Tech Universe: Wednesday 5 December

By Miraz Jordan

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

WIND BENEATH THE WINGS: Those enormous blades on wind turbines cost a huge amount to manufacture. Even the moulds for the clamshell fibreglass structures cost millions of dollars. Transporting the blades is another problem. But if components could be built and assembled on site then the overall cost of wind energy could be reduced. GE aims to cut the cost of blades by 25% to 40% with architectural fabrics stretched around a metal spaceframe resembling a fishbone. This idea harks back to early planes whose wings were made of fabric. That's one way to stretch the budget.

PLASTIC EYES: Night-vision goggles, laser rangefinders and similar devices weigh more than they need to. A new polymer gradient-index lens could reduce that weight considerably. The GRIN lenses are made from fine-tuned polymer layers that are stacked on top of each other, allowing the refractivity of the lens to be precisely configured.

The sandwiched layers of polymers weigh about half as much as a glass lens, and because the optics can be so finely tuned, one polymer lens can replace 3 glass lenses. The polymer lenses can refract light internally, rather than just at the surface as glass does. Imagine what this could do for regular specs and contact lenses, or even replacements for human corneas.

HEAR YOU ARE: A team at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem is developing a sonar vision system for people blind from birth. After around 70 hours of training users are able to correctly classify images into different categories, such as faces or houses and even read words and letters. A small video camera is embedded in a pair of glasses. A processor, such as a laptop or smartphone transforms images into sounds, and a pair of stereo headphones plays the sounds to the wearer. I wonder if the tests have only been done on adults, and if children would perceive any differently?

FOLD YOUR OWN: Going tramping and worried about charging your GPS and phone? Wenger's portable, foldable solar charger can take care of that. The water-resistant Polycrystalline solar panels include a USB cord and 5 adapters to connect to many portable devices. A high capacity lithium battery stores the power for when you need it. It could be a handy item for the disaster kit too.

SOLAR STEAM ENGINE: A standard internal combustion engine pressurises a liquid such as petrol or diesel, adds a spark and uses the explosion to push a piston. The HydroICE Solar Project takes a similar but different approach. Mirrored parabolic solar collectors heat oil to around 430C. The oil's injected into a cylinder and a few microdroplets of water are added. When the water contacts the hot oil, the oil's thermal energy is transferred to the water and it instantly flashes to steam. The expansion from liquid water to gas drives the piston. The mix is then sent to a separator to be reused. The closed loop system could be much more efficient than photovoltaic panels and useful for generators. That's nice thinking outside the box.

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