7 Irish science stories that made serious waves in 2018 so far

15 Nov 2018

Image: © willyam/Stock.adobe.com

To mark Science Week, here are just seven Irish science stories that have caught the country’s attention so far this year.

Earlier this week, the Science Foundation Ireland Awards were announced, highlighting some of the country’s top researchers. While much of this excellent work carries on in the background away from the limelight, a number of amazing research stories have made headline news this year.

So, to mark the arrival of Science Week, we’ve put together some of the biggest Irish science stories of the year that caught the country’s attention and, in some cases, changed our understanding of the world.

Ghostly shadows of hidden structures near Newgrange revealed by heatwave

As Ireland literally baked in the midst of a seemingly relentless heatwave, some truly amazing structures began appearing from the soil near the ancient Newgrange site in Co Meath. Images taken by Anthony Murphy of Mythical Ireland and Ken Williams of Shadows and Stone using a drone revealed the circular shapes beneath the soil.

The new sites appear to be near an area designated as ‘site P’, a partially destroyed henge in the Boyne Valley close to the Newgrange site, but no records seem to show the existence of what would very much appear to be ancient human structures.

Irish Hyperloop team Éirloop nabs innovation prize at SpaceX pod competition

After closely following the progress of Ireland’s inaugural Hyperloop team made up from a number of Irish third-level institutions, it was amazing to hear that team Éirloop came away from the SpaceX Hyperloop competition with a special innovation prize.

Despite going into the competition as serious underdogs, with costs expected to be in the hundreds of thousands of euro, they worked hard to drum up support and managed to make it to the California competition.

A few weeks after the event, the team filled us in on what it was like to compete with some of the biggest engineering universities in the world.

Irish ultra-efficient vehicle stuns Europe to seal award win

At the Shell Eco-marathon Europe event in July, a team of engineering students from NUI Galway received the Technical Innovation Award for the Galway Energy-Efficient Car (GEEC).

The car has been in development for a few years now, with each new year bringing an updated and significantly more efficient model.

Capable of travelling more than 350km on a single charge, the car could travel from Galway to Dublin for less than 15c worth of electricity, or the equivalent of more than 16,000km per gallon.

The Geec solar vehicle speeding along tarmac beside a red and white safety barrier.

The Irish GEEC vehicle taking part in the Shell Eco-marathon Europe 2018. Image: Mark Pain/Shell

Hello, World! Researchers store message in E coli for future generations

Last February, the Telecommunications Software and Systems Group (TSSG) based at the Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) unveiled a new and improved storage solution that enables researchers to store information in different types of bacteria for the first time.

Until then, it had only been possible to simply encode data on DNA and then decode it again, but this method can store data significantly longer. To do this, the team of researchers encoded the message ‘Hello World’ into circular rings of double-stranded DNA known as plasmids. Then, it was a matter of storing the plasmids on a strain of the E coli bacteria known as Novablue, which is then trapped in a very specific location, transforming it into a data storage device.

RCSI develops blood test that identifies early-stage Alzheimer’s

Last March, the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) revealed it was possible to identify the presence of Alzheimer’s disease in its early stages from a blood test. Not only that, but the research team said that once its presence has been found, we can then better predict how the disease will progress.

The multi-centre study was carried out by academics and clinicians from Ireland and Spain, and was led by RCSI’s Dr Tobias Engel. Its findings showed that the blood test identifies the concentration changes of a small molecule believed to be influential in the development of the disease.

Gigantic canyon off Irish continental shelf revealed in stunning detail

There was a huge discovery, quite literally, off the coast of Ireland in August which revealed how little we know about the deepest depths of our oceans.

A team of scientists led by University College Cork jumped on board the RV Celtic Explorer to explore the edge of Ireland’s continental shelf. Located 320km west of Dingle, the team set about mapping an area twice the size of Malta.

There, they came across an enormous submarine canyon system – called the Porcupine Bank Canyon – with near-vertical 700 metre-high cliffs in places and murky depths reaching as far down as 3km. The discovery is significant for a number of reasons. Most notably, it helps us better understand how submarine canyons transport carbon to the deep ocean.

A rainbow-coloured 3D rendering of the Porcupine Bank Canyon.

The Porcupine Bank Canyon showing several-hundred-metre-high cliffs. Image: UCC

Irish observatory joins Einstein’s house on list of major historical sites

Dublin’s Dunsink Observatory – part of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS) – joined a list of European sites of historical significance in June, thanks to the brilliance of its former tenant, William Rowan Hamilton. The illustrious list also includes Einstein’s house in Bern, Switzerland, and Marie Skłodowska-Curie’s laboratory in Paris.

Considered Ireland’s greatest ever mathematician, Hamilton contributed to the development of optics, dynamics and algebra. His work had a significant influence on the development of quantum mechanics, and the Hamiltonian circuits in contemporary graph theory are named in his honour.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic