A living computer

US scientists have grown a living "brain" in a glass dish that may one day be used as a computer to fly a plane, or handle dangerous tasks.

The "brain" which comprises 25,000 living neurons - or nerve cells, was taken from a rat and cultured inside the glass dish, providing a window into the brain at the cellular level.

As a living computer, the creation may someday be used to fly small, unmanned airplanes or handle tasks that are dangerous for humans such as search and rescue, say researchers at the University of Florida.

The experimental "brain" is attached to a simulated aircraft programme, and has already learned some basic operations.

Built on a specially designed plate with 60 electrodes arranged in a grid at the bottom, the dish was overlaid with living cortical neurons from rats, which rapidly begin to reconnect themselves, forming a living neural network. It was then connected to an F-22 fighter jet flight simulator through called a multi-electrode array and a common desktop computer.

The brain and the simulator establish a connection, similar to how neurons receive and interpret signals from each other to control our bodies. Individual neurons extend microscopic lines toward each other, making connections that represent neural processes.

The neurons then analyse the data from the simulated environment and respond by sending signals to the plane's controls. Those signals alter the flight path and new information is sent to the neurons, creating a feedback system.

Although the brain is able to control the pitch and roll of the simulated aircraft in a range of weather conditions, the researchers' underlying goal is a more fundamental understanding of how neurons interact in a network and more elaborate applications are considered a long way off.

University of Florida, Tel: US 352.392.3261, http://www.ufl.edu/

Predicting how molecules and electrons interact

Predicting the effects of electron-molecule collisions is a critical science for researchers. Get your calculations wrong, and you may accidentally produce a noxious chemical like CFCs that will wreak havoc on the environment.

A new software system is now being developed to predict how molecules and electrons interact on a quantum subatomic level to take the place of expensive and time-consuming research.

The system, called Quantemol is expected to have a far-reaching impact on a number of scientific and manufacturing processes, such as etching silicon chips.

Electron-molecule interactions underpin an enormous range of environmental processes, but not all of the physics and chemistry behind them are well-understood.

Time-consuming and expensive experiments have to date been the only way to test out theories, but Quantemol, aims to offer an alternative means of calculating the effect of such processes from electron microscopy to creating new techniques for quantum computing.

It works by applying quantum molecular physics computer codes to investigate the scattering of electrons from molecules and the resulting complex electron-transfer reactions.

Its co-inventor Daniel Brown, founded his first software company at the age of just 13. As Entrepreneur in Residence at University College London, he has joined with other experts and professors, to create Quantemol.

A prototype of the system is currently being developed, and the software will initially be targeted at University researchers.

* The National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts has recently invested £80,000 in Quantemol.

Quantemol: http://www.quantemol.com/

A high-tech polymer coating

A new generation of impermeable CDs, DVDs and mobile phones has been born thanks to super-strong polymer coating that has been developed by Japanese scientists.

The hi-tech coating is transparent to a broad spectrum of light and thus suitable for an enormous number of uses including protecting the plastic surface of colour liquid crystal displays.

The developer of the technology, TDK, started out by developing a single-layer coating to make DVDs more resistant to scuffing, according to the report in New Scientist.

Its latest coating, however, is far stronger and applies two separate layers comprising fine silica particles to prevent scratches, and fluorine-containing resins to repel ink marks.

A curing agent called acetophenone, is also spread on top and cured by with ultraviolet light.

The new coating is also expected to boost the durability of the high-capacity Blu-ray recording discs that Sony, Philips and Panasonic hope to launch next year to supercede DVDs.

TDK has recently filed two new patents for the coating.

TDK, Tel: US (516) 535-2600, http://www.tdk.com

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