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Living in the Future: July 22, 2013

This week: Lighting the darkness with giant mirrors, gold nanoparticles provide skin-like sensors, and a scalpel that can smell cancer cells!

Northern Norway has many of the same issues with daylight as Alaska. For Rjukan, a town nestled into the side of a mountain, no daylight falls for five months of the year because of the shadow of the surrounding mountains. In the early 20th century, a cablecar was built to the peak, so that residents could still get sunlight – and that is still going. But a radical solution involving giant mirrors carried into place by helicopters has been given a green light. The mirrors will be moveable, and solar-powered, tracking the sun across the sky and directing the light at the town square, so that there is always an area bathed in sunlight, even through the dark winter. The project will cost nearly a million dollars, but 80 percent of the funding has been privately raised and the system will run on renewables like solar and wind power.

Human skin is quite remarkable for its ability to sense temperature, pressure, and touch continuously, but that sensor suite has been lacking from electronic designs. A new design of a sensor system from Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, uses a skin substitute made of gold nanoparticles and soda bottle plastic to sense touch, humidity, and temperature, with greater touch sensitivity than human skin. The obvious use of this skin-substitute in making prosthetics is exciting enough, but it may also have industrial applications for even more precision in manufacturing.

When operating on a tumor, doctors cut out not only the tumor, but a thin layer of healthy cells around it, just to be certain. But detecting the difference between cancerous and healthy cells is difficult while the surgery is ongoing, causing it to be a slow process. A new device, called the iKnife, modifies a heat scalpel to connect with a mass spectrometer, which takes the scent of the burning cells and determines whether they were healthy or cancerous. It’s been long known that healthy cells and cancer cells have different “scents”, but this is the first device that can make that determination while surgery is ongoing. It’s already been used with 81 cancer patients in the UK, and is hoped to be out of clinical trials as soon as possible.