Top Tech 2013 Day 20: Artificial Organs

As our knowledge of the human body increases, so does our ability to heal it. But this doesn’t always mean using the body’s own regenerative mechanisms-sometimes it means replacing systems outright, as discussed in our article on neurocontrol. A great amount of work (more than neurocontrolled prosthetics)  has been done on creating replacements for each of the organs in the human body. Some of these organs now have functional (if early) systems, while others will take many more years of research.

London Science Museum released Rex, an ‘artificial man’ earlier this year. Rex is an exhibit that shows that nearly 60-70% of the total mass of a human can be reproduced in some way by artificially created systems. On just the organ side, Rex includes Syncardia’s artificial heart, an artificial kidney developed at UCSF (expected to begin trials in 2017) ,and retinal implants developed at Oxford University.

A holding company filed for a patent on an artificial stomach this year-reading the rest of their patent applications is actually quite enlightening!

The first self regulating artificial heart was installed just this month– self regulating because it mimics the function of the original heart it replaces. The heart was designed by Alain Carpentier of Carmat.

While full artificial spines are not yet available, artificial disks are in trials and being prepared for clinical use.

And if none of that excites you enough, 75% of a man’s skull was replaced with a 3d printed version.

Posted in Top Tech 2013

Top Tech 2013 Day 19: Spintronics

Spintronics is the usage of an electron’s spin instead of or in addition to the charge for devices-commonly computing purposes. A subset of this would be quantum computing, discussed previously this month. Spintronics is an exciting technology due to the magnitude speed-up and capability increase it could mean for computing power. Among other properties, the use of spin would allow for four, instead of two, basic states measured.

There have been a number of exciting discovering in spintronics in the last year, of which we’ll touch the high points.

Scientists at Trinity College Dublin have shown in simulation that if you ‘fold’ a 2D graphene sheet into certain geometries (similar to graphene) and expose it to a magnetic field, it develops a bandgap. Just as exciting, however, is the fact that it produces a spin polarized current, ideal for spintronic devices. Among the other wonderful properties of graphene, many scientists are excited about it for spintronic purposes due to the minimal spin dissipation inherent in the material. Researchers also showed that manufacturing techniques were feasible. More information can be found here.

Researchers at North Carolina State University have developed a new dilute magnetic semiconductor, strontium tin oxide, that could be used to create transistors that work at room temperature off of magnetic fields, instead of electrical current. Unlike prior dilute magnetic semiconductors, this new material can be synthesized as a single crystal on silicon. More information can be found here.

Other researchers (Harvard, London Center for Nanotechnology) have developed new methodologies and materials to increase the length of spin coherence. When placed in a magnetic resonance spectrometer, the copper phtalocyanine based dye aligned the spin of the copper atoms, creating spin ‘bits’. At -450 degress Fahrenheit (5 degrees Kelvin), the spins stayed parallel for 59 milliseconds, much longer than previous experiments.

For additional interesting reading, a paper describing routes to quantum computing (spintronics among them) can be found here.

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Top Tech 2013 Day 18: 3D Printing Food

Among the applications of 3d printing, we at Prokalkeo have a favorite that is rarely discussed- 3d printing food! In many cases, the applications of 3d printing tend to be over-sold…while it does open a ton of new applications, there are mathematical reasons that mean it still lags far behind conventional manufacturing in a number of areas.

However, production of food-at a range of levels, though unlikely in the most mass produced or most common ‘household cooking’ levels- is in essence hand performed manufacturing. We’d like to cover in depth automation of food production in the future, but today we’re covering the 3d printing of food.

So what are the requirements for the 3d printing of food? The end product needs to be able to leave a nozzle-unless adjustments are made, that means that it needs to be a viscous material (likely, a dough or other thick mixture such as chocolate) that has properties that fall within a defined range.

While MIT’s Cornucopia project and Cornell’s Fab@Home project have received attention from people watching this industry in past years, a number of advances have been made on this front in 2013.

Anjan Contractor at Systems and Materials Research Corporation (SMRC) is spearheading a project that has received a $125,000 grant from NASA to develop a prototype modified RepRap 3d printer designed to mix a number of culinary building blocks to print out food-with the goal being to develop dough based foods like pizza first and foremost. This is along the same lines as the projects mentioned above.

Piq Chocolates in Austin uses 3d printers to print out artisanal, custom made chocolates. While they do not yet offer fillings or anything besides combinations of exceptionally high quality chocolate, it is likely that this trend will continue-if you think about it, everyone has a different taste for chocolate. The level of adoption, of course, depends entirely on how it compares to the price of more conventional luxury options.

Luis Rodriguez is working on (alongside other researchers) a variety of projects that incorporate rapid prototyping with 3d printing. Among these, he has recently ‘printed’  out pancakes.

And that’s not the limit of baked goods with 3d printing, either-here’s a short rundown: complex sugar sculptures (The Sugar Lab), cookie dough and icing (an application of Fab@Home), and pizza (Foodini, via Barcelona based Natural Machines).

What’s next? Who knows. The price is going to drop from here, though-and this is a technology that will disrupt job sectors that have been, perhaps, neglected by common forecasting.

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Top Tech Day 17: Medical Extrusion

Today’s top tech is a mix of different technologies bound by a common thought- medical extrusion and printing technologies applied to medical purposes. In some cases the extrusion/printing is the point of the advance, and in some cases it’s only the method by which the substance is delivered, but it is the common thread unifying these technologies.

The last few years have seen advances in printing of bioscaffolds, such as the work by Dr. Jordan Miller at UPenn (now head of Rice’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Institute)–review documents on these advances can be seen here and here. Dr. Miller’s work has advanced this year at Rice, as seen here.

In addition to the vasculature printing, work has been done in other areas as well-bone, cartilage, and improved healing mechanisms, to name a few. Rapid manufacturing processes, advanced materials, and improved delivery mechanisms have brought about a startling number of advances in this category.

3D printing has seen yet another usage in the printing of a trachea for an infant who had his left bronchial tube collapse at six weeks old. This would have been nearly impossible with conventional methods-each airway is unique, and a custom solution had to be scanned, designed, and printed from scratch to fit the infant’s airway. The procedure was successful, and the child survived. This procedure was also a testament to the power of computed tomography scanning.

While a skin graft gun has been worked on for some years at the University of Pennsylvania, it was a topical application that was suited for first and second degree burns, but not necessarily for faster wound healing of other types. A senior at NYU has developed a gel called ‘Veti-Gel’ which is similar to the ‘medigel’ seen in certain scifi franchises-when applied to cuts and abrasions, it rapidly seals up the skin (seen in the video below). A company has been created to produce and market this product. All components have been individually approved by the FDA in other contexts, and the company is seeking to test the product with veterinarians.

The University of Wollongong, Australia, has developed the Biopen. The Biopen is capable of injecting stem cells that encourage bone growth in specific areas, and will allow surgeons finer control in bone reconstruction surgery. The University is working with St. Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne to further develop the tool before it’s used on humans.

Arsenal Medical has developed Biofoam, which is designed to be injected under certain cases into soldiers that have received internal organ trauma-while it does not encourage healing, it does act as a biocompatible ‘sealant’ that stops organs from leaking more than they already have.


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Top Tech Day 16: Transcranial Stimulation

Transcranial stimulation is a technology that has been getting a lot of attention, but only in very scattered areas. At its most fundamental level, transcranial stimulation involves stimulating the brain in a targeted location for a desired affect. Very simple experiments were performed in the late 1700s and early 1800s by such scientists as Galvani, Volta, and Aldini. The modern incarnation arose in the late 1990s and early 2000s when researchers showed that weak direct electric currents could be safely and effectively delivered to induce bidirectional, polarity dependent changes.

There are currently three types of transcranial stimulation:

Transcranial Direct Stimulation (TCDS) uses electric current.

Transcranital Magnetic Stimulation (TCMS) uses magnetic fields.

Transcranial Ultrasound (TUS) uses ultrasonic waves, and can target much deeper tissues than the previous two.

Researcher Allan Snyder has received a lot of attention for his research on using TCS to induce selective savant states, like improving numerical visual analysis or memory, and is the head of the Centre for the Mind in addition to advising EEG detection headset company Emotiv. His work has also shown that use of TCS can quantitatively improve creativity and ability to solve problems ‘outside the box’, which is of great interest to any number of industrial and governmental sectors.

While TCS has been around and actively worked on for the last decade, Prokalkeo thought it was worth noting today due to the fact that on the 13th, the FDA approved the marketing of the Cerena Transcranial Magnetic Stimulator to relieve pain caused by migraine headaches. While this is not yet approval for usage to ‘boost’ capabilities, it does show that such uses are beginning to be approved for consumer use. A number of non-FDA approved kits are also available on the market, but cannot be marketed for specific medical uses.

For further information, either go to the Center of the Mind link above, or watch the video on TCDS for neuroenhancement below by Dr. Vince Clark, a Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience. The talk is from the Summit on Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation.

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Top Tech 2013 Day 15: Head Mounted Displays (HMD)

A head mounted display, or HMD, is a device that a user wears on the head that displays information directly in front of the user’s eye. HMDs have been around in one form or another since the late 80s or early 90s, primarily in military aircraft. While there have been a variety of methodologies proposed for how exactly a HMD might work (including laser projection, transparent screens, and wave guides), it is not until recently that they saw large amounts of commercial interest.

While the technical capabilities used by HMDs have been improving over the years (such as battery life, miniaturization, screen resolution, etc.), it was not until Google’s Glass project hit that the ‘greater public’ started tracking the technology intensely. Since then, a variety of technologies have emerged-some similar to the Glass, in that they are meant for day to day use, and some similar to the Oculus Rift, meant for VR. In this post we’ll focus on the VR applied technologies.

The Vuzix Smart Glass M100, announced at CES in January, are less powerful than the Glass, but also have a cheaper price point and are due in retail by the end of the year/early 2014.

The ‘Meta‘ augmented reality glasses are more tethered to a computer. Meta had a successful kickstarter earlier this year, and are now available for ordering. They are a bit bulkier than other HMDs-between Google Glass and the Oculus Rift in form factor.

GlassUp is another independent effort taking the ‘glasses’ form factor, looking like an electronically wired pair of safety glasses. The GlassUp can now be preordered for $299 via their website. There is no ‘input’ method to the GlassUp glasses.

Epiphany Eyewear doesn’t have a display feature, but does offer recording and sharing in a pair of stylish shades.

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Top Tech Day 14: Invisibility

Invisibility has been a fantastical dream for millenia, appearing in cultural myths and legends the world over. A supernatural power, invisibility is prized, conceptually, due to it being ‘perfect stealth’. However, it has never been in the realm of the achievable until recently-in the last decade, and especially in the last two years, invisibility as a practical concept has been looking increasingly likely-and not only at the visible light scale, either.

It turns out that waves of all kinds (ignoring the wave/particle duality for a moment) can be manipulated by various structures-and not only electromagnetic waves, either. In some cases this is an active manipulation, and in some cases it’s a passive manipulation.

Work has been done on cloaking from microwaves as well as against EM waves in general (at least in theory). Researchers in China have done work on partial invisibility, as well. Earlier this year, a team in France did the first scaled testing of a ‘seismic’ invisibility cloak.  Late last year, many of the same concepts were applied toward tidal invisibility for oil rigs.

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Top Tech 2013 Day 13: Synthetic Meat

Today’s post was written by Jason Ganz, formerly of the Millenium Project. Jason Ganz is a highly capable emerging technology analyst and Prokalkeo is grateful for his perspective on Top Tech 2013. His twitter can be found @jasnonaz.

 This August, the world’s first synthetic meat hamburger was eaten at an event in London. At over $330,000, this was one expensive meal! The reviews from the tasters were moderately positive, stating that it had a “mouthfeel” like meat, but with little flavor. This is due to the lack of fat & other complex chemicals that make traditional meat tasty – the lack of ketchup also probably didn’t help.

Synthetic meat could be big business, so naturally there are multiple groups vying to be the first to get it to market. The burger eaten in August was created using a technique pioneered by Professor Mark Post of Maastricht University in the Netherlands. The meat was grown by removing myoblast cells from the animal through a painless biopsy. The meat was then placed into a solution & grown on an “edible scaffold”. This scaffold is designed to mimic the movement that causes muscles to grow.

Eventually, small muscle fibers begin to grow. These are then collected & pressed together. The burger eaten in August comprised of more than 20,000 of these lab-grown muscle fibers. Once the technical problem of synthetic meat is solved, the challenge of getting consumers to accept it begins. This problem – overcoming the “ick factor” might prove more difficult than the technical problem of creating the meat.

Another company, Modern Meadows, is tackling the synthetic meat problem from the outside in – they are working on developing a synthetic leather for market before they move on to meat. Leather is attractive to them because it faces far less government. And it doesn’t have quite the same grossness level that synthetic meat does. Once customers are used to the idea of wearing synthetic meat, they might be more willing to eat it. Which is good news for everyone, because synthetic meat adoption would have some amazing benefits.

Meat production currently produces 18% of the world’s greenhouse gas emission, or about half as much as cars do. Modern Meadows estimates that synthetic meat would cut greenhouse gas emissions by 96%! Additionally, synthetic meat would use 96% less water and 45% less energy. The positive effects on the environment would be staggering. Add to this the moral benefit of being able to eat meat without eating meat & synthetic meat becomes a “killer” breakthrough that has the potential to change the world.

Posted in Top Tech 2013

Top Tech 2013 Day 12: Reusable Rockets

Reusable rockets are launch vehicles that are are able to perform multiple launches with minimal refurbishment. This can be contrasted with current expendable launch vehicles which are used for only one mission.This technology has the potential to greatly reduce the per-kilo cost of putting things into orbit and to allow routine space access, both necessary conditions for space industrialization and expanded exploration efforts. As an illustration, imaging how much more expensive a trans-oceanic ticket would be if a new airliner had to be purchased for each flight; reusable rockets are at base an attempt to approach designing rockets as vehicles rather than as ammunition.

2012-2013 has been an exciting year for this technology, with more activity than in the previous decade. Also notable is that much of this activity is associated with privately-operated companies. Perhaps the single largest development has been the progressive flight testing of SpaceX’s “Grasshopper,” a technology demonstrator for the first stage of a planned multi-stage vertical take-off, vertical landing (VTVL) reusable rocket launching system based on their successful Falcon 9.

SpaceX performed a series of 8 successful test flights of the 32 meter Grasshopper v1.0 before it was retired to work on the larger v1.1 which is designed to explore an expanded flight envelope that includes supersonic speeds. SpaceX plans to fully develop the reusable first stage before working to do the same for other stages. This eminently sensible piecewise plan will allow for incremental reductions in launch costs on the path to full reusability.

Reaction Engines Ltd. is also a source of continuing interest since the successful test of their SABRE engine pre-cooler in 2012. This British company secured mixed commercial/government funding in 2008 to develop their innovative propulsion concept to Tech Readiness Level 4 – 5, the stage immediately prior to the demonstration of a full prototype. This year, the British government and EU pledged an additional £67 million for development work through 2016. It is estimated that a full prototype SABRE engine test rig will cost around £200 million.

The SABRE engine has two modes of operation. In the first, air-breathing mode it combines a powerful pre-cooler with a turbo-compressor. Pre-cooling the air entering the engine allows the maintenance of high pressure ratios (and thus high thrust) even at very high velocities and in the thin upper atmosphere. In the second, closed mode SABRE operates as a rocket burning liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen in the same combustion chamber. Intended for use on spaceplanes, especially the company’s Skylon design, single-stage to orbit (SSTO) SABRE-propelled spaceplanes would take off from a large runway like an airliner and then simply fly into space. This has the advantage of simplicity, but comes at the cost of much reduced payload capacity. Some other spaceplane concepts thus involve being launched from a conventional jet-powered “mothership” to get a jump on the velocity needed for orbit.

On the whole, it is incredibly encouraging to see varied lines of reusable rocket development by multiple companies that seem to be on a sound financial footing. This is a set of circumstances that has never existed before in the history of spaceflight and, while there are still many difficulties to be overcome, it shows that routine space access is finally making the transition from dream to reality.

For more information on the activities of these two companies, see the SpaceX and Reaction Engines Ltd. websites at: and respectively.

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Top Tech 2013 Day 11: Programmable Matter

Programmable matter is just what it sounds like-matter that can be programmed or instructed to reconfigure itself into a variety of shapes and tools, depending on the needs of the user. The term was coined in the early 1990s to refer to fine grained computing elements arranged in space that only communicate with nearest neighbor interaction. Around this same time, work was being done on reconfigurable robotics that worked similarly to the computational method. Via semantic drift, the term came to mean matter that can be programmed to change its properties in reality instead of just in simulation.

The topic has been addressed by a variety of universities and institutions over the years, including but not limited to Carnegie Mellon, DARPA, and Harvard.  While some schools of thought would consider liquid crystal displays a form of programmable matter, what we’re addressing here is the more ambitious ‘claytronics’ or ‘utility fog’, micro-nanoscale robotics that can recreate a physical structure.

A clip from the Discovery Channel on the subject:

An overview at claytronics at CMU:


On a grant from DARPA, scientists developed a ‘chain’ type of programmable matter that emulates protein folding techniques, called a ‘milli-motein’. The milli-motein is made of a series of <1 cm^3 motors that can coil themselves into a variety of shapes-researchers had to develop an entirely new motor type to support the technology. Moving forward, they hope to increase the power/weight ratio with lighter and more optimized schematics.


Another MIT research program yielded a modular cubic robot with motion provided by gyroscopes-the spinning motion is transferred to the cube to move it in the structure. Currently controlled by an outside system, researchers hope to upgrade it by making each cube smaller, and keep the computation self contained.


While they haven’t released hardware videos this year, CMU’s Claytronics lab (the oldest of its type) released a new paper this year as well, ‘Distributed and Efficient Algorithm for Self-reconfiguration of MEMS Microrobots’.  If you have university journal access, the paper can be found here.

Posted in Top Tech 2013