Tag Archives: production technologies

Are we ready to meet ET?

Once only science fiction, astronomers are now finding hundreds of planetary systems beyond our own. Given recent discoveries through space exploration, it is entirely feasible that we may soon discover the existence of extra-terrestrial life (ET) forms on other planets.

The idea of extra-terrestrial life forms fascinates some and terrifies others. And even though our search for ET never quite panned out, we never stopped looking.

However, could this all be about to change following the discovery of hundreds of exoplanets (planets outside our Solar System), and thousands of candidate exoplanetary systems, some of which might be habitable for life.


Speaking about these momentous discoveries at the Cambridge Science Festival on March 16, NASA’s Dr Jennifer Wiseman will reveal how these exoplanets may provide evidence of biological activity, and discuss the profound invigoration of scientific and related religious and philosophical thought this might inspire if we find that life could thrive beyond Earth.

In a recent interview, Dr Wiseman said: “It’s a very exciting time for astronomy; we are finding a plethora of planets around other stars, including some that may be similar to Earth in size and temperature. The question that humans have had for centuries – whether or not there are planets similar to our own around other stars – seems more and more to be best answered as, ‘Yes!’”

It is expected that there is at least one planet, on average, orbiting around each star in our Milky Way galaxy, resulting in hundreds of billions of exoplanets, some fraction of which are the size of Earth at similar distances from their parent stars as Earth is to the Sun. These staggering numbers means there is a real possibility that we are on the verge of discovering our twin. If so, could this also mean the discovery of alien life forms similar to humans? And, what could this mean for humanity’s self-image if we were to discover that we are not unique or alone in the universe?

As Senior Project Scientist for NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and Director of the Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Dr Wiseman is uniquely placed to provide both insights into the latest developments in the search for inhabitable exoplanets, as well as reflections on philosophical and religious implications of finding life on another planet.

From identifying seismic wave activity and colour patterns on these other worlds, to the use of enormous telescopes that could potentially hunt for evidence of alien life by their atmospheres, astronomers are continuing to find new ways to look for that tantalising hint of life.

In January this year, astronomers announced the discovery of an Earth-like exoplanet candidate orbiting a star similar to our Sun in the ‘habitable zone’ – the area around a star within which it is theoretically possible for water to exist on a planet’s surface (and therefore also the possibility of supporting life). And in February, Harvard researchers identified three planets as ‘objects of interest’ – meaning they could also be potentially habitable.

Harvard astronomer and lead author Courtney Dressing, who presented the findings at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said: “We thought we would have to search vast distances to find an Earth-like planet. Now we realise another Earth is probably in our own backyard, waiting to be spotted.”

In addition, the World Economic Forum Global Risks report for 2013 states that, “Given the pace of space exploration, it is increasingly conceivable that we may discover the existence of alien life or other planets that could support human life. … In 10 years’ time, we may have evidence not only that Earth is not unique, but also that life exists elsewhere in the universe.”

The report continued, “The discovery of even simple life would fuel speculation about the existence of other intelligent beings and challenge many assumptions that underpin human philosophy and religion.”

Professor Meric Srokosz, Associate Director of The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, Cambridge (the organisers of the event) said: “This is a unique opportunity to hear a genuine expert in her field, and to learn and think about one of the questions that continues to fascinate: is there life out there in the universe?”


Researchers developing 3D printer, ‘bio-ink’ to create human organs

Researchers in the University of Iowa Center for Computer aided Design’s Advanced Manufacturing Technology (AMTecH) group are refining equipment and techniques that may result in the 3D printing of human organs and tissue some five or 10 years from now.

Experts agree that rising Chinese labor costs and improving U.S. technology will gradually cause significant manufacturing activity to return to the United States. When it does, a new interdisciplinary manufacturing venture called the Advanced Manufacturing Technology (AMTecH) group at the University of Iowa College of Engineering’s Center for Computer Aided Design (CCAD) will likely help lead the charge.


AMTecH was formed to design, create, and test—both virtually and physically—a wide variety of electromechanical and biomedical components, systems and processes. Currently, the group is working on projects ranging from printed circuit boards for automobiles and aircraft to replacement parts for damaged and failing human organs and tissue, says Tim Marler, AMTecH co-director.

“Electromechanical systems are one of two current branches of the AMTecHgroup,” he says. “We want to simulate, analyze and test printed circuit boards and assemblies, because they are used in a wide range of products from missiles to power plants to cell phones.

“The second branch of the group involves biomanufacturing and is led by my colleague and AMTecH co-director Ibrahim Ozbolat, assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering,” says Marler. “The long-term goal of this branch is to create functioning human organs some five or 10 years from now. This is not far-fetched.”

Using its facilities for engineering living tissue systems, the Biomanufacturing Laboratory at CCAD is working to develop and refine various 3D printing processes required for organ and tissue fabrication, Ozbolat says.

“One of the most promising research activities is bioprinting a glucose-sensitive pancreatic organ that can be grown in a lab and transplanted anywhere inside the body to regulate the glucose level of blood,” says Ozbolat. He adds that the 3D printing, as well as virtual electronic manufacturing, being conducted at AMTecH are done nowhere else in Iowa.

In fact, the multi-arm bio printer being used in the lab is unique. Ozbolat and Howard Chen, a UI doctoral student in industrial engineering, designed it and Chen built it. It turns out that managing multiple arms without having them collide with one another is difficult enough that other printers used in other parts of the world avoid the problem by using simpler designs calling for single-arm printing. As Chen continues to refine his and Ozbolat’s design, the UI printer currently gives the UI researchers a distinct advantage.

While bioprinters at other institutions use one arm with multiple heads to print multiple materials one after the other, the UI device with multiple arms can print several materials concurrently. This capability offers a time-saving advantage when attempting to print a human organ because one arm can be used to create blood vessels while the other arm is creating tissue-specific cells in between the blood vessels.

The biomanufacturing group, which consists of researchers from various disciplines including industrial, mechanical, electrical, polymer and biomedical engineers as well as medical researchers, is working on this and other projects, and collaborates with Dr. Nicholas Zavazava, professor of internal medicine, in the UI Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine. The group also works with researchers from the college’s Ignacio V. Ponsetti Biochemistry and Cell Biology Laboratory.

In addition to receiving support from the National Institutes of Health for the artificial pancreas research, AMTecH is looking forward to continued support from the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) as well as seed funding from the UI for fostering commercialization of a new software product.

“When you look at the U.S. manufacturing environment and relevant technology, this is a perfect time to launch AMTecH,” says Marler, who also serves as associate research scientist at CCAD and senior research scientist at CCAD’s renowned Virtual Soldier Research program.