Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 23, 2013

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Issue 23, 2013

This week's headlines:

Developing nations hailed as most-efficient innovators
July 08, 2013

Developing countries are the most efficient innovators, achieving results in areas such as scientific research, infrastructure and technology production with relatively low inputs, a report indicates. But an 'innovation divide' persists because overall innovation levels still lag well behind those of richer nations, according to 'The Global Innovation Index 2013', launched last week at the High Level Segment of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), in Geneva, Switzerland.

The annual report, published by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), Cornell University and global business school INSEAD, analyses the inputs - elements of the national economy that enable innovative activities - and innovation outputs of 142 national innovation systems based on seven indicators.

By measuring the ratio between innovation inputs and outputs on these indicators, the index found that eight developing nations - Mali, Guinea, Swaziland, Indonesia, Nigeria, Kuwait, Costa Rica and Venezuela - are among the top ten most efficient innovators. This is up from four developing nations last year.

The results show that despite weaknesses poor nations were capable of achieving remarkable innovation outputs, says Sacha Wunsch-Vincent, a senior economist at WIPO and one of the authors of the report. But a high efficiency score can still be achieved with low levels of innovation, so this does not necessarily signify a productive and healthy innovation environment, he warns.

Although numerous developing countries are making significant strides forward, overall innovation levels remain strongly linked to national income, the report notes. As such, developed nations remain firmly ahead in terms of the productivity of their innovation systems, it says.

Full story: SciDev Back to top

Telescopic contact lens could improve eyesight for the visually impaired
July 11, 2013

A team of engineers at the University of California, San Diego, has designed a telescopic contact lens that can switch between normal and magnified vision by using slightly modified off-the-shelf 3-D television glasses.

The lens could ultimately be used to improve vision for patients suffering from eye disease, including age-related macular degeneration, or AMD, a condition that causes loss of vision in the centre of the visual field. Patients typically cannot read or recognize faces.

The lens is one millimetre thick. Researchers used aluminium mirrors, fit tightly together, to create a ring-shaped telescope embedded in the contact lens. The centre of the lens allows for normal, non-magnified vision. Its periphery, where the telescope is located, magnifies images 2.8 times.

The telescopic lens, once fine-tuned, will be less invasive than the miniature telescopes that can currently be implanted into patients' eyes. In addition, the new lens is better at collecting light and is also less bulky than telescopes mounted on glasses that are currently available to help patients with impaired vision. The lens' optics make it possible to switch between normal and magnified vision by combining the contact lenses with glasses such as the 'active shutter' glasses worn to watch some 3D televisions.

Full story: R&D Magazine / Optics Express Back to top

Rust promises hydrogen power boost
July 08, 2013

Rust could help boost the efficiency of hydrogen production from sunlight - a potentially green source of energy. Nano-sized particles of haematite (crystalline iron oxide, or rust) have been shown to split water into hydrogen and oxygen in the presence of solar energy. The result could bring the goal of generating cheap hydrogen from sunlight and water a step closer to reality.

Researchers from Switzerland, the US and Israel identified what they termed 'champion nanoparticles' of haematite. Bubbles of hydrogen gas appear spontaneously when the tiny grains of haematite are put into water under sunlight as part of a photoelectrochemical cell (PEC). The nanostructures look like minuscule cauliflowers, and they are grown as a layer on top of an electrode.

The key to the improvement lies in understanding how electrons inside the haematite crystals interact with the edges of grains within these 'champions'. Where the particle is correctly oriented and contains no grain boundaries, electrons pass along efficiently. This allows water splitting to take place that leads to the capture of about 15% of the energy in the incident sunlight - that which falls on a set area for a set length of time. This energy can then be stored in the form of hydrogen.

Identifying the champion nanoparticles allowed the team to master the methods for increasing the effectiveness of their prototype cell. Iron oxide is cheap, and the electrodes used to create abundant, environmentally-friendly hydrogen from water in this photochemical method should be inexpensive and relatively efficient. The hydrogen made in this way could then be stored, transported, and sold on for subsequent energy needs in fuel cells or simply by burning.

Full story: BBC News / Nature Materials Back to top

Teen robot spoofs online predators
July 11, 2013

Spanish researchers have created a robot posing as a 14-year-old girl to spot paedophiles in online chatrooms. Negobot uses artificial intelligence (AI) software to chat realistically and mimic the language used by teenagers.

The robot starts off neutral but will adopt any of seven personalities according to the intensity of interactions. Experts say it can help overburdened police but may risk trapping people unfairly.

The team behind the project at the University of Deusto near Bilbao say the software represents a real advance. In the past 'chatbots' have tended to be very predictable. By contrast, the Negobot uses advanced decision-making strategies known as 'game theory' to simulate convincing chats as they develop.

It can take the lead in conversations, and remember specific facts about what had been discussed previously, and with whom. The so-called conversational agent also uses child-like language and slang, introducing spelling mistakes and contractions to further spoof the predator.

Negobot would be used in a chatroom where suspected paedophiles are thought to be lurking. It initiates a chat as a fairly passive participant. It then adapts its behaviour according to the grooming techniques used by the suspect to try to win over its trust and friendship.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

Rice-husks could make much longer-lasting batteries
July 09, 2013

Rice could be fertile territory for battery development. The silica-rich husks left over when rice is harvested are normally turned into fertiliser additives, but there is a better solution. The abundant waste product could be converted into electrodes with the power to extend the lifetime of the next generation of batteries.

The lithium ion batteries in today's electronics usually contain electrodes made of graphite, but efforts are ongoing to switch them for silicon electrodes, which can hold 10 times more charge. This is expected to speed the development of more sophisticated portable electronics and better electric cars.

The downside of silicon electrodes is that they degrade even faster than those made of graphite each time the battery is charged and drained, shortening its lifetime. This 'capacity fade' is caused by the electrodes drastically swelling and shrinking as the lithium ions circulate between the electrodes, causing them to fracture.

Silicon converted from the silica in rice husks may be able to resist this volume change, however. The tiny holes in the husk that allow the rice kernel to breathe should also mean that any derived silicon would also be porous. Its holes could provide places for the ions to reside on the electrodes during charging and discharging, preventing the volume from significantly changing.

To find out, researchers at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in Daejeon, South Korea, chemically converted the rice husk silica into pure silicon and then fashioned battery electrodes out of the material. It showed no capacity fade even after 200 charge-drain cycles. A synthetic silicon electrode used for comparison had a higher initial charge capacity but faded badly: it began performing worse than the rice-husk electrode after 10 to 15 cycles.

Full story: New Scientist / PNAS Back to top

A new way to trap light
July 11, 2013

There are several ways to 'trap' a beam of light - usually with mirrors, other reflective surfaces, or high-tech materials such as photonic crystals. But now researchers at MIT have discovered a new method to trap light that could find a wide variety of applications.

The new system, devised through computer modelling and then demonstrated experimentally, pits light waves against light waves. It sets up two waves that have the same wavelength, but exactly opposite phases so that the waves cancel each other out. Meanwhile, light of other wavelengths can pass through freely. The researchers say that this phenomenon could apply to any type of wave: sound waves, radio waves, electrons and even waves in water.

While there may ultimately be practical applications, at this point the team is focused on its discovery of a new, unexpected phenomenon. Possible applications could include large-area lasers and chemical or biological sensors, according to the researchers.

In mathematical terms, the new phenomenon - where one frequency of light is trapped while other nearby frequencies are not - is an example of an 'embedded eigenvalue'. This had been described as a theoretical possibility by the mathematician and computational pioneer John von Neumann in 1929. While physicists have since been interested in the possibility of such an effect, nobody had previously seen this phenomenon in practice, except for special cases involving symmetry.

Full story: TG Daily / Nature Back to top

New nano-coating from plant chemical
July 12, 2013

A new nano-coating made from tannic acid and iron could provide a cheap, safe alternative for drug delivery capsules and protective coatings, say researchers from the University of Melbourne in Australia.

The fields of medicine and environmental science are increasingly interested in self-assembling nano-materials. Such materials can be used to make a wide array of things ranging from nano-capsules that deliver drugs to different parts of the body, to anti-corrosive coatings.

The researchers have found a way to make a self-assembling thin film coating from natural substances - tannic acid and iron ions. Tannic acid is used for many purposes including dyeing cotton, preventing iron and steel corrosion, and as an additive in drinks. Iron is a trace element. The coatings form at particular pH and the researchers can control the thickness of the coating, which can be a few nanometres or more.

One application of the thin film is to coat particles in solution, and then to remove the particle, leaving behind a hollow vessel made of tannic acid and iron. The capsules can be designed to disassemble at different acidic pHs, which means they could be used to deliver drugs to acidic environments, such as the gut. The tannic acid and iron complex could also be used to coat surfaces to prevent corrosion or absorption of different materials, according to the researchers.

Full story: ABC News / Science Back to top

Quantum version of Nazi Enigma machine is uncrackable
July 09, 2013

Alan Turing and an army of codebreakers took years to crack the Enigma code during the second world war. Just be thankful the Nazis weren't using a quantum Enigma machine.

Enigma machines are like souped-up typewriters, with an illuminated panel above the keyboard that also displays the alphabet. Type in a letter and a different letter on the panel lights up, indicating how to encrypt that character.

Wired rotors do the scrambling by guiding an electrical signal along a certain path. Crucially, with each new letter, the path changes, so if you type the same letter again it will be encrypted differently - avoiding the repeated letter patterns that codebreakers rely on. The change isn't random, but depends on the initial rotor settings, which work as the key. If you know the settings the encrypted words can be typed into another Enigma machine to reveal the message.

To devise a quantum enigma machine, Seth Lloyd at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, preserved the basic idea of two people with versions of the same machine and shared settings. But instead of electricity and rotors that change the settings, the hypothetical machine uses photons, with the quantum ability to follow two paths at once. The switch to quantum mechanics changes the equation: increasing information on the part of the codebreaker no longer leads to a significant reduction in the key strength - unless the information is the key itself. Lloyd is now trying to build the machine: it might even fit into a typewriter-like form, he says.

Full story: New Scientist / Back to top

Sensitive piano keys let pianists create new sounds
July 11, 2013

A new piano has been developed by a team of technicians, composers and musicians at the University of London, which allows pianists to try out musical techniques that were previously unimaginable on a keyboard.

Each key of 'TouchKeys' is fitted with a set of 26 sensors that work much like a smartphone's touchscreen to detect touch. The sensors know exactly where a finger has been placed, letting the player experiment with sounds. For example, waggling the finger on a key creates the sound of vibrato, often heard from a violin. Sliding it up and down the length of the key bends pitch, like a rock guitarist does.

Algorithms prevent the keyboard from going out of pitch or being triggered unintentionally, such as when pianists move their fingers to prepare for future notes or change hand position. The finger waggle to create the vibrato sound only works when your finger moves fast enough, for example. The team are launching the keyboard on crowdfunding website Kickstarter later this month to raise funds to commercialise it.

To test the system, the team gave eight pianists a musical score to play on the new keyboard. They found that they were able to play it with little practice, triggering incorrect vibrato only 9% of the time.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top