All posts by Mark Anderson

A (Very) Close Look at Carbon Capture and Storage

Post Syndicated from Mark Anderson original

A material called ZIF-8 swells up when carbon dioxide molecules are trapped inside, new images reveal

A new kind of molecular-scale microscope has been trained for the first time on a promising wonder material for carbon capture and storage. The results, researchers say, suggest a few tweaks to this material could further enhance its ability to scrub greenhouse gases from emissions produced by traditional power plants.

The announcement comes in the wake of a separate study concerning carbon capture published in the journal Nature. The researchers involved in that study found that keeping the average global temperature change to below 1.5 degrees C (the goal of the Paris climate accords) may require more aggressive action than previously anticipated. It will not be enough, they calculated, to stop building new greenhouse-gas-emitting power stations and allow existing plants to age out of existence. Some existing plants will also need to be shuttered or retrofitted with carbon capture and sequestration technology.

The Self-Driving Car Is a Surveillance Tool

Post Syndicated from Mark Anderson original

In the coming age of autonomous vehicles, users may have to pay extra to keep their whereabouts private

Most drivers today can still remember when GPS was provided by a portable device plugged into the car’s cigarette lighter and mounted on the windshield with a suction cup. But soon after the iPhone arrived, GPS (or Sat Nav for U.K. readers) became just another app.

Now, an American geography researcher is arguing that GPS’s transition from dedicated hardware to smartphone software was even more significant than we realize. He says mobile mapping apps also foreshadow the ultimate transformation of car companies from purely “hardware” manufacturers to hybrid hardware, software, and service providers.

With that tectonic shift, he says, will come another shift toward a transportation economy in which the prime commodity is not just the car, but also the driver (his example echoes a larger trend which the sociologist Shoshana Zuboff calls “Surveillance Capitalism”).

“What we have with smartphones is, now [GPS] data can be monetized in other ways,” says Luis Alvarez León, assistant professor of geography at Dartmouth College. “Information companies are providing the mapping service as an ancillary way of refining their search algorithms, of collecting more data about the consumers… [and] of repackaging it for other third parties.”

Magnet Sets World Record at 45.5 Teslas

Post Syndicated from Mark Anderson original

It’s the strongest continuous DC magnetic field ever recorded and could help scientists study nuclear fusion and exotic states of matter

A new multicomponent, partially-superconducting electromagnet—currently the world’s strongest DC magnet of any kind—is poised to reveal a path to substantially stronger magnets still. The new magnet technology could help scientists study many other phenomena including nuclear fusion, exotic states of matter“shape-shifting” molecules, and interplanetary rockets, to name a few.

The National High Magnetic Field Laboratory in Tallahassee, Florida is home to four types of advanced, ultra-strong magnets. One supports magnetic resonance studies. Another is configured for mass spectrometry. And a different type produces the strongest magnetic fields in the world. (Sister MagLab campuses at the University of Florida and Los Alamos National Laboratory provide three more high-capacity magnets for other fields of study.)

It’s that last category on the Tallahassee campus—world’s strongest magnet—that the latest research is attempting to complement. The so-called MagLab DC Field Facility, in operation since 1999, is nearing a limit in the strength of magnetic fields it can produce with its current materials and technology.

The MagLab’s DC magnet maintains a steady 45 Tesla of field strength, which until very recently was the strongest continuous magnetic field produced in the world. (Not to be confused with the electric car brand of the same name, Tesla is also a unit of magnetic field strength. The higher its Tesla rating, the stronger the magnet. For comparison, a typical MRI machine is built around a superconducting magnet with approximately 3 Tesla of field strength. The Earth’s magnetic field, felt at the planet’s surface, is 0.00005 T.)

Startup Aims to 3D Print Cheaper, Lighter Rockets

Post Syndicated from Mark Anderson original

Relativity Space has signed a lease with NASA and plans to test its first 3D-printed rocket in a flight next year

In a leased NASA spaceflight facility in southern Mississippi, a new factory that uses robots and 3D printers to manufacture rockets will soon open. Relativity, an Englewood, Calif.-based aerospace startup company, announced this week that it has signed a nine-year lease with NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Hancock County, Miss.

Relativity’s new 220,000-square-foot facility at Stennis complements the company’s existing 18,000-square-foot California R&D lab and factory, where it has operated since July 2016.

The company’s mission, says Brandon Pearce, vice president of avionics and integrated software, is to simplify the process of designing and assembling rockets by 3D printing as much of the rocket as possible. Relativity’s first rocket, a satellite-launching vehicle called Terran 1, has many fewer parts than conventional rockets, according to the company.

Pearce says 3D printing a rocket can greatly reduce the mass of the printed rocket—compared to the rocket’s weight if it were conventionally manufactured. And every gram of a rocket also costs rocket fuel to launch that gram into space. “The more you can pull out of your structure, the more payload you can get to orbit,” he says.

A Faster Way to Rearrange Atoms Could Lead to Powerful Quantum Sensors

Post Syndicated from Mark Anderson original

The technique is also more accurate than the traditional method of poking atoms with the tip of a scanning electron microscope

The fine art of adding impurities to silicon wafers lies at the heart of semiconductor engineering and, with it, much of the computer industry. But this fine art isn’t yet so finely tuned that engineers can manipulate impurities down to the level of individual atoms.

As technology scales down to the nanometer size and smaller, though, the placement of individual impurities will become increasingly significant. Which makes interesting the announcement last month that scientists can now rearrange individual impurities (in this case, single phosphorous atoms) in a sheet of graphene by using electron beams to knock them around like croquet balls on a field of grass.

The finding suggests a new vanguard of single-atom electronic engineering. Says research team member Ju Li, professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT, gone are the days when individual atoms can only be moved around mechanically—often clumsily on the tip of a scanning tunneling microscope.

A Glass Battery That Keeps Getting Better?

Post Syndicated from Mark Anderson original

A prototype solid-state battery based on lithium and glass faces criticism over claims that its capacity increases over time

Is there such a thing as a battery whose capacity to store energy increases with age? One respected team of researchers say they have developed just such a technology. Controversy surrounds their claims, however, in part because thermodynamics might seem to demand that a battery only deteriorates over many charge-discharge cycles.

The researchers have a response for that critique and continue to publish peer-reviewed papers about this work. If such claims came from almost any other lab, they might be ignored and shunned by the broader community of battery researchers, the same way physicists turn their noses up at anything that smacks of a perpetual motion machine.

But this lab belongs to one of the most celebrated battery pioneers today—and one of the inventors of the lithium-ion battery itself. John Goodenough, who at 96 continues to research and publish like scientists one-third his age, last year joined with three co-authors in publishing a paper that grabbed headlines. (Spectrum had profiled him and his battery technology the year before, following an initial announcement about his group’s new glass battery.)

Ionic Materials Explores Plastic Electrolyte for Lithium-Ion Batteries

Post Syndicated from Mark Anderson original

Replacing a liquid electrolyte with a plastic one could lead to lithium-ion batteries that are safer and more energy dense

Better batteries for electric cars and grid energy storage may be just one revolution away—whether in fuel cells or flow batteries or supercapacitors. But there’s a company in Massachusetts that’s betting the evolution of existing technologyrather than a revolution—will determine how we power future EVs and store renewable energy. 

“Lithium ion has this massive scale,” says Erik Terjesen, senior director of licensing and strategy for Ionic Materials, based in the city of Woburn. “The people who build lithium-ion factories—the LGs, the CATLs of the world—are building massive capacity for lithium-ion.” These billions of dollars already invested, Terjesen says, represent inertia that will resist revolutionary new battery technologies—especially if lithium technology can offer more energy storage, safer products, lower prices, and be made in existing factories.

As IEEE Spectrum profiled in 2018, Ionic Materials is developing a plastic, solid-state electrolyte to sit between a rechargeable battery’s anode and cathode. The electrolyte acts as the conduction medium through which lithium ions flow from anode to cathode and back again—providing the basis for many charge-discharge cycles in the battery’s lifetime.

The most effective and resilient electrolytes in lithium-ion batteries to date have been liquids, which conduct ions well but do nothing to keep the cathode and anode from ever touching. This has been the job of a thin plastic membrane with tiny micron-sized holes in it called the separator, which allows lithium ions to pass through.

The problems come when there are manufacturing defects, tears in the separator, a puncture in the battery, or a growth of stalactite-like “dendrites” bridging cathode and anode through the separators. In all those cases, a short circuit could result. That is where the other downside of the liquid electrolyte comes in: It’s highly flammable. Which is why there have been reports of the (rare) exploding laptop, smartphone, and EV.

Ionic Materials’ solid-state electrolyte is, of course, its own separator. And it’s non-flammable.

“From the dialogues we’re having with electric vehicle OEMs, it’s exciting for them to have an inherently safe battery in their cars that works in the same way,” Terjesen says. “We’re not talking about a new design. We’re not talking about a new cell format. It fits into their world today.”

Since 2018, Terjesen says, the company has been establishing partnerships and announcing investors, including the French oil and gas company Total, A123 Systems, Dyson, Samsung, Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi, and Volta Energy Technologies.

“We are aware of the fact that there is obviously a lot of hype that comes with the battery industry in general,” Terjesen says. “So our CEO Mike Zimmerman says you really need to prove what you’re saying, rather than just making claims.”

The areas the company is now most carefully investigating around their polymer electrolyte, he says, are safety, energy density, and cost.

The first two, he says, go hand in hand. The greater a battery’s energy density, the more the electrolyte’s safety matters. “We think our polymer can work with more energy dense anode and cathode combinations,” he says. “As people try to squeeze all the energy they can out of these cells, by default, the cell will become more volatile. We think the safety question will only continue to increase as you look at these higher-energy chemistries.”

The question of price, Terjesen says, is also important. In 2010, the industry produced batteries costing some US $1,200 per kilowatt-hour. By 2014, that price had fallen to $600/kWh. As of last year, it was south of $200/kWh. And now, Terjesen says, many industry players are trying to get below $100/kWh. (Ionic Materials does not release data on its cost or ability to enable battery companies to drive their unit cost down.)

“Getting below ($100/kWh) will be challenging, because the fundamental materials themselves are commodities. And the raw materials themselves have a certain price,” he says.

For instance, cobalt is both expensive and controversial, with much of its global reserves found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—where corruption and disputed labor practices have led Elon Musk to swear off the mineral in Tesla’s future-generation cars.

“We’ve learned that cobalt is often used in these cells as a stabilizing agent,” Terjesen says. “So if we can create greater safety with our material, it opens the door for the potential to reduce or eliminate the cobalt.”

However, Terjesen says Ionic Materials is ultimately chemistry-agnostic. They do not even build batteries. The company only provides the solid-state electrolyte for battery-makers to develop whatever next-generation solid-state batteries the market will bear.

“There isn’t a single chemistry that we’re betting on,” he says. “We’re not going to the market and saying—you have to do this chemistry or that chemistry. We have multiple chemistries that we’re working on with multiple partners with our polymer.”

In other words, Ionic Materials is trying not to disrupt an industry accustomed to disruption.

“Most people who look at solid-state [batteries] think, it’s not a disruptor of lithium ions,” Terjesen says. “It’s the next phase of lithium ions.”

Can Electric Air Racing Add a Jolt to the Quest for Better E-Planes?

Post Syndicated from Mark Anderson original

Air Race E organizer looks to field inaugural race by late 2020

Although racing airplanes for sport has been a popular pastime around the world since the 1930s, its essential technology hasn’t changed much. Although computer design and engineering have greatly enhanced race planes’ thrust, economy, and maneuverability, the air racers still rely on petroleum-fueled propeller engines the way they did decades ago.

One entrepreneur is looking to fundamentally change the equation as soon as next year. He’s attempting to make air racing leapfrog past hybrid EVs and biofuels and go straight to all-electric propulsion.

“So, what we’re doing is taking the Formula One Air Racing rules,” says Jeff Zaltman, CEO of Dubai-headquartered Air Race Events, “and just changing the parts relevant to the propulsion system [so they run on electricity].” Zaltman adds that “We’re trying to change as little as possible as a starting point so the sport can transfer and migrate very easily.” 

Air Race Events is currently scouting out a location to host the first ever event for Air Race E, the moniker given to the new, all-electric air racing division. (Expect an announcement, Zaltman says, by the end of the year or the beginning of 2020.)

Black Holes Bumping in the Night: LIGO “Hears” Gravitational Waves With Increasing Sensitivity

Post Syndicated from Mark Anderson original

Technological enhancements to the Nobel Prize-winning detectors include ultra-efficient mirrors and “squeezed” laser light

At 4:18 a.m. Eastern time on 25 April, according to preliminary observations, a gravitational wave that had been traveling through deep space for many millions of years passed through the Earth. Like a patient spider sensitive to every jiggle in its web, a laser gravitational wave detector in the United States detected this subtle passing ripple in spacetime. Computer models of the event concluded the tiny wobbles were consistent with two neutron stars that co-orbited and then collided 500 million light-years away. 

Next came scientific proof that when it rains it pours. The very next day at 11:22 am ET, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) picked up another gravitational wave signal. This time, computer models pointed to a potential first-ever observation of a black hole drawing in a neutron star and swallowing it whole. This second spacetime ripple, preliminary models suggest, crossed some 1.2 billion light years of intergalactic space before it arrived at Earth.

In both cases, LIGO could thank a recent series of enhancements to its detectors for such its ability to sense such groundbreaking science crossing its threshold.

LIGO’s laser facilities, in Louisiana and Washington State, are separated by 3002 kilometers (3,030 km over the earth’s surface). Each LIGO facility splits a laser beam in two, sending the twinned streams of light down two perpendicular arms 4 km long. The light in the interferometer arms bounces back and forth between carefully calibrated mirrors and optics that then recombine the rays, producing a delicate interference pattern.

The pattern is so distinct that even the tiniest warps in spacetime that occur along the light rays’ travel paths—the very warps of spacetime that a passing gravitational wave would produce—will produce a noticeable change. One problem: The interferometer is also extremely sensitive to thermal noise in the mirrors and optics, electronics noise in the equipment, and even seismic noise from nearby vehicle traffic and earthquakes around the globe.

Noise was so significant an issue that, from 2006 to 2014, LIGO researchers observed no gravitational waves. However, on September 14, 2015, LIGO detected its first black hole collision—which netted three of LIGO’s chief investigators the 2017 Physics Nobel Prize.

Over the ensuing 394 days of operations between September 2015 and August 2017, LIGO observed 11 gravitational wave events. That averages out to one detection every 35 days.

Then, after the latest round of enhancements to its instruments, LIGO’s current run of observations began at the start of this month. In April alone, it’s observed five likely gravitational wave events: three colliding black holes and now the latest two neutron star/neutron star-black hole collisions.

This once-per-week frequency may indeed represent the new normal for LIGO. (Readers can bookmark this page to follow LIGO’s up to the minute progress.)

Most promisingly, both of last week’s LIGO chirps involve one or two neutron stars. Because neutron stars don’t gobble up the light their collisions might otherwise emit, such an impact offers up the promise of Earth being bathed in detectible gravitational and electromagnetic radiation. (Such dual-pronged observations constitute what’s called “multi-messenger astronomy.”)

“Neutron stars also emit light, so a lot of telescopes around the world chimed in to look for that and locate it in the sky in all different wavelengths of light,” says Sheila Dwyer, staff scientist at LIGO in Richland, Wash. “One of the big goals and motivations for LIGO was to make that possible—to see something with both gravitational waves and light.”

The first such multi-messenger  observation made by LIGO began in August 2017 with a gravitational wave detection. Soon thereafter came a stunning 84 scientific papers, examining the electromagnetic radiation from the collision across the spectrum from gamma rays to radio waves. The science spawned by this event, known as GW170817, led to precise timing of the speed of gravitational waves (the speed of light, as Einstein predicted), a solution to the mystery of gamma-ray bursts, and an overnight updating of models of the cosmic source of heavy elements on the periodic table. (Studies of the collision’s gravitational and electromagnetic radiation concluded that a large fraction of the universe’s elements heavier than iron originate from neutron star collisions just like GW170817.)

When the S190425z and S190426c signals came in, telescopes around the world pointed to the regions of the sky that the gravitational wave observations suggested. As of press time, however, no companion source in the sky has yet been found for either.

Yet because of LIGO’s increased sensitivity, the promise of yet more observations increase the likelihood that another GW170817 multi-messenger watershed event is imminent.

Dwyer says LIGO’s latest incarnation uses high-efficiency mirrors that reflect light back with low mechanical or thermal energy transfer from the light ray to the mirror. This is especially significant because, on average, the laser light bounces back and forth along the interferometer arms 1000 times before recombining and forming the detector’s interference pattern.

“Right now we have a very low-absorption coating,” she says. “A very small absorption of that [laser light] can heat up the optics in a way that causes a distortion.”

If the LIGO team can design even lower-loss mirror coatings (which of course could have spinoff applications in photonics, communications and optics) they can increase the power of the laser light traveling through the interferometer arms from the current 200 kilowatts to a projected 3 megawatts.

And according to Daniel Sigg, a LIGO lead scientist in Richland, Wash., another enhancement involves “squeezing” the laser light so that the breadth of its amplitude is sharper than Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle would normally allow.

“We can’t measure both the phase and the amplitude or intensity of photons [with high precision] simultaneously,” Sigg says. “But that gives you a loophole. Because we’re only counting photons, we don’t really care about their phase and frequency.”

So LIGO’s lasers use “squeezed light” beams that have higher noise in one domain (amplitude) in order to narrow the uncertainty in the other (phase or frequency). So between these two photon observables, Heisenberg is kept happy.

And that keeps LIGO’s ear tuned to more and more of the most energetic collisions in the universe—and allows it to turn up new science and potential spinoff technologies each time a black hole or neutron star goes bump in the night.

Amateurs’ Al Tells Real Rembrandts From Fakes

Post Syndicated from Mark Anderson original

In their spare time, a Massachusetts couple programmed a system that they say accurately identifies Rembrandts 90 percent of the time

A new AI algorithm may crack previously inaccessible image-recognition and analysis problems—especially those stymied by AI training sets that are too small, or whose individual sample images are too big and full of high-resolution detail that AI algorithms cannot process. Already, the new algorithm can detect forgeries of one famous artist’s work, and its creators are actively searching for other areas where it could potentially improve our ability to transform small data sets into ones large enough to train an AI neural network.

According to two amateur AI researchers, whose study is now under peer review at IEEE Transactions on Neural Networks and Learning Systems, the concept of entropy, borrowed from thermodynamics and information theory, may help AI systems uncover fake works of art.

In physical systems such as boiling pots of water and black holes, entropy concerns the amount of disorder contained within a given volume. In an image file, entropy is defined as the amount of useful, nonredundant information the file contains.