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5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Samantha Shaddock
July 28, 2017
A tough, new plastic could allow astronauts to 3D print satellites in space and launch them from the International Space Station, Australian researchers are developing a 3D-printable gel that can heal itself, and biomedical engineers created implantable liver “seeds” that sprouted into fully functional organs in mice. We can work with this material.
Ain’t That Tough Enough?

 width= Top and above: 3D printing tools on demand is a no-brainer for astronauts at the International Space Station, but currently available "inks" don't stand up well to conditions outside the station. A new plastic could solve that problem. Images credit: Made in Space.

What is it? An American startup company has developed a new plastic that allows astronauts to 3D print specialized tools that are strong enough for use both inside and outside the International Space Station.

Why does it matter? Astronauts need a slew of tools on hand for the myriad and sometimes unexpected tasks they perform. But getting them into orbit is a costly affair. 3D printing the tools onsite partially solves this problem, but traditional printer “inks” aren’t hardy enough to withstand conditions outside the station.

How does it work? A startup called Made In Space has created a tough new plastic called PEI/PC, which stands for polyetherimide/polycarbonate, that reportedly is several times stronger than plastics previously used on the ISS. "In a vacuum, [PEI/PC] is not going to [emit particles], it's resistant to the UV environment, it's resistant to atomic oxygen, so it can perform actual uses in space," says Matt Napoli, vice president of Made In Space. Eventually the company hopes astronauts can use PEI/PC to build satellites onsite and launch them directly from the ISS.


Protein Power

 width= Electricity and carbon dioxide are all that's needed to make this protein. The catch: Right now, it takes two weeks to make just 1 gram. Image credit: Lappeenranta University of Technology

What is it? Finnish scientists have figured out how to make a single-cell protein using just carbon dioxide and electricity, opening up new possibilities in the food and feed industries.

Why does it matter? Most protein-building in plants relies on photosynthesis, making it subject to the whims of nature. A new method developed by researchers at the Lappeenranta University of Technology and the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland could produce protein anywhere with access to renewable energy like solar power. The team estimates that creating protein with electricity is 10 times as energy-efficient as photosynthesis. "In practice, all the raw materials are available from the air,” says Juha-Pekka Pitkänen, principal scientist at VTT. “In the future, the technology can be transported to, for instance, deserts and other areas facing famine.”

How does it work? “One possible alternative is a home reactor, a type of domestic appliance that the consumer can use to produce the needed protein," Pitkänen says. The method’s limitation right now is scale: Currently it takes two weeks to produce 1 gram of protein.


These Things Can Fix Themselves

 width= Isn't this the worst? (Answer: It is.) A new self-healing polymer could make smartphone disasters short-lived.

What is it? University of Melbourne researchers are developing a 3D-printable gel that can heal itself when damaged, potentially paving the way for more durable smartphone screens, among other applications.

Why does it matter? “After printing, these objects can heal a crack or even a cut and regain their original strength,” says Melbourne School of Engineering researcher Luke Connal. “This could enable custom printing of coatings that can heal after breakages, potentially as coatings for mobile phones.”

How does it work? A 3D printer uses a special polymer-based “ink” to print an object. If damaged, the toothpaste-like material can “heal” itself when exposed to certain stimuli, such as humidity, thanks to “dynamic covalent chemistry,” an approach that allows scientists to assemble man-made molecules like Lego blocks. “This means we can form, break, and reform chemical bonds,” Connal explains. “When we can do this in a controlled and triggered manner we can manipulate the properties of the printed objects.”


Implantable Liver ‘Seeds’

 width= When implanted into mice with liver damage, the engineered liver "seeds" expanded 50-fold. Caption and image credit: Chelsea Fortin/Bhatia Lab/Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research

What is it? Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Rockefeller University and Boston University have engineered liver tissue by implanting “seeds” made of liver subunits that can then grow into fully functioning livers in mice.

Why does it matter? More than 14,000 Americans are waiting for new livers, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, far outnumbering the organs available for transplant. What’s more, millions of other people with liver diseases don’t qualify for transplants. “In that population you could imagine augmenting their liver function with a small engineered liver, which is an idea we’re pretty excited about,” says Sangeeta Bhatia, the senior author of the team’s study, which appears in Science Translational Medicine.

How does it work? The researchers implanted tiny subunits containing specialized cells and supporting cells that make up much of the liver into mice abdomens. In mice with damaged livers, these subunits responded to regenerative signals that naturally occur in the body when damage is present. The result: The implants expanded to 50 times their original size and were able to perform normal liver tissue functions. “The idea is that it’s the seed of an organ, and you organize it in a way that it can be responsive to these regenerative signals, but it’s a minimal unit of what you eventually want to end up with,” Bhatia says. “What’s really exciting about this is that the architecture of the tissue that emerges looks a lot like the liver architecture in the body.”


There’s Something In The Water

What is it? Swiss researchers have developed an autonomous swimming robot that can detect the source of pollutants in water. The sensor-equipped machine, named Envirobot, wriggles like an eel as it explores its environment, sending data back to scientists in real time.

Why does it matter? The Envirobot can take measurements and transmit data faster than scientists could retrieve information from individual stations around the lake, says Auke Ijspeert, head of École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne's Biorobotics Laboratory. Ijspeert says the robot’s serpentine design makes it less likely to get stuck in algae or other debris than propeller-driven bots. “What's more, they produce less of a wake, so they don't disperse pollutants as much.”

How does it work? The robot contains several modules, each of which houses its own motor to change the machine’s curvature as it slithers through the water. Some of the modules are equipped with sensors that measure temperature and other variables, while others are equipped with “miniaturized biological sensors” such as bacteria or small crustaceans. When the nodules fill with water, researchers can observe how these organisms respond, thus providing clues to the presence or degree of pollutants. The goal for the machine, which goes for regular swims in Lake Geneva, is to detect heavy metals and other contaminants.