Weird Science Weekly: Panda feces could be the key to efficient biofuel production


Weird science happens every day, all around us. This week, we have four of the weirdest examples, including sustainable energy from panda poop, 'mechanical gears' found in nature, an electromagnetic beam to stop suicide bombers, and night-vision camouflage from squid skin...

Panda feces could be the key to efficient biofuel production

What would weird science be without a story about poop?

In this case, it's what comes out of the rear end of a panda, or more accurately, what's in what comes out of the rear end of a panda, that Mississippi State University biochemists are interested in. Giant pandas apparently still have the digestive system of a meat-eater, but they live on a diet of almost exclusively bamboo. Researchers found that, to get enough energy from the bamboo shoots to sustain them, pandas have numerous strains of bacteria in their gut that are able to break down plant matter into simple sugars very quickly and very efficiently.

Current methods of converting plants into sugars at bio-fuel plants apparently aren't the most efficient, so this new discovery, according to what study lead Dr Ashli Brown told The Telegraph, this "might actually be a solution to the search for sustainable new sources of energy."

[ Related: Weird Science Weekly: Scientists thwart civet-poop coffee counterfeiters ]

Tiny insects use mechanical gears to jump

In recent years, there's been quite a bit of effort put into designing our technology to mimic the way nature works, but it seems that we may have been doing this right from our earliest days of mechanical invention, starting with the gear.

Scientists from the University of Cambridge have found that an insect called the Issus, which is a tiny plant-hopping species found throughout Europe, actually have tiny interlocking gears in their legs, that help them to jump. They used super-high-speed video technology to be able to capture these gears in action:

One of the greatest parts of this is the science outreach the researchers have been doing, with both children and the elderly, to create animations from the high-speed footage. It's weird, it's a little silly, but it's a great way to get people involved in science.

[ Related: Weird Science Weekly: Ancient colour-shifting cup inspires modern sensors ]

Electromagnetic beam tested as protection against suicide bombers

When the words electromagnetic and beam get put together, it typically results in something being burned or blown up. However, a new high-intensity electromagnetic beam being developed by NATO is actually being aimed at preventing explosions:

[ Related: Weird Science Weekly: King Richard III had royal roundworms ]

Protein from squid skin could make soldiers invisible to night-vision technology

You probably wouldn't consider a squid to be of much use in a military application (except maybe showing up as a treat on the mess hall menu), but researchers at the University of California Irvine have shown that they might be indispensable to soldiers assigned to night-time patrols.

Infrared 'night-vision' technology is indispensable to troops for spotting enemies at night, but this same technology in the hands of the enemies make night-time patrols vulnerable to attack. Along comes UC Irvine researcher Alon Gorodetsky and his team, who have found a way to mimic how the common pencil squid uses a protein called 'reflectin' to shift the colour and texture of its skin to become invisible to infrared cameras. Gorodetsky's team used a common bacteria to put reflectin into a film that can be applied to clothing and other objects, and when the film is exposed to different chemicals, it essentially 'shape-shifts', pulling off the same feat of legerdemain as the squid.

[ More Geekquinox: Voyager 1 records eerie sounds of interstellar space ]

Keep your eyes on the wonders of science, and if you spot anything particularly strange you'd like me to check out for next week, comment below or drop me a line on Twitter!

(Photos courtesy: Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters, Wikimedia Commons)

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