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Future

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Faeces could soon be used to power a future generation of mobile phones, scientists claim. Researchers have discovered a natural process that occurs within the bacteria found in poo, that could help improve ‘bio batteries’. It is hoped the discovery could produce energy for portable technology, such as smartphones, mobiles, tablets and laptops. The study from the University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich focused on how electrons cross bacterial proteins. Both human and animal waste contains bacteria, which ‘breathe’ minerals of iron - much like we breathe oxygen. An electrical charge is released as a side effect during this ‘breathing’ process. The charge is released from the cell, similar to the neutral wire in a household plug, and can then be harnessed. The scientists looked at proteins called ‘multi-haem cytochromes’ that are contained in a species of bacteria called Shewanella, found in faeces. Lead researcher Professor Julea Butt, from the university’s schools of chemistry and biological sciences, said: ‘These bacteria can generate electricity in the right environment.

‘This is an exciting advance in our understanding of how some bacterial species move electrons from the inside to the outside of a cell and helps us understand their behaviour as robust electron transfer modules. ‘We hope that understanding how this natural process works will inspire the design of bespoke proteins which will underpin microbial fuel cells for sustainable energy production.’ Researchers from University College London and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington, were also involved in the study. In July last year, scientists at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory claimed to have developed the world’s first urine-powered smartphone.

They created a way of using urine as a power source to generate electricity. While many people might turn their noses up at the energy source, the researchers said that it is the ‘ultimate waste product’ and does not rely on the erratic nature of the wind or the sun. Dr Ioannis Ieropoulos, an expert at harnessing power from unusual sources using microbial fuel cells at the University of West England, Bristol, which was also involved in the research, said: ‘No-one has harnessed power from urine so it’s an exciting discovery. ‘Using the ultimate waste product as a source of power to produce electricity is about as eco as it gets. ‘One product that we can be sure of an unending supply is our own urine. ‘By harnessing this power as urine passes through a cascade of MFCs, we have managed to charge a Samsung mobile phone. Microbial fuel cells, or MFCs, are energy converters that turn organic matter directly into electricity by utilising the metabolism of live micro-organisms. He explained that at the time, the microbial fuel power stack they developed generated enough power to enable text messaging, web browsing and a short phone call.

Dr Ieropoulos said: ‘The concept has been tested and it works - it’s now for us to develop and refine the process so that we can develop MFCs to fully charge a battery. ‘Essentially, the electricity is a by-product of the microbes’ natural life cycle, so the more they eat things like urine, the more energy they generate and for longer periods of time.’ The electricity output of MFCs is relatively small and the researchers are currently only been able to store and accumulate low levels of energy into capacitors for short charge and discharge cycles. However they claim that this is the first time that scientists have been able to directly charge the battery of a device such as a mobile phone and it should be seen as a significant breakthrough.

HOW DO BACTERIA BREATHE?

Many micro-organisms can, unlike humans, survive without oxygen. Some bacteria survive by ‘breathing rocks’ instead - especially minerals of iron. They derive their energy from the combustion of fuel molecules that have been taken into the cell’s interior. A side product of this reaction is a flow of electricity that can be directed across the bacterial outer membrane and delivered to rocks in the natural environment - or to graphite electrodes in fuel cells. This means that the bacteria can release electrical charge from inside the cell into the mineral, much like the neutral wire in a household plug. Professor Julia Butt explained: ‘Proteins conduct electricity by positioning metal centres – known as haems - to act in a similar way to stepping stones by allowing electrons to hop through an otherwise electrically insulating structure. ‘This research shows that these centres should be considered as discs that the electrons hop across.’

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Captain America, the Hulk and Iron Man relied on the incredible ‘Helicarrier’ to launch their planes from the air in the 2012 The Avengers film. And now, the US military is taking a leaf out of Marvel’s comic after it invited people to submit ideas for future ‘aircraft carriers in the sky.’ The hope is that these flying fortresses will someday carry, launch and recover multiple swarms of drones anywhere in the world. According to Darpa - the Pentagon’s advanced military technology research agency - military air operations typically rely on large, manned, robust aircraft. But such missions put these expensive aircraft, and their pilots, at risk. And while small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) can reduce or eliminate such risks, they lack the speed, range and endurance of larger aircraft. Darpa believes the solution is to create a flying Avengers-style platform that can rapidly carry these drones wherever needed.

‘We want to find ways to make smaller aircraft more effective, and one promising idea is enabling existing large aircraft, with minimal modification, to become ‘aircraft carriers in the sky’,’ said Dan Patt, Darpa project manager. ‘We envision innovative launch and recovery concepts for new UAS designs that would couple with recent advances in small payload design and collaborative technologies.’ The new project, called Distributed Airborne Capabilities, is likely to use a plane similar to the B-52 Stratofortress bomber, B-1B Lancer bomber or C-130 Hercules cargo plane, according to a report by The Washington Post.

Darpa is also involved in another initiative, dubbed the Hydra Project, which is aiming to develop a network of undersea ‘motherships’, capable of deploying both underwater and aerial drones. Meanwhile, the US Air Force is developing tiny unmanned drones that will fly in swarms, hover like bees, crawl like spiders and even sneak up on unsuspecting. The Air Vehicles Directorate, a research arm of the Air Force, last year released a computer-animated video outlining the future capabilities of Micro Air Vehicles (MAVs). ‘MAVs will become a vital element in the ever-changing war-fighting environment and will help ensure success on the battlefield of the future,’ the video explained. ‘Unobtrusive, pervasive, lethal - Micro Air Vehicles, enhancing the capabilities of the future war fighter.’ Air Force officials have already produced tiny remote-control prototypes - but they consume so much power that can only operate for a few minutes. Researchers estimate that it will take several years of advances in battery technology to make the designs feasible.

MILITARY DRONES COULD SOON MAKE THEIR OWN DECISIONS

Drones that can choose to deviate from a set mission and hunt in ‘swarms’ could be patrolling skies within the next 25 years, according to a recent roadmap. Unmanned aircraft carrying stronger chemical weapons could also be on the horizon, the US Department of Defence (DoD) revealed in its Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap. While the document sets out plans for unmanned maritime, land and air vehicles, there is a lot of focus on the future capability of controversial drones, which, if the plans come to fruition, could deviate from mission commands set by humans if they spot a better target. The DoD’s roadmap also features plans for deadly ‘swarms’ of drone-bombs that are launched from an unmanned ‘mothership’ to circle the skies while a human operator searches for targets for the drones to crash into, guided by the bots’ on-board cameras.

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Cockroaches are known to be able to survive a nuclear explosion – and once day they could be saving trapped victims in a variety of disasters. Researchers have fitted the hardy creatures with electrical backpacks complete with tiny microphones to detect the faintest of sounds. The idea is that cyborg cockroaches, or ‘biobots’, could enter crumpled buildings hit by earthquakes, for example, and help emergency workers find survivors.

‘In a collapsed building, sound is the best way to find survivors,’ said Alper Bozkurt, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at North Carolina State University. ‘The goal is to use the biobots with high-resolution microphones to differentiate between sounds that matter - like people calling for help - from sounds that don’t matter - like a leaking pipe. ‘Once we’ve identified sounds that matter, we can use the biobots equipped with microphone arrays to zero-in on where those sounds are coming from.’

The ‘backpacks’ control the robo-roach’s movements because they are wired to the insect’s cerci - sensory organs that cockroaches usually use to feel if their abdomens brush against something. By electrically stimulating the cerci, cockroaches can be prompted to move in a certain direction. In fact, they have been programmed to seek out sound. One type of ‘backpack’ is equipped with an array of three directional microphones to detect the direction of the sound and steer the biobot in the right direction towards it. Another type is fitted with a single microphone to capture sound from any direction, which can be wirelessly transmitted - perhaps in the future to emergency workers. They ‘worked well’ in lab tests and the experts have developed technology that can be used as an ‘invisible fence’ to keep the biobots in a certain area such as a disaster area, the researchers announced at the IEEE Sensors 2014 conference in Valencia, Spain. A previous study led by Dr Edgar Lobaton, who is also at the university, showed that biobots can be used to map a disaster area. Dr Lobaton and Professor Bozkurt plan on merging their research to both map disaster areas and pinpoint survivors.

BIOBOTS CAN BE FENCED IN

Professor Bozkurt’s team has recently demonstrated technology that creates an invisible fence for keeping biobots in a defined area. This is significant because it could be used to keep them at a disaster site and to keep the biobots within range of each other so that they can be used as a reliable mobile wireless network. The technology could also be used to steer biobots to light sources, so that tiny solar panels on biobot backpacks can be recharged.

CONSUMER KITS ARE AVAILABLE TO CREATE CYBORG INSECTS

The idea of turning cockroaches into cyborg slaves is not new, Gizmodo reported. Kits are available for under $100 (£63) that enable people to control their own insect by stimulating its antennae with electrical signals. This lets people ‘drive’ an insect for a few minutes. While the creators of the ‘Roboroach kit’ claim the cockroach forgets the experience after 20 minutes, some people think it is cruel.

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Wind turbines are often bemoaned for their unsightly appearance, noise and danger to local wildlife - but what if we put them underwater? That’s exactly what Caithness-based company MeyGen, owned by Atlantis Resources Ltd, plan to do with their initial £51m ($82m) underwater turbine project. By the end of the year they plan to install turbines off the Scottish coast and they say the technology could be used as a more environmentally friendly source of green energy in future. It’s thought that harnessing its energetic waters could power up to a third of Scotland. The first turbines are set to be placed at the turn of the new year, with more being placed over the next few years. Unlike wind turbines, underwater turbines would never be ‘off’ as there is a constant flow of water. MeyGen’s turbines are slightly smaller than their land counterparts but generate a similar amount of electricity a year - about one megawatt - and the company plans to eventually build several hundred. This would be enough to power 175,000 homes. They rotate 12 to 14 times a minute, while compared to regular wind turbines they are slightly more ‘stubby’ with smaller blades.

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Speaking to MailOnline, Meygen CEO Dan Pearson said he hoped Phase 1 of construction would be completed by the end of 2016. He explained that the turbines will be about 0.9 miles (1.5km) from the shore and they will be ‘on a par with wind turbines’ in terms of their productivity.

‘The costs are higher but this is brand new technology,’ he adds. ‘We have to make it work first.’ Mr Pearson is also adamant there won’t be significant danger to nearby marine life. And MeyGen’s project will be in quite shallow water, meaning the turbines can be dropped down by a crane. By the early 2020s they want to deploy up to 398 megawatts of offshore tidal stream turbines for the UK National Grid. And there are further plans to exploit the Pentland Firth over the next two decades, installing 1,000 turbines that will generate 1.6 gigawatts of energy, enough for more than a million homes.

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HOW THE UNDERWATER WIND FARM WILL WORK

The turbines will be lined up 525ft (160 metres) apart, weighted down by scrap metal. As the water depth in the Pentland Firth is about 130ft (40 metres), small craft will be able to sail over the area of about four square miles (10.4 square kilometres) without fear of hitting them. When complete in 2020, the Pentland Firth project will generate enough electricity for 400,000 homes. There are further plans to exploit the Pentland Firth over the next two decades, installing 1,000 turbines that will generate 1.6 gigawatts of energy, enough for more than a million homes. Because the waters are so rough, little fishing takes place and there is no danger to fish life as the blades revolve so slowly. The turbine farm, which will be clearly marked on charts, is well away from sensitive military areas where Royal Navy submarines operate.

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Rainy days typically mean lugging around a soggy, wet umbrella - but that might not always be the case. Air Umbrella, which was developed by a company in China with the same name, uses forced air, not fabric, to make a canopy that keeps the raindrops from falling on your head. Once you have arrived at your destination, you can place the dry device in your bag until you’re ready to go out again.

The Air Umbrella sort of looks like a large flashlight. The head has a motor and fan that forces the air up and out, creating a shield from the rain. The umbrella’s shaft is a rechargeable lithium ion battery. At the base, a simple button serves as the on/off switch. Additionally, there is a controller dial that changes the size of the air canopy. It can be expanded to over a meter in diameter, making enough room for two people to be protected from the rain.

The umbrella has been tested in heavy rainfall conditions and seems to perform quite well. The company reports that the sound of the rain typically drowns out the sound of the umbrella. They report that the air pushes water droplets up to 70 centimeters (27.5 inches) away. Changing the way the umbrella is held should also address rain coming down diagonally. While the Air Umbrella is capable of deflecting light wind, extremely heavy wind can cut through the air canopy. However, as the manufacturers observe, even normal umbrellas aren’t really great under those circumstances either.

If you want to be among the first to get your hands on this product, it is currently available through a Kickstarter campaign. The campaign has raised nearly $35,000, which far exceeds the $10,000 goal over a week ahead of the October 24th deadline. As of the time of this writing, the most inexpensive option is $118, but those are selling quickly.

There are currently three models in development, dubbed A, B, and C, each with different features to meet various needs. The A model is 30 cm (12 in) in length, weighing in at 500 grams (1.1 pounds) and can run for 15 minutes per charge. The B model is longer at 50 cm (19.8 in) long and 800 g (1.7 lbs), lasting 30 minutes per charge. The C model also lasts 30 minutes, weighs in at 850 g (1.9 lbs), but can be scaled anywhere from 50-80 cm (19.8-31.5 in).

The company admits that the battery life is fairly short but they hope to improve the umbrella design over the next 10 months using the money raised from the Kickstarter campaign. Additionally, they will address the design and practicality, making whatever adjustments necessary. Production of the improved devices will begin in September 2015, and all Kickstarter backers are expected to receive their Air Umbrellas before December 31, 2015.