Tech Universe: Friday 12 July

By Miraz Jordan

HeadSense could be a great alternative to brain surgery. Photo / Thinkstock
HeadSense could be a great alternative to brain surgery. Photo / Thinkstock

ALL IN THE HEAD: Measuring physical characteristics of the brain is tricky, yet it's important to know if a brain is swelling, whether from disease or injury. Usually doctors have to drill a small hole in the skull and insert a catheter to find out what's going on. That's a risky business though as it opens the skull up to possible infection. HeadSense are taking a different approach. Disposable earbuds emit a series of low-pitch beeps and record changes to the signals after they cross the brain. The headphones send the data via Bluetooth link to an app that instantly converts signal modulations to units of intracranial pressure. I hope the app has alerts such as "Warning, your head may explode".

DATA IS META: Researchers gather extremely useful information from tracking birds and animals. A new Environmental-Data Automated Track Annotation system can handle millions of data points and serve a hundred scientists simultaneously by combining GPS tracking with weather and land information.

In a case study, the system tracked individual birds via GPS and combined that information with satellite data on weather patterns and chlorophyll concentrations in the ocean associated with food sources. The additional data helped explain features of the migration pattern. It's always about combining the data.

CODED SIGNALS: Parents: one more thing to do when you change the baby's nappies: haul out the smartphone and grab a photo of a QR code. The Smart Diapers project adds a colour-coded QR code to the outside of a diaper. Scan that code with a smartphone to track urinary tract infection, prolonged dehydration and developing kidney problems. The code is included on a reagent panel that doesn't actually come into contact with the baby's skin but that reveals information about the urine. It sounds simple enough.

HARD BUBBLES: Plastic bubble wrap is lightweight and fun to play with but it doesn't stand up very well to heat or chemicals. Sheets of metal on the other hand are tough, but they're heavy, thick and hard to bend. A new metallic bubble wrap could perhaps be used for the wing edges of planes, in motorcycle helmets or panels of cars. It's thin, light and flexible, as well as strong and inexpensive to produce. Thin sheets of aluminium are bonded together, but a foaming agent between them produces the bubbles. The technique could be applied to other metals too. I'm not sure I'd want even metal bubble wrap on the wings of a plane.

STEAM CLEAN: Even in remote areas doctors need to sterilise instruments. Those same areas though may not have electricity to power an autoclave, or even very clean water. Rice University created a solar-powered sanitiser out of off-the-shelf parts and nanotechnology. A parabolic mirror focuses the sun onto a chamber full of water and nanoparticles of carbon and metal. The particles have a large surface area so they transfer a lot of heat to the water. Leaving the heavy nanoparticles behind, steam then passes through simple pipes to a pressure chamber where it sterilises anything inside. The now pure water could be cycled again through the system or used for another purpose. A similar system could be used to treat sewage on a small scale too. It sounds as though the only hard part is the nanoparticles.

Miraz Jordan,

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