It’s been a busy summer for scientists all across the world, and they haven’t all been working on coronavirus. Here are seven of our research highlights from the University of Cambridge that you might have missed:

A device for artificial photosynthesis

Imagine if we could make fuel from carbon dioxide and sunlight, without using any electricity? A research group in the Department of Chemistry has developed a device that does exactly that. They’ve developed a photocatalyst sheet that converts CO2 and H2O into O2 and formate, a fuel that can either be used directly or converted into hydrogen. This device builds on the team’s earlier work developing an “artificial leaf,” which produces another fuel syngas, without releasing any carbon dioxide. The challenge now is to scale up the technology from the 20 square centimetre test unit to several square metres.

Decolonising Artificial Intelligence

Researchers from Cambridge’s Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence have launched an initiative to “decolonise AI”. They argue that the overwhelming Whiteness of AI, in humanoid robots, virtual assistants, stock images and portrayals of AI in film and TV, allows for the “erasure people of colour from the White utopian imaginary.” Dr Dihal, who leads the project, explains, “it is unsurprising that a society which has promoted the association of intelligence with White Europeans for centuries would imagine machine intelligence also as White.” They also suggest the racialisation of AI has the potential to further exacerbate bias and racial inequality.

Choosing the veggie option

Most people know that the veggie option is better for their health and for the planet, but it can still be hard to break old habits and chose the veggie option. In an effort to overcome this, Cambridge researchers carried out experiments in the cafeterias of two Cambridge colleges to see if they could “nudge” people’s behaviour by changing the position of veggie options. Over two years, the team collected and analysed data from 105,143 meal selections. Crucially, they found that placing the vegetarian options first on the counter only increased their sales when there was more than 1.5m between choices. There was no increase in sales when there was less than 1.0m between choices.

The prevention of heart disease can begin… in the womb?

Cardiovascular diseases are not necessarily the result of smoking and obesity. In fact, research has shown that low oxygen levels in the womb (“oxidative stress”) may increase a child’s chances of developing heart disease later in life. In response, Professor Dino Giussani and his team examined the performance of mitochondrial therapy on women with complicated pregnancies and found that MitoQ (a specialised antioxidant) reduces oxidative stress in the mitochondria, leading to a healthier development of the fetus and lessening the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases in adulthood.

Electronic printing inspired by coffee stains

Ever spilt your coffee and noticed a distinctive ring-like deposit along the perimeter of the spill? Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is called the coffee ring effect and it forms when the liquid evaporates quicker at the edges, causing solid particles to accumulate. It has long hindered the development of functional inks with graphene and nanoparticles because it makes electronic devices behave irregularly. But fear not, Cambridge researchers recently came up with a unique solution to tackle this. Using a specific mixture of isopropyl alcohol and 2-butanol, ink particles distribute more evenly across droplets.

Predicting oesophageal cancer eight years prior to diagnosis

With awareness of cancer prevention on the rise, it is common to ask: how can cancer be predicted, and how long in advance? In an attempt to answer these questions, researchers at Cambridge and the European Bioinformatics Institute have been hard at work, looking specifically at the case of oesophageal cancer. With the help of whole-genome sequencing, the team examined DNA samples of patients with Barrett’s oesophagus and compared them to a control group. The team then searched for DNA differences between those who gradually developed oesophageal cancer and those who did not. Ultimately, the researchers were able to devise a statistical model that predicted oesophageal cancer eight years prior to diagnosis for around half of the patients involved.

Does the colour of tinted solar panels matter for agriculture?

When it comes to farming, tinted solar panels can help generate energy and cultivate crops at the same time. While this technique (“agrivoltaics”) itself isn’t new, Cambridge scientists have found that orange solar panels produce more clean energy, while also stimulating the growth of more nutritious crops. This is not a fashion statement, but good use of wavelengths – red and orange wavelengths are particularly beneficial for crop growth so the installation of orange solar panels allows a good concentration of these red and orange wavelengths to pass through to the crops planted underneath.