22 to 26 April 2013 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Monday 22 April 2013

  • STICK TO IT: One problem surgeons have is how to anchor skin grafts so they have time to heal. Stitches and staples are useful, but cause their own trauma to the skin. And we all know that sticky dressings usually fall off if they get wet. A team at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in the US took inspiration from a parasitic worm that lives in the guts of fish. They’ve created a patch that’s covered with microscopic needles. Like the spikes on the parasite, the needles easily penetrate skin, but then swell up and lock in place. There’s less trauma, and the patch is 3 times stronger than materials currently used for burns patients. Tests in animals have proven the patch a success. You’d think that would be handy for ordinary sticking plasters too. BBC.
  • THE BIG PICTURE: The US military uses long-wave infrared cameras to detect humans at night by their heat signatures. That works well, but the cameras are so large they have to be mounted on vehicles and they’re costly too. It would be much more convenient if individual soldiers could carry them. That may soon happen though as the latest prototype LWIR camera has a sensor whose pixels are so small 12 would fit across a single human hair. The pixels are configured in a high-resolution 1280×720 focal plane array. The new cameras are relatively cheap, but their perfomance is comparable to that of the larger imagers. That’s one more item for soldiers to carry. DARPA.
  • BIG THINGS; SMALL PACKAGES: When it comes to powering devices the choice is between capacitors that release energy quickly but can store only a small amount and batteries that store a lot but release or recharge slowly. A new microbattery from the University of Illinois manages both high power and high storage. The batteries can also recharge 1,000 times faster than competing technologies. The team have achieved this feat with a 3 dimensional microstructure for both anode and cathode. Now the obvious question: how long until these batteries are being implemented in our gadgets? University of Illinois.
  • PILL POPPER: People may take too many prescription painkillers on purpose or by accident, and may die as a result. Students at Brigham Young University created Med Vault to help reduce such overdoses. Their pill container resists tampering and breaking and dispenses pills only on a schedule programmed in by a pharmacist. Patients must key in an access code to retrieve pills that are ready to be dispensed. Let’s hope the pain’s not bad enough to prevent them keying in the access code. Brigham Young University.
  • YELLOW GOLD: From sulphur to plastic — a team at the University of Arizona has used a new chemical process to transform waste sulphur into a lightweight plastic that can be used to make batteries. Lithium-sulfur, or Li-S, batteries are more efficient, lighter and cheaper than those currently used. The new plastic is easy and inexpensive to produce on an industrial scale and makes use of a waste product from refining fossil fuels. The process adds an unnamed chemical to sulphur to polymerise it. Making waste products useful is always a good idea. University of Arizona.

Tech Universe: Tuesday 23 April 2013

  • CARAVAN CLASS: The 8.5 metre 2014 Land Yacht travel trailer from Airstream is a very upmarket caravan. It uses luxury materials and Italian design in its 3 rooms. A bedroom, bathroom, living area and a hideaway galley kitchen provide enough room for 5 people to holiday or even live in. Features include hidden LED lighting, ducted air conditioning, a powered awning and a hidden storage area under the bed. Its look remain classic Airstream though. No need to rough it while caravanning. Wired.
  • AGING ANTS: How do you track individual ants in a colony of thousands? With barcodes, of course. A team of Swiss scientists glued barcodes to hundreds of ants and recorded all their movements for more than a month. Then they used video to analyse the position and orientation of every ant twice a second. They also tagged ants with different colours to denote their age, which allowed them to see how ants undertook different tasks as they grew older. Pity the lab technician who had to glue on all the barcodes. Ars Technica.
  • HOUSING SPHERES: If you’re building habitations in extreme environments you can expect that they’ll be pretty unusual. At The Ekinoid Project that means spheres raised up off the ground and self-sufficient so they don’t need infrastructure such as pipelines, powerlines and sewage systems. Each sphere would be around 10 metres in diameter and could be joined to several other spheres to create a hub. At the moment the project is only in its early design stages, but it looks intriguing. And somewhat alien. The Ekinoid Project.
  • THE INNER ROBOT: In keyhole surgery it’s very handy for surgeons to actually be able to see what they’re doing. One technique may be to use tiny robots. But the problem lies in how the robots can crawl around on the slippery surfaces inside the body. Researchers from the University of Leeds used a treefrog as their model when they created the feet on their robot. The feet use capillary action to adhere to even wet surfaces, but on a scale of a thousandth of a millimetre to gain enough adhesion. Their prototype robot is still too large to be used in surgery, but they aim to sort that out soon. Caution: robots inside. University of Leeds.
  • A SUNSHINE BUZZ: South Korean researchers have created a hybrid energy harvester using silicon nanopillar solar cells and piezoelectric generators. Since it captures solar and sound energy simultaneously, it can still generate power even if one source is absent, for example when the sun’s not shining. The hybrid harvester could be particularly useful in moving vehicles. Keep that engine roar up. PhysOrg.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 24 April 2013

  • BIG DIFFERENCE: The world’s oceans receive 80% of the solar energy that arrives on our planet. To make use of some of that energy China may soon be home to the world’s largest Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion power plant, supplying 10 megawatts. The OTEC system takes the natural temperature difference between surface and bottom of the ocean in tropical regions and uses it to create power consistently 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. This plant’s still a fairly small pilot though. A fullscale 100 megawatt OTEC plant could produce the same amount of energy in a year as 1.3 million barrels of oil while decreasing carbon emissions by half a million tons. All by exploiting a difference in temperature. Lockheed Martin.
  • WATER YOUR PHONE: The MyFC PowerTrekk, developed at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, uses ordinary water and connects via USB to extend battery life for devices of up to 3 watts. What’s more the water doesn’t need to be completely clean, and can be fresh or salt water. The charger is both a fuel cell and a portable battery, providing a direct power source as well as a storage buffer for the fuel. Inside the unit is a small recyclable metal disc. When you pour water onto it hydrogen gas is released and combines with oxygen to convert chemical energy into electrical energy and provide between 20% and 100% of a battery charge. Now that’s a charger to keep around. KTH Royal Institute of Technology.
  • FORK IT IN: The HapiFork may help you eat better, by counting bites and vibrating to alert you when you eat too quickly. Studies have suggested that eating more slowly improves digestion and helps control weight, so if you take more than one mouthful every 10 seconds the fork lets you know. The fork synchs with a smartphone and also has a web dashboard. The electronics it needs are housed in the handle and can be removed before washing. Data from test users shows people take about 70 fork bites per meal. Reduce portion size too. CNN.
  • SENSITIVE ROBOTS: Nobody want to be roughed up by a robot, so researchers at Harvard have developed a very inexpensive tactile sensor for robotic hands to make them more sensitive. The TakkTile sensor is intended for commercial inventors, teachers, and robotics enthusiasts. The sensor adds a layer of vacuum-sealed rubber to a tiny barometer that senses air pressure. Added to a robotic hand, it helps pick up a balloon without popping it, or pick up a key and use it to unlock a door. The sensors can be built using relatively simple equipment and standard fabrication processes. This is particularly important for medical and personal care work too. Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
  • KEEP MOVING: The Karma Chameleon at Concordia University in Canada is working on interactive electronic fabrics that harness and store energy directly from the human body, then use the power to change the visual properties of the garments. The project weaves electronic or computer functions into the fibres which consist of multiple layers of polymers. It’s not yet possible to manufacture clothing with the new composite fibres but the designers in the project are creating conceptual prototypes. For example, garments could change their shape and colour while being worn, or capture the energy from human movement to charge a smartphone. Now hook it up to mood detectors so your clothes can reflect how you feel. Concordia University.

Note: there was no Tech Universe on Anzac Day, 25 April.

Tech Universe: Friday 26 April 2013

  • RUN IN PLACE: While you play video games your character may run, walk, jump and be incredibly athletic. Meanwhile, chances are you’re sitting comfortably. Virtuix hope to change that with their omnidirectional treadmill, a natural motion interface. The Omni is a small octagonal platform, with an enclosing rail above it to hold you in place. As your onscreen character moves, so do you. You can walk and run in any direction, stand still, look around and generally be more engaged in your character. Add a VR headset for the full immersive experience. That could be a whole more fun at the gym too. Virtuix.
  • COOLING STEAM: If you have an electric car then you may have to trade off heating and air conditioning against the distance you can travel on a battery charge. Researchers at MIT are working on a new thermal battery that can be used for either heating or cooling. Water is pumped into a low-pressure container, evaporating and absorbing heat in the process. Then an adsorbant material pulls water vapour out of the container, keeping the pressure low so more water can be pumped in and evaporated. That process keeps the passengers cool. Or the heat that’s released from adsorption can be used to warm up the passenger compartment. Eventually the system needs to be recharged, which could use heat from a solar water heater, and happen while the battery’s charging. A steam engine in a car, eh? Technology Review.
  • LIVING ON THE RIVER: The WaterHouses are smart, 34 eco-friendly apartments in Hamburg, Germany. They’re actually built directly on the Elbe river, connected to shore by footbridges. A building control system provides a touchscreen to individually adjust heating and cooling, while heating and hot water come from a geothermal heat pump system and solar thermal elements in the facades. And when the river floods, do they rise with the tide? WaterHouses.
  • LIVING ON THE ROAD: The Kiwi designed Romotow isn’t your ordinary caravan. It features an aerodynamic shape and plenty of glass, and is lightweight for added fuel efficiency. Its big point of difference though is that the main body is contained within a shell. The inside portion with the indoor living area can be swivelled by 90 degrees, leaving the outer shell as a covered outdoor area. Unfortunately the caravan’s still only a design awaiting a protoype but it would be great to see these on New Zealand’s roads. Romotow.
  • PICKABOT: Industrial robots are superb at tirelessly repeating the same action over and over without change, for example in welding parts. But Industrial Perception are aiming to give robots the ability to make some decisions for themselves, for example, picking a particular object out from a pile of many objects. Their robots use multiple 3D sensors and engineered algorithms to carry out assigned tasks. The robots start by creating a real time digital 3D model of the scene. Then they search for a specific shape by fitting a 3D mesh of the desired object over the shapes in their field of vision. Finally the robots act on the object, perhaps picking it up and moving it. They may be slower than a human worker, but can work without breaks and without tiring. No smoko for robots. Singularity Hub.