Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 7, 2008

This is the online version of UNU-MERIT’s I&T Weekly which is sent out by email every Friday. If you wish to subscribe to this free service, please submit your email address in the box to the right.

Issue 7, 2008

This week's headlines:

GPS 'thermometer' could flag up climate change
February 15, 2008

GPS could be used as a global thermometer and used to monitor climate change, say UK meteorologists. The idea rests on a relatively new technique for taking atmospheric measurements, called GPS radio occultation: A satellite in low-Earth orbit receives signals from GPS satellites. As the signals pass through the atmosphere, they are refracted slightly, with the angle of refraction depending on temperature and the amount of water vapour in the atmosphere.

Instruments on a number of research satellites measure GPS signals in this way and these measurements are already used to help calculate the amount of water in the atmosphere, as well as temperature and density, which are useful in weather forecasting. Now two researchers at the Met Office Hadley Centre in Exeter and the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts in Reading suggest that the measurements of refraction might be used directly to confirm climate change. They have used computer models to calculate the expected change in the refraction of the GPS signals as global warming continues.

Although natural atmospheric variations will also affect the measurements, they predict that, within 10 years, a strong signal of man-made climate change should be detectable. Their model indicates that radio waves going through the stratosphere will be bent through an angle 4% greater than today.

Full story: New Scientist / Geophysical Research Letters Back to top

European research project to shape next generation Internet TV
February 21, 2008

P2P-Next, a pan-European conglomerate of 21 industrial partners, media content providers and research institutions, has received a EUR 14m grant from the EU to carry out a research project which aims to identify the potential uses of peer-to-peer (P2P) technology for Internet Television of the future.

The partners, including the BBC, Delft University of Technology, the European Broadcasting Union, Lancaster University, Markenfilm, Pioneer Digital Design Centre Limited and VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, intend to develop a Europe-wide 'next-generation' internet television distribution system, based on P2P and social interaction.

The P2P-Next project will run over four years, and plans to conduct a large-scale technical trial of new media applications running on a wide range of consumer devices. If successful, the project could create a platform that would enable audiences to stream and interact with live content via a PC or set top box. The project partners want to allow audiences to build communities around their favourite content via a fully personalised system. This technology could potentially be built into Video on Demand (VOD) services in the future and plans are underway to test the system for major broadcasting events.

Full story: EJC Media News / EBU Back to top

Robot propelled by heat energy from ocean
February 08, 2008

A submersible robot that propels itself using heat energy from the ocean is the first underwater vehicle to travel great distances using only 'green' energy, according to researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and Webb Research Corp.

They said their 'thermal glider' has criss-crossed the 4,000-metre-deep Virgin Islands Basin between St. Thomas and St. Croix more than 20 times since it was launched in December, travelling a total distance of 1,400 kilometres so far. The device was powered entirely by the ocean's heat energy.

Though called a glider, the autonomous robot does not skip across the ocean surface, instead diving and rising, tracing a saw-tooth pattern as it cuts through the ocean's layers. The glider reaches depths of about 1,250 metres before it begins its rise.

The glider moves relatively slowly, travelling horizontally at a speed of less than a kilometre per hour. But the researchers said it could be useful for conducting undersea research or reconnaissance, replacing battery-powered machines.

Full story: CBC News Back to top

Solar cell speeds hydrogen production
February 18, 2008

A solar cell that mimics photosynthesis has been used to make hydrogen directly from water. The prototype is inefficient, but the researchers who built it believe they can boost its efficiency, perhaps leading to a viable source of hydrogen to fuel cars and other vehicles.

The device, built by researchers at Pennsylvania State University, works much like a solar cell called a Grätzel cell, using sunlight to knock electrons off dye molecules. But instead of being used to create a current, as in the Grätzel cell, the electrons are shuttled away from the dye and into a catalyst, where they split water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen ions in a reaction similar to one stage of natural photosynthesis.

Other dye-based approaches to splitting water have not worked very well because the electrons often recombine with the dye before they can be used. The researchers' solution is to attach ruthenium-based dye molecules to a catalyst particle, clinging so closely that any electrons knocked out of the dye are directed into the catalyst. In the new device, water is split a thousand times faster than in other dye-based cells.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

New rubber mends itself when broken
February 20, 2008

French scientists have created a rubber that mends itself when broken. The new 'Material B' stretches to several times its original length like regular rubber, but once broken, the pieces 'self-heal without the need to heat or press strongly' at room temperature.

Time improves the healing, but even after 15 minutes, a sample can be stretched up to about 200 per cent without breaking, according to the researchers from the Ecole Supérieure de Physique et Chimie Industrielles in Paris.

The material could be used to make rubber products that take a lot of wear and tear, such as children's toys. The healing scars are not visible, but the rubber will break at the same point unless it heals for a very long time.

The researchers noted that elasticity in rubber results from very big molecules linked in a lattice or a network, using covalent, ionic or hydrogen bonds. Using only hydrogen bonds, they developed the stretchy material from vegetable oils and urea, which comes from urine. They believe that the hydrogen bonds' ability to reconnect is the mechanism that enables the rubber to heal. It will reconnect up to 18 hours after it is broken, they reported.

Full story: CBC News / Nature Back to top

Machines to 'match human brain by 2029'
February 22, 2008

A US scientist claims that machines will achieve human-level artificial intelligence within the next 21 years. Dr Ray Kurzweil, speaking this week at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, described a future where machine intelligence will surpass that of the human brain as computers learn to teach and replicate among themselves.

Dr Kurzweil is one of 18 influential thinkers, along with Google founder Larry Page and genome pioneer Dr Craig Venter, chosen to identify the great technological challenges facing humanity in the 21st century by the US National Academy of Engineering.

Miniaturised 3D chips with vastly improved performance made out of biological molecules will drive a merging of man and machine, thanks to devices implanted in the body to boost health and intelligence.

'3D molecular computing will provide the hardware for human-level 'strong artificial intelligence' by the 2020s,' said Dr Kurzweil. 'The more important software insights will be gained in part from the reverse engineering of the human brain, a process which is well under way. Already, two dozen regions of the human brain have been modelled and simulated.'

Full story: VNUnet UK Back to top

Amsterdam looks underground to ease congestion
February 21, 2008

Officials in Amsterdam are considering plans to build a vast underground city beneath the city's famous canals to house car parks, cinemas and sports halls. A consortium of engineers and architects has submitted proposals for a network of 60-metre-deep underground tunnels to provide up to 6m square metres of new space in the crowded historic centre. They want to use the tunnels to take the cars off Amsterdam's narrow canalside streets to reduce pollution and increase space for cafes, parks and shopping.

The 'city under the city' proposal - dubbed Amfora - has been given a cautious welcome by the Amsterdam authorities. It would be financed by private banks, but requires the permission of the city government.

The proposal involves draining the biggest canals, digging down 60 metres to a layer of waterproof clay and dropping in concrete walls. A roof would then be built and the canal water poured back in. Underneath, up to six storeys of accommodation would be built using access from canalside shafts. Cinemas, for example, could have their entrance at ground level but the auditoria would be in the tunnel. Some tunnels would be used for a park and ride system to keep cars out of the city.

Full story: The Guardian Back to top