SciTech #ScienceSunday Digest - Week 21 of 2012A Top 10 selection of the scientific and technological advances that I discovered this week.1. Creating An Invisible Photodetector.
So researchers have created a machine that can see without being seen https://engineering.stanford.edu/news/right-in-tune-engineers-devise-invisible-photodetector
by tuning the geometries of metal nanostructures to create a plasmonic cloak. I’d always wondered with standard “invisibility” metameterials that bend light around an object to hide it from view, what you would do if you were hiding inside such an invisibility cloak. Sure, you might be invisible, but you don’t get any information while inside such a structure, you wouldn’t be able to simultaneously see while remaining unseen. Yet it seems that technologies like this might just allow you to have your cake and eat it too!2. Gaining Greater Control Over Stem Cell Differentiation.
Viable stem cell therapies inch another step closer with a biomaterial that can turn skin cells into stem cells and subsequently into other cells - depending on how the composition of the material has been tweaked http://www.engin.umich.edu/newscenter/feature/stem-cell-bone-repair
. The team went a step further by taking human skin cells, turning them into stem cells, then into bone cells, and then implanting this “material with human bone cells” into 5mm holes in the skulls of mice, which subsequently healed. So these mice are walking around with the damage to their skulls repaired with a plug human bone cells. 3. Metamaterials That Bend, Twist, & Flip Magnetism.
Metamaterials have been designed such that when their features are spread apart greater than one micrometer they act to increase the strength of the local magnetic field, yet when the features are brought closer together they decrease and even reverse the local magnetic field http://www.research.a-star.edu.sg/research/6496
. This sounds incredibly useful to me; I can’t wait to see how we’ll end up making use of this ability, especially when each feature of the structure isn’t fixed but can be moved as needed.4. Origami For Morphable Materials & Robot Design.
A modification to origami design methods http://phys.org/news/2012-05-origami-inspired-method-merges-art.html
should be able to create morphing robotic mechanisms and shape-shifting sculptures. While it seems that the modelling and design has only really thus far been done in a virtual environment, it is applicable in theory to any foldable 2D sheet of material. I would love to see cross-pollination of this new capability with the fields of DNA origami, claytronics, and programmable matter to see what we might come up with. 5. Using An AFM For Molecular Assembly.
Researchers have used an Atomic Force Microscope to pick and place two RNA molecules together and so control their reaction and subsequent formation of an active complex http://www.en.uni-muenchen.de/news/newsarchiv/2012/2012_gaup.html
, in this case a functional aptamer that specifically binds a fluorescent molecule. Scale this up to multi-tip arrays and you’re fabricating atomically-precise surfaces with defined active features to perform a particular task - or maybe millions of tasks? 6. Increasing Battery Storage With Tin.
Anodes made of Tin promise to increase the storage capacity of lithium-ion rechargeable batteries by three-fold, while improving recharge time and cycle lifetime http://news.wsu.edu/pages/publications.asp?Action=Detail&PublicationID=31776&TypeID=1
. While I’m sure we would all genuinely appreciate such improvements to the energy utility of our various devices, there are no shortage of materials engineering announcements that offer similar promises yet have not impacted our lives in recent years - I only hope this, or something similar, can make it into the hands of the average consumer. 7. Turning Off Stem Cell Aging.
Researchers have discovered a range of signals that can delay or turn off the aging of stem cells in the body, and so prevent their loss of function over time http://www.salk.edu/news/pressrelease_details.php?press_id=561
. Studies like this highlight the importance of doing work to discover fundamental cellular mechanisms in easy-to-work-with model organisms like Drosophila melanogaster
- a range of potential drug targets and avenues of intervention have been identified, which may now be confirmed and investigated in higher organisms like mice and humans. Another step closer to curing the disease that is aging. 8. Engineering Computer Memory Into Cells.
A functional, reliable, and reversible DNA memory system has been created in living organisms. The team engineered a rewritable recombinase addressable data module that switches the orientation of a specific DNA sequence in response to the presence of specific proteins or target molecules http://spectrum.ieee.org/biomedical/devices/bioengineers-make-dna-into-a-living-flash-drive/
?. Sounds kinda interesting on the face of it. But this signifies the development of another new tool in the nano-bio-info engineer’s toolbox. As an example application, with just an 8 bit memory system, cell therapies introduced into a patient to combat disease could be designed to self destruct after a time before ever becoming a problem themselves. 9. Stable Dye-Sensitised Solar Cell.
The first stable, non-leaking, dye-sensitised solar cell has been developed http://www.northwestern.edu/newscenter/stories/2012/05/solid-state-solar-cell.html
. Such materials / cells hold significant promise for solar power, by offering materials that are safer for the environment, greater energy efficiencies, and lower production cost. This is just a proof-of-concept, which works, but there is a lot of tinkering that can be done to make it even better and apply the idea across a wide range of solar technology - I think you’ll be hearing more about these materials. 10. Astounding Human-Computer Interface: Leap 3D.
There was quite a bit of debate about the vapour-ware potential about a new human-computer interface device called Leap 3D, which was being promoted by a new company called Leap Motion http://www.technologyreview.com/blog/helloworld/27868/?ref=rss
. Everyone probably hear about it or saw the video (check the link if you didn’t). This is something that really does seem too good to be true . . . but their Venture Capital investors seem to check out, and there is no way a VC pumps that much money into a company without seeing a very convincing prototype. While the videos show the device being used to interact with a computer via a conventional screen, the sensors should also be able to be used in a device like Google Glass or your mobile phone. The new mathematical algorithms running in the background are apparently key.