4 Tech Stories the Entire World Will Be Talking About

1. Printing a New You With 3-D biology

Our bodies have amazing regenerative capabilities, but these powers fade as we age and our biological machinery wears out. Kidneys, hearts and livers fail, driving increasing demand for transplanted organs. This situation also applies to young people suffering from devastating diseases.

But biotechnology and 3-D printing are combining to create new parts when needed to replace the malfunctioning ones.

We’re already seeing the technology used to help patients. Earlier this year, one young woman in the Netherlands had her skull replaced. She suffered from a rare genetic disease causing runaway bone growth. The thickening bones in her skull were causing her brain functions to shut down.

3-D Printed SkullThe 22-year-old patient’s skull grew to more than three times thicker than normal, causing headaches and vision loss from the pressure on her brain. After a 23-hour, first-of-its-kind operation, with this personalized 3-D printed skull, she is now symptom-free and back to work without any noticeable signs of operation.

Researchers are also hopeful of printing living tissue and implanting it. This is called bioprinting. Recently, a baby born with a defective windpipe got a new one printed out of plastic to serve as a framework upon which to grow a new trachea using the infant’s own stem cells. Once a new windpipe was grown, it was implanted into the baby. The advantage of this method over transplanting from a donor is that the child’s own cells were used, so there’s little risk of tissue rejection or the need for immunosuppressive drugs for his body to accept the transplant.

The latest news comes from the Journal of the Royal Society of Chemistry. Researchers developed a bioprinting method to create a mold upon which to grow blood vessels. They then covered the mold with cells and a cell-friendly hydrogel. Later, the cells organized themselves into small blood vessels and the molds could be removed.

According to a researcher working on this project, “In the future, 3-D printing technology may be used to develop transplantable tissues customized to each patient’s needs or be used outside the body to develop drugs that are safe and effective.”

2. Stop Worrying About the Next Weather Front

More than a third of all people are experiencing some sort of skeletal-muscular pain at this very moment, and more often than not, it’s back pain. What do most of those people blame? The weather, of course.

But a new study published in the journal Arthritis Care & Research says you can’t have that excuse anymore. The journal is published by the American College of Rheumatology.

In the study, nearly 1,000 people were recruited in Sydney, Australia, and their pain was compared with the weather at the onset of pain as well as a week earlier and a month earlier. Results showed no correlation between temperature, humidity, wind, barometric pressure or rain.

Dr. Daniel Steffens at the George Institute for Global Health at the University of Sydney, Australia, said, “Our findings refute previously held beliefs that certain common weather conditions increase risk of lower back pain. Further investigation of the influence of weather parameters on symptoms associated with specific diseases such as fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis are needed.”

Dr. Steffens said that although people have been blaming the weather for their back pain nearly forever, there are “few robust studies investigating weather and pain, specifically research that does not rely on patient recall of the weather.”

3. Ice 9 Revisited

Water has always been considered magical, perhaps because humans realized early on that it’s the single most important requirement for life as we know it. Certain kinds of bacteria can survive extreme conditions of temperature, pressure, radiation, chemistry and lack of oxygen, but none of them can function without water.

Water also remains mysterious in some ways. One of those mysteries is known as the Mpemba effect. It’s named after a Tanzanian student who, in the 1960s, described the observation that hot water sometimes freezes faster than cold water — even when both are exposed to the same freezing conditions. This seems completely counterintuitive. Cold water is closer to freezing temperature, so it would make sense that it would turn into ice first. The issue has vexed scientists. A number of theories have been put forward to explain the effect, but none has been proven.

A recent paper published in arXiv by Singaporean researchers presents a new theory. It all comes down to molecular bonds. When an oxygen atom teams up with two of hydrogen, they form a water molecule through strong covalent bonding. However, the water molecules jostling in liquid also stick to each other through weaker electromagnetic hydrogen bonds. It’s the stickiness of these hydrogen bonds that creates water’s surface tension.

According to the arXiv paper, the interplay between the two bonds could explain water’s mysterious behavior. Water’s hydrogen bonds put tension on the covalent bonds. In other liquids, heating stretches the covalent bonds, but in water, the bonds are shortened because the stretching caused by the hydrogen bonds is relaxed by heat. Because the covalent bonds are at a lower energy state, the water molecules are essentially “cooler” on an intramolecular basis than they would be if the liquid were at a lower temperature — thus, hot water actually freezes faster.

4. Will This Battery Keep the Lights on?

Increasing environmental awareness is making solar the most rapidly growing part of the energy mix. But solar power has a drawback: If the sun isn’t shining, no power. This means that a reliable, on-demand backup power source — almost always a nonrenewable, carbon-based fuel source — needs to be kept available for those times when nature isn’t cooperating. Or a darn good battery that can hold excess electricity for dark days.

University of Southern California researchers are working on just that. In a paper recently published in the Journal of The Electrochemical Society, researchers describe a new type of water-based battery that is inexpensive, rechargeable and made from organic materials.

The battery, called ORBAT (organic redox flow battery) uses oxidized organic compounds dissolved in water. In the ORBAT design, two tanks of negatively and positively charged electrolytes are pumped across a cell containing a polymer membrane. Electrodes in the cell capture electrical current.

The design mimics the natural processes that drive some kinds of life. The dissolved compounds, called quinones, are used by many organisms for their cellular own energy needs. Quinones are made from hydrocarbons, but they could eventually be manufactured from the carbon dioxide that’s in the air we breathe. In fact, that’s how plants make them.

Diagram of a Functioning ORBAT (Organic Redox flow Battery)

“Such organic flow batteries will be game changers for grid electrical energy storage in terms of simplicity, cost, reliability and sustainability,” said Surya Prakash, professor of chemistry and director of the USC Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute.

The battery may be good for 5,000 charge/discharge cycles, giving it a 15-year life span as part of a power grid. ORBAT contains no toxic substances, so it would allow for clean disposal, a very different situation than exists for technology like lithium ion.

Ray Blanco and Stephen Petranek
for The Daily Reckoning

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Stephen Petranek

Stephen Petranek’s career of over 40 years in the publishing world is marked by numerous prizes and awards for excellent writing on science, nature, technology, politics, economics and more. He has been editor-in-chief of the Miami Herald’s prestigious Sunday magazine, Tropic, and has covered a wide range of topics for Time Inc.’s Life magazine. His...

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