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The Jets of the Future

 Box Wing Jet Nick Kaloterakis 

NASA asked the world’s top aircraft engineers to solve the hardest problem in commercial aviation: how to fly cleaner, quieter and using less fuel. The prototypes they imagined may set a new standard for the next two decades of flight.

Target Date: 2025
Passenger jets consume a lot of fuel. A Boeing 747 burns five gallons of it every nautical mile, and as the price of that fuel rises, so do fares. Lockheed Martin engineers developed their Box Wing concept to find new ways to reduce fuel burn without abandoning the basic shape of current aircraft. Adapting the lightweight materials found in the F-22 and F-35 fighter jets, they designed a looped-wing configuration that would increase the lift-to-drag ratio by 16 percent, making it possible to fly farther using less fuel while still fitting into airport gates.

They also ditched conventional turbofan engines in favor of two ultrahigh-bypass turbofan engines. Like all turbofans, they generate thrust by pulling air through a fan on the front of the engine and by burning a fuel-air mixture in the engine’s core. With fans 40 percent wider than those used now, the Box Wing’s engines bypass the core at several times the rate of current engines. At subsonic speeds, this arrangement improves efficiency by 22 percent. Add to that the fuel-saving boost of the box-wing configuration, and the plane is 50 percent more efficient than the average airliner. The additional wing lift also lets pilots make steeper descents over populated areas while running the engines at lower power. Those changes could reduce noise by 35 decibels and shorten approaches by up to 50 percent.—Andrew Rosenblum

Supersonic Green Machine:  Nick Kaloterakis


Target Date: 2030
The first era of commercial supersonic transportation ended on November 26, 2003, with the final flight of the Concorde, a noisy, inefficient and highly polluting aircraft. But the dream of a sub-three-hour cross-country flight lingered, and in 2010, designers at Lockheed Martin presented the Mach 1.6 Supersonic Green Machine. The plane’s variable-cycle engines would improve efficiency by switching to conventional turbofan mode during takeoff and landing. Combustors built into the engine would reduce nitrogen oxide pollution by 75 percent. And the plane’s inverted-V tail and underwing engine placement would nearly eliminate the sonic booms that led to a ban on overland Concorde flights.

The configuration mitigates the waves of air pressure (caused by the collision with air of a plane traveling faster than Mach 1) that combine into the enormous shock waves that produce sonic booms. “The whole idea of low-boom design is to control the strength, position and interaction of shock waves,” says Peter Coen, the principal investigator for supersonic projects at NASA. Instead of generating a continuous loop of loud booms, the plane would issue a dull roar that, from the ground, would be about as loud as a vacuum cleaner.—Andrew Rosenblum

 Sugar Volt:  Nick Kaloterakis


Target Date: 2035
The best way to conserve jet fuel is to turn off the gas engines. That’s only possible with an alternative power source, like the battery packs and electric motors in the Boeing SUGAR Volt’s hybrid propulsion system. The 737-size, 3,500-nautical-mile-range plane would draw energy from both jet fuel and batteries during takeoff, but once at cruising altitude, pilots could switch to all-electric mode [see Volta Volare GT4]. At the same time Boeing engineers were rethinking propulsion, they also rethought wing design. “By making the wing thinner and the span greater, you can produce more lift with less drag,” says Marty Bradley, Boeing’s principal investigator on the project. The oversize wings would fold up so pilots could access standard boarding gates. Together, the high-lift wings, the hybrid powertrain and the efficient open-rotor engines would make the SUGAR Volt 55 percent more efficient than the average airliner. The plane would emit 60 percent less carbon dioxide and 80 percent less nitrous oxide. Additionally, the extra boost the hybrid system provides at takeoff would enable pilots to use runways as short as 4,000 feet. (For most planes, landing requires less space than takeoff.) A 737 needs a minimum of 5,000 feet for takeoff, so the SUGAR Volt could bring cross-country flights to smaller airports.—Rose Pastore

By Andrew Rosenblum and Rose Pastore
From popsci

Cell membrane is patterned like a patchwork quilt

The cell membrane must process numerous signals from the environment and the cell interior in order to initiate apposite molecular responses to changing conditions. For example, if certain messenger substances bind to the membrane, this can trigger the growth or division of a cell. The cell membrane has long been the focus of scientific research. One aspect that has remained largely unexplained, however, is exactly how its various components organise themselves. According to an early model, the fats (lipids) and proteins anchored in the membrane are in constant flux and do not form fixed structures. That at least some are organised in bounded domains was only proven quite recently, and only for a small number of proteins.

Researchers working with Roland Wedlich-Söldner, a group leader at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry, have now carried out the first comprehensive analysis of the molecular structure of the cell membrane. They used advanced imaging technologies for the purpose, enabling them to obtain much sharper images of the cell membrane and the marked proteins within them than were previously available. They discovered that domain formation in the cell membrane is not the exception, but the rule. Each protein in the cell membrane is located in distinct areas that adopt a patch- or network-like structure. The entire cell membrane thus consists of domains – like a kind of molecular patchwork quilt.

“Some areas contain more than one type of protein,” says Roland Wedlich-Söldner. “Even if these molecules fulfil entirely different functions, they generally have one thing in common: they are attached to a shared domain in the membrane by a similar or identical molecular anchor.” In another experiment, the scientists succeeded in demonstrating the extent to which the protein function depends on this specific environment: they replaced the original anchor in some proteins with another molecular variant. The modified proteins then relocated to a “foreign” domain that matched the new anchor. However, they were no able longer to function correctly in their new surroundings.

How then do proteins find the appropriate domain and remain associated with it, despite being relatively mobile in the plane of the membrane? The researchers were able to show that the lipids in the cell membrane play a central role in this process. Different lipids prefer to accumulate around certain protein anchors. Therefore, areas arise that are particularly attractive to proteins with a similar type of anchor. This could explain how cell membranes self-organise – another previously unanswered question in biology. The highly ordered structure of the cell membrane could help scientists to gain a better understanding of its many functions. “One may assume that many processes only function efficiently thanks to the formation of domains in the cell membrane,” says Wedlich-Söldner. “It is possible that the cell exploits a principle that also applies in everyday life: a certain degree of order makes it much easier to get things done.”


First Light: Researchers Develop New Way to Generate Superluminal Pulses

According to Einstein's special theory of relativity, light traveling in a vacuum is the universal speed limit. No information can travel faster than light.

But there's kind of a loophole. A short burst of light arrives as a sort of (usually) symmetric curve like a bell curve in statistics. The leading edge of that curve can't exceed the speed of light, but the main hump, the peak of the pulse, can be skewed forward or backward, arriving sooner or later than it normally would.
In four-wave mixing, researchers send "seed" pulses of laser light into a heated cell containing atomic rubidium vapor along with a separate "pump" beam at a different frequency. The vapor amplifies the seed pulse and shifts its peak forward, making it superluminal. At the same time, photons from the inserted beams interact with the vapor to generate a second pulse called the "conjugate." Its peak, too, can travel faster or slower depending on how the laser is tuned and the conditions inside the gain medium.

Recent experiments have generated "uninformed" faster-than-light pulses by amplifying the leading edge of the pulse and attenuating, or cutting off, the back end. The method introduces a great deal of noise with no great increase in the apparent speed. Four-wave mixing produces cleaner, less noisy pulses with a greater increase in speed by "re-phasing" or rearranging the light waves that make up the pulse.

In four-wave mixing, researchers send 200-nanosecond-long "seed" pulses of laser light into a heated cell containing atomic rubidium vapor along with a separate "pump" beam at a different frequency from the seed pulses. The vapor amplifies the seed pulse and shifts its peak forward so that it becomes superluminal. At the same time, photons from the inserted beams interact with the vapor to generate a second pulse, called the "conjugate" because of its mathematical relationship to the seed. Its peak, too, can travel faster or slower depending on how the laser is tuned and the conditions inside the laser.

In the experiment, the pulses' peaks arrived 50 nanoseconds faster than light traveling through a vacuum.

One immediate application that the group would like to explore for this system is quantum discord. Quantum discord mathematically defines the quantum information shared between two correlated systems -- in this case, the seed and conjugate pulses. By performing measurements of quantum discord between fast beams and reference beams, the group hopes to determine how useful this fast light could be for the transmission and processing of quantum information.

From sciencedaily

Fine-tuning Nanotech to Target Cancer

The results of the human trials are startling. Even at a lower-than-usual dose, multiple lung metastases shrank or even disappeared after one patient received only two-hour-long intravenous infusions of an experimental cancer drug. Another patient saw her cervical tumor reduce by nearly 60 percent after six months of treatment. Though the drug trial—by Bind Biosciences in Cambridge, Massachusetts—of an experimental nanotechnology-based technique was designed simply to show whether the technology is safe, the encouraging results revive hopes that nanomedicine could realize its elusive promise.
Programmable particle: Bind's drug-delivery nanoparticle (artist's rendering).

For more than a decade, researchers have been trying to develop nanoparticles that would deliver drugs more effectively and safely. The idea is that a nanoparticle containing a drug compound could selectively target tumor cells or otherwise diseased cells, and avoid healthy ones. Antibodies or other molecules can be attached to the nanoparticle and used to precisely identify target cells. "One of the largest advantages of nanotechnology is you can engineer things in particle form so that chemotherapeutics can be targeted to tumor cells, protecting the healthy cells of the body and protecting patients from side effects," says Sara Hook, nanotechnology development projects manager with the National Cancer Institute.  But executing this vision has been difficult. One challenge: a drug's behavior in the body can change dramatically when it's combined with nanoparticles. A nanoparticle can change a drug's solubility, toxicity, speed of action, and more—sometimes beneficially, sometimes not. If a drug's main problem is that it's toxic to off-target organs, then nanotechnology can ensure that it's delivered to diseased cells instead of healthy cells. But if a drug depends on being absorbed quickly by diseased cells to be effective, a nanoparticle may slow the process and turn an optimal therapeutic into second best.

Bind, which was launched in 2007, has attempted to overcome this problem by building its drug-targeting nanoparticles in a way that allows the company to systematically vary their structures and composition. Typically, targeted drug nanoparticles are produced in two steps: first, a drug is encapsulated in a nanoparticle, and second, the external surface of the particle is bound with targeting molecules that will steer the therapeutic ferry to diseased cells. Generating such nanoparticles can be difficult to control and replicate, which limits a researcher's ability to fine-tune the nanoparticle's surface properties. To avoid this pitfall, Bind synthesizes its drug-carrying nanoparticles using self-assembly.

Under the right conditions, the subunits of its nanoparticles—some of which already contain targeting molecules—assemble on their own. No complex and variable chemical reactions are needed to produce the nanoparticles, and the properties of each subunit can be tweaked. This also allows the company's researchers to test a variety of nanoparticle-drug combinations and identify the best candidates for a particular task. "We make hundreds of combinations to evaluate in order to optimize the performance of each drug," says Jeff Hrkach, senior vice president of technology research and development. 

Bind cofounder Omid Farokhzad, associate professor at Brigham Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, came up with the novel method for building nanoparticles while he was a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Robert Langer, an MIT chemical engineering professor. Langer's group had already developed nanoparticles capable of releasing drugs in a controlled manner, but the particles did not yet seek out cancer cells specifically. Farokhzad's first challenge was to create nanoparticles whose molecular instructions would bring them to cancer cells, but which remained anonymous within the bloodstream so that the immune system wouldn't destroy them. The second was coming up with a robust and reproducible manufacturing process.

Instead, Farokhzad and Langer devised a method by which the building blocks of the nanoparticle and the drug self-assemble into a final product. Two types of polymer combine to form the tangled mesh of Bind's drug-laden spherical nanoparticle. One of these polymers has two chemically and structurally distinct regions, or "blocks": a water-insoluble block that forms part of the mesh that encapsulates the drug, and a water-soluble block that gives the final product a stealthy corona to evade the immune system. The other type of polymer has three blocks: the same two as the first, as well as a third region that contains a targeting molecule—the signal that will ensure the final particles attach to the desired cell types. The drug-carrying nanoparticles are formed by simply mixing these polymers together with the drug in the appropriate conditions.

The self-assembling polymers can be produced in a repeatable and scalable fashion. But the method has an additional benefit, one that may be the real key to Bind's success. The method by which the nanoparticles are built—from individual preparations of the two-block and three-block polymers—would also let researchers use high-throughput screening approaches, akin to how medicinal chemists design and test new drug compounds. Each block could be tweaked—extend one block, change the charge on another—and the relative amounts of each polymer could be varied. With so many parameters for tinkering, Bind's scientists can screen many combinations.

Its first drug in clinical trials, Bind-014, carries a widely used chemotherapeutic called docetaxel through the bloodstream to cancer cells. The drug is packaged inside a ball-like nanostructure made of biodegradable polymers that protect the drug and shield it from the body's immune system. The external surface of each nanoparticle is dotted with molecules that target cancerous cells. Once the nanoparticle has reached its target, it sticks to the outside of the cell, which triggers the cell to engulf the particle. The drug diffuses out of the particle at a controlled rate and is released into the deranged cell.

Mark Davis, a professor of chemical engineering at Caltech, is hopeful that the few ongoing trials of targeted nanoparticle therapeutics, which include one developed in his lab as well as Bind-014, will demonstrate the technology's potential. "The medical community isn't going to get excited until there is [an advanced human trial] where we can show what these targeted nanoparticles actually do for patients in a statistically significant way." For now, the results from the 17 patients enrolled in the phase I trial of Bind-014 look promising, but a real test of efficacy will have to wait until phase II trials, which are likely to start later this year.

The "programmable" design used by Bind may be key to bringing more nanoparticle-targeted drugs to trial. The company's methods could be applied to any existing drugs or compounds, including those that may have been shelved by pharmaceutical companies because they proved too toxic to the whole body. "We believe we can have a very broad platform of drugs that we can develop," says Hrkach.

By Susan Young
From Technology Review

Spinning Spare Parts

Thin off-white threads of human cellular material spiral around the spindle of a machine that is braiding them into a sturdy rope. It sounds macabre, but the inspiration for the material, made by San Francisco–based Cytograft Tissue Engineering, is health, not horror: the biological strands could be used to weave blood vessel patches and grafts that a patient's body would readily accept for wound repair. The process is faster and could be more cost-effective than other methods of producing biological tissue replacements.

Clean crochet: A specialist weaves a blood vessel graft from human threads on a sterile tubular loom.

Much of today's tissue engineering depends on biodegradable but synthetic scaffolds for cells that will rebuild a piece of organ or tissue. Typically, the scaffolding is eventually destroyed by the body. Cytograft's woven tissues, however, seem to remain in the body and become populated with cells. "A long time ago we decided we were going to make strong tissues without any scaffolding," says Nicolas L'Heureux, Cytograft's cofounder and chief scientific officer. "Once you get it in the body, your body doesn't see it as foreign."

The company developed the "human textile" idea from earlier work using sheets of biological material to reconstruct blood vessels. Basically, researchers grow human skin cells in a culture flask under conditions that encourage the cells to lay down a sheet of what is known as extracellular matrix—a structural material produced by animal cells that makes up our connective tissue. Cytograft can harvest these sheets from the culture flasks and then roll them into tubes that become replacement blood vessels. Blood vessels produced in this manner are still being tested—but they have performed well, with no signs of rejection, in a few patients in Europe and South America.

The rolling process, however, is expensive and time-consuming, in part because cells must be used to fuse the tube together so that it is sturdy enough for transplantation. Slicing the sheets into thin ribbons that can be spooled into threads makes it possible to use automated weaving and braiding machines to create three-dimensional structures that do not require fusing.  Cytograft's technique draws upon a long history of medical textiles, which are typically produced with synthetic fibers like polyester. "Creating textiles is an ancient and powerful technique, and combining it with biomaterials is exciting because it has so much more versatility than the sheet method," says Christopher Breuer, a surgeon, scientist, and tissue engineer at the Yale School of Medicine. "The notion of making blood vessels or more complex shapes like heart valves, or patches for the heart, is much easier to do with fibers," he says. "If you can make fibers of any length, then there is no limit to the size or shape that you can make." 
 Biological braids: A machine braids together 48 threads of human extracellular material. 

Cytograft has long focused on building replacement blood vessels for people who need dialysis, which cleans the blood of patients with kidney failure. This treatment is severely damaging to the vein (usually in the forearm) through which the patient's blood is transferred.

Cytograft is not yet testing its woven blood vessels in patients, but it has approximated the needs of dialysis patients in dogs with vessel grafts implanted in their legs. The preclinical dog work has shown that the grafts are resistant to puncture damage and that very little blood leaks from the weave, says L'Heureux.

Cytograft's implants remain intact after months, suggesting that the body accepts the grafts and does not try to break them down. "Other materials get remodeled very aggressively," says L'Heureux. "With our tissue, it is so innocuous the body does not see a danger."

That's partly because Cytograft's implants contain no cells. Though the company's earlier implants were made of extracellular matrix produced from a patient's own cells, its researchers can now harvest the material from cells unrelated to the person receiving the graft and remove the "donor" cells completely. "We don't need the cells," says L'Heureux. "The cells can come from the patients after implantation."

Without any foreign cells to alert a patient's immune system, the company could produce blood vessels ahead of time for use in any patient. Such replacement vessels would be less expensive and more readily accessible than what's available today. "One of Cytograft's biggest advantages will be off-the-shelf availability," says Breuer.

The company is also working on a technique in which the cell-produced sheets are processed into particles instead of threads. The biological bits can then be molded together, says L'Heureux, giving tissue engineers two advantages. Molding the particles together leaves a complex network of channels behind—exactly what tissues engineers will need in order to produce, eventually, something like a liver, pancreas, or kidney. With most other technology, there is "no guarantee that the channels will be maintained," says L'Heureux. The particles could also be injected, he says, which could add volume to tissues for cosmetic or reconstructive purposes. 

By Susan Young
From Technology Review

Physicists Crack Fusion Mystery

One reason it's taking decades to develop fusion reactors that can generate electricity is that physicists don't completely understand what's going on in the high-temperature plasma inside a reactor. Under certain conditions, the plasma—which is where fusion reactions take place—disappears in under a millisecond.

Plasma chamber: This experimental fusion reactor at MIT could test the new theory.

A new theory developed by researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) explains what happens just before the plasma disappears. The explanation could help engineers design better reactors. And that might help them increase the power output of a reactor, perhaps doubling the electricity they could produce, and making fusion reactors more economical.

Researchers have made a lot of progress on fusion technology—since 1970, the energy produced in experimental fusion reactors has increased by about 12 orders of magnitude, greater than the improvement in processing power in microchips over the same period, says Martin Greenwald, a fusion researcher at MIT. But for all the improvements in fusion research reactors, they still aren't useful—they don't produce more energy than they consume, and they can't be run continuously, both of which would be necessary for a power plant.

The new work, like so much in the realm of fusion research, is a step toward practical fusion power, but by no means does it solve all the problems. Based on experiments, there is a practical limit to how dense the plasma in a reactor can be. Beyond a certain density, the plasma becomes unstable, dissipates its energy, and disappears. Because researchers don't understand exactly what causes this, it's difficult to predict exactly when the collapse will happen, so researchers avoid getting close to that limit in experimental reactors.  The Princeton work allows engineers to better predict what will happen in the reactor, potentially allowing them to design reactors that get closer to a theoretically optimum density for the plasma. That, in turn, could increase the amount of power a fusion power plant could generate.

According to the researchers' theory, islands develop within the plasma that cool off and cause the plasma to disappear. These islands—which are easily identified—could be selectively heated with microwaves, the researchers think, which could keep the plasma stable.

David Gates, a principal research scientist at PPPL and one of the key researchers on the project, says he expects they will be able to test the theory in research reactors this year.

While the theory is plausible, Greenwald says, it doesn't solve all the problems for reactors. It only explains part of the mechanisms involved in limiting the density of the plasma. And researchers still need to solve many practical problems before optimizing energy density is even an issue, he says.

Solving these problems will require a combination of better theories, more computing power, better algorithms, and big experiments. That's why researchers still say practical fusion power plants remain decades away.

By Kevin Bullis
From Technology Review

New App Watches Your Every Move

Once in a while, you might feel like you're being watched. Lately, I know I am, thanks to a smart-phone app that stealthily tracks my every move, no check-ins required, with greater accuracy than common geolocation tools.

I’ll be watching you: Placeme keeps track of all the places you visit each day, no check-ins required. The iPhone app is meant to showcase the capabilities of Alohar Mobile’s mobile platform.
Called Placeme, the free app takes advantage of the smart phone's sensors and its GPS and Wi-Fi capabilities to figure out where I go and for how long, and stores this data in a private log on my iPhone.

It may sound creepy or unnecessary, but as more people carry smart phones with them everywhere, demand for this kind of persistent location tracking may grow—not just from marketers, but also from individuals who want to keep an eye on their own movements or of loved ones with medical conditions such as Alzheimer's. At least, that's the hope of the startup behind Placeme, Alohar Mobile, which has also released a software development kit to help coders create apps that can log your movements accurately and efficiently—without running down the battery in your smart phone.

To use Placeme, available for the iPhone and phones running Google's Android software, you must keep both your GPS and Wi-Fi on. As you travel around, the app will silently log the places you visit. Within the app, you can view day-by-day maps of where you've been. Each destination you spent time at is marked by little pins; tap on a pin to see how long you were there and check out a Google Street View image of the location. You can also add notes about a location (a favorite dish at a restaurant, perhaps). There's also a searchable, alphabetical log of all your destinations. The app gathers data from your phone's various sensors and GPS and Wi-Fi, encrypts that data, sends it over a secure connection to Alohar's servers, and then calculates your location. To cut down on battery drain, locations are calculated remotely, and the app only takes GPS data samples at certain times (like when the accelerometer is active).

Alohar Mobile cofounders Alvin Lau and Sam Liang imagine a future in which apps can draw useful information from all this location data: for instance, automatically alerting emergency services if you're injured in a car crash and letting paramedics know precisely where you are. An app for Alzheimer's patients and their families could show where that person has gone in the last 24 hours.

Lau and Liang have demonstrated these types of apps at recent conferences, and they're hoping developers will come up with many more applications, ranging from health and fitness to shopping, using their platform. More than 250 developers have so far signed up to use their free software development kit since it was released several weeks ago.

Key to Alohar's platform is making location detection more precise than it normally is. Liang, formerly a platform architect for Google's location server platform, says that using GPS, Wi-Fi, and cell tower triangulation, as many apps and services including Google Maps do, can result in a wide margin of error—illustrated in Google Maps by the transparent blue ring that pulses around the blue dot marking your current location to indicate a degree of uncertainty.

Alohar says that location detection that incorporates data from the other sensors on a smart phone, such as the accelerometer and compass, can calculate your location more exactly. Though they haven't yet made this feature available to developers, Lau says, Alohar's platform can also determine if you're walking or driving.

David Petersen, CEO of Sense Networks, a company that mines location data for useful information about an area, thinks there's plenty of room for improvement in location data gathering. While GPS can accurately show where you are, it sucks up so much battery life that your phone is often not using it to pinpoint you, he says, and other methods are less reliable. He notes that greater accuracy could also mean better targeted ads. "I think these guys are working on a very valuable piece of the puzzle," he says.

Alohar has a ways to go, though. In dense urban areas, it seemed to have trouble determining exactly where I was, and it didn't mark every place I went. Fortunately, it can be trained. Once I taught it that I live down the street from a Pilates studio and not inside it, the app was able to correctly mark me as home whenever I was actually there. Which, according to Placeme, is more often than I'd like to admit.

By Rachel Metz
From Technology Review