Tech Universe: Monday 03 February

By Miraz Jordan

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

THE SPORES DID IT: Wind power we know, solar power we know, but evaporation power is a new one. A researcher at Harvard coated a sheet of rubber on one side with spores. The sheet bends when the spores dry out and then straightens when humidity rises because the spores take the water back and almost immediately restore themselves to their original shape. That bending creates the kind of movement that can be harvested to generate electricity. The researchers found that moistening a pound of dry spores would generate enough force to lift a car one metre off the ground. The prototype captures only a small percentage of the energy released by evaporation, but genetically engineering the spores to be stiffer and more elastic could improve the results. Maybe on a small scale even breathing could be used to power devices perhaps for people who use sip and puff devices to control their environment.

BOOM BIDDI BOOM: A doctor's regular stethoscope is really just a tube to funnel sound to the doctor's ears.

The ViScope MD though makes the stethoscope digital, meaning doctors can tune in, look at data and even record the sounds of the heart. The device is a compact stethoscope with an integrated high resolution phonocardiogram visual display, including a heart murmur indicator. The ViScope digitises the sound and has a tuneable filter that lets the doctor select specific parts of the heart sound to listen to. It can also store up to four 10 second patient waveforms for documentation. Keep an eye on that heart

A LITTLE SLIP: Hard water rich in dissolved salts and minerals leaves a scaly deposit on the kettle, the water pipes and any other surfaces it stays in contact with. That can be simply annoying in the kitchen, but in pipelines and valves that deliver oil and gas or that carry cooling water in power plants it can reduce efficiency, increase downtime, and cause maintenance issues, sometimes even shutting down wells. Researchers at MIT may have a little something to help, reducing the rate of scale formation at least tenfold. Their approach involves roughing up the surfaces, but at the nanoscale level, and then coating it with a carefully selected lubricating liquid to create a really smooth surface that doesn't offer points where scale can attach. The tiny nanogrooves capture the lubricant, holding it firmly in place through capillary action that allows the liquid to flow to fill any gaps, spread on the surface textures, and be replenished continually if some is washed away. Only a tiny amount of lubricant could protect a surface for decades as it's only a few hundred nanometers thick. Researchers say the system could be ready for commercial applications in as little as 3 years. That's a small scale operation.

WINNING BY A WHISKER: Our skin helps us sense temperature, air pressure, touch and other things. That's a sensitivity that many robots need too, for example, if they are to pick up delicate objects.
Meanwhile animals, such as cats use their whiskers to locate objects, navigate through water and more. US researchers created tactile sensors, or whiskers, from high-aspect-ratio elastic fibres coated with conductive composite films of nanotubes and nanoparticles. The whiskers respond to a single Pascal of pressure — about the pressure exerted on a horizontal surface by a dollar bill. In a proof-of-concept test the whiskers demonstrated highly accurate 2D and 3D mapping of wind flow. They could also be used to detect objects nearby or be used in wearable sensors for measuring heartbeat and pulse rate. Will whisker sensors one day be trendy on humans?

DINNER AT THE BEEP: The Petnet Smartfeeder aims to help you control the weight of your cat or dog by monitoring and controlling their feeding. A plastic canister holds dry food in the top part and dispenses it on schedule in a bottom tray. The feeder connects to a smartphone so you can control portion size and feeding times and track your pet's calorie intake. Reminders to the phone inform you about feeding times, meals, food inventory and battery life. Wait till the
cat gets hold of that smartphone though.

Miraz Jordan,

- NZ Herald

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