Engineers: How do you fight fire in space?


Fighting fire in a confined space presents challenges. Imagine if that confined space is the International Space Station where there is no up or down and where atmosphere and pressure are tightly controlled.

Improved fire-fighting techniques in space – and a better understanding of fuel combustion here on Earth – are the focus of FLEX (Flame Extinguishment Experiment) out of the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego.

From an Earth-bound lab, researchers ignite a drop of flammable liquid in a chamber located in the Destiny module of the International Space Station. The result is a symmetric flame that can burn at a lower temperature and with less oxygen than in normal gravity. Also, the slow flow of air from fans mixing air in a spacecraft can make flames burn even faster. This means that materials used to extinguish fire must be present in higher concentrations.

A first round of FLEX trials ran from 2009 to 2011. A second round of experiments has just begun that aim to recreate conditions that occur in a combustion engine. Findings could lead to new designs for cleaner fuels that have a smaller carbon footprint and emit fewer pollutants.

New method offers insights on chronic pain

Millions of people worldwide suffer from chronic neuropathic pain triggered by nerve damage. Scientists from The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) report the discovery of a small-molecule byproduct of cellular membranes found at abnormally high levels in the spinal cords of rats with neuropathic pain. Inhibiting this molecule may be a promising target for drug development.

Equally worthy of note is the method by which the discovery was made.

In trying to understand what makes diseased cells different from healthy cells, scientists have often looked for differences in levels of gene expression (genomics) or cellular proteins (proteomics). In this study, researchers used “metabolomics,” which concerns differences in the levels of small-molecule metabolites, such as sugars, vitamins, and amino acids – the building blocks of basic cellular processes. Because these molecules are being transformed during cellular activity, it is reasoned that tracking them provides more direct information on what’s happening at a biochemical level.

Thus, the TSRI announcement represents both new understanding of neuropathic pain and a demonstration of the power of metabolomics. The study appears online in the journal Nature Chemical Biology,

Google Earth ocean terrain receives update

Google has updated its Google Earth application, reflecting ocean data collected by U.S. research vessels over the past three decades including 287 Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego expeditions and more accurate imagery in several key areas of the ocean.

The original version of Google Ocean was a prototype map that had high resolution but also contained thousands of “blunders” related to original archived ship data. UCSD undergraduate students spent three years identifying and correcting the errors as well as adding additional data from the National Geophysical Data Center in Boulder, Colo.

The Google map now matches the map used by the research community, which makes Google Earth much more useful as a tool for planning cruises to uncharted areas.

— Lynne Friedmann is a science writer based in Solana Beach.