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Scientist Turns Peanut Butter into Diamonds

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I’ve always said peanut butter is a girl’s best friend, and now there’s proof. While trying to mimic the extreme conditions found deep beneath the Earth’s surface, a researcher turned one of the most popular sandwich condiments into a substance even more valuable, if less tasty: diamond.

Dan Frost, a research scientist at the Bayerisches Geoinstitut, University of Bayreuth, Germany, wants to know what’s going on in the Earth’s lower mantle, which sits 1800 miles below the surface and is somewhat of a mystery to researchers. We know it’s very hot (temperatures may reach 4000 degrees Fahrenheit) and under an incredible amount of pressure (237,000 times atmospheric pressure is a low estimate). We also know the mantle is where diamonds are formed. These precious gems are composed of carbon atoms that have been heated and squeezed and then pushed toward the Earth’s surface, where they cool. In trying to mimic the conditions of the mantle, Frost successfully created synthetic diamonds in a lab. His source of carbon? I’ll give you a hint: it pairs well with jelly.

He placed some peanut butter between two diamonds (this is called the “stiletto heel effect”) and compressed the nutty stuff. Why the diamonds? They’re incredibly hard, thanks to their closely-linked carbon atoms, and can withstand the necessary amount of pressure for the experiment, which is about 1.3 million times that of our atmospheric pressure.

The result is a diamond where a peanut used to be, albeit a paltry and not entirely pure one. “A lot of hydrogen was released that destroyed the experiment,” Frost told the BBC, “but only after it had been converted to diamond.”

This actually isn’t the first time this has been done. Researchers at Edinburgh University produced similar results back in 2007. "Many carbon-containing materials can be converted into diamond including peanut butter," said Edinburgh University's Malcolm McMahon. And diamonds are already manufactured synthetically, mostly for industrial use in producing grinding or cutting tools that benefit from the material’s hardness.

Frost hopes his experiments will lead not to cheaper diamonds, but larger knowledge about the inner workings of our planet. “If we want to understand how the Earth was formed, then one of the things you need to know is what planet is made out of,” he said.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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May 23, 2017
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