E&T news weekly #94 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the week

Friday 13 May 2016

Dickon Ross  Dickon Ross, editor in chief
Methane-capture clothes developed to absorb greenhouse gases

Everything it seems is going ‘smart’ but that term can mean lots of things. Usually, that means putting ‘intelligence’ – through integrating electronics and software – into otherwise ordinary products, but sometimes it implies it’s clever in another way, being better for the environment for example. Smart clothing usually means wearable electronics but a few research projects are working on sustainable clothing made out of textiles that incorporates greenhouse gases. This can have a double benefit in that it acts as a ‘sink’ for those gases but also a substitute for something else derived from fossil fuels. The catch? They haven’t actually made any yet – it’s just an idea. But it’s a smart one.

Nissan trials system to power National Grid with electric vehicles

One problem with micro-generation installations like rooftop solar panels or wind turbines is that you don’t always get the power where and when you need it. Storage is expensive. Big batteries don’t come cheap. But wait! The increasingly popular electric cars all have big batteries in them and there only used for driving part of the time. So why not use all those big batteries parked in garages and driveways to store excess generated power for later use, where and when it’s really needed. That’s fine in principle but it’s easier said than done. Here’s one trial about to discover how feasible it is in practice.

Rebecca Northfield  Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
‘Star Wars’ helmet detects concussion in the field

There I was, getting all excited that it was a genuine Star Wars helmet. Alas, I was fooled, as it only looks like a badly home-made imitation of it. It reminds me of the kind of DIY you would do if you hadn’t made your Halloween costume in advance for the party, realising you only had two hours to whip up something, but you only had a bowl, glue, little bits of junk and lots of metallic spray paint. Apart from that, this piece of equipment that some Norwegian folks have cooked up could make a real, positive difference to the speed of detecting concussions and other head injuries. The prototype looks-like-something-from-the-Rebel-Alliance-but-not-really helmet is designed to be a portable EEG scanner, which is fast at diagnosing concussion. Head injuries are a big worry at accident scenes, contact sports such as rugby and in the military, where diagnoses are needed fast for optimum treatment and recovery. The helmet may increase the survival rate of patients with head trauma, and cut risks of strokes. The 4.5kg helmet has electrodes, with an elastic membrane that is applied to the scalp. All very techy. I’m going to go fly my X-Wing now.

Lorna Sharpe  Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
Gas attack experiment tested in New York subway

Younger readers won’t remember this, but members of a Japanese cult carried out a nerve-gas attack on the Tokyo Metro in 1995 that killed 12 people and severely injured 50 more. It’s likely, then, that transport authorities in the world’s major cities have given some thought before now to how they would protect their systems. That depends on understanding the threat. This latest experiment is part of that process. When New York commuters see those sensors benignly labelled ‘air flow study’ it might trigger a frisson of alarm, but it ought to be reassuring.

Mars wind farm to power 100 per cent of UK operations

It’s an eye-catching headline, no matter how quickly you reject that first image of a wind farm on the Red Planet. Food manufacturer Mars, known for its space-themed confectionery products the Mars bar, Milky Way and Galaxy, has signed an energy deal with the operator of a Scottish wind farm that will see as much renewable energy put into the grid as Mars consumes across all its 12 UK sites. Put like that it’s just another electricity contract – but it’s still a pretty good headline.

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Personal plane that takes off like helicopter to take to skies in 2018

The canny German start-up behind this attempt to, as they put it, “develop an aircraft for everyday life”, compare the space it would need to take off and land as being roughly the size of a modest back garden and the 20 hours of training needed to pilot it to the time they reckon it takes to be good enough to pass the UK driving test. So even if you’ve never envied those literal high-fliers zipping in and out of their country estate in a helicopter you could aspire to doing pretty much the same thing with much less effort and investment. It all sounds like the scenario that 1950s illustrations of what the world would be like in the 21st century promised us, with Dad zipping off to work in his flying car while Mum touches down neatly outside school to drop the kids off. All within a couple of years, apparently. Be prepared to look up jealously at your next door neighbour heading off to the office oblivious to the traffic jam you’re stuck in down below. If only the general standard of driving on Britain’s roads filled me with confidence that letting the same people loose in the sky isn’t going to lead to something more serious than the bumps and shunts that have become an everyday part of driving.

Nissan trials system to power National Grid with electric vehicles

For those of us happy to keep our feet, and our wheels, on the ground, there’s the prospect of our cars becoming mobile energy hubs, storing electricity generated from renewables and feeding it back into the grid as necessary. It’s actually a chicken and egg situation, in that take up of electric vehicles, while not spectacular, still threatens to put a strain on the grid as increasing numbers of owners need to charge up batteries enough to assuage any range anxiety they may feel. National Grid reckons that by 2020 there could be 700,000 EVs out there, requiring an additional 500MW of capacity to keep them running. Vehicle-to-grid technology – or V2G as it’s known in industry – looks to be a smart solution. It’s a long way from the hundred cars taking part in this initial trial to hundreds of thousands, but that’s no reason not to give it a try.

Georgina Bloomfield  Georgina Bloomfield, digital content editor
Smartphone use causing ‘separation anxiety’ and ADHD

Have you ever left home for the day and forgotten your mobile phone? Have you realised this on your route to work – and wondered if you’ve gone too far to turn back to get it? I have. The thought has actually crossed my mind that I may go all the way back home for my phone so I could text someone to tell them that I’m now late meeting them. It’s ridiculous! I feel completely lost without my phone – but not for Facebook or news reasons. It’s the fear of perhaps being needed urgently and not being able to get to my phone if there’s an emergency. But, if it was a true emergency, I can be contacted in other ways too. So why does not having my phone with me make me feel nothing but dread? (Yes, I know, I’m Gen-Y, blah blah blah, whatever). I’d feel lost and slightly bereft but I’m not sure I would become completely hyperactive. Steve Jobs was right – smartphones have changed everything in society. I know I’m not guilty of being so addicted to my phone that I’ve walked into a lamp post though – I mean come on guys! They’re just phones, right? Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to check my tweets.

Jonathan Wilson  Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Autonomous vehicles may lead to UK driving test changes

You know, in all the excitement surrounding the accelerated development of autonomous vehicles, it has never occurred to me – until now – that the driving test as we know it could become obsolete, or at the very least require substantial overhaul and revision. Of course, there will still be a requirement for human drivers to understand the laws of the road and demonstrate competence and confidence behind the wheel, but when our cars are doing the majority of the work in keeping us safe on the road, new rules will be required.

Gas attack experiment tested in New York subway

Anonymous government operatives in high-vis tabards unleashing a visible gas cloud during rush hour in some of New York City’s busiest subway stations does sound like a recipe for mass panic, but the tests this week by the US Department of Homeland Security was designed to better understand how gas spreads inside New York’s intricate subway network, in the event of a terrorist attack or toxic leak. The researchers released the gas at three key stations and will be checking for particles of the gas emerging at 55 other Manhattan subway locations.

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