Sunday, January 23, 2005

 

The Softer Side Of Engineering

First, news comes that inkjet printers may soon play a role in generating artificial skin grafts:

Vladimir Mironov, director of the Shared Tissue Engineering Laboratory at the Medical University of South Carolina, is one of the scientists who has rigged
Hewlett-Packard and Canon inkjet printers to shoot out proteins instead of ink,
and to capture tissue on specialized gel instead of paper. Older printers work
well because their spray nozzles have larger holes and are less likely to damage
fragile cells.

Thomas Boland, an assistant bioengineering professor at Clemson University
and another researcher involved in the project, says he came up with the idea
one day when overseeing students who had become frustrated with earlier research
trying to "stamp" skin cells. "I went to the lab to look around and saw an
unused inkjet printer sitting there in the lab. I thought, 'Why not use that?'"


Now, that's some clever engineering. And how about solar power from spinach?

Inspired by the efficiency with which plants convert sunlight into sugar,
researchers have fabricated a solar cell that uses photosynthetic proteins to
convert light into electricity. Although the prototype device can't yet rival
commercial solar cells made of silicon, it demonstrates a new strategy for
making longer-lasting photovoltaic cells.

To make the solar cell, a team of biologists and engineers led by Marc
Baldo of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) harvested
photosynthetic proteins from spinach and the bacterium Rhodobacter sphaeroides
and deposited the proteins onto a glass support. Because the proteins naturally
reside in an aqueous environment inside a cell membrane, it took some creative
chemistry to keep the approximately 2 billion isolated proteins functional on a
solid surface.


Cool stuff. It's one of those solutions that should have been obvious, but with our current addiction to silicon, it took some out-of-the-box thinking to develop anything beyond a minor improvement on the current technology.

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