Posts Tagged ‘science’


Robots Hit the Beach for Lunar Exploration Training

March 27, 2012

The seaside Nakatajima Sand Dunes in Central Japan hosted several would-be lunar explorer robots and their support teams on March 13 for a public demonstration and training run in a simulated lunar environment.

Aichi University of Technology's LUBOT at Nakatajima

Seven teams from universities around Japan arrived here with their robots after being invited by JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) to come and show off their work. As a follow-up to their Kaguya probe, which took HD images of much of the moon’s surface from 2007 to 2009, JAXA has proposed sending a rover by 2025 to continue Kaguya’s work by exploring the moon’s surface directly, and has been collaborating with universities in creating new rover designs.

The Nakatajima Dunes, just a short bus ride from Hamamatsu City in Shizuoka Prefecture, were selected for their wide expanses of soft, fine sand dotted with large rocks and the treacherously steep inclines that come close to the kinds of terrain the rovers will encounter if they make it to the moon. The high winds and sea spray they experienced on the beach, however, are unlikely to be a factor.

Notable designs include the Track-Walker 2 from  Tohoku University in Sendai, which used multiple caterpillar treads to navigate the uneven terrain by lifting itself over obstacles too big to crawl over.

Tohoku University's Track-Walker 2

Aichi University of Technology brought LUBOT, an eight-wheeled design that features a movable arm for mounting video cameras and a working scoop for gathering samples.  The video below was taken by the students themselves during a test run at Nakatajima last July.

Another design that garnered a fair amount of interest was the Tri-Star IV 3-wheeled rover from Tokyo Institute of Technology. The wheels use a combination of flexible supports and metal claws to navigate uneven and unstable terrain, and appears capable of righting itself if it turns over. According to Professor Shigeo Hirose, it can navigate slopes as steep as 30 degrees, and has mobility at least equal to what the US and Russia have built so far.



Japan Takes the 2011 Ig Nobel Chemistry Prize for Wasabi Fire Alarm

October 19, 2011

Earlier this month, an annual tradition continued at Harvard’s Sanders Theater, where the science/humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research handed out its Ig Nobel Awards, in recognition of achievements “that make people laugh, and then make them think.”

The Chemistry prize at the 21st First Annual (sic) awards ceremony went to a Japanese research team, led by Asst. Professor Makoto Imai of the Shiga University of Medical Science and Dr. Junichi Murakami of Biwako Hospital in Shiga Prefecture, for their work in developing a “wasabi-based fire alarm.” While the work may sound a bit silly at first blush (as does the work of many of the other prize recipients), I think it’s worth taking a closer look to see the motivation behind his research and the actual benefits it has led to.

Prof. Imai holds up his Ig Nobel Prize

Via the Boston Herald

Imai and the rest of the team receiving their prize at the 2011 Ig Nobel ceremony at Sanders Theater, Harvard. (set to skip ahead to the Chemistry Prize, but the whole ceremony is well worth watching)

This project first began in 2000, when Prof. Imai looked into the question of how to make a fire alarm that can be reliably detected by the hearing impaired. The elderly make up over 50% of deaths in house fires in Japan, and it has been hypothesized that inability to hear traditional smoke alarms may contribute to this figure. Standard alarms using loud sirens would of course go unnoticed, and flashing lights (often included with the alarms used in newer apartment buildings) were often found to be completely ineffective at waking up sleeping residents. This was when Imai and his team decided to start looking at less conventional directions.

Inside the wasabi smoke alarm

Vibrations had been tried, but this approach suffers from a number of practical problems, not least of which was the issue of how to rig an entire apartment to vibrate strongly enough that it could be reliably noticed. Even when restricted to just making the bed shake, anyone who’s used a vibrating cell phone knows how easy it is to simply not notice it. To effectively grab attention, Imai and his co-researchers decided to tap into our sense of smell.

With the backing of the Seems company, a research firm focusing on fragrance-based sensors and other medical tools, the team experimented with with a wide range of aromatic chemicals, ranging from the pleasant to the putrid. But according to Imai, even some of the most revolting of smells seemed to have little effect: “We tried a rotten egg smell, but subjects didn’t wake up.”

Imai (L) and Murakami with their award

Via Chuunichi News

The aroma with the most success turned out to be allyl isothiocyanate, an irritant responsible for the  pungent taste of wasabi, horseradish and varieties of mustard. In nature, the plants produce the chemical as a defense against herbivores, but for Imai’s team its nose- and throat-stinging properties made it ideal for rousing sleepers in the event of fire.

In 2006, clinical tests were started at Biwako Hosiptal, where 31 volunteers were repeatedly allowed to go to sleep, then had the allyl isothiocyanate aerosol sprayed into their rooms as researchers tested which concentrations produced the most reliable results (the chemical can also be an eye irritant much like tear gas or pepper spray, so presumably the team didn’t want to use such a high concentration that subjects were unable to find their way out once they’d woken up). A spray of 5-20ppm was found to wake up nearly every test subject within 2 minutes.

Diagram from Imai's patent for the alarm system

The system has already been installed in a number of facilities for the deaf in Japan, and it is scheduled for commercial release within the next two years.

As a side note, Japanese researchers and inventors have been regulars at the Ig Nobel ceremonies almost since they began, so I’m planning on writing a series of articles highlighting each of their accomplishments. If I don’t, leave a note in the comments telling me to move my butt.

Additional reference:

Annals of Improbable Research, Ig Nobel Winners List

Patent for the wasabi smoke detector

NTV News24 – “イグ・ノーベル賞の今井講師が喜びの会見” (with embedded video) 2011 Oct 4

Chuunichi News – “「いつかノーベル賞を」 イグ・ノーベル賞受賞の今井氏ら会見” 2011 Oct 5

Kyodo News – “Japanese team wins Ig Nobel award for ‘wasabi alarm’” 2011 Sep 30:

MSN/Sankei News – “イグ・ノーベル賞の滋賀医科大今井講師 帰国会見で感謝” 2011 Oct 5:

Seems Corporation homepage


RIKEN Develops Transparent Mice

September 7, 2011

Researchers at the natural sciences institute RIKEN announced in the journal Nature Neuroscience that they had succeeded in developing a reagent that turns organic matter almost fully transparent. This breakthrough opens up new possibilities for far more detailed analysis of how the complex networks within our organs function.

Right: a preserved mouse embryo that has been placed in standard saline. Left: a preserved mouse embryo that has been incubated for two weeks in a solution of  sca/eA2, the reagent developed by the RIKEN team.

For biologists and medical researchers, mapping out the microscopic structures of organs is a problematic endeavor: because the majority of our organs (and those of other animals) are opaque, viewing them under a microscope requires slicing them down to just a millimeter thick. While this allows one to view the inner structures of the cells, it makes it impossible to directly observe the larger networks of cells, which have complex 3-D structures. In fact, intricate mapping work such as tracing the circuitry of the brain still has to be done largely by hand.

3-D imaging of neurons and their interconnections inside the brain of a mouse treated with sca/eA2

In his published report, researcher Atsushi Miyawaki describes how he and his team developed sca/eA2, a reagent that turns organs transparent without disrupting their shape or cohesion, and without affecting the function of genetically encoded fluorescent proteins frequently used in cell research. Already, Miyawaki’s team has used sca/eA2 to image the brains of mice embryos to a much greater depth than was previously possible, revealing a surprising level of detail in the networks of neurons, as well as allowing them to visualize the connections between the brain’s hemispheres.

3-D image of the connections between the right and left halves of a mouse brain, made visible with the sca/eA2 reagent.

One big advantage of sca/eA2 is the price tag. The reagent is made from three simple ingredients readily available in any laboratory: urea, Triton-X, a detergent used to make cell membranes more permeable, and glycerol. This puts it easily within the budget of almost any research group, opening up a wealth of new imaging possibilities. “Our current experiments are focused on the mouse brain, but applications are neither limited to mice, nor to the brain,” says Miyawaki. “We envision using Sca/eA2 on other organs such as the heart, muscles and kidneys, and on tissues from primate and human biopsy samples.”

3-D visualization of mouse neural stem cells and blood vessels.

Currently, sca/eA2 only works on dead tissue, but Miyawaki and his team are already looking into changing that. “We are currently investigating another, milder candidate reagent which would allow us to study live tissue in the same way, at somewhat lower levels of transparency. This would open the door to experiments that have simply never been possible before.”

P.S. A lot of articles, blogs and aggregators have been making a big deal of the fact that sca/eA2 uses urea (“How do you turn a mouse brain transparent? Pee on it!”). Grow up guys. If it bothers you that much, then you really don’t want to know what goes into diesel emission treatments, dish soap, cigarettes or cattle feed.


ISS Crew Gets a New Member: Robonaut 2

September 1, 2011

I’m finally back from my vacation and somewhat recovered enough from jet lag and catch-up work to post a new update, so here goes:

A while back I wrote about the lift-off of JAXA astronaut Satoshi Furukawa, who, along with RSA cosmonaut Sergey Volkov and NASA astronaut Michael Fossum, set off for the International Space Station on a five-month expedition. On August 23, a new crew member was awakened to assist the team: Robonaut 2, a prototype that NASA hopes will soon be able to able to work side-by-side with human astronauts.

Good to Go

Robonaut 2 aboard the ISS following a successful activation.

Crew members joke with NASA ground control while unpacking Robonaut 2

Robonaut 2, or R2, arrived at the ISS in February, riding aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery on its final flight. At the time, it was unpowered and could do little more than pose for the cameras.

Robonaut 2 with ISS Expedition 26 Commander Scott Kelly

The result of a joint project between NASA and General Motors, R2 was developed to assist astronauts aboard the ISS with routine maintenance functions and possibly even help with hazardous jobs outside the space station in the future, as well as to test the feasability of robots playing more substantial roles in future space missions. A humanoid form was chosen so that it could operate in the same environments as humans without requiring special alterations to be made to accommodate it.

Upon being opened from its storage case, astronauts Mike Fossum and  Satoshi Furukawa put R2 through a ‘power soak’ to ensure its electrical systems are functioning properly. The first motion test is scheduled for early morning (US time) September 1.

Fossum and Furukawa get Robonaut switched on

R2 is currently just a head, torso, and arms (though still weighs in at about 150kg), although if initial tests are successful, additional components may be carried up by future missions to provide R2 with a battery for wireless operation, a mobility platform for more freedom of movement around the interior, and possibly even upgrades to allow it to work in the vacuum outside.

Robonaut 2’s head is almost completely taken up by the five cameras inside, arranged so as to give it depth perception. Despite its large brain, powered by 38 Power PC processors and fed by over 350 sensors, R2 will not be working autonomously: all of its actions will be directly controlled by station crew members or technicians on Earth. R2 is significantly stronger and faster than its predecessors, although the 10kg load limit of its arms and 5kg grasping force in each hand mean it won’t be doing much of the heavy lifting.

Currently, Robonaut 2 has its own Flickr photostream, its own Facebook page, and even its own Twitter feed, where it (or rather someone with NASA’s PR department) answers questions about its capabilities and mission (first tweet upon being switched on: “Those electrons feel GOOD! One small step for man, one giant leap for tinman kind”).

P.S. The Sep 1 motion tests appear to have gone well.

P.S. 2 [Added Sep 8, 2011] I realize this isn’t really Japan-related. I could justify it by saying that Japanese astronaut Furukawa is on board the ISS doing some of the start-up tests, but that’s a reach. Basically, I found this interesting and I needed to post something to snap out of my month-long doldrums.


Massive Deposits of Rare Earth Elements Discovered under Pacific

July 5, 2011

A Japanese marine research team has just announced the discovery of deposits of rare earth beneath the Pacific that dwarf current reserve estimates.

Many of the high-tech products we use every day, including cell phones and PCs, depend on rare earth elements – a class of substances consisting of the 15 elements in the lanthanide group of the periodic table, plus the elements Scandium and Yttrium (which are included due their chemical similarities to the other lanthanide elements). These elements are used in the production of high-strength magnets, lasers, high-refraction lenses, petroleum separation catalysts, batteries and a wealth of other applications, in addition to having a number of medical uses. This makes them essential to our modern-day lifestyles, and 21st-century civilization as we know it would grind to a halt without them. And up to now, 97% of the world’s production has been controlled by just one country: China.

Despite their name, rare-earth elements are actually fairly plentiful. The problem is that they are highly dispersed throughout the earth’s crust, making recovery uneconomical except in a few locations. Inner Mongolia is one of the largest concentrated deposits, with an estimated 40 million tons sitting under the ground (other known, but much smaller, sites include South Africa, India, northern Europe and North America). Although global reserves are (were) estimated at approximately 110 million tons, China is the only major producer right now. Responding to fears that rising worldwide demand may deplete their natural reserves (and possibly also responding to the fact that they have near-complete control over a resource vital to the world’s  economy), China has tightened mineral exports, leading to a sharp increase in commodity prices and correspondingly higher production costs for many high-tech goods. In one notable incident, following a collision in 2010 between a Chinese fishing vessel and a Japanese Coast Guard vessel, Japan immediately backed down from its side of the dispute after China threatened to cut off rare earth exports to them altogether, despite video evidence that the Coast Guard vessel had been deliberately rammed. Following this display of economic helplessness, rare earth prices tripled Japan, sparking new initiatives to recycle electronics so that the materials can be recovered.

So Japan, and much of the rest of the world, has been over a barrel with regard to the rare earth element supply. This made today’s news of the discovery of massive high-concentration deposits under the Pacific Ocean very interesting. According to Associate Professor of Earth Science Yasuhiro Kato, of Tokyo University, “The deposits have a heavy concentration of rare earths. Just one square kilometer of deposits will be able to provide one-fifth of the current global annual consumption.” The discovery was made by a team from the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology, led by professor Kato, which had been taking study samples from over 2,000 sites around the Pacific. The results of their study, which were published Monday in the British journal Nature Geoscience, found the highest concentrations of rare earth elements over an area of 8.8 million square km near Hawaii and an area of 2.4 million square km around Tahiti, with total deposits estimated at 100 billion tons, exceeding previous estimates of the elements abundance by a factor of a thousand.


Map of the concentrations of rare earth elements found by Kato's team. The size of the circles indicates concetration (ppm) of the elements. The highest concentrations were found near Hawaii and Tahiti.

via Asahi Shimbun

Although the deposits are under 3,500-6,000 meters of water, they are very close to the surface of the sea bed, being found mainly in the top 8-20 meters of mud and sediment. Recovery will still be difficult and costly, and although many mining companies have already voiced interest in exploiting undersea mineral sources, Chinese producers are not in any danger of losing their near-monopoly anytime soon. Further complicating matters, undersea mining could have severe environmental consequences, and environmental groups are worried about the possible effects on marine ecosystems.

Should these difficulties be overcome, Japan would still not achieve the rare earth self-sufficiency they desire, although having the option of purchasing from the US or France would no doubt be preferable to depending only on China. Few deposits were found within Japan’s own Economic Exclusivity Zone, which extends approximately 370km from the coast, but Professor Kato has commented that “future studies will have to be done focusing on Japan’s EEZ.”



Okayama Research Lab Unveils their Newest Breakthrough: Turd Burgers

June 17, 2011

Note (22 June 2011): Story seems likely to be a hoax. Contrary to the claims in video below, however, there is a Mitsuyuki Ikeda, and he does work Okayama. Specifically, in the Environmental Assessment Center‘s Education for Sustainable Development Group.


[original post]

I feel like I’m behind the curve posting this, as I’ve already seen links and brief on several aggregator sites, but since this does fit my Japan, science and offbeat criteria, it would be remiss of me not to post it. So here goes:

Researchers at the Okayama Environmental Research Center have recently gained international attention for their work in producing artificial meat. Specifically, by recycling it from human feces.

My apologies for not citing this video properly, I’ve been searching around for the original source, but haven’t been able to find it yet. The youtube video was posted in April (CNN iReport ran what looks to be the same video around the same time), but for whatever reason the story’s waited until just now to go viral.

Anyway, head researcher Mitsuyuki Ikeda describes how he was contacted by sewage treatment facilities, who were facing a supply of ‘sewage mud’ that would eventually outstrip their ability to process and dispose of it all. They asked if he could come up with any alternative uses for the stuff, and his solution was to turn it into steaks. That wouldn’t exactly have been my first idea (what about cement for construction? Fuel? Fertilizer?), but the professor has a point: our feces do still contain a good deal of nutrients, especially protein, so it makes sense (in theory at least) to try and recover these proteins for possible re-use.

Mitsuyuki Ikeda holds up samples of his unconventional meat

The heat used in the reclamation process kills all the bacteria, so the meat is perfectly safe to eat. It’s also much leaner than most meat coming fresh off the animal, making it healthier as well. None of the news sources mention how much energy it takes to produce turd burgers (or how much it would take once the process reaches mass production levels), so it’s too early to say how it stacks up environmentally against beef or pork. Currently, the meat industry is the source of almost 20% of all greenhouse gases, which in addition to factors such as clear-cutting forests for grazing land and raising crops to use as feed, places a burden on the environment that will only get heavier as nations like China and India adopt more meat-rich diets.

Just when we could expect this meat to be ready for consumption by the general public, and more to the point, when the general public would be ready to ever give it a try, is anyone’s guess.

Some thoughts:

  • Ikeda correctly notes that a lot of people are going to have qualms about eating meat made from re-processed feces. However, if he wants to help them get over their squeamishness, he really needs to stop labeling it, “SHIT BURGER”. Just send a memo around the lab asking for alternate suggestions; I’m sure someone will have a good interim name that can be used until it’s ready for commercial release.
  • He also says that once the research costs are recovered, the meat should be about the same price as regular meat. News flash for Mr. Ikeda: given a choice of regular meat and ‘recycled’ meat at the same price, absolutely nobody is going to select your product. If you want anyone to even think of giving it a try, it will have to be significantly cheaper than any readily available alternative. Maybe in some post-apocalypse future where regular meat is impossible to come by.
  • I could see this as a possibility for long-distance space flights, where the questions of “how do we stock X years of food into Y cubic feet?” and “what do we do with all the crap astronauts produce?” outweigh “where can I get a good quality steak at a decent price?”
  • If the equipment could be miniaturized, I could also see mini-processors becoming a feature in emergency survival kits.

I have to admit feeling a bit skeptical about this whole story. Things like Ikeda having everything labeled ‘Shit Burger’ and him posing squatting over a toilet, just make it seem like it’s a put-on. This whole thing could be one big piss-take, and we’ve all fallen for it. I’ll see if I can’t look further into it, and try to dig up some original sources.

If it does turn out to be real, my bet is on Ikeda to take home an Ig Nobel Award this year.