Tech Universe: Tuesday 06 May

By Miraz Jordan

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

DOGS ON THE PHONE: If there's an emergency in the home a dog can have problems dialling 111. That's why researchers at the Open University Animal-Computer Interaction Lab are looking at ways to make it easier for assistance dogs to call for help. They've developed several prototypes for a dog-activated alert. In the current version, a trained diabetes alert dog tugs on a rope. That tug activates a switch that starts a software sequence, which texts or calls GPS coordinates to a preconfigured contact list of friends, family or emergency services. Nice thinking.

QUICK AID: Botulinum neurotoxin is one of the deadliest poisons. It turns up in foods that have been improperly canned and is considered a potential terrorist weapon because it can kill at very low concentrations if added to food, water, or the air supply.

Prompt treatment can help anyone who's been poisoned though. To test for botulism currently a sample of blood is taken then injected into a mouse. If the mouse dies, some 4 days later, the test is positive. A French team developed a chip that can deliver results at low concentrations and within just a few hours. They use a protein called SNAP-25, which helps nerves and muscles communicate. They first expose the protein to blood containing the A toxin which dismantles the protein. Then they introduce an engineered antibody. If the antibody reacts they know the blood sample contained the A toxin. The test is quick and easy and gives results soon enough to provide treatment. Before the test can be introduced though the results will need to be more widely replicated. That current 4 day delay could literally be a killer.

JUST ENOUGH JUICE: Stockholm is a city built across 14 islands, so ferries are a handy way to get around. The Movitz is one of them: it makes journeys that are an hour long with 10 minute stops for passengers to board and disembark. Later this year the 335 horsepower diesel engine on The Movitz will be replaced by two 125 kilowatt electric motors mounted outside the hull. At each stop a rapid charging system will give the nickel metal hydride batteries enough juice to run for one hour at 9 knots. The conversion will cut 130 tons of CO2 emissions and 1.5 tons of NOx emissions while reducing operating costs by 30 per cent. And if tide or wind slows the journey?

GRAPHENE GRIEF: It seems that every day researchers are finding another great thing graphene can do in biomedical devices, solar panels, cellphones and tablet computers. Graphene oxide nanoparticles are an oxidised form of graphene, a single layer of carbon atoms prized for being strong, conductive and flexible. Now comes the bad news: graphene oxide may be toxic to humans. Researchers studying the environmental impact of graphene oxide found they behave differently in groundwater and surface water and the nanoparticles could cause negative environmental impacts if released. Sadly, nothing is all good.

FINDING THE FLAWS: When sensors are manufactured they include nanoscale imperfections, each sensor uniquely flawed. If those sensors then send on data the imperfections can be revealed by close analysis, making it possible to link a signal with a specific sensor. Now include those sensors, such as accelerometers in a smartphone and there's a way to match a particular smartphone to 3D movements, perhaps revealing the owner's whereabouts at any given time. Researchers tested more than 100 devices over the course of 9 months and were able to discriminate one sensor from another with 96% accuracy. The research also suggests that other sensors in a phone such as gyroscopes, magnetometers, microphones and cameras could also contain the same types of idiosyncratic differences. Where there's a signal there's a way.

Miraz Jordan, knowit.co.nz

- NZ Herald

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