Electron

Astronomers detect oldest known stardust in distant galaxy

illustration of galaxy dust
DISTANT DUST Observations from an array of telescopes in Chile show that a distant, young galaxy (illustrated above) is filled with dust probably produced by the first supernova explosions in the universe.

Astronomers may have spotted some of the earliest stardust ever created in the cosmos.

Astrophysicist Nicolas Laporte of University College London and colleagues detected the dust in a galaxy seen as it was when the universe was only 600 million years old. “We are probably seeing the first stardust of the universe,” Laporte says. The observations, published online March 8 in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, could help astronomers learn more about an early period known as cosmic reionization, when ultraviolet radiation stripped electrons from hydrogen atoms.

“Dust is ubiquitous in nearby and more distant galaxies, but has, until recently, been very difficult to detect in the very early universe,” says University of Edinburgh astrophysicist Michal Michalowski, who was not involved in the study. “This paper presents the most distant galaxy for which dust has been detected.”

The galaxy, called A2744_YD4, lies behind a galaxy cluster called Abell 2744. That cluster acts as a gravitational lens, magnifying and brightening the distant galaxy’s light by about a factor of two. Laporte and colleagues observed the galaxy with ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in Chile, which revealed the dust.

ALMA observations reveal that the galaxy A2744_YD4 (inset) is rich…

Germs power new paper batteries

paper battery
paper battery

Engineers in upstate New York have invented a folded paper device that looks like a decorated art project. But don’t be fooled. This is actually a paper-based battery. No, it doesn’t look like any of those metal batteries running flashlights or smartphones. This alternative to electronics is based on paper. It represents a step forward in the field of papertronics (short for paper electronics). In these systems, the battery can be printed on a page. Well, most of it can: The battery’s power consists of living bacteria.

Paper electronics are simple to make and inexpensive, notes study leader Seokheun Choi. He’s an enginee at Binghamton University, part of the State University of New York system. These batteries also would be flexible and disposable, he adds. And powered by germs, they need no electrical outlet to recharge. They just need more bacteria, which can be found everywhere — including in dirty water.

Most batteries use chemicals to generate electricity. Substituting bacteria can be an advantage, Choi says. “They are cheap, self-repairing and self-maintained,” he notes. What paper-based batteries won’t do is generate much power. They do, however, create enough to run small devices in faraway or dangerous places — such as a battlefield. They might also find use in medicine. For instance, they might power tiny sensors, such as the types used to measure blood sugar.

Choi and Yang Gao, also at Binghamton, describe their new invention in the January 2017 issue of Advanced Materials Technology.

Such devices are based on an observation made more than a century ago — that microbes produce a trickle of electricity as they digest food. Scientists refer to the bio-batteries based on this principle as microbial fuel cells.

A fuel cell generates electricity like a regular battery. But a regular battery stops producing electricity when its internal…

Helium’s inertness defied by high-pressure compound

helium sodium compound
HELIUM COMPOUND Scientists created a chemical compound of helium and sodium by squeezing the elements to extremely high pressures. Helium atoms (green cubes) are arranged in a 3-D checkerboard structure, each surrounded by eight sodium atoms (purple). Electron pairs (red) sit in the spaces between helium atoms.

Helium — the recluse of the periodic table — is reluctant to react with other elements. But squeeze the element hard enough, and it will form a chemical compound with sodium, scientists report.

Helium, a noble gas, is one of the periodic table’s least reactive elements. Originally, the noble gases were believed incapable of forming any chemical compounds at all. But after scientists created xenon compounds in the early 1960s, a slew of other noble gas compounds followed. Helium, however, has largely been a holdout.

Although helium was known to hook up with certain elements, the bonds in those compounds were weak, or the compounds were short-lived or electrically charged. But the new compound, called sodium helide or Na2He, is stable at high pressure, and its bonds are strong, an international team of scientists reports February 6 in Nature Chemistry.

As a robust helium compound, “this is really the first that people ever observed,” says chemist Maosheng Miao of California State University, Northridge, who was not involved with the research.

The material’s properties are still poorly understood, but it is unlikely to have immediate practical applications — scientists can create it only in tiny amounts at very high pressures, says study coauthor Alexander Goncharov, a physicist at the Carnegie Institution…

Want to Prevent Static Cling This Winter, Here’s How

As we get deeper into winter, getting dressed to go outside becomes an ordeal. Not only do we have to worry about wearing enough layers to stay warm, we also have to deal with static electricity giving our garments a life of their own.

If you’re hoping to tackle static cling head-on this season, it helps to first understand the science behind why it happens. TIME recently spoke with two experts, Rutgers University biomedical engineering professor Troy Shinbrot and George Mason University professor of Earth sciences Robert Hazen, about why this sticky phenomenon becomes so pervasive once the temperatures drop.

According to Shinbrot, the culprit is an excess of either positive or negative electrical charge. All atoms contain both positively charged protons and negatively charged electrons. When balanced in number, these charges cancel each other out; but when two objects make contact, electrons can come dislodged from their original atoms and jump to another, disrupting the object’s “neutral” charge.

The “cling” part comes in when these imbalanced atoms start sticking together. Opposites attract, atomically speaking, so when wool tights with too much positive charge are introduced to a dress with a neutral or negative charge, the protons in the tights will…