05 to 09 November 2012 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Monday 05 November 2012

  • MORE MORE MORE: The batteries that power our gadgets have become considerably better over the last few years, but we’re never satisfied. Researchers at Rice University may be on track to make a serious difference. They developed a way to crush porous silicon to be used as anode material in lithium-ion batteries. The material holds up to 10 times more lithium than current graphite anodes and yields 600 charge-discharge cycles at 1,000 milliamp hours per gram (mAh/g). That’s much better than the 350 mAh/g capacity of current graphite anodes. Of course, along with wanting more, we also want smaller. Rice University.
  • STAND BY FOR THE JUMP: I bet you think your smartphone battery runs down too soon. And you may think a better battery would fix that problem. But maybe not. An MIT spinout company called Eta Devices reckon that the power amplifier, a gadget that turns electricity into radio signals, is a bigger problem. Device makers keep standby mode power use high to avoid distortion when there’s a sudden need to transmit. Eta Devices designed a new amplifier that calculates the power required as many as 20 million times per second and chooses a suitable voltage. That means standby mode can use considerably less power. The new amplifier could halve base station energy use and double smartphone battery life. Improvements come from some surprising places. Technology Review.
  • IN A SPIN: Gyroscopes and accelerometers can be used together to work out a spacecraft’s position, flight path and attitude. Often errors in dead reckoning creep in and the instruments must refer back to GPS signals. GPS won’t help once craft head off to other parts of the solar system though. NASA’s Fast Light Optical Gyroscope project is exploring whether they can use the various speeds different wavelengths of light travel through a medium such as a gas. In certain materials pulses of light can travel faster than the speed of light in vacuum. Researchers aim to use that fast-light phenomenon to build gyroscope systems 1,000 times more sensitive than those in use today. This whole maximum speed of light thing can be very confusing. NetWork World.
  • GIANT EFFICIENCY: The US Department of Energy’s newest supercomputer has 10 times the power of Jaguar, the one it’s replacing. By combining GPUs and CPUs it dramatically reduces its electricity consumption though. Its predecessor required 7 megawatts, but Titan produces 10 times the processing power while drawing only 9 megawatts. Titan has 299,008 CPU cores, 18,688 GPUs, and more than 700 terabytes of memory, making it capable of a peak speed of 27 petaflops. That kind of power doesn’t come in a laptop or mere desktop size though: Titan claims just over 400 square metres of floor space. The massive computer will run simulations to model climate and to accelerate progress in energy efficiency. It sounds like there’s already progress in energy efficiency. Ars Technica.
  • VEGETABLE AURAS: The Japanese Aura Pack is a special type of cellophane for packaging fruits and vegetables. Vegetables stay crisp and fresh by not losing their water content. This cellophane makes it hard for water to evaporate while also resisting condensation. It also helps control the exchange of oxygen for CO2, meaning vegetables and fruit stay fresh for longer. The packaging could allow produce to be shipped by slower and cheaper methods and reduce food waste in shops. Reducing food waste is good, but does the film biodegrade? DigInfo TV.

Tech Universe: Tuesday 06 November 2012

  • SHOCKING PINK: Honda Japan have created one variant of their Fit or Jazz model car that they think will appeal to women. The Fit She’s car is, unsurprisingly, pink, though brown, white and black are also available. The windscreen blocks 99% of ultraviolet rays, which have been found to be bad for wrinkles, while Plasmacluster climate controls are supposed to be good for the skin. Did they ever think of actually asking any women what they’d value in a car? Springwise.
  • WELL TIRED: What could you do if the tires on your bicycle were almost 13 cm wide? Eric Larsen is cycling from Hercules Inlet to the Geographic South Pole. That’s a journey of 1200 Km. If the weather’s OK he may also bike back again. His purpose is to raise funds for charity. Luckily he doesn’t have to carry all his food: there will be 3 food drops during his trip. And you think biking to work is a challenge! Gear Junkie.
  • WALKING STRONG: A new exoskeleton from Vanderbilt University can help people with partial paraplegia improve strength in their legs. The exoskeleton is a lightweight 12 Kg and easy to put on while sitting in a wheelchair. It responds to the wearer’s body movements: if the wearer leans forward they move forward, lean back and hold and they sit down. The amount of robotic assistance adjusts automatically for users who have some muscle control in their legs. The exoskeleton also applies small electrical pulses to paralysed muscles, causing them to contract and relax. This stimulation can improve strength and has health benefits for people with full paraplegia who can’t move their legs at all. It’s great to see so many exoskeletons being developed. Vanderbilt University.
  • CONCRETE CRACKS: Concrete can easily crack when under tension, exposing the reinforcing materials inside to corrosion and jeopardising a structure’s soundness. That’s why engineers often use more reinforcing materials than they need to, and that’s costly. TU Delft researchers are working on creating a concrete that heals its own cracks by embedding dormant calcite-precipitating bacteria and nutrients in the concrete mixture. The idea is that if the concrete cracks water seeps in and activates the bacteria. They, in turn produce limestone to fill the cracks. The primed concrete may cost more to buy, but ongoing maintenance costs will be reduced. But if it cracks twice in the same spot you may be out of luck. BBC.
  • SHINY: The Smart Highway is a Dutch concept that will soon be implemented on roads in the Netherlands. A photo-luminising powder that charges up in sunlight will replace standard road paint. When the day grows dark the paint glows for up to ten hours. Another paint that only becomes visible in very low temperatures will be used for snowflake markings to show the road may be slippery. The province of Brabant will be the first to use the novel paint next year. There are also plans for wind-powered lights, and lights that activate as cars pass. I wonder if the lights from passing cars help charge up the photo-luminising powder on those long dark nights? Ars Technica.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 07 November 2012

  • BREATHING BIKE: The O2 Pursuit is a prototype dirt bike from RMIT University in Melbourne that runs on compressed air. It uses a standard scuba tank that can be refilled in 2 minutes to drive a Di Pietro air engine. Preliminary testing showed the O2 Pursuit can exceed 100 Kph. Air in; air out. Sounds like a great idea. RMIT University. Video:
  • BREATHLESS BIKING: Would you like to ride your bike with no air in the tires? You would if you were using Energy Return Wheels. The wheels use rubber stretched over a series of rods to provide cushioning. The rods can be adjusted to provide different amounts of tension on the rubber, and the rim itself is made from carbon fibre for reduced weight. Throw away the bike pump and enjoy more trails. ChopMTB.
  • DIY SOLAR: The UK’s Westmill Solar Cooperative may be the largest community owned solar project in the world. The solar farm consists of 12 hectares of over 20,000 polycrystalline Solar Photovoltaic panels and includes 5 wind turbines. The site is expected to generate 4.8 GWhr per year — enough to power around 1400 homes. Great idea: why wait for a power company; create a cooperative. Westmill Solar Cooperative.
  • ONE SMALL LEAP: A flea can jump up to 100 times its body length. It does this by locking an elastic protein in a squashed position and then releasing. Scientists at Seoul National University in South Korea are using a shape memory alloy called nitinol to create a robot that can jump in the same way. They created springs that fold and lock in the same way. When attached to a power supply the prototype can jump up to 30 times its own length. Sounds good, but it’s only a small leap. Now the robot needs its own on-board power supply and to remain upright while leaping. High-jumping sounds like it’s a go for the next robot Olympics. New Scientist. Video:
  • RUNNING TO GROUND: Researchers at the University of British Columbia have developed a way to charge up an electric car without plugging it in. A rotating base magnet on the ground is driven by electricity from the grid, while a corresponding gear is in the car. The magnet in the ground causes the gear in the car to rotate, generating power to charge the battery. Tests show the system is more than 90% efficient compared to a cable charge. 4 hours of charging provides 8 hours of battery power. Now to get the ground battery off the grid and onto renewables. University of British Columbia.

Tech Universe: Thursday 08 November 2012

  • KIWI CUBED: CubeSats are very small satellites — about 10cm x 10cm x 10cm — still big enough to fit a lot of electronics. The European Union plan to launch 50 of them into low earth orbit, as part of a project called QB50. Meanwhile KiwiSpace are hoping to participate in the project by adding experiments to one of the satellites. The QB50 satellites will orbit for up to 90 days, and degrade slowly through the atmosphere. Now KiwiSpace are looking for partners, sponsors and experiments. There must be a heap of New Zealand businesses with out of this world plans to help with sponsorship. Sciblogs.
  • THE WRONG FOOT: One scientist at Idaho State University is so keen to search for evidence of Bigfoot that he wants to build a remote-controlled dirigible for the hunt. Using a thermal-imaging camera the blimp would survey remote forest across parts of the Pacific Northwest, California and Utah and send its findings back to teams on the ground for follow-up. The Falcon Project hasn’t got far yet though as fundraising’s the big problem. And what if Bigfoot knows how to hide from scary looking balloons in the sky? MSNBC.
  • IT’S NOT PAPER: Japan Display’s low-power colour reflective LCD displays video and still images by reflecting light from above. The display doesn’t have a backlight but uses a liquid crystal shutter to produce a monochrome image. Colour filters allow for a colour image. A Light Control Layer collects light in the direction of the user’s eyes, making the display look similar to paper. Two versions of the display have been created: one is highly reflective, with a reflection rate of 40%, and 5% coverage of the NTSC color gamut. The other, still being developed, shows better colour but is dimmer. It sounds like the right kind of display for an ereader, to give people more of a book experience. DigInfo TV.
  • FIREFLY FLASH: Researchers at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology studied fireflies and found they have a lot of ordered tiny ridges on their exoskeleton. The ridges help the firefly’s particular wavelength of light pass through more effectively. When the researchers created a similar regular and ordered pattern of dots on an LED lens it also allowed more light to pass through. The LED lens uses nanopillars packed into the shape of a honeycomb and works best when the light has a wavelength of 560 nanometers. The technique could help boost light for camera phone screens or flashes, car headlights or residential lighting. Tech News Daily.
  • STURDY CELLS: The materials used in photovoltaic devices are expensive, while carbon is abundant and cheap. Scientists at Stanford University have built the first solar cell made entirely of carbon. Graphene and single-walled carbon nanotubes form the electrodes, while carbon nanotubes and buckyballs make up the active layer sandwiched between them. The working thin film prototype uses a carbon coating solution that could be easily applied to windows or walls. Unfortunately the cell is extremely inefficient, but better materials and processing should help. The carbon cells could be useful in extreme environments where they may out-perform conventional devices because they are very robust. That low efficiency is always the problem, it seems. Stanford University.

Tech Universe: Friday 09 November 2012

  • SCREEN CHORDS: The QWERTY keyboard works just fine when you know where the keys are, as you do on a physical keyboard. But how about on a touchscreen? The ASETNIOP system allocates 8 spots on the screen to the letters ASETNIOP. All other characters and function keys are achieved by touching 2 or more fingers at once, or chording. That means the system detects which fingers are pressed down, rather than where a finger touches. The creators claim experienced users can achieve 80 words per minute. It’s curious they chose P as one of the single-tap letters, rather than the more frequently used R. ASETNIOP.
  • PHONE RELIEF: There’s a disaster and your phone runs out of juice so that only makes things worse. The BoostTurbine is a rechargeable USB battery pack with hand turbine power generator. In other words, turn the crank for a minute to power a 30-second call or a few critical texts. The device weighs just under 200 grams and is only slightly bigger than a cellphone. It uses a rechargeable 2000mAH lithium ion battery. It could be handy for hikers and anyone off-grid for a few days. Eton.
  • WASH CYCLE: It’s bad enough when you spill coffee on the keyboard without it dissolving the electronics inside. Researchers at The National Physical Laboratory in the UK have developed a printed circuit board whose components can be easily separated by immersion in hot water. Their aim is to help with recycling electronics. If the boards are easy to separate into their component parts it should help make them easier to recycle. Less than 2% of traditional printed circuit board material can be re-used, while around 90% of the new boards can. That’s one way to clean up electronics. The National Physical Laboratory.
  • 6 MOVIES PER MINUTE: At 20 gigabits per second it would take 10 seconds to download a full HD movie. That’s the rate researchers at Bangor University have managed to achieve over a fibre optic cable using Optical Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing. In short, the process codes and decodes optical signals on the fly rather than in separate stages. Of course, that was a lab test and they’re a long way from making a commercial product, but they hope to have a working module in a couple of years. It’s still the buffering that’ll cause problems. BBC.
  • BUY LOW; USE HIGH: In some places commercial building owners may pay differing rates for electricity depending on their usage, the time of day and other factors. Stem in the US has developed a lithium-ion battery system for commercial buildings that stores power when it’s cheap and releases it when the price goes up. The system uses algorithms to predict a building’s power use hour-by-hour. If it will save money because of usage fees or higher rates the battery starts serving power. When the price drops the battery stores energy instead. Stem claim their customers could save between 5% and 15% on their energy bills without needing to change their behaviour. Sounds like it would appeal to any sensible consumer: stock up when the price is low. Technology Review.

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.