Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 14, 2011

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Issue 14, 2011

This week's headlines:

Researchers find replacement for rare material indium tin oxide
April 11, 2011

Dutch researchers at Eindhoven University of Technology have developed a replacement for indium tin oxide (ITO), an important material used in products such as TVs, telephones, laptops and solar cells. Unfortunately indium is a rare metal, and the available supplies are expected to be virtually exhausted within as little as ten years.

The new replacement material is a transparent, conducting film produced in water, and based on electrically conducting carbon nanotubes and plastic nanoparticles. It is made of commonly available materials, and on top of that is also environment-friendly. The research team has been able to achieve higher conductivity by combining low concentrations of carbon nanotubes and conducting latex in a low-cost polystyrene film. The nanotubes and the latex together account for less than 1% of the weight of the conducting film. That is important, because a high concentration of carbon nanotubes makes the film black and opaque.

The researchers use standard, widely available nanotubes which they dissolve in water. Then they add conducting latex, together with a binder in the form of polystyrene beads. When the mixture is heated, the polystyrene beads fuse together to form the film, which contains a conducting network of nanotubes and beads from the conducting latex. The water is removed by freeze-drying.

The conductivity of the transparent e-film is still a factor 100 lower than that of indium tin oxide. But the researchers expect that the gap can quickly be closed.

Full story: Nature Nanotechnology / Eindhoven University of Technology Back to top

Grants aim to fight malnutrition
April 14, 2011

Nearly USD 20m in new grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will be spent on getting nutritionally enhanced rice and cassava to market and decreasing malnourishment in Asia and Africa. The grants will help in the development, testing and marketing of Golden Rice, which is fortified with vitamin A, in the Philippines and Bangladesh, and BioCassava Plus, a tuber fortified with vitamin A, iron and protein in Kenya and Nigeria.

In rich countries, people generally have access to a diverse diet and to foods that have been fortified with various essential nutrients, but these items are often unobtainable in the developing world. People in poor nations, especially farmers, often only have access to what they grow. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies affect more than two billion people worldwide, and contribute to around 7% of deaths and 10% of the disease burden in low-income countries, according to the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland.

Biofortified, or nutritionally enhanced, staple crops could thus greatly reduce the death and disease burden related to nutritional deficiencies, according to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Several research groups are working on fortified varieties of bean, rice, maize, sweet potato, cowpea, peanut, wheat, pumpkin and banana. The Gates Foundation grants will help to generate the data needed for Golden Rice and BioCassava Plus to meet food safety and environmental regulations.

Full story: Nature Back to top

New material removes radioactive contaminants from drinking water
April 13, 2011

A combination of forest byproducts and crustacean shells may be the key to removing radioactive materials from drinking water, researchers from North Carolina State University have found.

The new material - a combination of hemicellulose, a byproduct of forest materials, and chitosan, crustacean shells that have been crushed into a powder - not only absorbs water, but can actually extract contaminates, such as radioactive iodide, from the water itself. This material, which forms a solid foam, has applications beyond radioactive materials. The researchers found that it has the ability to remove heavy metals from water or salt from sea water to make clean drinking water.

The foam, which is coated on wood fibres, is used like a sponge that is immersed in water. For smaller-scale applications, the foam could be used in something like a tea bag. Or on a larger scale, water could be poured through it like a filter.

Full story: PhysOrg Back to top

Scientists find way to map brain's complexity
April 11, 2011

Scientists say they have moved a step closer to developing a computer model of the brain after finding a way to map both the connections and functions of nerve cells in the brain together for the first time.

In a new study researchers from University College London described a technique developed in mice which enabled them to combine information about the function of neurons with details of their connections. By untangling and being able to map these connections - and deciphering how information flows through the brain's circuits - scientists hope to understand how thoughts and perceptions are generated in the brain and how these functions go wrong in diseases such as Alzheimer's, schizophrenia and stroke.

In their study, the team focused on vision and looked into the visual cortex of the mouse brain, which contains thousands of neurons and millions of different connections. Using high resolution imaging, they were able to detect which of these neurons responded to a particular stimulus. Taking a slice of the same tissue, the scientists then applied small currents to subsets of neurons to see which other neurons responded and which of them were synaptically connected.

By repeating this technique many times, they were able to trace the function and connectivity of hundreds of nerve cells in visual cortex. Using this method, the team hopes to begin generating a wiring diagram of a brain area with a particular function, such as the visual cortex. The technique should also help them map the wiring of regions that underpin touch, hearing and movement.

Full story: Reuters / Nature Back to top

Hot solar cells are the cool way to water and power
April 14, 2011

Pumping water through micro-channels on the surface of a solar panel not only makes it more efficient but can also make seawater drinkable.

Concentrated photovoltaic (CPV) cells use lenses to focus large areas of solar energy onto a relatively small section of photovoltaic material, and can reach temperatures of 120 °C. These high temperatures make the cells less efficient, reducing the amount of electricity they can produce. That is why keeping them cool is so important.

With this in mind IBM has developed the 'ultra-high concentrated PV', a hybrid solar panel that incorporates technology originally developed to help cool computer chips. The idea is to use water-filled microchannels to cool the cell - the hot water would then be used in desalination.

In arid areas where power generation is difficult this can solve two problems at once, producing electricity and clean water. One method of desalination uses hot water to distil seawater, evaporating it to remove the salt. This is expensive and you normally need to heat the water first. So it is far more energy-efficient to use water already warmed from cooling solar cells.

In tests, a 1-centimetre ultra-high CPV cell operated at between 70 to 90 °C, even with 5000 times the normal amount of solar radiation focused on it. This is five times as much as existing CPVs can handle. IBM is currently working with a team at the Egypt Nanotechnology Research Center in Cairo to scale up the cell to a 10-square-metre prototype.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Plasmons harnessed for holograms
April 12, 2011

A new technique to produce full-colour holograms that stay the same when viewed from any angle could usher in a day when we plop down on the couch and watch 3-D TV without optical illusions.

Current methods for creating 3-D images are based on producing a separate image for the left and right eyes. But researchers at Osaka University of Japan instead made 3-D colour holograms that can be viewed with the naked eye and don't change colour no matter what angle they are viewed from. They did this by harnessing so-called surface plasmons, which the researchers describe as 'the collective electron oscillations travelling on a very thin metal film'.

The researchers coated the metal film onto a light sensitive material called photoresist that contains a hologram made with red, green, and blue lasers. The photoresist hologram rests on a thin glass plate. A corrugated layer of silver was laid on top of the photoresist to help guide the holograph's light waves.

The surface plasmons in the metal film are excited using white light. The angle of the incoming light determines which plasmons are excited and diffracted by the hologram, reconstructing the light waves reaching the viewers eyes so that the 3-D image appears.

Full story: MSNBC / Science Back to top

Super-fast 'Superbus' could transform your commute
April 13, 2011

With its gull-wing doors and 15-metre long chassis, the Superbus looks like the result of an amorous automotive liaison between a DeLorean and a stretch limo. But rather than catering for champagne-quaffing party goers, its Dutch developers at the Delft University of Technology are aiming to transform the humble commute in the 21st century.

With a top speed of 250 kph and capable of carrying 23 passengers, the six-wheel Superbus attempts to marry the convenience and flexibility of travelling by car with the speed and comfort more often associated with rail journeys.

'The strength to the concept is that the Superbus can drive everywhere where a normal bus can drive. It has adjustable height, rear-wheel steering and a turning circle of roughly 10 meters,' general manager of the project, Wubbo Ockels said. Furthermore, Ockels imagines a network of 'super tracks' - essentially dedicated two lane highways linking one city to another - running alongside traditional road networks enabling the Superbus to switch between the two, depending on the destination of passengers.

A prototype of the electric vehicle recently went on show at the 2011 World Exhibition of the International Association of Public Transport (UITP) in Dubai in the hope of attracting investment for development of a test infrastructure.

Full story: CNN Back to top

Smart camera learns to recognise you from any angle
April 14, 2011

Humans learn more about another's appearance the more we look at them, and store this information away so we can recognise them the next time we see them. Now a smart camera has been developed that can do the same thing, allowing it to track individuals as they move in and out of video footage, or recognise their face or hand gestures.

Facial recognition systems can identify a person when they are looking directly at the camera, but tracking people as they move in and out of frame remains a difficult task. The Predator camera constantly collects details of the person or object it is filming, allowing it to build up a model of the target, says its developer Zdenek Kalal at the University of Surrey in Guildford, UK.

The first time the system 'sees' a person or object, it creates a model of it, which it records in its memory. Then, as it continues filming, it adds fresh details of the object from slightly different angles, building up a three-dimensional representation. This allows it to recognise the object again even if it leaves the shot and then reappears at a different angle.

As well as allowing police and security forces to track individuals through CCTV footage, the system could also help disabled people to control computing devices through facial expressions or gestures. Since the system learns as it goes, it would not need to be laboriously trained to work with one individual or gesture, but could adapt to each person's preferred method of control. The system could also be used in collision-avoidance systems for cars.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Brazilian cops use Cyborg-style shades
April 14, 2011

In the next few weeks, Brazilian police will begin testing pairs of 'RoboCop' glasses, which can identify a criminal's face in a crowd of people.

These powerful shades can scan up to 400 faces per second, up to 45 metres, using 46,000 biometric points to identify an individual and ensure a correct match. Faces are scanned with a tiny camera in the glasses then checked against a database of known criminals. A red light pops up if a perpetrator is found, and the officer can apprehend them without the need for questioning or requesting documents.

The settings of the glasses are adjustable, so if a crowd is more sparse and spread out, it can identify faces as far as 19 kilometres away at a slower rate.

Full story: Wired News Back to top