03 to 07 December 2012 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Monday 03 December 2012

  • DREAMS OF MARS: Landing the rovers on Mars has been quite a feat. But Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, has much bigger plans: landing 80,000 people to form a colony. He says each fare could cost less than $500,000 — the cost of a house in many places. The plans would require fully reusable rockets and spacecraft, capable of vertical landings. What an enormous challenge that could initiate. Space.
  • KEEPING PLACE: GPS systems use a large number of satellites that all transmit highly accurate time signals. Such systems have been put in place or are being developed by half a dozen countries: the USA, Russia, Europe, China, Japan and India. All those satellites are extremely expensive. Now Chinese researchers have a potential money-saving idea: transmit highly accurate time signals from the ground and route them through geostationary satellites already in orbit. While that could give accurate east-west positions, the north-south positions are a bit harder to achieve. As satellites reach their end of life though they do move around a bit into an inclined plane. The researchers say they could exploit that movement to get the rest of the data. Yet you still need to have a bunch of satellites that just happen to be available. Technology Review.
  • FASTER THAN A SPEEDING BULLET TRAIN: Japan’s Bullet Train may be fast, but the Series L0 maglev, scheduled to go into use in 2027 between Tokyo and Nagoya, will be faster. The Bullet does the trip in 90 minutes, but the new train will cover the distance in 40 minutes — at almost 500 Kph. The front car is about 30 metres long, but half of that length is an aerodynamic streamlined nose. The train can carry almost 1,000 passengers per journey. That train would cover Auckland to Wellington in less than 90 minutes. PhysOrg.
  • BREAKING POWER: The breakwater off Mutriku in northern Spain does double duty. On the one hand it keeps vicious waves from thrashing the shore; on the other it uses the power of those waves to generate power. The breakwater’s hollow, and contains a wave energy plant. Incoming waves compress the air in 16 cylinders, driving turbines and generating electricity. The plant produces 300 Kw — enough for 600 residents. Nice to see the combination of purposes there. NPR.
  • SPIT ON A CHIP: Researchers at Aarhus University have developed a way to diagnose malaria from a single drop of blood or saliva. The new microfluidics lab-on-a-chip test is quick, effective and low cost and doesn’t need trained medical staff to make it work. The new test could help detect outbreaks of malaria in areas where it has nearly been eradicated. Simple, cheap tests like this can make dramatic changes. Aarhus University.

Tech Universe: Tuesday 04 December 2012

  • POINT AND SHOOT: The Intelligent Digital Tracking Scope from TrackingPoint keeps its eye on the target even when you don’t. A shooter aims their rifle and scope at a target then uses a red button by the trigger to tag what they want to shoot. The rifle fires only when it’s correctly lined up for the shot. Correctly identifying the target first is pretty crucial. The Firearm Blog.
  • SWEAT IT ON: A new outdoor fitness centre in Hull in the UK is free for local residents. But as they use the equipment, not only do they get fit, but they also generate electricity. At the moment the gym powers its own lights, but they hope to eventually feed power back into the grid. Cheaper models could be used to charge up mobile phones. There are so many opportunities in daily life to do something useful. CNN. Video:
  • FROZEN WINGS: As aircraft fly they may build up ice on the wings, which affects handling, safety and fuel consumption. Icing can also interfere with instrument sensors. Japanese researchers are developing a coating that contains microscopic particles of a Teflon-based material to help repel the water that otherwise turns into ice. Surfaces coated with particles ranging in size from 5 to 30 micrometers seem to repel the most water. The researchers hope the new coating can help prevent icing, where current systems have varying degrees of success in dealing with ice once it’s already formed. Wired.
  • HIGH SHOTS: Lehmann Aviation’s LA100 might appeal to photographers for those high shots. Launch the drone by tossing it in the air and it’ll fly for 5 minutes at 80 to 100 metres, snapping photos all the way. You can mount a GoPro camera on top of or below the wing, or even use two cameras at once. The drone has a wingspan of less than 1 metre and weighs less than 1 Kg. It’s made of foam and carbon fibre. If you hear a humming sound, look up and smile for the camera. Lehmann Aviation. Video:
  • BATTERY PLANTS: The Plant-Microbial Fuel Cell from Wageningen University generates electricity from the natural interaction between living plant roots and soil bacteria. It could be used to generate power from rice paddies, green roofs, or anywhere plants grow, especially in wetlands. Plant roots secrete organic material as a result of photosynthesis. Bacteria break down the material and create electrons. Electrodes close to the bacteria harvest the electrons to create electricity. This system generates more power than fermenting biomass. Wire up your garden! Wageningen University and Research.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 05 December 2012

  • WIND BENEATH THE WINGS: Those enormous blades on wind turbines cost a huge amount to manufacture. Even the moulds for the clamshell fibreglass structures cost millions of dollars. Transporting the blades is another problem. But if components could be built and assembled on site then the overall cost of wind energy could be reduced. GE aims to cut the cost of blades by 25% to 40% with architectural fabrics stretched around a metal spaceframe resembling a fishbone. This idea harks back to early planes whose wings were made of fabric. That’s one way to stretch the budget. GE.
  • PLASTIC EYES: Night-vision goggles, laser rangefinders and similar devices weigh more than they need to. A new polymer gradient-index lens could reduce that weight considerably. The GRIN lenses are made from fine-tuned polymer layers that are stacked on top of each other, allowing the refractivity of the lens to be precisely configured. The sandwiched layers of polymers weigh about half as much as a glass lens, and because the optics can be so finely tuned, one polymer lens can replace 3 glass lenses. The polymer lenses can refract light internally, rather than just at the surface as glass does. Imagine what this could do for regular specs and contact lenses, or even replacements for human corneas. Gizmodo.
  • HEAR YOU ARE: A team at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem is developing a sonar vision system for people blind from birth. After around 70 hours of training users are able to correctly classify images into different categories, such as faces or houses and even read words and letters. A small video camera is embedded in a pair of glasses. A processor, such as a laptop or smartphone transforms images into sounds, and a pair of stereo headphones plays the sounds to the wearer. I wonder if the tests have only been done on adults, and if children would perceive any differently? CEA.
  • FOLD YOUR OWN: Going tramping and worried about charging your GPS and phone? Wenger’s portable, foldable solar charger can take care of that. The water-resistant Polycrystalline solar panels include a USB cord and 5 adapters to connect to many portable devices. A high capacity lithium battery stores the power for when you need it. It could be a handy item for the disaster kit too. Wenger.
  • SOLAR STEAM ENGINE: A standard internal combustion engine pressurises a liquid such as petrol or diesel, adds a spark and uses the explosion to push a piston. The HydroICE Solar Project takes a similar but different approach. Mirrored parabolic solar collectors heat oil to around 430C. The oil’s injected into a cylinder and a few microdroplets of water are added. When the water contacts the hot oil, the oil’s thermal energy is transferred to the water and it instantly flashes to steam. The expansion from liquid water to gas drives the piston. The mix is then sent to a separator to be reused. The closed loop system could be much more efficient than photovoltaic panels and useful for generators. That’s nice thinking outside the box. The HydroICE Solar Project.

Tech Universe: Thursday 06 December 2012

  • STOPPING POWER: The Aggie Bus from Utah State University runs on electricity. But it doesn’t need overhead wires, huge heavy batteries, or to spend hours at base recharging. Instead it recharges wirelessly when it stops to pick up or set down passengers. The bus carries a prototype device that transfers power at greater than 90% efficiency from the power grid in the ground to the relatively light-weight battery. The bus can be up to 15 cm off target yet still charge. In a perfect world passengers at the stop could charge up their gadgets wirelessly while they wait too. Utah State University.
  • WASH AND BLOW DRY: You know the routine in public bathrooms: wash your hands at the sink, shake water all over the floor and then wave them around in hot air to dry them. Dyson have filed a patent that could literally take several steps out of the process. Their idea is a tap that produces water when you place your hands beneath it so you can wash them. Then the tap has extra ducts coming off the sides that blast warm air to dry your hands after washing. That’s an excellent idea, so long as there are enough sinks so people don’t leave without washing their hands at all. Gizmodo.
  • SOFT PLASTIC LIGHTS: The field-induced polymer electroluminescent lights from researchers at Wake Forest University don’t flicker, don’t buzz and don’t shatter. They do give off a soft white light and are long-lasting though. A polymer matrix blended with a small amount of nanomaterials converts electric current into light. The polymer can be made in any color and any shape, so can replace both commercial and household lighting. The lights are twice as efficient as compact fluorescents and about the same as LEDs. The ability to make the lights in any shape should lead to some interesting creative lighting. Wake Forest University.
  • WASTE NOT WANT NOT: Ghana has insufficient electricity and a surplus of sewage — they dump 1,000 tons of sewage every day into the ocean by the capital city. So now they’re building a fecal sludge biodiesel plant to help solve both problems at once. Researchers say biodiesel from sewage sludge is cheaper than that made from algae or soy beans. The plant will process the sludge and turn it into fuel based on the fat content. Related: don’t go swimming in the sea by Accra. Fast Co.
  • HOT CHOCOLATE: If you’re the kind of person who might have a chocolate bar in their bag, you know the frustration of pulling it out on a summer’s day to find it’s all melted. Cadbury have a way to solve that problem: chocolate made in their new process stays solid in temperatures up to 40C. The temperature-tolerant chocolate is made a little differently — they break down sugar particles into smaller pieces, reducing how much fat covers them. The downside? The chocolate doesn’t readily melt when you put it in your mouth. Well, that should make it last longer. Daily Mail.

Tech Universe: Friday 07 December 2012

  • 5 HOURS TO EUROPE: The SABRE from Reaction Engines is an air-breathing rocket engine that combines jet turbine and rocket technology. It can fly around the world or boost into space and land again on a runway. The engines could power SKYLON, a new type of reusable space vehicle. The key to the engine is lightweight and highly efficient heat exchangers that cool the incoming airstream from over 1,000C to -150C in less than 1/100th of a second without blocking with frost. The makers say this could allow a commercial aircraft to fly between Europe and Australia in less than 5 hours. Plus, of course, double that for airport checkins, security and Customs. KurzweilAI. Video:
  • BLUE STICKER ITEMS: Lost your keys or bus pass? The StickNFind might have helped if you’d applied it before you lost the item. The coin sized stickers weigh almost nothing and are equipped with low-energy Bluetooth. A smartphone app then lets you locate the item a sticker’s attached to. Each tag has a sound and light that can be triggered separately. The app can also alert you when an item comes into or goes out of range. A small battery in each sticker should last about a year with 30 minutes daily use. Stick one on your lunch container in the office fridge. CNET.
  • TICKER CHECKER: The AliveCor iPhone case is intended for doctors. On the back are a couple of large electrodes. Rest two fingers on them, or press the case against the chest to monitor pulse, heart rhythm or ECG. Data from the electrodes is sent to the phone for analysis. A small battery inside the case provides juice for 12,000 scans, each 30 seconds long. The app doesn’t provide medical information — that’s for a doctor to do when analysing the data. That’s a case to make the heart race. GigaOm.
  • CAR BIKE: The ELF is a blend of three-wheeled bicycle and eco-car. Pedal it, or relax and enjoy the lithium battery assist with energy stored from rooftop solar panels or plugging the vehicle in at the wall. It’s a single-seater with a range of almost 50 Km. There’s enough space in the back for groceries. Headlights, brake lights and turn signals round out the features. Hmm, bike lane or car lane? Ars Technica.
  • PRETTY IN PINK, AND BLUE, AND GREEN: Auroras are pretty spectacular to watch with the naked eye. But NORUSCA II, a new camera in Norway, can simultaneously image 41 separate spectral bands within an aurora. The new camera switches between the optical bands in microseconds and may have already revealed a new phenomenon to do with airglow in auroras. More imaging, more data, more discoveries. It’s a rich world we live in. Physorg.

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.