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First Terahertz Amplifier "Goes to 11"

The world’s first radio amplifier operating at terahertz frequencies could lead to communications systems with much higher data rates, better radar, high-resolution imaging that could penetrate smoke and fog, and better ways of identifying dangerous substances, say the researchers who built it.

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Tiny Cancer-Killing Death Rays: Spaser Therapy Proposed

Encircling tumors with a phalanx of miniature lasers could offer a new way to battle cancer, a team of Australian researchers is proposing.

Technically, the proposed device isn’t really a laser at all, but a spaser, with surface plasmons rather than light undergoing amplification. Plasmons are oscillations in electron density created in the surface of a small metal object when photons strike it. It’s possible to design a device so that the plasmons feed back on themselves, amplifying in much the same way photons bouncing around a laser cavity stimulate the emission of other photons, creating laser light.

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A New Kind of Atom Trap Chip for Quantum Computers

Ultracold atoms have long been on the list of potential parts for quantum computers. Early experiments were done with tabletop experimental gear, more recently, but researchers have also designed chips on which these atoms can be trapped and cooled to near absolute zero. (Some such chips even achieved the strange physical state known as a Bose Einstein condensates.) However, even the chip-based traps had to be surrounded by a complicated sets of coils to create the required magnetic field for trapping them.

Now a team of scientists at the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK, have come up with a proposal, detailed last week in Nature Communications, to build a better atom trap chip. They show that a conducting loop about 100 micrometers across will allow the creation of a magnetic field that traps the atoms inside the loop. They hope that arrays of such loops could form the basis of a quantum computing chip.

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Vibrating Shoes Restore Balance for Seniors

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Some good vibrations in the shoes of elderly people could prevent potentially fatal falls in old age. In a new study, researchers show that imperceptible vibrations in shoe soles can improve balance for seniorsa technological breakthrough that could offset the usual decline in the human sense of touch and instinctive balance.

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Orbital's Rocket Disaster Narrows Space Station Resupply Options

The explosion of an Orbital Sciences rocket carrying supplies to the International Space Station signaled more than the loss of a $200 million mission on Tuesday. The incident marked the first disaster of a commercial resupply mission to the space station since NASA put the responsibility in the hands of private U.S. contractors. It’s a turn of events that will likely leave the supply runs in the hands of Orbital’s competitor SpaceX and Russia in the near future.

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Baseball Season Over? No Worries, You Can Watch Startup Pitchers Do Battle

Startup competitions have long been a popular sport in Silicon Valley. Demo has been declaring “DemoGods” for decades; TechCrunch crowns a champion of its Battlefield. Startup battlegames have even been parodied on TV.

But they haven’t been marketed as sport outside the tech community. An organization called Get in the Ring is trying to change that. They say startups need something more than “friends, family and fools.”  They also need fans.

To make the startup competition even more recognizable as a sporting event, the organizers have changed the traditional stand-on-stage-and-pitch-to-the-judges format—they’re putting the startups in an actual boxing ring, two at a time.

Competitions are being held this fall in eight regions: North America, South America, Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Western Europe, Southern Europe, and the Middle East. The winners of each will meet for the final round in Rotterdam, the Netherlands on 21 November, as part of Global Entrepreneurship Week.

The finalists are diverse, to say the least. There’s Fitbark (fitbit for dogs) and Identified Technology (drone-based sensing systems for hazardous environments) from the U.S., Contratos (an app for creating and signing contracts) from Mexico, EpoChip (a charging gadget for mobile phones that harvests energy from radio waves) from South Africa, and Efishery (a smart fish feeder) from Asia. There are companies competing with fashion apps, and retail apps, and a number of food and cosmetic products. All together, 2000 companies from 50 countries entered.

Organizers are looking to build a home audience. OK, ESPN isn’t devoting a channel to startup competitions just yet. But the Kauffman Foundation is touting the 7 November finals of “Get in the Ring: North American Startup Clash” as an “exciting livestreamed event.”

So if watching startups pitch is as exciting to you as watching a Major League ballplayer pitch, get ready to can kick back with a cold can of Jolt and root for your favorite startup team.

Nakamura Gives Some Credit to Maruska for Blue LED Invention

Shuji Nakamura held a teleconference with the media yesterday to discuss his invention of the blue LED—for which he was recently awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics—and how it led him to found the LED company Soraa. Nakamura worked at Nichia Chemicals in Tokushima in the 1980s and 90s, where he developed a commercially viable gallium nitride-based blue LED.

During the Q&A, Nakamura—who shares the Nobel prize with Isamu Akasaki and Hiroshi Amano—told reporters he believed recognition for the blue LED should also extend to Herbert Paul Maruska, a researcher at RCA who created a functional blue LED prototype in 1972. Nakamura said he did not think his or Akasaki and Amano’s work would have been possible without Maruska’s contributions many years prior.

Nakamura also mentioned his hope that within five years, laser diodes would finally be commercially available, especially for use in car headlights. For several years, Soraa has worked on developing headlights powered by a blue-laser diode, shown to be 1000 times as bright as an LED while using two-thirds the energy.

Read about the history behind Maruska’s blue-LED work at RCA, and also check out our October 2013 feature on laser headlights.

Photo: Herb Maruska

Printed Dots Detect Ebola (and More) Without a Lab

In their new paper in the journal Cell, Keith Pardee, James J. Collins and colleagues from Collins’ lab at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering talk about networks, printing circuits, programming, and even orthogonality.

They’re not talking about electronics, though. They’re describing how they developed “paper-based synthetic gene networks” into a practical, and potentially revolutionary, diagnostic tool for detecting a wide range of biomolecular targets such as glucose and viruses.

It took them less than a day to produce a slip of paper that can detect the Ebola virus. Armed only with that slip and smartphone camera, a healthcare worker in the field could know within two hours—and sometimes in as little as 20 minutes—whether a patient is infected or not. And the doctor, nurse, or volunteer could do this without advanced skills, extensive sample preparation, expensive reagents, laboratory instruments, or even refrigeration.

“Our paper-based system could not only make tools currently only available in laboratory readily fieldable, but also improve the development of new tools and the accessibility of these molecular tools to educational programs for the next generation of practitioners,” wrote Collins.

To produce a synthetic gene network, selected chunks of DNA, RNA, proteins, organelles (including, importantly, the ribosomes that read messenger RNA, or mRNA, and translate it into proteins), and other biomolecules are freed from their cellular casings and isolated into a complete but non-living physiological pathway.

The Wyss researchers engineered their synthetic network, painted the stew onto paper (or cloth, or any other porous medium), and freeze-dried it into an inert dot. Add water and a bit of a triggering analyte—DNA from a suspicious virus, say—and the synthetic network goes to work, activating a cascade of reactions that causes the printed dot to change color. The approach could be used for detecting not just viruses, but a staggering variety of other targets.

A “toehold hairpin RNA” sensor is a key to the process. If a single strand of RNA includes complementary sequences at separated stretches along its length, it can fold back upon itself to form a hairpin. The Wyss researchers engineer an RNA sequence so that it includes: a stretch of detector RNA that will bind to messenger RNA produced by the target (a transcript Ebola virus produces to build coat proteins for new viruses, for example); a ribosome binding site sequence, which will prompt the ribosome to grab the molecule and start reading its instructions to make protein; a “closure” sequence that binds to the detector RNA, hiding the ribosome binding site in the loop of the hairpin; and mRNA instructions for an enzyme (such as beta-galactosidase) that will alter the structure of a reporter molecule (such as a yellow form of galactose) to change its color (say, to a purple). [See the video here.]

Mechanism of the Toehold Switch. Wyss Institute Postdoctoral Fellow Alex Green, Ph.D., the lead author of "Toehold Switches: De–Novo–Designed Regulators of Gene Expression," narrates a step–by–step animation of the mechanism of the synthetic toehold switch gene regulator. (Wyss Institute via Vimeo)

The design leaves the toehold, a short strip of detector RNA, dangling free at the bottom of the hairpin. The target RNA latches onto the toehold and starts zipping up along the rest of the detector sequence—and unzipping the closure sequence. This opens up the ribosome binding site in the hairpin. The unfolded mRNA then passes through the ribosome, and the ribosome produces the enzyme. The enzyme reacts with the reporter and, voila, the color changes.

The color changes can be seen with the naked eye or digitally quantified. Conventional laboratory plate readers will certainly do the job. But along the way, the Wyss team also developed algorithms that allow most digital color cameras, including those available in cellphones, to quantify color changes in the gene-network dots.

Pardee, Collins, and their colleagues report that paper-based synthetic gene networks offer a number of advantages, including cost, speed, and rapid development, over conventional diagnostic approaches.

Cost. Paper-based diagnostics could cost as little as US $0.02 to $0.04 per sensor, they say. This is dramatically lower than the $0.45 to $1.40 for familiar antibody-based rapid diagnostics tests (RDTs) like home pregnancy and glucose kits, and the $1.50 to $4.00 cost of the reagents used in a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) DNA assay.

Speed. The paper-based synthetic gene network diagnostics the Harvard team produced are about as fast as antibody-based home tests, a little faster than PCR, and much faster than the bacterial and viral culture methods that have been a diagnostic mainstay. The Wyss group’s paper diagnostics produce detectable color changes in 20 to 40 minutes (or perhaps longer, depending on the assay and the concentration of the target molecule). Antibody-based RDTs show results in about 20 minutes. And PCR assays require at least 60 minutes…and a well-equipped laboratory.

Rapid Development. As an exercise, the Wyss researchers gave themselves a day to develop an assay capable of detecting the Ebola virus, and of distinguishing between its Sudan and Zaire strains. They produced 24 Ebola sensors in less than 12 hours.

“Taken together,” the Wyss researchers conclude, “and considering the projected cost, reaction time, ease of use, and no requirement for laboratory infrastructure, we envision paper-based synthetic gene networks significantly expanding the role of synthetic biology in the clinic, global health, industry, research, and education.”

Images: Wyss Institute/Harvard University

Cree Engineers a Cheaper LED Bulb by Losing the Heat Sink

Heat sinks have made LED bulbs the freaks of the lighting world. Metal collars and other heat sinks serve to draw away heat from LEDs to ensure long life, but they also give LED bulbs an unfamiliar, bulky look and add to their costs.

LED maker Cree on Tuesday is introducing a new consumer bulb that does away with the metal heat sink seen on most LED bulbs. The dimmable bulbs come with a lower cost, too: $7.97 for a 40-watt and 60-watt equivalent, down from $9.97 for a “soft white” version. The “daylight” version with whiter light costs $8.97.

The new design employs a few engineering tricks and the company's latest generation of high-power LEDs to reduce the cost, says Mike Watson vice president of strategy at Cree, which makes LEDs atop silicon carbide wafers.

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Neuroscience Gets Radical: How to Study Surfers' Brain Waves

When the energy drink company Red Bull flew a team of neuroscientists and elite surfers to a beach town in Mexico in late August, it was in hopes of answering a vexing question: How can you study the brain waves of surfers while they’re actually riding the waves? 

Some people might consider another question more pressing: Why would you want to? But Red Bull already had an answer for that one. The company wanted to know “what stoke looks like in the brain,” says Brandon Larson, a technologist on Red Bull’s R&D team. (You read that correctly. It’s stoke not stroke.) When a surfer is stoked, Larson says, that person is “in the zone,” and performing at peak potential. If scientists can find the biomarkers of stoke, maybe coaches can use the information to help surfers achieve that hallowed state of mind. 

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New York State Gets Behind Oxyfuel Carbon Capture

In a somewhat startling development, New Yorkâ''s governor David Paterson announced on June 10 that the state will support construction of an experimental â''oxyfiredâ'' electric generation plant, in which coal will be burned in an atmosphere of almost pure oxygen, so that nitrogen emissions are eliminated and carbon capture simplified. Swedenâ''s Vattenfall and Franceâ''s Alstom are completing a similar demonstration plant in eastern Germany, as described in the â''winners & losersâ'' January issue of Spectrum, and Babcock & Wilcox has had a serious oxyfuel R&D program in the United States. But oxyfuel has not been the mainstream approach …

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