Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 6, 2017

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Issue 6, 2017

This week's headlines:

Scientists are getting close to a malaria vaccine
February 16, 2017

A new malaria vaccine candidate has proven up to 100% effective in clinical trials. The potential vaccine introduces live malaria parasites into patients, paired with the medication needed to combat them.

Malaria still kills more than 400,000 people each year - most of those in Africa - and nearly three-quarters of deaths in children under the age of five. WHO estimates that some 214 million people were infected in 2015 alone. Being able to cheaply and effectively vaccinate vulnerable populations against the disease would save millions of lives.

The new vaccine, Sanaria PfSPZ-CVac, contains whole, live malaria parasites - not just parts of the pathogen or inactivated versions of it. These live malaria parasites were injected into the body of trial participants alongside medication called chloroquine, which is known to kill the parasites.

This vaccine was given to 67 healthy adult participants, none of whom had ever had malaria before. Different doses of the vaccine candidate were tested, and the best protection was seen in nine people who were given the highest dose of the vaccine three times at four-week intervals. Ten weeks after the trial, all nine of them had 100% protection from the disease. The researchers stopped actively measuring antibody response at that point, but the participants showed signs of ongoing protection after that.

The next step is to test the vaccine's effectiveness over several years - which will happen in a phase III clinical trial in Gabon.

Full story: Science Alert / Nature Back to top

Wind turbines inspired by insect wings are 35% more efficient
February 14, 2017

Wind turbines produce 4% of the planet's energy, but they only work well when the wind is blowing just right. Now, by drawing inspiration from the flexible wings of insects, scientists from Paris-Sorbonne University have found a way to make wind turbine blades 35% more efficient at producing energy.

Increasing the efficiency of a wind turbine isn't simply a matter of getting the rotors to spin as fast as possible. In addition to becoming more prone to catastrophic failure, the turbines also become less efficient at higher speeds because they become more like a wall than a rotor, blocking the wind from flowing past the rapidly rotating blades.

The optimal amount of power comes from intermediate rates of rotation. In order for them to produce power most efficiently, the wind must strike their blades at just the right 'pitch angle' to apply just the right amount of torque to a generator. Insect wings don't have this problem. Because they're flexible, their wings are able to direct the aerodynamic load in the direction of their flight, increasing the power. And because they naturally bend in the wind, they can minimize drag to avoid damage.

To see whether such flexibility would improve the efficiency of wind turbines, the team built small-scale turbine prototypes with three different rotor styles: Rigid, flexible and very flexible. In tests, the moderately flexible blades outperformed the rigid ones, creating up to 35% more power and allowing the blades to operate efficiently in a wider range of wind conditions. The next challenge is scaling the technology up to work in full-sized turbines.

Full story: Science Magazinea / PNAS Back to top

Scientists propose refreezing Arctic in battle against climate change
February 15, 2017

A group of researchers has proposed using wind-powered pumps to refreeze the Arctic. The proposal seems ambitious: it involves 10 million devices deployed over 10%t of the Arctic, at a cost of US 500bn.

Lead author of the paper, astrophysicist Steven Desch, concerned about what some climatologists predict to be an ice-free Arctic by 2030, challenged a group of his students at Arizona State University to develop a method to refreeze the Arctic.

Without ice to reflect sunlight into space, heat continues to be absorbed in the region. This, in turn, causes further warming and accelerates global climate change. While cutting down on carbon dioxide emissions is the solution various companies, researchers and governments are aiming for, Desch was concerned that it wasn't a 'real-world' solution.

On paper, the theory works: pumping 1.3 metres of water to the surface would increase the ice's thickness by one metre per decade. But, as the study notes, there are questions: Would the pumps operate in the harsh Arctic conditions? Could the ice production be scaled over a larger area? And what impact would the use of so many pumps have on the environment? The team is now looking to put their research through climate models.

Full story: CBC News Back to top

New technology could finally make brain implants practical
February 09, 2017

In labs testing how brain implants could help people with physical disabilities, tales of success can be bittersweet. Experiments like those that let a paralyzed person swig coffee using a robotic arm, or that let blind people 'see' spots of light, have proven the huge potential of computers that interface with the brain. But the implanted electrodes used in such trials eventually become useless, as scar tissue forms that degrades their electrical connection to brain cells.

Next month, tests will begin in monkeys of a new implant for piping data into the brain that is designed to avoid that problem. The project is intended to lead to devices that can restore vision to blind people long-term.

Researchers at Harvard Medical School will use a new kind of implant that will go beneath the skull but can rest on the surface of an animal's brain, instead of penetrating inside the organ. An array of microscopic coils inside the hair-like device can generate powerful, highly targeted magnetic fields to induce electrical activity at particular locations in the brain tissue underneath. The implant will also be tested when placed inside brain tissue.

The device will be used to stimulate the visual cortex of the monkeys to try and re-create the activity normally triggered by signals from the eyes - creating the sensation of sight without the eyes' input. Ultimately, the goal is to use the implant to convert signals from a camera into brain activity. Unlike conventional electrodes, the coils' effectiveness shouldn't degrade over time. Magnetic fields aren't impeded by tissue forming around an implant as electric currents are.

Full story: Technology Review Back to top

Tiny 3D-printed camera lens could give drones vision like ours
February 15, 2017

One lens is good, four lenses are better. A tiny camera combines four 3D-printed lenses to mimic natural vision - with super-sharp focus in a central area and wider peripheral vision. The miniaturised camera could be used in insect-sized surveillance drones, to hone in on details without losing track of what's happening elsewhere.

A spot at the back of our eyes called the fovea is crammed with a higher concentration of light-sensitive cells than the surrounding regions, giving us sharp vision in the centre of our field of view while objects closer to the edges of our vision are less well-defined.

Researchers from the University of Stuttgart, Germany, recreated this kind of vision by 3D printing four plastic lenses of different focal lengths onto a single image sensor. The lenses with longer focal lengths capture high detail over a narrow field of view, while the lenses with short focal lengths capture low detail over a wider field of view.

By using software to stitch together the images captured by each lens, the team created a circular photo that was highly detailed in the centre of the image, but got less detailed towards its edges. The entire system measures less than 300 micrometres square.

Full story: New Scientist / Science Advances Back to top

Flat lens focuses blue and green light
February 10, 2017

A 'flat lens' less than one micron thick that can focus blue and green light has been unveiled by researchers from Harvard University. The lens is an improvement on a similar monochromatic device unveiled by the same group in 2016.

The quality of an optical system based on conventional lenses tends to improve with length. This is because multiple curved lenses are needed to correct for chromatic aberration that occurs because light of different colours will take different paths through a simple lens. This causes problems for makers of smartphones and other devices, who want lenses that are as thin, lightweight and simple as possible.

In 2016 the team unveiled a new type of lens that uses tiny pillars to focus light. The lens could only focus light at one specific wavelength - violet light at 405nm - which limited its use. All of the nanopillars were of the same shape and size in the 2016 lens - but now the team has shown that a lens made from nanopillars of different sizes can focus blue and green light with wavelengths of 490-550nm without suffering from chromatic aberration.

The lens is made from an array titanium oxide nanopillars that are about 400nm tall and vary in thickness from 50 to 300nm. The arrangement, shape, width and height of the nanopillars were all carefully chosen to minimise chromatic aberration for blue and green light. The researchers say that the lens can be made using standard chip manufacturing methods and that early application of the lens could be in imaging, spectroscopy and sensing.

Full story: Physics World / Nano Letters Back to top

Self-flying taxi to transport passengers in Dubai
February 15, 2017

An autonomous drone that can transport humans will start ferrying passengers around Dubai this summer. The city will use the Ehang 184 for the airborne service. The Ehang is a drone that can fly without human direction and carry a single passenger and their bag. It can take one person on a journey up to 23 minutes long.

The Ehang, first unveiled at CES in 2016, is electric-powered and can travel for about 50km with a person and bag that weigh up to 100kg. It can go at speeds of up to 100kms an hour and takes two hours to charge fully.

To call for a flying taxi all passengers will need to do is enter their destination into an app. The drone then maps the route and transports the passenger to their destination. It can't fly directly but has to hop from one set landing spot to another. Its propellers fold inwards as it lands so it can fit in a single car parking space.

Designed to be secure, the autonomous vehicle has a 'fail safe' system, according to the company, that prompts it to land in the nearest place if anything malfunctions or disconnects. It also communicates via encrypted channels.

Full story: Daily Telegraph Back to top

Pavement lights guide 'smartphone zombies'
February 16, 2017

Pavement lights have been installed at a pedestrian crossing in a Netherlands town to help smartphone users cross the road safely.

The light strips are designed to catch the eye of people looking down at their device, and change colour to match traffic signals.

The lights have been installed on a trial basis at one crossing, close to three schools in Bodegraven. The company that developed the technology says it hopes to offer the strips to other towns in the future.

Similar pavement lights are being tested in the German city of Augsburg to help so-called 'smartphone zombies' navigate level crossings.

Full story: BBC News Back to top