Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 31, 2014

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 31, 2014

This week's headlines:

Sunflower solar harvester provides power and water
September 30, 2014

A solar energy harvester could soon become the first 'drop-in' machine to provide renewable energy, water and heat to off-grid communities in remote regions. The 10-metre-high, sun-tracking dish has been designed to be transported in a single shipping container, so it can be delivered to any location. It is being developed by Airlight Energy of Biasca, Switzerland. As well as clean water and electricity, it can generate heat or, with the addition of a heat pump, provide refrigeration.

The core technology is a water-cooled solar panel developed by IBM. Mirrors on the flower-shaped structure direct the sun's rays onto six of the panels, where the sunlight is concentrated 2000 times. Each panel holds 25 photovoltaic chips cooled by water flowing in microchannels underneath. These carry the heat away at a rate that leaves the microchips at their optimal operating temperature. That makes the Sunflower more efficient than existing photovoltaic generators, so it needs a quarter of the panels to produce the same power.

In coastal areas, the heated water can drive a low-temperature desalinator. It heats seawater to create vapour that passes through a polymer membrane and condenses in a separate chamber. The process is then repeated three times to extract maximum water. IBM claims this can produce 2500 litres of fresh water per day. In non-coastal areas, a water purifier could be fitted instead.

Airlight is planning to field test the dish in seven remote sites, likely to be in Morocco and India, in early 2016, before the product proper goes on the market in 2017.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

New drug-delivery capsule may replace injections
October 01, 2014

Given a choice, most patients would prefer to take a drug orally instead of getting an injection. Unfortunately, many drugs, especially those made from large proteins, cannot be given as a pill because they get broken down in the stomach before they can be absorbed.

To help overcome that obstacle, researchers at MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) have devised a novel drug capsule coated with tiny needles that can inject drugs directly into the lining of the stomach after the capsule is swallowed. In animal studies, the team found that the capsule delivered insulin more efficiently than injection under the skin, and there were no harmful side effects as the capsule passed through the digestive system.

Although the researchers tested their capsule with insulin, they anticipate that it would be most useful for delivering biopharmaceuticals such as antibodies, which are used to treat cancer and autoimmune disorders like arthritis and Crohn's disease. This class of drugs, known as 'biologics', also includes vaccines, recombinant DNA, and RNA.

The team now plans to modify the capsule so that peristalsis, or contractions of the digestive tract, would slowly squeeze the drug out of the capsule as it travels through the tract. They are also working on capsules with needles made of degradable polymers and sugar that would break off and become embedded in the gut lining, where they would slowly disintegrate and release the drug.

Full story: Science Daily / MIT / Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences Back to top

Why an aging population may be good for innovation
September 30, 2014

The conventional wisdom is that an aging population is a net drag on a nation’s economic competitiveness. But a group of international researchers at the IIASA, the Max Planck Institute and the University of Washington propose exactly the opposite: In a Western, industrialised democracy, having an aging population might actually turn out to be a competitive advantage.

The researchers focused on Germany, which is second only to Japan in terms of an aging population. Most importantly, an aging population could lead to productivity gains throughout the economy due to expected increases in workers’ educational levels. These productivity gains would theoretically offset the loss of workers in the labour force.

There’s also a real argument to be made for the link between an aging population and innovation. This all starts with quality of life: The study suggests that the relationship between leisure and work will change in the future, with leisure time increasing on average. Everybody is going to have a lot more time on their hands — not just people in retirement – so you better hope that the people with time to tinker and innovate will be relatively well-educated, healthy and financially secure. And that’s exactly what these demographic researchers say is going to happen with an aging population.

That actually has enormous implications for the way we think about the innovation potential of the tens of millions in the Baby Boomer generation nearing retirement. Instead of thinking of these aging Baby Boomers as a net drag on future economic growth, think of this demographic shift as a net gain of people who are healthier, greener and more productive. These are people who will care more about innovations in areas ranging from health care to renewable energy.

Full story: Washington Post / PLOS ONE Back to top

Curiosity puts brain in state to learn
October 03, 2014

Being curious fires up the brain's reward circuits, enhancing your ability to learn, MRI scans reveal. The finding provides the first scientific evidence to help explain why it is easier learn about something that you're interested in, than if you're bored stiff.

Importantly, it seems that the enhanced learning ability is not limited to the thing that excites your curiosity: the curious state enables you to better learn about unrelated things too. The researchers say their findings could point to ways to enhance learning in the classroom and may help understand memory problems in elderly people.

The study looked at 19 university students aged between 18 and 31. The students were asked trivia questions. When they didn't know the answer, they were asked to rate how curious they were about the answer on a scale from 1 to 6. The researchers then put each student into a scanner which could measure the activity of various brain regions using fMRI.

While in the scanner, the students were asked only the questions that they were most or least curious about, in a random order. They had to wait 10 seconds for the answer, during which time they were distracted by being shown a photo of a person's face, and asked how likely that person was to know the answer to the question. Afterwards they were tested on their memory for the answers to the trivia questions. They were much better at recalling answers to questions they found interesting, than answers to questions they were not curious about.

The researchers also tested how well the students could remember the faces they had been shown. Surprisingly, the students were more likely to remember the face of someone that they were shown while pondering a question that they were curious about.

Full story: ABC News / Neuron Back to top

Lip-reading computers unlock with a word
October 02, 2014

Read my lips. We might log on to future computers simply by having them watch our mouths as we speak, because the way our lips move can identify us, akin to a fingerprint.

Ahmad Hassanat at the University of Mu'tah in Jordan trained software to look for patterns of lip and mouth movements associated with different words as people spoke to a camera – how much of the teeth were showing in any given video frame, for example. From mouth movements alone, the system correctly identified the words being said nearly 80% of the time.

Hassanat also found that every person moved their lips a little differently when they spoke. While this meant the lip-reading accuracy level is too low to be useful yet, it could mean that one day a 'visual password' could work as a form of biometric security.

Even the best actor would find it impossible to exactly duplicate someone else's lip movements, Hassanat claims.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

You might already have a cosmic ray detector in your pocket
October 10, 2014

Our world is constantly being struck by cosmic rays – mysterious radioactive particles that likely come from supernovae and other distant sources. They interact with the Earth’s atmosphere and break into more benign particles before they reach human bodies, and we rarely ever notice them.

There is currently a USD 2bn cosmic ray detector on the International Space Station, and scientists and amateurs alike have been tracking them with lower-tech methods for a century. This week, University of Wisconsin physicists announced an unusual new tool for tracking cosmic rays: mobile phones.

The team created an app that draws data from phones’ camera chips to spot those secondary particles created by cosmic rays interacting with the atmosphere. Smartphone camera chips are made with silicon. When the cosmic ray particles hit it they emit an electric charge, which the app spots and analyzes. Anyone can use the app; they just need to put a piece of duct tape over their phone’s camera lens and then place it screen-up.

The app will likely only be used for education. Unusual amounts of cosmic rays can be matched up with logs from more powerful detectors to explain their origin.

Full story: Yahoo! / Gigacom Back to top

World's first microbe 'zoo' opens in Amsterdam
September 30, 2014

The world's first 'interactive microbe zoo' opened in Amsterdam this week, shining new light on the tiny creatures that make up two-thirds of all living matter and are vital for our planet's future. The Micropia museum is next to Amsterdam's Artis Royal Zoo.

Microbes are often associated with illness, through viruses, bacteria, fungi and algae, but they are also essential for our survival and will play an increasingly important role in humanity and the planet's future. They are already used to produce biofuels, develop new type of antibiotics and improve crop yields. Experiments have shown their future potential for everything from generating electricity to strengthening building foundations and curing cancer.

Much of the museum looks like a laboratory, complete with rows of microscopes connected to giant television screens. Visitors can look through a window at a real-life laboratory where different kinds of microbes are being reproduced in Petri dishes and test tubes.

Step into a lift and look up to see an animation of a camera zooming on someone's eye, revealing the tiny mites that live on our eyelashes. The camera then zooms in on bacteria on the mite and finally on a virus on the bacteria. Visitors can watch microbes reproduce under a 3D-microscope or see a giant scale model of the Ebola virus that's ravaging west Africa.

Full story: Yahoo! / AFP Back to top