Tech Universe 2013 favourites: Hot picks

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

THE WIND AND THE LIGHT: The new LED streetlights PingQuan, China are interesting. Rather than being connected to the grid via underground wires each one has its own HoYi! wind turbine, two 280 watt solar panels and a storage battery, allowing it to function completely off-grid. I guess maintenance costs could be quite a bit higher than regular streetlights though.

BUILD ON AIR: Many cities are full of tall towers. The wind often funnels between them, so why not make use of it as it does?
PowerWINDows can be installed on the sides or roofs of buildings to generate electricity. The turbines don't have huge swooping blades, but rather look like windows with a sparse venetian blind. The blades move vertically up and down. The new kind of turbine is quieter, cheaper to run and safer than current wind turbines. Presumably they suck some of the energy out of the flow of air between buildings which could also make for a better environment for pedestrians and cyclists.

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.

COOL TORCH: Looking for something down behind the stereo? You may reach for a torch and hope the batteries haven't gone flat since the last time you used it. But how about if just holding a torch in your hand could generate enough electricity to power the light? 15 year old Ann Makosinski from Canada has invented just such a thermoelectric torch. The key to her success was to use a hollow tube that allows air to flow freely and cool one side of the Peltier tiles that make the system work. Peltier tiles produce electricity when heated on one side and cooled on the other. Because the flashlight relies on temperature differences it works best when the ambient air is cooler. Which leaves you wondering what other devices could exploit this principle.

LIGHT UP THE WORLD: The Luci collapsible solar lantern sheds a diffused light so it benefits several people at once. It charges in sunlight, on cloudy days or even from an incandescent light. The waterproof light has a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, 10 white LEDs and weighs only around 100 grams. 6 hours of charging yields 6 to 12 hours of light. The lantern's intended for the developing world where many people have no access to power or can't afford it, but would be a handy item in any emergency kit.

WEEDS FOR THE POT: Samoa has problems with an introduced invasive Merremia vine that strangles more productive plants. Meanwhile electricity costs are extremely high and many villages where incomes are low cook on open fires that emit harmful smoke, polluting the air and damaging health. A biogas project in Piu Village aims to harvest the weeds and turn them into power for cooking and lighting. Weeds and waste are put into biodigester tanks along with bacteria. As the waste breaks down gas is released that can then fuel stoves and lights. Even weeds can be useful if they're just handled the right way.

PUSH LESS RIDE MORE: The Copenhagen Wheel was developed at MIT to turn an ordinary pedal-powered bike into an electric bike. The wheel replaces the rear wheel from your bike and connects with a smartphone app. The smart wheel learns how you pedal, captures energy when you brake or go downhill and can provide a boost when you need some extra push. The technology is contained within a casing that sits around the hub and inside the spokes of the wheel. If it just replaces a regular wheel you may need to watch out for thieves nipping off with it, though the app provides a lock feature.

READING TOGETHER: The words we read in books are made from letter shapes, commonly printed with ink on paper. In Braille books those letters are formed from raised dots. If you read one, the chances are you can't read the other. Until now. The Thailand Association of the Blind created The Storybook For All Eyes. The font in the book combines the Braille alphabet with the English alphabet. Character illustrations also have embossed images. Brilliant.

A LONG HOT SHOWER: When you have a shower an awful lot of water goes down the drain. The Swedish OrbSys Shower purifier aims to reduce how much water is wasted by capturing water from the drain, purifying it in moments to drinking water standard and then sending it back through the shower head. The recycled water needs very little heating because the process is quick enough that it stays very warm anyway. The closed loop saves more than 90% in water usage and 80% in energy every time you shower, using maybe 5 litres rather than 150 litres of water for a shower. That one's a keeper.

SAVE THE OIL: GROW A MUSHROOM: Plastic transformed our world in both the best and the worst ways. It gives us lightweight durable products and packaging, but at the same time it accumulates in the environment and causes all kinds of harm. Ecovative's products aim to replace plastics with materials made from agricultural byproducts and mycelium, a fungal network of threadlike cells. In other words, they take agricultural plant waste, add mushrooms, darkness and time, then harvest a replacement for plastic and foam. The process also makes sure to stop growth so the end product won't be harmful to health. The products can be used for packaging, insulation, in car bumpers and seats, and in other applications. When they're of no further use they can be composted or mulched. Thus creating an endless cycle. Good one!

DRINK THE FLOOD: Flooding brings many problems, including how to find clean drinking water. Thailand's mobile SOS, or Solar Operating System, unit purifies contaminated water after a flood. Solar cells and batteries drive a nanofiltration system to produce up to 200 litres of drinkable water per hour from flood waters. Silver nanoparticles in a ceramic filter capture and kill bacteria. While larger filtration systems have long existed, this one can be carried onto a small boat by a few people and taken to where it can do the most good. There are probably plenty of communities who could put one of those units to use fulltime, with or without a flood.

Miraz Jordan,

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