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Electronic Clothes And Robot Skin


-- At the Dec. 7-10 International Electron Devices meeting in Washington D.C., University of California at Berkeley researchers will reveal how they make electronic cloth by printing plastic transistors around textile fibers. And, since printing teensy transistors on the curved surface of cloth fibers isn't feasible, the process also does away with the pricey masks, or negatives, used to print circuits on silicon. The Berkeley team came up with a new mask that's made of textile fibers. Textile plants should have little difficulty producing "smart" cloth when it becomes fashionable to wear your cell phone instead of toting it.

-- To make robots more cuddly, University of Tokyo engineers have created a plastic skin that gives robots a sense of touch. It's a thin sheet, studded with organic transistors and rubbery pressure sensors, that can be wrapped around artificial fingers and arms. Japan is pushing the development of robots that can help care for the country's growing ranks of senior citizens, and a sense of touch would help assure that the robots will be gentle. With the centennial of the Wright Brothers' first flight coming up on Dec. 17, aviation buffs will be watching to see if a modern replica of the Wrights' plane can duplicate their feat at Kitty Hawk, N.C. That same day, another pioneering aircraft may take to the sky for the first time in Mojave, Calif. It's an ultralight jet called GlobalFlyer (above), built for one of aviation's last grand challenges: a nonstop solo flight around the world.

Designed by Burt Rutan, president of Scaled Composites, the jet has an all-composites airframe with a wingspan of 114 feet -- roughly the same as a Boeing 737 -- but weighs just 3,577 pounds, until loaded with 18,000 lbs. of fuel. It could set new standards in flight efficiency and buff Rutan's image as aviation's most influential living designer.

GlobalFlyer's Around the World in 80 Hours flight could come as early as May. At the controls will be Steve Fossett -- famous for circling the globe solo in a hot-air balloon last year. Virgin Atlantic Airways is backing the venture. Drugs that reduce levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the so-called bad cholesterol, have become blockbusters because they cut the odds of getting heart disease. But there's growing interest in another approach: tinkering with high-density lipoproteins (HDL), or good cholesterol. The hope is that boosting the levels or the effectiveness of HDL could prevent or even reverse atherosclerosis.

The Nov. 5 Journal of the American Medical Assn. presents tantalizing evidence that this works. Doctors at Cleveland Clinic and other centers gave synthetic HDL to 36 atherosclerosis patients. In just six weeks, plaque decreased by more than 1%, on average. "For the first time, we've shown we can rapidly regress plaques in a high-risk population," says Roger Newton, CEO of Ann Arbor (Mich.) startup Esperion Therapeutics (ESPR), which created the biotech HDL. The test will be whether this treatment actually prevents heart attacks. Researchers predict that HDL boosters could be at least as beneficial as the current LDL-lowering drugs. No, the helical shapes shown below aren't DNA, although they're almost as tiny. A DNA helix is about 2 nanometers across; these metal strands are at least 10-nm wide -- still a smidgen next to a human hair's 100,000-nm diameter. Despite their size, these "nanosprings" could do some heavy lifting in future devices, says Zhong Wang, director of Georgia Institute of Technology's Center for Nanoscience & Nanotechnology.

Made from zinc oxide, the springs are piezoelectric -- meaning they can transform mechanical motion into electricity or vice-versa. Ultrasensitive nanospring detectors could flash a signal when perturbed by minute forces such as otherwise imperceptible flows of a liquid or gas. Conversely, a nanospring could expand in response to an electrical signal and push a microdrop of insulin from a capsule implanted in a diabetic patient. First, though, Wang's team has to devise ways of calibrating the springs' properties.


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