Innovation & Technology Weekly Roundup

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This week's headlines:



Could floating nuclear plants ride out tsunamis?
April 17, 2014

When an earthquake and tsunami struck the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant complex in 2011, neither the quake nor the inundation caused the ensuing contamination. Rather, it was the aftereffects - specifically, the lack of cooling for the reactor cores, due to a shutdown of all power at the station - that caused most of the harm.

A new design for nuclear plants built on floating platforms, modeled after those used for offshore oil drilling, could help avoid such consequences in the future. Such floating plants would be designed to be automatically cooled by the surrounding seawater in a worst-case scenario, which would indefinitely prevent any melting of fuel rods, or escape of radioactive material. The concept was developed by researchers from MIT, the University of Wisconsin, and Chicago Bridge and Iron, a major nuclear plant and offshore platform construction company.

Such plants could be built in a shipyard, then towed to their destinations five to seven miles offshore, where they would be moored to the seafloor and connected to land by an underwater electric transmission line. A floating platform would be unaffected by the motions of a tsunami and earthquakes would have no direct effect at all. Overheating and potential meltdown, as happened at Fukushima, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island - would be virtually impossible at sea.

In addition, at the end of a plant’s lifetime, 'decommissioning' could be accomplished by simply towing it away to a central facility, as is done now for the Navy’s carrier and submarine reactors. That would rapidly restore the site to pristine conditions.

Full story: TG Daily Back to top


Submarine drone dives into hunt for missing MH370 jet
April 14, 2014

The team looking for the missing Malaysia Airlines jet in the Indian Ocean has deployed an autonomous submarine for the first time. The Bluefin-21 underwater vehicle uses sonar beams to create high resolution 3D images of the seabed some 4500 metres down.

The sub has been dispatched on a series of 24-hour, 40-square-kilometre autonomous search missions by the Australian military ship Ocean Shield because the multinational search's Joint Agency Coordination Centre (JACC) in Perth, Australia, believes the batteries on the two flight recorder 'pingers' of flight MH370 are now exhausted. As a result, the searchers can no longer listen out for further pings to narrow down where the wreckage might be. Instead, they will have to rely on the four pings heard to date to work out where the submarine should begin its seabed survey.

The Bluefin-21 projects a sonar beam 500 metres either side of it as it moves, gradually building up an image of the seabed. The sub is designed for missions at depths of 4500 metres – which is thought to be the depth the MH370 wreckage would lie in. The Bluefin-21 sub is untethered so doesn't need to drag a heavy 4500-metre-long power cable behind it. It simply executes a planned mission without operator intervention.

One downside of this is that the submarine, which moves at about walking pace, does not send back any live sonar images. It has to surface after 20 hours in the water to have its data downloaded and analysed and its batteries replaced.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top


A molecular approach to solar power
April 15, 2014

The problem with solar power is that sometimes the sun doesn’t shine. Now a team at MIT and Harvard University has come up with an ingenious workaround — a material that can absorb the sun's heat and store that energy in chemical form, ready to be released again on demand.

This solution is no solar-energy panacea: While it could produce electricity, it would be inefficient at doing so. But for applications where heat is the desired output - whether for heating buildings, cooking, or powering heat-based industrial processes - this could provide an opportunity for the expansion of solar power into new realms.

The principle is simple: Some molecules, known as photoswitches, can assume either of two different shapes, as if they had a hinge in the middle. Exposing them to sunlight causes them to absorb energy and jump from one configuration to the other, which is then stable for long periods of time. But these photoswitches can be triggered to return to the other configuration by applying a small jolt of heat, light, or electricity - and when they relax, they give off heat. In effect, they behave as rechargeable thermal batteries: taking in energy from the sun, storing it indefinitely, and then releasing it on demand.

Unlike fuels that are burned, the system using the new material can be continually reused. It produces no emissions and nothing gets consumed.

Full story: TG Daily / Nature Chemistry Back to top


Glow in the dark road unveiled in the Netherlands
April 14, 2014

Glow in the dark road markings have been unveiled on a 500m stretch of highway in the Netherlands. The paint contains a 'photo-luminising' powder that charges up in the daytime and slowly releases a green glow at night, doing away with the need for streetlights. Interactive artist Daan Roosegaarde teamed up with Dutch civil engineering firm Heijmans to work on the idea.

It is the first time 'glowing lines' technology has been piloted on the road and can be seen on the N329 in Oss, approximately 100km south east of Amsterdam. Once the paint has absorbed daylight it can glow for up to eight hours in the dark.

Roosegaarde's projects aim to help people and technology to interact. His past projects have included a dance floor with built-in disco lights powered by dancers' foot movements, and a dress that becomes see-through when the wearer is aroused. Heijmans was already working on projects involving energy-neutral streetlights when Roosegaarde teamed up with the company.

Initially the team also had plans to develop weather symbols that appeared on the road once the temperature reached a certain level. A temperature-sensitive paint mixture would be used to create giant snow flake-shaped symbols on the tarmac to warn users that the road may be icy. The current stretch of glow in the dark road in Oss does not include this temperature sensitive technology.

Full story: BBC News Back to top


Future Nokia phones could send quantum-coded texts
April 16, 2014

Quantum cryptography could be the star feature of your next cellphone. The first pocket-sized quantum encryption device has been created in collaboration with the Finnish phone-maker Nokia, and could let you send completely secure messages – although you will need to plug it into a quantum phone booth to do so.

Secure internet transactions mostly use public key cryptography, which is pretty good but can in principle be hacked by a sneaky eavesdropper or someone with a powerful enough computer. Using a quantum key, which cannot be duplicated without destroying the original, could make codes unbreakable. However, so far only banks and other big corporations can afford the bulky, expensive equipment required.

Now, an international team led by the University of Bristol, UK, has shrunk the quantum encoder by splitting the traditional system in two. A large 'server', which could one day be about the size of a case of beer, would contain the bulky elements like a laser and a single-photon generator.

The server would send photons through a fibre-optic cable into a tiny device which could be embedded in a mobile phone. The device includes a waveguide that alters the state of photons passing through it, encrypting the message. It then spits the altered photons out into the fibre-optic cable and back to the server. To send data with complete security, you would just plug in your phone.

Full story: New Scientist / Physical Review Letters Back to top


Wire up hives to keep bees happy and healthy
April 11, 2014

With the help of Open Source Beehives, a do-it-yourself apiary kit, you can build a hive that encourages healthy bees. The hive comes with a sensor system that collects data so that you can keep an eye on the bees in real time.

Aspiring beekeepers can create their own wired-up hives from the free blueprints or have a pre-cut version shipped to them for USD 300. The hives have just four wooden parts so should be easy to assemble. The kit also includes sensors built on to a cheap Arduino computer control board. The sensors track changes in temperature, humidity, light and ambient noise, and can pick up on certain air pollutants like carbon monoxide.

Commercial hives are arranged so that bees build honeycombs in uniform shapes and maximise honey production. By contrast, Open Source Beehives, which resemble small squat houses, allow bees to build their combs in more natural curving shapes. Some hives have been up and running for a year in Europe in Barcelona and Brussels. Last week, the group announced they'd raised over double their USD 20,000 goal via an online crowdfunding campaign to set up more hives around the world.

Apart from keeping hives happy, they hope to collect enough data to shed light on colony collapse disorder, which has devastated beehives since 2006, but whose cause remains mysterious.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top


Google wants to fit a camera into a contact lens
April 16, 2014

Google has applied for a patent that details a way to fit a camera into a contact lens. The patent has to do with the tech giant's smart contact lens project, which was first announced earlier this year. By fitting a camera into a contact lens, users could process all kinds of data that could then be relayed to a connected smartphone.

The patent outlines a way that Google could fit a camera into a contact lens without drastically increasing its thickness. A camera on a contact lens could be used to collect data from users' surroundings, including light, colours, objects, faces and motion.

That data could be quickly processed and provide users with information on a display within the contact lens. For example, a moving vehicle or the face of a nearby user could be highlighted by the smart contact lens. The camera could also expand users' eyesight.

For users with no eyesight, the smart contact lens with a camera could also be useful. The camera could capture imagery and data that would then be relayed to a connected smartphone. That smartphone could process the data and give the blind user any relevant information. For example, if he or she walked towards an intersection, the phone could sound off an audible alert after the contact lens' camera detected the upcoming road.

Full story: Sydney Morning Herald / Los Angeles Times Back to top