Tech Universe: Monday 29 April 2013
- PEDAL CHARGER: Gadgets you use while cycling, such as for GPS, can quickly run out of juice, so wouldn’t it be handy if all your pedalling could help charge them up? The Atom does just that, charging an iPhone 1% for every two minutes of pedaling. It easily attaches to the axle on the rear wheel and charges devices via a USB cable or by powering its own battery that can later be used as an external battery for your phone. Because it’s siphoning off some of the energy from pedalling it adds a slight drag to the bike — about the same as a 0.3% gradient, and uses internal gearing to maximise efficiency. That beats draining your phone just to track a ride. Gizmodo.
- GET THE SUNSHINE IN: IBM are working on a High Concentration Photovoltaic Thermal system that can make the most of the solar energy it concentrates. Usually solar collectors are limited in how much sunshine they gather as otherwise they’d simply get too hot. This highly efficient and low cost collector will be cooled by water that will remove some of the heat and could itself be used for air conditioning. The system uses a large parabolic dish made from many mirror facets and photovoltaic chips, while a tracking system determines the best angle based on the position of the sun. It converts 30% of collected solar radiation into electrical energy. The cooling system is inspired by the hierarchical branched blood supply system of the human body. Engadget.
- PATCH GAMES: One child in 50 is likely to have a problem with amblyopia where one eye is weaker than the other. The traditional treatment is to have the child wear an eye patch for months. Researchers at McGill University think a better option may be to have the kids play Tetris — it worked in a small study with 18 adults. They had volunteers wear special goggles for an hour a day while playing Tetris. The goggles allowed one eye to see only falling blocks, while the other eye could see only the resting blocks. After two weeks their vision had improved more than that of a control group. I’ll bet most kids would prefer the video games to the eye patch. BBC.
- FLYING THUMBS: It can be hard work typing on a tablet’s touchscreen keyboard. After studying millions of English-language tweets that originated from mobile devices a team of researchers has designed a new KALQ keyboard layout optimised for typing with thumbs. After several hours of training novice users were able to reach 37 words per minute on the new layout — the fastest thumb typing speed ever reported. The layout puts most vowels by the spacebar, on the righthand side, and the most commonly used letters are clustered. Left handers can swap orientation, and key size can be changed to match thumb size. Several hours of training for typing on a touchscreen? That’s dedication. GigaOm.
- BIG HEAD: Bike helmets are fine when they’re on your head, but a pain to carry round when they’re not. Carrera’s foldable bicycle helmet has a flexible frame, elastic fitting system and adjustable side straps that adapt the helmet to the shape of the head. An included belt wraps around the folded helmet so it attaches easily to the bike frame when not wearing it. Now, if they could just find a way to also make it fold flat. Carrera.
Tech Universe: Tuesday 30 April 2013
- RIGHT LIGHTS: Light pollution is a huge waste of energy and money, damages our health and stops us from enjoying the natural wonders of the night sky. Unfortunately conventional sodium or mercury vapour streetlights contribute to the problem, scattering and leaking light in all directions. Now a team of researchers has an idea for LED streetlights that send a rectangle of light on to the street where it’s useful. A special lens focuses the light’s rays so they travel parallel to each other in a single direction, while a reflecting cavity captures any rays that escape. Meanwhile a diffuser reduces glare. Now they’re working on a prototype that can prove the concept. Let’s keep the skies dark. BBC.
- NO BOOM IN IRON: There are quite a few problems with fertiliser, one of which is its potential for use in home made bombs. Researchers at the Sandia National Lab found something that could help: mix in some iron sulfate, a waste product from steel foundries. They say that the new mix not only prevents the use of the fertiliser to make bombs, but also helps the fertiliser’s performance by improving the pH of soil and increasing the levels of iron in food. It sounds like a simple way to do a lot of good. Technology Review.
- LIVING PRINTS: Researchers studying how the human liver works also need to test how drugs interact with it. Now they can print tiny livers for themselves. A 3D printer created by US company Organovo makes livers half a millimetre deep and 4 millimetres across that can perform most functions of the real thing. The printer works by building up layers of hepatocytes and stellate cells and also adds cells from the lining of blood vessels. The miniature livers can be used for studying the effects of drugs, but the company has a goal of creating full size livers suitable for transplant. And perhaps being able to print tiny livers for testing can free up more of the real thing for transplants. New Scientist.
- THE ENEMY WITHIN: Pancreatic cancer is very difficult to treat, partly because of the way it spreads to other parts of the body. US biologists may have found a way to defeat it though, by using genetically modified bacteria to deliver radiation directly to the cancer cells. Studies in mice have been very successful. The technique uses a bacterium, modified with the radioactive compound rhenium-188, that can burrow inside key immune cells. The researchers believe that after further development and testing this technique could supplement standard treatments. Just point those bacteria the right way. Wired.
- GROWING DIESEL: We may have the University of Exeter to thank if we can fill up our trucks soon with diesel produced not from oil but from bacteria. The diesel produced by their special strains of E. coli bacteria is almost identical to conventional diesel fuel and the engines that run on it won’t need any modification. The next challenge is to make the process commercially viable. Bacteria — so useful. University of Exeter.
Tech Universe: Wednesday 01 May 2013
- A MOTE IN THE MOUSE: Back in the day a computer would fill a huge room; now you often carry one in your pocket. Researchers at the University of Michigan are working on smart dust, with prototypes only a cubic millimetre in size. Their Michigan Micro Motes include sensors to monitor temperature or movement then send data via radio waves. Of course you’ll be wanting to know if these microscopic computers need AA batteries. The idea is that they’d scavenge energy from nearby sources, perhaps via a solar panel or by exploiting temperature differences. Although this all seems more a fantasy than a practicality, the Michigan team has implanted a Micro Mote inside a mouse tumour so that it can report back on its growth. There may yet come a day when a magician can sprinkle a handful of dust and wave a wand to work miracles. New Scientist.
- SOAPY SAVINGS: Mosquitoes famously help transmit malaria — a big problem in some parts of the world. Hundreds of thousands of people die from malaria each year. That’s why two students in Burkina Faso invented a mosquito repelling soap. Faso Soap, is made from karate citronella, and other secret local herbs. Who needs nano-stuff? Low tech can also save lives. Clutch.
- DID YOU SAY?: The Chinese Si-Rui brand cars are gaining voice recognition supporting Mandarin Chinese. Soon drivers will be able to us voice commands for the radio, TV and DVD player, media player and navigation system. For example, apart from just playing the next song, a driver may be able to say “Search gas station” to find the nearest place to fill up. Actually, it’s the DVD controls that concern me. Nuance.
- EARTH AND WATER: Hydrophobic materials are usually made from thin polymer coatings that degrade when heated and are easily destroyed by wear. This reduces their usefulness in equipment for taking salt out of water or in steam-based power plants. Researchers at MIT created a new class of hydrophobic ceramics that can endure both extreme temperatures and rough treatment. That’s an achievement because ceramics generally attract water, rather than repelling it. It’s rare-earth oxides that do the trick. By fusing them into a solid ceramic form through sintering the result is materials with strong hydrophobic properties. Technology Review.
- THE THINKING PHONE: We already control lots of devices with our brains — it’s just that the signals pass through an intermediary such as fingers or voice box to do it. Now Samsung’s Emerging Technology Lab want to let us be more direct. Their research involves a cap studded with EEG-monitoring electrodes. They’ve already shown that people can concentrate on an icon blinking at a distinctive frequency to launch an app and make selections within it, for example. Unlike traditional EEG monitors that can take nearly an hour to set up this cap takes only a few seconds as it doesn’t require any gel. At this stage it’s all very slow and clunky, but further research should help speed things up. It’s good to see plenty of research going on around controlling devices by thought alone. Technology Review.
Tech Universe: Thursday 02 May 2013
- TELL-TALE BREATH: Swedish researchers using a simple, commercially available breath sampler found they were able to detect up to a dozen different drugs, including methadone, amphetamine, methamphetamine and cocaine in the breath of testers. The analyser collects micro-particles from breath on a filter which is sealed and stored for later analysis. Later analysis using liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry reveals the trace of drug use on the breath. It stands to reason that our breath can reveal what’s gone into our bodies. Phys.org.
- SWIM TIMER: Serious sportspeople may aim to keep their hearts beating within a specific rhythm range while training. For those on dry land there are various gadgets available, but for swimmers it’s another matter. It’s not only waterproofing that’s the problem, but that most devices may interfere with swimming. A Lebanese device clips to the forehead, just below swimming goggles to measure heart rate and keep track of laps and turns. The Instabeat device reads the temporal artery and displays a readout in the goggles. It weighs 30 grams and the rechargeable lithium-ion battery lasts for 8 hours. And conversely, this one may help the land-based athletes too. MedGadget.
- THIRD ARM: Imagine you’re an engineer out in the field working on unfamiliar equipment in an unfamiliar environment. There’s a lot of potential for messing up. A robot arm could help, by relaying video back to base or from base back to you, by pointing out which parts to use, where to start or where items belong. The Mobile Repair and Operations prototype pairs with a smartphone and can overlay on the phone’s screen guides such as arrows or signs. At the worksite a microphone, video and projector on the robot arm can be used to help the engineer with the job, or potentially guide them to safety in an accident. If the robot could also offer a hand that would be even more useful. BBC.
- WAVING WALLS: Rather than just sticking solar panels on the roof of a house one architect believes they could instead be incorporated in the walls in the form of fabric strips. At least one house in Germany has used this idea. The Soft House features a network of textile strips on the facade with integrated photovoltaic cells, generating up to 16,000 watt-hours of electricity. The strips can move with the sun and be angled to maximise shade in summer or light in winter. Fabric strips wouldn’t immediately spring to mind as being able to withstand years of weather. Discovery News.
- BETTER BATTERIES: Australian researchers have found a way for electric vehicles to travel further on a charge. A material based on Germanium stores 5 times more energy and can carry a car twice as far on one charge as the batteries currently in electric vehicles. What’s more the material is cost-effective, easy to synthesise and allows a battery to charge more quickly. What’s not to like? University of Wollongong.
Tech Universe: Friday 03 May 2013
- DELIVERY DOG: Search and rescue is a hazardous job, especially in collapsed buildings. In fact there may be some places where only a robot shaped like a snake could reach. How to get the robot into place may still be a problem though, so why not send in the dogs? Researchers attached a snake robot via a harness to a trained recue dog and sent the dog into a collapsed training building. The dogs are trained to bark when they find a point of interest. At that time the researchers trigger the harness to fall off the dog and release the robot. The robot is then able to writhe and slither around, relaying video back to the rescue team. Now they need a robot dog to deliver the snake robot. BBC.
- SEND A ROBOT: All those huge wind turbines generating electricity are doing a great job, but they have to be inspected regularly and that’s quite a challenge. Of course it’s the ideal job for a climbing robot like the HR-MP20 that can run up the wind turbine and crawl out onto the blades. The little 4-wheeler works wirelessly, hanging on with magnets and can carry cameras, sensors and various inspection devices. The robot weighs 9 Kg and can climb at up to 13 metres per minute. Its radio control range is around 760 metres in line of sight. That’s quite an inspection gadget. Helical Robotics.
- TOUCHING ROBOTS: Our skin is an amazing sensor, detecting even the lightest of touches. Matching that with an artificial skin that can detect touch, for robots, for example, is a big problem. Now researchers at Georgia Tech may be onto something. They built tiny arrays of around 8,000 transistors bundled together with nanoscale crystals of zinc oxide, a semiconducting material. These taxels produce electronic signals when subjected to a mechanical force such as a touch. They’re about as sensitive as a human fingertip too — much more sensitive than previous approaches to the problem. Taxels: nice name. io9.
- THE SPOKEN WEB: There are plenty of people who have no access to the Internet: even if they had a computer they still can’t read and write. The Voices project in Africa lets users of specially created web content control it by speaking, listening to the page and by pressing certain buttons on their phone. The system can also push voice messages out to individual handsets, allowing for the creation of a voice version of Twitter called Tabale. One problem is that many languages, such as Bambara spoken in Mali, haven’t been studied sufficiently for good voice recognition. Technology can bring huge benefits, but there’s still so much research yet to be done. New Scientist.
- THE QUIET TUK: In some parts of the world the 3-wheeled tuk-tuk serves as a taxi. Now Terra Motors in Japan are introducing an electric version that can travel 50 Km on a 2 hour charge while carrying several passengers. The Philippines plan to replace 100,000 of their petrol-powered tuk-tuks with electric vehicles by 2016. The electric vehicles are quieter and will help reduce air pollution. They look quite swoopy too. TechCrunch.