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Teaching robots lateral thinking

February 25, 2013 9:12 am | by Larry Hardesty, MIT News Office | News | Comments

Many commercial robotic arms perform what roboticists call "pick-and-place" tasks: The arm picks up an object in one location and places it in another. Usually, the objects are positioned so that the arm can easily grasp them; the appendage that does the grasping may even be tailored to the objects' shape. General-purpose household robots, however, would have to be able to manipulate objects of any shape, left in any location. And today, commercially available robots don't have anything like the dexterity of the human hand. Until now.

A new look at high-temperature superconductors

February 25, 2013 7:49 am | by David L. Chandler, MIT News Office | News | Comments

While the phenomenon of superconductivity has been known for more than a century, the temperature at which it occur has remained too low for any practical applications. The discovery of high-temperature superconductors in the 1980s led to speculation that a surge of new discoveries might quickly lead to room-temperature superconductors. Despite intense research, these materials have remained poorly understood. Until now.

MIT report identifies keys to new American innovation

February 22, 2013 10:46 am | by Peter Dizikes, MIT News Office | News | Comments

What kinds of industrial production can bring innovation to the American economy? An intensive, long-term study by a group of Massachusetts Institute of Technology scholars suggests that a renewed commitment to research and development in manufacturing, sometimes through creative new forms of collaboration, can spur innovation and growth in the United States as a whole.

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How human language could have evolved from birdsong

February 21, 2013 11:41 am | by Peter Dizikes, MIT News Office | News | Comments

"The sounds uttered by birds offer in several respects the nearest analogy to language," Charles Darwin wrote in "The Descent of Man" (1871), while contemplating how humans learned to speak. Language, he speculated, might have had its origins in singing, which "might have given rise to words expressive of various complex emotions." Now researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, along with a scholar from the University of Tokyo, say that Darwin was on the right path.

Mercury may have harbored an ancient magma ocean

February 21, 2013 7:53 am | by Jennifer Chu, MIT News Office | News | Comments

By analyzing Mercury's rocky surface, scientists have been able to partially reconstruct the planet's history over billions of years. Now, drawing upon the chemical composition of rock features on the planet's surface, scientists have proposed that Mercury may have harbored a large, roiling ocean of magma very early in its history, shortly after its formation about 4.5 billion years ago.

Technique shows how drops, bubbles stick to surfaces

February 20, 2013 7:41 am | by David L. Chandler, MIT News Office | News | Comments

Understanding exactly how droplets and bubbles stick to surfaces is a 100-year-old problem that has eluded experimental answers. Furthermore, it's a question with implications for everything from how to improve power plant efficiency to how to reduce fogging on windshields. Now, thanks to the help of a team from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a scanning electron microscope, this longstanding problem has finally been licked.

Chip cleans up common flaws in amateur photographs

February 19, 2013 8:28 am | by Helen Knight, MIT News correspondent | News | Comments

Your smartphone snapshots could be instantly converted into professional-looking photographs with just the touch of a button, thanks to a processor chip developed at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The chip can perform tasks such as creating more realistic or enhanced lighting in a shot without destroying the scene's ambience, in just a fraction of a second. The technology could be integrated with any smartphone, tablet computer, or digital camera.

Engineering cells for more efficient biofuel production

February 19, 2013 7:47 am | by Anne Trafton, MIT News Office | News | Comments

In the search for renewable alternatives to gasoline, heavy alcohols such as isobutanol are promising candidates. Not only do they contain more energy than ethanol, but they are also more compatible with existing gasoline-based infrastructure. For isobutanol to become practical, however, scientists need a way to reliably produce huge quantities of it from renewable sources. Massachusetts Institute of Technology chemical engineers and biologists have now devised a way to dramatically boost isobutanol production in yeast, which naturally make it in small amounts.

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A cooler way to protect silicon surfaces

February 13, 2013 7:49 am | by David L. Chandler, MIT News Office | News | Comments

Silicon requires a surface coating before use in its given applications. The coating "passivates" the material, tying up loose atomic bonds to prevent oxidation that would ruin its electrical properties. But this passivation process consumes a lot of heat and energy, making it costly and limiting the kinds of materials that can be added to the devices. Now a team of researchers has found a way to passivate silicon at room temperature, which could be a significant boon to solar cell production and other silicon-based technologies.

Cell circuits remember their history

February 11, 2013 8:02 am | by Anne Trafton, MIT News Office | News | Comments

Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineers have created genetic circuits in bacterial cells that not only perform logic functions, but also remember the results, which are encoded in the cell’s DNA and passed on for dozens of generations.

Photo-growth of pores in a polymer gel network

February 7, 2013 9:08 am | News | Comments

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have pioneered a new method for producing polymer gels with tailored mechanical properties. The approach, which depends on the use of ultraviolet to break chemical bonds and prime them for new connections, could be used to make new materials that physically grow towards a light source in order to optimize their properties.

“Invisible” particles could enhance thermoelectric devices

February 6, 2013 8:15 am | by David L. Chandler, MIT News Office | News | Comments

Thermoelectric efficiency has improved enough to enable limited commercial use, but lack of better materials has prevented widespread adoption. New development work at Massachusetts Institute of Technology could help reduce thermal conductivity while keeping electrical conductivity high. In addition to computer modeling, the researchers draw upon methods developed by optics researchers who have been attempting to create invisibility cloaks—ways of making objects invisible to certain radio waves or light waves using nanostructured materials that bend light.

Purification on the cheap

February 5, 2013 7:42 am | by David L. Chandler, MIT News Office | News | Comments

Increased natural gas production is seen as a crucial step away from the greenhouse gas emissions of coal plants and toward U.S. energy independence. But natural gas wells have problems: Large volumes of deep water, often heavily laden with salts and minerals, flow out along with the gas. That so-called “produced water” must be disposed of, or cleaned. Now, a process developed by engineers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology could solve the problem and produce clean water at relatively low cost.

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Researchers improve quantum dot performance

February 4, 2013 7:32 am | by David L. Chandler, MIT News Office | News | Comments

Quantum dots—tiny particles that emit light in a dazzling array of glowing colors—have the potential for many applications, but have faced a series of hurdles to improved performance. But a Massachusetts Institute of Technology team says that it has succeeded in overcoming all these obstacles at once, while earlier efforts have only been able to tackle them one or a few at a time.

Toward practical compressed sensing

February 1, 2013 10:12 am | by Larry Hardesty, MIT News Office | News | Comments

Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers show how the vagaries of real-world circuitry affect the performance of a promising new technique in signal processing and imaging.

Physicists find new order in quantum electronic material

February 1, 2013 8:36 am | News | Comments

Two Rutgers physics professors have proposed an explanation for a new type of order, or symmetry, in an exotic material made with uranium. When cooled to near absolute zero, the material’s electrons essentially act like electronic versions of polarized sunglasses. The new theory that explains this strange behavior may one day lead to enhanced computer displays and data storage systems and more powerful superconducting magnets for medical imaging and levitating high-speed trains.

Mapping the living cell

January 31, 2013 2:52 pm | News | Comments

To get a clear picture of what’s happening inside a cell, scientists need to know the locations of thousands of proteins and other molecules. Massachusetts Institute of Technology chemists have now developed a technique that can tag all of the proteins in a particular region of a cell, allowing them to more accurately map those proteins.

A safer way to vaccinate

January 28, 2013 7:43 am | by Anne Trafton, MIT News Office | News | Comments

Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers describe a new type of vaccine-delivery film that holds promise for improving the effectiveness of DNA vaccines. If such vaccines could be successfully delivered to humans, they could overcome not only the safety risks of using viruses to vaccinate against diseases such as HIV, but they would also be more stable, making it possible to ship and store them at room temperature.

Storing data in individual molecules

January 23, 2013 3:41 pm | by Larry Hardesty, MIT News Office | News | Comments

An experimental technology called molecular memory, which would store data in individual molecules, promises another 1,000-fold increase in storage density. But previous schemes for molecular memory have relied on physical systems cooled to near absolute zero. An international team of researchers describes a new molecular-memory scheme that works at around the freezing point of water—which in physics parlance counts as "room temperature."

Putting the squeeze on cells

January 23, 2013 7:39 am | by Anne Trafton, MIT News Office | News | Comments

Living cells are surrounded by a membrane that tightly regulates what gets in and out of the cell. This barrier is necessary for cells to control their internal environment, but it makes it more difficult for scientists to deliver large molecules such as nanoparticles for imaging, or proteins that can reprogram them into pluripotent stem cells. Now, researchers have now found a safe and efficient way to get large molecules through the cell membrane, by squeezing the cells through a narrow constriction that opens up tiny, temporary holes in the membrane.

Eavesdropping on the hidden lives of microbes

January 22, 2013 7:41 am | by Denise Brehm, Civil and Environmental Engineering | News | Comments

Microbiologists who study wild marine microbes, as opposed to the laboratory-grown variety, face enormous challenges in getting a clear picture of the daily activities of their subjects. But a team of scientists from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute recently figured out how to make the equivalent of a nature film, showing the simultaneous activities of many coexisting species in their native habitat over time.

Rare earth metals make water-repellent surfaces that last

January 21, 2013 8:01 am | by David L. Chandler, MIT News Office | News | Comments

Water-shedding surfaces that are robust in harsh environments could have broad applications in many industries. Hydrophobic materials can greatly enhance the efficiency of this process. But these materials have one major problem: Most employ thin polymer coatings that degrade when heated, and can easily be destroyed by wear. Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers have now come up with a new class of hydrophobic ceramics that can overcome these problems.

Multiple steps toward the “quantum singularity”

January 18, 2013 7:41 am | by Larry Hardesty, MIT News Office | News | Comments

In early 2011, a pair of theoretical computer scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology proposed an optical experiment that would harness the weird laws of quantum mechanics to perform a computation impossible on conventional computers. The experiment involves generating individual photons—particles of light—and synchronizing their passage through a maze of optical components so that they reach a battery of photon detectors at the same time.

The high value of water

January 14, 2013 7:54 am | by Peter Dizikes, MIT News Office | News | Comments

If you're reading this, odds are you've already used running water in your home today. But you're in a minority: Globally, at least a billion people have no nearby source of water, while of the remaining six billion or so, only 42% have running water in their homes or a tap in the yard, according to the World Health Organization. Now a new field experiment shows just how much access to clean water matters to people.

How to treat heat like light

January 11, 2013 7:29 am | by David L. Chandler, MIT News Office | News | Comments

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher has developed a technique that provides a new way of manipulating heat, allowing it to be controlled much as light waves can be manipulated by lenses and mirrors. The approach relies on engineered materials consisting of nanostructured semiconductor alloy crystals.

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