Powered by the Sun: Mirrored Solar Dishes

sun_magneticfieldIn the race to develop alternative energy sources, solar power is the undeniable top contender. In addition to being infinitely renewable So much sunlight hits the Earth each day that the world’s entire electricity needs could be met by harvesting only 2% of the solar energy in the Sahara Desert. Of course, this goal has remained elusive due to the problem of costs – both in the manufacture of solar panels and the installation therefor.

But researchers at IBM think they’re one step closer to making solar universally accessible with a low-cost system that can concentrate the sunlight by 2,000 times. The system uses a dish covered in mirrors to aim sunlight in a small area, and which follows the sun throughout the day to catch the most light. Other concentrated solar power systems do the same thing, but a typical system only converts around 20% of the incoming light to usable energy, while this one can convert 80%.

Inline_solardishThis not only ensures a much larger yield, but also makes the energy it harvests cheap. Bruno Michel, the manager for advanced thermal packaging at IBM Research, believes the design could be three-times cheaper than “comparable” systems. Officially, the estimate he provides claim that the cost per kilowatt hour will work out to less than 10 cents, which works out to 0.01 cents per watt (significantly cheaper than the $0.74 per watt of standard solar).

But as he explains, using simple materials also helps:

The reflective material we use for the mirror facets are similar to that of potato chip bags. The reinforced concrete is also similar to what is being used to build bridges around the world. So outside of the receiver, which contains the photovoltaic chips, we are using standard materials.

A few small high-tech parts will be built in Switzerland (where the prototype is currently being produced). but the main parts of the equipment could easily be built locally, wherever it’s being used. It’s especially well-suited for sunny areas that happen to be dry. As the system runs, it can use excess heat that would normally be wasted to desalinate water. Hence, a large installation could provide not only abundant electricity, but clean drinking water for an entire town.

inline-i-solar-02A combined system of this kind could be an incredible boon to economies in parts of the world that are surrounded by deserts, such as North Africa or Mongolia. But given the increasing risk of worldwide droughts caused by Climate Change, it may also become a necessity in the developed world. Here, such dishes could not only provide clean energy that would reduce our carbon footprint, but also process water for agricultural use, thus combating the problem on two fronts.

IBM researchers are currently working with partners at Airlight Energy, ETH-Zurich, and Interstate University of Applied Sciences Buchs NTB to finish building a large prototype, which they anticipate will be ready by the end of this summer. After testing, they hope to start production at scale within 18 months. Combined with many, many other plans to make panels cheaper and more effective, we can expect to be seeing countless options for solar appearing in the near future.

And if recent years are any indication, we can expect solar usage to double before the year is out.

Sources: fastcoexist.com

Judgement Day Update: Bionic Computing!

big_blue1IBM has always been at the forefront of cutting-edge technology. Whether it was with the development computers that could guide ICBMs and rockets into space during the Cold War, or the creation of the Internet during the early 90’s, they have managed to stay on the vanguard by constantly looking ahead. So it comes as no surprise that they had plenty to say last month on the subject of the next of the next big leap.

During a media tour of their Zurich lab in late October, IBM presented some of the company’s latest concepts. According to the company, the key to creating supermachines that 10,000 faster and more efficient is to build bionic computers cooled and powered by electronic blood. The end result of this plan is what is known as “Big Blue”, a proposed biocomputer that they anticipate will take 10 years to make.

Human-Brain-project-Alp-ICTIntrinsic to the design is the merger of computing and biological forms, specifically the human brain. In terms of computing, IBM is relying the human brain as their template. Through this, they hope to be able to enable processing power that’s densely packed into 3D volumes rather than spread out across flat 2D circuit boards with slow communication links.

On the biological side of things, IBM is supplying computing equipment to the Human Brain Project (HBP) – a $1.3 billion European effort that uses computers to simulate the actual workings of an entire brain. Beginning with mice, but then working their way up to human beings, their simulations examine the inner workings of the mind all the way down to the biochemical level of the neuron.

brain_chip2It’s all part of what IBM calls “the cognitive systems era”, a future where computers aren’t just programmed, but also perceive what’s going on, make judgments, communicate with natural language, and learn from experience. As the description would suggest, it is closely related to artificial intelligence, and may very well prove to be the curtain raiser of the AI era.

One of the key challenge behind this work is matching the brain’s power consumption. The ability to process the subtleties of human language helped IBM’s Watson supercomputer win at “Jeopardy.” That was a high-profile step on the road to cognitive computing, but from a practical perspective, it also showed how much farther computing has to go. Whereas Watson uses 85 kilowatts of power, the human brain uses only 20 watts.

aquasar2Already, a shift has been occurring in computing, which is evident in the way engineers and technicians are now measuring computer progress. For the past few decades, the method of choice for gauging performance was operations per second, or the rate at which a machine could perform mathematical calculations.

But as a computers began to require prohibitive amounts of power to perform various functions and generated far too much waste heat, a new measurement was called for. The new measurement that emerged as a result was expressed in operations per joule of energy consumed. In short, progress has come to be measured in term’s of a computer’s energy efficiency.

IBM_Research_ZurichBut now, IBM is contemplating another method for measuring progress that is known as “operations per liter”. In accordance with this new paradigm, the success of a computer will be judged by how much data-processing can be squeezed into a given volume of space. This is where the brain really serves as a source of inspiration, being the most efficient computer in terms of performance per cubic centimeter.

As it stands, today’s computers consist of transistors and circuits laid out on flat boards that ensure plenty of contact with air that cools the chips. But as Bruno Michel – a biophysics professor and researcher in advanced thermal packaging for IBM Research – explains, this is a terribly inefficient use of space:

In a computer, processors occupy one-millionth of the volume. In a brain, it’s 40 percent. Our brain is a volumetric, dense, object.

IBM_stacked3dchipsIn short, communication links between processing elements can’t keep up with data-transfer demands, and they consume too much power as well. The proposed solution is to stack and link chips into dense 3D configurations, a process which is impossible today because stacking even two chips means crippling overheating problems. That’s where the “liquid blood” comes in, at least as far as cooling is concerned.

This process is demonstrated with the company’s prototype system called Aquasar. By branching chips into a network of liquid cooling channels that funnel fluid into ever-smaller tubes, the chips can be stacked together in large configurations without overheating. The liquid passes not next to the chip, but through it, drawing away heat in the thousandth of a second it takes to make the trip.

aquasarIn addition, IBM also is developing a system called a redox flow battery that uses liquid to distribute power instead of using wires. Two types of electrolyte fluid, each with oppositely charged electrical ions, circulate through the system to distribute power, much in the same way that the human body provides oxygen, nutrients and cooling to brain through the blood.

The electrolytes travel through ever-smaller tubes that are about 100 microns wide at their smallest – the width of a human hair – before handing off their power to conventional electrical wires. Flow batteries can produce between 0.5 and 3 volts, and that in turn means IBM can use the technology today to supply 1 watt of power for every square centimeter of a computer’s circuit board.

IBM_Blue_Gene_P_supercomputerAlready, the IBM Blue Gene supercomputer has been used for brain research by the Blue Brain Project at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Lausanne, Switzerland. Working with the HBP, their next step ill be to augment a Blue Gene/Q with additional flash memory at the Swiss National Supercomputing Center.

After that, they will begin simulating the inner workings of the mouse brain, which consists of 70 million neurons. By the time they will be conducting human brain simulations, they plan to be using an “exascale” machine – one that performs 1 exaflops, or quintillion floating-point operations per second. This will take place at the Juelich Supercomputing Center in northern Germany.

brain-activityThis is no easy challenge, mainly because the brain is so complex. In addition to 100 billion neurons and 100 trillionsynapses,  there are 55 different varieties of neuron, and 3,000 ways they can interconnect. That complexity is multiplied by differences that appear with 600 different diseases, genetic variation from one person to the next, and changes that go along with the age and sex of humans.

As Henry Markram, the co-director of EPFL who has worked on the Blue Brain project for years:

If you can’t experimentally map the brain, you have to predict it — the numbers of neurons, the types, where the proteins are located, how they’ll interact. We have to develop an entirely new science where we predict most of the stuff that cannot be measured.

child-ai-brainWith the Human Brain Project, researchers will use supercomputers to reproduce how brains form in an virtual vat. Then, they will see how they respond to input signals from simulated senses and nervous system. If it works, actual brain behavior should emerge from the fundamental framework inside the computer, and where it doesn’t work, scientists will know where their knowledge falls short.

The end result of all this will also be computers that are “neuromorphic” – capable of imitating human brains, thereby ushering in an age when machines will be able to truly think, reason, and make autonomous decisions. No more supercomputers that are tall on knowledge but short on understanding. The age of artificial intelligence will be upon us. And I think we all know what will follow, don’t we?

Evolution-of-the-Cylon_1024Yep, that’s what! And may God help us all!

Sources: news.cnet.com, extremetech.com

IBM Creates First Photonic Microchip

optical_computer1For many years, optical computing has been a subject of great interest for engineers and researchers. As opposed to the current crop of computers which rely on the movement of electrons in and out of transistors to do logic, an optical computer relies on the movement of photons. Such a computer would confer obvious advantages, mainly in the realm of computing speed since photons travel much faster than electrical current.

While the concept and technology is relatively straightforward, no one has been able to develop photonic components that were commercially viable. All that changed this past December as IBM became the first company to integrate electrical and optical components on the same chip. As expected, when tested, this new chip was able to transmit data significantly faster than current state-of-the-art copper and optical networks.

ibm-silicon-nanophotonic-chip-copper-and-waveguidesBut what was surprising was just how fast the difference really was. Whereas current interconnects are generally measured in gigabits per second, IBM’s new chip is already capable of shuttling data around at terabits per second. In other words, over a thousand times faster than what we’re currently used to. And since it will be no big task or expense to replace the current generation of electrical components with photonic ones, we could be seeing this chip taking the place of our standard CPUs really soon!

This comes after a decade of research and an announcement made back in 2010, specifically that IBM Research was tackling the concept of silicon nanophotonics. And since they’ve proven they can create the chips commercially, they could be on the market within just a couple of years. This is certainly big news for supercomputing and the cloud, where limited bandwidth between servers is a major bottleneck for those with a need for speed!

internetCool as this is, there are actually two key breakthroughs to boast about here. First, IBM has managed to build a monolithic silicon chip that integrates both electrical (transistors, capacitors, resistors) and optical (modulators, photodetectors, waveguides) components. Monolithic means that the entire chip is fabricated from a single crystal of silicon on a single production line, and the optical and electrical components are mixed up together to form an integrated circuit.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, IBM was able to manufacture these chips using the same process they use to produce the CPUs for the Xbox 360, PS3, and Wii. This was not easy, according to internal sources, but in so doing, they can produce this new chip using their standard manufacturing process, which will not only save them money in the long run, but make the conversion process that much cheaper and easier. From all outward indications, it seems that IBM spent most of the last two years trying to ensure that this aspect of the process would work.

Woman-Smashing-ComputerExcited yet? Or perhaps concerned that this boost in speed will mean even more competition and the need to constantly upgrade? Well, given the history of computing and technological progress, both of these sentiments would be right on the money. On the one hand, this development may herald all kinds of changes and possibilities for research and development, with breakthroughs coming within days and weeks instead of years.

At the same time, it could mean that rest of us will be even more hard pressed to keep our software and hardware current, which can be frustrating as hell. As it stands, Moore’s Law states that it takes between 18 months and two years for CPUs to double in speed. Now imagine that dwindling to just a few weeks, and you’ve got a whole new ballgame!

Source: Extremetech.com