Thursday, January 26, 2006

Advanced Sensing – Critical technology for many applications

Sensors are advancing thanks to achievements in the MEMs realm. Multifunctional sensors are now possible due to improvements in silicon, microprocessor technology, and communications. In this article the author describes the technology behind a MEMS-based sensor system.

Advanced sensors require ultra pure materials and ultra clean manufacturing combined with integrated electronic devices using surface mount technology. These sensors have built-in intelligence and are integrated with multifunctional sensors, and sometimes integrated with actuators. Advanced sensors impact manufacturing, avionics, optics, space satellites, biotechnology and more.

There are numerous types of advanced sensors. Inertial sensors for navigation include laser gyros, fiber optic gyros, and micro accelerometers. Piezoresistive microsensors use micro surface etching on polysilicon micro structures. Humidity and gas sensors are using polymers as substrates for their temperature and absorption control characteristics. Electronic “Nose” technology is used for measuring toxic chemicals. Enzyme and microbial sensors for food processing and medical testing. MEMs sensors are also used for temperature and magnetic measurements.

The Tifac organization in India developed a strategy paper outlining the technology trends in advanced sensors and offers an overview of the sensors under development today.

NASA pursues advanced sensing in microgravity applications using MEMs rather than electromechanical systems to decrease size, weight, and power consumption.

The MASS (Micro Actuators, Sensors, and Systems) group from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign focuses their research on implementing advanced sensors on polymer substrates rather than silicon since polymer is more conformal. It can be formed to fit as a “skin” or interwoven into other devices.

Virtual Instrumentation plays a key part in the implementation of advanced sensors. The California Energy Commission used LabVIEW to collect data from the use of advanced sensors in engine combustion to reduce NO and CO levels.

The Navy uses LabVIEW and advanced sensors for shipboard monitoring.

Universities use LabVIEW with advanced sensors for educational purposes.

In subsequent posts we’ll look at the details of specific advanced sensors.

Best regards,
Hall T.

Monday, January 23, 2006

R&D Magazines’ Hot Technologies for 2006—Seems like old times

R&D Magazine ran their Hot Technologies survey and came up with a ranking of the top technologies to watch for 2006. The top fifteen are

1. Anti-bioterrorism devices
2. Fuel cells
3. Nanotechnology
4. Battery/chemical energy
5. Carbon nanotubes
6. Drug delivery systems
7. Solar/wind power
8. Wireless communications
9. Bioinformatics
10. Artificial Implants
11. Environmental analysis
12. Lab-on-a-chip systems
13. RFID
14. Wireless/remote sensing
15. Drug discovery

The list is similar to last year’s and reflects current funding trends by the government along with current trends. For example the rising cost of oil pushed up the technologies related to solar/wind power and nuclear.

The article goes on to describe the life cycle of hot technologies and indicates that it takes 15 years for a technology to go from discovery to commercial product and it takes on average six years to go from discovery to hot technology.

In this blog we’ll look at a number of these technologies from a technology and application perspective.

Best regards,
Hall T.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Biomarkers – Lab Testing in the Next Generation

According to the Biotech dictionary a Biomarker is a “pharmacological or physiological measurement which is used to predict a toxic event in an animal.” Typing “Biomarker definition” into Google provides a host of associated definitions. Biomarkers are part of the new health model based on the human genome which provides predictive, preventive health care by searching for molecular signs of infectious agents or environmental toxins, or defective genes.

Biomarkers have application in disease management and modification. For example biomarkers drawn from a simple blood test for amniocentesis would eliminate the invasive procedure currently used. Cancer therapy could be greatly enhanced with biomarkers.

According to the LabSoft News Blog, biomarkers are different from analytes which detect chemicals in the blood stream in that biomarkers correlate to a particular perturbation of a biological system. The blog goes on to discuss how biomarkers are typically used in followup cases of conditions such as cancer rather than in prediction or screening for those conditions. In another post at this site, the blog predicts biomarkers will bring differentiation to a lab’s test offering and thus, increased revenue streams.

As an emerging technology, Biomarkers now have their own conference focused on applying biomarkers in clinical trials. The Fuji-Keizai market research report pegs the Biomarker market at $6B covering Academic, Government, Private segments.

Techniques for measuring biomarkers include DNA adducts, protein adducts, immunoaffinity chromatography and immunohistochemistry. These techniques employ chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS), GC/high resolution Mass Spectrometry, fluorescence, diode array and radioactivity detection, and immunohistochemistry.

Let’s look at some of these techniques more closely. An adduct is a complex that forms when a chemical binds to a biological molecule such as DNA or protein. For example, DNA adducts are altered forms of DNA that occur from exposure to carcinogens. A DNA adduct can be repaired to return to its original state or can be turned into a mutation.

Immunoaffinity chromatography is a method of purifying plasma proteins using monoclonal antibodies.

Immunohistochemistry is the use of antibodies or antisera as histological tools for identifying patterns of antigen distribution within a tissue or an organism. An antibody (or mixture of antibodies) that binds to a specific protein or other antigen is tagged with a fluorescent chemical or an enzyme that can convert a substrate to a visible dye.

Virtual Instrumentation brings tools to support the biomarker discovery process. This team in China used LabVIEW to improve the sample flow process. Another team in China used LabVIEW to control a microfluidic system seeking Interleukin-8 (IL-8) mRNA and protein biomarkers for oral cancer. A team from the University of Basel created a liquid handling system driven by LabVIEW for biomarker discovery.

Numerous companies are working in this space. Nanosphere makes biomarkers for protein detection which they call Biobarcode. Biomarkers Inc uses biomarkers for age-related diseases. BioVisioN created a process for analyzing peptides and proteins for biomarker discovery.

The discovery of the human genome brought a new age to biological testing. The biomarker is one example of an emerging technology that is coming to fruition.

Best regards,
Hall T.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Measurement for Emerging Technologies --- The UK Initiative

While the USA is often seen as the leader in technology development, smaller developed countries sometimes make clear the direction technology is going. New Zealand is a typical bellwether country in adoption of new technologies. Due to its smaller size, it can roll out new technologies more quickly than the USA and so it’s interesting to watch what they do with early phase technologies.

In the area of Measurement the UK, has created an initiative called Measurement for Emerging Technologies (MET) supported by several National Labs.

They focus on five key areas:
- Advanced Materials
- Medical Technologies
- Communication Technologies
- Technologies for Energy and the Environment
- Manufacturing Technologies

Advanced materials includes Organic Light Emitting Diodes (OLEDs), polymer LEDS (PLEDS), and e-paper useful for organic and printable electronics, and displays. The key measurement issues here include:
1. Novel methods to characterize the chemical composition of organic multilayer materials using new C60 ion beam technology
2. Reliable and reproducible measurement methods for charge mobility of organic materials and conductivity of nano structured thin films
3. Improved measurement of the optical properties of display materials for product development and quality control.

A second initiative here seeks to develop measurement techniques for multifunctional materials (e.g. magnetic, electronic, optical, etc).
In the medical area new technologies related to tissue engineering and point of care diagnostics come to the front. For tissue engineering, the UK team proposes research into stem cells. To advance this effort, they are looking into biomarkers to identify and characterize biological indicators of a model cell therapy system and early tissue construct.
Diagnostics are moving from the lab to the point of care (POC) in the form of handheld devices. Glucose monitors and other test systems in the hands of the patient to use at home will become common. The MET proposes a series of projects for measuring the performance of such devices and calibrating the results to “gold standard” tests in the lab.

In the area of communications, MET seeks to investigate wireless sensor networks which consist of ad-hoc networks with fault-tolerant communications. There is a need for measuring communications robustness, capability, and reliability.

In the area of energy, MET focuses on fuel cells. The project focuses on the durability of fuel cell systems rather than manufacturing costs.

In the area of manufacturing, MET focuses on two initiatives: Micro and nano particulate measurement, and bioprocessing. Nano particulate measurements include size and distribution of particles under 100 nm. Bio-processing focuses on process improvements using genomics, proteomics, cell culture, fermentation, and bioengineering. The initiative seeks to develop new probe and measurement techniques to complement microfluidic and microarray processes.

Throughout this year, we’ll focus on each of these topics and discuss the underlying technology and advancements along the way.

Hall T.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Welcome to Emerging Technologies for Virtual Instrumentation—Year 2006

I hope you had a great holiday. Mine was quite nice. We drove to Dallas to see my family and then on to Kansas to see my wife’s family. As we begin a new year, I want to take a moment and thank those who sent comments and questions to me over the past year related to Emerging Technologies. I always appreciate hearing from those who are working on new and innovative areas.

For those who are new to this blog, I work for National Instruments and investigate emerging technologies and how they relate to Virtual Instrumentation. For those who ask what is an emerging technology, Wharton defines it as “a science-based innovation with the potential to create a new industry or transform an existing industry." There are many exciting innovations going on in the computer, electronics, life science, software, and consumer industries. All of these have an impact on virtual instrumentation. I listed a number of these technologies in the banner at the top of this page. Unfortunately, the character count limitation does not allow me to list all technologies, but watch this blog and you’ll see a host of new technologies that may impact your business or application.

In the coming year you’ll see posts on Measurement Systems, Advanced Sensing, Wireless Sensors, Optical Sensing, Digital Signal Processing, Electronic “Nose Technology”, MRI, Developments in Telemetry, Wireless Technologies and Techniques, Mesh Networks—Software, Microwave, Sensor Arrays, Advanced Controls, Predictive Controls, and MEMS Technologies to name just a few.

If you have a topic you think I should cover, please contact me. Also, we hold a meeting once a year in Austin, Texas, during NI Week for those who want to discuss emerging technologies. During NI Week, we provide several sessions on various technical topics with scientists, engineers, and others. I invite you to join us at the upcoming NI Week in August of this year.
With that I wish you a happy New Year.

Best regards,
Hall T.