March R&D Round-Up

E-mail Melanie Martella

This month, understanding bumblebees, detecting heavy metals, an NMR on a chip, a flexible touchscreen, and a necklace that checks whether you've taken your meds.

Tagging Bees
Bees are not particularly brainy (well, there's no room, is there?). But, according to a recent story from the BBC News, their lack of apian grey matter doesn't prevent them from achieving impressive feats of memory, navigation, and learning. Researchers from the Queen Mary University of London, have glued tiny passive RFID tags to bumblebees in their lab and then used RFID readers at the hive entrances and on some artificial flowers to build a better picture of how bees develop the highly efficient paths they take to food sources. Bees are extremely important for pollinating crops and unfortunately, all over Europe, bees are vanishing at a truly alarming rate. The researchers hope that by understanding how bees actually forage, they may be able to pinpoint why colony collapse disorder is occurring and halt the loss of these important insects. They also hope that the insights they gain from monitoring the bees may help them to solve thorny computer network routing problems. (Of the two, I'd say the massive bee die-off is more important, but if we get better routing out of it, that's a pleasant bonus.)

Fast and Portable Lead Detection
Lead has been much in the news of late. And rightly so: ingesting lead is bad news for anyone, but especially bad for kids and their cognitive development. While kits exist to test objects for the presence of lead, it hasn't been so easy to test for the presence of lead or other heavy metals in people. Now, researchers at the DoE's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have developed a smaller, faster, and field-portable analyzer for doing just that. The lunch-box sized device can give results in two to five minutes and can use either mercury electrode-based sensors or sensors based on nanostructure materials for detection to ppb levels. For public health officials who are trying to track lead exposure in large groups of children, the ability to gather a lot of very accurate data, fast, this technology is excellent news.

Teeny Tiny NMR
In a collaboration between NIST and the University of California, Berkeley, researchers have developed a miniature atomic magnetometer that can detect nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) in tiny fluid samples flowing through a specially designed microchip. The NMR on a chip works by using the magnetometer to detect weak magnetic resonance signals from a sample in the adjacent microchannel. The resulting device could be used to rapidly screen for new drugs, for biomedical monitoring, or for NMR spectroscopy.

Flexible Touch Screen
According to a recent article in the Korea Times ("Flexible Touch Screen Developed"), researchers at Korea's KRISS governmental research institute have developed a flexible, tactile sensor system that can interpret signals in three dimensions: two-dimensional location and how much force is being applied to a sensor. The grid of tiny sensors is printed onto a transparent plastic film and can be used as a micro mouse or as a touchscreen. Because the sensors are printed onto the film, the sensor system can be made in any size or shape and because it's transparent, it could be used for cell phone screens. The technology has been sold to Misung Polytech, a cellphone parts manufacturer.

Tracking Medical Compliance with Jewelry
Taking pills is a hassle, especially if you're taking multiple pills and each medicine is on a different dosing schedule. If the statistics are any guide, we're really bad at taking our medicine—a 2005 poll showed that one in three adults prescribed drugs didn't take them as ordered. However, researchers at Georgia Tech's School of Electrical and Computer Engineering have come up with a clever way to ensure drug compliance—a sensor-bedecked necklace and specially designed pills. The MagneTrace necklace uses an array of magnetic sensors to detect when a pill (containing a tiny magnet in addition to its pharmaceutical payload) is swallowed. Ideally, the necklace could communicate with a small wireless device to log the time and date when the drug was taken and notify medical personnel and the patient if a dose has been missed. While the device is still at the proof of concept stage, it's a clever idea.