SciTech #ScienceSunday Digest - Week 17 of 2012
A Top 10 selection of the scientific and technological advances that I discovered this week.

1. Sensing, Lensing, Conducting, “Photonising” Graphene
Graphene announcements were big this week. Although the space is so busy I sometimes suspect graphene is big most weeks. We had graphene being used for (i) accurate and selective sensing of gases http://www.nanowerk.com/spotlight/spotid=25043.php, (ii) a powerful 2-dimensional lens for focusing electrons http://www.kurzweilai.net/graphene-lenses-for-electrons, (iii) an incredibly flexible and transparent composite material for electrical applications http://www.exeter.ac.uk/news/featurednews/title_206443_en.html, and (iv) robust photonics applications after IBM’s tinkering http://spectrum.ieee.org/nanoclast/semiconductors/nanotechnology/multilayer-graphene-enables-terahertzcapable-tunable-notch-filters?.

2. Our Tree of Life Gets a New Branch
The discovery of a new species, which is neither fungus, alga, parasite, plant, or animal was announced. This protozoan effectively adds a whole new branch to our tree of life and I eagerly await the results of its genetic analysis http://www.apollon.uio.no/english/articles/2012/microorganism.html, especially with regards to highly conserved sequences like ribosomes.

3. Metamaterials; Fine Control of Visible Light and Sound Waves
This is interesting research on metamaterials that have control over visible light http://spectrum.ieee.org/semiconductors/optoelectronics/metamaterials-step-into-the-light? for applications that include better optical switches, and laser pulses in addition to the usual lenses and cloaking possibilities, and also other metamaterials with control over sound waves http://physics.aps.org/articles/v5/33 for better focusing of ultrasound, aoustic cloaking, sound cancellation and other applications. I don’t know about you but I’d love to have my house and car impervious to outside sources of sound.

4. Exoskeletons: Robotics for Humans
The wonderful and ever-innovative Festo released a new exoskeletal hand / arm for tele-operated manipulation and remote control of a near-identical robotic arm http://www.festo.com/cms/en_corp/12713_12717.htm#id_12717, while the Japanese continue to lead the field with exoskeletons for general purpose heavy lifting and elderly assistance applications http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21428614.800-wearable-muscle-suit-makes-heavy-lifting-a-cinch.html?.

5. Alternative Solar Cell Architectures
I’ve always been excited by the possibility of materials engineering in the solar energy space resulting in a solar-powered-paint that can be applied to surfaces with ease, but was always worried how you’d go about linking the pigments to allow adequate current to flow. So I found it exciting to discover last week that liquid solar-cell-material was demonstrated that can be printed onto surfaces and where they had solved the linking problem http://www.usc.edu/uscnews/newsroom/news_release.php?id=2707. Also, solar cells based on LED designs were shown to break efficiency records and offer yet another path forward for creating better solar pannels http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2012-04/osoa-tsc041912.php.

6. Repairing Hearts and Blood Vessels
Viral vectors have been used to deliver particular microRNAs to damaged heart tissue, which have successfully reprogrammed the heart cells to properly repair the damage http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2012-04/aha-gr042312.php; here’s hoping the technique is extended to heal other tissues and introduced to patients. Meanwhile commercial enterprise Cytograft has successfully developed, and regularly produced, biological human blood vessels for transplantation into patients http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/04/120423131512.htm.

7. Self-Assembly of New Materials and Devices
I think this is the first demonstration that I have seen in which (tunable / controllable) sophisticated structures self-assemble in solutions containing multiple types of particles http://www.pratt.duke.edu/node/3253, plus it involved ferrofluids, which is cool by default. Meanwhile, this advance http://newscenter.lbl.gov/feature-stories/2012/04/27/gold-thin-films/ claims to have comprised the first self-assembly of nanoparticles into device-ready materials with multiple-layers of thin films from highly ordered one-, two- and three-dimensional arrays of gold nanoparticles.

8. Detecting and Ameliorating Prions in Living Brains
An existing molecule known to detect prions in brains has now been shown to render them harmless and potentially cure prion-based diseases http://www.kurzweilai.net/prions-eliminated-in-mice-brains. Prions have similarities with proteins that comprise the amyloid plaques thought to be involved in alzheimer's and other similar diseases of the brain, so the hope is that these molecules - and alternative molecular architectures currently being investigated - will be effective therapeutics.

9. Microfluidics and Lab-On-A-Chip Systems Getting Better
This new microfluidic lab on a chip http://www.news.ualberta.ca/article.aspx?id=0EC281968D4C4F15A76D0E6D088C4F55 can rapidly perform 20 tests on a single drop of blood, while the broader system it is a part of continues the accelerating trend to reducing the size, cost, and scale of a modern laboratory to that of a cheap box that sits on your desk. Medicine will be truly personalised when we can each do our own genetic testing and tinkering at home.

10. Cheap Titanium Powder
The reason I like this development http://www.ameslab.gov/news/videos/iowa-powder-atomization-technologies-running-americas-next-top-energy-innovator involving the production of titanium powder 10 times more efficiently is because of the effect it might have on manufacturing and personal product fabrication more generally. Many 3D printing fabrication methods use powdered materials, and if the efficiency of producing this titanium powder was combined with a method of chemically altering the powder such that 3D printing methods could print with titanium . . . I think that would be pretty transformative.
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