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February 29, 2024
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A new type of synthesized plastic can stay in its molded state after cooling, which has important implications for addressing plastic waste and recycling. 

As the spring semester is kicking into high gear, let’s go over some of the biggest headlines in science news from the past week.

Researchers synthesize a moldable plastic

Researchers at the University of Chicago synthesized a new type of plastic that can be molded into different shapes at high temperatures. Their results are published in Science. Typical plastics lose their rigidity and become structurally flexible when heated. As typical plastics cool, their polymer’s complex bonds fail to reform, making it unable to retain its shape. 

However, this new plastic retains its stiffness upon cooling, forming special thia-Michael networks that have a high degree of cross-linking at low temperatures. After heating this plastic to temperatures between 60 to 100 degrees Celsius, the researchers molded it into a desired shape and then cooled it. This process of heating and cooling a material to change its structure is called tempering. The material allowed products to stay in their molded shape even after cooling. The team successfully made a spoon, a fork, a claw and an adhesive with this process. 

Humans have been tempering metals for hundreds of years, however, the temperatures required for tempering this plastic are much lower and easily achieved in a microwave. This opens up many new applications of this plastic in new contexts. The researchers discussed the applications of bringing this plastic into space, allowing astronauts to easily mold the material into tools they need for various tasks. In addition, through reusing plastic for multiple purposes, this new material could help reduce plastic waste and make recycling easier. 

Nevertheless, there still are some limitations. The material can only retain its shape for a month. Therefore, the researchers are looking to make further improvements before this new plastic can be an efficient replacement for typical plastic products.

New NASA satellite prepares for its launch this week

Costing nearly $1 billion, the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) satellite will be launched on Tuesday, Feb. 6. The satellite will focus on understanding the growth of phytoplankton species and the carbon dioxide exchange between the atmosphere and ocean. 

Plankton, algae, and bacteria in the ocean produce about 50% of the Earth’s oxygen, but it is difficult to study planktons in detail because current satellites only collect light in a few channels such as red, green and blue. However, PACE is set to collect light in over 200 channels, including many shades of green that can help scientists distinguish between plankton species. This will allow scientists to analyze different pigments in the plankton species that allow for photosynthesis.

Planktons are also important in the storage of carbon in the ocean. Warmer waters store much less carbon dioxide than colder waters, which means the rise in global temperatures decreases the ocean's ability to store carbon dioxide. By studying different plankton species in various parts of the ocean with PACE, scientists can identify regions that are affected by this phenomenon.

In addition to its many light channels, PACE is also equipped with polarimeters to study how aerosols and clouds reflect sunlight to investigate their contributions to climate change. With data collected by PACE, new policies can be designed to regulate the emission of specific problematic aerosols to help combat climate change.

The cerebellum plays an essential role in birds’ ability to fly

Only three types of vertebrates have the ability to fly: birds, bats and the now-extinct pterosaurs. In addition to the physical adaptations in the body such as long upper body limbs and an aerodynamic body, scientists have been looking for important neural processes that underlie the development of flight. Researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and Stony Brook University found the growth of the cerebellum to be key to the evolution of flight

The cerebellum has been known to be responsible for motor control, but there was not enough evidence connecting it to flight. By using PET scans to examine pigeons’ brains before and after flight, the researchers found an increase in activity in the cerebellum and optic flow pathways connecting the eyes to the cerebellum. 

Additionally, they modeled the brains of dinosaurs who preceded the emergence of ancient birds. They found an increase in cerebellum size in early dinosaurs. Future studies need to confirm this phenomenon is found in other species that can fly. Looking forward, the researchers want to investigate specific neural mechanisms within the cerebellum that allow for flight. 

Ultracold supermolecules open new quantum doors

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics and theorists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences have created a tetratomic supermolecule at near absolute zero temperature. Their results were published in Nature

Atoms come together at a certain distance to form bonds where their attractive and repulsive forces are balanced. However, in supermolecules, atoms create much longer bonds, typically hundreds of times longer than bonds in typical molecules. Atoms in the supermolecule are weakly bound to each other, and small changes in the environment can cause a large change in the forces holding the molecule together. 

The formation of supermolecules requires extremely cold temperatures. Using a novel method of cooling involving a rotating microwave field, the researchers created a supermolecule out of two sodium and two potassium atoms at around one 10-millionth of a degree above absolute zero. The formation of this supermolecule opens up the opportunity to create a Bose-Einstein condensate, where all the particles assume the same quantum state. Using a specific type of microwave field with these Bose-Einstein condensates could allow for the study of new quantum molecules, radically changing our understanding of quantum physics.


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