March 3/10, 2008


Self-healing rubber

Objects made of a self-healing rubber can be repaired by simply joining the pieces at room temperature. The rubber, whose polymer chains and the cross links between them are formed by hydrogen bonds, can stretch to several times its relaxed size. (Self-Healing and Thermoreversible Rubber from Supramolecular Assembly, Nature, February 21, 2008)

Gecko bandage

The latest gecko-inspired adhesive adds the twist of biocompatibility, making the material potentially suitable for bandaging wounds and replacing or augmenting sutures and surgical staples. The material is also biodegradable and could be modified to deliver drugs. The polymer's surface is patterned with nanoscale pillars, which mimics the surface of gecko feet. (A Biodegradable and Biocompatible Gecko-Inspired Tissue Adhesive, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, published online February 19, 2008)

Paint-on transistors

Researchers have come up with a way to mass-produce transistors that could lead to inexpensive ways of making electronic devices, including electronic paper and flexible displays. The process involves coating pairs of electrical contacts with an organic semiconductor film. The key to the process is first chemically treating the contacts to cause the semiconductor material to crystallize only between the contacts. The method eliminates the relatively costly step of patterning the transistor channels. (Contact-Induced Crystallinity for High-performance Soluble Acene-based Transistors and Circuits, Nature Materials, published online February 17, 2008)

Better dye solar cell

A better dye boosts the efficiency of dye-based solar cells, which are less expensive but also less efficient than traditional silicon solar cells. Researchers achieved a 7.2% energy conversion efficiency using an optimized dye that allows the cells to be thinner. Making cells thin is key to using non-solvent electrolytes in dye-based solar cells. Solvent electrolytes are less stable and cost more because they have to be encapsulated. (Organic Dye-Sensitized Ionic Liquid Based Solar Cells: Remarkable Enhancement in Performance through Molecular Design of Indoline Sensitizers, Angewandte Chemie International Edition, February 22, 2008)

Optical breathalyzer

A laser spectroscope analyzes human breath to detect substances that indicate disease. The device works in real-time and detects many substances at once by using an optical frequency comb, which separates laser light into a series of narrow, closely spaced frequency bands over a broad bandwidth. Specific types of molecules absorb unique sets of frequencies, making it possible to identify the molecules. (Cavity-Enhanced Optical Frequency Comb Spectroscopy: Application to Human Breath Analysis, Optics Express, February 18, 2008)

Magnetic cloak

Add magnetism to the cloakability list, joining light and sound. A metamaterial made of superconducting plates shields objects from static magnetic fields. The magnetic cloaking device could be used to protect electronic circuits and shield sensitive sensors from interference. (A D.C. Magnetic Metamaterial, Nature Materials, published online February 24, 2008)


View from the High Ground: ICL's John Pendry
Physics as machine tool, negative refractive index, metamaterials, shattered wine glasses, higher capacity DVDs, scientific backwaters, risk perception and practice, practice, practice.

How It Works: Quantum computing: qubits
Photons, electrons and atoms, oh my! These particles are the raw materials for qubits, the basic building blocks of quantum computers.

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"Physics is to the rest of science what machine tools are to engineering. A corollary is that science places power in our hands which can be used for good or ill. Technology has been abused in this way throughout the ages from gunpowder to atomic bombs."
- John Pendry, Imperial College London

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