Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 14, 2017

This is the online version of UNU-MERIT’s I&T Weekly which is sent out by email every Friday. If you wish to subscribe to this free service, please submit your email address in the box to the right.

Issue 14, 2017

This week's headlines:

3D-printed ovaries successfully restore mouse's fertility
May 17, 2017

Scientists form Northwestern University have used 3D-printed ovaries to successfully restore fertility for the first time.

A female mouse's ovaries were removed and replaced with 3D printed bioprosthetic ones using gelatine as the 'ink' and using eggs from different mice - enabling it to ovulate, conceive pups and give birth.

Scientists hope to use 3D-printed ovaries to restore fertility and hormone production in women - particularly those who have undergone cancer treatment, or had childhood cancer.

The research used 3D printing to produce the mice ovaries because it can be scalable and amendable to changes in size, architecture or materials that may be required for success in humans.

Full story: ABC News Back to top

Scientists develop the most efficient water-splitting catalyst yet
May 17, 2017

Scientists from the University of Houston have found a new way to split water into hydrogen and oxygen that's cheap and effective - and it may lead to an abundance of clean hydrogen fuel in the future.

Hydrogen is a big source for clean energy, but the challenge is making enough of it to be efficient and practical price. A newly developed catalyst now reportedly addresses both issues, boasting more efficiency for a lower cost than existing solutions.

To split water into hydrogen and oxygen, two reactions are needed - one for each element. The main issue has been getting an efficient catalyst for the oxygen part of the equation. The new catalyst is made up of a ferrous metaphosphate and a conductive nickel foam platform, a combination of materials the team says is more efficient and less expensive than existing solutions. It can also operate for more than 20 hours and 10,000 cycles without a hitch.

Using the new method means hydrogen can be produced without creating waste carbon. And until now, oxygen reactions have often relied on electrocatalysts that use iridium, platinum, or ruthenium - 'noble' metals that are difficult and expensive to source. Nickel, in contrast, is more abundant and so easier and cheaper to get.

Full story: Science Alert / PNAS Back to top

New sunscreen features melanin-mimicking nanoparticles
May 17, 2017

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego have created a sunscreen that both mimics and enhances the skin's natural protective abilities.

The team were able to tap into the skin's defence mechanisms using nanoparticles of oxidised dopamine. Tests showed the particles mimic melanosomes, the organelle in skin cells that synthesizes, stores and transports melanin. Researchers first developed the nanoparticles two years ago while studying the behaviour of melanins in bird feathers.

Researchers believe their breakthrough could yield treatments for vitiligo and albinism, diseases caused by defects in the body's melanin production system. Patients diagnosed with vitiligo and albinism are at a much higher risk of skin cancer.

Melanosomes are produced by cells called melanocytes, found among the bottom layers of the epidermis. The organelles deliver melanin to keratinocytes, skin cells in the upper layer of the epidermis. There, melanin goes to work protecting skin cells from ultraviolet radiation.

In lab tests using tissue culture, researchers showed the nanoparticles are absorbed and distributed throughout keratinocytes just like natural melanin. The nanoparticles also protected skin cells from DNA damage caused by ultraviolet radiation.

Full story: UPI / ACS Central Science Back to top

Plasma jet engines that could take you from the ground to space
May 17, 2017

Forget fuel-powered jet engines. We're on the verge of having aircraft that can fly from the ground up to the edge of space using air and electricity alone.

Traditional jet engines create thrust by mixing compressed air with fuel and igniting it. The burning mixture expands rapidly and is blasted out of the back of the engine, pushing it forwards. Instead of fuel, plasma jet engines use electricity to generate electromagnetic fields. These compress and excite a gas into a plasma - a hot, dense ionised state similar to that inside a fusion reactor or star.

Plasma engines have been stuck in the lab for the past decade or so. And research on them has largely been limited to the idea of propelling satellites once in space. Researchers from the Technical University of Berlin now want to fit plasma engines to planes. The challenge was to develop an air-breathing plasma propulsion engine that could be used for take-off as well as high-altitude flying.

Plasma jet engines tend to be designed to work in a vacuum or the low pressures found high in the atmosphere, where they would need to carry a gas supply. But the team has tested one that can operate on air at a pressure of one atmosphere.

Full story: Journal of Physics Conference Series Back to top

Hydrogen-bond strength measured directly
May 15, 2017

The first direct measurements of the strength of hydrogen bonds in individual molecules have been claimed by an international team of physicists. Unlike chemical bonds, which involve the sharing or transfer of electrons, hydrogen bonds are dipole-dipole interactions between certain molecules containing hydrogen. As well as playing key roles in defining the properties of proteins and nucleic acids, hydrogen bonds are also responsible for the relatively high boiling point of water.

Researchers from the University of Basel in Switzerland and Aalto University in Finland used an atomic force microscope (AFM) to study hydrogen bonds in molecules called propellanes - which arrange themselves on surfaces such that two hydrogen atoms are pointing upwards. Their AFM tip comprised a single oxygen atom, which was positioned so close to a propellane molecule that a hydrogen bond formed between the oxygen atom and the two hydrogen atoms.

Then, the AFM was used to measure the strength of the bond as a function of the separation between the oxygen and hydrogen atoms. The measurements confirmed that the hydrogen bond is much weaker than chemical bonds, but much stronger than van der Waals forces - which is a dipolar interaction that is weaker than hydrogen bonding. The measurements were also in agreement with calculations of bond strength done by members of the team. The technique could be used to identify 3D molecules such as DNA and polymers.

Full story: Physics World / Science Advances Back to top

Portable translator converts text to braille in real-time
May 19, 2017

Students at MIT have designed a portable device that converts text to braille in real-time. Their first prototype was created in a 15-hour hackathon in early 2016. Since that time, the device, called Tactile, has undergone extensive development. Now, it's the size of a candy bar and completely portable. The students have applied for a patent for the device, although they are already working on its next iteration.

What really sets Tactile apart from other braille translators, though, is its low cost. Most of these devices are expensive, and limited to the translation of text that is available digitally. For example, the HumanWare Braillant attaches to a computer or mobile device to translate text into braille, and it costs USD 2,595. Tactile's creators hope to sell their device for less than USD 200.

The students have plans to improve Tactile. If they're successful, this would make the device simpler to use and eliminate the reader's need to remember where they are on the page.

Tactile, which should be on the market within two years, will make any book in any library accessible to those who do understand braille - and it will also make braille itself far more accessible and easy to learn.

Full story: Science Alert Back to top