News

E&T's roundup of technology news, this week; 'digital plasters' start their clinical trials, fast-track energy policies for the UK, considering future light pollution for planning applications - and that's just the tip of the iceberg.

'Digital plaster' gets first hospital outing

By Dominic Lenton

Patients at one of the UK's biggest NHS Trusts are to take part in the first clinical trials of a wireless 'digital plaster' that tracks vital signs without needing to be connected to a bulky, fixed monitoring machine.

Sensium has been developed by Toumaz Technology, a spin-out from Imperial College London, and uses the company's patented ultra-low power Advanced Mixed Signal technology. The disposable plaster, which lasts for several days before it needs to be replaced, is attached to a patient's chest and checks body temperature, heart rate and respiration in real time.

Data can be sent straight to a doctor's mobile phone or PDA so they are immediately alerted to any critical changes, and also transferred directly to medical records. Sensium's designers hope that eventually this will allow patients to recover from surgery and illness at home rather than in hospital.

The trial is taking place within the Academic Health Science Centre, a partnership created in October 2007 between Imperial College London and Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust to develop research results into new therapies.

A three-stage exercise will explore whether Sensium can provide data equivalent to that obtained from the best existing fixed monitors. An initial phase with non-patient volunteers will be followed by one group of patients recovering from surgery and another with specific medical conditions in the general wards, although all participants will still be connected to fixed monitoring equipment as well. The first results are expected by the end of the year.

Energy policies to speed planning decisions

By Lorna Sharpe

The UK government has published a series of draft policy documents on energy infrastructure that pave the way for a new generation of nuclear and 'clean coal' power plants as well as a big expansion in renewables. Ten potential nuclear sites have been named.

The draft National Policy Statements (NPSs) are an essential part of reforms to the planning system for large projects, which are intended to cut delays and duplication. They will be the basis on which individual planning decisions are made from next March by the new Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC).

Energy and Climate Secretary Ed Miliband said: "The threat of climate change means we need to make a transition from a system that relies heavily on high carbon fossil fuels, to a radically different system that includes nuclear, renewable and clean coal power." He added that change is also needed to create a more secure energy mix, less vulnerable to fluctuations in availability.

"The current planning system is a barrier to this shift," said Miliband. "It serves neither the interests of energy security, the interests of the low carbon transition, nor the interests of people living in areas where infrastructure may be built, for the planning process to take years to come to a decision."

Ten sites in England and Wales have been assessed as potentially suitable for new nuclear deployment by the end of 2025: Bradwell, Braystones, Hartlepool, Heysham, Hinkley Point, Kirksanton, Oldbury, Sellafield, Sizewell and Wylfa.

The Department for Energy and Climate Change has issued six NPSs for consultation - one overarching and one each for fossil fuels, nuclear, renewables, transmission networks and oil and gas pipelines.

Following consultation earlier this year, DECC has also published the final version of its Framework for the Development of Clean Coal. This confirms that all new coal plant will have to incorporate carbon capture and storage (CCS), and promises funding for up to four commercial-scale CCS demonstrations, including both pre-combustion and post-combustion capture technologies.

Alan Rayment, chief operating officer of the RWE npower/E.ON UK nuclear joint venture (Horizon Nuclear Power) said: "The government's NPS is an important step in the creation of a more streamlined planning regime. Major infrastructure projects need full and proper local consultation, but this needs to take place against the backdrop of agreement on the national strategic need and urgency."

The IPC will make decisions on proposals for generation plants with installed capacity greater than 50MW (100MW for offshore wind), prompting the Renewable Energy Association to comment: "We welcome the speeding up of decisions on transmission lines, but the NPSs won't make much difference when it comes to renewable power projects. Local Authorities will still determine the vast majority of project decisions, and that regime is crying out to be made more consistent and efficient."

NI utility invests in weather network

A sophisticated network of weather stations is to be built across Northern Ireland that will provide real-time weather information to Northern Ireland Electricity (NIE) and any other organisation that will benefit.

NIE is investing in the network in partnership with BT, UTV New Media and WeatherBug, a US-based provider of global weather intelligence. The stations will be integrated into WeatherBug's worldwide network.

More than 30 weather stations will gather data that can be used to gauge wind gust and sustained wind severity, and other critical weather trends in advance. This information will supplement the daily regional weather forecasts provided by the UK Met Office, giving NIE a more comprehensive view of the prevailing conditions, enabling it to manage electricity flows better during severe weather. The information will be provided through a Web-based command centre.

Creation of the network will open up opportunities to offer the data to other potential users, for example in agriculture, the emergency services, insurance, construction, travel, tourism, sporting and many other fields.

NIE duty incident manager Stephen Harper said the tool will help to plan for the deployment of emergency response crews. "Weather conditions are constantly changing and this can cause difficulties for NIE as our electricity network is mostly held on overhead lines that are vulnerable to damage from storms or severe weather," said Harper. "Our duty incident teams are in regular contact with the Met Office for the most up-to-date information, but this is mostly predictive. The new system can provide an up-to-the-minute and localised picture of evolving weather conditions. It will also alert us if there are extreme gusts of wind, rainfall or icy conditions and enables us to monitor changing conditions and respond appropriately."

UTV New Media is providing the broadband services for the weather stations to communicate NIE's weather data on to UTV Internet, with BT Wholesale providing broadband end-user access to UTV Internet's ISP network.

WeatherBug and UTV New Media plan to further expand access to the network via schools, towns, and tourism destinations and to make the online content widely available.

HV test chamber opens for business

Roke Manor Research has launched a high-voltage (HV) test facility available to commercial customers.

Roke says the service can accommodate radio frequency (RF) power and voltage on a massive scale. It combines high voltage isolation with screening to 18GHz, whereas most other facilities only allow for testing at 50Hz or at low voltage.

The high-end facility in Hampshire will be targeted at R&D specialists designing systems that require multiple high power amplifiers that have tight synchronisation demands and signal distribution complexity. It will provide a controlled and isolated environment where the energising and test of high voltage power supplies, high power drivers and transmission lines can be conducted in complete safety.

Roke will also use the new HV test facility itself, allowing it to develop and test a range of high power systems for the RF and electrostatic accelerator community, as well as systems for the military, energy and medical markets.

The HV facility has two screened chambers, one for the equipment under test and a second to hold test equipment and power supplies. Tests are controlled from a remotely operated and isolated console, and progress can be viewed via a high-resolution camera link and optically isolated test gear.

Alastair Cook, industrial and medical business sector manager at Roke, said: "A major issue for organisations wanting to test high power and high voltage systems is the availability of facilities and management of the hazards. Reliance on government or academic services can mean that an organisation outside that sphere of influence doesn't get priority when booking in lab time or full system tests can't be done.

"Our new high voltage facility represents the largest single investment Roke has made in testing for a number of years and we hope that organisations across the world will recognise the benefit of this unique and easy to access resource."

MP questions delay on light pollution guidance

By Dominic Lenton

The UK government has come under fire over delays in publishing guidance that would let local authorities take light pollution into account when considering planning applications.

Speaking in the House of Commons, Liberal Democrat MP Lembit Opik asked why, despite a positive response to a 2003 report on light pollution and astronomy by the Science and Technology select committee, a draft of the proposed addition to planning regulations that would make local authorities take light pollution as seriously as other types of pollution has yet to be published.

Opik, whose grandfather was the Estonian astronomer and astrophysicist Ernst Julius Öpik, has previously called for research into techniques for identifying asteroids that could collide with the Earth.

Dan Norris, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, responded by confirming that although responsibility now lies with the Department of Communities and Local Government, he would raise the issue with them and ensure that the required annexe to Planning Policy Statement 23 is published as soon as possible.

Opik said that he was grateful for the Minister's response and hoped the matter could be resolved as soon as possible. "Local authorities do not have the necessary tools to combat inefficient outside lighting when making planning decisions," he said.

Lobbying organisation the Campaign to Protect Rural England says it hopes to begin work in the next couple of years to update research published in 2003 which found that light pollution increased by 26 per cent between 1993 and 2000.

"It would be a terrible shame to find that levels of light pollution have continued to grow," said CPRE spokeswoman Emma Marrington. "The government has the opportunity to take action now and help local authorities control the spread of unnecessary lighting, which is not only detrimental to the enjoyment of our dark skies but also wastes energy and money."

Cashing in on recycling

Orange is offering to recycle old mobiles, laptops and music players for money at its stores.

Its Recycle & Reward scheme should help reduce the volume of electronics goods that ends up in landfill.

Anyone can take their old electronic items to a UK Orange store, where they will get an immediate valuation and, if they accept it, a cheque within seven days.

The reward depends on the device and its condition - a working Nokia N95 could be worth up to £85. Orange is also offering to recycle electronic devices and accessories that have no value.

Paul French of Orange said: "We've made some significant strides recently in reducing the environmental impact of our business. For instance, 80 per cent of our electricity now comes from renewable sources. Recycle & Reward is just another small step in our journey towards greener, more sustainable practices."

More on mobiles and sustainability on page 66

IT innovation boosts sporting excellence

By James Hayes

Experts in electronics and IT are working with British athletes in an initiative to monitor and improve their performance in Olympic sports.

Imperial College London is leading the ESPRIT (Elite Sport Performance Research in Training) project, supported by researchers at Queen Mary University of London and Loughborough University. EPSRC is contributing £6m, with a further £2m from government agency UK Sport.

Over the next five years, researchers from the three universities will work alongside British athletes via UK Sport's Research and Innovation programme. IT experts and computer scientists will develop miniaturised wearable and trackside sensors, computer modelling tools and smart training devices to help athletes improve their performance.

Wearable wireless sensors weighing about 100mg will monitor different aspects of athletes' physiological performance, including biochemical information, heart rate, EEG, ECG, muscle activity, joint speed, and contact forces.

Compact track-side sensors will monitor body movements and location, and interactions between team members.

'Pervasive' wireless sensing technologies under development will extract continuous information under normal training and competition environments, giving coaches more accurate feedback about athlete performance than has yet been possible, the ESPRIT team claims.

A prototype network of small video sensors that monitor athletes' movements is already being tried out in training for the 2010 Winter Olympics and 2012 summer Games.

The initiative is part of a growing awareness of the contribution that innovative IT can make toward sporting excellence, says ESPRIT programme director Professor Guang-Zhong Yang from Imperial College London. "Competitive progress is now the result of an aggregation of small marginal improvements," he says. "Until now performance monitoring technology has been limited to laboratory settings. The ESPRIT project allows us to look in really fine detail at the physiological changes that happen to an athlete during training and competition."

The biggest challenge faced by ESPRIT developers is in balancing the component computing functions to ensure that component technologies can function in parallel in harmony, adds Professor Yang: "For instance, the systems have to relay enough raw data for meaningful analysis, yet the data flow mustn't deluge the wireless transmitter."

The project's insights will also lead to devices designed to improve the health and physical wellbeing of non-athletes, promises Professor Yang.

TT-winning electric race-bike goes into production

By Dominic Lenton

A production model of the electric superbike that won an IET-backed race for zero-emissions motorcycles at this year's Isle of Man TT event was launched this month.

A limited run of 50 units of the Mavizen TTX02, whose design is inspired by the Agni X01 that won the inaugural TTXGP, will be available for delivery in the first quarter of 2010.

TTXGP founder Azhar Hussain, whose company Mavizen is producing the TTX02, said it will give potential participants a chance to acquire a bike that they can develop themselves. Mavizen is also producing a 'kit' bike, TTX-kit, where the basic components can be bought for £10,000 and added to a standard frame, making a race-ready bike accessible and affordable.

Advertised as the world's first production electric supersport bike, the TTX02 is built on a chassis that Mavizen says is being supplied by one the world's leading motorcycle manufacturers. It is also claimed to be the first factory production vehicle to ship with integrated IP connectivity. It uses the Linux operating system and features a USB-based system bus for simple connection of peripherals.

"Racing is brutal but at least with the Mavizen TTX02, the racers can start with a proven platform," said Hussain. "By building on the open standards of the Internet and the PC, we unlock the creativity and lower the costs of innovation for teams, enthusiasts and riders. TTX02 is a development platform that invites the potential for success previously seen in electronic hardware and software into the automotive industry."

Mavizen produced a prototype known as TTX01 to 'show what could be done' ahead of the inaugural TTXGP, which attracted 16 entries from six different countries. The winning bike was produced by Agni Motors, ridden by Rob Barber and recorded a lap speed of 87mph with peak speeds of 106mph.

The IET provided the electrical technical scrutineering facility for the race as well as writing the rules and regulations in collaboration with the Auto-Cycle Union.

Plans for 2010 are well advanced, with options being examined for a new PRO2 class two-lap race including the option to pit stop and exchange batteries or use rapid charge systems. A SuperMoto event held in partnership with the Peveril Motor Cycle Club, will see next-generation all-electric SuperMotos on Douglas beach.

Spurred by the event's success, TTXGP is developing a global programme of low-carbon motorsports events for 2010. As well as four races at major UK circuits, it is planning a three-venue US championship and events in France and Germany.

How it performs

The TTX02 boasts a top speed of over 130mph, with peak power consumption of 70kW. It has a range of between 25 and 50 miles under track conditions, or up to 130 miles under regular road use. Two battery packs are available: a 6kWh 'track pack' and a 10kWh 'TT pack'. Based on Linux and Chewii 1.0 operating systems, features include a USB-based system bus, WiFi and SDHC memory support. A range of accessories are supported from HD camera and GPS to Bluetooth voice communications and web access.

Tight budget for sustainable city car

By Chris Edwards

Former Formula One racing engineer Gordon Murray has assembled a team to develop an all-electric city car with funding of just £9m.

Gordon Murray Design and Zytek Automotive Technology aim to produce four running prototypes of an "affordable, fun and environmental car" by February 2011, with the work part-funded by a £4.5m investment from the UK government-backed Technology Strategy Board. At that point the consortium should be in a position to explore the possibility of scaling up and building a manufacturing facility.

The three-seater T.27 will be designed to minimise the use of materials and keep the embedded carbon of the vehicle as low as possible. Zytek will develop a custom-designed lightweight drivetrain, with the motor, power electronics and gearbox forming single integrated unit.

Murray said: "The T.27 programme is a great opportunity for us to create what will be the world's most efficient electric vehicle. An opportunity to start from a clean sheet, combined with our disruptive manufacturing technology, will result in a product which truly pushes the boundaries of urban vehicle design."

Speaking at an event organised by the TSB, Murray said: "This effort is a change as almost the entire team comes from a racing background. But designing a Formula One car and designing a really efficient urban car have a similar philosophy. The driving force in Formula One cars is efficiency and it's the same for a low-energy vehicle. It has to go as far as it can on the minimum amount of fuel in the tank.

"We know that our current model in the automotive industry is not sustainable. Right now the focus is on tailpipe emissions. But I think we need to step back from that and take a more holistic view."

Murray believes the emphasis in vehicle design has to shift towards a full life-cycle analysis to encourage a move away from large, heavy cars, and to look at new manufacturing techniques and materials. "The reason why people don't make smaller cars is that they don't make money. We have looked at how to make money by reducing investment," he commented.

Speaking at the project launch, Science and Innovation minister Lord Drayson said: "The T.27 is a great example of smart engineering and sustainable design. It's timely too, as the UK must demonstrate its readiness to exploit the low-carbon vehicles market."

View from Washington

Electoral reality is 'think local'

By Paul Dempsey

The late Tip O'Neill, the Democratic leader of the US Senate during Ronald Reagan's presidency, is credited with coining the phrase, "All politics is local". Many in Westminster would agree with him. After all, one factor that may still prevent David Cameron's Conservatives securing an outright majority at the next general election is regional resistance to their platform in Scotland and Northern England.

However, there is a very specific American sense of 'local' that O'Neill was also addressing. And it's worth considering now, as we anticipate some heroic finger-pointing in the likely event that next month's UN climate change summit, COP15, fails to deliver a treaty of significant substance.

Within the litany of President Obama's non-Dubyaness, his recognition that greenhouse gas emissions represent a threat to both the environment and global security featured highly. Hence the severe diplomatic disappointment over his failure so far to say he will attend the Copenhagen negotiations and the stalled legislative progress of the Waxman-Markey Bill that is meant to underpin the US climate change strategy.

The problem though is less one of broken promises and more of naïveté - and here we need to go back to Senator O'Neill. Unlike a British Prime Minister, Obama cannot summon forth the necessary parliamentary majority by having the Democratic whips go into enforcer mode with any potential rebels. Indeed, their US counterparts do not even have the more subtle weapon wielded by Westminster whips - the threat to slash financial and logistical support at the next election.

Instead, private funding dominates. While there are some major national donors, a candidate will typically secure most of his backing within his own constituency. That is the real 'local' in American politics, and for climate change, it represents a serious problem for Obama.

Many of his country's coalmining states have Democratic senators who fear that if they vote for Waxman-Markey as it stands, energy company money will swing behind their opponents. Their party shares this fear in a broad sense, but it needs the support of every one of its 60 senators to bring any debate to a vote and prevent the Republican minority opposition blocking legislation with a filibuster. Just one refusenik can scupper an entire bill.

There is an Option B. Obama can seek to replace recalcitrant members of his own party with Republicans who share his concerns on global warming, such as his presidential rival John McCain. But this is not easy and the political climate in Washington is working against such bipartisanship.

So, there are plenty of ironies to note. After a year in which the Obama administration has rushed to reform global financial services, restructure a broken domestic healthcare system and re-engage with the climate change issue... oh, and manage an unpopular war, the 'world's most powerful man' has found that his powers are in fact tightly circumscribed, and that his most trenchant opponents often come from within his own ranks.

That is the bad news. The good news is that the lesson has been learned and 'Change you can actually get' is the new mantra. It seems that Obama was making his point in private at the UN meeting in New York, leading in turn to the first - and now effectively confirmed - indications that COP15 will not be the final chapter. So while chilly December recriminations remain likely, the solution may ultimately be only months rather than years away. Meanwhile, be sure to apply this prism to what you do see come out of Denmark.

Silver celebration for cellphone

By Luke Collins

On 1 January 1985, comedian Ernie Wise inaugurated the UK's first cellular telephony service by making a call from St Katherine's Dock in London to the headquarters of Vodafone in Newbury.

To mark the anniversary, the mobile industry is getting together at the Science Museum in London on 21 January to look at what has been achieved so far, discuss what might happen next, and have a celebratory dinner.

The event begins with an afternoon conference, chaired by Sir David Brown, which will hear from senior technologists at O2 Telefonica, T Mobile, Hutchison, Orange Labs UK, Vodafone, Motorola, Qualcomm, Arqiva, Ericsson and Nokia Siemens Networks. They'll look at how we got to where we are today, and discuss the social and economic gains that can be made from future UK cellular networks and R&D investment, and the related need for an innovative and industrially efficient political and regulatory framework.

A panel session will be followed by a drinks reception in the Museum's 'The Making of the Modern World' gallery. Museum director Professor Chris Rapley will launch a major project to build a new gallery, 'The Making of Modern Communications', dedicated to the role of communications and computing. Dinner follows in the Flight gallery.

The event is organised by Cambridge Wireless and sponsored by the UK's cellular industry. It is supported by the Museum, the IET, the Federation of Communications Services, the Mobile Data Association, and Silicon South West.

www.cambridgewireless.co.uk/cellular25 [new window]

Engineering challenges of the gold rush

By Mark Langdon

The rocketing price of gold is driving ambitious new mining projects. Ultra-deep mines are being sunk with shafts that are deeper than 3.5km, where temperatures rise well over 55°C and rock shatters like glass.

James Jobling-Purser recently visited the world's deepest mine, the Mponeng gold mine in South Africa, owned by Anglogold Ashanti. "It is 3.7km down, which is actually the deepest point on Earth," he told E&T. "To give you an idea of how difficult it is working in this environment, the shift time for working personnel is only four hours - the lift ride down takes an hour and half, and the guys would expire if they worked beyond four hours. It is really harsh."

The lift journey takes so long because it is in two stages. The first lift descends at 16m/s but is restricted to a depth of about 2km by the strength of the cables. "So then you have to go to another station which takes you down again," said Jobling-Purser. "There are thousands of people working in the mine and you have to queue up to go down to the different levels."

To keep the temperature in the mine to a tolerable limit "they have one of the biggest snow machines in the world, and even then the operating temperature is 36°C, which is still very hot, especially if you are doing physical labour," says Jobling-Purser.

"It was a real eye-opener to see how harsh some of these mines can be. I have respect for the guys who work down there."

Jobling-Purser travelled to the mine's deepest point and was then guided into some workings that had not yey been ventilated: "and to give you an idea of how hot that was, the water coming into that section of the mine was 60°C."

The mine is also alive, he said. "The weight of material bearing down actually causes rock bursts and seismic events that can measure over three on the Richter scale."

See the 'Underground vision' feature on p44

Developer claims antibacterial breakthrough

By Bryan Betts

UK company Dugdale has come up with a versatile antimicrobial version of PVC that can be made clear or opaque and in rigid or flexible variants. The plastic, which includes silver ions capable of blocking all sorts of bacteria, could have applications ranging from healthcare to the leisure and industrial sectors.

Jeff Ryan, Dugdale's technical director, said that while antimicrobial plastics already exist, they either use more silver than his company's Ducavin ABC materials - doping PVC with silver can double its cost - or are only available in a limited range of physical forms, such as floor tiles or wall cladding.

"I would say we have got the broadest range of PVCs," he said. "Traditionally, people just had one [antimicrobial] grade for one application, but we have adapted it into loads of products, from flexible plastics to building products.

"In particular, we have achieved a breakthrough on clarity - you didn't get clarity with pre-existing products, so we started working on that."

Ryan said that the new PVC is the result of extensive work with SteriTouch - which developed the silver ion technology - to understand how antimicrobial agents interact with other additives that go into plastics, most notably plasticisers.

He added that one of the Dugdale's other achievements was the development of flexible and antimicrobial PVCs that are phthalate-free; the REACH European chemicals regulations will require the use of phthalate plasticisers to be registered.

"Our understanding of what interferes with the antibacterials is better now, so we're able to use lower concentrations of silver ions; the particle size is different too," he said.

Ryan noted that while antimicrobial PVC offers useful hygiene advantages, it still needs cleaning as otherwise bacteria can build up on dirt.

Li-ion storage breakthrough

Scientists from Graz University of Technology in Austria have developed a way of using silicon for lithium-ion batteries. Its storage capacity is ten times higher than the graphite substrate that has been used up to now, and promises considerable improvements for users.

The team use a silicon-containing gel and apply it to the graphite substrate material. "In this way the graphite works as a buffer, cushioning the big changes in volume of the silicon during the uptake and transfer of lithium ions," explains battery researcher Stefan Koller (pictured). This method is far cheaper than previous ones in which silicon is separated in the gas phase.

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