From science fiction to reality

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Theres more than meets the eye to todays laser printing technology as decades-old ideas and research breed new methods.

Theres more than meets the eye to todays laser printing technology as decades-old ideas and research breed new methods.

An evolving generation of tomorrows consumer and medical products started out as yesterdays science fiction. There is self-erasing paper that doesnt use ink. There are button-sized plastic sun ray gatherers used as power sources. There are rogue cell detectors that can spot a cancerous cell among 10 million normal cells.

Emerging new technology products were shown off recently at a research facility in Palo Alto, about 40 kilometres south of San Francisco. Known as PARC, the operation is an arm of Xerox Corp. The centre has long been part of a Xerox corporate strategy of investing in long-range research.

Here is a sampling of research that impressed me the most. None use ink.

Rare cell detector

Tucked away in the farthest PARC basement corner, biomedical research manager Dr. Richard Bruce places a microscope-like slide containing millions of white blood cells on a special scanner. The device shines a modified print laser blue light on cells that have been stained with fluorescent material.

An attached scanner reads reflected light. Normal cells are a uniform solid colour. But abnormal cells reflect a different colour. The new, highly sensitive instruments can find a single cancerous cell in a sample of more than 10 million cells in less than 30 minutes.

The system potentially enables accelerated diagnosis and treatment of quickly spreading cancer cells. The detector is scheduled for tests at Stanford Hospital later this year.

Bruce found the experience of dealing with life-and-death issues very different from his normal lab expertise.

While it was rewarding to see the instrument performing, the real moment came when I sat next to the pathologist who was examining the microscope images, he said.

After reviewing several images, she stopped to stare at a cancer cell, and I was struck with awe at our mortality. The emotional connection to the work deepened as patients who had been contributing samples to our study passed away, Bruce said.



Solar concentrator

Developed with partner SolFocus, Inc., this is a group of clear plastic parabolic-like mirrors that miniaturizes solar panels. An array of the new type that is the size of a large button can concentrate sunlight 500 times.

The invention means potentially drastic reductions in the size of conventional solar panels and in the use of expensive silicon. It integrates the optical, thermal, and electrical aspects of solar panels to a single, flat, solid piece of glass.

Scott Elrod, manager of the Clean Technology Program, expects this technology to cut the costs of traditional methods of harnessing sun energy in half.

Organizations: Xerox Corp., Stanford Hospital, SolFocus

Geographic location: Palo Alto, San Francisco

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