Scientific discoveries this week: 11/12/12

Rochester, New York – Hydrogen-powered cars have been a goal for scientists and engineers for years, but limitations in catalyst technology have prevented any significant advancements until now. Researchers at the University of Rochester have discovered a catalyst that generates hydrogen molecules at a very high rate, and does so for weeks on end with no decrease in production. By coating cadmium selenide nanoparticles with organic compounds, known as DHLA, they were able to achieve the goal of a robust, fast-acting catalyst. This discovery addresses the main difficulties in hydrogen generation technology, finding catalysts that are inexpensive, easily generated, and robust.

Pinnacle Point, South Africa – Early humans may have had major tools and weapons earlier than previously thought. An archeological dig in South Africa resulted in a set of stone blades, likely used in arrows or as weapons of some kind, that are about 71,000 years old. Previous research had indicated these technologies emerged briefly five to ten thousand years later. Within the single dig, there are stone tools and weapons from a continuous time span of roughly 11,000 years. Researchers on the project indicate that these weapons and tools gave coastal humans a major advantage over the Neanderthals.

Amsterdam, Netherlands – Researchers at Amsterdam’s FOM Institute for Atomic and Molecular Physics have created a device, known as a waveguide, that appears to cause light to move infinitely fast. The nanoscale device has an index of refraction of zero for visible wavelength light. It alters light so that at a particular wavelength the entire guide lights up and the light waves behave as if their peaks are simultaneously everywhere and moving infinitely fast. Although at first glance this result appears to violate Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, researchers explain this is not the case because light has two distinct “speeds.” The first is called the “phase velocity,” and it is the rate at which waves propagate through the medium. The second is called “group velocity,” and it is the rate at which information is transmitted through the medium. Group velocity must stay below the speed of light, but the phase velocity has no such limitation. This new technology may have significant applications in optical circuitry, allowing for virtually unlimited transfer speeds within operating cores and circuitry.

Pasadena, California – There is likely not a substantial concentration of methane on Mars, according to results from the Curiosity rover. Last week NASA held a press conference where Christopher Webster of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory reported with 95% certainty that between zero and five parts per billion (ppb) of methane exist in the Martian atmosphere. The finding casts doubt on the existence of methane-producing bacteria on Mars that would be similar to those found on Earth. Other scientists discount the results, saying that Curiosity is not in an auspicious area for methane release.

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