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Mark BruceWeekly top 10 selection of scientific and technological advances-26/11

 Monday, 25 November 2013.

Source: SciTech Digest 41

A Top 10 selection of scientific and technological advances each week compiled by ITEK's Commercial Manager Mark Bruce.

This week:

Brain mapping, bacterial DNA uptake, metamaterial superconductors...and more.

1. Accelerated Hi-Res Brain Mapping.
A new accelerated brain-mapping technique has been enabled by a new generation of tools that include (i) 4nm thick, 10mm wide defect-free diamond-knives manufactured by Diatome, and (ii) a scanning electron microscopemade by Zeiss with 61 electron beams and 61 detectors that can image 61 sections in parallel http://www.accelerating.org/downloads/Marx-2013-MultibeamBrainMapping.pdf. This destructive scanning technique can be over 60 times faster than the current method, with an automated process that cuts incredibly thin slices of brain tissue, images each section at multiple depths, and is then able to determine neuronal wiring and other features. They can now collect as much mapping data in 20 minutes as they used to in a day and this brings the goal of mapping a whole rodent brain within a viable time scale much closer. I’m wondering if they can increase the current 61 beams to 1,000 or more?

2. Bacteria More Promiscuous Than Thought for DNA Uptake.
Recent studies show that bacteria are far more promiscuous than previously thought when it comes to taking up and incorporating random pieces of old DNA from the environment http://news.ku.dk/all_news/2013/2013.11/second-hand-evolution/. The mechanism was shown to be very common and passive, able to take up DNA 43,000 years old, and revealed that the environment is awash in large amounts of fragmented DNA. The DNA fragments can be benign, harmful, or useful (conveying new functions and alterations to genes) and obviously impact bacterial evolution and the development of drug resistance. This is a fundamental process that arose early in the evolution of life when DNA was freely swapped, and reminds me of the current state of our culture and minds in freely swapping memes and idea fragments.

3. Cracking High-Temperature Superconductivity with Metamaterials.
New theoretical studies indicate that the metamaterials may be formally linked to superconductivity, and that current superconducting materials may be a special form of metamaterial with layers of metallic and dielectric properties that steer electrons rather than light http://www.technologyreview.com/view/521876/how-metamaterials-could-hold-the-key-to-high-temperature-superconductivity/. The hope of course is that this new formalism allows for the design, fabrication, and engineering of more advanced superconductors able to operate at higher critical temperatures. This could be a viable path forward towards the holy grail of room temperature superconductors.

4. Graphene Returns.
This week saw graphene made into the smallest FM transmitter ever made, or more accurately the smallest mechanical oscillator / filter hooked up to drive an FM radio - and you can actually listen to a sample of the signal produced from the prototype NEMS device http://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/semiconductors/devices/worlds-tiniest-fm-transmitter-made-from-graphene. We also had an update to the current state of the art in graphene nanopore DNA sequencing with acknowledged problems still to be solved for accurately reading ten million base pairs per second http://spectrum.ieee.org/nanoclast/biomedical/diagnostics/graphene-comes-to-nanopore-gene-sequencing. Finally we explored the latest attempts to engineer a bandgap into graphene by layering sheets with 2D boron-nitride and slightly rotating the orientation of the sheets to open up the desired electronic bandgap features http://phys.org/news/2013-11-graphene-minor-rotation-chicken-wire.html. 

5 Advanced Computing Architectures.
There were a few different, advanced computing architectures revealed this week. Firstly was the breakthrough in low-power computing by using nanomagnet switches to replace conventional transistors to provide a basis for creating circuits that use 10x less power http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2013/11/18/magnetic-computing/. Secondly was the use, again of nanomagnets, in solution to act as a far more efficient chip cooling fluid able to remove 3x as much heat as water http://phys.org/news/2013-11-magnetic-nanoparticles-aid-dissipation.html. Finally, ferroelectric materials have been shown to enable information storage and processing as a viable memcomputing architecture via the complex interaction of polarisation domains on their surfaces http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2013-11/drnl-cpi111813.php.

6. Theranos’ Game-Changing Diagnostic System.
New company Theranos has launched its automated high-throughput diagnostic testing services, which it has built into microfluidic-based fully-automated machines able to perform the work of a standard laboratory http://singularityhub.com/2013/11/18/small-fast-and-cheap-theranos-is-the-poster-child-of-med-tech-and-its-in-walgreens/. Just a drop of blood is needed from a patient, which can be collected from a finger pin-prick, and with the recently announced partnership with major pharmacy chains the service should be available to a lot of people quickly. The one drop of blood can be used to run a huge array of diagnostic tests (as can be seen from their website). Speaking of diagnostics, smartphones are now counting single molecules http://phys.org/news/2013-11-slipchip-molecules-chemistry-cell.html and measuring the amount of iron in blood http://phys.org/news/2013-11-amount-iron-blood-mobile.html.

7. Stem Cells Enable Transplants without Immunosuppressants.
A new organ transplant technique, soon to enter late stage Phase II clinical trials, has been successful in obviating the need for recipients to take life-long immunosuppressant drugs to keep their body from rejecting the organ http://www.nmh.org/nm/organ-transplant-study-using-stem-cells-to-receive-12-million. The technique involves taking stem cells from the organ donor, engineering them for the new purpose, and adding these to the recipient along with the organ (kidney in this case) - this makes the recipients immune system recognise the new organ as its own. Groundbreaking.

8. Better 3D Imaging with Non-Uniform Triangles.
A new 3D modelling technique enables the generation of 3D images up to 125 times faster than normal http://www.utdallas.edu/news/2013/11/19-27451_3-D-Imaging-Technique-Utilizes-Famous-Mathematicia_story-wide.html. This actually utilises a theorem developed by the famous mathematician John Nash, and uses anisotropic rather than the standard isotropic triangles to generate the 3D meshes that computers work with to create 3D images. This ultimately results in much smoother and more realistic (and accurate) renderings of objects, with obvious applications in gaming and modelling.

9. Another Novel Solar Cell Architecture.
A novel structure consisting of nanoparticles coated with quantum dots and embedded in a scaffold of titanium oxide provides interesting possibilities for more efficient photovoltaic solar cells http://phys.org/news/2013-11-optical-materials-solar-cells.html. The quantum dots absorb visible light while the nanoparticles absorb multiple photons of infrared light and upconvert them into visible light for the quantum dots to absorb; the titanium scaffold carries off ejected electrons for energy use.

10. Efficient Extraction of Uranium from Seawater.
Japan has had a research program for a few years now to extract Uranium from seawater. A new polymer material promises to increase the efficiency of absorption and loading capacity of Uranium extracted from seawater http://phys.org/news/2013-11-sorbents-efficiently-uranium-seawater.html. Changing the ratio of different components of the polymer enables the surface properties and pore volume to be tuned or altered as desired. It’d be nice to see if other alterations could allow the selective extraction of other metals from the oceans, which would be much cheaper and cleaner than conventional mining methods.