The Future of Building: Superefficient Nanomaterials

carbon-nanotubeToday, we are on the verge of a fabrication revolution. Thanks to developments in nanofabrication and miniaturization, where materials can be fashioned down the cellular (or even atomic) level, the option of making bigger and stronger structures that happen to weight less is becoming a reality. This is the goal of materials scientist Julia Greer and her research lab at Caltech.

As an example, Greer offers the The Great Pyramid of Giza and the Eiffel Tower. The former is 174 meters tall and weighs 10 megatons while the latter is over twice that height, but at five and half kilotons is one-tenth the mass. It all comes down to the “elements of architecture”, which allowed the Eiffel Tower to be stronger and more lightweight while using far less materials.

carbon_nanotube2Whereas the pyramids are four solid walls, the Eiffel Tower is skeletal, and vastly more efficient as a result. Greer and her colleagues are trying to make the same sort of leap on a nano scale, engineering hollow materials that are fantastically lightweight while remaining every bit as stiff and strong. Carbon nanotubes are one such example, but the range of possibilities are immense and due to explode in the near future.

The applications for this “Hierarchical Design” are also myriad, but its impact could be profound. For one, these ultralight wonders offer a chance to drastically reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, allowing us to make familiar goods with less raw stuff. But they also could also expand our idea of what’s possible with material science, opening doors to designs that are inconceivable today.

It’s all here on this video, where Greer explains Hierarchical Design and the possibilities it offers below:


The Future of Medicine: New Blood-Monitoring Devices

medtechNon-invasive medicine is currently one of the fastest growing industries in the world. Thanks to ongoing developments in the fields of nanofabrication, wireless communications, embedded electronics and microsensors, new means are being created all the time that can monitor our health that are both painless and hassle-free.

Consider diabetes, an epidemic that currently affects 8% of the population in the US and is growing worldwide. In October of 2013, some 347 million cases were identified by the World Health Organization, which also claims that diabetes will become the 7th leading cause of death by 2030. To make matters worse, the conditions requires constant blood-monitoring, which is difficult in developing nations and a pain where the means exist.

google_lensesHence why medical researchers and companies are looking to create simpler, non-invasive means. Google is one such company, which back in January announced that they are working on a “smart” contact lens that can measure the amount of glucose in tears. By merging a mini glucose sensor and a small wireless chip into a set of regular soft contact lenses, they are looking to take all the pin-pricks out of blood monitoring.

In a recent post on Google’s official blog, project collaborators Brian Otis and Babak Parviz described the technology:

We’re testing prototypes that can generate a reading once per second. We’re also investigating the potential for this to serve as an early warning for the wearer, so we’re exploring integrating tiny LED lights that could light up to indicate that glucose levels have crossed above or below certain thresholds.

And Google is hardly alone in this respect. Due to growing concern and the advancements being made, others are also looking at alternatives to the finger prick, including glucose measures from breath and saliva. A company called Freedom Meditech, for example, is working on a small device  that can measure glucose levels with an eye scan.

I_Sugar_X_prototype1Their invention is known as the I-SugarX, a handheld device that scans the aqueous humor of eye, yielded accurate results in clinical studies in less than four minutes. John F. Burd, Ph.D., Chief Science Officer of Freedom Meditech, described the process and its benefits in the following way:

The eye can be thought of as an optical window into to body for the painless measurement of glucose in the ocular fluid as opposed to the blood, and is well suited for our proprietary optical polarimetric based measurements. Based on the results of this, and other studies, we plan to begin human clinical studies as we continue our product development.

Between these and other developments, a major trend towards “smart monitoring” is developing and likely to make life easier and cut down on the associated costs of medicine. A smart contact lens or saliva monitor would make it significantly easier to watch out for uncontrolled blood sugar levels, which ultimately lead to serious health complications.

I_Sugar_X_prototype2But of course, new techniques for blood-monitoring goes far beyond addressing chronic conditions like diabetes. Diagnosing and controlling the spread of debilitating, potentially fatal diseases is another major area of focus. Much like diabetes, doing regular bloodwork can be a bit difficult, especially when working in developing areas of the world where proper facilities can be hard to find.

But thanks to researchers at Rice University in Houston, Texas, a new test that requires no blood draws is in the works. Relying on laser pulse technology to create a vapor nanobubble in a malaria-infected cell, this test is able to quickly and non-invasively diagnose the disease. While it does not bring medical science closer to curing this increasingly drug-resistant disease, it could dramatically improve early diagnosis and outcomes.

malaria-blood-free-detectorThe scanner was invented by Dmitro Lapotko, a physicist, astronomer, biochemist, and cellular biologist who studied laser weapons in Belarus before moving to Houston. Here, he and his colleagues began work on a device that used the same kind of laser and acoustic sensing technology employed on sub-hunting destroyers, only on a far smaller scale and for medical purposes.

Dubbed “vapor nanobubble technology,” the device combines a laser scanner and a fiber-optic probe that detect malaria by heating up hemozoin – the iron crystal byproduct of hemoglobin that is found in malaria cells, but not normal blood cells. Because the hemozoin crystals absorb the energy from the laser pulse, they heat up enough to create transient vapor nanobubbles that pop.

malariaThis, in turn, produces a ten-millionth-of-a-second acoustic signature that is then picked up by the device’s fiber-optic acoustic sensor and indicates the presence of the malaria parasite in the blood cells scanned. And because the vapor bubbles are only generated by hemozoin, which is only present in infected cells, the approach is virtually fool-proof.

In an recent issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Lapotko and his research team claimed that the device detected malaria in a preclinical trial on mice where only one red blood cell in a million was infected with zero false positives. In a related school news release, the study’s co-author David Sullivan – a malaria clinician a Johns Hopkins University – had this to say about the new method:

The vapor nanobubble technology for malaria detection is distinct from all previous diagnostic approaches. The vapor nanobubble transdermal detection method adds a new dimension to malaria diagnostics, and it has the potential to support rapid, high-throughput and highly sensitive diagnosis and screening by nonmedical personnel under field conditions.

At present, malaria is one of the world’s deadliest diseases, infecting hundreds of millions of people a year and claiming the lives of more than 600,000. To make matters worse, most the victims are children. All of this combines to make malaria one of the most devastating illness effecting the developing world, comparable only to HIV/AIDS.

malaria_worldwideBy ensuring that blood tests that could detect the virus, and require nothing more than a mobile device that could make the determination quickly, and need only a portable car battery to power it, medical services could penetrate the once-thought impenetrable barriers imposed by geography and development. And this in turn would be a major step towards bringing some of the world’s most infectious diseases to heel.

Ultimately, the aim of non-invasive technology is to remove the testing and diagnostic procedures from the laboratory and make them portable, cheaper, and more user-friendly. In so doing, they also ensure that early detection, which is often the difference between life and death, is far easier to achieve. It also helps to narrow the gap between access between rich people and poor, not to mention developing and developing nations.


Google CEO Wants Land Set Aside for Experimentation

future-city-1Back in May, Google co-founder and CEO Larry Page hosted a rare Q&A session with the attendees of the Google I/O keynote speech. During this time, he gave some rather unfiltered and unabashed answers to some serious questions, one of which was how he and others should focus on reducing negativity and focusing on changing the world.

Page responded by saying that “the pace of change is increasing” and that “we haven’t adapted systems to deal with that.” He was also sure to point out that “not all change is good” and said that we need to build “mechanisms to allow experimentation.” Towards that end, he claimed that an area of the world should be set aside for unregulated scientific experimentation. His exact words were:

There are many exciting things you could do that are illegal or not allowed by regulation. And that’s good, we don’t want to change the world. But maybe we can set aside a part of the world… some safe places where we can try things and not have to deploy to the entire world.

So basically he’s looking for a large chunk of real-estate to conduct beta tests in it. What could possibly go wrong?

detroit_experimentOne rather creative suggestion comes from Roy Klabin of PolicyMic, who suggest that an aging and dilapidated Detroit might be just the locale Page and his associates are looking for. This past week, the city declared bankruptcy, and began offering to sell city assets and eradicate retirement funds to meet its $18 billion debt obligations.

What’s more, he suggests that SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who’s always after innovation, should team up with Google. Between the two giants, there’s more than enough investment capital to pull Detroit out of debt and work to rehabilitate the city’s economy. Hell, with a little work, the city could be transformed back into the industrial hub it once was.

And due to a mass exodus of industry and working people from the city, there is no shortage of space. Already the city is considering converting segments of former urban sprawl into farming and agricultural land. But looking farther afield, Klabin sees no reason why these space couldn’t be made available for advanced construction projects involving arcologies and other sustainable-living structures.

dragonfly-vertical-farm-for-a-future-new-york-1Not a bad idea, really. With cities like Boston, New York, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Moscow, Chendu, Tokyo and Masdar City all proposing or even working towards the creation of arcologies, there’s no reason why the former Industrial Heartland – now known as the “Rust Belt” – shouldn’t be getting in on the action.

Naturally, there are some who would express fear over the idea, not to mention Page’s blunt choice of words. But Page did stress the need for positive change, not aimless experimentation. And future generations will need housing and food, and to be able to provide these things in a way that doesn’t burden their environment the way urban sprawl does. Might as well get a jump on things!

And thanks to what some are calling the “New Industrial Revolution” – a trend that embraces nanofabrication, self-assembling DNA structures, cybernetics, and 3D printing – opportunities exist to rebuild our global economy in a way that is cleaner, more efficient and more sustainable. Anyone with space to offer and an open mind can get in on the ground floor. The only question is, what are they willing to give up?

venus_projectThere’s also a precedent here for what is being proposed. The famous American architect and designer Jacque Fresco has been advocating something similar for decades. Believing that society needs to reshape the way it lives, works, and produces, he created the Venus Project – a series of designs for a future living space that would incorporate new technologies, smarter materials and building methods, and alternative forms of energy.

And then there’s the kind of work being proposed by designer Mitchell Joachim and Terreform ONE (Open Network Ecology). And amongst their many proposed design concepts is one where cities use vertical towers filled with energy-creating algae (pictured below) to generate power. But even more ambitious is their plan to “urbaneer” Brooklyn’s Navy Yard by turning natural ecological tissues into viable buildings.

future-city2This concept also calls to mind Arconsanti, the brainchild of architect Paolo Solari, who invented the concept of arcology. His proposed future city began construction back in the 1970 in central Arizona, but remains incomplete. Designed to incorporate such things as 3D architecture, vertical farming, and clean, renewable energy, this unfinished city still stands as the blueprint for Solari’s vision of a future where architecture and ecology could be combined.

What’s more, this kind of innovation and development will come in mighty handy when it comes to time to build colonies on the Moon and Mars. Already, numerous Earth cities and settlements are being considered as possible blueprints for extra-Terran settlement – places like Las Vegas, Dubai, Arviat, Black Rock City and the Pueblos and pre-Columbian New Mexico.

Black Rock City - home to "Burning Man" - shown in a Martian crater
Black Rock City – home to “Burning Man” – shown in a Martian crater

These are all prime examples of cities built to withstand dry, inhospitable environments. As such, sustainability and resource management play a major role in each of their designs. But given the pace at which technology is advancing and the opportunities it presents for high-tech living that is also environmentally friendly, some test models will need to be made.

And building them would also provide an opportunity to test out some of the latest proposed construction methods, one that do away with the brutally inefficient building process and replace it with things like drones, constructive bacteria, additive manufacturing, and advanced computer modelling. At some point, a large-scale project to see how these methods work together will be in order.

Let’s just hope Page’s ideas for a beta-testing settlement doesn’t turn into a modern day Laputa!

And be sure to check out this video from the Venus Project, where Jacque Fresco explains his inspirations and ideas for a future settlement:

Elon Musk and Google Should Purchase and Transform a Bankrupt Detroit (
2. Larry Page wants to ‘set aside a part of the world’ for unregulated experimentation (

3. Six Earth Cities That Will Provide Blueprints for Martian Settlements (
4. The Venus Project (
5. Arcosanti Website (
6. Terreform ONE website (

The Future is Here: The HIV-Preventing, Contraceptive-Delivering, Dissolving Condom

condomDoesn’t that sound like a tall order? A nanofabricated condom that delivers an anti-HIV drug, prevents pregnancy, then disappears so as not to create waste. Did I say tall order, or something out of a dream? Hard to say. The point is, its could soon be reality thanks to researchers at the University of Washington who just published a paper in describing how they’ll use “electrospinning” to create next-generation female condoms made from specially customized nano-fibers.

For those unfamiliar with the terminology, electrospinning is a process where an electrical charge is used to draw very fine fibers (typically on the micro or nano scale) from a liquid. Using this method, the UofW researchers hope to weave an ultra-thin series of cloth-like fibers and medicine together to create female condoms that will boast all the necessary protection and contraceptives to make recreational sex perfectly safe. And the rate of disolution, which can be engineered to take place in a matter of minutes, hours or days, ensures that women don’t need to remove it after sex is had.

According to their abstract, the new condom is based in the field of “Multipurpose prevention technologies (MPTs)”, a relatively new concept that seeks to “simultaneously prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unintended pregnancy”. Given the current rate of population growth and the ongoing epidemic of HIV/AIDS and other STI’s, this new field is considered to be a possible answer to a growing global health concern. What’s more, they claim that “combining chemical and physical barriers offers the greatest potential to design effective MPTs, but integrating both functional modalities into a single device has been challenging.”

The abstract also goes on to describe the process that they will be relying on and the results:

“Using FDA-approved polymers, we fabricated nanofiber meshes with tunable fiber size and controlled degradation kinetics that facilitate simultaneous release of multiple agents against HIV-1, HSV-2, and sperm. We observed that drug-loaded meshes inhibited HIV-1 infection in vitro and physically obstructed sperm penetration. Furthermore, we report on a previously unknown activity of glycerol monolaurate (GML) to potently inhibit sperm motility and viability.”

Despite the challenges in the process, the results thus far have been encouraging, and even garnered the attention of Bill and Melinda Gates. Apparently, their Foundation has pledged a research grant of one million dollars to develop the technology which will make these condoms possible. I don’t know about you, but I feel safer!