Breakthroughs and trends in the world of technology
Mind and Motion
Four years ago, Thibault, a 30-year-old Frenchman (who declines to reveal his last name), fell nearly 50 feet while at a nightclub. The fall damaged his spinal cord and left him a quadriplegic. But two years ago, he began working with researchers at the University of Grenoble and Clinatec, a bioengineering company, to try out an exoskeleton controlled by human thoughts. Last month, the team revealed that Thibault, once strapped into the 140-pound suit, is able to walk and has limited use of his arms. As the BBC reports, he had two implants—each containing 64 electrodes—placed on the surface of the portion of his brain that controls movement. The electrodes read and then send his brain waves to a computer filled with sophisticated software that analyzes them and sends control messages to the exoskeleton. Once Thibault thinks “walk,” the technologies in the robotic suit move his legs forward. Controlling his arms proved more challenging, because it required multiple muscles and movements. But in tests to use the suit to move his upper and lower arms and to rotate his wrists, he was successful 71 percent of the time, the BBC says. The exoskeleton is attached to a ceiling harness to avoid falls, so for now cannot be used outside the lab. “This is far from autonomous walking,” Alim-Louis Benabid, a Clinatec executive, tells the BBC. But, he says, it’s a proof of concept that exoskeletons have the potential to eventually give paralyzed people more mobility. – Thomas K. Grose
A powerful Earth observation satellite launched by NASA in September 2018 to precisely measure polar ice sheets not only is working as planned, it’s also returning huge volumes of data that can help researchers better measure mountains, sea beds, rivers, lakes, and forests, the BBC reports. ICESat-2’s sole instrument is an advanced topographic laser altimeter, a half-ton device that shoots 10,000 pulses of green light back down to Earth every second. The time it takes for those photons beams to bounce back reflects the height of the surfaces they hit. The satellite’s main mission is to track elevation changes in Antarctic and Greenland ice to determine melt rates. A previous version, ICESat-1, pioneered the charting of sea-ice volumes in the Arctic between 2003 and 2009. The technology measures the difference in height between the top of ice floes and the surface of the water, a metric from which the amount of submerged ice can be calculated, the BBC explains. With its much sharper resolution, ICESat-2 can map the shape of ice sheets down to 2 centimeters. But its ability to better calculate the elevations of other regions—particularly the underwater topography, or bathymetry, of poorly mapped shallow coastal waters—also has excited scientists. ICESat-2 already is mapping the seafloor around low-lying Pacific islands, which can help with tsunami preparedness. Because the satellite’s orbit was designed for polar mapping, notes the BBC, it can only sample data infrequently from mid- and low-latitude regions. Even so, when combined with visual imagery taken from other satellites, ICESat-2 can provide a more complete picture of Earth’s changing climate. – T. G.
©NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center
Shocks and Locks
Here’s some electrifying news for men in the early stages of hair loss. Engineers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison have invented a device that can prevent male-pattern baldness from taking hold. The apparatus, which can be worn beneath a hat or baseball cap, stimulates the scalp with gentle, low-frequency electric pulses that wake up dormant follicles, coaxing them to restart production. The intervention works only for men whose baldness is just starting to show, not for those whose hair is history. The device is powered by harvesting the energy created by routine body movements. Its main designer is Xudong Wang, a professor of materials science and engineering who has pioneered the use of energy-harvesting technologies to power medical devices, including electric bandages and weight-loss implants. The electric pulses are mild and safe, and they penetrate no deeper than the very outermost layers of the scalp. Tests on mice indicate that the device is as effective in treating baldness as medicines now on the market, minus such side effects as sexual dysfunction, depression, and anxiety. Wang’s team plans to begin tests on humans soon. – T. G.
©Alex Holloway IV
Between 660,000 and 880,000 metric tons of fishing gear—think big fish nets—end up in the seas each year, while an additional 9 tons of plastic wash in from beaches. Ocean currents convey around 2 tons to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a swirl of plastic particles three times the size of France that is stuck in a whirlpool of currents between California and Hawaii. Six years ago, Dutch scientists came up with the idea of using a huge, free-floating boom to collect much of that rubbish. After several setbacks, the Ocean Cleanup team announced in October that the boom had concluded a four-month successful trial. Project head Boyan Slat says that the 2,000-foot-long device had captured and retained debris from the patch, proving the concept works, according to the Guardian. Last year, a trial failed when the boom’s inconsistent speed on the sea’s surface let captured plastic drift free. Fixes included attaching a “parachute” sea anchor to slow the V-shaped boom, which allowed it to grab faster-moving debris, and also using taller buoys to raise the height of its garbage-trapping arm. Attached beneath it is a 10-foot screen that catches the junk, supposedly without harming marine life. However, New Scientist reports that some marine biologists are concerned that the device is killing some jellyfish-like creatures, including blue buttons. In announcing the breakthrough, Slat tweeted that the collected debris ranged from 1-ton lost “ghost nets” to microplastics. “Also, anyone missing a wheel?” he asked, referring to the car steering wheel plucked from the Pacific waves. – T. G.
©The Ocean Cleanup
For the first time, a quantum computer has outperformed the world’s most powerful electronic supercomputer. Sycamore, a 54-qubit quantum computer developed by Google scientists, performed a demonstration calculation in just over three minutes. Summit, the world’s current most powerful classical computer, would have needed 10,000 years to handle the chore. The development was described in a Nature article that was inadvertently, and briefly, displayed ahead of publication on a NASA website in late September. The demonstration of quantum supremacy was indeed a breakthrough, though computer scientists say it could be overhyped because the era of quantum computing is still well off into the future. “We shouldn’t get too carried away with this,” Ciarán Gilligan-Lee, a physicist at University College London, tells New Scientist. Qubits are the quantum relatives of the binary bits—the 0’s and 1’s that represent basic units of information in electronic computers. Because qubits take advantage of superposition—meaning particles can be in two states at one time—quantum machines can run numerous calculations simultaneously, whereas a traditional computer runs one. Quantum computers would have to manipulate thousands of qubits to design new medicines and materials or crack cryptographic codes. They’re also super-sensitive machines, thrown by the merest vibrations and only operable in extreme cold. Given all those issues, once they are ready for prime time, the Economist predicts, only a few will likely ever be built. And they’ll mainly be owned by governments, big companies, and a handful of very wealthy universities. – T. G.
Flame retardants typically used to safeguard furniture, electronics, and many other consumer goods can save lives by delaying combustion. But once they do ignite, they release fumes toxic to humans. Most fire deaths stem from breathing in smoke and poisonous gases, not flames. Fire retardants also have been connected to several diseases, including thyroid ailments and cancers, and materials coated with them pollute the environment once discarded. But researchers at Central Michigan University, led by newly retired chemistry professor Bob Howell, are making progress on developing biodegradable flame retardants that are less toxic and won’t persist in the environment. Naturally enough, the team’s green alternative is plant-based. It combines gallic acid, which is found in fruit, nuts, and leaves, with an acid from buckwheat to create an organic retardant that is both effective and safe for the environment. Howell’s tests show that the alternative works as well or better than common, petroleum-based solutions. It’s cheaper, too. – T. G.
Hope for Depressives
Deep brain stimulation (DBS) has been used for decades by doctors to treat the tremors associated with Parkinson’s disease. For more than a decade, some doctors have also used it to treat severe depression in patients who failed to respond to other therapies. The approach is not approved by federal health regulators, and two major trials were shut down because of disappointing results. However, last month a long-term, multi-institution study based at Emory University showed measurable improvement in patients implanted with stimulating electrodes, the New York Times reports. Of the study’s 28 subjects, a third had full remission of symptoms, and half reported much less distress. Fourteen completed eight years of follow-up appointments; 11 completed four years of follow-ups. Three patients asked for the implant to be removed. The research team found no adverse effects from the device itself, the paper says, although 19 adverse events occurred during the surgical procedures. The implant sends an electrical charge to a region of the brain called Brodmann Area 25. Just below the top of the head, it’s an area that becomes highly active in people with severe depression, and the electric current shuts down that activity. The electrode is powered by a battery implanted in the chest. Because the trial is small, it may not be enough to get the Food and Drug Administration to rethink its opposition to the therapy. Researchers at Australia’s University of Queensland, who have been reviewing the evidence to date, say the results should prompt device makers to set up more trials. “There’s no way we get FDA approval without good trials,” they argue. – T. G.
©Helen Mayberg MD, Mount Sinai
It’s estimated there are around 785,000 new heart attack cases in the United States annually, and each can permanently damage the patient’s cardiac tissue. That’s because the event can cause scar tissue to form, which diminishes muscle function, and no good treatment exists today. However, Science Daily reports, a University of California–San Diego spin-off recently conducted a successful Phase 1 clinical trial of an injectable hydrogel that it hopes will repair damaged tissue and improve cardiac function. Ventrix’s gel is made from cardiac connective tissue harvested from pigs, stripped of muscle cells, and then milled into powder that’s mixed into water. The resulting liquid can be easily injected into heart tissue without surgery. Human body temperature then turns it into a semisolid, porous gel. Once inside damaged cardiac muscle, VentriGel, as it’s called, forms a scaffold, which attracts healthy cells that repair damaged tissue. The trial involving 15 patients was designed to evaluate the gel’s safety and feasibility, but initial observations indicated health improvements. Some patients, for instance, could walk longer distances afterward. An expanded Phase 2 trial comes next, and Ventrix is also planning a larger, randomized trial to determine if VentriGel improves cardiac function in post-heart-attack patients. – T. G.
©David Baillot/University of California San Diego
Simplified Stress Test
Stress can make you sick and potentially kill you. British physician Rangan Chatterjee, author of The Stress Solution and practitioner of what he calls progressive medicine, estimates that 80 percent of the ailments he treats, including high blood pressure, depression, and metabolic disease, are linked to stress. As it happens, researchers at the University of Cincinnati have invented a simple test that can measure common stress hormones in sweat, blood, urine, or saliva. Now the team hopes to develop an easy-to-use device so people can monitor their stress levels on their own. The technology uses ultraviolet light to measure the hormones. These biomarkers are found in all those fluids, albeit in varying quantities. The device measures multiple hormones and can be applied to any of those bodily fluids, which makes it unique. Funding for the research came from the National Science Foundation and U.S. Air Force, which wants ways to better monitor the acute stress pilots can undergo. “You’re not going to replace a full-panel laboratory blood test. That’s not the intent,” Andrew Steckl, the electrical engineering professor who led the team, says in a press release. “This may not give you all the information, but it tells you whether you need a professional who can take over.” A stress-free stress test? No sweat. – T. G.
©Andrew Higley/UC Creative Services
European researchers are investigating a system that can store excess green energy and, as a side benefit, also keep food warehouses chilled. CryoHub, a British project involving academics and businesses from five European countries, sees liquified air energy storage (LAES) as a way to use extra electricity generated by solar and wind systems to freeze air at cryogenic temperatures, according to IEEE Spectrum. Freezing turns air into a liquid and shrinks its volume by 700 times, so it can be stored in special tanks that don’t require acres of space. When more electricity is needed after the sun sets or winds die, an evaporator expands the liquid back into a gas that can turn a turbine, the magazine explains. LAES is not, however, tremendously efficient because it takes a fair amount of power to liquefy and re-expand the air. But both processes produce waste heat and cold that could be captured, improving performance. CryoHub aims to achieve an efficiency ratio of around 60 percent to 70 percent from recycling waste heat and piping the waste cold to a nearby food warehouse—a major energy gobbler. Next year, the project plans to start construction of a 100 kW demonstration plant in Lommel, Belgium. If LAES works as planned, the economics look promising. As IEEE Spectrum reports, Britain’s 142 large refrigerated warehouses alone consume enough energy to power 230,000 homes. – T. G.
Predator Awareness Training
Publishing is the life blood of academic researchers. But the advent of open-access journals is complicating the traditional system of subscriber-based, peer-reviewed journals. By making their articles free to read, these journals raise income from author fees. Many are credible publications and are fully peer-reviewed. But too many are not, and they’re often called predatory journals. They tend to publish any work regardless of quality, charge exorbitant fees and have little if any editorial oversight. Some also are fake versions of reputable publications. (ASEE’s Journal of Engineering Technology became the victim of such a scam three years ago, an event detailed in a Prism article in February 2017.) Now a team at Texas Tech University, led by Amy Koerber, associate dean for administration and finance, is leading a National Science Foundation-funded project to develop a training program to raise awareness among STEM academics and others about the issue and give them guidance on how to combat it. Koerber’s team will review blacklists and whitelists and ethical codes used by different publishers. Next, they’ll interview STEM academics, administrators and science journalists to get a sense of how well the problem is understood. Using data from those first two steps, they’ll develop an online training program intended to help researchers keep the predators at bay. – T. G.
Researchers at the University of Colorado–Boulder have figured out how to create microscopic knots within solutions of liquid crystals, the materials used in display screens for high-definition TVs and smartphones. Why is that a neat trick? Because the technique could be used to make screens more energy efficient. The team used a liquid crystal with helix-shaped molecules whose corkscrew-shape particles don’t mesh easily and thus constantly twist. The researchers discovered that by mixing in chiral molecules, which have asymmetric “handedness,” and applying an electric field, the particles formed tiny kinks that look like microscopic grains of sand but are actually knot-shaped. By applying a voltage to the solution, the knots can be expanded or shrunk, but not untied. Physicists have long understood that knots can appear in many fields, including cosmology, nuclear physics, and particle physics, but they’re hard to observe and manipulate. By contrast, the Boulder team’s liquid-crystal knots can be studied under a microscope. New Scientist magazine also notes that because the knots are permanent, each could act as a single pixel in a display screen that would need no further power to keep information displayed, only to change or erase it. That could solve the knotty problem of energy-hungry screens. – T. G.
©Jung-Shen B. Tai & Ivan I. Smalyukh
The mid-September attack on a Saudi Arabian oil field, which the U.S. and Saudi governments blamed on Iran, was reportedly carried out by a swarm of drones and cruise missiles. Now the Pentagon plans to field its first directed-energy defense weapon, the PHASER anti-drone microwave system, against autonomous vehicles used as instruments of war. The $16.28 million prototype, developed and produced by Raytheon, will be deployed overseas for a yearlong assessment, according to Popular Mechanics. The Pentagon isn’t saying where PHASER will be tested. But soon after the Saudi drone attack, the U.S. announced it would be moving enhanced air defenses to the oil-rich kingdom. PHASER, one of several systems being acquired for field-testing, uses split-second microwave blasts that can disable drones weighing less than 55 pounds and fly at altitudes of 1,200 to 3,500 feet at between 100 and 200 knots. It’s a high-powered, microwave cannon that blasts out radio frequencies in a conical beam. It destroys drones instantaneously by frying their circuits with a burst of overwhelming energy, the magazine says. Once drones are detected by radar, cameras, and other sensors, the system uses the data to take aim. Popular Mechanics notes that in the past it was considered a major drawback that microwave systems don’t discriminate among targets, raising fears that they could also bring down friendly drones. But given the recent trend of using swarms of small drones for attacks, PHASER’s ability to attack multiple targets simultaneously is seen as a virtue. – T. G.