Ring in the new innovations

 

Who’s at the cutting edge when it comes to R&D? Experts in various fields, from art to astronomy, medicine to motoring, nominate the breakthroughs that are changing the way we live. Bees buzzing with new navigation possibilities, carbon emissions gobbled up by algae, cars that can’t crash – we venture into the innovation hothouses.

Architecture

Joanne Jakovich, director of u.lab, University of Technology Sydney

Beauty in architecture lies in the detail. Today’s nanotechnology materials already enable self-cleaning and smog-eating facades through the rational organisation of molecules. Recent developments in nano-membranes mean buildings might also begin to harvest fresh water and clean air for us, bringing a whole new level to multisensory design.

Professor Andre Geim and his team at the University of Manchester, UK, have developed a membrane that is completely impermeable to pathogens, toxins, vapours and gases, but allows water to pass through it unimpeded. The membrane, less than one-thousandth of a millimetre thick, is made of graphene, Geim’s Nobel Prize-winning nano-material.

Graphene is strong and flexible, only one molecule thick and notable for its ability to conduct electricity and hold light. New luminous films could produce lightweight materials to replace complex LED media facades on buildings, as well as to create paper-thin screens for flexible mobile devices. Speaking of which, mobile devices provide the platform to socially transform views of the city, via Augmented Reality (AR) facades. A typical application for AR in architecture is virtual signage overlaid on the physical city; a life-sized equivalent of the Viewa app being used to bring new life to magazines.
Sebastian Boring of the University of Calgary is designing Augmented Reality applications that allow multiple users to interact with media-enriched facades. Boring’s augmented layers enable players to enjoy games or create new designs over an already animate building surface.

If nanoparticles and virtual games appear too intangible, “jamming” – adhering sand-sized particles – could offer a new method of building fabrication. Marta Malé-Alemany of the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia in Spain is developing robots that can dynamically create geometric forms from granulated materials.

Whereas prefab structures are a composition of elements, granular formation involves fabrication machines, (Fab)Bots, that are able to create stone-hard structures on-site, by the programmed spraying of aggregate material with a binding agent. New materials, including granulated PET bottles, are now being tested. Discovering how to mould molecules is the future of architecture.

 

Medicine

Dr Maryanne Demasi, medical scientist, reporter for ABC TV’s Catalyst

The mosquito responsible for spreading dengue fever originated in Africa, but infests more than 100 countries, endangering at least 2.5 billion people. The 30-year battle against the disease has new impetus in bacterial experiments headed by Professor Scott O’Neill from Monash University in Melbourne.

A wild population of mosquitoes was infected with a common reproductive parasite, Wolbachia, which prevents the transmission of the dengue virus to humans. The true breakthrough, however, is that the offspring of these mosquitoes are born carrying Wolbachia, which potentially reduces the spread of the disease. Large-scale trials are now commencing in countries such as Vietnam, Brazil and Indonesia.

Smaller yet, nano-sized robots (nanobots) hold the promise to heal our bodies from within, working with unimagined precision at a molecular level. Dr Ralph Merkle from the Institute of Molecular Manufacturing in California foresees a heart patient ingesting nanobots in a pill and the laser- or electromagnetically-controlled nanobots performing their surgery before ultimately being excreted normally from the body. Similarly, carbon nanobombs – atoms of carbon arranged in liquid-filled tubes – could be detonated by laser to kill surrounding cancer cells. 

The new Cell and Molecular Therapies Laboratories at Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, which opened last year, are hosting pioneering research in genetic therapies. Scientists dressed in protective suits work in a secured clean-room facility with air that is up to 1000 times more pure than ambient; it’s a totally dust-free, lint-free, bug-free environment.

Under haematology expert Professor John Rasko, the team is experimenting with blood stem-cell therapies that may hold cures for particular cancers, heart disease, diabetes, leukaemia and HIV. The laboratory itself is a multimillion-dollar engineering feat, achieved with backing from government and philanthropy. 

Industrial design

Brandon Gien, managing director Good Design Australia

Industrial designers are increasingly stepping outside pure product design and collaborating with scientists, researchers, engineers, business leaders and governments to design better services, systems and business processes. Design-led thinking is thereby expanding its influence on business, the environment and society at large.  

Industrial designers continually look at materials innovation, technology and processes to wrap around their next design, be it a mobile phone, car or electric toaster. If the buzz around carbon-based solar cells is anything to go by, the future’s looking bright. Researchers at Stanford University have followed up on the nano-material graphene (see Architecture) by developing a flexible solar-cell film. Carbon-based, it’s vastly cheaper than current solar cells, which use exotic metals. If commercialised, the material will allow designers to incorporate a flexible, energy-gathering coating to enable buildings, cars, appliances and even clothing to generate electricity.

For many years, 3D printing (also called rapid prototyping) has allowed designers and manufacturers to develop and test products and parts without the expense of handmade prototypes. Today, the plummeting cost of 3D printing technology is allowing designers to make products themselves; a radically new approach to the traditional mass-manufacturing model.

The technology enables on-demand, low-volume production of anything from car parts to jewellery, from materials including starches, metal, rubber and even chocolate.

Equally in the future frame is biomimicry, a discipline that emulates design principles from nature (a famous example is Velcro). Janine Benyus, biologist, innovation consultant and co-founder of the Biomimicry Institute, is helping to direct the outcomes of this research into the design of shoes, carpets, furniture and even aircraft, leading to more efficient and environmentally sustainable outcomes. If imitation is the best form of flattery then nature, perhaps unsurprisingly, could hold the key to the future of design.

Digital technology

Karla Courtney, Bauer Custom Media digital strategy director

The internet is now truly mobile and it’s easy to associate the smartphone boom with consumer brand names such as Apple and BlackBerry. However, it’s the names working behind the scenes that are shrinking our devices and increasing our content-consumption habits exponentially.

As processors – the little chips in our devices that basically tell them what to do – become smaller and more powerful, so do our phones and tablets. ARM, the British developer of processors used in most mobile phones, recently announced a 64-bit processor to be released in 2014.

ARM claims the 64-bit technology will be three times as powerful as a 2012 smartphone, but with five times the efficiency. ARM has forecast CO2 output from data centres will soon surpass that of aeroplanes.

Another advance affecting the size and shape of devices is the screen. Lighter, more durable glass allows for lighter, more durable devices. Corning has developed a thin, flexible glass that, among many other applications, will be used to advance our small-screen technology. This has the potential to add a third dimension to our touchscreen interfaces. 

Devices are just glass, metal and microchips without the app and publishing technology to fill them. On the content side, some of the greatest innovations are taking place at the intersection of creative arts and technology. TedEd (ed.ted.com), for example, is a platform for the world’s best educators and animators to bring school lessons to life in innovative and engaging ways.

Codeacademy is an online learning platform designed to teach anyone how to code in a creative, engaging and social way. As ways to merge creativity and technology continue to become more accessible, the quality and capacity of mobile applications, websites and web content will flourish.

Environment

Giles Parkinson, editor, RenewEconomy.com.au
Australians’ love of air-conditioning has played a significant role in recent jumps in electricity bills. The culprit – blazing sunshine – might also provide the cure, in the form of solar cooling. Paolo Corrada, a PhD student in Queensland University of Technology’s science and engineering faculty, says heating and cooling account for about two-thirds of our energy use. By using solar power to drive an absorption chiller, Corrada says energy use could be cut by 90 per cent; the addition of energy storage could remove it from the power grid completely.

The CSIRO has a slightly different idea, turning the concept of intermittent renewable energy sources upside down using technology similar to solar hot-water systems. Heat energy can be stored and then transformed, on cue, into cool air when demand increases.

Greenhouse emissions are another big problem for Australia, with higher emissions-per-person than any other developed country. There’s talk of geosequestration – burying liquid CO2 – but this technology seems decades away. What if the emissions could be sequestered and re-used? Three different companies – MBD Energy, Algae.Tec and Aurora Algae – are testing different methods to capture CO2 and use it as feedstock for algae, which can, in turn, be used to make pharmaceuticals, omega-3 products, animal feed, biomass for energy, even jet fuel.

On the subject of transport, more than six billion timber shipping pallets are used each year; many only once before becoming landfill. The Biofiba company based in Gosford, NSW, has come up with a biodegradable pallet that uses organic starches, non-food crops such as hemp, and no chemicals. Managing director Laurence Dummett says the Biopallet will cost no more than conventional timber types, and will biodegrade into garden mulch within about six months.

Motoring

John Carey, motoring writer Wheels magazine & Qantas The Australian Way

For at least three years, Google has been working to combine digital mapping, Street View images, advanced sensors and artificial intelligence technology as the basis of a self-driving car.

The idea of a car smart enough to drive itself has naturally attracted plenty of media attention. A truly autonomous automobile is still a long way from commercial viability, but car makers are working to combine a set of simpler technologies that could create super-safe, semi-autonomous cars much sooner.

Using data from sensors that monitor the car and its immediate surrounds, combined with the right software and hardware, a handful of luxury brands have already introduced systems that gently ??? correct an inattentive driver straying from his or her lane, or slam on the brakes should a pedestrian run onto the road ahead.

Currently, however, these cars can’t share what they know about their driving environment. Imagine a car that automatically braked when warned of a deadly hazard by another car, even before its driver saw the danger. Extending the telematic horizon, as it’s called, could make cars practically impossible to crash.

There are two major trials now underway to test the effectiveness of vehicle networking. The larger is a US Department of Transportation-led initiative that will connect nearly 3000 cars, trucks and buses in the Ann Arbor area of Michigan, using a radio frequency specially reserved for V2V (vehicle-to-vehicle) and V2I (vehicle-to-infrastructure). An Australian company, Cohda Wireless, is a key provider of the specialised radio technology being used.  

In Europe the smaller simTD (safe intelligent mobility field test Germany) project is relying on existing high-speed WLAN frequencies to link 120 vehicles being used in the area around Frankfurt. German car and car component makers, telecoms companies, research institutes, universities and government agencies are also involved. The project is being coordinated by Daimler’s Dr Christian Weiss, head of the cooperating systems team in the company’s research and advance development department. “We are convinced that Car-to-X communication represents an important step on the way to accident-free driving,” he says.

Science

Darren Osborne, news editor ABC Science Online

It’s been more than 100 years since humankind took to flying like the birds. Now, new frontiers of flight are being revealed by the bees.

Professor Mandyam Srinivasan of the University of Queensland is leading a team of researchers studying the behaviour of bees, and how they navigate by optic flow: gauging distance by the speed of passing objects.

Srinivasan says that despite having a brain the size of a pin head, bees have excellent vision and memory. “You don’t need a lot of processing power, just the right type of processing.” 

The researchers are applying their knowledge to develop vision systems for drone aircraft which, Srinivasan says, “are almost entirely autonomous, using their own vision to control flight, including take-off and landing”.

University of Sydney associate professor Kathy Belov leads the Australasian Wildlife Genomics Group. For more than five years she has been investigating Tasmanian devil facial tumour disease, which is pushing the animal to the brink of extinction. Belov and her team have used genetic sequencing to show that devils have a low level of diversity in genes, which may be why the cancer is so contagious. More recently, they found that different tumours might have different genes switched on or off, affecting the behaviour of the tumour. A captive breeding program involving 22 zoos across Australia has also been set up, which Belov says is “our best bet to save the species”. The research could help in the preservation of other species worldwide.

The Intelligent Polymer Research Institute, led by Professor Gordon Wallace at the University of Wollongong, is using polymers to control the behaviour of cells in the body. For example, Wallace says they are looking at materials in the cochlear ear implant that interact more effectively with nerve cells.

The team is also working on a brain implant that could detect and control epilepsy. “We’re starting to imagine applications that you just wouldn’t have thought possible five years ago,” he says.

Information technology

Jez Ford, technology writer Qantas The Australian Way

Satellites have been gathering and transmitting information since Sputnik I was launched in 1957; with technological innovation they are becoming smaller and more accessible. NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative encourages universities to create CubeSat nanosatellites, cubes of about 10cm formed from multiple units.

CubeSat has enabled Romania, Poland and Switzerland to have their own satellites. Dr Steven Tsitas at the University of New South Wales hopes to develop a larger version with commercial applications. “The smallest CubeSats are mostly educational,” Tsitas says. “I see a sweet spot at a 6U [six-unit] CubeSat – large enough to undertake some missions that currently require a microsatellite.”

Back on Earth, our televisions are delivering information and entertainment on an ever larger scale. The next wave will be a revolution in resolution. The Full HD of current flat-screens has been exposed as less than full, with the first Ultra HD TVs offering four times the definition in 3840 x 2160 pixels. 

Japanese broadcaster NHK is working with Britain’s BBC, among others, to realise Super Hi-Vision. Definition will increase a further fourfold, to 7680 x 4320 pixels. A doubling of current frame rates and digital audio recorded with 22.2 channels of sound will demand new methods of delivering and storing so much information.

One solution might emerge from quantum computing. Late last year, a team led by researchers from the Australian Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computing and Communication Technology announced the successful reading to, and writing from, a quantum bit, or qubit. This refers to the spin of an electron around a single phosphorus atom embedded in a silicon chip, with electrodes one three-thousandth the width of a human hair. 

The team’s next step will be to combine pairs of qubits in entangled states, so their storage and processing power increase exponentially. Potentially, 300 entangled qubits could perform more concurrent operations than there are atoms present in the universe.

Visual arts

Patricia Anderson, editor, Australian Art Review

Today, the pixel often replaces the brushstroke, presenting painters with a new set of challenges. Sydney artist Brett East’s giant, hyper-real paintings of bright pigments spurting from paint tubes so closely resembled photographs, East decided to document them and issue the giant photographs as limited-edition art works. This demanded considerable fine tuning, because modern digital printers are yet to match the human eye in apprehending fine distinctions. 

Among sculptors, chrome, polyurethane, industrial enamels and acrylics have expanded the more traditional media of wood, stone and bronze. Sydney’s Suzie Idiens creates minimalist sculptural paintings by coating medium-density fibreboard with glass-like layers of 
polyurethane. Brisbane’s Gemma Smith is pioneering hollow radiant constructions with sheets of reflective plexiglass, resembling diamond-faceted boulders. The light is trapped internally and reflected, prism-like, from each facet.

Some of the most interesting explorations of technological offerings can be found among jewellers. Professor Robert Baines, director of research and innovation at the RMIT School of Art, is a goldsmith and archaeo-metallurgist, and an expert on ancient Greek and Etruscan metalwork techniques. Baines finishes his delicately wrought constructions – both architectural and organic – in multiple bright colours, using the industrial process of electrostatic powder coating. He also incorporates miniature metal cars and fragments of plastic reflectors, trapped in his pieces such as the legendary Mesopotamian Ram In A Thicket. 

“I can build structures that are abstractions, and structures that have associations with other structures,” Baines says.

Source Qantas The Australian Way February 2013

Michael Stahl

 

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