A SELECTION OF MY ARTICLES

A more comprehensive list of articles I have written can be found on Journalisted.com


I'm breeding biodegradable batteries from viruses

05 March 2014

We hope to use viruses to power everyday electronics – and the cars of the future" (Credit: Bob O'Connor)
We hope to use viruses to power everyday electronics – and the cars of the future" (Credit: Bob O'Connor)

Biological engineer Angela Belcher is genetically modifying viruses to create batteries that can be recharged thousands of times and then decay harmlessly

 

You're making batteries using viruses – don't they normally make us sick?
When people think of viruses, the flu often comes to mind. But there are also viruses everywhere, from in the ocean to inside the gut, that infect bacteria. Those are not harmful to humans. Viruses are basically genetic material with a protein coat. They need a host so they can use its molecular machinery to make copies of themselves.

The main virus I work with has a single strand of DNA in a protein coat and it is completely benign. It only infects a particular bacterial host – and doesn't kill it, just slows it down as it uses the host to replicate itself. ---> Keep reading

Aircraft safety: Should planes have parachutes?

23 Dec 2013

Credit: BRS
Credit: BRS

John Farese’s plane engine quit without a sputter, and he began to plummet.

Farese, a US lawyer with 42 years experience flying his 1978 Cessna 182 plane, had failed to register that there was a problem with the fuel tanks. He was too slow in a banked turn, so the plane rolled left in a spiral stall. At 400ft above the ground, he was going down – fast.

Fortunately, his Cessna was equipped with a simple but clever technology. As the ground loomed, he pulled a handle just above his head.

There was a huge impact, and everything went white. “I thought I was dead. Then a second, more violent, impact, as the plane fell out of the top of the trees,” Farese recalls. He survived with a sprained back. ---> Keep reading (non-UK only)

Skype: How the online chat revolution changed lives

29 August 2013

Microsoft bought Skype in 2011 and has added the tech to its Outlook email service (Credit: Getty Images)
Microsoft bought Skype in 2011 and has added the tech to its Outlook email service (Credit: Getty Images)

It's been 10 years since Skype came on to the scene.

The internet chat service wasn't the first to allow people to make voice calls over the internet.

But by allowing the public to make computer-to-computer calls free and using peer-to-peer technology - which meant that connections improved the more people who used it - it helped popularise the concept.

Today Voip (voice over internet protocol) and video chats are something many of us take for granted. And Skype faces competition from a multitude of rivals, including Google Hangouts, Apple's Facetime, Blackberry's BBM, Tango and Viber.

But on this anniversary it's perhaps worth reflecting on the impact the technologies can have on people's lives. ---> Keep reading


Human Touch: Sensor Lets Robots 'Feel'

19 July 2013

A new sensor could give robots the ability to "feel" the environment (Credit: Shutterstock)
A new sensor could give robots the ability to "feel" the environment (Credit: Shutterstock)

Robots do not look human just yet, but soon they may get the "human touch." Researchers say they have developed a flexible sensor able to detect temperature, pressure and humidity simultaneously, and more accurately than currently existing devices.  In addition to improving robotics, the sensor could one day be embedded into the "electronic skin" of prosthetics, to help amputees sense environmental changes.  The sensor is "a huge step towards imitating the sensing features of the human skin," said study author Hossam Haick, a professor of chemical engineering and nanotechnology at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. The device is about 10 times closer to how real human skin senses the environment, compared with other designs. ---> Keep reading

The teenage radio enthusiasts who helped win World War II

5 July 2013

There were about 1,500 so-called voluntary interceptors during WWII (Credit: RSGB)
There were about 1,500 so-called voluntary interceptors during WWII (Credit: RSGB)

To mark the centenary of the Radio Society of Great Britain, one of its members recalls how the amateur organisation played a key role in a covert operation to safeguard the country's independence.

One day, towards the start of World War II, a captain wearing the Royal Signals uniform knocked on a British teenager's door.

The 16-year-old was called Bob King. When he went to greet the visitor, he had no idea that soon he would become one of Britain's so-called "voluntary interceptors" - some 1,500 radio amateurs recruited to intercept secret codes broadcast by the Nazis and their allies during the war.

"The captain asked me if I would be willing to help out with some secret work for the government," remembers Mr King, now 89. "He wouldn't tell me any more than that. ---> Keep reading


3D-printed liquid metal brings stretchable gadgets closer

10 July 2013

PCs attacked after Google worker revealed Microsoft bug

10 July 2013


The structures are free-standing - with liquid metal inside (Credit: NCSU)
The structures are free-standing - with liquid metal inside (Credit: NCSU)

Stretchable electronics may start appearing in the near future, after researchers created liquid metal structures on a 3D printer.

A team at North Carolina State University used an alloy of two metals - gallium and indium - that are liquid at room temperature but form a "skin" when exposed to air.

When printed, the shapes can be stretched without reverting to blobs.

The technology could be used for micro-circuits and wearable electronics.

The technique is detailed in the journal Advanced Materials.

"The metal forms a very thin layer of oxide and because of it, you can actually shape it into interesting shapes that would not be possible with normal liquids like water," said the lead author, Michael Dickey. ---> Keep reading

This was not the first time Tavis Ormandy had revealed security flaws in Windows (Credit: Microsoft)
This was not the first time Tavis Ormandy had revealed security flaws in Windows (Credit: Microsoft)

An Internet Explorer bug publicised by a Google engineer has been exploited by hackers, according to Microsoft.

The firm flagged "targeted attacks" in its latest security bulletin.

It did not, however, draw a direct link to researcher Tavis Ormandy, who revealed the flaw in May without discussing it first with Microsoft.

Microsoft released a fix several days after the revelation. It was not the first time Mr Ormandy had gone public with Microsoft bugs.

The engineer's most recent post on the Full Disclosure site was criticised by a security expert, because he not only mentioned the existence of the bug but actually provided technical details of the vulnerability in Windows 7 and Windows 8 that could be exploited by hackers. ---> Keep reading


Graphene Ink Moves Bendy Gadgets Closer to Reality

5 July 2013

Rover Explores Chile Desert to Aid Mars Life Hunt

24 June 2013


Add flexible electronics to the roster of technology wonder material graphene enables (Credit: nobeastsofierce)
Add flexible electronics to the roster of technology wonder material graphene enables (Credit: nobeastsofierce)

A digital screen that you can fold up like paper, solar cells embedded in house paint and a battery printed on the bottom of your phone — all this may soon be possible thanks to the so-called graphene ink, printed circuits made from graphene — a one-atom-thick layer of carbon that is the strongest, thinnest and most conductive material discovered yet.

Conductive inks — printed circuits — are already widely used to make touch screens, RFID tags (radio-activated ID chips) and small antennas in mobile phones. However, today’s conductive inks are usually metal-based, using materials like silver or copper powder.

These inks are expensive, can be toxic and require high temperatures to print. ---> Keep reading

The modified Zoe rover, with the upper portion of the drill mechanism jutting above the solar array (Credit: Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute)
The modified Zoe rover, with the upper portion of the drill mechanism jutting above the solar array (Credit: Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute)

A solar-powered rover is searching for microbes beneath the parched surface of Chile's Atacama Desert, on a mission that could aid the Mars life hunt down the road.

The four-wheeled rover, named Zoe, began a two-week field campaign in the Atacama on June 17. Its work could help NASA decide how best to equip its next Mars rover, which is set to launch toward the Red Planet in 2020, scientists say.

"Scientifically, the study helps us understand how life survives in extreme environments with implications to both Earth and Mars," said David Wettergreen... ---> Keep reading


Researchers Shrink Particle Accelerator to Table-top Size

24 June 2013

It uses lasers and plasma instead of magnets - and is much smaller than a traditional accelerator (Credit: Rafal Zgadzaj)
It uses lasers and plasma instead of magnets - and is much smaller than a traditional accelerator (Credit: Rafal Zgadzaj)

Just as computers shrunk from room- to desktop-size, high-energy particle accelerator dimensions are going from acres to inches. Scientists at the University of Texas at Austin have developed a tabletop accelerator that boosts electrons to the same speed and energy that requires traditional atom smashers the size of two football fields.

The compact mechanism uses a method called laser-plasma wakefield acceleration. It may allow labs worldwide to have their own facilities to study matter on the molecular level, and similar technology may one day help downsize the machines currently used to treat cancer with proton therapy. ---> Keep reading

Newly Magnetic Graphene Could Shrink Transistors

20 June 2013

Graphene is said to be the strongest and thinnest material ever found (Credit: University of Manchester)
Graphene is said to be the strongest and thinnest material ever found (Credit: University of Manchester)

Is there no limit to what "miracle material" graphene can do? Its newly found property, magnetism that can be switched on and off, could pave the way to new transistor-like devices that are much smaller, consume less energy and have greater processing speeds than today's electronics.

Graphene is a two-dimensional layer of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb fashion, and it has already been dubbed the strongest, thinnest and most conductive material ever found.

Now, its newly discovered magnetic property could lead to the fabrication of devices based on the principle of spintronics... ---> Keep reading


Why we have to turn electronic devices off on planes

 

By Katia Moskvitch, 5 June 2013

Just how dangerous is it to use your mobile phone on a plane? (Credit: Thinkstock)
Just how dangerous is it to use your mobile phone on a plane? (Credit: Thinkstock)

Mobile phones and other gadgets could interfere with sensitive electronic systems, some theories suggest. So why is it still so difficult to prove the truth behind the claims?

I have a guilty secret to confess. My plane was preparing for take-off from London’s Heathrow Airport in March when a flight attendant made the usual request for passengers to turn their electronic devices off. Far from complying, I pushed my smartphone deeper into my pocket. I had important work messages to check, and surely my little handset wasn’t going to cause the plane to plummet from the sky, was it?

It seems I'm not alone. A recent survey found around four out of 10 US air passengers admitted they don’t always turn their gadgets off on flights. One notable occasion saw the actor Alec Baldwin reacting furiously on Twitter after being kicked off a Los Angeles-to-New York flight before take off for refusing to stop playing the online game Words With Friends on his phone.

According to regulations, which are pretty uniform around the world, the use of portable electronic devices is not allowed below around 3,000m (10,000ft), even in "flight mode” which stops the transmission of signals. Above this height devices like laptops and music players can be used, but phones must remain off. These rules are important, we are told, to avoid potentially dangerous interference between signals from these devices and sensitive onboard electronic systems. But do these fears have any scientific basis, or is it time to relax the rules?

The fear of interference comes from the fact that gadgets connect to the internet or to mobile phone networks using radio waves. To explain the theoretical dangers, Peter Ladkin, Professor of Computer Networks and Distributed Systems at Bielefeld University, Germany, uses the analogy of holding a blowtorch to your household heating pipes. The central heating system in your house makes changes based on the readings of thermometers within those pipes, so the blowtorch will heat the water, change the temperature readings and trigger the system to make adjustments. (...) Read original article in full here

HTC shows its metal

Can HTC's new phone challenge Apple and Samsung once again?

 

By Katia Moskvitch, 19 Feb 2013

HTC One is packed with innovation - both on the inside and the outside, according to the firm's designers (Credit: HTC)
HTC One is packed with innovation - both on the inside and the outside, according to the firm's designers (Credit: HTC)

Yes, this phone is sleek, elegant and finely crafted, but can it be more than just a slab of metal?

For Taiwanese smartphone maker HTC, a lot is riding on its appeal.

The new HTC One, shown exclusively to the BBC at the company's headquarters in Taiwan's capital Taipei weeks before its official launch, differs starkly from HTC's previous phones - and from many other smartphones currently on the market.

Like the iPhone 5, it has a unibody made out of metal.

"It's just like your watch - you don't need a plastic watch," says Thomas Chien, one of HTC's vice-presidents of design, as he caresses the aluminium body of the handset.

But the HTC One is launching into an utterly crowded market, dominated by Samsung with its Galaxy S3 and Apple with its iPhone 5.

Fighting for the number three spot is a gaggle of players, from Blackberry and Nokia to LG and HTC. Snapping on their heels are new players from China like Huawei and ZTE.

It's in stark contrast to just a few years ago, when HTC looked like the only plausible challenger to Apple and its iPhone.

For its fightback, HTC has packed its new Android-based smartphone with innovations that the company says create a "totally new experience".

"We think it's the first time we came up with a design not just from the hardware side - it's kind of a new experience from outside and inside," says Mr Chien, sitting in an open-plan office on the 15th floor of HTC's headquarters. (...) Read original article in full here

 

WATCH video: Katia Moskvitch visits HTC's headquarters in Taiwan

Modern Meadow aims to print raw meat using bioprinter

 

By Katia Moskvitch, 21 Jan 2013

In the future, your beef may come from a printer, not a cow (Credit: Thinkstock)
In the future, your beef may come from a printer, not a cow (Credit: Thinkstock)

When you buy some beef at the butcher's, you know it comes from cattle that once mooed and chewed.

But imagine if this cut of meat, just perfect for your Sunday dinner, had been made from scratch - without slaughtering any animal.

US start-up Modern Meadow believes it can do just that - by making artificial raw meat using a 3D bioprinter.

Peter Thiel, one of Silicon Valley's most prominent venture capitalists, Paypal co-founder and early Facebook investor, has just backed the company with $350,000 (£218,000).

Set up by father-son team Gabor and Andras Forgacs, the start-up wants to take 3D printing to a whole new level.

For three-dimensional printing, solid objects are made from a digital model. It's also known as additive manufacturing: to make the structure tiny droplets are "printed" - layer by layer - via a carefully controlled inkjet nozzle.

The principle has been around for more than a decade, and is already used successfully to create jewellery, toys, furniture, cars, and even - most recently - parts of a gun.

Some researchers have also managed to print food like chocolate.

But Prof Gabor Forgacs, of the University of Missouri, says bioprinting something that is part of a living creature is much more challenging than making an earring or a chocolate bar.

"We are printing live material - [the] cells are alive when we are printing them," he says.

"Three-dimensional printing has taken off big time, and printing things such as whipped cream is just another application of it - but it's no big deal.

"Printing biomaterial is an entirely different ball game." (...) Read original article in full here

Bend me, shape me: Flexible phones 'out by 2013'

 

By Katia Moskvitch, 30 Nov 2012

Samsung's new phones use OLED technology, but the firm is also looking into graphene (Credit: Samsung)
Samsung's new phones use OLED technology, but the firm is also looking into graphene (Credit: Samsung)

Imagine treating your phone like a piece of paper.

Roll it up. Drop it. Squish it in your backpack. Step on it - without any damage.

Researchers are working on just such handsets - razor-thin, paper-like and bendable.

There have already been prototypes, attracting crowds at gadget shows.

But rumours abound that next year will see the launch of the first bendy phone. Numerous companies are working on the technology - LG, Philips, Sharp, Sony and Nokia among them - although reports suggest that South Korean phone manufacturer Samsung will be the first to deliver.

Samsung favours smartphones with so-called flexible OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) technology, and is confident that they will be "very popular among consumers worldwide".

Their screens will be "foldable, rollable, wearable and more, [and] will allow for a high degree of durability through their use of a plastic substrate that is thinner, lighter and more flexible than… conventional LCD technology," says a Samsung spokesperson.

Paperless world

There are other technologies that could make your smartphone bendy. After all, the concept - creating flexible electronics and assembling them on equally flexible plastic - has been touted since the 1960s, when the first flexible solar cell arrays appeared.

In 2005, Philips demonstrated the first prototype of a rollable display.

And it may not have been obvious, but a couple of years later, flexible technology hit the mainstream.

Amazon's first Kindle e-reader used a plastic non-rigid screen - known as an optical frontplane - to display its images. The only problem was that the components beneath it required the device to be stiff. (...) Read original article in full here

 

WATCH video: Flexible phones: Two Cambridge firms show off their technology

BAE's Striker helmet gives fighter pilots 'X-ray vision'

 

By Katia Moskvitch, 3 Sept 2012

BAE Systems' Striker helmet has been designed to help the pilot communicate with the fighter jet (Credit: BBC)
BAE Systems' Striker helmet has been designed to help the pilot communicate with the fighter jet (Credit: BBC)

When a pilot in a Eurofighter Typhoon jet glances down, he doesn't see a steel-grey floor. Instead he sees clouds, and maybe sheep and cows in green fields below.

If he were to spot an enemy down there, or anywhere near the aircraft, he would not need to point the plane towards the target.

He would simply look at it - through the solid hull of the plane - make sure that a tiny symbol displayed on his helmet's visor was aligned with the object, press a button and fire.

The pilot is wearing BAE Systems' Striker HMSS helmet, the UK defence company's latest development. Putting augmented reality technology - as used in video games - to military use is the latest goal for helmet makers around the world.

Cameras all around the aircraft are wirelessly linked to BAE's helmet; the system checks in which direction the pilot is looking, and then displays the exact view on the visor, in real time.

Striker incorporates a helmet-mounted display (HMD), designed to help the pilot communicate with the plane.

HMD is a step forward from the so-called head-up displays (HUD) - the transparent screens in front of the pilot that first appeared in the 1970s. They show key data, such as the altitude, speed and direction, allowing pilots to keep their eyes on the view ahead instead of constantly looking down to check their instruments.

HUDs also display targets - but to aim, the pilot has to manoeuvre the aircraft accordingly. (...) Read original article in full here

 

WATCH video: How 'smart helmets' help pilots in the cockpit

Real-life Jedi: Pushing the limits of mind control

 

By Katia Moskvitch, 10 Oct 2011

Credit: BBC
Credit: BBC

You don't have to be a Jedi to make things move with your mind.

Granted, we may not be able to lift a spaceship out of a swamp like Yoda does in The Empire Strikes Back, but it is possible to steer a model car, drive a wheelchair and control a robotic exoskeleton with just your thoughts.

"The first thing is to clear your mind…to think of nothing," says Ed Jellard; a young man with the quirky title of senior inventor.

We are standing in a testing room at IBM's Emerging Technologies lab in Winchester, England.

On my head is a strange headset that looks like a black plastic squid. Its 14 tendrils, each capped with a moistened electrode, are supposed to detect specific brain signals.

In front of us is a computer screen, displaying an image of a floating cube.

As I think about pushing it, the cube responds by drifting into the distance.

Admittedly, the system needed a fair bit of pre-training to achieve this single task. But it has, nonetheless, learned to associate a specific thought pattern with a particular movement.

The headset, which was developed by Australian company Emotiv for the games industry, has been around for some time. But it is only now that companies such as IBM are beginning to harness the wealth of data that it can provide. (...) Read original article in full here

Follow me on Twitter: @SciTech_Cat

 

Or connect on LinkedIn