Innovation & Technology Weekly Roundup

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This week's headlines:



Innovation falling away in parts of developing world
April 16, 2015

Innovation activity in substantial parts of the developing world is falling further behind that in rich countries, a report warns.

The study examined 2.9 million patents filed worldwide from 1990 to 2010. It concluded that many developing countries, mainly in Africa and Asia, are producing fewer inventions now than they did in the early 1990s despite seeing economic growth.

It also compared patent output with scientific output, finding that a fall in the number of journal papers generally correlated in a drop in patent filings. But for some Central and South American nations, such as Brazil, the number of patents remained low despite a steady increase in the number of papers published each year.

As a result, Argentina, Brazil and Caribbean countries were found to have stagnated in their ability to produce inventions from their research - and the gap between the number of new patents issued in Brazil and the US grew by 54% between 1990 and 2010.

Between 2005 and 2010, eight rich countries - comprising only 11% of the world’s population - accounted for 91% of all patent applications, the report found. This has barely changed since 1990-95 and this trend could limited poorer countries’ ability to access and benefit from future knowledge, according to the report.

Full story: SciDev / PLOS ONE Back to top


For toilets, money matters
April 16, 2015

When nature calls, about 1 billion people in the developing world still head to an open field, the bushes, or a body of water to defecate. The practice has contributed to high rates of diarrheal diseases, especially in India, where more than half of people don't use latrines. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who took power last May, has pledged to build 111 million toilets as part of the Clean India mission, a sanitation campaign. One goal is to end open defecation by October 2019.

But exactly how to get there is surprisingly controversial. Some NGOs and government officials in developing countries have long pushed for education campaigns - teaching people about the health benefits of using toilets. Others advocate subsidizing latrine costs for the poor, but some economists argue that financial aid for cheap toilets could backfire by discouraging those who don't receive it from buying latrines on their own for a higher price.

Now, one of the largest controlled experiments to examine sanitation strategies, conducted in Bangladesh and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, comes down strongly in favour of cash. After comparing three policies in more than 100 villages, the authors found that the key to getting people to build latrines is to subsidise the cost. They also found that funding poor villagers to install latrines can encourage their unsubsidised neighbours to follow suit in a beneficial spillover effect.

Full story: Science Back to top


Study encourages further development of artificial photosynthesis
April 17, 2015

New research by a team from the University of California in Berkeley could present a game-changing model for artificial photosynthesis. The new system can capture carbon dioxide emissions before the gas can be vented out into the atmosphere. The system is solar-powered and synthesis a combination of carbon dioxide and water into acetate, which is the most common building block for biosynthesis.

In natural photosynthesis, leaves harvest solar energy and carbon dioxide is reduced and combined with water for the synthesis of molecular products that form biomass. In the artificial system, nanowires harvest solar energy and deliver electrons to bacteria, where carbon dioxide is reduced and combined with water for the synthesis of a variety of targeted, value-added chemical products.

The new system solves the very important problem of carbon storage by putting all captured CO2 to good use.

Full story: Pioneer News Back to top


Female chimpanzees use spears to kill prey
April 17, 2015

Researchers from the Iowa State University have discovered female chimpanzees in Fongoli, Senegal, wielding spears for hunting. Researchers believe that the finding could also lead to a new understanding of the development of our own species.

The research builds on an earlier study conducted by Jill Pruetz, which found female chimpanzees hunting with tools. However, the study wasn’t taken seriously as the sample size was small then. So, over a period of eight years, the researchers documented more than 300 hunts of chimpanzees that were done utilizing spears and other instruments.

The team found that male chimpanzees make up 60% of the chimpanzees in the study group, yet they undertook just 40% of the hunting expeditions. They also generally used their hands to capture and kill prey, while females were found to use tools quite often on the hunt.

The researchers don’t know the reason behind this behaviour. However, they believe that the social structure amongst the chimpanzees from Fongoli allows this. At Fongoli, when a female or low-ranking male captures a prey, they are allowed to keep it and eat it. At other sites, the alpha male or other dominant male will take the prey, which means there is little benefit of hunting for females.

The researchers will conduct further studies to see if this behaviour can be linked to the adoption of tools by distant human ancestors.

Full story: Daily Science / Royal Society Open Science Back to top


Parasitic populations solve algorithm problems in half the time
April 16, 2015

Parasites are nature's thieves, but we can harness this behaviour for our own gain.

We use algorithms to work out complicated problems like the best truck route or crew schedule, because finding a good solution means fiddling with the values of many parameters simultaneously.

One way they can do this is by using groups of virtual creatures that wander through 'parameter space', looking for valleys that represent the lowest values. Mathematicians have taken inspiration from actual animals, from grey wolves to ants. One limitation, though, is that the animals sometimes fail to notice a deeper valley nearby. Adding parasites can stop this from happening, according to researchers from the University of Nottingham Ningbo, in China.

In their model, a swarm of animals searched for the lowest valleys, but was then joined by a second, parasitic population. This group searched for valleys, but also abducted the most successful animals and made them work for the parasite team. The result of this struggle for life was a more varied collection of creatures that enabled the parasitic algorithm to solve a problem in half the time.

Full story: New Scientist / Applied Soft Computing Back to top


Wine and glue tape ideal for post-surgery patch-ups
April 11, 2015

An adhesive with remarkable strength could be ideal for patching people up after surgery.

Most glues are not suited to medical applications: they may be toxic, or fail when exposed to moisture. Others are costly and not particularly sticky. But a simple mixture of two cheap, safe chemicals seems to solve these problems, creating an adhesive that sticks to tissues covered in blood or mucus. It is even reusable like a Post-It Note.

Researchers from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology mixed tannic acid – an antibacterial compound found in plants that also gives wine its edge – with polyethylene glycol or PEG, which can help rejoin broken nerves. They called the resulting substance TAPE.

They tested its ability to stop bleeding by poking a hole in a mouse's liver and patching it up. After 30 seconds, TAPE-treated mice had bled one-sixth as much as those treated with fibrin. Within 2 minutes, the TAPE mice had stopped bleeding altogether.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top


Blue lights could prevent bird strikes
April 13, 2015

Bird strikes - the collision between birds and aircraft - are among the most common aviation hazards. They destroy planes, kill people, and, in the US alone, cause an estimated USD 700 million in damage each year.

One possible approach to reducing collisions lies in outfitting planes with warning lights that would help birds notice their approach and avoid a collision, but the differences between human and avian sight - which include a wider colour space and higher sensitivity to ultraviolet light in birds - make developing such solutions complicated.

Now, researchers have found that blue LED lights, with a wavelength of 470 nm, are the most conspicuous to brown-headed cowbirds, which often collide with aircraft. The scientists fitted lights of this colour to a small, remote-controlled model airplane. They then recorded the reactions of cowbirds in cages to this plane - both when stationary and when flying toward the birds - with the lights on, off, and pulsing.

The researchers found that having the lights on made the cowbirds five times more likely to exhibit an alert response to the stationary plane than without; the birds were also twice as quick to respond to planes with lights than to planes without lights. Similarly, the presence of flashing lights helped the birds react faster than to those without.

The researchers propose a number of preliminary concepts that could help birds better avoid aircraft - such as runway lights that illuminate in sync with taxiing planes and onboard lights that flash during taxiing and shine continuously during takeoff. Similar approaches could be adapted for stationary obstacles, such as skyscrapers or wind turbines, to help reduce collisions.

Full story: Science Magazine Back to top


World’s first self-powered camera can film forever
April 17, 2015

Meet the world’s first fully self-powered video camera, capable of recording images for eternity. Theoretically, the device can film forever thanks to an internal mechanism that keeps charged at all times.

Invented by researchers at Columbia University's Computer Vision Laboratory in the US, the prototype has been built upon one very simple concept: digital cameras and solar panels might have very different purposes - one measures light to create images, the other converts light to electricity - but they both use roughly the same technology and components to achieve this. Combining the two can create a perpetual recording device that doesn't require any batteries or external power supply as long as it is near a steady stream of light.

The key to the new video camera is a semiconductor device called a photodiode, which allows it to switch between the two sensor functions - photoconductive for capturing images, and photovoltaic for charging up the camera. The camera must be initially powered-up using a 2.74 V external power source, but after that, it’s all on its own.

It may not produce the best-looking picture, but it is enough to set up in the jungle to monitor elusive wildlife, or use as a security camera.

Full story: Science Alert Back to top


Paper microphone may help charge your cellphone
April 16, 2015

Screaming with rage at your dying cell phone battery doesn't help much, but that could be about to change. Researchers have developed a postage stamp-sized microphone that can harvest acoustic energy to top up your charge on the go.

Researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta created their microphone from a thin sheet of paper just a few centimetres across. They used a laser to zap a grid of microscopic holes in the paper, then coated one side in copper and laid it on top of a thin sheet of Teflon, joining the two sheets at one edge.

Sound waves vibrate the two sheets in different ways, causing them to come in and out of contact. This generates an electric charge, similar to the one made when your rub a balloon on your hair, which can charge a phone slowly.

The paper microphone could also be used as a way to recycle sound energy from the environment, getting free electricity from the 'waste' sounds all around us. The charge can also be converted into a range of sound frequencies, allowing the initial sounds to be amplified. The amount of power the microphone provides depends on its size, but it's around 121 milliwatts per square metre.

Full story: New Scientist / ACS Nano Back to top