Researcher says he has created living cells made of metal instead of carbon — and they may be evolving. br> By Bryan Nelson — Fri, Sep 16 2011 at 12:38 AM EST
Scientists trying to create artificial life generally work under the assumption that life must be carbon-based, but what if a living thing could be made from another element?
One British researcher may have proven that theory, potentially rewriting the book of life. Lee Cronin of the University of Glasgow has created lifelike cells from metal — a feat few believed feasible. The discovery opens the door to the possibility that there may be life forms in the universe not based on carbon, reports New Scientist.
Even more remarkable, Cronin has hinted that the metal-based cells may be replicating themselves and evolving.
“I am 100 percent positive that we can get evolution to work outside organic biology,” he said.
The high-functioning “cells” that Cronin has built are constructed from large polyoxometalates derived from a range of metal atoms, like tungsten. He gets them to assemble in bubbly spheres by mixing them in a specialized saline solution, and calls the resultant cell-like structures “inorganic chemical cells,” or iCHELLs.
The metallic bubbles are certainly cell-like, but are they actually alive? Cronin has made a compelling case for the comparison by constructing the iCHELLS with a number of features that make them function much as real cells do. For instance, by modifying the outer oxide structure of the bubbles so that they are porous, he has essentially built iCHELLs with membranes capable of selectively allowing chemicals in and out according to size, much as what happens with the walls of real cells.
Cronin’s team has also created bubbles inside of bubbles, which opens the door to the possibility of developing specialized “organelles.” Even more compelling, some of the iCHELLs are being equipped with the ability to photosynthesize. The process is still rudimentary, but by linking some oxide molecules to light sensitive dyes, the team has constructed a membrane that splits water into hydrogen ions, electrons and oxygen when illuminated — which is how photosynthesis begins in real cells.
Of course, the most compelling lifelike quality of the iCHELLs so far is their ability to evolve. Although they aren’t equipped with anything remotely resembling DNA, and therefore can’t replicate themselves in the same way that real cells do, Cronin has nevertheless managed to create some polyoxometalates that can use each other as templates to self-replicate. Furthermore, he is currently embarked on a seven-month experiment to see if iCHELLs placed in different environments will evolve.
The early results have been encouraging. “I think we have just shown the first droplets that can evolve,” Cronin hinted.
Though the idea of a strange new metal-based form of life rapidly evolving in a lab somewhere on Earth may sound ominous, the finding could forever change how life is defined. It also greatly improves the odds of life existing elsewhere in the universe, since life forms could potentially be built from any number of different elements.
The possibilities are exciting to imagine, even if Cronin’s iCHELLs eventually fall short of full-blown living cells. His research may have already blown the door off previous paradigms about the conditions necessary for life to form.
New technology from Center of Nanotechnology and Molecular Materials holds promise in thermoelectrics
When Wake Forest graduate student Corey Hewitt (Ph.D. ’13) touches a two-inch square of black fabric, a meter goes berserk. Simply by touching a small piece of Power Felt – a promising new thermoelectric device developed by a team of researchers in the Center for Nanotechnology and Molecular Materials – he has converted his body heat into an electrical current.
Comprised of tiny carbon nanotubes locked up in flexible plastic fibers and made to feel like fabric, Power Felt uses temperature differences – room temperature versus body temperature, for instance – to create a charge.
“We waste a lot of energy in the form of heat. For example, recapturing a car’s energy waste could help improve fuel mileage and power the radio, air conditioning or navigation system,” Hewitt says. “Generally thermoelectrics are an underdeveloped technology for harvesting energy, yet there is so much opportunity.”
The research appears in the current issue of Nano Letters, a leading journal in nanotechnology. Potential uses for Power Felt include lining automobile seats to boost battery power and service electrical needs, insulating pipes or collecting heat under roof tiles to lower gas or electric bills, lining clothing or sports equipment to monitor performance, or wrapping IV or wound sites to better track patients’ medical needs.
“Imagine it in an emergency kit, wrapped around a flashlight, powering a weather radio, charging a prepaid cell phone,” says David Carroll, director of the Center for Nanotechnology and Molecular Materials and head of the team leading this research. “Literally, just by sitting on your phone, Power Felt could provide relief during power outages or accidents.”
Cost has prevented thermoelectrics from being used more widely in consumer products. Standard thermoelectric devices use a much more efficient compound called bismuth telluride to turn heat into power in products including mobile refrigerators and CPU coolers, but it can cost $1,000 per kilogram. Like silicon, researchers liken its affordability to demand in volume and think someday Power Felt would cost only $1 to add to a cell phone cover.
Currently Hewitt is evaluating several ways to add more nanotube layers and make them even thinner to boost the power output. Although there’s more work to do before Power Felt is ready for market, he says, “I imagine being able to make a jacket with a completely thermoelectric inside liner that gathers warmth from body heat, while the exterior remains cold from the outside temperature. If the Power Felt is efficient enough, you could potentially power an iPod, which would be great for distance runners. It’s pretty cool to think about, and it’s definitely within reach.” Currently Wake Forest is in talks with investors to produce Power Felt commercially.
Google is working on a set of HUD, (heads-up display), glasses, they are now in prototype phase and will enable users to tap into Google’s cloud services through augmented reality. Here 9to5Google Explains…
They are in late prototype stages of wearable glasses that look like thick-rimmed glasses that “normal people” wear. However, these provide a display with a heads up computer interface. There are a few buttons on the arms of the glasses, but otherwise, they could be mistaken for normal glasses. Additionally, we are not sure of the technology being employed here, but it is likely a transparent LCD or AMOLED display such as the one demonstrated below: In addition, we have heard that this device is not an “Android peripheral” as the NYT stated. According to our source, it communicates directly with the Cloud over IP. Although, the “Google Goggles” could use a phone’s Internet connection, through Wi-Fi or a low power Bluetooth 4.0. The use-case is augmented reality that would tie into Google’s location services. A user can walk around with information popping up and into display -Terminator-style- based on preferences, location and Google’s information. Therefore, these things likely connect to the Internet and have GPS. They also likely run a version of Android.
Since then, we have learned much more regarding Google’s glasses…
Our tipster has now seen a prototype and said it looks something like Oakley Thumps (below). These glasses, we heard, have a front-facing camera used to gather information and could aid in augmented reality apps. It will also take pictures. The spied prototype has a flash —perhaps for help at night, or maybe it is just a way to take better photos. The camera is extremely small and likely only a few megapixels.
The heads up display (HUD) is only for one eye and on the side. It is not transparent nor does it have dual 3D configurations, as previously speculated.
One really cool bit: The navigation system currently used is a head tilting-to scroll and click. We are told it is very quick to learn and once the user is adept at navigation, it becomes second nature and almost indistinguishable to outside users.
(As an aside, I built a head mouse as a Masters Thesis project a few years back that used head tilts to navigate and control menus. I am ready to collect royalties!)
I/O on the glasses will also include voice input and output, and we are told the CPU/RAM/storage hardware is near the equivalent of a generation-old Android smartphone. As a guess, we would speculate something like 1GHz ARM A8, 256MB RAM and 8GB of storage? In any case, it will also function as a smartphone.
Perhaps most interesting is that Google is currently deciding on how it wants to release these glasses, even though the product is still a very long way from being finished. It is currently a secret with only a few geeky types knowing about it, and Google is apparently unsure if it will have mass-market appeal. Therefore, the company is considering making this a pilot program, somewhat like the Cr-48 Chromebooks last year.
Yes, Google might actually release this product as beta-pilot program to people outside of Google—and soon.
FYI Motorola’s got something cool in this area brewing as well.
Remember those wicked holographic augmented reality glasses that DARPA was so hot to build? They’re almost here. Hiding out at Vuzix’s CES booth we found a functional prototype for its Smart Glasses industrial class monocular display — a special lens attached to a proprietary display driver that produces a bright, 1.4mm holographic picture for one of your peepers. Vuzix told us the lenses were the fruit of a DARPA project, and could allow soldiers involved in air-to-surface operations to track jets, check their ordinance and mark targets for destruction. The military / industrial monocle will go on sale in Q3 of 2012 for somewhere between $2500-3000.
Want to look a little more, well, normal while you’re augmenting your reality? You’re covered — or at least you will be in 2013. Not only will Vuzix’s consumer facing smart glasses offer you the same holographic heads-up technology that’ll power its military bound brother, it’ll cost you a bundle less, too: between $350-600. The unit we saw wasn’t final, but were told the final unit will be able to accept connections over HDMI, and may even be capable of displaying stereoscopic 3D content — you know, in case the real world wasn’t real enough. Hopefully, we’ll be able to tell you those fit next year. Ready to see how you’ll be gussying up reality in the future? Hit the break for our hands-on video coverage.
Nike has fired the majority of the team responsible for its FuelBand fitness tracker according to a report from CNET today, which also claims that the company is jettisoning wearable hardware for good. An anonymous source says that roughly 55 employees were let go from Nike's Digital Sport hardware team, which covers industrial design and engineering for wearables.