The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Amanda Schupak
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Laser computing, photosynthesizing power, and spotlighting cancer cells. This week’s coolest things illuminate the future of technology.

Taking Aim At Cancer

What is it? UVA Health is opening the world’s first medical center dedicated to the emerging field of focused ultrasound immunotherapy for cancer.

Why does it matter? Therapies that train the body’s immune system to attack cancer constitute a promising treatment area. Combining it with another new technology, focused ultrasound, could multiply its applications.

How does it work? By converging multiple, concentrated ultrasound beams on a target, such as a tumor, the technology can deliver high levels of energy without damaging intervening tissues. It has been shown to increase the release of markers that alert the immune system to cancerous cells, make tumors more sensitive to chemotherapy and improve delivery of immunotherapeutics. “Focused ultrasound is proving to enhance the effectiveness of cancer immunotherapy throughout the cancer immunity cycle in a variety of ways,” said Neal F. Kassell, chairman of the Focused Ultrasound Foundation, which is partnering with UVA Health on the $8 million Focused Ultrasound Cancer Immunotherapy Center.

Solar Sandwich

What is it? Researchers at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg created an efficient and potentially less expensive solar cell.

Why does it matter? The new research, published in Science Advances, showed that certain ferroelectric materials, when combined with other materials in a lattice structure, may be a promising alternative to the widely used, but less efficient, silicon.

How does it work? Akash Bhatnagar’s team at MLU used the ferroelectric metal oxide barium titanate, which can produce electricity from light because of its spatially separated positive and negative charges. But barium titanate by itself doesn’t absorb much sunlight. So the researchers sandwiched the barium titanate between layers of two different materials and irradiated it with laser light. The combination produced a 1,000-times-stronger electrical current than a chip of similar thickness made only from barium titanate. “The interaction between the lattice layers appears to lead to a much higher permittivity,” said Bhatnagar. “In other words, the electrons are able to flow much more easily.”

Laser-Fast Logic

What is it? Researchers at the University of Rochester and Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg demonstrated the ability to control information processing with laser light, opening the door for computers that are 1 million times faster than those used today.

Why does it matter? Lasers are capable of generating bursts of electricity in femtoseconds — one-millionth of one-billionth of a second. But until now, no one has been able to create computer circuits that can operate on that timescale.

How does it work? Using a laser tuned to two different phases, the researchers were able to create two different types of electronic currents in a graphene wire connecting gold electrodes. The “real” electrons were excited by the laser and remained in motion after it was turned off. The “virtual” electrons carried a charge only while the laser was on. The two versions of currents can either add up or cancel out, yielding either a 0 or a 1. “It will probably be a very long time before this technique can be used in a computer chip, but at least we now know that lightwave electronics is practically possible,” said FAU’s Tobias Boolakee. The researchers described their research in Nature.

Plant Power

What is it? Biochemists at the University of Cambridge made a tiny energy generator that harnesses algae’s photosynthesis.

Why does it matter? The device could be used to run small devices indefinitely and doesn’t require materials lithium-ion batteries do.

How does it work? A see-through package hardly bigger than a AA battery houses a common species of blue-green algae in water. Using just the ambient light in a household setting, the algae produces energy through photosynthesis, generating a small electric current. The current was strong enough to power a popular microprocessor continuously for six months, even in the dark. With a trillion internet-connected devices — smartwatches, sensors and the like — predicted to power up by 2035, we need “systems that can generate energy, rather than simply store it like batteries,” said Christopher Howe, a senior author of a new paper in Energy & Environmental Science.

Sugar Rush

What is it? Engineers at MIT and the Technical University of Munich devised a thin fuel cell that could power medical implants by feeding off glucose in the body.

Why does it matter? “Glucose is everywhere in the body, and the idea is to harvest this readily available energy and use it to power implantable devices,” said Philipp Simons, first author of a new study in Advanced Materials.

How does it work? The idea of using glucose in a fuel cell to generate electricity isn’t entirely new, but the MIT team used a ceramic electrolyte instead of more traditional polymers. Ceramic is able to separate out electrons even at very small scales and can withstand the high heat applied to medical devices to sterilize them. The fuel cell could be formed into a thin film that would power miniaturized implantable devices without taking up any room in the devices themselves.

The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week
 

Synchronized laser pulses (red and blue) generate a burst of real and virtual charge carriers in graphene that are absorbed by gold metal to produce a net current. “We clarified the role of virtual and real charge carriers in laser-induced currents, and that opened the way to the creation of ultrafast logic gates,” says Ignacio Franco, associate professor of chemistry and physics at Rochester.

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