Weekend hagfish slime fashion blogging

Pacific hagfish resting

The humble hagfish is bottom of most people´s list of potential pets. The University of California Museum of Paleontology puts it:

The adjective which best describes the Myxini is “Lovecraftian”.

Hagfish are very primitive ur-fish, with no spine or jaws or teeth or proper eyes. They are the scavengers of the sea-floor, resting for months until a dead whale or something shows up, then eating it from inside. They have one defence against predators, but a very effective one. Wikipedia:

When captured and held, e.g., by the tail, they secrete the microfibrous slime, which expands into up to 20 litres of gelatinous and sticky goo when combined with water. If they remain captured, they can tie themselves in an overhand knot which works its way from the head to the tail of the animal, scraping off the slime as it goes and freeing them from their captor, as well as the slime.

Other fish understandably leave hagfish alone (the goo blocks their gills), and they live too deep for most marine mammals and birds. Hagfish reached their current design 300 million years ago, and have seen no reason to change, munching their way through a changing cast of plesiosaurs, megalodons, and whales.

The microfibres behind the gel have now attracted the attention of Canadian materials researchers at Guelph University. The fibres are structurally similar to spider silk – and much easier to produce. Even the most cooperative spider works in milligrams, leading to the rococo workaround of GM-ing goats to produce spider silk protein in their milk. A hagfish produces 20 litres of slime gel at a time. Korean and Japanese cooks use it as a sort of egg white. The production method couldn´t be simpler:

The hagfish is kept alive and irritated by rattling its container with a stick.

They even come with a Latin name that turns itself straight into the superfabric: Myxinar®. Cthulurene wouldn´t work as well.

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In other news, GE (which doesn´t need this sort of pin money, surely) has won a $3.7m award from ARPA-E to

develop a new kind of wind turbine blade made of cloth stretched over a frame. The blades could be shipped in pieces and assembled on site, making larger wind turbines more practical.

Via MIT Technology Review; ARPA-E pdf.
This has been done before:

Traditional Greek windmill

Neat for the kind of places where a fibreglass blade can´t be taken.

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Norwegian company Yara – a cutely rebranded spinoff of the bulk chemicals sector of Norsk Hydro – has announced a better hot salt for CSP plants. The innovation consists in adding calcium nitrate to the standard potassium- and sodium nitrate mixture. The benefit:

This new product expands the molten salt’s effective temperature range by reducing the molten salt melting point from 220°C … to 131°C.

The economics of CSP, and energy storage generally, are now a useful bit better. Yara say they can supply world demand for CSP heat storage, and as they are basically a 20m-tonne-a-year fertiliser company, there´s no reason to doubt them.

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The first two innovations are fun to read about and no doubt to work on. They will probably fail, as most new ideas do. The third is boring, incremental progress, and a pretty sure thing. Most of the innovation that drives growth and makes its way into better products and processes is of this kind.

But not all. It´s trite to distinguish in research between the blue-sky, curiosity-driven kind (particle physics, mathematics, philosophy) and the problem-driven kind (most medical science). It seems to me that this also holds for development, the D in ¨R&D¨. My first two examples seem to me to count as development rather than research – the underlying ideas are unoriginal and plainly feasible in principle, the question is whether they can make it to market.

Indian Army screw gun and mules, ca. 1890

I also suggest that the motivation behind them is not answering problems. The Pentagon could come up, rather like the Indian Army of the Raj before it, with a specification for a ¨lightweight, rugged 5kw wind turbine for supporting Special Forces in advanced bases that can be broken down and transported by 5 mules¨. Has it? I doubt it. The project described is supported by civilian ARPA-E not DARPA.

I suggest such projects are idea-driven instead. ¨This is Cool Stuff, can we use it for something?¨ The approach should not be despised. Innovation depends enormously on culture. Google goes to great lengths to make work there fun. The ornery geese that potentially lay golden eggs don´t take kindly to force-feeding; note the stalling productivity of Big Pharma´s large, bureaucratic, problem-driven labs.

The danger is that you find solutions to problems that don´t exist. The Solyndra failure was (deliberately) misunderstood. It wasn´t fraud and the failure rate of the loans programme was entirely reasonable (in fact suboptimal for a high-risk portfolio). The mistake, of government and venture capitalists alike, was betting on concentrating PV: a Cool set of solutions to a problem, the high cost of solar cells, that went away.

The microprocessor industry also exhibits, more usefully, the Cool Stuff syndrome. Intel and ARM regularly roll out new processors, each ¨better¨ than the last. ¨Better¨ means ¨faster and/or more power-frugal¨, generic virtues more than responses to specific market needs. For example, ARM touts its latest 64-bit design, which will hit devices in 2014:

A Cortex-A57 processor-based smartphone, wirelessly connected to a screen, keyboard and mouse, delivers a full laptop experience that consumers receive from their typical laptop today.

Will this happen? Powerful $20 processors will be everywhere, and laptops are a convenient form – hell, so are desktops. But it doesn´t matter if ARM`s handwaving is right. The business model ¨build a better processor, and customers will find uses for it¨ has worked fine for the duopoly so far, for their different flavours of ¨better¨.

Comments

  1. Dan Staley says

    The hagfish bit – along with remembering where a lot of the drugs come from before synthesized – reminds us that as we continue to use the planet as a waste dump for our economic and metabolic activities, we risk losing solutions to our problems. That is, of course, if you are one of those that thinks we should fight the natural order of things and there is a solution to basic population dynamics extant on this planet for several billion years.

  2. Ebenezer Scrooge says

    The “cool stuff” approach assumes a fair amount of ignorance. The developers of the cool stuff know how it works, but don’t really know what it can do. They’re ignorant of the applications. They have to be, if they are specialized, like most of us.

    The exploiters of the cool stuff don’t need to know how it works, except in a black box sense. They need to imagine what it can do as a black box. Any knowledge of the innards of the black box would be a waste of their valuable specialization.

  3. Russell L. Carter says

    ARM is close to supplying SoCs with processors so cheap that half the processors are engineered to spend much, perhaps most of their time powered off:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big.LITTLE

    It’s a complicated platform to code for, and it’s not immediately clear what the best way will be to make it “work”. That makes me happy. At the same time probably millions will be sold during the technical shakeout phase during which much learning will take place. This is just awesome.

    “homo pseudosapiens”

    Heh.

  4. Odm says

    Interesting post, but I came down to write that the line “The hagfish is kept alive and irritated by rattling its container with a stick” actually made me laugh out loud, which I rarely do while sitting at a computer.

  5. Brett Bellmore says

    “The Pentagon could come up, rather like the Indian Army of the Raj before it, with a specification for a ¨lightweight, rugged 5kw wind turbine for supporting Special Forces in advanced bases that can be broken down and transported by 5 mules¨. Has it? I doubt it.”

    I doubt it, too; Our military really hates relying on anything that stops working if the wind doesn’t blow… They understandably place a very high priority on reliability, and, whatever the virtues of wind power, reliability isn’t one of them.

    “The Solyndra failure was (deliberately) misunderstood. It wasn´t fraud and the failure rate of the loans programme was entirely reasonable (in fact suboptimal for a high-risk portfolio).”

    Setting aside the reasons that fraud and/or kickbacks are suspected, the big problem with the Solyndra loan is that “stimulus” money is supposed to be spent on “stimulus”, not invested in a high risk portfolio. Even if Solyndra had miraculously turned around upon receiving a new infusion of cash, they were never a source of “shovel ready jobs”.

    It’s not a knock against health clubs and low fat diets to note that if you enter the emergency room in the middle of a heart attack, you’re expecting treatment a little more immediate.

    Arguably one of the reasons the massive stimulus of the last few years was so ineffective, was that it was very badly targeted from a job creation perspective, instead being used as a slush fund for whatever spending Democrats had wanted to engage in, regardless of it’s efficacy as economic stimulus. That some of it was completely wasted is almost a secondary issue compared to the miss-allocation of “stimulus” money to long term investments.

    • says

      Brett: “stimulus” money is supposed to be spent on “stimulus¨¨. Have another look at the famous passage in Chapter 10 of Keynes´ General Theory about burying pound notes in disused coal mines. Any spending whatever works as stimulus. Solyndra created jobs and income while it was making an investment that didn´t pan out. The stimulus worked fine, according to those who have actually checked it out. It was just $400 billion too small, thanks to the Blue Dogs.

    • says

      PS: USA special forces do in fact use solar generators in Afghanistan, backed up by diesel. The military case is that solar makes for a slimmer, more nimble and less vulnerable supply chain. The Taliban largely finances itself by ransoming NATO supply convoys. SFIK the Pentagon doesn´t use wind in field operations, but it does in bases. My idea is no more absurd than the original screw guns.