Tech Universe: Monday 17 September 2012
- JUST ADD WATER: Nicotine patches use small hydrophobic molecules that can be absorbed through the skin. Many drugs though, such as those for treating cancer and autoimmune disorders, have large molecules that won’t pass through the skin so can’t be delivered through a patch. But researchers at Purdue University think that fermentation may be the answer. They’ve created a new patch that includes yeast, sugar and water and a small membrane that separates that mix from the drug. Body heat causes the ingredients to ferment, creating CO2 that puts pressure on the membrane and pumps the drug through painless microneedles with a diameter of about 20 microns. The system doesn’t need a battery, as body heat supplies the energy. Using the patch would just require adding water and applying the patch to the skin. Nifty. Purdue University.
- NO PAIN IS A GAIN: Seoul National University researchers are creating an erbium-doped yttrium aluminium garnet laser injector to deliver drugs precisely and painlessly under the skin. The jet is slightly larger than the width of a human hair and can reach speeds of up to 30 metres per second. At that speed the pressure smoothly and painlessly breaks through the skin to deliver precise doses to the target depth. The jet is so narrow and quick that it also doesn’t damage the tissue. Hello tattooists. Optics Letters. Video:
- SEIZE THE ATOM: Norwegian researchers have developed a new method for growing semiconductor nanowires using Gallium and Arsenic on a base of graphene which is only 1 atom thick. The technique could lead to new electronics and optoelectronics devices, or perhaps new solar cells that are efficient, cheap and flexible. The new hybrid electrode is transparent, flexible and low cost. Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
- IT’S A STRETCH: If you want to monitor a person’s health then you’ll probably involve some electronics. But electronics tend to be flat, rigid and rectangular, while human skin is stretchable and bendy. US company MC10 is working on artificial stretchable skin with microelectronics for monitoring health conditions. Gold electrodes and nanowires are added in a serpentine pattern to thin films of silicon wafers, then applied to stretchable polymers. The folded pattern allows the wires to stretch as the patch does. It sounds like they need to talk to the Norwegians. DVICE.
- MERCURY RISING: With worries about mercury in our water and food we need to be able to test effectively for its presence. Scientists from Switzerland and the US have developed an inexpensive new test for mercury that essentially traps ions of toxic heavy metals between hairy nanoparticles. Hairs of different lengths trap specific pollutants. To gauge the pollution level the scientists measure the voltage across the nanostructure. The more ions there are of a particular heavy metal, the more electricity it conducts. The new test is a fraction the cost of current methods and could allow on-the-spot testing. Perhaps the technique could be adapted to capture and remove heavy metals such as mercury and cadmium too. KurzweilAI.
Tech Universe: Tuesday 18 September 2012
- BEAUTY AND THE BEAK: Beauty is an Alaskan Bald Eagle found starving in the middle of plenty of food. A poacher had shot her beak off and she couldn’t eat. After she was rescued a mechanical engineer decided to give her a bionic beak. He used a laser to scan her stump, 3D modelling software to design a new upper beak and a 3D printer to create it from a nylon based polymer. It was attached to a titanium post that locked on to her stump. Those 3D printers have more uses than you think. GrrlScientist. Video:
- LETTUCE RECOGNITION: In the US Blue River Technology is developing a weed-killing robot called the lettuce bot. The robot crawls along a row of lettuces and uses a camera to distinguish the plants. A classification algorithm identifies the plants — lettuce or weed — and then a Kill algorithm decides the correct moment to inject a deadly dose of fertiliser into the weed. Other types of crops need their own recognition algorithms. Killing those weeds is the kind of backbreaking work a robot would be well suited for. GigaOM.
- KEY TROUBLE: Modern BMWs have an onboard computer that can programme a new car key, in the case the old one is lost. It’s a complex procedure that takes around 40 minutes and needs specialist equipment. Or at least, it used to be. Now a costly device is available online that can do the task in 3 minutes, and thieves are cashing in. BMW owners need to take a bit more care with both keys and cars, and make sure they get the updates. That’s the trouble with security measures — they’re so often much more trouble for the honest people than for the dishonest. BBC.
- CUT YOUR CLOTH: Researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute have developed a smart but inexpensive fabric that can set off an alarm if it’s cut. The fabric incorporates a fine web of conductive threads connected to a microcontroller. If the fabric is cut then software can identify to within a centimetre where the cut is. The fabric uses standard materials and components such as silver-coated conductive threads. The reams of fabric can be trimmed to any length and the functions can be customised. In tests the fabric was put through a hot wash in a machine, left out in the weather and heated in a furnace without ill effect. The fabric could be used to help protect trucks, museums, banks, or anywhere thieves may intrude. It’d be a handy layer in a space suit too. Fraunhofer Institute.
- FULL COLOUR GLASS: Nearly 300 million people around the world are colour blind. The problem comes in several forms and can mean it’s hard to read maps or pick out ripe from unripe fruit. EnChroma’s special glasses enhance certain colours with an optical coating that selectively blocks wavelengths of light. In clinical testing it was found that the glasses helped colour blind people to better experience colours. Try their online colour blindness test too. I wonder if they could apply the coating to contact lenses. EnChroma.
Tech Universe: Wednesday 19 September 2012
- DISK DRAG: Hard disks are spinning platters with a read and write mechanism that floats on air just a few billionths of a metre above the surface of the drive. As the platters spin air is dragged in from outside the drive to create a cushion of air for the read and write head to float on. Hitachi Global Storage Technologies think they can create drives with more platters, more heads and more storage space by filling the drives with helium, rather than relying on air. Because helium is less dense than air turbulence inside the drive will have less effect on the position of the heads. That means the drive can be more precise, which means it can store more data. Lower density also means less drag and reduced power use. The drives are being targeted at data centres where the energy savings could be considerable. But solid state drives don’t have any drag at all. Ars Technica.
- POWER DECAY: When researchers send craft and structures into inaccessible locations such as deep space or the bottom of the ocean they generally want the equipment to run for a long time. That means finding a power source that can last for years. One source of power that goes on going on is isotopes such as plutonium-238 or americium-241. But isotope availability is a problem. Now chemists at Britain’s National Nuclear Laboratory want to make batteries using the large store of waste plutonium at Sellafield nuclear power plant. They’re just waiting on funding to be confirmed before they can go ahead with the plan. So it’s a slow process all round. BBC.
- CRUSHING POWER: With Arctic sea ice melting there’s increased interest in sending shipping through previously closed routes. Keeping the lanes open though still needs icebreakers. Russia’s building a new nuclear-powered icebreaker 170 metres long and 34 metres wide to help with the job. Two RITM-200 compact pressurised water reactors will power the vessel, generating 60MWe. It’ll break up ice that’s more than 4 metres thick and tow tankers of up to 70,000 tons displacement. The new vessel adds to an existing fleet of half a dozen nuclear powered icebreakers. It’s a good thing there’s no ice around New Zealand that needs breaking. Scientific American.
- STICK AROUND: At the University of Toronto physicists were working on high-temperature superconductors. But because fundamental quantum mechanics require materials to be in nearly perfect contact they were having problems, especially with cuprates. Cuprates have a completely different structure and complex chemical make-up that can’t be incorporated with a normal semiconductor. Making the required contact just couldn’t be done. Until they tried double-sided Scotch tape. By using poster tape and glass slides they were able to induce superconductivity in semi-conductors called topological insulators where they’d failed before. The science may be high-powered, but sometimes the solution to a problem’s available from the supermarket. University of Toronto.
- STICK TOGETHER: Car manufacturers want to reduce the weight of cars while increasing their safety. Honda’s new Friction Stir Welding technique for welding heavy steel and lighter aluminium together achieves these goals. Vehicles using the new method will go on sale this month. A rotating tool moves on the top of the aluminium which is lapped over the steel with high pressure. The new welds also allow the suspension to be moved and add rigidity to the mounting point. The system can be used by manufacturing robots, which also use a highly-sensitive infrared camera and laser beam to inspect the joins. Which may all be more than you ever wanted to know about how cars are manufactured. Honda.
Tech Universe: Thursday 20 September 2012
- BICYCLE SKYCYCLE: In some places they elevate the local light trains that run through and across cities. London’s considering a system of elevated bike lanes called SkyCycle. The idea is to separate cyclists from both cars and pedestrians and give them their own routes across town and between train stations. The bike lanes would be limited to certain routes, like a motorway, with fixed entry and exit points, and cyclists would pay a small fee to use them. Cyclists, pedestrians and drivers are all sure to like that solution. Co.EXIST.
- HUFF AND PUFF: It’s one thing to put a model of an aircraft in a wind tunnel, but how do researchers test buildings and other structures against hurricane forces? The answer lies with Florida International University’s Wall of Wind. 12 huge fans simulate the wind and rain of a Category 5 hurricane. The electric fan-motor units are controlled by two variable frequency drives and can generate sustained wind speed up to 157 mph or 70 metres per second. And they will blow the house down. Florida International University.
- ATTRACTING OIL: How to clean up oil spills is a major headache for everyone involved. Retrieving the oil from water can be slow, costly and inefficient. MIT researchers are suggesting a new process: add water-repellent ferrous nanoparticles to the mix of water and oil. Then use magnets to gather and capture the ferrous nanoparticles and the oil around them. Next the nanoparticles can be removed magnetically and the oil sent to a refinery. Imagine if they could place a shield of such nanoparticles around an oil drilling operation to deal with and almost prevent spills in real time. MIT News.
- LOGICAL WATER: A superhydrophobic surface repels water. Or, if you collide one droplet of water into another on such a surface the droplets bounce. By controlling the bounce direction researchers at Aalto University in Finland have demonstrated that they can send droplets of water through a logic gate, just like bits in a computer. They suggest this could eventually lead to autonomous simple logic devices that don’t need electricity. Or, if the drops are loaded with reactive chemical cargo they could be used as programmable biochemical analysis devices. There’s some real futuristic thinking going on there. Aalto University.
- 100 TO 1: There are hundreds of thousands of old unexploded landmines scattered around the world. Finding them is a huge and time consuming task. The metal detectors alert to 100 objects that eventually turn out to be junk, such as shrapnel, car parts or cans for every 1 landmine. That wastes precious time in a task that could already take another century. Red Lotus Technologies in the US has an idea that could help: Pattern Enhancement Tool for Assisting Landmine Sensing. A monitor displays the shape of the object found by a metal detector, then based on the shape, the operator can decide to investigate further or move on. The inventors describe it as like an X-ray for the soil. It’s crazy that projects like these have to rely on fundraising and charity. GeekWire.
Tech Universe: Friday 21 September 2012
- NOBODY HOME: Engineers from the US National Institute of Standards and Technology built a fairly ordinary 2 story family dwelling on campus. Where it’s not ordinary though is that it produces as much energy as it consumes over the course of a year. The net zero energy house incorporates energy-efficient construction and appliances and solar panels. The house is sealed — no-one actually lives there — but a computer simulation runs it as though a family of 4 were leading normal lives. It’s great to test one building, but perhaps the next step is to test it in widely differing environments. US National Institute of Standards and Technology.
- OUR ROBOT COLLEAGUES: Baxter, from Rethink Robotics in the US, is heading for the assembly line, to work next to its human colleagues. The robot can apply common sense, adapt to its environment and quickly be trained by workers without robotic expertise. To teach Baxter a human guides its arms to simulate the desired task, then presses a button to save the pattern. And its human co-workers whose jobs may be threatened absolutely won’t make mistakes in its programming, I’m sure. BBC. Video:
- BEAT THE CLOUD: Backyard astronomers know the problems with inclement weather, light pollution and even just getting an unobstructed view of the sky. Many give up on seeing interesting astronomical events. The MYSky iPad app will allow anyone to take control of one of Slooh’s robotic telescopes and capture an image for as little as 99 cents a time. Slooh’s telescopes are in Chile and the Canary Islands. The images are delivered as processed png format files within minutes of the request. Their telescope’s probably bigger than yours anyway. Slooh.
- TAXI CAN: One taxi driver from Gaza City was so sick of queuing for scarce petrol he decided an electric car would be a better choice of vehicle. But rather than buying one he made his own, the first hand-built electric car in Gaza, from recycled parts at a total cost of less than $1000. The car carries two passengers and needs 5 hours of charging to run for 4 hours at up to 19 Kph. The frame’s made of wood, the wheels came from wheelbarrows and the steering wheel’s recycled from gym equipment. He’d like to upgrade the car to use solar energy, but can’t afford to. Necessity is the mother of invention indeed. PhysOrg.
- GOLD STANDARD ASTRONOMY: The Astronomical Unit, or AU, is well-known as the distance between the Earth and the Sun. But when astronomers turned that loose idea into an actual and complex calculation it created several problems. The complex formula ran into trouble with general relativity, the fact that the sun is losing mass and even that the formula itself was incredibly hard to understand. Now astronomers have given the AU a fixed definition: exactly 149,597,870,700 metres. The metre is defined as the distance travelled by light in a vacuum in 1/299,792,458 of a second. Now let’s just hope everyone agrees on the length of a second and the nature of a vacuum. Nature.
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.