Innovation & Technology Weekly Roundup

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This week's headlines:

Scientists create mosquito strain with malaria-blocking genes
November 23, 2015

Scientists from the University of California-San Diego aiming to take the bite out of malaria have produced a strain of mosquitoes carrying genes that block its transmission, with the idea that they could breed with other members of their species in the wild and produce offspring that cannot spread the disease.

The researchers used gene-editing, a genetic engineering technique in which DNA can be inserted, replaced or deleted from a genome, on a species called Anopheles stephensi that spreads malaria in urban India. They inserted DNA into the germ line, cells that pass on genes from generation to generation, of the species, creating mosquitoes with genes that prevent malaria transmission by producing malaria-blocking antibodies that are passed on to 99.5% of offspring.

Malaria is caused by parasites transmitted to people through the bites of infected female mosquitoes. The goal is to release genetically modified mosquitoes to mate with wild mosquitoes so that their malaria-blocking genes enter the gene pool and eventually overrun the population, short-circuiting the species' ability to infect people with the parasites.

Other scientists also have been working to create genetically engineered mosquitoes. But the new technology only prevents mosquitoes from carrying malaria but does no harm to the mosquito. So it should generate the least amount of ecological damage, according to the scientists.

Full story: Reuters / PNAS Back to top

Cheap, waterless toilet heads for African trial
November 24, 2015

A cheap toilet design that requires no water or external energy to process human waste is to be trialled next year in Africa, possibly in Ghana.

Currently, 2.3 billion people have no access to safe, hygienic toilets because many countries lack the money and infrastructure to provide them. The Nano Membrane Toilet - which is estimated to cost less than 5 US cents per person per day - could ease this problem, say its inventors at Cranfield University in the UK.

After using the toilet, urine and faeces are removed by a rotating chamber. The waste is then filtered through a nanotechnology membrane with holes just big enough for pure water molecules. The solid waste and pathogens, which are too big to pass through the membrane, are diverted into a different chamber. This second chamber, the gasifier, is where the solid waste is meant to be incinerated to generate heat that can be used to power the toilet.

The water the toilet produces is potable, the researchers say. The only waste product is ash from the burning of the solid matter, which can be safely added to the household waste. The process may produce enough surplus energy to charge small appliances such as mobile phones, according to the inventors.

Full story: SciDev Back to top

Underwater balloons could store renewable energy
November 22, 2015

While solar or wind farms are now contributing more energy than ever to the world's power supply, traditional energy sources are often required at peak times or to supplement renewable sources during dips in availability - at night, for example. So Canadian startup Hydrostor has invented a system of pressurised underwater balloons that can store renewable energy until it's needed, which could reduce the need for diesel or gas as a back-up source of power.

The company says its solution can last twice as long as the best batteries we have today, and at a much lower cost. The first facility has been set up in Lake Ontario near Toronto, with a series of balloons set 55 metres under the surface of the water and connected to the power grid via a pipeline.

The material used by the underwater balloons - known as accumulators - is the same used to raise sunken ships from the ocean floor. Compressed air is at the heart of the system: excess energy is converted into compressed air via Hydrostor's proprietary technology, while heat generated by the process is stored as well through heat exchangers.

When required, the natural pressure of the lake is used to pump the air back to land, driving a turbine and generating electricity as it goes. The balloons in Lake Ontario are capable of holding enough energy to power 330 homes, and the developers of the system say it can be easily scaled up.

Full story: Science Alert Back to top

Test: Li-Fi is 100 times faster than Wi-Fi
November 24, 2015

Expect to hear a whole lot more about Li-Fi - a wireless technology that transmits high-speed data using visible light communication (VLC) - in the coming months. With scientists achieving speeds of 224 gigabits per second in the lab using Li-Fi earlier this year, the potential for this technology is huge.

And now, scientists have taken Li-Fi out of the lab for the first time, trialling it in offices and industrial environments in Tallinn, Estonia, reporting that they can achieve data transmission at 1 GB per second - that's 100 times faster than current average Wi-Fi speeds.

Li-Fi was invented by Harald Haas from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland back in 2011, when he demonstrated for the first time that by flickering the light from a single LED, he could transmit far more data than a cellular tower.

The technology uses Visible Light Communication (VLC), a medium that uses visible light between 400 and 800 terahertz (THz). It works basically like Morse code - just like switching a torch on and off according to a certain pattern can relay a secret message, flicking an LED on and off at extreme speeds can be used to transmit data in binary code.

The benefits of Li-Fi over Wi-Fi, other than potentially much faster speeds, is that because light cannot pass through walls, it makes it a whole lot more secure, and this also means there's less interference between devices.

Full story: Science Alert Back to top

Bacteria build bendy plastic that astronauts could use for tools
November 23, 2015

Sheets of plastic made by E. coli can fold into whatever shape you desire. Astronauts on long missions might one day rely on such bacterial origami to make tools on the go.

On a spacecraft, every inch of storage space is precious. There's a strict limit to how much you can fit in a launch vehicle. One way to save room is to pack flat plastic sheets to be folded later. Waiting to manufacture the plastic until you're already at your destination would be even better.

To this end, researchers from NASA's Ames Research Center have genetically engineered strains of E. coli that can create plastic, which in turn can fold itself into 3D shapes when heated.

The team successfully folded simple structures including a box and a cup. But in future, they envision creating more complicated items, such as solar sails or origami habitats.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Ultrasound captures rat brain in microscopic 3D
November 26, 2015

Scientists from the Institut Langevin in Paris, France, have developed an ultrasound technique that can rapidly build up a 3D view of a network of blood vessels, in microscopic detail. They used it to scan the blood vessels throughout the brain of a live rat. For the procedure the rat was injected with millions of very tiny bubbles, which reflect sound waves much better than blood vessels.

Ultrasound propagates easily in water - or in our organs, because almost 90% of our soft tissue is water. But as soon as it hits a very small microbubble of gas, there's a big reflection as it a very good scatterer of ultrasound, according to the researchers. This is what makes these bubbles a contrast agent for ultrasound.

But the key to getting a sharp, super-resolution image - unlike conventional ultrasound, which is limited to capturing objects at millimetre scales - is to scan at a very high frame-rate.

Instead of spending a long time acquiring a single, beautifully detailed image, the team snapped more than 500 coarse images every second and then compared them. The system they have built is able to compile those thousands of images and create a single, high-resolution view by looking at the differences between them - caused as the bubbles move around.

Within a few years, the researchers say their system could reach the clinic and help with cancer and stroke diagnosis. The team is already beginning clinical experiments - beginning with liver scans.

Full story: BBC News / Nature Back to top

New fingerprint technique can reveal whether you're male or female
November 23, 2015

While fingerprinting is a thoroughly useful method for discovering who may have been present at the scene of a crime, the basic premise of the technique used by crime scene investigators - visual comparisons between two sets of fingerprints - hasn't changed in a very long time. However, a new way of taking people's prints not only records what their fingerprints look like, but could help investigators determine whether the person was a man or a woman - and maybe even a lot more.

Researchers from the State University of New York at Albany have developed a system where fingerprints aren't just treated as visual records. Rather, the sweat deposits left in fingerprints are analysed for their biochemical content - specifically, the amino acids they contain, which can reveal the sex of the person who left the print. This is because the levels of amino acid in female sweat are about twice as high as that of males.

The early results of the researchers' methods are promising, with the technique giving a 99% chance of correctly identifying whether prints are male or female. The researchers hope to refine the system and develop means of finding out even more about a person based on their fingerprint, using other bio-markers in addition to amino acids.

Full story: Science Alert / Analytical Chemistry Back to top

Head tracker knows what you're doing and helps you multitask
November 26, 2015

If your phone buzzed right now, would it distract you from reading this? Of course, it would, because switching between tasks takes mental energy. Researchers from the University of New South Wales, Australia, want to help us handle those distractions. The team is building a wearable system that tracks human movements to understand what task you're doing, how difficult it is, and when you switch to something else. Their goal is to help us control our multitasking lives.

The researchers have made a device which straps to a baseball cap that can work out the intensity of a task and when a person switches to another task - just from their head movements. Twenty university students tried the baseball cap while doing arithmetic problems of varying difficulty. The sensor could tell with 70 to 80 per cent accuracy how difficult their task was. People moved their heads more during the simple arithmetic problems, and less during the harder ones. The hat was over 90 per cent accurate at determining when they moved on to a new problem, as their pattern of movement shifted.

If you're brainstorming the device could turn your phone to silent or deliver only emergency notifications. It could also tell you when you need to take a break. It could also make risky jobs safer by giving workers a ping or other cue to pay extra attention when their task becomes particularly demanding.

The team is building a new prototype made from cheap components that can be worn on glasses, which tracks eye movement and speech as well as head motion.

Full story: New Scientist / Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society Back to top