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Friday, 17 June 2011

Technology for a better future, 2011


  1. See how they grow: Monitoring single bacteria without a microscope
  2. New reactor paves the way for efficiently producing fuel from sunlight
  3. EU, US partners plan 'low-cost' space launcher
  4. Iron Age Copper Reveals Earth’s Stronger, Faster Magnetic Field
  5. Nanogenerators grow strong enough to power small conventional electronics (w/ Video)
  6. Crystal cantilever lifts objects 600 times its own weight (w/ Video)
  7. Scientists move objects across meter-scale distances using only light (w/ Video)
  8. Scientists suggest that cancer is purely man-made
  9. Skin-cell spray gun drastically cuts healing time for burns
  10. Microsponges from seaweed may save lives (w/ Video)

See how they grow: Monitoring single bacteria without a microscope

January 17, 2011 
( -- With an invention that can be made from some of the same parts used in CD players, University of Michigan researchers have developed a way to measure the growth and drug susceptibility of individual bacterial cells without the use of a microscope.

Instead of waiting days for culture results, clinicians will be able to determine in minutes the antibiotic best able to treat the infection. This advance, along with the sensor's potential use in screening existing and newly discovered compounds for antibiotic activity, could improve patient outcome, reduce healthcare costs and reduce the spread of
The device, called an asynchronous magnetic bead rotation (AMBR) sensor, was invented in Kopelman's lab at U-M.
The AMBR sensor uses a spherical, magnetic bead that asynchronously spins in a magnetic field. Just as a pencil attached to a child's toy top creates drag that affects the way the top spins, anything attached to the bead slows its rate of rotation. In the current work, the researchers attached individual, rod-shaped Escherichia coli bacteria to individual beads and watched what happened, using the newly developed AMBR sensor.
"When one bacterium gets attached, it's hanging out there like a little hotdog, and it changes the drag tremendously, slowing down the rate of rotation by a factor of four," said Kopelman. "If the bacterium grows even a tiny bit, the drag increases even more, and we can monitor that nano-growth by observing changes in the rate of rotation."
"The method can detect growth of as little as 80 nanometers, making it far more sensitive than even a powerful optical microscope, which has a resolution limit of about 250 nanometers," said graduate student Paivo Kinnunen, one of the paper's lead authors, who is also working at Life Magnetics while completing his studies.
The U-M group demonstrated that the sensor not only can monitor the growth of a single bacterium throughout its life cycle and over multiple generations, but it can also determine when an individual bacterium stops growing, in response to treatment with an antibacterial drug, for instance.
"You can basically tell, within minutes, whether or not the antibiotic is working," said Kinnunen.
sourceMy comment: I love this smart gadget. It's so simple and yet so effective. The only problem is that I somehow doubt doctors will start using them. It's like prescription for antibiotics - in theory, they should be done after there is a lab test about they type of the bacteria. In practice - they give you some general antibiotics and only if it doesn't work, they consider sending you for tests. So, great invention, let's hope someone will actually use it.

New reactor paves the way for efficiently producing fuel from sunlight

January 19, 2011 by Kathy Svitil
Using a common metal most famously found in self-cleaning ovens, Sossina Haile hopes to change our energy future. The metal is cerium oxide—or ceria—and it is the centerpiece of a promising new technology developed by Haile and her colleagues that concentrates solar energy and uses it to efficiently convert carbon dioxide and water into fuels.
Solar has long been touted as the solution to our energy woes, but while it is plentiful and free, it can't be bottled up and transported. The process developed by Haile—a professor of materials science and chemical engineering at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech)—and her colleagues could make that possible.The researchers designed and built a two-foot-tall prototype reactor that has a quartz window and a cavity that absorbs concentrated . The concentrator works "like the magnifying glass you used as a kid" to focus the sun's rays, says Haile.
At the heart of the reactor is a cylindrical lining of ceria. Ceria—a metal oxide that is commonly embedded in the walls of self-cleaning ovens, where it catalyzes reactions that decompose food and other stuck-on gunk—propels the solar-driven reactions. The reactor takes advantage of ceria's ability to "exhale" oxygen from its crystalline framework at very high temperatures and then "inhale" oxygen back in at lower temperatures.
"What is special about the material is that it doesn't release all of the oxygen. That helps to leave the framework of the material intact as oxygen leaves," Haile explains. "When we cool it back down, the material's thermodynamically preferred state is to pull oxygen back into the structure."
The ETH-Caltech solar reactor for producing H2 and CO from H2O and CO2 via the two-step thermochemical cycle with ceria redox reactions.
And once the ceria is oxygenated to full capacity, it can be heated back up again, and the cycle can begin anew. For all of this to work, the temperatures in the reactor have to be very high—nearly 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
In experiments conducted last spring, Haile and her colleagues achieved the best rates for CO2 dissociation ever achieved, "by orders of magnitude," she says. The efficiency of the reactor was uncommonly high for CO2 splitting, in part, she says, "because we're using the whole solar spectrum, and not just particular wavelengths." And unlike in electrolysis, the rate is not limited by the low solubility of CO2 in water. Furthermore, Haile says, the high operating temperatures of the reactor mean that fast catalysis is possible, without the need for expensive and rare metal catalysts (cerium, in fact, is the most common of the rare earth metals—about as abundant as copper).

Currently, the system harnesses less than 1% of the solar energy it receives, with most of the energy lost as heat through the reactor's walls or by re-radiation through the quartz window. Thermodynamic modeling by lead author and former Caltech graduate student William Chueh suggests that efficiencies of 15% or higher are possible. A more realistic scenario might be to take the CO2 emissions from coal-powered electric plants and convert them to transportation fuels. " source 
My comment: Another very cool idea. I'm looking forward to see how this work out. Because if they increase the efficiency, then the CCS can be finally possible!

EU, US partners plan 'low-cost' space launcher

February 8, 2011 
European technology firm Astrium is teaming up with US company Alliant to make a "low-cost" space rocket launcher that could one day take tourists into orbit, the Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday.
It said the companies plan a 300-foot (91-metre) launcher dubbed "Liberty" to take and scientific payloads into space for about $180 million (132 million euros) a time, 40 percent cheaper than some current launches.
The newspaper said the project's backers hope to gain funding from US space agency for the project, which they say could lead eventually to commercial projects such as orbiting hotels for space tourists.
Astrium, a subsidiary of defence giant EADS, is the main maker of the Ariane commercial rocket, used to launch satellites. US firm Alliant Techsystems is a leading maker of space shuttles.
The companies hope to test the new "low-cost commercial launcher" as soon as 2013, the report said. source
My comment: Well, 2013 is not that far. Though I find this idea kind of odd now that private space companies finally gained some momentum. Is this catching the wave or an effort to keep the monopoly that they are losing?

Iron Age Copper Reveals Earth’s Stronger, Faster Magnetic Field

 SAN FRANCISCO — Slag left over from Iron Age copper smelting shows the Earth’s magnetic field was stronger and more variable than scientists ever imagined.
“This is a very challenging result,” said geomagnetist Luis Silva of the University of Leeds, who was not involved in the new work. “It’s completely outside of anything we thought could be happening in the core.”
The Earth’s magnetic field comes from the movement of molten iron in the core. The field’s strength and structure are constantly changing. But paleomagnetists (scientists who study the history of the Earth’s magnetic field) thought the changes were usually small and slow, fluctuating by about 16 percent over the course of a century.
But a new study of ancient copper mines in southern Israel found that the strength of the magnetic field could double and then fall back down in less than 20 years.
To measure the strength of the magnetic field, Shaar and colleagues turned to piles of waste metal left near an ancient Egyptian copper mine.When melted iron cools rapidly, it freezes with a signature of the Earth’s magnetic field at that instant. Paleomagnetists have traditionally studied the glass-like rocks thrown from volcanoes to build a picture of how the magnetic field has changed over time. Their measurements, plus theoretical models, showed that the magnetic field’s strength peaked around 3,000 years ago in the middle Egypt’s Iron Age.
 sourceMy comment: Interesting, huh? So this puts in new perspective the idea of "The day after tomorrow" and other similar productions. Because if the field can double its power for 20 years, then what happens if it decreases its strength in similar period?

Nanogenerators grow strong enough to power small conventional electronics (w/ Video)

November 8, 2010 
Blinking numbers on a liquid-crystal display (LCD) often indicate that a device's clock needs resetting. But in the laboratory of Zhong Lin Wang at Georgia Tech, the blinking number on a small LCD signals the success of a five-year effort to power conventional electronic devices with nanoscale generators that harvest mechanical energy from the environment using an array of tiny nanowires.
In this case, the comes from compressing a nanogenerator between two fingers, but it could also come from a heartbeat, the pounding of a hiker's shoe on a trail, the rustling of a shirt, or the of a heavy machine. While these nanogenerators will never produce large amounts of for conventional purposes, they could be used to power nanoscale and microscale devices – and even to recharge pacemakers or iPods.
Wang's nanogenerators rely on the piezoelectric effect seen in crystalline materials such as , in which an electric charge potential is created when structures made from the material are flexed or compressed.
Wang says the nanogenerators are now close to producing enough current for a self-powered system that might monitor the environment for a toxic gas, for instance, then broadcast a warning. The system would include capacitors able to store up the small charges until enough power was available to send out a burst of data. source
My comment: I wonder when we'll see improved energy consumption of laptops using the waste heat. Because it's cool to power sensors, think of all the opportunities for espionage. However I would prefer better energy efficiency of appliances.

Crystal cantilever lifts objects 600 times its own weight (w/ Video)

October 1, 2010 By Lisa Zyga
( -- For a long time, scientists have been trying to transform the collective movements of tiny molecules into useful mechanical work. With this goal in mind, a team of researchers from Japan has developed a crystal cantilever that exhibits reversible bending upon alternate irradiation with ultraviolet (UV) and visible light. They've demonstrated that the crystal cantilever can lift metal balls that weigh up to 600 times more than the cantilever itself. In this process, the crystal's photogenerated molecular-scale shape change generates a very large amount of stress - more than 100 times larger than the stress produced by biological muscles - to induce the macroscale movement.
When irradiated with visible light (440-nm wavelength), the crystal returns to its original straight shape and the blue color disappears. The scientists could repeat the photostimulated bending cycle more than 250 times without observing any damage to the crystal.
The scientists also demonstrated that the crystals could be used to lift heavy metal balls. source
My comment: Check out the cool videos on the site! Just think of all the opportunities that such tool offer. It's amazing! And I really applaud that direction of thought, because it's so different from everything we're used to.

Scientists move objects across meter-scale distances using only light (w/ Video)

September 30, 2010 By Lisa Zyga -- For more than 40 years, scientists have been using the radiation pressure of light to move and manipulate small objects in space. But until now, the movements have always been restricted to very small scales, typically across distances of a few hundred micrometers, and mostly in liquids. In a new study, scientists have demonstrated a technique that achieves giant optical manipulation in air using a new kind of optical trap that can move 100-micrometer-sized objects across meter-scale distances with an accuracy of about 10 micrometers.
As the scientists explain, moving objects with light can be done using the photophoresis effect in air and other gases. When a particle is heated nonuniformly by light, the surrounding gas molecules bounce off the particle's surface with different velocities, creating a force on the particle that pushes it in the direction from the higher illumination to the lower illumination.
As the researchers demonstrated, the technique could enable the light-absorbing particles to be manipulated with a high degree of accuracy, even at large distances. The researchers could move particles to a target located 0.5 meters away with an accuracy of 10 micrometers, which they demonstrated using particles with diameters between 60 micrometers and 100 micrometers. source
My comment: Can you imagine what is accuracy of 10 micrometers for a distance on the scale of meters? That's quite an accomplishment!

Scientists suggest that cancer is purely man-made

October 14, 2010 
( -- Cancer is a modern, man-made disease caused by environmental factors such as pollution and diet, a study by University of Manchester scientists has strongly suggested.
The study of remains and literature from ancient Egypt and and earlier periods – carried out at Manchester’s KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology and published in Nature Reviews Cancer – includes the first histological diagnosis of cancer in an Egyptian mummy.
Finding only one case of the disease in the investigation of hundreds of Egyptian mummies, with few references to cancer in literary evidence, proves that cancer was extremely rare in antiquity. The disease rate has risen massively since the Industrial Revolution, in particular childhood cancer – proving that the rise is not simply due to people living longer.
Professor Rosalie David, at the Faculty of Life Sciences, said: “In industrialised societies, cancer is second only to cardiovascular disease as a cause of death. But in ancient times, it was extremely rare. There is nothing in the natural environment that can cause cancer. So it has to be a man-made disease, down to and changes to our and lifestyle.”
 Various malignancies have been reported in non-human primates but do not include many of the cancers most commonly identified in modern adult humans.It has been suggested that the short life span of individuals in antiquity precluded the development of cancer. Although this statistical construct is true, individuals in and Greece did live long enough to develop such diseases as atherosclerosis, Paget's disease of bone, and osteoporosis, and, in modern populations, bone tumours primarily affect the young.
Another explanation for the lack of tumours in ancient remains is that tumours might not be well preserved. Dr. Zimmerman has performed experimental studies indicating that mummification preserves the features of malignancy and that tumours should actually be better preserved than normal tissues. In spite of this finding, hundreds of mummies from all areas of the world have been examined and there are still only two publications showing microscopic confirmation of cancer.
As the team moved through the ages, it was not until the 17th century that they found descriptions of operations for breast and other cancers and the first reports in scientific literature of distinctive tumours have only occurred in the past 200 years, such as scrotal cancer in chimney sweeps in 1775, nasal cancer in snuff users in 1761 and Hodgkin’s disease in 1832.
 sourceMy comment: I find this article for most troublesome. Because, as we see it today, some cancers come from viral infections, while other come from DNA damage that accumulate in our bodies trough the life. So it's amazing to find out that there are so little evidences of cancer in the Ancient times. I would guess that could mean that people with cancer rarely left offspring to carry the bad genes, but that's kind of far-fetched considering how Ancient people bred. So then, the conclusions of the authors must be true! We are killing ourselves out of mere stupidity! How sad it this?! Maybe such researches could mean something to law-makers who help so much the dirtiest industries. But I doubt it. Because there are so many known carcinogens in our environment and it's amazing how lawmakers close their eyes and pretend they don't know.

Skin-cell spray gun drastically cuts healing time for burns

February 8, 2011 by Lin Edwards
( -- Scientists in the US have developed a new technique that sprays a burn patient's own cells on the burn to help regenerate the skin and drastically reduce recovery time. The gun has been under development since 2008 and has now been used to successfully treat more than a dozen patients.
In a process taking only an hour and a half in total, a biopsy is taken from the patient’s undamaged skin and then healthy stem cells are isolated from the biopsy and an aqueous solution containing the cells is sprayed on the burn.
The sprayed wound is then covered with a newly-developed dressing with tubes enmeshed within it and extending from each end. One set of tubes functions as an artery, while the second set functions as a vein. The tubes are connected to an “artificial vascular system” and provide electrolytes, antibiotics, amino acids and glucose to the wound. The dressing keeps the wound clean and sterile, and provides nutrition for the skin stem cells to encourage them to regenerate new skin.
After treatment the wound heals in just days, when it would have taken weeks to heal using traditional treatments. Dr Gerlach said patients had been treated at the Berlin Burn Center and they had regrown over a burned ear or an entire face in only a few days. source
My comment: And that is also so damn cool! Too bad they don't mention the cost of the treatment. And the qualification needed by the doctors to be able to do that procedure. Because one ear and one face are good work, but what's better is to have 90% of all burns around the world healed like that. Just think how much pain and infections and ultimately lives could be saved with this skin gun.

Microsponges from seaweed may save lives (w/ Video)

February 9, 2011 
( -- Microsponges derived from seaweed may help diagnose heart disease, cancers, HIV and other diseases quickly and at far lower cost than current clinical methods. The microsponges are an essential component of Rice University's Programmable Bio-Nano-Chip (PBNC) and the focus of a new paper in the journal Small
PBNCs capture biomarkers -- molecules that offer information about a person's health -- found in blood, saliva and other bodily fluids. The biomarkers are sequestered in tiny sponges set into an array of inverted pyramid-shaped funnels in the microprocessor heart of the credit card-sized PBNC.
When a fluid sample is put into the disposable device, microfluidic channels direct it to the sponges, which are infused with antibodies that detect and capture specific biomarkers. Once captured, they can be analyzed within minutes with a sophisticated microscope and computer built into a portable, toaster-sized reader.
My comment: Also very nice. But it would be so much nicer if they could present a working tool and also talk about its cost. Because if you scrolled trough the news, you'll see a lot of cool new inventions. But that's what they are - inventions that might significantly improve our lives, but also which might never see real-life use.
And finally:

2-D photos spring to 3-D life - Check out this video how with only 12 or so pictures of an object, you can create its 3d view. Cool, huh? 

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