Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 5, 2016

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Issue 5, 2016

This week's headlines:

Germany's fusion reactor produces its first flash of hydrogen plasma
February 03, 2016

Experimentation with Germany's newest fusion reactor is beginning to heat up, to temperatures of around 80 million degrees Celsius, to be precise. Having fired up the Wendelstein 7-X to produce helium plasma late last year, researchers have built on their early success to generate its first hydrogen plasma, an event they say begins the true scientific operation of the world's largest fusion stellarator.

After a decade of construction, the Wendelstein 7-X fusion stellarator was finally started up in December last year. The device is designed to be magnetically efficient enough to continuously contain super-hot plasma in its magnetic field for more than 30 minutes at a time. If this vision does one day become a reality, it could help to usher in an era of clean, reliable nuclear fusion power.

But it's all about baby steps for scientists working at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics (IPP), which houses the experimental device. Since producing the first helium plasma on December 10 last year, the Wendelstein 7-X has generated more than 300 discharges. The main purpose of these was to clean the plasma vessel walls, which in turn makes for higher temperatures, but it also allowed for testing of scientific instruments and data recording.

In mid-March researchers will open up the plasma vessel and install carbon tiles for better protection, along with a device designed to remove impurities. These enhancements will make for even higher temperatures and longer discharges lasting up to 10 seconds. They plan on making similar improvements over the next four years until Wendelstein 7-X can produce discharges lasting 30 minutes at a full heating power of 20 megawatts.

Full story: Gizmag / IPP Back to top

Self-filling water bottle harvests clean drinking water from the air
February 01, 2016

Austrian start-up Fontus has revealed plans to start selling a self-filling water bottle that extracts humidity from the air and condenses it into drinkable water at a rate of up to 0.5 litres per hour - provided it's a humid day. The solar-powered device uses hydrophobic surfaces to repel and funnel the drops of condensation in the bottle, which means so as long as the air around you isn't too polluted, you'll have access have a constant supply of clean drinking water.

The water bottle - which is currently getting the crowdfunding treatment to facilitate mass-production - is being marketed as an aid for long-distance cyclists who don't have time to stop off and top-up. When it goes on sale, it'll come with a bike-attachment, as seen in the video below. That's the first-world application of the technology, but the benefits are obvious for the 1.2 billion people in the world who are living in areas where clean water is scarce.

The device is made up of a solar panel, a condensing chamber lined with hydrophobic surfaces, and a very basic filter to keep dust, dirt, and bugs out of the mix. It works by taking in warm, humid air, which is condensed down into water droplets that are funnelled into the water bottle below because the hydrophobic surfaces prevent them from sticking. The developers have also mentioned the possibility of adding a carbon filter to the mix, which could be used to filter out clean water from more polluted areas.

Full story: Science Alert Back to top

Britain gives scientist go-ahead to genetically modify human embryos
February 01, 2016

Scientists in Britain have been given the go-ahead to edit the genes of human embryos for research, using a technique that some say could eventually be used to create 'designer babies'.

Less than a year after Chinese scientists caused an international furore by saying they had genetically modified human embryos, Kathy Niakan, a stem cell scientist from London's Francis Crick Institute, was granted a licence to carry out similar experiments.

The work carried out 'will be for research purposes and will look at the first seven days of a fertilised egg's development, from a single cell to around 250 cells', according to Niakan. She plans to carry out her experiments using CRISPR-Cas9, a technology that is already the subject of fierce international debate because of fears that it could be used to create babies to order.

CRISPR can enable scientists to find and modify or replace genetic defects, and many of them have described it as 'game-changing'. But Niakan said she had no intention of genetically altering embryos for use in human reproduction, but wants to deepen scientific understanding of how a healthy human embryo develops, something that could, in the long term, help to improve infertility treatments.

Full story: ABC News / Reuters Back to top

A virtual 'guide dog' for navigation
February 02, 2016

MIT researchers have developed a low-power chip for processing 3-D camera data that could help visually impaired people navigate their environments. The chip consumes only one-thousandth as much power as a conventional computer processor executing the same algorithms.

Using their chip, the researchers also built a prototype of a complete navigation system for the visually impaired. About the size of a binoculars case and similarly worn around the neck, the system uses an experimental 3-D camera. The user carries a mechanical Braille interface developed at MIT, which conveys information about the distance to the nearest obstacle in the direction the user is moving.

Although the prototype navigation system is less obtrusive than its predecessors, it should be possible to miniaturize it even further. Currently, one of its biggest components is a heat dissipation device atop a second chip that converts the camera's output into a point cloud. Adding the conversion algorithm to the data-processing chip should have a negligible effect on its power consumption but would significantly reduce the size of the system's electronics.

Full story: MIT Back to top

Virtual city walkthroughs help to find pedestrian death traps
February 04, 2016

The close coexistence of cars and people makes cities dangerous places. To find infrastructure snags that heighten the risks to pedestrians, researchers have traditionally trawled the streets with clipboards, noting dodgy intersections and badly designed crossings. But at Columbia University in New York City, the mass of photos on Google Street View lets researchers eschew this schlepping in favour of studying the city from an office chair.

Studying cities virtually is faster and cheaper, according to the researchers. In a single month the team can get through a volume of work that would typically take three years of personal inspections. The group uses home-built software called CANVAS for these virtual road audits. Imagery from Street View is overlaid with controls that let the team quickly mark important factors - like sidewalk quality or the presence of dropped kerbs (curb cuts) - for later bulk analysis.

In their latest project, the researchers combed through 532 New York City intersections, looking for issues that could be contributing to pedestrian injuries or deaths. They compared their observations against a public database of pedestrians being hit by cars in New York City. They found that these accidents were more likely at corners with billboards, bus stops, and pedestrian signals.

The hope is that these insights can be used to make streets safer. For example, the city might try experimenting with changing where buses stop or how they unload passengers, to see if that changes how many people get hurt.

Full story: New Scientist / American Journal of Public Health Back to top

New modem will transmit data 100 times faster than radio signals
February 01, 2016

NASA is developing a first-if-its-kind modem that incorporates light-based technology to help enable dramatically faster communications between spacecraft and ground stations.

The device, which is scheduled to be tested on board the International Space Station in 2020, is part of a broader NASA project called the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD). This laser system, which the space agency says could dramatically overhaul today's radio frequency (RF) communications, will enable data transmissions at rates 10 to 100 times faster than what's currently possible.

The LCRD project is designed to be the basis of an ongoing operational system once initial tests, due to begin in 2019, are complete. And part of what will help NASA demonstrate the feasibility of its laser communications setup is the new integrated-photonics modem.

Dubbed ILLUMA - for Integrated LCRD LEO (Low-Earth Orbit) User Modem and Amplifier - the tiny device will be about the size of a mobile phone, thanks to NASA squeezing a number of functions onto a single microchip. This means it'll be several times smaller than the fibre-optic receivers in use in spacecraft today.

The emerging photonic technology could be used in everything from medical imaging and manufacturing to the data centres used by Internet companies.

Full story: Science Alert Back to top

Robot chameleon changes colour to blend into its surroundings
February 04, 2016

Researchers from Wuhan University, China, have created robot chameleon to show off their camouflage technology, which could one day allow military vehicles or body armour to blend perfectly into the background.

The chameleon is a 3D-printed model covered in plasmonic displays, which produce colours by exploiting the interactions between nanoscale structures and electric fields. The team made the displays by taking a glass sheet bearing a grid of holes, each 50 nm across, and depositing gold on to it. This formed gold domes inside each hole. They then placed the sheet inside a casing filled with an electrolyte gel containing silver ions.

When light hits the gold nanostructures it produces ripples of electrons, called plasmons, that determine its reflective and absorbing properties - in this case, making the glass sheet appear red. Applying an electric field deposits some silver ions on to the gold domes, modifying their properties and producing different colours. Reversing the field strips off these ions and restores the red colour.

The team experimented with different strengths of field and durations to find out which colours they could make. To emulate a chameleon's skin-changing abilities, they used light sensors to recognise the background colour and apply the appropriate field.

At the moment the sensors are limited to recognising only the primary colours red, green and blue. A more advanced system should be able to detect any colours, according to the researchers.

Full story: New Scientist / ACS Nano Back to top