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On the Cutting Edge

Each quarter, Friess Associates, investment managers, share innovative and interesting ideas that cross their research team’s radar screen. The chance to capitalize on investment opportunities related to them may lie in the future or may never materialize. Here are some of the recent ideas.

From Yarn to Yellowcake

Based on economically accessible, land-based reserves, there’s only enough uranium to fuel the world’s nuclear energy production at current rates for another couple centuries, according to the Nuclear Energy Agency. The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) and clean energy company LCW Supercritical Technologies are teaming up to tap uranium from seawater in a commercially viable way, hoping to provide access to uranium supplies unlikely to near exhaustion during mankind’s tenure on the planet. The planet’s seawater holds an estimated 4 billion tons of uranium, or about 500 times more uranium than can be extracted through mining on land. The PNNL-LCW team modified regular acrylic yarn fibers to selectively bond with dissolved uranium naturally present in ocean water. Successful in lab tests, researchers believe the technology boasts other potential applications, including cleaning up toxic waterways and extracting vanadium, an expensive metal used in batteries, superconducting magnets and alloys.

Adding Vegetables to the Mix Improves Concrete

Beets in the basement floor, and carrots in the columns. In an effort to develop greener practices in construction, researchers at Lancaster University came up with a novel idea: Build with vegetables. Well, sort of. In cooperation with its industrial partner on the project, U.K.-based Cellucomp Ltd., the University is studying ways to make concrete more environmentally friendly without sacrificing strength. Early findings show that mixtures incorporating nano platelets from root vegetable fibers significantly improved the mechanical properties of concrete. Vegetable platelets, which are derived from food industry waste, proved to be so strong that high-performing concrete can be made with 88 pounds less Portland cement per square yard, saving energy that would be otherwise used to manufacture cement. In addition to superior strength, vegetable-based mixtures also result in denser microstructures, which increases the lifetime of structures made with them by being less susceptible to corrosion. The two-year project will also study the viability of adding thin sheets of platelets to existing concrete structures to reinforce their strength.

A Shocking Advance

Modern homes are equipped with arc-fault circuit interrupters (AFCI), more commonly called circuit breakers, to prevent electrical fires. According to researchers at MIT, the microprocessors in AFCIs take a primitive approach in their search for signs of potentially dangerous electrical patterns, causing AFCIs to trip more often than they should. The MIT team is working on a new smart power outlet designed to reduce or, possibly, eliminate such “nuisance trips.” The outlet consists of custom hardware that analyzes electrical current data in real time married to software that analyzes the data through a set of machine learning algorithms. The result is a device that’s good at distinguishing harmless spikes from dangerous arcs that the MIT team believes will become exceptional at it over time. Engineers trained the outlet, which is able to wirelessly connect to other devices, to recognize patterns from a host of appliances. As smart outlets contribute their specific usage data to an accompanying app, the data pool grows, refining the performance of all the outlets linked to it.

How Low Can Air Cargo Go?

Air cargo delivery is a balancing act between making the most of an aircraft’s usable space while doing everything possible to optimize fuel usage. With this in mind, researchers at the 100-year-old Russian Central AeroHydrodynamic Institute, also known as TsAGI, continue to test a concept aircraft that represents a radical departure from current cargo planes. The wide-bodied aircraft sports a blended-wing design – think stingray with an exaggerated rear spoiler rather than a tail – that enhances aerodynamics while using the vertical space on either side of the fuselage for cargo storage. TsAGI estimates the aircraft will be able to carry nearly 500 tons of cargo. Called a ground-effect vehicle, it’s the latest in a line of ambitious attempts to create a low-flying aircraft – in this case 10 to 40 feet – that uses the air cushion created by the interaction between its wings and the surface below to reduce drag. In a further boost to efficiency, the aircraft is fueled by cryogenic liquefied natural gas.

Editor’s Note: Friess Associates is a growth-oriented investment manager driven by individual-company research. For more than 40 years, Friess Associates has employed its bottom-up, company-by-company approach on behalf of institutions, corporations, high net worth individuals and retail investors. Friess Associates LLC serves as the subadvisor to certain mutual funds advised by AMG Funds.

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