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The Vanguard

The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Amanda Schupak
February 10, 2022

AI is helping paralyzed patients to walk, 3D printing in space and a plastic that’s stronger than steel. This week’s coolest things push the boundaries in every dimension.


Giant Steps


Alain Herzog

What is it? Researchers in Switzerland created an AI-powered spinal implant that enabled three paralyzed patients to walk, swim and cycle almost instantly.

Why does it matter? Previous research has shown that electrical stimulation can help paralyzed people after a period of time. But in this study, “all three patients were able to stand, walk, pedal, swim and control their torso movements in just one day, after their implants were activated,” said co-creator Grégoire Courtine.

How does it work? In 2018 the team demonstrated that electrically stimulating spinal neurons could enable a person who’d been paralyzed below the waist to walk again. For this latest study, published in Nature Medicine, they implanted a stimulator device directly on the spinal cord, over nerves that activate the leg muscles. “Our breakthrough here is the longer, wider implanted leads with electrodes arranged in a way that corresponds exactly to the spinal nerve roots,” said neurosurgeon Jocelyne Bloch. “That gives us precise control over the neurons regulating specific muscles.” The electrodes in the device fire muscles in a particular sequence for different activities, according to artificial intelligence programming. Wireless remotes let the users control their preprogrammed movements with the push of a button.


Carbon Trap


University of Delaware

What is it? Engineers at the University of Delaware devised a method for removing up to 99% of carbon dioxide from air.

Why does it matter? The electrochemical technology could enable efficient hydrogen fuel cells for powering electric vehicles or be used to scrub carbon from the air in buildings, airplanes, submarines and spacecraft.

How does it work? The UD researchers didn’t set out to make carbon capture technology. They were trying to figure out how to overcome a problem in hydrogen-exchange membrane fuel cells for cars that causes the devices to get clogged with CO2. “Once we dug into the mechanism, we realized the fuel cells were capturing just about every bit of carbon dioxide that came into them,” said Brian Setzler, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and co-author of a new study in Nature Energy. They reproduced the process in a separate device comprising the carbon-catching membrane. It takes air in from one end, along with a supply of hydrogen. Fueled by the hydrogen, the membrane separates out the carbon, releasing CO2-free air out the opposite end.


AI Incubator


Getty Images


What is it? Chinese researchers invented an incubator with artificial intelligence for raising embryos in the lab.

Why does it matter? A self-tracking, self-correcting robotic womb could eliminate the dangers of pregnancy and childbirth, while potentially boosting fertility in a country with declining birth rates, Futurism reports.

How does it work? The invention is effectively a souped-up nanny cam that watches test tube embryos as they develop into fetuses. With three levels of magnification, the online monitoring system detects morphological changes to track development. In experiments published in the Journal of Biomedical Engineering, the system monitored rows of mouse embryos in a nutrient-filled fluid and adjusted the nutritional environment as needed, according to Futurism.


Space Creators


Getty Images ISS

What is it? Cornell University researchers came up with a modeling program that could enable astronauts to 3D-print what they need in space.

Why does it matter? Space missions rely on supplies from Earth. 3D printing in space would allow crews to create on-demand parts for emergency repairs. The capability is “absolutely critical to the things NASA wants to do with deep space exploration and going to Mars,” said Terrence Moran, a doctoral student who designed the software.

How does it work? Even here on terra firma, 3D printing is a relatively new technology. Up in space, where there’s no gravity and huge temperature fluctuations, the process is even more challenging — and there’s no room for error. “Let’s say you’re in space and you need a part,” said lab head Derek Warner. “If you just were to draw the part or upload a CAD file to your 3D printer and press print, it probably won’t work, just because 3D printing isn’t at that level of maturity.” Uploaded to the AI-enabled HPE Spaceborne Computer-2, which was installed on the International Space Station last year, the Cornell software successfully predicted how well (or poorly) printing would go under different conditions.


Plastic Impossible


MIT 2D polymer

What is it? MIT scientists created a thin, light plastic that is twice as strong as steel.

Why does it matter? “We don’t usually think of plastics as being something that you could use to support a building, but with this material, you can enable new things,” said Michael Strano, professor of chemical engineering at MIT and the senior author of a new study in Nature.

How does it work? Typical polymers can be created only in one-dimensional strings, which are coiled and shaped into three-dimensional objects. The MIT team devised a new polymerization process that caused melamine to grow in round 2D sheets, which was thought to be impossible. The disks can be stacked on top of one another to build an extremely strong structure. “Instead of making a spaghetti-like molecule, we can make a sheet-like molecular plane, where we get molecules to hook themselves together in two dimensions,” Strano said. From that two-dimensional material, engineers can make thin films that are extraordinarily strong. The coatings could be used to protect everything from cell phones to cars.