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Innovation

Hacking nature - news from the silicon/carbon interface

Running through the RSS feeds this morning, I'm struck by the number of bio-engineering projects mentioned. This is just one day's (mainly) mainstream media coverage; if you actually go looking, there's much more bubbling away – there can't be a nanotechnology lab on the planet which isn't looking at metabolic pathways for clues in energy harvesting, the idea that we have to be smart about powering stuff from its immediate environment rather than plugging into chargers all the time.
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor on

Running through the RSS feeds this morning, I'm struck by the number of bio-engineering projects mentioned. This is just one day's (mainly) mainstream media coverage; if you actually go looking, there's much more bubbling away – there can't be a nanotechnology lab on the planet which isn't looking at metabolic pathways for clues in energy harvesting, the idea that we have to be smart about powering stuff from its immediate environment rather than plugging into chargers all the time. Similarly, watch out for some stunning stuff coming out of the mix of high-performance computing and cognitive neuroscience.

In today's harvest, though:

Cornell University has made a synthetic tree. It's not the full chestnut, mind, just a working model of transpiration – the process by which trees move water up through their roots and out through their leaves. The good bit about transpiration is that it is entirely passive: it's powered by evaporation, and the tree itself expends no energy. Zero-energy heating and cooling? Probably not – but it could get close.

Segway creator Dean Kamen has been working on a robotic prosthetic arm for the military, ostensibly to help war veterans. (Half an hour of video to watch here, mostly of Kamen talking, but it's all worth it. And check out the surreal introduction of "The American cricket crisis" in the third video segment). These days, body armour and streamlined medical procedures save a lot of soldiers who would previously have died – but they often survive without their limbs. The Luke Arm is the result, and it's a truly impressive piece of engineering with some very moving stories attached to it. Yet I do wonder if some of the military's enthusiasm for this may be linked to the way the device can be worn by fully fit people. Just saying.

That ubiquitous bacterium, E coli, has been hacked about and can now convert glucose to isobutanol to within 15 percent of theoretical maximum yield. Biofuels are controversial and with good reason: the industrial farming of crops to turn into fuel ethanol falls down on environmental, economic, practical and theoretical grounds, at least as far as the process is currently implemented. You don't want to have to haul lots of biomass around to processing plants, and you don't want to produce ethanol when there are far better hydrocarbons for fuels. A decent biological conversion process goes a long way to solving this part of the equation.

There's probably more – I'm only half-way down the 800 or so RSS items awaiting my attention – but on the old journalistic adage that "once is news, twice is a trend", I reckon three is enough to be getting on with.

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