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Sci-tech: The wondrous world of science


Understanding ‘chicken talk’ Having contented birds is the desire of every poultry farmer, as that translates directly to higher productivity. The degree of contentment of chickens can be judged by the sounds they make. Modern computer technologies are now being used to decipher the various sounds and gauge the extent of contentment from them. Scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Georgia have teamed up to examine various sounds and scientifically determine the level of stress in an experimental chicken barn.

Different levels of stress were first created by increasing the temperature in the barn or spraying various levels of ammonia and recording the various sounds produced, thereby developing correlations between stress levels and the nature of sounds. The volume and pitch of the sounds as well as the speed at which they are repeated are then analysed by computers after they have been recorded.

The work is aimed at developing an automated software that will continuously monitor and determine stress levels within chicken barns through a real time audio-feed. Specific problems would be automatically detected and the situation rectified through a control system in a timely manner without the need of human intervention. This should result in increased productivity and profitability for the farmers.

Hover cars — and cars of tomorrow The German automobile manufacturer Volkswagen has built a prototype of the car of the future that will travel while hovering above the road on a cushion of air, never touching it. The “Hover Car”, as it is called, is the result of an initiative launched by the German company in China, known as the “People’s Car Project” (PCP). Ideas about novel cars were invited and some 33 million persons visited the website. As a result 119,000 new and novel ideas were submitted. From them, the Hover Car is one of the three ideas that were selected by Volkswagen to actually build prototypes.

Another related development in cars was to use a compressed air cylinder to power a car instead of a combustion engine. India’s auto giant Tata Motors had acquired the license to manufacture this car from Motor Development International’s (MDI) in Luxembourg in 2007 and the project has now entered its second final phase. The Kevlar cylinder in the car will need to be filled with compressed air, that will carry it for 200-300 kilometres before a refill is again needed. The cost of running it will be a fraction of that for running normal combustion engines.

Meanwhile, work on improving engine efficiencies continues. The husband and wife team of John and Helen Taylor are known for being “the world’s most fuel efficient couple” because they have already won 40 world records for fuel efficient cars. Now they have another record — the longest distance travelled of 2,616 kilometres (fuel efficiency of 84.1 miles per gallon). The record was set while driving a stock 2012 Volkswagen Passat.

Dwarf plants With growing global water shortages and decreasing availability of cultivable land caused by the huge increases in the world population (that has now crossed seven billion), scientists are constantly striving to come up with more new efficient ways of growing food plants. These plants should have higher productivity but need lower amounts of water, fertilizer, nutrients and pesticides to grow.

An interesting solution to the problem has been found by the Purdue University researcher Burkhard Schulz. He has discovered that a certain chemical can be used to reduce the size of the plant without reducing the yield. Schulz found that propiconazole, a common fungicide, can be used to create smaller and sturdier corn plants that produce more kernels but consume less water, fertilizer and nutrients to grow. The fungicide is claimed to be harmless to humans as it is commonly sprayed on golf courses to treat fungal dollar spot disease. The chemical works by disrupting steroid production in the plants, responsible for their growth.

Buildings that clean the environment The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is in the process of setting up an outdoor architectural project at Queens in New York that will pluck pollutants from the air while providing shade, shelter and water. The technology has been developed by the US architectural firm HWKN. The project, known as Wendy, employs a fascinating architecture with spikes protruding at different angles with an external fabric skin treated with nano-particles of titanium dioxide that capture and neutralise pollutants. It has been claimed that each such installation would be equivalent to removing the pollution caused by 260 cars on the roads. Such “environmentally friendly shelters” installed along the roads may be tomorrow’s answers to reducing road pollution.