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Friday, April 3, 2020
Their View / Opinion

Technology means space may be the next locale for outsourcing

Q.  “Space is open for business,” and some companies are planning to use the International Space Station (ISS) as a manufacturing hub.  What technologies might carry the “made in space” label?

A.  Organs, fiber-optic cable, metal alloys and meat might justify the expense of being made in low-Earth orbit, since it costs a few thousand dollars to launch just a kilogram (2.2 lbs.) of stuff, says Prachi Patel in “IEEE Spectrum” magazine.  For example, “the heart, with its four empty chambers and highly organized muscle tissue…, is virtually impossible to print on the ground.”  Here, tissues printed with runny bioink collapse under their own weight, but in microgravity, pure bioink could be used.

Also hard to make on Earth is a kind of fiber-optic cable called ZBLAN made from fluoride glass.  Typically, when molten glass is stretched into thin fibers and cooled, tiny crystals may form, weakening signals.  Made in space, quality ZBLAN would carry more data over longer distances.  For metals and other elements, microgravity allows them to mix together more evenly, and “magnesium alloys for medical transplants have especially high potential.”

     Finally, a food-tech startup that grows connective tissue, blood vessels and fat cells to make beefsteaks (they “look and taste like the real thing”) has already created its first tiny piece of meat on the ISS.  “It isn’t a huge technical advance, but it could feed astronauts on long-term crewed missions, as well as future space settlers as they set up a permanent base.”

Q.  Worldwide, what natural resource is second only to water in the amount we humans use?

A.  It is sand, a key component of cement, asphalt and glass, reports “Science” magazine.  And with a construction boom in Africa and Asia, the demand will likely increase.  According to a recent United Nations report, the insatiable appetite for sand poses “one of the major sustainability challenges of the 21st century,” requiring “improved governance of global sand resources.” 

Not only must ways be found to reduce demand for new sand but also policies need strengthening to discourage sand mining’s harmful environmental impact.  Additionally, since sand is a natural resource that transcends national borders, the report endorses developing a more traceable sand supply chain through better monitoring and international information sharing.

Q.  Imagine the sound of nails being dragged across a blackboard.  Almost makes you cringe, doesn’t it?  Now imagine having such a reaction — or even worse — to hearing ordinary sounds like a person chewing or tapping on a table.  There’s a name for this: “misophonia,” or “hatred of sound.”  What do researchers know about it?

A.  Also known as “selective sound sensitivity syndrome,” misophonia was first described in 2000, reports the University of California, Berkeley, “Wellness Letter.”  “In sufferers, innocuous sounds trigger feelings of anxiety, disgust and anger.  But they typically aren’t bothered by sounds made by themselves — or children or pets.”  Not much is known about what precisely the condition is, or what causes it, though one theory is that sufferers have abnormal connections between their auditory systems and emotion-related parts of the brain.

Common features include feeling discomfort at the sounds others make that quickly leads to strong unpleasant emotional states; a tendency to avoid situations where these sounds may occur; and feeling embarrassed by one’s reaction.  Researchers are looking to develop better treatments for misophonia, but two promising ones are masking the offensive sound by using active noise cancellation or adding inoffensive background sounds (often called “acoustic perfume”) such as white noise.

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