With a major research university right in our backyard, a strong military presence and innovative companies throughout the metro region, there’s often a plethora of interesting science and technology news to be found in Southern Arizona. Here’s a breakdown of the most interesting recent developments.
Technology in the Brain. Researchers at the University of Arizona, George Washington University and Northwestern University have created an ultra-small, wireless, battery-free device that uses light to record individual neurons so neuroscientists can see how the brain is working. The goal is to better understand the brain, specifically how individual neurons interact with each other. The process first involves “tinting select neurons with a dye that changes in brightness depending on activity. Then, the device shines a light on the dye, making the neurons' biochemical processes visible. The device captures the changes using a probe only slightly wider than a human hair, then processes a direct readout of the neuron's activity and transmits the information wirelessly to researchers.” The devices in use are smaller than an M&M and only one-twentieth of the weight. They can afford to be so small and flexible because they do not need a battery, instead harvesting energy from “external oscillating magnetic fields gathered by a miniature antenna on the device.” Ultimately, the technology is planned to help the fight against neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, and perhaps even help us better understand the brain’s biological mechanisms, such as pain and depression.
Arizona Exports. According to new data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Arizona exports reached a record level from 2018 to 2019, landing at $24.7 billion. Arizona exports increased 9.7 percent, and ranked sixth in the nation for exports percent increase. Arizona’s exports to Mexico (our number one international trade partner) grew by 7 percent. Total manufacturing exports increased 7.5 percent, totaling $20.9 billion, which is the highest export amount in terms of dollars since the data have been tracked. Arizona’s largest exports also include: aerospace parts and products at $3.8 billion, semiconductor and other electronic components at $3.5 billion, and metal ores at $2 billion. Arizona is ranked number one among all states in metal ore exports.
Vertical Farming. A $2.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Specialty Crop Research Initiative is helping UA's Controlled Environment Agriculture Center research how to feed Earth's rapidly expanding population. UA is joining a multi-university team to study "indoor leafy green production" as part of the Optimizing Indoor Agriculture initiative. Indoor farming, also known as vertical farming, may very well be the future of agriculture. Vertical farming grows plants in controlled environments, which leads to water and nutrient use efficiency, and land conservation. UA's Vertical Farming Facility will use computer simulations to "design and test more effective localized air-distribution methods, environmental monitoring and control strategies for indoor vertical farms." Vertical farming also allows crops to be produced year round, and productivity can increase fivefold.
Suicide Prevention. The suicide rate for both the U.S. and Arizona is increasing, with Arizona's suicide "death rate" at 18.2, meaning there were 1,327 regeistered suicides in 2017. This is higher than the national average suicide "death rate" of 14. In response, Governor Doug Ducey's Fiscal Year 2021 budget includes $400,000 to establish a Suicide Mortality Review Team. The Arizona Department of Health Services also recently established the Suicide Action Prevention Plan, with goals to improve the mental health of individuals and communities; collect new data to monitor suicide in Arizona and identify the most affected demographic groups; and ensure treatment and support services are available.
Mission to Io. NASA is currently selecting the finalist for a spacecraft mission to Jupiter's volcanic moon Io to determine whether a magma ocean lies beneath its surface. Among four finalists is a UA-led mission proposal, announced on Thursday, Feb. 13. If selected, the Io Volcano Observer (part of UA's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory) will orbit Jupiter and make 10 close flybys of Io to determine if "the moon has a magma ocean hidden beneath its vibrant, pockmarked surface." If NASA selected the Io Volcano Observer, it will be the third UA-led NASA planetary mission, along with the Phoenix Mars Lander and OSIRIS-REx mission. NASA is expected to make its final selection in 2021.