07 to 11 April 2014 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Monday 07 April 2014

Bionics fun.

Bionics fun.

  • BIONICS FUN: The Paralympics and the Olympics are well known sporting events, and maybe in time the Cybathlon, an Olympics for bionic athletes, will be too. The games are to take place in Switzerland in October 2016. Events will include races between avatars of folks paralysed from the neck down using a brain interface for control, and races for competitors wearing prosthetic limbs and exoskeletons. One aim of the games is to push development of assistive technologies towards devices that people can really use in everyday life. The games will also allow people to compete who have never had the opportunity before, as even the Paralympics excludes some technology. An element of fun can push many things along. BBC.
  • GOOD ENOUGH: That camera lens in your phone is a curved piece of transparent material such as glass that bends light onto a sensor. There’s a limit though to how small such lenses can be made. There could be another way to capture images: a grating etched with a spiral pattern through which light can enter from every orientation. The grating itself is smaller than the tip of a pencil. The images are low quality, but sufficient to reveal the subject, even if not every tiniest detail. The sensor itself captures a jumble of spirals, but software then turns that mess into a recognisable image. The highest-resolution prototype sensors at the moment can handle 128 by 128 pixels. Such low cost image sensors could find a place in security systems, toys and wearable devices. Can tiny size replace megapixels as the most desired feature? Technology Review.
  • KILL IN THE DARK: You might expect that a light-activated antimicrobial surface would stop working if the lights go out — and in the past, that’s been the case. Some dyes react to bright light by producing highly reactive oxygen radicals that damage bacteria cell walls. This could be very helpful in places like hospitals, but turn the lights off and that useful property stops working. A team from University College London worked with different combinations of the dyes crystal violet and methylene blue with gold nanoparticles on the surface of silicone, using an organic solvent to swell the silicone so the methylene blue and gold nanoparticles diffused through the polymer. Then they added a thin layer of crystal violet dye. This process produced the most potent bactericidal effect ever observed in such a surface, but the big surprise came with the sample that was left in the dark, as it continued to kill bacteria. The team hope the new process will have applications for hospitals. Those surprises are the best findings of all. University College London.
  • UPHILL SPECIAL: Skiers fully expect a lift to take them to the top of a mountain, so why shouldn’t city cyclists get a lift up hills? In Trondheim, Norway, the Trampe bicycle lift does just that. The road up the hill is 130 metres long. To one side is a rail with a footplate every 20 metres. Stand on your bike beside the rail, put your foot on the plate and then enjoy the ride at about 1.5 metres per second. Cyclists in hilly cities anywhere will surely welcome this. Trampe.
  • BRAIN ON SHOW: One woman in Holland now has a see-through skull, thanks to 3D printing and a 23 hour life-saving operation. She suffered from a rare condition where her skull became unusually thick, leading to pressure on her brain. Over 3 months doctors at Utrecht University made a perfect plastic copy of her skull using a 3D printer and then fitted it to her to replace her own skull. You don’t see that every day. Gizmodo.

Tech Universe: Tuesday 08 April 2014

  • MATS BELOW: If you spend all day sitting in a wheelchair you run the risk of developing pressure ulcers. A Sensimat contains multiple sensors and is used directly underneath the wheelchair cushion. The mat can be paired via Bluetooth with a smartphone app so users know when to shift their sitting position. It also helps therapists monitor pressures and watch for developing problems. The app can be used to signal an alert to change position and to track, monitor and analyse pressure data.It sounds like pressure sensor mats should be a standard part. Sensimat.
  • MATS ABOVE: Stitches are commonly used to close up wounds, but sticky, biodegradable mats of polymer nanofibers could be used to seal them and promote healing. There’s a rather large problem though: getting the mat in place does too much damage, seeing as it needs electricity. Bioengineers at the University of Maryland tried adapting a commercial airbrush and using different formulations of a biodegradable polymer: polylactic-co-glycolic acid. Mats with fibre diameters of about 370 nm were able to seal diaphragm hernias and cuts to the lung, intestine, and liver in a pig. In lab tests, the nanofibre mats degraded completely over a 42 day period. Coming up soon are further trials to assess this method of sealing wounds. If it’ll work in an airbrush then there’s hope for getting it into a spray can. Chemical & Engineering News.
  • A FRESH VIEW: If you’ve ever tried to work out how to get more sun into the lounge or the study then you may like to see how the architects of the Girasole house in Canberra worked it out. The answer, of course, is quite simple: turn the house round. In summer a 10.5Kw solar array generates enough electricity to not only run all the usual appliances, but also to slowly rotate the house itself. Linked to a frame on 28 wheels, two silent rotating motors underneath the house require only the energy of a light bulb to operate. That’s definitely easier than changing the course of the sun in the sky. Inhabitat. Video:
  • PANEL WORK: A desert may be a great location for solar panels: dry and sunny. But it’s probably also going to be dusty and windy, meaning those panels will need to be cleaned regularly or electricity output is reduced. At Kibbutz Ketura in Israel 100 robots clean off dusty photovoltaic panels each night. At the end of each row of panels a robot is installed. Rather than using scarce water to wash the panels the robots use a controlled flow of air and a microfibre brush. Each robot can cover about 9 square metres of panel per minute. Do they have to deal with bird droppings too? Times of Israel.
  • MARTIAN PLAYGROUND: The ExoMars rover is heading off in 2018 to find out if life has ever existed on Mars, by investigating the atmosphere and drilling into the surface to collect and analyse samples. The rover’s being sent off to Mars by the European Space Agency and Russia’s Roscosmos space agency. Before it leaves Earth though it will first train in a special 30 x 13 metre Mars Yard in the UK. 300 tonnes of sand, scattered rocks and carefully painted walls and doors help the indoor yard mimic the appearance of the Martian landscape. The rover will be able to navigate and drive autonomously at least 70 metres per day across the surface of Mars. It’s not only toys that use playgrounds. ESA.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 09 April 2014

  • FINGERED FOR CRIME: The fingerprints left behind at a crime scene could reveal more than just the obvious pattern of ridges and hollows. Researchers at Sheffield Hallam University found that dusting with curcumin, a key ingredient of turmeric, can help mass spectrometry analysts determine the presence of various fatty acids, drugs and other molecules. That means results can provide clues for a suspect’s sex, whether they’ve handled or taken drugs and even what they’ve eaten. OK chaps, we’re looking for a male suspect who had a ham and cheese sandwich for lunch. Sheffield Hallam University. Video:
  • TABLETS OF PLASTIC: Sony’s A4 sized Digital Paper tablet shows PDFs on an E-ink display and draws so little power it should work for 3 weeks without needing to be recharged. The 1200 x 1600 dot Mobius display is built on plastic, and weighs about half as much as one made of glass. The tablet is a touchscreen, but also includes a stylus. A bunch of tablets like that could save a lot of paper in meetings. BBC.
  • COOL CONTACT: Electronic devices get hot, and that heat can cause problems. Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have produced a thermal interface from a conjugated polymer able to conduct heat 20 times better than the original polymer, and at up to 200 degrees Celsius. The new thermal interface could be as thin as three microns, unlike the comparatively thick 50 to 75 microns of conventional materials. One reason for its effectiveness is that the material makes good contact with the surface it’s on — around 80%, rather than less than 1%. That 1% does tend to be a problem. Georgia Institute of Technology.
  • BEND IT, SHAKE IT: Researchers at Seoul National University in South Korea have developed a skin patch that can be worn on the wrist like a second skin. Its purpose is to monitor people who have Parkinson’s disease or epileptic seizures, and perhaps in future to administer drugs if tremors are detected. The 1 millimetre thick patch is made of a hydrocolloid dressing with a layer of silicon nanoparticles embedded in it. The silicon nanomembranes can pick up the bend and stretch of human skin and convert them into small electronic signals stored as data in separate memory cells made from layers of gold nanoparticles. At the moment the patch relies on an external power source, but in future it might be powered by the wearer’s movements. Kinetic energy from tremors would be a great way to power a patch for detecting shakes. New Scientist.
  • THIS WAY: Light waves have colour (or wavelength), polarisation, and direction. We can easily filter light by colour and polarisation, but filtering by direction is a whole different challenge. Now MIT researchers have a system that allows light of any colour to pass through only if it is coming from one specific angle while reflecting all light coming from other directions. This could prove useful for solar panels, telescopes and microscopes and privacy filters for display screens. The technique relies on ultrathin layers of alternating glass and tantalum oxide where the thickness of each layer is precisely controlled. The interface between the layers might normally reflect some light, but with some very precise work things can be set up to reflect most light over the entire visible range of frequencies except for that coming in at precisely the right angle and polarisation. This could be particularly useful for telescopes, for viewing a faint planet next to a bright star, for example. Maybe that could be useful in cars to help prevent sun strike. MIT News.

Tech Universe: Thursday 10 April 2014

  • BIGGER FISH TO FLY: The equipment NASA uses tends to be big, and when they need to ship it around, your average cargo plane just isn’t large or wide enough. That’s why they use the Aero Spacelines Super Guppy, a blunt-nosed craft that’s 43.5 metres long and 11 metres tall, with a 47.5 metre wingspan. When they need to load or unload cargo, the nose swings out of the way. Gizmodo.
  • BLOW: After a shower towelling off can be a quick and efficient way to get dry, but if the towel’s damp or busy growing bacteria it’s not such a great idea. The Body Dryer works like a hot air hand dryer, but with some differences. Set it to blow hot or cold ionised air and then step onto it. Compressed air blows along your body in a swirly upward air column drying you off. If it makes as much noise as the usual hot air hand dryer you won’t be getting away with a quiet shower. Body Dryer.
  • HAIRLESS: If you’ve ever had your hair cut in a salon the loose hair has probably dropped all over you and the floor and then been swept away. Sometimes though medical staff need to shave hair away for a surgery and hair could cause problems in the sterile environment of an operating theatre. CareFusion’s ClipVac device attaches to surgical clippers and vacuums up the hair as it’s cut. It captures some 98.5% of the hair and airborne contaminants at the source, meaning little further clean-up is needed. The astronauts on the space station may find that handy too. CareFusion.
  • FLAP FOR POWER: Generating electricity from the wind generally means that spinning blades come into the picture somewhere. The DualWingGenerator uses a different approach, prompted by the shape of a bird’s wing. It’s a stationary system where the wind flows across a pair of opposing tilted blades. The wind lifts a blade up a shaft converting that lift into a rotary movement which is then turned into electricity. In the wind speed range between 4 and 8 metres per second, the system has a very high effectiveness level. Active controls preserve the mechanics and make efficient use of the prevailing wind forces. The system resembles the flapping of a bird’s wings, but with the air moving, rather than the bird. Festo.
  • PATCHED IN: You may wear a wristband or chestband to monitor fitness, but such devices are a bit big and clunky, and you may forget to put them on. Engineers in the US have demonstrated a flexible skin patch that resembles a sticking plaster that could in future monitor your vital signs. The patch features a thin elastic envelope filled with fluid with chip components suspended on raised support points. That allows the patch to stretch and move without affecting the electronics. The electronic components themselves are connected via serpentine-shaped wires, folded like origami. However the patch bends, twists or stretches, the wires can unfold in any direction to match. The patch could be used for full-time health monitoring, is wirelessly powered and can send high-quality data to a computer in real time. What, no GPS? University of Illinois.

Tech Universe: Friday 11 April 2014

  • SPARKING PROGRESS: Some spinal cord injuries prevent people from voluntarily moving their legs. US researchers implanted an epidural stimulator in 4 people paralysed in accidents. The result was that 3 of them were then able to voluntarily move their hips, ankles and toes. This worked because once the signal was triggered, the spinal cord reengaged its neural network to control and direct muscle movements. Over the course of the study the participants were able to activate movements with less stimulation, and their overall health improved. The researchers now hope such stimulation may one day form part of the therapy to treat paralysis. A knee jerk today could become a footfall tomorrow. Medical Xpress.
  • THE HEART OF ENCRYPTION: Encrypting data is one way to keep it confidential, but exactly how to do that encryption is always a challenge. Scientists at Lancaster University claim their new method, inspired by human biology, is nearly unbreakable. The heart and lungs need to work together in a specific rhythm which is constantly changing. The scientists were able to use the way the intervals change to create a scheme that offers an infinite number of choices for the secret encryption key shared between the sender and receiver. That makes it virtually impossible for hackers and eavesdroppers to crack the code. Several different information streams can transmit simultaneously so all devices in a group, for example all the devices in one home, could operate on one encryption key rather than each needing its own. Perhaps that ever-changing heartbeat could also be used for authentication too? Lancaster University.
  • THE HEART OF TIME: You and I are probably happy enough to know that it’s roughly 8 am when we meet for coffee, but some applications need to know the exact time down to the tiniest fraction of a second, as with GPS or banks processing financial transactions, for example. One organisation that operates a reference clock to calibrate other timekeepers is the US National Institute of Standards and Technology. Their new NIST-F2 cesium-based atomic clock will neither gain nor lose one second in about 300 million years. That makes it around 3 times as accurate as its predecessor. The clock measures the frequency of a particular transition in the cesium atom used to define the second — a transition that takes place 9,192,631,770 times per second. The previous NIST clock ran at around room temperature, but the new one is cooled to minus 193 C which dramatically lowers the background radiation, reducing measurement errors. That’s a steady heartbeat. National Institute of Standards and Technology.
  • SUNNY OUTLOOK: Unfortunately the process of making solar cells may require quite a lot of energy generated from less environmentally-friendly sources. Researchers at Oregon State University though may have a way to use solar power to create the cells too. Using their method copper indium diselenide is continuously processed in a microreactor to produce nanoparticle inks that make solar cells by printing. The researchers used artificial light focused on the solar microreactor to rapidly heat it, but direct sunlight could be used instead. The system synthesised solar energy materials in minutes, a fraction of the time required by existing processes. Reduced manufacturing time should mean lower costs. The solar absorbing layers this system produces are also much thinner than more conventional silicon cells, meaning they could be easier to incorporate into building components such as windows or roof shingles. It’s almost a perpetual motion system, using solar energy to create collectors of solar energy. Oregon State University.
  • QUIET RUNNINGS: Ships make quite a lot of noise as they travel through the world’s oceans. Some noise comes from propellers which create and release tiny bubbles as they turn in the water, making a loud roar. All the noise stresses whales, may be linked to dolphin strandings and is detrimental to squid, octopuses and cuttlefish. Now the International Maritime Organization has created guidelines to make some ships quieter, recommending measuring and minimising the noise in newly built ships and reducing it in existing ones. The same modifications that reduce noise also help shipping companies save fuel, so that’s two reasons to make changes. You’d think that the companies would have always cared about fuel efficiency, even if they weren’t concerned about the effect on marine ife. New Scientist.