New Scientist: When Microsoft revealed the Kinect gaming device, which uses a depth sensor created by PrimeSense, various other companies began developing novel applications for the sensor. One company is using it to monitor shopper behavior in front of store shelves and to map where people pause or pick up items. Another company is using the sensor to make standard television and computer screens “touch sensitive” by detecting hand gestures in front of the screen. The sensor is also being used for quick, 360° three-dimensional room mapping and for creating virtual changing rooms, where people can “try on” clothing using a 3D model of themselves. PrimeSense also has developed a smaller version of the depth sensor that could be included in mobile devices as early as 2014.
Ars Technica: The silicon wafers used in the fabrication of photovoltaic cells are fragile. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has determined that 5–10% of wafers break during the fabrication process. To reduce this loss rate, and the associated cost, NREL has developed a wafer-testing furnace to fit into most photovoltaic manufacturing lines. The Silicon Photovoltaic Wafer Screening System heats the wafers to temperatures of approximately 500 °C. If there are any flaws in the wafers, the heating will cause them to break, and the wafer material can be reused. NREL claims the system has a nearly 100% detection rate. The combination of early failure detection and the relatively low cost of the machine could save solar cell companies billions of dollars.
NPR: Biofuels are liquid fuels made from plant material. Because most crops are grown as food, any used for fuel could cause food shortages. A study published yesterday in Nature proposes instead that biofuels be produced on marginal lands that aren’t good enough for food crops. According to calculations by G. Philip Robertson and colleagues, there is enough such land in the US Midwest to supply about 30 biorefineries. Critics point out, however, that in years lacking adequate rainfall and subsequent crop yield, biofuel refineries wouldn’t have enough material to process. Instead, some in the industry have proposed finding ways to use already existing biomass byproducts: sawdust and other wood waste in the Northwest, rice straw or wheat straw in California, corn cobs in the Midwest, and dead citrus trees in Florida. While the US pushes forward to develop its biofuel industry, Europe has been scaling back because of fears over food shortages and potential environmental problems.
New York Times: A private company, Bigelow Aerospace, has contracted with NASA to build an inflatable module for the International Space Station. At a cost of only $17.8 million, the space pod could set a new paradigm for space exploration. Instead of being made of metal, the unit consists of several layers of cloth, including a bullet-resistant material. It can be folded up to fit into the launch rocket and, once at the space station, attached to an air lock and inflated like a balloon. The company has already launched two unmanned prototypes and has plans to use the technology to build the first private space station.