The Future is Here: Fabric Circuit Boards

fabric_circuitboard1Chances are that almost every piece of electronics handled by someone today is some sort of printed circuit board (PCB). PCBs are an essential part of modern technology, but as technology improves and moves into the realm of the wearable and the flexible, their rigid and flat design is being reconsidered. In addition to looking for more flexible materials, there’s also a desire to break the 2-dimensional mold.

That’s precisely what researchers at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University were thinking of. Using a revolutionary, never-before-seen concept known as computerized knitting technology, they developed a new line of fabric circuit boards (FCBs).  To make them, lead scientists Qiao Li and Xiao Ming Tao at HKPU relied a combination of conductive fibrous metal materials and traditional fabric.

fabric_circuitboardWithin the FCB, the wires are the equivalent of the circuits on a regular board, and the fabric acts as the mounting material that keeps everything in the right orientation and insulates different circuits. The finished FCBs can contain 3D circuits that are resistant to bending, stretching, and washing. To test this, Li and Ming subjected the boards to repeated stretching and folding, and found they were functional to about 1 million cycles.

The washing test was a little less successful with six of 30 samples experiencing mild damage after 30 washes, but that’s not bad when you consider a single wash cycle would probably kill your average PCB. Oddly enough, Li and Ming also wanted to test how the fabric stood up to bullets, and placed one inside a bulletproof vest. After several shots, the fabric boards continued to work without difficulty.

wearable_computingGarments made of FCBs could also to connect devices that are mounted on different parts of the body, like small solar panels on your back or shoulders to charge your devices. The FBC garment could then route that power into a battery pack or directly to your pocket where your phone charges wirelessly. Another potential use case would be biometric sensors that are built into your clothing instead of a device like a smartwatch or fitness band.

According to the team, the basic FCB design is ready for use. The fabric samples made as part of the study are reportedly rather comfortable and the circuits should be sturdy enough to outlast the fabric component of the garment as well. However, the success of FCBs will likely come down to cost. Right now, the Samsung S Shirt costs $199 with purchase of a smartphone and requires a two-year AT&T contract. Not quite cost-effective just yet!

Augmented_Reality_Contact_lensStill, what this amounts to is the possibility a future where “wearable computing” is taken quite literally. Beyond smart watches, smart rings, smart glasses, and portable computers, there could also be the option for “smart clothes”. In short, people may very well be able to wear their computer on their person and carry it with them wherever they go. Smartphones, contacts or glasses could then be worn to sync up and act as displays.

I can’t help but feel that this is all starting to sound familiar. Yep, echoes of Vinge’s Rainbow’s End right there! And in the meantime, be sure to check out this video from New Scientist that gives a first-hand look at the fabric circuit board:


Sources:
extremetech.com, ecouterre.com
, newscientist.com

Settling Mars: The Mars Base Challenge 2014

mars-colonyLife on Mars can’t become a reality without some serious design concepts and engineering. And that’s why Thingiverse, in cooperation with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, conduct the Makerbot Mars Base Challenge every year. Taking Mars’ extreme conditions into consideration, people are tasked with designing a utilitarian Mars base that can withstand the elements and make settlers feel at home.

The competition opened on May 30th and received some 227 submissions. The challenge brief asked entrants to take into account the extreme weather, radiation levels, lack of oxygen and dust storms when designing their Martian shelters. And the winning entries will each be awarded a MakerBot Replicator 2 Desktop 3D Printer in order to help them fully explore their designs for Martian abodes.

And although the applicants did not always nail the science, their designs have a novelty that has not been seen in some time. This can especially be seen in with this years finalists, which included a design for a Martian pyramid, a modular beehive and a three-tiered Acropolis.

MarsChallengeResultsThe Thingiverse community appears to have been hugely supportive, printing out the designs themselves and offering handy hints in the comment section beneath each entry. Some were dismissed for being impractical; for example, those that would be immediately flattened or kill all of its inhabitants if it were installed on the Martian surface. But one designer, Noah Hornberger, points out:

A toy car does not need fuel because it runs on the imagination of the child who drives it around. So it seems to me that I’m driving my toy car at full speed and you are here telling me what kind of fuel and oil it needs to run. I would rather leave the physics to the right people.

Luckily, that’s what NASA is on hand for – to ensure that it’s not just the mathematicians and engineers that have an interest or a say in our Martian future, but to make sure those designs and dreams that come from the public meet the basic scientific and engineering requirements. Bringing together inspired ideas and realistic needs, here’s how this year’s finalists measured up.

MarsPryamid-4_Feature_preview_featured This Mars structure is designed with resource consumption and allocation in mind, and also takes into account that the majority of activity would be taking place inside the structure rather than outside. As its creator, Valcrow. explained:

High traffic rooms all have ample natural Martian light to help with the crews extended isolation and confinement… This design focuses on looping essential systems into as many multi-functional roles as possible to ensure that the very limited resources are used and reused as much as possible.

This includes food created through a sustainable aquaponics system which would sit at the top of the pyramid, where it can get some light. A mirror-based series of solar panels will be responsible for collecting energy, with a nuclear generator for backup, and water would be stored near the main power center so that it heats up. The whole thing is inspired by the Pyramid of Giza, but unlike that beauty it can be reconfigured for science or engineering tasks and experiments.

Mars_beehiveThis second design, known as the Queen B because of its modular beehive configuration, comes with all the mod cons and home comforts you might expect on Earth – a kitchen, two bathrooms, a garden, and a 3D print lab and decompression room. Its creator, Noah Hornberger, chose a flat-panelled, low-level design that would be cheap and easy to build and allow for less heat energy to be lost. The hexagon shape was chosen for its durability and ability to form modular designs.

Depleted uranium would be used to create laminated panels that would shield out the elements, but would need to be sandwiched between other materials to make it safe for the occupants. An exothermic chemical reactor would meanwhile be used to heat an underground water container, which will provide heat for the basecamp. Excess steam could also power generators to supplement solar power.

Speaking on behalf of his creation, Hornberger said:

I have extrapolated on the idea of a fully functional apartment on Mars with all the modern amenities fitted inside 16-foot-diameter hexagons. I think that to present Mars life to people and actually make it appealing to the public it needs to feel like home and reflect the lifestyle trends of Earth living.

Mars_acropolisAnd last, but not least, there’s the Mars Acropolis – a design that blends materials used here on Earth to create a classic futurist design that looks like it would be at home in the classic Fritz Lang film. Concrete, steel and Martian soil help form the outer wall that protects the population, while carbon fibre, stainless steel, aluminium and titanium would be used to build the main body.

Three greenhouses contain the vegetation and help filter the air and produce oxygen, and there are decompression chambers at the entrance. On level two, residents can park their shuttles before entering the living quarters and labs, while level three acts as the nerve center – with flight operators and observation posts. It’s joined by a huge water reservoir that flows to the first level for purification.

Designer Chris Starr describes the layout as follows:

The structure serves as a mass research facility, to explore and develop means for additional colonization of the planet. Due to the water vapour contained in the Martian atmosphere, that vapour can be harnessed into usable liquid water, where the condensation is collected from the water vapour, which is filtered back into the reservoir.

mars_one2In all cases, the designs draw attention to the fact that any structures intended for life on Mars will have to achieve a balance between resource management, comfort and entertainment, and security against the elements. At this point, there’s no telling exactly what a Martian settlement will look like; but as always, the truth will likely be stranger than fiction. To see more designs that made it to the Mars Base Challenge this year, check out Thingiverse’s website.

Sources: wired.co.uk, thingiverse.com

Powered by the Sun: Breakthrough Solar Cells

solar1In addition to becoming cheaper, and increasing in efficiency and yields, solar cell technology is also growing in terms of innovative design. By going beyond the conventional design of silicon panels and electrical cables, researchers are ensuring that solar technology can go farther. And the latest advances in design are especially far-sighted, aiming to merge solar technology with just about any surface, and even sending it into space.

In the former case, researchers at Michigan State University have created a fully transparent solar concentrator, which could turn any window or sheet of glass – from highrise buildings to the screens on smartphones and tablets – into a photovoltaic solar cell. And whereas other “transparent” solar panels have been designed in the past, this one is the first that truly lives up to the word.

transparent-solar-cellScientifically, a transparent solar panel is something of an oxymoron. Solar cells, specifically the photovoltaic kind, make energy by absorbing photons and converting them into electrons. If a material is transparent, by definition it means that all of the light passes through the medium. This is why previous transparent solar cells have actually only been partially transparent, and usually cast a colorful shadow.

To get around this limitation, the Michigan State researchers use a slightly different technique for gathering sunlight. Instead of trying to create a transparent photovoltaic cell, they used a transparent luminescent solar concentrator (TLSC), which consists of organic salts that absorb specific non-visible wavelengths of ultraviolet and infrared light, which they then luminesce (glow) as another wavelength of infrared light (also non-visible).

https://i0.wp.com/www.extremetech.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/transparent-luminescent-solar-concentrator-colorful.jpgThis emitted infrared light is guided to the edge of plastic, where thin strips of conventional photovoltaic solar cell convert it into electricity. Currently, the Michigan TLSC has an efficiency of around 1%, but they think 5% should be possible. On their own, these aren’t huge figures, but on a larger scale — every window in a house or office block — the numbers quickly add up to a significant electrical yield.

Moreover, the researchers are confident that the technology can be scaled all the way from large industrial and commercial applications, down to consumer devices, while remaining “affordable.” So far, one of the larger barriers to large-scale adoption of solar power is the intrusive and ugly nature of solar panels. But if large amounts of solar power can be produced from sheets of glass and plastic, it would go a long way to making the scaling process feasible.

solar_panel_origamiAnother major innovation comes from Brigham Young University, where researchers have been working with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to address the challenge of Space-Based Solar Power. For some time, scientists have understood that a solar array in orbit of Earth would be ideally suited for solar power collection, since it would be immune to weather, cloud cover or diurnal cycles (aka. nighttime).

Unfortunately, getting solar cells into space is a bit of a problem. In order to be effective, solar panels need to be thin have a large surface area to soak up more rays. This makes it difficult to transport them into orbit, and requires that they be broken down,and flown up piece by piece, and then assembled once in orbit. Given the cost of mounting a sending a single rocket into orbit, this prospect becomes very costly very fast.

solar_panel_origami1However, the Brigham team came up with a simple and elegant solution to this problem, and found it in the form of origami. By working with complex origami folds, they were able to design a solar array that can shrink down to one-tenth of its original size. Folded up, the device is 2.7 meters (8.9 feet) across and can easily wrap around a spacecraft. Once it reaches space, the array would then unfold to become as wide as 25 meters (82 feet).

Given that solar panels deal with large, flat, thin structures, the origami concept seems like a natural fit. And this is not the first time that it has been used in space equipment design – in the 1990’s, Japanese astrophysicist Koryo Miura created a prototype for another folding solar panel. However, that project was abandoned for various reasons, not the least of which was lack of funding.

space-solar-headTo make the concept work and renew interest in the application, he Brigham team worked with Robert Lang, a world-renowned origami expert who also happens to be a mathematician and engineer and once worked at JPL himself. As Brian Trease, a mechanical engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said:

He was trained as a physicist, used to work at JPL, and then got tired of the formal bureaucracy and left to start folding paper. Now he’s a world expert… We see value in going directly to any artist, even if they don’t have his credentials, because they have the thousands of hours or folding and tinkering to realize what can and can’t be done. Anytime you can bring in other disciplines, they just visualize things differently and bring in different solutions to your problems.

The new solar panels could be used to power spacecraft and potentially also on orbiting power stations that could wirelessly send energy to Earth via microwaves. A similar design could also be used on Earth to provide new options for portable solar power in remote locations. The same type of design might also be used in architecture or product design because of its unusual looks and function.

NASA_suntowerAccording to Trease, the Department of Defense has already been in touch with them regarding applications for soldiers in the field:

Soldiers right now might carry around 100 pounds, 15 of those pounds are batteries and fuel. If you can eliminate that, you’ve dramatically reduced their load… It’s different from opening an umbrella, because it can accommodate rigid material. You could do something like a deployable glass chandelier or a table. When it’s deployed, it looks like a flower blooming–it’s got a nice aesthetic to it.

In the next few weeks, Trease will also meet with other experts to consider different potential applications for space equipment, like antennas and reflectors, that could also deploy using origami. And given the rapidly-dropping prices associated with placing objects into orbit, this could prove to be the basis for the dream of Space-Based Solar Power – where all our energy needs are met by solar arrays in orbit that then beam them to Earth.

 

Source: extremetech.com, fastcoexist.com

Towards a Clearner Future: World’s Largest Renewables Projects

jaguar-solar-arrayThanks to increasing efficiency in solar panels, as well as dropping costs for manufacture and installation, generating renewable electricity at home or in commercial  buildings is becoming increasingly viable. And this fast-growing trend has been manifesting itself in an impressive list of “world’s largest” projects, with government and industry pairing to make renewable energy a major power source.

For example, back in January, the world’s largest solar bridge was completed in London on the Blackfriars Bridge. As part of Blackfriars Station in London, the bridge was fitted with 4,400 photovoltaic panels between 2009 and 2014 – which are expected to reduce the station’s CO2 emissions by an estimated 511 tonnes (563 tons) per year. Considering London’s issues with air quality and mass transit, this is a major step towards sustainability.

ivanpah-1Then in February, the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS) – the world’s largest solar-thermal plant – became fully operational in the Mojave Desert in southeastern California. The 392 MW plant, which was developed with funding from NRG Energy, Google, and BrightSource Energy, is expected to generate enough electricity to power 140,000 homes, each year.

And in April, Jaguar joined Audi, Ferrari and Renault by installing fields of solar panels on top of its new Engine Manufacturing Center in South Staffordshire. This solar field is now the largest rooftop array in the UK, comprising over 21,000 photovoltaic panels and a capacity of 5.8 MW. Jaguar estimates the installation will meet more than 30 percent of the centers energy needs and reduce the plant’s CO2 footprint by over 2,400 tonnes (2,645.5 tons) per year.

windstream-wind-solar-hybrid-jamaicaAnd now, Windstream Technologies – a commercial wind and sun generating firm aimed at bringing renewable energy to municipalities, commercial buildings and homes -has installed what it says is the world’s largest wind-solar hybrid array on the roof of the Myers, Fletcher, & Gordon (MFG) lawfirm in Kingston, Jamaica. The array is expected to generate over 106,000 kWh annually and demonstrates the ability to maximize energy production with limited roof space.

MFG’s installation is a part of an effort by Jamaica’s sole energy provider, Jamaica Public Service, to make the capability for producing renewable energy for its approximately one-million citizens more widely available. The array is expected to generate 25kW of wind power and 55kW of solar power, and the electricity generated can either be used, stored off-grid or fed back into the grid.

windstream-wind-solar-hybrid-jamaica-3The installation incorporates 50 of WindStream’s SolarMill devices, with each different model comprising one or more solar panel and three or more turbines. This is to ensure that the daily and seasonal trends of wind and solar resources are all mitigated by capturing both at any time of the day or year. Windstream says it will return its investment within four years and will produce savings of around US$2 million over the course of its estimated 25-year lifespan.

Merging solar, wind and other renewable technologies into communities, commercial spaces and housing is not only a means of cutting emissions and utility bills, it is also a way to tackle two of renewable energy’s greatest stumbling blocks. These are the problems of storage and intermittency – generating energy when it’s needed and getting it to where it’s needed.

And be sure to check out this video of the rooftop array from Windstream Technologies:


Sources:
gizmag.com, (2), nrg.com, networkrailmediacentre.co.uk

The Future of Disaster Relief: The Ecos PowerCube

EcosPowerCube-640x353One of the greatest challenges to humanitarian aid and disaster relief is the task of getting services to where they needed the most. Whether it’s hurricanes, earthquakes, mudslides, or wildfires; getting electricity, water, and other utilities up and running again is a tough task. And with every moment that these services are not available, people are likely to die and humanitarian crises ensue.

However, Ecosphere Technologies – a diversified water engineering and environmental services company – believes it’s designed a solution in the form of their new PowerCube. This self-contained, mobile apparatus is designed to deliver solar power to off-grid areas along with water purification facilities and WiFi base stations — all in a single package that is the size of a shipping container.

https://i2.wp.com/www.extremetech.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/disaster-lg-1.jpgThe Ecos PowerCube will be available in three sizes that are designed to fit into 10-foot, 20-foot, and 40-foot shipping containers. The largest models will be capable of generating up to 15kW of power, which will be parceled between providing electrical hook-ups, water treatment and internet access. And they will also serve as temporary shelters, providing temporary sleeping quarters or medical stations.

What is especially innovative about the design is the use of fold-out solar panels, which allow for significant power generation without compromising on the handy space-saving form. Deployed, the Cube is able to maximize its solar-absorbing surface area; but packed up, its small enough to fit into a shipping container and be deployed around the world. However, the design also comes with its share of drawbacks.

powercube-howFirst, there’s the apparent lack of batteries, which means the Cubes will only be able to provide power while the sun is shining. This is crucial since time is often of the essence in disaster areas, with windows for treating wounds and rescuing the buried and trapped lasting typically less than three days. Second, the 15kW generator is rather meager compared to what a diesel generator can produce – between 600kW and 1.7MW.

This means, in essence, that some twenty or so PowerCubes would have to be shipping to a disaster area to equal the electrical capacity of a single large diesel generator. And the intermittency problem is certainly an issue for the time being, unless they are prepared to equip them with high-capacity batteries that can quickly absorb and hold a charge (some graphene or integrated Li-ion batteries should do it).

https://i1.wp.com/www.extremetech.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/military-lg-2.jpgIn the meantime, it is still a crafty idea, and one which has serious potential. Not only do disaster areas need on-site water distribution – shipping it in can be difficult and time consuming – but internet access is also very useful to rescue crews that need up-to-date information, updates, and the ability to coordinate their rescue efforts. And military installations could certainly use the inventions, as they would cut down on fuel consumption.

Still, refinements will need to be made before this is a one-fit solution problem of what to do about disaster relief and fostering development in densely populated areas of the world where things like water-treatment, electricity, and internet access is not readily available.

Source: extremetech.com, ecospheretech.com

Powered by the Sun: Solar City and Silevo

solar2Elon Musk is at it again, this time with clean, renewable energy. Just yesterday, he announced that Solar City (the solar installation company that he chairs) plans to acquire a startup called Silevo. This producer of high-efficiency panels was acquired for $200 million (plus up to $150 million more if the company meets certain goals), and Musk now plans to build a huge factory to produce their panels as part of a strategy that will make solar power “way cheaper” than power from fossil fuels.

Solar City is one of the country’s largest and fastest-growing solar installers, largely as a result of its innovative business model. Conceived by Musk as another cost-reducing gesture, the company allows homeowners and businesses to avoid any up-front cost. If its plans pan out, it will also become a major manufacturer of solar panels, with by far the largest factory in the U.S.

https://i2.wp.com/images.fastcompany.com/upload/620-most-innovative-companies-solar-city.jpgThe acquisition makes sense given that Silevo’s technology has the potential to reduce the cost of installing solar panels, Solar City’s main business. But the decision to build a huge factory in the U.S. seems daring – especially given the recent failures of other U.S.-based solar manufacturers in the face of competition from Asia. Ultimately, however, Solar City may have little choice, since it needs to find ways to reduce costs to keep growing.

Silevo produces solar panels that are roughly 15 to 20 percent more efficient than conventional ones thanks to the use of thin films of silicon – which increase efficiency by helping electrons flow more freely out of the material – and copper rather than silver electrodes to save costs. Higher efficiency can yield big savings on installation costs, which often exceed the cost of the panels themselves, because fewer panels are needed to generate a given amount of power.

http://gigaom2.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/silevo-single-buss-bar-cell.jpgSilevo isn’t the only company to produce high-efficiency solar cells. A version made by Panasonic is just as efficient, and SunPower makes ones that are significantly more so. But Silevo claims that its panels could be made as cheaply as conventional ones if they could scale their production capacity up from their current 32 megawatts to the factory Musk has planned, which is expected to produce 1,000 megawatts or more.

The factory plan mirrors an idea Musk introduced at one of his other companies, Tesla Motors, which is building a huge “gigafactory” that he says will reduce the cost of batteries for electric cars. The proposed plant would have more lithium-ion battery capacity than all current factories combined. And combined with Musk’s release of the patents, which he hopes will speed development, it is clear Musk has both eyes on making clean technology cheaper.

Not sure, but I think it’s fair to say Musk just became my hero! Not only is he all about the development of grand ideas, he is clearly willing to sacrifice profit and a monopolistic grasp on technologies in order to see them come to fruition.

Source: technologyreview.com

The Future of Building: Superefficient Nanomaterials

carbon-nanotubeToday, we are on the verge of a fabrication revolution. Thanks to developments in nanofabrication and miniaturization, where materials can be fashioned down the cellular (or even atomic) level, the option of making bigger and stronger structures that happen to weight less is becoming a reality. This is the goal of materials scientist Julia Greer and her research lab at Caltech.

As an example, Greer offers the The Great Pyramid of Giza and the Eiffel Tower. The former is 174 meters tall and weighs 10 megatons while the latter is over twice that height, but at five and half kilotons is one-tenth the mass. It all comes down to the “elements of architecture”, which allowed the Eiffel Tower to be stronger and more lightweight while using far less materials.

carbon_nanotube2Whereas the pyramids are four solid walls, the Eiffel Tower is skeletal, and vastly more efficient as a result. Greer and her colleagues are trying to make the same sort of leap on a nano scale, engineering hollow materials that are fantastically lightweight while remaining every bit as stiff and strong. Carbon nanotubes are one such example, but the range of possibilities are immense and due to explode in the near future.

The applications for this “Hierarchical Design” are also myriad, but its impact could be profound. For one, these ultralight wonders offer a chance to drastically reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, allowing us to make familiar goods with less raw stuff. But they also could also expand our idea of what’s possible with material science, opening doors to designs that are inconceivable today.

It’s all here on this video, where Greer explains Hierarchical Design and the possibilities it offers below:


Source: wired.com