Page last updated at 15:32 GMT, Monday, 12 May 2008 16:32 UK

Frigid robot eyes top tech prize

i-LIMB Hand
The i-Limb is also one of the MacRobert Award finalists

A robotic system designed to care for millions of biological samples in sub-zero temperatures has been chosen as a finalist for a top engineering award.

The Polar system is already used at the UK Biobank, a facility that aims to shed light on debilitating diseases.

The robot system will guard 10 million human blood and fluid samples at -80C for 25 years, whilst also allowing scientists to access them at any time.

It is one of four finalists which will compete for the annual MacRobert award.

The prize is given out by the UK's Royal Academy of Engineering for technological and engineering innovation.

The other finalists are the first commercially available bionic hand, an advanced filter to remove soot from diesel engines and a tiny silicon sensor which can detect explosives or toxic chemicals.

Deep breath

The Polar system, designed by the Automation Partnership, consists of a series of ultra-low temperature compartments designed to hold blood and urine samples, which can be accessed automatically by robotic arms.

Owlstone chip
A US defence agency has recently placed an order for the sensors
The liquid-nitrogen cooled store has been designed so that researchers do not have to enter a refrigerated area to retrieve or load samples.

It has been used by pharmaceutical companies as well as the UK Biobank, a medical research facility which intends to collect samples and data from more than 500,000 volunteers.

This will be used as tool by researchers investigating a range of life-threatening illnesses including cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

It already contains data from more than 100,000 volunteers.

It is one of three technologies with potential medical benefits that have been picked as finalists for this year's awards.

A novel kind of chemical sensor, designed by Owlstone, a spin-out of Cambridge University, also has therapeutic uses.

The chemical chips are able to detect trace amounts of a wide variety of chemicals using a patented technique called Field Asymmetric Ion Mass Spectroscopy (FAIMS).

It fingerprints compounds by analysing how their charged forms move through a gas when subjected to electric fields. Each substance has its own characteristic signature.

The sensor can be reprogrammed to look for different chemical fingerprints, such as those found in pre combustion fumes during the initial stages of a fire.

However, one potential use is as a "breathalyser" to detect and diagnose illness by analysing chemicals on a patient's breath.

It is known that asthma sufferers, those with cystic fibrosis and some forms of cancer breathe out chemical markers of their condition.

Double win

The third medical technology selected by a panel of judges was the i-LIMB hand, a prosthetic device with five individually powered digits.

Johnson Matthey filters
The firm has previously won a MacRobert Award for its filters
The design started life in 1963 when researchers at Edinburgh's Princess Margaret Rose Hospital proposed a design to help children affected by Thalidomide.

It has taken more than 40 years to build a commercial product.

"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.

One of the first patients to be fitted with a device was Donald McKillop who had to have his right hand amputated after complications following an accident.

"The most important thing is the movement of the fingers, that's what really makes the difference," he said. "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 contender for the prize is a compact, soot filter for diesel cars, designed by engineers at Johnson Matthey.

The design uses heat from the engine to control hydrocarbon, carbon monoxide as well as soot emissions. It improves 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. "These alone will stop millions kilograms of soot entering the atmosphere over the life of these vehicles."

The firm has previously won a MacRobert award for technology used to control soot emissions from trucks and buses.

The team will find out if it is a winner again - along with the other finalists - at a ceremony in London on 9 June.


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