Archive | Consumer Technology RSS feed for this section

Why Recycling is the new Moisturising.

19 Oct

Of all the business workings you must archive and report, ‘waste’ is probably the least appetising. Trying to tot up the margin of product that fell off the production line, the bits you’d like to pick back up off the scrapheap… it’s not an auditor’s most exciting way to spend a day.


There are a number of different regulations in the UK currently, which as many are derived from EU guidelines might change over the course of the Brexit negotiations. They govern aspects as diverse as a ‘tax’ on packaging for prolific producers of paper, polyethene and cardboard hybrid coffee cups, glass, etc. And punitive fines and even jail-time for companies which engage in unlicensed disposal of ‘controlled waste’.

Wrapping-paper Tax

Any UK-listed or operating producer which emits more than 50 tonnes of packaging a year, and which has a turnover of over £2million, is obligated to submit a Packaging Tax Return to HMRC. They then have to offset their obligation by funding a commensurate amount to the government’s packaging recycling programme.

The private sector too has cashed in on the packaging sector, with a wealth of innovative initiatives to minimise waste. Probably the greatest expansion has been in devices to prevent food wastage, from the now fairly commonplace ethylene absorbers to special types of bacteria-fighting film. Ethylene is a hormone produced by metabolism in most fruit.  It initiates and accelerates the ripening of fruit and causes vegetables to start decomposing. Several companies now provide packaging with ethylene absorbers to increase produce shelf life.

Still more exciting are some of the patented inventions now seeking corporate sponsorship. For example, the wrappers with built-in anti-microbial properties recently developed by the Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging IVV in Freising. Sorbic acid is the active component of the bacteria-fighting film; which in clinical trials reduced the size of an E.coli colony cultivated on day-old pork loin for the experiment to around a quarter of its initial size. Crucially, in the concentration of the laquer applied to the film, sorbic acid is neither poisonous nor allergenic and virtually odourless and tasteless.  )

Dodge the Plastic Bag Tax

The resource-efficiency bar has been raised still higher in the compostable plastic department, where a number of global competitors jostle for supremacy. In the UK there are several competing providers of biodegradable plastics, including Scotland-based BioBags, and Biopac, the self-described ‘leading developer’ of a very wide range of eco-friendly food packaging and catering disposables.

In Australia, where ‘sustainability’ is a buzzword even for the big mining companies, one player dominates the market. Publicly listed ‘Secos’ was formed in a reverse merger of Cardia Bioplastics Ltd with Stellar Films Group Pty. Ltd. In April 2015. Post-merger, its preliminary annual report for December 2015 showed total assets including cash, trade and other receivables and prepayments, was $9,076,829. The most recent figures available from show that the Australian stock market looks favourably on its prospects, as its P/B (price-to-book) ratio is 2.33, compared to 1.43 the market benchmark, and 1.54 for the sector.

UK-based Biopac’s impressive range of products enable catering and hospitality companies to proudly declare their green credentials; not only can they cite their sustainable container purchases on their annual reports, it is also often branded on the product itself. There is the ‘I am not a plastic cup’ made from renewable cornstarch that also carries the government approved CE marking (£130 for a case of 2100).   And the 12oz single use* ‘I’m a Green Cup,’ made from certified FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) board with a starch material, which is actually 100% compostable (£57.45 for a case of 1000). Various PLA (polylactic acid) clear tumblers …

If you needed further proof that this was a growth trend that has become impossible to ignore, there’s even a site called ‘Biodegradable Plastic Glasses’ (insert domain name here).

Or, if you prefer a more official stamp of approval, a market research report by Markets and Markets entitledBiodegradable Plastics Market by Type (PLA, PHA, PBS, Starch-Based Plastics, Regenerated Cellulose, PCL), by Application (Packaging, Fibers, Agriculture, Injection Molding, and Others) – Global Trends & Forecasts to 2020  states that the biodegradable plastics market is projected to grow from more than USD 2.0 Billion in 2015 to USD 3.4 Billion by 2020, at a CAGR of 10.8% between 2015 and 2020.

That’s a nice return on your investment.





New secure smartphone payment solution – magnets?

14 Jul

Coded messages sent by magnet. By today’s giga-speed standard of telecoms technology, it seems a little… last century. But it stands to make close-range payment systems much safer, whether by terminal or using digital barcodes on the item itself.electromagnet

This novel way of making small data transfers utilises a smartphone’s magnetic field sensor, traditionally used in its compass app, to receive coded pulses from a nearby electromagnet.

The recalibrated smartphones, in the study by researchers at the University of Oulu in Finland, were able to translate the pulses into music tracks and website urls, for example.

Aptly named ‘Pulse’, the invention has some way to go before it equals the transmission speed of radio waves; the transmission rate is slow, and only works over a tiny distance, of 2 centimetres. Short of building a ten-storey electromagnet to increase the signal’s range, it makes sense to keep things small-scale.

But the localised nature of the connection means that Pulse is ideal as a substitute for near-field communication (NFC) payment systems, like an interactive street poster or bus stop advert.

NFC payments are those where a smartphone owner makes a purchase by tapping their phone on a terminal. But, says University of Oulu’s Vassillis Kostakos, the system “can be hacked by people nearby. Pulse could send a secure code over a short range to activate the regular NFC app.”



The Future of Food: Home-Grown Meat. Stem Cell Burger’s Next Stage of Development

31 Mar

Professor Mark Post claims his stem cell burger could hold the solution to growing global meat demand. He explained how his scientists are trying to achieve that final elusive lab result – making it something people want to eat.

The nineteenth-century doom-laden Malthusian prophecy of global starvation due to population growth has still not come to pass. But today there is a major factor impacting world food supplies, and that is our nigh universal love for meat. Around 70% of arable farmland is dedicated to crops, not for human consumption, but to feed the cattle we serve up as steaks, sausages, mincemeat, burgers, kebabs…. To produce 15g of meat, an animal must be fed 100g of vegetables. That is not an efficient productivity ratio.

And because of the growing demand for meat in emerging market diets, the proportion of arable land used to feed these animals is on course to increase. The diet in developing economies is approaching the west’s trophic level of 2.3 (where a completely carnivorous individual would have a trophic level of 3, and a vegetarian one of 2). Some experts claim that at current rates of expansion, by 2050 all the world’s crops will be needed just to sustain production of the world’s meat products.

The solution coined by Mark Post, of the Department of Physiology at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, was to grow animal tissue using muscle stem cells. Stem cells are the components of body tissues that can differentiate to grow and replace damaged cells very fast. Every vertebrate has these stem cells in their muscle tissue.

Stem cells grow very, very fast. Given the right nourishment and environmental conditions, they double 35 times. One muscle extract obtained through a biopsy from a live animal can yield 10,000kg of meat. After differentiation, they merge to form a smooth wall of muscle. Still, the scale at which this growth occurs is small. The resulting rings of muscle cells are just 2.5cm long and 1mm in diameter. Further expansion is difficult, because they have no blood vessels to transport nutrients to cells in the centre.


This is an area Post is keen to explore, and sees two possible solutions: either an “artificial channel system to mimic the blood vessel system”, or to grow a biological blood transport system, complete with tiny capillaries. It seems this could necessitate an artificial pump, but he suggested that “stimuli coming from the interior cells that drive growth and repair” could be sufficient to direct the flow of nutrients. His ultimate goal, he said, was to create an authentic T-bone steak, – without harming any animals in the process.

Post claimed his original idea was to make a sausage and “present it to the audience while the pig was running around honking.” But after he presented the proposal to Google founder Larry Page, his new patron insisted as a condition of his support that it was a burger, rather than a sausage, as Post had first envisioned.

“I wanted to produce a sausage, and present it to the audience while the pig was running around honking.” (Mark Post, Maastricht University)

Another way the professor proposes to enhance the technology is through tailoring the proteins and amino acids the meat contains. He states that in future, they might remove harmful proteins such as those which cause colon cancer. And that they would incorporate fat cells, which would serve the dual purpose of making the burger juicier, and of improving its nutritional content: the fatty acids, when separated from their respective glycerol molecule, are essential for bodily functions including steroid synthesis, and in the phospolipid bilayer which forms a part of the plasma membrane in all body cells.

Fun Fact:

A number of other important biological molecules are also lipids. Vitamins A, E and K are terpenes, compounds similar to steroids but somewhat smaller. Steroids, of which Vitamin D and cholesterol are two examples, are lipids consisting of four interlinked rings of carbon atoms. Other important steroids are derived from cholesterol, among them the sex hormones progesterone and testosterone, and the hormone aldosterone secreted by the adrenal cortex. Bile salts, such as glycocholate and taurocholate, are polar metabolic products of cholesterol necessary for functioning digestion of lipids.


Here comes the science…

Tests have been conducted as to the ideal solution to promote adipogenesis, adipose or fat stem cell replication. Post cites Lin et al, ‘Tissue Engineering A,’ 2011, as having demonstrated the effectiveness of ADSC in collagen gel for this purpose. The expression of fatty acids Rosi, Phytanic and Linoleic acids were especially boosted, and to a lesser extent myristoleic and elaidic acids.

The optimum condition to enlarge and increase muscle cells is achieved through subjecting them to tension (“Muscle cells are exercise junkies,” says Post), so stretching them between two points gives them an effective workout that could also increase the muscle mass. It has been found that electrical currents stimulate muscle activity, but over time this wears them out rather than building them up.

In addition, the team is experimenting with the solutions it will use on the muscle tissue as it is being incubated. By coating the cells with a substance such as Matrigel, at a concentration of 1:200, you create an immersive 3D culture environment. In contrast, a petri dish donates nutrition via a flat, 2D surface. Matrigel was the most effective coatings tested, causing the highest relative expression of stem cells. Other coatings trialled in the experiment were laminine (concentration 1:10) and biolaminine (concentration 1:25).

A potential obstacle to sustainability is that, in addition to the original biopsy, calve serum is used to deliver vital nutrients. Eventually if cultivation of muscle cells can be scaled up, it would be possible to grow new cell populations out of cells already synthesised in the laboratory. But to maintain a supply of calve serum would necessitate diverse herds of livestock; something Post wants to phase out, as an inefficient use of land and corn. They have had promising results with a few non-serum media.*[1]

The first three stem cell burgers were served up live on TV last August to notable food critics, author Josh Schonwald and Hanni Ruetzler of Future Food Studio, who gave the home-grown dish what Post calls a polite but honest reception. The cost of this particular menu item was in total €250,000 in equipment, materials and labour. In order to make the process efficient and cost-effective, the team would have to expand production to a commercial scale. The task of modelling how to achieve this was contracted to J.Rowley, allegedly the world’s largest supplier of stem cells for laboratory purposes.

J. Rowley’s model did not account for all the further enhancements envisioned for the process. It made a number of technical assumptions: that 52 population doublings were possible; that the achievable cell concentration in the microcarrier culture would be 7.0e6 cells/ml; and the microcarrier concentration 10g/L. Consultants at J.Rowley mapped out a method by which cells were conveyed from plates to flasks, to a cell factory to a cell culture, via a mixing facility to a filling facility, and culminating in a discrete freeze drier. The final cost per kg of beef production? An average of $65.57, which at current exchange rates is £39.33. At the current retail price of meat, this seems on a par with livestock farmed the traditional way.

The headline figure is that a single bioreactor, incorporating 13 cycles per year, could feed a population of 10595. Each batch of cells yielded by the chain of production would yield 35000kg of meat, without endangering the life of a single cow.

That’s 175,000,000,000,000 individual, artificially synthesised cells, for those of you who are impressed by big numbers.

And why stop there? Post jokingly hypothesised about the creation of ‘animal hybrids’, meat containing components for two or more different species. Pick and Mix…He theorised that technically, it would be possible for people to grow meat at home in domestic incubators, provided they tended their incubator with the same care and patience as a garden or allotment.

Hey, it sounds fantastical. But five years ago, what would you have said in response to someone who claimed they could ‘grow meat’?

[1] If you are interested, results for the solution 6% Xerum free + Mix +1% P/S/A ingevoren aliquots suggested it could be a viable alternative.

How safe is Data Encryption really? Where do you keep the keys to your secrets?

5 Jun

Motorola’s SecureMedia has recently announced another major client to its rosta, EONA the leading French provider of IPTV and video-on-demand software, for over 45 hotels and hospitals in 7 countries. French broadcaster Canal+ is not the only one to demand stringent new security measures: they are a prerequisite for many film studios, TV channels and broadcasters globally.

There is some debate as to the best location to store the encryption key for algorithm-encrypted data files of streamed content. Motorola’s SecureMedia advocates server-based rights control, and keeps decryption keys and user entitlements off client devices where it claims they are more secure from hacking.  It uses a range of data-encryption formats (RSA, AES, 3DES and DVB-CA), to prevent one successful attempt at cracking the crypto algorithm being replicated on multiple devices. The downside of this asymmetric-key, or private-key approach is that if its protected data-processing HQ were hacked, all the devices it controlled could be rendered useless. There was considerable furore around 2007, when cyber-thieves hacked multiple devices and broadcasting providers for the keywords giving access to video-on-demand and rights-protected content, exchanging them freely on web forums. No production company or streaming software was safe. As yet, the new wave of Digital Video Broadcasting (DVB) protocol-compliant content providers have not suffered a major hack in over three years, but technical developments must keep advancing to stay ahead in the game.

Other firms like Irdeto, whose customers include Adobe, Cablevision and Filmflex,  are pioneering techniques like watermarking. Watermarking can be used to identify content by embedding the identity of the content or its owner as a payload, which is the data embedded into the content as a watermark. This identification data cannot be removed without seriously impairing its visual quality. Another feature, of Irdeto’s Cloaked Conditional Access, uses whitebox (as opposed to blackbox) cryptography, which embeds the decryption code as a series of instructions in a series of tables that must be cross-referenced almost ad infinitum to solve.

I propose to contact the major content security providers, including NAGRA and Irdeto who have suites of tailored products for different needs, as well as Motorola and others like cloud-based Helix-Broadcaster, whose claims of ‘secure data encryption’ through a helix structure would also bear examination. I would question them closely to ascertain how they stand apart from their rivals. I would use this and previous research to write an analysis of the pros and cons of the various contenders. Preventing data theft through video-on-demand (hacking to artificially renew or steal subscriptions) and through over-the-top providers like Netflix and Hulu is a continuing concern, and intellectual property protection will become even more important as data is increasingly stored in remote terminals through the cloud, often in different countries.

US State Department’s educational game: cleaner than Assassin’s Creed

2 Apr

The US State Department has collaborated with IT company SuperGroup to launch an educational game, to teach American English and cultural values. It was clearly thought that the popular commercial games Grand Theft Auto, where players compete to steal cars and kill pedestrians, and Assassins Creed where they shoot, stab and garott English soldiers, did not endow citizens with desirable behaviour traits.

So, Trace Effects was created. Trace is a university student from 2045 who travels back in time, and is required to help six people do positive things to help the future. Trace’s virtual journey takes him through major American landmarks and locations, including Kansas, New Orleans, the Grand Canyon, New York City, San Francisco and Washington. True, his denim-on-denim outfit does not reflect well on the fashion trends of the future, but interacting with these button-eyed characters is believed to be a more effective teaching aid than traditional exercises.

Brad Lewis, Founding Member of The SuperGroup, says “To make language learning effective for the new generation of international students, an enjoyable, and robust environment is needed – one where they can interact with virtual characters, and learn from ‘real life’ situations.” He is emphatic that “This interactive experience allows students to learn English communicatively, and, equally important, to learn about American culture through an educational process that feels natural, not artificial.”

The game was test launched in Peru, Columbia and Indonesia with positive results. It is now available worldwide through, the newly created American English portal pioneered by the State Department. There are two mobile games designed for Android systems, and 1 text based game for players without smartphones.

The storyline consists of seven chapters of play, and includes four multi-player practice activities. As an add-on, seven graphic novels are available to extend the learning experience.