May 13, 2008

Cold-Weather Robot is Finalist For Top Engineering Award

A cold-weather robot designed to care for frozen biological samples is one of four finalists in the running for the annual MacRobert award. The prize, awarded by Britain's Royal Academy of Engineering, recognizes engineering and technological innovation.

The sub-zero robot, called the Polar system, is already used at Britain's Biobank, a major medical research facility. Designed by the Automation Partnership, the system will guard 10 million human blood and fluid samples at -80C for 25 years, while allowing access to scientists at any time.

Other finalists include a tiny silicon sensor that detects explosives or toxic chemicals, the first commercially available bionic hand and an advanced filter to remove soot from diesel engines.

The Polar system consists of a series of ultra-low temperature compartments designed to hold urine and blood samples that can be accessed by robotic arms at any given time. Cooled by liquid-nitrogen, the store, used by pharmaceutical companies as well as the UK Biobank, will collect samples from more than 500,000 volunteers and is designed so scientists do not have to enter a refrigerated area to recover or deposit samples.

The store will be used as tool by researchers investigating a range of life-threatening illnesses such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Already, data from more than 100,000 volunteers are stored at the facility.

The Polar system is one of three technologies with potential medical benefits that were selected as finalists in the contest. A chemical sensor, designed by Cambridge University spin-off Owlstone, also has therapeutic payoffs in that it can detect trace amounts of a wide variety of chemicals using a patented technique called Field Asymmetric Ion Mass Spectroscopy (FAIMS).

Using this technique, the sensor determines compounds by analyzing how charged forms move through a gas under electric fields. Each substance has its own unique signature, and the sensor can be programmed to look for different chemical fingerprints, such as those found in fumes during the initial stages of a fire.

Another potential use for the sensor is as a "breathalyzer" to diagnose illnesses by analyzing chemicals on a patient's breath. Some conditions, such as asthma, cystic fibrosis and some forms of cancer, cause the patient to exhale certain chemical markers of the disease.

The third medical technology selected by the panel of judges was a prosthetic device with five individually powered digits, known as the i-LIMB hand. Originally designed in 1963 by researchers at Edinburgh's Princess Margaret Rose Hospital who wanted to assist children affected by Thalidomide. It has taken more than four decades for a commercial product based on the design to be built.

"Since we launched it in July 2007 over 200 patients have been fitted with it all over the world," said Stuart Mead, chief executive of the firm, told BBC News.

One of the first patients to be fitted with a device was Donald McKillop, whose right hand as amputated following complications from an accident.

"The most important thing is the movement of the fingers, that's what really makes the difference," he told BBC News.

"It's truly incredible to see the fingers moving and gripping around objects that I haven't been able to pick up before."

The final nominee for the award is a dense, soot filter for diesel cars designed by engineers at Johnson Matthey. The filter uses engine heat to control emissions of hydrocarbon, carbon monoxide and soot, and represents an improvement over the efficiency of filters fitted inside the lower temperature exhaust.

"We have already exported over 1.5 million of these filters for use in European cars ahead of new emissions control legislation which comes into force from 2009", Dr Martyn Twigg of the firm told BBC News.

"These alone will stop millions kilograms of soot entering the atmosphere over the life of these vehicles."

Johnson Matthey was previously awarded the MacRobert prize for technology used to control soot emissions from buses and trucks.

The winner of this year's MacRobert award will be announced at a ceremony June 9 in London.