Lasers to enable fuel-efficient supersonic space travel

Earth-mounted lasers could be used to increase the speed of space rockets without the use of additional fuel, according to research by Russian scientists.

The researchers have conceived an approach that would integrate the spacecraft’s traditional fuel propulsion system with what is known as a laser-ablation propulsion system.

With this technique, lasers located outside of the spacecraft – probably on Earth – would be directed in a pulsed beam at the spacecraft. On contact, the laser beam would heat up the surface it makes contact with to create a plasma plume that in turn generates additional thrust.

By combining this system with the spacecraft’s nozzles – the conical exhausts that blast out gas to propel the craft – the researchers found that the gas flow could be increased to such a level that the craft could reach supersonic speeds, while simultaneously reducing the amount of fuel burned in the process.

“Summarising the data obtained, we can forecast the application of the supersonic laser propulsion techniques not only for launching small satellites to Earth orbits but also for additional acceleration of supersonic aircrafts to achieve Mach 10 and more,” said Yuri Rezunkov of the Institute of Optoelectronic Instrument Engineering, Russia.


The technique could provide a solution to the considerable challenge that is spacecraft fuel.

At present, all the fuel that is needed for a mission currently needs to be carried on the spacecraft at launch. This issue creates the frustrating situation where to carry 1kg of fuel into low-earth orbit (around 300km above Earth) requires a 50kg of fuel at launch.

Other solutions have been proposed, such as building refuelling stations in space, and mining asteroids for fuel that can be used without the need to escape Earth’s gravity well first.

However, these solutions are expensive to establish and are unlikely to be a practical solution for several decades at best.

By contrast, the laser system would be considerably easier to implement due to the level of infrastructure and the fact that the lasers could be located on Earth.


Other laser propulsion systems have been proposed previously, however their potential effectiveness has been limited, with issues such as potential instability of supersonic gases flowing through the nozzle and a choking effect caused by shock waves produced during the process.

However, in this system the plasma plume produced by the laser system would be guided to flow next to the interior walls of the nozzle, encircling the main jet propulsion. This would prevent these problems from occurring and allow the two forms of propulsion to work simultaneously.

If the system proved successful, it could even be furthered with lasers located in space, perhaps initially in orbit and, in the far longer term, on other planetary bodies to provide speed boosts to further long-term space travel.

Images courtesy of NASA.



Remote-controlled passenger planes could take to the air

Passenger planes that are remotely controlled by a pilot who isn’t on the aircraft may one day be a reality due to advances in drone technology, a group of pilots has said.

The British Airline Pilots Association made the prediction in evidence submitted to officials looking at the future potential for drone use and the regulations that are needed for their safe use.

However the use of theses type of aircraft may be a long way off as there are many factors which need to be improved upon before they would ever be able to take to the skies.

“We believe that in the distant future we may well see passenger-carrying, remotely-piloted aircraft, but this is fraught with difficulties,” the organisation said in its submission to the UK’s House of Lord’s Committee looking at drones.

The association said that drone cargo planes are more likely, however, as there would not be anyone onboard in the event of crash.


Outlining the challenging approaches for the creating a remotely controlled passenger plane the Pilots Association said that any future creations would have to be trusted by the public and be financially viable.

Its evidence said: “Putting aside the inevitable resistance of the public to fly on a machine where the person who holds their life in their hands does not actually sit alongside them, the financial side of it does not currently add up.

“If a manufacturer has to produce an aircraft that has all the life support infrastructure required for passengers and cabin crew, there would be little point going to the extra expense of building a secure ground base station for the pilots; they may as well be on the aircraft. So the most obvious potential is in the cargo sector.”

The organisation continued by saying that an automated cargo plane would also not need life support equipment, doesn’t need to be pressurised, or have catering, seating, windows or toilets.

This would make it “lighter, cheaper to run, more efficient and easier to build” than an remotely controlled passenger plane.


This isn’t the first time that drone cargo vessels that would be able to deliver vital (and non-vital supplies) around the world has been suggested.

Rolls Royce is working on drone cargo ships for long haulage trips across oceans. These were also set to be controlled by captains on land, who have a virtual reality view of the ships bridge.

While for cargo to be carried on land, across potentially shorter distances Mercedes Benz has been building self-driving trucks.

The trucks, it said, would be able to self-drive on open roads and help to save lives as it would prevent drivers from being a danger when they are tired.



Making any car autonomous: Scientists say affordable driverless cars just a decade away

Scientists have developed a technology that they say will make driverless cars affordable to normal people within a decade.

The technology is made up of an array of sensors – known as the “eyes and ears” – that can be installed in any car, making it driverless at dramatically lower costs than the autonomous-only vehicles being developed by companies such as Google.

“Our goal was to use affordable sensors, radars, lasers and computer technology that is already available on the market, so the car is more likely to be accessible for people, unlike the small number of driverless cars that currently exist costing hundreds of thousands of dollars each,” said Dr Ba Tuong Vo, associated professor, Curtin University Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.


Developed in partnership with Germany’s Ulm University and Daimler, the research company owned by Mercedes Benz, the system works with an algorithm that turns the sensor data into relevant information about the location and type of obstacles around it.

However, the researchers have considerable work to do before the technology is ready for real-world driving conditions.

“At the moment our autonomous car can drive in a straight line and sense what is around it,” explained Vo.

“The next step is to give it a ‘brain’ or the computer systems which can tell how to react to what is around it and also what to do when an object comes in its path.

“This will be difficult, as it is giving the car total control of all functions, unlike current driver assist technology that focuses on one purpose, such as alerting the driver when the car drifts out of a lane, or cruise control to keep at a certain speed.”

However, in a market that is increasingly becoming very heated, with key players from both the automotive and technology industries looking to stake a claim, the researchers will need to work quickly and be prepared to prove their technology if they are to be successful.

Although the research is between respectable institutions, some will remain sceptical of the lack of video footage or images to accompany the team’s announcements.

However, if the technology proves successful it would be highly significant for the driverless car revolution.

Although Google has achieved considerable attention for its efforts, a technology that can be easily added to current vehicles and cheaply included in future designs is likely to be far more successful across the industry than a single model of vehicle developed by a single company.

Images courtesy of Daniel Böswald.



Forget wars and pandemics: The 2100 population will dwarf today’s anyway

Even if millions of people were to die in a five year long global war that killed the same proportion of people as both the World Wars did, it would not significantly change the world’s population by the year 2100.

There will still be between 5-10bn people on the planet in 86 years if there was a major event that knocked out millions of people, researchers from the University of Adelaide, Australia, have said.

They also said that if the world had the same one-child policy that exists in China it would also not make a huge difference to the overall population size.

At present there are around 7.25bn alive on the planet today – which has more than doubled in the last 50 years. But this will continue to grow with no “quick fix,” according to the researchers.

“Even a world-wide one-child policy like China’s, implemented over the coming century, or catastrophic mortality events like global conflict or a disease pandemic, would still likely result in 5-10 billion people by 2100,” said Professor Barry Brook who worked on the research.

“We were surprised that a five-year WWIII scenario mimicking the same proportion of people killed in the First and Second World Wars combined, barely registered a blip on the human population trajectory this century,”

The scientists say that the growth has been so dramatic that roughly “14% of all the human beings that have ever existed are still alive today.”

And the continuing growth will naturally put a strain on the planet’s resources.

“This is considered unsustainable for a range of reasons, not least being able to feed everyone as well as the impact on the climate and environment,” said Brook.

“We examined various scenarios for global human population change to the year 2100 by adjusting fertility and mortality rates to determine the plausible range of population sizes at the end of this century.”

However it may not be as gloomy as the researchers are predicting as the number of growing technologies that can provide us with more energy is growing by the day.

Scientist Aubrey de Grey has previously said that nuclear fusion and other advanced tech will be available by the year 2100, which will help to balance out the increased demand.


The news that even another world war could not prevent the growth in population will hopefully put to bed the age-old theories that a war will slow down the growth of the plant.

But the researchers say that there need to policy decisions made which can help to constrain the size of the population.

Effective family planning decisions and more reproductive education will ease some of the strain in the short term, it was said.

Brook said: “Often when I give public lectures about policies to address global change, someone will claim that we are ignoring the ‘elephant in the room’ of human population size.

Yet, as our models show clearly, while there needs to be more policy discussion on this issue, the current inexorable momentum of the global human population precludes any demographic ‘quick fixes’ to our sustainability problems”

Featured image courtesy of Vladimir Wrangel /



Solar city: Hidden-in-plain-sight solar panels to boost renewables revolution

Pure white and coloured edgeless solar panels that can be connected with no visible join have been developed for the first time, meaning solar panels can now be added to everything from buildings to phones without being visible.

The new development, created by Swiss research firm CSEM, will mean solar panels can be disguised as a normal part of a wall or piece of tech’s finish, a move that is likely to increase their use considerably.

The solar industry has been seeing a significant surge in growth, with rooftop solar projected to become the norm within a few decades, but the design of solar panels has resulting in some reluctance about adopting the technology.

It was long thought that a pure white solar panel was an impossibility, due to the way that white reflects the sun’s rays.

However this system has overcome that challenge, and will likely prove popular as a power-producing facade for buildings and as cases for electronics.


Although available in a host of colours, the white version provides a key advantage, by enabling solar power to work at temperatures 20-30°C (68-86°F) lower than normal.

This could open up whole areas of the world to photovoltaic-based power, letting entire countries access the technology that would not have been able to previously.

The white finish could also have other key environmental benefits, by keeping interiors cooler and reducing the need for air conditioning.

Many US cities, such as Los Angeles, have begun painting their roofs white for this very reason, a move that could be replaced by the installation of white solar panels.

The innovation could even result in whole cities being coated in the panels, realising a long-held dream of a city with a built-in power station. Combine these with the recently-developed transparent solar panels on windows, and every surface of a building could be covered.

These new solar panels combine an infrared-based solar cell with a filter that allows infrared light to pass through while scattering the visible spectrum of light.

The technology will work with any crystalline silicon-based solar panels, meaning it can also be added to existing solar panels – something that may well prove popular as the blue-black rooftop solar panels we have come to recognise begin to look increasingly dated.

It’s not only flat surfaces that can benefit, either; the technology is designed to work curved surfaces too, leading CSEM to anticipate demand from the automotive industry.

Perhaps solar panels could become a standard feature on cars to power auxiliary features such as audio and air conditioning.

Featured image courtesy of TonyV3112 / Inline image courtesy of CSEM.



Nanoscale detector to ensure cancer drug dosage is correct

A new test to quickly detect a drug that can help to treat cancer, but if too much is delivered it can be toxic, has been created by scientists.

The nanoscale detector is able to detect the levels of methotrexate in a patient’s blood stream in less than a minute.

The technology could help to reduce not just the time that patients have to wait to find out the levels in their blood, but also the cost of testing, say the inventors from the Université de Montréal.

“In the near future, we can foresee the device in doctors’ offices or even at the bedside, where patients would receive individualized and optimal doses while minimizing the risk of complications,” said Jean-François Masson from the university.

“While traditional equipment requires an investment of around $100,000, the new mobile device would likely cost ten times less, around $10,000.”


Methotrexate is highly toxic but it also blocks an enzyme that promotes the proliferation of cancer cells.

The new device will allow doctors to ensure that patients get the right amounts that they need.

The NHS, in the UK, says this about the drug when it is not given at the correct dosages: “Oral methotrexate is associated with a high rate of adverse incidents and deaths in the NHS and worldwide. The efficacy of the drug is not in question and methotrexate is safe if used correctly.

“However, in the UK there has been a number of cases associated with oral methotrexate that have resulted in serious harm or death as a result of prescribing, dispensing, administering or monitoring incidents.”

The small device is coated with gold nanoparticles on the surface.

These change the colour of the light detected by the instrument. The detected colour reflects the concentration of the drug in the blood sample.

To test out the accuracy of the monitor the scientists compared the results with that of a local hospital and found them to be the same.


It would allow doctors in surgeries to conduct the tests for the levels of methotrexate rather than having to be done by those in hospitals.

With the new device it would mean that testing could be done in almost any location.

“The operation of the current device is based on a cumbersome, expensive platform that requires experienced personnel because of the many samples that need to be manipulated.”

Image one courtesy of Université de Montréal



Aquatecture: Designing future cities to take a non-defensive approach to flooding

Flooding of inhabited areas is one of the major, but often neglected, challenges that await future generations. It is a problem that needs to be addressed rapidly to help prevent unnecessary loss of lives and unforetold economic damage. But instead of fearing and fighting water, some argue we should develop our cities in a way that makes use of it, and take a non-defensive approach towards rising water levels.

A range of futuristic floating city concepts has already been proposed as unconventional ways to use water, but they may not become a reality anytime soon. In the meantime, we should look at integrating water into the long-term designs for existing cities, for example in the form of interconnected waterways, deepwater ports and buildings that can be flooded. Floating solar and wind farms and tidal power generation off nearby shores could also be integrated.

By making use of the water that surrounds many of our cities, these concepts may offer more benefits than reactive measures such a flood defences and sandbags ever could.

London-based Baca Architects have re-imagined how one of the most flood-prone cities in the world could be protected as it grows in to a mega-city. Their proposals for Shanghai are outlined in a new book, Aquatecture, which is due out next year. It looks a different ways of designing for water, picking up on practical examples from around the world. The book complements the firm’s specialist work around designing waterfronts and water architecture, which includes amphibious houses.


A serious threat

From January to early December 2012 floods accounted for 54% of deaths in Asia, according to the United Nations. In China alone, more than 17 million people were affected by flooding and $4.8bn of economic damage was caused.

Also in 2012, researchers from the University of Leeds, writing in the journal Natural Hazards, said that Shanghai is the most vulnerable majority city in the world to suffer from serious flooding. The researchers found that Shanghai and Dhaka would remain the most vulnerable major cities up to the 2100s – although the potential for flooding would increase in all cities.

“It is not just about your exposure to flooding, but the effect it actually has on communities and business and how much a major flood disrupts economic activity,” said Professor Nigel Wright, who led the research team.


Building a flood-resilient city

Shanghai’s history is deeply connected with the surrounding water; the Yangtze river has helped it grown in to one of the biggest economic powers not only China but in the entire world. The downside is that the city is prone to flooding and is one of the cities most likely to see a serious detrimental impact from rising sea-levels in coming years.

But Baca Architects believe that the impacts of flooding can be minimised by thinking about how the city is developed at present. In 2011, China announced six satellite towns would be built around the city, and it is likely with population growth over coming years that they could eventually be connected to the surrounding provinces.

The architects argue that the location by the river allows for the new towns to be connected in different ways. “Between the satellites, high-risk areas are used for industry with the waterways providing economic routes for heavy goods transportation to the rest of the city and the deepwater ports,” they say. “Off shore floating solar farms, designed to move with the waves, are linked to high-altitude wind generators as well as energy producing tidal barrages to create a distributed and interconnected renewable energy system.”

Their concept is based on four key principles: a resilient system, city rotation, water utilisation and transitional zones – all based on the levels of the land and what its potential uses are.


Resilience can be achieved by the individual satellite towns working together to address any weakness in the overall system, for example, if a power connection fails. As sea levels rise, the architects envision the fabric of the city being reconfigured, or rotated, to use different areas. This may mean that land that is submerged at one point could be used for agriculture if water levels in the area drop; they could also become industrial areas or waterways with a change in tide.

Utilisation turns the threat of water into an opportunity. Land for freshwater storage is preserved within satellite towns for future times when low-lying areas are lost. Transitional zones may be used for water harvesting and water treatment and could also be used for future developments in line with changing water levels.

This approach, the architects argue, could help create a city that does not get damaged by floods but can be flexible to the challenges created by rising water levels.

Living with water

Baca Architects’s re-imagining of Shanghai and the individual water projects they are working on, which will allow flood protection and water use at an individual level, stem from the main ideas behind the LifE project.

This study, which was funded by the UK Government, looked to change the way we think about living with water and concluded that we should take a non-defensive approach to flood risk management.

Water should be allowed onto urban sites, in a pre-determined manner, and not be completely blocked off, the architects argue. Responsible developments could reduce the risk of flooding and also utilise renewable technologies. This idea led them to develop a range of buildings that look to work with water, not against it.


The amphibious house

The large-scale proposals for Shanghai show how a whole city could be transformed to accommodate water, but on a localised level there is also potential to develop technologies that allow individual homes to adapt to changes in the environment.

Areas of low-lying land, or land close to rivers, are always prone to flooding. Baca’s amphibious house is designed to reduce the impact of floods when they happen. It is built on a dock that rests on fixed foundations but can rise up with the water level and float, coping with up to 2.5m of flood water. To allow the house to float the upper levels are made of a lightweight timber construction that rests on the concrete hull.

The house has been designed to be future-proof to projected water levels in the Buckinghamshire area of the UK.

Baca director Richard Coutts says that those living in flood-prone areas need houses that help to protect them and their belongings. “It is not only their homes but also their communities that need to be designed to take this into account so that the consequences can be mitigated,” he adds. “Amphibious design is one of a host of solutions that can enable residents to live safely and to adapt to the challenges of climate change.”

The surroundings of the amphibious house have been designed to act as an early defence system to flooding. Terraces created on different levels will flood first, preventing the house from being hit by a flood wave all at once.


The home that floods

In a more radical approach, Baca Architects are working with Aquobex Resilient Property on a building that can be flooded completely if water levels rise.

The Aquobox, due to be built at the BRE Innovation Park in Watford, UK, is a demonstration home that will be set in a tank and flooded on a daily basis to show how far flood resistant technology has progressed. Aquobox features a fully floadable kitchen as well as water-resistant nano-coatings, fire and flood-resistant boarding, automatic flood guards and water-resistant cavity wall insulation.

The nano-coatings are similar to those being developed to help clumsy smartphone and tablet users protect their gadgets from liquids. But Baca and Aquobex Resilient Property believe they could also be used to help protect homes from damage during floods.


Looking at the bigger picture

Elsewhere, architects, designers and engineers are also looking at new ways to counter an age-old problem.

In New York, almost $1bn has been awarded to a number of infrastructure projects to create flood defences around New York City and New Jersey. The projects, which came out of a design competition earlier this year, include a   which will double up as a park and public space. It is intended to run more than two miles along the river and effectively raise the riverbank to nine feet above its current level.

But while these projects use the more conventional technique of keeping water out of individual areas of a city, the concepts outlined by Baca Architects are taking a view of the bigger picture. They incorporate the development of new technology as well as considering the sociological factors of food production, travel and growing populations.

Their approach takes into account in all the factors a city needs adapt to in order to deal with future environmental issues that lie outside our control. It is how we, as a society, should be looking to protect our living spaces for future generations.

Aquatecture by Baca Architects will be published by RIBA Publishing, early 2015.


Featured image and images four and five courtesy of Baca Architects. Image one via chinahbzyg /


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