Innovation is no longer the preserve of technologists. Everybody is innovating, thanks to community help from sites like Quirky, KickStarter and IdeaConnection. If you have an idea for a useful product, and the know-how to design and develop it, you can easily source the required funds to develop, manufacture and even sell the product. Apart from these, there are industry-funded university labs cum incubators, angel investors, seed funders and mentors who help grow an idea into a product and a start-up to see it through. So today it is true that where there is a will, there is a way! Get inspired yet again, with this month’s set of innovations, to start your own project

Janani Gopalakrishnan Vikram

Shape-changing plastic to drive motors
F92_1In a paper recently published by the National Academy of Sciences, Dr Marc Behl and his team from the Institute of Biomaterial Science in Teltow, part of the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht, Germany, have described temperature-memory polymer actuators that can drive small motors such as heat engines. Temperature-controlled shape memory plastics exist today, but these are capable of changing form only once. However, this team has now developed plastics that can repeatedly change from one shape to another and back again, responding to temperature fluctuations within a selected range. They have dubbed the material as ‘polymer actuators,’ and believe that it can be used for numerous exciting applications ranging from automatic window blinds that can function without electricity, to new kinds of heat engines.

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What’s inside: At molecular level, the active polymers are built of structural elements that undergo changes to their mobility within a very wide temperature range. To transform the nano-level activity into macroscopic movement, some of these structural elements are assigned to an internal scaffold that determines the geometry of the motion and orients the motion. This is the technological basis of the newly-developed polymer actuators, which can change shape many hundreds of times as the ambient temperature goes above or below a threshold value.

The team proved their point by demonstrating a basic heat engine, with the drive element made of temperature-memory polymer. The drive element opens out as it cools and in doing so moves a gear rack that then drives a wheel forward. When it heats up, the drive element contracts and moves the gear rack back the other way. A second element made of the reversible temperature-memory polymer forces the gear rack against the wheel when the rack is moving forwards and releases the wheel when it is moving back. The temperature-memory effect makes it possible to control the rotational speed of the drive unit.

World’s first wireless LED light
1E3_2Wirefreelight is a patented Swedish innovation that can transfer wireless electric power over a short distance to light up specially-designed LED lamps. It is an ideal option when you wish to aesthetically light up a place without any visible cables, holders, screws, holes, etc. The Wirefreelight range includes wireless-powered LED spotlights, do-it-yourself kits to convert wired table lamps into wireless, illumination for glass shelves, and expansion kits.

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What’s inside: The system comprises power plates, connection box, adaptor and special LED lamps. Power plates are connected to the connection box, and from there to the adaptor. One adaptor and connection box can power four power plates. Power plates, which transmit power wirelessly, can be placed on the roof or behind shelves or furniture, at a distance of up to 50 mm from the LED lamps to be lit. Power goes through all non-metallic materials like wood and glass. Wireless energy exists as a small sphere around each power plate, and is absorbed only by the specially-designed LED lamps. The LED lights are generally 1W long-life warm-white 2700k, 100LM, corresponding to a 15W bulb. All Wirefreelight products are CE marked and tested and approved by a certified laboratory.

Sun-powered laptops
A4E_3In July this year, WeWi Telecommunications Inc., an Ontario-based company, unveiled a solar-powered laptop designed to bypass the electricity grid. The product will be especially useful in rural areas of developing countries, where power supply is unreliable.

WeWi’s founders came up with the idea in early 2012, after visiting Ghana on business. Over the next 14 months, they designed Sol—a solar-powered laptop. The first order of around 20,000 units, priced around $300, is likely to ship within the next few months. There have been solar-powered laptops in the past, including one from Samsung that was launched in 2010. However, these devices did not take off as they took too long to charge. WeWi hopes to have overcome these problems with its efficient design. It has priced the laptop economically hoping to promote the segment. If successful, the company hopes to build a subsequent version with satellite connectivity—another feature that will be very useful in rural areas that do not have proper landline infrastructure.

What’s inside: Sol runs on a four-panel solar-charging device built into the computer’s case. It takes approximately two hours to charge the laptop’s battery, which then lasts for about eight to ten hours. The laptop can run off the solar panels directly when exposed to sunlight, bypassing the battery. Although the computer is slightly heavier than today’s laptops, it is still not too tough to carry and fits into most laptop bags. The device is sturdy and robust, with rubber lining on the sides and a thick outer shell. The solar panels are housed inside a case on the back of the screen lid, and are not noticeable when folded up. The devices will come with a 250GB hard drive and 4GB memory, as well as a suite of free office and accounting software.

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Device that detects bladder cancer
E9A_4Several studies published in the last decade have suggested that chemicals/metabolite levels visible in our breath can indicate the risks for diseases such as stomach cancer and heart failure, and that the scent of gases in urine could be used to test for bladder cancer. Building on such findings and their earlier attempts at building an electronic nose, a team from the University of Liverpool and the University of the West of England (Bristol) recently disclosed a new invention, the Odoreader. The device uses sensors to sniff out the chemicals in urine and delivers an accurate bladder cancer diagnosis within 30 minutes.

What’s inside: The Odoreader is a volatile organic compound (VOC) sensor, which detects chemicals in gases present. The team trained it to look for the relevant chemicals using 98 different urine samples. It was then tested using samples from 24 patients suffering from bladder cancer, and 74 samples from those with other non-cancerous bladder problems. Using just nine biomarkers, the system correctly diagnosed all the cancer patients and 70 out of 74 cases where cancer was not present. The results are very promising, but the 6 per cent error rate is yet to be overcome.

In a paper on Odoreader published in PLOS One (, the authors mention that “the small sample size does not allow a proper statistical assessment of the effects of other confounding factors such as smoking status, drug treatments, ethnicity.” Hence the researchers plan to work on larger samples to test the device further before it can be used in hospitals.

(Courtesy: University of Queensland: maple-seed/28323/pictures#2)

Paper planes to help fight forest fires
Dr Paul Pounds and a team of roboticists at the University of Queensland have designed two disposable, self-steering drones with sensor modules that can be dropped over forested areas to help monitor forest fires. One, called the Polyplane, looks like a paper plane, while the other, the Samara, mimics the maple seed. Both are made of biodegradable cellulose material. Both drones are self-deploying sensor modules that can relay back environmental conditions in difficult terrain. Dozens of them can be dropped across forested areas, to report back on atmospheric conditions that could indicate the start or movements of a bushfire—one of the biggest dangers lurking in Australian forests.

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What’s inside: Both drones are made of biodegradable cellulose material, and contain sensor modules. Once deployed from a larger aircraft, the Polyplane drone steers itself using tabs attached to the back of each wing. An on-board control system bends each tab to direct the craft as close as possible to a pre-determined landing area. Because the circuits can be ink-jet printed directly into the paper-like material, key components can be glued, instead of being soldered, onto the lightweight, foldable circuit board.

The Samara, designed like a maple seed, has an antenna-equipped circuit board attached to the ‘seed’ part of the helicopter blade. It cannot be steered, but the design with flexible wings allows the sensor module to float gently to the ground, thus leaving the electronics unharmed and eliminating the need for expensive landing systems.

There are several do-it-yourself drone kits available today, enabling students and hobbyists to develop unmanned aerial vehicles for various non-war purposes—you could try your own too!

A smart scooter you would love to drive
3EB_6There is so much talk about smart, connected cars and how they make driving safe and pleasurable. Try extending the concept to scooters, and it might actually be equally beneficial. The recently launched A4000i from Japanese scooter maker Terra Motors is a smartphone-connected e-scooter with a removable battery. The company claims it to be the world’s first wireless smartphone-connected e-scooter. An iPhone fits snugly into a compartment designed on the handlebar, and turns into the scooter’s dashboard, displaying and synchronising useful information with a Web-based app.

What’s inside: The A4000i enables you to fit your iPhone 3G/3GS/4/4S/5 into a dashboard compartment in the front. The e-scooter then synchronises with the iPhone, which starts functioning as the scooter’s dashboard. The phone is now capable of displaying mileage, speed and energy use. The same information can also be monitored and analysed on the Web. The application is being updated constantly, and will soon include new features, such as GPS functions, to provide the rider with mapping information or customised advertisements based on their location. Additionally, traffic information could be sent to the Cloud to allow traffic authorities to assess congestion issues and help with urban planning.

Another notable feature of the phone is its specially-designed 48V, 40Ah lithium-based removable battery, which weighs 16 kg and charges in 4.5 hours. The battery lasts for about 50,000 km, providing five times longer battery life than the batteries used in similar electric vehicles.

The author is a technically-qualified freelance writer, editor and hands-on mom based in Chennai