30 April to 04 May 2012 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Monday 30 April 2012

  • BATTERY DRAG: The Tûranor PlanetSolar is a 95-tonne carbon fibre catamaran that is about to complete a circumnavigation of the globe. The 31-metre yacht has more than 530 square metres of photovoltaic panels and 10 tonnes of lithium batteries to store the electricity generated by the panels. After around 18 months at sea only 3 panels have been lost and only 5 of more than 1200 electrical connectors have failed. It’s a shame the batteries account for around 10% of the total weight. New Scientist.
  • INVISIBLE WRITING: The Penveu is a relatively inexpensive chunky pen that contains gyroscopes and accelerometers. Plug the Veu component into your computer and then use the device like a mouse with a range of around 12 metres. Or use it in pen mode to apparently write or draw on any screen in various colours and thicknesses. The device can also store up to 32 Gb of files. The gadget’s intended to replace expensive electronic whiteboards. An interesting product with terrible marketing. Penveu.
  • MONEY SINK: To some the abandoned quarry at the base of Tianmashan Mountain in China is just a giant 100 metre deep hole in the ground. To others it’s a ready-made site for a luxury hotel and theme park. Construction on the Intercontinental Shimao Shanghai Wonderland has begun and the hotel should open in a year or two. Three of the hotel’s 19 floors will be above ground. The building will also feature an underwater restaurant and 10 metre deep aquarium. A hotel with theme park sounds much better than a hole in the ground. Shanghaiist.
  • FROM THIN AIR: The Eole Water wind turbine is ingenious. We’re used to wind turbines creating electricity, but this one draws water out of even dry desert air. The turbine contains a generator, cooling compressor and humidity condenser to extract water from air, then the water runs down into a storage tank from where it can be drawn off by an ordinary tap. The WMS1000 turbine can produce up to 1200 litres of water per day. Who knew dry air actually held so much water? Eole Water.
  • CAREFUL ROBOT: A wearable robot from the Tokyo University of Science in Japan is designed to help carers safely lift people in and out of bed. The exoskeleton weighs around 5 Kg and uses pneumatic artificial muscles to help with lifting. Rubber bladders contract when pressurised air is pumped in and give up to 30 kg of instant support. A sensor in the jacket responds to voice commands and the body’s acceleration. The suit will be released commercially next year. The carers should be glad of this one. New Scientist.

Tech Universe: Tuesday 01 May 2012

  • GLARINGLY INEFFICIENT: Researchers at MIT have produced glass that doesn’t have glare and where water droplets just bounce right off. Surface textures on the glass consist of an array of nanoscale cones that are five times as tall as their base width of 200 nanometers. The shape of the surface makes the glass self-cleaning, anti-fogging and free of glare. The glass could be used in solar panels so they can retain their efficiency, or perhaps touchscreen devices. I want house windows and spectacles that don’t get dirty. MIT News.
  • RETINA SCREEN: Bionic Vision Australia is working on a bionic eye that they hope to test next year. An implanted chip with 98 separate electrodes will stimulate the retina so people with genetic eye conditions can see large objects such as buildings and cars. A camera in a pair of glasses sends data to a processor which then sends it on to an implant in the retina. They are also working on a more accurate high-acuity device that could help people recognise faces and even read large print. How about a way for a computer to use the implant as a display? The Verge.
  • FAST FOOTING: The BiOM lower leg prosthetic from iWalk adds a bit extra: sensors and power that make walking easier. Lower leg prosthetics usually making walking harder and more tiring as they are a dead weight. The BiOM though replicates the action of foot and ankle, Achilles tendon, and lower calf to propel the walker forward. In retrospect it seems obvious. Forbes.
  • DRUGS ON DEMAND: Scientists at the University of Glasgow are working on producing drugs and other chemicals via 3D printing. They take chemical constituents and pass them through a printer which synthesises them to create something different. For example, the printer may have 2 nozzles each printing a different kind of component that can be combined during the process. In their tests the researchers have already printed some molecules of anti-cancer drugs. Uh oh, this could lead in both desirable and undesirable directions. BBC.
  • UNDERCOVER DESK: If you ever thought of taking cover under a desk during an earthquake, then you might not want to know that many desks wouldn’t do much of a job of protecting you. A new design of desk from Israel though can be easily carried by 2 children but can withstand vertical impacts of up to 1000kg. The combination of structure and material absorbs and transfers energy so that the space underneath remains intact. The table’s already licensed for distribution in Israel. Will the floor beneath the desk legs stand up to the impact though? Wired.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 02 May 2012

  • HERE HERE: China’s Beidou GPS system now has 13 of its 35 satellites in orbit. That means the system is now partially operational, and competes with the functioning US and Russian systems. 24 out of 31 of Russia’s Glonass satellites are operational. Meanwhile Europe has 2 out of 26 of its Galileo GPS satellites in position. Now how about paying more attention to where we’re going, rather than where we already are? Space, anyone? BBC.
  • THE SILICENE AGE: Where graphene is a sheet of carbon only 1 atom thick, silicene is a sheet of silicon only 1 atom thick. European scientists created silicene by condensing silicon vapour onto a silver plate. When the scientists measured its properties they were found to be similar to those of graphene. Silicene should work better than graphene in silicon-based electronic devices. Silicene is the kind of name that conjures dinosaurs. New Scientist.
  • NOVEL TEES: A team at the University of Exeter has invented the most transparent, lightweight and flexible material ever for conducting electricity. The GraphExeter material, adapted from graphene with molecules of ferric chloride, is also transparent over a wide light spectrum. The research team is now developing a spray-on version of GraphExeter. They say the material could be used for many purposes, such as teeshirts or solar panels. Transparent teeshirts? University of Exeter.
  • CLOTHES FORCE: Colorado State University are developing solar-powered clothes from natural fibres such as cotton and linen. The clothes should allow hikers, skiers and others to charge their devices on the go. After modifying the fabrics to make them more durable they incorporated flexible solar panels within the apparel. It sounds like they need to talk to the University of Exeter. Still washable? Discovery News.
  • HOT OR NOT?: The world’s largest solar thermal plant project is at the Princess Noura Bint Abdulrahman University for Women in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. 36,305 square metres of collector surface has been installed on the roofs to provide power to heat water for the 40,000 students and staff. Each 10 square metre panel weighs 170 Kg and has been specially mounted to survive fierce sandstorms. How much hot water does an institution in a hot country really need? Inhabitat.

Tech Universe: Thursday 03 May 2012

  • HANDS-ON MAP: Systems developed to help robots navigate could be used to help blind people. Researchers at at the Pierre and Marie Curie University in France created a pair of glasses equipped with cameras and sensors such as accelerometers and gyroscopes. The system produces a 3D map of the wearer’s environment and their position within it in real-time then feeds the map to a handheld electronic Braille device. The Braille map is updated fast enough for the user to walk through an area. Provided your map reading skills are up to speed. New Scientist.
  • UNIVERSAL PIXELS: The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope digital camera has 3.2 billion pixels. The camera will capture the widest, fastest and deepest view of the night sky ever observed as it surveys the entire visible sky every week. It’ll generate about 6 million gigabytes of high quality and scientifically valuable data per year. When completed in 2014 the camera will have 189 sensors and over 3 tons of components, all sited atop a mountain in Northern Chile. And the processors to work with all that data? SLAC News Center.
  • TRAINING WHEELS: It’s important for babies to learn to crawl and discover their world, but some babies with disabilities just can’t do it. Engineers at the University of Delaware, have created a robot wheelchair designed for kids aged 6 months to 3 years. It’s operated by a joystick and includes sensors so it won’t crash into things. It’s good to get the joystick training in early. Boing Boing.
  • DRIVING PATTERNS: Honda created a system to monitor the acceleration and deceleration patterns of a vehicle and determine whether the driver’s driving pattern is likely to create traffic congestion. Then it gives the driver feedback to encourage smooth driving. The smooth driving can alleviate or prevent congestion and also reduces fuel use. Honda plan to begin the first public-road testing of the technology in Italy and Indonesia this year. You have to wonder how they picked those 2 countries to start the testing. Honda.
  • WHAT GOES AROUND: An ongoing problem with solar cells is their low efficiency. Researchers at the University of California have shown that solar cells that emit light as well as absorb it can be more efficient than those that don’t emit light. They demonstrated that the better a solar cell is at emitting photons, the higher its voltage. The researchers say there’s a thermodynamic link between absorption and emission that produces this unusual effect. Or maybe it’s just the pay it forward principle. The Optical Society.

Tech Universe: Friday, 4 May 2012

  • SMART CARD: Rapid Diagnostic Tests are becoming popular: a sample is added to a small slide and after a short time the slide changes colour, offering a quick diagnosis. But reading the tests correctly and using the information is prone to human error. Scientists at the University of California developed a small attachment and app so a smartphone can photograph, enlarge, read and validate the test results. A health worker can then add information and send the whole record to a server. Collating such data on a map quickly shows trends and patterns for disease. It’s great to see these technologies being put together for such useful purposes. University of California.
  • AIR MIXER: Nothing is free from side effects. We’ve heard of wind farms affecting birds, but now it seems they may change the local weather too. A study from the University of New York found a significant warming trend over wind farms, particularly at night. The turbines play a role in mixing warmer and cooler air. Farmers who worry about the effect of frost on their crops should maybe look into this. Perhaps they could make money from generating power while saving the costs of preventing frosts. The Telegraph.
  • FOLLOW THE WIND: One man in Beijing’s Tangzhou Wangji Yongle Town created his own high-speed wind-powered car, with a range of 140 Km. It took him 3 months and 10,000 yuan to build. Not bad. ChinaSmack. Video:
  • TRUTHFUL TROLLEY?: Lambent Shopping Trolley Handle incorporates LED lights and a barcode reader. A shopper scans an item they’re considering buying and lights on the handle light up to display a value for criteria such as food miles, salt or fat. In tests shoppers changed their buying behaviour in response to the lights on the handle. And that would never be open to ‘manufacturer suggestions’, of course… Discovery News.
  • QUAKE NEWS: NASA is starting to test the Real-time Earthquake Analysis for Disaster Mitigation Network, or Readi. It’s a network of GPS sensors in the US Pacific-coast states of California, Oregon and Washington. The point of the system is to analyse earthquake events quickly to help with disaster response and tsunami predictions. While data from the devices has been analysed in the past, that has often been well afterwards. This project will check the data within minutes of a shake. Well, gosh. Analysing information when it’s most useful. What an idea! 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.