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The Vanguard

5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Researchers at DARPA flew a helicopter with a tablet, a team led by MIT used sound waves to analyze blood for cancer, and scientists in Texas developed artificial skin for robots that could give them a sense of touch. We can’t stop the feeling that science is making progress.


Liquid Biopsy

What is it? A team of scientists from MIT and other institutions have used sound waves to test blood. The method could one day help replace tissue biopsies with “liquid biopsy.” Doctors could use it to study “the physiology and health of organs that are hard to access, such as the placenta during human pregnancy,” said Yoel Sadovsky, director of the Magee-Women’s Research Institute and one of the authors of a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Engineering.

How does it work? The team used the device to isolate from blood tiny fluid-filled packets called exosomes that carry RNA, proteins and other molecules around the body and whose contents can indicate cancer and other diseases. Their device first uses sound waves to remove cells and platelets from the blood sample. Next, they send the remainder through a “microfluidic unit, which uses sound waves of a higher frequency to separate exosomes from slightly larger extracellular vesicles.”

Why does it matter: “We want to make extracting high-quality exosomes as simple as pushing a button and getting the desired samples within 10 minutes,” says Tony Jun Huang, a professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at Duke University. Existing methods require centrifuges and take as long as a day.


Skin For Robots

Cunjiang Yu, Bill D. Cook Assistant Professor of mechanical engineering, (right) and post-doctoral researcher Hae-Jin Kim have developed “artificial skin”that could robots “a sense of touch.” Image credit: University of Houston.

What is it? Researchers at the University of Houston developed a supple, transparent, skin-like electronic material that could give robots “a sense of touch.”

Why does it matter? The university reported that the “artificial skin” could allow “a robotic hand to sense the difference between hot and cold, while also offering advantages for a wide range of biomedical devices” like biomedical implants and surgical gloves. Cunjiang Yu, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the university and lead author of the paper, said the material could also interpret and translate gestures in the American Sign Language “to readable letters that a person like me can understand and read.”

How does it work? Yu said the team embedded a silicon-based polymer material with nanowires to create the first of skin of this kind without any mechanical structure. The material is “designed to allow the electronic components to retain functionality even after the material is stretched by 50 percent.”


Molecular Robots

The University of Manchester reported that “a billion billion of these robots piled on top of each other would still only be the same size as a single grain of salt.” Top and above image credits: Getty Images.

What is it? A team at the University of Manchester in the U.K. created the world’s first molecular robot capable of building new molecules. The university reported that the “tiny robots, which are a millionth of a millimeter in size, can be programmed to move and build molecular cargo, using a tiny robotic arm.

Why does it matter? “Molecular robotics represents the ultimate in the miniaturization of machinery,” said chemistry professor David Leigh, who led the research. “Our aim is to design and make the smallest machines possible. This is just the start but we anticipate that within 10 to 20 years molecular robots will begin to be used to build molecules and materials on assembly lines in molecular factories.”

How does it work? The team built each robot from 150 carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen atoms. “To put that size into context, a billion billion of these robots piled on top of each other would still only be the same size as a single grain of salt,” the university said. “All matter is made up of atoms and these are the basic building blocks that form molecules,” Leigh said. “Our robot is literally a molecular robot constructed of atoms just like you can build a very simple robot out of Lego bricks. The robot then responds to a series of simple commands that are programmed with chemical inputs by a scientist.”


Washable Solar Cells

The material could be turned into “wearable solar cells” and power health monitors. Image credit: RIKEN Center for Emergent Matter Science.

What is it? Scientists from Japan’s RIKEN Center for Emergent Matter Science and the University of Tokyo have developed an ultrathin solar cell that generates power even after being stretched, crushed and soaked in water.

Why does it matter? The material could be turned into “wearable solar cells” and power health monitors, “sensors that record heartbeats and body temperature, for example, providing early warning of medical problems,” according to Takao Someya, the leader of the research group. It could also energize a new generation of always on, wearable internet-of-things devices.

How does it work? The team made the solar cell from “thin and flexible organic photovoltaic cells” coated on both sides with stretchable and waterproof films. “We very much hope that these washable, lightweight, and stretchable organic photovoltaics will open a new avenue for use as a long-term power source system for wearable sensors and other devices,” says RIKEN’s Kenjiro Fukuda.


Autonomous Flight

What is it? Engineers working at DARPA, the U.S. Defense Department’s research arm, are building a system that would allow pilots to fly aircraft by means of a tablet computer. Called ALIAS, for Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System, the system already has been used to fly a Sikorsky S-76 helicopter and Cessna 208 Caravan plane.

Why does it matter? Program manager Graham Drozeski says ALIAS could enhance flight safety, enable operations with reduced onboard crew, and “support [the] execution of an entire mission from takeoff to landing, even in the face of contingency events such as aircraft system failures.”

How does it work? DARPA says the program “leverage[s] the considerable advances made in aircraft automation systems over the past 50 years, as well as similar advances in remotely piloted aircraft automation.”

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