EPFL presents a modular aircraft at Le Bourget

clip-air

The Clip-Air project envisions an airplane consisting of a single flying wing onto which capsules carrying passengers or freight can be attached.

More than a new type of flying device, its innovative concept could revolutionize the airports of the future.

Go to the train station to take the plane. Board on a capsule to reach the airport by rail, and then – without leaving your seat – fly to another city. The Clip-Air project, being developed at EPFL since 2009, envisions a modular aircraft consisting of a flying wing onto which it is possible to attach one, two or three capsules as required. Its concept allows us to take a glimpse at the air transportation of tomorrow, which is meant to be more flexible, closer to our needs, more efficient and less energy-consuming. For the first time, a model of the Clip-Air plane will be presented at the Paris Air Show from 17 to 19 June 2013.

Despite its being a very futuristic project, the scientists behind it work under rigorous constraints to maintain its technical feasibility. “We still have to break down several barriers but we do believe that it is worth to work in such a concept, at odds with current aircraft technology and which can have a huge impact on society,” said Claudio Leonardi, in charge of the Clip-Air project.
The Clip-Air project’s main contribution would be to provide rail transport’s flexibility to air transport. On the one hand, the Clip-Air plane includes a support structure made up by the wing, engines, cockpit, fuel and landing gear. On the other hand, there is the load to be carried: passengers and/or freight. Hence, the capsule would be equivalent to a real airplane’s fuselage, but without its usual attributes. The flying wing can accommodate up to three capsules with a capacity of 150 passengers each.

New generation fuel

Theoretical studies show Clip-Air’s potential in terms of transportation capacity thanks to a more efficient and flexible fleet management, a more efficient loading rate, increased flexibility of supply and the possibility of no more empty flights. Further advantages would come from savings in maintenance, storage and management.

Clip-Air also aims to address current environmental concerns as wells as the objectives set by the ACARE (Advisory Council for Aeronautics Research in Europe) to reduce by 50% CO2 emissions by the year 2020. Clip-Air aircrafts’ conventional fuel consumption would be reduced since they can carry as many passengers as three A320 with half the engines. In other words, flying with three modules under the same wing in a 4000 km flight would be cheaper – in terms of fuel consumption – than three aircrafts of the same capacity flying independently and with equal speed and altitude.

Then again, Clip-Air’s ambition also envisages other types of fuels, less polluting than the ones currently consumed. Several possibilities (liquid hydrogen, biofuels and conventional fuel) have been studied and have demonstrated the relevance of modular structures in terms of overall consumption.

A revolution in mobility

A Clip-Air aircraft could fit in an airport as it is conceived today. With its autonomous capsule, the size of a railroad car – about 30 meters long and 30 tons heavy – its design is compatible with rail tracks. Therefore, it could eventually revolutionize airport configuration and multimodal mobility. The boarding of either cargo or passengers in the capsule could be done not only at airports but also directly in rail stations or production sites.

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Microsponges from Seaweed May Save Lives

(Credit: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

Microsponges derived from seaweed may help diagnose heart disease, cancers, HIV and other diseases quickly and at far lower cost than current clinical methods.

The microsponges are an essential component of Rice University’s Programmable Bio-Nano-Chip (PBNC) and the focus of a new paper in the journal Small.

The paper by John McDevitt, the Brown-Wiess Professor in Bioengineering and Chemistry, and his colleagues at Rice’s BioScience Research Collaborative views the inner workings of PBNCs, which McDevitt envisions as a mainstream medical diagnostic tool.

PBNCs to diagnose a variety of diseases are currently the focus of six human clinical trials. McDevitt will discuss their development at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington, D.C., Feb. 17-21.

PBNCs capture biomarkers — molecules that offer information about a person’s health — found in blood, saliva and other bodily fluids. The biomarkers are sequestered in tiny sponges set into an array of inverted pyramid-shaped funnels in the microprocessor heart of the credit card-sized PBNC.

When a fluid sample is put into the disposable device, microfluidic channels direct it to the sponges, which are infused with antibodies that detect and capture specific biomarkers. Once captured, they can be analyzed within minutes with a sophisticated microscope and computer built into a portable, toaster-sized reader.

The biomarker capture process is the subject of the Smallpaper. The microsponges are 280-micrometer beads of agarose, a cheap, common, lab-friendly material derived from seaweed and often used as a matrix for growing live cells or capturing proteins.

The beauty of agarose is its ability to capture a wide range of targets from relatively huge protein biomarkers to tiny drug metabolites. In the lab, agarose starts as a powder, like Jell-O. When mixed with hot water, it can be formed into gels or solids of any size. The size of the pores and channels in agarose can be tuned down to the nanoscale.

The challenge, McDevitt said, was defining a new concept to quickly and efficiently capture and detect biomarkers within a microfluidic circuit. The solution developed at Rice is a network of microsponges with tailored pore sizes and nano-nets of agarose fibers. The sponge-like quality allows a lot of fluid to be processed quickly, while the nano-net provides a huge surface area that can be used to generate optical signals 1,000 times greater than conventional refrigerator-sized devices. The mini-sensor ensembles, he said, pack maximum punch.

The team found that agarose beads with a diameter of about 280 micrometers are ideal for real-world applications and can be mass-produced in a cost-effective way. These agarose beads retain their efficiency at capturing biomarkers, are easy to handle and don’t require specialized optics to see.

McDevitt and his colleagues tested beads with pores up to 620 nanometers and down to 45 nanometers wide. (A sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick.) Pores near 140 nanometers proved best at letting proteins infuse the beads’ internal nano-nets quickly, a characteristic that enables PBNCs to test for disease in less than 15 minutes.

The team reported on experiments using two biomarkers, carcinoembryonic antigens and Interleukin-1 beta proteins (and matching antibodies for both), purchased by the lab. After soaking the beads in the antibody solutions, the researchers tested their ability to recognize and capture their matching biomarkers. In the best cases, they showed near-total efficiency (99.5 percent) in the detection of bead-bound biomarkers.

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