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Gizmorama - October 31, 2016

Good Morning,

Researchers are learning how to build better batteries on a molecular level. Bloody well right!

Learn about this and more interesting stories from the scientific community in today's issue.

Until Next Time,

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* Blood molecule to help engineers build better batteries *

NEW HAVEN, Conn. - Lithium-oxygen batteries hold much promise, but before they can supplant lithium-ion batteries as the industry standard they must overcome a number of problems.

To that end, researchers at Yale University have their sights set on an oxygen-carrying blood molecule they hope will make Li-O2 batteries commercially viable.

Lithium-oxygen batteries can old a charge for an impressive period of time, but they're inefficient. They also produce lithium peroxide, which builds up on the oxygen electrodes and inhibits performance.

Researchers have been looking for a catalyst that can trigger the decomposition of lithium peroxide and other lithium oxide byproducts back into lithium ions and oxygen. Now, scientists at Yale believe they've found what they've been looking for.

Heme is a type of molecule found in hemoglobin, the red pigment in blood. In lab tests, scientists proved that its introduction to Li-O2 batteries could reduce the energy required to boost the efficiency of the batteries' charge-discharge cycles.

As researchers explained in a new paper on the research -- published this week in the journal Nature Communications -- the heme molecules work as a redox mediator, lowering the energy threshold required to trigger electrochemical reactions.

"When you breathe in air, the heme molecule absorbs oxygen from the air to your lungs and when you exhale, it transports carbon dioxide back out," Andre Taylor, associate professor of chemical and environmental engineering, said in a news release. "So it has a good binding with oxygen, and we saw this as a way to enhance these promising lithium-air batteries."

If the discovery can be commercially realized, it would be a boon to the animal products industry, which currently has to find ways to safely dispose of blood.

"We're using a biomolecule that traditionally is just wasted," said Taylor. "We can take the heme molecules from these waste products and use it for renewable energy storage."

* Kepler observatory helps astronomers study 'heartbeat stars' *

PASADENA, Calif. - NASA's Kepler space telescope has found a large number of "heartbeat stars" in recent years. Now, with the help of additional observatories, astronomers are working to understand why these unique binary star systems follow elongated elliptical orbits.

One explanation for their unusual orbits: they're not actually binary systems. Some astronomers suggest heartbeat star systems feature three stars, not two, and they're hoping additional telescope observations will confirm their suspicions.

Heartbeat systems are called so because the pattern of luminosity, when plotted along a time scale, looks like the electric activity of the heart, as graphed by an electrocardiogram.

The elliptical orbit of a heartbeat system causes the distance between the stars to vary dramatically. When the stars are close together, their gravity pulls on one another, causing the stars to take on ellipsoidal shapes -- which partly explains the variable nature of their brightness.

"You can think about the stars as bells, and once every orbital revolution, when the stars reach their closest approach, it's as if they hit each other with a hammer," Avi Shporer, a NASA Sagan postdoctoral fellow at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, explained in a news release. "One or both stars vibrate throughout their orbits, and when they get nearer to each other, it's as though they are ringing very loudly."

Shporer is the lead author of a new study on 19 heartbeat star systems, published this week in the Astrophysical Journal. It's the largest number of heartbeat systems ever detailed in a single study.

Follow-up observations by the W.M. Keck Observatory helped astronomers better characterize the heartbeat systems initially discovered by Kepler.

"We found that the heartbeat stars in our sample tend to be hotter than the sun and bigger than the sun," Shporer said. "But it is possible that there are others with different temperature ranges that we did not yet measure."

Though astronomers now have more detailed measurements, they're still not sure why or how heartbeat systems exist. The constant stretch of their shape caused by the stress of gravity should eventually tear these systems apart. Another star may explain their surprising stability.

"A third star in the system is one way to create the highly stretched-out, elliptical orbits we observe," Shporer said.

But, per usual, more research is needed before astronomers can be sure.

"We look forward to continued collaboration between ground and space observatories to better understand the complex inner workings of heartbeat stars," Shporer concluded.


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