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Straight from the lab: technology’s first draft.

Crystal Power

Drug makers have a protein problem. Proteins are potential drug targets, but growing a protein crystal-the first step in determining its structure-can take months of trial-and-error experimentation and cost millions of dollars in materials. Fluidigm, a startup in South San Francisco, CA, has developed a chip that allows researchers to grow protein crystals using one-hundredth the amount of the protein, saving money and slashing weeks-even months-off the time needed for this step.

To get good crystals, biochemists must test hundreds of possible combinations of protein and crystallization reagent: setting up each experiment can take hours, and its success depends on having enough protein on hand. Fluidigm’s chip allows simultaneous testing of 144 different crystallization conditions. Using just three microliters of protein sample-a tiny fraction of a drop-the chip diffuses the protein across three distinct concentrations of each of 48 crystallization reagents. Researchers screen the chip for crystals using a microscope; if they find crystals with a particular combination, they can grow more of them and then determine the protein’s structure. The company hopes to begin marketing the chips to pharmaceutical and biotech companies early this year.

This story is part of our March 2003 Issue
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Pilot’s Pal

Aircraft cockpits use an array of gauges and dials that pilots read one by one but must understand collectively. A visual interface developed by David Still, a researcher at the University of West Florida’s Institute for Human and Machine Cognition in Pensacola, FL, gives pilots all the information they need in a single graphic display. The interface shows the plane’s position, orientation, speed, and systems status, as well as the location of runways and approaching aircraft. A software model takes the place of the rules of thumb pilots normally use to process the data, says Still, a pilot trained in vision science. To give the engines the right amount of power, for instance, a pilot needs only to align certain geometrical shapes on the display screen. Flight simulator tests in Still’s lab suggest that the system is safer and more effective than conventional displays, especially when pilots are dealing with turbulence or reading maps. Still has patented the interface and is working with the U.S. Navy to conduct field tests.

Wound Mender

Scientists at Polyheal, in Nesher, Israel, think microscopic plastic beads could heal chronic foot ulcers and other sores that might otherwise lead to amputation. Polyheal’s treatment consists of polystyrene microspheres-each just a few micrometers in diameter-in a vitamin-amino-acid-and-salt mixture patients can spread on their own wounds at home. Company founder and biophysicist Vladimir Ritter stumbled across the beneficial effect of polystyrene microspheres in the course of unrelated research. In early human studies, Polyheal’s mixture sped the healing of foot ulcers that had not responded to other treatments. Polyheal has received certification to market the treatment in the European Union, and by midyear it should be ready to publish results of Israeli and German clinical trials. The company is looking for partners for production and worldwide distribution.

Watch Your Back

Imagine a periscope that lets you look forward, backward, and all around yourself-without moving. That’s possible with an inexpensive lens patented by engineer Jeff Lindner at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL. Shaped like a Hershey’s Kiss, the lens funnels light into a curved compartment that bends and reflects the rays. Point the lens up and you’ll see a flat 360 view of the horizon oriented like the face of a clock: straight ahead is six o’clock, to the left is nine o’clock, behind you is twelve o’clock, and to your right is three o’clock. Current panoramic lenses require expensive optical-grade glass. But Lindner uses ordinary polymers and standard machine tools to make his lens, so it should be cheap to mass-produce. NASA is looking to license the technology for security and surveillance.

Fluid Optics

OFS, a Lucent Technologies spinoff headquartered in Norcross, GA, is looking for a liquid solution to the problem of building a better Internet. Researchers at OFS have created experimental optical fibers that employ small plugs of fluid in channels surrounding the light-guiding glass core. Moving a plug along the fiber “tunes” the optical signal on the basis of how the light in the fiber’s core interacts with the fluid. Benjamin Eggleton, who until recently headed photonics devices research at OFS, says that such fibers could direct optical signals toward their destination, sending one stream of data from Houston to Kalamazoo, for example, and another to New York City. Achieving an all-optical-and much faster-Internet requires the ability to switch information as light, rather than having to convert data into electronic form and then back to light. But Eggleton, now a professor at the University of Sydney in Australia, cautions that such switches are “a number of years away from practical application.”

Autonomous Chair

Motorized wheelchairs grant many people mobility, but they’re of little use to those unable to manipulate a joystick or controller. A new wheelchair that navigates on its own could help such people get around. Engineers Steven Skaar of the University of Notre Dame and Linda Fehr of the Edward Hines Jr. Veterans Administration Hospital in Hines, IL, developed the chair using off-the-shelf parts. Skaar and Fehr outfitted a motorized wheelchair with two video cameras, a pair of wheel rotation sensors, and a laptop computer. As a caretaker pushes the chair along a route-from the kitchen to the study, say-its cameras track small elliptical markers on the wall. The team’s software uses that information, along with data from the sensors, to record the route. Once the chair has been programmed, the user can choose a route from a menu by speaking, moving an eyebrow, or making some other simple motion; the chair will automatically travel the path. In initial tests, Fehr says, a volunteer who had been pushed in his wheelchair for 30 years mastered the system in minutes. The team hopes to start recruiting for larger tests in the next six months.

Hot Helium Handler

Pebble-bed nuclear power plants, which would be cooled by helium gas and powered by uranium encased in graphite spheres, could provide safer nuclear power. One significant roadblock to the adoption of the pebble-bed reactor is the requirement of its superheated helium gas for a far more complex gas-turbine system than is needed by today’s nuclear plants, which produce much cooler steam. Potchefstroom University in South Africa has made the world’s first successful prototype of such a turbine system. Potchefstroom engineers built a 15-meter-long apparatus that, says lead engineer Gideon Greyvenstein, allows expansion of superheated gas directly from the reactor and compresses it for the return trip, tolerates temperatures of 700C, and includes novel control systems. The engineers developed modeling software to manage such critical operational concerns as overall system pressure. Building a full-blown pebble-bed plant requires decisions from South Africa’s government, as well as Eskom, the state utility, and its industrial partners. Those approvals could be granted within a year.

Fuzz Buster

The days of fuzzy television may be numbered. Often this annoyance is the result of electromagnetic fields generated by other equipment, say, a vacuum cleaner that shares the circuit with the TV. Banishing the problem entirely would require prohibitively large and expensive versions of devices called filter capacitors. But MIT electrical engineer David Perreault and his colleagues have found a better way to fix TV fuzz and such similar problems as cell phone and car radio static. The approach calls for printing patterns of copper on the circuit boards that carry the filter capacitors. These patterns, called coupled magnetic windings, enhance the performance of the capacitors by generating a tiny voltage from magnetic fields associated with currents in the circuit. The voltage forces the currents to pass through the capacitor for filtering. The payoff: filtering that is 10 to 30 times more effective. And because the copper can be included in the standard manufacturing process at no added cost, “you get something for nothing,” says Perreault, who expects the technology to be commercialized within two years.

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