Tech Universe: Monday 17 June

By Miraz Jordan

Could the internet be powered by balloons? Photo / Thinkstock
Could the internet be powered by balloons? Photo / Thinkstock

CONNECT UP: Live in a remote part of Canterbury with no Internet access? Google are fixing that for you with Project Loon, an experiment with using high-flying balloons to deliver Internet connections to everyone. Google are launching a pilot test of 30 balloons, each 15 metres in diameter, to fly 20 Km high over Canterbury. At that height the balloons are above aircraft and the weather but can be steered by using layers of wind that travel in different directions. The balloons communicate with specialised antennas on the ground, and also to nearby balloons. Solar power keeps the electronics attached to the balloons going. Connections speeds are comparable to 3G cellphone speeds. It's worth a try.

SAFETY IN NUMBERS: Vaccines have played a huge role around the world in preventing disease and saving lives. But vaccines are generally liquid and have to be carefully cooled, stored and transported, which may be a significant problem in many developing countries. What's more, keeping needles clean and safe is also a challenge.

Australian researchers have developed a skin patch that delivers dry vaccine to a layer just beneath the skin, rather than into the muscle as current vaccines are. Rather than using a single large needle, thousands of tiny projections in the patch release the vaccine just below the skin. And the take up and response in that part of the body are so good that only one hundredth of the traditional dose is required. You may feel a thousand small stings.

IN THE MONEY: Nowadays we know better than to just dump old electronics in the trash. But disposing of them properly can still be a bit of a hassle. ecoATM are dealing to that, in the USA at least, by making it easy to recycle old phones, MP3 players and tablets in exchange for cash. After verifying your identity, perhaps with a driver's licence, you place your old device in the kiosk which scans it and offers a cash price. You can get your device back or take the money. Devices may be recycled or sold on to a new owner. Now the ATMs just need to expand to devices like hard drives, cameras and the like.

JUST BREATHE: Researchers at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology may be onto a way to detect serious diseases such as diabetes or lung cancer with a quick breath test. They used tin dioxide nanofibres and catalytic platinum nanoparticles to create a tiny sensor that could potentially be attached to a smartphone. The breath analyser senses specific volatile organic compounds that predict specific diseases. The prototype now needs to be widely tested, before a device could be developed for testing breath for diseases, or perhaps to detect hazardous chemicals or gas at factories. Such devices could make a huge difference in people's lives.

QUICKER THAN A FLASH: The memory in computers relies on determining the presence or absence of an electric charge, represented by a 0 or 1. RAM is fast but transient, while storage memory, for example on a hard drive, is slower but enduring. Now researchers have used a material called bismuth ferrite to create a memory device that's fast, enduring and draws very little power. The material has a photovoltaic response to visible light, which means the researchers can read stored data simply by shining a polarised light on it. It's around 10,000 times faster than Flash RAM and draws only around 20% of the power. The bad news is that this device will need to be made a lot smaller before it can be incorporated in our gadgets. Someone is sure to get right onto that.

Miraz Jordan,

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