US researchers create sweat sensors for less active users

Your sweat could soon be used to monitor your daily health vitals even when you don’t move much, say scientists.

A team at Stanford University, led by electrical engineer Sam Emaminejad, have developed a perspiration-based wearable biosensor platform for non-invasive health monitoring in real time.

Using sweat to obtain health-related information is not a new concept, but previous devices were often unable to collect enough from inactive individuals to provide accurate vitals.

The new invention “makes sweat sensing technology available to people such as the elderly,” said Alex Chortos, a biomaterial electronics expert at Harvard University,  who was not involved in the research.

The platform is able to pick up data from small amounts of sweat using a wireless and electrochemical interface to collect perspiration output at different rates and time intervals when the user is not active.

The sensors in the device “stimulate the sweat glands with the aid of an electric current,” the researchers wrote in the paper. This makes the user secrete sweat, analysing biomarkers such as electrolytes, metabolites and heavy metals in the body. The device can also measure chloride levels in sweat that are indicative of the lung disease cystic fibrosis, as well as blood glucose levels, the team added.

The scientists detected increased electrolyte content in the sweat of three users with cystic fibrosis, compared to six healthy users in the testing group. The sensors also managed to pick up on elevated glucose levels in the sweat of six out of seven users after they had consumed sugary foods.

The device can allow patients to easily monitor their health from the comfort of their home and does not cause discomfort due to the compact size, said the researchers.

However, for “significant impact”, the sensors will need to have a “correlation with blood levels,” said Amay Bandodkar, a wearable electronics expert at Northwestern University, who didn’t take part in the study.

The study has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Tilting your phone can allow hackers in

The way you hold – and tilt – your smartphone and type on your touchpad could put you at risk of data hacking, say scientists.

Cyber experts at Newcastle University found that criminals use motion sensors in phones to track hand and finger movements to obtain users’ PINs and passwords.

The rise in the popularity of gaming and fitness apps has led to smartphones and other Internet of Things devices being equipped with as many as 25 sensors, from cameras to gyroscopes that track tapping, clicking and scrolling and are able to spot unique motion patterns.

“Many of these sensors are used in apps without asking for permission from users,” Maryam Mehrnezhad, a cyber expert at the university, told PE. “This leaves the door open for hackers.” Cameras and GPS are usually the only sensors that ask for permission, she added.

The scientists warn that background apps and web pages could host hacking codes able to access the motion sensors on your phone to obtain patterns that lead to your private information .

So apps should be closed when not in use. They also advise that PINs and passwords should be changed regularly, and operating systems and apps should always be updated.

The researchers found that users were more concerned about being hacked through cameras, GPS and microphones on their devices than the rest of the sensors, so-called “silent sensors”. The study reports that users believed cameras could use face recognition to spy on them, or they might say their PIN out loud and the microphone could pick it up.

However, the team found that risk levels for motion sensors are much higher. Such sensors can decipher four-digit PINs with 70% accuracy on the first guess and 100% by the fifth guess from just the tilting movements of devices.

But not everyone is convinced by the research. “The amount of training required to even semi-reliably extract details doesn’t make this sound like a terribly effective way to snoop on people,” said Graham Cluley, independent cyber security analyst. “If you really wanted to spy on someone, there are easier ways to do it than this.”

The Newcastle team is confident the threat is there, though: it has even alerted tech giants such as Google and Apple and is “working closely with the industry to find a solution for this problem,” said Mehrnezhad. “It is a complex problem and we want to design a solution which keeps a good balance between security and usability.”

That’s not the only cyber threat to our phones. Using public WiFi hotspots for shopping and banking transactions can also “lead to cybercriminals stealing your information,” said David Emm, principal security researcher at cyber security company Kaspersky Lab. Emm added that using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) in public places that “create a personal, secure tunnel for each user and ensure that online activities stay private,” as well as downloading a security app for your phone.

The researchers are now studying wearables, such as fitness trackers linked to online profiles, which could be used to decode the user’s wrist movements and other actions, to see what cyber security threats they pose.

The researchers’ paper appears in the International Journal of Information Security.

Global demand set to fuel growth of UK aerospace industry

Credit: iStock

Credit: iStock

The UK’s aerospace industry will continue to grow as a result of the increasing demand globally for high-quality aerospace products, according to a report from Santander and manufacturers’ organisation the EEF.

The UK is the second-largest aerospace manufacturer in the world behind the US and the fourth-largest aerospace exporter.

The report predicts continued growth in air travel, particularly in emerging economies, as well as demand for spacecraft, rockets and satellites.

“By staying at the forefront of cutting-edge technologies, aerospace manufacturers have managed to retain a high share of the global market despite fundamental changes in international value chains,” said EEF senior economist George Nikolaidis.

“There are risks ahead no doubt but the sector looks well positioned to harness these challenges and remain a key player in the global aerospace industry.”

The report highlights key trends in the sector that the UK is benefiting from: 3D printing, the use of composites, and space tourism.

“Companies in every part of the country are demonstrating their ability to compete for business around the world and I am confident this will continue,” Paul Everitt, chief executive of the aerospace and defence trade body ADS, told PE.

“We are seeing one of the biggest backlogs of aircraft orders on record. Healthy long-term demand for aircraft is good news, but there must be no room for complacency.”

Everitt warned that the government’s new industrial strategy must make a strong commitment to the aerospace sector, with a focus on innovation and further improvements in productivity.

“As the UK prepares to leave the European Union, remaining globally competitive and at the cutting edge of technological development will be our best response to challenges and uncertainties,” he said.

Star Trek’s tricorder gets beamed into reality 13

Bones loved it – and we may soon, too. Tricorder, a fictional Star Trek-style medical scanner device, could soon be used by real doctors, after two international teams have been awarded more than $3m to develop their versions of the technology.

The mobile phone-sized device, dubbed a tricorder, was made famous in the TV series Star Trek, and could diagnose illnesses simply by being waved over a patient’s body.

XPRIZE, a nonprofit organisation that runs competitions to create “radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity” is behind the contest to develop the portable scanner.  Five years ago, XPRIZE joined forces with chip manufacturer Qualcomm and announced it would award $10m (£8m) to researchers who would create a real-life tricorder device.

Of the 300 teams that joined the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE, Final Frontier Medical Devices and Dynamical Biomarkers Group have been announced winners.

Final Frontier Medical Devices, a Pennsylvania-based team led by brothers Basil Harris, an emergency medicine physician, and George Harris, a network engineer, got the 1st place. They have received $2.6m to develop an artificial intelligence-based engine, DxtER, that learns to diagnose medical conditions by integrating the information from clinical emergency medicine with data analysis from actual patients.

The prototype includes a group of “non-invasive sensors” aimed at collecting data about vital signs, body chemistry and biological functions. This information is then analysed in the device’s diagnostic engine to make a “quick and accurate” assessment.

Dynamical Biomarkers Group’s tricorder prototype

A second-place prize of $1m was granted to Taiwan-based finalist, Dynamical Biomarkers Group, led by Harvard Medical School Associate Professor Chung-Kang Peng, and supported by HTC Research. Their prototype, which pairs diagnostic algorithms with a special method of analysis, is controlled with a smartphone.

While both devices aren’t quite as advanced as the Star Trek’s tricorder, XPRIZE organisers said that the teams “exceeded the competition requirements for user experience”, and met the goal of diagnosing 13 ailments and five vital signs at once. The prototypes have “taken humanity one step closer to realizing Gene Roddenberry’s 23rd century sci-fi vision,” the company mentioned in a press release.

Team Cloud DX, a cloud-based medical diagnoses firm that is sponsored by the Qualcomm Foundation, was also recognised as XPRIZE’s first “Bold Epic Innovator” and received $100,000.

This is not the only competition XPRIZE is running. In 2004, it awarded $10m to fund the first private spacecraft – SpaceShipOne, and it will soon give $20m to the winner of its Google Lunar XPRIZE challenge, where teams aim to get a rover to the moon.


Can Australia run on solar power at night?

Artist impression of Tesla's Gigafatory (Credit: Tesla )

Artist impression of Tesla’s Gigafatory (Credit: Tesla )

South Australia is packing heat to beat its energy crisis. Extreme temperatures – that can reach 40 degrees Celsius in the evenings – have led to heat waves across the region. As a result, power outages have become commonplace, with a major storm event and an unexpected level of energy demand causing two blackouts in the past six months. This prompted Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull to address the issue last month, declaring the region to be in the midst of an “energy emergency.”

Currently, half of South Australia is powered by renewables such as wind and solar, partially influenced by “increasing natural gas prices and limited interconnection with the neighbouring state of Victoria,” says Matthew Stocks, energy expert at the Centre for Sustainable Energy Systems at the Australian National University.

Despite this, the region suffers from the supply peaks and troughs because of renewable energy sources like solar and wind, which cannot work if the sun is not shining or if the wind is not blowing. Storing the energy that’s generated by these systems helps smooth out energy output when the sources are not available and release energy at peak times.

Storing renewable power

This problem could be solved thanks to Silicon Valley tycoon Elon Musk, who wants to help Australians with energy storage. The chief executive of Tesla took to Twitter last month to announce that his company can install a 100MW grid-connected battery in South Australia within 100 days. Musk is so sure of his plan that he’s promised to provide the factory for free if Tesla cannot install it within the given time frame.

Musk has been leading the battery brigade for years now, by pushing hard on electric cars with his Tesla vehicles and accompanying Supercharger stations, and most recently the Powerwall generator for his solar roof tiles, which are about to go on the market in a few weeks.

Since Musk’s tweet, Turnbull has confirmed that he had an “in depth discussion” with the billionaire to discuss energy storage and “its role in delivering affordable and reliable electricity.”

Musk is known for making ambitious, sweeping claims – from planning to colonise Mars to merging humans with computers – but he did succeed with energy storage before, just on a smaller scale. In November 2016, his solar power company SolarCity installed a microgrid on the island of Ta’u in American Samoa, 4,000 miles from the US West Coast. The grid that combines both solar panels and battery units took a year to install and provides the island’s 600 residents with a 1.4MW solar generation capacity and 60 Tesla Powerpacks. The solar panels generate energy for the community in the day and the battery allows them to use stored solar energy at night. The grid is expected to save not only the island’s energy costs, but also 109,500 gallons of diesel annually.

A world of batteries

But of course, Musk is not the only one flying the energy storage flag. “There are numerous examples of utility scale batteries being installed to help improve the stability of electricity networks,” says Stocks, citing California as an example. “That state alone installed three utility scale battery systems with capacities of greater than 20MW in 2016.”

A giant natural gas leak in Southern California back in 2015 resulted in a depleted fuel source for regional power plants. To tackle the problem, rechargeable battery grids were installed to store solar power in the daytime and release electricity in the evenings. Engineers in California set up the electrical grid across three energy-storage sites that are made up of oversize versions of lithium-ion batteries commonly found in smartphones and other digital devices. One of the sites belongs to Musk’s Tesla, located near the city of Chino. Another can be found at a San Diego Gas & Electric operations centre in Escondido, featuring 19,000 battery units made by Samsung.

There are efforts in other countries, too. For instance, India launched its first grid-scale battery storage system earlier this year, with plans to incorporate 175GW of renewable energy into the power system by 2022. The 10MW Advancion energy storage array is operated by Tata Power Delhi Distribution, in collaboration with Mitsubishi and US energy storage company AES.

China is attempting to bring clean energy to the country by constructing an energy storage project in the city of Dalian, where a 200MW vanadium redox flow battery facility is being built, to be completed in 2018. Meanwhile, in Japan, a patch of land near Mount Fuji is becoming a testing ground for energy storage where companies will work together to develop the technology. And the 150MW Andasol solar power station in Spain is a commercial solar thermal power plant that uses tanks of molten salt to store captured solar energy.

A push in the right direction

Stocks adds that setting up such grids doesn’t have to be a complicated affair, as all you need is for more cells to be connected, and appropriate control systems to provide the type of response needed.

Whether or not Musk makes good on his word, his idea seems to have inspired the South Australian government. Shortly after Musk’s tweet, it announced plans for a 100MW grid-connected battery that will be the largest in the country. So far, 90 companies – suspected to include Tesla and battery-manufacturing giant LG Chem – have submitted storage technology proposals that are being reviewed by the state. The Australian Renewable Energy Agency is spending nearly £12 million on energy storage projects across the country, including batteries and technologies such as pumped hydro storage.

However, batteries are not the cheapest renewable energy storage option and comes with its own challenges. Back in 2012, a small project involving 12,000 lead-acid batteries at a wind farm in Hawaii caught flames three times in its first 18 months of operation. As a result, the storage developer went bankrupt and investment in battery storage was scarce for a few years.

Despite potential volatility, the use of energy storage batteries in South Australia could have prevented the blackouts “due to their very fast response time” and “provide near instantaneous response to disturbances in the system if programmed to do so,” says Evan Franklin, energy systems expert at the Australian National University.

So even if Musk does not end up helming South Australia’s battery grid, he seems to have put into motion an energy storage movement in the region.

3D printing could help in colonising other planets

When humans start to colonise other planets, infrastructure could be 3D printed using the surrounding cosmic dust, say scientists.

Researchers at Northwestern University’s Tissue Engineering and Additive Manufacturing Laboratory in Chicago simulated particles found on the moon and Mars to 3D print functional and structural objects.

To tackle the issue of limited resources on other planets and moons “people will need to use what is available to make habitats beyond Earth,” said Ramille Shah, materials engineer at the university.

The team created Nasa-approved dust that mimics the size, shape and composition of “micro-rocks” found on the Moon and Mars. Along with biopolymers and solvents, they used the dust to make “3D paints” to print structures that are more than 90% dust by weight.

“We even 3D printed interlocking bricks, similar to Lego, that can be used as building blocks,” Shah added.

The particles are elastic and flexible – similar to rubber – and can be cut, rolled, folded and shaped as desired, said the scientists.

Last year, the university mixed simulated Martian particles with sulphur – an abundant element on the red planet – to create concrete that could be used to build structures. In 2015, Nasa gave an award to another team of researchers who had suggested the 3D printing of pressurised, radiation-proof “ice houses” on Mars using the water available on the planet.

Shah and her team previously created 3D paints using to print structures, as well as developing a 3D printable ink that produces synthetic hyper-elastic bone material whose shape can be customised for implants.


Nuclear power is set to get a lot safer (and cheaper) – here’s why

High-profile disasters such as Chernobyl and Fukushima have given nuclear power a bad name.

Despite 60 years of nuclear generation without major accidents in many countries including Britain and France, many people have serious concerns about the safety of nuclear energy and the impact of the radioactive waste it generates. The very high capital cost of building a plant is also seen as a significant barrier, particularly given recent low oil prices. Plans to build a new British plant at Hinkley Point in Somerset are facing fresh opposition after it emerged the estimated lifetime costs had risen to £37 billion. The Conversation

Yet the high priority of reducing carbon emissions thanks to climate change means nuclear power looks more important than ever. Luckily, the next generation of reactors could hold the answer. With more in-built safety systems and a way to reuse old fuel, they are set to make nuclear power safer and, potentially, cheaper.

Human error and a natural disaster played major roles in the Chernobyl and Fukushimaincidents, respectively. But in both cases, the failures occurred when the plants could no longer keep the reactors cool enough. At Chernobyl this was because of deliberate action and human error, and at Fukushima because the backup generators to drive the cooling pumps had been destroyed as a result of the tsunami.

An important reason why nuclear power is so expensive is the complex engineering, exacting standards, and advanced manufacturing technology that is used to ensure safe operation. For example, plants usually sits on a “nuclear island” of reinforced concrete that acts as a stable base for the plant and provides a barrier of last resort in case radioactive material is released. The pressure vessel at the core of the plant is made from carefully alloyed and fabricated steel to prevent it from becoming brittle from the decades’ worth of radiation it has to endure.

Modern reactors are safer

Today’s reactor designs also have far more safety features than older installations. These range from duplicate emergency cooling systems to prevent overheating even if some systems fail, through to so-called “core catchers” that would contain the reactor core in a worst-case meltdown event.

Some designs will cool passively in the event of a loss of power to the cooling circuit (as happened at Fukushima). The heat from the core will gradually dissipate from the walls of the pressure vessel and through the cooling circuit by convection. The reactors that are being constructed today benefit from 60 years of experience gained in the design and operation of nuclear power plants around the world.

But future reactor technologies –- so-called “Gen IV” designs – offer even better inherent safety. One of their key features are fully passive cooling systems so the reactor is never dependent on external power for safety. The reactor is carefully designed so that overheating actually reduces, rather than increases, the power output of the core. The core and cooling systems are not pressurised, and using liquids other than water for cooling prevents the risk of creating hydrogen: both of which drastically reduce the risk of explosions as occurred at Fukushima.

Gen IV reactors will also allow more efficient use of nuclear fuel. The fuel in current reactor designs is used only once and then disposed of, which produces radioactive waste that will take hundreds of millennia to decay to a safe level. But this waste contains valuable resources of fissile material that can be reprocessed into new fuel. Burning this fuel in specialised “fast” reactors provides would be much more efficient and generate waste that decays safely within just a hundred years or so. It would also move us towards a closed fuel-cycle that would greatly extend the lifetime of the Earth’s uranium reserves.

More power plants equals cheaper power

Another of the factors that makes nuclear power plants so expensive is that we haven’t built very many in recent years. This means that there is no industrial supply chain of companies with the expertise to manufacture the technology, reducing competition and limiting economies of scale.

For the few plants that have been built, there have often been issues in construction quality as the project has progressed: with the concrete for the nuclear island, the welding of heat exchanger pipework, or the composition of the steel used for the pressure vessel. These have needed expensive fixes or investigation to assure regulators that safety hasn’t been compromised.

So one way to reduce the costs of nuclear power plant is simply to build more of them. There are economies of scale in terms of having identical designs with the same requirements for construction, fuelling, operation and maintenance. In the UK in particular, attention is shifting towards so-called small modular reactors, or SMRs, that produce less power but that have lower upfront capital construction costs.

Perhaps if the latest technology can also convince the public nuclear power has become safer, there will be the appetite to build enough plants to bring the costs down even more.

Michael Fitzpatrick, Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Lloyd’s Register Foundation Chair in Structural Integrity and Systems Performance, Coventry University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

4D printing technique speeds up “shape-shifting” of objects

A new technique for 4D printing could make objects shift shape quicker, say scientists.

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) and Xi’an Jiaotong University in China have developed a so-called 4D printing method that allows 3D-printed components to change shape when heated.

The technology could be useful for applications that require components to morph into multiple configurations and “self-assemble without human intervention” during operation, said Peter Walters, a 3D printing expert at the Centre for Fine Print Research at the University of the West of England in Bristol, who was not involved in the research.

The new approach can greatly reduce printing time and save a lot of material, said Jerry Qi, a materials scientist at Georgia Tech and one of the paper’s authors. “This completely eliminates time-consuming mechanical programming from the design and manufacturing workflow.”

The term ‘4D printing’ was first coined by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer scientist Skylar Tibbits in 2013, when he pioneered it in collaboration with the 3D printing company Stratasys, using hydrogels to make objects shape-shift.

But the team led by Georgia Tech eliminates the use of hydrogels, which usually slow down transformation time and lead to unstable shapes, according to the researchers.

Another team from SUTD attempted a similar 4D printing method last year by using shape memory polymers, but the stiff material required a series of programming steps – such as heating, mechanical loading, cooling and removal of load – after printing to transform.

This time around, the three universities overcame the issue by incorporating these steps into the printing process. The researchers printed a laminated strip of shape memory polymer with a built-in soft elastomer that put an internal strain on the material. After applying heat – by immersing the strip in hot water – the strain on the elastomer loosened and gave the strip a permanent arrangement of waves.

The scientists then reshaped the material into several other configurations upon heating, including a model flower with bent petals and a lattice-shaped object “that could expand nearly eight times its original size,” said Qi.

The technology could make way for products to be stacked or rolled to save storage space and be expanded once in use, or allow components to respond to temperature and light.

One potential example is the manufacture of “adaptive wing flaps on aircraft or stents in the medical world,” said Phill Dickens, manufacturing technology expert at the University of Nottingham. He added that 4D printing is currently used to control exhaust gas systems on aeroengine cowlings.

The paper is published in the journal Science Advances.

Industry defends diesel cars’ record on air quality

Britain’s automotive industry has defended diesel cars, as the government prepares to announce proposals for improving air quality.


The government is expected to follow in London’s footsteps and make it more expensive to use the most-polluting vehicles.

However, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) said some recent reports have been dismissive of progress made by the sector by failing to differentiate between newer and cleaner diesel cars and vehicles of the past.

“Euro 6 diesel cars on sale today are the cleanest in history,” said SMMT chief executive Mike Hawes. “Not only have they drastically reduced or banished particulates, sulphur and carbon monoxide but they also emit vastly lower NOx than their older counterparts – a fact recognised by London in their exemption from the Ultra Low Emission Zone that will come into force in 2019.”

Hawes said diesel cars are also a key part of action to tackle climate change, while also enabling millions of people to travel as affordably as possible.

The SMMT said a record 1.3 million new diesel cars were registered in the UK in 2016, an increase of 0.6% on 2015, a trend it expects to see continue this year.

London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan has promised to crack down on polluting vehicles to make the capital the greenest in the world. He plans to ban new diesel taxis from 2018, while drivers of diesel cars that are more than four years old in 2019 and petrol cars that are more than 13 years old will pay £12.50 a day on top of the existing congestion charge.

Under the proposals, pre-Euro VI trucks will be fined £100 a day for entering the capital, equating to £2 billion in fines per year.

“Of course we all want a cleaner London,” said the Road Haulage Association’s chief executive Richard Burnett. “But don’t let the mayor’s quest for clean air turn the nation’s capital into a ghost town.

“The thousands of restaurants, shops and tourist attractions that make London one of the world’s major tourist centres are massively reliant on an efficient delivery network. That must not be jeopardised.”

The government is due to announce its plans to comply with European Union legislation to improve air quality and meet nitrogen dioxide limits by 24 April, following a ruling by the High Court late last year.

A study in 2015 by King’s College London found that almost 9,500 Londoners die prematurely every year as a result of long-term exposure to air pollution.

Authorities in cities including Paris, Stuttgart, Athens, Brussels and Madrid are also trying to reduce pollution by proposing bans, fines and restrictions on diesel vehicles.