The Future is Here: 3-D Printed Candy

chefjet_candyRemember the Easy Bake Oven, that little toy appliance that came equipped with an especially hot light-bulb and allowed kids to bake (a limited array of) edible goods? Well, it just may be that 3-D food printers will give the children of tomorrow that same ability, except with a much wider array of options; not to mention little risk of burning themselves.

Already, pizza, pancakes, and desserts are all options for food printers, and even Google’s cafeteria has a 3-D printer for pasta. And at this years Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2014), 3D Systems unveiled two of their latest designs – the ChefJet and the ChefJet Pro – showcasing printers that use sugar and water to crystallize frosting in real time.

chefjet-sugar-2-hires3D Systems is no stranger to printer technology. At last years CES, they won Best Emerging Tech award for their Cubify printer – a low cost device geared towards kids, artists, and other consumers inexperienced with the technology. And though the reviews coming out of CES are mixed on the nature of the flavor, the colors and shapes it can render into candy form are quite impressive.

The ChefJet only prints sugar or chocolate-colored confections while the Pro takes it up a notch with an inkjet filled with food coloring allowing for a plethora of colorful, and edible, results. These range from spirals and squares to 3-D pentagons and spheres, to incredibly elaborate designs that resemble chorals or casings for cakes. And of course, the candy can come in the form of pure sugar, or as white or dark chocolate.

chef-jet-pro1Other developments in the 3-D printing of food – such as NASA’s research on printing food in space (including pizza!), or printing food with personalized nutritional content – aren’t yet fully formed. ChefJet could be a little easier to integrate into small industries right away, since it has the ability to tailor make frosting in shapes that could easily be added to high-end desserts (like wedding cakes).

Even more exciting is the potential for home applications. Parents could rent a ChefJet Pro for a kids’ birthday party to create cakes or candy in the shape of their child’s favorite characters, or let children customize the Halloween candy that they would hand out. And just like the Easy Bake Oven of old, the result may not be totally tasty, but the process is still fun and gives people a chance to be creative.

The ChefJet and ChefJet Pro will likely be available in the second half of 2014, for an estimated $5,000 and $10,000 apiece. And while you’re waiting on one to become commercially available (and affordable), check out this video of the ChefJet in action at CES 2014:


The Future is Here: 3-D Printed Eye Cells

printed_eyecells3In the past few years, medical researchers have been able to replicate real, living tissues samples using 3-D printing technology – ranging from replacement ears and printed cartilage to miniature kidneys and even liver cells. Well now, thanks to a team of researchers from the University of Cambridge, eye cells have been added to that list.

Using a standard ink-jet printer to form layers of two types of cells,  the research team managed to print two types of central nervous system cells from the retinas of adult rats – ganglion cells (which transmit information from the eye to the brain), and glial cells (which provide protection and support for neurons). The resulting cells were able to grow normally and remain healthy in culture.

printed_eyecells2Ink-jet printing has been used to deposit cells before, but this is the first time cells from an adult animal’s central nervous system have been printed. The research team published its research in the IOP Publishing’s open-access journal Biofabrication and plans to extend this study to print other cells of the retina and light-sensitive photoreceptors.

In the report, Keith Martin and Barbara Lorber – the co-authors of the paper who work at the John van Geest Centre for Brain Repair at the University of Cambridge – explained the experiment in detail:

Our study has shown, for the first time, that cells derived from the mature central nervous system, the eye, can be printed using a piezoelectric inkjet printer. Although our results are preliminary and much more work is still required, the aim is to develop this technology for use in retinal repair in the future.

printed_eyecellsThis is especially good news for people with impaired visual acuity, or those who fear losing their sight, as it could lead to new therapies for retinal disorders such as blindness and macular degeneration. Naturally, more tests are needed before human trials can begin. But the research and its conclusions are quite reassuring that eye cells can not only be produced synthetically, but will remain healthy after they are produced.

Clara Eaglen, a spokesperson for the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), had this to say about the breakthrough:

The key to this research, once the technology has moved on, will be how much useful vision is restored. Even a small bit of sight can make a real difference, for some people it could be the difference between leaving the house on their own or not. It could help boost people’s confidence and in turn their independence.

printed_eyecells1Combined with bionic eyes that are now approved for distribution in the US, and stem cell treatments that have restores sight in mice, this could be the beginning of the end of blindness. And with all the strides being made in bioprinting and biofabrication, it could also be another step on the long road to replacement organs and print-on-demand body parts.


The Future is Here: 3-D Printed Brain Scanner

openbciWhen it comes to cutting-edge technology in recent years, two areas of development have been taking the world by storm. On the one hand, there’s 3-D printing (aka. Additive Manufacturing) that is revolutionizing the way we fabricate things. On the other, there’s brain-computer interfaces (BCI), which are giving people the power to control machines with their minds and even transfer their thoughts.

And now, two inventors – Conor Russomanno and Joel Murphy – are looking to marry the two worlds in order to create the first, open-source brain scanner that people can print off at home. Thanks to funding from DARPA, the two men printed off their first prototype headset this past week. It’s known as the OpenBCI, and it’s likely to make brain scanning a hell of a lot more affordable in the near future.

openbci1It includes a mini-computer that plugs into sensors on a black, skull-grabbing piece of plastic called the “Spider Claw 3000,” which can be created with a 3-D printer. Assembled, it operates as a low-cost electroencephalography (EEG) brainwave scanner that connects to a PC, compared to  high-grade EEG machines used by laboratories and researchers that cost thousands of dollars.

But over the past few years, cheaper models have been made by companies like Emotiv, which have in turn allowed a new era of DIY brain hackers to conduct brainwaves experiments. Since that time, everything from games, computer interfaces, personal tracking tools, and self-directed mind enhancement have been available to regular people.

openbci2But Russomanno and Murphy felt the community needed a completely open-source platform if it was truly going to take off – hence the OpenBCI. The hardware to build the headset can be ordered from the company, while the software to run it is available through GitHub, a popular code sharing site. Once procured, people will have the ability to print off, program, and adjust their own personal brain scanning device.

According to Russomanno, the greatest asset of the headset (aside from the price) is the freedom it gives to brain hackers to put their EEG probes anywhere they like:

You don’t want to limit yourself to looking to just a few places on the scalp. You can target up to 64 locations on the scalp with a maximum of 16 electrodes at a time.

As it stands, Russomanno and Murphy have built the prototype headset, but still need to raise money to build the mini-computer that it plugs into. To accomplish this, the two inventors launched a Kickstarter project to fund the development of the Arduino-compatible hardware. Last week, they reached their goal of $100,000, and expect to ship their first systems in March.

openbci3The current design of the hardware, which looks more like a hexagonly-shaped circuit board than a computer, is their third incarnation. In addition to being smaller and Adruino-compatible, the third version is also programmable via Bluetooth and has a port for an SD card. When the hardware starts shipping, Russomanno expects it to kick off a new round of experimentation:

We’ve got about 300 people that have already donated to receive the board. If you’re willing to spend $300 for a piece of technology, you’re definitely going to build something with it.

One of the hallmarks of technological revolutions is the ability to make the technology scalable and more affordable. In this way, its benefits (aka. returns) are able to multiply and expand. And with the help of open-source devices like these that people can create on 3-D printers (which are also dropping in prices) the returns on mind-controlled devices are likely to grow exponentially in the coming years.

In short, the age of mind-controlled machinery may be just around the corner. Good to know they will be obeying us and not the other way around!


Top Stories from CES 2014

CES2014_GooglePlus_BoxThe Consumer Electronics Show has been in full swing for two days now, and already the top spots for most impressive technology of the year has been selected. Granted, opinion is divided, and there are many top contenders, but between displays, gaming, smartphones, and personal devices, there’s been no shortage of technologies to choose from.

And having sifted through some news stories from the front lines, I have decided to compile a list of what I think the most impressive gadgets, displays and devices of this year’s show were. And as usual, they range from the innovative and creative, to the cool and futuristic, with some quirky and fun things holding up the middle. And here they are, in alphabetical order:

celestron_cosmosAs an astronomy enthusiast, and someone who enjoys hearing about new and innovative technologies, Celestron’s Cosmos 90GT WiFi Telescope was quite the story. Hoping to make astronomy more accessible to the masses, this new telescope is the first that can be controlled by an app over WiFi. Once paired, the system guides stargazers through the cosmos as directions flow from the app to the motorized scope base.

In terms of comuting, Lenovo chose to breathe some new life into the oft-declared dying industry of desktop PCs this year, thanks to the unveiling of their Horizon 2. Its 27-inch touchscreen can go fully horizontal, becoming both a gaming and media table. The large touch display has a novel pairing technique that lets you drop multiple smartphones directly onto the screen, as well as group, share, and edit photos from them.

Lenovo Horizon 2 Aura scanNext up is the latest set of display glasses to the world by storm, courtesy of the Epson Smart Glass project. Ever since Google Glass was unveiled in 2012, other electronics and IT companies have been racing to produce a similar product, one that can make heads-up display tech, WiFi connectivity, internet browsing, and augmented reality portable and wearable.

Epson was already moving in that direction back in 2011 when they released their BT100 augmented reality glasses. And now, with their Moverio BT200, they’ve clearly stepped up their game. In addition to being 60 percent lighter than the previous generation, the system has two parts – consisting of a pair of glasses and a control unit.

moverio-bt200-1The glasses feature a tiny LCD-based projection lens system and optical light guide which project digital content onto a transparent virtual display (960 x 540 resolution) and has a camera for video and stills capture, or AR marker detection. With the incorporation of third-party software, and taking advantage of the internal gyroscope and compass, a user can even create 360 degree panoramic environments.

At the other end, the handheld controller runs on Android 4.0, has a textured touchpad control surface, built-in Wi-Fi connectivity for video content streaming, and up to six hours of battery life.

The BT-200 smart glasses are currently being demonstrated at Epson’s CES booth, where visitors can experience a table-top virtual fighting game with AR characters, a medical imaging system that allows wearers to see through a person’s skin, and an AR assistance app to help perform unfamiliar tasks .

This year’s CES also featured a ridiculous amount of curved screens. Samsung seemed particularly proud of its garish, curved LCD TV’s, and even booked headliners like Mark Cuban and Michael Bay to promote them. In the latter case, this didn’t go so well. However, one curved screen device actually seemed appropriate – the LG G Flex 6-inch smartphone.

LG_G_GlexWhen it comes to massive curved screens, only one person can benefit from the sweet spot of the display – that focal point in the center where they feel enveloped. But in the case of the LG G Flex-6, the subtle bend in the screen allows for less light intrusion from the sides, and it distorts your own reflection just enough to obscure any distracting glare. Granted, its not exactly the flexible tech I was hoping to see, but its something!

In the world of gaming, two contributions made a rather big splash this year. These included the Playstation Now, a game streaming service just unveiled by Sony that lets gamers instantly play their games from a PS3, PS4, or PS Vita without downloading and always in the most updated version. Plus, it gives users the ability to rent titles they’re interested in, rather than buying the full copy.

maingear_sparkThen there was the Maingear Spark, a gaming desktop designed to run Valve’s gaming-centric SteamOS (and Windows) that measures just five inches square and weighs less than a pound. This is a big boon for gamers who usually have to deal gaming desktops that are bulky, heavy, and don’t fit well on an entertainment stand next to other gaming devices, an HD box, and anything else you might have there.

Next up, there is a device that helps consumers navigate the complex world of iris identification that is becoming all the rage. It’s known as the Myris Eyelock, a simple, straightforward gadget that takes a quick video of your eyeball, has you log in to your various accounts, and then automatically signs you in, without you ever having to type in your password.

myris_eyelockSo basically, you can utilize this new biometric ID system by having your retinal scan on your person wherever you go. And then, rather than go through the process of remembering multiple (and no doubt, complicated passwords, as identity theft is becoming increasingly problematic), you can upload a marker that leaves no doubt as to your identity. And at less than $300, it’s an affordable option, too.

And what would an electronics show be without showcasing a little drone technology? And the Parrot MiniDrone was this year’s crowd pleaser: a palm-sized, camera-equipped, remotely-piloted quad-rotor. However, this model has the added feature of two six-inch wheels, which affords it the ability to zip across floors, climb walls, and even move across ceilings! A truly versatile personal drone.


scanaduAnother very interesting display this year was the Scanadu Scout, the world’s first real-life tricorder. First unveiled back in May of 2013, the Scout represents the culmination of years of work by the NASA Ames Research Center to produce the world’s first, non-invasive medical scanner. And this year, they chose to showcase it at CES and let people test it out on themselves and each other.

All told, the Scanadu Scout can measure a person’s vital signs – including their heart rate, blood pressure, temperature – without ever touching them. All that’s needed is to place the scanner above your skin, wait a moment, and voila! Instant vitals. The sensor will begin a pilot program with 10,000 users this spring, the first key step toward FDA approval.

wowwee_mip_sg_4And of course, no CES would be complete without a toy robot or two. This year, it was the WowWee MiP (Mobile Inverted Pendulum) that put on a big show. Basically, it is an eight-inch bot that balances itself on dual wheels (like a Segway), is controllable by hand gestures, a Bluetooth-conncted phone, or can autonomously roll around.

Its sensitivity to commands and its ability to balance while zooming across the floor are super impressive. While on display, many were shown carrying a tray around (sometimes with another MiP on a tray). And, a real crowd pleaser, the MiP can even dance. Always got to throw in something for the retro 80’s crowd, the people who grew up with the SICO robot, Jinx, and other friendly automatons!

iOptikBut perhaps most impressive of all, at least in my humble opinion, is the display of the prototype for the iOptik AR Contact Lens. While most of the focus on high-tech eyewear has been focused on wearables like Google Glass of late, other developers have been steadily working towards display devices that are small enough to worse over your pupil.

Developed by the Washington-based company Innovega with support from DARPA, the iOptik is a heads-up display built into a set of contact lenses. And this year, the first fully-functioning prototypes are being showcased at CES. Acting as a micro-display, the glasses project a picture onto the contact lens, which works as a filter to separate the real-world from the digital environment and then interlaces them into the one image.

ioptik_contact_lenses-7Embedded in the contact lenses are micro-components that enable the user to focus on near-eye images. Light projected by the display (built into a set of glasses) passes through the center of the pupil and then works with the eye’s regular optics to focus the display on the retina, while light from the real-life environment reaches the retina via an outer filter.

This creates two separate images on the retina which are then superimposed to create one integrated image, or augmented reality. It also offers an alternative solution to traditional near-eye displays which create the illusion of an object in the distance so as not to hinder regular vision. At present, still requires clearance from the FDA before it becomes commercially available, which may come in late 2014 or early 2015.

Well, its certainly been an interesting year, once again, in the world of electronics, robotics, personal devices, and wearable technology. And it manages to capture the pace of change that is increasingly coming to characterize our lives. And according to the tech site Mashable, this year’s show was characterized by televisions with 4K pixel resolution, wearables, biometrics, the internet of personalized and data-driven things, and of course, 3-D printing and imaging.

And as always, there were plenty of videos showcasing tons of interesting concepts and devices that were featured this year. Here are a few that I managed to find and thought were worthy of passing on:

Internet of Things Highlights:

Motion Tech Highlights:

Wearable Tech Highlights:

Sources:, (2), cesweb, mashable, (2), gizmag, (2), news.cnet

News From Space: Space Planes and Space Colonies

skylon-orbit-reaction-enginesThe year of 2013 closed with many interesting stories about the coming age of space exploration. And they came from many fronts, including the frontiers of exploration (Mars and the outer Solar System) as well as right here at home, on the conceptual front. In the case of the latter, it seems that strides made in the field are leading to big plans for sending humans into orbit, and into deep space.

The first bit of news comes from Reaction Engines Limited, where it seems that the Skylon space plane is beginning to move from the conceptual stage to a reality. For some time now, the British company has been talked about, thanks to their plans to create a reusable aerospace jet that would be powered by a series of hypersonic engines.

Skylon_diagramAnd after years of research and development, the hypersonic Sabre Engine passed a critical heat tolerance and cooling test. Because of this, Reaction Engines Limited won an important endorsement from the European Space Agency. Far from being a simple milestone, this test may prove to be historic. Or as Skymania‘s Paul Sutherland noted, it’s “the biggest breakthrough in flight technology since the invention of the jet engine.”

Now that Reaction Engines has proven that they can do this, the company will be looking for £250 million (approx $410 million) of investment for the next step in development. This will include the development of the LapCat, a hypersonic jet that will carry 300 passengers around the world in less than four hours; and the Skylon, which will carry astronauts, tourists, satellites and space station components into orbit.

sabre-engine-17Speaking at the press conference after the test in late November, ESA’s Mark Ford had this to say:

ESA are satisfied that the tests demonstrate the technology required for the Sabre engine development. One of the major obstacles to a reusable vehicle has been removed. The gateway is now open to move beyond the jet age.

The Sabre engine is the crucial piece in the reusable space plane puzzle, hence why this test was so crucial. Once built and operational, Skylon will take off and land like a conventional plane, but still achieve orbit by mixing air-breathing jets for takeoff, and landing with rockets fueled by onboard oxygen once it gets past a certain speed.

Skylon-space-plane-obtains-breakthrough-new-engines-2The recent breakthrough had to do to the development of a heat exchanger that’s able to cool air sucked into the engine at high speed from 1,000 degrees Celsius to minus 150 degrees in one hundredth of a second. It’s this critical technology that will allow the Sabre engine to surpass the bounds of a traditional jet engine, by as much as twofold.

Alan Bond, the engineering genius behind the invention, had this to say about his brainchild:

These successful tests represent a fundamental breakthrough in propulsion technology. The Sabre engine has the potential to revolutionise our lives in the 21st century in the way the jet engine did in the 20th Century. This is the proudest moment of my life.

And of course, there’s a video of the engine in action. Check it out:

Second, and perhaps in response to these and other developments, the British Interplanetary Society is resurrecting a forty year old idea. This society, which came up with the idea to send a multi-stage rocket and a manned lander to the moon in the 1930’s (eerily reminiscent of the Apollo 11 mission some 30 years later) is now reconsidering plans for giant habitats in space.

o'neil_cylinderTo make the plan affordable and feasible, they are turning to a plan devised by Gerard O’Neill back in the 1970s. Commonly known as the O’Neill Cylinder, the plan calls for space-based human habitats consisting of giant rotating spaceships containing landscaped biospheres that can house up to 10 million people. The cylinder would rotate to provide gravity and – combined with the interior ecology – would simulate a real-world environment.

Jerry Stone of BIS’s SPACE (Study Project Advancing Colony Engineering) is trying to show that building a very large space colony is technically feasible. Part of what makes the plan work is the fact that O’Neill deliberately designed the structure using existing 1970s technology, materials and construction techniques, rather than adopting futuristic inventions.

Rama16wikiStone is bringing these plans up to date using today’s technologies. Rather than building the shell from aluminium, for example, Stone argues tougher and lighter carbon composites could be used instead. Advances in solar cell and climate control technologies could also be used to make life easier and more comfortable in human space colonies.

One of the biggest theoretical challenges O’Neill faced in his own time was the effort and cost of construction. That, says Stone, will be solved when a new generation of much cheaper rocket launchers and spaceplanes has been developed (such as the UK-built Skylon). Using robot builders could also help, and other futuristic construction techniques like 3-D printing robots and even nanomachines and bacteria could be used.

RAMAAnd as Stone said, much of the materials could be outsourced, taking advantage of the fact that this would be a truly space-aged construction project:

Ninety per cent of the material to build the colonies would come from the Moon. We know from Apollo there’s silicon for the windows, and aluminium, iron and magnesium for the main structure. There’s even oxygen in the lunar soil.

Fans of Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, the series Babylon 5 or the movie Elysium out to instantly recognize this concept. In addition to being a very real scientific concept, it has also informed a great deal of science fiction and speculation. For some time, writers and futurists have been dreaming of a day when humanity might live in space habitats that can simulate terrestrial life.

Elysium_conceptWell, that day might be coming sooner than expected. And, as O’Neill and his contemporaries theorized at the time, it may be a viable solution to the possibility of humanity’s extinction. Granted, we aren’t exactly living in fear of nuclear holocaust anymore, but ecological collapse is still a threat! And with the Earth’s population set to reach 12 billion by the 22nd century, it might be an elegant solution to getting some of those people offworld.

It’s always an exciting thing when hopes and aspirations begin to become feasible. And though aerospace transit is likely to be coming a lot sooner than O’Neill habitats in orbit, the two are likely to compliment each other. After all, jet planes that can reach orbit, affordably and efficiently, is the first step in making offworld living a reality!

Until next time, keep your eyes to the skies. Chances are, people will be looking back someday soon…

Sources: IO9, skymania, (2)

Year-End Tech News: Stanene and Nanoparticle Ink

3d.printingThe year of 2013 was also a boon for the high-tech industry, especially where electronics and additive manufacturing were concerned. In fact, several key developments took place last year that may help scientists and researchers to move beyond Moore’s Law, as well as ring in a new era of manufacturing and production.

In terms of computing, developers have long feared that Moore’s Law – which states that the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles approximately every two years – could be reaching a bottleneck. While the law (really it’s more of an observation) has certainly held true for the past forty years, it has been understood for some time that the use of silicon and copper wiring would eventually impose limits.

copper_in_chips__620x350Basically, one can only miniaturize circuits made from these materials so much before resistance occurs and they are too fragile to be effective. Because of this, researchers have been looking for replacement materials to substitute the silicon that makes up the 1 billion transistors, and the one hundred or so kilometers of copper wire, that currently make up an integrated circuit.

Various materials have been proposed, such as graphene, carbyne, and even carbon nanotubes. But now, a group of researchers from Stanford University and the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California are proposing another material. It’s known as Stanene, a theorized material fabricated from a single layer of tin atoms that is theoretically extremely efficient, even at high temperatures.

computer_chip5Compared to graphene, which is stupendously conductive, the researchers at Stanford and the SLAC claim that stanene should be a topological insulator. Topological insulators, due to their arrangement of electrons/nuclei, are insulators on their interior, but conductive along their edge and/or surface. Being only a single atom in thickness along its edges, this topological insulator can conduct electricity with 100% efficiency.

The Stanford and SLAC researchers also say that stanene would not only have 100%-efficiency edges at room temperature, but with a bit of fluorine, would also have 100% efficiency at temperatures of up to 100 degrees Celsius (212 Fahrenheit). This is very important if stanene is ever to be used in computer chips, which have operational temps of between 40 and 90 C (104 and 194 F).

Though the claim of perfect efficiency seems outlandish to some, others admit that near-perfect efficiency is possible. And while no stanene has been fabricated yet, it is unlikely that it would be hard to fashion some on a small scale, as the technology currently exists. However, it will likely be a very, very long time until stanene is used in the production of computer chips.

Battery-Printer-640x353In the realm of additive manufacturing (aka. 3-D printing) several major developments were made during the year 0f 2013. This one came from Harvard University, where a materials scientist named Jennifer Lewis Lewis – using currently technology – has developed new “inks” that can be used to print batteries and other electronic components.

3-D printing is already at work in the field of consumer electronics with casings and some smaller components being made on industrial 3D printers. However, the need for traditionally produced circuit boards and batteries limits the usefulness of 3D printing. If the work being done by Lewis proves fruitful, it could make fabrication of a finished product considerably faster and easier.

3d_batteryThe Harvard team is calling the material “ink,” but in fact, it’s a suspension of nanoparticles in a dense liquid medium. In the case of the battery printing ink, the team starts with a vial of deionized water and ethylene glycol and adds nanoparticles of lithium titanium oxide. The mixture is homogenized, then centrifuged to separate out any larger particles, and the battery ink is formed.

This process is possible because of the unique properties of the nanoparticle suspension. It is mostly solid as it sits in the printer ready to be applied, then begins to flow like liquid when pressure is increased. Once it leaves the custom printer nozzle, it returns to a solid state. From this, Lewis’ team was able to lay down multiple layers of this ink with extreme precision at 100-nanometer accuracy.

laser-welding-640x353The tiny batteries being printed are about 1mm square, and could pack even higher energy density than conventional cells thanks to the intricate constructions. This approach is much more realistic than other metal printing technologies because it happens at room temperature, no need for microwaves, lasers or high-temperatures at all.

More importantly, it works with existing industrial 3D printers that were built to work with plastics. Because of this, battery production can be done cheaply using printers that cost on the order of a few hundred dollars, and not industrial-sized ones that can cost upwards of $1 million.

Smaller computers, and smaller, more efficient batteries. It seems that miniaturization, which some feared would be plateauing this decade, is safe for the foreseeable future! So I guess we can keep counting on our electronics getting smaller, harder to use, and easier to lose for the next few years. Yay for us!

Sources:, (2)

Biggest Scientific Breakthroughs of 2013

center_universe2The new year is literally right around the corner, folks. And I thought what better way to celebrate 2013 than by acknowledging its many scientific breakthroughs. And there were so many to be had – ranging in fields from bioresearch and medicine, space and extra-terrestrial exploration, computing and robotics, and biology and anthropology – that I couldn’t possibly do them all justice.

Luckily, I have found a lovely, condensed list which managed to capture what are arguably the biggest hits of the year. Many of these were ones I managed to write about as they were happening, and many were not. But that’s what’s good about retrospectives, they make us take account of things we missed and what we might like to catch up on. And of course, I threw in a few stories that weren’t included, but which I felt belonged.

So without further ado, here are the top 12 biggest breakthroughs of 2013:

1. Voyager 1 Leaves the Solar System:

For 36 years, NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft has travelling father and farther away from Earth, often at speeds approaching 18 km (11 miles) per second. At a pace like that, scientists knew Voyager would sooner or later breach the fringe of the heliosphere that surrounds and defines our solar neighborhood and enter the bosom of our Milky Way Galaxy. But when it would finally break that threshold was a question no one could answer. And after months of uncertainty, NASA finally announced in September that the space probe had done it. As Don Gurnett, lead author of the paper announcing Voyager’s departure put it: “Voyager 1 is the first human-made object to make it into interstellar space… we’re actually out there.”

voyager12. The Milky Way is Filled with Habitable Exoplanets:

After years of planet hunting, scientists were able to determine from all the data gathered by the Kepler space probe that there could be as many as 2 billion potentially habitable exoplanets in our galaxy. This is the equivalent of roughly 22% of the Milky Way Galaxy, with the nearest being just 12 light years away (Tau Ceti). The astronomers’ results, which were published in October of 2013, showed that roughly one in five sunlike stars harbor Earth-size planets orbiting in their habitable zones, much higher than previously thought.

exoplanets23. First Brain to Brain Interface:

In February of 2013, scientists announced that they had successfully established an electronic link between the brains of two rats. Even when the animals were separated by thousands of kms distance, signals from the mind of one could help the second solve basic puzzles in real time. By July, a connection was made between the minds of a human and a rat. And by August, two researchers at the Washington University in St. Louis were able to demonstrate that signals could be transmitted between two human brains, effectively making brain-to-brain interfacing (BBI), and not just brain computer interfacing (BCI) truly possible.

brain-to-brain-interfacing4. Long-Lost Continent Discovered:

In February of this year, geologists from the University of Oslo reported that a small precambrian continent known as Mauritia had been found. At one time, this continent resided between Madagascar and India, but was then pushed beneath the ocean by a multi-million-year breakup spurred by tectonic rifts and a yawning sea-floor. But now, volcanic activity has driven the remnants of the long-lost continent right through to the Earth’s surface.

Not only is this an incredibly rare find, the arrival of this continent to the surface has given geologists a chance to study lava sands and minerals which are millions and even billions of years old. In addition to the volcanic lava sands, the majority of which are around 9 million years old, the Oslo team also found deposits of zircon xenocryst that were anywhere from 660 million to 1.97 billion years old. Studies of these and the land mass will help us learn more about Earth’s deep past.

mauritia5. Cure for HIV Found!:

For decades, medical researchers and scientists have been looking to create a vaccine that could prevent one from being infected with HIV. But in 2013, they not developed several vaccines that demonstrated this ability, but went a step further and found several potential cures. The first bit of news came in March, when researchers at Caltech demonstrated using HIV antibodies and an approach known as Vectored ImmunoProphylaxis (VIP) that it was possible to block the virus.

Then came the SAV001 vaccine from the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry at Western University in London, Ontario, which aced clinical trials. This was punctuated by researchers at the University of Illinois’, who in May used the “Blue Waters” supercomputer to developed a new series of computer models to get at the heart of the virus.

HIV-budding-ColorBut even more impressive was the range of potential cures that were developed. The first came in March, where researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis that a solution of bee venom and nanoparticles was capable of killing off the virus, but leaving surrounding tissue unharmed. The second came in the same month, when doctors from Johns Hopkins University Medical School were able to cure a child of HIV thanks to the very early use of antiretroviral therapy (ART).

And in September, two major developments occurred. The first came from Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, where researchers showed that an antiviral foot cream called Ciclopirox was capable of eradicating infectious HIV when applied to cell cultures of the virus. The second came from the Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute at the Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU), where researchers developed a vaccine that was also able to cure HIV in about 50% of test subjects. Taken together, these developments may signal the beginning of the end of the HIV pandemic.

hiv-aids-vaccine6. Newly Discovered Skulls Alter Thoughts on Human Evolution:

The discovery of an incredibly well-preserved skull from Dmanisi, Georgia has made anthropologists rethink human evolution. This 1.8 million-year old skull has basically suggested that our evolutionary tree may have fewer branches than previously thought. Compared with other skulls discovered nearby, it suggests that the earliest known members of the Homo genus (H. habilis, H.rudolfensis and H. erectus) may not have been distinct, coexisting species, but instead were part of a single, evolving lineage that eventually gave rise to modern humans.

humanEvolution7. Curiosity Confirms Signs of Life on Mars:

Over the past two years, the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers have provided a seemingly endless stream of scientific revelations. But in March of 2013, NASA scientists released perhaps the most compelling evidence to date that the Red Planet was once capable of harboring life. This consisted of drilling samples out of the sedimentary rock in a river bed in the area known as Yellowknife Bay.

Using its battery of onboard instruments, NASA scientists were able to detect some of the critical elements required for life – including sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and carbon. The rover is currently on a trek to its primary scientific target – a three-mile-high peak at the center of Gale Crater named Mount Sharp – where it will attempt to further reinforce its findings.

mt_sharp_space8. Scientists Turn Brain Matter Invisible:

Since its inception as a science, neuroanatomy – the study of the brain’s functions and makeup – has been hampered by the fact that the brain is composed of “grey matter”. For one, microscopes cannot look beyond a millimeter into biological matter before images in the viewfinder get blurry. And the common technique of “sectioning” – where a brain is frozen in liquid nitrogen and then sliced into thin sheets for analysis – results in  tissue being deformed, connections being severed, and information being lost.

But a new technique, known as CLARITY, works by stripping away all of a tissue’s light-scattering lipids, while leaving all of its significant structures – i.e. neurons, synapses, proteins and DNA – intact and in place. Given that this solution will allow researchers to study samples of the brains without having to cut them up, it is already being hailed as one of the most important advances for neuroanatomy in decades.

9. Scientists Detect Neutrinos from Another Galaxy:

In April of this year, physicists working at the IceCube South Pole Observatory took part in an expedition which drilled a hole some 2.4 km (1.5 mile) hole deep into an Antarctic glacier. At the bottom of this hole, they managed to capture 28 neutrinos, a mysterious and extremely powerful subatomic particle that can pass straight through solid matter. But the real kicker was the fact that these particles likely originated from beyond our solar system – and possibly even our galaxy.

That was impressive in and off itself, but was made even more so when it was learned that these particular neutrinos are over a billion times more powerful than the ones originating from our sun. So whatever created them would have had to have been cataclysmicly powerful – such as a supernova explosion. This find, combined with the detection technique used to find them, has ushered in a new age of astronomy.


10. Human Cloning Becomes a Reality:

Ever since Dolly the sheep was cloned via somatic cell nuclear transfer, scientists have wondered if a similar technique could be used to produce human embryonic stem cells. And as of May, researchers at Oregon Health and Science University managed to do just that. This development is not only a step toward developing replacement tissue to treat diseases, but one that might also hasten the day when it will be possible to create cloned, human babies.


11. World’s First Lab Grown Meat:

In May of this year, after years of research and hundred of thousands of dollars invested, researchers at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands created the world’s first in vitro burgers. The burgers were fashioned from stem cells taken from a cow’s neck which were placed in growth medium, grown into strips of muscle tissue, and then assembled into a burger. This development may prove to be a viable solution to world hunger, especially in the coming decades as the world’s population increases by several billion.

labmeat112. The Amplituhedron Discovered:

If 2012 will be remembered as the year that the Higgs Boson was finally discovered, 2013 will forever be remembered as the year of the Amplituhedron. After many decades of trying to reformulate quantum field theory to account for gravity, scientists at Harvard University discovered of a jewel-like geometric object that they believe will not only simplify quantum science, but forever alters our understanding of the universe.

This geometric shape, which is a representation of the coherent mathematical structure behind quantum field theory, has simplified scientists’ notions of the universe by postulating that space and time are not fundamental components of reality, but merely consequences of the”jewel’s” geometry. By removing locality and unitarity, this discovery may finally lead to an explanation as to how all the fundamental forces of the universe coexist.

amplutihedron_spanThese forces are weak nuclear forces, strong nuclear forces, electromagnetism and gravity. For decades, scientists have been forced to treat them according to separate principles – using Quantum Field Theory to explain the first three, and General Relativity to explain gravity. But now, a Grand Unifying Theory or Theory of Everything may actually be possible.

13. Bioprinting Explodes:

The year of 2013 was also a boon year for bioprinting – namely, using the technology of additive manufacturing to create samples of living tissue. This began in earnest in February, where a team of researchers at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland used a new printing technique to deposit live embryonic stem cells onto a surface in a specific pattern. Using this process, they were able to create entire cultures of tissue which could be morphed into specific types of tissue.

Later that month, researchers at Cornell University used a technique known as “high-fidelity tissue engineering” – which involved using artificial living cells deposited by a 3-D printer over shaped cow cartilage – to create a replacement human ear. This was followed some months later in April when a San Diego-based firm named Organova announced that they were able to create samples of liver cells using 3D printing technology.

And then in August, researchers at Huazhong University of Science and Technology were able to use the same technique create the world first, living kidneys. All of this is pointing the way towards a future where human body parts can be created simply by culturing cells from a donor’s DNA, and replacement organs can be synthetically created, revolutionizing medicine forever.

14. Bionic Machinery Expands:

If you’re a science buff, or someone who has had to go through life with a physical disability, 2013 was also a very big year for the field of bionic machinery. This consisted not only of machinery that could meld with the human body in order to perform fully-human tasks – thus restoring ambulatory ability to people dealing with disabling injuries or diseases – but also biomimetic machinery.

ArgusIIThe first took place in February, where researchers from the University of of Tübingen unveiled the world’s first high-resolution, user-configurable bionic eye. Known officially as the “Alpha IMS retinal prosthesis”, the device helps to restore vision by converted light into electrical signals your retina and then transmitted to the brain via the optic nerve. This was followed in August by the Argus II “retinal prosthetic system” being approved by the FDA, after 20 years of research, for distribution in the US.

Later that same month, the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland unveiled the world’s first sensory prosthetic hand. Whereas existing mind-controlled prosthetic devices used nerve signals from the user to control the movements of the limb, this new device sends electrostimulus to the user’s nerves to simulate the sensation of touch.

prosthetic_originalThen in April, the University of Georgia announced that it had created a brand of “smart skin” – a transparent, flexible film that uses 8000 touch-sensitive transistors – that is just as sensitive as the real thing. In July, researchers in Israel took this a step further, showing how a gold-polyester nanomaterial would be ideal as a material for artificial skin, since it experiences changes in conductivity as it is bent.

15. 400,000 Year-Old DNA Confuses Humanity’s Origin Story:

Another discovery made this year has forced anthropologist to rethink human evolution. This occurred in Spain early in December, where a team from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany recovered a 400,000 year-old thigh bone. Initially thought to be a forerunner of the Neanderthal branch of hominids, it was later learned that it belonged to the little-understood branch of hominins known as Denisovans.

Human-evoThe discordant findings are leading anthropologists to reconsider the last several hundred thousand years of human evolution. In short, it indicates that there may yet be many extinct human populations that scientists have yet to discover. What’s more, there DNA may prove to be part of modern humans genetic makeup, as interbreeding is a possibility.

3-D Printed Guns: Congress Ready to Extend the Ban

3D_printed_weaponsEarlier this month, mere days before the anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting, Congress began proposing to extend a ban placed plastic firearms capable of evading metal detectors and X-ray machines. Narrowly beating a midnight deadline on Monday, Dec. 9th, the ban was extended for a period of ten years, though efforts to strengthen the restrictions were narrowly blocked by Congressional Republicans.

This was a bittersweet moment for advocates of gun control, but the implications of this decision go beyond the desire to not see another school shooting take place. With the growth of 3-D printing technology and fears that guns could be created using open-source software and store bought printers, preemptive measures were seen as necessary. Simply shutting down Distributed Defense’s website seemed insufficient given the interest and ease of access.

Cody-Wilson-Defense-Distributed-Wiki-Weapon-3-d-printed-gunBans on plastic and undetectable firearms were first passed during the administration of Ronald Reagan, and have been renewed twice – first in 1998 and again in 2003. But such weapons have become a growing threat and due to 3-D printing, which are becoming better and more affordable. And though public access is still limited to weapons made from ABS plastic, it may be only a matter of time before something more sophisticated becomes available.

However, advocates of gun control emphasize that this extension contains two key defeats. For starters, Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer’s desire to strengthen the ban by requiring that such weapons contain undetachable metal parts was blocked. In addition, the fact that the ban was extended for a ten-year period as is means it cannot be revisited and strengthened again in the near future.

3dmetalgun-640x353In this respect, the ban highlights a year of failure of the Obama administration and Congressional Democrats to toughen gun laws in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting. Despite this tragedy and other mass shootings – such as the one that took place at the Washington Naval Yard – and the fact that some 90% support tougher gun laws, it seems that pro-gun lobbyists and the NRA are destined to have their way for the time being.

In the meantime, we can only hope that industrial 3-D printing, which allows for objects to be created out of metal parts, does not become readily available to average citizens. The one saving grace of the 3-D printed gun is the fact that it is entirely composed of plastic, making it an ineffective (if undetectable) weapon. And here’s hoping 2014 sees a lot less violence and a lot more humanity!


The Future is Here: 4-D Printing

4dprintingmaterial3-D printing has already triggered a revolution in manufacturing by allowing people to determine the length, width and depth of an object that they want to create. But thanks to research being conducted at the University of Colorado, Boulder, a fourth dimension can now be included – time. Might sounds like science fiction, until you realize that the new manufacturing process will make it possible to print objects that change their shape at a given time.

Led by Prof. H. Jerry Qi, the scientific team have developed a “4D printing” process in which shape-memory polymer fibers are deposited in key areas of a composite material item as it’s being printed. By carefully controlling factors such as the location and orientation of the fibers, those areas of the item will fold, stretch, curl or twist in a predictable fashion when exposed to a stimulus such as water, heat or mechanical pressure.

4dprintingmaterial1The concept was proposed earlier this year by MIT’s Skylar Tibbits, who used his own 4D printing process to create a variety of small self-assembling objects. Martin L. Dunn of the Singapore University of Technology and Design, who collaborated with Qi on the latest research, explained the process:

We advanced this concept by creating composite materials that can morph into several different, complicated shapes based on a different physical mechanism.

This means that one 4D-printed object could change shape in different ways, depending on the type of stimulus to which it was exposed. That functionality could make it possible to print a photovoltaic panel in a flat shape, expose it to water to cause it to fold up for shipping, and then expose it to heat to make it fold out to yet another shape that’s optimal for catching sunlight.

4dprintingmaterial2This principle may sound familiar, as it is the basis of such sci-fi concepts as polymorphic alloys or objects. It’s also the idea behind the Milli-Motein, the shape-shifting machine invented by MITs Media Labs late last year. But ultimately, it all comes back to organic biology, using structural biochemistry and the protein cell as a blueprint to create machinery made of “smart” materials.

The building block of all life, proteins can assume an untold number of shapes to fulfill an organism’s various functions, and are the universal workforce to all of life. By combining that concept with the world of robotics and manufactured products, we could be embarking upon an era of matter and products that can assume different shapes as needed and on command.

papertab-touchAnd if these materials can be scaled to the microscopic level, and equipped with tiny computers, the range of functions they will be able to do will truly stagger the mind. Imagine furniture made from materials that can automatically respond to changes in pressure and weight distribution. Or paper that is capable of absorbing your pencil scratches and then storing it in its memory, or calling up image displays like a laptop computer?

And let’s not forget how intrinsic this is to the field of nanotechnology. Smarter, more independent materials that can change shape and respond to changes in their environment, mainly so they can handle different tasks, is all part of the Fabrication Revolution that is expected to explode this century. Here’s hoping I’m alive to see it all. Sheldon Cooper isn’t the only one waiting on the Technological Singularity!


3-D Printing Martian and Lunar Housing

3dprinted_moon_base1For enthusiasts of 3-D printing and its many possibilities, a man like Berokh Khoshnevis needs no introduction. As for the rest of us, he is the USC’s Director of Manufacturing Engineering, and has spent the last decade working on a new direction for this emerging technology. Back in 2012, he gave a lecture at TEDxTalks where he proposed that automated printing and custom software could revolutionize construction as we know it.

Intrinsic to this vision are a number of technologies that have emerged in recent years. These include Computer-Assisted Design/Computer-Assisted Manufacturing (CAD/CAM), robotics, and “contour crafting” (i.e. automated construction). By combining design software with a large, crane-sized 3-D printing machine, Khoshnevis proposes a process where homes can be built in just 20 hours.

contour-craftingKhoshnevis started working on the idea when he realized the gigantic opportunity in introducing more speed and affordability into construction. All of the technology was already in place, all that was required was to custom make the hardware and software to carry it all out. Since that time, he and his staff have worked tirelessly to perfect the process and vary up the materials used.

Working through USC’s Center for Rapid Automated Fabrication Technologies, Khoshnevis and his students have made major progress with their designs and prototypes. His robotic construction system has now printed entire six-foot tall sections of homes in his lab, using concrete, gypsum, wood chips, and epoxy, to create layered walls sections of floor.

3dprinted_moon_base3The system uses robotic arms and extrusion nozzles that are controlled by a computerized gantry system which moves a nozzle back and forth. Cement, or other desired materials, are placed down layer by layer to form different sections of the structure. Though the range of applications are currently limited to things like emergency and temporary shelters, Khoshnevis thinks it will someday be able to build a 2,500-square-foot home in 20 hours.

As he describes the process:

It’s the last frontier of automation. Everything else is made by machines except buildings. Your shoes, your car, your appliances. You don’t have to buy anything that is made by hand.

contour-crafting2As Khoshnevis explained during his 2012 lecture at TEDx, the greatest intended market for this technology is housing construction in the developing world. In such places of the world, this low-cost method of creating housing could lead to the elimination of slums as well as all the unhealthy conditions and socioeconomic baggage that comes with them.

But in the developed world, he also envisions how contour crafting machines could allow homes to be built more cheaply by reducing labor and material costs. As he pointed out in his lecture, construction is one of the most inefficient, dirty and dangerous industries there is, more so than even mining and oil drilling. Given a method that wastes far less material and uses less energy, this would reduce our impact on the natural environment.

3dprinted_moon_base2But of course, what would this all be without some serious, science fiction-like applications? For some time now, NASA and the ESA has been looking at additive manufacturing and robotics to create extra-terrestrial settlement. Looking farther afield, NASA has given Khoshnevis a grant to work on building lunar structures on the moon or other planets that humans could one day colonize.

According to NASA’s website, the construction project would involve:

Elements suggested to be built and tested include landing pads and aprons, roads, blast walls and shade walls, thermal and micrometeorite protection shields and dust-free platforms as well as other structures and objects utilizing the well known in-situ-resource utilization (ISRU) strategy.

3dprinted_moon_baseMany existing technologies would also be employed, such as the Lunar Electric Rover, the unpressurized Chariot rover, the versatile light-weight crane and Tri-Athlete cargo transporter as well some new concepts that are currently in testing. These include some habitat mockups and new generations of spacesuits that are currently undergoing tests at NASA’s Desert Research And Technological Studies (D-RATS).

Many of the details of this arrangement are shrouded in secrecy, but I think I can imagine what would be involved. Basically, the current research and development paradigm is focusing on combining additive manufacturing and sintering technology, using microwaves to turn powder into molten material, which then hardens as it is printed out.

sinterhab3To give you an idea of what they would look like, picture a crane-like robot taking in Moon regolith or Martian dust, bombarding it with microwaves to create a hot glue-like material, and then printing it out, layer by layer, to create contoured modules as hard as ceramic. These modules, once complete, would be pressurized and have multiple sections – for research, storage, recreation, and whatever else the colonists plan on getting up to.

Pretty cool huh? Extra-terrestrial colonies, and a cheaper, safer, and more environmentally friendly construction industry here on Earth. Not a bad way to step into the future! And in the meantime, be sure to enjoy this video of contour crafting at work, courtesy of USC’s Center for Rapid Automated Fabrication Technologies: