From potentially curing paraplegia to landing robots on comets, science and technology has advanced in leaps and bounds in 2014.
“DNA nanobots” designed to attack cancers are being developed
Whilst almost everyone’s attention has been focused elsewhere, teams of scientists around the world have spent 2014 quietly turning the future into the present. A selection of the fascinating advances in science and technology that took place during the last 12 months feature below.
Brain memory storage technology developed
For example, it may surprise you to learn that last September saw the first ever commercial brain scan for the purpose of recording thoughts and memories for future playback. American software developer Anthony Broussard paid Millenium Magnetic Technologies around £1,200 to have his memories preserved.
“Some people call it thought identification but it’s essentially mind reading,” said Donald Marks, founder and chief science officer of MMT, “the visual reconstruction (of the thoughts) is kind of crude right now but the data is definitely there and it will get better, it’s just a matter of refinement”.
Microchip helps a paralyses man regain the use of his arm
In April, researchers at Ohio State University reported success in using a microchip implant to help a paralysed man regain use of his arm.
The device, called the Neurobridge, is the product of ten years of development. It works by stimulating muscles according to brain patterns. The invention raises hopes for many disabled people and showed that by plugging into our brainwaves we may one day control all manner of devices by thought alone.
Nose cells used to repair severed spinal cord
2014 saw another potential breakthrough for a medical condition that was long thought to be permanent, after a medical team at Wroclaw Medical University grew a culture of nerve cells taken from the nose of a paraplegic man, named Darek Fidyka.
The nerve cells were then surgically inserted into his spinal cord, stimulating the regrowth of broken nerve fibers that bridged the damaged section, allowing the paraplegic to walk again.
Smart glasses allow the blind to ‘see’
Smart glasses designed to assist blind and partially sighted people by using a specially adapted 3D camera were developed by researchers at the University of Oxford.
The camera projects highlighted images of objects ahead of the wearer on to the lens, in order to maximize the remaining vision of the wearer.
The Royal National Institute of Blind People has pitched in on the project and hopes that the smart glasses will be available commercially in 2016.
Cockroaches host life-saving DNA nanobots
Last February, an Israeli team claimed to have successfully injected into cockroaches, devices which they had made from DNA. The DNA nanobots then assembled themselves and were able to control a molecule that targeted specific cells, demonstrating their potential to carry out life-saving medical functions such as attacking cancers.
Google makes Smart Contact Lens to monitor blood sugar
A smart contact lens that can monitor the glucose levels of diabetes sufferers was developed by Google in January.
The Google X skunk works division developed the contact lenses, which use chips and sensors the size of glitter to analyse the user’s tears and offer an early blood sugar level warning to the wearer.
Invisibility cloaks become a possibility
Taking a leaf out of the Harry Potter books, scientists at the University of Cambridge have developed a new method to manufacture invisible “metamaterials” using lasers, leading to the possibility of invisibility cloaks.
The researchers created a material using particles of gold that reflected light through inverse refraction, making objects behind it appear invisible.
A camera that can record the movement of light
A camera that captures light at 4.4 trillion frames per second was invented by researchers in Japan, setting the record for the world’s fastest camera.
The Sequentially Timed All-optical Mapping Photography (STAMP) camera is so fast that it can capture the movement of light across a frame. Researchers claim that the technology has opened the door to further studies of fast dynamics in photochemistry, spintronics, phononics, fluidics and plasma physics. Amateur photographers around the globe undoubtedly also hope the technology will one day relegate blurred images to history.
Printable, bendable batteries developed
A flexible, long-life rechargeable battery that holds the potential to transform wearable devices was developed by a Californian company.
The company, Imprint Energy, eschewed the current limitations of available battery technologies by using a zinc-polymer battery – opening the door to a new generation of power units. Potential uses include medical devices, wearable sensors and on-body electronics.
Breakthrough lets the sunshine in on solar-panel windows
A breakthrough in “quantum dot” research by scientists at the Center of Advanced Solar Photophysics at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the US has paved the way for windows that double as solar panels.
“Quantum dots” – nanocrystals made of a semiconductor material – were embedded in a transparent polymer in order to capture the sun’s energy and successfully harvested it as power.
Green power and clean water in one device
One practical and life-saving invention this year was a portable system called Sunflower developed in Switzerland. The compact system uses sunlight to generate electricity whilst simultaneously providing heating, refrigeration for food as well as purified water.
Shape-shifting robots resist extreme conditions
2014 saw a major advancement in the field of soft robotics, which replaces rigid parts used in traditional robots with malleable ones in order to deal with uncertain and changing tasks and environments.
Engineers from Cornell and Harvard Universities created a shape-changing robot that can be used in extreme conditions that would spell disaster even for traditional robots.
The soft robot’s silicone body is highly resilient to a variety of adverse environmental conditions including snow, puddles of water, direct exposure to flames and the crushing force of being run over by an car, according to a paper describing the technology.
Introducing: the bionic plant from Massachusetts
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have gone one-up on nature by successfully developed the world’s first bionic plant in March. The plant, which replicates and even improving upon a plant’s natural ability to photosynthesis uses carbon nanotubes integrated into the leaves, allowing them to absorb light at least 30% more efficiently than normal plants.
Applications are still years away, but besides increasing plant growth and production, there are hopes for much wider uses, such as deriving electrical power from plants, building self-repairing materials and creating self-powered buildings using construction materials that generate their own power.
Smart food expiry label
A London-based student has potentially developed a way to prevent the wastage of millions of tonnes of food across the globe each year, by coming up with a bio-reactive expiry label that decays at the same rate as food.
The Bump Mark, which won the UK round of the James Dyson Award, uses a natural substance – gelatine – which visibly changes to show when a food product has gone bad.
Unmanned drones deliver mail
Unmanned flying drones are taking on a rapidly growing number of roles, especially in surveillance and monitoring. 2014 saw a rapid expansion of serious business interest in using drones as a delivery system for parcels.
Last August, Google used a drone to deliver chocolates to a farm in Outback Queensland, leading to a mad rush by Amazon, DHL and several other companies to establish unmanned delivery services in several countries.
Swarms of tiny robots to build homes
Also last August, science journals reported a project at Harvard in which a swarm of 1,000 mini-robots was able to assemble itself into pre-defined shapes.
The project highlighted the potential for self-assembling structures, a concept which could revolutionize construction.
Mars becomes the next frontier in manned space exploration
Last month, after a ten-year journey, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe went into orbit around the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
The Rosetta then released a smaller probe, called Philae, which landed on the comet’s surface, becoming the first spacecraft to do perform the feat.
Elsewhere, preparation for exploration of the planet Mars also saw significant progress, with India’s Mangalyaan spacecraft going into Mars orbit in September. Earlier this month, NASA also successfully launched its new Orion spacecraft, in what has been described as a first step towards manned exploration of the Red Planet.
Bearing in mind the fact that for every project mentioned here there are tens of other unknown, but equally innovative, developments currently underway, it’s safe to say that insofar as science is concerned, the year 2015 looks to be very promising indeed.
Author and Source:
Matthew Agius from MaltaToday
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