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Robot-assisted surgeries create new possibilities and challenges

October 29, 2014

Robotic-assisted surgical systems, also known as robotic surgery, are devices that support a physician's efforts to perform surgery with high-tech software and refined movement controls, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Robotic surgery is helpful in a wide range of procedures, from non-invasive routines to complex, time-consuming surgeries. The actual technology is more akin to computer-assisted tools than actual robots - the robotic-assisted surgical systems do not move or activate on their own. The technology has been praised by doctors as an innovation that can make surgeries easier on doctors and patients. However, a well-rounded view of the technology reveals that robotic surgery is still in its developmental stage.

Robots take the burden off surgeons
The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada noted that one robotic-assisted technique that has made great strides is coronary artery bypass grafting. Canadian doctors found that robotically assisted CABG procedures can help limit post-surgery problems and quicken recovery time. The technique is less invasive than traditional bypass surgeries and helps to reduce pressure on the surgeon.

Bypass surgeries require surgeons to remove a section of the patient's vein and then use the section to restore a blockage preventing the flow of oxygen-carrying red blood cells to the heart. The operation requires a still wrist, and doctors are finding that the steadiest hands belong to the robots. Surgeons can reduce the difficulty of bypass surgeries by working from a surgeon console, a computer that displays 3-D images of the patient's organs. Surgeons "operate" on the 3-D image while multiple robotic arms mimic the doctor's movements and perform surgical incisions. The physician sits at a console, operating the robot with his or her fingers while focusing on the model of the patient. The medical industry has a lot to gain by finding new ways to remove human error from the caretaking process.

Using the robot provides doctors with a better view of the patient and allows them to make more precise cuts than ever before. This attention to detail helps patients by shortening their recovery time and reducing their blood loss during surgery. Less bleeding translates to lower demand for replacement blood. In this way, robotic-assisted surgeries can help the entire medical community by slowing the consumption of resources. Robotic systems ease the physical demands placed on the doctor as well. Surgeons must no longer contend with the anxiety that a slight touch could harm or even kill a patient. The costs recovered thanks to robotic systems could then be used to improve the hospital and support fellow physicians. 

Living with cybernetic caveats
Unfortunately, robotic-assisted surgical systems are not perfect for every procedure. In fact, robotic systems can actually create additional complications during some operations. For instance, The Wall Street Journal pointed out that robotic systems proved to be inept at performing gynecologic surgeries. A study from Columbia University showed that 15 percent of ovary removal procedures were performed with robotic assistance in 2012, an increase from 3.5 percent in 2009. Complications in the removal of ovarian cysts also skyrocketed over the same period, up 10 percent between 2009 and 2012. Likewise, the rate of complications when performing robotic assisted gynecologic surgery (3.4 percent) is considerably higher than non-robotic surgeries (2.4 percent).

Robotic surgery is also very expensive, and the high price point for devices prevents numerous health facilities from seriously considering an investment in robotics-assisted surgery. The system requires further development, but these issues should not overshadow the method's potential. If robotic surgery can consistently improve patient quality of life, then the technology is worth the cost.

Advanced fiber optics will help to enhance ocean research

October 28, 2014

The average person typically thinks of high-speed Internet and cable channel bundles when they hear the phrase "fiber-optic cables". However, this groundbreaking medium for transporting energy and information has far more important applications than streaming seasons of "Game of Thrones." Optical fibers are particularly useful as sensors, particularly because as passive sensors they do not require an electrical power source to function. The same unique light-refracting properties of optical fibers ideal for carrying television and Internet signals also make the material perfect for collecting information. Breakthroughts in optical fiber technology could help researchers to learn more about several oceanic environments.

Enter optical microfibers
Researchers from the Charles Fabry Laboratory and the French National Centre for Scientific Research have discovered unique light diffusion behavior present in optical fibers with a diameter of 1 micrometer, according to the center's homepage. This diffusion behavior can also be manipulated based on the microfiber's environment, so scientists are confident the material will become key to next-generation optical sensors. Microfibers are able to detect surface acoustic waves, as well as high-frequency soundwaves inaudible to the human year. These properties make optical microfibers ideal for new types of scanning equipment, and may even translate to properties useful to the defense industry.

The fibers were produced at the Charles Fabry Laboratory by narrowing standard silica fibers through an intense heating and stretching process, said the CNRS. The end results were thinner than average microfibers with the potential to advance sensor technology. Scientists at the CNRS took over at this point, experimenting with the new fiber by shining a laser beam down its length. The researchers subsequently observed a new type of light behavior, specific to subwavelength-diameter fiber, that takes place when light travels through microfibers. Researching these new behaviors provides clues to how light and sound impact each other at the smallest scale.

Research by the sea
By upgrading optic fibers with microfibers, scientist have an opportunity to refine their findings and produce more accurate results. Advances in microfiber production will make the most immediate impact on projects where optic fibers are already in use, such as those performed by ocean researchers. Smaller fibers with greater sensitivity could be used to give scientists additional clues about ocean life and collect details about organisms living in low-light conditions. Microfibers would enhance environmental research as well, and help to scientists to better anticipate the subtle natural phenomena that act as precursors to weather events like hurricanes and earthquakes.

One example of such a research project is currently underway at the the CNRS - a collaboration undertaken with the University of Auckland and the Tampere University of Technology. The team is utilizing optical fibers to locate rogue waves before they have a chance to gain strength and begin capsizing ships. Light and ocean waves share several similarities in their behavior, and these parallels make optical cables ideal for analyzing how rogue waves form and occurs. Shared behaviors between light and water also make it easier to model the behavior of ocean waves in the lab, or to test how a ship might hold up to bombardment by an enormous deluge.

Analyzing icebergs
Optic fibers are as useful for analyzing rogue waves as they are at collecting data from massive icebergs. As a result, multiple reams of fiber-optic cable have been rolled out into Antarctica, according to Science Magazine. Scientists brought fiber optic to South Pole in order to collect detailed information on the ice's temperatures. Data is taken by drilling a large hole over 200 meters into the ice and feeding a fiber optic cable into the frigid ocean water below. The light endured miniscule changes as it was exposed to increasingly cold water, and this measuring of small adjustments in light behavior after shining a light through the cord will gave researchers more clues about the exact nature of the briny deep.

Integration of the CNRS' research and new fiber optic cable is also ideal in terms of cost-effectiveness. Drilling 200 meters below the surface of the ice is extremely difficult and expensive, so scientists can save time and energy by drilling very thin holes. Extremely thin optic fiber cables can be inserted into these openings with ease, allowing researchers to save time on drilling. The use of optical microfibers to research hard-to-reach regions will likely increase as the usefulness of the technique gains notice and brings down the cost of fiber optics. For instance, one research trick unique to optical fibers is distributed temperature sensing, according to Science Magazine. Scientists can learn quite a bit about the ocean's climate, and the shape of its ice shelves, by paying attention to how temperatures change along a length of fiber as it sinks further into the ocean. 

Advances in biocomputers could lead to the end of cancer

October 27, 2014 

The interface between man and machine has always been a bit strained. However, these two entities, once thought to be entirely different from one another, are now growing closer thanks to innovations in biotech. The largest challenge with interfacing human beings with machines has been the fact that computers are made from non-organic parts, which are difficult to embed within a person's body. In the last century, scientists were able to create titanium medical implants that had a high degree of biocompatibility, which made them less likely to be rejected by patients' bodies. However, the holy grail of implants has been to create them out of pure biological materials. Recently, researchers from the American Technion Society and ETH Zurich have brought science closer to this goal by creating the building blocks for entirely biological computers.

Prototypes and proofs of concept
About a year ago, scientists from the Technion Institute of Technology developed and constructed an advanced biological transducer using nothing but biomolecules like DNA and enzymes. The computing machine is able to manipulate genetic codes and use the output to create new input for new computations. Importantly, there is no interface required when using this computer since all of the components - including hardware, software, input and output - are all constructed of biological materials, which use chemicals instead of binary code to relay information.

Ehud Keinan, Ph.D., lead researcher and faculty at Technion's department of chemistry, said, "In addition to enhanced computation power, this DNA-based transducer offers multiple benefits, including the ability to read and transform genetic information, miniaturization to the molecular scale, and the aptitude to produce computational results that interact directly with living organisms." 

The press release indicated that the transducer could be used on genetic material to detect and quantify specific sequences and to change and algorithmically process genetic code. This is because, as Keinan explained, all biological systems including living organisms are essentially molecular computers. Inside these systems, molecules communicate with one another in a logical manner, using chemical signals to talk instead of computer languages.

Refining the device
The computing device that Keinan and his team produced last year is operational, but not as precise or as diverse in terms of functionality as they would like it to be. Recently, a group of researchers from ETH Zurich has been working on more precise, plug-and-play circuit​ board components that can be assembled in different configurations for various applications. The goal is to create modular biological components that can be used in human bodies in the same way that software engineers operate in the digital sector.

According to ETH Zurich, the prototype biological computer created at Technion differs significantly from its silicon-based counterparts. For example, silicon chips are much more agile than biological computers. Since they communicate in ones and zeroes with electric current, silicon chips can oscillate very quickly between signal (one) and no signal (zero.) Biological computers, however, are much less precise. The signals that they send are based on chemicals, not current, so there are states of sending a signal and not sending a signal, but there are also intermediary states of sending what ETH called "a little bit of signal." This is a problem for biocomputers that serve as sensors for specific biomolecules. When they try to send a relevant signal, the meaning can sometimes be obscured or lost in the noise of those intermediary signal states.

ETH reported that early biocomputer components have also suffered from being "leaky." This means that they will occasionally send an output signal even if an input signal is not present. This problem is amplified further by the addition of extra components, which is necessary if scientists are to be able to create more complex biological machines that can accomplish specific tasks.

Genetic valves control leaking 
In order to create a biosensor that does not leak and is closer to the precision of a silicon chip, ETH scientists have been working on a new biological circuit that monitors and controls the activity of individual sensors with an internal timer. The circuit is able to stop sensors from self-activating when the system does not require it. Then, when the system requires that specific component, the circuit can activate it using a control signal.

ETH explains that the reason this is possible is because these biological sensors are made of synthetic genes that are interpreted by enzymes and converted into organic RNA and proteins. Nicolas Lapique, a doctoral candidate at ETH, created this new biocircuit so that the gene responsible for the output signal is not active when it is in a resting state. This is accomplished by effectively misaligning the gene, so there is no output. To activate this gene, a special enzyme called a recombinase is introduced. The recombinase extracts the gene from the circuit DNA and repositions it so it's output is aligned with the rest of the system, thus activating it.

To put this in  simpler turns, you can imagine the output gene as a garden hose attached to a bucket, which represents the biological computer. When a chemical signal is produced, it's like pouring water into the bucket. That water then flows out of the hose, or output gene. However, once the majority of the water is spent, the hose will continue to drip, sending those intermediary not on, not off states of chemical information. Lapique's circuit acts as a valve that misaligns the output so no residual water can drip out of the bucket. This essentially eliminates the intermediary states by starting and stopping output genes through alignment and misalignment.

Future applications
Already, researchers have tested the effectiveness of this new circuit and activation-ready sensor in samples of human kidney and cancer cells. Early stages have proven the effectiveness of the concept, but results are still minimal. Eventually, researchers hope that they will be able to use these biological computer systems to detect and kill cancer cells. The theory is that the bio-computers will be able to identify specific cancer molecules. If cancer is detected within a specific cell, the circuit would activate a cellular suicide program inside the affected cell. The cancer would then self-destruct, and healthy cells with no cancer markers would not be affected.

Although there is still much work to be done on biocomputers, research like that conducted by Technion and ETH has demonstrated valuable proof of concept, and additional study will surely lead to amazing results in the coming years.

Cutting-edge developments in lithium-ion batteries

October 24, 2014

Researchers worldwide continue to refine the design and production of lithium-ion batteries, working to drive down cost and improve safety. Due to the widespread uses of lithium batteries, safety issues have become nearly as important as performance in the development of the technology. Cheaper methods of producing larger lithium-ion batteries have the potential to make waves in several industries, like reducing the cost of electric vehicles. Further improvements from the latest scientific research are set to make lithium batteries even more durable and cost-effective.

Graphene flakes extend battery life
Battery efficiency is one barrier that continues to limit the technological applications of lithium-ion technology. A recent breakthrough from researchers at the Italian Institute of Technology may reduce that barrier by increasing the efficiency of lithium-ion batteries by 25 percent, reported ZDNet. The new battery technique shows promise, reflected by growing interest in the project from auto manufacturers. Innovative implementation of wonder-material graphene was critical to the discovery, and Italian researchers are already developing ambitious plans to refine the technology for industrial use.

Graphene has been used to improve lithium-ion performance in the past, but these experiments had used graphene obtained through chemical processes, such as recovering graphene oxide from graphite oxide. However, this process reduces the chemicals electrical conductivity, limiting its effectiveness as a battery material, the source reported. Researchers at the ITT, lead by lab director Vittorio Pellegrini, approached the challenge of producing graphene from different angle, said ZDNet. Instead of working with chemically modified graphene, the team of scientists developed an exfoliation process to collect graphene from pristine graphite without reductions in the material's conductivity.

Graphene flakes were obtained by the team at ITT by separating graphite into pieces and submerging them within an organic solution before bombarding the mixture with ultrasonic waves, said ZDNet. The process turned graphene into flakes, which were then sorted by thickness by spinning the mixture in a centrifuge. By manipulating the shape of the graphene in the centrifuge, the researchers were able to tailor the properties of the flakes to suit the needs of lithium-ion batteries. ZDNet reported that team discovered that smaller flakes with multiple edges proved to be highly effective at attracting lithium ions, a hint at how the graphene flakes could be utilized to improve lithium uptake performance in batteries.

Next, scientists at the Italian Institute of Technology created an ink out of ideal graphene flakes and used it to coat a copper surface. By utilizing the graphene-coated copper in building a lithium-ion battery, the ITT team was able to achieve a 25 percent increase in battery efficiency. Lengthy testing and refinement of the technique is necessary before it can be implemented at scale, but ZDNet noted that early results are very promising.

Copper safeguard detects fires
Safety issues caused by lithium-ion batteries are very uncommon, so the potential risk is often overlooked, with greater attention devoted to extending battery life. Stanford, however, has put great effort into resolving overheating problems in lithium cells, said IEEE Spectrum.The university's material science department added a copper nanolayer to the separator between the battery's anode and cathode, ready to detect signs of a short circuit without interfering with the flow of lithium ions across the battery.

Specifically, the nanolayer of copper is designed to scan the battery for a large volume of dendrites. When the battery malfunctions, these chains of lithium molecules gather on the cell's anode. The battery will short circuit if dendrites accumulate from one electrode to the other, risking a fire in a laptop or smartphone. IEEE Spectrum explained that Stanford's copper nanolayer reports a voltage drop when dendrites reach the midway point of the battery, signaling that the battery should be replaced immediately.

Quick-manufacturing reduces costs
Scientists at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology recently announced that the school had also achieved a major breakthrough in the production cost of lithium-ion batteries, mitigating another one of the technology's longstanding weaknesses. KIT researchers were able to significantly improve the speed of producing batches of electrode foils, achieving manufacturing speeds exceeding that of factory standards by a factor of three. The huge boost to production speed would also translate to a major reduction in the cost of lithium-ion batteries if the new method is widely implemented.

Integral to the manufacturing of lithium-ion batteries is the production of substrate foils placed near the battery's electrodes. The foils require a coating of additives and carbon to maximize their performance, and KIT sought to streamline this coating process. Researchers developed a quick-moving membrane that uniformly coats 1,000 electrode patterns per minute. The subsequent rate of production, 100 meters per minute, achieved by the device is unprecedented. In fact, the German Engineering Association predicted these speeds would be unattainable for another 15 years.

In addition to being fast, KIT's coating technique is highly accurate and cost-effective. The device makes use of few moving parts, making the technology ideal for integration into factory settings. Improvements to the production method of lithium-ion batteries, along with additional improvements to safety and battery life, will help keep lithium batteries at the top of the energy storage game for years. 

Military-grade cloaking systems no longer science fiction

October 23, 2014

Camouflage has been used for centuries by both militaries and hunters. Even the earliest humans used camouflage to catch their prey unannounced, but human beings were not the first to use camouflage. Far from it - that distinction goes to the animal kingdom, where creatures like octopi and chameleons have long ruled as the masters of camouflage. It should come as no surprise then that scientists have been working to emulate these organic disguise systems and adapt them for use in military applications.

Active vs passive camouflage
Up until now, camouflage has been passive. Soldiers and hunters wear leafy clothing called ghillie suits to conceal themselves in wooded areas. Similarly, they kit themselves out in patterned uniforms that are meant to color match their surroundings. The goal is to disrupt the distinctive human profile of an adult male and make it something less immediately identifiable. Naturally, this requires planning and preparation. You wouldn't want to be wearing jungle camo for a mission in the arctic. Likewise, a ghillie suit would just make you stand out if you were to wear it in the desert. As such, scientists have been working on creating universal active camouflage systems that can adapt to any environment and change to reflect immediate surroundings.

Octocamo
Last August, researchers at the University of Houston published a paper on their cephalopod-inspired optoelectronic camouflage systems. The distinguishing feature of soft-bodied sea creatures like octopi, squid and cuttlefish is their ability to quickly change color to blend in with their surroundings. The result of this research was a device that could identify and adapt to different colors.

The earliest prototype, which was highlighted last August, was only able to operate in black and white, but Cunjiang Yu, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at UH and lead author of the paper, claimed that it could conceivably be redesigned to work on a full color spectrum. The prototype was also very small - less than 1 square inch - but Yu said that it could eventually be scaled up for manufacturing.

So what does it look like? The active camouflage device developed by Yu and his team is a flexible skin that is composed of several ultrathin layers. It combines semiconductor actuators, switching components and light sensors with inorganic reflectors and organic color-changing materials that allow for autonomous matching of background colors. Put more simply, it is artificial octopus skin, which means that it features all of the same attributes with two unique exceptions: the iridophores and the central ocular organs.

It will likely be a long time before civilian hunters get access to this kind of tech, but it might be shipping off to the armed forces sooner than you would expect. Active camouflage has been a high priority of the military for a long time, especially for the protection of critical assets like tanks and helicopters. These massive war machines serve a very specific purpose in war and are incredibly effective at neutralizing armored targets, but they are vulnerable to sabotage and rocket strikes. Active camouflage would give armored military assets an extra edge on the battlefield by obscuring them from enemy scouts and marksmen.

Stealth tanks and chameleons 
Recently, Reuters posted a video featuring a newly developed stealth tank designed by Polish military scientists that will replace traditional camouflage paint with thousands of electrochromic plates that continuously change color to blend in with its surroundings. The concept tank , referred to as PL-01, will be tested over the next few years to hammer out some of the bugs before moving to the battlefield.

While the scientists at UH drew their inspiration from cephalopods, the Polish scientists derived their active camouflage from the capabilities of chameleons, the tiny color-changing lizards that are often kept as household pets. The first challenge was to get each pixel of the active camouflage to continually adapt to the colors of its surroundings. In order to accomplish this feat, tiny cameras convey color information based on positioning to the electrochromic plates. The plates then change their color to best match the information they are receiving. At the moment, this system is only able to mask stationary objects, which means the tank cannot be actively engaged if it is to remain hidden. However, by increasing the processing power and adaptability of the plates, the Polish engineering team hopes to increase the reaction time of the active camo system, so it will be able to remain engaged while the vehicle is moving.

The new stealth tank isn't just camouflaged from sight - it's also equipped with radar-absorbing material and thermal-dampening equipment. This means that the PL-01 will also be shrouded from the prying eyes of thermal imaging sensors and even radar. The element of surprise is crucial in warfare, and with this much stealth technology, the Polish stealth tank is sure to be a force to be reckoned with.

New applications for laser technology

October 22, 2014

From the scientific to defensive and even entertainment, lasers have been used for decades in a plethora of different industries. We use lasers to read CDs, detect the speed of moving objects and point at chalk boards. They're also used to track satellites, trigger alarm systems and target weaponry, but lasers have still not begun to meet their true potential. A signature of science fiction, the weaponized potential of laser beams has long been a fantasy perpetuated by movies like "Star Wars." However, it has only been very recently that the technology has advanced enough to begin using lasers for military applications.

Lasers for defense 
Over the past two decades, America has been engaged in two wars and several military conflicts. During these operations, much of the armed forces' military strength has come from superior air support, especially in the form of military helicopters. Helicopters are amazingly versatile, and they can get into and out of hot zones in next to no time. However, their predictable movement patterns and propensity to hover in one spot make them significant targets for rocket and missile fire.

In order to protect these valuable assets, Omni Sciences, Inc, a University of Michigan spin-off company, has been developing laser defense systems that can protect helicopters from incoming missiles. Although the root of this technology has been around for a while, most anti-missile laser defense systems are complex in design and therefore fragile. According to Mohammed Islam, a professor in the department of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan, existing laser-based infrared countermeasures employ 84 pieces of moving optics, which means they simply are not durable enough to stand up to the turbulence associated with helicopter flight. In brief, they would literally be shaken to pieces if installed in a chopper.

Design challenges
In response to this challenge, Islam and his team of researchers set out to design a pared-down laser-defense system that could withstand the shaking, bumping and rattling associated with helicopters. The idea behind their concept was to minimize the moving parts and use technology that is relatively simple and inexpensive, so it can be replaced on the cheap if it is disabled. For this, Islam turned to off-the-shelf telecommunications fiber optics and a portable mid-infrared supercontinuum laser. Using these components, the Omni Science team was able to design a laser-defense system that can blind heat-seeking weapons from a distance of 1.8 miles.

This is accomplished thanks to the broad spectrum of wavelengths emitted by supercontinuum lasers. These devices are able to discharge tight columns of white light that emit a significant amount of heat. When targeting an inbound heat-seeking missile, the laser mimics the electromagnetic signature of a helicopter's engine, confusing the incoming weapon. This causes the missile to deviate course or detonate prematurely, thus protecting the helicopter. Moreover, because of the simple, inexpensive design, these new systems can be installed on helicopters, and they will continue to function even in the diciest conditions.

A picture of things to come
Defense is one thing, but if there is one thing that every science fiction junkie wants to see, it's a laser gun.  Although scientists at the Laser Center of the Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences and the Faculty of Physics at the University of Warsaw aren't about to release a weapon, they have taken photos of what the blasts from such a device might look like. At the Laser Center, scientists have been filming the passage of an ultra​-short laser pulse through the air. The trick to this, interestingly, is not producing the laser pulse, but rather capturing it on film. Camera technology nowhere near advanced enough to detect such a pulse - they would need to record at billions of frames per second, which is simply not feasible.

Instead, the researchers from the laser center adapted an old photography trick to their purposes. The team synchronized a camera to take a series of photos timed with a laser that generated pulses at approximately 10 shots per second. This resulted in a sequence of images that ,when they were put together, revealed a complete rendering of the laser pulse.

Capturing an instant
The laser pulses only lasted a dozen or so femtoseconds, which are millionths of a billionth of a second, and were generated by a device constructed at the laser center. The pulse was so powerful that it instantaneously ionized the atoms it encountered. The result of this ionization was a thin plasma fiber or filament that formed alongside the pulse, which acted as an insulating and focusing element. Instead of dispersing as it hit these particles, the plasma fiber focused the beam, allowing it to travel much farther than it otherwise could without diminishing its power.

Yuriy Stepanenko, team leader of the project, spoke about the findings of this experiment.

"It is worth noting that although the light we are shooting from the laser is in the near-infrared range, a laser beam like this traveling through the air changes color to white," Stepanenko explained. "This happens since the interaction of the pulse with the plasma generates light of many different wavelengths. Received simultaneously, these waves give the impression of white."

The whiteness of the pulse was an interesting finding for the team, since it provides a greater wealth of information about the atoms and molecules in the air around the pulse. This attribute has proven helpful in remotely studying atmospheric pollution among other applications.

Looking forward
Infrared lasers are one of the most low-powered variants, so the pulses generated by Stepanenko and his team are far from lethal. However, this most recent experiment does give an impression of what a blast from a laser gun may look like and how it could potentially function. 

Metamaterial research continues to open new doors for scientists

October 24, 2014

Researchers worldwide are putting great effort into developing the many applications of metamaterials. By engineering regular materials into artificial arrangements at the molecular level, scientists are able to produce materials with behaviors that are impossible to find in nature. Adjustments to a material's molecular geometry may have a significant effect on the way that light interacts with the object, improve its durability or enhance a material with useful properties like greater conductivity. The potential for discovering new material applications through molecular structure manipulation seems limitless, and recent insights discovered through metamaterial research point toward bold new possibilities.

Epsilon-near-zero applications
Basque Research reported that engineer and doctoral candidate Victor Torres, while studying at the Public University of Navarre, has invented three innovative items that take advantage of metamaterials. His work included research into the properties of epsilon-near-zero particles, which allow waves to travel through them at near-infinite speed with very little energy loss. ENZ metamaterials maintain their special properties regardless of how their molecules are geometrically arranged, making the unique material extremely versatile.

Torres developed a way to use ENZ metamaterials to produce highly efficient metallic lenses. The artificial molecular configurations that provide ENZ materials with their special characteristics also imbue lenses made from the material with greater light and radiation-focusing abilities than lenses made from traditional materials. After completing the prototype, Torres and his team developed designs for a smaller lens with comparable performance. The new lenses could help make optics experiments nationwide more cost-effective.

The second device developed by Torres was a gold and silver nanoparticle antenna. The invention detects optical frequencies in a way similar to how normal antenna intercept radio waves. Researchers can utilize the equipment to perform multiple spectroscopy detection experiments at the same time. Finally, Torres developed a new type of transmission medium by arranging metallic materials into configurations that gave the device exceptional waveband characteristics. The metamaterial configuration of the metallic medium was so effective that the device boasted performance levels exceeding those of many products on the market. Torres's ability to produce three unique metamaterial inventions reflects the boundless promise of metamaterials.

Biosensing breakthroughs
The International Society of Optics and Photonics reported that new metamaterial developments may help to accelerate innovation in neuroscience, robotics and biotechnology. Cutting-edge research fields require increasingly complex and precise sensing platforms, and metamaterials may hold the answer to meeting these needs. This is especially relevant for the biomedical industry, where metamaterial-sensing platforms could hold the secrets to next-generation contrast agents, biomarkers and wearable health devices. Advances in this field might even lead to devices that allow patients to self-diagnose conditions with high accuracy. Such technology has the potential to cause a fundamental changes in diagnostic medicine, and greatly influence the landscape of patient health across the country.

Researchers at the University of Arkansas recently published a report on ideal configurations of atomic geometry for producing materials that can act as biological sensors, said SPIE. The results showed that subwavelength structures, resonance energy of meta-atoms and interactions between photons and plasmons all play a part in developing ideal medical sensing technology. The team hopes that the technology can be implemented in the health sector to speed up diagnosis and patient treatment. Advances in the production method would make new optoelectronic devices extremely affordable, allowing even the smallest clinics to provide a full medical diagnosis. Widespread access to this device could save lives in regions with little access to advanced diagnostic equipment.

Vivid "squid skin" displays
Metamaterial research is as useful for creating innovative components for electronics as it is ideal for biomedical and industrial applications. In fact, a metamaterial experiment performed at Rice University recently produced a vivid, full-color display that rivals the richness of picture quality seen on modern LCD monitors, according to R&D Magazine. Developed by the Rice's Laboratory for Nanophotonics, the color display is a key component of an ongoing project to design a color-shifting metamaterial that acts like a squid's skin. When completed, the camouflage will detect light and automatically adjust to match the surrounding colors.

Researches arranged hundreds of aluminum nanorods into pixel configurations, making several adjustments to the length and individual spacing of each nanorod. The scientists at LANP learned that different nanorod configurations produced different hues of red, green and blue. Aluminum, chosen for the material's electromagnetic properties, was used in the nanorod arrays that comprise the display. With the help of physicists for theoretical calculations, the LANP team was able to further refine the configuration of nanorods to display more precise color. Rice researchers aim to combine the aluminum nanorod array with new precision methods for sensing and displaying light to develop a highly responsive instant camouflage.

A breakthrough in Australia draws tractor beams closer to reality

October 23, 2014

A tractor beam that works like the technology depicted in science fiction movies would have endless applications beyond luring cocksure smugglers and their furry alien friends into moon-sized space stations. Physicists and laser experts have labored for years to produce a beam of light capable of attracting and repelling matter, and are still stumped when it comes to scaling the technology for wider applications. A recent discovery by laser experts at the Australian National University may be the breakthrough that sci-fi fans and scientists alike have been searching for.

Star Wars gets real
Physicists at the Australian National University have developed a working tractor beam utilizing a single, hollow laser beam with bright edges and a dark center, according to the ANU website. Researchers have been able to move particles measuring 0.20 millimeter in diameter over a distance of up to 20 centimeters. This distance easily outpaces that of previous tractor beam experiments. Older tractor beam prototypes were only able to move particles by a fraction of the distance achieved by ANU's device, and researchers believe that the tractor beam could move particles over even longer distances if given a larger lab space. The breakthrough is so significant that Professor Wieslaw Krolikowski deemed the successful experiment as "a kind of holy grail for laser physicists."

The tractor beam designed by the Australian National University works by laser heating the particle's surface and surrounding air. The surfaces of particles trapped in the beam heats up as they are bombarded by laser, absorbing energy and producing hot spots on the surface of the particle. Air molecules, trapped in the dark center of the laser beam, collide with the heated particle surface before rebounding in another direction. This interaction impresses a recoil force on the particle, pushing it in the opposite direction of the fleeing air particles.

ANU's technique is also impressive because it employs a single laser beam to attract and repel objects. Laser physicists at the Australian National University are able to carefully control the polarization of the laser beam, subsequently manipulating where hotspots will appear on the particle being heated by the beam. The team can switch between polarization on the fly, and this flexibility allows the university's tractor beam go between pulling and pushing with ease.

An array of possibilities
Fully functional tractor beam technology would have nearly endless applications in a wide variety of industries. CNET pointed  out that the technology could be used to improve pollution collection and help clean up the atmosphere. Alternatively, scientists could use the device to collect samples of dangerous particles from a safe distance. The technology has potential for advancing medical science as well. The New Yorker noted that such a device could improve the effectiveness of medicinal treatment by holding a targeted drug delivery systems in place within the body. With luck, the technology will one day assist astronauts to manipulate objects in outer space.

Recent tractor beam discoveries
NASA took up the challenge of designing a working tractor beam in 2011. The organization invested $100,000 to investigate three methods that showed promise in developing tractor beam technology that could collect and transport items directly to a containment unit. The tool would be a priceless addition to any planet rover or sample-collecting satellite.

The first approach NASA researched was the use of two beams of light to produce an optical vortex. The approach utilized a set of two lasers tuned to different intensities. Scientists were able to move particles caught in the overlap between the two lasers. Another strategy took advantage of electromagnetic properties to drive objects along a light-beam, and this approach showed promise for use in atmosphereless space. NASA also tested a laser beam that moves matter by emitting electric and magnetic fields in the object's path.

The University of St. Andrews and the Institute of Instruments later made a tractor beam breakthrough of their own as recently as January of 2013, according to the school's website. The technique developed by the two organizations generates a unique optical field that manipulates light's radiation pressure on matter trapped in the beam. Light photos naturally exert positive pressure on miniscule matter particles, guiding tiny particles along with the flow of light. The team's research revealed that it is possible to reverse light's radiation pressure under certain conditions.

These conditions are unique to each object, controlled by the particle's size and chemical properties. Scientists also observed that certain conditions influence particles into a configuration that actually reinforces the strength of the laser. A combination of this research and the new device developed by the Australian National University could transform tractor beam technology from bright idea to mainstream.

Rapid advances in 3-D bioprinting rewrite the script for surgery

October 20, 2014

Scientists have had access to methods for creating organs using 3-D printing technology for several years, and the technology is finally beginning to reach its initial stages of maturity. One notable breakthrough that could act as a turning point for the bioprinting community is the recent development of a cost-effective bioprinter by biotech company BioBots and the University of Pennsylvania, according to 3DPrint. The device will be able to put affordable 3-D bioprinting devices in the hands of researchers and non-scientists alike, and this expanded accessibility is bound to help drive innovation.

New technology controls research costs
Any research institution or amateur bioengineer will soon be able to beta test a device designed to print multiple forms of tissue for just $5,000, thanks to research lead by BioBots CEO Daniel Cabrera. The BioBots 3-D printer employs both U-V light and "Blue Light" to harden tissues as they are printed. The printer is able to switch between over a dozen types of tissue and non-organic scaffolding materials on the fly, greatly expanding the complexity of the organs the device can produce.

​In addition to the 3-D bioprinter, BioBots will provide beta testers with several resources in an effort to support innovation by private health organizations and research universities. Those accepted into the beta test will also receive a one-year service agreement from BioBots, software resources and the ability the showcase any developments at BioBots' many scheduled appearances at several upcoming research conferences. Research institutions that are not accepted into the beta test will still be able to purchase the 3-D printer and its peripheral equipment for $25,000. BioBots also promises to provide testers with online channels for collaboration purposes. This widespread testing with the BioBots is sure to help to support current 3-D bioprinting research by cutting costs and streamlining the production of organic tissue.

3-D models provide tools for surgeons
One application where the new BioBots 3-D printer can have an immediate impact is the development of model organs for surgeons. Wired UK reported that surgeons at Kosair's Children's Hospital in Kentucky are utilizing 3-D printing technology to build organs based on the patient's affected tissue. The near-identical model of the heart can be used to give surgeons realistic, hands-on practice with a patient's organ's without performing invasive surgery. This priceless opportunity to simulate surgery's without risking the health of the patients will give surgeons worldwide a significant advantage in completing difficult surgeries once the technique is readily accessible. The price of the BioBots bioprinter will help to put this technique within reach for a larger number of health facilities.

Refining techniques to scale
Widespread access to BioBots' versatile 3-D printer could also help to drive the development of more accurate bioprinters that are closer to producing organs that seamlessly integrate into a patient's body. Modern 3-D bioprinting techniques have been used to create usable implants in orthopedic medicine, but the technology is still limited when it comes to producing functional organs that could be safely implanted into a patient.

Randy Haluck, a surgeon at Penn State Hershey Medical Center, recently offered perspective on the where current 3-D printing technology needs improvement at the school's Bio Life Sciences Future conference, says MedCity News. Haluck noted that the organs produced by current 3-D bioprinters "look more like the organs they're representing rather than function like them" and "need to be about 200 microns from a blood vessel." The BioBots 3-D printer, far cheaper than similar devices on the market that commonly cost as much as $250,000, will be instrumental in helping researchers to refine the 3-D bioprinting techniques and create functioning human organs.

Cutting-edge batteries can charge completely in minutes

October 17, 2014

Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries have become an integral part of everyday life. The innovative batteries can be found in smart phones, power drills, wheelchairs, digital camcorders, portable game consoles, consumer vehicles and space rovers. Lithium-ion batteries are used extensively despite key flaws, including their short life cycle and lengthy charge time, but a new breakthrough by researchers at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University may have helped to minimize these weaknesses. A team led by association professor Chen Xiaodong has invented a new lithium-ion battery that boasts a lifespan of two decades and can be charged to 70 percent in just two minutes.

Nanoparticles key to innovation
Integral to the discovery of quick-charging lithium-ion batteries was the development of a titanium oxide gel used to replace a lithium battery's graphite anode, according to CNET. The gel, comprised of titanium oxide nanoparticles, is able to bond with the battery's electrodes without the need for chemical additives. Eliminating this extra step from the chemical process allows the battery developed by NTU to charge substantially faster than traditional batteries. Professor Chen, who also invented the nanoparticle gel, is currently seeking a Proof-of-Concept grant to develop the new battery at industry scale, according to the Nanyang Technological University website.

Charged with potential
NTU's battery is expected to make its way to the market within two years. Not surprisingly, the innovation has already attracted interest from manufacturers - the list of potential applications for Chen's quick-charging battery is extensive. The discovery has even been praised by famed professor Rachid Yazami, co-developer of the very lithium-graphite anode technology that NTU's titanium dioxide gel was designed to replaced. The battery pioneer, who changed the face of battery design three decades ago, noted that the invention is key for the next generation of battery-powered cars.

CNET noted that the new batteries could allow electrical vehicles to theoretically charge 20 times less often than current litium-ion technology. The increased lifespan of the batteries would ease costs on consumers by requiring fewer and fewer battery replacements over the course of ownership. Reducing the need for replacement batteries will help to slow the production of waste materials as well. If NTU's new battery can address the major shortcomings of electric vehicles, then the invention may also be responsible for new advances in sustainable vehicle design.

Versatile titanium dioxide
Professor Chen's battery is just one of the many areas of research where scientists have found novel use for titanium dioxide nanoparticles. The chemical is cheaply acquired and easy to form into nanostructures, making factory-scale production of products like lithium-ion batteries feasible. Titanium dioxide nanoparticles are also especially adept at the absorption of various toxic chemicals, which makes the material ideal for several industrial and environmental solutions.

Plastic News reported that a team at Johnson Controls Inc. is currently studying the effectiveness of titanium oxide nanoparticles for the removal of volatile organic compounds from car interiors. Researchers hope to use a coating of titanium oxide nanoparticles to remove traces of chemicals used to seal and finish new car interiors. Overexposure to such chemicals can cause adverse health reactions, and manufacturers are required by the EPA to minimize emissions of VOCs.

The ability of titanium dioxide to purify waste materials may even be improved in the near future. Scientists at Tabriz University have found that producing titanium dioxide nanoparticles on a bed of montmorillonite produced a superior decontaminate particle, notes Nanotechnology Now. The composite nanoparticle displayed an even smaller diameter than normal titanium dioxide and was capable of removing 80 percent of test waste from a compromised water source.