Science and Technology in the Headlines


by Aaron Feigenbaum.

Nissan develops self-cleaning car.
Car wash owners may want to brace themselves: Nissan has developed a new self-cleaning car. No, it’s not robots doing the work. Rather, Nissan, in collaboration with Ultra Tech International Inc., has come up with a highly advanced type of surface coating called Ultra Ever-Dry that repels both oil and water by creating a thin layer of air between the paint and the environment. A video put out by Nissan shows a car painted with Ultra Ever-Dry driving through a muddy road while the dirt rolls right off the surface and the car stays spotless. This innovative technology has only been tested by Nissan’s European division and there are no plans as of yet to export it to North America.

Space transport company SpaceX plans to sue Air Force.

SpaceX-2 Mission Launch

SpaceX-2 Mission Launch

The pioneering space company SpaceX, headed by Elon Musk (billionaire, former Paypal investor, and CEO of Tesla Motors) has decided to sue the Air Force for what it alleges are unfair no-bid contracts given to rivals Lockheed Martin and Boeing, both represented in the joint venture United Launch Alliance. The complaint stems specifically from a “block buy” of 36 launches from ULA by the Air Force. ULA was awarded the contract without any competing bids and at a cost of billions of dollars. SpaceX asserts that this is an example of government waste and inefficiency, and that they could have done it at a far cheaper price. In particular, they claim that their Falcon 9 rocket costs at least four times less than the rockets developed by ULA. Musk wants the ULA exclusive contract canceled and the Air Force to establish a competitive bidding system. This is not the first time Musk and Space X have butted heads with Lockheed and Boeing. In 2005, Musk filed an antitrust suit to prevent ULA from coming into existence in the first place. The case was dismissed.

Spanish island will 100% powered by renewable energy.

In a first of its kind, the little-known remote island of El Hierro in the Canary Island chain off the coast of Africa will be completely powered by wind and solar energy with no connection to any outside electrical grid. Five wind turbines will be set up at the northeastern tip of the island to provide 11.5 megawatts of power to the island’s 11,000 residents – more than enough to meet demand. This power will also be used for the island’s energy-intensive desalination plants from which their freshwater is derived. When wind is in short supply, the island will turn to its hydroelectric station using water, stored in the crater of an extinct volcano, to produce electricity. There is also a conventional fuel power station as a backup. In all, this move is estimated to reduce the island’s carbon footprint by around 19,000 tons per year, eliminate the 40,000 barrels of oil consumed annually, and save about $4 million per year. El Hierro’s bold move is attracting international attention from other islands such as Aruba, Hawaii, and Malta. Representatives from El Hierro have been invited to speak at international energy conferences in Malta and South Korea. But El Hierro’s plans don’t stop at providing renewable energy for homes. Officials there also plan to run all 6,000 vehicles on the island with renewable energy by 2020.

Corn-based biofuels are more polluting than gasoline, scientists say.

Sao Paulo ethanol pump

Sao Paulo ethanol pump Photo credit: Mariordo Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz

Corn-based ethanol is an energy alternative touted by many including the biofuel industry and the federal government which has paid out billions of dollars in farm subsidies over the past decade. Opponents have long argued that corn-based ethanol is resource-intensive and depletes the food supply thereby raising prices and hurting those who are economically vulnerable. Now, scientists at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln have published a paper finding that corn-based ethanol actually increases carbon emissions by 7% over a five-year period through the burning of plant residue, thus disqualifying the fuel from being classified as renewable according to federal guidelines. The scientists say burning the plants rather than leaving them in the ground leads to soil depletion and thus more carbon pollution. Needless to say, government and industry leaders were quick to attack the study as flawed. One called it “highly academic” and another pointed out that the study presented too simplistic a model that doesn’t account for variations in soil depletion over a given area. Nevertheless, the authors of the study contend that their research is the most accurate to date and that government policy is misguided.

On a related note, scientists at Stanford University have developed an ethanol production method that doesn’t use any plants, but rather a copper metal catalyst. They envision this technology one day becoming carbon-neutral by converting CO2 to make liquid fuel to power the catalyst. Each time it produces ethanol, the catalyst will emit CO2 which will be used to fuel the process all over again in a closed loop.

(Sources: RT,, ExtremeTech, NPR)