Lightweight unplugged exoskeletons to aid the mobile and immobile

A lightweight, durable and inexpensive exoskeleton that works by using a pneumatic gel as its motor has been developed by scientists at Hiroshima University.

The device, called the Unplugged Power suit (UPS), consists of three parts: the drive (PGM), the pump – which supplies air pressure for the flexing artificial muscle – and the pipework – which transmits energy between the two.

“The UPS is designed to support human motion where and when needed. It also does not contain any heavy devices. This means that we can customize the UPS to the user’s particular needs such as muscle strength for athletes and rehabilitation,” said associate professor at Hiroshima University Dr Yuichi Kurita.

Image courtesy of Hiroshima University

Image courtesy of Hiroshima University

The UPS’ developers hope that it will be used to improve the quality of life for people who struggle with mobility, and to aid healthy people who enjoy sports activities.

To assist with mobility, the UPS has been stripped of a traditional exoskeleton’s tank, but  is still capable of supplying sufficient power to support human motion.

The sporting community will also benefit from the lack of a tank, which the scientists say will allow athletes to decrease muscle activity during jogging, for instance, which could be quite useful for athletes returning from injury.

The developers imagine the UPS will have different functions added to it so it will be more useful as a monitoring tool. “In the future, we can develop smarter assistive suits including wearable actuators and sensors by using our technique,” said Dr Kurita.

Image courtesy of Hiroshima University

Image courtesy of Hiroshima University

Traditional exoskeletons have had contend with the fact that their bulky frame makes some tasks – like walking upstairs – difficult to do.

Because it is so lightweight the UPS does not suffer from this problem, and as Dr Kurita points out, it is able “to support human hip movement”.

However, the team at Hiroshima University aren’t the only ones testing this kind of technology. Earlier this month it was reported that Swiss sensory motor scientists are working on a new generation of more flexible, less constraining, powered exoskeletons that improve the lives of the severely disabled and paralyzed.

The device being developed by the Swiss Federal institute of Technology, replicates the natural movement of human lower limbs, in an attempt to improve the type of exoskeleton currently being manufactured.

“Hopefully we will build systems that allow you to do more tasks,” said researcher at the Swiss Federal institute of Technology Volker Bartenbach, in an interview with Reuters.

Factor’s gift guide: Top gifts for gamers, geeks and space fans

Stuck for present ideas for your gaming, geeky or space obsessed nearest and dearest? Factor has you covered. From awesome custom maps to some fun Star Wars merchandise, here’s ten ideas for great holiday gifts, in part one of our gift guide.

Mapiful bespoke maps - Factor Christmas Gift Guide

Mapiful bespoke map prints


Maps are an awesome decoration for any home, but if you’re after something away from the standard cities, they can be hard to find. That’s where Mapiful comes in. You select anywhere in the world, and Mapiful will make it into a beautiful and personal gift. The maps are printed within 24 hours of ordering, and arrive in 3-5 days, so there’s plenty of time to get orders in before Christmas.



Linx Vision gaming tablet


Tablet gaming usually involves minigames and puzzles, which isn’t exactly the type of thing that appeals to your average gamer. But Linx Vision is designed to change that, by letting console gamers stream from their XBOX One or download and play PC games. With a full console-like controller, you actually play games properly, and there’s even a shortcut button to record footage.


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Star Wars Christmas Jumpers


If you’re thinking about buying the obligatory Christmas jumper, why not throw Star Wars into the mix? Available in three styles: Darth Vader, AT-AT and TIE Fighter, the jumpers are 100% acrylic, and as cheesy as festive as can be. Because if you’re going to look like a dork at Christmas, you might as well make it Star Wars-themed.

Sturmanskie Yuri Gagarin Watch


The ideal present for any true space fan, the Sturmanskie Yuri Gagarin Watch is a replica of the one worn by pioneering cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin when he when he made the historic first manned trip beyond Earth. The watch is water-resistant, and comes with an international warranty, so it’s a gift that will still be appreciated for Christmases to come.


Glow In The Dark Hi Res

Glow-in-the-Dark Nuclear Soaps


Perfect for the Fallout fan in your life, or as a stocking filler for your favourite physicist, these glow-in-the-dark nuclear soaps have a rain-scented smell (whatever rain actually smells like), and come in three designs: Uranium, Plutonium and Fallout Shelter. The soaps also aren’t tested on animals, which should be a plus for vegetarians.


Haynes Millennium Falcon Owner's Workshop Manual cover

Haynes’ Millennium Falcon Manual


Anyone who’s a fan of Star Wars has dreamed of flying the Millennium Falcon, but what about owning it? For an unusual take on Wookie-assisted fandom, the Millennium Falcon Manual has you covered. Created by Haynes, makers of owner’s manuals for everything from cars to computers, the manual features full-colour cutaways, a technical description of the Falcon and photographs.



Galaxy Mercury Hampton Bag


Pictures of the galaxy are amazing, so why not put them on a bag? A gift for your space-loving friends and family who need to lug a lot of stuff around, the bag has a 20L capacity and a hard-wearing design for heavy use. It’s a long-lasting gift that will get some serious use.


Stormtrooper Hi-Res 2

Star Wars Stormtrooper Bluetooth Speaker


Continuing with the Star Wars theme, the Stormtrooper Bluetooth Speaker is a 5W rechargeable speaker shaped like a Stormtrooper’s head. A great gift for anyone psyched for The Force Awakens, the Bluetooth-connected speaker is the perfect way to play the Imperial March.


H5797 Hubble Manual, Front Cover

Hubble Space Telescope Owner’s Workshop Manual


Another gem from manual creators Hayes, the Hubble Space Telescope Owner’s Workshop Manual is the perfect gift for space fans everywhere. Designed to coincide with Hubble’s 25th anniversary, the book features an array of technical illustrations of one of humanity’s greatest creations, along with details on how it came to be.

Spacewalk T-Shirt


For a cool t-shirt that the receiver will wear all year round, the Science Museum’s Spacewalk T-Shirt is perfect. Featuring a subtle but striking design, the t-shirt is available for both men and women, and is an ideal gift for the space fan in your life.

As the bid to combat climate change becomes more urgent, innovative plant-based power sources, from algae to artificial forests, are increasingly being explored. So is the future going to be biopowered?

Put simply, biofuels are energy sources made from living things, or the waste that living things produce. The concept and adoption of biofuels is nothing new; in the early 20th century car inventor Henry Ford originally designed the Model T car to run on ethanol, and large-scale biomass power plants, fed by woodchips or other plant or animal waste matter, generate electricity for thousands of people across the globe, including in the UK and US.

Due to the flexibility of bioenergy – it can be used to make heat, electricity or fuel, whereas wind and solar only make electrons for electricity – scientists are increasingly exploring different forms and uses for it.

Scientists at the Western Michigan University in the US are working on ways to use waterborne algal blooms from farm fertilizer runoff, which can destroy aquatic life and clog rivers and lakes, as feedstock for biofuel plants.

Researchers at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden and Harvard University in the US have developed “soft, highly robust” batteries from tree fibres that could be used to power everything from electric vehicles to clothes embedded with electronics.

And in 2013 engineering firm Arup unveiled the world’s first algae-powered house in Germany. The house has a bio-adaptive façade that uses live microalgae growing in glass louvres to generate renewable energy and provide shade at the same time.

Is algae-fuel a game-changer?

It’s not going to be the answer to the world’s energy solution but it can play a role

Many commercial-scale algae technologies are projected to continue to grow in the future.  This includes anaerobic digestion systems, which produce biogas for use as gaseous boiler fuel or to feed into the natural gas grid, and commercialised wood pellets for heating and energy,

But how likely are prototype innovations, such as algae-power, to become common technologies in our everyday lives?

“In reality, what we have found is that it’s not going to be the answer to the world’s energy solution,” says Dr John B Millar from the chemistry department at Western Michigan University.

“But it can play a role, particularly in looking at transportation or solid fuel used for local energy sources.”

Millar is part of the research group at Western Michigan University that is looking at ways to use waterborne algal blooms from farm fertilizer runoff.

Although John insists that algae as a biofuel is, at the moment, not ready to play more than a ‘research role’ in solving the clean energy dilemma, he insists the potential for algae-power or algae-fuel is strong and diverse. In fact, the energy potential for algae compared to conventional biofuels, such as ethanol and maize, is between 5 and 12 times higher.

“There are some mono-cultures of algae that are being bred to basically exude oil as part of their metabolic process; they give off vegetable oil that can be harvested into a petroleum type of fuel to potentially power cars,” Miller says.

shutterstock_273190847sThis type of oil-harvesting has to be done in a controlled facility because the culture of algae is genetically modified so it would pose a threat if allowed to enter the natural environment.

Senior research manager at the Energy and Environment Research Center in the US, Chad Wocken, writes in Biomass Magazine that unlike traditional oilseed crops, which produce 10 to 100 gallons of oil per acre, algae are mega oil producers capable of producing 1,000 to 5,000 gallons of oil per acre.

“Oil collected from algae looks very similar, chemically, to crop oils and can be converted to renewable fuel using existing technology. Algae also do not compete with food sources, can grow in non-potable and saline water on otherwise non-productive land, treat polluted waters and recycle carbon dioxide,” he adds.

Similar to how offshore oil and gas platforms exact fossil fuels in the open ocean, so could algae be “grown large-scale in mid-ocean, depending on environmental impact and an agreement between international bodies,” says Miller.

Extracting electricity from living organisms

Researchers are using bacteria to couple electrical cells to split water

There is also work being carried out that is looking at bio-electricity formation; electric potentials and currents produced by, or occurring within, living organisms.

“Researchers are using bacteria to couple electrical cells to split water,” says Miller, referring to the term used for a chemical reaction where water is split into oxygen and hydrogen. Efficient and economical water splitting would be a key technology component of a hydrogen economy.

An ‘artificial forest’ that can convert solar energy into chemical fuels has been developed by scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Mimicking photosynthesis, the artificial forest soaks up light and uses it to generate oxygen and hydrogen, two gases that can be used to power fuel cells. The process also facilitates solar water-splitting.

Researchers from Virginia Tech have also developed a new way to make hydrogen fuel cheaper and quicker than existing methods by making the fuel from the husks, cobs and stalks of corn, instead of using sugars that are costly to process.

Simple yet effective

Move to different a context and not all biofuel concepts have to be complicated to be effective. Some small-scale biofuels being used in developing countries right now are so impactful they are actually saving lives.

shutterstock_136650683sAccording to the World Health Organisation, every year over 4 million people die prematurely as a result of indoor air pollution, primarily the result of cooking on mud stoves with wood, and more than 50% of premature deaths among children under 5 are due to pneumonia caused by particulate matter and soot inhaled from household air pollution.

Grass-roots company Sustainable Green Fuel Enterprise (SGFE) in Cambodia has developed charbriquettes that come from organic matter – coconut husks and shells, rice processing waste – that would otherwise end up in local landfills, and which can be used as clean efficient fuel for home cookstoves, while also reducing deforestation.

Presently clean, and more importantly, cheap biofuel for cookstoves such as those made by SGFE only reach a small part of the developing world’s population. Rolled out across Africa and Asia, these simple yet effective biofuels could save millions of lives while reducing deforestation and waste headed to landfill.

More investment needed

Until there is significant carbon regulation worldwide I don’t see biofuels such as algae being strong at all

Although biofuels, such as hydrogen and ethanol for cars are already being deployed and used at a commercial scale in the west and BRIC nations – in the US biomass currently accounts for about 2% of energy production and about 10% of ethanol is used in much of the country’s gasoline – most of the projects mentioned in this article are still at the research stage. And due to a lack of investment, incentivising legislation and a lack infrastructure, the energy they produce will not likely find its way into our cars or homes any time soon.

The lack of consistent policy and regulatory frameworks “hinders investment in and expansion of bioenergy technologies, be they for heat, power/electricity or biofuels,” according to chief engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, James D McMillian.

Miller adds that it is very hard to get biomass/biofuel projects bankrolled in an environment of low-priced petroleum, effectively cheap gas and relatively cheap coal.

“Until there is significant carbon regulation worldwide I don’t see biofuels such as algae being strong at all,” he says.

“It really takes a willingness to recognise that we are not paying the true cost of petroleum because most fossil fuel production is subsidised by governments.”

For example, Miller points out that gasoline is a ‘horribly inefficient’ way to power cars.

“Maize as a resource for ethanol only has an energy payback of 1.3 to 1; in other words you get only 1.3 units of energy back for every unit of energy you put back in.

“If you compare that to the production of gasoline it takes more energy to produce a gallon of gasoline than is contained in the gallon of gasoline.”

“Some valuation of the sustainability benefits that bioenergy/biofuels, done correctly, can provide would help level the playing field and promote greater implementation and use,” adds McMillian.

Even so, McMillian adds “Bioenergy isn’t the end-all magic bullet solution to energy, but simply provides one important set of renewable energy technologies that can help us meet our economic and environmental objectives.”


Initiatives such as effective carbon-pricing – whereby those who emit carbon dioxide are charged for their emissions – would drive governments and investors to move more quickly into a lower carbon economy where biofuels would thrive and more money would be put into driving down the price and speeding up the development of technologies such as ‘artificial energy harvesting forests’ and offshore algae farms currently being researched.

Until then, biofuels will continue to play an important but marginal role in our energy mix.