02.05.2018

Dragonflies and the future of contact lenses

As more and more Brits switch to contact lenses, researchers are busy at work trying tomake them ever safer and more comfortable.

At the University of California-Irvine, scientists are borrowing a trick from creatures like
cicadas and dragonflies.

These creatures have many surprising qualities, and not least of all this: Their wings are
covered with billions of microscopic pillars that pierce any bacteria that try to settle on
them. Imagine a crepe on a bed of syringes and you more or less get the idea.

Bacteria adhere to surfaces entirely, like a putty.

This leaves an opening for science: the team at UC-Irvine has figured out a way to replicate
the “pillars” (the term has to be taken with a grain of salt – with billions of them on a wing
of a tiny insect, they are anything but towering) on some contact lenses.

The technique can also be applied to artificial corneas and intraocular lenses.

It’s not ready for market yet – the team hasn’t perfected the technique – but it is very
promising.

Incidentally, the pillars are on the outside of the lens, where they can’t irritate your eye.
Meanwhile, Australian scientists are working on a nanoscale technology that would allow a
stretchable “smart” contact lens that can filter out different colours, including ultra violet
radiation.

In addition, these lenses could gather data and function as a sort of Google Glass, only much smaller.

In order to make this work, in order to make the lens compatible with our biology, and to
manipulate light, the Australian team has learned how to use titanium oxide in a very
precise way.

Titanium oxide, which we typically see in sun screen, is used with the normal rubbery
material which is the basis for contact lenses. This allows the scientists to create the
nanotechnology involved.

This allows for many other potential applications as well. Google glass failed on the face,
but it wouldn’t bother many people as contacts – indeed, not many people would know.

It could lead to that sort of technology, or radically improved smart phone cameras.

And as we’ve learned from technology in the last several decades, we can’t always predict
where things will go – or what the consequences, positive or negative, might be.


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