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The Vanguard

5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Tomas Kellner
May 12, 2017
Engineers in Illinois found a new way to kill killer bacteria, a team in Pittsburgh made a material that can turn pretty much anything into a touchscreen, and researchers in Minnesota 3D printed stretchable electronic skin for robots. This is what we call palpable progress.


Robots With Human Touch

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What is it? Engineers at the University of Minnesota have 3D printed a stretchable electronic material that “could give robots the ability to feel their environment.” The team says the discovery could also allow them to print “electronics on real human skin.”

Why does it matter? “Putting this type of ‘bionic skin’ on surgical robots would give surgeons the ability to actually feel during minimally invasive surgeries, which would make surgery easier instead of just using cameras like they do now,” says Michael McAlpine, the University of Minnesota mechanical engineering associate professor who led the study. “These sensors could also make it easier for other robots to walk and interact with their environment.”

How does it work? The team used a custom-built 3D printer with four different “inks” to print the device layers: a silicone base layer, top and bottom electrodes made from a conducting ink, a pressure sensor shaped like a coil and a “sacrificial layer” that supports the top layer while it sets. “The supporting sacrificial layer is later washed away in the final manufacturing process,” the university reported. McAlpine described the method as “a completely new way to approach 3D printing of electronics. We have a multifunctional printer that can print several layers to make these flexible sensory devices. This could take us into so many directions from health monitoring to energy harvesting to chemical sensing.” The results were reported in the journal Advanced Materials.

Top image: The team says the discovery could also allow them to print “electronics on real human skin.” Illustration credit: Getty Images.

Body Electrick

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What is it? Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s Future Interfaces Group developed Electrick, a “low-cost,” conductive coating they can spray, paint or otherwise attach to the surface of an ordinary object and turn it into a touchscreen. They also mixed it with plastic they later used to 3D print an interactive object.

Why does it matter? The team says the material can make interactive “a diverse set of objects and surfaces that were previously static.” It can also “bring touch interactivity to rapidly fabricated objects, including those that are laser cut or 3D printed.” In a video, the team used it to make an interactive desk, a guitar body and even a model of the brain from touch-sensitive jelly.

How does it work? The team attaches electrodes to the perimeter of the objects and injects a small, rotating current into the conductive layer. Changes in voltage between electrodes allow them to estimate the touch location.


War On Bugs

 width= Gram-negative bacteria can cause nasty infections, “including pneumonia, bloodstream infections, wound or surgical site infections, and meningitis in healthcare settings,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Illustration credit: Getty Images.

What is it? Scientists at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign have built “a molecular Trojan horse” that can burrow through the thick outer membrane of potentially dangerous and drug-resistant “gram-negative” bacteria. They used the compound to convert an older antibiotic “into a broad-spectrum antibiotic that could also kill gram-negatives.”

Why does it matter? Gram-negative bacteria can cause nasty infections, “including pneumonia, bloodstream infections, wound or surgical site infections, and meningitis in healthcare settings,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “We have a handful of classes of antibiotics that work against gram-negatives, but the last class was introduced 50 years ago, in 1968,” said chemistry professor Paul Hergenrother, who led the study. “Now, the bacteria are developing resistance to all of them.”

How did they do it? They unleashed 600 different compounds on gram-negative bacteria and used software to find the shared features of those compounds that made it through the wall. Hergenrother said the research was “more important as a demonstration that we understand the fundamentals at play here,” than finding a candidate for a new drug. “Now, we know how to make collections of compounds where everything gets in,” he said. The results were reported in the journal Nature.


Robot Container Ship

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What is it? The Norwegian technology company Kongsberg and the fertilizer maker YARA are building “the world's first fully electric and autonomous container ship, with zero emissions.” Named after YARA’s founder, Kristian Birkeland, the YARA Birkeland “will initially operate as a manned vessel, moving to remote operation in 2019 and expected to be capable of performing fully autonomous operations from 2020.”

Why does it matter? The partners say that the new vessel “will be a game-changer for global maritime transport, contributing to meet the UN sustainability goals.” The ship will ferry fertilizer between its plant and the Norwegian ports of Brevik and Larvik. It’s large enough to eliminate as many as “40,000 truck journeys” per year. Fewer trucks will also mean less traffic and lower CO2 and NOx emissions.

How does it work? The battery-powered ship will be equipped with an autonomous mooring and navigation. It’s scheduled to enter service in the second half of 2018.


Good To The Bone

 width= Illustration of long bone structure. Center: Image of engineered bone with marrow cavity. Right: High magnification images of bone tissue (top) and marrow cells (bottom). Image credit: Varghese Lab at UC San Diego

What is it? Bioengineers at the University of California San Diego have developed a “bone-like” implant that they say could one day provide bone marrow for patients who need transplants.

Why does it matter? Patients suffering from bone marrow disease often must undergo radiation to kill off the stem cells in their marrow to make room for the transplanted cells. “We’ve made an accessory bone that can separately accommodate donor cells,” said Shyni Varghese, bioengineering professor at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering, who developed the implant. “This way, we can keep the host cells and bypass irradiation.” But she said the implants would be limited to patients who suffer from diseases like aplastic anemia. It does not work for blood cancer patients, who will still need radiation treatment.

How does it work? The university reported the team developed “bone tissues with functional bone marrow that can be filled with donor cells… The implants are made of a porous hydrogel matrix. The outer matrix contains calcium phosphate minerals. Stem cells grown in this mineralized matrix differentiate into bone-building cells. The inner matrix houses donor stem cells that produce blood cells.”