A sound-powered cellphone might sound like donuts that help you lose weight, an anti-hangover alcohol or an ad for "Guaranteed returns, work from home, APPLY NOW" - but it might well be possible. A team of Texan scientists have published a paper claiming a breakthrough allowing audio-energized electronics.
Piezoelectric materials can convert between electrical energy and mechanical motion. Normally we use them that way, forming the heart of speaker systems, but recent advances have increased interest in running them backwards. Any situation where things are moving anyway is potentially a power source. One Japanese train station is already testing electricity generating floors in a train station, harnessing power from a million passengers a day, while the US Army is obviously interested. Piezoelectric suits would mean less weight for soldiers to carry - the very act of walking would power small electronics.
Professor Tagin's paper states there is a magic mini-size for piezoelectric parts which radically enhances their efficiency. At around twenty-one nanometers, their model shows a hundred per cent increase in electricity generation. Such an increase is not impossible (piezeolectrics are very far from being totally efficient converters), but before anybody throws out their charger they should wait for a working prototype.
Or even for a complete model. The paper presenting this case is a rapid communication paper, which certain key elements of the derivation replaced with the phrase "We suppress further details (which will also be presented elsewhere)", but without that magic little superscript-number which would tell you where that elsewhere is. It's certainly not unusual for this to happen in science - getting the exciting headline out the door to pave the way for your main paper - but neither is waiting for the full picture before organizing your "We don't need batteries anymore" party.
The final barrier between man and machine is being broken down. The ultimate in input is on the way, with the beginnings of a machine that can tell what you're thinking about. If you can think of awesome applications of this technology, cool. If you can think of terrifying ones, congratulations on having a better understanding of the world.
The work is led by Dr Kang Cheung of the RIKEN Brain Research Institute, who could honestly only sound more like a Bond villain if he had a "Von" in there somewhere. The work is based on functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), an uprade to MRI which focuses on the flow of blood through the brain.
A surprising amount of information can be extracted from blood flow. While you might think it's just "Fast heartbeat = active, slow = sitting on your ass", in the brain the massive network of capillaries is much more complex. Active neurons consume oxygen at an increased rate, and since oxygen and de-oxygenated blood have different magnetic susceptibilities the areas of activity light up on the fMRI computer screen.
A group of Japanese research institutions have worked to harness this intra-intelligence-organ intel into images, and can now successfully recreate ten-by-ten black and white images. Images, this part is important, read directly out of the living brain of a human and displayed on a computer screen. Further, the team believe that more complex images and eventually emotions and ideas are just a matter of time.
Don't worry about your boss delving into your daydreams just yet - the equipment needs calibration for each person, and the minor issue of said person being strapped down into an fMRI machine. But watch out: if there's on thing we in general, and the Japanese in particular, are good at, it's miniaturization.
Posted by Luke McKinney.