Electronics in living tissue
When researchers grow engineered tissues, they give it shape by growing it over tiny sponge-like scaffolding. Now, researchers from MIT, Harvard and Boston Children’s Hospital have integrated grown tissue scaffolding with electronic sensors that can monitor the tissues as they grow. The sensors are made of silicon nanowires, and can measure electrical activity, control the release of drugs, or monitor drug effects. Previously, electronics were only incorporated in flat layers of cells -- the 3D integrated scaffolds bring us closer to creating artificial tissue-engineered organs.
The National Institutes of Health and the President’s National Robotics Initiative have awarded a grant of over $1 million to develop a noninvasive brain-machine interface for stroke victims to operate powered orthotics for rehabilitation. Brain waves will be monitored not with surgical implants, but with electroencephalography, and commands will be recognized by first recording the brain waves of healthy patients, and then looking for similar patterns in stroke victims. The exoskeleton is being developed at Rice University, and the neural interface at the University of Houston. I’m glad I don’t have a mind-controlled exoskeleton -- cause I know I’d put on sunglasses and tell everyone I see, “You have thirty seconds to comply.”
Phones in space
NASA engineers have created prototype CubeSat nanosatellites powered by unmodified consumer-grade smartphones from HTC, as part of the Ames Research Center’s PhoneSat program to decrease the cost and effort of designing small satellites. Smart phones offer a lot of attractive features for satellites, including fast processors, reliable operating systems, cameras, and GPS. The engineers kept the cost of the three prototype satellites to just $3500 each. Smart phones orbiting the Earth? I want to be the first person ever to play Angry Birds in Space in space.
Human-powered helicopter record
Students at the University of Maryland, including freshman pilot Henry Enerson, have broken the record for height achieved in a human-powered helicopter by climbing to an altitude of eight feet. The team is competing for the American Helicopter Society’s two hundred fifty thousand dollar Sikorsky Prize. To get the prize, they will need to achieve an altitude of 3 meters and hover for 60 seconds.
Weighing a molecule
Mass spectroscopy can be used to measure the mass of small molecules by ionizing them and measuring their reaction to an electromagnetic field, but it doesn’t work well on large molecules, or those that don’t ionize well. Now, researchers from Caltech, and CEA-Leti in Grenoble, France, have created a device just a couple of microns long that mechanically weighs large molecules by measuring how their mass changes the oscillation frequencies of a small bridge. The team’s breakthrough came when they found a way to determine a particle’s position on the bridge by measuring different, related frequencies. Alright, I’ve just weighed a molecule. Bad news, octadecanoic acid! You’re fat. Well, technically a fatty acid, anyway.
Michael Hoffman and his team from Caltech have won the $100,000 first prize in the Reinventing the Toilet Challenge from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation -- an effort to improve third-world hygiene and sanitation. Entries could not use a septic system or an outside water source, and they could not produce pollutants. Hoffman’s toilet uses sunlight in an electrochemical reactor to break down human waste into fertilizer and hydrogen. The treated water can cycle through the toilet again, while the hydrogen could potentially power a fuel cell. Nice. But in an engineer’s house, the toilet is where we do our best thinking. Our ideal toilet has wifi, email, CAD, and everything else your terminal has. Except teleconferencing.