibiotics as we know them today. Another revolutionary piece of British science of which we should all be proud.

Britons discover that the obesity gene makes you fat by keeping you hungry

Six years ago we discovered that there really was a gene linked with obesity called FTO. Now researchers from University College London have shown that it fails to dampen hunger following meals and increases your desire for high-calorie foods.

FTOcomes in multiple variants, with type "A" linked with an increased likelihood of obesity. An FTO genotype of "AA" increases your risk of obesity by whopping 70 per cent, while a single "A" increases your obesity risk by around 30 per cent, which half of all white Europeans have. It seems obesity-linked variants of FTO fail to suppress ghrelin -- a hormone known to stimulate appetite -- which leaves people forever hungry. It also seemingly stimulates an addiction-like response to calorific foods. So next time you crave something fatty or just can't sate your hunger, you might want to blame your genes. [JCI]

Britons create the world's first pee-powered phone

Researchers from the Bristol Robotics Laboratory have produced a microbial fuel cell (MFC) that harnesses the abundant supply of urine your body produces to power up a Samsung phone.

The microbes implanted on the surface of the cell break down the organic compounds ejected in urine to produce carbon dioxide and electrons. The electrons pass across a membrane from anode to cathode combining with protons to form hydrogen, which in turn reacts with oxygen to create pure water. The by-product is the flow of electrons, creating a current and producing electricity that can be used for anything -- in this case charging a phone. The MFCs were stacked to produce enough electricity to power up the phone to be able to send texts, browse the web or make a quick phone call. The researchers propose using this kind of system to essentially turn your toilet into a power station; effectively free electricity. [UWE]

And then we gave the world the DNA double-helix

It wasn't just modern antibiotics we Brits gave the world either. The structure of one of the founding platforms of life as we know it, DNA, was discovered right here in the UK.

Through X-ray diffraction, a team of researchers famously headed up by James Watson and Francis Crick discovered that DNA formed into a double-helix structure held together by linked base pairs forming a central twisting backbone, evidence of which was published by Watson and Crick, as well as Franklin and Gosling in Nature in 1952. Crick later went on to set out the central dogma for molecular biology, including the replication mechanisms and the relationship between DNA, RNA and proteins. That work formed the basis of genetic and modern biology from then on, and we wouldn't be where we are today without it.

British government sinks £60m into revolutionary new rocket engine

Britain's getting back into the space race with a brand new Synergistic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine (Sabre) that'll be able to shoot a re-usable space plane into orbit. The jet-cum-rocket is being designed and built by Reaction Engines in the UK, and will burn a mixture of oxygen and hydrogen.

The Sabre - (pic: UK Space Agency)

What makes it different, though, is that at low altitude it'll draw the oxygen from the surrounding air like a normal jet turbine. An incredible compact air pre-cooler can take 1,000C air to -150C is just 1/100th of second increasing the density of the ambient air to rocket-levels. Reaction Engines needs another £160m to take the amazing new engine to the next stage, which should start at the beginning of next year, at least partially supported by the Esa. Of course, the UK has been leading the field in satellites for some time now, but having a rocket of our own would help get men back into orbit too. [UK Space Agency]

Amazing new British invention will revolutionise cancer surgery

At the moment, doctors extracting tumours from patients can't tell whether what they're cutting into is cancerous or healthy tissue. A new scalpel, which attaches directly to a mass spectrometer is about to change that.

The "intelligent knife" built by Dr. Takats from Imperial College London, couples a fairly standard cauterising surgical knife to a vacuum tube. As the knife cuts through and burns the tissue, smoke is released which is sucked up by the tube and fired into a mass spectrometer for immediate analysis. The mass spec is attached to a computer that identifies the tissue by chemical markers, determining whether it is cancerous or healthy tissue. The knife is currently under clinical trial, having already performed 81 successful surgeries. Thanks to the intelligent knife, soon more people could be cancer survivors rather than cancer victims. [Science]

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