Monthly Archives: January 2010

Bovine flatulence

One thing I have found about social media is that headlines featuring references to bodily functions always attract more readers.  Today’s technology discussion is actually about software, but I promise to work it around to flatulence eventually, just to preserve my journalistic honesty.

When I was in college, back in the ‘olden days’ when computers still used punch cards, freshmen engineering students had to learn to use drafting tools and techniques and actually DRAW pictures of things on a piece of paper.  Yep, T-squares, drafting tables, and drafting pencils were the tools of the trade for an engineer, along with something called a slide rule.  But enough tripping down memory lane.  The point is, computer technology eventually developed to the point where engineers can now use Computer Aided Design (CAD) programs to build up 3-D models of their cool widgets, and transfer that information directly to a computer controlled fabrication machine and just like magic, they can be holding a solid model or even a finished part in their hand, sometimes in just a few minutes.

But what about the flatulence?  I’m getting there…

So these CAD programs are wonderful ways to increase efficiency and reduce both cost and time to market in the manufacturing world.  But what if the thing you want to manufacture is, say, a new kind of bacterium?  Can CAD systems help us engineer living organisms?  I’m glad you asked, because it gives me a chance to talk about ….bovine flatulence.

But first, let’s talk about gene sequencing.  As we all learned in our high school biology class, during those brief moments when we were not terrorizing the girls by hiding  in their purses tiny preserved crustacean parts that we had just dissected, living things grow and develop according to a pattern of proteins called genes.  These genes are composed of combinations of a few building blocks arranged in particular ways.  The sequence of building blocks is responsible for directing some cells to be fingernails, for example, while other cells are mustaches.  Smart biology type scientists have been figuring out how to adjust these building blocks to change how the cells function, in an attempt to create a master race of superhuman beings that will take over the world.  Oops, sorry, didn’t mean to let the cat out of the bag.

Seriously, by altering the genetic makeup of the cells, all sorts of good things result, such as gene therapy for many different hereditary conditions, and such.  Also, you can modify the structure of certain types of bacteria so that they produce less methane gas when digesting plant matter inside the gut of, say, a cow or a Talk Radio personality.  But I’m getting ahead of myself again.

Dr. Jean Peccoud’s  Synthetic Biology Group in the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute has just received a $1.4 million grant from the  National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop a CAD system to design genes.  His GenoCAD software is a collaborative framework for the entire research community, and Peccoud is making the code available through the International Society for Computational Biology (ISCB).  Follow the links to learn more detail about GenoCAD, but let me just say that it will provide to the biology community the same sort of tools for designing living things that the regular CAD systems provided to the manufacturing and engineering communities.

Of course, just because they have this new GenoCAD system, it doesn’t mean that biologists will now be able to clone dinosaurs or create those cool creatures I saw in Avatar.  Probably not.  But it does mean that they might be able to make  adjustments to bacteria that live in the gut of cows and produce huge, and I mean HUGE, amounts of methane gas from digesting plants.

So, we finally come to the part of the story about bovine flatulence.  But since I have reached my word limit, I’ll just let you wander on over to this site where you can read all about how rumen methanogen bacteria in cows are responsible for global warming, and how tools like GenoCAD may be able to reduce gas production.  In cows, at least.

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Filed under biotechnology, genetics, software

Gone Fishin’

You have to see this.  It’s probably one of the coolest and simultaneously creepy pieces of technology I have run across lately.  It’s an artificial fish.

“But Mike, why do we need an artificial fish, when there are so many real ones around?” you might ask.

Well, there is a reason, aside from the sheer coolness factor.

It turns out that good ol’ Mother Nature has had a long time to work on stuff, and at this point has pretty much got it all figured out.  For example, how birds fly and fish swim using the minimal amount of energy.  See, in nature, if you can swim faster or father than other fish on the same amount of energy, or conversely, if you can swim as fast or as far as other fish on less energy, it means you have an advantage in the great circle of life, and you might get a chance to stick around longer.

For all our intelligence, we often have trouble coming up with stuff that is better than, or even close to, working as well as natural systems.  But over the past couple of decades, many researchers and engineers have realized that sometimes we need to just take advantage of all that work that Mother Nature has done for us and see if we can duplicate it.  You know, like copying the answers off the test of the person in front of you (not that I would know anything about that).

Anyway, take a look at this site, where some smart folks have created an artificial carp.  Well, it looks like one to me, anyway.  But the cool part is that it isn’t just a bunch of motors and gears attached to a frame and a skin, like a Walt Disney animatronic fish…this one actually works like a fish.

It uses a combination of composites and electroactive materials, along with very clever mechanical design and probably loads of math to make a fish that wiggles like a fish.  Just look at it.  It’s so cool and creepy!

The secret is that by passing electric current through certain types of materials, you can cause them to expand or contract just a little, sort of the way a real muscle works.  Some of these electroactive materials are made of polymers, which as you know are relatively soft.  Electroactive polymer “muscles” can move fairly large amounts when activated, but they are so soft that they can’t really exert much force.  On the other hand, there are much harder materials, like the little crystal inside your quartz-controlled watch, that can actually exert a lot of force, but they can’t change shape very much.  So, it would seem that both of these types of actuated materials have limitations.

True, but when you give them just the right shape and attach them to other structures just so, such as the artificial fish body, they can produce large, amplified movements that can be used to do significant work for you.

Now, back to the question of “Who cares?”  Well, the same design that creates the wiggly artificial fish body can also be use to slightly change the shape of a wing on an airplane, for example.  Airplane wings need to alter their shapes for different flying conditions, and being able to command the wing to take a slightly more efficient shape for cruising while morphing to a higher lift configuration for landing would save significant fuel (or extend range).  The artificial fish could be released in small schools or swarms to swim about and collect data on temperature or chemical content of a stream for environmental monitoring purposes, or as an early warning system for protecting ports from attack in a homeland security scenario.

The technology behind the creepy wiggly artificial fish is being developed by Dr. Wayne Neu of Virginia Tech’s Aerospace and Ocean Engineering group, along with private research company AVID.  Interestingly, AVID is also working on related technology that can be used to create actual flapping wing structures.  So, maybe soon we will have not just creepy artificial fish, but creepy artificial birds and insects.


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Filed under biomimetic, Energy, Materials, propulsion

How do you scratch an electronic nose?

I don’t know, but I thought that was a pretty catchy lead in for introducing some new technology that could help “sniff out” dangerous chemicals in the environment and possibly even detect explosives from their trace chemical signatures.

Imagine, if you will, a machine the size of a small automobile and costing significantly more, shrunk down to the size of a postage stamp, costing a few hundred dollars.  Oh, and did I mention that they do the same thing?  Well, they do.

That’s what Dr. Masoud Agah and his team have been working to accomplish.  Using an NSF Career grant, Agah is trying to develop materials, structures and processes that will result in a gas chromatograph that could fit easily inside your cell phone.

Chromatography is a technique used to separate out individual chemical components from a mixture.  The mixture, which can be a liquid but in this case is a gas, is basically forced through a tube (called a column) that has been filled with a special material called a stationary phase.  The stationary phase is chemically treated to react with the sample as it flows by, slowing its progress down slightly through this temporary interaction.  Each component of the mixture will react with the stationary phase slightly differently, which means that the different components will take different amounts of time to flow through the column.  If you make the column long enough, all the different components of the gas mixture will come out at different times.  This allows you to either analyze the mixture for its constituents, or even collect each of them into a different container, in effect producing purified gasses from mixtures.

In Agah’s lab, he has found a way to pack all that scientific goodness into a very small space, using manufacturing techniques originally developed for the computer-chip industry.  Agah etches tiny trenches in silicon wafers that replace the chromatographic column described above, and then coats them with a special molecular material that functions as the stationary phase.  Because the trenches are microscopic, he can etch very long channels by simply arranging them in tiny spiral structures.  That way, he can get many inches of column length onto a structure the size of a postage stamp.  And, they are very inexpensive to fabricate.

So what, you say.  Well, let me tell you.

Let’s say you are a passenger in a commercial airplane on your way from somewhere to, oh, say,  Detroit.  And it’s Christmas Day.  And let’s say that another passenger has hidden on his person in very intimate places, some materials that when mixed together could explode.  Wouldn’t you be happy to know that such a person has been screened out of the passenger line before you boarded the plane by a security person with a handheld wand that can sniff out one part in a trillion of the potentially explosive materials?

If Dr. Agah is successful, and of course if some company steps up to take his technology to the market, then this scenario could be a reality someday in the not-too-distant future.

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Filed under Materials, Sensing

Free lunch?

I know there is not supposed to be any such thing as a free lunch, but maybe chemist Karen Brewer has reduced the price considerably.

Over the past few years the ever increasing cost of gasoline, coupled with the increased scrutiny of possible changes in global climate that may be a result of man-made acivities, has once again focused our national attention on alternative sources of power, or at least alternative fuels.

I’ll take a look at some new technology for producing fuels from plant matter and such at a later time, but right now I want to look into the generation of hydrogen from sunlight.

Hydrogen can be used as a fuel for two major power generating schemes.  First, there are hydrogen burning engines.  As the name implies, these are essentially internal combustion engines that burn hydrogen instead of gasoline.  Prototypes of these  vehicles are being tested now in some places, such as this bus in Iceland and the Ford P2000 automobile.  Then there are vehicles that utilize electric drive powered by hydrogen fuel cells, which combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity and waste water, as demonstrated in this fuel cell bus.

One of the bigger problems associated with hydrogen power is….well….where do you get the hydrogen?  Normally, hydrogen is produced by hydrolysis, that is by passing an electric current through water and breaking it down into hydrogen and oxygen.  But the electricity has to come from somewhere, so if you use fossil fuels to generate the electricity to generate the hydrogen, it begins to look like you are not really gaining anything.  Every time you convert energy from one form to another, you lose a little in the conversion.  So, while the burning of hydrogen is much better environmentally than burning fossil fuels, if you have to burn fossil fuel to generate the hydrogen, you still lose.

Another way to generate electricity is to use solar cells.  Sunlight falls on silicon photovoltaic cells which then produce electric current, and that can in turn be used to generate hydrogen via hydrolysis.  Of course, the solar cells have their own problems, so that efficiency thing comes back to get you.  No free lunch here.

To get around this problem, chemist Karen Brewer has figured out a way to generate hydrogen directly from sunlight.  No solar cells, no algae gardens, just plain old sunlight.

For many years Brewer has been researching how to use materials and catalysts to break molecules apart.  She has been experimenting with certain molecules that essentially perform a function like photosynthesis, except in reverse.  Instead of using light to put molecules together, she uses light to break them apart.  By adding some of her materials into a water solution, and then shining light on it, she can directly break the water molecules apart into hydrogen and oxygen without using electricity.  If you want to know more, read all the geeky details in these papers from her research group.

So, of course her work is in its early stages, but it promises to provide a pathway for more efficient hydrogen generation by eliminating the need for electrical current, which is a good thing.  Maybe not a free lunch, but at least a cheaper one.

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Filed under Energy, fuel, Materials

It’s a Wire! It’s a Tube! It’s . . . Super-Foam!

Ever wonder where Governor Schwarzenegger got his Terminator skin?

Well, maybe not.  But if you recall, the Terminator robot in the film had a metallic skeleton with biological tissue over it, so that it looked just like a human being…if human beings were all bodybuilders from Austria, that is.  Anyway, tissue engineering is not just something they dreamed up in Hollywood.  It’s for real.  The idea is to duplicate bone and cartilage, for example, to make replacements for real tissue in our bodies when it wears out due to, oh, say, football injuries or skydiving, or maybe just being over 40.

So that’s what Virginia Tech Ph.D. candidate Michael Sano was working on one day when he noticed that sometimes the cellulose fibrils he was making were thinly coated with metal, resulting in tiny ‘nanowires’.  He quickly realized that by altering the solutions in his experiments, he could produce any type of nanowire he wanted to make.  He also learned that under the right conditions he could degrade the cellulose, leaving a ‘nanotube’.  By tweaking yet another parameter he could create a material that is best described as ‘metallic foam’.

From Sano’s engineering perspective, he could see he had solved a long-standing challenge for the field of nanotube construction: how to fuse sub-nano-sized segments together to extend them into something that still had a continuous hollow core and was long enough to be a functional nanotube.

Mike could also see that this was potentially a way to produce nanocircuitry in situ, allowing connections to be formed between points in ‘nanospaces’, if you will.

And the metallic foam?  Well, it is light-weight , strong, and can be produced from just about any metal ion you want.

Of course, none of this has anything to do with the Governator of California, as far as I know.

To read more about the project Mike Sano was working on when he made his discovery, you can go here.

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Filed under biotechnology, Materials

Clot, Unclot. Rinse, Repeat.

Are you worried about excessive blood clotting?  Well, you should be.

A blood clot is a jelly-like mass of tissue formed by clotting (coagulating) factors in the blood as a normal reaction to injury of a blood vessel. This is a great mechanism of the body when it occurs to stop the bleeding caused by an injury. However, blood clots can become very dangerous, like when plaque deposits in the blood vessel walls rupture and a blood clot forms. If a piece of the blood clot breaks away and gets into the bloodstream, it can block the flow of blood to the heart or brain and cause a heart attack or stroke.

Luckily there are drugs available to prevent excessive clot formation.  Unfortunately, if too much of these blood “thinners” are used, the patient can have a reverse problem – not enough clotting which could then increase the risk of hemorrhage or uncontrolled bleeding.  The problem is, once these anticoagulants are used, they are difficult to clear out of the blood quickly, which can lead to serious problems.

In a recent publication, researchers  Daniel Capelluto and Carla Finkielstein together with students Karen Drahos and John Welsh identified a novel protein/ligand interaction that regulates the initial process of platelet aggregation and leads to clot formation.  That is great all by itself, but the exciting part is that this mechanism is reversible.   So it provides a way to quickly reverse the treatment if a patient is injured or otherwise needs to reduce blood levels of the pharmaceutical.   In addition, it may be a useful adjunct to control the extent of bleeding during a normal surgical procedure or promote wound healing.

An added bonus:  unlike some treatments, this type of intervention is unlikely to stimulate an immune response.

You can read more about this specific invention  here, and you can talk about it with a real live person by contacting  Jackie Reed (, 540-443-9217).  Also you can learn more about the researchers and their work by reading some articles written about them.  Here is one.  Here is another.

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Filed under biotechnology, medical technology

Tiny antennas could replace home wiring

If you’re like me, on the back of your television is a mangled mass of knotted electrical cables so dense I suspect that small rodents might actually be living in there.  In fact, there are so many cables running from DVRs, DVDs, audio systems, etc., that once I get it working properly, I’m afraid to touch any of it.

Well, technology in the form of tiny antennas may soon come to my rescue.  Researchers in the Wireless Technology and Antenna groups at Virginia Tech are researching ways to reduce the size of wideband antennas for use in handheld devices.  One potential commercial application of these new antennas could be in connecting all of your home entertainment equipment through short-range broadband communications links rather than the wires that we currently use.  Imagine connecting your Tivo and  BlueRay player to your television wirelessly!

One version of such an antenna is shown here.  While this test unit is only about the size of a quarter, newer prototypes are smaller still.  The small size means that such features would not only be easily integrated into various devices, but they would also be inexpensive enough to fit into current price ranges of home entertainment systems, for example.

Since I no longer have any teenagers around to explain how all my fancy electronics work, I am for anything that will simplify life and allow me to watch NCAA football…er, I mean…technology shows on the Discovery Channel or PBS.  Yeah, that’s it.

So, you folks in Electrical Engineering need to pull those thinking caps down a little tighter on your heads and move this stuff into the marketplace ASAP, because my man-cave is going to be ready for the 2010 fall football season at the end of August, and I am NOT going to try to connect all that stuff up again…

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Filed under Communications, Networks, Wireless