A rocket to Mars, slime robots and preventing the next global outbreak. This week’s coolest things might as well be the plots of Hollywood’s next blockbusters.
What is it? Scientists at the University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering created a machine learning framework to help develop next-generation materials for more efficient electronics.
Why does it matter? Stretching, pulling, heating and cooling are common ways of changing a material’s properties. It’s also possible to use light to prompt hidden properties of metals. But because those interactions happen on the atomic scale, they are difficult to model, making it hard to study them and develop applications. The new machine learning model, described in Science Advances, can model the effects of light on materials at unprecedented scale.
How does it work? The USC Viterbi team used machine learning to perform simulations that predict light’s effect on more than a billion atoms in a material. Earlier computations could simulate only a few hundred atoms. They used this larger, clearer picture to model a previously unknown ability of light to control the polarization of lead titanate, which can be used in sensors and in energy and memory storage. “Without machine learning, it would have been impossible to design this kind of simulation,” said study co-author Ken-ichi Nomura.
What is it? NASA unveiled its new Space Launch System (SLS), a powerful rocket for future missions to the moon, Mars and beyond.
Why does it matter? SLS is the most powerful rocket NASA has ever built, and the first capable of carrying humans into deep space since Saturn V delivered the Apollo astronauts to the moon in the 1960s and ’70s. The agency plans to use SLS to put Americans — including the first woman and the first person of color — back on the moon in 2025.
How does it work? Standing taller than the Statue of Liberty, the modular SLS is designed to deliver crews and cargo outside of low-Earth orbit. In its initial configuration, it will carry an unmanned Orion spacecraft past the moon, followed by a crewed mission around the moon and back, and then the Artemis III mission will land a crew on the moon. Future configurations with different modules and more powerful engines will go even farther, potentially bringing robotic missions to Saturn and Jupiter, and putting astronauts on Mars.
Cool fact: Large parts of the rocket were built at a NASA center in New Orleans, where LM Wind Power, a GE Renewable Energy subsidiary, develops and tests the latest wind turbine blades.
What is it? Researchers in Hong Kong created a “magnetic slime robot” that could be used for minimally invasive medical procedures.
Why does it matter? Malleable soft robots have potential for a wide range of uses that their rigid counterparts aren’t fit for, including missions inside the human body. But the materials they’re made from have limitations. Safe silicone bots cannot get through super-tight spaces. Liquid-metal robots can but aren’t stable enough for biomedical applications. The magnetic slime robot, described in Advanced Functional Materials, may offer the best of both worlds.
How does it work? Scientists at the Chinese University of Hong Kong covered liquid metal particles in a layer of silicone compound that theoretically makes them safe for use inside the human body. The resulting glob of slime (their words!) can be controlled with external magnets. The researchers demonstrated its ability to move through spaces as narrow as 1.5 millimeters, self-repair after damage and grab onto small objects. It could be used to envelop and transport harmful things, they wrote in their study.
What is it? Biotechnology engineers in North Carolina created a sponge-like material that could hasten delivery of targeted immunotherapy for treating cancer.
Why does it matter? Genetically engineering immune cells to attack tumors is a promising line of cancer research. But the process of creating the cells is expensive and can take a while. Seeded with the ingredients needed for genetic modification and implanted into mice, the new material could cut the process down to a day. The study was published in Nature Biotechnology.
How does it work? Typically for this type of treatment, immune cells called T cells are collected from patients and brought to a lab, where they undergo a series of steps to make them able to find and destroy cancer. Instead, the researchers took T cells from mice with lymphoma and put them into a sponge-like material they call Multifunctional Alginate Scaffold for T Cell Engineering and Release, or MASTER, along with the ingredients needed for those steps. They then surgically implanted the MASTER into the mice. “Our MASTER technology takes the cumbersome and time-consuming activation, reprogramming and expansion steps and performs them inside the patient,” said lead study author Pritha Agarwalla. The mice that received this CAR-T cell treatment via MASTER were reportedly better at fighting off tumors than mice that received conventional CAR-T cell treatment, he said.
What is it? A handful of researchers around the world are looking into genetic modification technology that could turn contagious viruses into self-spreading vaccines.
Why does it matter? SARS-CoV-2 is far from the first virus to jump from animals to humans, but the pandemic has reenergized a dormant school of thought about how to stop the transmission of zoonotic disease. One controversial suggestion is engineering viruses to act like inoculations to other viruses, then introducing them in wild animal populations and letting them spread.
How does it work? Viruses are often used in vaccine technology as a way to deliver harmless pieces of viral DNA into people or animals so their immune systems can produce antibodies to fight off future infection, but they are modified so they can’t replicate. Some scientists, National Geographic notes, are looking into engineering viruses with another virus’s DNA and letting them spread at will. The process would involve capturing and infecting a few wild animals, then returning them to their habitat. A primate given a viral Ebola vaccine, for instance, would then spread it to other primates, theoretically eradicating Ebola in that population. One study estimates that releasing a Lassa fever vaccine among rodents could reduce transmission by 95% within a year. “You can really see just how powerful the idea could be,” study author Scott Nuismer told National Geographic. Critics worry about the unforeseen consequences of unleashing an engineered virus into the wild.
Video credit: New Scientist