24 to 28 February 2014 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Monday 24 February 2014

  • AIR FRIED: The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System near Las Vegas uses more than 300,000 computer-controlled mirrors to reflect and concentrate sunlight onto boilers on top of towers 137 metres high. That leads to hot water and steam turbines and electricity. It also leads to some very very hot air around the towers: up to 537 C. And that’s hot enough to scorch and kill any birds unfortunate enough to fly through the wrong spot. Some biologist believe the birds may mistake the mirrors for a lake. Sounds like lots and lots of netting may be required. Oddity Central.
  • TICKER TOUR: Got a dicky heart? Imagine if your doctor could actually watch what was going on, from inside! Researchers at Georgia Tech developed a prototype 1.5 mm wide device that provides real-time 3D image data at 60 frames per second from inside blood vessels. The catheter-based device is attached to 13 tiny cables that handle all the data so surgeons can see what they’re doing while operating. The dual-ring array includes 56 ultrasound transmit elements and 48 receive elements and operates with just 20 milliwatts of power. There’s nothing like actually seeing what’s going on. Georgia Tech.
  • POMEGRANATE RICE: A new generation of lithium-ion batteries that uses silicon hasn’t been an easy thing to achieve. Silicon anodes could store 10 times more charge than the graphite anodes in today’s rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. Scientists at Stanford University may have managed it though, after being inspired by pomegranates. They’ve clustered silicon nanoparticles like seeds in a tough carbon rind for the electrode. Experiments showed the pomegranate-inspired anode operates at 97% capacity even after 1,000 cycles of charging and discharging. Before it’s all commercially viable though researchers must simplify production and find a cheaper source of silicon nanoparticles, such as rice husks which are 20% silicon dioxide by weight. Those rice farmers are running silicon mines after all. Stanford University.
  • AN OPEN BOOK: You may already use activity loggers to track your walking or food intake, but a cognitive activity tracker developed in Japan can keep an eye on your reading habits. It spots how many words we read, how often and how fast we read, and whether we’re skim reading or concentrating on the content. Volunteers wore infrared eye-tracking glasses whose data went to software that accurately counted the number of words read and how fast they read. The software could also distinguish different types of reading matter such as magazines or text books. Such software could be used alongside ebooks to help us read and understand what we’re reading. Just wait till schools try to use it to force kids to learn more efficiently. New Scientist.
  • SPY IN THE DARK: The Komamura Falcon Eye KC-2000 night vision video camera produces colour images, unlike the green and black images of other night vision cameras. The camera is weather sealed and can record high quality video or still images. If that could reduce the number of security lights dimming the stars that would be a very good thing. Fareastgizmos.

Tech Universe: Tuesday 25 February 2014

  • FLYING SCREENS: Just say you were buying a new supersonic jet, but you’d like the plane to be sleek, highly aerodynamic and not too heavy. The Spike S-512 Supersonic Jet may be the plane for you, with no windows in the cabin. Instead the jet has thin display screens embedded into the interior walls. Cameras around the craft will display panoramic images on the screens. Not having windows reduces drag on the hull and also changes the structural support requirements, ultimately reducing the weight of the plane. Passengers will have some control over how bright the screen is and what it displays. It’s all good till the software glitch hits. Spike Aerospace.
  • BONE SPY: People with a type of cancer called myeloma may need painful bone marrow biopsies and blood tests so their doctor can assess how far the disease has spread and how well treatment is working. These techniques don’t show where the cancer is present in the bones though. In future a painless MRI scan may be used instead. The new whole-body, diffusion-weighted MRI scans pinpoint exactly where the cancer is in the bones — with an accuracy of around 86%. The new scan obtains information from all the bones in the entire body for myeloma in one go without having to rely on individual bone X-rays, showing immediately where the cancer is and how severe it is. Quick, painless and accurate: what a bonus. KurzweilAI. Video:
  • BIG PICTURE: The BigRep 3D printer has a printing volume of more than one cubic metre, meaning it can print full size objects, such as designer furniture. The printer supports numerous printing materials, such as PLA, ABS, HDPE, Nylon, Laywood and Laybrick and could be used for architectural purposes, artistic works or engineering parts. It could be handy to print a few extra chairs now and then. BigRep. Video:
  • A PERSONAL SPEED: If you’ve ever been frustrated by a slow cellphone signal then the pCell system being developed in the US will interest you. It claims to create a signal that’s about 1,000 times faster than you currently get. Unfortunately it needs the carriers to install new towers so may not come into use very quickly. Current systems create a cell of wireless signal around each tower and all users share that signal. The new system creates a tiny bubble of signal around the phone itself and allows the same bandwidth, but without needing to share it. The new cell towers work together to focus signal on each phone which is constantly sending out its own wireless signals. It sounds to me like a speedy way to drain the phone’s battery. Wired.
  • LIGHT DUTIES: Those working with wearable sensors and in robotics need materials that can not just bend, but stretch yet still carry light. Belgian researchers believe they now have a product that can do that. Using a rubbery transparent material called PDMS they created links with a vertical-cavity surface-emitting laser light source at one end and a photodiode sensor at the other. Light is trapped in a transparent core surrounded by lower refractive index material. Bending and stretching the materials still allowed light to travel through them. The team aim next to make all the components much smaller. Go on, tie it in a knot and send light through. PhysOrg.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 26 February 2014

  • STICK LIKE A GECKO: Geckos are known for their ability to stick to smooth surfaces, even after walking on dirty and dusty surfaces. Now researchers have created an adhesive tape that is reliably sticky, but which also cleans itself. Apparently when geckos walk friction against the surface they’re walking on causes larger dirt particles to fall off their feet, while smaller particles are deposited amongst the hairs. Researchers achieved a similar effect by adding elastic microhairs to adhesive tape. The tape can be reused several times because any dirt it picks up is removed. Lab tests have so far used carefully controlled simulations of dirt but soon they’ll be testing with the real thing. Imagine if the soles of shoes could automatically clean themselves too. Karlsruhe Institute of Technology.
  • WHEN IS A PUMP NOT A PUMP?: Lab-on-a-chip systems could be really useful for diagnosis and other purposes, but at the moment they rely on large-scale external pumps. That makes them much less useful. Now Australian researchers have a way to pump the fluids around such micro-fabricated systems without using any mechanical parts. Their system uses a single droplet of Galinstan, a non-toxic liquid metal alloy comprised of gallium, indium and tin. When they apply a voltage to the alloy it alters the charge distribution along the surface. That propels the surrounding liquid without moving the Galinstan droplet. By altering the frequency, magnitude and waveform of the applied signal they can alter the flow rate. So, the pump’s gone, but what about the power source and power controller? RMIT University.
  • A BRIEF TRIP: Suppose you’re interested in hiring a bicycle but find the thought of all that pedalling a little daunting. It’s no problem if you have a ShareRoller with you. The 3.2 Kg device comes in a special little briefcase. Attach it to the mounting bracket above the front wheel of the bike and swing out the brushless DC motor that delivers 750 W of continuous power. The motor uses a drive belt to transfer 1.0 hp to the bike’s tire so you can ride at up to 29 Kph without pedalling. A thumb throttle control pops out of the briefcase and clips onto the handlebars. The lithium nickel-cobalt aluminum oxide battery gives you a range up up to 32 Km. USB ports let you charge your phone, while headlights give you some extra visibility. That’s not a bad idea at all. Gizmag.
  • THE SKINNY IN ELECTRONICS: Capacitors are key components in electronics that store energy. It would be useful if capacitors could be made very small, but currently available materials limit their minimum size. Now Japanese researchers have made high-performance ultrathin capacitors from oxide nanosheets. Its capacitance density is also about 2,000 times higher than that of commercially available products. The researchers hope this breakthrough could allow the ultrathin capacitors to be used in printed circuit boards and memory storage devices. American Chemical Society.
  • BANG, SMILE FOR THE CAMERA: Many soldiers already carry a 40 mm weapon. In future that weapon may help them with surveillance too. A SPARCS round from ST Kinetics can be fired into the air where at 150 metres it opens a tiny parachute and floats back down. As it floats a 360-degree onboard video camera captures images that are sent back to a handheld or helmet mounted device. After being stitched together the videos give the soldier useful information about the area. This system is cheaper and easier to carry than a drone and can provide crucial information very quickly. No problems with operating the drone either. Gizmodo.

Tech Universe: Thursday 27 February 2014

Lechal insoles.

Lechal insoles.

  • WALK THIS WAY: The inspiration behind the Lechal shoe was to help blind people navigate. The production version though helps everyone navigate the streets. A custom insole takes a rechargeable Lithium Polymer battery in the heel and communicates via Bluetooth with a smartphone. Set a destination on the phone, then the insole vibrates to indicate the direction to choose. The app and insoles can also count steps and track calories, point out tourist sites and alert you if you’ve left your phone behind. Excuse me, your shoes are buzzing. Lechal.
  • HEART IN HAND: When one surgeon in the US faced a particularly tricky operation on the heart of a 12 month old child he discussed the case with colleagues who gave him conflicting advice. The next step then was to create a 3D printed model of the child’s heart, in 3 sections, and at twice the size. With the heart in hand, the surgeon could see what he had to do. The model was built using additive printing with a flexible polymer called Ninja Flex that is similar in feel to that of the heart. The replica took around 20 hours to print. What a difference a day makes. Courier-Journal.
  • TALK TO THE BAND: Huawei’s Talkband is worn on the wrist to monitor activities such as steps, calories and sleep. If a phonecall comes in though, pop out the wireless earpiece. The band itself has a flexible OLED display and a 90mAh battery. There’s another one on the wrist. Engadget.
  • LONG ON THE MOON: We can collect energy from sunlight here on Earth, but much of the sun’s light is blocked by our atmosphere and clouds. The Moon however, doesn’t have those problems. The Shimizu Corporation in Japan plans to build a solar strip across the Lunar equator then beam microwave and laser energy to giant energy conversion facilities on Earth to ultimately power homes and businesses. Their plan involves shipping hydrogen from Earth and combining it with the lunar soil to extract water for use in construction. The company is planning for a strip of solar cells 17700 Km long. And their plans to protect the cells from meteorites and other random space dust? Space Industry News.
  • IF A TREE FALLS: What’s happening in the world’s forests? Global Forest Watch combines satellite images, Google Earth, open data, and crowdsourcing to monitor forests almost in real-time. Previously deforestation was detected only once the trees had already gone. Satellite data from NASA’s Landsat programme though can show where trees are growing and disappearing, sending alerts to officials who can put a stop to illegal logging soon after it starts. Anyone with web access can view the satellite data and help watch for detrimental activity. Meanwhile locals, who can see what is happening in their own area can contribute that data and call for action. It looks like New Zealand lost more forest than it gained over the last decade or so. Global Forest Watch.

Tech Universe: Friday 28 February 2014

  • BLOOD LOSS: Getting a blood test is no fun, especially as you watch several vials filling up with the stuff. The Theranos system though needs only a single drop of blood, even for hundreds of tests, from standard cholesterol checks to sophisticated genetic analyses. Because the process is automated the results are also faster, more accurate, and cheaper than current tests. Results can be available after 4 hours, even for tests like viruses where traditionally a culture would take several days. This system instead quickly measures the DNA of the pathogen. Wired. Video:
  • POLYMER WASH: Throw the clothes in the washing machine, add washing powder and press the start button to get the water flowing and the cleaning started. It’s a familiar process, but Xeros aims to change all that, by replacing most of the water and some of the detergent with polymer beads. The beads can be used hundreds of times and reduce the amount of dirty water to be disposed of. The tumbling action of the beads cleans clothes as well as a standard wash then the beads are automatically extracted through the drum. Presumably since there’s less waste water it will have a higher concentration of dirt. Will that have flow-on effects for waste water treatment plants? Xeros.
  • RESULTS ON THE LINE: Diagnosing cancer can be tricky, but researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed a test that could make it easier, and that takes only an hour. The doctor injects nano-scale biomarkers into a patient’s bloodstream. Those markers interact with specific proteins produced by cancer cells and fragments of the marker eventually find their way into the urine. Then the patient pees on a special test strip coated with antibodies that can detect the marker fragments. The strip then displays a line if cancer tissue is present in the body. At the moment the test strips have been successfully tested on mice, but commercial development for use with people shouldn’t be far behind. That could make the test as easy as a trip to the chemist’s shop. New Scientist.
  • WORTH A LISTEN: The tiny ReSound LiNX hearing aid does something new: it streams high-quality stereo sound from iPhones and iPads for phonecalls and listening to music without needing any extra hardware. Wearers can also use an app to set the volume, treble and bass, and use geo-tagging to assign and adjust to the acoustics of frequently visited places like home, work, favorite restaurants and more. The app will also help find the hearing aid if you misplace it. These advances come thanks to 2.4 GHz wireless technology, along with Bluetooth. Business Wire.
  • SHAKE THE PHONE: Researchers at the University of Wisconsin added zinc oxide nanoparticles to a common piezoelectric polymer material called polyvinylidene fluoride, so the material could harvest vibrations for energy. When they etched the film with spores the otherwise stiff material became more sensitive to small vibrations. The researchers say that with a material like this devices like cellphones could use vibrations as a power source. People with the shakes would never have to worry about a flat battery. University of Wisconsin.