US team’s battery ‘breakthrough’

Battery graphicResearchers claim their technology could shrink the size of batteries by 10 times while offering the same power

A new type of battery has been developed that, its creators say, could revolutionise the way we power consumer electronics and vehicles.

The University of Illinois team says its use of 3D-electrodes allows it to build “microbatteries” that are many times smaller than commercially available options, or the same size and many times more powerful.

It adds they can be recharged 1,000 times faster than competing tech.

However, safety issues still remain.

Details of the research are published in the journal Nature Communications.

Battery breakthrough

The researchers said their innovation should help address the issue that while smartphones and other gadgets have benefited from miniaturised electronics, battery advances have failed to keep pace.

Batteries work by having two components – called electrodes – where chemical reactions occur.

In simple terms, the anode is the electrode which releases electrons as a result of a process called oxidation when the battery is being used as a power source.

The cathode is the electrode on the other side of the battery to which the electrons want to flow and be absorbed – but a third element, the electrolyte, blocks them from travelling directly.

When the battery is plugged into a device the electrons can flow through its circuits making the journey from one electrode to the other.

Meanwhile ions – electrically charged particles involved in the anode’s oxidation process – do travel through the electrolyte. When they reach the cathode they react with the electrons that travelled via the other route.

The scientists’ “breakthrough” involved finding a new way to integrate the anode and cathode at the microscale.

“The battery electrodes have small intertwined fingers that reach into each other,” project leader Prof William King told the BBC.

“That does a couple of things. It allows us to make the battery have a very high surface area even though the overall battery volume is extremely small.

Microbattery designA cross-section of the battery reveals the 3D-design of the research project’s anodes and cathodes

“And it gets the two halves of the battery very close together so the ions and electrons do not have far to flow.

“Because we’ve reduced the flowing distance of the ions and electrons we can get the energy out much faster.”

Repeatable technique

The battery cells were fabricated by adapting a process developed by another team at the university which is designed to make it faster to recharge the batteries than lithium ion (Li-on) and nickel metal hydride (NiMH) equivalents.

It involves creating a lattice made out of tiny polystyrene spheres and then filling the space in and around the structure with metal.

The spheres are then dissolved to leave a 3D-metal scaffold onto which a nickel-tin alloy is added to form the anode, and a mineral called manganese oxyhydroxide to form the cathode.

Finally the glass surface onto which the apparatus was attached was immersed into a liquid heated to 300C (572F).

“Today we’re making small numbers of these things in a boutique fabrication process, but while that’s reliable and we can repeat it we need to be able to make large numbers of these things over large areas,” said Prof King.

“But in principle our technology is scalable all the way up to electronics and vehicles.

“You could replace your car battery with one of our batteries and it would be 10 times smaller, or 10 times more powerful. With that in mind you could jumpstart a car with the battery in your cell phone.”

Safety fear

Other battery experts welcomed the team’s efforts but said it could prove hard to bring the technology to market.

“The challenge is to make a microbattery array that is robust enough and that does not have a single short circuit in the whole array via a process that can be scaled up cheaply,” said Prof Clare Grey from the University of Cambridge’s chemistry department.

University of Oxford’s Prof Peter Edwards – an expert in inorganic chemistry and energy – also expressed doubts.

“This is a very exciting development which demonstrates that high power densities are achievable by such innovations,” he said.

“The challenges are: scaling this up to manufacturing levels; developing a simpler fabrication route; and addressing safety issues.

“I’d want to know if these microbatteries would be more prone to the self-combustion issues that plagued lithium-cobalt oxide batteries which we’ve seen become an issue of concern with Boeing’s Dreamliner jets.”

Prof William KingProf William King hopes to use the microbattery to power electronic equipment before the end of the year

Prof King acknowledged that safety was an issue due to the fact the current electrolyte was a combustible liquid.

He said that in the test equipment only a microscopic amount of the liquid was used, making the risk of an explosion negligible – but if it were scaled up to large sizes the danger could become “significant”.

However, he added that he soon planned to switch to a safer polymer-based electrolyte to address the issue.

Prof King added that he hoped to have the technology ready to be trialled as a power source for electronic equipment before the end of the year.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign team is one of several groups attempting to overhaul the way we power gadgets.

Researchers in Texas are working on a kind of battery that can be spray-painted onto any surface while engineers at the University of Bedfordshire are exploring the idea of using radio waves as an energy source.

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Twitter launches #Music service

Twitter #Music appSongs can be played directly within the app

Twitter has unveiled a new music app which will recommend tracks based on who you follow on the social network.

Songs can be played directly in the app via services such as Rdio, Spotify and iTunes.

The software displays songs your friends are currently listening to – as well as suggestions from artists.

It follows moves by other social networks such as Facebook to incorporate music recommendations into their services.

Last year, Spotify announced its own “follow” system, but the functionality is yet to be rolled out to users on mobile.

Twitter’s app – called #Music – is expected to be made available to download for Apple’s iPhone shortly.

No app has been made for users on Google’s Android or the Windows Phone platforms – but there will be a web browser-based version.

It will initially be available in the UK and Ireland, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, with more countries being added soon.

Surfacing songs

The app was likened to a “21st Century mixtape” unveiled on Good Morning America.

In a blog post, Twitter’s Stephen Philips explained: “It uses Twitter activity, including tweets and engagement, to detect and surface the most popular tracks and emerging artists.

“It also brings artists’ music-related Twitter activity front and centre: go to their profiles to see who they follow and listen to songs by those artists.”

He added that half of the social network’s users follow at least one musician.

“This is why artists turn to Twitter first to connect with their fans — and why we wanted to find a way to surface songs people are tweeting about.”

Apple CEO Steve Jobs unveils Ping, a social network for musicApple tried its own music recommendation engine – but closed it last year

Ahead of the app’s release, Twitter gave several musicians early access. They included Moby, who wrote: “It’s a really interesting music resource.”

Apple’s failure

Many companies have tried to tap into the potential of social recommendation for music.

London-based, which was bought in May 2007 by CBS for £140m, analyses what a user listens to and offers suggestions based on the tastes of other members who enjoy similar artists.

Apple also dipped its toe into the market with Ping – a service built into its iTunes software that promoted music it thought users may like.

At its launch, the late Steve Jobs said: “We think this will be really popular very fast because 160 million people can switch it on today.”

Ping was closed in September last year.

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No ads allowed on Google’s glasses

A woman models Google GlassGoogle Glass is controlled using voice activiation commands

Developers working on apps for Google’s smart glasses have been told they will not be allowed to place advertising within the device’s display.

The newly-published terms and conditions for developers working on Glass also prohibit companies charging for apps.

The glasses, which have a five megapixel camera and voice-activated controls, have started to be shipped.

The first devices will go to developers and “Glass Explorers”.

Google held a competition earlier this year inviting potential users to come up with ways to use the device, while developers have been eager to be among the first to try out the technology.

As part of the announcement, Google also gave the first official details of the device’s specifications.

The bone conduction transducer allows the wearer to hear audio without the need for in-ear headphones – sound waves are instead delivered through the user’s cheekbones and into the inner ear.

The company promises a battery lasting for “one full day of typical use”.

Its display is the equivalent, the company says, of looking at a 25in (63cm) high-definition screen from eight feet away. The device is able to record video at a resolution of 720p.

It has 16GB on-board storage, and connects with other mobile devices via Bluetooth and wi-fi.

Data usage

To date, it is privacy groups that have offered the strongest dissenting view against Google’s plans with Glass.

Telepathy OneThe Telepathy One headset has functions similar to Google’s Glass device

One campaigner from a group called Stop The Cyborgs, wrote “We want people to actively set social and physical bounds around the use of technologies and not just fatalistically accept the direction technology is heading in.”

He predicted that the focus of coverage about the device would shift from talking about the “amazing new gadget that will improve the world” to “the most controversial device in history”.

For developers, that controversy could begin with wondering how exactly they will be able to make money from the device.

Also keeping an eye on the excitement generated by Google will be Japanese firm Telepathy Inc.

Their device, the Telepathy One, has been touted as a possible competitor to Google Glass.

Chinese search giant Baidu has also confirmed it is working on a Glass-like project – but details are so far scant.

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Leap Motion seals deal with HP

Leap Motion controllerThe Leap Motion Controller is currently available as an external accessory

Motion-control company Leap Motion has announced a deal to embed its technology within HP computers.

The controller is able accurately to detect the movement of 10 fingers at once, allowing for intricate gesture-based controls.

Initially, the product will be aimed at consumers as a gaming and entertainment device.

But the firm’s president Andy Miller said partnerships with car and medical industries would be announced soon.

“Leap Motion is not a toy,” he told the BBC.

“It’ll take some time – everything that people use on computers has been written for the mouse and keyboard for the last 20 years, but I think people will see that the software written for the Leap is intuitive and people will want to interact that way.”

The product is similar in function to the popular Microsoft Kinect gaming peripheral, but is designed to be used at much closer range, and can detect more intricate movements.

Robot surgeons

The HP PCs that will have the hardware built in will be available by the summer, Mr Miller said.

In the meantime, the current Leap Motion Controller accessory will be sold bundled with HP machines, as well as being sold separately.

Software written for the device will be made available in a dedicated app store.

Beyond home computing, Mr Miller said he expected to announce more partnerships soon.

Leap Motion

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Rory Cellan-Jones tries out Leap Motion back in January this year

“Our technology has already been tested with surgeons,” he said.

While the device seemingly takes heavy design inspiration from Apple, Mr Miller – a former employee – said there is no deal with the Macbook-maker on the cards.

“Apple’s not big in partnering and playing nice with the field and creating relationships,” he said.

“I’m not sure if under Tim [Cook] things will change. We’ve definitely had conversations with Apple on a lot of fronts, but HP was much more aggressive and made us a great deal.”

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Samsung probed over ‘fake reviews’

HTC phone Bad reviews of HTC products were allegedly posted by students paid by Samsung

Fair-trade officials in Taiwan are looking into reports that Samsung paid people to criticise rival HTC online.

Samsung is alleged to have hired students to post negative comments about phones made by Taiwan’s HTC.

Samsung, based in South Korea, said the “unfortunate incident” had gone against the company’s “fundamental principles”.

If found guilty of engaging in “false advertising”, Samsung and its local agent could face fines of up to of 25m Taiwanese dollars (£547,000).

Taiwan’s Fair Trade Commission had begun an investigation after receiving a series of complaints, a spokesman told the AFP news agency.

A local website had published documents appearing to show Samsung had been recruiting students to criticise HTC and praise Samsung anonymously on the web, reported PC Advisor.

Samsung Taiwan said it had not been told about the investigation, however the subsidiary put a statement on its local Facebook page saying it had “ceased all marketing activities that involve the posting of anonymous comments”.

It said all future marketing work would be more in line with its company philosophy of transparency and honesty.

“The recent incident was unfortunate, and occurred due to insufficient understanding of these fundamental principles,” it said, adding that it was planning training for employees to ensure events were not repeated.

In early 2013, Samsung was fined by Taiwanese authorities for an advert that misled consumers about the camera on the Galaxy Y Duo.

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Porn sites hit back at malware claim

Neon sign outside a New York strip clubThe porn sites said they were working hard to eradicate instances of malware risk

Pornography websites identified as potentially putting their visitors at risk of downloading malicious software have hit back at the claims.

Last week, the BBC reported on figures that suggested two popular sites posed high levels of risk.

The research, conducted by security expert Conrad Longmore, referenced data compiled by Google.

One of the sites named, Pornhub, said the numbers quoted “grossly exaggerate” the threat.

Another, xHamster, admitted it did suffer problems “in the past”, but that rigorous systems were now in place.

“We had an issue with malware in the past and we totally stopped working with that advertising agency because of that problem,” a spokesman said in an email.

“Now our reliable partners are checking new advertisers very strictly, so it’s almost impossible to put a new site with malware on xHamster.

“The problem is that even reliable advertisers sometimes can be hacked. For example, in the past we had such issues with one of the top five porn paysites in the world.

“Their ad system was hacked and used for malware.”

‘Clearly a problem’

Mr Longmore – who published the study on his blog – called the response a “non-denial denial”.

“The data is open to interpretation, but there was clearly a problem just one week ago, there may not be a problem today,” he said.

“There might be a problem tomorrow, of course.”

Continue reading the main story

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Pornhub prides itself on providing the optimal user experience”

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Pornhub spokeswoman

The research was based on statistics from Google’s diagnostic service which crawls web pages for harmful content and posts a 90-day review of what it finds.

For xHamster, Google’s figures indicated that “suspicious” content was found on the site as recently as 6 April.

The most recent instance of “suspicious” content found on Pornhub was on 28 January, according to the figures.

But Manwin, the company that owns Pornhub, told the BBC the risk was “minute”.

“On average, the website serves over 15.5 billion ads every month,” a spokeswoman said.

“Isolated incidents of malware are immediately caught, and minute when considering the mammoth amount of traffic our site receives.

“Pornhub prides itself on providing the optimal user experience, in an environment safe from the threat of infection from third-party malvertisements.”

She added that according to Pornhub’s own figures, only 0.003% of advertising displayed on its site in a three-month period was potentially harmful.

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Bitcoin energy costs soaring

pylonData tracker Blockchain says that 982 megawatt hours of electricity were used in 24 hours by miners

Bitcoin is facing fresh scrutiny after a report revealed the power requirements of the currency’s miners.

Tracking website Blockchain logged 982 megawatt hours of electricity consumption over a 24-hour period by Bitcoin miners around the world.

According to Bloomberg, that is enough to power 31,000 homes in the US. Watchdog Ofgem claims the average UK household uses 3.3MwH per year.

Blockchain said the rough cost of that amount of power was $147,000 (£95,000).

However, it also suggested profits of $681,000 (£444,000) may have been made as a result of the mining.

Bitcoins are earned online by completing difficult computing tasks.

Mining involves solving a hard mathematical problem and miners typically use large numbers of computers to speed up the number-crunching involved.

The more mining takes place, the harder it becomes to mine new Bitcoins and the more power is required for the process.

Writer Mark Gimein described the energy requirements as “an environmental disaster” in a blog post for Bloomberg.

“Real-world mining of precious metals for currency was a resource-hungry and value-destroying process. Bitcoin mining is too,” he wrote.

However, other analysts disagree.

Tim Worstall, a fellow at the Adam Smith Institute, dismissed the quantity of electricity being used for mining as “trivial” on the website Forbes.

“There are around 120 million or so households in the US. Therefore Bitcoin mining is consuming 0.025% of the US household electricity supply,” he wrote.

“This is without even thinking about the energy requirements of business and industry. Do also note that that is the power consumed by global Bitcoin mining… I feel secure in stating that Bitcoin mining really isn’t a real-world environmental disaster.”

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WordPress attacked by giant botnet

Wordpress websiteWordPress users are advised to change their user names

WordPress has been attacked by a botnet of “tens of thousands” of individual computers since last week, according to server hosters Cloudflare and Hostgator.

The botnet targets WordPress users with the username “admin”, trying thousands of possible passwords.

The attack began a week after WordPress beefed up its security with an optional two-step authentication log-in option.

The site currently powers 64m websites read by 371m people each month.

According to survey website W3Techs, around 17% of the world’s websites are powered by WordPress.

“Here’s what I would recommend: If you still use ‘admin’ as a username on your blog, change it, use a strong password,” wrote WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg on his blog.

He also advised adopting two-step authentication, which involves a personalised “secret number” allocated to users in addition to a username and password, and ensuring that the latest version of WordPress is installed.

“Most other advice isn’t great – supposedly this botnet has more than 90,000 IP addresses, so an IP-limiting or login-throttling plugin isn’t going to be great (they could try from a different IP [address] a second for 24 hours),” Mr Mullenweg added.

Matthew Prince, Chief Executive and co-founder of Cloudflare, said that the aim of the attack may have been to build a stronger botnet.

“One of the concerns of an attack like this is that the attacker is using a relatively weak botnet of home PCs in order to build a much larger botnet of beefy servers in preparation for a future attack,” he wrote in a blog post.

“These larger machines can cause much more damage in DDoS [Distributed Denial of Service] attacks because the servers have large network connections and are capable of generating significant amounts of traffic,” he added.

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Google makes anti-trust concessions

Surfboards in Google officeThe investigation into Google’s European search business started in 2010

Google has proposed a package of concessions as it seeks to end a long-running investigation into its European search business.

The suggested changes to its business were made following talks with European Commission competition regulators.

Since November 2010, Brussels has been looking into Google’s search business following complaints from rivals.

Google said it was continuing to co-operate with the Commission investigation.

Test case

The anti-trust investigation was kicked off by rivals such as Microsoft, as well as mapping firms and web retailers which said the way Google ran its search business made it hard for them to compete fairly.

In a statement, Antoine Colombani, the Commission spokesman on competition policy, said it had completed its preliminary assessment a few weeks ago and had told Google of its concerns.

This, he said, had prompted Google to submit a formal proposal to the Commission about what it would do to change the way it operated. By making formal proposals, Google hopes to head off potentially huge fines.

Among the measures, Google is believed to have offered to label its services to make it more obvious to people what they are using and to make it easier for people to use rival advertising services, the Reuters news agency reports.

The proposals will now be subjected to a “market test” to gauge the response of rivals and to see if the suggested remedies meet the Commission’s requirements.

Speaking in Washington, Joaquin Almunia, the EU competition commissioner, said any agreement reached with Google would be legally binding.

In January, the US Federal Trade Commission ended its anti-trust investigation and won a pledge from Google to end some practices, such as scraping data from websites to help target adverts, that had triggered the competition probe.

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Rural mobile funds ‘not being spent’

Indian villagers, part of a Self Help Group (SHG) organisation, pose with mobile phones and laptops in Bibinagar villageAlmost half of India’s internet users access the web through their mobiles

Funds set up to improve poor and rural access to mobile services worldwide are “inefficient and ineffective”, according to a report.

More than $11bn (£7.2bn) has yet to be spent, according to the GSMA, which brings together global mobile operators, handset makers and internet providers. “Very few funds, if any, would appear to disburse all that they collect,” it said.

Less than 12.5% of the funds are meeting their own targets.

Universal service funds (USF) are set up by levies on telecoms in individual countries, which are then used to increase consumer access based on criteria such as income distribution, rural and urban population ratios, literacy and geography.

But the GSMA report estimates that more than one-third of the 64 funds surveyed have yet to disburse any of the contributions they have collected.

“Our research shows that, despite the fact that there is an ever-increasing amount of money sitting unused in these funds, governments continue to collect still more from the mobile operators,” said Tom Phillips, the chief regulatory officer at GSMA.

“The situation needs urgent government review and attention, as the money collected to date far exceeds the amount that is needed to ensure universal access.”

Among the funds dubbed by the GSMA as “ineffective or severely constrained and/or legally challenged” are those set up in Brazil, the Czech Republic, Ecuador, France and Italy.

The Indian USF, for example, contains more than $4bn in unspent money but still imposes a 5% levy on operator revenues.

The USFs in Afghanistan, Bolivia, South Africa and the US have been accused of “poor or inefficient administration” of the money, the global body said.

But the GSMA cited Colombia as an example of the way USFs should be structured, with a reduction in levies and a transparent public bidding process.

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