Tech Universe: Wednesday 25 June

By Miraz Jordan

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

OUT FOR THE COUNT: Chicago want to make the city a safer, more efficient and cleaner place to live, and are using sensors that measure air quality, light intensity, sound volume, heat, precipitation and wind to do it. The overall research aim is to discover how modern cities function. The sensors will also count people by measuring wireless signals on mobile devices, but without recording details of those devices. The secure boxes will be installed on light poles on one major street to start with and then gradually installed in numerous other locations around the city. The sensors are connected to power and Internet, and the data could later be made available to other researchers. Because the devices are installed on city property the city has the final say on what data can be collected though and how that data can be used, as a way of protecting privacy. If it improves city planning that's good, but you have to wonder what business and industry might do with the data.

WHAT WASTE?: One of the problems with nuclear reactors is what to do with their spent fuel waste products. Transatomic Power want to use those products as the energy source for a molten salt reactor. This type of reactor uses fuel dissolved in a liquid salt at around 650C instead of the solid fuel rods found in conventional reactors. The reactor would also stop itself, solidifying the salts, if the power failed or if no operators were actively running it. Currently the team are finding funding to prove the technology works through lab experiments. Their next step would then be to build a 5-megawatt demonstration plant at a U.S. national lab site, followed by making the process commercial. That would certainly be a useful way to dispose of currently problematic waste.

DOWN TOOLS: Cordless power tools are very useful, but you still have to remember to plug in and charge up or swap out the battery. Bosch are introducing an 18V induction charging system so all you'll have to do is rest the tool on the charger when you put it down. The inductive charger won't have contact points so is durable against the water, dust and dirt that abound on any building site. The lithium-ion batteries stay in the tool so there's no messing about with removing them or swapping them. Smart software in the charger will adapt the charge to the state of the battery, ensuring that the battery is always optimally charged in every temperature range and has a long lifespan. A frame to hold the charger can be mounted on workbenches, shelves or other work surfaces. Still, wireless power without a specific charger must remain a goal.

HOT TIN ROOF: Perhaps you use sunshine to generate electricity, or to heat water or a building? Australian manufacturer Bluescope has created steel sheet roofing that combines thin-film solar PV and solar thermal technologies to generate both electricity and heat. The top layer generates electricity in the same way as solar PV modules while heat is trapped and distributed between layers for use in water and space heating. So far the products are only prototypes as the company wants to better understand supply chains and manufacturing costs before launching the system onto the market. Not having to choose between heat and power would be very helpful.

DEGRADING IDEAS: Roads degrade over time, but that degradation takes place even before we can see cracks and other problems. The Federal Highway Administration in the US is testing out tiny sensors that can report their data wirelessly, giving a clear picture of how a road is doing. The sensors can be dropped into the concrete as the road is poured. The next problem is how to power the sensors though. The answer to that comes from the very traffic that wears the road out in the first place: using piezoelectric sensors that accumulate electric charge with mechanical stress, for example from vibrations in the road. That's powerful thinking.

Miraz Jordan,

- NZ Herald

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