Your ChemEng research round-up: June 2015

Since ChemEng365, our new ChemEng blog has become a little quiet – except for a last minute hurrah from Geoff Maitland, see his guest blog ‘Five of our Past President’s favourite ChemEng365 blogs‘.

lightbulbThe ChemEng365 campaign concluded at the end of May when Geoff’s term as president ended. But of course, all the amazing chemical engineering research and innovation still goes on. So, it seems only fitting to give you a research round-up on all things chemical and process engineering for the month of June – just in case you missed anything!

Injectable hydrogel could help wounds heal more quickly

A team of chemical engineers from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), US, have a developed a material that creates an instant, superior scaffold that allows new tissue to latch on and grow within the cavities formed between linked spheres of gel.

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Bulletproof batteries (Day 259)

Lithium batteriesLithium ion batteries are used as high density power sources for a range of devices from mobile phones (see my blog ‘The next generation of ultra-fast charging batteries‘) to electric vehicles.

But the use of lithium batteries hasn’t been without some issues. For example, in 2013 Boeing was forced to ground its entire 787 Dreamliner fleet after problems were detected with the lithium ion batteries in the plane’s electrical system.  The batteries reportedly burst into flames under some conditions – not a good state of affairs at 43,000 feet!

This safety issue obviously requires addressing, so researchers at the University of Michigan (U-M), US, have been working to develop an advanced type of barrier between the electrodes in a lithium-ion battery.

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Painting by hedgehogs (Day 258)

HedgehogFor timid slow moving animals, hedgehogs and their relations are found all over Asia, Africa and Europe.

A few years ago they were the subject of a chemically-engineered joke when ‘Hedgehog Flavoured Crisps’ (potato chips) were sold in the UK.

Thankfully, no hedgehogs were hurt in their manufacture, but their taste (whatever that was) was mimicked using pork fat.

Now the hedgehog name has been used in the context of a new environmentally-friendly paint, and other applications.

University of Michigan researchers have developed a process that can sprout microscopic spikes on nearly any type of particle. They are called “hedgehog particles” due to their bushy appearance under the microscope.

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Robots smaller than a grain of sand (Day 173)

Robby the Robot. Picture:  S Bukley Shutterstock.comThose of you with long memories will remember a classic space movie from 1956 called Forbidden Planet. The film (and subsequent cult stage play) features an unusual cinema icon – Robby the Robot.

Full of personality, Robby clanked his way around the film and has been doing so ever since in film and TV cameos up to the present day.

Robby has helped to set an image of our mechanical friends that lingers today, but in reality the world of robotics is much more diverse, and can even appear stranger than fiction itself.

One of the latest robotics projects involving chemical engineers is work being undertaken at the University of Michigan. They are attempting to create robots smaller than a grain of sand and have already shown how chains of self-assembling particles could serve as electrically activated muscles in tiny machines.

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‘Hand-made’ pills inspired by a starfish (Day 153)

I’ve blogged a few times over the past five months about 3D printing. It’s one of those technological developments which has attracted the attention of chemical engineers, despite some apparent anomalies.

Our profession spends much of its time producing items on a massive scale. We deal in huge volumes which provide food, energy, water and healthcare to hundreds of millions of people.

By contrast, 3D-printing operates in small numbers – even ones and twos. In fact, I think 3D-printing is synonymous with the phrase ‘hand-made’ – unique, custom-designed, high quality and carefully crafted. Who knows, 3D printing may herald the end of some traditional skills.

StarfishAnother fascinating feature of 3D-printing is its ability to produce or mimic things we find difficult. An example is the shell of a starfish.

Echinoderm sea creatures such as brittle stars have ordered rounded structures on their bodies that work as lenses to gather light into their rudimentary eyes. Under the microscope, the shell looks like little hot air balloons that are rising from the surface.

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Digital brain implants and Rubik’s cubes (Day 90)

man in computerWhen you think of data storage, I think it would be safe to assume that water is not the first thing that comes to mind. Rather it is hardware and electronic components that we associate with storing our information, such as saving documents on a USB pen drive or computer hard-drives.

Chemical engineers from the University of Michigan, in collaboration with researchers at New York University, US, have developed a colloidal cluster arrangement of nanoparticles that could lead to a form of wet information storage.

The team, led by Sharon Glotzer, the Stuart W. Churchill Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Michigan, have discovered a new method for storing data in microscopic particles suspended in a solution, also referred to as “wet computing”.

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Marilyn Monroe tackles drug counterfeiters (Day 73)

Film with hidden image

Terry Shyu, MSE PhD Student, demonstrates use of nanopillars that reveal hidden images via condensation of fluid on the structures. Image credit: Joseph Xu

Drug counterfeiting is big business. It’s a global problem made even easier when you consider a third of all countries have little or no medicine regulation.

Poorer countries are most at risk. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimate one in ten drug products are fake.

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