There was no Tech Universe between 10 and 13 June.
Tech Universe: Friday 14 June 2013
- OH, H2: There’s one thing we have plenty of on this planet, and that’s the ocean. So wouldn’t it be useful if we could use seawater to power our homes and vehicles? Australian scientists have produced an artificial chlorophyll on a conductive plastic film that acts as a catalyst to begin splitting water. That’s the first step to producing hydrogen for power. The research team say 5 litres of seawater could power an average-sized home and an electric car for a day, and their flexible catalyst could be used in portable devices. That daily dip in the ocean could perhaps refresh both you and your gadgets. University of Wollongong.
- LOW FLYING TRAIN: On the Bullet Train it’s a quick trip from Tokyo to Nagoya: a mere 90 minutes. Before too long though that trip will take only 40 minutes. Japan’s L0 Series trains use magnetic levitation technology, and will eventually carry 1,000 passengers at a time at up to 500 Kph. The first tests have taken place and the trains should be ready for passengers in 2027. No watching the countryside go by at that speed. The Telegraph.
- SPECCY 5 EYES: Monash University are working on a pair of glasses that will send signals directly into the brain. The glasses contain a camera and an eye movement sensor to direct the camera. Processors in the side of the glasses will modify images from the camera and send them wirelessly to an implant under the skull that will stimulate the brain’s visual cortex. The final result will be to help people with impaired vision to see better, including those with glaucoma or macular degeneration. Researchers have produced a prototype and trials begin next year. At least most of the equipment could be easily upgraded as required, though the implant will be harder to update. Monash University.
- SMART AND DIM: If you’re driving on the open road you probably want the headlights on high, but having to dim them every time there’s another car around is annoying. BMW’s Highbeam Assistant handles that for you. An image sensor on the inside of the front mirror checks the traffic and light conditions as you drive and sends control signals to the headlights. When you travel behind another car the headlights move to create a dark area immediately behind the car, so avoiding blinding the driver. Similarly, when oncoming traffic is detected the headlights move or dim to prevent glare. This one is long overdue. BMW.
- GO SOLAR: There are electric wheelchairs, and then there are solar powered electric wheelchairs. A student team at the University of Virginia designed a solar-powered wheelchair with retractable panels. The chair uses lightweight and robust materials and high-efficiency solar cells. The solar panels charge batteries even when it’s cloudy and offer shade on sunny days. A USB connection allows the user to charge devices on the go, while the panels provide around 4 or 5 hours of power for the chair to travel at 8 Kph. At low speeds it can run indefinitely without using the battery. Thanks to the folding solar panels, the wheelchair need take no more space than one without the panels. Be the envy of all your wheelchair using friends. University of Virginia.
Tech Universe: Monday 17 June 2013
- CONNECT UP: Live in a remote part of Canterbury with no Internet access? Google are fixing that for you with Project Loon, an experiment with using high-flying balloons to deliver Internet connections to everyone. Google are launching a pilot test of 30 balloons, each 15 metres in diameter, to fly 20 Km high over Canterbury. At that height the balloons are above aircraft and the weather but can be steered by using layers of wind that travel in different directions. The balloons communicate with specialised antennas on the ground, and also to nearby balloons. Solar power keeps the electronics attached to the balloons going. Connections speeds are comparable to 3G cellphone speeds. It’s worth a try. Project Loon.
- SAFETY IN NUMBERS: Vaccines have played a huge role around the world in preventing disease and saving lives. But vaccines are generally liquid and have to be carefully cooled, stored and transported, which may be a significant problem in many developing countries. What’s more, keeping needles clean and safe is also a challenge. Australian researchers have developed a skin patch that delivers dry vaccine to a layer just beneath the skin, rather than into the muscle as current vaccines are. Rather than using a single large needle, thousands of tiny projections in the patch release the vaccine just below the skin. And the take up and response in that part of the body are so good that only one hundredth of the traditional dose is required. You may feel a thousand small stings. BBC.
- IN THE MONEY: Nowadays we know better than to just dump old electronics in the trash. But disposing of them properly can still be a bit of a hassle. ecoATM are dealing to that, in the USA at least, by making it easy to recycle old phones, MP3 players and tablets in exchange for cash. After verifying your identity, perhaps with a driver’s licence, you place your old device in the kiosk which scans it and offers a cash price. You can get your device back or take the money. Devices may be recycled or sold on to a new owner. Now the ATMs just need to expand to devices like hard drives, cameras and the like. ecoATM.
- JUST BREATHE: Researchers at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology may be onto a way to detect serious diseases such as diabetes or lung cancer with a quick breath test. They used tin dioxide nanofibres and catalytic platinum nanoparticles to create a tiny sensor that could potentially be attached to a smartphone. The breath analyser senses specific volatile organic compounds that predict specific diseases. The prototype now needs to be widely tested, before a device could be developed for testing breath for diseases, or perhaps to detect hazardous chemicals or gas at factories. Such devices could make a huge difference in people’s lives. KurzweilAI.
- QUICKER THAN A FLASH: The memory in computers relies on determining the presence or absence of an electric charge, represented by a 0 or 1. RAM is fast but transient, while storage memory, for example on a hard drive, is slower but enduring. Now researchers have used a material called bismuth ferrite to create a memory device that’s fast, enduring and draws very little power. The material has a photovoltaic response to visible light, which means the researchers can read stored data simply by shining a polarised light on it. It’s around 10,000 times faster than Flash RAM and draws only around 20% of the power. The bad news is that this device will need to be made a lot smaller before it can be incorporated in our gadgets. Someone is sure to get right onto that. Nature.
Tech Universe: Tuesday 18 June 2013
- HUGE ON THE SEAS: The largest ship in the world is the container ship Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller. It’s designed for slower speeds and maximum efficiency, emitting 50% less CO2 per container moved than the current average on the Asia-Europe route. The Triple-E class vessel carries 18,000 twenty-foot containers and is 400 metres long, 59 metres wide and 73 metres high. A waste heat recovery system saves up to 10% of main engine power. That’s a lot of cargo in one place. Video:
- WHEELING ALONG: Researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute aim to make it easier for some people who use electric wheelchairs to both control their wheelchairs and to communicate. The new device hooks in to the wheelchair’s CAN bus, where all wheelchair data converges, and provides Bluetooth connections to smartphones and other gadgets. It allows users to check emails, surf the web, find accessible toilets and routes and to check how the chair’s battery is doing so they have enough power for their next journey. Future development could allow users to work with home automation systems too. Wheelchair as hub sounds very practical and useful. Fraunhofer Institute.
- COOL BLUES: Tired of fruit in the fridge going bad too quickly? Add a few ultraviolet LEDs and the fruit may last longer. US researchers tested exposing strawberries in a fridge to light from energy efficient UV-LEDs that work well in chilly conditions. After 9 days the strawberries showed no mould, retained most of their moisture and still had good colour. The UV light can be hazardous though so if fridge makers incorporate it they will have to ensure the light shines only when the door’s closed. That shouldn’t be too hard. New Scientist.
- ROUND AND ROUND: The Whetar urban wind turbine can apparently produce 5 times more power than standard wind turbines, while creating little noise and little vibration. The trick is in the 2 double contra-rotating rotors encased in a specially constructed housing duct. The two rotors cancel each other out, as far as noise and vibration are concerned, while accelerating the air to produce more power. The turbines also take much less space than others and can be mounted on lighting poles, the roof or even the front lawn. Start working on that second mortgage. Poduhvat Hydrokinetics.
- BIKE UNDERGROUND: In places like Tokyo space is precious and while cycles are a great way to travel about parking them at your destination can really clutter up the streets. So how about underground bike parks? Eco-Cycle Underground Parks whisk your bike away to secure storage out of the weather and away from potential thieves. Set up an account and attach a small tag to the front forks. When you arrive at a parking station the front wheel is clamped in place and the machinery draws the bike into the system. An elevator takes the bike down to an empty storage slot. To retrieve the bike swipe your membership card and the bike is returned. That definitely beats carrying a lock and finding a spot to lean your bike against. Giken Seisakusho.
Tech Universe: Wednesday 19 June 2013
- IN CHARGE IN THE CHAIR: iPortal from Kiwi company Dynamic Controls lets those who use a powered wheelchair connect up their iPhone or iPad to the chair then use the chair’s joystick, switch or head array to control the phone. Users can browse the web, make phonecalls and use other apps, along with seeing key information about their chair, such as seating and battery capacity. It’s all go in the world of wheelchair controls it seems. Dynamic Controls.
- SAVE THE OIL: GROW A MUSHROOM: Plastic transformed our world in both the best and the worst ways. It gives us lightweight durable products and packaging, but at the same time it accumulates in the environment and causes all kinds of harm. Ecovative’s products aim to replace plastics with materials made from agricultural byproducts and mycelium, a fungal network of threadlike cells. In other words, they take agricultural plant waste, add mushrooms, darkness and time, then harvest a replacement for plastic and foam. The process also makes sure to stop growth so the end product won’t be harmful to health. The products can be used for packaging, insulation, in car bumpers and seats, and in other applications. When they’re of no further use they can be composted or mulched. Thus creating an endless cycle. Good one! Ecovative.
- KEEP YOUR EYE ON THE BAG: When you end up in one town after a flight and your luggage somewhere else no one’s very happy. With the Airbus Bag2Go app and smartbag though you can track your bag for yourself. The bag also has built-in scales so you can avoid overloading it, while an RFID chip inside the bag works with many airport baggage handling systems for tracking and routing too. Bags are also equipped with GPS and a 2G-based cellular phone system. While only a prototype at this stage, the bags could also be rented and customers could perhaps use an optional door-to-door courier service to take bags to and from the airport. Or even better: learn to travel light. Australian Business Traveller. Video:
- FIRE AHEAD: Firefighters go into danger every time they enter a burning building. Knowing beforehand what they’re facing could make their job a little easier. A firefighting robot developed by the University of California is essentially a small Segway with stereo RGB and infrared cameras. The robot can climb stairs thanks to a central leg that lifts the wheels off the floor. The wheels act as counterbalancing flywheels so the robot can balance on the single leg. A computer processes the images returned by the robot to give firefighters a virtual reality picture that includes a 3D map and temperature data. Meanwhile other onboard sensors can collect data about gases, structural integrity and other crucial information. University of California.
- HIGH LIGHTS: The summer sun is high and hot. It streams into buildings mercilessly, heating the room and fading the carpets. On the other hand the winter sun is low and weak, and we want it to warm and light our rooms. Curtains or blinds help keep the sun out, but Sumitomo Chemical have another idea. They’ve created a double transparent sheet that attaches to the window and still lets you look at the outside world. The sheet reflects any light that arrives from an angle greater than a certain degree, such as that from the sun high in the sky. Meanwhile it allows light from a low angle through. Changing the angle between the sheets affects which light is reflected. What happens to light going out through the window, I wonder? TechOn.
Tech Universe: Thursday 20 June 2013
- WATCH THE BLOOD PRESSURE : What say you need to constantly monitor someone’s blood pressure? Perhaps a catheter is inserted into the artery or medical staff have to use a pump-up cuff around the arm every 15 minutes. It’s tedious and time-consuming. A new device from Switzerland is worn on the wrist and continuously records blood pressure. Several sensors simultaneously measure the contact pressure, pulse and blood flow on the surface of the skin near the wrist. As the device may move around though a sensor made from piezo-resistive fibres in the wristband measures the contact pressure of the device on the skin and corrections can be calculated. Clinical trials are already underway. Now it needs the smartphone app for data collection, monitoring and the inevitable sharing. Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology.
- BAGS ON BIKES: Bicycles are great for swooping around town or having a fun ride, but add in kids and a load of shopping and you’ll probably head straight back to the bus or car. The elMundo BionX bike from Yuba Bikes is designed to carry kids and cargo. It adds a 48 volt battery pack to drive a 21 speed drive train and the 455 Watt brushless motor. An integrated luggage rack that carries up to 200 Kg and sideloaders give a lot of space for whatever you need to carry and attachment points let you add extras like child seats. Now, what about the family dog? Yuba Bikes.
- OUT FOR THE DUCK: If you’re out in the forest hunting animals you need a steady hand to pull the trigger. One US hunting enthusiast lost the use of his arms in an accident though, so he created the Equalizer Shooting System that lets him aim his rifle by toggling a joystick with his chin, and fire with a puffer switch. But then who collects the kill? Medgadget.
- STEEL GO FAR: Lifts get to go up and down thanks to steel cables that hold them firmly. But the problem with steel is that it’s heavy, so the sheer weight of the cable means lifts can’t really go past 500 metres. With the extra tall new buildings going up around the world such as the over 800 metre tall Burj Khalifa in Dubai, lifts now need to go higher. That’s why Finnish engineers have developed a super-light and super-strong lift-hoisting cable that can lift things up to a kilometre. Their UltraRope has 4 carbon-fibre tapes sealed in transparent plastic about 4 centimetres wide and 4 millimetres thick. It’s stronger than steel but weighs only one seventh as much. That could also reduce the electricity needed to haul lifts up and down by around 10%. It’s easy to imagine other uses too, such as ships hawsers and cranes on construction sites. New Scientist.
- MIX AND MATCH: Demolition and construction sites produce huge amounts of waste that could be recycled — if it’s correctly sorted. But sorting metal, wood and stone is laborious and dangerous work. Finnish company ZenRobotics now have a robot on the job. The ZenRobotics Recycler uses weight measurement, 3-D scanning, tactile assessment and spectrometer analysis to assess each item and then move it into an appropriate bin. That’s an ideal job for a robot. CNN.
Tech Universe: Friday 21 June 2013
- LASER GUIDED FRUIT: Those sticky labels on fruit are a nuisance. In the EU though they may soon be replaced by tattoos laser-printed on the skin. The lasered marks can contain barcodes or fruit information, while iron oxides and hydroxides can be used in the process to enhance the contrast of the mark. That takes one more paper annoyance out of the environment. Daily Mail.
- SKINNY BATTERIES: These days we pretty much want batteries in everything. US researchers have used 3D printing to create a battery thinner than a human hair. The printer used a 30 micron wide nozzle to deposit layers of nanoparticle-packed paste in a comb-like shape. A second printed comb interlocks with it. Each comb functions as an electrode. The whole assembly is then placed in a tiny container filled with solution. The completed 3D printed lithium-ion battery is dense and thick enough to compete with a traditional battery, and could be invaluable in objects such as hearing aids or tiny drones. The hardest thing about replacing it though will be finding and grasping it. GigaOm.
- SKINNY WINDOWS: The screens in our smartphones and tablets are made from thin but tough and scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass from Corning. Now think what would happen if cars used Gorilla Glass too in their windows. It would save a lot of weight and change the centre of mass for a car and that would improve fuel economy. It could also make for a quieter ride. Or at least, so Corning say. With a lower centre of mass it should affect handling too. Technology Review.
- KICKING AROUND: There are many high-tech artificial legs around but the Kickstart Walking System takes a new approach: it uses a spring, making it an orthotic that helps, rather than a prosthetic that replaces. The Kickstart is a leg brace to help people who’ve had a stroke or spinal cord injury. It uses a pulley system and a long spring aligned to the front of the leg. As the walker pulls their leg back it stretches the spring. That coiled energy is released when the leg is lifted, causing the spring to contract and help power the leg forward. More research though aims to add features such as sensing when the foot is on the ground. Walk this way. Live Science.
- OFF THE WIRE: Blind rats are in luck: a new solar-powered retinal implant can help them see again. Unlike other implants the chip is inserted into the sub-retinal layers of the eye and receives images wirelessly from special glasses. Infrared images from the glasses power the implants. Eventually the implants may make their way from rats to people, of course. In the meantime, it may not pay to ask how the rats came to be blind in the first place. Medical Daily.