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Friday, 28 August 2009

Technology for the future-universal radio and artificial hearts, August 2009

Hi all! Because of my accident, I really am not able to post as much as I'd like or to comment the way I'm used to, so please excuse me for the copy-paste. I guess the good side of this is that maybe I'll finally find the time and will to pass trough the transition I envisaged long time ago-to a shorter and more informative blog. I realise it's hard to read all of the stories in one post, so this obviously isn't the best way to blog about science and technology. I have yet to find the best way, but I hope you'll bravely follow me in that. In any case, I hope you'll enjoy what I found for important and you'll have the same content in reading what wonderful new things humans discovered. In the end, this is the idea of the blog. Not so much to teach you science, but to give you a feeling of what science is ultimately about-finding new clever ways to improve our life by understanding and exploring the physical universe we're all living in.

  1. A (virtual) smart home controlled by your thoughts
  2. Chernobyl fallout could drive evolution of 'space plants'
  3. NASA grows algae for biofuel, treats waste
  4. New radio chip mimics human ear, could enable universal radio (w/Video)
  5. Hybrid hearts could solve transplant shortage
Short stories
  1. Major breakthrough in lithium battery technology reported
  2. Lasers are making solar cells competitive

A (virtual) smart home controlled by your thoughts

May 11th, 2009
Light switches, TV remote controls and even house keys could become a thing of the past thanks to brain-computer interface (BCI) technology being developed in Europe that lets users perform everyday tasks with thoughts alone.

The technology, which was demonstrated at CeBIT in Hannover in March, provides an innovative way of controlling the interconnected that will populate the smart homes of the future, granting increased autonomy to people with physical disabilities as well as pleasing TV channel-surfing couch potatoes.

g.tec teamed up with a group of international universities and research institutes as part of the EU-funded Presenccia project to incorporate its BCI technology into virtual environments. As part of the project a fully functioning smart home was created in (VR).

Electroencephalogram (EEG) equipment is used to monitor electrical activity in a user’s brain via electrodes attached to their scalp. After a period of training, the system learns to identify the distinctive patterns of neuronal activity produced when they imagine walking forwards, flicking on a light switch or turning up the radio.

“A virtual environment could be used to train a disabled person to control an electric wheelchair through a brain-computer interface,” explains Mel Slater, the coordinator of the Presenccia project. “It is much safer for them to learn in VR than in the real world, where mistakes could have physical consequences.”

One application developed by g.tec lets people control a small robot with their thoughts, though the same system could easily be adapted to control a wheelchair instead. Four lights on a small box set to flicker at different frequencies provided the control mechanism using a method known as Steady State Visual Evoked Potentials (SSVEP).

“The top light, for example, was set to flicker at 10 hertz so, when the user stared at it, the EEG equipment registered that particular frequency in the user’s brain and instructed the robot to move forward.” Guger explains.

g.tec has adopted a different approach to allow people to type with their thoughts. Users sit in front of a grid of letters and numbers on a computer screen which flash in sequence and are told to stare at the character they want to type. The system registers their brain activity when the letter they are looking at is illuminated.

“With experience people can learn to type quite fast. I can average about one letter every eight-tenths of a second, a rate similar to typing with one finger,” Guger says. source
My comment: Ok, first, I'd like to point out that it wasn't g.tec that developed those fancy stuff but the collaboration with a lot of universities and it was funded by the EU! I don't like how they give all of the credit to that company.It's not fair and it's not right. Anyway, I find the technology fabulous even if somewhat clumsy. I think the EEG isn't the best way to gather information about the brain, even if it is the cheapest and the most obvious one. And I think I already posted an article about other ways (we're not talking about fMRI here). In any case, this news is wonderful and I hope soon enough we'll see some commercial realisation.

Chernobyl fallout could drive evolution of 'space plants'

More than two decades after the world's largest nuclear disaster, life around Chernobyl continues to adapt.

To determine how plants might have adapted to the meltdown, Hajduch's team compared soya grown in radioactive plots near Chernobyl with plants grown about 100 kilometres away in uncontaminated soil.

Compared to the plants grown in normal soil, the Chernobyl soya produced significantly different amounts of several dozen proteins, the team found. Among those are proteins that contribute to the production of seeds, as well as proteins involved in defending cells from heavy metal and radiation damage. "One protein is known to actually protect human blood from radiation," Hajduch says.

Determining how plants coped with life after Chernobyl could help scientists engineer radiation-resistant plants, Hajduch says. While few farmers are eager to cultivate radioactive plots on Earth, future interplanetary travellers may need to grow crops to withstand space radiation. source

My comment: Hm, I'd like to see plants that produce proteins protecting humans from radiation first. But still, this is very interesting story. Though I'm not sure that 100km away, the soil wasn't contaminated, but let's say it was far less contaminated. But it's amazing how quickly-for around 20 years-plants managed to adapt and find a way to live in the new environment. From one side, this is a good news for the climate change outcome, although it wasn't unexpected, that organisms adapt quite quickly, so the bad news is actually for us and our society. From the other side, it means that we don't even have to engineer the plants for interplanetary missions-you just throw them for 20 years and they engineer themselves. And that's quite cool!

NASA grows algae for biofuel, treats waste

By Irene Klotz
May 15, 2009

Jonathan Trent, a researcher at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., sees algae farmed at sea as a win-win-win scenario: The plants are oil-rich and easy to grow; sea-based nurseries leave land free for food production; and the process should take out more carbon from the atmosphere than what it puts in.

As an added bonus, the system purifies waste water now being pumped into the ocean.

Algae has become one of the hotter commodities in the quest for fossil fuel alternatives, said Michael Frohlich, a spokesman for the National Biodiesel Board, a Missouri-based trade organization.

Traditionally, algae is grown outdoors in large tanks of moving water, or inside bioreactors. The plants produce far more oil per acre than other crops, such as soybeans. Algae farming does, however, have a few technical hurdles to overcome, such as how to efficiently drain the water in which the algae grows.

Trent's plan is to grow freshwater algae in nutrient-rich waste water inside semi-permeable plastic membranes. The natural salinity of the ocean will draw the freshwater out, retaining the plants and nutrients. The membranes prevent saltwater from getting inside and killing the plants, while ocean waves keep the algae mixed and healthy. The process treats the sewage water, which is then released into the ocean, and after the algae is harvested, the plastic bags can be recycled.

The concept already has been demonstrated in laboratories, in part supported by $400,000 from Google earmarked for NASA sustainable energy projects. This week, the city of Santa Cruz expressed support for letting its municipal waste water be used in a pilot demonstration project in the Pacific Ocean, Trent said. The project also is under consideration for an $800,000 alternative energy grant from the state of California.

An offshore algae farm could have some serious environmental issues, points out Carmela Cuomo, a marine scientist at the University of New Haven in Connecticut who is researching algae strains for biofuel use.

Cuomo said waste water that has been treated enough to be dumped into the ocean probably wouldn't have enough nutrients for algae to thrive, and untreated waste water could pose a threat if the membrane should rip. She also pointed out that the algae farms would have to be fairly close to the ocean's surface for sunlight to penetrate, which could be an issue for boaters.


My comment: First-obviously Google wants to conquer the Earth, that's fairly obvious by now. Second, I like the idea of algae, it's really a good perspective for green fuels. Third, I don't get it why the first test in real conditions should be in the ocean and not in a very big container with salt water, for say a year or two, until you find out what the real problems are instead of using the ocean as a laboratory. Moreover, the problem with storms is real and if they will use waste water for the project, they have to solve it before releasing the water into the ocean. It's simply not a smart thing to do-every storm can tear the membranes and all the shit will go into the water. That's why I think this is a great idea (and it's not completely NASA's if we have to be honest, they just go the best funding), but they shouldn't underestimate the ecological impact-just because it's green, it doesn't mean it's safe enough.

New radio chip mimics human ear, could enable universal radio (w/Video)

June 3rd, 2009 by Anne Trafton
( -- MIT engineers have built a fast, ultra-broadband, low-power radio chip, modeled on the human inner ear, that could enable wireless devices capable of receiving cell phone, Internet, radio and television signals.

Rahul Sarpeshkar, associate professor of and computer science, and his graduate student, Soumyajit Mandal, designed the chip to mimic the inner ear, or cochlea. The chip is faster than any human-designed radio-frequency spectrum analyzer and also operates at much lower power.

The RF cochlea mimics the structure and function of the biological cochlea, which uses fluid mechanics, piezoelectrics and neural signal processing to convert sound waves into electrical signals that are sent to the brain. As sound waves enter the cochlea, they create mechanical waves in the cochlear membrane and the fluid of the , activating hair cells (cells that cause electrical signals to be sent to the brain). The cochlea can perceive a 100-fold range of frequencies — in humans, from 100 to 10,000 Hz. Sarpeshkar used the same design principles in the RF cochlea to create a device that can perceive signals at million-fold higher frequencies, which includes radio signals for most commercial wireless applications.

The RF cochlea, embedded on a silicon chip measuring 1.5 mm by 3 mm, works as an analog spectrum analyzer, detecting the composition of any electromagnetic waves within its perception range. Electromagnetic waves travel through electronic inductors and capacitors (analogous to the biological cochlea’s fluid and membrane). Electronic transistors play the role of the cochlea’s hair cells.

The analog RF cochlea chip is faster than any other RF spectrum analyzer and consumes about 100 times less power than what would be required for direct digitization of the entire bandwidth. That makes it desirable as a component of a universal or “cognitive” radio, which could receive a broad range of frequencies and select which ones to attend to. source

My comment:That is absolutely cool! I'm not sure if I'm able to perceive the whole potential of this chip. For one, it can receive and analyze amazing part of the spectrum, which is a great success by itself. Imagine this little thing put in a device attached to your brain. That makes your head universal receiver :) And it opens the doors to unbelievable opportunities. I can't wait to see this thing commercially available.

Hybrid hearts could solve transplant shortage

Taylor, a stem cell scientist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, now wants to repeat the achievement with rat hearts on a much larger scale, by "decellularising" hearts, livers and other organs taken either from human cadavers or from larger animals such as pigs, and coating them in stem cells harvested from people.

This could lead to a virtually limitless supply of organs for transplantation that are every bit as intricate as those that grow naturally, except that they don't provoke the catastrophic immune response that obstructs the use of traditional "xenotransplants".

"We're already working with heart, kidney, liver, lung, pancreas, gallbladder and muscle," Taylor says. Rival groups are using similar procedures to create new livers and muscle too.

The idea is fairly simple: take an organ from a human donor or animal and use a mild detergent to strip away flesh, cells and DNA so that all is left is the inner "scaffold" of collagen, an "immunologically inert" protein. Add stem cells from the relevant patient to this naked shell of an organ and they will differentiate into all the cells the organ needs to function without inducing an immune response after transplant, or any new infections.

The idea has already worked with simple organs. Last year Claudia Castillo received a transplant made a stripped-down windpipe from a dead human donor.

Taylor's team is using the same technique to create much more complex organs such as hearts, and extending it to using animal, as well as human, scaffolds.

A big breakthrough came in January 2008, when her team produced a beating heart by filling a rat heart scaffold with heart cells from newborn rats (Nature Medicine, vol 14, p 213). These hearts kept their 3D shape, including spaces for all the blood vessels. When they were seeded with new cells, some grew into blood vessel lining.

Since then, Taylor says they have managed to "pretty much repopulate the whole vascular tree" with cells, which includes veins, arteries and capillaries.

Taylor has evidence that growth factors and peptides remained anchored to the scaffold even after the flesh was washed off. These chemicals likely signalled to the stem cells, indicating how many should migrate to which areas and what to change into in each zone.

Her team has implanted the reclothed hearts into the abdomens of rats, where they survived temporarily and were not rejected. The next step is to see if the transplants can replace an existing heart and keep the animal alive and healthy. To do this, Taylor says they will need to come up with ways to grow more muscle tissue on the hearts. source

My comment: Ok, I won't comment a lot, because it's obvious-this is a great field and I wish them luck with all my heart. And I want torefer you to the source page to see their diagrams and for more information.

Major breakthrough in lithium battery technology reported

May 18th, 2009

An NSERC-funded lab at the University Of Waterloo has laid the groundwork for a lithium battery that can store and deliver more than three times the power of conventional lithium ion batteries.

The prospect of lithium-sulphur batteries has tantalized chemists for two decades, and not just because successfully combining the two chemistries delivers much higher energy densities. Sulphur is cheaper than many other materials currently used in . It has always showed great promise as the ideal partner for a safe, low cost, long lasting rechargeable battery, exactly the kind of battery needed for and transportation in a low

The Canadian research team leap-frogged the performance of other carbon-sulphur combinations by tackling the contact issue at the nanoscale level using a member of a highly structured and porous carbon family called mesoporous carbon.

"This composite material can supply up to nearly 80 percent of the theoretical capacity of sulphur, which is three times the energy density of lithium transition metal oxide cathodes, at reasonable rates with good cycling stability," said Dr. Nazar.

What is more, the researchers say, the high capacity of the carbon to incorporate active material opens the door for similar "imbibed" composites that could have applications in many areas of materials science.


Lasers are making solar cells competitive

May 29th, 2009

At "Laser 2009" in Munich, Germany, June 15 to 18, Fraunhofer researchers will be demonstrating how laser technology can contribute to optimizing the manufacturing costs and efficiency of solar cells.

Together with his team at the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT in Aachen, this researcher is developing technologies now that will allow faster, better, and cheaper production of solar cells in the future.

At "Laser 2009" in Munich, the researchers will be demonstrating how lasers can drill holes into silicon cells at breathtaking speed: The ILT laser system drills more than 3,000 holes within one second. Because it is not possible to move the laser source at this speed, the experts have developed optimized manufacturing systems which guide and focuses the light beam at the required points.

The tiny holes in the wafer - their diameter is only 50 micrometers - open up undreamt-of possibilities for the solar cell developers. "Previously, the electrical contacts were arranged on the top of the cells. The holes make it possible to move the contacts to the back, with the advantage that the electrodes, which currently act as a dark grid to absorb light, disappear. And so the energy yield increases. The goal is a degree of efficiency of 20 percent% in industrially-produced emitter wrap-through (EWT) cells, with a yield of one-third more than classic silicon cells," Gillner explains. With this technique, it may one day be possible to use unpurified "dirty" silicon to manufacture solar cells that have poorer electrical properties, but that are cheaper.source