Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 21, 2012

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Issue 21, 2012

This week's headlines:

Liquid protein challenges importance of water
August 09, 2012

Water, water everywhere - but at least one protein can function without the wet stuff. Researchers from the University of Bristol, UK, swapped the coating of water on myoglobin proteins - which normally carry oxygen to muscle and give raw meat its red colour - with a synthetic polymer that acts as a surfactant, effectively turning the proteins into a viscous liquid with the consistency of thick treacle.

Then they used a neutron-scattering technique to observe how well the proteins could move, a measure of their proper functioning. They found that the protein-polymer hybrids moved as well as proteins in water, remaining flexible and exhibiting the usual internal dynamics. Importantly, they could still bind oxygen as well as myoglobin does in living tissue. The finding overturns the dogma that water is the most important biological molecule.

Previous studies have shown that modifying proteins with polymers can lead to therapeutic applications. For example, applying a polyethylene glycol (PEG) coating - a process known as PEGylation - can mask a protein and help it avoid rejection by the immune system. But where previous studies have required some kind of solvent for the protein to function, the Bristol team were able to observe proteins functioning normally in an entirely solvent-free environment.

Among the applications the team intends to explore are wound dressings in which the liquid protein is applied like a paste. It could then act like an oxygen pump, with a chemical reaction between the protein layer and a glucose membrane drawing oxygen down through the dressing to the surface of the skin.

Full story: New Scientist / Journal of the American Chemical Society Back to top

New screen lets users go glasses-free
August 10, 2012

Head-mounted computer displays, such as Google's Glass project, may sound fun and exciting. But how is such a device going to fit for people who wear glasses? One research group's proposed technology may help, altering the images on a device screen so they are clearer for people with nearsightedness, farsightedness, cataracts and other eye conditions - even when they are not wearing glasses.

Such a device could go into watches to wear during workouts - when many people don't like to wear glasses - or in car dashboards for people who would normally wear reading glasses, said Vitor Pamplona, a computer scientist and co-founder of EyeNetra, an eye care technology company.

When holding a smartphone or another device at a natural distance, nearsighted people can't see the screen clearly because their eyes focus at a point in the air too near, in front of where the phone's screen actually is. Farsighted people's eyes naturally focus at a point farther away than the phone and can't focus closely enough to see the screen.

To make up for these problems, Pamplona's program takes people's eyeglass prescriptions and finds where in the air their eyes focus without corrective lenses. The program then projects images at that point, so people can see them. The program helps those with cataracts by measuring which light rays a person's cataracts interfere with, then blocking those rays from entering the eye.

With this system, the device doesn't have to be calibrated for just one person. Instead, different people could create accounts with their saved prescription information. To activate the image-adjusting program, they would log in to their own accounts.

Full story: MSNBC Back to top

Clog-free inkjet printer nozzle inspired by the human eye
July 16, 2012

Inkjet printer can sit idle for weeks or even months before being called into service. And when it is called upon, the long break between print jobs means the print heads are usually clogged and an ink-wasting head clean needs to be performed. Taking inspiration from the human eye, researchers at the University of Missouri have developed a print nozzle that prevents the ink inside from drying out when not in use.

To keep the surface of our eyeballs moist, our eyelids spread a film of oil that prevents a thin layer of tears from evaporating. Recognizing that the same principle could be used to keep ink from drying out in the print nozzle opening, the researchers developed a system that uses a droplet of oil to block air from getting to the ink in the nozzle and drying it out.

Because mechanical shutters like eyelids would not work at the small scale of the inkjet nozzle, as the droplet would stay in place thanks to surface tension, the system uses an electric field to move the droplet of oil in and out of place. The technology could be adapted for use in other devices in which the material being sprayed through the nozzle is even more valuable and expensive than ink - hard as that may be to believe, such substances do exist, according to the researchers.

Full story: Gizmag / University of Missouri Back to top

Unused inventions get a crowdsourced creative spark
August 08, 2012

Got an inventive mind and feel like making a few thousand pounds? Then you might have some fun with, a website that will go live in late August. The site will ask users to suggest lucrative uses for 'underexploited' patented technologies - with cash prizes of up to USD 15,000 for the best ideas.

Marblar is getting universities on board, as well as UK organisations like the Medical Research Council and the Science and Technology Facilities Council, all of which have patented technologies that they would like to squeeze more cash out of.

To test the idea, Marblar posted a technique patented by the University of Southampton that allows DNA nucleotides to be knitted together without using an enzyme. Days later, a University of Cambridge academic hit on a new use for the technique in screening potential DNA-based therapies.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

'Smart fingertips' pave way for virtual sensations
August 09, 2012

Imagine feeling like you're lifting a 50-kilogram weight just by pulling at thin air. That is just one of the possible applications of new 'smart fingertips' created by researchers from the University of Illinois. The team hopes to one day incorporate the devices into a smart glove that creates virtual sensations, fooling the brain into feeling everything from texture to temperature.

Scientists have already developed circuits that stimulate our sense of touch. The devices work by sending electric currents to receptors in the skin, which interpret them as real sensations. But most of these circuits are built on flat, rigid surfaces that cannot bend, stretch, or fold.

Hoping to create circuits with the flexibility of skin, the team cut up nanometre-sized strips of silicon; implanted thin, wavy strips of gold to conduct electricity; and mounted the entire circuit in a stretchable, spider web-type mesh of polymer as a support. They then embedded the circuit-polyimide structure onto a hollow tube of silicone that had been fashioned in the shape of a finger. The researchers flipped the structure so that the circuit, which was once on the outside of the tube, was on the inside where it could touch a finger placed against it.

To test the electronic fingers, the researchers put them on and pressed flat objects, such as the top of their desks. The pressure created electric currents that were transferred to the skin, which the researchers felt as mild tingling. That is a first step in creating electrical signals that could be sent to the fingers, which could virtually recreate sensations such as heat, pressure, and texture.

Full story: Science / Nanotechnology Back to top

Sewage-munching microbes may generate electricity
August 09, 2012

Microbes used to treat human waste might also generate enough electricity to power whole sewage plants, scientists hope. The technology is based on the relatively new science of electro-microbiology that is finding uses for the discovery that certain microbes can generate an electrical current outside their own cells.

In the context of sewage treatment, they would purify waste water by consuming the organic matter in it and use that energy to generate a current that can be harvested and stored. Co-author of the research, Bruce Logan of Pennsylvania State University, compared the process he is developing to the movie The Matrix, where humans are hooked up to machines to provide electrical power.

The technique has sparked interest from companies including Siemens and General Electric, as well as a number of small startup firms. There are some major hurdles, including the high cost of making the devices needed and improving their efficiency and power capacity.

The same technique could see microbes used to generate biofuels, hydrogen gas, methane and other valuable chemicals from the cheap and abundant product of our trips to the bathroom, say Logan and fellow researcher Korneel Rabaey from the University of Ghent in Belgium.

Full story: Reuters / Science Back to top