Buildings made out of aerogel could help us survive on Mars “in our lifetimes” thumbnail

Buildings made out of aerogel could help us survive on Mars “in our lifetimes”

Mars is a cold, inhospitable planet. Temperatures routinely drop to as low as -81 °F and down to -200 °F in some spots during winter. Meanwhile, the ultraviolet radiation could make humans seriously ill. So while science-fiction writers have imagined the possibility of terraforming the planet—of somehow reengineering the entire atmosphere so that it can host plants, farms, and people like Earth—scientists know that if we want to survive on Mars in the near-term, we’ll need to live and nurture life indoors.

New research published in Nature Astronomy explains how, by proving that growing food on Mars might be possible by building greenhouses out of a special material we already have on Earth: aerogel. “We’re excited about it, because we could potentially make portions of Mars habitable in our lifetimes,” says Robin Wordsworth, the Harvard researcher who led the study.

Thanks to Wordsworth’s science, we’ve learned it might be possible to build habitable structures on Mars. But intriguingly,  the research could help us build in some of the most extreme environments of our planet, too.

Aerogel on the hand of a researcher. [Photo: Science Photo Library/Getty Images Plus]

What is aerogel?

Aerogel was first discovered in the late 1980s. It is a clear material that, just like glass, is usually made from silica, explains Wordsworth. But aerogel’s molecular structure is far looser and more dispersed than glass. In fact, aerogel is up to 99.8% air, making it one of the least dense materials we know. That also means it’s remarkably light. If you had 150 bricks made of aerogel, they’d weigh the equivalent of a single gallon of water. Think of it like a translucent styrofoam.

Aerogel’s molecular structure also makes it a natural insulator. “If you compare to ordinary glass . . . silica aerogel is 10x more effective at insulating,” says Wordsworth. It also blocks nearly all infrared radiation coming its way, while allowing near all visible light through. As Wordsworth explains, “It really is a unique material,” as no other material juggles light in this same way.

Add all of this up, and you have a perfect material for cold environments—all the benefits of a greenhouse with all of the benefits of advanced heat insulation. Plus it’s light (so it would be feasible to bring it from Earth), and it protects from UV rays, which can damage the DNA of plants as well as humans. Given all these properties, it’s feasible, at least on paper, that we could build aerogel greenhouses on Mars.

What could aerogel do on Mars?

In Wordsworth’s test, a small piece of aerogel was set up in a lab under the same light and temperature conditions we’ve found on the red planet. “The idea was to . . . do a proof of concept that it benchmarks as well as expected in theory,” he says. What they found was that the aerogel performed admirably: A mere 2.5-centimeter-thick sheet of aerogel could raise the temperature under it by up to 150 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s warm enough to melt ice on Mars—and grow plants.

So, what would these Martian buildings look like? Wordsworth notes that aerogel itself looks something like solid smoke. Looking at an aerogel ceiling would be like staring at the sky on a cloudy day. But he doesn’t get into a lot of additional detail into how aerogel architecture would work. At minimum, aerogel could be laid down in sheets right on the surface of Mars, to melt existing ice and allow algae or aquatic plants to grow underneath.

Aerogel still has some mechanical issues that limit its use. While NASA actually used some aerogel to insulate the inside of the Mars rover and other high budget insulation projects, it simply hasn’t been proven out as a significant or ubiquitous building material yet. “There are some challenges that need to be worked on further,” says Wordsworth. “It’s a fairly fragile material. For its density, it’s amazingly strong, but it fractures easily. It’s not very flexible. You might want to combine it with another material in layers.” It’s possible that aerogel could be incorporated into more forgiving plastics, too, he says.

The most effective aerogel is made in tiles for various industries today, but Wordsworth’s team is beginning to consider how smaller, disc-shaped aerogel could perform as an insulator. A disc could create a more multifaceted surface, so the aerogel could be more adaptable to various architectural shapes.

The insulating qualities of ultralow-density aerogel are demonstrated under intense heat from a blowtorch.[Photo: © Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis/VCG]

Could we use aerogel to build on Earth?

If aerogel is so wondrous, why then don’t we use it to build greenhouses here on Earth? “Good question—it’s more expensive than everyday glass, but I think it’s also true you could burn your plants,” says Wordsworth. “There might be interesting applications thinking about habitats in extreme environments like Antarctica.”

Specifically, Wordsworth would like to do “small scale experiments” with aerogel in Chile’s Atacama Desert or Antarctica’s McMurdo Dry Valleys, a pair of very cold, very dry environments on our planet that are the most Mars-like areas of our planet. “Aerogel could have potential for larger buildings situated in those extreme environments [on Earth],” he says.

In other words, aerogel isn’t an architectural wonder material yet. But as scientists like Wordsworth conduct more tests and prove out new ways to use it, don’t be surprised to see it find its niche in the most extreme environments—from Earth to Mars.

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Research team redefines the footprint of viral vector gene therapy

Building on a track record of developing adeno-associated viral (AAV) vectors as a groundbreaking clinical tool for gene therapy and gene editing, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) researchers report a more sensitive method for capturing the footprint of AAV vectors — a broad range of sites where the vectors transfer genetic material.

By capturing the full range of gene expression patterns caused by AAV vectors, the technique is expected to significantly advance the already rapidly developing field of gene therapy. The innovative results appeared today in the journal Nature Communications.

AAV vectors are bioengineered tools that use a harmless virus to transport modified genetic material safely into tissues and cells impacted by otherwise difficult-to-treat conditions. These vectors deliver their “genetic cargo” into tissues, after which the modified genes will create new instructions for those tissues and help treat disease. Vector technology that was pioneered at CHOP led to the development of the first FDA-approved gene therapies, including Kymriah for B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia and Luxturna for inherited retinal disease.

For safe and effective application of these vectors, researchers must have a complete picture of where the virus delivers its genetic cargo in the body. Conventional methods to define gene transfer rely on fluorescent reporter genes that glow under a microscope, highlighting cells that take up and express the delivered genetic material. However, these methods reveal only cells with stable, high levels of the cargo. The new technology described in this study allows researchers to better detect where the cargo is expressed, even if it is expressed at extremely low levels, or only for a very short time.

“Conventional screening methods miss transient or very low levels of expression from AAV viral vectors,” said study leader Beverly L. Davidson, PhD, Chief Scientific Strategy Officer at CHOP and Director of the Raymond G. Perelman Center for Cellular and Molecular Therapeutics. “What this study shows is that AAV vectors lead to gene transfer in many more places than we and other groups initially realized.”

Gaining a complete picture of the reach of this genetic cargo is particularly relevant following the discovery of the CRISPR/Cas9 system, which has revolutionized genome editing — removing, adding or altering sections of DNA — and opens the door to a new degree of precision medicine. CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing machinery, when expressed in cells even for a short time or at low levels, permits targeted DNA editing.

Many groups are seeking to use AAV vectors to deliver CRISPR/Cas9 due to its track record as a safe vehicle for gene transfer. Due to methodological limitations, many sites of low-level gene transfer have been missed. Combining AAV with gene editing machinery requires a more sensitive method for safe and effective applications.

To address this crucial gap in knowledge, Davidson and her lab developed a new AAV screening method that uses sensitive editing-reporter transgenic mice that are marked even with a short burst of expression or very low expression. In side-by-side comparisons with conventional screening methods, the new method radically redefines the true extent of AAV-mediated gene transfer.

According to the authors, this novel screening method will help improve the safety of AAV-gene editing approaches because it better defines sites where the vector expresses the modified gene. Importantly, because high and stable expression levels are not required for effective editing, dose levels that would not be ideal for more stable expression might work very well for genome editing. Additionally, this method expands the utility of the AAV platform by revealing new, never-before-described sites of gene transfer. It also offers an opportunity to better understand the basic biology of AAV vectors and what is required for them to effectively deliver their genetic payload.

Story Source:

Materials provided by Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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Expert Insight: Building Fashion’s Sustainable Future With Personalized Wardrobe Rental thumbnail

Expert Insight: Building Fashion’s Sustainable Future With Personalized Wardrobe Rental

PSFK speaks to the founder of Armoire, a customized virtual wardrobe rental service, about offering women unlimited closets while reducing the environmental impact of fashion and increasing accessibility to a variety of styles

If we learned anything from Kim and Kanye’s 73 Questions video with Vogue, we know that perhaps the most conspicuous consumption of all is appearing to own next to nothing. While this example of high-end minimalism might seem extreme, it can be seen to speak to several consumption patterns taking hold: the democratization of luxury, and the rise of the sharing and rental economies.

This second trend offers several benefits in line with modern consumer values: flexibility and reduced commitment, accessibility thanks to lower costs and greater environmental sustainability. For the fashion industry in particular, known for its carbon footprint and waste generation, rental models are becoming increasingly popular, and sharing capabilities are continuing to pop up across the price spectrum. With personalized e-rental and styling service Armoire, CEO Ambika Singh perceived an opportunity to not only clean up women’s cluttered closets along with the environment, but also to increase fashion accessibility for everyday working women, who increasingly value variety and novelty.

PSFK spoke to Singh about how Armoire works to create rental-based, entirely personalized virtual wardrobes for women, enabling them to evolve their styles, accommodate changing sizes (especially for pregnancy), increase accessibility to premium brands, all while disrupting a wasteful industry with a highly sustainable model:

PSFK: What trends did you notice in the apparel space that drove you to found Armoire?

Ambika Singh: Armoire was created to relieve the pressures the “modern boss lady” feels to always dress the part. Being from Seattle, I also care deeply about the environment and knew there was a better and more convenient way to get dressed.

The U.S. has seen a rise in mass consumption, leading to a rise in fast fashion. It creates this pressure to stay up-to-date with trends, which is incredibly costly, both to the consumer and in terms of the resources this takes. Clothing rental is a way to consume responsibly, giving the consumer the ability to stay on trend and try new things without the guilt or waste of owning so many material goods.

What were any unmet consumer needs, particularly for women, that you identified and strive to meet with Armoire?

The professional woman isn’t being spoken to, so we’ve taken an active approach. So many of our customers are busy—whether they’re CEOs, lawyers, or moms, and don’t have the time required to find clothes that fit her style, body and are affordable. We strive to give this time back to her, streamlining our service so that she can choose from clothing that has already been selected as styles she might like, as well as taking care of dry cleaning and mailing her package right to her. 

With women in particular, there’s a tremendous amount of pressure to stay on trend and always look put together. Wearing the same outfit twice is always seen as uncouth, while our male counterparts can wear the same suit everyday. With Armoire, the customer is able to return garments whenever she is done with them, giving her access to an unlimited wardrobe, changing easily with trends, seasons, or events.

Tell us about some of the other problems and pain points that Armoire solves for, like issues with sustainability and affordability. 

The need to produce in order to keep up with the demand is detrimental to the environment. About 20% of industrial water pollution is due to garment manufacturing. As consumers, we often don’t realize how damaging our consumption habits can be, especially when it comes to fast fashion. 

Needless to say, rental drastically helps reduce individual consumption. It also helps increase the lifespan of a garment, increasing the number of times a garment is worn before it is thrown away. Not only does rental provide a more sustainable business model, but a more affordable lifestyle for the consumer. Women don’t have to feel guilty about renting something they’ll wear once.

Finally, are there any other reasons why you think clothing rental, especially now at more premium price points, is taking off?

The sharing economy has done a lot to de-stigmatize renting, whether it’s sharing cars with Uber or houses with Airbnb, so why not clothing, too? Renting also allows us to meet our needs in the moment without a permanent impact, allowing us to focus both on decluttering our own lives and reducing the industry impact.

While one of our members may not be interested in buying that $500 designer dress in a unique print that’s a bit outside her comfort zone, she would rent it and be able to experience the thrill, joy and confidence boost that it brings. With Armoire, we see so many members who try and end up loving things they would never buy because of this innate lack of commitment which renting provides.

Ambika Singh. Armoire

Armoire


Lead image: stock photos from puhhha/Shutterstock

If we learned anything from Kim and Kanye’s 73 Questions video with Vogue, we know that perhaps the most conspicuous consumption of all is appearing to own next to nothing. While this example of high-end minimalism might seem extreme, it can be seen to speak to several consumption patterns taking hold: the democratization of luxury, and the rise of the sharing and rental economies.

This second trend offers several benefits in line with modern consumer values: flexibility and reduced commitment, accessibility thanks to lower costs and greater environmental sustainability. For the fashion industry in particular, known for its carbon footprint and waste generation, rental models are becoming increasingly popular, and sharing capabilities are continuing to pop up across the price spectrum. With personalized e-rental and styling service Armoire, CEO Ambika Singh perceived an opportunity to not only clean up women’s cluttered closets along with the environment, but also to increase fashion accessibility for everyday working women, who increasingly value variety and novelty.

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The Amazon Prime Day strike could be a turning point for workers’ rights

The Amazon Prime Day strike could be a turning point for workers’ rights

In 2016, the fulfillment center in Shakopee opened and Amazon heavily recruited from the surrounding East African Muslim immigrant population at the time. In a report last year, the New York Times tells a story of how a worker by the name of Hibaq Mohamed made requests for prayer breaks. Even though they were granted according to state law, she was still expected to meet her daily quota of packing 230 items per hour despite the reduced time. But instead of sitting idly by, she and a group of workers organized to complain. They were one of the first worker groups in the country to stand up to Amazon and, eventually, to sit in negotiations.

US-LABOUR-PROTEST-AMAZON

That was just the beginning. When Amazon canceled a commuter bus to a Minneapolis neighborhood, some started a petition to reinstate it. When Prime Day fell during Ramadan, the workers asked for a lighter workload to accommodate their fasting schedule. The group also received help from the Awood Center, a non-profit that aims to help East African workers. The Awood Center helped organize them and educate them on worker rights.

“Issues like these would pop up, and people would react,” said William Stolz, a worker at Amazon’s Shakopee warehouse, to Engadget. Stolz is one of the workers organizing the upcoming strike on Prime Day. He is a “picker,” and his job is to pick an item up, put it in a tote, which then goes down the line to get packed. He’s required to pick at least 320 items an hour to meet his quota. “I usually have to go faster than that though, just to make sure I go enough over to hit my numbers for the week,” he said. “It comes down to scanning like one item every eight seconds.”

The group eventually got to a point last September and October where they had two big meetings with Amazon management. They raised concerns over the speed of work, the physical and mental toll they deal with on a daily basis and the assurance that the company was taking safety and injuries seriously. “We basically just wanted job security,” Stolz said. After a month, Amazon management had come back to them without committing to any substantial changes. It did offer a few compromises, like requiring a general manager and a Somali-speaking manager to agree on any firings. But the group deemed that insufficient.

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This isn’t the first time Amazon has faced accusations about improper working conditions. A 2015 New York Times exposé described Amazon as a “bruising workplace.” Multiple reports claimed that Amazon warehouse jobs are grueling and extremely taxing, both physically and mentally, due to ever-increasing demands. Journalist James Bloodworth wrote that there were workers who peed in bottles to avoid taking bathroom breaks. A Verge report revealed that “hundreds” of workers in a Baltimore facility were fired for not meeting productivity levels. Amazon, for its part, has denied many of these reports, insisting it is a “fair and responsible” employer.

Yet, thousands of workers in Europe have gone on strike in the past to protest increased work hours, the reduction of bonuses and an unhealthy work environment. That hasn’t really happened much in the US — Amazon workers in Europe are unionized, while US workers are not — but the workers in Shakopee could help change things.

With the help of the Awood Center, they held their first major protest in December. It drew hundreds of people, including Minnesotan Representative Ilhan Omar, the first Somali-American elected to Congress. “Amazon doesn’t work if you don’t work,” she said to a cheering crowd, according to a Gizmodo report.

“It felt super powerful,” said Stolz. “We were just really proud of the action we took that day.”

Unfortunately, Amazon hasn’t quite responded the way the group had wanted. The company did offer a few concessions, like more prayer spaces and air conditioning. But much of Amazon’s actions rang hollow. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, for example, donated $2.5 million to a Minneapolis nonprofit to help homeless individuals and families in the days prior to the December rally. The Somali community appreciated the donation, but that wasn’t the point of the protest. “They’re giving out all these donations, but they’re ignoring the real issues we raised in the warehouse,” said Stolz.

US-LABOUR-PROTEST-AMAZON

A group of 30 workers in the stowing department held another three-hour protest later in March, partly to request less punishing standards for when they made errors. Amazon’s solution? Newer machines that may reduce the chance for errors, but it also didn’t really address worker concerns.

So, with Prime Day coming up, the group decided it was the perfect opportunity to raise its concerns yet again, with much stronger action than it did in December. Today, the Shakopee warehouse will hold a six-hour strike — day shift workers will walk out for the last three hours of their shift, and night shift workers will stay out for their first three hours.

“People ask questions like ‘Why don’t you do the whole day’, and the reason is because Amazon has a time off system that automatically deducts unpaid time, like if you have to leave early to visit your grandma,” said Stolz. It appears that Amazon considers those hours protesting as part of the “unpaid time” — it deducted them from the protesters in March — which could be a problem. Amazon workers get 20 hours of unpaid time every three months (up to a max of 80 hours), and if they go under that amount, that is grounds for dismissal.

And that may very well be illegal. As Seattle University law professor Charlotte Garden tells Bloomberg: “It’s a violation of labor law when an employer punishes workers for striking, and one way of punishing workers for striking is to take some of their leave away.”

US-LABOUR-PROTEST-AMAZON

As for what the workers want, it’s the same as it was before: less pressure. “The biggest ask we have is to have Amazon reduce the speeds that we have to work,” said Stolz. “It is physically, mentally exhausting. That leads into other issues like injuries, since you have to do things very fast, and with repetitive motions, all day long.”

There’s also the issue of job security. Not only because these sorts of jobs aren’t the kind people can do for long periods of time, but because Amazon has been outsourcing them to temporary workers. “For 2019, all of the new hires in the building have been using temp workers rather than direct hires,” said Stolz. “The temps are doing the same exact job as us, but they don’t have the same job security.” Temps, he said, are often demoralized, and told things like ‘You’re replaceable.’ It creates a second class of workers,” he added.

When Stolz asked someone in Amazon’s Learning Department, which is in charge of training new hires, why Amazon was only hiring temps, he received a rather chilling answer. “His exact words to me were ‘To increase turnover in the building,'” said Stolz. “Can you believe that? My eyes widened, I was so surprised. The person began to rephrase and backtrack and said it was to ‘get new energy in the building’. Right. Sure.”

Amazon told Bloomberg that around 90 percent of the employees at Shakopee are full-timers, and that some temps do get promoted to staff. Still, Stolz said that they should just cut out the temp part of it. “Just let people come on as a regular worker,” he said.

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In response to the upcoming Prime Day worker strike, Amazon released a statement that it’s already offering what workers are asking for: “We provide great employment opportunities with excellent pay — ranging from $16.25 – $20.80 an hour, and comprehensive benefits including health care, up to 20 weeks parental leave, paid education, promotional opportunities, and more.” It also encouraged the public to take free tours of its facilities.

Some of these changes, however, didn’t come about until Amazon came under fire from politicians such as Vermont senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, whose “Stop BEZOS” act spurred the company to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour. Which sounds good, but in doing so, Amazon took away employee monthly bonuses and stopped issuing new stock grants to employees. Some say that this actually leads to less pay overall.

As for the open invitation to fulfillment center tours, well, Stolz said that appears to be a way to sway public opinion. “I think they realize that they’re getting some negative attention around some of the negative stuff they’re doing,” he said. “But I would just ask the general public if they think that, you know, an actual Amazon worker is in a better position to talk about what the workplace conditions are, versus Amazon’s paid tour guide.”

Truth be told, a single warehouse going on strike will likely not affect Amazon’s bottom line very much, even if it does happen on Prime Day. But it’s a sign of a much larger shift in how Amazon workers across the country are attempting to organize for a better workplace. Some workers in the Staten Island warehouse are trying to unionize, for example, as are Whole Foods employees. As Amazon introduces more automation and attempts to retrain its staff, the need to negotiate better working conditions might be more important now than ever.

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Several Seattle-based Amazon engineers, who are part of the Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, plan to join the strike in solidarity. In a statement to Engadget, the group said, “Lending our support to our coworkers in MN is a natural part of our climate justice priorities. We cannot create a sustainable, long-term approach to addressing the climate crisis without addressing the structural racial and economic inequities that are part of our system of extraction — of energy, material, and human labor — that has caused the crisis.”

The group also compiled a Medium post containing many supportive messages from fellow tech workers about the situation in Minnesota. They include: “The treatment of FC [fulfillment center] workers is a source of shame to me as an Amazon employee,” “When Jeff Bezos is worth over $100B, it’s totally unfair that you are working in subpar conditions” and “The absolute bare minimum requirements should be a safe workplace, and as one of the most valuable companies in the world Amazon should also be providing fair opportunities for promotion and full-time work.” While several of the quotes are anonymous, a large chunk are not, showing that Amazon employees are not afraid of speaking their minds.

“The workers are asking for jobs that are safe and reliable, respect on the job so workers can get promoted, and an end to retaliation,” said the Awood Center to Engadget in an email. “Workers have been saying often ‘We are humans, not robots,’ which sums up well that they want to be respected and treated in a way that honors the hard work they do and the wealth they bring in for Amazon.”

“Amazon is one of the richest companies in the world,” the email continued. “They can and should do better than being ‘competitive.’ They should lead, and that means respecting their workers and sitting down to make sure these jobs are safe and ones where people can stay and grow.”

Images: KEREM YUCEL/AFP/Getty Images (All photos)

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Raised in the tropics of Malaysia, Nicole arrived in the United States in search of love, happiness and ubiquitous broadband. That last one is still a dream, but two out of three isn’t bad. Her love for words and technology reached a fever pitch in San Francisco, where she learned you could make a living writing about gadgets, video games and the internet. Truly, a dream come true. Other interests include baseball, coffee, cooking and chasing after her precocious little cat.

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Cities are getting hotter, but we can redesign them to keep us cool thumbnail

Cities are getting hotter, but we can redesign them to keep us cool

If you bike down a street on the edge of Los Angeles’s Echo Park neighborhood, you’ll see a sudden change in the pavement on one block, where the black asphalt shifts to white. A little over a year ago, the city covered the street with a special coating—light in color, so it reflects the sun—as part of a plan to help cool L.A. as the world keeps getting hotter.

Like most cities, L.A. is facing more frequent and extreme heat waves. One new study that mapped out rising heat across the country found that if greenhouse gas emissions continue on their current path, the average number of days in a year across the U.S. that feel hotter than 100 degrees will more than double by the middle of the century. Some cities will have it worst: In Miami, by the end of the century, 153 days each year could feel that hot. Globally, cities that were relatively cool in the past are beginning to grapple with buildings that weren’t built for heat (like Berlin, where the average high in June is 72 degrees, but climbed to 101 degrees one day last month, the hottest June on record for the planet). Cities also suffer from the urban heat island effect: Hot temperatures get even hotter as pavement and buildings soak up and release radiation from the sun.

There are several ways cities can prepare for extreme heat, from changes in infrastructure—like solar and battery “microgrids” that can keep air conditioning on at cooling centers if the heat takes the grid down—to shifts to different cooling technology, like geothermal power. But three solutions are both particularly simple and particularly helpful. “We need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” says Matt Petersen, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator and the former chief sustainability officer for the City of L.A. “That’s job number one, for long-term benefit to reduce the most extreme heat from happening. But now that extreme heat is here, we need to make sure we put in place strategies to reduce the new normal of extreme urban heat through cool streets, cool roofs, and robust urban tree canopy.”

Master plan illustration of the resilient design for the NeoCity mixed-use innovation district in Central Florida prepared by Perkins and Will. [Photo: Perkins and Will]

Covering cities and building with trees

Cities like Melbourne are mapping their street trees and carrying out massive tree-planting efforts. Melbourne plans to double its canopy cover by 2040. Milan plans to plant 3 million trees. There are multiple benefits, but one is simple: As trees shade streets, and water evaporates from their leaves, they cool neighborhoods. In Dallas, one program mapped the areas of the city that were hottest because of a lack of trees, and then started planting them on key pedestrian routes, like the paths that students take to school. Madrid embarked on a plan in 2016 to begin planting greenery wherever space is available. In some cases, greenery is going directly on roofs and facades. In Milan, the Bosco Verticale (“Vertical Forest”) building is covered with trees on balconies. “We designed the balconies to accommodate really significant green infrastructure,” says Brian Swett, director of cities and sustainable real estate at the engineering firm Arup.

Arup project Bosco Verticale’s is a skyscraper covered in trees. [Photo: courtesy Arup]

Coating streets and roofs

In New York City, the city has coated more than 10 million square feet of rooftops with a white, reflective coating over the last decade. The coating helps lower temperatures inside buildings, helping people feel more comfortable and use less air conditioning; like cars, air conditioners are both another major source of emissions and make cities immediately hotter as the machines vent heat outside. Green roofs can play a similar role in cooling buildings, and at a larger scale, neighborhoods. “From a city perspective, a roof garden on a single building isn’t going to move the needle, but when you do it in aggregate, it can have massive impact,” says Swett.

The California Academy of Science’s 2.5-acre green roof contains 1.7 million native California plants. [Photo: Tim Griffith/courtesy Arup]

Tokyo has coated miles of streets with cool pavements. Other cities have tested pavement that allows grass to grow through the surface, another way to keep it cooler. In L.A., the city is working on a combination of cool roofs, tree-planting, and cool pavement. “We see up to 20 degrees Fahrenheit difference, sometimes, between the cool streets that have been surfaced and regular black pavement,” says Petersen. The city, he says, helped spark manufacturers to start developing new street coatings to help with heat. “It’s another example of where policy market signals are driving product innovation,” he says. The incubator is now testing multiple new coatings in its parking lot.

 The California Academy of Science. [Photo: Cody Andresen/courtesy Arup]

Designing buildings to stay cool

Green and “cool” roofs and facades are one way to keep temperatures down inside buildings, but there are other ways to cut the need for air conditioning. Automatic shades can cover windows when the sun shines directly on them—in an office building, this might happen early in the morning before employees come to work. Automatic windows can open at night, when sensors detect that temperatures are cooler, and then close before it warms up. Material choices also keep buildings cool. The thermal mass of concrete, for example, means that a building can be cooled in advance of a heat wave. “If everybody’s turning on their air conditioning at the same time, that stresses out the grid and leads to brownouts and power outages,” says Swett. Since extreme heat is predictable several days in advance, a building with thermal mass can be cooled before the heat hits and then stay cool without stressing the grid. As it works on building designs, Arup uses tools to predict how the building will react in future climate conditions.

Proposed integrated design by Perkins and Will of green-blue urban streetscape at the Churchill Technology and Business Park in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. [Photo: Perkins and Will]

Rethinking the shape of the city itself

Beyond just changing the built environment, cities can cool down by rethinking how people get around them. As cars spew greenhouse gas emissions, they also emit waste heat, making cities even hotter on hot days. The existence of the car also leds to sprawling streets and parking lots covered in pavement that raises local temperatures. “Post-World War II, we ended up developing very different kinds of zoning strategies where we started separating uses—large swaths of single-family residential [buildings] that [are] isolated in one location, or industrial or retail,” says Stephen Coulston, principal at the architecture and design firm Perkins and Will. “It disincentivized what maybe was a little less vehicular-centric activity in the past, which was connected, walkable places where you could live in a place and walk to a corner market and walk to a retail center and not have to get into a car.” Cities that incentivize less driving—whether by redesigning bike lanes and sidewalks or changing codes to make new developments mixed-use and near public transportation—can cool themselves down.

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Making Resistive Magnets (2009) thumbnail

Making Resistive Magnets (2009)

Building the world’s best resistive magnets requires clever engineering, top-notch science, superior materials and an obsession with quality control.

A resistive magnet coil.A resistive magnet coil.

The National High Magnetic Field Laboratory is home to dozens of powerful magnets. Each year the world-record instruments attract hundreds of scientists from as far off as Japan, Australia and Europe. Scientists come from across the globe to put their experiments inside these magnets and see what happens when materials are subjected to high fields.

But the MagLab doesn’t just conduct research with magnets. We also make magnets, both for our own lab and for other labs around the world.

We make all kinds of magnets, including superconducting, hybrid and pulsed magnets. We’re world leaders in creating all these magnets.

But in this article, we’ll focus on how we make resistive magnets, a type of electromagnet, which use conventional electricity to generate high magnetic fields. Experts in our Magnet Science and Technology division are renowned for their ability to design and construct these tools. They have created 13 different magnet designs and have built dozens of these magnets over the years, requiring the construction of some 160 magnet coils.

Harnessing electrons

First off, a quick explanation of what a resistive magnet is. It bears no resemblance to the things sticking to your refrigerator. Those are a different class of magnet altogether, called permanent magnets, made of alloys like Alnico – a combination of aluminum, nickel and cobalt. Due to the nature of those materials, they have a permanent but weak magnetic field. Our most popular magnets are resistive magnets, a type of electromagnet, which create magnetic fields using electricity. Unlike permanent magnets, electromagnets can be switched on and off. They can be very simple – you can make a basic electromagnet at home strong enough to pick up paper clips. But you can (and we do) make them a lot stronger, largely by pumping in more and more electricity.

In a nutshell, this is how they work. Electrons traveling through a wire (i.e., electricity) generate a magnetic field around them as they move, as shown below.

current through a wire

If you take that wire and coil it, you concentrate a lot of field in the center.

current through a wire concentrated

If you coil a wire twice, three times, a hundred times into a shape called a solenoid, you get an ever stronger field in the center area.

current through wire many coils

That’s essentially the idea behind our resistive magnets, except that instead of wires, we use flat copper plates, or discs, piled one atop the other. The fabrication and stacking of the plates are designed to maximize the amount of electricity they carry (the greater the current, the greater the magnetic field it generates) while minimizing the chance that electrical heat will melt the plates and ruin the magnet.

Inspecting a bitter disc.Inspecting a bitter disc.

These discs are the building blocks of our magnets; it takes hundreds of discs to make one magnet. The tiniest flaw in any one of these could impair the magnet or result in a costly malfunction.

So quality control is an obsession in the MagLab’s Resistive Magnet Shop, where the coils are made. Every plate is checked, double-checked, and checked again throughout the magnet building process. Some very patient, persnickety perfectionists work in that shop.

“It’s tedious,” magnet technician Nicole Walsh readily concedes, “but if you realize that every single disc matters, then it just goes by faster.”

Ingredients: Only the best

Every plate that goes into our coils starts out life as a sheet of metal no thicker than a millimeter. Depending on the specifications of the magnet, the sheet may be made of pure copper, an excellent conductor, or of a copper alloy – copper-beryllium, copper-zirconium or copper-silver.

Of course, the first thing we do with this material is test it: Quality control dictates this process right from the get-go. Engineers in our Materials Characterization Lab scrutinize each incoming batch of metal for conductivity and strength.

copper sheetRaw material for a magnet.

The material has to be tough. It’s going to take a licking and it needs to keep on ticking. The material will be subject to millions of pounds of pressure and power densities of 14 watts per cubic millimeter – more than in any other man-made device, according to Magnet Science & Technology Director Mark Bird.

“It is a little bit tricky because it’s sheet metal, and they need to know the strength of it pretty accurately,” explained MagLab engineer Bob Walsh, who developed and oversees the testing process. “The material can’t have imperfections, it has to be made very well, and that way its strength is very consistent.” The testing is an important first step in quality control. “We don’t pay until we get this result,” Walsh noted.

If the sheets pass muster, they’re shipped off to an outside facility where pancake-like discs are cut out of them, each with a very particular pattern of round and elongated holes.

The Hole Story

There is quite a bit of science and engineering that goes into determining the precise size, shape, number and pattern of holes on any particular plate, which vary from magnet to magnet.

Old-style bitter plate.Old-style bitter plate.

The larger, round holes accommodate rods that are used to keep the plates in place as they are stacked one on top of the other. There is no wiggle room: Wiggling could translate into blocked holes, and blockages, as we will see, could trigger a meltdown.

The narrower, elongated holes prevent the plates from melting. They do this by funneling vast amounts of cold water right through the magnet, made quite hot by tremendous amount of current (we’re talking megawatts). Were it not for the cold water rushing through at the rate of up to 15,000 liters (4,000 gallons) a minute, our magnets would quickly melt into copper puddles. (Deionized water is used to cool the magnets; unlike tap water, it contains no salt or other impurities, and therefore won’t conduct electricity).

Florida bitter plateFlorida bitter plate.

An MIT physicist named Francis Bitter came up with the idea for these holes back in the 1930s, an innovation that made more powerful magnets possible. That explains why the plates are commonly called Bitter plates. Back in Bitter’s day, these water holes were round. But in the mid-1990s, MagLab engineers figured out that using elongated rather than round holes, and staggering rather than aligning the rows of holes, would greatly increase the coil’s ability to withstand stress, meaning even more current could be pumped through the magnet resulting in a higher magnetic field – an incredible 40 percent increase in efficiency. Prior to this innovation, 20 megawatts of power could generate a field of 28 tesla (tesla is a measure of magnetic field strength – a fridge magnet, by comparison, is a mere .03 tesla). But since the invention of the Florida Bitter plate, that same 20 MW could yield 35 tesla.

The MagLab’s Florida Bitter plate was quickly adopted by magnet makers worldwide; the design paved the way in 1995 for the lab’s world-record 30 tesla resistive magnet. This was surpassed in 2005 by our 35 tesla resistive magnet, which remains one of most powerful magnets of its kind on earth. The secret in designing these holes is to find the right balance between the amount of copper used (maximizing the current) and the amount of copper sacrificed to the cooling holes (preventing a melt-down).

Every plate within a coil is identical, and they are stacked in such a way as to create within the coil dozens of very narrow tubes through which cold water can be flushed.

The above statement is 90 percent true. Here we must make a small detour to account for that other 10 percent and explain the Lorentz Force.

Forces to be reckoned with

Heat isn’t the only devil in the details of resistive magnet design.

End-turn (top) and mid-turn discs.End-turn (top) and mid-turn discs.

Inside any magnet coil, there are really two levels of magnetic fields. There’s the larger field of the magnet generated by the multiple megawatts of power surging through it, and there are the much smaller fields generated by each of the countless electrons in motion. When these smaller fields interact with the larger field, a force (called the Lorentz force) is exerted, which pushes the plates outward. This isn’t a problem in the middle of the coil (more on that in a minute), but it is at the top and bottom.

Because of this, holes in the top and bottom plates must be a bit wider so that they don’t plug up the flow of cooling water when they shift out of alignment with the middle plates.

The middle plates have a secret weapon to counter the Lorentz force: magnetic clamping. This happens when wires (or in this case, coils) conduct current in parallel. (Our interactive tutorial on parallel wires illustrates this phenomenon). The direction of magnetic fields circling around these wires or coils is such that they attract each other. So discs in the middle of the coil attract each other like opposing magnets. This keeps the discs clamped together, even as the Lorentz force tries to force them outward, as illustrated below. Because magnetic clamping isn’t strong at the ends of the coil, the Lorentz force can only be dealt with by making those holes wider.

forces in resistive magnet coil

MagLab engineers were the first to figure out how best to design around the interacting forces of magnetic clamping and the Lorentz force, giving them a 10 percent increase in efficiency. This advance occurred in 2000 while engineers were trying to set a new record of 45 tesla with our hybrid magnet (part superconducting magnet, part resistive magnet). The innovation of wider holes at the ends of the coils helped them achieve this goal.

Slow burr

When the stamped Bitter plates return to the MagLab, the magnet makers must battle the bane of their existence: burrs.

A machine deburrs plates.A machine deburrs plates.

Sticklers for details, the shop’s technicians seek to eliminate every little bump, ragged edge and other imperfection left behind by the stamping process. Donning plastic gloves, they send every single plate, one at a time, through a very whiny deburring machine, which works something like a planer in a woodshop, smoothing out rough spots. Then they flip each plate over and send it through the machine again. For a typical coil, this process takes several days. Patience, sharp eyes and a pair of earplugs come in handy.

What’s next? More quality control! Any holes still plugged? Any uneven spots? Any foreign materials accidentally stamped into the discs? Discerning eyes check for all possible problems.

All clean and shiny and smooth, the deburred, inspected plates are then shipped out for a high-class coating of silver. Like copper, silver is a great conductor of electricity. But unlike copper, it’s a soft metal, so it conducts electricity better at those points where discs touch each other.

What happens when those pretty silver plates come back? You guessed it: more deburring. Each plate is inspected yet again and any offending burrs are manually smoothed away.

Stacking up

With all the plates finished and in tip-top shape, it’s time to assemble them into a tower.

On its journey from the top of the magnet coil to the bottom, an electrical current wants to find the shortest, quickest route. That would not make for a very powerful magnet, however, so the coil stacking process is designed to make sure the current takes the longest possible path from point A to point B without melting the magnet. The idea is to have the current travel all around one loop, then move to the next loop, go all around it, then move to the next one, etc., etc., until the current has spiraled all the way up or down the coil. No shortcuts allowed.

makingmagnets-flatstackClick photo for a brief slideshow on flat-stacking.

To prevent the current from avoiding the long series of rotaries that make up a magnet coil, pieces of insulator are inserted at strategic spots between the Bitter plates. Like traffic cones lining a parade route, they make sure the electricity takes the long and winding path the magnet designers intended by blocking all possible shortcuts.

The insulators are interwoven with the Bitter plates in groupings called magnet turns. Generally from four to 16 plates, along with one or more insulators, make up a turn, depending on the turn’s location within the coil and the magnet’s design. Each turn is one loop in the current’s path through the magnet. In the innermost of the three coils that make up our world record 35 T resistive magnet, for example, there are about a thousand Bitter plates. These plates are grouped into a total of 93 turns of four to nine discs each. So the current enters the coil and makes a total of 93 magnetic field-producing loop-de-loops before exiting.

Helix stacking

At the MagLab, most coils are stacked in one of two ways: helix stacking or flat stacking. In helix stacking, a group of discs is woven with one disc-shaped insulator into a turn, as illustrated in this brief video.

Flat stacking

In flat stacking, short sections of insulator are stacked in a staggered pattern between Bitter discs in a way that forces the current along a short section of each disc. For example, a turn of six discs begins with a plate, on top of which is stacked a small insulator covering the disc between 12 o’clock to 2 o’clock. Another disc is stacked on this, followed by another insulator positioned between 2 o’clock to 4 o’clock. The third disc comes next, then the next insulator, placed in the 4 to 6 o’clock position … and so on until the last insulator (10 to 12 o’clock) is in place. This short flat-stacking video illustrates how this is done.

All turns within a magnet coil are not created equal. Remember how the discs at the end of the coils have wider holes? There’s another way these end-coil turns differ from mid-coil turns: they contain more disks. Turns with more disks have lower current density. It’s important for the mid-coil turns to have the highest possible current density as this will yield the highest possible field for the experiments to be run at the center of the magnet.

But at the ends of the coil, the field can afford to be a little weaker, meaning less current density and more plates and a bit of savings on operating costs.

Nested interest

After all the discs are stacked, what’s next?

If you don’t know by now, you really haven’t been paying attention.

The four resistive coils of our 45 tesla hybrid magnet. The four resistive coils of our 45 tesla hybrid magnet. When assembled, they fit inside each other. 

More quality control, of course. We connect the magnet to power supply and energize it with 50 amps of current. Each turn in the magnet is tested with a voltmeter, a tool that measures the electrical voltage in a circuit. All the end turns should have the same voltage; all the mid turns should have the same voltage. If the voltmeter picks up low voltage somewhere, the current may be taking an unauthorized shortcut, perhaps due to an overlooked burr.

Finally, it’s time to put the coils inside the magnet and hook them up to the electrical source. They are placed one inside the other, like Russian dolls.

The coils run in series: the current spirals down the innermost coil first, then works its way up the next one, passing through the largest coil last, as shown below. The illustration also demonstrates how cold water pumped through the coil keeps the magnet from overheating.

resistive magnet cross section

Stronger, higher, better

Not surprisingly when you consider all the pressure and current these magnets put up with, their lifespan is limited to about one and a half years. Then they are recycled – disassembled and rebuilt with the same devotion to detail as the original. Dozens of spare coils are inventoried at the lab, ready to replace a coil that’s ready for retirement.

Diagram of a series connected hybrid magnet.Diagram of a series connected hybrid magnet.

While magnet technicians build and rebuild coils for the lab’s eight resistive magnets, scientists are busy planning, designing and proto-typing new multi-million dollar tools. In 2014, the MagLab completed construction of a world-record, 26 tesla series connected hybrid magnet (SCH) with a cone-like shape that will be used for neutron-scattering experiments. The lab will complete a second SCH magnet for its Tallahassee facility. Another innovative magnet designed and built at the lab is the 25 tesla split Florida helix magnet, which has the ability to direct and scatter laser light at the sample not only down the bore, or center, of the magnet, but also from four ports on the sides. Both of these magnets are the most powerful tool of their kind on the planet. In this field, the push for stronger, higher and better is ever present.

“Any time there’s a new facility available where you can do measurements that have never been done before, people discover new phenomena using them,” explained MS&T Director Mark Bird. “There’s always a great incentive to build a higher-performance system than has existed previously. So in the Magnet Science & Technology division, we’re always trying to develop better ways of building magnets that will outperform the magnets that we’ve built in the past.”

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The buildings of the future are alive! thumbnail

The buildings of the future are alive!

By martyn dade-robertson4 minute Read

What if our homes were alive? I don’t mean smart homes with the disembodied voice of Alexa deciding the setting for your living room spotlights. I mean actually alive—growing, living, breathing, and even reproducing. The idea might seem far-fetched, but in the face of a climate crisis, we humans need to think radically about the way we live in and build our environment.

Biology is capable of extraordinary feats of engineering, and the next frontier in building technology might be to make buildings part of nature. I and my colleagues at Newcastle and Northumbria universities have set up a new research center to investigate this possibility. Here are five ways we think the buildings of the future might become living, breathing things.

Buildings that grow

From the crushed shells of limestone to the timber of dead trees, we already use nature’s materials for building. Yet this palette of materials could be radically extended. For instance, Scientific American recently featured mycelium, the root network of fungus, as a material of the future. Mycelium can grow on little more than wood chips and coffee grounds in very short periods of time, creating materials with significant structural performance.

The Hy-Fi installation in New York, which consisted of a 43-foot-tall tower, was constructed of mycelium bricks. The greatest challenge, however, might be to design a structure where the mycelium is kept partly alive and able to grow and adapt. The myco-architecture project, led by Lynn Rothschild at NASA, investigated this possibility, imagining habitats that might reproduce themselves—albeit for colonies on other planets.

Buildings that heal

Cracks in a building’s concrete usually spell the beginning of the end. Water will seep in and eventually rust the metal reinforcements that hold the structure stable. But researchers have begun to experiment with concrete that can heal itself. One promising method—currently being developed by a group led by Henk Jonkers at Delft University of Technology, among others—is to embed bacterial spores (like seeds for bacteria) in the concrete mix.

When water gets in through microscopic cracks, the bacteria are reanimated. The material literally comes alive and triggers a chemical process, causing new calcite crystals to grow and “heal” the concrete. Using this technique might add decades or more to the life of a concrete building.

Buildings that breathe

Many buildings—especially the high-rise, glassy office towers found in major cities across the world—are on permanent life support. Mechanical-lung-like air-conditioning systems circulate air to heat and cool rooms. Of course, it’s always an option to open a window to allow natural ventilation to occur. But what if the walls themselves could breathe?

Hiroshi Ishii’s group at MIT has developed materials that can change their shape in response to water. These materials consist of layers of bacteria spores (similar to those used in self-healing concrete) and latex. When the material dries, it contracts and changes shape.

Using this method, Ishii’s group has demonstrated clothing that can respond to human perspiration. My group has been taking the first steps to investigate extending this method to create whole building membranes that might “sweat” as indoor humidity rises. Using latex membranes coated with bacteria spores, the material will flex and open pores—like sweat glands—allowing air to flow through the walls, for example, when steam builds from a shower or a kettle.

Buildings with immune systems

We are surrounded by trillions of microorganisms on every surface of our homes and bodies and in the air around us. While we spend millions of dollars per year on antimicrobial cleaners to kill much of this complex ecosystem, it has been known for some time that those who live near farms may suffer less from allergies than those in urban environments. It seems that being exposed to “good” bacteria helps to build the immune system in children.

In a pilot project, researchers at University College London have begun to investigate how surfaces in, for example, kitchens can be made bioreceptive—actually promoting the growth of bacteria that are known to offer resistance against disease-causing bugs. Soon, we might be able to eat our probiotic yogurts in probiotic kitchens.

Buildings with stomachs

Most buildings are constantly absorbing materials and energy while returning waste that needs to be taken away and treated at industrial scales. But new research suggests that this waste could actually become a source of energy for a building. A team of researchers on an EU project called Living Architecture is working to develop a new type of microbial fuel cell, which takes domestic waste and generates small amounts of power, as part of a wider project exploring the processing power of microbes in buildings.

Powerful stuff. [Photo: Living Architecture Consortium/courtesy of the author]

The fuel cells are integrated into bricks that would become part of the structural fabric of the building as well as being its stomach. The bricks take in wastewater, and the bacteria convert chemical energy, as the waste is broken down, into electrical energy. In this scenario, your toilet could charge your mobile phone.

Exciting as this sounds, there is a downside to living buildings: They will inevitably die. But buildings already have a life cycle. Aside from the occasional geriatric tourist attraction, most of our buildings are in a constant state of change. When they do reach the end of their useful life, taking buildings down is costly and polluting. Imagine a city of buildings that gently die and return to the earth, forming the food for the next ones to grow, change, and adapt. Surely that is more exciting than a smart home with a fridge that will automatically reorder your broccoli.

Martyn Dade-Robertson is the professor of emerging technology and co-director of the Hub for Biotechnology in the Built Environment at Newcastle University. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Conversation

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NextOffice Blur the Boundaries of Chartaqi-Inspired Project thumbnail

NextOffice Blur the Boundaries of Chartaqi-Inspired Project

NextOffice Blur the Boundaries of Chartaqi-Inspired Project

NextOffice Blur the Boundaries of Chartaqi-Inspired Project, © NextOffice

© NextOffice

Many references to historic architecture are still being used in contemporary projects. Whether it is ancient building techniques, use of material, or the relationship between architecture and nature, the past remains prominent.

Iranian architecture firm NextOffice blurred the boundaries between indoors and outdoors, and used historic Iranian architecture elements to create the contemporary Guyim Vault House.


© NextOffice


© NextOffice


© NextOffice


© NextOffice






+ 16




© NextOffice

© NextOffice

The Chartaqi, or Chahartaq, was a distinguished element in Iranian architecture thousands of years ago. It was used for many purposes in both secular and religious structures, and consisted of four vaults topped by a dome. The office’s main challenge in this project was to find a way to extend the Chartaqi structural system to create a cube and disintegrate spaces at the same time.

How can a volume with cubic shape boundaries separate the space into subspaces? Are these dome-shaped structures capable of responding to create public and private zones inside the house? What are the features of this dual scheme characteristic?


© NextOffice

© NextOffice

The manipulated slabs formed by the arcade are converted into dome-like structures. On the ground floor, the adjoining semi-domed volumes create enclosed and semi-enclosed spaces. Based on this relationship between the structures, three semi-domes are placed within the house in a back-to-back assembly inside a cubic glass envelope, creating a space for a kitchen, mudroom (near the entrance), and guest room. The “fluid” space between the half-domed elements in transformed into the public interior zone of the house. These unsolidified spaces make a direct connection to the garden.


© NextOffice

© NextOffice

On the first floor, the three semi-domes are facing each other, forming a sunken courtyard nearby the bedrooms, reflecting the privacy and intimacy that this floor resembles.


© NextOffice

© NextOffice

The semi-dome structures assembled on top of each other transmit structural load from one floor to another, based on the Chartaqi structural system. This system forms a hybrid spatial quality, standing between the cubic form and dome-shaped elements.

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About this author

Cite: Dima Stouhi. “NextOffice Blur the Boundaries of Chartaqi-Inspired Project” 30 Jun 2019. ArchDaily. Accessed .

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© NextOffice

伊朗经典建筑元素‘四拱顶’的现代重组


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Teardown: VeriFone MX 925CTLS Payment Terminal thumbnail

Teardown: VeriFone MX 925CTLS Payment Terminal

Regular Hackaday readers may recall that a little less than a year ago, I had the opportunity to explore a shuttered Toys “R” Us before the new owners gutted the building. Despite playing host to the customary fixture liquidation sale that takes place during the last death throes of such an establishment, this particular location was notable because of how much stuff was left behind. It was now the responsibility of the new owners to deal with all the detritus of a failed retail giant, from the security camera DVRs and point of sale systems to the boxes of employee medical records tucked away in a back office.

Clipping from New York Post. September 24th, 2018.

The resulting article and accompanying YouTube video were quite popular, and the revelation that employee information including copies of social security cards and driver’s licenses were left behind even secured Hackaday and yours truly a mention in the New York Post. As a result of the media attention, it was revealed that the management teams of several other stores were similarly derelict in their duty to properly dispose of Toys “R” Us equipment and documents.

Ironically, I too have been somewhat derelict in my duty to the good readers of Hackaday. I liberated several carloads worth of equipment from Geoffrey’s fallen castle with every intention of doing a series of teardowns on them, but it’s been nine months and I’ve got nothing to show for it. You could have a baby in that amount of time. Which, incidentally, I did. Perhaps that accounts for the reshuffling of priorities, but I don’t want to make excuses. You deserve better than that.

So without further ado, I present the first piece of hardware from my Toys “R” Us expedition: the VeriFone MX 925CTLS. This is a fairly modern payment terminal with all the bells and whistles you’d expect, such as support for NFC and EMV chip cards. There’s a good chance that you’ve seen one of these, or at least something very similar, while checking out at a retail chain. So if you’ve ever wondered what’s inside that machine that was swallowing up your debit card, let’s find out.

Self-Destruct Sequence Initiated

The unfortunate reality is that there are some very clever people out there who are actively looking to “crack” devices like the VeriFone MX 925CTLS. We’re all aware of card “skimmers” which mount to the outside of a payment terminal, but from a criminal’s standpoint, the big weakness with such devices is that you can just yank the thing off. The ideal solution is to integrate the skimmer hardware directly into the terminal itself so it can’t be seen from the outside. To prevent that sort of tampering, these devices utilize various tricks to deactivate themselves in the event that somebody tries to crack open the case.

If the back panel of the device is removed, then this small PCB becomes disconnected from the main board, and the VeriFone MX 925CTLS knows it’s been opened up. That’s easy enough. But if you look closer, there’s also a reed switch and pads on the board that correspond to the appropriate features on the inside of the enclosure.

So even if somebody figured out how to open the case without breaking the electrical connection (such as with some kind of extension cable), those features would still trip once physically separated from the rest of the device. But before you even got that far, the white plunger attached to one of the back panel screws would have lifted off its pad on the main PCB, alerting the system to the fact somebody was attempting to open it.

PCB detail, note the dense traces.

Plunger attached to one of the case screws.

But what about simply drilling through this little board to access the electronics underneath? That’s where all those traces on the PCB come in. Drilling through the board would invariably break a trace, and effectively be the same as if you triggered the tamper-evident systems normally.

If we count the physical disconnection of this board, that’s five different ways for the VeriFone MX 925CTLS to detect it has been tampered with. Even still, I wouldn’t be surprised if I missed a couple. Feel free to leave a comment if you know any other tricks that are commonly used, or even if you see one here that slipped by me.

Built for Purpose

In a way, I was glad that the anti-tamper system in the VeriFone MX 925CTLS rendered it a paperweight upon disassembly. It saved me from having to decide if I should bother reassembling it or not. Since the device had either scrambled its internal storage or activated some kind of software flag that would prevent it from being used again, I could strip it for parts without the normal pangs of guilt.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a whole lot in here that can be used for much else. Actually, there’s almost nothing that can be reused. A device like this is awash in custom components that you can’t get datasheets for, and even if you could, aren’t exactly the sort of thing you could use in your average DIY project. But we can still marvel at the engineering that went into building it.

Of particular note are the stereo speakers and 3.5 mm headphone jack on the right side of the PCB, no doubt accessibility features for those with difficulty seeing. Between the headphone jack and the central RF shield, you can see the pad that corresponds to the anti-tamper plunger mentioned previously. To the left of the RF shield is a chunky 3 V lithium battery used to keep the volatile storage powered up. Even farther to the left, you can see the thick metal shield that covers the actual magnetic stripe reader and its ribbon cable, no doubt another method of protecting the device from an attacker attempting to get access to sensitive data by drilling through the case.

The main component under the RF shield is a VeriFone 2102COC, a proprietary processor of some type. Its paired with a Samsung K4X1G323PE, a 128 MB DDR RAM module that’s usually found in mobile phones. Next to that is a Toshiba TC58NYG1S3EBAI5 providing 250 MB of EEPROM storage. Underneath another RF shield on the back of the board is an NXP PN512 that handles the terminal’s 13.56 MHz touchless payment communications.

There’s also a few mystery chips in the mix. These devices have clearly legible numbers, and searching through the usual suppliers gives me a link to buy them and even a report on current stock levels; but no datasheet and in many cases not even a description of what it does. This leads me to believe they are probably some kind of cryptographic coprocessors that us mere mortals aren’t allowed to experiment with.

Built Like a Tank, or an Apache

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the VeriFone MX 925CTLS is how solid it is. The bottom half of the polycarbonate enclosure twists in much the same way that a brick doesn’t. Everything inside is built to the highest order, and it’s clear that a lot of thought went into building these things to last as long as possible in a fairly hostile environment. The average customer is trying to complete their transaction as quickly as possible, so expecting anything less than a daily life punctuated by poking and yanking is wishful thinking.

As the keypad is likely to get the most abuse during normal usage, it will probably come as no surprise to find that it’s an exceptionally heavy duty component. In fact, the design of the keypad is suspiciously similar to what I pulled out of the data entry keyboard of an AH-64A Apache last year.

This is from a payment terminal.

This is from an attack helicopter.

Both keypads appear to be made of a very similar material, and feature integrated spring-loaded plungers that provide a phenomenal “clicky” response. Try as I might, I couldn’t find any markings on either keypad which would confirm that they actually come from the same manufacturer, but we can dream.

An Academic Experience

Fairly significant bummer

If you’ve been following my previous teardowns, you’ll know that I often make a point of identifying parts that could be worth salvaging for future projects. But in the case of the VeriFone MX 925CTLS, I have to admit there doesn’t seem to be much of anything worth keeping.

Personally, the component I had the highest hopes for was the smart card reader. While the rest of the world is well accustomed to this technology, here in the United States, it’s still a relatively new addition to our daily lives. I was very curious to see what the inside of one of these readers would look like, and fantasised about it potentially being some kind of I2C or SPI device that could be extracted from the terminal. Unfortunately, the reader is nothing more than a block of plastic with some flexible fingers that push against the chip.

While there was nothing of particular material use from this device, it was still an illuminating look inside a piece of equipment that’s part of daily life for most of us. If you ever have the opportunity to take apart something like this, don’t pass it up. You might not add any parts to your bin, but you certainly won’t come away empty handed either.

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