Tech Universe: Tuesday 01 October

By Miraz Jordan

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

LOG ON TO THE HEART: As more and more WiFi equipped electronic devices are used inside the body in pacemakers, insulin pumps, defibrillators and the like there's increasing concern about disruptive hacking. Researchers at Rice University believe they can secure such devices by using the patient's own heartbeat as a kind of password that works only while a medical worker is actually touching the patient. This could let emergency medical responders work with a device while preventing access by anyone not authorised. Each human heartbeat is slightly different, so an EKG reading could be used like a random number generator to assure communications. Medical equipment will need to be modified though for the system to work. Better keep that heart beating.

REAL-TIME RISKS: It can take 24 to 48 hours to get the results of a test for potentially deadly E. coli bacteria in water. That delay carries a lot of risk. A new specially coated filter from the University of Alberta takes only minutes and changes colour if the water's infected.

This could save lives in developing countries where locals rely on wells. Next researchers want to enable the device to send alerts to locals and nearby health workers if the filter detects infection. Yup, that water you drank a couple of days ago might kill you.

PLASTIC NANOTUBES: There are only so many times you can reuse a plastic bag before it rips or develops holes and becomes waste. Researchers at the University of Adelaide developed a process that turns waste plastic bags into carbon nanotube membranes. Those membranes are highly sophisticated and usually expensive, but potentially invaluable for filtration, sensing, energy storage and biomedical innovations. The team vaporised pieces of grocery plastic bags to produce carbon layers that line the pores on nanoporous alumina membranes and create carbon nanotubes. This technique opens up potential manufacturing methods that not only turn waste plastic bags into something useful but avoid the poisonous compounds other techniques generate. And there's definitely a plentiful supply of plastic bags.

HELLO CARBON NANOTUBES: The silicon chips that power our computer devices are reaching their physical limits. As we pack transistors more and more closely on silicon they increasingly waste energy as heat. Carbon nanotubes could be cooler and more efficient, but imperfections in their manufacture have prevented them from being used. Researchers at Stanford University found a way to either destroy or work around CNTs that had imperfections. They created in their lab a computer with 178 transistors that could count and sort numbers. While 178 transistors won't get you far, using an industrial fabrication process could lead to real computers one day. Let's hear it for carbon nanotubes.

MAGNETIC MAPS: Some animals use the Earth's geomagnetic field to navigate, and now maybe we can too. IndoorAtlas takes advantage of the fact that magnetic fields are unique in each building, but many smartphone sensors can detect the fields. A building owner adds a floor plan and geographic co-ordinates to IndoorAtlas then uses the Map Creator app on a phone to record the magnetic fields. Finally maps are created and an app can be made available to customers. This could be useful in a large shopping mall or hospital, for example. As a customer walks around inside the building the map shows their location. It seems very labour intensive but could be useful.

Miraz Jordan, knowit.co.nz

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