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Alt-week 8.18.12: Graphene sponges, zero-g athletics and tweets in space


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Alt-week peels back the covers on some of the more curious sci-tech stories from the last seven days.

We see a lot of crazy stories here at Engadget, especially when we spend our week poking around in dark and scary corners of the internet specifically in search of them, just so you don't have to. We consider it a service almost. One that we're delighted to provide, we must add. When else would we be able to share such delights as an astronaut triathlete, soft, color-changing robots and a recent response to a thirty-year-old alien broadcast? Exactly. This is alt-week.

Our love affair with graphene is a complex one. It's a material that offers so much promise, but has yet to fully leap from the drawing board out into our everyday reality. Some recent research from the University of Texas, however, might finally change that. And, it's probably in a form you weren't expecting. By reducing graphene oxide and then applying a hydrothermal molding procedure, the scientists were able to fabricate a sponge-like structure, which can absorb upto 86 times its own weight. The testing was done with petrochemicals in water (to replicate oil spills), and the rate of chemical uptake is the highest they've seen. Best of all, 99 percent of the hydrocarbons absorbed were able to be recovered, meaning the sponge could be redeployed up to ten times without a drop in performance. If this is the first commercial implementation of graphene, we're not going to grumble, even if it's not the science fiction-like super product we'd been hoping for.

Altweek 81812 Graphene sponges, zerog athletics and tweets in space

Space-age materials are one thing, but what about space-age triathletes? Not a term you find yourself using every day, granted. But, thanks to ISS-based astronaut Sunita Williams, one we get to use today. Not content with being the record holder for the longest space flight by a female, Williams wants to compete in the Nautica Malibu Triathlon next month. A taxing feat for most people, but even more so when you consider that over-achieving Williams wants to do it while still very much in Space. The ISS has a treadmill (with harness!) and static bike, which makes two of the three disciplines pretty straightforward, but the distinct lack of a pool, makes the swimming part a little harder to mimic. As such, Williams will perform bench presses that will act as the microgravity equivalent of the water-dependent sport. This isn't the first time our wonder-naut has done such a thing, either, having "ran" the Boston marathon in 2007, clocking in a time of 4:23:10, which frankly, is just showing off.

While competing in space might mean fewer joggers to dodge, it does come with its own hazards, such as dodging tweets and videos sent out from planet earth. Okay, it might not be a physical message in bottle, but it is something almost as ambitious. The project directed by the National Geographic Channel and Arecibo Observatory is sending a response to the "Wow signal" some 35 years after the event. Over 10,000 tweets were collated, as well as videos from comedians, which will be beamed into space using a transmitter with a signal 20 times stronger than that of typical commercial radio transmitters. We're just really hoping that aliens have a sense of humor, or at least know what RLRT stands for.

Altweek 81812 Graphene sponges, zerog athletics and tweets in space

If anyone, or anything does receive our messages, there's every chance it might look like one of the critters below. These creepy little monsters are the result of research undertaken at Harvard to develop nature-inspired soft robots. The "soft machines" (as they are dubbed) themselves aren't new, but this time they have been modified to posses color changing camouflage skills, as seen in cephalopods such as squid. While the form and function may be very much inspired by nature, the practicalities are very much in the human realm. The color layers in the machines start as 3D printed molds, micro-channels are then created with silicon that allow colored liquids to be pumped in to match the robots surroundings. Practical applications are said to include search and rescue missions (these can also glow in the dark) as well as helping doctors perform complex surgery (though we're not exactly sure how). We, however, think this is a smash-hit Christmas toy waiting to happen. Keep up the research!

Altweek 81812 Graphene sponges, zerog athletics and tweets in space

[Image credits: NAAPO, Harvard]

Seen any other far-out articles that you'd like considered for Alt-week? Working on a project or research that's too cool to keep to yourself? Drop us a line at alt [at] engadget [dot] com.

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