Tech Universe: Tuesday 22 January

By Miraz Jordan

How do you create a hydroelectric dam in the middle of the sea? Photo / Thinkstock
How do you create a hydroelectric dam in the middle of the sea? Photo / Thinkstock

ELECTRIC DONUTS: How do you create a hydroelectric dam in the middle of the sea? With a donut-shaped island, of course. Belgium currently derives more than half its electricity from nuclear plants, but it wants to phase them out and use North Sea wind farms instead. One problem with that is how to store excess wind power for use when it's needed. The planned island will be built out of sand 3 km off the Belgian coast. Surplus power will be used to pump water out of the centre of the island and into the surrounding sea. When more electricity is needed the sea will be allowed to flow back in through turbines. Ingenious, but couldn't severe storms be rather a problem?

GADGET TWIST: Power strips can be a pain when one gadget's plug is an odd shape or runs sideways and blocks the outlets on either side.
Allocacoc in The Netherlands have a simple solution: instead of a strip, they created a cube. The PowerCube solves the problem of blocked outlets and multiple cubes can be stacked together to create a strip.

With a twist each module can be easily attached to a small dock that can be mounted on a desk or wall. Various models of PowerCube are available, some with extension cords or USB ports included.

Unfortunately they're only available in Europe at the moment.

TAKE THE LUMPS: Cleaning up radioactive waste is always a headache, but researchers at Rice University and Lomonosov Moscow State University have found a material that can help. Microscopic, atom-thick flakes of graphene oxide added to contaminated water quickly clump together after binding to radionuclides. The clumps can then be easily skimmed off and processed. And with any luck, used for something productive.

FLIPPING SWEAT: It's flipping and bucking because it's lying on a damp surface, but that motion is producing electricity. A team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology used polymers and a layer of piezoelectric material to create something that resembles an ordinary piece of thin black plastic. Once the film is put on a damp surface it absorbs moisture, making the ends curl away from the surface. That makes the film unstable, so it flips over. The ends dry out, absorb more moisture and cause another flip. Meanwhile the piezoelectric layer generates electricity as the film bends and flexes. The power output is small, but could be enough for small sensors in sports equipment or environmental monitoring systems in remote locations.
Writhing wristbands sportsman!

SOLAR SAILING: The electric solar wind sail is designed to push spacecraft a long way. As a first step researchers at the University of Helsinki used ultrasonic welding to create a 1 Km long sail from 25 to 50 micron thin electrically conductive tethers. A full size sail may include up to 100 tethers, each 20 Km long. An electron gun creates a positive charge in the tethers which then create an electric field. Charged particles from the sun, the solar wind, push against the field and transfer momentum to a spacecraft gradually building its speed. A 1000 kg spacecraft with 100 electric-sail wires, each 20-km long, could reach 30 Kilometres per second after a year and it would accelerate beyond that too. A 15 metre long sail will be tested on a small satellite this year. Presumably the solar wind is no more constant than winds on Earth, which could make navigation a bit tricky.

Miraz Jordan, knowit.co.nz

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