Biobattery-embedded tattoos to use sweat to power your tech

Scientists have developed a temporary tattoo with a built-in, sweat-powered biobattery that could one day be used to charge your phone while you are out for a run.

The biobattery works using lactate, a key chemical found in sweat that can be used to monitor exercise performance.

This means that the more the wearer sweats, the more energy is going to be produced, creating the interesting scenario where less physically fit people are able to produce more power.

The technology is one of the first examples of skin-based power sources, and could pave the way for a host of technologies powered by devices attached to the skin.

biobattery-tattoo

The biobattery works by using an enzyme to extract the electrons in the sweat’s lactate and move them to the battery. At present, the amount of energy produced is very small, but the researchers are confident that they will be able to develop this to enable small electronic devices to be charged.

“The current produced is not that high, but we are working on enhancing it so that eventually we could power some small electronic devices,” said Dr Wenzhao Jia, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California San Diego.

“Right now, we can get a maximum of 70 microWatts per cm², but our electrodes are only 2 by 3 millimeters in size and generate about 4 microWatts — a bit small to generate enough power to run a watch, for example, which requires at least 10 microWatts.

“So besides working to get higher power, we also need to leverage electronics to store the generated current and make it sufficient for these requirements.”

The device has also been developed as a lactate monitor, which will be a valuable tool for both doctors and athletes. Previously lactate has been monitored using a series of blood tests, so this monitor is likely to prove simpler and less invasive.

The biobattery’s reliance on sweat means that the amount of power produced can vary significantly depending on the person wearing it.

The researchers tested the initial biobattery on 15 exercise bike-riding volunteers, and found that not only did those who were least fit produce the most energy, but the most regularly active participants produced the least energy.

This could affect the potential success of the technology, as such variation in performance could make it difficult to market.

However, this is one of the first examples of skin-based batteries, and the technology is likely to be developed much further.

“These represent the first examples of epidermal electrochemical biosensing and biofuel cells that could potentially be used for a wide range of future applications,” said Dr Joseph Wang, professor of nanoengineering at University of California San Diego.

From here we could see the development of an array of wearable technologies and gadgets siphoning power through our skin, perhaps even one day powering whole computers, medical augmentations and more.


Inline image courtesy of Dr Joseph Wang.


Around the World in Eighty Drones #22 – Iguazu Falls, Brazil and Argentina

Sitting between Brazil and Argentina, Iguazu Falls is a breathtaking sight from any angle, but especially by air.

Shot by Jørgen Emmerik Andersen during a motorcycle trip through South America, the video shows the remarkable waterfalls that divide the Iguazu River as it crosses between the two countries, and the results are breathtaking.

Including shots at both dizzying heights and remarkable close proximity to the gushing water, the video really shows what drone filming can offer.

The online rights of citizens – their ability to be web freedom as well as privacy – are an area of growing concern. We speak to the UK’s Pirate Party leader Cris Chesha about the changing tide

In Iceland a revolution is underway. There are no guns, no dictators, and certainly no blood is being shed. This is a democratic revolution.

The Pirate Party, standing for Internet and data freedom, has seen a meteoric growth since it was formed in 2012. A year after its launch in the country it won three seats on the Icelandic parliament and now opinion polls have given the party the biggest percentage share of the vote – almost 24% of the total vote, more than double what it was at the start of the year).

“They achieved explosive growth on the back of widespread unrest; the country had had enough of being pushed around by corruption and bankers, and they got together and did something about it,” says Cris Chesha. “They’ve really inspired a lot of people to look to Pirates as a way to be heard above the drone of mainstream politics.”

Chesha hopes to dispel the belief that the party is just about fighting for Internet rights

Chesha is the newly elected leader of the UK branch of the Pirate Party – which has just celebrated its sixth birthday as an official political party– and he, naturally, wants to mimic the Icelandic success with the growth of his party.

But the challenge ahead is a colossal one.

In the UK’s general election in May the party put up six candidates for election who received a total of 1,130 votes between them – Chesha himself received 181 votes in the Northern seat he stood in. You might think that with more awareness of digital rights and mass surveillance, post Snowden and WikiLeaks, the party would have had more candidates representing it than ever before, but the number dropped compared to the previous general election.

In 2010, nine candidates stood for Parliament, getting just over 1,300 votes between them. The party fared better in the European elections in 2014 where it polled 8,500 votes in the North West of the UK.

There is a long way to go to reach Icelandic levels of notoriety; however, Chesha says he hopes to dispel the belief that the party is just about fighting for Internet rights. “Just like, for example, the Green movement are about more than just ‘the environment’, the Pirate movement is so much more than just an Internet lobby group,” he says.

“Obviously we have our core things that people know we will always campaign on – free Internet, freedom of communication, and so on, but given the current political climate, I think it’s time to get our messages of government transparency and participatory democracy out there.”

Achieving growth

The general principles that political parties under the Pirate label stand for can vary but core values include the support of civil rights movements, open information, privacy, and increasing the number of people involved in the democratic process.

Chesha says that the movement at its core wants to “drive democratic reform across the board” and to do this in the UK the party has to try to get its broader message to the public.  “We’re leading the charge, for example, on demanding that governments start using block chain technology to publish big, high-grade “6 Star” open transparency data,” he says. “A cryptographically verified and absolutely indelible, point-of-truth ledger of linked government data? Now that’s the kind of transparency Pirate Party UK can get behind.”

He and his party members believe that democratic control needs to be returned to the people. This means writing copyright laws that represent the people, having an Internet that is a common good and tackling surveillance issues.

A post-Snowden world?

Before Edward Snowden was granted permission to stay in Russia the elected Pirate Party members of the Icelandic parliament introduced a bill that would have given him Icelandic citizenship and protection from extradition if he made it to the country. It failed to get enough support but was an important gesture that recognised the importance of the leaks made by the former CIA employee.

Image courtesy of the Freedom of the Press Foundation

Image courtesy of the Freedom of the Press Foundation

Since then the discussion around surveillance and Internet privacy has slowly moved on – more so in the US than the UK. Scrutiny of the NSA has been higher than ever before and the leaks promoted the passing of the USA Freedom Act that was heralded as “the most important surveillance reform bill since 1978” by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Meanwhile in the UK the debate hasn’t achieved anywhere near the same level of prominence. The country’s biggest police force has only recently confirmed – after a seven-month battle with intervention from the information regulator –that it is running a criminal investigation looking at the journalists who handled the material provided by Snowden. Chesha believes that the “underwhelming reaction” of the UK public has “galvanised the authorities to do more”.

In reality the outcome of the UK’s general election – which surprised pollsters and led to a majority Conservative government – has resulted in an attack on civil liberties, rather than the strengthening of them. Lawyers have been on strike and the Human Rights Act could be changed, among other worrying developments. “The UK has managed to mandate a Tory government to throw out the rule book and declare all-out war on everything from online privacy, to civil liberties, to freedom of information, to every-day cryptography in the space of just two months,” Chesha says.

In making these announcements the government has faced a backlash from campaigners and civil liberties groups; it has also been defeated in the courts over surveillance issues. Two Members of Parliament, from opposing parties, defeated a controversial government snooping bill in court.

David Davis and Tom Watson took the government to court over the unlawful creation of the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014 (DRIPA) which exists to allow security services, such as GCHQ, to have access to phone and internet records of individuals, after the European courts revoked the previous legislation that allowed access. The British courts ruled that DRIPA was unlawful as it didn’t comply with European law.

You and I are living in a Post-Snowden world, but, sadly, I don’t think the UK authorities are

The Open Rights Group said that it hoped the government, after the court’s decision, would listen to the legitimate concerns about blanket data retention. “When the government forced DRIPA through Parliament a year ago, they denied our parliamentarians and the British public a proper debate about how our personal data is being kept by telecoms companies and accessed by the state,” said ORG’s Executive Director Jim Killock.

Chesha said he isn’t sure whether any government should be trusted with surveillance, and that if they’re not open to scrutiny “then they will fail you”.

“That’s what we have here, and how we got into this mess,” he said. “We have secret projects that have been conceived, built and left to run wild with absolutely no oversight – either internally or publicly. You and I are living in a post-Snowden world, but, sadly, I don’t think the UK authorities are.”

The digital tide is turning

It’s the increased awareness of data collection and surveillance that has the biggest chance to change how systems work in the UK. There is an increasing desire, supported by leading figures, that the judicial system should be put to work when the comes to overseeing surveillance.

Image and featured image courtesy of Rena Schild / Shutterstock.com

Image courtesy of Rena Schild / Shutterstock.com

David Anderson Q.C., the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, has said that the use of intrusive powers has to be shown to be necessary by officials and spelled out by the law. “The current law is fragmented, obscure, under constant challenge and variable in the protections that it affords the innocent.  It is time for a clean slate,” Anderson said in his 370-page review of snooping legislation.

A separate independent surveillance review conducted by the Royal Services Institute, recommended that requests for interception of communications should be authorised by a senior judge and warrants that are signed by a Secretary of State should be subject to judicial scrutiny. The report’s chairperson Michael Clarke said the current system is “complicated, overlapping and in some cases, creaky”.

And a third review, conducted by the Sir Nigel Sheinwald, the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on intelligence and law enforcement data sharing, said that the UK government needs to be more transparent in the “number and nature” of requests to overseas communications agencies. His report, however, wasn’t published in its entirety, just a summary of his findings.

These reports indicate that the tide is slowly turning and that people in the UK recognise that surveillance can’t continue in the way that it has been happening.

The only way that such surveillance activities can be enacted with any hint of democracy is if the programs are public knowledge to begin with

“The only way that such surveillance activities can be enacted with any hint of democracy is if the programs are public knowledge to begin with. The programs must be selective (no more blanket data collection), fully regulated, and transparent in how they operate,” says Chesha.

“Targets for data collection must be rare, justified and approved by a fair judicial process. The judicial process itself should be as transparent as possible, with public oversight. Is it really asking that much?”

While the UK public might not be at a place where it will be electing Pirate Party members into positions of power just yet, the party does have answers to the technological challenges that impact upon everyone living in the UK and further afield.

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With new generations of voters who have grown up with technology, care about their privacy, and want to know what is happening with their data, it is only a matter of time until this growth is kick-started.

Solar has long been used for unmanned space missions, but advances in the technology could spell great things human space flight

Ever since NASA popularised the solar panel way back in the 1970s, solar has proved crucial to expanding our knowledge of space.

Space exploration has long utilised solar to power probes that have been sent to the depths of space. A lot of man-made objects that are far from the surface of this planet have used solar: Rosetta and Philae which reached and landed on the comet 67P rely on solar; Mars Rovers have solar arrays that keep them powered and the MESSENGER mission to Mercury used solar panels as its main source of power.

solar-roverFor long distance manned missions into space, the agency is working on electromagnetic space technology called the EmDrive, which it has recently said is functional. It almost goes without saying that solar isn’t perfect for every mission into space; the probe still has to be in sight of the sun’s rays. A 1996 NASA fact sheet, which was produced in advance of the Cassini mission to Saturn, said Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators were more suitable: “RTGs enable spacecraft to operate at significant distances from the Sun or in other areas where solar power systems would not be feasible.

“They remain unmatched for power output, reliability and durability by any other power source for missions to the outer solar system and are very safe.”

However despite all this, solar is still going to play a big part of the future of exploration, as power is crucial.

“Power availability can limit almost all aspects of a space mission from payloads, propulsion and communication systems to life support and surface mobility for human space missions,” says a NASA research paper recently published online.

The paper Solar Power For Future NASA Missions, written by researchers at Glenn Research Center, says that solar power in space may have a more influential future than you would imagine.

“With continued incremental development via new materials and manufacturing techniques, solar cells may become relatively inexpensive, light, and versatile enough to be integrated into all structures, fabric, vehicles, sensors, and other exploration systems – serving a multifunctional purpose of providing primary power as well as other possible applications.”

Solar space travel

Further trips to Mars or asteroids are always being considered, and one way that makes them cheaper – essential for when we want to inhabit other parts of the galaxy – is using solar to power the travel.

The Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) project that’s being run is looking at developing “critical technologies” that will make difficult missions easier.

“High power and high efficiency SEP systems will require much less propellant to meet those requirements,” the researchers write.

Images courtesy of NASA

Images courtesy of NASA

“The new system will use xenon propellant energized by electric power from solar arrays and use 10 times less propellant than a chemical propulsion system like the engines on the space shuttle.”

They go on to say that large solar arrays and “high power thrusters” are being created for future launches. These arrays must be able to fit into small loads when they are packed for launch and once they are in space must be able to unfurl and capture as much solar energy as possible. Flexible solar technology is likely to be part of the key to unlocking a maximum solar surface area and there have been recent breakthroughs in the field by MIT researchers.

NASA researchers are already creating two “20kW-sized deployable solar arrays”, and one research project is building solar arrays of around 1500m2 that can be stored and unfurled in space.

“The project addresses the most challenging aspects of developing deployable solar array structures, including aspects related to: compact stowage, reliable deployment, high deployed strength and stiffness, robustness to dynamic docking and manoeuvre loads, modularity, reusability, and ground validation,” the researchers Sheila Bailey and Geoffrey Landis write.

The benefits, in the eyes of the researchers, are worth the development costs: “Compared with current systems, they will launch one-half the weight with one-quarter of the storage for electricity produced, and will be able to withstand four times the radiation.”

Sailing into the future

If any of the above sounds like it is ringing any bells that might be because you’re thinking of the LightSail – dreamed up by Bill Nye, funded by citizens, and run by the Planetary Society.

In June, a sail measuring 32 square meters was sent to Earth’s orbit where successfully unfurled its solar array and flew using the sun’s energy.

It even had time to snap a selfie before it was dragged back by the Earth’s gravity and burned up in the atmosphere.

Although the LightSail is the most well-known unfurling solar array of its kind – party due to being in close memory – it isn’t the only creation of its kind. NASA’s NanoSail-D2, measuring just 30 x 10 x 10cm at launch with a sail area of 10 square meters, was in space in 2011 and deployed its own sail. It stayed in orbit for 240 days and was part proving that solar propulsion will one day be possible.

Image and featured image courtesy of the Planetary Society

Image and featured image courtesy of the Planetary Society

The NASA researchers who published the recent study are primary concerned with the development of solar technology, and don’t give any details of what space travel by solar power would look like.

There’s no indication of timescales for travelling to Mars or asteroids compared to traditionally fuelled spacecraft, but there is optimism for the potential of solar in space.

“It is difficult to predict the ultimate efficiencies for hybrid organic/inorganic and perovskite cells, for example,” the study concluded.

“We also find ourselves re-examining old materials in new ways and combining materials in new ways.

“Breathtaking new materials processing and device design options have re-invigorated space photovoltaics for future space exploration.”