CRUSHING POWER:

With Arctic sea ice melting there's increased interest in sending shipping through previously closed routes. Keeping the lanes open though still needs icebreakers. Russia's building a new nuclear-powered icebreaker 170 metres long and 34 metres wide to help with the job. Two RITM-200 compact pressurised water reactors will power the vessel, generating 60MWe. It'll break up ice that's more than 4 metres thick and tow tankers of up to 70,000 tons displacement. The new vessel adds to an existing fleet of half a dozen nuclear powered icebreakers. It's a good thing there's no ice around New Zealand that needs breaking.

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DISK DRAG: Hard disks are spinning platters with a read and write mechanism that floats on air just a few billionths of a metre above the surface of the drive. As the platters spin air is dragged in from outside the drive to create a cushion of air for the read and write head to float on. Hitachi Global Storage Technologies think they can create drives with more platters, more heads and more storage space by filling the drives with helium, rather than relying on air. Because helium is less dense than air turbulence inside the drive will have less effect on the position of the heads. That means the drive can be more precise, which means it can store more data. Lower density also means less drag and reduced power use. The drives are being targeted at data centres where the energy savings could be considerable. But solid state drives don't have any drag at all. Ars Technica has the details.

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POWER DECAY: When researchers send craft and structures into inaccessible locations such as deep space or the bottom of the ocean they generally want the equipment to run for a long time. That means finding a power source that can last for years. One source of power that goes on going on is isotopes such as plutonium-238 or americium-241. But isotope availability is a problem. Now chemists at Britain's National Nuclear Laboratory want to make batteries using the large store of waste plutonium at Sellafield nuclear power plant. They're just waiting on funding to be confirmed before they can go ahead with the plan. So it's a slow process all round. BBC explains.

STICK AROUND: At the University of Toronto physicists were working on high-temperature superconductors. But because fundamental quantum mechanics require materials to be in nearly perfect contact they were having problems, especially with cuprates. Cuprates have a completely different structure and complex chemical make-up that can't be incorporated with a normal semiconductor. Making the required contact just couldn't be done. Until they tried double-sided Scotch tape. By using poster tape and glass slides they were able to induce superconductivity in semi-conductors called topological insulators where they'd failed before. The science may be high-powered, but sometimes the solution to a problem's available from the supermarket. University of Toronto has more.

STICK TOGETHER: Car manufacturers want to reduce the weight of cars while increasing their safety. Honda's new Friction Stir Welding technique for welding heavy steel and lighter aluminium together achieves these goals. Vehicles using the new method will go on sale this month. A rotating tool moves on the top of the aluminium which is lapped over the steel with high pressure. The new welds also allow the suspension to be moved and add rigidity to the mounting point. The system can be used by manufacturing robots, which also use a highly-sensitive infrared camera and laser beam to inspect the joins. Which may all be more than you ever wanted to know about how cars are manufactured. Honda has further info.

Miraz Jordan, knowit.co.nz