Scitech  Top five inspiring technologies to watch for in 2011

Jenna Blumenthal explores advancements worth paying attention to

The Laser Reversed

Collaborators from Princeton University and Texas A&M University have found that by focusing a laser on oxygen, the molecules break down into their constituent atoms and themselves become excited to the point that they spontaneously emit infrared light along the same path as the original beam. So? Well the returning beam is not merely a reflection of the original light; it contains identifying information about the properties of the medium it has passed through. This “backwards laser” has the potential to detect gases in the atmosphere, and is sensitive enough to find acute signs of methane from a gas leak or remotely detect hidden explosives. Though the principles of the experiment have yet to be extrapolated to the larger distances of realistic measurements, it is a notable achievement for physicists, with exciting possible applications.

Self-replicating synthetic life

Biologist Craig Venter and his research team have come one step further toward the creation of artificial life by developing the world’s first self-replicating bacterial cell whose genome is entirely made up of synthetic material. Genetic engineering is not a novel concept, but the 1.08 million base pair synthetic genome is the largest chemical structure ever synthesized in the laboratory and inserted into a cell. Though the artificial DNA is an almost exact replica of the bacteria’s natural genes, Venter’s project aims to reprogram organisms to produce bioengineered versions with useful properties. This includes the production of industrial or pharmaceutical compounds, supplying a renewable form of bioenergy, and improving the quality of water.

Implantable medical sensors (that aren’t rejected from the body faster than Four Loko)

Biomedical engineer Fiorenzo Omenetto at Tufts University is changing the way medical information is captured. Since biocompatibility remains the biggest obstacle for implanted devices, Omenetto works primarily with silk, which degrades easily and is unlikely to elicit a strong immunological response from the body. The silk serves as a support for arrays of electrical devices, and can be implanted close to body tissue to monitor vital signs, take blood samples, or even deliver drugs. Engineers have already designed silk-based electrodes that make precise electrical measurements of the brain. The silk dissolves when doused in saline solution, leaving the electrode array to produce high quality signals without damaging the tissue. According to Omenetto, the device will be ready for human testing in two to three years.

Fighting Fossil Fuels with Bioengineering

Although a genetic engineering project has already appeared on this list, with the price of gas well over a dollar per litre with no signs of dropping, it is encouraging that researchers are pursuing alternative sources of fuel. Joule Biotechnologies, founded by Noubar Afeyan, uses the latest achievements in engineering biology to design photosynthetic microorganisms that convert carbon dioxide into ethanol or diesel. The use of conventional biofuel is hindered by the large amount of water and high-quality land needed to grow the plants it is derived from, but Joule’s microbes grow in photobioreactors that require no fresh water, and occupy a fraction of the space. Joule’s plans are impressive – to have it available for commercial use by 2012 – but it is too soon to tell if costs will be competitive enough to make living independently from fossil fuels a reality.

Wheelchair users walk

Researchers from Berkeley Bionics have developed a wearable bionic device, dubbed eLEGSs, that gives those ordinarily confined to a wheelchair the ability to stand up and walk. The robotic “exoskeleton” is controlled by crutches and is secured to the user by a few simple clips and straps. The exciting future for this technology lies in rehabilitation: because of the lightweight and usable design, those recently injured can perform exercises practically anywhere at anytime, developing muscle memory for future unassisted movement. The product will be offered to rehabilitation centers by this summer, and available for personal use as early as next year.

Make sure to look out for more top five lists from Jenna.