27 February to 02 March 2012 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Monday 27 February 2012

  • SENSITIVE SKATING: The ZBoard is an electric skateboard that uses weight-sensors to control movement, speed and braking. Lean forward to go and lean back to stop. Front and rear footpads determine how much force the rider is applying to control speed. The 400 W electric motor can take a rider up to 16 Km at up to 27 Kph, while off-road wheels let you choose where to skate. The Classic model uses a Sealed Lead Acid battery, while the Pro has a Lithium Ion Phosphate battery. Travelling at that speed on a skateboard — watch for pedestrians. ZBoard.
  • SPACE BY WIRE: Japan’s Obayashi Corp has a project to build an elevator in 2050. Not just any elevator though — this one would stretch into space. Carbon nanotubes would be used to create cables 20 times stronger than steel. Their project would stretch cables 96,000 Km, with one end anchored to the ground and the other to a counterweight in space. A terminal at 36,000 Km would house living quarters and laboratories. The trip, at 200 Kph would take around 7 days. After you. The Daily Yomiuri.
  • REAL BUILDINGS: Students from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology created inreal to help people actually see how architectural plans will translate into actual offices and homes, rather than just having to use their imagination. A head-mounted display includes 3D video glasses with integrated high-resolution motion sensors. A controller, 3D display, and tablet allow the architect to change any aspect of the plans and allow the client to see the changes as they’re made. It’d be interesting to turn that round and use it for clients to provide better descriptions of what they actually want. Karlsruhe Institute of Technology.
  • THE LITTLE THINGS: Maybe you’re out hiking when you spot something unusual, and wish you had your microscope with you to examine it more closely. With the microscope module for smartphones from VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland you’ll soon be sorted. The thin plastic macro lens includes LED lights for illumination and is accurate to one hundredth of a millimetre. The microscope also has more serious uses, such as in health care or in industries such as printing where a close visual check is important for quality control. If it’s cheap enough, why not carry one? VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland.
  • TINY BUT POWERFUL: Solar cells from Semprius are a bit different. Each module contains hundreds of solar cells, arranged under lenses that concentrate sunlight 1,100 times. Each gallium arsenide cell is about the width of a line drawn by a ballpoint pen. These cells absorb light from several parts of the spectrum and dissipate heat well, making them around 33.9% efficient. That’s a new high in efficiency for solar cells. Technology Review.

Tech Universe: Tuesday 28 February 2012

  • IMAGINATIVE WHEELS: Chaotic Moon Labs have found a new way to drive an electric skateboard: think about where you want to go. The Board of Imagination uses an Emotiv EPOC headset to read the wearer’s thoughts and a Samsung Windows 8 Tablet to translate brain waves into motor controller actions. An 800 watt electric motor and all-terrain tires do the rest. Just think and go. Chaotic Moon Labs.
  • POWER’S IN THE WHEELS: As planes taxi on the runway they create noise, use aviation fuel and emit pollutants. Taxiing is highly fuel-inefficient. On the other hand, as planes land the disc brakes create waste heat because of friction. Engineers from the University of Lincoln in the UK have suggested capturing the waste heat generated during landing to generate power. Then that energy could be used for taxiing on the runway, saving fuel and reducing air and noise pollution. After studying various possibilities the team concluded that capturing energy direct from a plane’s landing gear and recycling it for the aircraft’s own use would work best. It’d be great to capture the noise of landing too. EPSRC.
  • POWER’S IN THE AIR: Radio waves — we’re soaking in them. As they pass through the air they induce a slight current and a slight voltage. It’s enough that researchers at the University of Bedfordshire have worked out how to capture the energy from medium wave radio frequencies and use it to run low-power devices such as clocks. Just like magic. University of Bedfordshire.
  • HEAT IS IN THE AIR: Power Felt is a thermoelectric fabric that converts body heat into an electrical current. Tiny carbon nanotubes locked up in flexible plastic fibres create a charge from the difference in temperature between a heat source such as the human body and the environment around it. The fabric could be used in furnishings, roof linings or even clothes to supplement other power supplies or for emergency use. Especially interesting for winter clothes. Wake Forest University.
  • HEAT IS IN THE SEA: The Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion programme from Oak Ridge National Laboratory aims to produce power from the temperature difference in the world’s oceans. For example, in the tropics there may be a 20 degree C difference in the water temperature between the surface and 3 Km down. That difference can drive a closed-loop Rankine cycle power plant. The process relies on using the warm water to boil ammonia which spins a turbine-generator. Cool water then condenses the ammonia again. New graphite-foam-based heat exchangers are particularly efficient for this use. At the moment the concept is being studied, with a demonstration planned in 2012. It sounds easy. Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 29 February 2012

  • LOOK OUT TO PORT: East Africa hasn’t had high-speed Internet for long — only a couple of years — although 3 undersea cables bring those connections. But when a ship dropped anchor in a restricted area of Mombasa Harbour recently it dropped it right onto fibre-optic cable, causing damage and disruption. Internet connections are expected to slow down by 20% in Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Ethiopia and South Sudan’s capital, Juba for a couple of weeks until the cable can be repaired. It might be worth asking why such an important cable runs under such a busy port. BBC.
  • PROJECTORPHONE: Samsung’s Galaxy Beam smartphone is pretty much like other smartphones, except for one feature: its built-in ultra-bright, 15-lumen projector. Point it at a wall to show a 127 cm image. Now, if it could take a live image from the camera and project it that could be pretty useful, especially with a close-up or macro lens. Mashable.
  • PLASTIC SAUROPOD: At Drexel University in the USA researchers are creating 3D scans of giant dinosaur bones and then using 3D printers to create and test scale models of fossil bones. This means they can easily and quickly create fullsize models for display and scaled models for education or for testing hypotheses. If you’re dealing with the skeleton of an 80 ton sauropod a scale model is the only way to actually be able to work with the bones to reproduce motion. 80 tons is an enormous animal, that’s around 10 times as much as an elephant. Drexel University.
  • BLOOD SUBMARINE: Engineers at Stanford have demoed a tiny wirelessly powered device only 2 mm square that can be guided through a fluid such as blood. The device can be implanted or injected into the body and powered wirelessly using electromagnetic radio waves. Some devices, such as cochlear implants, could be stationary, but others could be guided through the bloodstream to deliver drugs or carry out tasks such as zapping blood clots. The device has an antenna of coiled wire magnetically coupled to a transmitter outside the body. Any change in current flow in the transmitter induces a voltage in the coiled wire and propels the device. Someone will need to come up with the realistic video games so medics can practice their technique. Stanford University.
  • LIFT BENEATH THE WINGS: The Swiss village of Tenna had a 500 metre long ski lift that carries 800 skiers an hour. But the effects of age meant the lift needed restoring. The villagers figured, since solar panels on the roofs of their stables worked well, why not fit the ski lift with solar panels too? They installed a kind of suspension bridge above the lift. 82 panels are housed on that bridge, rather like wings, and can rotate to catch the sun and tip off snow. On sunny days, the lift produces twice as much power as it consumes. It’s expected to produce 90,000 kilowatt hours annually. In the off-season the lift functions as a mini solar power plant. Sun, snow — a great combination. Discovery News.

Tech Universe: Thursday 01 March 2012

  • DIM IDEAS: See those motorway lights glaring out in the middle of the night, with no traffic using them? What a waste, of electricity and of the precious darkness. The Highways Agency in the UK are busy turning off the lights for around 4,000 Km of roads to minimise obtrusive light. Technology these days can control lights individually and remotely. Turn the lights on or up during the morning and evening rush hour and dim them the rest of the time. Maintain safety with half the energy — that makes a lot of sense. The Telegraph.
  • BEADED THREADS: Researchers at the University of Akron in the USA took their cue from spiders when creating a new biocompatible thread for medical sutures. One type of spider thread has beads of a glue-like substance for catching prey. The researchers started with materials like nylon. Then they added a coating of glue that forms beads to create a strong adhesive. The beads could also be used to contain and deliver medication. Spider silk seems to have many remarkable properties. The University of Akron.
  • THE THOMASES: The Smithsonian museum has so many works in its collection it can exhibit only 2% of the 137 million pieces to the public at any given time. Now they want to share their collection more widely with other museums around the world. But not the real thing: instead they plan to make 3D printed replicas and send those off on show. The museum will scan each piece in 3D and then print in 3D to reproduce the item. They’ve started with a statue of Thomas Jefferson. You’d think they’d start with dinosaurs and the like. The Creators Project.
  • 6 FINGER TYPING: Researchers at Georgia Tech have created a prototype app called BrailleTouch for smartphones that lets you input text without looking at the screen. It draws on Braille typing and lets users input text at up to 32 words per minute with 92% accuracy. BrailleTouch uses a 6-key chording technique that does away with a traditional keyboard layout. Users hold the device with the screen pointing away from them and type with 3 fingers on each hand. The text entry’s one thing, but what about choosing menu items and tapping on buttons? Georgia Institute of Technology.
  • AVATAR ROBOT: The Telesar V robot from Japan is intended to duplicate its pilot’s actions, but at a distance. The robot has cameras and sensors so its pilot can see and feel what the robot is doing. The pilot wears a control suit that sends commands to and receives feedback from the robot. The robot could be used for tasks such as bomb disposal, in hostile environments such as the Fukushima reactors, or perhaps even in medicine. They should fill offices with these so workers could stay home, saving transport costs and pollution. The Daily Mail.

Tech Universe: Friday 02 March 2012

  • BOOM: The US Navy is now testing its new railgun — the real thing, not just a lab model. The railgun fires an 18 Kg metal slug at up to 9,000 Kph. Each round is designed to destroy ships, land targets and missiles with its kinetic energy. But to get that power out requires a huge power input, and how to achieve that on a navy vessel is still a huge question. Meanwhile, the tests are very impressive. Just imagine the casualties if that thing is pointed in the wrong direction!
  • GREEN APPLE: Apple has a data centre in Maiden, North Carolina. Apple are also building a 40 hectare, 20 megawatt solar array beside it to provide around 42 million kWh of energy each year. The facility will be the largest end-user owned, onsite solar array in the US. But wait, they are also building the biggest non-utility fuel cell installation in the US next to that. It makes sense. The big users of energy should also be building their own supply using renewable sources. 9to5Mac.
  • LIGHT AND DENSE: Electric cars need batteries, but the battery adds weight that means the car can’t travel so far. So the batteries need to be energy dense and that costs a lot, maybe as much as $600 per kWh. Envia say they’ve created a very energy dense battery that could reduce the cost to $125 per kWh. That also means a lighter battery, allowing a vehicle to travel as much as 400 or 500 Km between charges. Their batteries are still in the prototype stage, but may be commercially available in around 3 years. I think there was merit in the idea of using the battery itself to form at least part of the car body. GigaOm.
  • SENSIBLE SHOES: Nike+ Training Shoes have sensors in the soles that feed data in real time about your workout to a smartphone. Data includes height of jumps and speed, while the app lets you compare your scores with those from friends. And can the team’s coach aggregate the whole lot, I wonder? DVICE.
  • RECYCLED HIPS: We know that electronic devices contain metals and other substances that should be recovered and not just tossed in the landfill. But have you thought about what may be in the human body to cause problems when we die? Steel pins, titanium hips and cobalt-chrome knees are some of the items we should be worrying about. Implants are made from good quality metal and are worth recycling. That’s why companies are springing up to retrieve metal implants from crematoria and recycle them. And as we start adding electronics to our bodies, this problem can only increase. BBC.

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.

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