Urine-powered transmitter to sniffer rats: 2015’s oddest inventions

  • Sanchita Sharma, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Dec 28, 2015 17:14 IST
One group of scientists trains rats to sniff out explosives; another has created a chewing gum sensor. HT picks the most amusing scientific discoveries of 2015.

Science is about ideas, innovation and application. Discoveries that are all three make headlines. They also make researchers rich and famous.

And then there’s other work that almost makes news, because it is unusual, quirky and outlandish. Here’s our pick of oddest inventions and weirdest research of 2015.

Wearable urine-powered wireless transmitter

A pair of socks embedded with miniaturised microbial fuel cells (MFCs), fuelled by fresh urine pumped by the wearer’s footsteps, can power a wireless transmitter to send a signal to a computer. This is the world’s first self-sufficient system powered by a wearable energy generator running on MFC technology, which uses bacteria to generate electricity from waste fluids by tapping into the biochemical energy used for microbial growth. Soft MFCs embedded within a pair of socks are supplied with fresh urine circulated by a person walking, where the action of the feet pumps the urine over the MFCs to generate energy. Soft tubes, placed under the heels, ensure frequent fluid push-pull by walking.

The wearable MFC system successfully ran a wireless transmission board, which sent a message every two minutes to the PC-controlled receiver module, report scientists from the Bristol BioEnergy Centre in Bioinspiration and Biomimetics (bit.ly/1lOcoCX).

Application: Using waste to power portable and wearable electronics
Photo: bit.ly/1lUvxCw

Sniffer rats trained to detect and rescue

Sniffer rats may soon replace dogs as man’s best friends, with scientists in Russia working at training rats to detect explosives or people trapped in buildings.

“Unlike a dog, a rat can get through the smallest crack where it seems it couldn’t go. This way it could find its way deep under rubble and by its brain activity one could understand if there are, for example, people who are still alive, if it’s worth clearing debris here or at another place to rescue people more quickly,” said Dmitry Medvedev. He heads the Laboratory of Olfactory Perception at Rostov-on-Don.

Russian scientists attached electrodes to their brains to monitor brainwaves to study how an unfamiliar or unusual substance will affect the waveforms.

Read: Your saliva can reveal early death risk

Mozambique uses Gambian giant pouch rats to sniff out mines in conflict zones, while the Dutch police is training rats to identify different scents — including drugs, gunpowder and explosives — to help stop smuggling and solve crime cases.

Medvedev admits they still have a way to go: “We can’t say what substance it was by just analysing an encephalogram by sight. We are now trying to work out what substance it was with the help of mathematical analysis,” he said.

Application: Forming Ninja rat units to sniff out smugglers and criminals
Video: reut.rs/1U6v1MY

Sperms lean right to move ahead

Spermatozoa need to crane their necks to turn right to counteract a left-turning drive caused by the rotation of their tails. Research from the University of Warwick’s Department of Physics showed that all sperm tails (flagella) rotate in a counter-clockwise motion as they beat to enable them to move through and against the motion of a fluid. The counter-clockwise motion means that sperm should only be able to move in a leftwards direction, but the researchers observed that approximately 50% of the sperm observed in the research moved to the right. Composed of a head, mid connecting piece and the flagella, 3D motion analysis of the sperm found that they were distorting their bodies at the mid-piece to counteract the physical forces that would cause them to turn left. The differences between the actions necessary for a sperm to turn left or right means that all could be able to turn in both directions or only one; indicating that there could be two physiologically distinct spermatozoa subpopulations, report UK researchers in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (bit.ly/1XSbHcn).

Application: Better understanding of the human reproduction process; LOL video to fuel drunken debates
Video: bit.ly/1JwXWUT

Stretchable, wearable sensor made with chewing gum

Ultra-sensitive body sensors, made of chewing gum and carbon nanotubes that move with your most bendable parts and track breathing and other vital stats, may replace conventional metal sensors, scientists report in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces. Unlike stretchy plastics and silicones, gum sensors can be twisted, bent and pulled without sensitivity being lost to monitor the full range of a body’s bending and stretching.

To make this sensor, a research team chewed a piece of gum for 30 minutes, washed it with ethanol and let it overnight. A solution of carbon nanotubes, the sensing material, was then added and the gum was pulled and folded to align properly. Human finger-bending and head-turning tests showed the material kept working with high sensitivity even when strained 530%. It also detected humidity changes.

Application: Recycling chewed gum instead of discarding it on pavements and sticking it under chairs
Video: bit.ly/1LSs5NV

Studying manscaping to understand modern masculinity

When it comes to attention to detail, British researchers come up tops. Dr Mathew Hall, research associate, division of health research, Lancaster University, has done an academic dissertation on men’s online groin shaving talk. The research paper, published in the journal Sexualities is titled “When there’s no underbrush the tree looks taller: a discourse analysis of men’s online groin shaving talk” (http://bit.ly/1OMK2iT), examines online responses to an advert promoting groin grooming. “The analysis shows that changes of vanity are swept under the carpet in favour of heterosexual pleasure, cleanliness, self-respect and individuality,” writes Hall, in the paper that carries scientific references and citations.

Application: Insights into contemporary views on gender, hygiene, vanity and grooming; puke inducer.
Video: The paper cites a link to a Gillette video: Manscaping — Shaving down there bit.ly/1mhaMBg

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