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Alt-week 5.16.13: bug eyes, robo-cops and fake flowers


Alt-week takes a look at the best science and alternative tech stories from the last seven days.

If we're to find a common thread in this week's collection of stories, it'd be nature's guiding hand. How it inspires science, how we seek to imitate it, and how unnatural the future of policing could be. This is alt-week,

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There's a dystopian future we all fear. But it's not one that usually involves Brazil and soccer. News, then, that military robots could be used to patrol the 2014 World Cup in the samba-state might catch many of us by surprise. iRobot, maker of the decidedly non-threatening (and more aptly named) Roomba, has secured a contract to provide security technology (in the form of its somewhat more menacing 510 PackBot) to the Brazilian government, including for the large sporting event. How the PackBots will be deployed, exactly, isn't made clear -- but it's likely they'd be pulling surveillance duties at the very least. Though we'd argue that telly-watching soccer fans are more worried at the sight of a noisy vacuum cleaner than anything else.

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Researchers at NC State University have developed a nanostructure that could improve solar panel efficiency. The inspiration? A moth's eye. If you ever wondered what causes the rainbow effect when gasoline leaks onto a wet car park floor, then the answer is thin-film interference. This phenomenon causes light to reflect off the water, back through the fuel, taking a slightly different route. The resulting "interference" creates the rainbow. This same process can make thin-film solar cells, or electronics, reflect light causing them to be less efficient. Dr. Chih-Hao Chang at NC State explains how the eye of a moth has evolved so that it doesn't reflect light -- a design they were able to imitate in a nanostructure, thus stemming thin-film interference. The material essentially resembles a dense sheet of nanostructure cones with a second thin-film on top. This configuration was found to reflect 100 times less light than a regular thin-film. At this stage it's hard to estimate potential efficiency gains a commercial product could deliver, but the team is focusing on scaling it up, in order to find out.

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If a scientist tells you they've created something in a beaker, what might you expect? Some tissue, a cluster of fungal spores? Whatever it is, the likelihood is that you weren't thinking "beautiful flowers." However, that's exactly what a team at Harvard University has created. Or, more accurately, flower-like sculptures. Technically these are crystals, but without the harsh, jagged edges we've come to associate with them. The blossoming structures are created by tweaking chemical gradients in fluid (in said beakers). Similar processes also occurs in nature, such as the formation of shells. The Harvard team experimented with different chemical reactions until it found the right combination that allowed them to control how the crystals grow. The research helps understand how complex shapes can form in nature, as well as the effects chemical changes in the environment can have.

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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