This 20-cent whirligig toy, the paperfuge, can replace a $1,000 medical centrifuge


Centrifuges, which separate materials in fluids by spinning them at great speed, are found in medical labs worldwide. But a good one could run you a couple grand and, of course, requires electricity — neither of which are things you’re likely to find in a rural clinic in an impoverished country. Stanford researchers have created an alternative that costs just a few cents and runs without a charge, based on a children’s toy with surprising qualities.

It’s a whirligig, and it’s a simple construction: a small disc, probably a button, through which you thread a piece of string twice. By pulling on the threads carefully, you can make the button spin quite quickly. You may very well have made one as a child — as Saad Bhamla, one of the creators of what they call the Paperfuge, did.

“This is a toy that I used to play with as a kid,” he says in a video produced by the university. “The puzzle was that I didn’t know how fast it would spin. So I got intrigued and I set this up on a high-speed camera — and I couldn’t believe my eyes.”

The whirligig was spinning at around 10,000 to 15,000 RPMs, right in centrifuge territory. The team then spent some time intensely studying the motion of the whirligig, which turns out to be a fascinatingly efficient way to turn linear motion into rotational motion.

The team then put together a custom whirligig with a disc of paper into which can be slotted a vial with blood or other fluids. By pulling on the strings (they added handles for ease of use) for a minute or two, less than a dollar’s worth of materials does a superb job of replicating the work of a device that costs thousands of times more. They’ve achieved RPMs of 125,000 and 30,000 G-forces.

“There is a value in this whimsical nature of searching for solutions, because it really forces us outside our own sets of constraints about what a product should actually look like,” said Manu Prakash.
They’ve just returned from field tests in Madagascar, where they tested the device and checked in with local caregivers. Up next will be more formal clinical trials of the Paperfuge’s already demonstrated ability to separate malaria parasites from blood for analysis.

If the concept of a simple, cheap alternative to existing lab equipment rings a bell, you might be remembering Foldscope, another project from Prakash. It put a powerful microscope in flatpack form for a few bucks, enabling scientific or medical examination at very low budgets.

The details of the Paperfuge and its development by Bhamla, Prakash and the rest of the team can be found in the most recent issue of Nature Biomedical Engineering:

This 20-cent whirligig toy can replace a $1,000 medical centrifuge

Thanks to Kebmodee for bringing this to the It’s Interesting community.

Bass battles blaze: George Mason students invent sound-based fire extinguisher

Two engineering students at George Mason University have created a potentially revolutionary fire extinguisher that uses sound to fight blazes.

The brainchild of engineering seniors Viet Tran and Seth Robertson, the device uses low frequency sound waves to extinguish fires.

According to its makers, the device could be used in a number of settings, from a kitchen stovetop to tackling large infernos. For example, the extinguisher could be attached to a drone for fighting forest and building fires, keeping firefighters out of harm’s way.

Tran and Robertson hold a preliminary patent application for their invention.

50-Cent Origami Microscope Could Help Fight Malaria

When Manu Prakash, PhD, wants to impress lab visitors with the durability of his Origami-based paper microscope, he throws it off a three-story balcony, stomps on it with his foot and dunks it into a water-filled beaker. Miraculously, it still works.

Even more amazing is that this microscope — a bookmark-sized piece of layered cardstock with a micro-lens — only costs about 50 cents in materials to make.

Prakash’s dream is that this ultra-low-cost microscope will someday be distributed widely to detect dangerous blood-borne diseases like malaria, African sleeping sickness, schistosomiasis and Chagas.

“I wanted to make the best possible disease-detection instrument that we could almost distribute for free,” said Prakash. “What came out of this project is what we call use-and-throw microscopy.”

The Foldscope can be assembled in minutes, includes no mechanical moving parts, packs in a flat configuration, is extremely rugged and can be incinerated after use to safely dispose of infectious biological samples. With minor design modifications, it can be used for bright-field, multi-fluorescence or projection microscopy.

One of the unique design features of the microscope is the use of inexpensive spherical lenses rather than the precision-ground curved glass lenses used in traditional microscopes. These poppy-seed-sized lenses were originally mass produced in various sizes as an abrasive grit that was thrown into industrial tumblers to knock the rough edges off metal parts. In the simplest configuration of the Foldscope, one 17-cent lens is press-fit into a small hole in the center of the slide-mounting platform. Some of his more sophisticated versions use multiple lenses and filters.

To use a Foldscope, a sample is mounted on a microscope slide and wedged between the paper layers of the microscope. With a thumb and forefinger grasping each end of the layered paper strip, a user holds the micro-lens close enough to one eye that eyebrows touch the paper. Focusing and locating a target object are achieved by flexing and sliding the paper platform with the thumb and fingers.

Because of the unique optical physics of a spherical lens held close to the eye, samples can be magnified up to 2,000 times. (To the right are two disease-causing microbes, Giardia lamblia and Leishmania donovani, photographed through a Foldscope.)

The Foldscope can be customized for the detection of specific organisms by adding various combinations of colored LED lights powered by a watch battery, sample stains and fluorescent filters. It can also be configured to project images on the wall of a dark room.

In addition, Prakash is passionate about mass-producing the Foldscope for educational purposes, to inspire children — our future scientists — to explore and learn from the microscopic world.

In a recent Stanford bioengineering course, Prakash used the Foldscope to teach students about the physics of microscopy. He had the entire class build their own Foldscope. Then teams wrote reports on microscopic observations or designed Foldscope accessories, such a smartphone camera attachment.

Stanford bioengineer develops a 50-cent paper microscope

Thanks to Kebmodee for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

Chaac Ha Water Collector: Students-Designed Water-Collector, Harvests 2.5L of Drinking Water Each Night From Dew



With an idea to provide clean water consistently to rural Mexican communities where access is limited, students in the Yucatan region of Southern Mexico designed Chaac Ha Water Collector. This concept had won an award for its innovative ways of harvesting water. Along with rainwater, it can also collect up to 2.5 liters of water each night from dew alone. Amazingly, this water-harvesting concept is portable.

The Chaac Ha design-students named it after the Mayan god of rain.

On observing natural processes, the students had designed this concept. While designing the structure and texture of the membrane that captures the water, they had derived their ideas from bromeliads, which draw moisture and nutrients from the atmosphere. The bromeliad leaves are hydrophobic; their microscopic irregularities facilitate water to channel into a single reservoir. Likewise, the students have used Teflon in the case of Chaac Ha design. Its structure resembles spider web and it is inflatable for full portability.

Last year, the Chaac Ha system was recognized with the Autodesk Sustainability Workshop award. The awarded students were Diana Carolina Vega Basto, Luis Didier Cox Tamay, Andy Francisco Arjona Massa, Cindy Beatriz, Shirley Molina, and Álvaro Jesús Buenfil Ovando, from the Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán, Mérida.

Thanks to Kebmodee for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

Life jacket helps disabled goldfish swim

Einstein developed swim bladder disease, which caused him to turn upside down and sink to the bottom of his tank.

His owner, warehouse worker Leighton Naylor, was so distressed by the sight of his struggling pet, he knew he had to take matters into his own hands.

“He’s always been a fighter so when he sunk to the bottom one day and couldn’t get back up again it was a very sorry sight. It broke my heart to see him so helpless. He looked so depressed,” said the 32-year-old from Blackpool.

He made Einstein a “floating frame” from recycled tubing, which fits perfectly over the fish’s two-inch long body.

“I wanted to build something that would allow Einstein to move his fins a little bit and be comfortable at the same time,” he said.

“He wriggled a bit a first and he wasn’t too keen on the idea. He kept catching on to plants and getting stuck but since I’ve rearranged the tank to make it disability friendly he’s been absolutely fine.”

The Super Supercapacitor: Graphene super capacitor could make batteries obsolete

A Feb. 21, 2013 article in Rewire reports on a breakthrough in power storage that hold the promise to change the world. Researchers at UCLA have found a way to create what is in effect a super capacitor that can be charged quickly and will hold more electricity than standard batteries. What’s more, it is made with Graphene, a simply carbon polymer that, unlike batteries that have toxic metals in them, is environmentally benign and is not only biodegradable but compostable.

The researchers expect that the manufacturing process for the Graphene super capacitor can be refined for mass production.

The real world applications of an energy storage device that can be charged quickly and can hold as much if not more electricity as batteries is mind blowing.

For instance, electronic devices such as cell phones and tablet computers can be charged in seconds and not for hours and would hold a charge for longer than devices with standard batteries. This will diminish those annoying instances when one’s device suddenly goes dead for lack of energy.

Eventually the technology can be scaled up for electric cars or storage devices for wind turbines and solar collectors. Currently it takes hours to charge up an electric car. Such vehicles would become more viable if one can “refuel” them as quickly as one can a gasoline powered car.

This is all predicated on the notion that the technology lives up to its promise and doesn’t have a flaw, as yet uncovered, that will undermine it. In the meantime the UCLA researchers are looking for an industrial partner to build their super capacitor units on an industrial scale.

$300 dollar glasses sold on Amazon will correct colorblindness


Mark Changizi and Tim Barber turned research on human vision and blood flow into colorblindness-correcting glasses you can buy on Amazon. Here’s how they did it.

About 10 years ago, Mark Changizi started to develop research on human vision and how it could see changes in skin color. Like many academics, Changizi, an accomplished neurobiologist, went on to pen a book. The Vision Revolution challenged prevailing theories–no, we don’t see red only to spot berries and fruits amid the vegetation–and detailed the amazing capabilities of why we see the way we do.

If it were up to academia, Changizi’s story might have ended there. “I started out in math and physics, trying to understand the beauty in these fields,” he says, “You are taught, or come to believe, that applying something useful is inherently not interesting.”

Not only did Changizi manage to beat that impulse out of himself, but he and Tim Barber, a friend from middle school, teamed up several years ago to form a joint research institute. 2AI Labs allows the pair to focus on research into cognition and perception in humans and machines, and then to commercialize it. The most recent project? A pair of glasses with filters that just happen to cure colorblindness.

Changizi and Barber didn’t set out to cure colorblindness. Changizi just put forth the idea that humans’ ability to see colors evolved to detect oxygenation and hemoglobin changes in the skin so they could tell if someone was scared, uncomfortable or unhealthy. “We as humans blush and blanche, regardless of overall skin tone,” Barber explains, “We associate color with emotion. People turn purple with anger in every culture.” Once Changizi fully understood the connection between color vision and blood physiology, Changizi determined it would be possible to build filters that aimed to enhance the ability to see those subtle changes by making veins more or less distinct–by sharpening the ability to see the red-green or blue-yellow parts of the spectrum. He and Barber then began the process of patenting their invention.

When they started thinking about commercial applications, Changizi and Barber both admit their minds went straight to television cameras. Changizi was fascinated by the possibilities of infusing an already-enhanced HDTV experience with the capacity to see colors even more clearly.

“We looked into cameras photo receptors and decided that producing a filter for a camera would be too difficult and expensive,” Barber says. The easiest possible approach was not electronic at all, he says. Instead, they worked to develop a lens that adjusts the color signal that hits the human eye and the O2Amp was born.

The patented lens technology simply perfects what the eye does naturally: it read the changes in skin tone brought on by a flush, bruise, or blanch. The filters can be used in a range of products from indoor lighting (especially for hospital trauma centers) to windows, to perhaps eventually face cream. For now, one of the most promising applications is in glasses that correct colorblindness.

As a veteran entrepreneur, founding Clickbank and Keynetics among other ventures, Barber wasn’t interested in chasing the perfect color filter for a demo pair of glasses. “If you look for perfection you could spend a million dollars. And it is just a waste of time,” he says. A bunch of prototypes were created, and rejected. Some were too shiny, others too iridescent. “We finally found something that worked to get the tone spectrum we wanted and to produce a more interesting view of the world.”

What they got was about 90 percent of the way to total color enhancement across three different types of lenses: Oxy-Iso, Hemo-Iso, and Oxy-Amp. While the Amp, which boosts the wearer’s general perception of blood oxygenation under the skin (your own vision, but better), is the centerpiece of the technology, it was the Oxy-Iso, the lens that isolates and enhances the red-green part of the spectrum, that generated some unexpected feedback from users. Changizi says the testers told them that the Oxy-Iso lens appeared to “cure” their colorblindness.

Changizi knew this was a possibility, as the filter concentrates enhancement exactly where red-green colorblind people have a block. Professor Daniel Bor, a red-green colorblind neuroscientist at the University of Sussex tried them and was practically giddy with the results. Changizi published Bor’s testimony on his blog: “When I first put one of them on [the Oxy-Iso,], I got a shiver of excitement at how vibrant and red lips, clothes and other objects around me seemed. I’ve just done a quick 8 plate Ishihara colour blindness test. I scored 0/8 without the specs (so obviously colour blind), but 8/8 with them on (normal colour vision)!”

Despite these early testimonials, the pair thought that the O2Amp glasses would be primarily picked up by hospitals. The Hemo-Iso filter enhances variations along the yellow-blue dimension, which makes it easier for healthcare providers to see veins. “It’s a little scary to think about people drawing blood who can’t see see the veins,” Barber says. EMT workers were enthusiastic users thanks to the Hemo-Iso’s capability of making bruising more visible.

From there, Barber and Changizi embarked on a two-year odyssey to find a manufacturer to make the eyewear that would enable them to sell commercially. Through 2AI Labs, they were able push their discoveries into mainstream applications without having to rely on grants; any funding they earn from their inventions is reinvested. They also forewent some of the traditional development steps. “We bootstrapped the bench testing and we didn’t do any market research,” Barber says.

Plenty of cold calling to potential manufacturers ensued. “As scientists talking to manufacturers, it seemed like we were speaking a different language,” Barber says. Not to mention looking strange as they walked around wearing the purple and green-tinted glasses at trade shows. Changizi says they finally got lucky last year and found a few manufacturers able to produce the specialized specs. All are available on Amazon for just under $300.

Changizi and Barber aren’t done yet. In addition to overseeing sales reps who are trying to get the glasses into the hands of more buyers, the two are in talks with companies such as Oakley and Ray-Ban to put the technology into sunglasses. Imagine, says Changizi, if you could more easily see if you are getting a sunburn at the beach despite the glare. They’re testing a mirrored O2Amp lens specially for poker players (think: all the better to see the flush of a bluffer). Changizi says they are also working with cosmetics companies to embed the technology in creams that would enhance the skin’s vasculature. Move over Hope in a Jar. Barber says it’s not clear how profitable any of this will be yet: “We just want the technology to be used.”