Tiny blood-purifying robots, a 3D-printed neighborhood and artificial nerves that could give prosthetic limbs the ability to “feel” — this week’s scientific developments may be legitimate life-changers.
What is it? Engineers at the University of San Diego have built tiny “cell-like” robots powered by ultrasound that can swim through blood and fish out harmful microbes like the antibiotics-resistant bacteria MRSA, along with the toxins they produce. Such nanorobots “could one day offer a safe and efficient way to detoxify and decontaminate biological fluids,” the university said.
Why does it matter? Joseph Wang, a nanoengineering professor at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering, said the robots were “a proof-of-concept platform for diverse therapeutic and biodetoxification applications.” In tests the team was able to treat blood samples contaminated with MRSA and its toxins. “After five minutes, these blood samples had three times less bacteria and toxins than untreated samples,” the university reported.
How does it work? The team built the robots, which are 25 times smaller than the width of a human hair and can cover up to 35 micrometers per second in blood, by coating gold nanowires with a hybrid membrane made from platelet and red blood cell membranes. The design allows the tiny robots to multitask: The gold body responds to ultrasound and propels them forwards, while the platelets scoop up the pathogens and the red blood cells mop up and neutralize their toxins.
What is it? The city of Eindhoven in the Netherlands will start building the world’s first 3D-printed neighborhood later this year. The undertaking, called Project Milestone, will consist of five habitable homes printed from concrete. Four of the homes will have several stories, and one will be a three-room single-floor house. People will be able to move into that house in the first half of 2019.
Why does it matter? The team, which includes the municipality of Eindhoven, Eindhoven University of Technology, contractor Van Wijnen, real estate manager Vesteda, the materials company Saint-Gobain Weber Beamix and the engineering firm Witteveen+Bos, says that printing homes from concrete can reduce costs and also help the environment, because 3D printing uses less concrete than traditional building methods (concrete production generates tons of CO2). Printing also gives designers more freedom and allows them to print complete walls “with all necessary functionalities.”
How does it work? The team will start by printing the elements of the first house on a concrete printer at the Eindhoven University of Technology. The other homes “will be built consecutively” so “all lessons learnt can be applied in the next house,” according to the university. “It is the intention to gradually shift the whole construction work to the construction site. The last house will be fully realized on site, including the print work.”
Top image credit: Houben/Van Mierlo architects.
What is it? “A bioinspired flexible organic afferent nerve,” according to the title of a paper just published in Science. Translated for the rest of us? An artificial nerve that, like the real thing, conveys the sensation of touch. Except this one could be used by robots.
Why does it matter? With its ability to “feel” touch, process the information and send it on via electric signals to a larger nervous system, the new bioinspired nerve, created by a team at Stanford and the Seoul National University, could be a boon for the field of prosthetics: People who rely on them could wear artificial limbs they could feel down to the fingertips. Fine artificial sensory skills, moreover, could help robots interact more delicately with their environments, and help surgeons with things like remote operations. But “touch is just the beginning,” according to the future-tech website Singularity Hub. “Future versions could include a sense of temperature, feelings of movement, texture, and different types of pressure — everything that helps us navigate the environment.”
How does it work? “We used flexible organic electronics to mimic the functions of a sensory nerve,” the team wrote. The device, which Singularity Hub says “looks like a bendy Band-Aid,” consists of pressure sensors that collect information and generate an electrical voltage that’s passed on to a transistor that integrates all the signals. The transistor then fires electrical pulses in a way that mimics the firing of biological neurons. “The combination allows for the sensing of multiple pressure inputs,” the team wrote, “which can be converted into a sensor signal and used to drive the motion of a cockroach leg in an oscillatory pattern” — the cockroach leg being the test case. (Reader: It twitched.)
What is it? Microsoft launched Project Natick, a submarinelike underwater data center that is now sitting on the sea bottom near Scotland’s Orkney Islands. The 40-foot-long white, cigarlike vessel contains the infrastructure to hold 864 servers capable of storing 27.6 petabytes, enough space for roughly 5 million movies. The data center will use only renewable energy: wind and solar from the shore, and tidal and wave energy from the sea.
Why does it matter? The project is one of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s “relevant moonshots” that have “the potential to transform the core of Microsoft’s business and the computer technology industry,” according to a company blog. Microsoft said that more than half of the world’s population lives “within about 120 miles of the coast” and “Project Natick [was] an out-of-the box idea to accommodate exponential growth in demand for cloud computing infrastructure for cloud computing near population centers,” like Seattle, Shanghai or Stockholm, located near the coast.
How does it work? Microsoft reached out to France’s Naval Group, whose engineers designed the vessel and adapted a heat exchanger used in submarines to cool the servers. (They generate a lot of heat.) The team then shipped it to Scotland on a truck and used a barge to submerge it. The center is designed to operate without maintenance for five years. “We are learning about disk size, about rack design, about mechanical engineering of cooling systems and those things will feed back into our normal data centers,” said Peter Lee, corporate vice president of AI and research at Microsoft.
What is it? In Switzerland, researchers at the University of Basel have figured out how to create artificial tissue that mimics human bone marrow — the place in the body where blood cells are produced.
Why does it matter? Bone marrow is such a complex system that it’s not easily reproducible; in a news release, the university noted that while scientists have previously tried to create marrow in vitro, it hasn’t been able to sustain the growth of blood stem cells — thus limiting its potential as an experimental medium. The new tissue, which “mimics some of the complex biological properties of natural bone marrow niches,” raises the possibility of creating tailor-made marrow to better understand the process of blood formation and suss out how certain diseases get going. The project’s lead authors, Ivan Martin and Timm Schroeder, said, “We could use bone and bone marrow cells from patients to create an in vitro model of blood diseases such as leukemia, for example. Importantly, we could do this in an environment that consists exclusively of human cells and which incorporates conditions tailored to the specific individual.”
How does it work? According to the university, the team “combined human mesenchymal stromal cells” — like stem cells, they can turn into a variety of different cells — “with a porous, bone-like 3D scaffold made of a ceramic material in what is known as a perfusion bioreactor.” The extracellular matrix that resulted had a “very similar molecular structure” to human bone marrow, to the extent that stem cells within it were able to multiply and differentiate themselves, similar to actual cellular development.