Tech Universe: Monday 25 June 2012
- RED LIGHT: Solar cells are generally made of silicon or special plastics and harvest visible light. A new kind of cell made of carbon captures the near-infrared part of the spectrum instead, and that’s around 40% of the light the sun delivers to us here on Earth. A team from MIT have developed the new cell using carbon nanotubes and buckyballs, but the cells are only a hundredth as efficient as standard cells. On the other hand, capturing even part of that normally wasted light could be helpful, and the team hope to improve the efficiency considerably. Well, if it’s going to waste now it makes sense to start using it. Discovery News.
- LIGHT LIGHT: Conventional solar cells cost a lot because they need to be thick which uses a lot of highly purified silicon. A team at MIT have a new approach that uses thin layers of silicon etched with a pattern of inverted nanopyramids. Usually thin films of silicon don’t absorb light very well but these indentations, each less than a millionth of a metre across, are very efficient at trapping light. A thin wafer of silicon using these nanopyramids is as efficient as a conventional wafer 30 times as thick. That means thinner, lighter, cheaper cells that need less supporting material and cost less to install. The etching can be done easily with standard manufacturing equipment. It makes sense that a bumpy surface would engage more light particles than a smooth one. MIT News.
- SMOOTH LIGHT: Sony wants to help make smartphone touchscreens less reflective and they’re doing it by trapping light with a film. Their low-reflection conductive film has minute, regularly-arranged concave and convex structures on its surface. These structures give the film a uniform reflectance, unlike current touchscreens where the conductive layer can cause streaking because of the ITO sensor electrodes. The overall effect is to make the screen less reflective, displaying a clearer image. It’s amazing how bumps can actually smooth something out. Tech On!
- LIGHT AS AIR: Researchers at Aalto University in Finland have a new technique for writing and displaying information on surfaces using only water and air. They fabricated a solid surface with structures in two size scales: microposts that have a size of ten micrometers and tiny nanofilaments that are grown on the posts. A thin layer of air on the surface below water can exist in 2 states that can be changed by using a nozzle to create over- or underpressure in the water. Where the water and air meet there is a striking optical contrast. That means the nozzle can be used to write pixel by pixel on the layer of air, without affecting the solid surface. If the surface is taken out of the water the writing disappears. Now someone needs to figure out a use for underwater writing. Aalto University News.
- A BIG PUSH: At the Australian National University they’re building a pioneering plasma thruster that could carry spacecraft to Mars. The Helicon Double Layer Thruster is a tube that contains propellant. Bombarding the tube with 13.56 MHz radio waves turns the propellant inside into plasma, while expelling the charged particles creates thrust. The plasma thruster is very economical with fuel — a typical 5 hour burn uses only 0.8g of propellant. A full-scale test flight should take place by the end of 2014. Advance Australia! Gizmodo.
Tech Universe: Tuesday 26 June 2012
- LIGHT FIGHTS: Light too bright? Don’t get up to change it. Instead Insteon’s LED light bulbs can be dimmed from a remote, or the app on your smartphone or tablet. They can even be controlled via a web app. The bulb itself contains dual-band communication technology and acts as a network signal repeater, sending signals over both radio frequencies and a home’s existing powerline. Combined with a SmartLinc Hub you can control the bulb from your phone. Oh, this could shed a whole new light on fighting over the remote. Insteon.
- FINGER TIPS: We need to be able to sense textures and other characteristics of objects we touch to be able to hold onto them and work with them properly. Think how hard it was last time your hands were numb from cold. Researchers at the University of Southern California created an artificial finger that has a sense of touch. A sensor mimics the human fingertip, while algorithms make sense of the vibrations from differing textures. The sensor can tell where and in which direction forces are applied to the fingertip and even the thermal properties of an object being touched. This could be particularly useful for people with prosthetic hands, but also for robots. In fact, without a sense of touch prosthetic hands must be very hard to work with. University of Southern California. Video:
- BIKE ALARM: It’s not pretty when you wipe your bike off the roof of the car with the garage doorway. The HeadsUp System is intended to stop you driving into your garage with a roof rack full of gear.You place an LED alert sign in your garage, tiny wireless tags on your gear, and a wireless alerter in your vehicle. When your car approaches the garage the LED sign flashes and the alerter inside the car sounds a warning. That’s all good until the batteries go unexpectedly flat. HeadsUp Systems.
- BATH SALTS: Taking a bath or shower gets you clean and removes dirt, germs and smell. But in places where water’s scarce showers and baths just aren’t practical. That’s where DryBath comes in. It’s a chemical compound that cleans you without needing water. The gel is a proprietary blend of a biocide, bioflavonoids and moisturisers that moisturises the skin, kills germs, and leaves the user smelling fresh. Heck, you could have a quick scrub in the car on the way to work. HeadBoy Industries.
- SUIT UP: Now that everyone’s getting ready to rush off into space there’s a bit of demand for spacesuits. Final Frontier Design, based in New York, aim to fill that demand. The company is designing a safe, functional and affordable pressurised space suit for use in commercial space flights. It’s not designed for space walks, but rather as a safety measure in case of depressurisation during launch and landing. It’s all part of the thrill. Gizmag.
Tech Universe: Wednesday 27 June 2012
- FUZZY TV: When we look straight ahead our peripheral vision still catches what else is going on around us, although without detail. Infinity-by-Nine is an IBM system to beef up a home theatre. It extrapolates content from the main screen and projects a fuzzy rendition of elements from that image on side screens. The goal is to make viewing a richer and more immersive experience. It looks good, but it’s surprising it doesn’t take it on to ceiling and floor too. MIT Media Lab.
- MOVIE CARDS: With recent computers not including an optical drive DVDs may not be a good choice for movies any more. Muvichip, from a US company, takes a new approach. It’s a thin plastic card the size of a credit card, but with a USB port. Each card holds a movie. To watch the movie insert a small magnetic chip with a circuit board into the card’s USB slot. Then you can stream the movie to up to 4 devices at a time. That could be handy for those times when there’s no Internet connection. Red Ferret.
- WATER SLIDE: When a boat travels through water there’s friction between the hull and the water that creates drag. The Ghost, a ship from Juliet Marine Systems in the US uses a protective bubble of air to travel very quickly, and reduce friction and fuel costs. The notion of this kind of gaseous bubble around a craft is called supercavitation. Although it’s been tried before it seems The Ghost is the first craft to actually implement the idea usefully. Xconomy.
- CLEAN PRINT: IDair’s fingerprint reader doesn’t needs you to be hands-on with it. Instead it can read your fingerprint from up to 6 metres away. The system takes a photo of your finger and then applies edge detection, pattern recognition and other algorithms to come up with the fingerprint. Because users don’t have to actually touch anything there are no problems with a build up of oil or dirt. Give the door a wave. Alabama Live.
- THAT ENZYME GLOW: Bioluminescence Resonance Energy Transfer may be a new way to create light without needing batteries or other sources of electricity. The system draws on the same materials fireflies use to produce light. Quantum nanorods composed of an outer shell of cadmium sulfide and an inner core of cadmium seleneide have the enzyme luciferase attached to their surface. Then a fuel called luciferin is added. When it interacts with the enzyme energy is released that causes the nanorods to glow. By carefully optimising every part of the system it can be made quite efficient. While the system works in the lab so far, researchers hope to scale it up for commercial uses. But the fuel must run out at some point, and where does one buy luciferin? Syracuse University.
Tech Universe: Thursday 28 June 2012
- HIGH WIFI: American and Israeli researchers twisted vortex beams to make a wireless signal go faster — 2.5 terabits per second. That’s fast enough to send the contents of more than 66 DVDs in one second. The twisted visible light data streams use orbital angular momentum to speed up the signal. Orbital angular momentum is like the thread on a screw. The technique for packing more data into the signal involves using varying degrees of twist, differing polarisations and arranging the streams in a specific pattern. Unfortunately the speedy beam was transmitted over only 1 metre and in the real world turbulence becomes an issue. That could blow out your Internet cap in a millisecond! BBC.
- SLOW BRIDGE: Oops, your GPS directions want to drive you through a 100 metre wide river without a bridge. No problem, provided you have an army with you and the The Amphibious Bridging and Ferrying System M3 from General Dynamics. Eight or so amphibious vehicles line up side by side facing into the current. Each vehicle contains several pontoons that extend out from each side of the vehicle and lock into the pontoons from the adjacent vehicles. That forms a road for land-based vehicles to cross the river. The bridge can support vehicles up to 85 tons. It’s not a very speedy process, but it’s a lot quicker than going nowhere. Gizmodo.
- MOLECULAR MEMORY: Computer memory is already pretty small, but what if it could be 1,000 times smaller? Scientists at Kiel University in Germany used a scanning tunneling microscope to selectively switch individual molecules between two magnetic states. This proves that it’s technically possible to store information using molecules, rather than electronic or magnetic memory cells. But how small can they make the scanning tunneling microscope? Kurweil AI.
- SUPERFAST: Proud of your new dual or quad core computer? The Sequoia supercomputer from IBM uses 1,572,864 cores and runs at 16.32 petaflops per second. It’s 1.55 times faster than its closest rival, Japan’s Fujitsu K Computer. Sequoia’s at the US Department of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and consumes 7.9 megawatts of power. Sequoia will spend its time simulating nuclear explosions down to the molecular scale, with maybe a bit of climate modelling thrown in. Because why waste a supercomputer on trivial things like curing disease? io9.
- CARBON SIEVE: Scientists in the created a honeycomb like metal organic framework that can absorb CO2. It’s called UK NOTT-202a. Even though other gases can pass through the material carbon dioxide remains trapped in its nanopores, even at low temperatures. The material could be the basis for new materials for gas storage, sieving and purification, carbon capture, chemical reactivity and sensing. And once it’s full? The University of Nottingham.
Tech Universe: Friday 29 June 2012
- SCISSORS ROCK: You won’t want to play Rock, Paper, Scissors with the robot hand from the University of Toyko. Its high speed vision system means it’ll beat you every time. It detects the shape of your hand and forms a winning shape with its fingers before you can even see what’s going on. Who knows how it would work out if you added Lizard and Spock too! Kurzweil AI.
- RADIOACTIVE FACE: Infuse a patch with phosphorus-32 and you may be able to apply it like a bandaid to cure some forms of skin cancer. Researchers from India made customised fully sealed P-32 patches. Then they applied the patches for a few hours to 10 people who had facial basal cell carcinoma. 8 out of 10 patients were found in follow-up tests to be entirely cured and cancer free. Does it make your nose glow? Society of Nuclear Medicine.
- STAY IN TOUCH: Villagers in the Kalahari desert pass down their cultural knowledge and traditions orally from elders to the young people. But now that many young people are going to the cities to live for a few years that traditional knowledge is at risk. That’s why researchers from Aalborg University in Denmark have been helping to design 3D visualisations to use with tablet computers. The villagers find the touchscreens easy to deal with, even though many have never used computers before. Just don’t introduce them to Angry Birds or their way of life may be under a greater threat. New Scientist.
- CAMPING CHARGE: Going tramping? Will you need a fire? Carry a BioLite CampStove with you and you can also charge up your gadgets. The stove’s about the size of a water bottle, weighs just under 1 Kg and uses twigs and pinecones as fuel. It takes around 5 minutes to boil a litre of water and converts excess heat to electricity you can use to charge your phone. Keep one around for emergencies too. BioLite. Video:
- THE CAT CAME BACK: Google scientists connected 16,000 computer processors to create one of the largest neural networks for machine learning. Then they set it loose looking at 10 million digital images randomly found in YouTube videos. What the neural network taught itself was to recognise cats, even though it was given no help in identifying features. Clearly cats have already bent the machine world to their will. New York Times.
Notes: I write a Tech Universe column for the NZ Herald. This is a fun assignment: Tech Universe brings 5 headlines each day about what’s up in the world of technology. Above are the links from last week as supplied. The items that were published in The Herald may differ slightly.
While I find all the items interesting, some are just cooler than others. I’ve marked out those items.