Tech Universe: Monday 25 March 2013
- FULL FATHOM TWO THOUSAND: When the Apollo 11 mission blasted off carrying the folks who would be the first to walk on the Moon it was powered by 5 F-1 engines. Those engines burned for a few minutes, and then fell into the Atlantic Ocean, as they’d done their job. Now an expedition has recovered many pieces and filmed many more from almost 5 Km down. Remotely Operated Vehicles did the work, communicating with the recovery vessel via fibre optic cable. The expedition recovered enough major components to create displays of two flown F-1 engines. After more than 40 years in salt water, the components will be stabilised to prevent further corrosion. Good job! Bezos Expeditions. Video:
- BIGGER EFFICIENCY: At around 400 metres long the Maersk Triple-E container ship is designed for efficiency, economy of scale and the environment. When complete it will be the world’s largest ship, carrying the equivalent of 18,000 twenty-foot containers. A U-shaped hull allows it to fit in more containers than previous models. It has a deadweight of 165,000 metric tonnes, a top speed of 23 knots and a crew of only 19. The design includes numerous features to improve efficiency and reduce CO2 emissions by 50%. We won’t see this giant here in New Zealand though as it will operate in China. The ship is about 13 times as long as a blue whale and nearly 1,000 times the weight. World’s Largest Ship.
- UNDER THE SKIN: If you have a condition that requires frequent blood tests you may end up feeling like a pin cushion. A team in Switzerland may be able to reduce all those needle jabs down to one. They’ve developed a 14 mm long device that can be inserted into the interstitial tissue just beneath the skin of the abdomen, legs or arms. Once in place it checks for up to 5 different substances in the blood and sends its data to a nearby smartphone via Bluetooth. The implant can remain in place for months before it needs replacing. Early tests show it reliably detects both cholesterol and glucose in blood as well as some other common substances. That would have to be better than having blood samples drawn frequently. BBC.
- FISH FOR BRAINS: Neuroscientists at Howard Hughes Medical Institute are working towards a Brain Activity Map. They recently took a fish larva and used high-speed light sheet microscopy to image the activity in most of its brain down to single cells. They did the imaging quickly enough to more or less see the neurons working. Next the researchers need to correlate specific brain activity with behaviour, and then to advance to more complex brains. The day is coming, however slowly, when we’ll be able to do this with human brains. Nature.
- FACING EMOTIONS: Zoe the talking head is an avatar being developed by Cambridge University. An actress was filmed over several days speaking around 7,000 sentences and expressing various emotions. Those recordings are used as elements in a visual avatar that can be given texts to speak and express in a realistic way. The lifelike face displays emotions such as happiness, anger, and fear, and changes its voice to suit any feeling the user wants it to simulate. The developers hope to eventually be able to use any face provided by photos, and perhaps to use the avatar on computers and smartphones. Cambridge University.
Tech Universe: Tuesday 26 March 2013
- SEEN FROM ON HIGH: Trucks and bikes aren’t a very good combination. The truck driver high up in their cab may not even see the lowly cyclist. In London construction trucks have been disproportionately involved in cyclist accidents. That led the London Cycling Campaign to suggest a redesign of the standard truck, or at least the sides of the front of trucks. Their suggestions include reducing the overall height of the truck, the height of the driver’s seat, and adding side windows that would allow the driver to see a cyclist or pedestrian alongside. Those side windows could make a huge difference. The Guardian.
- EAR WORKS: We all know the problem of ill-fitting earbuds, so how do people get hearing aids or in-ear monitors that fit perfectly? Well, it would be handy to have an accurate model of the ear canal. In the past the ear was filled with resin that hardens over 15 minutes or so. The Lantos ear-scanner does things differently. A 3D scanner with an optical tip is inserted deep into the ear canal where a membrane fills with dyed water. The scanner then captures hundreds of images of the inside of the membrane as it conforms to the shape of the ear canal. Sophisticated software creates a 3D model of the ear canal, ready for an accurately personalised device to be manufactured. Though they probably don’t used 3D printing for that. Wired.
- CONCRETE USE FOR WASTE: Concrete is a notorious source of CO2 because we use so much of it. Engineers from Kansas State University have developed a concrete made from biofuel byproducts such as corn stover, wheat straw and rice straw that doesn’t create quite so much CO2. The high-lignin ash byproducts also react chemically with the cement to make it considerably stronger. This means crops can be harvested for food, while leftover material can be used in biofuels and the wast products from that process can be used in concrete. Very efficient. Kansas State University.
- A TITAN OF POWER: Multi-use Titanium Dioxide from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore can produce energy, generate hydrogen, and desalinate water. It can also be formed into flexible solar cells and can double the lifespan of lithium-ion batteries. It can even be used in new antibacterial bandages. The low-cost nanomaterial is formed by turning cheap and abundant titanium dioxide crystals into nanofibres that can then be fabricated into filter membranes. Surely it can be paired up with the wonder material graphene to achieve world peace and prosperity? Nanyang Technological University.
- WHAT’S OLD IS NEW: Invicta Plastics in the UK has created the world’s first rigid, food-safe products from 100% recycled plastic bottles, lids and milk cartons. Their new processes called rPETable and rNEWable use high quality recycled plastics rather than virgin polymers. That should dramatically reduce plastic waste. edieWaste.
Tech Universe: Wednesday 27 March 2013
- QUICK STOP: Veti-Gel is a liquid that can not only immediately stop bleeding but also initiate healing. The plant-based polymer holds its own pressure onto the wound and at the same time activates Factor 12 and platelet cells, creating a tight seal. While it has obvious military applications, it could also be useful for any of us to stop bleeding after a cut or scrape. Though the name is more suggestive of animal care. Humans Invent.
- NEURONS IN SIGHT: Stanford’s new micro-endoscope lets a doctor not just look inside your body without cutting you open, but see with astonishing resolution. The new endoscope is as thin as a human hair with a resolution four times better than previous devices of similar design. The prototype can resolve objects about 2.5 microns in size. With further development this single-fibre endoscope could let doctors analyse neuronal cellular biology in brain tissue or perhaps detect various forms of cancer. Handling the device must be a challenge. Stanford University.
- HUB HOPES: Construction should start soon on Hope City, an ICT hub just outside Accra in Ghana. The aim of the new city is to bring together and promote technology and innovation in Africa. The plans include a university and hospital, as well as housing, recreation and everything a city needs. The technology park will also include a 75 story 270 metre high building expected to be the highest in Africa. Other African countries have already developed their own IT hubs, so this one is part of a growing trend. Meanwhile, back on the farm… CNN.
- FAST ONE: The Colibri electric car recharges in 2 hours from a domestic power point, but 20 minutes at a public charging station will bring the battery up to 80%. The car’s range is 100 Km, while its top speed is 120 Kph. The 3 door electric vehicle is a single-seater, with room in the boot for a bag and a couple of crates. Gull-wing doors on the sides help protect you from the rain as you get in and out. This is the kind of vehicle that would be perfect for city-wide car-sharing schemes. Colibri.
- UP AND AWAY: The Swiss have plans for getting into space. Swiss Space Systems plan to launch small satellites into orbit from the back of an A300 aircraft. A test flight should run in 2017, departing from the airport in Payerne, Switzerland. The plane will carry a small shuttle to around 10 Km, after which the shuttle will use its own rockets to climb to 80 Km. Finally a small upper-stage rocket will then boost the 250 Kg payload to 700 Km where it will orbit. Both the A300 and the shuttle will then land back at base. Perhaps all those Swiss mountains give them a bit of a head start too. Wired.
Tech Universe: Thursday 28 March 2013
- HOUSE FOR U: An Abod is a tiny home that can be constructed by 4 people in one day using stock materials. It’s intended as a home for slum dwellers or people who have been left homeless by a disaster such as a hurricane. The building is in the shape of a catenary arch, so it resembles an upside down U. The lightweight home can include kitchen, bathroom and various other options. Translucent panels allow for natural light. Basic units are around 3 by 3.5 metres, though add-ons can extend that, and units can be connected together. Simple, and elegant — a great solution. Abod.
- BIG BOTTLE IS WATCHING: Do you have a fancy container for pills that lets you divide them up by weekday so you know which ones to take when? It still doesn’t help you remember to actually take the pills. AdhereTech’s smart bottles will change all that. The bottle includes lights, speakers, a battery that lasts 45 days, 3G and LTE, and sensors that measure humidity and how many pills are left inside. Your pharmacist sends your medication regimen to AdhereTech’s servers which communicate with the pill bottle. If you forget to take your meds you could get a phone call, text message or email to prompt you, or the bottle itself could light up or chime. If the bottle still doesn’t detect that you’ve taken out a pill it could contact your doctor or family. Then there’s just that gap between taking the pill out of the bottle and remembering to swallow it. Wired.
- WASH MONITOR: Hospitals are full of sick people, some of whom die from an infection that comes about because of their visit. Hospital staff are required to wash their hands thoroughly to help alleviate this problem, but not all do. The IntelligentM bracelet vibrates when its wearer has scrubbed sufficiently. It reads RFID tags on hand-washing and sanitising stations and includes an accelerometer that detects how long an employee spends washing. RFID tags can also be placed outside hospital rooms and on some equipment. The idea is to help staff monitor themselves, though managers can also collect data from the bracelets for analysis. Add a few more tracking sensors to the bracelets and that could start to be very intrusive technology. Technology Review.
- DATA SHAPING: Sometimes the Internet is pretty crowded and traffic can come to a bit of a standstill. Major events such as the Olympic Games, for example, can put a strain on networks as large numbers of people and devices try to send messages, videos and other data all at the same time. Now Monash University have found a way to squeeze in extra data, making more efficient use of the available channels. By tweaking the way data is transmitted over long distances they were able to transmit a signal of 10 terabits per second over more than 850 Km. That compares to a standard ADSL 2+ speed of around 6 megabits per second. This technique for transmitting data means existing infrastructure could carry vastly more data, alleviating the need to keep laying more cables. Doing more with what we already have: that’s the best kind of improvement. Monash University.
- DRINK AND BE DRIVEN: In a New Orleans taxi when you develop a thirst? No problem, if you’re in one of the 250 taxis that now feature a drinks machine. A touchscreen display in the car lets you order a soft drink or iced tea that’s dispensed from a vending machine in the back of the seat. Drinks cost 99 cents and are paid for by credit or debit card. What, no chippies to go with it? PSFK.
There was no Tech Universe over Easter.
Tech Universe: Tuesday 02 April 2013
- DROWN NO MORE: In Tehran RTS Labs is developing a ship-based quadcopter designed to rescue people at risk of drowning. It’s operated from a central control cabin, but activates when people shout for help. It locates those in need of rescue with an infrared camera and releases life preservers directly over them. The robot’s designed to help rescue those at risk of drowning near the coastline, but could also be used for monitoring, imaging and firefighting. Imagine one of these at every surf lifesaving station. RTS Lab.
- GUTSY GRIZZLE: The Grizzly RUV is an all-terrain robot from Clearpath Robotics. It can cruise for up to 12 hours at up to 19 Kph, with a maximum payload of 600 Kg. The front axle articulation means it can drive over 6 inch obstacles yet still keep all its wheels on the ground. The utility vehicle can pull heavy equipment, carry sensors or payloads, and supports the open source Robot Operating System. Now, that would be handy, and fun. Clearpath Robotics.
- BREATHE EASY: People waiting for a lung transplant may have to spend a long time in hospital hooked up to equipment that deprives them of mobility. Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh are developing an artificial lung and blood pump small and light enough to wear for up to 3 months before surgery. University of Pittsburgh.
- OIL SUCKER: A research team from Zhejiang University in China has created an aerogel with a density lower than that of helium. The ultra-light aerogel is the world’s lightest material at 0.16 mg per cubic centimeter and is formed by freeze drying. The aerogel can absorb up to 900 times its own weight in oil and could be useful for cleaning up oil spills at sea, as it doesn’t absorb water. Then the gel could be squeezed to recover the oil as it will bounce back after being compressed. It should be cheap to transport too, seeing as it weighs so little. Zhejiang University.
- NO MORE RICE: Dropped your phone in the river? With Dry Box it may be possible to rescue it. The system is a specialised oven: take the battery out of the phone and place the phone in the Dry Box for around half an hour to vaporise the water. The Dry Box service is available in certain malls in Texas. That beats burying it in a bag of rice to draw out the moisture. Dry Box.
Tech Universe: Wednesday 03 April 2013
- AUDI, WHERE’S MY CAR?: German carmaker Audi is undertaking an interesting experiment: at one specially equipped parking garage the cars park themselves. All the driver has to do is step out of the car at the door and call it back with a smartphone app when they’re ready to leave. The garage contains numerous laser systems that map the environment in 3D. Meanwhile the cars are equipped with radar and wireless receivers so they can find their own way to an empty spot. And then surely the payment system could be automated too. Technology Review.
- WATERING STATIONS: Those of us who drive vehicles fuelled by petrol know we’ll find plenty of petrol stations along most routes we travel. But battery powered vehilces risk running out of juice far from a charging station. Israeli company Phinergy have created a battery that creates energy by mixing ambient air, water and aluminium. Their Metal Air would allow drives to simply add water every few hundred kilometres to continue their journey. So in future we may need only roadside cafes: a coffee for the driver and a bucket of water for the car.
- MOTION CAPTURES: Actroid-SIT is a lifelike robot from the Japanese firm Kokoro. She functions autonomously, talking and gesturing while interacting with people. She makes eye contact and gestures in the direction of a person trying to speak to her, handling interruptions gracefully. People speaking to the robot found her gestures helped make her seem more friendly, sensitive, sophisticated, and warm. Which proves it’s the subtleties that count. IEEE Spectrum.
- KEEP YOUR COOL: We all know the problem of a car left in the summer sun — the burning steering wheel, the blast of heat when you open the door. Researchers from Stanford University have designed an entirely new form of panel using nanostructured photonic materials that cools even when the sun is shining by efficiently radiating heat back into space. It does this by emitting thermal radiation very efficiently at a wavelength for which the atmosphere is nearly transparent. Their new panel reflect sunlight and emits thermal radiation at just the right wavelength. The material is made of quartz and silicon carbide and achieves a net cooling power of more than 100 watts per square metre. The panels could replace solar panels used to power air conditioners that cool a building. And in the very hot countries that could be very welcome. Stanford University.
- WARMTH FROM THE SEA: Researchers at Fraunhofer Institute for Chemical Technology have a new idea for building insulation: seaweed. Neptune Grass, deposited on Mediterranean beaches by the sea, generally ends up in landfill. It turns out though that it’s virtually non-flammable, resistant to mould, and can be used as insulation without chemical additives. Processing removes the sand and produces short strands that can be stuffed or blown into the required space. The fibres act as a buffer, absorbing water vapour and releasing it again without impairing its own ability to keep the building insulated. No smell, or does the processing handle that too? Fraunhofer Institute for Chemical Technology.
Tech Universe: Thursday 04 April 2013
- CHIPS WITH EVERYTHING: Some people turn to surgery to deal with excess weight, but researchers from Imperial College London may soon be able to plug a smart microchip into the vagus nerve to do the job. The chip uses a chemical layer to monitor the vagus nerve and then sends electrical impulses along the nerve to signal the parts of the brain that control eating. The chip could, for example, send a signal that the wearer has eaten enough and doesn’t need to eat more. Initial animal trials have proven the concept and human trials could take place within the next 3 years. I wonder if it would need regular calibration. BBC.
- THE DYE IS FAST: Burn injuries can be horrific anyway, but some are fatal, especially to young children, because of the bacteria that grow under the dressing and cause Toxic Shock Syndrome. Nanocapsules within a prototype dressing from the University of Bath include a dye. If the wound becomes infected the toxins break down the capsules, releasing the dye. That means medical staff can quickly see when there’s a problem and work to treat it. Testing on humans should begin within the next 5 years. That sounds as though it could have much wider application than just burn dressings for children. University of Bath.
- HEALING THE GAPS: Diarrhoea can kill children in developing countries, but it’s difficult to get lifesaving packs of rehydration fluids to remote spots. On the other hand, Coca-Cola is available pretty much wherever you go on Earth. That’s a sad statement on priorities, but it’s a fact of life. The ColaLife project brings those two things together, by packing AidPods between the necks of bottles in crates of Coke. Each AidPod contains an anti-diarrhoea kit. The kits exploit unused space in crates and are designed to act as a measuring cup and container for made-up solution. The kit’s being tested in Zambia, partly to find the right way to distribute it without subsidies. Wired.
- FREE RIDE: In 2014 Pittsburgh is launching a sharing programme with 500 bikes and 50 stations. The programme should help promote tourism and good health, while opening up the city for its residents. A member of the scheme can take a bike from and return it to any station. Stations are solar powered and use wifi to transmit real-time information about the number of available bikes and empty docks. Potential cyclists can see the info online or via a smartphone. Bikes are maintained regularly so cyclists have a smooth ride. Will they have bike lanes too? Pittsburgh Bike Share.
- DOTS AND DASHES: Quantum dots in a forest of nanowires may sound like an exotic dinner dish, but actually it could be the formula for an efficient photovoltaic solar cell. Quantum dots can be manufactured at room temperature from abundant, inexpensive materials that don’t require extensive purification. Engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are embedding them in nanowires that provide both enough conduction to easily extract a charge and sufficient depth for light absorption. Between the two the cells that use them could be more efficient than current cells. A drizzle of dots? MIT News.
Tech Universe: Friday, 5 April 2013
- BUZZING AROUND: Firefighters often work in the dark or in buildings filled with smoke and almost always in unfamiliar environments. It can be hard for them to find their way around. Researchers at the University of Sheffield have created a helmet with vibrating pads inside. Ultrasound sensors on the outside of the helmet detect nearby walls and other obstacles then transmit signals to the pads inside. Firefighters can use the vibrations to help guide them through the building. The vibrations also mean the firefighter can still see and hear normally while receiving guidance. And enjoy a bit of a scalp massage at the same time. University of Sheffield.
- SECRET SEARCH: There’s a lot of help available online for those being abused or subjected to violence, but if they visit they may risk further victimisation if their abuser finds the web history or other signs of seeking help. At Newcastle University researchers have created techniques to avoid this problem. One is an app that selectively cleans a browser history removing any trace of a search for support while leaving other electronic trails intact. Another is single-use QR codes that lead to a help URL the first time they’re used, but after that lead to neutral sites such as those for News. Another idea is to use Near Field Communications so that someone standing beside a poster, for example, could access help but once they move away the information is no longer available. Selectively cleaning the browser history would have to be a challenge. Newcastle University.
- THROUGH THE FOG: W-band radar is about the size of a cigarette packet, unlike the much larger conventional radar. It’s also more energy efficient and has a higher resolution. It uses short wavelengths around 3 mm and penetrates non-metallic and non-transparent materials, such as clothing, plastic surfaces, paper, wood, or even snow and fog. This could be useful for helicopter pilots working in low visibility because of dust or smoke or for monitoring places like container ports. The system is only a prototype now but could be ready for market within a couple of years. There are so many ways now to see what can’t normally be seen. Fraunhofer Institute.
- RUST SLEEPS IN LIGHT: Propylene oxide is needed for many plastics, toiletries and other products such as antifreeze and paints. But the process to make the compound creates undesirable waste products. Copper could help create the compound while avoiding the waste, but tends to bind with oxygen itself, and that’s not helpful. Now engineers at the University of Michigan have found that bright light reverses oxidation in carefully structured copper. That means there’s potential for a new process for creating propylene oxide without all the waste products. That’s good news for the planet, but will prices drop too? University of Michigan.
- CO2 FARM: There’s a lot of CO2 in the air — more than most would like, in fact. But how about if that CO2 could be used as a source of energy? Scientists at the University of Georgia can transform the carbon dioxide trapped in the atmosphere into useful industrial products, and maybe soon into biofuels. While plants can easily process atmospheric CO2, it’s been hard for us. The new technique involves genetically modifying a microorganism called Pyrococcus furiosus. The organism usually feeds in the ocean near geothermal vents where it’s very hot. By modifying the organism they can make it do its work at much lower temperatures, using it to convert CO2 into fuel. That’s the story: eat waste and create fuel. University of Georgia.