03 to 07 February 2014 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Monday 03 February 2014

  • THE SPORES DID IT: Wind power we know, solar power we know, but evaporation power is a new one. A researcher at Harvard coated a sheet of rubber on one side with spores. The sheet bends when the spores dry out and then straightens when humidity rises because the spores take the water back and almost immediately restore themselves to their original shape. That bending creates the kind of movement that can be harvested to generate electricity. The researchers found that moistening a pound of dry spores would generate enough force to lift a car one metre off the ground. The prototype captures only a small percentage of the energy released by evaporation, but genetically engineering the spores to be stiffer and more elastic could improve the results. Maybe on a small scale even breathing could be used to power devices perhaps for people who use sip and puff devices to control their environment. Harvard. Video:
  • BOOM BIDDI BOOM: A doctor’s regular stethoscope is really just a tube to funnel sound to the doctor’s ears. The ViScope MD though makes the stethoscope digital, meaning doctors can tune in, look at data and even record the sounds of the heart. The device is a compact stethoscope with an integrated high resolution phonocardiogram visual display, including a heart murmur indicator. The ViScope digitises the sound and has a tuneable filter that lets the doctor select specific parts of the heart sound to listen to. It can also store up to four 10 second patient waveforms for documentation. Keep an eye on that heart murmur. HD Medical.
  • A LITTLE SLIP: Hard water rich in dissolved salts and minerals leaves a scaly deposit on the kettle, the water pipes and any other surfaces it stays in contact with. That can be simply annoying in the kitchen, but in pipelines and valves that deliver oil and gas or that carry cooling water in power plants it can reduce efficiency, increase downtime, and cause maintenance issues, sometimes even shutting down wells. Researchers at MIT may have a little something to help, reducing the rate of scale formation at least tenfold. Their approach involves roughing up the surfaces, but at the nanoscale level, and then coating it with a carefully selected lubricating liquid to create a really smooth surface that doesn’t offer points where scale can attach. The tiny nanogrooves capture the lubricant, holding it firmly in place through capillary action that allows the liquid to flow to fill any gaps, spread on the surface textures, and be replenished continually if some is washed away. Only a tiny amount of lubricant could protect a surface for decades as it’s only a few hundred nanometers thick. Researchers say the system could be ready for commercial applications in as little as 3 years. That’s a small scale operation. MIT News.
  • WINNING BY A WHISKER: Our skin helps us sense temperature, air pressure, touch and other things. That’s a sensitivity that many robots need too, for example, if they are to pick up delicate objects. Meanwhile animals, such as cats use their whiskers to locate objects, navigate through water and more. US researchers created tactile sensors, or whiskers, from high-aspect-ratio elastic fibres coated with conductive composite films of nanotubes and nanoparticles. The whiskers respond to a single Pascal of pressure — about the pressure exerted on a horizontal surface by a dollar bill. In a proof-of-concept test the whiskers demonstrated highly accurate 2D and 3D mapping of wind flow. They could also be used to detect objects nearby or be used in wearable sensors for measuring heartbeat and pulse rate. Will whisker sensors one day be trendy on humans? Berkeley Lab.
  • DINNER AT THE BEEP: The Petnet Smartfeeder aims to help you control the weight of your cat or dog by monitoring and controlling their feeding. A plastic canister holds dry food in the top part and dispenses it on schedule in a bottom tray. The feeder connects to a smartphone so you can control portion size and feeding times and track your pet’s calorie intake. Reminders to the phone inform you about feeding times, meals, food inventory and battery life. Wait till the cat gets hold of that smartphone though. Petnet. Video:

Tech Universe: Tuesday 04 February 2014

  • SPOT FISHING: Like to head out in the boat for a spot of fishing? All you have to do is first find the fish. The Fish Hunter sonar connects to your smartphone so you can find the fish faster. It features GPS, a catch logbook, and lets you track weather and lunar cycles. The small device is shock resistant and watertight. Attach it to a line, toss it in the water and check the app for the data it’s sending back. The sonar reports via Bluetooth up to 25 metres away on water depth and temperature, the contours of the bottom and at what depth the fish are swimming. The internal 3.6 VDC 600 mAh battery powers around 6 to 9 hours of continuous use on the water surface. Now all they need is guided fishing lines. Fish Hunter.
  • ON THE GRID: Electricity is fundamental in our modern society so we need to keep a careful watch on the power grid and infrastructure. Existing sensors to monitor these things have needed power supplies and signal conditioners. A passive smart sensor from The Hong Kong Polytechnic University can produce large and clear output voltage signals 2,000 times higher than current sensors. The chip is around 1 mm thick and can be placed on any sensing point of interest such as electrical cables, conductors and junctions. It detects magnetic fields generated by electricity and recognises telltale changes of currents within electrical equipment. The smart wireless sensors can be used in otherwise inaccessible locations to notify potential and actual failures. That’s smart to get rid of the need for power. The Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
  • PRINT FUN: 3D printing can be particularly useful for designers and manufacturers, but combining different materials and achieving different colours can be hard work. The Objet500 Connex3 Color Mutli-material 3D Printer combines droplets of three base materials, reducing the need for separate print runs and painting. It incorporates traditional 2D printer colour mixing, using cyan, magenta and yellow to be able to create hundreds of colour combinations in base materials of rubber and plastic. That means end products of widely varying flexibility and rigidity, transparency and opacity. The printer should help industrial designers halve the time it takes to bring prototypes to market. You know you’ll always be out of cyan when you need it. BBC.
  • WALL SCREEN: Sony’s 4K Ultra Short Throw Projector looks like a piece of furniture but uses laser technology to project a 373 cm image at 4K resolution onto a nearby wall. It includes built-in speakers and cabinets too. A 1.6x power zoom lens means you can size the image to suit the wall and the room. Make the projector look like another piece of furniture: that’s a winner. Sony.
  • BLUE SCREEN: If you try to project an image onto a glass window the light will just pass straight through. Project onto a wall though and you should see the image just fine, though of course you can’t see through the wall. Researchers at MIT found a way to inexpensively and easily create transparent sheets of plastic which include nanoparticles tuned to scatter only certain colours of light, while letting all the other colours pass through. The sheet of plastic could then be attached to a window and used as a projection surface. This could be useful for a heads-up system on a car windscreen for example, or for information on a shop window. The researchers used silver nanoparticles that produced a blue image, but they say it should be possible to create full-colour displays using the same technique. It’s not clear what happens if a blue object is placed behind the transparent plastic. MIT News.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 05 February 2014

  • DOWN WITH A BANG: With one ton of explosives packed into 1,500 drilled holes, the AfE Tower in Frankfurt turned into a 50,000 ton pile of rubble in only 10 seconds the other day. To stop too much dust being produced canisters of water, each containing 1,000 litres, were blown up along with the building. The University building was put up in 1972 and was briefly the tallest building in Frankfurt. It’s like dinner: takes ages to make and is gone in a flash. Deutsche Welle.
  • DOWN WITH A RUSH: When the Icelandic Deep Drilling Project struck molten rock at a depth of only around 2 Km a while ago engineers decided to experiment with using the 1000 C magma to generate power. For 2 years they flowed superheated steam through the drill hole with a high degree of success until some surface equipment needed to be replaced. The experiment has shown that using magma to create electricity is a possibility and engineers plan on further tests. It’s always handy to have a nearby source of magma. io9.
  • RUSHING WITH THE LIGHTWEIGHTS: Nissan’s turbocharged DIG-T R engine has a displacement of 1.5 litres and is small enough to fit in the overhead locker of a plane. What’s more it weighs only 40 Kg. But that doesn’t mean it’s a toy, as its 3 cylinders put out 400 horsepower. That means it has a better power-to-weight ratio than the V6 engines powering many Formula 1 racers. The engine will be used in a car in the experimental vehicles slot at Le Mans later this year. Small but strong. Wired.
  • BOIL DRY: Cooking a meal while tramping or camping isn’t always easy or safe. The Baro Cook system could be a handy addition to a camping kit. A stainless steel bowl nests inside a plastic outer container. Put a little water in the outer container and add a single use heating pad. The water begins to boil in a few moments. Now put food in the stainless bowl inside the outer bowl. The boiling water heats the food, cooking pasta in around 20 minutes. The makers say the heating pad consists of 18 natural and environmentally friendly materials. It seems it would avoid the dangerous flames and potentially poisonous gases of other cooking methods. Just don’t let those heating pads get wet in your pack. Baro Cook.
  • ROBOTS BRANCH OUT: After studying a number of birds Vishwa Robotics came up with the idea of adding legs to a drone so it could perch on a wire or branch. The legs could also let it land and walk on flat surfaces. The drone perches in an upright position with a powerful gripping action from an electric motor. An operator uses images from a camera on the drone to help position it correctly for landing. Perching on a convenient vantage point could allow a drone to be less conspicuous while using a lot less energy than is required for circling. Is that bird watching me? New Scientist.

There was no Tech Universe on Waitangi Day, 06 February 2014.

Tech Universe: Friday 07 February 2014

The Baltika Icebreaker.

The Baltika Icebreaker.

  • A NEW ANGLE: Crushing ice at sea is the job of an icebreaker. The Baltika has a different angle on it though: instead of ploughing bow-first into the ice it has an angled hull that lets it roll over onto the ice to crush it. Water and fuel are pumped between tanks below decks so the ship doesn’t capsize. The oblique angle of attack lets the small ship create a wider path than a standard icebreaker — wide enough for a commercial vessel to follow it. The Baltika can break ice up to 60 cm thick. Rolling sideways would also let almost the full weight of the ship bear on the ice. Wired.
  • JUST ADD CARBON: 3D printers can print with various materials, but the Mark One by Mark Forged adds carbon fibre to the mix, along with fibreglass, nylon and PLA. The desktop printer automatically levels the printing bed and could be used for prosthetics, custom bones, tools, and fixtures. Imagine one of these in your doctor’s office. Popular Mechanics.
  • JUST ADD HOLES: Glass is brittle which leads it to shatter, but scientists at McGill University found they can increase its strength by etching lines into it. Bones, teeth and seashells use a similar technique for strength. The researchers laser cut a wavy pattern of tiny holes into glass microscope slides and then filled the pattern with polyurethane. While the curvy patterns lock the glass together they also channel and absorb energy when the glass is stressed, meaning it doesn’t shatter so easily. It’s like perforated paper really: strongest where the holes are. Science News.
  • HOLE VIEW: When doctors use endoscopes they’re aiming to get a good look inside the body, so the higher the resolution and definition the better. 8K video is extremely high resolution, but 8K video cameras tend to be large. In 2002 such a camera would weigh 80 Kg, ruling it out for many uses. By 2013 such cameras weighed only 2.5 Kg and they’re expected to be only a third that size within a year or two. The Medical Imaging Consortium recently experimented with removing the gall bladder of a pig with the help of an 8K video endoscope. The extremely high resolution, stereoscopic effect and realism of the operative field makes it possible to see the boundaries of internal organs, tissue surfaces and fine sutures that are difficult to see otherwise. The endoscope can also be kept further away from what’s being studied, reducing the risk of collision and damage. A better view should lead to more precise medical procedures. improve. Tech-on!
  • WATER COLOURS: While paper is comparatively cheap the ink for inkjet printers isn’t. If you’re printing things off just to read them once that gets to be an expensive business. Chinese researchers have turned things around by developing a specially coated paper and then printing on it with water. So far, they’ve printed in blue, magenta, gold and purple colours, using water as a key that activates a dye molecule. After a day though the printing disappears and the paper can be repeatedly used again, perhaps as many as 10 times. The researchers are now aiming to be able to print in black. Take a good look at those bank notes. Discovery News.