Archive for July, 2011

MIT Produces Vocal Cord Repairing Polymers

Sunday, July 24th, 2011

It never fails to astonish me. The minds fostered at MIT always seem to come up with truly incredible things. They have given us Ethernet, perfected radar and even invented those nifty little disposable razors that I couldn’t possibly live without. This summer they are working on giving people with damaged vocal chords back their lost voices. Are they growing new vocal cords in a lab? Are they getting organ donations? Are they giving volunteers small computers that can vocalize for them? Of course not! Obviously they’re using polymers!

This magical polymer is known as PEG30, which is a modified polyethylene glycol. It actually mimics the elastic properties of vocal chords. The technical term for the pliability of the vocal cords is viscoelasticity. PEG30 is flexible, durable and responds effortlessly to the movement of air. Simply put, normal lung power causes PEG30 to form the shapes needed for proper speech to be achieved.

PEG30 will mostly be used in individuals who have vocal cord scarring. This ailment is more common than you think. Vocal scarring generally occurs in children who have been intubated. In an emergency situation, where a child needs oxygen quickly, gentle treatment of the vocal cords is not at utmost priority. The British Singer/Actress Julie Andrews is likely the most famous example that comes to mind. In 1997 she underwent surgery to remove non-cancerous lesions from her throat. The subsequent vocal cord scarring that she suffered has never healed to this day, and has left her unable to sing.

Ms. Andrews plays a role in the current research being done into PEG30. Andrews approached the professor of laryngeal surgery, Steven Zeitals of Harvard University, concerning her dilemma. He had been developing a material that could be injected into scarred vocal tissue to lessen rigidity. When his research hit a wall he sought help from Robert Langer, a professor of chemical engineering for MIT. Together, they and their team have produced this wonderfully responsive vocal gel.

PEG30 is not yet in use today. It has however been found safe by the FDA. The hope is to use PEG30 in some injectable capacity. Human trials will begin in 2012, with a goal of having 10 test subjects. If PEG30 is found to be acceptable for mainstream use, %6 of the US population will have the ability and a reason to sing. I’m sure they won’t sing as well as Julie Andrews, but at least plastic helped to bring forth from them, the sound of music.

Plastic On the Frontlines of Anti-Counterfeiting

Sunday, July 24th, 2011

Since the death of barter and the birth of monetarism, a war has raged; a war between those who would earn (or steal) legitimate legal tender, and those who would counterfeit. This issue has gone on since before Cleopatra stamped her face onto bronze coins and continues on to current day. With no end in sight, what will save us from these thieves, pretenders and usurpers? Why, polymers of course!

The forefathers of plastic currency find their roots in the land down under. The University of Melbourne first developed notes composed of polymers in 1988 and the Reserve Bank of Australia were first to adopt them. These notes are made of biaxially-oriented polypropylene (BOPP) and are currently used in 32 countries around the world today. Australia took on the task to create these difficult to counterfeit bills, when in 1967 they noticed a spike in fake notes in circulation, with the advent of the color copier they feared this problem would increase drastically.

The practice of creating legal tender out of plastic heralds many advantages over paper threaded currency. For one, it is far more durable than paper; not having to replace destroyed currency has its obvious benefits. The notes are water proof; freeze proof and easily recycled into other useful items once they do finally wear out. This longer life cycle also reduces the environmental strain of manufacturing new bills. Besides durability and recyclability, plastic cash boasts security against counterfeiting which paper can never pretend to achieve.

The newest participant in the production of plastic notes is The Bank of Canada. In late June they unveiled their new $100 and $50 polymer notes. These notes will be in full circulation by March 2012, and they plan to create $20, $10 and $5 polymer notes by the end of 2013. Why the sudden switch to a completely plastic note system?

Much like the challenges Australia faced in 1967; Canada, starting in the early 2000’s has seen a dramatic spike in the circulation of counterfeit bills. In 2004 The Bank of Canada found that out of every one million paper notes in circulation, 470 of them were fakes. It may seem to be a small fraction of bogus notes to you or me, but it’s serious enough to raise alarm and devalue a currency. Whatever was The Bank of Canada to do?

When all hope was thought to be lost, a hero emerged from a newly upgraded mint, deep from within the reaches of The Bank of Canada. Equipped with the powers of raised lettering, embedded barcodes, large transparent windows with a portrait of the Tower of Peace etched upon it and an image of Prime Minister Robert Borden; the ability to change color when tilted at different angles and the most sophisticated holograph ever created. This hero came to save the Canadian monetary system and discourage and destroy the counterfeiters. This hero’s name is plastic, and plastic is so valuable that it can print its own money.