Tech Universe: Friday, 5 April

By Miraz Jordan

A helmet has been created to help firefighters navigate through thick smoke and fire. Photo / Thinkstock
A helmet has been created to help firefighters navigate through thick smoke and fire. Photo / Thinkstock

BUZZING AROUND: Firefighters often work in the dark or in buildings filled with smoke and almost always in unfamiliar environments. It can be hard for them to find their way around. Researchers at the University of Sheffield have created a helmet with vibrating pads inside. Ultrasound sensors on the outside of the helmet detect nearby walls and other obstacles then transmit signals to the pads inside.
Firefighters can use the vibrations to help guide them through the building. The vibrations also mean the firefighter can still see and hear normally while receiving guidance. And enjoy a bit of a scalp massage at the same time.

SECRET SEARCH: There's a lot of help available online for those being abused or subjected to violence, but if they visit they may risk further victimisation if their abuser finds the web history or other signs of seeking help.

At Newcastle University researchers have created techniques to avoid this problem. One is an app that selectively cleans a browser history removing any trace of a search for support while leaving other electronic trails intact. Another is single-use QR codes that lead to a help URL the first time they're used, but after that lead to neutral sites such as those for News.
Another idea is to use Near Field Communications so that someone standing beside a poster, for example, could access help but once they move away the information is no longer available. Selectively cleaning the browser history would have to be a challenge.

THROUGH THE FOG: W-band radar is about the size of a cigarette packet, unlike the much larger conventional radar. It's also more energy efficient and has a higher resolution. It uses short wavelengths around 3 mm and penetrates non-metallic and non-transparent materials, such as clothing, plastic surfaces, paper, wood, or even snow and fog.
This could be useful for helicopter pilots working in low visibility because of dust or smoke or for monitoring places like container ports. The system is only a prototype now but could be ready for market within a couple of years. There are so many ways now to see what can't normally be seen.

RUST SLEEPS IN LIGHT: Propylene oxide is needed for many plastics, toiletries and other products such as antifreeze and paints. But the process to make the compound creates undesirable waste products.
Copper could help create the compound while avoiding the waste, but tends to bind with oxygen itself, and that's not helpful. Now engineers at the University of Michigan have found that bright light reverses oxidation in carefully structured copper. That means there's potential for a new process for creating propylene oxide without all the waste products. That's good news for the planet, but will prices drop too?

CO2 FARM: There's a lot of CO2 in the air — more than most would like, in fact. But how about if that CO2 could be used as a source of energy? Scientists at the University of Georgia can transform the carbon dioxide trapped in the atmosphere into useful industrial products, and maybe soon into biofuels. While plants can easily process atmospheric CO2, it's been hard for us. The new technique involves genetically modifying a microorganism called Pyrococcus furiosus. The organism usually feeds in the ocean near geothermal vents where it's very hot. By modifying the organism they can make it do its work at much lower temperatures, using it to convert CO2 into fuel. That's the story: eat waste and create fuel.

Miraz Jordan, knowit.co.nz

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