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May 2007
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Fab Lab launched in New North

The possibilities are endless. How about a "scream body" that allows you to vent extreme frustration into a soundproof pouch and later release it - loudly - in a more appropriate setting? Try a pair of shoes that takes note of what's missing in your refrigerator, and reminds you when you're out shopping. Or how about a funky bicycle frame cut from clear polycarbonate?

These inventions and hundreds more were built in the Fab Lab at the Center for Bits and Atoms at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Now, thanks to a collaboration of engineering gurus at MIT and a team at Fox Valley Technical College, such a lab will soon be available to budding inventors in Northeast Wisconsin.

So, what's a fab lab? Short for "fabrication laboratory," it's a small-scale workshop with the tools to make almost anything, combining off-the-shelf, industrial-grade fabrication and electronics tools with open source software and personalized instruction.

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Transparent transistors to bring future displays, 'e-paper'

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Researchers have used nanotechnology to create transparent transistors and circuits, a step that promises a broad range of applications, from e-paper and flexible color screens for consumer electronics to "smart cards" and "heads-up" displays in auto windshields.The transistors are made of single "nanowires," or tiny cylindrical structures that were assembled on glass or thin films of flexible plastic.

 

"The nanowires themselves are transparent, the contacts we put on them are transparent and the glass or plastic substrate is transparent," said David Janes, a researcher at Purdue University's Birck Nanotechnology Center and a professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

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Biotech breakthrough could end biodiesel's glycerin glut: Rice engineers find way to make ethanol, valuable chemicals from waste glycerin

With U.S. biodiesel production at an all-time high and a record number of new biodiesel plants under construction, the industry is facing an impending crisis over waste glycerin, the major byproduct of biodiesel production. New findings from Rice University suggest a possible answer in the form of a bacterium that ferments glycerin and produces ethanol, another popular biofuel.

"We identified the metabolic processes and conditions that allow a known strain of E. coli to convert glycerin into ethanol," said chemical engineer Ramon Gonzalez. "It's also very efficient. We estimate the operational costs to be about 40 percent less that those of producing ethanol from corn."

Gonzalez said the biodiesel industry's rapid growth has created a glycerin glut. The glut has forced glycerin producers like Dow Chemical and Procter and Gamble to shutter plants, and Gonzalez said some biodiesel producers are already unable to sell glycerin and instead must pay to dispose of it.

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UW to be site of bioenergy center

State Journal staff, wires

UW-Madison will be the site of one of three bioenergy research centers designed to find new ways to turn plants into fuel, officials said Monday.

The Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center on UW-Madison's campus, along with centers in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and near Berkeley, Calif., were described by the Department of Energy as three startup companies with $125 million each in capital, said two officials with knowledge of the grants, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official announcement had not yet been made. They will involve numerous universities, national laboratories and private companies as partners.

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Researchers develop buckyballs to fight allergy

RICHMOND, Va. (June 20, 2007) -- A research team has identified a new biological function for a soccer ball-shaped nanoparticle called a buckyball – the ability to block allergic response, setting the stage for the development of new therapies for allergy.

Allergic disease is the sixth leading cause of chronic disease in the United States, and while various treatments have been developed to control allergy, no cure has been found. These findings advance the emerging field of medicine known as nanoimmunology.

The researchers, from Virginia Commonwealth University and Luna Innovations Inc., a private, Roanoke, Va., research company, are the first to show that buckyballs are able to block allergic response in human cell culture experiments.

Buckyballs, or fullerenes, are nanoparticles containing 60 carbon atoms. Due to their unique structure, inertness and stability, researchers from a number of scientific fields have been investigating the tiny, hollow carbon cages to serve a variety of functions. In this study, researchers modified the buckyballs so that they were compatible with water. The new study findings were published online in the June 19 issue of the Journal of Immunology and will appear in the July 1 print issue of the journal.

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UW-Madison engineers develop higher-energy liquid-transportation fuel from sugar

MADISON -- Plants absorb carbon dioxide from the air and combine it with water molecules and sunshine to make carbohydrate or sugar. Variations on this process provide fuel for all of life on Earth.

Reporting in the June 21 issue of the journal Nature, University of Wisconsin-Madison chemical and biological engineering Professor James Dumesic and his research team describe a two-stage process for turning biomass-derived sugar into 2,5-dimethylfuran (DMF), a liquid transportation fuel with 40 percent greater energy density than ethanol.

The prospects of diminishing oil reserves and the threat of global warming caused by releasing otherwise trapped carbon into the atmosphere have researchers searching for a sustainable, carbon-neutral fuel to reduce global reliance on fossil fuels. By chemically engineering sugar through a series of steps involving acid and copper catalysts, salt and butanol as a solvent, UW-Madison researchers created a path to just such a fuel.

Currently, ethanol is the only renewable liquid fuel produced on a large scale," says Dumesic. "But ethanol suffers from several limitations. It has relatively low energy density, evaporates readily, and can become contaminated by absorption of water from the atmosphere. It also requires an energy-intensive distillation process to separate the fuel from water."

Not only does dimethylfuran have higher energy content, it also addresses other ethanol shortcomings. DMF is not soluble in water and therefore cannot become contaminated by absorbing water from the atmosphere. DMF is stable in storage and, in the evaporation stage of its production, consumes one-third of the energy required to evaporate a solution of ethanol produced by fermentation for biofuel applications.

Dumesic and graduate students Yuriy Román-Leshkov, Christopher J. Barrett and Zhen Y. Liu developed their new catalytic process for creating DMF by expanding upon earlier work. As reported in the June 30, 2006, issue of the journal Science, Dumesic's team improved the process for making an important chemical intermediate, hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF), from sugar.

Industry uses millions of tons of chemical intermediates, largely sourced from petroleum or natural gas, as the raw material for many modern plastics, drugs and fuels.

The team's method for making HMF and converting it to DMF is a balancing act of chemistry, pressure, temperature and reactor design. Fructose is initially converted to HMF in water using an acid catalyst in the presence of a low-boiling-point solvent. The solvent extracts HMF from water and carries it to a separate location. Although other researchers had previously converted fructose to HMF, Dumesic's research group made a series of improvements that raised the HMF output and made the HMF easier to extract. For example, the team found that adding salt (NaCl) dramatically improves the extraction of HMF from the reactive water phase and helps suppress the formation of impurities.

In the June 21, 2007, issue of Nature, Dumesic's team describes its process for converting HMF to DMF over a copper-based catalyst. The conversion removes two oxygen atoms from the compound lowering the boiling point, the temperature at which a liquid turns to gas, and making it suitable for use as transportation fuel. Salt, while improving the production of HMF, presented an obstacle in the production of DMF. It contributed chloride ions that poisoned the conventional copper chromite catalyst. The team instead developed a copper-ruthenium catalyst providing chlorine resistance and superior performance.

Dumesic says more research is required before the technology can be commercialized. For example, while its environmental health impact has not been thoroughly tested, the limited information available suggests DMF is similar to other current fuel components.

"There are some challenges that we need to address," says Dumesic, "but this work shows that we can produce a liquid transportation fuel from biomass that has energy density comparable to petrol."

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Drug giant to acquire NimbleGen

Roche will keep firm in Madison, where UW scientists started it

By KATHLEEN GALLAGHER
kgallagher@journalsentinel.com
Posted: June 19, 2007

NimbleGen Systems Inc. on Tuesday became the second Madison company in as many months to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for shareholders and, its chairman said, will pave the way for more high-paying, high-tech jobs in the area.

The maker of gene chips used in drug research agreed to be acquired for $272.5 million by the diagnostics arm of Roche Holding AG, the giant Swiss pharmaceutical company. Roche plans to keep NimbleGen's 140 employees in Madison; Reykjavik, Iceland; and Waldkraiburg, Germany, the companies said.

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Neurognostics Installs fMRI System at the University of Southern California

Utilizing functional MR imaging to map brain activity

June 19, 2007 (Los Angeles, CA) - Neurognostics, a Milwaukee-based medical imaging company, has recently installed their Functional MR Imaging (fMRI) suite of products and services at University of Southern California (USC), giving this institution the ability to map important cognitive and sensorimotor brain functions for research and presurgical planning purposes.

"Functional MRI technology has a tremendous potential to improve patient care," says Neurognostics Vice President of Research and Clinical Operations, Cathy Elsinger, Ph.D. "Neurognostics has developed an fMRI System that makes it simple and cost-effective for physicians to integrate fMRI into their everyday practice. By implementing a functional imaging program, USC is demonstrating the growing trend for facilities to utilize fMRI in both research and clinical settings."

The USC University Hospital, located near downtown Los Angeles on the USC Health Sciences Campus, is at the forefront of medical imaging technology and specializes in advanced stereotactic surgery and neurological research. The first major application of Neurognostics' fMRI system at USC will be to study disease modifying therapies in Multiple Sclerosis (MS) patients, potentially leading to improved treatment options for individuals living with MS. Later applications may include further stroke and CNS disorder research and advanced presurgical mapping prior to surgical intervention.

"The USC University Hospital is one of the nation's leading hospitals, with world-class facilities that specialize in brain research and neurosurgery" said Dr. Norman Kachuck, Director of the MS Comprehensive Care Center of the Keck School of Medicine of USC."We are excited to take full advantage of the Neurognostics' fMRI System and Data Analysis services. Using fMRI to research such a debilitating disease as Multiple Sclerosis will hopefully lead to significant improvements in our ability to monitor treatment efficacy and predict better patient outcomes. We look forward to working with Neurognostics as we expand the use of their fMRI System to other clinical neuroscience areas and research programs in the near future."

"The University of Southern California is a world-renowned research facility" added Elsinger. "Working with USC to dramatically improve patient care within their neuroscience, neurology, neurosurgical and rehabilitation departments is exciting, and we are looking forward to partnering with them to broaden the use of fMRI technology in a variety of these clinical and research areas."

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Neural stem cells reduce Parkinson's symptoms in monkeys

New Haven, Conn.—Primates with severe Parkinson’s disease were able to walk, move, and eat better, and had diminished tremors after being injected with human neural stem cells, a research team from Yale, Harvard, the University of Colorado, and the Burnham Institute report today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

These results are promising, but it will be years before it is known whether a similar procedure would have therapeutic value for humans, said the lead author, D. Eugene Redmond Jr., professor of psychiatry and neurosurgery at Yale.

“Not only are stem cells a potential source of replacement cells, they also seem to have a whole variety of effects that normalize other abnormalities,” Redmond said. “The human neural stem cells implanted into the primates survived, migrated, and had a functional impact. It’s an important step, but there are a number of studies that need to be done before determining if this would be of any value in clinical settings.”

Parkinson’s disease is caused by a degeneration of dopamine neurons in an area of the midbrain known as the substantia nigra, which is responsible for dopamine production. Reduced production of dopamine in late stage Parkinson’s causes symptoms such as severe difficulty in walking, fewer movements, delays in moving, lack of appetite, difficulty eating, periods of remaining motionless known as “freezing,” and head and limb tremors.

In this study five of eight monkeys with advanced Parkinson’s were injected with human neural stem cells and three received sham injections. The monkeys were observed four months before and four months after surgery. Those injected with human neural stem cells improved progressively for the entire post-treatment period and were significantly different from the monkeys that received sham injections. Twenty-one additional monkeys were studied for up to eight months for other biological effects of the stem cells. No tumors or toxic effects were found.

Redmond said a small number of the human neural stem cell progeny differentiated into neurons that contained tyrosine hydroxylase and dopamine transporter. Cell progeny containing these markers suggest that the microenvironment within and around the brain lesions still permits development of a dopamine phenotype by responsive progenitor cells. The stem cells also made a growth factor that has been shown to improve dopamine function.

The neural stem cells are derived from fetal brain and are not embryonic stem cells. Monkeys with “chimeric” human neural cell-bearing brain regions showed no indication of behaviors that were not typical of the species.

 

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'Dolly' Scientist: Make Human Stem Cells From Animal Eggs

By Dave Mosher, LiveScience Staff Writer

posted: 12 June 2007 09:03 am ET

Stem cells from human embryos are seen as the future of medicine, but a major ethical question surrounds the research: Should federally funded scientists be allowed to extract the cells from embryos, a process which destroys them? Current U.S. laws clearly say “no.”

Ian Wilmut, who made history when he cloned Dolly the sheep in 1996, is now calling on scientists to inject human DNA into animal egg cells as a workaround to ethical and legal roadblocks. His commentary appears in Nature Reports Stem Cells, an online stem cell resource created by the journal Nature.

Wilmut proposes that scientists take a DNA-packed nucleus from a diseased person’s cell, then slip it into an animal egg from which the nucleus has been removed. About one times out of eight, a clump of human embryonic stem cells should grow. Once the clump is large enough, medical researchers could test experimental drugs on the cells without destroying a single human embryo.

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Scientist attempts to patent building blocks of life

Plans to create first artificial living being

Kelly Patterson, Ottawa Citizen; CanWest News Service

Published: Saturday, June 09, 2007

A leading U.S. scientist has applied to patent the world's first man-made life form.

Hailed as the biggest, most controversial genetics breakthrough since the cloning of Dolly the sheep, Dr. Craig Venter -- the scientist who led the private-sector race to map the human genome -- says his research team has figured out which genes provide the bare essentials for life. Now he wants the commercial rights to their use.

Venter plans to cobble together synthetic versions of these genes to create the world's first artificial living being, a bacterium called mycoplasma laboratorium which could then be programmed to convert sunlight into eco-friendly fuels such as hydrogen or ethanol.

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Reprogrammed fibroblasts identical to embryonic stem cells

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (June 6, 2007) — Embryonic stem cells are unique because they can develop into virtually any kind of tissue type, an attribute called pluripotency. Somatic cell nuclear transfer ("therapeutic cloning") offers the hope of one day creating customized embryonic stem cells with a patient's own DNA. Here, an individual's DNA would be placed into an egg, resulting in a blastocyst that houses a supply of stem cells. But to access these cells, researchers must destroy a viable embryo.

Now, scientists at Whitehead Institute have demonstrated that embryonic stem cells can be created without eggs. By genetically manipulating mature skin cells taken from a mouse, the scientists have transformed these cells back into a pluripotent state, one that appears identical to an embryonic stem cell in every way. No eggs were used, and no embryos destroyed.

“These reprogrammed cells, by all criteria that we can apply, are indistinguishable from embryonic stem cells,” says Whitehead Member and MIT professor of biology Rudolf Jaenisch, senior author of the paper that appeared online June 6 in Nature.

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The original nano workout -- Helping carbon nanotubes get into shape

Troy, N.Y. -- Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have developed a new method of compacting carbon nanotubes into dense bundles. These tightly packed bundles are efficient conductors and could one day replace copper as the primary interconnects used on computer chips and even hasten the transition to next-generation 3-D stacked chips.

Theoretical studies show that carbon nanotubes, if packed closely enough together, should be able to outperform copper as an electrical conductor. But because of the way carbon nanotubes are grown – in sparse nanoscale “forests” where carbon molecules compete for growth-inducing catalysts – scientists have been unable to successfully grow tightly packed bundles.

James Jiam-Qiang Lu, associate professor of physics and electrical engineering at Rensselaer, together with his research associate Zhengchun Liu, decided to investigate how to “densify” carbon nanotube bundles after they are already grown. He detailed the results of the post-growth densification project on June 6 at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ International Interconnect Technology Conference (IITC) in Burlingame, Calif.

Lu’s team discovered that by immersing vertically grown carbon nanotube bundles into a liquid organic solvent and allowing them to dry, the nanotubes pull close together into a dense bundle. Lu attributes the densification process to capillary coalescence, which is the same physical principle that allows moisture to move up a piece of tissue paper that is dipped into water.

The process boosts the density of these carbon nanotube bundles by five to 25 times. The higher the density, the better they can conduct electricity, Lu said. Several factors, including nanotube height, diameter, and spacing, affect the resulting density, Liu added. How the nanotubes are grown is also an important factor that impacts the resulting shape of the densified bundles.

Images of the experiment are more striking than any “before and after” photos of the latest fad diet. In one instance, Liu started with a carbon nanotube bundle 500 micrometers in diameter, shaped somewhat like a marshmallow, and dipped it into a bath of isopropyl alcohol. As the alcohol dried and evaporated, capillary forces drew the nanotubes closer together. Van Der Waals forces, the same molecular bonds that boost the adhesion of millions of setae on gecko toes and help the lizard defy gravity, ensure the nanotubes retain their tightly packed form.

The resulting bundle shrunk to a diameter of 100 micrometers, with a 25-fold increase in density. Instead of a marshmallow, it looked more like a carpenter’s nail.

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Aluminum foil lamps outshine incandescent lights

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Researchers at the University of Illinois are developing panels of microcavity plasma lamps that may soon brighten people’s lives. The thin, lightweight panels could be used for residential and commercial lighting, and for certain types of biomedical applications.

“Built of aluminum foil, sapphire and small amounts of gas, the panels are less than 1 millimeter thick, and can hang on a wall like picture frames,” said Gary Eden, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the U. of I., and corresponding author of a paper describing the microcavity plasma lamps in the June issue of the Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics.

Like conventional fluorescent lights, microcavity plasma lamps are glow-discharges in which atoms of a gas are excited by electrons and radiate light. Unlike fluorescent lights, however, microcavity plasma lamps produce the plasma in microscopic pockets and require no ballast, reflector or heavy metal housing. The panels are lighter, brighter and more efficient than incandescent lights and are expected, with further engineering, to approach or surpass the efficiency of fluorescent lighting.

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