TWIE 153: Brain on a Chip

This Week in Engineering - Fukushima ice wall; Grasshopper rocket hops; Kepler retires; brain clot-sucking robot; brain on a chip; and drones fight mosquitoes.

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Fukushima ice wall
It has been more than two years since the nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan, and Tokyo Electric Power Company, or TEPCO, has admitted that contaminated water currently used for cooling the reactors is leaking out into the Pacific Ocean through the ground.  Now, in a last ditch effort, engineers from Kajima Corporation have proposed building a mile-long barrier of permafrost around the buildings by sinking pipes into the soil through which coolant will be constantly cycled.  Critics doubt the controversial plan would even work, but the company says it could be finished by mid 2015.  A feasibility study is currently underway.

Grasshopper rocket hops
SpaceX has released video of the August 13th divert test of the prototype Falcon 9 test rig, code-named Grasshopper.  The rocket, which is taller than a ten story building, takes off at an angle to move laterally, then hovers at an altitude of over a thousand feet, and turns back to land safely at the launch pad where it started.  The test brings SpaceX one step closer to the goal of safely landing a rocket reentering the atmosphere at hypersonic velocity.  And to think, I still have trouble parallel parking.

Kepler retires
After finding 136 confirmed exoplanets and over 2700 candidates, the Kepler Space Telescope’s primary mission has ended, due to failure in two of the four gyroscope-like reaction wheels that align the telescope.  Alas, the telescope needs three functioning wheels for exoplanet hunting, and the team has now given up on repair efforts.  NASA is now looking for new ways to use the crippled telescope, launched in 2009, that did so much to answer the question of whether Earth-like planets in the habitable zone are rare in the universe.  Man, I wish I could have retired when I was four years old -- maybe moved to Florida, worked on my game, to be a scratch Pattycaker.  I coulda been somebody.

Brain clot-sucking robot
When a blood vessel in the brain bursts -- called an intracerebral hemorrhage -- the resulting blood clot is difficult to treat, since it is surrounded by healthy brain tissue, and results in death in about 40% of cases.  Now, a team of engineers and doctors from Vanderbilt University in Nashville has created a robotic needle-equipped cannula -- a needle inside a tube less than 1/20th of an inch in diameter that can steer itself around important brain structures to get to a clot.  Once a clot is reached, the needle emerges to suction the clot.  In simulations, the device removed ninety-two percent of a blood clot in a gelatin brain mold.  Researchers are now looking to add ultrasound imaging to supplement the device.

Brain on a chip
Researchers from the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich have developed new processors called neuromorphic chips, which are comparable in size, speed and energy consumption to the human brain.  The team built a chip from four thousand artificial neurons to create a processor that simulates the massively parallel operations of human neural activity.  In a test, the chip was asked to identify the direction a series of bars was moving across a computer screen, and the solution was computed in real time.  I wish I had the world’s first silicon brain on a chip.  That way, when I lose my keys, I could just blame it on solar flares.  Kinda like I already do.

Drones fight mosquitoes
In addition to being freaking annoying, mosquitos are a menace that spreads diseases like malaria, dengue fever and West Nile virus.  Now, officials in the Florida Keys are teaming up with Condor Aerial to launch Maverick drones in an effort to eradicate the pests, by searching wide areas with a shortwave infrared