The future: it was once a vision of vacations to the moon; of the convenience of an entire meal in pill form; of a robot housecleaner à la Rosie from The Jetsons, and, of course, the flying car and jetpack. Fifty years ago, these technologies might have seen practical, but today, we realize how impractical these ideas are. It’s just a testament to how hard it is to predict the future. Thankfully, in this case, we won’t have to predict the future. As every sci-fi flick would have you believe, the future is now. The only difference is that this isn’t fiction; just in the past few months, scientists and engineers have been working hard to realize some amazing technologies, and I’ll feature a few incredible achievements here.
3-D Printing Could Save Your Life
If you haven’t yet climbed aboard the 3-D printing craze, you might want to reconsider. 3-D printing is exactly what it sounds like: a printer prints any 3-dimensional object that you’d like. This definitely qualifies as something that sounds like it’s from the future, but 3-D printing has actually been around since 1984. It wasn’t until the last ten years though that 3-D printing really took off. Now, with only a few thousand dollars, anyone can easily replicate their favorite trinket in a variety of materials. Some 3-D printers can even print themselves. In addition to recent reports of a successful 3-D printed skull implant and a Chinese housing company printing ten entire houses per day, 3-D printing was used earlier this year to potentially save someone’s life.
Garrett Peterson is afflicted with tracheomalacia. The tube that connects his airways to his lungs is compromised by tissue that is just too soft to support itself. Basically, Garrett will sometimes just stop breathing. Since Garrett is a newborn, his parents have to deal with the agony of their infant son toeing the line with death, sometimes turning completely blue in a matter of seconds. Doctors and engineers teamed up and used a 3-D printer to build a splint – custom-sized and shaped to fit Garrett perfectly and hold his windpipe in place. After the split was designed and printed, surgeons cut Garrett open earlier this year and put the splint in place. If that isn’t amazing enough, the splint is designed to expand as Garrett matures and will eventually dissolve in his body, allowing his windpipe to strengthen and replace the splint. 3-D printing looks to be the first example of the future existing in the present.
Lasers and Stem Cells
What could sound more futuristic? Lasers are powerful tools, not just used for directing eyes in a PowerPoint presentation or scanning groceries in the checkout lane. The ability to focus high-energy photons to the size of a tiny dot enables applications like cutting and welding and cauterizing. And stem cells have been painted as a nebulous technology rife with controversy but incredibly promising. Researchers at Harvard University found a way to combine the two futuristic-sounding technologies just a few months ago.
These bioengineers discovered that dental stem cells in rats could be triggered by lasers to regrow damaged teeth. They injured two rat molars, and then subjected one to a low-powered laser while the other was left as a control. They observed that after only five minutes of collimated light treatment, the tooth showed marked improvement compared to the untreated tooth. The research sounds far-off, but one of the scientists on the project now works for the National Institutes of Health, where he is attempting to extend this research to be used to cap teeth and prevent root canals – with lasers, of course.
Your Sixth Sense
The past example may have sounded like something that may take ages to be realized; ten, twenty, even fifty years may pass before scientists and engineers jump the hurdles required to implement this technology. And that’s often the way it is with research. However, this next example is already a huge success on Kickstarter and indicates that the future has arrived.
SCiO is as small as a key fob but has the capability to do some big things. Hook it up to your smart phone, point it at whatever you want (food, clothing, medicine), and almost instantly you will obtain information about the chemical composition. All molecules vibrate but only certain wavelengths of light activate this vibration. Near-infrared spectroscopy takes advantage of this fact and can be used to determine what atoms make up a molecule. This technique is packed into a compact, handheld size with SCiO, and the software leaves the data analysis to the science geeks. With SCiO, you just shine some light at your material and are immediately given facts and information about the chemicals that comprise it. Enjoy your future!