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Sci Tech

Your Motormouth May Power Your Mobile

The sound of your voice could one day help power your cell phone thanks to a breakthrough described in the journal Physical Review B. Researchers say they boosted the performance of "piezoelectric" materials, which produce electricity from vibrations, to the point where even the subtle energy of sound waves can be harnessed.

For over a century, scientists have exploited the unique physics of such materials. They're used, for example, to power quartz watches and in cigarette lighters. Tahir Cagin, a chemical engineering professor at Texas A&M University, and his team doubled the usual power output by making a version just 21 nanometers wide, 5,000 times thinner than a human hair.

A person's voice can't provide all the power needed for a typical smartphone, of course. But additional energy could be captured from vibrations caused by walking and other movements.

The Touchscreen Gains a Rear Entrance

Microsoft (MSFT) and Mitsubishi Electric want to reinvent touchscreens like those on Apple's (AAPL) iPhone. For all the cool tricks these screens let you perform, they also have one liability: Your finger sometimes blocks the details you're trying to manipulate.

With the help of researchers Patrick Baudisch at Microsoft and Daniel Wigdor at Mitsubishi's lab in Cambridge, Mass., the two companies have developed small thin screens with the touch-sensitive electronics mounted on the back. As shown on the New Scientist Web site, you touch the back panel, and the point of contact appears highlighted on the front side, along with an image of your finger.

Who'll Stop the Rain? These Folks

Most raincoats don't stay dry in a downpour. That's because the fabrics, made of cloth fibers coated in polyurethane or fluorine resins, are designed to breathe as well as repel the rain.

Stefan Seeger, a chemistry professor at the University of Zurich, says waterproof materials should excel at both. His team has patented a process that deposits a thin layer of tiny, flexible silicone needles, or "nanofilaments," on cloth—as well as on wood or any other surface. The needles trap air molecules, thus sealing the surface so that it never comes into contact with water. "This is much stronger than fluorinated coatings," Seeger says. "And the fabric breathes."

The University of Zurich owns the patents, but Seeger and his team hold an exclusive license. They say they're now negotiating with apparel and construction companies to commercialize the process, though Seeger declines to name them. He has also contacted solar panel makers because, he says, when water molecules roll off a surface coated with nanofilaments, "they move fast and take away all the dirt."

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