You might have missed: recycling fibreglass; how we sense touch; invasive bee colonies; and sponging up gold with whey

A new way to recycle fibreglass bound for landfill

Glass fibre-reinforced plastic (GFRP) is a strong and durable composite material used widely across automotive and aerospace industries, in wind turbine blades and sports equipment.

“For the most part, we end up burying the wing structures of airplanes or windmill blades from a wind turbine whole in a landfill. Disposing of GFRP this way is just unsustainable,” says James Tour, professor of chemistry and of materials science and nanoengineering at Rice University in the US.

“Until now there has been no good way to recycle it.”

Tour and collaborators have developed a new, energy-efficient method to transform GFRP into silicon carbide – a substance widely used in semiconductors, sandpaper, and other products – according to a new study in Nature Sustainability.

The process involves grinding up GFRP into a mixture of plastic and carbon, adding a little more carbon, and then applying a high voltage to raise its temperature to between 1,600 and 2,900°C.

“That high temperature facilitates the transformation of the plastic and carbon to silicon carbide,” says Tour.

Understanding the molecular basis of touch

An ion channel named Elkin1 plays a vital role in how humans perceive the sensation of touch, according to a new study in the journal Science.

“Until now, we had known that the ion channel Piezo2 is required for touch perception, but it was clear that this protein alone cannot explain the entirety of touch sensation,” says Gary Lewin, head of the Molecular Physiology of Somatic Sensation Lab at the Max Delbrück Centre, Germany.

Lewin and his team found that Elkin1 is likely directly involved in converting a mechanical stimulus, such as light touch, into an electrical signal. In behavioural experiments, mice genetically modified to lack the Elkin1 gene showed reduced touch sensitivity when researchers lightly brushed a cotton swab against their hind paws.

Microscope image of human sensory neurons with different components fluorescing different colours to visualise them
Induced human sensory neurons with the ion channel Elkin1 (cyan), nucleus (yellow) and neurofilament 200 (magenta). Credit: Amy Hulme/University of Wollongong

“Usually, normal mice react to the cotton swab 90% of the time. In contrast, mice lacking Elkin1 only reacted half of the time,” says Lewin.

They also found evidence that Elkin1 may play a part in the transmission of painful mechanical stimuli.

“If this is confirmed to be the case, we will have not only identified a second ion channel with an indispensable role in normal touch perception, but also a new potential target for treating chronic pain,” says Lewin.

Sponging up gold from electronic waste

Electronic waste contains a variety of valuable metals, including gold. But the methods used to recover precious metal are far from sustainable, often requiring energy-intensive practices and toxic chemicals.

Now, researchers have used a byproduct of the cheesemaking process to sponge up and recover gold from e-waste.

Researchers denatured whey proteins and aggregated them into extremely strong, highly ordered fibres inside of a gel. They turned this gel into an aerogel by removing the liquid and replacing it with air through freeze drying.

Graphical abstract of the research paper showing the steps to make the protein sponge
How the gold is recovered: Gold ions adhere to a sponge of protein fibrils. Credit: Peydayesh M et al. Advanced Materials, 2024, adapted

Dissolved gold ions adhere quite efficiently to the resulting protein fibre sponge. Then, by heating it up, the gold ions get reduced into gold flakes that can be melted down into nuggets for further use.

The researchers outlined their work in a paper in the journal Advanced Materials.

Invasive bee colony defied genetic expectations

Invasive Asian honeybees have been establishing a thriving population in north Queensland, Australia, for more than a decade. Now, new research in Current Biology shows they’ve done it in defiance of all evolutionary expectations.

The species, Apis cerana, has overcome what is known as a genetic bottleneck – growing from a single swarm into a population of more than 10,000 colonies.

Photograph of bees nesting in their hive
Invasive Asian honeybees (Apis cerana) nesting in a disused bird box in Cairns, North Queensland. Credit: Ros Gloag

“Our study of this bee population shows that some species can quickly adjust to new environments despite starting with very low genetic diversity relative to their native-range populations,” says co-lead author Dr Rosalyn Gloag from the University of Sydney School of Life and Environmental Sciences.

“We have shown that this invasive population of honeybees has rapidly adapted since its arrival, despite having suffered a steep loss in genetic diversity.

“While this might be bad news for environments coping with newly arrived invasive species, it’s potentially good news for populations that have temporary crashes in the face of climate change or other natural or human-induced disasters, such as bushfires.”

Buy cosmos print magazine

Please login to favourite this article.