Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 24, 2011

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Issue 24, 2011

This week's headlines:

Japan finds rare earths in Pacific seabed
July 04, 2011

Japanese researchers say they have discovered vast deposits of rare earth minerals, used in many hi-tech appliances, in the seabed. The geologists estimate that there are about a 100bn tons of the rare elements in the mud of the Pacific Ocean floor.

At present, China produces 97% of the world's rare earth metals. Analysts say the Pacific discovery could challenge China's dominance, if recovering the minerals from the seabed proves commercially viable.

A team of scientists at the University of Tokyo found the minerals in sea mud at 78 locations. The minerals were found at depths of 3,500 to 6,000 metres below the ocean surface. The deposits are in international waters east and west of Hawaii, and east of Tahiti in French Polynesia. The researchers estimate that rare earths contained in the deposits amount to 80 to 100bn tonnes.

The US Geological Survey has estimated that global reserves are just 110m tonnes, found mainly in China, Russia and other former Soviet countries, and the US. China's apparent monopoly of rare earth production enabled it to restrain supply last year during a territorial dispute with Japan. Japan has since sought new sources of the rare earth minerals.

Full story: BBC News / Nature Geoscience Back to top

Green energy investment hits record global high
July 07, 2011

Global investment in renewable energy sources grew by 32% during 2010 to reach a record level of USD 211bn, a UN study has reported. The main growth drivers were backing for wind farms in China and rooftop solar panels in Europe, it said. It also found that developing nations invested more in green power than rich nations for the first time last year. The Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2011 report was prepared for the UN by Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

In 2010, developing economies spent more on 'financial new investment', pumping USD 72bn into renewable projects compared with the USD 70bn outlay by developed economies. China topped the table of investors again, spending USD 48.9bn - up 28% from 2009. There were also sizeable increases in investment from other developing or emerging economies:

However, the report stated, there was not growth in all sectors. There was a 22% decline in the investment in large-scale projects - such as windfarms - within Europe, where the funding fell to USD 35bn. But there was a surge in small-scale projects, such as photovoltaic (PV) solar panels, especially within Germany, where investment in a 'micro-solar boom' had increased by 132% to USD 34bn compared with 2009 figures.

As the renewable technologies continued to mature, the report added, the cost per megawatt (MW) continued to fall. It said that the cost of PV modules had fallen on a per-MW basis by 60% since 2008. The authors forecasted: 'Further improvements in the cost of energy for solar, wind and other technologies lie ahead, posing a bigger and bigger threat to the dominance of fossil-fuel generation sources in the next few years.'

Full story: BBC News Back to top

'Super' sand could improve water filtration
July 07, 2011

Sand, which retains bugs and chemicals in water flowing through it, has been used as a cheap water filtration method for hundreds of years. Coarse sand filters water faster than finer sand, but produces water that is less clean. Now, a team of scientists in Australia and the US has come up with a way to coat ordinary coarse sand with a nanomaterial called graphite oxide - which can remove five times more impurities than ordinary sand.

The graphite oxide is suspended in a liquid, to which the sand is added. This mixture is heated to ensure the sand is covered, and then dried. Compared with untreated sand, the coated sand removed up to five times as much mercury and dye from water. The authors wrote that its activity was similar to that of activated carbon, a porous form of carbon that has a large surface area to absorb impurities but is expensive to make.

The method for treating the sand is simple and uses cheap materials such as sulphuric acid, making the technique likely to be used in developing countries, said Mainak Majumder, co-author of the study and a mechanical engineer at Monash University, Australia. Although the sand used in the experiment was a commercially available filtration sand, any sand could be used provided it is cleaned beforehand, Wei Gao, a co-author of the research from Rice University, United States, said.

Full story: SciDev Back to top

Solar cells that see red
July 07, 2011

Researchers at Stanford University have demonstrated a set of materials that could enable solar cells to use a band of the solar spectrum that otherwise goes to waste. The materials layered on the back of solar cells would convert red and near-infrared light-unusable by today's solar cells-into shorter-wavelength light that the cells can turn into energy. The university researchers will collaborate with the Bosch Research and Technology Center in Palo Alto, California, to demonstrate a system in working solar cells in the next four years.

Even the best of today's silicon solar cells can't use about 30% of the light from the sun: that's because the active materials in solar cells can't interact with photons whose energy is too low. But though each of these individual photons is low energy, as a whole they represent a large amount of untapped solar energy that could make solar cells more cost-competitive.

The process, called 'upconversion', relies on pairs of dyes that absorb photons of a given wavelength and re-emit them as fewer, shorter-wavelength photons. In this case, the Bosch and Stanford researchers will work on systems that convert near-infrared wavelengths. The researchers believe they can improve the sunlight-to-electricity conversion efficiency of amorphous-silicon solar cells from 11% to 15%.

Full story: Technology Review Back to top

New solution can help 'permanently get rid of germs'
July 06, 2011

A new anti-microbial treatment that can make clothing - including smelly socks - permanently germ-free has been developed by US scientists. The spray-on solution can be applied to existing garments, according to the team from the University of Georgia. It is designed to offer low cost protection for healthcare facilities, such as hospitals.

Chemical impregnated materials already exist, but have to be added during the manufacturing process. The new solution can be applied to natural and synthetic textiles including clothes, home carpets, shoes and even plastics. The treatment kills a wide range of dangerous pathogens, including staph, strep, E. coli, pseudomonas and acetinobacter. Many of these can cause disease, break down fabrics, create stains and produce odours.

When the scientists tested the product, they found that a single application was enough to stop all further bacterial growth at up to 37 degrees Celsius. And the solution did not degrade even after multiple hot water laundry cycles. Although it could potentially be used in a number of fields, its primary application is expected to be in healthcare.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

Protecting protestors with photos that never existed
July 07, 2011

An image processing system that obscures the position from which photographs are taken could help protestors in repressive regimes escape arrest - and give journalists 'plausible deniability' over the provenance of leaked photos. The technology was conceived in 2007, when the Burmese junta began arresting people who had taken photos of the violence meted out by police against pro-democracy protestors. By checking the perspective of pictures subsequently published on the internet, the agents worked out who was responsible for them.

If a photographer's 'location privacy' is not protected, their personal safety is at risk, says security engineer Shishir Nagaraja of the Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology in Delhi, India. This inspired him and security researcher Péter Schaffer and computer-vision specialist Djamila Aouada at the University of Luxembourg to find a way of disguising the photographer's viewpoint.

Their method is to use graphics processors to artificially create photos taken from a perspective where there was no photographer. The images can come from more than one source, but must have been taken at around the same time of a reasonably static scene from different viewing angles. Software then examines the pictures and generates a 3D 'depth map' of the scene. Next, the user chooses an arbitrary viewing angle for a photo they want to post online.

The photo then goes through a 'dewarping' stage, in which straight lines like walls and kerb angles are corrected for the new point of view, and 'hole filling', in which nearby pixels are copied to fill in gaps in the image created because some original elements were obscured. The team intends to make the software open source.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Kids likely to predict future of technology
July 07, 2011

A report from international research consultancy firm Latitude found that kids are predicting that the future of media and technology lies in better integrating digital experiences with real-world places and activities, citing some initiatives that are already on the horizon.

Children across the world anticipate recent updates to Google image search, new applications for robots, real-world gaming and other cutting-edge possibilities for tech. They are also suggesting that more intuitive, human-like interactions with devices, such as those provided by fluid interfaces or robots, are a key area for development.

The findings are a result of asking kids across the world to draw the answer to this question: 'What would you like your computer or the internet to do that it can't do right now?' Overall, the drawings demonstrated that kids wanted their technology to be more interactive and human, better integrated with their physical lives and empowering to users by assisting new knowledge or abilities.

For example, some participants imagined technologies that are just beginning to appear in tech-forward circles, such as Google's revamped image search. This allows users to place images, rather than text, in Google's search box to perform a query. The majority of kids (77%) imagined technologies with more intuitive modes of input and human-level interactions, such as verbal, gestural, and even telepathic responses.

One-third of kids invented technologies that would empower them by fostering knowledge or otherwise 'adult' skills, such as speaking a different language or learning how to cook. Some participants moved beyond personal development, envisioning technologies that could foster positive social connections or influence behaviours tied to sustainability. The lines between 'online' and 'offline' and 'virtual' and 'real' distinctions are also disappearing, the report notes.

Full story: MSNBC Back to top