Tech Universe: Thursday 06 March

By Miraz Jordan

What if there was a new kind of suit divers could wear underwater? Photo / Thinkstock
What if there was a new kind of suit divers could wear underwater? Photo / Thinkstock

SUIT DOWN: If astronauts can wear space suits to protect them from cold and vacuum why can't deep sea divers wear a similar suit to protect them deep under the sea? The one-of-a-kind Exosuit is an atmospheric diving system. The suit fits a single occupant and keeps them at a standard surface atmosphere even as deep as 300 metres. The suit includes pressure sensitive footpads, 18 rotary joints, water-jet thrusters, oxygen for up to 50 hours, and a fibre optic tether for a live video feed, two-way communication and so those on the surface can monitor the diver. The suit is made from aluminium alloy and weighs around 240 Kg. The tricky part is clearly getting in and out of the suit and the ocean.

DEEP RAYS: Deep under the sea are many pipelines, often set as deep as 3 Km and at a pressure of 300 atmospheres. Leaks can be serious, but checking the pipes for incipient damage can be almost impossible.

Companies often use X-rays to inspect pipes, but X-ray machines and their sensors are expensive and delicate. They just wouldn't survive those undersea pressures. Engineers recreated an X-ray detector and added a rugged case to protect from the extreme pressures. The detector then fits inside a larger machine attached to a deep-sea submersible rig that latches onto a pipeline and slides along it, inspecting every inch for defects. That must be a mighty slow job.

SILKEN STRENGTH: If you break a bone doctors may use metal alloy screws and plates to hold it together while it heals. If the screws and plates start to corrode you, you may be up for a second operation to remove them. Biodegradable polymers could be used instead, but they're a lot of work to insert as they're too soft to care their own thread, and they can trigger inflammation. US scientists have been experimenting with silk as an alternative. They dissolved silk in alcohol, poured the solution into moulds shaped like implants and baked them. Tests with rats showed the resulting implants were strong enough to carve their own thread into bone, were biodegradable, and didn't cause inflammation. There has to be a downside though.

AN EASY SHOT: Getting a flu vaccination every year often means visiting a medical centre and being jabbed with a needle. Research with a prototype vaccine patch suggests it may soon be easier and we could do it ourselves. The patches consisted of arrays of 50 microscopic needles about as tall as the thickness of a few hairs. Tests where volunteers applied patches to themselves, without vaccine, showed that the volunteers were capable of correctly applying the patch. The volunteers also said the patches were much less painful than a standard jab with a needle. The next step is a clinical study of the vaccine patches in humans. That would make the annual shots easier, that's for sure.

A SHARP LOOKOUT: European Space Agency's Gaia mission has put a huge camera in space, with two telescopes feeding it images. Its job is to map stars in the Milky Way, discerning objects up to 400,000 times dimmer than those visible to the naked eye. Its measurements are so accurate they compare to measuring the width of a human hair at a distance of 500 km. That's thanks to the 940 million pixels in the camera. Of course that would create huge images, but onboard processing reduces the file size for transmission back to base. The craft is now in orbit about 1.5 million Km away from Earth and has sent back calibration images. Once some minor issues have been dealt with the Gaia mission should start sending back images for real, including perhaps asteroids that could pose a threat to Earth. And if it spots such a dangerous asteroid, then what?

Miraz Jordan,

- NZ Herald

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