Tech Universe: Wednesday 24 April

By Miraz Jordan

The ocean is the world's largest source of energy. Photo / Thinkstock
The ocean is the world's largest source of energy. Photo / Thinkstock

BIG DIFFERENCE: The world's oceans receive 80% of the solar energy that arrives on our planet. To make use of some of that energy China may soon be home to the world's largest Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion power plant, supplying 10 megawatts. The OTEC system takes the natural temperature difference between surface and bottom of the ocean in tropical regions and uses it to create power consistently 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. This plant's still a fairly small pilot though. A fullscale 100 megawatt OTEC plant could produce the same amount of energy in a year as 1.3 million barrels of oil while decreasing carbon emissions by half a million tons. All by exploiting a difference in temperature.

WATER YOUR PHONE: The MyFC PowerTrekk, developed at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, uses ordinary water and connects via USB to extend battery life for devices of up to 3 watts.

What's more the water doesn't need to be completely clean, and can be fresh or salt water. The charger is both a fuel cell and a portable battery, providing a direct power source as well as a storage buffer for the fuel. Inside the unit is a small recyclable metal disc. When you pour water onto it hydrogen gas is released and combines with oxygen to convert chemical energy into electrical energy and provide between 20% and 100% of a battery charge. Now that's a charger to keep around.

FORK IT IN: The HapiFork may help you eat better, by counting bites and vibrating to alert you when you eat too quickly. Studies have suggested that eating more slowly improves digestion and helps control weight, so if you take more than one mouthful every 10 seconds the fork lets you know. The fork synchs with a smartphone and also has a web dashboard. The electronics it needs are housed in the handle and can be removed before washing. Data from test users shows people take about 70 fork bites per meal. Reduce portion size too.

SENSITIVE ROBOTS: Nobody want to be roughed up by a robot, so researchers at Harvard have developed a very inexpensive tactile sensor for robotic hands to make them more sensitive. The TakkTile sensor is intended for commercial inventors, teachers, and robotics enthusiasts. The sensor adds a layer of vacuum-sealed rubber to a tiny barometer that senses air pressure. Added to a robotic hand, it helps pick up a balloon without popping it, or pick up a key and use it to unlock a door. The sensors can be built using relatively simple equipment and standard fabrication processes. This is particularly important for medical and personal care work too.

KEEP MOVING: The Karma Chameleon at Concordia University in Canada is working on interactive electronic fabrics that harness and store energy directly from the human body, then use the power to change the visual properties of the garments. The project weaves electronic or computer functions into the fibres which consist of multiple layers of polymers. It's not yet possible to manufacture clothing with the new composite fibres but the designers in the project are creating conceptual prototypes. For example, garments could change their shape and colour while being worn, or capture the energy from human movement to charge a smartphone. Now hook it up to mood detectors so your
clothes can reflect how you feel.

Miraz Jordan, knowit.co.nz

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