Biofluids Fuel Microrockets

Future nanoparticles could rocket drugs to their targets

3 min read
Biofluids Fuel Microrockets
MICROROCKET: A particle made of titanium (green) and aluminum gallium (gray) propels itself by generating a stream of hydrogen bubbles in water.
Image: American Chemical Society

Chemistry teachers with a flair for the dramatic sometimes throw pure sodium into a body of water, causing a reaction that blows the sodium back out of the water and blows their students’ minds. Engineer Wei Gao, at the University of California, San Diego, thinks smaller. He envisions a controlled version of that reaction so small it would fit on one side of a 20-micrometer particle.

For particles that size, ordinary water is as viscous as tar is to us (see the classic lecture “Life at Low Reynolds Number,” [PDF] by Edward Purcell). One way to push through it is to use the fluid itself as fuel. In 2011, Gao and his colleagues dropped microscopic zinc particles into hydrochloric acid. The results weren’t explosive, but the researchers clocked their zinc particles scooting at 1050 μm per second, or around 100 body lengths per second. To simulate that, a 2-meter-tall human would need to swim through four tar-filled Olympic swimming pools in 1 second.

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
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A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof
DarkGray

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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