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Electronic Jell-O

The future of medical diagnostics may come in the form of 3-D printed electronic Jell-O, according to an Australian chemist who’s working on developing edible sensors made out of materials like gelatin.

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Feel Invisible 3D Shapes With Blasts of Ultrasound

Virtual and augmented reality displays are getting very, very good at allowing us to see things that aren’t really there. When paired with a sensing system (like Kinect), we can even interact with these virtual objects. The missing piece here is touch: the ability to feel things that don’t actually exist. Using an array of focused ultrasound that can create patterns of turbulence in the air, computer scientists from the University of Bristol have been able to generate 3D shapes in midair that you can’t see, but that you can touch.

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Fujitsu Forges Li-Fi-like QR Code Replacement

Forget about QR codes (if you haven’t already). Fujitsu Laboratories, in Kawasaki, near Tokyo, has come up with a much brighter idea: Its researchers have developed a way to embed identification data in LED lighting that can be projected on any object. Like with a QR code, you’d point your smartphone camera to the object to get more information about it. But in the case of the Fujitsu system, it doesn’t require anything to be physically printed or attached to the object being queried, which can be distracting, costly, or otherwise mar something’s appearance.

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Maglev Elevators Will Take You Up, Down, and Sideways by 2016

In a relentless drive to render walking completely obsolete, elevators are about to get a major upgrade: the ability to go sideways, thanks to magnetic levitation technology. German industrial behemoth ThyssenKrupp is promising that two-axis travel (“the holy grail of the elevator industry”) will revolutionize intra-building travel, and that they’ll have it operational in 2016.

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Passive Radiator Cools by Sending Heat Straight to Outer Space

Conventional cooling is all about moving heat from a place where you don’t want it to a place that you care about slightly less. Your refrigerator, for example, cools itself by pumping heat into your house. Your house cools itself by pumping heat into the outdoors. It takes a significant amount of energy to keep this up—15 percent of the energy consumption of most buildings is spent just on air conditioning—meaning that the work put into transferring the heat generates even more heat. And then it’s not like the heat just vanishes when it gets outside: in urban areas, all of this waste heat builds up to increase local temperatures as part of the urban heat island effect.

In Nature this week, Stanford researchers describe a passive radiator system that can lower the temperature of anything that it’s placed on by up to five degrees Celsius by absorbing heat and sending it directly into outer space, and it even works in direct sunlight.

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Energy Harvesting Nanogenerators Give 130 Volts at the Touch of a Finger

Winter approaches in the Northern Hemisphere, the air is drier, and triboelectrics, electricity caused by friction, is a phenomenon you’ll probably encounter daily.

Engineers at KAIST are working on a better use for that harvested energy than zapping your friends and neighbors. They’ve come up with a nanotechnology-enhanced system to power small electronics

Triboelectric generators (TENGs) consist essentially of two different materials that are rubbed together. Materials that like to give off electrons, such as glass or nylon, will donate them to materials that like to absorb them—materials with the highest electronegativity, such as silicon or teflon.  However, rubbing these materials together causes wear. So Zhong Lin Wang, a physicist at Georgia Tech and colleagues developed materials that generate electricity by pressing them together.  The contact surfaces of the materials are corrugated, and by pressing the materials together, the corrugated structures enmesh, causing the friction that leads to electricity generation.

 "By applying pressure, those two materials are contacting, and they generate charge by contact electrification. This contact mode of triboelectric nanogenerator has less mechanical degradation with excellent efficiency," says Keon Jae Lee, from the department of materials science and engineering, at KAIST in Korea. Georgia Tech announced the invention of the first such device, called a triboelectric nanogenerator (TENG), in 2012. Lee says that the efficiency of TENGs has been increasing exponentially.

Lee, Yeon Sik Jung and other researchers from KAIST and now report that by reducing the size of the surface nanostructures, they can improve the efficiency of the TENGs even further. In a TENG consisting of a Teflon layer and a silicate layer, they produced nanodots, nanogrates, and nanomeshes on the silica layer using block copolymer self-assembly technology. (Block copolymers are chain-like molecules with a repeating pattern. On a surface, they can fold-up together in such a way that a nanometer-scale pattern emerges.)

The resulting TENGs can produce up to 130 volts. They report a TENG simply pressed with a finger powering 45 blue 3-V LEDs connected in series.

"This is the first report that demonstrates the self-assembly phenomenon of block copolymer in triboelectric nanogenerators for the modulation of nanostructure,“ says Lee.  “They are very beneficial because they allow the increase of the contact area and the frictional electrification."

This post was corrected on 21 November 2014.

Experiment in Vienna Shows That Ground-to-Satellite Communication with Twisted Light is Possible

The amount of data that a light beam can transmit depends on its frequency range, or bandwidth—the wider it is, the more data you can cram into the beam. By manipulating the polarization of photons (a quantum property known as intrinsic spin angular momentum), which can be either horizontal or vertical, you can double the amount of information transmitted by a beam. There is another quantum property of photons, called orbital angular momentum (AOM), which can, in principle, have a ground state and an infinite number of values. Each of these values is associated with an integer indicating its helicity (represented by the integer l). In the ground state, where  l=0, the wave front of the waves is planar.  For all the other states, the wave front rotates along a “twisted” shape reminiscent of fusilli pasta (a helix); the amount of twist increases with increasing l.

In 2001, Anton Zeilinger, a quantum physicist at the University of Vienna, proposed the idea of using the orbital angular momentum of photons to increase the amount of data that can be transmitted by light beams. Several experiments in laboratories confirmed that data could be transmitted via twisted light beams, but the question of whether the quantum states of light photons would survive turbulence in air over long distances remained an open question.

In 2012, a Swedish-Italian research group successfully transmitted twisted microwaves over 450 meters of free space. But microwaves, although they consist of photons, are impervious to air turbulence. Therefore, Zeilinger and his research colleagues in Vienna decided to put the influence of turbulence—especially the turbulence you find above big cities—to the test.

Earlier this month, they reported in the New Journal of Physics the successful transmission of OAM modes via laser beam through open space over a distance of 3 kilometers. To make the experiment possible, they had to restrict the light beam to 16 OAM modes. “In principle, each single photon can have an unbounded number of different OAM values. We did our experiment with a laser, so we used a lot of photons, and so we are very far away from the single-photon regime,” explains Mario Krenn, a physicist at the University of Vienna and lead author of the New Journal of Physics paper.

The researchers transmitted the beam from the radar tower of the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics to the rooftop of their own institute building. To create the OAM modes, they reflected the light of a laser off a so-called spatial light modulator. “It is a usual pixel display with about one thousand by one thousand pixels where you can change the reflective index of each pixel,” says Krenn. “This allows us to introduce phase changes of 0 and 2π [pi] for each pixel. When we direct the laser beam at this spatial structure, the laser light undergoes these phase changes and develops these specific intensity energy patterns that we show in the video,” says Krenn.

A high quality lens (the first trials with a lower quality lens killed the OAM modes right away) focuses the reflected light into a 6-centimeter-wide beam that projects the light patterns on a screen 3 km away. A CCD camera recorded each of the 16 different patterns that resulted from the various OAM modes.

To the relief of the researchers, turbulence did not affect the OAM modes significantly, although it caused the patterns’ position on the screen to move. “Some calculations suggested that even after one kilometer, you might have a very big problem because of turbulence,” Krenn recalled. “With our method, we show that up to three kilometers of atmosphere does not destroy the OAM modes. [Because] the effective atmosphere is roughly six km thick, [transmitting through it] will not be a problem," says Krenn. “This result has interesting implications for future ground-satellite communication.”

To ascertain the quality of the transmission, the researchers transmitted small grey-scale images of three famous Viennese: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; Ludwig Boltzmann; and of course, Erwin Schrödinger. To recognize the patterns and associate them with the 16 OAM states, the researchers used an artificial neural network. “We recorded some test samples [about 450] of different modes, says Krenn. “This was the input to the network, a so-called unsupervised network. You don't have to tell it how it should learn, you supply the input and it characterizes the different structures by itself," says Krenn.

Holographic Food, Brain-Kitchenware Interface, and Other Future of Home Concepts

The best kinds of concepts are things that are so futuristic that they don’t exist yet, but not so futuristic that you couldn’t convince yourself that just maybe, in five or 10 years, the concept might deliver on its promises. Every year, the Electrolux Design Competition tries to hit this sweet spot, and the theme for 2014 is “Creating Healthy Homes.” Perhaps not the most exciting theme at first glance, but the winner this year is a concept for a system that lets you hunt down holographic fish as they swim through your living room.

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