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11 Strange Things You Might Put In Your Gas Tank

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With gas prices continuing to jump up and down, there's increasing attention on finding viable alternative fuels. You may know all about electric cars or natural gas, but what about the coffee car? Here are some unusual alternative fuels that could find their way into your gas tank -- and a few that shouldn't.

1. Coffee

A British team (the same people behind the BBC show Bang Goes The Theory) outfitted a 1988 Volkswagen Scirocco to run on coffee grounds, arguing that because coffee contains some carbon it would make a viable fuel. Hopped up on java, the car ended up breaking a speed record for organic waste vehicles, but was not the most efficient vehicle available. It cost far more than simply powering with gasoline and the drivers had to stop every 30 to 45 minutes to clear out filters in the engine.

2. Water

A Pakistani scientist made waves earlier this month by claiming to have developed a car that runs only on water, by splitting the hydrogen and oxygen atoms. The revelation could be huge for clean-fuel cars and for Pakistan's energy crisis. The only problem? Scientists say it can't be true. The claim has been widely debunked as untrue, essentially because extracting energy from just water requires another powerful energy source. It's far from the first time somebody's claimed to have built a water-powered car -- similar boasts have been made since at least the 1930s, but none have been borne out.

3. Chocolate

Finally, a car Cathy can get behind. Bacteria can use fuel from a variety of sugar waste, including chocolate, to produce hyrdrogen and generate power. That theory has even been put to the test, when a group of researchers at England's University of Warwick built a racing car that ran on chocolate and was built entirely from recycled sources. The WorldFirst Formula 3 car -- which also used components from vegetables in the body -- used a biodiesel engine that ran on chocolate waste and vegetable oil.

4. Nothing but Air

Compressed air cars work much the same way as a steam engine, but using electric power to push the compressed air through a piston engine. With refueling only involving replacing an air tank, and no emissions, the cars may sound like a great alternative. But researchers say that the energy process isn't efficient and ends up losing enough energy that it's not more effective than an electric vehicle (and powering the electricity with a coal mix ends up producing more emissions than a gas-powered car). Still, a number of automakers are working on air-powered cars, notably Honda and India's Tata Motors.

5. Sawdust

Sawdust is one of the many potential feedstocks for biofuels, because it can be heated into liquid form before it starts to burn. With a few additions or a gasifier attached to an engine, sawdust can effectively power a car. However, the process is still years away and researchers say it would take far more supply than is currently available to make sawdust viable as a fuel source.

6. Straw

Like sawdust, straw is another potential biofuel source that wouldn't compete with existing food stock -- a constant concern for corn-based ethanol. Researchers are also looking at woodchips, corn stalks and grass as other possible sources.

7. Styrofoam

A team at Iowa State University is studying a way to turn plastic waste into fuel by dissolving the polystyrene in Styrofoam and other plastics into biodiesel. At low concentrations, the plastic-blended fuel worked well in engines for electricity generation, although at a certain point it got too thick and caused overheating. The emissions from the engine were also dirtier than normal because of the polymers in the plastic, so researchers are working to refine the process and clean the fuel up.

8. Cooking Grease

The idea of using vegetable oil as a biodiesel has been around for a long time. Even Rudolf Diesel intended for his engine to someday run on vegetable oil so farmers would have a regular supply. Nowadays, vegetable oil would be plentiful from restaurants, which are already discarding used cooking oils, and would burn far cleaner than petroleum. But outside of some self-modified cars, so-called "french fry cars" have not made much headway because the oil can be volatile in extreme temperatures.

9. Diapers

Any manner of garbage could be used to create fuel during the pyrolysis process (similar to incineration, except instead of burning the waste it is instead heated until it breaks down into byproducts), but disposable diapers offer a plentiful and never-ending supply. Quebec company AMEC is already working on using diapers in its power plants because of the plentiful supply and the ability to fine-tune machines to use every part of the diaper.

10. Human Fat

In 2008, Beverly Hills cosmetic surgeon Dr. Craig Alan Bittner claimed that he had figured out an unusual use for the discarded fat from liposuctions -- he was using it to power his SUV and his girlfriend's Lincoln Navigator. While human fat could be tweaked to become biodiesel, most questioned Bittner's claims. WIred pointed out that to use fat, there would need to be a diesel engine and the Navigator did not have a diesel option. The state of California ended up investigating (gas replacement isn't an authorized use for human waste) and Bittner ended up facing lawsuits alleging that unauthorized staff had worked on patients.

11. Ammonia

Anhydrous ammonia, which can be used as a fertilizer, also has the potential to be burned in an internal combustion engine with little or no emissions. However, ammonia's energy density is less than half that of gasoline, so the range would be quite limited, and there are concerns about any emissions it does produce being potentially harmful when inhaled. Still, that hasn't stopped researchers from trying to figure out a way to use it. Even the Defense Department was experimenting with ammonia-fueled vehicles in the 1960s.

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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Medicine
New Cancer-Fighting Nanobots Can Track Down Tumors and Cut Off Their Blood Supply
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iStock

Scientists have developed a new way to cut off the blood flow to cancerous tumors, causing them to eventually shrivel up and die. As Business Insider reports, the new treatment uses a design inspired by origami to infiltrate crucial blood vessels while leaving the rest of the body unharmed.

A team of molecular chemists from Arizona State University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences describe their method in the journal Nature Biotechnology. First, they constructed robots that are 1000 times smaller than a human hair from strands of DNA. These tiny devices contain enzymes called thrombin that encourage blood clotting, and they're rolled up tightly enough to keep the substance contained.

Next, researchers injected the robots into the bloodstreams of mice and small pigs sick with different types of cancer. The DNA sought the tumor in the body while leaving healthy cells alone. The robot knew when it reached the tumor and responded by unfurling and releasing the thrombin into the blood vessel that fed it. A clot started to form, eventually blocking off the tumor's blood supply and causing the cancerous tissues to die.

The treatment has been tested on dozen of animals with breast, lung, skin, and ovarian cancers. In mice, the average life expectancy doubled, and in three of the skin cancer cases tumors regressed completely.

Researchers are optimistic about the therapy's effectiveness on cancers throughout the body. There's not much variation between the blood vessels that supply tumors, whether they're in an ovary in or a prostate. So if triggering a blood clot causes one type of tumor to waste away, the same method holds promise for other cancers.

But before the scientists think too far ahead, they'll need to test the treatments on human patients. Nanobots have been an appealing cancer-fighting option to researchers for years. If effective, the machines can target cancer at the microscopic level without causing harm to healthy cells. But if something goes wrong, the bots could end up attacking the wrong tissue and leave the patient worse off. Study co-author Hao Yan believes this latest method may be the one that gets it right. He said in a statement, "I think we are much closer to real, practical medical applications of the technology."

[h/t Business Insider]

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