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Gizmorama - July 18, 2016

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Osmosis has grabbed the attention of renewable energy researchers. Check out the first article to find out why.

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

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*--- Electricity generated with water, salt and an ultra thin membrane ---*

LAUSANNE, Switzerland - The simple scientific phenomenon known as osmosis has renewable energy researchers quite excited.

A newly devised osmotic power generation system has produced record-setting yields. The system relies on water, salt and an ultra thin membrane -- three atoms thin, to be exact.

More specifically, the system features two liquid-holding compartments separated by a membrane made of molybdenum disulfide. In one container is saltwater and in the other is freshwater.

The membrane allows saltwater ions to pass through its nanopores until the salt concentrations in each container reach equalibrium. Ions are atoms with an electrical charge. As the salt ions pass through nanopores, an electrode captures the electric charge.

The membrane lets only positively charged ions pass through its nanoholes, which slowly turns the device into a dipole, with all the positively charged ions in one container and negatively charged ions in the other. The separation triggers a flow of electricity as the ions pass through the membrane.

"We had to first fabricate and then investigate the optimal size of the nanopore. If it's too big, negative ions can pass through and the resulting voltage would be too low," lead researcher Jiandong Feng, a scientist at the EPFL Laboratory of Nanoscale Biology, said in a news release. "If it's too small, not enough ions can pass through and the current would be too weak."

The key to device's never-before-seen electricity yields is its material and thickness. The thinner the membrane, the higher the voltage created by the ion flow and dipole separation.

"This is the first time a two-dimensional material has been used for this type of application," said Aleksandra Radenovic, the laboratory's head scientist.

The next challenge for researchers is to find a way to scale up the osmotic power generation system while maintaining the uniformity of the membrane's nanopores.

EPFL scientists detailed their latest efforts in the journal Nature.

*-- Very Large Telescope offers deepest view of Orion --*

SANTIAGO, Chile - The Very Large Telescopes's HAWK-I infrared instrument has revealed the deep interior of the Orion Nebula in greater detail than ever before. The new infrared imagery has offered astronomers the deepest glimpse yet of Orion's center.

In addition to setting records, the VLT images have yielded surprises. Orion's interior hosts many more brown dwarfs and isolated planetary-mass objects than astronomers expected. The realization is forcing astronomers to rethink their models of the nebula's stellar evolution.

Orion hosts a significant number of hot young stars, which flood the nebula with intense ultraviolet radiation, causing pillars of gas to ionize and glow intensely. This luminosity allows the nebula to be seen with the naked eye as a faint fuzz along Orion's Belt.

Its close proximity to Earth and rich population of stars make Orion an ideal place for astronomical exploration. It serves as a laboratory for testing various theories of star formation.

"Understanding how many low-mass objects are found in the Orion Nebula is very important to constrain current theories of star formation," researcher Amelia Bayo said in a news release. "We now realise that the way these very low-mass objects form depends on their environment."

Bayo is an astronomer with the University of Valparaíso in Chile, as well as the Max-Planck Institute of Astronomy in Germany.

An important part of understanding the star formation process is determining the proportion of differently massed stellar objects, the ratio of low- to high-mass objects. The latest imagery shows Orion's interior features a higher proportion of low-mass objects than other regions of the nebula.

The findings -- detailed in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society -- also suggest Orion may host a larger number of planet-sized objects than previously thought, but scientists don't yet have hard evidence of the fact. New observational tools like European Extremely Large Telescope could change that, however.

"Our result feels to me like a glimpse into a new era of planet and star formation science," said lead study author Holger Drass, an astronomer at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. "The huge number of free-floating planets at our current observational limit is giving me hope that we will discover a wealth of smaller Earth-sized planets with the E-ELT."


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