Tech Universe favourites: Wednesday 19 December

By Miraz Jordan

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

SOLAR PAINTING: How about just painting solar cells onto your house?
At the University of Notre Dame researchers used semiconducting nanoparticles to produce energy. The solar paint is easy to produce and could be easily applied to a surface. The paint contains nano-sized particles of titanium dioxide, coated with either cadmium sulfide or cadmium selenide and suspended in a water-alcohol mixture to create a paste. Brushed onto a transparent conducting material and exposed to light it generates power. At the moment it's only 1% efficient, but it's a good start. I'm waiting for the day when everything generates power we can use.

DIM IDEAS: See those motorway lights glaring out in the middle of the night, with no traffic using them? What a waste, of electricity and of the precious darkness. The Highways Agency in the UK are busy turning off the lights for around 4,000 km of roads to minimise obtrusive light.

Technology these days can control lights individually and remotely. Turn the lights on or up during the morning and evening rush hour and dim them the rest of the time. Maintain safety with half the energy - that makes a lot of sense.

TAKE A HIKE: Keeping mobile devices charged is a problem in a busy day as you dash from meeting to meeting. The nPower PEG aims to solve that problem by harvesting the energy of your movements. The Personal Energy Generator belongs in your briefcase or handbag, harvests kinetic energy created by your movements and stores it in a 2000 mA lithium polymer battery. You can also charge the PEG's battery from a wall point or laptop. 25 minutes of walking generates 1 minute of talk time on an iPhone. That's a good case for walking the talk.

PUSH BACK: As trains rush along the tracks they cause the tracks to vibrate. A team at Stony Brook University in the US worked out how to convert that irregular, oscillatory motion into a source of usable energy. Alongside railroad tracks are switches, signals, gates and monitors that need power to operate. The scientists say the Mechanical Motion Rectifier based Railroad Energy Harvester can harness 200 watts of electric energy from train-induced track deflections to power such trackside electrical devices. That will save electricity, reduce CO2 emissions and save money for the railroads. I wonder if taking energy out of the track vibrations could also reduce wear on the track?

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.

SATELLITE SAFETY: With enough resources you can get access to live satellite imagery of a specific area on the planet. It's what you can do with that access that's interesting. In the case of the Satellite Sentinel Project, whose offices are in the USA, it's tracking the movements of rival armed forces in the Sudan and warning civilians when the troops are coming. That gives the locals time to flee.
Analysts receive reports from people on the ground and then gain satellite access to grab pictures. By analysing the photos they can estimate where tanks and troops are heading. The images are also detailed enough to document things like mass graves or body bags near freshly dug pits. That's seriously smart spying.

MARS SURVIVOR: Will reality TV take us to Mars? The Mars One venture thinks so. They have a plan to send habitats and supplies to Mars starting around 2016 to prepare a settlement for 4 humans who will arrive in 2023 and live there until they die. After that more humans will arrive in batches every 2 years to build out the settlement. This is no government project, but a private initiative, and the whole thing will be televised on a grand scale to help raise funds. Are we going to the other planets now for real?

SIGHT IN TOUCH: If you can't see or hear then communication is pretty tricky. The Lorm alphabet though allows communication by patterns of touch on the hand. The Mobile Lorm Glove has been created in Germany to help wearers send and receive text messages, emails and chat using the Lorm alphabet. Sensors on the palm read touches and send them via Bluetooth to a phone. Small vibration motors on the back of the glove take signals from a phone and let the wearer feel the words. The makers hope to also develop the system to allow wearers to read ebooks and audio books. By translating between touch signals and email and other forms of messaging, it means deaf blind people can really open up their communication channels. Soon it may be true that on the Internet no-one knows you're deaf blind.

STAY IN TOUCH: Villagers in the Kalahari desert pass down their cultural knowledge and traditions orally from elders to the young people. But now that many young people are going to the cities to live for a few years that traditional knowledge is at risk. That's why researchers from Aalborg University in Denmark have been helping to design 3D visualisations to use with tablet computers. The villagers find the touchscreens easy to deal with, even though many have never used computers before. Just don't introduce them to Angry Birds or their way of life may be under a greater threat.

LET'S ALL SPEAK MANDARIN: It's something of a dream to think of speaking in one language and having your words, in your own voice, be heard correctly phrased in another. So it's startling to see a real-life demo. Microsoft used a technique called Deep Neural Networks to train more discriminative and better speech recognisers than previous methods. The system converts spoken English into text, much like dictation apps, but with greater accuracy. Then those words are translated in real-time into Mandarin and spoken aloud using sounds captured from the speaker's own voice. It's still not perfect, of course, but it feels like a step into the future.

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