Monthly Archives: March 2009

More Efficient Solar Cells Thanks To CNT Films That Transmit Infrared Light

A thin film of carbon nanotubes is probably the most revolutionary material developed in the past twenty years and according to the scientists they haven’t “used” the material at its full potential and there is still a long way to go. Carbon nanotubes are useful in electronic displays, solar cells, and at other devices, but you should know that CNT thin films were used with light in the visible range. “Just in case” the scientists decided to explore their properties in infrared, and their results were very surprising.

The team of researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, tested single-walled carbon thin films in infrared and they noticed that they have the ability to transmit infrared waves. The infrared properties of the optically-transparent and electrically-conductive CNT thin films were investigated by physicists Liangbing Hu, David Hecht, and George Grüner from UCLA.

“This is the first time that the infrared properties of conductive CNT films are fully studied through measurement and calculations,” said Hu, co-author at the study.

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Scientists remove cancer genes from stem cells

Scientists have taken another important step toward using ordinary skin cells that are made to behave like embryonic stem cells to find treatments for conditions like Parkinson’s disease.

Researchers at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Massachusetts removed a stumbling block in using so-called induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells, by taking out potentially cancer-causing genes.

Writing in the journal Cell on Thursday, the scientists said they then turned these iPS cells into brain cells involved in Parkinson’s disease.

The iPS stem cells could be made from a patient’s own skin cells, reducing the chances that the body’s immune system might reject the cells as it sometimes does with organ transplants.

Transplanting healthy cells made from iPS cells to replace cells damaged by disease or injury may be possible in the future. But a more immediate use for these cells may be in lab dishes testing the effects of new drugs, according to Dirk Hockemeyer, one of the Whitehead Institute researchers.

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Tokyo school to host first robot teacher

Students at a Tokyo primary school will soon be learning from the first robot teacher, a Japanese science professor says.

University of Tokyo Professor Hiroshi Kobayashi has created a robot capable of teaching human students while also expressing a limited range of emotions, including anger in case of unruly children, The Daily Telegraph said Thursday.

The robot is named Saya and has been under development for 15 years leading up to the scheduled school trial.

The robot’s 18 facial motors are what give it the ability to mimic certain human emotions while the humanoid’s other inner workings allow it to speak multiple languages and set tasks, the newspaper said.

Saya’s planned appearance at the primary school will mark the most recent attempt by Japan to integrate robotics into everyday life.

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Cal Closer to Building “Organs from Scratch”

Synthetic biologists are getting closer to creating man-made organs made out of genetically engineered cells.

Two Cal chemists announced Tuesday they have assembled different types of genetically engineered cells into synthetic microtissues that can perform functions such as secreting and responding to hormones.

They said that means more complex biological capabilities, like the kinds done by a liver or a heart or a kidney, are not out of the question at some point soon.

“While the synthetic tissues today comprise only a handful of cells, they could eventually be scaled up to make artificial organs,” the university media office said in a statement. “Those could help scientists understand the interactions among cells in the body and might some day substitute for human organs.”

“People used to think of the cell as the fundamental unit. But the truth is that there are collections of cells that can do things that no individual cell could ever be programmed to do. We are trying to achieve the properties of organs now, though not yet organisms,” “This is like another level of hierarchical complexity for synthetic biology,” said coauthor Carolyn Bertozzi, UC Berkeley professor of chemistry and of molecular and cell biology. She is also the director of the Molecular Foundry at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

“As synthetic biologists cram more and more genes into microbes to make genetically engineered organisms produce ever more complex drugs and chemicals, two University of California chemists have gone a step further,” the university media office said.

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Two year old girl can see for the first time following stem cell treatment

Two-year-old British girl Dakota Clarke can see for the first time after undergoing pioneering stem cell treatment in China.

Dakota, who was born blind, is the first British patient to undergo the new type of therapy.

The £30,000 treatment, which involves stems cells taken from an umbilical cord being fed into her forehead, has allowed her to see people, objects, colours and lights around her.

Dakota suffers from Septo-Optic Dysplasia, which means the optic nerve does not develop properly, and has responded quicker than expected to the treatment. Her parents, Wilma, 28, and dad Darren, 34, are hoping she will continue to improve and have a life time of sight.

Speaking from the Qingdao People’s Hospital in southern China, Mrs Clarke, from Newtownabbey. near Belfast, said: “We didn’t know if the treatment would work, and people kept telling us it was too experimental, but we had to do this.

“It’s been worth every single penny to see the changes in her.”

Mr Clarke added: “It’s nothing short of a miracle for us. She can see the world for the first time.

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Solar Panel Drops to $1 per Watt: Is this a Milestone or the Bottom for Silicon-Based Panels?

A long-sought solar milestone was eclipsed on Tuesday, when Tempe, Ariz.–based First Solar Inc. announced that the manufacturing costs for its thin-film photovoltaic panels had dipped below $1 per watt for the first time. With comparable costs for standard silicon panels still hovering in the $3 range, it’s tempting to conclude that First Solar’s cadmium telluride (CdTe) technology has won the race. But if we’re concerned about the big picture (scaling up solar until it’s a cheap and ubiquitous antidote to global warming and foreign oil) a forthcoming study from the University of California–Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory suggests that neither material has what it takes compared to lesser-known alternatives such as—we’re not kidding—fool’s gold.

Even if the solar cell market were to grow at 56 percent a year for the next 10 years—slightly higher than the rapid growth of the past year—photovoltaics would still only account for about 2.5 percent of global electricity, LBNL researcher Cyrus Wadia says. “First Solar is great, as long as we’re talking megawatts or gigawatts,” he says. “But as soon as they have to start rolling out terawatts, that’s where I believe they will reach some limitations.”

Even the current rate of growth won’t be easy to sustain. Despite the buck-per-watt announcement, First Solar’s share price plummeted more than 20 percent on Wednesday, thanks to warnings from CEO Mike Ahearn about the effect of the credit crisis on potential solar customers—as much as 10 to 15 percent of current orders might default. He recently told analysts in a conference call that “as good as things look for the mid-term and beyond, the short-term outlook for the solar industry in our view has never looked more difficult.” (A transcript is available at SeekingAlpha.)

First Solar’s eventual goal is “grid parity,” a phrase that refers to making solar power cost the same as competing conventional power sources without subsidies. Right now the cost of making panels accounts for a little less than half the total cost of installation. The company estimates that it needs to get manufacturing costs down to $0.65 to $0.70 per watt, and other installation costs down to $1 a watt in order to reach grid parity—goals First Solar plans to reach by 2012.

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Microsoft Mapping Course to a Jetsons-Style Future

Meet Laura, the virtual personal assistant for those of us who cannot afford a human one.

Built by researchers at Microsoft, Laura appears as a talking head on a screen. You can speak to her and ask her to handle basic tasks like booking appointments for meetings or scheduling a flight.

More compelling, however, is Laura’s ability to make sophisticated decisions about the people in front of her, judging things like their attire, whether they seem impatient, their importance and their preferred times for appointments.

Instead of being a relatively dumb terminal, Laura represents a nuanced attempt to recreate the finer aspects of a relationship that can develop between an executive and an assistant over the course of many years.

“What we’re after is common sense about etiquette and what people want,” said Eric Horvitz, a researcher at Microsoft who specializes in machine learning.

Microsoft wants to put a Laura on the desk of every person who has ever dreamed of having a personal aide. Laura and other devices like her stand as Microsoft’s potential path for diversifying beyond the personal computer, sales of which are stagnating.

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Scientists’ stem cell breakthrough ends ethical dilemma

Scientists have found a way to make an almost limitless supply of stem cells that could safely be used in patients while avoiding the ethical dilemma of destroying embryos.

In a breakthrough that could have huge implications, British and Canadian scientists have found a way of reprogramming skin cells taken from adults, effectively winding the clock back on the cells until they were in an embryonic form.

The work has been hailed as a major step forward by scientists and welcomed by pro-life organisations, who called on researchers to halt other experiments which use stem cells collected from embryos made at IVF clinics.

Sir Ian Wilmut, who led the team that cloned Dolly the Sheep and heads the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine at Edinburgh University where the work was done, said: “This is a significant step in the right direction. The team has made great progress and combining this work with that of other scientists working on stem cell differentiation, there is hope that the promise of regenerative medicine could soon be met.”

Stem cells have the potential to be turned into any tissue in the body, an ability that has led researchers to believe they could be used to make “spare parts” to replace diseased and damaged organs and treat conditions as diverse as Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and spinal cord injury.

Because the cells can be made from a patient’s own skin, they carry the same DNA and so could be used without a risk of being rejected by the immune system.

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Synthetic life form grows in Florida lab

When NASA began thinking about missions to look for life beyond Earth, it realized it had a problem: how to recognize life if it were found.

Scientists came up with a definition for life — a self-sustaining chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution — but remained understandably fuzzy on the details.

It is still not known how life on Earth took hold, what happened to a bunch of chemicals that made them capable of supporting a metabolism, replicating and evolution. But a new field of science, called synthetic biology, is aiming to find out.

One of the most promising developments lies in a beaker of water inside a Florida laboratory. It’s an experiment called AEGIS — an acronym for Artificially Expanded Genetic Information System. Its creator, Steve Benner, says it is the first synthetic genetic system capable of Darwinian evolution.

AEGIS is not self-sustaining, at least not yet, and with 12 DNA building blocks — as opposed to the usual four — there’s little chance it will be confused with natural life. Still, Benner is encouraged by the results.

“It’s evolving. It’s doing what we designed it to do,” said Benner, a biochemist with the Gainesville, Fla.-based Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution.

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Can a machine read your mind?

I’m sitting in a Sussex cottage, wearing a rubber swimming cap dotted with wires and electrodes. On a laptop in front of me, a constantly shifting wash of coloured graphics portrays the activity in my brain. It’s a neat party trick, but it is also a Pandora’s box: across the world, scientists are using this kind of technology to prise open our minds, to fathom our voting preferences, our guilty thoughts, our shopping desires, even the words we are thinking. Already their activities are stealthily changing our world.

I’m the guest of Dr David Lewis, a British neuropsychologist who uses electronic brain-scanning to help brands see which of their marketing strategies best snare our interest. His Sussex University-based company, the Mind Lab, uses equipment that monitors electrical activity in the brain, and is currently investigating how to refine people’s enjoyment of video games. This is definitely the least contentious end of the market.

Amid all the scientific gadgetry and research, sceptics argue that brain-reading systems are not yet sufficiently developed to be of real use in any field. But in fact, that doesn’t matter: the prospects are far too tantalising. Companies are already marketing the technology as a way to penetrate the last frontier of exploration – the space between our ears. Lawyers, military chiefs, advertisers and politicians are eagerly buying. Welcome to the world of brainjacking, where science fiction is happening now.

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