Archive for the ‘Ingenious engineering’ Category

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Anyone recalls that Futurama episode where Professor Farnsworth builds a Smell-O-Scope to search the galaxy and Jupiter smells like strawberries? Turns out it’s not such a crazy idea. In fact, scientists from the Max Plank Institute used the IRAM radio telescope in Spain to study a dust cloud near the center of the galaxy and, guess what? it smells like raspberries … and rum. Yummy! I knew I liked astronomy for a reason.

 NASA JPL/Caltech/Univ. of Wisconsin

Apparently, the chemicals they found in those clouds include ethyl formate, the dominant flavor in raspberries and a key one in rum, although there are other molecules that might mess up with the smell.

Of course, scientists do not actually smell those clouds: they identify the chemicals and map them into familiar earth compounds just to explain what they’ve found. One would think — booo-riiing. But we could actually very well build a smell-o-scope under these premises.

In 1932 Huxley’s book Brave New World, he proposed full sensory movies called “feelies”. The key idea is that smells are due to volatile molecules called odorants that constantly evaporate and reach our olfactory receptors. In the early 1950s, Hans Laube actually created the Smell-O-Vision, by pumping into tiny tubes spread around a theater a combination of 30 different smells including flowers, garlic, smoke, oranges, etc.  The process had to be steadily controlled to avoid residual smells and the concept did not catch.

Nevertheless, half a century later, there is still people working on smell interfaces, like Meta Cookie or the Smelling screen. The idea is the same (odorant containers released in a sequence) but systems are more portable. So, in theory, if we identify some molecules in a far away galaxy, we can release LOCALLY the smell that they are supposed to yield straight to the observer’s nose.

Now, on a smaller scale, believe it or not, Denver cops have been using what they call Nasal Ranger Field Olfactometer since they legalized marijuana to enforce the so called “odor-ordinance”. In this case, the device indeed enhances smells so they can be detected at 500:1 ratio. This works as long as one is within the smell source range, so no raspberries for us – duh

Anyway, all in all, if one combines whatever the telescope finds with a smell interface … duh, Smell-O-Scope, everyone. If it’s in Futurama, it’s technically sound 🙂

More on the raspberry-er Center of the Galaxy (The Guardian)
More on Smell Interfaces (Sensoree)
More on Olfactometer (St Croix Sensory)

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Before he appeared in Matrix, Keanu Reeves already had a name in scifi flicks. Most of you probably recall cyber-punk movie Johnny Mnemonic: “320 Gb of stolen data wetwired directly into his brain”. We are not there yet, but there have been some advances into wetwiring things into the brain that deserve a post.

Facts are that the University of Southern California has reported the possibility of an implant available to patients in five to 10 years that might help people with localized brain damage, like patients after a stroke. The idea follows a black box model, like cochlear implants do: scientists study the brain to check how memories are stored. This process involves the activation of sets of neurons specifically in the hippocampus, where short-term memories become long-term ones. A sequence of activations triggers another set of neurons in a healthy area. It is not necessary to understand why, just to associate the input and output areas. Damaged areas, however, can not generate the input sequence. Hence, a set of electrodes and a control chip (to activate them in a particular order) are inserted into the damaged area to replicate what it can not do anymore. If everything works right, the brain does not mind whether the input neurons activated themselves or where triggered by electrodes: it will respond equally to both stimuli as long as both input sequences are the same. Think, for example, of Internet access in your smartphone: if you’are at home, the phone is most likely connected to your WiFi, whereas on the street it will be connected via 3G or GPRS. One most likely ignores how WiFi or 3G work on the inside -and does not really care-, as long as they replace each other appropriately to grant that we receive IMs in our cell phone. Similarly, it won’t matter if it was our brain cells or a chip who did the trick as long as we can recall where we left the bloody keys.

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The idea of implanting a device in our brains to deliver current to our neurons may look a bit queasy, but in fact there are already similar devices working today to treat epilepsy (see image below) and Parkinson. The problem is actually that the current version of the hardware required to do the trick is by no means tiny at the moment, so we are at least 10 years away from the plug and play version of this technology.

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One could still be skeptical about the capacity to map sequences of activation/deactivation in something so small and numerous as neurons. However, researchers at MIT and Georgia Tech have reported an automatic process to find and record such information in the living brain. They propose to use a robotic arm guided by a cell-detecting computer algorithm to do the task with micrometer accuracy. The arm moves a pipette in two-micrometer steps to detect cells, preventing it to poke through the membrane. Then, a electrode can break through the membrane in a safe way to record its internal electrical activity. They are now are now working on scaling up the number of electrodes to record multiple neurons at a time and see how they work together. Their ultimate goal is to classify the thousands of different types of cells in the brain, map how they connect to each other, and figure out how damaged cells differ from normal ones.

Combining these two scientific outcomes, one can see how they plan to bypass the hippocampus. We are probably not wetwiring gigabits to our brains, but we are probably one step closer to dreaming with electric sheep.

See more about Ted Berger’s research on his website.
See more about the robotic arm on MIT News.

One of the things I recall best from Mass Effect 2 is the awesome start video introducing Project Lazarus, where the main character is reconstructed from his/her charred remains after a fatal incident by a scientific team and awesome robotic equipment.

Whereas the Frankenstein approach to the problem looks a bit excessive even for scifi standards, we have seen similar scenes in many scenarios where the patient was still alive. It is easy to recall the bacta tanks in Star Wars, where people is submerged in a healing agent, but our focus today is Private Rico, from Starship Troopers, instead. Why? Because there is actually a robot regenerating the tissue of his leg to fix it. And because there is research in that direction nowadays.

It all starts with 3D printing (stereolithography), a concept invented by Chuck Hull  in the 80s, when he founded 3D Systems, Inc. 3D printing basically consists of designing an object with a CAD program and supplying it to the printer software to be sliced into thin planes. Then, the printer hardware recreates the object layer by layer by recreating each plane on top of the next using rubber, plastics, paper, metals and more. This is typically achieved by heating up the material and sending it as a filament to a extruder, that moves over the plane according to whatever shape the software wants to recreate.

So far, so good. If you are a hobbyist, you can actually purchase a basic 3D plastic printer for 400 USD (if you don’t mind to construct it yourself from the components). If you want something more complex or in a different material, there are many companies out there that will print it for you if you provide the CAD design. However, the real kick comes when someone starts to wonder how far 3D printing can be taken.

As was to be expected, someone already wondered what would happen if, instead of inorganic stuff, we fed the 3D printer with something organic. Obviously, the first design was a chocolate printer, but, shortly after, doctors and engineers started to think about the possibility of actually printing human tissue. And, believe it or not, there are even companies like Organovo engaged in this kind of product.

The living tissue 3D printing process involves 3 different research areas:

– First, it is necessary to determine which materials to use in order to print a given item. This process is far from easy and, in fact, may require molecular analysis to determine how it is formed.  Once the proper combination of living cells for the (piece of) organ to be printed are available, we are ready to feed them to the organic 3D printer.

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-Second, it is necessary to create the proper CAD models of the tissue to be printed. Realistic models are not that easy to come by. For example, the structure of bone has been recently decoded by MIT researchers and revealed to be a complex combination of collagen and mineral forms into a nano composite that creates a very tough, strong and reliable material (see image above). Needless to say, this information would become really handy for bone transplantation and orthopaedic surgery. The image below presents liver tissue as bioprinted by Organovo.

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– Finally, when the CAD model and the required cells are available, a special kind of 3D printer is needed. However, the technology below the bioprinter is very similar to your everyday plastic ones. According to Michael Renard (Organovo):

“Tissues are built layer by layer, using a combination of hydrogel and cell aggregates deposited in specific spatial arrangements that are programmed into the bioprinter. A wide variety of shapes and orientations can be created using the combination of these materials.

When you deposit cells they have to be the right cells and in the right biological state; the hydrogel holds them in the right place. Then the cells fuse, form junctions, and the hydrogel can be removed to yield a tangible piece of material made up entirely of human cells.”

It is not time to get our hopes too high yet. At the moment, they are growing small parts like a small piece of blood vessel or liver. Organovo expects results like nerve grafts, patches to assist a heart condition, blood vessel segments, or cartilage for a degenerating joint in the next 10 years, but reports that more complex organs are not to be expected in the next 20. However, in the meantime, scientists from Princeton and John Hopkins report to have printed a bionic ear, although all hearing capacity is provided by sensors and they also acknowledge that it is far from something a human can use.

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Now, about the ethics considerations, it might be advisable to note that the main big targets of this kind of technology are transplants -possibly using the receptor’s tissue as a model for the printed one- and testing on living tissue. Whereas it undoubtfully seems better to use printed stuff than animals for these applications, it might bring to the mind of the most paranoid readers movies like the Island or comicbooks like World of Krypton.

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