Tech Universe: Thursday 14 February

By Miraz Jordan

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

FRESH EYES: The Second Sight Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System is now on the market in the US. If the name's too long for you, think bionic eye for blind people. 60 electrodes are implanted in the retina and interact with glasses fitted with a special mini camera. When tested on 30 people who were completely blind the system allowed some to see a little, while others could read newspaper headlines. The prosthesis replaces the function of photoreceptors in the eye that send impulses for the brain to convert into images. Things are definitely looking up for those with vision problems.

CLEANER COAL: People have long burned coal to provide heat or light and generate electricity, but the combustion produces all kinds of pollutants. Chemical looping replaces burning with a much cleaner process.

Instead of making coal react with air, the looping process exposes it to oxygen-bearing materials such as iron oxide. The reaction produces nearly pure carbon dioxide gas and iron metal. The CO2 is easy to capture, while the iron goes on to react with oxygen, creating heat that's used to make steam and generate electricity. That's an improvement, but there's still all the surplus CO2.

SAY AAH, ROBOTS: In Scotland some trainee medical staff are using lifelike robots to practice their skills. The robots are computer controlled and can react moment by moment to the actions of the trainees. The robots are designed to display symptoms such as asthma, heart attacks and infections. So long as they don't treat live people too much like the dummies they practiced on.

SPEED TAGGING: Tagging big fish such as tuna, marlin and sharks to track them isn't new, but the tags themselves need to be carefully designed to penetrate the skin and be retained for as long as possible. Thanks to the 3D printing possibilities of fused metal powder CSIRO has been able to rapidly develop better tags. Conventional machining meant delays of a couple of months for each iteration of a design. With the 3D printer though it takes only a couple of days. Half a dozen iterations, with testing and refinements, have led them to develop an effective fish tag. Who knew fish tags were so complicated?

NEEDLES OUT: Live vaccines against diseases such as HIV and malaria can save many lives. But they need to be kept at a constant very cold temperature and must be delivered with a needle, which brings contamination risks. Now scientists at King's College London have been able to create a dried live vaccine that remains stable and effective at room temperature. They also created a microneedle array from the dried vaccine and successfully used it to vaccinate test mice. The patch has many tiny very sharp needles that quickly dissolve and distribute the vaccine in the skin. This research could lead to much improved vaccination rates in developing countries and elsewhere. Presumably too the patches can be applied by people without medical training.

Miraz Jordan, knowit.co.nz

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