Straight from the lab: technology’s first draft.
Strong Light for Sore Eyes
Today’s primary glaucoma treatment involves application of eye drops-as often as ten times a day-to reduce pressure in the eye caused by blocked drainage canals. But a new company called Solx, based at Boston University’s Photonics Center, is developing a high-energy laser that can reduce and even eliminate reliance on daily medications for the estimated three million people with glaucoma in the United States. Solx’s infrared laser emits quick pulses of light, producing acoustic shock waves in the eye that physically shake and unclog the drainage canals. “It’s like beating a carpet with a tennis racket,” says president and CEO Doug Adams. The lasers now used to treat some glaucoma patients emit powerful continuous beams that, as a side effect, burn tissue in the eye. Because this leaves permanent scars, patients can only undergo this procedure once or twice. The Solx treatment leaves no scars and can be performed annually. The company plans to seek regulatory approval of the treatment this spring and expects to launch the product by the end of the summer.
Searching a conventional database is like using chopsticks to hunt for gold nuggets in a pile of ore: every pebble must be picked up and examined individually. Engineers at StreamLogic in Los Altos Hills, CA, have invented sifting software that lets informational “ore” pass but captures the gold-alerting users to interesting new content, such as news stories on the Web.
StreamLogic’s program monitors constantly changing content sources such as discussion groups, newswires and stock quotes and categorizes their information by topic, according to the frequency of certain words or word pairs. It then strains this categorized content through a mathematical filter; when content matching a preset pattern emerges, the system issues an alert or extracts the data in real time. A Web site on Middle Eastern politics, for example, could watch news feeds for stories containing the words “Arafat,” “Sharon” and “intifada”-and then present only those items to the site’s visitors.
Uncrossing the Wireless: The U.S. Navy has developed new communications hardware compatible with any wireless system.
Managing communications during the chaos of war or emergency is tough enough without having to juggle a jumble of preset radio frequencies. Scientists at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory have developed the first piece of communications hardware-called the Joint Combat Information Terminal-whose software programmability lets it interact with wireless systems past, present or future.
The unit simultaneously receives and transmits voice, data and video signals through eight channels that cover the spectrum from two to 512 megahertz. Received signals are converted to digital data that can then be retransmitted on any other frequency. Chris Herndon, who heads tactical-technology development at the lab, says civilian applications could be seen within two years for jobs such as emergency dispatching and crisis management.
They’re the ultimate in counterfeit protection: fluorescent inks that you can’t remove, copy or even see without special equipment. Made by Boston-based startup PhotoSecure, the inks can be applied to cloth, paper, metal, shrink-wrap and more. To increase security, PhotoSecure’s readers not only check the color of light that the ink emits but also measure the amount of time it takes the inks to start and stop glowing. PhotoSecure hopes to market the technology to makers of products like clothing, software, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, electronics and auto parts. Titleist, PhotoSecure’s first customer, plans to use the inks to code its golf balls with information such as the identity of a club buying balls in bulk. With PhotoSecure’s readers, it can then go into stores and figure out which clubs are reselling the balls at a profit.
The microscopes that look at tiny things, like living cells, tend to be bulky items themselves. Not so a device created by bioengineer Luke Lee at the University of California, Berkeley. In his microscope, a sample cell is dropped into a liquid-filled channel etched into a chip, where it gets tagged by a fluorescent dye and is illuminated by a tiny laser. This beam prompts the dye to glow at a specific wavelength, resulting in a sharp image of the cell. The laser’s lens is a droplet of liquid polymer one-20th the diameter of a hair; it is focused by application of an electric current that changes its curvature. The microscope uses cheap components and could be fabricated the same way that microchips are made, at a cost of about $1 each. Lee believes that this microscope, funded by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, will in three to five years show up in a wristwatch-sized biowarfare monitoring computer. Pharmaceutical companies could use arrays of the microscopes to study the effects of experimental drugs.
At Northwestern University, Samuel Stupp is growing bones in a beaker. His advance: specially designed proteins that self-assemble in water to mimic the structure of the proteins that form bones. The designer molecules assemble into tiny fibers a few micrometers long that encourage calcium compounds to form mineral crystals along their lengths.
Because self-assembly is faster and simpler than other ways to make bonelike materials, it should be less expensive. Stupp also hopes to create versions of the fibers for engineering pancreatic tissue, which could treat diabetes. Stupp’s group has started experiments with the bone-promoting fibrils in animals, but he estimates that medical use of the molecules in humans is five to 10 years off.
New cars will soon need 42-volt electrical systems-triple today’s standard-to feed power-hungry electronics like electromechanical engine valves, exhaust treatment systems and active suspensions. MIT researchers say they have removed a key obstacle to this higher-voltage automobile by developing a mass-producible alternator that efficiently and consistently delivers 42-volt power. Starting with a conventional alternator, electrical engineering professor David Perreault added three semiconductor switches that regulate current flow. He also devised a control algorithm for those switches that enables the alternator to deliver 42-volt juice optimally at every engine speed and avoid dangerous power spikes. In recent months, Perreault’s team cleared a final hurdle by making the bench-top device deliver enough power when the engine is idling. The payoff: Perreault says that three major auto-parts makers have licensed the technology for product development.
Mobile phones are an acknowledged source of annoyance in public places. Technology under development at Microsoft Research would make them more polite. Grab the ringing phone and a touch sensor signals the phone to soften its ring while you are bringing it close to your ear. If you peek at the caller ID display before deciding whether to take the call, the phone registers the action with a tilt sensor and mutes the ring. An infrared sensor detects the phone’s proximity to the user. The combined information from the sensors tells the phone when it is being moved up to the ear, which allows the person to answer an incoming call without having to hit the “talk” button. Phones endowed with the sensors (photo) could come to market in about three years, say Microsoft researchers Kenneth Hinckley and Eric Horvitz.