This week I look at some cool technology with an environmental theme, including tiny batteries, autonomous monitoring devices, and citizen science kits (with apologies for the dinky little pictures, the lack of subscripts, and the bad pun later on).
Crowdsourcing Environmental Data
One of the biggest problems with current climate change predictions is a lack of data. As any statistician will tell you, models are only as good as the data we put into them, and right now that data is sorely lacking. Enter the Smart Citizen Kit, a project that recently reached its funding goals on Kickstarter. It is a small electronic device, built on Arduino, which gathers local environmental data. It measures temperature, humidity, CO2 and N2 levels, as well as noise and light intensity, and beams the data over WiFi to your smartphone. From there, the app uploads the data into their online database. This is a really great solution to one of the major challenges faced by climate change scientists. And as an added bonus, more non-scientists will become aware about environmental changes happening all around them, every day.
Taking the Lab to the Sample
Researchers at the University of Waterloo are developing ‘energy-scavenging devices’ which use various forms of energy from their environments to power themselves, rather than relying on batteries. Suggestions range from the obvious, such as solar power, to the more obscure, such as body heat for medical devices and kinetic energy from moving mechanical structures. The goal here is to develop ways that a device can look after itself while gathering data and sending it back to a central source. Much like the Smart Citizen Kit, this decentralisation of data capture is an important step towards a quantified world, where our decisions are informed by data rather than assumptions. There is huge potential here – ideas include analysis of environmental water quality, monitoring various vital statistics in the body, or keep track of structural tension in bridges or skyscrapers. Without the need for external power or bulky batteries, the possibilities are endless.
3-D Printing Next-Generation Batteries
Sticking with the theme of technological solutions to power small devices, scientists are pushing the boundaries of 3D-printing to produce tiny ‘microbatteries’. Just about the size of a grain of sand, these batteries are comparable in every way to a normal battery, except that they are many times smaller. This was made possible by using inks with specific chemical and electrical properties, which were printed into a 3D stack of anodes and cathodes. Then the battery particles were suspended in an electrolyte soup to create a functional battery. I guess the energy-scavengers and the microbatteries will just have to duke it out for ultimate power.