Party out of poverty

6:47am 31st Jan 2011- A large crowd of ‘mad scientists’ gathered at Scitech over the weekend to party the night away for charity.
Sourced & published by Henry Sapiecha

People too complicated

for machines to read thoughts

Nicky Phillips SCIENCE

January 29, 2011

Rolling debate ... experts are undecided about what brain scans can reveal.
Rolling debate … experts are undecided about what brain scans can reveal.

BEFORE the US presidential election in 2008 scientists reported they had, quite literally, peered into the minds of swinging voters.

When a group of people were shown the words ”Democrat” or ”Republican” while undergoing a brain scan they showed high levels of activity in a region called the amygdala.

The scientists concluded that because this region was associated with anxiety, the participants felt that way about the political parties.

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The conclusion was strongly resisted by a group of rival neuroscientists who published a response to the study several days after it was reported in The New York Times.

It was not possible to determine whether a person was anxious simply by looking at the activity in a particular brain region, they said. ”This is because brain regions are typically engaged by many mental states, and thus one-to-one mapping between a brain region and a mental state is not possible.”

This stand-off typifies the rolling debate over what brain scans can really show.

To date, many studies claim to have found the regions of the brain for things as diverse as love, sarcasm, sex drive and even voting choice, fuelling the idea that the brain is made up of modules and individual parts.

Brain scans are generally taken with functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, which has, for the first time, allowed scientists to watch the flow of activity in the brain in real time without cutting open the skull.

But despite the clarity that comes with fMRI, it does not take photographs.

An American psychologist, Diane Beck, said the highlighted region of the brain in an fMRI did not show not a direct measure of that region’s activity.

”The construction of the colourful images we see in journals and magazines are considerably more complicated, and considerably more processed, than the photo-like quality of the images might lead one to believe,” said Dr Beck, of the University of Illinois.

So has fMRI really bridged human understanding of how the thoughts, emotions and feelings of our mind are linked to the soggy, 1.5-kilogram mass of tissue inside the skull?

The debate around fMRI’s powers for probing the mind came to a head in 2009 when an American review found almost half of fMRI studies of emotion and personality had overstated their data linking a specific brain region to an emotion or personality trait.

In a recent article published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, an American psychologist Gregory Miller agreed. ”The rush in recent decades to construe a host of psychological events as being biological events is, at best, premature,” he wrote.

Ulrich Schall, a psychiatrist and psychologist at the University of Newcastle, said fMRI did not directly measure brain activity; instead it measured blood flow in the brain, which increased as neurons became active, and was therefore an indirect measure of their activity.

When someone was performing a specific mental task it was not possible to clearly identify the biological basis of that task in the brain, Associate Professor Schall said. That was just the interpretation of a scientist.

And unless studies were well designed, he said, the interpretation might be meaningless.

But fMRI clearly had a role in studying the brain. It was good for measuring brain development and studying people with mental disorders, he said.

Associate Professor Schall said scientists were confident of the function of primary processing regions of the brain, such as the areas associated with speech, vision and movement.

But scientists were still far away from understanding the basis of more complex cognitive functions such as numeracy, social interactions, intentions of people and planning, he said. ”These things are certainly not localised and need the combination of many parts of the brain.”

Like many scientists, he believed everything that people experienced in their minds, such as thoughts and feelings, had a physical or biological origin.

”But I use the word believe because I don’t have final proof of that,” he said.

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Electronic Contact Lens

promises bionic capabilities

for everyone

By Mike Hanlon

23:12 January 21, 2008

January 22, 2008 It’s not often in this era of rampant technological innovation that a fundamentally new concept surfaces – with almost no limitations to what can be achieved with the myriad new technologies coming to market over the last few years, fundamentally new ideas of this magnitude are becoming increasingly rare, much less technologies with groundbreaking societal implications. Such a technology emerged this week when it was announced that engineers at the University of Washington have used microscopic scale manufacturing techniques to combine a flexible contact lens with an imprinted electronic circuit and lights.

  • Electronic Contact Lens promises bionic capabilities for everyone
  • Electronic Contact Lens promises bionic capabilities for everyone

Though in its infancy, the combination of a wearable contact lens with embedded optoelectronic and electronic devices promises many things, most notably this could well be the beginning of the Computer Human Interface of the future.

The trend towards miniaturization of computers has now reached a roadblock due to our inability to adequately display the information they provide on smaller screens – the main limiting factor in relation to the ever-shrinking size of computers and telephones has become the size of the display – if it gets any smaller, we can’t read it.

Currently, the most obvious solutions for further reduction in size of wearable computer-based devices are miniature projectors and externally worn heads up displays.

The amount of investment in miniaturized projector technologies bears testimony to the prospects for this market and we have seen numerous prototypes showcased recently by the likes of Microvision3MTexas InstrumentsExplayNeochroma,DigislideLight Blue Optics and from research labs such as the Fraunhofer Institute for Photonic Microsystems . Though the microprojection area promises the ability to project a large screen on any flat surface, we have yet to see commercially available products and the technology won’t suit everyone, partially because they’re still not quite small enough, and partially because of privacy issues – projecting delicate company information onto an airport terminal wall, for example, might not be a good idea.

Similarly, those heads up displays that have come to market are either prohibitively expensive or do not yet offer high resolution screens of sufficient clarity and stability to avoid the attendant migraine headaches. The promise is there for the near future, but one of the major drawbacks to mass adoption of these products is that not everybody wishes to look like a cyborg.

Accordingly, the University of Washington’s contact lens offers the promise of a viable large screen display alternative for connecting users with their mobile devices. Project head and Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering Babak Parviz envisages that his team’s electronic contact lens will offer the ability to superimpose a transparent high resolution display over the field of vision of one, maybe both eyes of the wearer .

“Looking through a completed lens, you would see what the display is generating superimposed on the world outside,” says Parviz.

Apart from the expectation of eventually offering a large screen display for our wearable and micro computers, PDAs and phones, the heads-up aspect of the contact lens leaves the way open for a democratization of Augmented Reality.

Unlike Virtual Reality, where the user’s field of view is completely replaced with an artificial visual environment, Augmented Reality uses head tracking in conjunction with augmented vision to overlay complimentary information on the user’s view.

The system can tell which direction the user is looking and adjusts the displayed image accordingly, displaying new and appropriate information for the scene being viewed. For example, when viewing a map, it may be beneficial to orient the map to the user’s field of view so that the user can identify landmarks in the real world by their proximity to landmarks on the map.

Augmented Reality is already in use in a wide range of industrial applications due to the work of companies such as Arkiva which is used by technicians doing extremely complex work, enabling them to overlay instructions, circuit diagrams, mechanical drawings and the like over real-world tangles to ensure they get it right.

If the tools were readily available and in mass usage, a plethora of new applications for augmented reality would almost certainly come to light.

In tourism, for example, Augmented Reality would offer the ability to see the ancient ruins in Rome, overlayed with what the buildings originally looked like and for buildings to be labeled in a real/virtual mixed tour.

At a sporting event, players might be labeled, the ball/puck tracked, distances marked, and for certain professions, such as a surgeon, vital organs, veins and arteries could be delineated. Obviously, such capabilities would require additional technologies to come into play, but with wireless networking becoming ubiquitous, it’s a possibility for the mid-term future.

Another aspect of AR is displaying vital information to someone who is actively involved in doing something where the need to refocus on a dashboard or set of instruments would impair that person’s ability to perform their task. The heads up display was pioneered and significantly evolved in jet fighters, and has been trailed in Formula One and there are now commercially available systems on the market for racing drivers, motorcyclists and bicycle riders.

The Parviz team’s contact lens would enable pervasive heads up displays in automobiles, which would significantly reduce accidents, even if it only helped people tune their radio or find the album they wanted on their iPod whilst driving.

Taking wireless technologies and the evolution of the UW Contact Lens even further, there’s significant promise of using the contact lens displays in coordinating groups of people to work more effectively in teams, the most likely first up usage for this being for military personnel on the battlefield and for disaster response teams in a crisis where saving time and doing things efficiently means saving lives.

There are many possible uses for virtual displays. Drivers or pilots could see a vehicle’s speed projected onto the windshield. Video-game companies could use the contact lenses to completely immerse players in a virtual world without restricting their range of motion. And for communications, people on the go could surf the Internet on a midair virtual display screen that only they would be able to see.

“People may find all sorts of applications for it that we have not thought about. Our goal is to demonstrate the basic technology and make sure it works and that it’s safe,” said Parviz, who heads a multi-disciplinary UW group that is developing electronics for contact lenses.

Bionic Zoom Vision

One of the aspects of the UW Contact Lens most likely to capture the imagination of the public is its promise of bionic vision, popularized in mass market science fiction such as the Terminator movie series where Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cyborg character and his cyborg combatants demonstrated the ability to zoom in on distant objects, as did Lee Majors’ character Steve Austin in the Six Million Dollar Man television series.

“Using nanotechnology you can extend the sophistication of the contact lens as far as you like,” says Parviz. “There is interest in including cameras on the contact lens and incorporating other lenses so that, for example, if you were looking at something very small, you would be able to zoom in to get a closer look. Similarly, if something is far away, you would be able to zoom in.”

With an array of lenses wirelessly connected to a wearable computer, there’s obviously the capability of “recording images” says Parviz. We prompt him on the possibility of recording in real time what we see, and he adds that there are many uses for the technology they are developing that have not yet been explored, and indeed, that there are uses they almost certainly haven’t even thought of.

Once again, the military and law enforcement domains are the most likely to pony up the dollars for real-time recording of critical encounters, but the possibilities are almost endless once someone is wearing such a contact lens – could it be that at some point in the future, those “this conversation could be recorded for training purposes” on-hold telephone announcements (warnings) might be applicable to every conversation with a customer service representative?

With the ability to record everything we see, which the UW Contact lens will ultimately enable, the concept of privacy, instant recall and a whole host of new capabilities come into play – remember that reliable, solid state data storage is becoming more cost effective by the day. A decade from now, recording everything we say and do is now a distinct possibility.

Bio-sensing and a wearable health monitoring system

Perhaps the most left-field aspect to the UW study is the promise of a wearable health monitoring system. “The second big area that we are looking at is bio-sensing, because on the surface of the contact lens there are a lot of biomarkers already present that are important for monitoring health care,” explains Parviz.

“We recognized that if we could have a contact lens that incorporated biosensors that could sample the biology of the eye we could constantly report it outside, and hence have a non-invasive way of putting people on continuous health monitoring.”

Whatsmore, the system also has the capability of displaying the key indicators in real time to the wearer or a relevant third party as a personal dashboard via their heads up display.

How the project began

“The way this whole thing started,” says Assistant Professor Babak Parviz, “was that we were looking at conventional contact lenses and we noticed that they were straightforward polymer structures. They do something useful in vision correction, but the structure of the system is simple – it’s just one material.”

“The expertise we have in our group surrounds nanotechnology and microfabrication which enables us to make a lot of very small, very useful devices, so we thought that if we could migrate all these devices onto a contact lens, we could get a lot more functionality out of this simple object that’s used by millions of people. The contact lens is safe to use and people are quite comfortable with using them.”

“We had a few things in mind. The first was that we could display some information – the level of the sophistication of the display would obviously be dependent on the sophistication of the technology we used. At its simplest, it might just be a single pixel that switched on and off and indicated something that’s important to the user. Going several levels beyond that, it might be a high resolution display.”

“There are a variety of applications in that domain once you have a reasonable degree of resolution in a display, such as augmented reality and computer generated images that you could superimpose over the outside world.”

“Going beyond that, we could incorporate all sorts of optical devices on a contact lens. Obviously it needs to be remotely powered and it would communicate with outside devices via a wireless link.”

“A fully functional high resolution display is still some way off,” he says, explaining that the existing prototype lens contains an electric circuit as well as red light-emitting diodes for a display, and have been tested on rabbits with no adverse effects.

“Our immediate goal is to have a display that has only a few pixels to demonstrate the viability of the concept and after that we will work upwards towards increasing the resolution of the display but it will be some time yet before we have a fully functional hires display.”

“This is a very small step toward that goal, but I think it’s extremely promising.”

“So those are all doable things that are on our agenda”, says Parviz, referring to the array of technological possibilities mentioned elsewhere in this article, “but they’re not easy to implement so they’re all in the future still.”

“What’s interesting and encouraging is that a lot of these things have already been demonstrated independently so there are lots of different micro-lens designs already.”

“These are lens that are exactly the right size, but they have never been incorporated into a contact lens so what’s really encouraging is that a lot of these things exists and one of our hopes is that we have opened the venue of the contact lens to microelectronics – people thinking about contact lenses as a place where we can put elecronics and optoelectronics.”

Building the lenses was a challenge because materials that are safe for use in the body, such as the flexible organic materials used in contact lenses, are delicate. Manufacturing electrical circuits, however, involves inorganic materials, scorching temperatures and toxic chemicals. Researchers built the circuits from layers of metal only a few nanometers thick, about one thousandth the width of a human hair, and constructed light-emitting diodes one third of a millimeter across. They then sprinkled the grayish powder of electrical components onto a sheet of flexible plastic. The shape of each tiny component dictates which piece it can attach to, a microfabrication technique known as self-assembly. Capillary forces – the same type of forces that make water move up a plant’s roots, and that cause the edge of a glass of water to curve upward – pull the pieces into position.

The prototype contact lens does not correct the wearer’s vision, but the technique could be used on a corrective lens, Parviz said. And all the gadgetry won’t obstruct a person’s view. Ideally, installing or removing the bionic eye would be as easy as popping a contact lens in or out, and once installed the wearer would barely know the gadget was there, Parviz said.

“There is a large area outside of the transparent part of the eye that we can use for placing instrumentation,” Parviz said. Future improvements will add wireless communication to and from the lens. The researchers hope to power the whole system using a combination of radio-frequency power and solar cells placed on the lens, Parviz said.

The results of the project to date were presented last week at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ international conference on Micro Electro Mechanical Systems by Harvey Ho, a former graduate student of Parviz’s now working at Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore, Calif. Other co-authors were Ehsan Saeedi and Samuel Kim in the UW’s electrical engineering department and Tueng Shen in the UW Medical Center’s ophthalmology department.

Sourced & published by Henry Sapiecha

Inhaling alcohol instead of drinking it

By Mike Hanlon

A new way of consuming alcohol that offers an immediate hit with no hangover the next day has been introduced in the United Kingdom.The new method is known asAWOL, an acronym for ‘Alcohol With Out Liquid’, and could become a hit in the global club scene due to the euphoric ‘high’ created when alcohol is vaporised, mixed with oxygen and inhaled. Billed at launch as the ‘ultimate party toy’, AWOL machines serve bar customers via tubes and could be seen as a modern version of the ‘Nargile’ or ‘Hookah’ water-pipe which originated in India and became an important part of society in Turkey and Middle Eastern countries in the 17th century, eventually becoming the height of fashion at sheik Western society parties during the late 19th and early 20th century.

Like the Hookah, the AWOL machine has a central body and a number of tubes running from it.The user chooses which spirit will be used and the spirit is loaded into a diffuser capsule in the machine. The oxygen bubbles are then passed through the capsule, absorbing the alcohol, before being inhaled through a tube. The resultant cloudy alcohol vapour is then inhaled from the end of the tube via a device akin to an asthma inhaler.

Once inhaled, the alcoholic gas goes straight into the bloodstream to give an instant ‘hit’. The potent combination of oxygen and alcohol creates a feeling of well-being which intensifies the longer the vapour is inhaled.This high-tech 21st century ‘Hookah’ is the brainchild of 30 year old UK entrepreneur Dominic Simler, and has a patent pending.

“The vapour produces an instant ‘high’ with no hangover the next day,’ said Simler, who will market the machines to clubs and bars in the UK to provide ‘partygoers and hedonists with a radical new way to consume alcohol.”

The outcry by the British media has been predictably damning of the new device, with an article in the Sunday Times dated 15 February quoting the Chief executive of the UK Alcohol Advisory Service referring to AWOL as ‘solvent abuse for adults.’Professor Oliver James, the head of clinical medical sciences at Newcastle University in the UK was quoted in the article as saying, ‘by snorting the alcohol it can go directly into the brain without being filtered by the liver. What is getting into your brain could be the equivalent of many times more than by drinking it.’

Professor James has since stressed that the comments that he made to the Sunday Times were purely speculative and theoretical, that his statements were made without first seeing or trying AWOL and that he made it clear to the reporter that he has no previous professional experience or clinical evidence of alcohol being consumed via vapour.

Professor James has now agreed to carry out independent tests on AWOL and Simler is hoping that the tests will ‘remove any element of doubt regarding the safety of AWOL.’Until the results of the university tests on AWOL are available the company has advised all customers that the application should only be used to inhale alcohol vapour orally and not via the nose. Professor James has confirmed that AWOL is safe to be consumed in this manner.

The first venue to offer the AWOL experience is il Bordello, an exclusive members-only club built on a Dutch barge located in Bristol. Club proprietor Liz Lewitt has been ‘overwhelmed’ with bookings for AWOL – the shots are consumed at the rate of approximately one shot per hour (maximum) and cost UKP’6 a shot.

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New lacquer-based antibacterial

active film keeps food fresher for longer

By Ben Coxworth

18:36 October 7, 2010

Fraunhofer's antibacterial food packaging film kills bacteria on food by releasing sorbic ...

Fraunhofer’s antibacterial food packaging film kills bacteria on food by releasing sorbic acid

Researchers from Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging have developed a new type of food packaging film that kills food-inhabiting bacteria. While antimicrobial polymers in food packaging have been around for some time, the new material is unique in that it incorporates sorbic acid that has been dissolved into a lacquer, which is then deposited onto the film. When that lacquer first touches the food, a timed release of the acid begins, which neutralizes a significant number of the microorganisms on the food’s surface. The result, according to the researchers, is the ability to keep meat, fish and cheese fresher for longer.

Fraunhofer food chemist Carolin Hauser chose sorbic acid not just because it kills germs, but also because it’s non-toxic, non-allergenic, water-soluble, and doesn’t have a strong smell or taste. It is already used as a preservative in many foods, and is considered environmentally-safe, as it breaks down rapidly in soil.

Hauser used fresh pieces of pork loin for her evaluation of the film. She contaminated each of them with 1,000 colony-forming units of the E. coli bacteria, then wrapped some of them in regular film and some in her product. Differences in color between the two groups were apparent after several days in an 8C (46F) fridge. When she did a microbial analysis, she discovered that the E. coli population on the pork wrapped in her film had decreased to about one quarter its original size.

“After a week or so, the total germ count on the surface had decreased significantly compared to the meat packed in untreated film,” she said. “This indicates that our active film is suitable for maintaining the freshness – and above all the safety – of meat preparations, cheeses, fish fillets and other cold cuts.”

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New packaging would indicate

when food is spoiled

By Ben Coxworth

13:09 January 13, 2011

Prof. Andrew Mills with food packaged in his smart plastic (Photo: University of Strathcly...

Prof. Andrew Mills with food packaged in his smart plastic (Photo: University of Strathclyde)

Given that German scientists have already developed packaging film that kills food-inhabiting bacteria, it only makes sense that Scottish scientists should be developing the next step in the process – food packaging that changes color when the food is going bad. The “intelligent plastic” film, which is being created at Glasgow’s University of Strathclyde, is intended to take the guesswork out of whether or not the food packaged within it is still safe to eat.

The new plastic is intended to be used in conjunction with modified atmosphere packaging, an existing process in which the shelf life of food is lengthened by replacing the air inside its packaging with a protective gas mixture – often, most or all of the oxygen is drawn out and replaced with nitrogen or carbon dioxide.

Such packaging typically includes inserted labels that indicate freshness. TheStrathclyde team see their plastic as being a less expensive alternative to those labels, as it could simply be integrated into the production of the packaging, instead of having to be made and inserted separately.

While the researchers are keeping zip-locked about just how their plastic would know when food was going off, they have stated that it would react not only to food that has been left too long, but also to food that has become tainted due to damaged packaging or lack of refrigeration.

“We hope that this will reduce the risk of people eating food which is no longer fit for consumption and help prevent unnecessary waste of food,” said project leader Prof. Andrew Mills. “We also hope it will have a direct and positive impact on the meat and seafood industries.”

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Fruit fly research could lead

to simpler and more

robust computer network systems

By Grant Banks

21:30 January 17, 2011

Over the years science has gleaned an enormous amount of knowledge from the humble fruit fly. Drosophila melanogaster was used to provide the post-Mendelian foundations for our understanding of genetics and has also been used extensively in neuroscience research. The latest fruit fly-inspired innovation could simplify how wireless sensor networks communicate and stands to have wider applications for computing.

This is not the first time computing systems have been compared to biological systems. Learning from a comparison between Linux and E.coli and using fly’s eyes to help develop faster visual receivers for robots are just two examples. This time round researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, have discovered a highly efficient system of organizing cells in the fruit fly’s nervous system develops that stands to have applications in computer networking.

Without communication with surrounding cells or prior knowledge of what these other cells are doing the fly’s developing nervous system is able to organize itself so that a small number become leader cells or sensory organ precursor cells (SOP), while the rest become ordinary nerve cells. The SOPs which connect to adjoining nerve cells do not connect with other SOPs, but instead to the ends of the nervous system that are attached to tiny hairs for interacting with the outside world. What is extraordinary about how this hierarchy of cells organizes itself is the fact that the right number and combination of SOP cells and nerve cells form without the need for complicated information exchange.

The fly’s nervous system uses a probabilistic method to select the cells that will become SOPs. The cells have no information about how they are connected to each other but as various cells self-select themselves as SOPs, they send out chemical signals to neighboring cells that inhibit those cells from also becoming SOPs. This process continues for three hours, until all of the cells are either SOPs or are neighbors to an SOP, and the fly emerges from the pupal stage.

Ziv Bar-Joseph, associate professor of machine learning and computational biology at CMU and author of the report noted that the probability that any cell will self-select increases not as a function of connections, as with a maximal independent set (MIS) algorithm used in computer networking, but as a function of time. The researchers believe that computer networks could be developed using this innovative system creating networks which are much simpler and more robust.

“It is such a simple and intuitive solution, I can’t believe we did not think of this 25 years ago,” said co-author Noga Alon, a mathematician and computer scientist at Tel Aviv University and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J.

Bar-Joseph, Alon and their co-authors – Yehuda Afek of Tel Aviv University and Naama Barkai, Eran Hornstein and Omer Barad of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel – developed a new distributed computing algorithm using their findings. The resulting network was shown to have qualities that are well suited for networks in which the number and position of the nodes is not completely certain including wireless sensor networks, such as environmental monitoring, or where sensors are dispersed. They also believe this could be used in systems for controlling swarms of robots.

“The run time was slightly greater than current approaches, but the biological approach is efficient and more robust because it doesn’t require so many assumptions,” Bar-Joseph said. “This makes the solution applicable to many more applications.”

The research was supported in part by grants from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

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‘Killer paper’ could prolong shelf life of foods

By Ben Coxworth

16:04 January 19, 2011

Silver is a known killer of harmful bacteria, and has already been incorporated into things such as antibacterial keyboardswashing machineswater filters, and plastic coatings for medical devices. Now, scientists have added another potential product to the list: silver nanoparticle-impregnated “killer paper” packaging, that could help keep food from spoiling.

Led by Aharon Gedanken from Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, the team discovered that paper could be covered with silver nanoparticles through the application of ultrasonic radiation – a process known as ultrasonication. It involves the formation and subsequent collapse of acoustic bubbles near a solid surface, which creates microjets that throw the desired nanoparticles onto that surface. To the team’s knowledge, this was only the second time that ultrasonication had ever been attempted on paper.

Unlike previous attempts at creating antibacterial paper, this one-step method was reportedly quite effective, and produced a smooth, homogenous, long-lasting coating. By varying the nanoparticle concentration and the application time, the thickness of the coating could be varied as needed. When exposed to E. coli and S. aureus bacteria, both of which cause food poisoning, the paper killed them all off within three hours.

The scientists stated that the ultrasonication process could also be used to apply other nanomaterials to paper, which could be used to tweak its hydrophobicity, conductivity, or texture.

While the addition of ionic silver to foods has been used in the past to ward off bacteria, the paper would reportedly serve as a longer-term solution, as it would act as a slow-release reservoir for the silver. Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging has previously looked into the use of sorbic acid-coated plastic as an antibacterial food wrap.

The killer paper research was recently published in the journal Langmuir.

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NASA announces discovery

of radical new life form – on Earth

By Ben Coxworth

12:27 December 2, 2010

In a press conference held today, scientists working with NASA announced the discovery of a new microorganism right here on Earth that employs a survival strategy never seen before in any other life form. Found in Northern California’s highly-saline Mono Lake, the GFAJ-1 bacteria exists in an environment that has very little phosphorous, an element that had previously been considered essential for all living things in order to build DNA. To cope with this problem, the bacteria is able to substitute highly-toxic arsenic for phosphorous, in its cell components. The fact that a microbe is able to survive in such a fashion opens up the possibilities for where life could exist on other planets, and will require a rethink on NASA’s part regarding its search for extraterrestrial life forms.

Until this announcement, it had been assumed that carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur were required for any terrestrial organism to grow. Phosphorous is considered to be an essential part of the backbone of DNA and RNA. Arsenic, on the other hand, is highly poisonous to most life forms – it is, however, chemically-similar to phosphorous.

Felisa Wolfe-Simon, a NASA Astrobiology Research Fellow in residence at the U.S. Geological Survey, led a team that first discovered GFAJ-1 in the salty, alkaline mud of Mono Lake. Mud from the lake was taken back to her lab, and placed in a medium that (like the lake) had very little phosphorous, but lots of arsenic. The bacteria was observed growing in the mud, despite everything. When analyzed, the GFAJ-1 were found to be using the arsenic as phosphorous.

“What I’ve presented to you today is a microbe, doing something different than life as we knew it,” said Wolfe-Simon. “We’ve cracked open the door to what’s possible for life elsewhere in the universe, and that’s profound.”

“I find this result delightful, because it makes me have to expand my notion of what environmental constituents might enable habitability,” added Pamela Conrad, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “We still don’t know everything there is to know about what might make a habitable environment on another planet.”

The research was published today in the journal Science.

All images courtesy NASA.

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World’s lightest solid material,

known as ‘frozen smoke’,

gets even lighter

By Grant Banks

22:48 January 13, 2011

Researchers have created a new aerogel that boasts amazing strength and an incredibly large surface area. Nicknamed ‘frozen smoke’ due to its translucent appearance, aerogels are manufactured materials derived from a gel in which the liquid component of the gel has been replaced with a gas, resulting in a material renowned as the world’s lightest solid material. The new so-called “multiwalled carbon nanotube (MCNT) aerogel” could be used in sensors to detect pollutants and toxic substances, chemical reactors, and electronics components.

Although aerogels have been fabricated from silica, metal oxides, polymers, and carbon-based materials and are already used in thermal insulation in windows and buildings, tennis racquets, sponges to clean up oil spills, and other products, few scientists have succeeded in making aerogels from carbon nanotubes.

The researchers were able to succeed where so many before them had failed using a wet gel of well-dispersed pristine MWCNTs. After removing the liquid component from the MWCNT wet gel, they were able to create the lightest ever free-standing MWCNT aerogel monolith with a density of 4 mg/cm3.

MWCNT aerogels infused with a plastic material are flexible, like a spring that can be stretched thousands of times, and if the nanotubes in a one-ounce cube were unraveled and placed side-to-side and end-to-end, they would carpet three football fields. The MWCNT aerogels are also excellent conductors of electricity, which is what makes them ideal for sensing applications and offers great potential for their use in electronics components.

A report describing the process for making MWCNT aerogels and tests to determine their properties appears in ACS Nano.

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