Monday, October 15, 2012

What's cool on sci & tech this week via G+

Luis David Alcaraz shared Mark Bruce's post with you.
SciTech #ScienceSunday Digest - Week 41 of 2012
A Top 10 selection of the scientific and technological advances that I discovered this week.

1. Engineering The Most Complex Synthetic Biology Circuit.
The most complex synthetic biology circuit ever build has been created by researchers at MIT http://www.mit.edu/newsoffice/2012/complex-biological-circuit-1007.html. The key breakthrough to enable this was characterising and designing biological circuit components that don’t interfere with each other; the necessary jumbling together of such protein-based components in the cell had seriously hampered such efforts in the past. The circuit comprises four different protein-based sensors for four different molecules, which could instruct a cell to respond to these molecules in the environment by behaving in a certain way. With the new tools and techniques developed by the team to achieve this advance they now believe it will be possible to incorporate hundreds of synthetic circuit elements. This hot space just got hotter.

2. Graphene Chips Controllably Doped With Light.
By using plasmonic nanoantennas and quantum dots attached to sheets of graphene, researchers demonstrated that sheets of graphene can be n -type or p -type doped at will simply by shining light of an appropriate wavelength onto the chip http://www.nanowerk.com/spotlight/spotid=26946.php. This presents the possibility of graphene computer chips that are selectively and reversibly amenable to doping, a graphene sheet with circuitry that can be written and erased at will depending on the pattern, wavelength, angle, or polarisation of incident light. There was lots of other news about graphene:
* Graphene for trapping and packing molecular structures http://www.research.a-star.edu.sg/research/6570
* Graphene combined with a polymer to replace ITO in displays http://www.research.a-star.edu.sg/research/6567
* Synthesising graphene films with a standard DVD player / laser http://www.rsc.org/chemistryworld/News/2012/March/graphene-dvd-player-burn-supercapacitor.asp
* Graphene membranes with pore for selective gas separation http://www.colorado.edu/news/releases/2012/10/08/graphene-membranes-may-lead-enhanced-natural-gas-production-less-co2
* Using graphene as a tunnel barrier for spintronics http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/news/2012/oct/08/graphene-tunnel-barrier-makes-its-debut

3. Measurements to Detect Whether the Universe is a Simulation.
The Simulation Hypothesis has garnered quite a bit of interest over the last couple of months, seeming to rise from obscurity of sorts to reach a wider audience. This week we had physicists proposing how we might find evidence that our Universe is a simulation http://www.technologyreview.com/view/429561/the-measurement-that-would-reveal-the-universe-as/. The basic idea stems from knowledge of what we currently know of how our own (limited) simulations are put together and depend on their superposition on a discrete three dimensional lattice. The physicists hypothesise that if our Universe is a simulation subject to its own three dimensional lattice, then the lattice spacing would impart limits on the energy that particles can have, and probing this energy or energies beyond it might suggest evidence for such a simulated reality. In related news on the nature of our Universe, researchers present an interesting new theory of everything that includes at its core topology and symmetry http://www.technologyreview.com/view/429528/topology-the-secret-ingredient-in-the-latest/.

4. The Latest Robotic Bee Gains New Abilities.
Robotics researchers have further developed their miniature robotic bee to give the little autonomous flying machine the ability to pitch and roll and so steer in different directions http://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/robotics-hardware/harvard-robobees-learn-to-steer-mostly. This work follows on from last week’s announcement of a project to map and simulate the brain of a bee, and which could well find a home one day in this little flying machine. Development still has a way to go - to incorporate feedback and finer control - but the vision of unleashing tens of millions of these little devices in a massive distributed sensor / communications swarm no longer seems far fetched.

5. Next Generation Deep Brain Implants to be Trialled Next Year.
Medtronic has developed and will next year trial the next generation of its commercially successful and widely adopted implantable deep-brain stimulation device http://www.technologyreview.com/news/429549/brain-implant-detects-responds-to-epilepsy/. The current device, which now resides in 80,000 people (cyborgs?) and counting, is mainly used to regulate and help control movement problems associated with Parkinson’s Disease and epilepsy. The next generation device will be able to accurately sense electrical activity in the brain and automatically adjust its stimulation activity to maintain an optimal level; it could for example turn itself off when the patient is asleep or activate a stronger response if the patient’s symptoms grew stronger. In related news the FDA approved a novel implantable defibrillator http://singularityhub.com/2012/10/09/lives-saved-on-the-go-fda-approves-implantable-defibrillator/.

6. Probing Quantum Superpositions Without Destroying Them.
By making constant weak measurements of a quantum system, researchers were able to probe a fragile quantum state without destroying it http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn22336-quantum-measurements-leave-schrodingers-cat-alive.html. This was previously proposed “in principle” but the group only recently reduced the ideas to practice by very briefly measuring the frequency of oscillation of the quantum state that had been induced into a superposition. While their probe changed the system slightly, by introducing a second, opposite probe they were able to return the system to the state it had before the probe. This is considered an early step, but a big step forward in feedback control of an individual qubit.

7. Stem Cells Used to Regenerate the Myelin Sheaths of Neurons.
The results of a Phase 1 human clinical trial show that neural stem cells transplanted into the brains of people with Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease can begin producing the myelin sheaths that these patients lack http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/32794/title/Stem-Cells-Myelinate-Human-Brain/. Such a treatment would also be of particular use for sufferers of Multiple Sclerosis, and given the decline of myelination with age this would also be a particularly useful anti-aging treatment for maintaining normal cognitive function. In related news researchers demonstrate a drug that treats neurodegeneration by increasing neural plasticity and inducing more connections between neurons http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2012-10/wsu-pad101012.php.

8. The Wonders of Metal-Organic Frameworks for Gas Storage & Separation.
Metal-Organic Frameworks have the highest surface-area of any known substance but wide industrial adoption has been held back due to costly synthesis methods. With the development of a novel synthesis technique that allows a simple scaled-up production process, full commercialisation is now being pursued by a University spin-out company http://www.qub.ac.uk/home/ceao/News/Title,343081,en.html. Opportunities to be addressed include carbon capture, hazardous gas storage, natural gas processing, and hydrocarbon separation. MOFs are able to store gas in such a way that it takes up far less space than it would otherwise at the same pressure.

9. Using a Pencil to Draw a Carbon-Nanotube Enabled Gas Sensor.
Researchers have shown that low-cost and durable carbon nanotube sensors can be drawn and etched with normal mechanical pencils http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2012/drawing-with-a-carbon-nanotube-pencil-1009.html. By replacing the graphite of a pencil with a compressed powder of carbon nanotubes the sensor can be drawn onto any surface by connecting the terminals of a printed circuit; current from a low-voltage power supply gives a measure of the change in resistance of the circuit caused by a particular gas binding to the carbon nanotubes. Selectivity for other gases can be altered by binding metal ions or polymers to the carbon nanotubes before compression.

10. Ultra-smooth Surfaces Key to Next Generation Self-Assembled High-Density Data Storage.
Researchers have determined the level of surface smoothness (and techniques to help attain that smoothness) required for efficient self-assembly of materials (including block copolymers) to form surface-based nano-structures capable of powering the next generation of data storage technologies http://www.a-star.edu.sg/?TabId=828&articleType=ArticleView&articleId=1719. They are actively pursuing the goal of 10 Terabits per square inch.

Bonus: If this isn't enough you should check out +Matthew J Price's Huge Backlog of Awesome https://plus.google.com/u/0/109559402054396129967/posts/8QZoUddp9VN, guaranteed to blow your mind with even more amazing advances!

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