A liquid that acts like a sponge – you must be joking!

In a literal sense, we live in a material world. Our made world is constructed from and uses a vast range of different materials in ever more ingenious combinations. Some are natural, some are synthetic, some we have used for centuries, others are ‘new kids on the block’. The advent of a new type of material is particularly interesting to those of us who teach science or design & technology and liquid sponges fall into that category. Not only are liquid sponges a new type of material their behaviour is highly counterintuitive. It is relatively easy to understand the behaviour of a solid sponge – a flexible material, highly porous because its structure contains lots of holes each of which can hold small quantities of liquid. When the sponge is squeezed the air in the holes is pushed out and on release liquid is drawn into the holes. So, sponges can be used to mop up spilled liquids. But a liquid sponge? Liquids are incompressible, composed of a maelstrom of molecules, tightly packed together, tumbling over one another. To be sure there are small spaces between the molecules, holes if you like, but they are forever moving and changing places. How can they possibly soak anything up? 

Enter Stuart James who started with a solid material with a cage like structure giving it holes and simply melted it to give, he hoped, a liquid which still retained the cages and would have holes. But it didn’t work out. Then he tried dissolving the solid in a solvent to give a solution but that didn’t work because the solvent molecules filled up all the holes. Eventually he tried a different sort of material with a cage structure and a different solvent whose molecules were too big to go into the holes and voilà he had prepared the first ever liquid sponge or, as they are usually called, porous liquids. Jarad Mason developed the idea further by developing materials with a cage like structure that dissolved in water but had cages that were water repellent. This meant the holes didn’t get filled up with the water that was being used to dissolve the material. These sorts of materials are biocompatible which means they could be used in humans to, for example, oxygenate their blood if they are having breathing difficulties. 

Katherine Sanderson writes about this beautifully in the latest edition of New Scientist (The unlikely rise of liquid sponges 11 March 2023) explaining in everyday language (doughnuts, spaghetti and dinner plates) just how they work. Do read her article. Importantly these remarkable materials are of more than academic interest. Here are just some of the possible uses as indicated in Katherine’s piece.

Capturing Carbon Carbon-capture-and-storage technology is used to try to sequester greenhouse gases produced at fossil fuel power plants and other high emitting industries, such as steelworks. Porous liquids could be a cheaper, more efficient way of soaking up the carbon dioxide than the current technology.

Purifying Crude Oil The process of separating crude oil into all its components – natural gas, petrol, bitumen and more – currently relies heavily on distillation which requires a huge amount of energy to heat up the mixture. Porous liquids could be an alternative, lower-energy separation technology. 

Harvesting Xenon  Xenon is a rare gas used in physics experiments as an anaesthetic and in lights. We currently obtain it by liquefying air and then distilling it, an energy-intensive process. Porous liquids could be used to separate xenon from nuclear waste instead.

Katherine’s piece would make an excellent reading homework for learners in KS4 and the basis for a technological perspective reader.

As always comments welcome


The rise of cultivated meat

Recently I was looking forward to a visit from a new friend. She was coming to stay with me, and, apart from one or two meals out, I was going to cook for us during her stay. As I was waiting for her train to arrive, she texted me with the message, “You haven’t forgotten that I’m Vegan, have you?” I had! As it turned out I had enough vegetables to pull together a decent Vegan sauce to accompany some pasta and we were able to shop locally to buy more Vegan fare and find some Vegan cafés, so disaster was averted. My friend is committed to being a Vegan on the grounds that she believes eating meat will inevitably involve cruelty to animals as well as contributing to global warming.

I can see her arguments but really enjoy eating meat. Hence I was delighted to find an article on the BBC News website entitled Eating chicken without killing chicken? This short video clip introduces the work of Upside foods and the science section of their site gives a clear overview of how the process takes place.

The really good news is that the US Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) has concluded that the chicken meat produced by Upside Foods is safe to eat and could appear in restaurants this year and in supermarkets in 2028.

The advantages of producing meat in this way over conventional chicken farming are considerable:

For animal welfare

The cells from a single chicken allow the cultivation of the same amount of poultry that ordinarily would come from hundreds of thousands of traditionally farmed birds.

For the environment

At scale, Upside Foods project that cultivated meat will use 77% less water and 62% less land than conventional meat. Uside Foods expect these numbers to get better over time and currently use 100% renewable energy at its production factory

For humanity

The meat is cultivated in a clean, contamination free facility. By reducing the number of animals raised and processes the susceptibility of humans to animal-borne diseases is decreased.

So, might cruelty free meat eating be just around the corner?

As always comments welcome

A great read for you and a brilliant holiday homework for Y9 or Y10

Science fiction novels about climate change tend to be dystopian – all doom and gloom with humanity either eking out an existence in a distinctly unfriendly natural environment or hunkering down in bio-domed cities occupied with fighting internal tribal battles. This is definitely not the case in Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry of the Future which centres on the work of a fictional U.N. agency charged with solving climate change. The book combines science, politics, and economics to present a credible best-case scenario for the next few decades. It’s simultaneously heartening and harrowing. By the end of the story, 2053, carbon levels in the atmosphere have begun to decline. Yet hundreds of millions of people have died or been displaced. Coastlines have been drowned and landscapes have burned. Economies have been disrupted, refugees have flooded the temperate latitudes, and ecoterrorists from stricken countries have launched campaigns of climate revenge. So, a white knuckle ride of can we, can’t we, will we, won’t we attempts of the UN Ministry of the Future’s efforts to secure a carbon neutral future for the planet and all its inhabitants.  Within the text there are occasional glimpses of the sort of technology that might emerge and I found this description of an ocean liner operating completely on renewable energy particularly intriguing.

The ocean clipper, sleek, seven-masted, looking like a cross between a schooner and a rocket ship on its side. … Every surface of the ship was photo-voltaic or piezoelectric or both. Its passage through the waves, its very existence in the sun, generated power which got sent to the props. With a good wind filling the big sails, and the kites pulling from far overhead, tethered to the bow, they could fly on the things hydroplanes. A hundred kilometres an hour felt really fast. She stood o the taffrail f the seven-masted schooner, a craft that could maybe be sailed solo or by the ship’s AI. AI design was continuously working up better ships, as with everything, and solutions were sometimes counterintuitive as could be (kites? masts curving forward?) …

So, the holiday task for years 9 and 10 might be as follows: 

Read the passage about the ship of the future.

Check out the meaning of any words you don’t understand. You may want to collect pictures of some of the words. This will enable you to start to imagine in your mind’s eye, what this ship might look like. To help your imagination draw a very rough sketch of what it might look like. Look at your sketch and think about how it might be improved. Do this three or four times so that you have a sequence of sketches finishing with one that you think really shows what the ship might look like. Now arrange your sketches in the sequence in which you drew them so that you can see how your idea of the ship has improved as you were able to take an idea, sketch it, put it back inside your head and improve it and sketch it again; and again; and again!

As your D&T teacher I am really looking forward to seeing your ideas of this ship of the future!

As always comments welcome

Frank and Hilda blow their own trumpets

Many moons ago Frank Banks and Hilda Beaumont (then David Barlex) collaborated on the DEPTH Project. This considered how pre-service and in post D&T teachers might reflect on their personal subject construct using this simple graphic to focus attention on three important features: subject knowledge, pedagogic knowledge and school knowledge; which they christened know your stuff, know how to teach your stuff and know how to teach your stuff in your school.

Dr David Gill at the Memorial University of Newfoundland is responsible for training technology teachers and as part of the current programme he requires the pre-service teachers to interview folk whose research is relevant to their teaching and development as teachers. David chose me and Frank to be interviewed about our work on the DEPTH Project. Eric Power and Jacob Walsh conducted the interview using questions provided by themselves and their classmates. You can see the result here

Brief bios of Frank and Hilda are here

The interview is here

The resources referred to in the interview are here

Frank and I felt privileged to have been chosen as worthwhile interviewees and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. We think that other pre-service teachers and their tutors might find watching the interview worthwhile. We hope so.

As always comments welcome


Is Technology dehumanising?

I experienced the dehumanising aspect of technology yesterday when I went shopping. I need to put this in my personal context. For several years now I have found that I am much happier and at ease with myself if I dress and present as female. So, when I went shopping I had platinum blonde hair and was wearing a bright red tunic (from Seasalt for those who are interested in clothes). I chose to use the checkout with a human operator. As I reached the till she gave me a beaming smile and said, “My you look nice, that colour really suits you.” I said, “Well that bow in your hair looks good too”. Then she said, “Oh it’s so good to be back on the tills. I was in the naughty corner for the last two weeks – on the tobacco and spirits counter. Must have done all right as I’m here now”.  As she said this, she was scanning my items. When she came to the flowers she said, “I’ll wrap these, so they don’t wet your bag.” I tapped my payment and wished her a lovely day. As I walked away the next customer presented her with some mince pies to scan. She immediately said, “Oh if it’s Christmas goods I have to sing a bit of a carol and she launched into two lines of ‘The holy and the ivy’ whilst carrying on scanning. I had to smile. I looked around and saw two rows of self-service checkout tills all being used by people with grim, sour expressions poking vindictively at the screens. Not exactly a joyful shopping experience – in direct contrast to mine. I had a jaunty step and a smile on my face as I walked out of the store to catch my bus.

The thinking of Jacques Ellul (1964), an anarchist catholic priest, is useful here. He views the intrinsic nature of technology with its emphasis on efficiency (self-service check outs are more efficient in that they parallel process lots of shoppers and do away with the need for humans on tills which reduces costs significantly) and standardisation (all the self-service check outs are identical) as inimitable to the human spirit. He sees the wide-ranging influence that technology is having, and continuing to have, on society as not only dehumanising but also outside human control. 

Taking Ellul’s thinking into account It seems to me that the self-service checkout where customers pay for their purchases by interacting with a machine via a touch screen, as opposed to engaging with another human being, dehumanises those customers. Furthermore, it erodes the opportunity for human-human interactions and replaces this with the inevitably soulless experience of using a touch screen.


Ellul, J. (1964) The Technological Society New York, NY: Vintage

As always comments welcome.

Umwelt – a concept important in D&T and Science lessons – YES, REALLY

Recently, purely by chance, I found myself listening to an abridged version of Ed Yong’s brilliant book An Immense World, on Radio 4 Book of the Week. The key idea that Ed brings to his book is that of ‘umwelt’; a word coined in 1909 by zoologist Jacob von Uexkull. Umwelt refers to those parts of an animal’s surroundings that the animal can actually sense and experience – its perceptual world if you like. We have our own such world defined by our sense organs which detect sound, light, or chemicals which convert them to electrical signals which travel along neurons towards our brains. In our brains these signals are interpreted to give us our perceptions; of what we see – a sunrise, of what we hear – birds twittering or what we smell – early morning dew on grass. Remarkable; but even more remarkable is the idea that each sort of animal has sense organs different from ours and hence live in their own unique umwelt. 

Whilst we cannot experience their umwelt, we can begin to understand to some extent what their particular worlds are like and marvel at just how wonderful they are. This insight enables us to treat animals in our care in ways that support and enhance their world experience. So, when teaching about different animals in biology there is surely much to be gained by considering these animals’ umwelts. How they perceive the world may well provide insight into how our sense systems work. When teaching about the possibilities of biomimicry as a design strategy the umwelts of different creatures will surely provide intriguing and stimulating examples. 

Ed is not dismissive of these motives, but he is critical. “I’m not interested in either. Animals are not just stand-in for humans or fodder for brain storming sessions. They have a worth in themselves“. He cites the American naturalist Henry Beston:”They move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.” 

I think seeing animals in this way, changes one’s view of the world, such that one sees all animal life as precious. This has the potential of influencing and enhancing the way humanity responds to the challenge of being stewards for Planet Earth. Definitely something that we should be teaching about in D&T.

As always comments welcome.

The Robots are coming for transport! But what about jobs for human drivers?

By coincidence I’ve had two conversations recently about robots and transport. The first, with my friend Nick Givens was about automated air taxis. Apparently, the company Ehang is already operating electric autonomous aerial vehicle (AAV) aircraft in China on about 100 routes under a special permit. And Wisk, a joint venture of Kitty Hawk and Boeing have signed a memorandum of understanding with the New Zealand government to begin passenger transport trials using its autonomous ‘Cora’ once it is certified. 

Nick’s view is that whilst there may not be a human pilot on the plane somewhere in the background there will be humans in a traffic control centre with an overview of proceedings and the option of intervention. More about this at the aviation today website 

It’s not just air vehicles that are becoming autonomous. As Nick told me, something similar applies to automated trains. At the moment there needs to be a central control monitored, if not operated, by humans. RioTinto Zinc in Australia claims to be running iron ore trains on an 800km round trip which includes a number of road level crossings, and it seems certain that there will be a human operated central control somewhere. Nick wasn’t sure what difference that would make- if someone runs across in front of several-thousand ton train no brakes are going to stop it in time. 

New trains. New Locomotives and wagons operating in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. Always credit Christian Sprogoe Photography when published.

And that particular line did – and maybe still does – hold the record for the worlds heaviest train: over 99,732 tons. We wondered why they didn’t squeeze in another 270 tons to reach the hundred thousand.

On the same day I had a conversation with my friend John Spencer who lives in Milton Keynes and he told me that he gets his groceries delivered by a robot. The company involved is called Starship Technologies. It was Launched in 2014 by Skype co-founders, Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis, and today operates in several cities across the world completing tens of thousands of autonomous deliveries every day. Starship’s robots move at pedestrian speed and weigh no more than 100 pounds. 

According to the company they’re inherently safe and can navigate around objects and people.

For security, the cargo bay is mechanically locked throughout the journey and can be opened only by the recipient with their smartphone app. The location of the robots is tracked, so the customer knows exactly the location of their order and receive a notification at the time of arrival.

We must ask what is happening to those who used to fly the air taxis, drive the trains, and make the deliveries. In the short term an answer is that these developments are at the cutting edge and will only be operating in a few locations so their immediate impact on employment will be minimal. But this is short-sighted. Kevin Kelly, in his provocative book, What technology wants, argues that one of successful technologies features is that they become ubiquitous. And a question we should always ask about a new and emerging technology is, “What will be the consequences of this technology becoming ubiquitous?” This moves me to wonder whether this is the underlying issue in the current rail strike. The companies running the rail networks are under pressure to achieve ever more financially efficient operations and one way to accomplish this is to lower costs by reducing the workforce and rely instead on automation. The RMT union are resisting this by arguing for better pay and guarantees of future employment. If one holds Kelly’s view that technology is to a large extent autonomous and will, through its intrinsic nature, move towards greater efficiency, then the RMT’s efforts can be seen as a futile resistance. But their resistance should, perhaps, be put into the context of the bigger picture of considering the impact of automation, through robotics and AI, on employment prospects generally. Perhaps steps should be taken to ensure that companies who introduce automation in order to become more financially efficient are under some obligation to guarantee that those who become unemployed through this introduction of automation should be offered compensation and training for work in other fields.

As always comments welcome.

Why D&T Teachers might find reading the Economist worthwhile

By chance I saw a copy of the Economist in my local library open at the Science and Technology section (March 19th, 2022, edition). I hadn’t realised that it had such a section and was surprised to see an article on 3D printing entitled A Guttenberg moment. It points to the problem 3D printing has in competing with conventional high volume production processes – the inverse relationship between resolution, which governs the level of detail that can be printed, and the speed of the process. Hence some large components with fine detail can take days, if not months, to print. Enter James DeMuth and his colleagues at Lawrence Liverpool National Laboratory in the US. They have developed a Laser Powder Bed Fusion (L-PBF) printer that can fuse a square of metal powder at one go. The printer can fuse 40 squares adjacent to one another every second. The size of the square depends on the metal; aluminium requires 15 mm squares, titanium 13 mm and steel 10 mm. The layers are just 25 microns (millionths of a meter) thick and can be printed at a rate of 3 kg an hour, ten times the rate of conventional L-PBF printers. The expectation is that future generations of this machine will operate at 100 times faster. James believes that by 2030 it will be possible to produce stainless steel cutlery for $25 a kilo which is cheaper than you can stamp them out and at a comparable speed. Hence 3D printing will be able to compete with conventional production processes. The printing press, initially developed in Guttenberg in 1440, disrupted the production of books, producing up to 3,600 pages per workday, compared to forty by the hand printing method commonly used at the time. This heralded in an era of mass communication. The long-heard hype about 3D printing disrupting conventional manufacturing might just be coming to fruition and the article suggests we are on the verge of another Guttenberg moment.

So, I looked for another copy and found in the 21st May 2022 edition three pages devoted to graphene. First isolated in 2004, graphene has intriguing properties: 200 time stronger than steel, lightweight, flexible, excellent conductor of heat and electricity plus interesting light-absorbing properties. But as yet no killer app. Recently it has been discovered that the addition of less than 0.1% of graphene by weight to concrete increases its strength by 30%. Stronger concrete means less of it is needed, with a consequent reduction in its carbon footprint. Researchers are currently looking at using graphene to enhance the performance of batteries which could allow EV batteries to be lighter, longer-lasting and faster-charging. If this pays off, then graphene will have found itself another important market. But the production of green concrete seems the most likely killer app to date. 

Turning over the page I found myself in the Culture section and reading an article on interspecies. A review of the book Ways of being (by James Bridle published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) which considers how AI might be used to bridge the gap between human and non-human minds and act as a translator between human and other biological life forms. Heady stuff but given that we are realising more and more that all life on Planet Earth is precious then this is a potentially very important possibility for the use of AI.

Schools that teach business and economics will almost certainly take the Economist so I think it might be a good idea if D&T teachers asked for back copies to be passed on to them as it seems likely there will be items of considerable interest.

As always comments welcome.

Amazon’s till-less grocery stores – part of a flawed trinity?

A trinity for progress?

There has been a strong relationship between science, technology and capitalism since the 17th century. It began with the Enlightenment. Yuval Harari, in his book Homo Sapiens, points out that it was not until the Enlightenment that humans realised that they were ignorant and that that there was much new knowledge to be discovered and exploited. He explains that this is where the relationship between science and technology developed apace. Discovering new knowledge and then exploiting it is expensive. It requires significant funding and this is where a third party enters the relationship – capitalism. Those with funds to invest paid for scientific discovery and its exploitation with the expectation that they would make a significant profit some of which they could re-invest in finding and exploiting new knowledge. Hence there has been an alliance between science, technology and capitalism (through both private and government investment) that has enabled science and technology to develop a significant synergy that has led to the world we have today.

A trinity in crisis?

Tim O’Reilly, in his book WTF What’s the future and why it’s up to us, writes an interesting critique of capitalism and the way it has most recently used technology in the pursuit of profitability. Three quotes are of particular significance. 

The algorithm is the new shift boss. What regulators and politicians should be paying attention to is the fitness function driving the algorithm, and whether the resulting business rules increase or decrease the opportunities for workers, or whether they are simply designed to increase corporate profits.

Mistaking what is good for financial markets for what is good for jobs, wages, and the lives of actual people is a fatal flaw in so many of the economic choices business leaders, policy makers and politicians make.

It isn’t Wall Street per se that is becoming hostile to humanity. It is the master algorithm of shareholder capitalism, whose fitness function both motivates and coerces companies to pursue short-term profit above all else. What are humans in that system but a cost to be eliminated?

Jacques Ellul, in his book The Technological Society, argues that the intrinsic nature of technology with its emphasis on efficiency and standardisation as inimitable to the human spirit and the wide ranging influence that technology is having, and continuing to have, on society as both dehumanising and outside human control.

Where does this leave Amazon’s till-less grocery store?

Amazon sees this initiative as providing a more ‘frictionless’ experience than that of other retailers enabling them to expand into the high street. This will undoubtedly be followed by other retailers mimicking the ‘frictionless’ experience. Tim O’Reilly’s critiques of ‘the algorithm’ are relevant here particularly humans being a cost to be eliminated. I have often been in my local supermarket and eavesdropped on the talk between the person on the till and customers. The till operators are highly skilled at processing the shopping and maintaining conversations with minimal interruption of customer flow through the checkout. Some of this talk may be the only conversation that lonely folk, not always elderly, have that day. The frictionless experience offered by Amazon is, as Jacques Ellul would say, dehumanising.

As always comments welcome


There are other issues with regard to the till-less grocery store. Civil liberties groups, such as Big Brother Watch, group has raised concerns.

“[It] offers a dystopian, total-surveillance shopping experience; Amazon’s intense tracking of shoppers will create larger personal data footprints than any other retailer. Customers deserve to know how and by whom these records and analytics could be used.”

Check out this item on BBC news.

STEM across the World

STEM book cover 2nd edThe 2nd Edition of David’s and Frank Banks’ popular book Teaching STEM in the Secondary School: Helping Teachers Meet The Challenge, is due to be published early in 2021.

For this edition David asked colleagues from around the world to write about STEM education in their countries. These authors were:

  • Australia: David Ellis, Southern Cross University  and P John Williams, Curtin University
  • Belgium: Didier Van de Velde, Catholic Education, Flanders
  • Brazil: Vitor Mann, Pedagogical Coordinator (Junior High) ORT School
  • China: Yang ChunLing, Learn-World.io and
    Ke Shan, Beijing Haidian Teachers Training College
  • Israel: Osnat Dagan, Beit Berl College
  • Russia: Dr. Sergey Gorinskiy, Autonomous Non-Profit Organization ORT-Russia
  • Taiwan: Kuen-Yi Lin  and Yu-Jen Sie, Department of Technology Application and Human Resources Development, National Taiwan Normal University
  • USA: John G. Wells, Virginia Tech

The resulting papers were too long for the book so David and Frank extracted a summary from each of the longer papersHowever they didn’t want to lose all the valuable material in the full papers, so we are publishing them on this site, for anyone interested in how STEM plays out in these countries to read.

The full papers can be found at STEM across the World.