Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 3, 2010

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Issue 3, 2010

This week's headlines:

Smart mud could be the new plastic
January 20, 2010

Could a mixture of water and clay replace plastics? Researchers at the University of Tokyo think their material could be up to the task.

The team mixed a few grams of clay with 100 grams of water in the presence of tiny quantities of a thickening agent called sodium polyacrylate and an organic 'molecular glue'. The thickening agent teases apart the clay into thin sheets, increasing its surface area and allowing the glue to get a better hold on it. This means that, while the mixture is almost 98 per cent water, it forms a transparent and elastic hydrogel with sufficient mechanical strength to make a 3.5-cm-wide self-standing bridge.

The strength of the material depends on the sum of the forces acting between the molecules in the clay nanosheets and the glue. These so-called supramolecular forces, such as hydrogen bonds, also help to trap water molecules between the clay sheets. Some other hydrogels rely on covalent chemical bonds rather than supramolecular forces for their strength. One disadvantage of this is that when the covalent bonds break, the material irreversibly loses its strength. Supramolecular forces, on the other hand, can easily reform, so if the material fails under stress it can quickly regain its strength.

The gel takes just 3 minutes to form, and making it requires no understanding of the chemical process involved. Strengthening the material is as simple as increasing the quantities of clay, sodium polyacrylate and glue, provided transparency is not important.

Full story: New Scientist / Nature Back to top

Robots worldwide will learn from each other
January 13, 2010

Eindhoven University of Technology, the Netherlands, together with six European research institutes, is to develop a world wide web for robots.

One of the greatest challenges today is developing robots that can move around in the human world, performing tasks that are beneficial to society. Contrary to common belief robots are not as independent as we would hope. Every single task a robot performs has been programmed into its memory beforehand. And while performing, the robot can only rely on its own observations in order to do the task as perfectly as possible. When performing the exact same task at a different location, the robot has to start all over again: making an image of its surroundings, then coming up with a plan on how to finish the task to satisfaction.

This is about to change with the RoboEarth research project. The scientists involved in the project are developing a system that will enable robots in healthcare and industry to execute tasks that were not anticipated at the time of robots' construction. Robots will take this new knowledge from a worldwide database, which contains other robots' experiences. Robots will start to learn from each other and will be able to adapt much faster to new environments, and to execute complex tasks.

The robots communicate with the database through a wireless internet connection. Industrial companies will be able to expand the knowledge in RoboEarth or even use it for totally new applications. RoboEarth is expected to accelerate innovation and will hopefully lead to a higher quality in robotic applications.

Full story: TU Eindhoven Back to top

Nokia makes sat-nav free
January 21, 2010

Nokia has made the map data for its Ovi Maps service free, in a move designed to boost sales of Nokia handsets. However, the phone giant also expects it to kick-start the development of location-aware applications and so build momentum behind its online app store. The new Ovi Maps will be pre-installed all new Symbian-based Nokia handsets with built-in GPS.

The system features turn-by-turn and pedestrian navigation features for 74 countries worldwide, and is available in 46 languages. The revamped service is designed to work both online and offline, according to Nokia, allowing users to store maps on their handset rather than map data being downloaded on demand over the air. With an internet connection, users will also have access to live information such as traffic data, and services including Lonely Planet travel guides.

The move could hit vendors of standalone sat-nav devices such as TomTom, especially as Ovi Maps integrates with social networking sites including Facebook, allowing users to update their status with their precise location and add geographic tags to photos snapped with their phone.

As well as boosting smartphone sales, Nokia hopes that developers will be drawn by the new location-aware capabilities in its handsets to provide a new wave of applications for the online Ovi Store.

Full story: VNUnet UK Back to top

Big screen plasma TVs inspire tiny batteries
January 21, 2010

Plasma TVs consume a notoriously large amount of electricity, but new technology being developed by scientists at University of Illinois could turn those energy suckers into energy savers. By removing the gas from the tiny tubes that produce high-definition pictures, and replacing it with an electrical field, the scientists think they can create a 'digital quantum battery', a new type of energy storage device that could hold more electricity, and even computer information, than any current technology today.

The 'quantum' of the digital quantum battery comes from the unique physical properties that happens at very small, or quantum, scales. Negatively charged electrons zoom around the positively charged protons inside an atom, creating an extremely strong electrical field. The researchers want to take advantage of this effect to store electrical fields, but on a larger scale using the same microtubes that usually hold ionized gas for TVs. There are millions of these tubes inside a typical plasma TV, holding a small amount of ionized gas. The gas allows an electrical current to flow though it. Remove the electrically conductive gas, however, and the resulting vacuum becomes an insulator, storing electrical fields.

Using the same microtubes found in a plasma TV, the scientists think they can create a device that could store about twice as much energy as conventional batteries. Using stronger and smaller carbon nanotubes, however, they think the digital quantum battery could hold up to 10 times the amount of energy contained inside kerosene.

Full story: MSNBC / Discovery Channel / Complexity Back to top

Bright colour-changing skins
January 20, 2010

Researchers at Philips, the Dutch electronics giant, have designed a novel type of electronic paper that can change colour at the flick of a switch and does not require backlights. Philips says that the e-paper could be used for digital signs, enabling shop displays to be changed rapidly, and then retained without consuming too much energy. It is also seeking to develop colour-changing 'skins' for products like mobile phones and handheld games consoles.

Electronic paper looks like conventional paper but because it reflects ambient light it does not need a backlight like conventional LCDs. The technology is already found in electronic book readers. In a standard book reader, the colour of each pixel can be alternated between two colours of choice - usually black and white - by flipping the polarity of pixels with an applied electric field. In this way, the pattern of black pixels on a screen forming the words of a book can be altered by pressing a button whenever a reader 'turns' a page.

The Philips researchers instead apply a voltage across two electrodes on the face of the e-paper, rather than 'into' the display as seen in conventional 'top-down' electrophoresis. This 'in-plane' electrophoresis means that they can combine different-coloured pigments in each pixel and use a third electrode to control how these particles spread across the display, which in turn dictates the saturation or shade of each colour. In their design, all the different coloured pigments - cyan, magenta, yellow and black - can be stacked away in the corner of each pixel site leaving a transparent display.

Full story: PhysicsWorld / Journal of the Society of Information Display Back to top

Morocco hopes to shine in mega solar project
January 20, 2010

Morocco has launched what it claims is the biggest solar-thermal energy project in a single country, aiming to produce 38% of its electricity needs - 2,000 megawatts (MW) - by 2020.

The project will span an area of 10,000 hectares at five different locations in the country and use concentrated solar-thermal power (CSP), which focuses a large area of sunlight onto a small area using lenses, to produce electricity.

The government has pledged USD 9bn from public and private funds for the project. It says the new energy source will mean it can decrease its oil imports by 12%, saving the country USD 500-700m annually. Morocco is the only non-oil producing country in North Africa, depending on oil imports for most of its energy.

Morocco already has several renewable energy projects. A windmill farm near the northern city of Tangiers produces 140MW of electricity and another near Tarfaya on the southwestern coast of the country will begin working in 2011 to produce 300MW. Before this project, the biggest proposed CSP project in a single country was a 1,300 MW project in the United States.

Full story: SciDev Back to top

Unusual snail shell could inspire better armour
January 20, 2010

Deep within the Kairei Indian hydrothermal vent field, 4km below the central Indian Ocean, scientists have discovered a gastropod mollusc, whose armour could improve load-bearing and protective materials in everything from aircraft hulls to sports equipment.

Researchers at MIT are studying the mollusc's physical and mechanical properties. The so-called scaly-foot gastropod has a unique tri-layered shell that may hold insights for future mechanical design principles. Specifically, it has a highly calcified inner layer, a thick organic middle layer. But, it is the extraordinary outer layer fused with granular iron sulfide that excites researchers. Understanding the structure's advantages can give them new ideas for materials that may be used for cars, trucks and military applications.

To test the shell's properties, researchers performed experiments that simulated generic predatory attacks using both computer models and indentation testing. The indentation testing involved hitting the top of shells with the sharp tip of a probe to measure the shell's hardness and stiffness. The researchers found that each layer of the mollusc's exoskeleton is responsible for distinct and multifunctional roles in mechanical protection. The testing reveals that the shell is advantageous for penetration resistance, energy dissipation, mitigation of fracture and crack arrest, reduction of back deflections, and resistance to bending and tensile loads, according to the scientists.

Full story: Science Daily / National Academy of Sciences Back to top

Networked airbag could save skiers from an avalanche
January 20, 2010

Avalanches aren't exactly stealthy, but they can still catch intrepid skiers unaware. Thanks to a networked airbag system, though, friends will now be able to come to the rescue.

Avalanche airbag systems (ABS) have become a common piece of kit for off-piste skiers. The two airbags, stowed in a backpack, inflate at the pull of a chord, adding volume to the skier and increasing their chances of staying close to the surface during an avalanche. The trouble is that some skiers fail to deploy their ABS.

Researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation in Stuttgart, Germany, have adapted the ABS's activation system to allow groups of airbags to be wirelessly networked so that if one is deployed, they are all activated. These new ABSs are paired simply by touching the rip cords together and can be set so that only one person, for example, the group leader, is able to deploy them.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top