Scientists Use Sound Waves to Make Things Levitate

With every new year comes change, and change can be scary. Thankfully, we know that there’s at least one way 2014 will be like every year that came before it. Watching scientists make stuff levitate is still cool as hell, same as it ever was.

The latest work comes from a group of researchers at the University of Tokyo. What we see in their latest proof of concept clip is fairly dumbfounding: Arrangements of tiny little beads lift into the air and glide around in perfect formation. An iron screw spins gently in space. Pieces of plastic, broken match heads, and even droplets of water all defy gravity, all thanks to the precise application of ultrasonic sound waves.

The idea itself is not entirely novel. As we’re told in the clip, scientists have been experimenting with acoustic levitation for decades, using sound waves to suspend materials in mid-air. What’s new here, though, is the ability to move those materials in three dimensions.

That’s made possible by the unique arrangement of the speakers themselves. Where former setups bounced sound waves off a solid plate, the Tokyo researchers instead use four panels of speakers, all facing each other. These walls combine to create an “ultrasonic focal point,” which can be moved—along with the object trapped in it—by adjusting the output from each speaker array. The sound waves are out of the range of human hearing, so the setup effectively operates in silence.

We’re already seeing similar technology used in clever ways. McLaren recently announced it’s doing away with windshield wipers, reportedly employing ultrasonic vibrations to let its cars repel rain. Other obvious applications range from hoverboards to flying carpets. In the meantime, I’d be OK with 2014 being the year of funny animated GIFs of floating ants. Don’t let me down, science!


Narcisse Snake Pits, Canada

The Narcisse Snake Pits are located 6 km north of the rural settlement of Narcisse in the province of Manitoba in Canada. These pits harbour the largest concentration of Red-sided Garter Snakes in the world. During winter, the snakes hibernate inside subterranean caverns formed by the area's water-worn limestone bedrock. Shortly after the snow melts in late April and early May, tens of thousands of these snakes slip out of their limestone dens and hang out on the surface of the ground performing their mating rituals in great tangled heaps.

The male snakes are usually the first to awaken from the long winter hibernation and reach the surface where they wait patiently for the females to come out. As the females slither out of the caves, the males pounce on the helpless females eager to mate with them. As many as 50 or more males attack a single female forming a writhing, moving “mating ball” of snakes. These massive snake balls are everywhere - on ledges, tree limbs, on plants and on the ground. Some mating balls slowly roll down rocks like tangled balls of twine. Professor Mason, a professor of zoology from Oregon State University estimated that there were 35,000 snakes at one pit alone and more than 250,000 in the general area.

There are four active snake dens at the Narcisse Wildlife Management Area. The dens are connected by a three-kilometer self-guiding interpretive trail. Tourists come from all over the world to view this spectacle from observation platforms built next to the dens, as do many scientists to study these non-venomous creatures.

The population of red-sided garter snakes around Narcisse was roughly 70,000 until terrible weather in 1999 killed tens of thousands of them before they could reach their winter dens. This tragedy triggered concern about the snakes' biannual migratory path, which cuts right across Highway 17. Every year, ten thousand snakes trying to get to or from their winter dens had been crushed under the wheels of vehicles. This had not been a problem before, because the vast population compensated for the losses. After the winter of 1999, however, the population of garter snakes was dangerously low, causing Manitoba Hydro and volunteers to intervene.

Foot-high snow fences were built to force snakes into 15-cm tunnels that went under Highway 17. Since some snakes still managed to squeeze under the fence and onto the road, signs were put up during the migratory season urging motorists to slow down to avoid accidentally driving over snakes. These measures worked, and now less than a thousand snakes per season are killed on the highway.


The Aluminum Airship of the Future

There was once a time when man looked to the skies and expected to see giant balloons rather than airplanes drifting above. The Hindenburg Disaster promptly put an end to those dreams. But nearly a century later, one company may have finally figured out how to build a dirigible suitable for the 21st century. Just don't call it a blimp.

This fully rigid airship, dubbed the Aeroscraft, differs fundamentally from, say, the Goodyear blimp. Blimps, by definition, have no internal structure and maintain their shapes only through the pressure of the gas they contain; when the gas escapes, they deflate like the gigantic balloons they are. Rigid airships, like zeppelins before them, maintain their shape regardless of gas pressure thanks to an internal skeleton structure—the Hindenburg utilized highly flammable balsa wood, but the Aeroscraft's is made of aluminum and carbon fiber—and maintains its buoyancy with a series of gas-filled bladders. And unlike hybrid airships, the Aeroscraft doesn't require forward momentum to generate lift via a set of wings. It's all helium power.

The Aeroscraft has been under development by Aeros Corp, the world's largest airship and blimp maker, since 1996. The project has received over $35 million in R&D funds and the government has even lent the company a couple of NASA boffins to help develop the aerodynamics and control systems. And with the successful launch of its half-scale prototype, the Pelican, last weekend, the investment looks to have paid off. The future of lighter-than-air travel looks to be imminently upon us.

At 266 feet long and 97 feet wide, the Pelican prototype is just about half the size of what a full-scale Aeroscraft will be. If completed the Aeroscraft will measure more than 400 feet long and be capable of lifting 66 tons or more.

Unlike blimps that maintain a constant buoyancy and rely on ballast and fans to adjust their altitude, the Aeroscraft will employ a unique bladder system that can alter the craft's static heaviness (relative to air) at will, dubbed COSH (Control of Static Heaviness). The system actually works quite similarly to how submarines use compressed air to float.

The Aeroscraft is equipped with a series of pressurized helium tanks. When the pilot wants to increase altitude, non-flammable helium is released from the tanks through a series of pipes and control valves, into internal gas-bladders called helium pressure envelopes (HPEs). This increases the amount of lift the helium generates, reduces the craft's static heaviness, and allows it to rise. When the pilot wants to descend, the process is reversed. This allows the Aeroscraft to easily land and take on cargo or passengers without having to be tied down or add external ballast. Additionally, the Aeroscraft will be equipped with a trio of engines—one on each side and a third on the belly—and six turbofan engines to provide thrust and augment the COSH's lift, as well as aerodynamic tail-fin rudders and stumpy wing control surfaces, for high speed travel—that is, above 20 mph. Oh it'll get you there, it's just going to take a while.

Now, the US government didn't drop $35 million just to build a better balloon. Airship technology is being developed to provide a vital role in modern world: runway-less cargo delivery. Getting even modest amounts of supplies and people to remote areas by plane can be a nightmare; you've either got to find a suitable runway or be prepared to parachute. From the Australian outback to the Alaskan hinterlands, there are plenty of locations around the world that are simply inaccessible to conventional airplanes. Not so with the Aeroscraft.

With a proposed lifting capability of 66 tons and no need for a landing strip, these airships should be able to deliver just about anything just about anywhere in the world. Cargo can either be loaded into the Aeroscraft's internal cargo bay or slung under the blimp using the company's proprietary ceiling suspension cargo deployment (CSCD) system. which automatically balances the hanging load to prevent it from swinging around and crashing the dirigible. While the Pelican successfully lifted off last Sunday, it did so under cautionary tethers. Its first untethered flight is expected to happen within the next few weeks. Eventually, the company hopes to produce a trio of Aeroscraft models: the 66-ton capacity ML866, the 250-ton ML868, and the 500-ton ML86X. There's even discussion of turning them into giant floating hotels for serene 80-day global circumnavigations.


Bubbles Crystallize During Freezing Temps

Earlier this month, photographer Angela Kelly and her 7-year-old son decided to venture outdoors amidst freezing temperatures to blow some bubbles.

After finding a soap bubble recipe online that consisted of dish soap, karo syrup and water; the mother and son braved the elements to see what would happen. The results were a breathtaking series of close-ups that showed the frozen soap bubbles in various states.

Not only did each bubble freeze with their own unique pattern but they also deflated and collapsed in spectacular fashion. The series, which can be seen in its entirety on Facebook, has spread online in recent weeks. The images are now available as prints and calendars on Kelly’s Etsy Store.