Tag: gadgets

Materials Scientists' Solar Cell Has a Virus—and That's a Good Thing

By Patrick Morgan | April 26, 2011 7:23 pm

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.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology

New Laser Igniter Might Be Beginning of the End for Classic Spark Plug

By Patrick Morgan | April 26, 2011 1:39 pm

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.”

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology

New Polymer Coating Heals Itself With 1 Minute of UV Exposure

By Patrick Morgan | April 21, 2011 9:16 am

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.)

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology

Scientists Announce New Method to Pull Potable Water From Tank Exhaust

By Patrick Morgan | April 20, 2011 1:24 pm

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.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology
MORE ABOUT: gadgets, Technology, water

U.S. Navy's Ship-Mounted Laser Weapon. It Works. With Video.

By Patrick Morgan | April 11, 2011 3:18 pm

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.”

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology

Economist: Online Games' Virtual Economies Provide Big Money to the Developing World

By Patrick Morgan | April 11, 2011 12:31 pm

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.”

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology

"Sexy Math" Helps App Amp Up Car Services

By Patrick Morgan | April 5, 2011 5:16 pm

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.”

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics & Math, Technology

New Battery Produces Energy Using the Ions in Plain Old Seawater

By Patrick Morgan | March 30, 2011 10:15 am

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.”

How the Heck:

  • Dubbed the “mixing entropy battery,” this gadget generates current by harnessing the salinity difference between salt and freshwater.
  • Freshwater is first funneled into the battery, which houses a positive and negative electrode.
  • After the battery is charged by an external energy source, the freshwater is switched out for seawater, whose added ions increase “the electrical potential, or voltage, between the two electrodes. That makes it possible to reap far more electricity than the amount used to charge the battery,” according to Stanford News.

What’s the Context:

Not So Fast:

  • As a major energy source, the battery is limited by supply of and access to freshwater.
  • While the researchers say that the process has little environmental impact, future ocean-river batteries need to proceed with caution because estuaries, where freshwater and seawater combine, are “environmentally sensitive areas.”
  • Another limiting factor is the negative electrode, which is made of expensive silver.

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

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology

Amazon Gets the Jump on Apple and Google by Launching Cloud Music Service

By Patrick Morgan | March 29, 2011 12:33 pm

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.

Why the Hype:

  • Dubbed “Cloud Drive,” Amazon’s cloud storage service not only stores music, but also videos, photographs, and other documents.
  • Users receive the storage space equivalent of 1,200 tracks (5GB), though you can upgrade, paying as much as $1,000 for 1 TB of storage space, enough for about 70 hours of HD video.
  • Amazon provides free storage for every album purchased via Amazon MP3.
  • You’ll also get 20 free gigabytes for a year when you buy an album on Amazon MP3.
  • The playback service is called “Cloud Player,” and according to TechCrunch, “will let people listen to, download and make playlists from the music they store on Cloud Drive from any Web browser or from an app on Android devices.” It also works with Blackberry and Palm mobiles.

What’s the Context:

Not So Fast:

  • Amazon’s cloud service doesn’t stream music to iOS devices, which means you won’t see it on your iPhones, iPads, and iPod touches. (You can download music to iOS devices—not nearly as smooth an interface.)
  • Although Cloud Player works on Chrome, Safari IE 8 and above, and Firefox 3.5 and above, it doesn’t work on Opera.
  • It’s only for U.S. users right now.
  • And you can’t use mobile devices to upload music.

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.

Image: Amazon

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology

Scientists Create World's 1st Practical Artificial Leaf, 10X as Efficient as the Real Thing

By Patrick Morgan | March 28, 2011 2:23 pm

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.

How the Heck:

  • The artificial leaf uses nickel and cobalt as catalysts to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen by facilitating oxygen-oxygen bonding.
  • Oxygen and hydrogen molecules are then sent to a fuel cell that can produce electricity. If the device is placed in a one-gallon bucket of water in bright sunlight, it can reportedly produce enough electricity to power a house in a developing nation.

What’s the Context:

  • The very first artificial leaf was created by John Turner of the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, over a decade ago. The device lasted for only one day and was made of expensive metals, making it impractical.
  • This new artificial leaf uses nickel and cobalt, which are relatively cheap, and has so far operated continuously for at least 45 hours, making it the first practical artificial leaf.
  • In 2008, Nocera announced a way of splitting water using cobalt and platinum, a breakthrough at the time. Now, by using nickel instead of the more expensive platinum, he’s made the entire process economically feasible, in addition to combining everything into a working prototype.
  • Nocera has appeared in Discover before, including his National Science Foundation briefing on energy storage.
  • Many more labs are also working on artificial photosynthesis.
  • 80beats has covered other green energies, from wind turbines to natural gas.

Next Up:

  • Scientists are working to increase the device’s efficiency still higher.
  • Tata Group, an Indian conglomerate, plans on creating a power plant based on this research within the next year and a half.

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

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World, Technology
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