Dutch cyclists can now ride down a recycled plastic bike path

When it comes to recycling plastic waste, the Dutch are a pretty inventive bunch. We’ve seen office furniture fashioned from waste recovered from Amsterdam’s canals by folks in boats made from plastic trash, street furniture made from the stuff in the capital too, and household waste recycled into a temporary pavilion for Dutch Design Week. Now the first cycle path constructed using recycled plastic has opened in the municipality of Zwolle in the northeastern Netherlands.

The PlasticRoad concept is the brainchild of Anne Koudstaal and Simon Jorritsma from engineering firm KWS, who first sketched an outline in 2013. But it wasn’t until 2016 that KWS partnered with pipe manufacturer Wavin and oil/gas giant Total to move the project forward.

On September 11, a two-lane bike path made using recycled plastic was opened to cyclists. It’s 30 meters (100 ft) long and runs between Lindestraat and Verenigingstraat in Zwolle and is said to contain the equivalent of 218,000 plastic cups or 500,000 plastic bottle caps. The collaboration does admit that the pilot bike path doesn’t use 100 percent recycled plastic, but that’s the eventual aim of the project.

The PlasticRoad comes in prefabricated modular blocks that are reported lightweight and easy to install with space underneath already in place for pipes and cables. The design allows water to drain away quickly, with the facility to temporarily store run-off under the surface in times of heavy rainfall.

The designers expect the PlasticRoad structure to last three times longer than traditional road surfaces, though this remains to be seen, and it’s projected that the surface won’t suffer from cracks and potholes. It’s created to be circular too, which means that the plastic could be recycled at the end of its operational life.

In order to collect data on how it’s performing, sensors have been installed in the area to monitor such things as temperature, the number of cyclists who ride on the PlasticRoad surface and the durability of the bike path.


Parachutes go for Orion mission after completion of final drop tests

A key system for the first manned Orion deep space mission has been cleared for flight after NASA completed the final tests of the crew capsule parachutes on Wednesday. At the US Army Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona, the last of of eight tests were completed using a dummy Orion capsule as the space agency put the parachute system through a series drops that included both normal and emergency flight conditions.

As the old saying goes, what goes up must come down, and when the first manned Orion mission returns to Earth it will be coming down at speeds not encountered by astronauts since the days of the Apollo Moon landings. When it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere, the crew capsule will be traveling at hypersonic speeds of 6.8 miles per second (11 km per second), or 32 times the speed of sound.

Atmospheric drag will eat up most of this velocity, but it will still be traveling at 300 mph (483 km/h) as it slows to subsonic speed. This has to be reduced further to 20 mph (32 km/h) if the spacecraft and crew want to avoid being smashed to pieces on impact. This is the job of the parachute system. Similar to that first developed for the Apollo Command Module, Orion’s landing system consists of 11 parachutes covering an area of up to 36,000 ft² (3,300 m²). These are deployed in sequence using mortars, pyrotechnic bolt cutters, and 30 mi (48 km) of Kevlar cords over the capsule’s roughly 10-minute descent through the Earth’s atmosphere, slowing it down before it splashes down in the Pacific Ocean.

According to NASA, this midair maneuver has to go off perfectly even in the face of mishaps like a mortar failure of a parachute tearing, which is why the space agency has been dropping a mock Orion capsule out of the back of a C-17 transport plane over the Arizona desert from a height of over 6.5 mi (10.5 km).

These tests will not only benefit the next Orion mission, but will also be used to speed up the development of crew capsules by SpaceX and Boeing. NASA says that the data from the flight tests will be used to produce computer models and will reduce the number of live tests needed for the commercial manned spacecraft that will shuttle crews back and forth from the International Space Station.

“We’re working incredibly hard not only to make sure Orion’s ready to take our astronauts farther than we’ve been before, but to make sure they come home safely,” says Orion Program Manager Mark Kirasich. “The parachute system is complex, and evaluating the parachutes repeatedly through our test series gives us confidence that we’ll be ready for any kind of landing day situation.”

Three new fish species discovered in the extreme depths of the Atacama Trench

There’s no doubt that the deep ocean holds many secrets, and in good news for the aquatically curious marine scientists are getting better and better at bringing them to the surface. A new exploration to the Atacama Trench off South America’s west coast has shed new light on one of the Earth’s deepest places, including video evidence of what appears to be three brand new species of marine life.

The expedition was carried out using a pair of lander systems fitted with HD cameras and traps. Built to withstand the pressure at depths of up to 11,000 m (36,000 ft), these landers are simply dropped off the side of a boat and left to sink to the ocean floor. To retrieve them, scientists send down an acoustic signal that releases a set of attached weights from the lander and frees it to float to the surface.

The international team of scientists working on the project did this 27 different times over the Atacama Trench, including deployments to the deepest point, called Richard’s Deep, of more than 8,000 m (26,000 ft). Throughout they gathered more than 100 hours of video and 11,000 photographs.

Captured within was imagery was rare footage of long-legged isopods – crustaceans around the size of a human hand that swim upside down and are rarely sighted in their natural habitat. Rarer still was footage of what scientists believe to be three new species of snailfish, which for now they have dubbed the pink, blue and purple Atacama Snailfish.


NASA’s “game changing” foldable heat shield makes first flight

A “game changing” new foldable heat shield got its first flight test today, paving the way to larger, lighter deep space planetary missions. At Spaceport America in New Mexico, a test version of the umbrella-like shield called Adaptable Deployable Entry and Placement Technology (ADEPT) was one of NASA three technology demonstrators sent on a suborbital trajectory by a sounding rocket as part of UP Aerospace’s SpaceLoft 12 mission.

One of the major hurdles faced by any planetary mission upon entering an atmosphere is that hitting even the thinnest of air at hypersonic speeds so compresses the molecules in front of the craft that it generates temperatures in excess of 3,000⁰ C (5,400⁰ F) – twice that of molten steel. The usual way to handle this is with a round shield made out of a special phenolic plastic that ablates like the pages of a book burning away one by one. As it does so, it carries away the heat before it can reach the spacecraft.

It’s a system that has worked quite well for over 60 years, but such plastic shields are heavy, rigid, expensive to build, and much harder to do so as they grow larger. They also generate massive g forces and require supersonic parachutes to slow the craft enough to deploy regular chutes for the final phase of landing.

ADEPT gets around this by replacing the rigid plastic shield with one made of a thick mat of 3D-woven carbon fibers that’s held rigid by a support structure of deployable ribs and struts. Unlike the ablative plastic shield, the carbon fabric keeps the payload cool by re-radiating the heat before it can pass through the insulating textile.

However, the big advantages are that the carbon fiber shield is much lighter than the plastic ones, and it’s foldable. This means it can be used to build planetary probes that are larger than the present generation, yet weigh much less. This, in turn, means that rockets don’t need to be much larger to launch them.

The ADEPT demonstrator was launched today on a 15-minute suborbital flight that lofted it to an altitude of 60 miles (96 km) before it separated from the sounding rocket and unfolded while traveling at over Mach 3 (2,300 mph, 3,700 km/h). This wasn’t fast enough to cause much heating, but the purpose of the test was more to check the engineering and aerodynamics.

Oldest-known drawing found in South African cave

Archaeologists have uncovered what may be the oldest human-made drawings ever found. Discovered in a cave in South Africa, the cross-hatch pattern was drawn in red ochre and found to date back over 70,000 years, making the image more than 30,000 years older than the previous reigning champion.

The drawing is made up of six roughly-parallel vertical lines crossed by three curved horizontal lines, marked on a small fragment of silcrete – a cemented mixture of sand and gravel – that measures 38.6 mm long, 12.8 mm wide and 15.4 mm high (1.5 x 0.5 x 0.6 in). According to the researchers, the way the lines go right to the edges of the stone suggest that it’s just a fragment of a larger piece of work.

To get an idea of how the drawings were made, the researchers tried to recreate them in the lab. Marking silcrete flakes with both ochre crayons and paint, the team found that the ochre was the closest match, given the patchy nature of the material. These tests also suggest that the crayon had a tip measuring between 1.3 and 3.3 mm (0.05 and 0.13 in) wide.

The drawing itself may not seem too remarkable, given tens of thousands of years of art progress, but its age is the point of interest. It was found in sediment that’s around 73,000 years old, dating back to the Middle Stone Age. That makes it significantly older than previous evidence of drawing techniques, the earliest of which are 42,000-year old charcoal drawings of seals found in Spain.

Blombos Cave in South Africa, where the ochre drawing was discovered, has turned up dozens of ancient human artifacts since excavations began in 1991. The drawing, it turns out, is actually towards the younger end of the scale, with other objects like shell beads, tools and engravings found to be as old as 100,000 years.

The research was conducted by scientists from Norway’s University of Bergen and South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand. A paper on the study was published this Wednesday in the journal Nature.

Mercedes-Benz Vision Urbanetic concept autonomously hauls cargo or people

Much more than just a self-driving van, Mercedes-Benz’ new Vision Urbanetic concept presents a fresh take on the future of urban transport by blurring the line between passenger and goods transportation. The autonomous, electric-powered vehicle is essentially a networked moving pallet that can be fitted with a variety of bodies to fit specific tasks.

This latest Mercedes-Benz concept addresses the issue of traffic congestion by creating fleets of adaptable vans that can be quickly modified and operate 24 hours a day, minus charging periods. The Vision Urbanitec is similar to previous modular concepts that use interchangeable bodies like General Motors’ SURUS and Autonomy concepts or Toyota’s e-Palette, but with a self-driving system linked to a data network.

At its most basic, the Vision Urbanetic is a wheeled platform powered by an electric motor and contains all the sensors and control systems needed to operate autonomously. It can carry a variety of bodies, including a 12-passenger module and a cargo module with 10 m³ (353 ft³) of space or the equivalent of 10 EPAL pallets that can also be fitted with an autonomous cargo-handling system.

These modules are designed to be swapped manually or in a matter of minutes using an automatic system. In addition, the platform can operate without a module, such as when driving between assignments. It also has redundant systems for greater safety.

By doing away with driver controls, the Vision Urbanetic can eliminate the driver’s cab, freeing up more space for cargo or passengers. This not only simplifies module design, but it also eliminates the driver, which greatly reduces operating costs. There is a digital display in the passenger module to keep the riders informed and the side panels have “digital shadowing” to reproduce the outlines of pedestrians outside the vehicle to tell them that the van has seen them.

The Vision Urbanetic is conceived as the basis for a transport company fleet or a public transportation system rather than as personal transport. The platform could deliver a fleet that requires fewer vehicles, yet can operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year as a mover of both goods and people. This not only makes the fleet more efficient, but Mercedes-Benz says it will also reduce urban congestion, noise, and pollution.

Riderless BMW R1200GS eerily makes its way around a test track

Aston Martin first hinted that the company was heading down electric avenue in 2015 with the RapidE concept, and subsequently confirmed plans for a limited run all-electric Rapide last year. Few details escaped from Gaydon in Warwickshire back then, but that’s now been rectified with the release of some tasty tech specs.

Aston’s first battery electric is to be known as the Rapide E, and is being developed in close partnership with Williams Advanced Engineering. As stated in June 2017, production will be limited to just 155 vehicles, all built at a dedicated facility at the company’s St. Athan site.

The vehicle will sport two rear-mounted electric motors producing more than 610 PS (640 horses) and 950 Nm (700 lb-ft) of torque. Top speed is projected to be 155 mph (250 km/h), standstill to 60 mph (96.5 km/h) will be under the four second mark and 50 to 70 mph (60 – 112 km/h) will take 1.5 seconds – whether the batteries are at full capacity or not. On-demand battery performance “includes the ability to drive a full lap of the Nürburgring with absolutely no derating of the battery and the ability to cope with the daily demands of repeated hard acceleration and braking.”

The Rapide E’s 800 V battery system is made up of 5,600 Li-ion 18650 format cylindrical cells with a total capacity of 65 kWh and mounted where the gearbox and fuel tank of the original Rapide were located. Range per charge is expected to be over 200 miles (320 km) to WLTP standards – Aston is promising 185 miles worth of charge for every hour hooked up to a 400 V/50 kWh charger, but fast charging is also possible.

The exterior and underbody have been aero-optimized for the electric version of the 6-liter V12 Rapide, and the car has been treated to a fresh set of aerodynamic wheels wrapped in Pirelli P-Zero low rolling-resistance tires (which feature noise-canceling foam). Aston says that it will be using lightweight alloys and carbon composites to stay within strict weight targets and is also tweaking and tuning the powertrain, chassis and software to retain the feel of the original V12-powered Rapide, combining a Limited-Slip Differential with revised spring and damper rates to match the handling characteristics of the Rapide S.

First deliveries are scheduled for Q4 2019 but we’ll doubtless see much more of the Rapire E before then. Interested buyers are now being invited to express an interest, with pricing revealed on application. And Aston closes this specs reveal by saying that comments and driving experiences from owners will be taken on board to shape the development of future Aston Martin electric vehicles, confirming that we can expect more EVs from the company in years to come.

Un-bee-lievable: 2018 Shed of the Year winner crowned

Following the unveiling of the 2018 shortlist last month, an overall winner of the 11th annual Cuprinol Shed of the Year has now been declared. Sheffield sheddie George Smallwood got the nod for his Bee Eco Shed, a haven for honeybees and other insects.

The Bee Eco Shed is envisioned as a celebration of nature and came about when Smallwood began building a base for a standard ready-made shed. During the process he got inspired, and the project eventually grew into a custom shed built from scratch.

The shed includes an interior space and shelving to store tools and the like. Additionally, a spiral staircase provides access to the rooftop terrace, which includes two beehives that have already produced around 14 liters (3.7 US gallons) of honey in the past 12 months or so. Other notable features include a large “bug house,” and a simple water harvesting system that consists of guttering used to irrigate a herb garden.

The Bee Eco Shed beat an impressive 2,971 entries this year. Over 16,000 public votes were cast and the result was decided by a judging panel that included 2017 Shed of the Year winner Ben Swanborough.

Smallwood has been awarded £1,000 (roughly US$1,300) for his efforts, as well as some products from competition sponsor Cuprinol, a winner’s plaque, and that all-important giant crown for his shed.

“Coming in at the top spot was such a welcome surprise,” says Smallwood. “When we started the project we never could have dreamed we’d be here now. We hope our shed will inspire others around the UK to create spaces for wildlife in their gardens. There were so many innovative and creative sheds this year, so we’re absolutely thrilled to have been crowned the winner of Cuprinol Shed of the Year 2018!”

Volkswagen to discontinue Beetle, Final Edition set for 2019

The 2019 model year will be the end of the iconic Volkswagen Beetle. VW says that it will be focusing on family-oriented vehicles going forward, and the Beetle does not meet that goal. The 2019 VW Beetle will have a special Final Edition model in its SE and SEL trims as a send-off.

“The loss of the Beetle after three generations, over nearly seven decades, will evoke a host of emotions from the Beetle’s many devoted fans,” said Hinrich J. Woebcken, President and CEO, Volkswagen Group of America.

Several other statements by the automaker, however, hint to what VW plans to do going forward. Woebcken specifically said that the company will be a “full-line, family-focused automaker in the US” and that the company will “ramp up our electrification strategy with the MEB platform.” He also seemed to be hinting that the Beetle could, potentially, return at a later date, but that there are “no immediate plans to replace it.”

These statements give a few hints that will allow much speculation among the automotive press going forward. A “full-line automaker,” for example, usually is defined as offering everything from compact cars to full-sized pickup trucks. With the Volkswagen Atlas pickup concept debuting earlier this year, that’s a possibility.

What we do know is that, for now, the VW Beetle will be no more after the 2019 model year. For the Final Edition offerings, the Beetle will look back to its last “final hurrah” in 2003 when it was temporarily discontinued in the “Ultima Edicion.” Those models were available in beige and light blue, and for 2019, the Final Edition Beetles will also be available in Safari Uni (beige) and Stonewashed Blue (as seen in the 2016 Beetle Denim). Unlike the previous Ultimas, however, the Final Edition models will also be available in other Beetle colors.

The 2019 Volkswagen Beetle, no matter the model, will be powered by a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, turbocharged to produce 174 horsepower (130 kW). Most standard equipment for the Beetle series will be included, along with upgrades for the Final Edition models to include driver-assistance technologies and safety systems. The 2019 Beetle SE Final Edition Coupe will start at US$23,045 through to the most expensive SEL Final Edition Convertible at $29,995.