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How science harnesses extreme hot and cold

Turing Robotic Industries hopes to shake up the smartphone industry with a forthcoming device boasting ridiculously powerful specs. Firstpost.com reports that it will feature 18GB of RAM — six times that of the iPhone 7 Plus — along with three Snapdragon 830 processors, a 6.4-inch 4K screen, a 20MP front camera and 6K rear camera and 1.2 TB of storage. All this is made possible by a revolutionary triple power source, centered around a 3,600mAh graphene battery that has been supercooled. Supercooling is the same technology companies such as Lockheed Martin and Google are using to develop quantum computers millions of times faster than today’s computers, USC News says.

As this illustrates, extreme temperatures can create unusual effects that enable technological breakthroughs. Scientists and engineers have been exploiting the power of heat and cold for centuries. Here’s a look at some of the ways science has enabled technology to harness extreme hot and cold for practical purposes.

Powering the Industrial Revolution: The steam engine

When heated water turns to steam inside the confined space of a boiler, the steam expands, taking up more space than the water originally occupied. The expansion’s energy can be used to drive the rotary motion of a turbine or the back-and-forth motion of a piston.

The principle of steam power was known to the ancient Greeks. First century mathematician, Hero of Alexandria, wrote a book on pneumatics which included directions for building a steam-powered device called an aeolipile, named after Aeolus, the Greek god of wind. The aeolipile was a small, hollow globe mounted on a pipe that ran to a steam kettle. Two L-shaped pipes were attached to opposite sides of the globe. When steam rushed out of the pipes, the globe turned.

Hero’s aeolipile was the first recorded steam engine, but it took centuries before steam technology was put to practical use. Steam technology was revived in the 1600s in order to power water pumps to drain mines. After nearly two centuries of experimentation, James Watt improved the design of steam engine pumps in the late 18th century to make it more fuel-efficient, making it practical to use for applications besides pumping water. Watt’s team engine became the workhorse of the Industrial Revolution, powering factories, machines, railroads, steamboats and steamships.

Making room for expansion: Airplanes

Heat’s expansive property is useful for powering steam engines, but it can also create some challenges for other technology applications. Like steam, solid materials also expand with heat, and different materials expand at different rates. This presents challenges for designers of technology such as aircrafts and rubber seals.

Planes undergo a wide range of temperature changes as they accelerate and decelerate and as they climb to different altitudes and descend again. Since planes are made largely of metal, they easily heat up, and different parts of the plane can expand at different rates. This causes wear and tear, and can even cause parts to melt if precautions are not taken. For instance, the Concorde jet expanded anywhere from 5 to 12 inches when flying at Mach 2, representing a 5 percent increase in fuselage size, aerospaceweb.org reports. To address this, the Concorde’s designers used a special type of aluminum developed by Rolls-Royce that could survive high temperatures better than traditional aluminum. They allowed certain parts of the plane to slide in relation to each other to allow for expansion, and even used special paint that wouldn’t flake off during heating and was colored white to dissipate heat. Airplane engines also use o-rings made of special materials that can maintain their integrity at high temperatures.

Coming in from the cold: Ancient DNA sequencing

Cold also has properties that have proven useful for scientists. For instance, where liquid water can degrade fossilised DNA molecules over time, frozen ice can preserve them. This enables scientists to study the DNA of extinct species.

In 2013, a perfectly preserved mammoth carcass along with mammoth blood were found frozen in the Sakha Republic. Scientists have been using DNA samples extracted from the find to clone the mammoth’s DNA, in the hope of planting an implanted egg into a female elephant to give birth to a new mammoth. Scientists also hope to use frozen fossils to resurrect extinct horse species, says National Geographic.

Photograph by Pixabay

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