06 to 10 February 2012 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Tuesday 07 February 2012

  • GOING UP: SpaceX’s reusable SuperDraco rocket engine is intended to be able to rescue launching crews and land the vehicle on a planetary body. During a launch the Draco is simply ready as a potential rescue vehicle. If there’s a problem the 8 rockets can deliver 120,000 pounds of axial thrust, available 100 milliseconds after being switched on. On return though, it’s designed to provide sufficient thrust for a powered landing, rather than a craft needing to rely on a parachute. Or what’s know in sci-fi as an escape pod. Discovery News.
  • COMING DOWN: You know those satellites that keep crashing into the Pacific? Well, sometimes they nearly miss. Last October, the German research satellite Rosat missed Beijing with its 20 million inhabitants by 7 minutes. It ended up in the Bay of Bengal instead. The 2.5 ton satellite, being German, was made of heavy and durable parts so scientists expected around 60% of it to make it to ground. Had fragments hit the city they would likely have caused casualties, destroyed buildings and created deep craters, according to experts from the European Space Agency. You think? Der Spiegel.
  • CHARGE CARS: London’s home to the Olympics this year, and the city’s taxis are getting ready — by going electric. Or at least a couple of them are. The cab hire firm Climatecars have picked up two Renault Fluence Z.E.s. Based in Central London the taxis will recharge courtesy of charge points from the Source London network and a point in their own HQ. Two, out of how many hundreds or thousands of cabs on London’s streets? Still, I guess everything has to start somewhere. Climatecars.
  • SNAP AND SNACK: Mastercard’s QkR mobile payment app is available for both iPhone and Android. The app lets people use QR codes, NFC tags and other technologies. For example, visitors to Hoyts in Australia may be able to scan QR codes or NFC tags on the movie seat armrest to order and pay for food items. The system could also work for other businesses, such as restaurants. And the QR codes won’t get worn, or sticky and unreadable from spilled drinks and popcorn? GigaOM.
  • PROTEIN SHAPE: Biologists like to know what shape proteins are, because those shapes are incredibly important in determining behaviour and function. But the huge challenge is to see the shape without destroying the protein. Scientists at the University of Zurich in Switzerland used low energy electron beams with a wavelength of a nanometre or so to create an electron hologram. The technique produced a good image, without harming the proteins. Won’t someone think of the proteins! Technology Review.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 08 February 2012

  • JAWPRINT: So after you’ve 3D printed a bunch of handy stuff for around the home what next? Well, one 83 year old got herself a new jaw from a 3D printer. At the University of Hasselt in Belgium a team quickly printed a new jaw using layers of titanium powder correctly fused together by a computer controlled laser. Then the jaw was finished with a bioceramic coating. It’s slightly heavier than a standard jaw but the patient was talking and swallowing the day after the surgery. The operation itself took 4 hours rather than 20, and the patient was able to go home after 4 days rather than the usual 4 weeks. If the jaw’s titanium I guess the false teeth will be securely screwed in. 3Ders.org.
  • FRAGILE: The world’s thinnest sheet of glass comes in at just 3 atoms thick. Scientists recently made it by accident while working with graphene. The ultra-thin glass, made of silicon and oxygen, could be used in semiconductor or graphene transistors. But will it be strong enough to withstand normal vibration? Science.
  • TB IN HAND: It can take days and a laboratory to identify pathogens such as tuberculosis, chlamydia, gonorrhea and HIV. A couple of scientists from Cornell University aim to create a handheld device that could cut the time required to around half an hour and be really useful in developing countries. Specially synthesised DNA is designed to lock on to certain pathogens. When exposed to ultraviolet light it creates distinctive molecules. The testing kit contains a chip that measures both the mass and charge of molecules and identifies the pathogens. I’d think it’d be handy for any doctor anywhere, at least as a screener. Cornell University.
  • ARE YOU FEELING SLEEPY?: The Australian SmartCap looks like a regular baseball cap, but it’s not. Instead it’s a fatigue measurement and management tool, especially useful for those who operate heavy machinery or drive long distances. Sensors in the cap measure the wearer’s brain waves via EEG. Then the cap calculates a measure of drowsiness and sends the data wirelessly to a display in the vehicle or a Bluetooth device such as a cellphone. The system can detect when the cap has been removed. Originally intended for use in mining, the cap can be used by many other industries too. Office workers: caps on! SmartCap.
  • SAILING SHIPS: Around 50,000 ships carry 90% of the world’s trade cargo, and to do it they burn a cheap but heavily polluting oil. That’s why the Australian firm Solar Sail hope to clean up the shipping industry with their sails covered in solar panels. They say using the sails alongside the usual fuel could take up to 45% off a ship’s annual fuel bill. One smaller vessel, the Solar Albatross, is already at work as a ferry in Hong Kong. Ah, the circle of development. BBC.

Tech Universe: Thursday 09 February 2012

  • MILLING AROUND: The Roland iModela iM-01 is a desktop 3D mill for crafters and hobbyists. Unlike a 3D printer that builds up shapes from layers of material the mill cuts into solid chunks of wax, foam, balsa wood and plastic materials. The device’s software allows users to create or load existing designs for small objects. Now someone needs to find a way to print using the shavings from the mill. Roland DG.
  • WORKING THE SLOPES: Ahhh, just you and a bunch of friends alone together with your snowboards on the slopes. Wouldn’t it be cool to be able to chat with one another while you carve out the fresh snow? With Buhel’s Speakgoggle G33 Intercom goggles you can. Up to 7 pairs of the Bluetooth enabled goggles can be connected at distances up to 500 metres. A bone conduction microphone is integrated into the frame, meaning environmental noise is irrelevant. Or you can just listen to music or handle phonecalls. And naturally they’re designed for the cold. The boss need never know you’re not in the office. Buhel.
  • MEDICAL RAP: Some medical devices are designed to be implanted into the body. But then how do they get power? Well, how about acoustic waves, like music? Researchers at Purdue University found that the driving bass of rap music was able to effectively recharge the pressure sensor they were testing. The sensor contained a vibrating cantilever. Music from 200-500 hertz caused the cantilever to vibrate, generating electricity and storing a charge in a capacitor. Outside that range charging stopped and the device took a reading then sent its signal. Rap music beat out blues, jazz and rock as the most effective. It’s a pity if you don’t care for rap, I guess. Purdue News Service.
  • MOLYBDENITE AND CHIPS: Silicon chips have about reached their limit for getting smaller. At the smallest distances silicon oxidises, which reduces performance and causes energy losses. So graphene’s the new wonder-stuff. But molybdenite might be a contender too. Scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology made transistors from molybdenite that were a great deal smaller than silicon transistors. The essence of a transistor is that sometimes current flows and sometimes it doesn’t — something molybdenite does naturally. Graphene however doesn’t. At least both silicon and graphene are easier to say and spell than molybdenite. Technology Review.
  • RORO ROW YOUR BOAT: Scotland are building a couple of 900-tonne ships that will be the world’s first sea-going roll-on roll-off diesel-electric hybrid ferries. The ferries are designed for short routes though, taking up to 150 passengers and 23 cars to outer islands. On-board batteries will charge overnight and diesel generators will top up the charge too. In future wind, wave or solar systems may also help charge the batteries. I would have thought wind and wave would have been the first alternatives to consider. BBC.

Tech Universe: Friday 10 February 2012

  • SILENT SCREAM: Some people just love to jump off things — bridges, towers, or how about a balloon at the edge of space? Austrian, Felix Baumgartner, plans to jump from 36 Km up in August this year. A specially adapted scientific weather balloon will take him to his jump point in a pressurised capsule. 35 seconds after jumping he will break the sound barrier. The journey down should take 10 minutes and he’ll reach more than 300 metres per second. Of course he’ll be wearing a special suit and oxygen tanks. Some folks just love the extremes. The Telegraph.
  • BLADE RUNNING: Nike’s latest shoe design makes use of recycled shoes and airbags but it’s not for feet. Instead it’s a sole for a running blade used by amputee athletes. The sole is made from stacked layers of rubber and polyurethane and features special tabs to lock it into place. I wonder if the height of the prosthetic can be changed to allow for the shoe thickness? designboom.
  • THE FOLDING: MIT have been working an a passive, foldable tablet. The system uses 6 overhead infrared cameras and 2 high-definition digital projectors. The tablet contains sets of spring-loaded, reversible hinges so it can be folded like a book or a pamphlet. The cameras monitor the way the tablet’s folded and can change the display accordingly to single or double page view, or providing a menu of options, for example. Colour, contrast and volume can also be adjusted because the cameras can detect just how the hinges are folding. Perhaps libraries would find this useful. New Scientist.
  • GO TO THE LIGHT: Finding your way around a hospital, mall or other building complex can be a nightmare. The good thing is that our eyes can’t tell if a light’s flashing more than around 15 times per second, and that wifi works indoors. Researchers from the USA and South Korea have come up with a system that combines tagged merchandise, quickly flashing LED lights to provide a location and radio frequency transmitters to send the information. An overhead LED light fixture is assigned a location code. A computer can find or learn where items are located and exchange the data through a specialised wireless network. Meanwhile a special handheld device can read the locations and guide the user. Smartphone anyone? The Pennsylvania State University.
  • DIG DEEP: Close to the South Pole is a lake that’s beneath 4 Km of ice. It’s 14 million years since Lake Vostok last saw the sun. But now Russian researchers have achieved their goal after 20 years of drilling: they’ve broken through into that lake. The conditions in the lake are thought to be similar to those on some of the moons of Saturn and Jupiter. Any signs of life in the lake boost hopes for life elsewhere in our solar system. Later this year the scientists plan to send down a swimming robot to collect water samples and sediments. 20 years to drill 4 Km. That’s a tough landscape! Wired.

Notes: I write a Tech Universe column for the NZ Herald. This is a fun assignment: Tech Universe brings 5 headlines each day about what’s up in the world of technology. Above are the links from last week as supplied. The items that were published in The Herald may differ slightly.

While I find all the items interesting, some are just cooler than others. I’ve marked out those items.