What’s the News: In traditional solar cells, sunlight is absorbed by the cell (made from silicon or titanium dioxide), freeing electrons, which travel across the cell to an electron collector, or electrode. A problem with solar cells is that many electrons don’t find their way to the electrode; carbon nanotubes can be used as bridges between the loosened electrons and the electrode, but nanotubes tend to bunch up, decreasing the efficiency and causing short circuits. Researchers have now created genetically engineered viruses can be used to keep the nanotubes in place, increasing energy conversion by nearly one-third. “A little biology goes a long way,” research group leader Angela Belcher told MIT News, noting that the entire virus-nanotube bridging layer represents only 0.1% of the finished cell’s weight.
What’s the News: Scientists have developed a laser that’s small and tough enough to work in the combustion engine of a vehicle yet powerful enough to ignite the fuel-air mixture that drives combustion cylinders. The researchers say that laser-ignited combustion engines could be more fuel efficient than traditional spark-plug ones: Unlike spark plugs, which transmit their sparks in milliseconds, lasers transmit energy within nanoseconds. Inventor Takunori Taira says that “timing—quick combustion—is very important. The more precise the timing, the more efficient the combustion and the better the fuel economy.”
What’s the News: Researchers have developed the fastest yet self-healing polymer: The new class of materials dubbed “metallo-supramolecular polymers” heal after only one minute under UV light even when they’re repeatedly cut. This could eventually lead to self-repairing floor varnishes, automotive paints, and other applications. University of Illinois at Urbana researchers Nancy Sottos and Jeffrey Moore say these these healable polymers “offer an alternative to the damage-and-discard cycle” that is rampant in our consumer society, and could pave the way for products “that have much greater lifespans than currently available materials.” (You can see the process below in a press video from Case-Western Reserve University.)
What’s the News: Scientists have developed a new process that condenses diesel fuel exhaust into water. If implemented on the battlefield, it would allow soldiers to produce drinkable water from burnt fuel in tanks, generators, and Humvees, freeing them from carrying quite so many heavy water-filled containers. “Theoretically, one gallon of diesel should produce one gallon of water,” project leader Melanie Debusk told MSNBC.
What’s the News: In a demonstration near California’s San Nicholas Island last Wednesday, scientists with the U.S. Navy tested a laser weapon aboard the USS Paul Foster by shooting a 15-kilowatt beam at an inflatable boat from a mile away, causing the outboard engines to burst into flames. It was the world’s first successful water-test of a high-energy laser. “I spent my life at sea,” Rear Adm. Nevin Carr told Wired, “and I never thought we’d see this kind of progress this quickly, where we’re approaching a decision of when we can put laser weapons on ships.”
What’s the News: Just as the real-world economy is crawling out of a recession, the virtual economy based around online games like World of Warcraft is booming to the tune of $3 billion per year. This money is actually making a measurable economic impact in developing countries, providing up to 100,000 jobs in China and Vietnam. According to Tim Kelly, the Lead ICT Policy Specialist of infoDev, a technology development finance program of the World Bank and IFC, “This could significantly boost local economies and support further development of digital infrastructure in regions such as Africa and southeast Asia.”
What’s the News: Cool new apps come out every day, but not every app comes with its own car service. Starting in San Francisco, one company lets pedestrians hail a car using their iPhone or Android phone (or any old text-messaging clunker), providing a more expensive, yet faster alternative to cabs. To make this possible, computer scientists had to find a way to make driving routes as efficient as possible, which is actually quite complicated when you’re dealing with a city-ful of car-hailing people. As Uber CEO Travis Kalanick told Wired, “It’s really fun, sexy math.”
What’s the News: Scientists have created the first rechargeable battery that uses seawater and freshwater to generate electricity. If installed into every ocean-discharging river in the world (that’s not a realistic scenario—just a frame of reference), the process could produce 2 terawatts, or about 13% of worldwide electricity use. As the researchers write, this battery is “simple to fabricate and could contribute significantly to renewable energy in the future.”
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Next Up: Noting the limited supply of freshwater on Earth, lead author Yi Cui says that “we need to study using sewage water … If we can use sewage water, this will sell really well.”
Reference: Fabio La Mantia et al. “Batteries for Efficient Energy Extraction from a Water Salinity Difference.” Nano Letters. doi: 10.1021/nl200500s
Image: Nano Letters
What’s the News: Amazon has launched a fully working music locker and playback system this week. The cloud system allows users to upload digital music to the Web and play it on their computers and Android phones, giving Amazon a decided edge over its rivals. “Amazon has won the race of the big three to deliver a fully cloud-supported music option,” writes Tech Crunch’s MG Siegler.
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Next Up: Amazon may be first, but it’s not going to be the only major company with cloud music storage for long: Both Apple and Google are expected to launch their own locker systems soon.
What’s the News: This week, scientists say that they’ve passed a chemistry milestone by creating the world’s first practical photosynthesis device. The playing-card-sized photosynthetic gadget uses sunlight to split water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen, which can then be used to produce energy, and is reputedly 10 times more efficient than a natural leaf. Researchers say they expect it to revolutionize power storage, especially in remote areas that don’t currently have electricity. “A practical artificial leaf has been one of the Holy Grails of science for decades,” says lead researcher Daniel Nocera, who’s presenting this research at the National Meeting of the American Chemical Society this week.
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Reference: Daniel Nocera et al. 241st National Meeting of the American Chemical Society. March 27-31, 2011 Anaheim, California, USA
Image: Wikimedia Commons / Daniel Schwen