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Breakthroughs Magazine

Solutions Update

A guiding light for eye surgery

Eye surgery

Scientists at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are developing a new sensor that may help eye surgeons who often have to walk a fine line between helping a patient and risking additional damage. When attached to an endoscope, a tool used to operate on the back of the eye, the proximity sensor could alert surgeons when they are near critical retinal tissues. In the simplest of comparisons, the sensor is like the tennis-ball-on-a-string method that warns people not to pull their cars too far into the garage.

In the sensor, electricity and light are used to measure the distance between the endoscope's needle and the retina. If surgeons are within two millimeters, an audible alarm is triggered.

The system converts electricity into light and bounces it along the walls of a fiber smaller than a strand of hair. The light travels until it reaches the retina, where most of it is absorbed. The remaining light is reflected along the fiber. The device converts the reflected light back into an electric signal and translates the voltage level into a measurement of distance.

Through a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement, Pacific Northwest is teaming with Johns Hopkins University's Microsurgery Advanced Design Laboratory, or MADLAB, and Insight Instruments Inc. of Sanford, Fla., to share the costs and results of research and development. MADLAB expects to conduct surgical tests of the sensors on patients within the next year while Insight plans to eventually incorporate the device into endoscopes it manufactures.

Recycled robot inspects plant


Engineers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory helped the U.S. Department of Energy save about $100,000 by reconfiguring a robot from a previous mission to inspect one of five chemical processing plants on DOE's Hanford Site. The robot, an Andros Mark VI, traveled the equivalent of nearly three football fields through a ventilation tunnel in the U-Plant to visually inspect the tunnel's structural integrity, capture the conditions on video and take radiation measurements and smear samples. Robots are used in projects like this to minimize exposure and health risks for workers in high radiation areas or areas unsuitable for manned entry.

Fungus does the dirty work


Despite negative images often associated with fungus, scientists at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have found that it can be an effective tool for environmental cleanup.

Researchers at Pacific Northwest's Marine Sciences Laboratory have developed a way to condition fungus to clean up soil contaminated with petroleum hydrocarbons and other toxic or hazardous waste. The completely natural method, called mycoremediation or fungal remediation, is expected to be faster and more cost-effective than other bioremediation techniques.

Although most fungal remediation research has focused on one species, Pacific Northwest researchers have tested more than 50 fungal species for various applications. The process begins by collecting higher fungi from the contaminated area or a comparable site. Including careful selection, culture and testing, the several steps that follow result in proprietary fungal strains that are predisposed to break down and destroy specific contaminants.

It is the mycelium—a network of microscopic threads, or strings of cells that make up the fungus—that does the actual work. Acting as a filter, the mycelium selectively extracts materials from soil and water and then breaks down the contaminants using enzymes that it releases into the substrate.

In a four-month pilot-scale study in 1998, scientists treated soils at the Washington State Department of Transportation maintenance yard in Bellingham using mycoremediation. Three types of soils were collected from the earthen floor of a vehicle maintenance building, an area contaminated with diesel and an area contaminated with gasoline.

After four to five weeks, fruiting was observed, which means that large mushrooms began to appear at the surface of the soil. At the same time, the mycelium had penetrated through all three of the four-foot mounds of soil and the smell of oil had disappeared.

After four months all of the soil was clean enough to use in landscaping.

A patent is pending on the method used to culture, select and condition natural fungus species to be more efficient at breaking down certain contaminants. Pacific Northwest is continuing to test further applications of mycoremediation and is pursuing opportunities to commercialize the process.

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