23 to 27 April 2012 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Monday 23 April 2012

  • NEW SPIN ON SOUND: At Dundee University a rubber disc in a canister of water lifts itself, floats and starts rotating for no apparent reason. Driving it is a beam of ultrasound shaped like a helix or vortex below the canister. Scientists used this demonstration to prove that they can now use ultrasound to not only push objects, but to turn and steer them as well. This could give surgeons the ability to target drug delivery or manipulate cells. This needs a theramin soundtrack for best effect. BBC.
  • DARK FERMIONS: Ah, the Majorana fermion — theorised in the 1930s and finally observed this month. The Majorana fermion sounds like a sci-fi plot device, right on the border between matter and anti-matter. One theory even suggests it’s a component of Dark Matter. Scientists in Holland teamed an Indium Antemonide nanowire with superconductors and a strong magnetic field. A pair of Majorana fermions appeared at either end of the nanowire. Bringing a little dark into the light. Delft University of Technology.
  • HUNT THE MICROBE: Sometimes microbes, such as those for TB, hide in the human body and are very difficult to detect. Tests can take a long time and delay treatment by weeks or months. Scientists at the University of Central Florida can detect microbes quickly using nanoparticles. Polymer-coated iron oxide nanoparticles are chemically modified to specifically bind to unique DNA markers. When they bind, a magnetic resonance signal can be read on a computer or smartphone, signalling the presence of the pathogen. The researchers hope to develop this into a rapid, sensitive lab test. Kind of like radar for microbes really. University of Central Florida.
  • HYDROGEN ZINC: Hydrogen’s a useful gas but it’s currently made from fossil fuels and producing it releases CO2. A student at the University of Delaware found a way to instead produce hydrogen from highly concentrated sunlight and zinc oxide powder. A conical reactor feeds zinc oxide powder through hoppers onto a ceramic layer inside a cavity. Sunlight is concentrated into the cavity where it produces pure zinc vapour that then reacts with water to produce solar hydrogen. The zinc itself is also a valuable fuel, and the zinc oxide byproduct can be used again. The beauties of recycling. University of Delaware.
  • BATTERY BOOSTER: Lithium ion batteries are very popular. Most commonly the anodes are made from graphite, but 3M found that using silicon as a base instead can boost battery life. Matched with high-energy battery cathodes, the silicon-based anodes can increase cell capacity by more than 40%. That’s quite a tweak. Business Wire.

Tech Universe: Tuesday 24 April 2012

  • SHARK EYE: One problem in West Australia is the number of people killed by sharks. Technicians in Perth, Australia, have designed a drone with a heat-sensitive camera that could be used to spot great whites. The images are streamed back to base in real time. When a heat signature is detected the drone can move in for a closer look. The Cyber Eye can fly 10 hours on just $25 in petrol, and is easy to control. The designers say it’s much cheaper and more accurate than current helicopter and plane patrols. It sounds like an ideal task for drones. The West Australian.
  • DOTTY STORAGE: A team of Taiwanese and US researchers is using nanodots that can write and erase data 10 to 100 times faster than current products. Discrete silicon nanodots, each approximately 3 nanometers across, are arranged beneath a thin metallic layer. The researchers shine extremely brief pulses of green laser light on very precise portions of the metal to create a charge and write or erase data on the dot below. This technique creates a stable and long-lived data storage platform. What would we do without lasers? ScienceDaily.
  • POLYSOLAR: German company Heliatek have developed a new kind of solar panel made of small, organic molecules deposited on polyester films. The panels are flexible and lightweight and could be wrapped around the columns of a building or integrated into windows. The panels use short molecules called oligomers instead of polymers, which gives more control during manufacture. The panels convert 8% of the energy in light into electricity, compared with 15% for conventional silicon solar panels. But where there’s low light and high heat they can produce more electricity. Lots of heat, but not much light: sounds like just the thing for Parliament. Technology Review.
  • STEPPING UP: DARPA’s robotics challenge has one contender that can climb steps. The robotic humanoid from Boston Dynamics has two legs and only one arm, but can speed its way up a set of stairs. At this stage the robot seems to be only going up, not down again, but I guess some challenges take longer. Mashable.
  • DRIFTING TIME: Spacecraft need to know the time so they can navigate correctly. At the moment timing signals usually bounce around between the spacecraft and Earth, introducing long delays. NASA now plan to fly a Deep Space Atomic Clock that will allow a spacecraft to calculate its own navigation data in real time. NASA expect the clock to multiply navigation and radio science data while reducing mission costs. The mercury-ion trap atomic clock drifts no more than 1 nanosecond in 10 days. I suppose there’s no interplanetary time server to keep it accurate either. JPL.

Tech Universe: Thursday 26 April 2012

  • TAKE THE TUBE: Travelling by plane can be boring: packed in like sardines, droning engines, and probably not much to look at. ET3 would like to move us around much quicker and more cheaply, using capsules in evacuated tubes. Car sized passenger capsules would travel in 1.5m diameter tubes on frictionless maglev. Air is removed from the tubes, with airlocks at transfer stations. Electric motors accelerate the 6-person cars which then coast the rest of the way. ET3 aim for regional transport to be at 600 Kph, but international travel at 6,500 Kph. Imagine: a bit over an hour to travel to Hawai’i, except I bet the tubes won’t cross the Pacific. ET3.com.
  • BIKE FIXINGS: Bike Fixtation in the USA have a great idea: work stands, vending machines, kiosks and bike pumps in public places. The Work Stand, for example, is made of steel for durability. It provides a couple of ways to hold your bike and has 8 bicycle tools tethered by stainless steel aircraft cable. The Vending Machine dispenses snacks, and also items such as inner tubes, patch kits and locks. Several different models of pumps can be bolted to a concrete surface. All it needs is an Internet kiosk where the less experienced can look up how-to videos for fixing a bike. Bike Fixtation.
  • PLASTIC REPLICATION: DNA and RNA are the basic replicators of life forms. They evolve over time. Now researchers have created a new self-replicating molecular system called XNA, where the X stands for ‘xeno’, or ‘alien’. DNA contains natural sugars. To make XNA the researchers replaced the sugar with a polymer. Plastic is taking over the world. MedGadget.
  • GO FOR GOLD: Brain surgery’s a rather delicate matter, and for surgeons removing cancerous cells they really don’t want to take out more of the brain than absolutely necessary. Scientists at Stanford University have created spherical nanoparticles from gold coated with a metal called gadolinium and a layer of silica. The nanoparticles were shown to accumulate in cancer cells during tests on mice. Heated with laser pulses, the particles can be detected with a sonogram to produce real-time images of the tumour. That means surgeons should be able to accurately remove just cancerous brain cells. It’s a shame that heating with laser pulses doesn’t handle the destruction of the cancerous cells too. New Scientist.
  • FULL SOLAR JACKET: The Tokyo Institute of Technology are making more than a gesture towards solar power. They’ve clad their 7 story Environment and Energy Innovation Building with 4,500 solar panels. The 650 KW the cells generate is supplemented by 100 KW of fuel cells, so the building itself generates about half the energy it needs. Shiny. Asahi Shimbun.

Tech Universe: Friday 27 April 2012

  • SKI CHAIR: Use a wheelchair but sick of being stuck in snow? Wheel Blades can fix that for you. The tiny skis quickly and easily lock on to the small wheels on a wheelchair allowing the chair to more easily roll across snow or ice. The blades can be quickly adjusted to fit wheels of various widths. The Wheel Blades can also be used on pushchairs for children. Most surprising: that these haven’t been invented before now? Wheel Blades.
  • QUICK CHANGE: The Adaptrac tire inflation system is designed for mountain bikers to inflate and deflate the tires on their bikes while riding and without dismounting. The system uses special hubs, a dual control valve and a C02 power pack/regulator. Gauges and handlebar controls mean the rider can quickly check and change the pressure. Rechargeable CO2 tanks do the work. Well, there’s more weight to drag uphill. Adaptrac.
  • WHAT’S IN A NAME?: If you’ve ever dreamed of owning a Lamborghini perhaps the BMC impec Automobili Lamborghini Edition could work for you. The only thing is, it’s a bicycle not a car. At 20,000 Euros it carries a very hefty price tag too. The bike uses a BMC impec carbon frame fitted with Shimano Dura-Ace Di2 electronic shifting and unbranded carbon wheels. Only 30 of the bikes will be sold. And the Lamborghini part? Colours, some suede and the logo cover that. That’s an awful lot of money for a logo. Cycling News.
  • LIVING IN LESS: How wide is the house or apartment you live in? 10 or 15 metres or more? How would you cope with a house that’s only 1.33 metres at its widest point? Etgar Keret’s House in Warsaw is being built in the tiny gap between 2 buildings. It’s intended as an art installation that will also serve as a studio for creators and intellectuals from all over the world. The builders hope to open the house by mid-2012. Only skinny tenants need apply. Centrala.
  • GUIDE TO THE ASTEROIDS: Near-Earth Asteroids have become the latest target for mining activities. US company Planetary Resources, Inc. has developed a family of deep-space prospecting spacecraft called the Arkyd-100 Series. Those spacecraft will fly in low-Earth orbit and help determine suitable targets for later swarm expeditions. The ultimate goal is to take resources such as water and platinum from asteroids. Make way for the hyperspatial express route. Planetary Resources. Miraz says: I find this really disturbing, for many reasons. We’ve laid waste to our own planet. Should we really start laying waste to the rest of the solar system?

There was no Tech Universe on Anzac Day, 25 April.

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.