E&T news weekly #28 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the week

Friday November 28 2014

  Jonathan Wilson Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Turning sawdust into gasoline

Despite an ongoing global over-reliance on fossil fuels, scientists fortunately keep coming up with new and innovative ways of deriving a fuel source from waste material. The latest development comes from Belgian researchers who have developed a method for turning sawdust into the building blocks for gasoline that could be used as an additive in plastics or fuel. The chemical process modifies cellulose, present in non-edible plant matter such as straw, grass, cotton or paper, by removing oxygen bonded to its hydrocarbon chains while preserving the chains’ structure. The hydrocarbon chains could then be added into gasoline, replacing a portion of the fossil fuel.

Honda admits failing to notify regulator of serious accidents

You’d like to think that Honda, an automotive company that has latterly built its “we do things differently” reputation on quirky adverts featuring _that_ deep male voiceover, would be a little more honest with US safety regulators when it comes to reporting incidents involving its vehicles. Apparently, 1,729 claims of injuries and deaths related to accidents in Honda vehicles since 2003 went “underreported”. The revelations have surfaced due to the ongoing investigation in to the sub-par performance of certain Takata airbags, used by Honda as well as other automotive manufacturers.


  Aasha Bodhani Aasha Bodhani, assistant technology features editor
Turing sawdust into gasoline

Belgian researchers have found a way to turn sawdust into building blocks for gasoline in just half a day by modifying cellulose by removing oxygen bonded to its hydrocarbon chains while preserving its structure. The researchers say the invention would be best valuable in Europe due to low resources in oil.

Solar-powered headphones launched on Kickstarter

Listening to music is now becoming environmentally friendly thanks to French start-up EXOD. The company has developed energetically self-sustainable headphones which feature a thin solar panel placed on the upper rim. The headphones are capable of generating enough energy in half an hour for 60 minutes of continuous playing music.


  Rebecca Northfield Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Novel nano-tech battery charged in seconds

This is the most convenient invention I’ve seen in a long time. A battery system for smartphones, designed by Tel Aviv-based StoreDot, cuts charging time to minutes or seconds. There are bio-organic nanocrystals – dubbed nanodots – in the core of the system that change the battery’s behaviour to quickly absorb and efficiently retain energy. At present, the prototype is too bulky for mobile phones but a smaller, market-ready version should be ready in 2016. On occasion I panic that my phone is losing its juice; I cut short my phone calls and my perusal of the internet whilst cursing my phone charger at home. The 2016 version of the battery system will provide one day’s worth of charging in 30 seconds. Brilliant.

Tiny DNA reader could herald personalised medicine

It can take countless attempts for a doctor to get a medicine right for a patient and some people just don’t have enough time. A team from Arizona State University (ASU) and IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Center have created a tiny semiconductor DNA reader using atomic layer deposition. The device is just nanometres across and can differentiate the individual chemical bases of DNA (known as A, C, T or G) when pumped past the reading head. This development could benefit so many, especially those who are struggling to maintain their mental or physical health.  In the future, the technology could be used to make medicine a personal affair by using people’s DNA profiles to customarily design treatments to their individual makeup.  The DNA and protein diagnostic devices are powerful, cheap and simple, and ASU’s Biodesign Institute wants every doctor’s office to have one in the future.


  dominic-lenton Dominic Lenton, managing editor
IET partners with ITN Productions for engineering special

The lack of serious engineering programmes on television, and the idea that if more were broadcast it would give the public a clearer idea of what the profession’s all about in the 21st century, is a perennial subject of letters to E&T. It’s not going head to head with X Factor or Strictly Come Dancing, but the IET is doing its bit with ‘Working to Engineer a Better World’, a film made in collaboration with ITN Productions that’s available to watch online. Wouldn’t your next ten minutes watching videos online perhaps be better spent in the company of IET president William Webb and news anchor Natasha Kaplinsky?

3D printer creates first made in space object

A printhead faceplate might not be the most useful thing for astronauts to be able to manufacture in space using 3D printing, but is the starting point for developing technology that would help colonise other planets. According to Nasa, the trial run on the International Space Station is the initial step towards providing “on-demand machine shop capability away from the Earth”, or all those machines in science-fiction movies that churn out the necessities of life from local raw materials.


  Tereza Pultarova Tereza Pultarova, online news reporter
Boris calls for drones to ease London’s traffic jams

The advent of online shopping caused a revolution allowing customers to purchase whatever they desire from the comforts of their homes. However, as the Mayor of London Boris Johnson has warned, it has its downside. Delivery vans now contribute greatly to the ever more congested roads of London. And the solution? Personal shopping drones that would collect your groceries and parcels and deliver them wherever you may wish.

Incentives for CO2 capture ‘should be part of climate treaty

It seems the world’s experts are slowly giving up hope the world will be able to tackle global warming just by cutting greenhouse gas emissions. This week, a UN agency proposed carbon capture and storage technologies should be eligible for subsidies similarly to renewables, with a policy framework to be embedded into the new climate treaty to be negotiated next year in Paris. Will it stop here or are we bound to see some more daring geoengineering concepts coming to life in the next decades?


  Vitali Vitaliev Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
EU Parliament passes recommendation to break up Google

How ironic that an enormous, largely unaccountable and aggressively domineering behemoth of the EU wants to “break down” another enormous, largely unaccountable and aggressively domineering behemoth – Google. Perhaps the European Parliament, with all its 751 MEPs, could start with “breaking down” itself a little before trying to regulate other giant organisations that have grown out of all proportions? A classic case of the pot calling the kettle black!

Boris calls for drones to ease London’s traffic jams

Another semi-Utopian project of the ever-indefatigable Boris – personal drones to pick up your mail and do your shopping, all by themselves! According to the Mayor’s increasingly faltering vision, it will be soon possible to spot not just dog walkers, but also drone fliers in Hampstead Heath, that traditional dog walkers’ paradise (for drones, like all pets, would need some exercise too). One could perhaps do both at the same time: walk the dog/s and fly the drone/s above their head/s. The only remaining issue is the pets’, sorry the drones’, names. I would leave this to the readers’ imagination, but can suggest something like ‘Drony’, ‘Zoomy’ or ‘Buzzy’ off the top of my head.

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