Light Friday: Iron Man Technology Realer than You Think
Credit: Eva Rinaldi
Credit: Eva Rinaldi

Plus:
Smartphones with Superpowers
Mind-Controlling a Rodent
Are Football Helmets Safer Today?


The futuristic “Extremis” technology, which hacks the human body through nanotechnology, showcased in Iron Man 3 may not be as sci-fi as it seems. In fact, a real version may be just a decade away.

Dr. Shuming Nie, a professor in Biomedical Engineering at Emory University, explains that the seemingly far-fetched concepts highlighted in the film are well within reach. In just 10 years or so, for example, there will be practical medical applications of nanoparticles that not only enhance the human body, but make performing surgery easier.

“One application (sponsored by the Air Force) is already proven to be able to increase your optical detection sensory by ‘10 to the 14th fold,’ or 100 trillion…” according to Gizmodo. “That’s enough to focus on a single molecule. Another, which could be ready as soon as a few years from now, is an injection of particles that would cause tumorous growths to glow, making them easy to find and remove.”

In the following video, Dr. Nie explores the scientific potential behind Iron Man’s features:


Smartphones with Superpowers

Today’s smartphones can already do a lot, but a new breakthrough is about to take them beyond texting and email and video into the realm of superhero powers, as engineers have developed a way to enable phones to see through physical objects.

Electrical engineers at the University of Texas have designed an imaging microchip that allows mobile phones to see through walls, wood, plastic, paper, and other objects. The technology relies on the terahertz band, a wavelength range that lies between microwave and infrared and can penetrate solid materials without the damaging effects of X-rays

“We’ve created approaches that open a previously untapped portion of the electromagnetic spectrum for consumer use and life-saving medical applications,” Dr. Kenneth O, professor of electrical engineering at UT Dallas, explained. “The terahertz range is full of unlimited potential that could benefit us all.”

Until now, terahertz-based technology hasn’t been available for use in consumer electronics due to size restrictions. But the team found a way to manufacture the chips using the complementary metal-oxide semiconductor process, reducing overall size and cost.

“CMOS is affordable and can be used to make lots of chips,” Dr. O said. “The combination of CMOS and terahertz means you could put this chip and a transmitter on the back of a cellphone, turning it into a device carried in your pocket that can see through objects.”

The developers claim the technology could be used for medical imaging, environmental monitoring, and document authentication – and hopefully not spying.


Mind-Controlling a Rodent

Solving a rodent problem may soon be simply a matter of making a wish, as researchers have found a way to use mind-control technology to guide a rat’s behavior.

As Popular Science explains, Seung-Schik Yoo and his team at Harvard Medical School in Boston figured hooked electrodes to a rat’s brain and connected them via network to a human brain. Electroencephalography machines monitored the human’s brain waves, while the rat’s device was built to sent a pulse to the rat’s neurons. The team flashed strobe lights at the human, which caused his brain to fire a specific wave, which a computer translated into an ultrasonic signal to the rat. Thus activated, the rat’s motor cortex caused it to wiggle its tail.

In simpler terms, the Harvard team figured out a way to get a human brain to control a rat’s movements. From these humble beginnings, Dr. Yoo and his team hope to graduate to human-to-human interface to allow mental communication between subjects.

“Our results demonstrate the feasibility of a computer-mediated BBI (brain-to-brain interface) that links central neural functions between two biological entities, which may confer unexplored opportunities in the study of neuroscience with potential implications for therapeutic applications,” the team wrote in Plos One.


Are Football Helmets Safer Today?

The issue of football players receiving serious brain injuries has been a controversial topic in recent months, and many researchers are racing to discover new ways to improve safety. Helmets are a key part of the effort, and it’s helpful to know just far they’ve come from the old “leatherheads” worn in the 1920s and 30s.

Researchers from Virginia Tech recently used an automated head-impact simulation system to test the effectiveness of vintage Hutch H-18 leather helmets from the 1930s against plastic helmets used in the NFL today. According to the findings, modern helmets reduce the risk of concussion by 45 percent to 96 percent, depending on the force of impact.

These results contradict earlier studies that claimed leather helmets and modern helmets were no different in protecting the brain from injury.

“Of course, given the distressing numbers on the concussions suffered by football players even with the latest helmets, this sort of testing shouldn’t suggest that the goal of designing safer head gear has been achieved. But it should give us a bit of hope in showing that 100 years of helmet design has provided some benefits—and future efforts to create and rigorously test new helmet technologies might be able to cut down on concussions long-term.”

Although it’s unrelated to the Virginia Tech study, the following video shows how football helmets are commonly tested for safety:

Have a great weekend, folks.

 

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