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Using Infrared To See If You're Lit

A new non-invasive device promises to check blood alcohol levels in 90 seconds, as opposed to 20 minutes for a typical breathalyzer test. The system, which looks like a drug-store blood pressure monitor, works by shining a harmless beam of infrared light on the skin of the forearm. Alcohol in the tissue absorbs light, so the amount that reflects back indicates how much alcohol is present.

Designed by Albuquerque-based TruTouch Technologies, a spin-off of InLight Solutions, the test should go on sale next year, first to law enforcement agencies and later for workplace testing. TruTouch CEO Jim McNally says the test could also work in an "interlock" device in a vehicle, stopping ignition if a driver is drunk.

VeraLight, another InLight spin-off, adapted the same core technology to help diagnose diabetes using fluorescent light instead of infrared. Compared with today's glucose tests, which require eight or more hours of fasting, the VeraLight Scout system is 20% more accurate and offers results in about a minute.

Powerful blasts of sound can help squeeze energy out of corn kernels more quickly than today's strictly mechanical approach, say Iowa State University researchers. This suggests that gasoline-replacing ethanol could be eked out of each bushel of corn more rapidly, thus raising the output at an ethanol plant.

In tests, mashed corn kernels were passed through a doughnut-shaped device that emits high-energy ultrasonic sound waves. At 20 kilohertz, the pulses are too high for most humans to hear, but they are powerful enough to cause countless bubbles to form in the mash. These pop and release tiny shock waves that break down the corn particles to 1/100th their original size. The smaller the bits, the more of the starches can be made into sugars, to be fermented into ethanol, says Samir Khanal, assistant professor of environmental engineering.

The sound treatment yields sugar at a rate that's 30%-40% faster than today's purely mechanical method. But much of the sugar is of a more complex chemical makeup, which can slow the rate at which it is converted into ethanol, adds Khanal's colleague David Grewell. The team's next step is to find out just how much the new process affects the final ethanol yield.

Mice are imperfect models for testing treatments for human diseases. Even so, scientists at the University of Toronto are excited by what transpires when they administer a small molecule called scyllo-inositol to mice whose brains are riddled with protein plaques that are a hallmark of Alzheimer's disease. In studies reported in the online edition of Nature Medicine, researchers fed the drug to mice implanted with human genes that predispose them to develop a disease resembling Alzheimer's.

Not only did the plaques vanish after the treatment, but cognitive functions also returned, and the animals lived longer than untreated mice with the same condition. Transition Therapeutics, a public Canadian company, has initiated early-stage trials in human subjects.

-- A new study flies in the face of the longstanding belief that a calorie is a calorie, be it vegetable or animal. Researchers at Wake Forest University found that trans fats used to enhance the flavor and texture of many foods are more prone to cause weight gain than other types of fat. Monkeys fed a diet containing trans fats had a 7.2% gain in body weight, while monkeys fed the same number of calories, but with healthier monounsaturated fats such as olive oil, gained only 1.8%. What's more, all the extra weight gained by the trans-fat-eating monkeys accumulated in their abdomens, increasing the risk of heart disease.

-- Love felines even though they set off your allergies? If you have a spare $3,950, plus $995 for shipping, you may be able to do something about it. San Diego's Allerca says it will ship its first hypoallergenic cats next spring. The first kitties have already been bred. They are not genetically modified. Rather, Allerca developed a test to screen for variations in the gene that controls Fel D1, the allergy-producing protein that cats secrete. It then selectively bred cats with Fel D1 deficiencies until it came up with hypoallergenic litters. Allerca plans to publish its work later this year.

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