You probably know the GIF as the perfect vehicle for sharing memes and reactions. We believe the format can go further, that it has real power to capture science and explain research in short, digestible loops.

So kick off your week right with this GIF-able science. Enjoy and loop on.

Hard Drugs, Magnetically Levitated 

Components of a common and dangerous mixture of illicit drugs (fentanyl-laced heroin, cut with lactose) separate in a new magnetic levitation device. Credit: Michael J. Fink, Harvard University

Illicit opioids have killed Americans living in every state. Nearly 400,000 Americans died of an opioid-related overdose during 1999–2017. That toll is equivalent to wiping out the population of New Orleans. 

Increasingly, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl and carfentanil are causing deaths, and the authorities are struggling to keep up; law enforcement’s official encounters of fentanyl alone jumped from a few hundred in 2012 to nearly 14,000 in 2015. These drugs are also nearly impossible to chemically identify in the field. And their extreme potency—just three milligrams can kill an average-sized man—has the DEA worried for the safety of agents and officers handling drug busts. (There is, it should be noted, some debate about how much of a threat accidental exposure to fentanyl really poses.)  

A new, low-cost system developed at Harvard University could help enforcement agents identify drugs in the field. It uses a process called Magneto-Archimedes levitation to separate out components of a sample by density. The technique has been around for nearly two decades, but these researchers are the first to publish a process applying it to illicit drugs. 

The device uses two large magnets to levitate substances inside a magnetized solution. The drug powders will not dissolve in the hydrophobic, or water-fearing, solution; instead, they hang suspended in layers of varying density. Since the researchers know the density of each drug, they can identify what is in the powder. The estimated cost for each unit is between $30 and $200, depending on the size of the magnets employed. The DEA is already helping the researchers collect data, in hopes of certifying the maglev device for forensic analysis. —JD

Universe in a GIF

A massive cosmic simulation showing the formation. The inset on the lower left shows dark matter distribution. The insets at lower right show small-scale stellar and gaseous distributions. Credit: D. Nelson (MPA) and the IllustrisTNG team

Rarely has one little GIF shown quite so much. You are watching more than 10 billion suns being born over two billion years of time. Let that sink in.

And yet, this is just a short snippet of a much longer galactic simulation  created by researchers in Germany and the United States, called TNG50. The full simulation spans 13.8 billion years and shows how supernovae and supermassive black holes might affect the flow of cosmic gas. In the simulation, 20 billion particles represent all the stars, dark matter, cosmic gas, magnetic fields and black holes in a cube stretching 230 million light-years across. The outflows of gas in this GIF reach speeds of more than 6.7 million miles per hour.

The computing power that made this simulation possible is equally impressive. The program ran for 26 months on the Hazel Hen supercomputer  in Germany. It required 16,000 computing cores working day and night for a full year or “the equivalent of [15,000] years on a single processor.”

The results are stunning and should remind us of how very small we are in this very large universe. Make sure to watch the high-resolution view of the simulation here. —JD

Toilet Slip ‘n’ Slide

Don't worry, it's not real poop. Credit: Jing Wang and Tak-Sing Wong Penn State

Water scarcity is a worsening problem in many low-resource communities and is one barrier to clean, functioning toilets. Now a team of materials scientists at Pennsylvania State University has developed a promising potential solution—at least to the toilet problem: an ultraslippery coating that prevents liquid and solid waste from sticking to the toilet bowl, halving the amount of water needed to flush. The researchers say it is more effective than existing hydrophobic coatings for toilets.

The new coating, called liquid-entrenched smooth surface (LESS), is built from two layers. First, researchers spray the inside of the toilet bowl with a silicone material called polydimethylsiloxane, which forms chains of long, stringy molecules known as polymers. The ends of these chains fix themselves to the toilet surface, forming a permanent base layer of “nanohairs.” The researchers then spray a super thin layer of silicone oil lubricant on top. The hydrophobic polymers that make up the base layer shed water but attract the silicone oil, keeping the lubricant in place for about 500 flushes, after which more silicone must be applied. The concept was inspired by the carnivorous pitcher plant, which has tubelike leaves with slippery interior surfaces that cause unlucky insects to slide into its trap.—Viviane Callier

For more, read the full story here.

Help Me Obi-Wan

Death Star? Or pale blue dot? Credit: Eimontas Jankauskis University of Sussex

Researchers have harnessed sound waves to produce levitating three-dimensional images. The display is volumetric, so, unlike holographic technology, it can create an image without a screen and can be viewed from all sides. Picture it like the message R2-D2 carries from Princess Leia in A New Hope

The researchers produced these floating images with a system they call a multimodal acoustic trap display. The device is shaped like a small stage with an open front and partially open sides. On the top and bottom of the stage are 10-centimeter square arrays of 256 tiny speakers. These speakers emit patterns of acoustic waves in the ultrasonic range—too high for the human ear to pick up—which sets up vibrations in the air that manipulate a plastic sphere slightly smaller than a sesame seed. As the bead flies around in programmed patterns, the researchers project changing colors onto it from a light next to the top speaker array.

Thanks to its high speed—the particle can zip vertically at almost nine meters per second and horizontally at nearly four—the glowing dot fools the human eye into perceiving a continuous image. The current system can only show simple graphics, such as a smiley face or figure eight, in real-time, but it can produce this GIF’s more detailed image of a spinning globe when filmed with a slow shutter speed. A more advanced system may one day allow users to chat with a 3-D projection of a person or visualize data in three dimensions, such as a record of satellites orbiting the Earth. Sophie Bushwick

For more, read the full story here.