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The Vanguard

The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Sam Worley
August 26, 2018
Scientists have figured out how to 3D print tiny objects from graphene, the world’s strongest material, and use to same stuff to make an eye implant that could reverse vision loss. They also found a fast way to suck out CO2 from the atmosphere and store it in rocks. Plus: a better alternative to the stethoscope and an intricate map of the brain.

2D Might Help You See

 width=Conditions such as diabetes can lead to retinal damage and ultimately loss of vision. Currently available retinal implants are fragile and rigid — a problem scientists say they've solved with a new alternative.

What is it? In Boston, scientists at an annual meeting of the American Chemical Society reported that they’ve created an incredibly thin, two-dimensional, flexible artificial retina that could one day be used to restore sight to vision-impaired people.

Why does it matter? Complications from diabetes and macular degeneration can destroy tissue in the retina, leading to irreversible vision loss, and currently available silicone-based retinal implants have some problems — they’re fragile and rigid, often leading to blurry vision and, therefore, eye strain over time. Scientists Nanshu Lu and Dae-Hyeong Kim (of the University of Texas at Austin and Seoul National University, respectively) developed a new material for implants “that would better mimic the shape and function of a natural retina,” according to the American Chemical Society.

 How does it work? By combining everybody’s favorite supermaterial — incredibly thin, incredibly strong graphene — with molybdenum disulfide and gold, alumina and silicon nitrate to create a “flexible, high-density and curved sensor array” that includes photodetectors and a flexible circuit board and is “biocompatible” — that is, it mimics the structural features of the eye without disturbing it. The retina isn’t the only place where this kind of material could be useful, though; its creators envision it as something that could be applied to the skin in “electronic tattoos” that could gather and transmit health information in real time.


The World’s Strongest Material Adds A Dimension

 width=Researchers from the Virginia Tech College of Engineering and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have developed a novel process to 3D print graphene, one of the strongest materials ever tested, at a higher resolution that was an order of magnitude greater than ever printed before. Image credit: Virginia Tech

What is it? Speaking of graphene: A collaboration between Virginia Tech and Livermore National Lab has yielded a way to 3D print complex objects out of the supermaterial — previously only available in 2D.

Why does it matter? In addition to being one of the strongest materials on earth — a single layer of carbon atoms, linked in a hexagonal arrangement, tough enough to support an elephant — graphene is highly conductive, making it invaluable in industries like aerospace and in batteries. (Just recently we reported on a next-gen graphene-skinned plane.) Previous attempts to add graphene to graphene in a 3D arrangement, though, had been disappointing, because the resulting material — graphite: the stuff in pencils — doesn’t retain graphene’s marvelous mechanical properties. "There's very limited structures you can create because there's no support and the resolution is quite limited, so you can't get freeform factors," said Xiaoyu “Rayne” Zheng, the co-author of a new study published in Materials Horizon. "What we did was to get these graphene layers to be architected into any shape that you want with high resolution."

How does it work? The chief innovation came from lead author Ryan Hensleigh, a PhD student who started working on the project three years ago as a Livermore intern. He incorporated graphene oxide, a precursor to graphene, into an aerogel that could be used in 3D printing down to a resolution of 10 microns — almost the size of actual graphene sheets, which again are vanishingly thin. Hensleigh called the finding “a significant breakthrough,” adding, "We can access pretty much any desired structure you want.”


A Map For Thought

What is it? You’ve heard all about the genome — an organism’s complete genetic outlay. Now scientists have created, for the first time, a map of synapses for a mouse’s entire brain. Synapses are the gaps between brain cells that channel information. They’re calling the map the synaptome.

Why does it matter? A better understanding of how information travels through the brain will help neurologists understand how memories are created and recalled, for instance; and the ability to detect irregularities on a complete map of the brain could also shed light on disorders such as autism and schizophrenia. The series of images from the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences certainly offers a lot of info to go on: It illuminates more than a billion connections between brain cells.

 How does it work? Researchers created the synaptome by engineering parts of the brain tissue of mice to emit light — so that individual synapses could be detected in color, and so that patterns could be spotted across the brain relative to discrete activities, such as running, jumping and feeding. Professor Seth Grant, an author of the study published in the journal Neuron, said, “In creating the first map of this kind, we were struck by the diversity of synapses and the exquisite patterns that they form. This map opens a wealth of new avenues of research that should transform our understanding of behavior and brain disease.”


Oh Say, Can You Sequester CO2?

 width=Magnesite rocks at capturing and storing CO2, but takes ages to form. A new technique speeds up the process to a mere 72 days. Top and above images credit: Getty Images.

What is it? Presenting their findings at the Goldschmidt geochemistry conference in Boston earlier this month, researchers announced they’d figured out a way to quickly store carbon dioxide in rocks.

Why does it matter? CO2 is, of course, the stuff we’re trying to keep out of the atmosphere to forestall further global warming — and scientists have long been intrigued by the way the earth naturally stores carbon over long geologic time scales. They just need to figure out a way to sequester it faster to keep pace with how quickly we’re pumping CO2 into the atmosphere. A team from Trent University in Ontario came up with a technique that “speeds up the formation of a mineral called magnesite that, in nature, captures and stores large amounts of the greenhouse gas CO2,” according to ScienceNews — a metric ton of it can hold about a half ton of carbon. “If the mineral can be produced in large quantities, the method could one day help fight climate change.”

 How does it work? Led by geoscientist Ian Power, the Trent team studied a site in British Columbia where magnesite is produced naturally, over hundreds of thousands of years, through a reaction between groundwater containing magnesium ions and an upper mantle rock called olivine. That process can be replicated in the lab, but in a way that costs a lot in terms of both energy and money. Using tiny polystyrene microspheres as catalysts, though, Power and co. figured out how to create magnesite in just 72 days — and at room temperature. The challenge now will be to scale the technique.


Look, Ma! A Hands-Free Stethoscope Alternative

 width=A new technology that uses radar to detect heart and lung sounds could one day render the stethoscope obsolete. Image credit: Getty Images.

What is it? Is the stethoscope going out of style? A team of German researchers, publishing their results in the journal Scientific Reports, have come up with a new, no-touch way for doctors to hear what’s going on inside the chest — using radar.

Why does it matter? As a release from Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg puts it, the white-coated doctor using a stethoscope to listen to vibrations coming from a patient’s heart and lungs has been the standard forever. However, the assessment of conditions such as a heart murmur can be a little subjective, given that it’s “directly dependent” on the doctor’s experience. The more reliable method developed by the German team employs radar to remotely measure vibrations on the skin caused by the heart beating. It could be used not only during routine doctor’s visits, but also for around-the-clock monitoring of patients with serious heart conditions. Study co-author Christoph Ostgathe explained, “Touch-free and therefore stress-free measurement of vital parameters such as heart sounds has the potential to revolutionize clinical care and research, for example, in palliative medicine.”

How does it work? Sort of like those police detectors that measure the speed of cars cruising down the road, says Christoph Will, a doctoral candidate who also worked on the study: “During this process, a radar wave is aimed at the surface of an object and reflected. If the object moves, the phase of the reflecting wave changes. This is used to calculate the strength and frequency of the movement — of the chest in our case.”