A smart polymer that changes colour to signal infection and then releases antibiotics could make medical devices safer.
Researchers in Saudi Arabia are working on technology to cut down on the number of patients being infected by bacterial contamination from re-usable tools such as X-ray imaging plates, which are used for mouth scans in dentistry.
Smart coatings have previously used nano-crystals embedded with silver ions, which have antibacterial properties, but tend to leach too rapidly over time.
However, a team at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia have developed a method that uses gold nanoparticles instead. These gold nano-particles have an advantage over other methods because they can change how they interact with light in response to specific bio-molecular interactions.
However, it wasn’t just as simple as swapping silver for gold. The team, led by Niveen Khashab, an associate professor at the university, had to develop a new type of ‘nano-filler’ to create their smart material.
“Nano-fillers are small chemical agents distributed in the matrix of a polymer composite,” she explained. “They’re dopants, so they improve on the regular material and introduce new properties—in our case, making the coating antibacterial.”
The team’s approach, which is described in a paper published in Advanced Healthcare Materials, involves treating gold nanoparticles with bacteria-killing lysozyme enzymes. They are then attached to slightly larger silica nanoparticles that have been stuffed with molecules of antibiotic drugs.
This complex cocktail emits a fluorescent red glow in normal, clean, conditions. However, when bacteria is present, the lysozyme enzyme rips the gold and the silica nano-clusters apart. This simultaneously switches off the fluorescent effect, and releases the antibiotic cargo.
The team have tested their new polymer in experiments with E. coli, and found less leaching compared to the silver ion method. They compared x-ray dental plates with and without the smart polymer coating, and found that they could determine the level of bacterial contamination by looking for colour changes under a UV light.
There was no change in the quality of the images obtained using these plates. “The process of coating is easy,” said Khashab. “We are looking at improving this technology to include other medical devices of different sizes and shapes.”
Researchers at Goldsmiths, University of London are using haptic technology to help visually impaired audio engineers ‘feel’ sound waves.
For most of the history of music production, it’s been a very tactile process. Recording studios were full of switches, sliders, buttons and dials. Audio engineers would physically scrolls through reels of tape, and make edits by cutting them with a razor blade.
But that all changed with the advent of computers. Now, the power of a recording suite can fit into a laptop, and switches and dials have been replaced with digital menus. Instead of scrubbing through a track using reels of tape, musicians and technicians scroll through a waveform – a visual representation of the audio track showing the peaks and troughs of its volume and frequency.
But what if you can’t see? Audio production has gone from being an ideal career for someone with a visual impairment to an ergonomic nightmare. There are tools such as ‘Voiceover’ which can help deal with computer menus by reading out their contents, but these can clash with the underlying audio.
One potential solution was showcased yesterday at the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Innovation in Haptics event.
The Haptic Wave prototype – developed by researchers at Goldsmiths – consists of a wooden board with a slider built into it. As the user moves the slider from left to right to scroll through time, a dial moves up and down depending on the position of the waveform at that point in time.
The louder it gets the higher the dial, and it falls to the bottom of the slider for the quiet parts. “It’s an immediate, intuitive indication,” said Atau Tanaka, a professor of media and computing at the university, who worked on the ESPRC-funded research.
Adam Parkinson, who co-authored the research, told Professional Engineering that they had consulted with a number of visually impaired audio engineers about what kind of device they’d been looking for before developing the Haptic Wave, which is about 30cm long and 12cm tall. “Whether you’re visually impaired or not, this technology frees you up and you can take that information in through the hands,” he said. In the future, the same technology could potentially be used to show whether a vocalist is in tune.
Parkinson said the device, which is being trialled in music studios and recording facilities across the United States and England, could be useful for audio engineers, musicians, radio producers and voiceover artists
It was just one of a number of haptic technologies on show at the Royal Academy of Engineering event, which also featured a demonstration from Bristol-based start-up Ultrahaptics. Their technology uses ultrasonic waves to simulate the sensation of touch. PE tried a few demos, including one where it felt like bubbles were popping on the skin, and another where we could physically feel the sensation of pressing a switch in mid-air. Speakers also discussed the potential for haptics in areas such as surgery and healthcare, and entertainment, where it could be used to allow museum visitors to ‘feel’ objects that they’re not usually allowed to touch.
All Volvo cars launched from 2019 will be either electric or hybrid models, the manufacturer announced today.
“Electrification is paving the way for a new chapter in automotive history”, Volvo said, as it set out plans for an electric motor in each of its cars. The Swedish company will introduce electrified cars across its model range, including fully electric, plug-in hybrids and mild-hybrid cars.
Volvo Cars aims to sell 1 million electrified cars by 2025, when it also hopes to have climate-neutral manufacturing operations.
“People increasingly demand electrified cars, and we want to respond to our customers’ current and future needs,” said president and chief executive Håkan Samuelsson. “You can now pick and choose whichever electrified Volvo you wish.”
“Volvo are anticipating a shift toward electric cars over the next decade in a big way and want to be at the forefront of that push,” said automotive expert David Bailey from Aston University to Professional Engineering. “It’s another signal that huge disruption and transformation is coming to the industry with electric, connected and autonomous technologies coming.”
A big shift away from diesel is already happening, said Bailey. As battery costs drop and more choice emerges, electric cars will begin to out-compete traditional vehicles from the early-to-mid 2020s, he added.
Every year, tens of thousands of people are diagnosed with heart valve disease.
Some of them undergo a transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR), where a heart valve is replaced with a prosthetic. There are a number of different prosthetics for heart surgeons to choose from, with different sizes from different manufacturers. If the valve doesn’t fit correctly, blood can flow around the prosthetic rather than through it.
Researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology and the Piedmont Heart Institute hope to cut down on this ‘paravalvular leakage’. They’re using medical imaging and 3D printing technologies to create individual models of patients’ hearts to help heart surgeons choose the right size prosthetics.
“Paravalvular leakage is an extremely important indicator in how well the patient will do long term with their new valve,” said Zhen Qian, chief of cardiovascular imaging research at Piedmont Heart Institute. “The idea was, now that we can make a patient-specific model with this tissue-mimicking 3-D printing technology, we can test how the prosthetic valves interact with the 3-D printed models to learn whether we can predict leakage.”
In a study published in the journal JACC: Cardiovascular Imaging, the researchers described how they created models from CT scans of the patients’ hearts, which could reliably predict the amount of leakage that would occur in the rule heart.
The models are 3D-printed using metamaterials that mimic the properties of human tissue. They can recreate unique properties of a patient’s heart, such as calcium deposition and the stiffness of the arterial walls.
“Previous methods of using 3-D printers and a single material to create human organ models were limited to the physiological properties of the material used,” said Chuck Zhang, an engineering professor at Georgia Tech.
“Our method of creating these models using metamaterial design and multi-material 3-D printing takes into account the mechanical behaviour of the heart valves, mimicking the natural strain-stiffening behaviour of soft tissues that comes from the interaction between elastin and collagen, two proteins found in heart valves.”
The researchers used the printed model hearts to test how closely different prosthetics fitted to the walls of the heart. The used warm water to mimic the temperature of the human body, and implanted the prosthetics inside the models in the exact same location that they’d been places in the hearts of real patients. They found that a poor fit in the model was associated with a higher level of leakage in the real patients.
“The results of this study are quite encouraging,” said Qian. “Even though this valve replacement procedure is quite mature, there are still cases where picking a different size prosthetic or different manufacturer could improve the outcome, and 3-D printing will be very helpful to determine which one.”
Flying cars have remained stubbornly fictional, with safety and regulatory concerns and battery technology keeping our personal vehicles pinned to earth.
But a bladeless propulsion system could change that. Speaking at Frost and Sullivan’s Intelligent Mobility Event in London today, entrepreneur John Mohyi outlined his company’s fascinating technology.
“The objective is to make flying cars practical in densely populated areas,” he said. “Bladeless propulsion makes this possible by limited the blades that can cut people and harm infrastructure.”
Mohyi Labs plans to demonstrate the technology in small autonomous drones before scaling it up to carry passengers. It works using ‘ducted counter-vortex radio impeller technology,’ where air is manipulated using waves rather than blades.
Currently, the biggest problem with flying cars is providing and storing enough energy to get them off the ground. According to Mohyi the bladeless concept is more energy efficient than a helicopter or quadcopter drone.
“As long as batteries take 37 times less energy per kilogram than petrol, there’s still a long way to go to efficient flying,” said Robert Dingemanse, the CEO of PAL-V.
His company, whose name stands for ‘personal air and land vehicle’ are developing the world’s first commercially available flying car. The PAL-V Liberty is ready for pre-order and set to be completed by the end of next year.
Instead of a fixed wing or multi-rotor system, it uses a single fold-away rotor blade like a helicopter. Unlike other concepts, it’s designed to fit in with current aviation and automotive regulations. “The regulatory framework is in a lot of cases a big inhibition to come to market,” said Dingemanse. “That’s why we build it within existing regulations, become a player in the market, and then later on start to influence regulations.”
The PAL-V is designed for inter-urban travel – moving between cities rather than in them, precisely because of the safety implications of flying over built up areas.
But Mohyi Labs’ bladeless technology could offer a solution for both drones and flying cars. Because there are no blades, drones with this technology can fly a lot closer to the ground where they can’t fall and injure people. This opens up drone delivery as a much more practical solution in build up areas.
Mohyi outlined a solution for built-up areas where bladeless flying cars could hover above the ground within cities, or even slightly above regular traffic. “Using the cushion of ground effect, it uses ten times less power,” he said.
They could even take to the water. “We should stop thinking about flying cars as just aerial vehicles but as air land and sea vehicles,” said Mohyi. “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”
Shining with the brightness of a billion Suns, a ground-breaking laser could help engineers shed light on new materials and protect aircraft from devastating failures.
Physicists from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln have created the Diocles Laser, which produces the brightest light ever created on Earth. In a recent experiment, the scientists focused the laser to one billion times brighter than the surface of our closest star, for 30 billionths of one millionth of a second. The resulting light created unique X-ray pulses which could generate extremely high-resolution images, which the team said could be useful in engineering, medicine, science and security.
Lead scientist Donald Umstadter said the X-rays’ extreme energy and incredibly short duration could help generate 3D images on a nanoscopic scale. This means the “unimaginably bright” Diocles could help map the molecular landscapes of nanoscopic materials being used in semiconductor technology.
The rays created could also be used to find tiny hairline cracks in jet turbines, which are not picked up in conventional X-rays. The U.S. Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) is funding the university’s research into the field to protect against “catastrophic jet engine failure” caused over time by miniature faults.
The Diocles also acts as a particle accelerator, which can be practically used for radiotherapy, industrial processing and other biomedical research. The laser, housed at the university’s Extreme Light Laboratory, is far smaller and more compact than traditional accelerators at just 15ft by 15ft.
“The headline fact is that the acceleration gradient – the distance which you need to accelerate a particle to a given energy – is about 1,000 times shorter than in a conventional accelerator like those at Cern,” said physicist Simon Hooker from the University of Oxford to Professional Engineering. “Hence, in principle, we can take a big machine and make it a thousand times shorter… potentially shrinking accelerators from the length of a football pitch to something much shorter.”
The laser’s high power and relative portability means it could also be used for security purposes, the University of Nebraska team said. The Diocles could potentially create X-rays powerful enough to “see through” four-inch thick steel, detecting bombs or other threats in cargo.
Four years ago, Vincent Farret d’Asties had a dream.
Working as an air traffic controller, he imagined a new, more peaceful and efficient mode of flight, unconstrained by expensive, environmentally-damaging fuel and time limits. Now, his company Zephyr Exalto is planning to realise that dream using nothing more than helium and the Sun; and in the process, break the world record for the longest fuel-free manned flight in the atmosphere.
The French start-up is exhibiting at the Paris Air Show after designing its new stratospheric balloon. The vessel will not use propane to create hot air, but will instead float upwards with helium and use power from the Sun to ascend and descend. The patented technique is still closely guarded, but in March the company joined the European Space Agency’s Business Incubation Centre, dedicated to innovative new ideas.
Zephyr Exalto plans for its balloon to reach 25km above the Earth, providing scientific companies with high-up atmospheric observations. Before the balloon is commercialised – and after planned testing in September – the company hopes to break a world record next year by flying for 30 days and nights without landing.
The idea comes directly from CEO d’Asties’ vision, and he plans to travel on the potentially record-breaking flight with pilot Amaury Jaorousse. He hopes the balloon will successfully complete his dream of limitless, fuel-free flight. “You can just drift along, spirited by the wind,” he tells Professional Engineering. “Something that is not like a machine, but works in a very efficient way.”
The balloon’s route will leave Europe, fly north over the Arctic and reach America before returning over the Atlantic. Its maximum altitude on the flight will be 9km.
The biggest challenge for balloon flights has always been successfully harnessing the wind, says d’Asties, making forecasts the most important technical aspect of the mission. “The best way to stay in the air for a long time is to know your environment, rather than using power and aggression over it,” he says. “There have been big improvements in the technology. New carbon can make the basket lighter, but the forecasting is the most important.”
If testing and the record-attempt go successfully, Zephyr Exalto aims to make the balloon commercially available for scientific projects. The company also intends to share as much of the flight as possible. “We will be lucky enough to share wonderful things with the world, and share the dream with schools, pupils and people – make them fly with us.”
Today is International Women in Engineering Day, with a number of events running across the country and worldwide. We’ve highlighted ten women whose discoveries and inventions have changed the world.
Ada Lovelace was a member of the British aristocracy and the daughter of Lord Byron, but she’s also considered the first computer programmer. She was fascinated by the Difference Engine, a mechanical calculator invented by mathematician Charles Babbage, and when he started work on a more complex Analytical Engine, she became an important collaborator. Decades before the first computers, she worked out how to use the Analytical Engine to perform calculations – the first algorithms.
Stephanie Kwolek discovered bulletproof fibre Kevlar by accident in the 1960s, while searching for something lightweight but strong for use in car tires. She was working as a chemist at DuPont factory in Delaware, where she carried out extensive research on polymers. Kevlar was five-times stronger than steel by weight, and is now used for bulletproof vests and mobile phone cases.
Tabitha Babbitt lived in a religious Shaker community in Massachusetts in the 19th century, and she was struck by the wasted effort the men expended chopping wood. The tool of choice at the time was a two-man whipsaw, where half the effort of moving the saw back and forth was wasted. She developed a circular saw which could be connected to a water-powered machine to cut lumber.
On a chilly New York day in 1902, Mary Anderson was riding a tram car and noticed that the driver kept both panes of the double front window open so he could see through the sleet. Once she’d warmed up, and returned to her home in Alabama, she worked with a designer to develop a hand-operated device to clear the windscreen. It consisted of a lever inside the vehicle connected to a rubber blade outside. She patented her invention in 1903, but few car makers were interested until years later, when they became a standard feature. In 1917 another woman, Charlotte Bridgwood, patented the first automatic windscreen wiper.
Bette Nesmith Graham
The white correction fluid has fallen out of use in recent years – because of the advent of computers, not because we’ve stopped making mistakes, but it was a godsend in the early days of the typewriter. Back then, a mistake meant starting over, as Bette Nesmith Graham knew only too well. She was working as a secretary in a Texas bank, and had her moment of inspiration when watching painters cover their mistakes with an additional coat.
Graham mimicked their technique, and producing and perfecting this ‘liquid paper’ soon became her full time job. By 1967 she was selling a million bottles a year.
There were systems for distributing heat around the home back in Roman times, but a forgotten African-American woman came up with the system that bears most similarity to modern central heating systems. Almost nothing is known about Alice Parker, bar the patent she was granted in 1919 which describes a technically complex and intricate gas-powered heating system for the home.
She was a global film star in the 1930s and 40s, but in her spare time Hedy Lamarr developed a technique called ‘frequency hopping’ which allowed the US military to control weapons and other devices remotely, without fear of them being jammed. The same technology forms the basis for all sorts of modern wireless communication, including WiFi.
In the 1870s, Josephine Cochrane started throwing lavish dinner parties using fine china that had been handed down through her family for a century. After one party, some of the dishes were chipped by a careless servant so she started searching for a safer alternative. The end result was the first commercially successful automatic dishwasher, which was pioneering because it used water pressure rather than manual scrubbers to clean the dishes.
A serial inventor almost on par with Thomas Edison, Guppy is best known for her contributions to bridge-building. Her first patent was for a way of making safe piling for the foundations of bridges, and her work helped support Bristol’s famous Clifton suspension bridge. She was prolific – other patents included methods of keeping ships free of barnacles, a bed with built-in exercise equipment, and a tea and coffee urn that would cook eggs and keep toast warm.
The daughter of inventor James Lowe, who’d pioneered screw propellers for steam ships, Vansittart carried on her father’s work after his death. She improved on it, with her propeller being trialled on the HMS Druid in 1869. It was eventually fitted on the ocean liner the Lusitania.
Does science inspire fiction or does it work the other way around? In the case of medical technology, the long-running TV and film series Star Trek has increasingly been inspiring researchers worldwide. Two teams were recently awarded the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize for developing handheld devices that can diagnose a range of diseases and check a patient’s vital signs without invasive tests – inspired by Star Trek’s medical “tricorder” device.
In the show, a doctor would use the tricorder and its detachable scanner to quickly gather data on a patient and instantly work out what was wrong with them. It could check organ functions and detect diseases and their causes, and also contained data on a range of alien lifeforms. But how close are we really to using such devices (assuming we don’t need them to diagnose aliens)?
The main aim of the two prizewinners is to integrate several technologies in one device. They haven’t created an all-in-one handheld machine but they do both represent significant steps forward.
The main winner, known as DxtER and created by US firm Basil Leaf Technologies, is actually an iPad app with artificial intelligence. It uses a number of non-invasive sensors that can be attached to the body to collect data about vital signs, body chemistry and biological functions. The runner-up technology from Taiwan’s Dynamical Biomarkers Group similarly connects a smartphone to several wireless handheld test modules that can analyse vital signs, blood and urine, and skin appearance.
The judges said both devices nearly met the benchmarks for accurately diagnosing 13 diseases including anaemia, lung disease, diabetes, pneumonia and urinary tract infection. These are the most successful efforts we’ve seen to bring so many functionalities into a single, user-friendly, portable diagnostic system.
Part of the success is due to the development of a variety of technologies that make up such all-in-one systems, although they still have some way to go. Probably the most advanced are mobile vital signs monitoring devices. For example, the ViSi Mobile System can remotely monitor all core vital signs including blood pressure, blood oxygen, heart rate and electrical activity, and skin temperature. It uses electrocardiogram (ECG) sensors attached to the chest and a pressure sensor in cuffs on the thumb and arm, both attached to a wearable wrist unit that feeds all the signals wirelessly to desktop or mobile device, with the same accuracy as conventional intensive care equipment.
All the various sensor data from a system such as this then needs to be turned into meaningful readings – and that requires specialist software. For example, the Airstrip Technologies software can pull in information from hundreds of different types and brands of patient monitors and other equipment, as well as medical records, scan results and even messaging apps, to display a full picture of patient’s changing condition in real time.
Portable imaging technologies are another element needed to assess a patient and present the relevant information. For example, there are already miniaturized USB-based ultrasound probes that can connect directly to a smartphone to provide instant ultrasound images. With the quality of mobile cameras and image processing capabilities continually improving, this technology is likely to get even better in the near future. This could mean instant X-ray scans or skin abnormality diagnosis using pattern recognition software.
Data and diagnosis
But vital signs information and images aren’t enough for a fully automated device that can tell you what’s actually wrong with a patient. The most mature technology we have in this area is for diabetes monitoring. Portable home blood glucose meters that can test a drop of blood on a paper can already be connected to mobile apps to allow diabetes sufferers to assess the severity of their condition.
Meanwhile, completely non-invasive methods for measuring glucose that don’t involve finger pricking to get a drop of blood are under development. These include analysing sweat or the interstitial fluid located a few micrometres below the skin’s surface (above the pain-causing nerves).
A number of innovative companies around the world are focusing on using similar handheld systems to diagnose other diseases, including HIV, tuberculosis, bacterial infections and cardiovascular disease. These rely on the key enabling technology of microfluidics, which uses specially designed microchips to manipulate tiny amounts of liquid.
Commonly known as lab-on-a-chip technology, this allows you to reduce a complete clinical laboratory testing system to a device a few centimetres across. You can take a sample, prepare it for testing (for example by isolating bacteria in the blood) and identify and measure the microbe present.
But while there has been significant progress in the developing bits and pieces of a tricorder, there is still work to do putting them altogether in a genuinely handheld package. Various equipment needs to be miniaturised and we need more progress in portable computers so they can handle all the information and data required for a complete picture of a patient’s health condition. We also need more development of the more thorough diagnostic features, such as the lab-on-chip and portable imaging systems, and less invasive testing methods. We may not have a tricorder in our hands yet, but we are definitely getting closer.
The world’s biggest and oldest air show has flown into view again, with excitement rising ahead of the official opening in just a few days.
The 52nd International Paris Air Show runs from Monday to Sunday next week, with the top names in the aerospace industry preparing to reveal their best breakthroughs and cutting-edge technology. But what are likely to be some of the hot topics and dominant themes at the show?
Here, we list five things you can expect to hear a lot more about next week.
3D printing and additive manufacturing
3D printing has been on the public radar for several years but is now starting to make significant progress into the world of aviation.
Aircraft engine parts from turbines to compressors are already being made in 3D printers, and at the show Boom Supersonic and Stratasys will be setting out their vision for a new supersonic airliner which could fly between New York and London in just over three hours using printed parts.
Drones could identify defective parts on aircraft using computer vision and automatically tell workers to start printing replacements, claims Accenture, which will outline its proposed “digital distribution solution” next week.
With the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT), 2017 could be the year planes become more connected than ever before.
Honeywell Aerospace will claim connected aircraft could “change the future of flight,” taking advantage of big data and high-speed transfers to bring more information to pilots, operators and passengers. Engine maintenance will become predictive as IoT tools communicate potential mechanical issues directly to maintenance crews before planes are grounded, Honeywell says, using wireless and automatic communication and real-time analytics tools such as its Sentience platform.
Augmented and virtual realities
VR and AR companies have brought their headsets into more businesses and living rooms than ever before in the last year. Some exhibitors at the show will be using the technology to reveal their work in new ways, and show how it can be practically used.
Aerospace and defence company Dassault Systèmes says it will showcase “demonstrations and experiences that engage visitors in the virtual discovery of industry advances that ultimately impact how society works, travels and lives.” The demonstrations will include a simulated search and rescue mission featuring a drone that users can interact with.
Accenture will also demonstrate a “guided aircraft assembly” system using the Microsoft HoloLens, showing technicians step-by-step building instructions with 3D holograms.
“Diversification of space”
The European Space Agency will hold a series of talks at the show on “Space 4.0”. Its director general Jan Woerner defines it as an “era in which the space sector evolves from being the preserve of the governments of a few spacefaring nations to a new reality, with an increased number of diverse space actors around the world”.
The new players include both public and private operations at local and global levels, with everyone from academics to the public taking part, says Woerner. With companies such as SpaceX leading the way on technologies like reusable rockets, it is sure to be a popular topic at the show.
Automation is already making aircraft design and manufacture more efficient, says Anand Parameswaran, senior vice president for aerospace and defense at Cyient. He predicts the technology will take centre stage in Paris as manufacturers envision using digital systems to increase automation and integration across all areas of their businesses.