Tech Universe: Monday 08 October 2012
- WASTED: Building sites and industries produce a lot of off-cuts and other waste materials that have to be disposed of. The University of Brighton wants to put them to good use. It’s creating a building made entirely of excess materials from city construction sites and other industries in the area. The walls will contain discarded timber products, while solar panels on the roof, whole-house ventilation, and a heat recovery system will make the house eco-friendly. The house will be used as a pilot and for exhibitions. Work should be completed within the next 12 months. It beats sending all that waste to the dump. The Guardian.
- SWEATY HOMES: When we’re hot we sweat, and as the sweat evaporates we cool down. Researchers at ETH Zurich want to apply the same principle to buildings. They’ve developed a polymer mat that soaks up rain, but as the mat warms in the sun it releases water at its surface which extracts heat from the building. The polymer mat is protected by a water-permeable membrane. If the mat warms in direct sunlight, it shrinks and adopts hydrophobic properties. This forces the water through the membrane to the surface of the mat where it can evaporate. Tests on scale models suggest this could be a good way to cool buildings. And if it doesn’t rain for a while, for example, in hot countries? ETH Life.
- SQUARE EYES: The Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder in Western Australia has just begun to to capture radio images. Each of the 36 antennas has a diameter of 12 metres. One of its jobs is to look for black holes. The new array can scan the sky much faster than existing telescopes and will generate a huge amount of data. This telescope forms part of the larger Square Kilometre Array that is to begin construction in 2016. Except, if this is the first part, then it must have already begun construction. BBC.
- EYES ON STALKS: Rolls-Royce need to monitor 14,000 engines, flown by 500 airlines on 4000 aircraft worldwide. That’s a huge job, especially since the monitoring involves pushing a long fibre-optic tube into 10 millimetre wide ports around the engine and looking for problems. In fact, they don’t have enough specialists to provide decent coverage. But maybe a robot could help. They’re developing a snake-like robot to go into the engine and feed images back to an expert who controls it remotely. The robot could carry more than just a camera too. A miniature grinding tool could sand down problem areas, while a UV laser could make fractures luminesce. They hope to have the robot available within a couple of years. And meanwhile, just how do we know the planes are actually OK? New Scientist.
- WATCH THE TREES GO: Tropical forests provide important habitat but are increasingly threatened around the world. ForestWatchers matches volunteers with high-resolution Earth imagery. The job of the volunteers is to allow their computer to use idle time to classify segments of images as forest or non-forest. Built-in redundancy of more than one computer classifying an area as being no longer forested provides some assurance against errors and fraud. If an area shows as having been deforested a local group can take action. It’s a shame they can only take action after the fact. ForestWatchers.
Tech Universe: Tuesday 09 October 2012
- BLOOD IN SPACE: Surgery here on Earth is a messy enough business, but at least the blood can be contained and more is available from blood banks. In the zero gravity of space though blood and bodily fluids would just float around the spacecraft. A team of US researchers is working on how to solve that problem. Their answer is the Aqueous Immersion Surgical System — a transparent box full of sterile saline solution that creates a watertight seal around a wound. Medics access the submerged wound through airtight holes to use handheld and orthoscopic instruments. And given that there are no ready sources of spare blood in space, the device could also siphon up and recycle the patient’s blood for later use. The device will soon be tested in zero-G on an artificial coronary system filled with synthetic blood. Meanwhile the astronauts had better just be very careful. New Scientist.
- SECURITY DETAIL: Security cameras tend to be fairly low resolution, but the new JPEG2000 HD Pro security cameras from Avigilon produce 29 megapixel images at 6576 x 4384 pixels. The company claim the camera can replace 95 traditional VGA-resolution security cameras, shooting high-quality images even in poorly lit conditions. The high resolution means an operator can zoom in to see small details such as number plates or what a person is carrying. The camera uses Canon EF mount SLR lenses and an operator can manually control aperture, white balance, and shutter speed. Maybe TV crime shows will soon be closer to reality when they zoom in on security cam footage. PetaPixel.
- THAR SHE BLOWS: Engineers will soon start injecting water into a series of connected cracks 3 kilometres deep at Oregon’s Newberry volcano. They aim to produce steam to drive turbines and generate electricity. Independent studies showed the project doesn’t risk triggering earthquakes near the volcano or contaminating groundwater. What could possibly go wrong? New Scientist.
- TAKE A HIKE: Keeping mobile devices charged is a problem in a busy day as you dash from meeting to meeting. The nPower PEG aims to solve that problem by harvesting the energy of your movements. The Personal Energy Generator belongs in your briefcase or handbag, harvests kinetic energy created by your movements and stores it in a 2000 mA lithium polymer battery. You can also charge the PEG’s battery from a wall point or laptop. 25 minutes of walking generates 1 minute of talk time on an iPhone. That’s a good case for walking the talk. nPower PEG.
- SIFTING THE LIGHT: One way to make a telescope is to arrange mirrors to bounce light around to a focal point. But the US Air Force is developing one that instead uses a thin film of plastic with holes in it. The photon sieve works by bending light through billions of tiny holes to create a black and white image. One advantage is that the new lens can be folded to fit into a tiny space, making it easier to launch into orbit. Tests in zero gravity showed the telescope could be deployed from a satellite the size of a carton of milk. They hope to launch a photo sieve telescope into orbit in 2015. BBC.
Tech Universe: Wednesday 10 October 2012
- PICK A PILL: Anyone handling large amounts of prescription pills, such as healthcare workers, could easily mix them up. Pills come in only a few shapes and colours, so it’s easy to become confused. The US National Institutes of Health have developed software to help distinguish pills based on a photo from a phone. In less than a second the software extracts the shape, colour and imprint of a pill from a photo and identifies the drug with 91% accuracy. The technique could easily be applied to a smartphone app for anyone to use. That could be specially handy for someone with low vision. New Scientist.
- SLOW ON THE TRIGGER: Household cleaning products can be very dangerous in the hands of young children, so US researchers have developed a prototype for child-resistant spray bottles. The bottles use 2 triggers that must be depressed in sequence, and are easy for adults to use. Children under 6 just can’t work the triggers because their hands are too small and they haven’t developed sufficiently to handle the sequence. The mechanism locks itself after use too, so adults don’t have to deliberately set the nozzle to the off position. It’s interesting how sometimes a baffling design can be a really good thing. Nationwide Children’s Hospital.
- LONG IN THE EYE: In some people their eyes are too long and light from distant objects doesn’t focus properly on the retina. That means they’re near-sighted. But these days contact lenses or glasses can be used to correct that problem. Except that then the body may compensate for the slight farsightedness that develops in peripheral vision by making the eye even longer. Then the problem grows worse. Researchers from the State University of New York specially designed contact lenses that alter how light is focused in the peripheral retina. Used in children the lenses can change eye growth and focus in a predictable way and help stop myopia from becoming worse. Which, apart from anything else, could save thousands of dollars in changing prescriptions. Optical Society.
- FIERY ROBOT: The Thermite firefighting robot is very versatile. It can pump more than 2,000 litres of water or other fluids per minute and can reach places human firefighters can’t go because of heat, fumes or other dangers. The remote controlled robot’s made of steel and aluminium, mounted on tank treads and is designed to go through average door widths. It’s a little under 2 metres long and around 1.4 metres tall. It seems like the robot would be a good tool to start the firefighting process, and send the humans in behind. Howe and Howe.
- SOLAR SPIN: Photovoltaic panels are well proven, but may get too hot, or point in the wrong direction, and so lose efficiency. V3 Solar have improved efficiency by instead shaping a flat panel into a cone and then spinning it. They say their Spin Cell produces more than 20 times the electricity from a standard flat static panel. The cone shape captures more light throughout the day without needing to track the sun. Special lenses concentrate the light of the sun, which brings a risk of overheating. But the spin takes care of that, allowing the panels to cool while also hyperexciting the electrons to produce more energy. It’s always about the spin. V3Solar.
Tech Universe: Thursday 11 October 2012
- SAUCER TALES: Back in 1956 the US Air Force had plans for their very own flying saucers. Project 1794 was to have a range of around 1850km at speeds of up to 4,800 Kph. The idea was to rotate an outer disk at very high speed for propulsion as that would affect the flow of air. The declassified documents that explain Project 1794 don’t make it clear whether a craft was ever built and flown though. Photos or it didn’t happen. ExtremeTech.
- AIR BATTERY: If the electricity from wind turbines isn’t used immediately it may go to waste. If only there were a way to store it. Highview Power Storage in the UK is working with a technique that uses frozen air. At night the electricity generated by wind farms chills air to -190 C which creates a liquid that’s stored in a giant vat. During the day the temperature rises, warms the air, and the vapour drives a turbine, producing electricity. What’s more, waste heat from other sources can be used to help warm the air, making the whole process more efficient. It’s always a problem to have the things that you need in the right place at the right time. Discovery News.
- BUGS IN SPACE: As human attention turns to living on other planets the problems of food, fuel and shelter come into focus. Transporting finished goods will be extremely expensive, so NASA are considering engineered microbes for the job. NASA’s Synthetic Biology Initiative is exploring how microbes could exploit the resources available on a planet such as Mars to support human occupation. In theory microbial colonies could make oil, plastics or fuel for astronauts. I wonder if an inhospitable environment is a sufficient predator. New Scientist.
- THIS LITTLE LIGHT: That little laser pointer you use during presentations wouldn’t hold a candle to the new Boeing laser. After all, the High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator is designed to eventually knock missiles and UAVs out of the sky. It’s being installed on an 8-wheeled, 500 horsepower Oshkosh Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck — a giant of a thing. The next step is to install a 10 kilowatt solid-state laser. But even a 10 Kw laser is trivial compared to the 100 Kw beam the Pentagon aims to achieve. Just think of the fuel such weapons need. CNET.
- FLASH ON A BIKE: Cyclists like to be seen night, but the small tail light on a bike doesn’t always show up very well. Vizibelt combines two LEDs with a thin tube of flexible plastic to create a belt of light that cyclists can wear. Vizibelt has three light modes; fast flash, normal flash and constant light. This would be great for night-time dog collars. Vizibelt.
Tech Universe: Friday 12 October 2012
- HEAT SEEKING BRA: Around 3 years after a breast cancer tumour starts to grow, and long before it can be detected by current means, the body creates additional blood vessels with a distinctive heat signature. The First Warning System looks like a sports bra but contains sensors that measure cell temperature changes and uses Internet-based pattern recognition software to detect possible tumours. Wearers visit a website or view data on their smartphone. Clinical studies have shown the bra returns highly accurate results. When detected early, breast cancer can generally be treated successfully. Do other cancers work in a similar way? Could other clothing items be used in this way too? MedGadget.
- SENSITIVE DRAWINGS: Carbon nanotubes are all the rage these days, being used for all kinds of purposes, such as detecting harmful gases in the environment. But building carbon nanotube sensors requires dissolving nanotubes in a solvent such as dichlorobenzene. That’s hazardous and not well suited for large-scale work. Now a chemist at MIT has found a way to compress a powder of carbon nanotubes and use it in place of graphite in a lead pencil. Her device means that adding carbon nanotube sensors to a piece of paper is as simple as picking up a pencil and drawing. So simple, now they know how. MIT.
- ION FLOW: Engineers at the University of California reckon that sophisticated maths could make lithium-ion batteries more efficient, while reducing their cost and causing them to charge twice as fast. Lithium-ion batteries rely on ions moving from the anode to the cathode. Usually voltage and current form the basis for estimates of battery performance, but the measures are crude and inaccurate. The new algorithms estimate where the particles are and therefore the charge distribution within the battery. Then the researchers can find optimal rates of charging and discharging batteries, improving performance. It sounds like it has a lot in common with traffic flow and management. University of California.
- LOCALLY SOLAR: The small solar panels used in smaller devices are generally made by hand and are relatively expensive, compared with industrial solar panels. The Solar Pocket Factory aims to automate their production, reducing the price, and creating the small panels locally. The machine breaks off the component strips of silicon and combines them together to create a panel in just a few seconds. The inventors compare the machine to a microbrewery that is probably not in an individual home, but is set up in the neighbourhood. It’s time to get inventing. NPR Science Friday.
- INFINITE CLIMB: The Treadwall M4 is a vertical treadmill with handholds for rock climbing. The climber can easily change the angle and the speed, and can configure the holds for easy or difficult terrain. The climbing wall’s a little over 3 metres tall, and includes time and distance monitors. Climbing yet never reaching the top — would that be tantalising, sisyphean or just plain frustrating? Brewer’s Ledge.
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.