TWIE 139: 261 Miles Per Gallon Car

This Week in Engineering - Mind-controlled exoskeleton; 3D-printed skull; driverless trucks; 261 miles per gallon; android nanosatellite; and insect wing antibacterials.

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Mind-controlled exoskeleton
Belgian company Space Applications Services is leading a consortium that has designed the Mindwalker: a robotic exoskeleton controlled by the wearer¦s brain waves. Control is provided by a (dry÷ cap, which measures brain waves without the inconvenience of conductive gel on the electrodes. Since the control is from the brain and not the extremities, spinal cord injuries or other nervous system disorders don¦t matter, although users must first learn how to send a distinct brain signal through a simulated environment. The system has so far been tested by able-bodied users, and this year, volunteers with spinal cord injuries will try it out.

3D-printed skull
An unnamed American man has now had 75% of his skull replaced with a prosthetic implant made from a 3D printer. The implant, made by Connecticut biomedical company Oxford Performance Materials, was created in five days out of an osteoconductive material, meaning bone cells will eventually grow on the surface. Also, the material is transparent to X-ray photography, allowing doctors more visibility. The company is now looking into 3D printed bone replacements for other parts of the body. Look, Doc, you can print any geometry of skull you want. Can you at least give me an iPhone dock? What is this, the Dark Ages?

Driverless trucks
Japan¦s New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization, or NEDO, has successfully demonstrated driverless truck technology capable of improving fuel efficiency. The front-most vehicle of the four-truck convoy has a human driver, with three autonomous trucks following closely behind. Travelling at 80 km/h with an inter-vehicle distance of just 4m, the lower air resistance allowed the trailing vehicles to improve their mileage by 15% or more. But wait, if automated systems are driving the trucks, what silhouette is on the sexy mud flaps? My vote: Curiosity. Mreow!

261 Miles Per Gallon
Volkswagen has unveiled the XL1 plug-in diesel hybrid at the Geneva Motor Show, claiming it gets an astounding 261 MPG (though under EPA guidelines it¦s probably a bit less). Constructed of mostly carbon fiber, aluminum and titanium, the car weighs in at 1752 pounds, and its sleek body design has a drag coefficient of only 0.189. But the dual power source and carbon fiber body are expensive -- Volkswagen will make only 250 of the model at first, for a sticker price over $130,000 each.

Android nanosatellite
A team from the University of Surrey in Great Britain has sent a smartphone into space, where it will control a nanosatellite. The so-called (smartphone-sat÷ will run in two phases. The first, controlled by a standard on-board computer, will test two innovative new satellite propulsion methods, one that ejects a water-alcohol mixture, and one that uses pulsed plasma thrusters. In the second stage, the Google Nexus One Android smartphone will take control, measuring the magnetic field, taking pictures from the phone¦s camera, and testing the theory that (no one can hear you scream÷ by playing recordings of fan-submitted screams. I would love to launch my phone into orbit, not for the science -- just to get out of my AT&T contract. That has to work. Right?...

Insect wing antibacterials
An international team of biophysicists have discovered the secret to the antibacterial properties of Clanger Cicada wings, inspiring new possibilities for man-made materials. The wings are covered in a hexagonal array of nanoscale blunted spikes, so that when a bacterium settles, its cell membrane is stretched. If the membrane is soft enough, the bacterium ruptures and dies. If the technique can be applied to man-made materials, it could reduce dependence on detergents for surfaces that often harbour disease, like railings and kitchen equipment.