Tech Universe: Monday 21 January 2013
- SPOT CHECKS: HealthSpot aims to use telemedicine kiosks to change how the health system works. When you enter a kiosk you first use a touchscreen to enter and confirm some personal details. Then you connect via video with a doctor who chats with you and can release relevant medical instruments from closed panels. Instruments may include devices for looking at skin lesions or the eardrum, for example. The data is immediately available to the doctor who can issue prescriptions or paperwork. After each visit the kiosk is sanitised and checked. HealthSpot expect to install their kiosks in places like grocery stores, pharmacies and university campuses in the US this year. It sounds much healthier than a doctor’s waiting room. Mashable
- JUST BREATHE: After a disaster teams of rescuers may have to search rubble for survivors, and that’s a tricky job. But as we breathe, the air we exhale contains traces of chemicals that can give away our presence. Ion mobility spectrometers have been used before to identify signs of diabetes and lung cancer in breath. Researchers at the Leibniz Institute for Analytical Sciences in Germany are working on a spectrometer that would draw air samples from inside piles of rubble and analyse them within 3 minutes. 12 particular chemical signatures suggest there are people breathing. The device worked well in the lab but now needs real-world testing to prove its usefulness. If you’re trapped in rubble, just keep breathing. Chemical & Engineering News.
- NO TIME AT ALL: Researchers at the University of California have found a way to make a clock from a single particle. Until now atomic clocks, the most accurate we have, rely on the regular pattern of switching between two energy levels, and involve both the nucleus and electron of an atom. The new clock uses lasers to split cesium atoms into two halves and measures the time differential between one half that moves and the other half that doesn’t. The new clock tells time less accurately than current atomic clocks but could be used to help define mass. The next idea the researchers have is to see if they can make a clock with no particles at all, and that’s not even a joke. Discovery News.
- TREES ON TAP: Chemical engineers at the University of California say they can use Eucalyptus trees, or other fast-growing plants, to create a fuel to replace diesel. A fermentation process used in World War 1 transforms plant material into a propellant. Then a catalyst converts the propellant into a mix of hydrocarbons similar to those in diesel fuel. The final product burns as well as petroleum-based fuel and contains more energy per litre than ethanol. Using non-food crops would be quite an advantage, and maybe the eucalypts would make it smell good too. SFGate.
- DRIVE STREAM: The Wireless Plus external hard drive from Seagate offers a terabyte of storage, but its most important feature is that it includes a Wi-Fi hotspot. The drive can create a wireless network for computers and mobile devices. A media app means the drive could be used to stream media on smartphones and tablets, while a removable USB 3.0 adapter lets you plug the drive in if you really want to. Hooray, one less cable to be bothered with. Discovery News.
Tech Universe: Tuesday 22 January 2013
- ELECTRIC DONUTS: How do you create a hydroelectric dam in the middle of the sea? With a donut-shaped island, of course. Belgium currently derives more than half its electricity from nuclear plants, but it wants to phase them out and use North Sea wind farms instead. One problem with that is how to store excess wind power for use when it’s needed. The planned island will be built out of sand 3 km off the Belgian coast. Surplus power will be used to pump water out of the centre of the island and into the surrounding sea. When more electricity is needed the sea will be allowed to flow back in through turbines. Ingenious, but couldn’t severe storms be rather a problem? Reuters.
- GADGET TWIST: Power strips can be a pain when one gadget’s plug is an odd shape or runs sideways and blocks the outlets on either side. Allocacoc in The Netherlands have a simple solution: instead of a strip, they created a cube. The PowerCube solves the problem of blocked outlets and multiple cubes can be stacked together to create a strip. With a twist each module can be easily attached to a small dock that can be mounted on a desk or wall. Various models of PowerCube are available, some with extension cords or USB ports included. Unfortunately they’re only available in Europe at the moment. Dvice.
- TAKE THE LUMPS: Cleaning up radioactive waste is always a headache, but researchers at Rice University and Lomonosov Moscow State University have found a material that can help. Microscopic, atom-thick flakes of graphene oxide added to contaminated water quickly clump together after binding to radionuclides. The clumps can then be easily skimmed off and processed. And with any luck, used for something productive. Rice University.
- FLIPPING SWEAT: It’s flipping and bucking because it’s lying on a damp surface, but that motion is producing electricity. A team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology used polymers and a layer of piezoelectric material to create something that resembles an ordinary piece of thin black plastic. Once the film is put on a damp surface it absorbs moisture, making the ends curl away from the surface. That makes the film unstable, so it flips over. The ends dry out, absorb more moisture and cause another flip. Meanwhile the piezoelectric layer generates electricity as the film bends and flexes. The power output is small, but could be enough for small sensors in sports equipment or environmental monitoring systems in remote locations. Writhing wristbands sportsman! New Scientist.
- SOLAR SAILING: The electric solar wind sail is designed to push spacecraft a long way. As a first step researchers at the University of Helsinki used ultrasonic welding to create a 1 Km long sail from 25 to 50 micron thin electrically conductive tethers. A full size sail may include up to 100 tethers, each 20 Km long. An electron gun creates a positive charge in the tethers which then create an electric field. Charged particles from the sun, the solar wind, push against the field and transfer momentum to a spacecraft gradually building its speed. A 1000 kg spacecraft with 100 electric-sail wires, each 20-km long, could reach 30 Kilometres per second after a year and it would accelerate beyond that too. A 15 metre long sail will be tested on a small satellite this year. Presumably the solar wind is no more constant than winds on Earth, which could make navigation a bit tricky. KurzweilAI.
Tech Universe: Wednesday 23 January 2013
- LASER LISA: NASA like to track their Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter with a laser. Recently though they used the laser to try something new: sending a picture of the Mona Lisa to the LRO. The orbiting craft then verified the image by returning it via the radio telemetry system. The image was sent using discrete laser pulses precisely timed to indicate brightness. Algorithms used in CDs and DVDs were also applied to clean up the image and compensate for errors. It wasn’t just an art project though — the technique could be used for high-speed communication in future. What’s old is new again. NASA.
- A BEAM IN THE EYE: If you’re demolishing a skyscraper you don’t have to just whack it down in a cloud of dust and rubble. In Tokyo one construction company is using giant jacks and electricity-generating cranes to dismantle a high-rise tower, floor by floor. First everything’s removed from the inside. Then beams and concrete are removed, working from the top down, and material is recycled and reused where possible. Temporary columns hold up the roof while work proceeds. As cranes lower material to the ground they create electricity that’s used for other parts of the process. The system reduces noise and dust too. Those implosions from blowing up buildings are pretty spectacular though. Wired.
- THE WINDS OF JAPAN: Japan aims to build 143 wind turbines on platforms 16 Km off the coast of Fukushima to generate 1 gigawatt of power. The turbines will be built on buoyant steel frames, stabilised with ballast and anchored to the continental shelf 200 metres below. Project planners say there will be no negative impact on fish, and that all possible extreme hazards, such as earthquakes and typhoons have been accounted for in the design. Expect the unexpected. New Scientist.
- LIQUID BOUNCERS: A team at the University of Michigan has created a superomniphobic coating that repels almost all liquids. Other similar coatings may repel many liquids, but those with very low surface tension, such as oils, alcohols, organic acids, organic bases and solvents, still stick. With this new coating everything except chlorofluorocarbons was repelled. Obvious applications include clothing, while the coating could also be used in paint on ships’ hulls to reduce drag. Unless dirt bounces off too, washing the clothes could be a problem. Or would they come out of the washing machine already dry? University of Michigan.
- COOL THREADS: A new flexible and tough carbon nanotube fibre looks and acts like black cotton, yet conducts electricity and heat like a metal wire. A process called wet spinning has allowed researchers to produce the fibres in bulk. The process packs and aligns carbon nanotubes to create the fibre and tunes the threads for high electrical conductivity. Researchers expect the combination of toughness, flexibility and conductivity will lead to new products for aerospace, cars, medicine and smart clothing. Don’t pull that loose thread. Rice University.
Tech Universe: Thursday 24 January 2013
- MUSSEL MUSCLE: Backpacks on mussels? Researchers at the University of Iowa attached wireless sensor packages to Mississippi river mussels that measure how open their shells are. Data is sent to a station on shore that relays it to a lab for analysis. Mussels change how open their shells are in response to water conditions. That data could help scientists monitor water quality, including factors like varying nitrogen levels and pollutants. One reason for using mussels is that they keep themselves clean, so the monitors could last for years. Mussels that pack a punch. New Scientist.
- YOUR INNER WORLD: Take a 3D tour of your esophagus. Researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital can now save you from an anaesthetic while they check your esophagus for damage that could lead to cancer. Their new device puts a tiny camera in a transparent capsule that the patient swallows with a glass of water. The capsule is on a tether that sends data back to a computer and imaging device. Infrared light is reflected off the esophagus walls, compared with a reference beam, and used to reconstruct a thin cross section of the esophagus in microscopic detail. Individual images can be stacked to create a 3D image. That’s easier than an anaesthetic for sure, but having that wire down your throat, and then getting the capsule out again would surely have you gagging. Nature.
- HOT SPOTS: The tiny LifeMonitor capsule could save the lives of firefighters one day. In a trial in Australia firefighters swallowed the capsules which contain a thermometer and small transmitter. The pill sends real-time data on the firefighter’s core temperature to a device on the chest that also collects skin temperature, heart and respiration rate data. All the data is then sent to an external computer. A more accurate reading of core temperature can help managers make better decisions on when to withdraw individual firefighters from hot situations where heat stress may overcome them. The pill is excreted naturally after a couple of days. So popping pills could be cool after all. News.com.au.
- SPEED BUMPS: Wilocity’s wifi is much faster than current wifi. Traditional wifi uses the now congested 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands to achieve speeds around 1 gigabit per second. Wilocity wifi uses the 60GHz frequency and reaches speeds up to around 7 gigabits per second. On the other hand, even thin walls can block it so systems would fall back to the slower versions if devices weren’t in the same room. Still, faster for some of the time is better than always slower. Ars Technica.
- PUFFED UP: In 2015 the International Space Station will expand in size thanks to a Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM. The module is transported flat and will then be pressurised on arrival so it expands to its full size. BEAM will be tested for 2 years, then will be jettisoned and burn up on re-entry. If the testing shows the module is suitable then similar modules could be used in future human spaceflight to more distant targets. Why jettison it, rather than keeping it hanging round? NASA.
Tech Universe: Friday 25 January 2013
- DEEP ROCKETS: Deep Space Industries has some big plans: to mine near-Earth asteroids for precious metals. In 2015 it will send uncrewed FireFly spacecraft to explore asteroids that fly near Earth. In the following years DragonFly spacecraft will bring back samples from likely candidates. It all depends on sponsorship though: they’re looking for investors. The next big thing or the next bust? The Verge.
- THE SIZE OF WATER: Researchers at Monash University want to help clean toxins out of water and believe a highly-porous Metal Organic Framework, or MOF, they’ve developed could do the job. The MOF is a cluster of metal atoms connected by organic molecules whose pores are all exactly the same size. That means the MOF can be customised to capture specific substances by tailoring the size of the pores. In tests the MOF filtered out and absorbed paraquat but no other contaminants. This could also lead to devices to quickly and easily test for specific contaminants in water. That’s a high-tech sieve. Monash University.
- HIGH ON GLASS: Ever wondered how people with giant high windows keep them clean? In future perhaps they’ll use a Winbot. The robot attaches to a window with suction, assesses the size of the window and plots an efficient path for cleaning it. Then it traverses the window, while its cleaning pads remove dirt and dry the glass. If it has a problem an alarm lets you know. Now it just needs a way to climb up to the skylight. Ecovacs.
- BRIGHT IDEA: The Japanese Gura-pika LED torch turns on automatically in an earthquake. It can be cranked by hand or recharged via a wall outlet, and contains a built-in radio that is always tuned in, even if the device itself is turned off. If Japan’s Earthquake Warning Alarm is activated the torch sounds an alarm. A handy USB port lets you power other devices. The torch glows bright for up to14 hours and the radio works for about 6 hours on a full charge. Being able to charge other devices is handy. DamnGeeky.
- ELECTRIC YOU: The TEGwear chip is only a square-inch in size, but it generates up to 3 volts of electricity via heat taken from your body. That’s enough to power sensors or sports monitors. The chip must either be touching your skin or separated by only a thin layer of cloth. At least that’s small enough to be inconspicuous. FastCo.