All posts by Prachi Patel

Under 30 and This Young Professional Already Has Five Startups Under His Belt

Post Syndicated from Prachi Patel original https://spectrum.ieee.org/the-institute/ieee-member-news/under-30-and-this-young-professional-already-has-five-startups-under-his-belt

THE INSTITUTE When Mohamed El Dallal was 16, he probably would not have described himself as an entrepreneur. But the shy, self-described “software and technology geek” was already running a small business from his home in Alexandria, Egypt.

That was in the 2000s, when Egypt had a closed economy. Access to computers wasn’t easy. El Dallal, now an IEEE member, sold and maintained cellphones as well as personal computers that he built by wiring together processors, hard drives, monitors, and other components. His bedroom resembled a warehouse. “I didn’t have a business model or strategy,” he says, “but I was good at it.”

Now almost 30, he has founded five startups in Alexandria. He runs a series of international business conferences, and he has given hundreds of talks on entrepreneurship and marketing in 28 countries. He is also an avid volunteer and has been a part of several nongovernmental organizations and active with local youth initiatives.

He volunteers for IEEE as well, serving as a member of several groups in IEEE Region 8 including its Action for Industry program, Entrepreneurship Initiative, and Professional and Educational Activities subcommittee. He was vice chair of IEEE Young Professionals and sat on the steering committee for IEEE N3XT, which seeks out ventures with engineering-driven innovation at their core that align with IEEE’s mission to advance technology for humanity. The program aims to help founders take their venture to the next level by connecting them with technical experts, funding sources, strategic partners, and news media exposure.

An early brush with IEEE as an undergraduate at Alexandria University changed his life, he says, setting him on an entrepreneurial path. He says it gave him confidence and taught him the public speaking, communication, leadership, and negotiation skills that have been vital to his success.

“I believe in the IEEE, and I believe in giving back,” he says. “It’s a cycle.” Knowledge increases by sharing, he says: “You learn more when you give.”

THINGS JUST CLICKED

El Dallal comes from a family of engineers. His father and most of his uncles and cousins are engineers. “Engineering was a natural career path,” he says. He studied both computer engineering and communications at Alexandria University while running his computer business on the side.

With the money he was earning, he decided to indulge in his other passion, photography, and bought himself a professional-grade camera. After trying his hand at photographing weddings and other events, he turned to photojournalism. He documented the 2011 Egyptian political revolution. His images were used by international news outlets and have been exhibited around the world.

His zeal for photography introduced him to IEEE. At the end of 2010, the university’s IEEE student branch approached him to photograph the speaker at a session being held by the IEEE Entrepreneurship group. The branch couldn’t pay El Dallal, but he decided to accept the assignment anyway.

“I believe in coincidences,” he says, “and this was meant to happen.”

Instead of leaving after the photo shoot as he usually did, he stuck around to listen to the talk, and he became fascinated.

“This was a tipping point in my life,” he says. “I started to see myself as an entrepreneur.” Even though he had been making money at his business for about seven years, he says, he didn’t really understand how to run a business.

El Dallal became an IEEE student member and then a volunteer for the branch. In 2012 he founded his first official startup, View Finders, a club that teaches the art of photography and videography. The venture is still in business, but El Dallal moved on.

After earning his bachelor’s degree in 2014, he helped to create Innovideas, a marketing consulting company that does branding, marketing campaigns, event and content management, and media production. His clients include embassies, governmental departments, and multinational companies in the Middle East and Europe.

El Dallal went on to enroll in an MBA program at the Arab Academy for Science, Technology, and Maritime Transport (AASTMT), also in Alexandria. While going to school, he helped to found another company, DCodes, which provided software solutions for Web development and mobile apps. It has since become part of Innovideas, where El Dallal is CEO.

He is a cofounder and board member of Techne Summit, a large, international entrepreneurship event that brings together technology innovators and business leaders.

“Imagine academics, local investors, startups, early-stage and mature companies, multinationals, government representatives sitting at the same table, networking, and learning from each other to build a better business ecosystem,” El Dallal says.

SKILLS FOR SUCCESS

El Dallal says he has learned just as much from his successes as he has from his failures. So, what does he think it takes to launch a successful startup?

“The team, the team, the team,” he says. “Investors pay for the team. Ideas are worthless on their own. I can give you a ton of ideas right now, but it’s all about implementation and presentation.”

In addition to a strong team of founders, another key to success is finding good employees—which can be difficult for startups because they are competing with large companies for the same talent.

“You might not get the best talent, but you need to get good talent and develop them,” he says.

El Dallal’s relentless focus on work took a toll on the high school swimmer and taekwondo champion. He fell ill and recuperation required months of bed rest and treatment. He recently started playing sports again and is training for a triathlon.

The serial entrepreneur has no intention of stopping. In January he started his doctor of business administration program at AASTMT. He says he is a planner and regularly establishes five- and 10-year goals. Pinned on his bedroom wall is a sheet of paper outlining his ultimate dream: to start a foundation that betters people’s lives by providing them with the knowledge, education, and financial help to pursue their dreams.

El Dallal says he owes a lot to what he learns by volunteering for IEEE, and paying that forward is just as important as fulfilling his dream. By contributing his time and knowledge about business with budding engineers, he says, he hopes to impact lives, just as IEEE impacted him.

He says that even if you have to travel many miles to give a talk, and you impact only a couple of people that day, you’ve made a difference.

“This is the best thing you can do in your entire life,” he says.

Beyond Burgers: Animal and Plant Cells Combined for 3D-Printed Steaks

Post Syndicated from Prachi Patel original https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/green-tech/conservation/3d-printed-meat

Plant-based burgers that taste a heck of a lot like the real thing are now at your local Burger King. And you can find realistic meatless ground beef and sausages at grocery stores. As the next big thing in sustainable and cruelty-free meat, some startups are growing it in labs from animal cells. In December, Singapore became the first country to allow sales of lab-grown chicken from U.S. startup Just Eat.

But the founders of Barcelona-based Novameat want to take a bigger leap. They plan to go beyond chicken strips and processed “meat” to the chewy, muscle-y, juicy taste of whole meat cuts. “We want to create the Tesla Roadster or iPhone moment for the future of food,” says CEO and founder Giuseppe Scionti. “Alternative meats shouldn’t just be for the environment or animals or health,  they should be superior compared to what they’re trying to compete with. The Holy Grail is pork and steak.”

The company is using 3D-printing to get there. In what could be a game-changer for the alternative meat industry, they have now made the world’s largest piece of 3D-printed whole-cut meat analog. And they say their 3D-printing process 150 times faster than their competitors, allowing them to make 1.5 tons of meat substitute per hour.

Creating a sirloin steak, with its fibrous protein and marbled fat, from plant-based proteins is a tough recipe to perfect. Novameat’s microextrusion technology, which produces 100–500 micrometer-wide fibers from different ingredients and combines them in precise ratios and organized microstructures, is key to mimicking the mouthfeel, taste, appearance, and nutritional properties of animal meat, says senior food engineer Joan Solomando Martí. The three-year old startup has been using vegetable fat and non-soy plant proteins to make realistic 3D-printed steaks.

The latest 3D-printed whole-cut prototype was made with the company’s new hybrid meat analog, which they make by adding mammalian fat cells to a biocompatible plant-based scaffold. The cells are grown separately using traditional cell culturing techniques, and then added to the scaffolds, where they produce fatty acids or proteins. “This allows us to create beef muscle cuts, pork muscle cuts, and we are now also exploring fish and seafood.”

Making larger sizes of this hybrid meat analog is difficult, he adds. “You want diffusion of nutrients and oxygen into the structure otherwise cells in the middle of the structure will die. So you need a microporous, interconnected structure to fill the ingredients in a uniform way. This is supercomplicated.”

The texture of this hybrid meat is realistic, but the taste isn’t quite there yet. Scionti and Marti are now exploring whether they want to focus on their plant-based meat or start a full production line for the cultured meat.

Whatever they chose, they will be part of a booming alternative meat industry. Rising consumer demand for fake meat has investors flocking to companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. These companies’ shares are soaring following deals with major brands like PepsiCo, McDonald’s and Taco Bell. But even though plant-based meat is inching closer to the price of regular meat, its high costs remain a major hurdle.

3D-printing technology could help cut costs further. Novameat isn’t the only player in this field. Israeli startups Redefine Meat and Aleph Farms are both racing to get their 3D-printed plant-based steaks on people’s plates. On February 9, Aleph Farms unveiled the first 3D-printed rib-eye steak, and a week later Redefine announced that it has raised $29 million in financing.

Scionti’s background in tissue engineering—he was a professor of bioengineering before starting Novameat—might give him a leg up on those competitors. He says Novameat’s products are superior because they much more closely mimic the alignment and hierarchy of components natural muscle tissue, from the orientation of protein molecules to the microstructural alignment of muscle filaments that control texture and are bundled together to compose millimeter scale muscle fibers.

The company is now partnering with Barcelona-based Michelin star restaurant Disfrutar, ranked 9th best in the world, to test and develop their products.

This Startup’s Software Programs Industrial Robots, Not Coders

Post Syndicated from Prachi Patel original https://spectrum.ieee.org/the-institute/ieee-member-news/this-startups-software-programs-industrial-robots-not-coders

THE INSTITUTE Robots are excellent at repetitive, tedious, and time-consuming jobs—which makes them beneficial in manufacturing. But training industrial robots requires substantial coding skills and knowledge.

Singapore-based startup Augmentus, founded by IEEE Member Daryl Lim, Yong Shin Leong, and Chong Voon Foo, is trying to make automation more accessible with its intuitive robot-programming platform.

The platform’s software has a graphical interface that allows nontechnical users to program industrial robots in minutes, says Lim, the startup’s chief operating officer. It also has an integrated artificial intelligence model that lets clients train the software to identify objects such as car parts. The model uses computer-vision algorithms, like the ones used for object and facial recognition in digital images.

Augmentus in December was named one of four IEEE Entrepreneurship Stars at Slingshot 2020, one of the biggest startup competition events in the Asia Pacific region. The award recognizes budding ventures driven by engineering innovations that align with IEEE’s core mission. Awardees become honorary IEEE members for a year, and they receive mentorship and support from the IEEE network.

Most Augmentus clients are advanced industrial manufacturing companies that produce automotive or machinery parts. The companies use robots for quality inspections, spray-coating or polishing parts, or loading and unloading inventory.

By making industrial robots easier to program, Lim says, the software can help businesses increase efficiency and reduce costs—which would in turn help retain local manufacturing jobs.

“We want to lower the time, skill, and cost barriers for companies to adopt robotic automation,” Lim says.

INCREASING EFFICIENCY

Industrial robots can be costly beasts to tame. Teaching a robotic arm to do a seemingly simple task, like sorting objects or moving them from a bin to a conveyor belt, typically requires thousands of lines of code, Lim says. The arduous coding process has to be repeated every time the arm must be reprogrammed for a different task.

To add to the problem, robots made by different manufacturers often use different programing languages. And programmers with the requisite coding skills are in short supply.

It all translates to higher expenses.

“Close to 70 percent of the cost of an industrial robot is software- and programming-related,” Lim says.

Augmentus software does not require the user to create any code. Instead, factory technicians can program robots or robotic parts with an iPad and an Apple Pencil stylus.

The technician selects its robot and equipment from the software’s menu, uses the iPad’s camera to scan the area in which the robot works, and then—with the stylus—plots points on the screen to map out the path the robotic arm will take for its task. The software, which runs in the cloud, then automatically generates code to create the optimal path for the bot. Users can test and verify the code via virtual simulations before deploying it on a factory floor. They can edit it if need be.

Compared with the traditional coding route, the startup’s technology allows companies to develop and deploy robots 10 times faster and for a 10th of the cost, Lim says.

The software is mostly being used now by manufacturing companies for spraying and inspecting parts, but the team is updating it for new applications such as welding and sanding.

OVERCOMING BARRIERS

Lim met Leong and Foo at an industrial networking event in 2019. They got to talking about their first-hand experiences with the barriers that high technical requirements and skill sets had created in the adoption of technology, especially robot programming.

“This is particularly the case for industrial automation, where users can spend countless hours doing simple robot movement and integration work,” Lim says. “This inspired us to build an intuitive, graphical robotics platform that simplifies and unifies the development and operation of industrial robots.”

When the three engineers met, Lim was chief executive of Edge Neo, a company in Singapore he launched in 2015 after earning a bachelor’s degree in banking and finance from Singapore Polytechnic. The company provides encryption algorithms for blockchain technology to clients across Southeast Asia.

Leong and Foo were both working at Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology, and Research, developing robotic solutions for multinational companies, and had spent countless hours programming and integrating robots.

The trio launched Augmentus in December 2019. Now, a little more than a year later, the venture-capital-funded seed-stage startup has 15 employees.

NEW OPPORTUNITIES

Launching at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic presented some challenges, Lim says. It became difficult to give prospective clients physical demonstrations and hands-on experience with the company’s product. Instead, the startup conducted virtual demonstrations that involved product videos and Zoom information sessions.

But the pandemic also has brought the startup several clients from different industries. A handful of large medical companies are interested in automating processes such as pipetting, which involves moving small, precise volumes of liquid using narrow tubes. And with international trade and travel becoming more difficult, there has been a growing demand from large agricultural companies, as well as small urban farmers, who want to automate processes such as crop harvesting and packaging.

“The concern with agriculture in developed countries is always manpower and labor shortages,” Lim says.

But what of the concern that automation and AI will take away jobs? That is true to some extent, Lim says, but at the current pace of development, the scenario of robots replacing humans in most occupations is still distant. Besides, he says, AI also can create jobs.

Although conventional wisdom is that the new AI economy will generate jobs that require high technical skills, Augmentus’s technology can level the field for nontech workers who can program robots, Lim says.

That would help countries retain manufacturing jobs instead of outsourcing them to places with less expensive labor, he says.

“Robotic manufacturing paves the way for reshoring of jobs and increasing employee productivity,” he says.

IEEE AWARD

Lim says winning the entrepreneurship award is “incredibly humbling and validates the work we have been doing so far.”

IEEE has been a great avenue to meet like-minded companies and people, he says.

“Being part of a unique ecosystem of entrepreneurs and engineers,” he says, “IEEE provides invaluable connections across the globe.”

IEEE membership offers a wide range of benefits and opportunities for those who share a common interest in technology. If you are not already a member, consider joining IEEE and becoming part of a worldwide network of more than 400,000 students and professionals.

This Startup’s Software Programs Industrial Robots, Without Coding

Post Syndicated from Prachi Patel original https://spectrum.ieee.org/the-institute/ieee-member-news/this-startups-software-programs-industrial-robots-without-coding

THE INSTITUTE Robots are excellent at repetitive, tedious, and time-consuming jobs—which makes them beneficial in manufacturing. But training industrial robots requires substantial coding skills and knowledge.

Singapore-based startup Augmentus, founded by IEEE Member Daryl Lim, Yong Shin Leong, and Chong Voon Foo, is trying to make automation more accessible with its intuitive robot-programming platform.

The platform’s software has a graphical interface that allows nontechnical users to program industrial robots in minutes, says Lim, the startup’s chief operating officer. It also has an integrated artificial intelligence model that lets clients train the software to identify objects such as car parts. The model uses computer-vision algorithms, like the ones used for object and facial recognition in digital images.

Augmentus in December was named one of four IEEE Entrepreneurship Stars at Slingshot 2020, one of the biggest startup competition events in the Asia Pacific region. The award recognizes budding ventures driven by engineering innovations that align with IEEE’s core mission. Awardees become honorary IEEE members for a year, and they receive mentorship and support from the IEEE network.

Most Augmentus clients are advanced industrial manufacturing companies that produce automotive or machinery parts. The companies use robots for quality inspections, spray-coating or polishing parts, or loading and unloading inventory.

By making industrial robots easier to program, Lim says, the software can help businesses increase efficiency and reduce costs—which would in turn help retain local manufacturing jobs.

“We want to lower the time, skill, and cost barriers for companies to adopt robotic automation,” Lim says.

INCREASING EFFICIENCY

Industrial robots can be costly beasts to tame. Teaching a robotic arm to do a seemingly simple task, like sorting objects or moving them from a bin to a conveyor belt, typically requires thousands of lines of code, Lim says. The arduous coding process has to be repeated every time the arm must be reprogrammed for a different task.

To add to the problem, robots made by different manufacturers often use different programing languages. And programmers with the requisite coding skills are in short supply.

It all translates to higher expenses.

“Close to 70 percent of the cost of an industrial robot is software- and programming-related,” Lim says.

Augmentus software does not require the user to create any code. Instead, factory technicians can program robots or robotic parts with an iPad and an Apple Pencil stylus.

The technician selects its robot and equipment from the software’s menu, uses the iPad’s camera to scan the area in which the robot works, and then—with the stylus—plots points on the screen to map out the path the robotic arm will take for its task. The software, which runs in the cloud, then automatically generates code to create the optimal path for the bot. Users can test and verify the code via virtual simulations before deploying it on a factory floor. They can edit it if need be.

Compared with the traditional coding route, the startup’s technology allows companies to develop and deploy robots 10 times faster and for a 10th of the cost, Lim says.

The software is mostly being used now by manufacturing companies for spraying and inspecting parts, but the team is updating it for new applications such as welding and sanding.

OVERCOMING BARRIERS

Lim met Leong and Foo at an industrial networking event in 2019. They got to talking about their first-hand experiences with the barriers that high technical requirements and skill sets had created in the adoption of technology, especially robot programming.

“This is particularly the case for industrial automation, where users can spend countless hours doing simple robot movement and integration work,” Lim says. “This inspired us to build an intuitive, graphical robotics platform that simplifies and unifies the development and operation of industrial robots.”

When the three engineers met, Lim was chief executive of Edge Neo, a company in Singapore he launched in 2015 after earning a bachelor’s degree in banking and finance from Singapore Polytechnic. The company provides encryption algorithms for blockchain technology to clients across Southeast Asia.

Leong and Foo were both working at Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology, and Research, developing robotic solutions for multinational companies, and had spent countless hours programming and integrating robots.

The trio launched Augmentus in December 2019. Now, a little more than a year later, the venture-capital-funded seed-stage startup has 15 employees.

NEW OPPORTUNITIES

Launching at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic presented some challenges, Lim says. It became difficult to give prospective clients physical demonstrations and hands-on experience with the company’s product. Instead, the startup conducted virtual demonstrations that involved product videos and Zoom information sessions.

But the pandemic also has brought the startup several clients from different industries. A handful of large medical companies are interested in automating processes such as pipetting, which involves moving small, precise volumes of liquid using narrow tubes. And with international trade and travel becoming more difficult, there has been a growing demand from large agricultural companies, as well as small urban farmers, who want to automate processes such as crop harvesting and packaging.

“The concern with agriculture in developed countries is always manpower and labor shortages,” Lim says.

But what of the concern that automation and AI will take away jobs? That is true to some extent, Lim says, but at the current pace of development, the scenario of robots replacing humans in most occupations is still distant. Besides, he says, AI also can create jobs.

Although conventional wisdom is that the new AI economy will generate jobs that require high technical skills, Augmentus’s technology can level the field for nontech workers who can program robots, Lim says.

That would help countries retain manufacturing jobs instead of outsourcing them to places with less expensive labor, he says.

“Robotic manufacturing paves the way for reshoring of jobs and increasing employee productivity,” he says.

IEEE AWARD

Lim says winning the entrepreneurship award is “incredibly humbling and validates the work we have been doing so far.”

IEEE has been a great avenue to meet like-minded companies and people, he says.

“Being part of a unique ecosystem of entrepreneurs and engineers,” he says, “IEEE provides invaluable connections across the globe.”

IEEE membership offers a wide range of benefits and opportunities for those who share a common interest in technology. If you are not already a member, consider joining IEEE and becoming part of a worldwide network of more than 400,000 students and professionals.

Nanoscale Revelations Could Lower the Cost of Desalination

Post Syndicated from Prachi Patel original https://spectrum.ieee.org/nanoclast/semiconductors/nanotechnology/nanoscale-revelations-could-lower-the-cost-of-desalination

A few parched middle-eastern countries already rely on removing salt from seawater to satiate their thirst. Many others might have to turn to desalination as they deal with increasing populations and climate change. But the technology is still expensive and requires a lot of energy.

Today’s foremost desalination method, reverse osmosis, uses membranes that block salt and impurities as seawater is pushed through them. Better membranes translate to more energy-efficient, less costly desalination.

To help design improved membranes, a team of researchers has used electron microscopy and 3D computational modeling for a nanoscale understanding of how water flows through the barriers. It turns out that uniform membrane density down to the nanometer scale, and not the thinness of the membranes, is crucial for improving water flow. Improving uniformity could increase efficiency by over 30 percent, the team, from the University of Texas, Penn State, and DuPont, reported in the journal Science last week.

The team used common reverse osmosis polymer membranes made by DuPont Water Solutions. Think of these solid membranes as tangled mats of polymer strings. Water flows through the tiny, Angstrom-scale voids formed between the polymer strings.

Membrane manufacturers change the internal structure and thicknesses of these polymer membranes to increase the flow of water. But it has been difficult to pinpoint exactly which parameter affects performance. DuPont researchers, for instance, recently found that making some of the company’s membranes thicker counterintuitively increased the amount of water that flowed through. 

To get to the bottom of this paradox, Manish Kumar at the University of Texas, Enrique Gomez at Penn State, and their collaborators at DuPont used a transmission electron microscopy technique called electron tomography to get a 3D view of membranes at nanoscale. It involves scanning a high-intensity electron beam across the surface of the membrane to make several 2D images that are angled and put together to create a 3D image. “This gives you information on the density of the polymer,” Kumar says. “Now you can find the density of each cubic nanometer of membrane to see how much is occupied by polymer and how much with free space.”

Next, they fed the image data from the nanometer-scale structures comprising the membrane into the supercomputer at the Texas Advanced Computing Center. They were able to run large-scale computer simulations that revealed the pathways water took through the membranes.

Water, of course, chooses the path of least resistance. But even in the thinnest membranes, the simulations showed that densely packed polymers could form structures that obstruct water and make it take a longer route, Kumar says. So membrane density at the nanoscale rather than thickness, the team found, is the chief parameter that affects water transport. The most permeable membrane was the least dense and its density did not fluctuate much across the membrane.

If manufacturers could similarly evaluate their reverse osmosis membranes at the nanoscale and figure out how to use the right chemistry and processing techniques to make more uniformly dense membranes, Kumar says, that would make desalination more cost-effective.

Nuclear-Powered Rockets Get a Second Look for Travel to Mars


Post Syndicated from Prachi Patel original https://spectrum.ieee.org/aerospace/space-flight/nuclear-powered-rockets-get-a-second-look-for-travel-to-mars

For all the controversy they stir up on Earth, nuclear reactors can produce the energy and propulsion needed to rapidly take large spacecraft to Mars and, if desired, beyond. The idea of nuclear rocket engines dates back to the 1940s. This time around, though, plans for interplanetary missions propelled by nuclear fission and fusion are being backed by new designs that have a much better chance of getting off the ground.

Crucially, the nuclear engines are meant for interplanetary travel only, not for use in the Earth’s atmosphere. Chemical rockets launch the craft out beyond low Earth orbit. Only then does the nuclear propulsion system kick in.

The challenge has been making these nuclear engines safe and lightweight. New fuels and reactor designs appear up to the task, as NASA is now working with industry partners for possible future nuclear-fueled crewed space missions. “Nuclear propulsion would be advantageous if you want to go to Mars and back in under two years,” says Jeff Sheehy, chief engineer in NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. To enable that mission capability, he says, “a key technology that needs to be advanced is the fuel.”

Specifically, the fuel needs to endure the superhigh temperatures and volatile conditions inside a nuclear thermal engine. Two companies now say their fuels are sufficiently robust for a safe, compact, high-performance reactor. In fact, one of these companies has already delivered a detailed conceptual design to NASA.

Nuclear thermal propulsion uses energy released from nuclear reactions to heat liquid hydrogen to about 2,430 °C—some eight times the temperature of nuclear-power-plant cores. The propellant expands and jets out the nozzles at tremendous speeds. This can produce twice the thrust per mass of propellant as compared to that of chemical rockets, allowing nuclear-powered ships to travel longer and faster. Plus, once at the destination, be it Saturn’s moon Titan or Pluto, the nuclear reactor could switch from propulsion system to power source, enabling the craft to send back high-quality data for years.

Getting enough thrust out of a nuclear rocket used to require weapons-grade, highly enriched uranium. Low-enriched uranium fuels, used in commercial power plants, would be safer to use, but they can become brittle and fall apart under the blistering temperatures and chemical attacks from the extremely reactive hydrogen.

However, Ultra Safe Nuclear Corp. Technologies (USNC-Tech), based in Seattle, uses a uranium fuel enriched to below 20 percent, which is a higher grade than that of power reactors but “can’t be diverted for nefarious purposes, so it greatly reduces proliferation risks,” says director of engineering Michael Eades. The company’s fuel contains microscopic ceramic-coated uranium fuel particles dispersed in a zirconium carbide matrix. The microcapsules keep radioactive fission by-products inside while letting heat escape.

Lynchburg, Va.–based BWX Technologies, is working under a NASA contract to look at designs using a similar ceramic composite fuel—and also examining an alternate fuel form encased in a metallic matrix. “We’ve been working on our reactor design since 2017,” says Joe Miller, general manager for the company’s advanced technologies group.

Both companies’ designs rely on different kinds of moderators. Moderators slow down energetic neutrons produced during fission so they can sustain a chain reaction, instead of striking and damaging the reactor structure. BWX intersperses its fuel blocks between hydride elements, while USNC-Tech’s unique design integrates a beryllium metal moderator into the fuel. “Our fuel stays in one piece, survives the hot hydrogen and radiation conditions, and does not eat all the reactor’s neutrons,” Eades says.

Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory scientists are using this experimental reactor to heat fusion plasmas up to one million degrees C—on the long journey to developing fusion-powered rockets for interplanetary travel.

There is another route to small, safe nuclear-powered rockets, says ­Samuel Cohen at Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory: fusion reactors. Mainline fusion uses deuterium and tritium fuels, but Cohen is leading efforts to make a reactor that relies on fusion between deuterium atoms and helium-3 in a high-temperature plasma, which produces very few neutrons. “We don’t like neutrons because they can change structural material like steel to something more like Swiss cheese and can make it radioactive,” he says. The Princeton lab’s concept, called Direct Fusion Drive, also needs much less fuel than conventional fusion, and the device could be one-thousandth as large, Cohen says.

Fusion propulsion could in theory far outperform fission-based propulsion, because fusion reactions release up to four times as much energy, says NASA’s Sheehy. However, the technology isn’t as far along and faces several challenges, including generating and containing the plasma and efficiently converting the energy released into directed jet exhaust. “It could not be ready for Mars missions in the late 2030s,” he says.

USNC-Tech, by contrast, has already made small hardware prototypes based on its new fuel. “We’re on track to meet NASA’s goal to have a half-scale demonstration system ready for launch by 2027,” says Eades. The next step would be to build a full-scale Mars flight system, one that could very well drive a 2035 Mars mission.

This article appears in the January 2021 print issue as “Nuclear-Powered Rockets Get a Second Look.”

Customizable Shoes from This Startup Could Help Stamp Out Plastic Waste

Post Syndicated from Prachi Patel original https://spectrum.ieee.org/the-institute/ieee-member-news/customizable-shoes-from-this-startup-could-help-stamp-out-plastic-waste

THE INSTITUTE The plastic plague in Nigeria, like in many other countries, is visible and inescapable. Even moderate rain showers in Nigeria cause flooding because the drainage system is choked with trash, most of it bags and other items made from plastic, says Fela Akinse, who lives in the country’s largest city, Lagos.

Akinse wants to tackle the plastic-pollution challenge, one shoe at a time. He is cofounder and creative director of Salubata, which designs and makes modular shoes from recycled plastic. The footwear uses a durable sole made of an algae-based foam. The interchangeable uppers are woven from plastic threads and attach to the soles with a zipper. By simply zipping on new uppers, wearers can swap styles and colors.

“Instead of you buying extra shoes, you can just have [several different] top flaps,” Akinse says, “so you have a full wardrobe of shoes that uses less material.”

In addition to taking up less closet space, Salubata’s patented footwear also saves room in a suitcase and reduces the luggage’s weight, making the shoes ideal for travel, he says. Simply pack a few different uppers to match your work and leisure outfits.

The Lagos-based startup was named an IEEE Entrepreneurship Star at this year’s virtual competition. The award recognizes ventures centered on engineering-driven innovation, aligning with IEEE’s core purpose: to foster technology, innovation, and excellence for the benefit of humanity. In addition to the recognition, awardees become honorary IEEE members for a year.

Salubata’s goal, Akinse says, is to help people and the planet: “I wanted to do something that impacts an everyday part of our lives. I’ve always seen plastic waste around me and have always looked for ways to help the environment.”

ENVIRONMENTAL CHAMPION

Akinse’s passion for the environment led him to study environmental toxicology at the University of Lagos, but he also had a keen fascination about the intersection of art and science. So besides his science classes, which he loved, he pursued dancing, clothing design, and other creative interests. “And now I’m in fashion,” he says. “It’s all about connecting the dots.”

He earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental toxicology in 2014 and, two years later, a master’s degree in environmental toxicology and pollution management from the university. For his master’s thesis project, he estimated the amount of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons—health-harming compounds found in crude oil and gasoline—in sediment and invertebrate creatures found at the bottom of the Lagos Lagoon.

He researched a novel crude oil remediation technique using iron oxide nanoparticles derived from seaweed. Oil spills are a major threat to marine ecosystems and human health, and the nanoparticles recently were found to be effective at removing oil from water. Making the nanoparticles typically involves harmful chemicals, and he was experimenting with a greener production method that used a seaweed extract instead.

All through school, Akinse’s interest in clothing and shoes tugged at him, so he designed leather shoes and accessories on the side. In 2012 he and his friend Adetona Omokanye—one of the company’s cofounders but then a photojournalist who was studying marine pollution and management at the university—started manufacturing and selling the products.

FASHION FORWARD

Akinse’s interests in the environment and fashion soon collided. He found out the average weight of shoes is around 0.5 kilograms, which is also the amount of plastic waste each U.S. citizen creates every day on average. Then he learned other staggering stats about the booming footwear market: On average, each American buys up to five pairs of shoes per year, and the global footwear industry produces about 30 billion pairs of shoes annually. Most of the shoes are made of petroleum-based plastics, foams, and rubbers.

On the flip side of the demand for new petroleum-derived material for shoes is the staggering amount of plastics that go to a landfill every year.

“In one year alone, over 381 million [metric tons] of plastic waste is produced around the world,” Akinse says. “And the sad part is only 9 percent of this waste is recycled. So we thought: Why can’t we convert plastic waste into shoes?

“The problem with plastic waste is the enormous volume. This could reduce the volume of plastic waste.”

Two years into his job as a scientist at World Environmental Systems, an engineering and consulting firm, he decided to quit and turn his full attention to building a sustainable-shoe business. He founded Salubata in 2018 with Omokanye and environmental scientist James Babalola.

They are not the first to think of making footwear from recycled plastic. Many shoe companies—including Adidas and other large brands, as well as newer companies such as Rothy’s—use recycled and sustainable materials. But their products tend to be expensive. So Akinse pursued the modular-shoe idea—which keeps costs low. He says the company also is differentiated by its shoe designs, which combine traditional African art with modern styles.

“We decided to occupy the niche for low-cost recycled-plastic shoes that benefit people and the planet,” he says. “Whether you’re environment-conscious or not, we wanted to make them appealing.

“The first thing we sell to customers is the design and modular idea. Not too many people really care about the environment, but if we get people to purchase these shoes, through that we can educate them about environmental issues.”

The company donates 5 percent of its profits to charitable causes that empower women and help children facing malnutrition.

IEEE CONNECTION

Salubata is now a seed-stage company with 11 employees including nine artisans in Lagos who make the shoes. Having bootstrapped so far, the company is seeking seed funding to scale up manufacturing and sell in major African cities and then Europe and the United States, Akinse says.

Salubata has sold around 1,500 sets—each set is one pair of soles plus two different uppers—mostly through its website. Its goal is to produce around 5 million such sets annually by 2023.

The company has garnered honors in addition to the recent IEEE award. The recognition has helped it gain funding and customers. The big benefit of the IEEE honorary membership?

“You interviewing me right now,” Akinse says. “The IEEE is a large network of intelligent, well-connected people. We believe it’s a big opportunity to easily connect to different communities.”

IEEE membership offers a wide range of benefits and opportunities for those who share a common interest in technology. If you are not already a member, consider joining IEEE and becoming part of a worldwide network of more than 400,000 students and professionals.

Atoms-Thick Transistors Get Faster Using Less Power

Post Syndicated from Prachi Patel original https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/semiconductors/materials/atomsthick-transistors-get-faster-using-less-power

For post-silicon electronics, engineers have been doubling down on research aimed at making transistors from atoms-thick two-dimensional materials. The most famous one is graphene, but experts believe that 2D semiconductors such as molybdenum disulfide and tungsten disulfide might be better suited for the job. Graphene lacks a bandgap, the property that makes a material a semiconductor.

Now, by combining graphene and MoS2, researchers have made a transistor that operates at half the voltage and has a higher current density than any state-of-the-art 2D transistor previously under development. This should slash the power consumption of integrated circuits based on these 2D devices.

“We were able to fully explore the untapped potential of 2D materials to make a transistor that shows better performance in terms of energy consumption and switching speed,” says Huamin Li, the electrical engineering professor at the University of Buffalo who presented the device at the IEEE International Electron Devices Meeting (IEDM).

Interestingly, the device takes advantage of graphene’s lack of a bandgap. In a transistor, a voltage at the gate electrode injects charge carriers into the channel region to create a conductive path between the source and drain electrodes. Conventional silicon transistors and 2D MoS2 transistors take advantage of the emission of high-energy “hot” electrons from the source. This places a fundamental limit of 60 millivolts for each ten-fold increase in the drain current (60 mV/decade).

But graphene, with no bandgap, acts as a “cold” electron source, Li says. That means less energy is required to send electrons out across the channel region to the drain electrode. The result: The device current can be switched on and off more rapidly.

Using this unique mechanism we were able to break the fundamental limit of switching,” Li says. The group’s 1-nanometer-thick transistor needs only 29 mV to achieve that 10-fold change in device current. “We use less voltage to switch the device and control more current, so our transistor is much more energy efficient.”

Light-driven sonar could survey the oceans from the air

Post Syndicated from Prachi Patel original https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/sensors/remote-sensing/lightdriven-sonar-could-survey-the-oceans-from-the-air

Sonar, which measures the time it takes for sound waves to bounce off objects and travel back to a receiver, is the best way to visualize underwater terrain or inspect marine-based structures. Sonar systems, though, have to be deployed on ships or buoys, making them slow and limiting the area they can cover.

However, engineers at Stanford University have developed a new hybrid technique combining light and sound. Aircraft, they suggest, could use this combined laser/sonar technology to sweep the ocean surface for high-resolution images of submerged objects. The proof-of-concept airborne sonar system, presented recently in the journal IEEE Access, could make it easier and faster to find sunken wrecks, investigate marine habitats, and spot enemy submarines.

Our system could be on a drone, airplane or helicopter,” says Amin Arbabian, an electrical engineering professor at Stanford University. “It could be deployed rapidly…and cover larger areas.”

Airborne radar and lidar are used to map the Earth’s surface at high resolution. Both can penetrate clouds and forest cover, making them especially useful in the air and on the ground. But peering into water from the air is a different challenge. Sound, radio, and light waves all quickly lose their energy when traveling from air into water and back. This attenuation is even worse in turbid water, Arbabian says.

So he and his students combined the two modalities—laser and sonar. Their system relies on the well-known photoacoustic effect, which turns pulses of light into sound. “When you shine a pulse of light on an object it heats up and expands and that leads to a sound wave because it moves molecules of air around the object,” he says.

The group’s new photoacoustic sonar system begins by shooting laser pulses at the water surface. Water absorbs most of the energy, creating ultrasound waves that move through it much like conventional sonar. These waves bounce off objects, and some of the reflected waves go back out from the water into the air.

At this point, the acoustic echoes lose a tremendous amount of energy as they cross that water-air barrier and then travel through the air. Here is where another critical part of the team’s design comes in.

To detect the weak acoustic waves in air, the team uses an ultra-sensitive microelectromechanical device with the mouthful name of an air-coupled capacitive micromachined ultrasonic transducer (CMUT). These devices are simple capacitors with a thin plate that vibrates when hit by ultrasound waves, causing a detectable change in capacitance. They are known to be efficient at detecting sound waves in air, and Arbabian has been investigating the use of CMUT sensors for remote ultrasound imaging. Special software processes the detected ultrasound signals to reconstruct a high-resolution 3D image of the underwater object.

The researchers tested the system by imaging metal bars of different heights and diameters placed in a large 25cm-deep fish tank filled with clear water. The CMUT detector was 10cm above the water surface.

The system should work in murky water, Arbabian says, although they haven’t tested that yet. Next up, they plan to image objects placed in a swimming pool, for which they will have to use more powerful laser sources that work for deeper water. They also want to improve the system so it works with waves, which distort signals and make the detection and image reconstruction much harder. “This proof of concept is to show that you can see through the air-water interface” Arbabian says. “That’s the hardest part of this problem. Once we can prove it works it can scale up to greater depths and larger objects.”

Startup’s New Type of Magnetic Sensor Could Make High-Performance Brain Imaging More Affordable and Portable

Post Syndicated from Prachi Patel original https://spectrum.ieee.org/the-institute/ieee-member-news/startups-new-type-of-magnetic-sensor-could-make-highperformance-brain-imaging-more-affordable-and-portable

THE INSTITUTE Growing up in San Diego, Nishita Deka enjoyed science, art, and building contraptions with K’nex construction toys. Up until high school, she wanted to be a pediatrician, but then she found herself enjoying her physics classes a lot more than biology. Pursuing a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering with a minor in physics, she decided, would allow her to expand her skill set and “be a launching pad for whatever I wanted to do later on.”

With her startup, Sonera Magnetics, Deka, an IEEE member, has found a way to combine her interests in medicine, physics, and engineering. The company, based in Berkeley, Calif., is developing a new type of magnetic sensor that it hopes will make high-performance brain imaging more affordable and portable.

“We are trying to detect brain activity using cheaper, faster methods that are still high-performance,” she says. “That’s our North Star. We do a kind of functional imaging, a direct imaging of activities in the brain.”

Brain sensing is commonly done today using electroencephalography, which detects the electrical signals from neurons firing in the brain via electrodes placed on the scalp. EEG can help diagnose epilepsy, brain damage, tumors, and sleep disorders. But electrical signals weaken as they pass through brain fluids and the skull, so the signal outside the brain is fairly low quality.

Magnetoencephalography, which senses the magnetic fields produced by the brain’s electrical impulses, has a much higher spatial resolution. But MEG machines typically rely on superconducting sensors that need to be cryogenically cooled to -270 °C. They also require bulky metal shielding to block out external magnetic signals such as Earth’s magnetic field. The large machines can cost up to US $3 million each, and to power and maintain them costs tens of thousands of dollars every year, Deka says.

Sonera is developing sensors that do not require such cooling. The sensors leverage the strong interaction between magnetic thin films and high-frequency sound waves to measure weak magnetic fields. The solid-state magnetic sensors could lead to room-temperature MEG systems that do not require shielding—enabling faster, less expensive imaging of brain activity without sacrificing accuracy.

“It could change how MEG is used entirely and make it much more accessible,” says Deka, who is developing the technology with cofounder Dominic Labanowski, the company’s chief technology officer.

Only 40 or so MEG machines are installed in U.S. hospitals and research centers today, Deka says. Neurosurgeons typically use them to scan an epilepsy patient’s brain before surgery to pinpoint the location of epileptic activity.

A portable MEG system could pave the way for easier remote monitoring of patients for days and weeks, giving accurate diagnoses of chronic conditions such as epilepsy, or for sleep tracking, Deka says.

The technology ultimately could benefit basic neuroscience, she says, by allowing scientists to see “what’s going in the brain when people are just doing regular daily activities in their normal environment.”

Or it could open up entirely new applications down the road. EEG, for instance, is being studied for brain-control interfaces, which would allow people to use their brain signals to control devices; MEG, because of its higher resolution, would enable more sensitive brain-control devices.

LEARNING CURVE

Deka says she always has been interested in understanding the fundamentals of how things work. Her parents, who both studied physics, encouraged her scientific curiosity, as did her high school physics teacher. At the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, she conducted undergraduate research in IEEE Senior Member Andrea Martin Armani’s laboratory, making and characterizing silicon chip-based microlasers that are used for detecting nanoparticles and in optical communications. Armani was influential in Deka’s decision to go to graduate school.

Deka went on to earn a doctorate in electrical engineering and computer sciences in 2019 at the University of California, Berkeley. Her graduate research project focused on the development of nanoscale devices for high-voltage switching and portable electron sources for sensing applications.

While at UC Berkeley, Deka met Labanowski, who was researching device applications of acoustically driven ferromagnetic resonance, which is the coupling between magnetic materials and high-frequency sound waves. The two researchers’ ideas and values clicked, and the duo teamed up with Labanowski’s Ph.D. advisor, Sayeef Salahuddin, an IEEE Fellow, to launch Sonera Magnetics in 2018.

The team’s science was sound, but they quickly encountered hurdles inherent in technology development.

“One big challenge is that developing new hardware takes a lot of time, even just to demonstrate basic capabilities,” Deka says. “Another is raising capital.”

Then there was the unexpected learning curve of going from graduate student to business executive—“learning business skills and thinking about the company as not just a technical problem but also a business challenge,” she says.

To get a boost, the company applied to Cyclotron Road, an entrepreneurial fellowship program that provides two years of funding as well as access to research labs, mentors, and a network of investors and experts. The program proved valuable, allowing the founders to nurture their budding technology and bring it out of the laboratory. It also gave them time to learn how to become entrepreneurs, Deka says.

During the fellowship, which ended in July, the company received a grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation. Deka and Labanowski are now getting the company off the ground and hiring their first employees.

Sonera Magnetics recently became a partner on a U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory project that aims to use neurotechnology to help pilots train and acquire new skills more quickly. Sonera’s role is to develop a brain-machine interface that combines the speed of EEG with the higher spatial resolution of MEG. Researchers could use the interface to gather data on brain activity when a human subject is in the process of learning.

IEEE COMMUNITY SUPPORT

The path from engineer to entrepreneur wasn’t an easy one, but Deka has taken it in stride. She recently was a panelist at an IEEE Entrepreneurship webinar, “New Tools, New Devices, New Fabs: Three Change-makers and Three Pathways in One Burgeoning Innovation Ecosystem,” in which she spoke about her experiences launching a microelectronics company.

IEEE, which she joined as an undergraduate student, has been a great community to stay connected with, she says. She joined the organization to stay up to date on emerging trends in the electronics field, but now she’s “diving into the entrepreneurship side,” she says.

“I’m learning more about the entrepreneurship work going on in the IEEE community,” she says. “We are doing a lot of scientific work in microelectronics at Sonera, and the IEEE is a good way to stay connected with others who are doing similar work.”

IEEE membership offers a wide range of benefits and opportunities for those who share a common interest in technology. If you are not already a member, consider joining IEEE and becoming part of a worldwide network of more than 400,000 students and professionals.

Co-designing electronics and microfluidics for a cooling boost

Post Syndicated from Prachi Patel original https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/computing/hardware/codesigning-electronics-and-microfluidics-for-a-cooling-boost

The heat generated by today’s densely-packed electronics is a costly resource drain. To keep systems at the right temperature for optimal computational performance, data center cooling in the United States consumes the as much energy and water as all the residents of the city of Philadelphia. Now, by integrating liquid cooling channels directly into semiconductor chips, researchers hope to reduce that drain at least in power electronics devices, making them smaller, cheaper and less energy-intensive. 

Traditionally, the electronics and the heat management system are designed and made separately, says Elison Matioli, an electrical engineering professor at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland. That introduces a fundamental obstacle to improving cooling efficiency since heat has to propagate relatively long distances through multiple materials for removal. In today’s processors, for instance, thermal materials syphon heat away from the chip to a bulky, air-cooled copper heat sink.

For a more energy-efficient solution, Matioli and his colleagues have developed a low-cost process to put a 3D network of microfluidic cooling channels directly into a semiconductor chip. Liquids remove heat better than air, and the idea is to put coolant micrometers away from chip hot spots.

But unlike previously reported microfluidic cooling techniques, he says, “we design the electronics and the cooling together from the beginning.” So the microchannels are right underneath the active region of each transistor device, where it heats up the most, which increases cooling performance by a factor of 50. They reported their co-design concept in the journal Nature today.

Researchers first proposed microchannel cooling back in 1981, and startups such as Cooligy have pursued the idea for processors. But the semiconductor industry is moving from planar devices to 3D ones and towards future chips with stacked multi-layer architectures, which makes cooling channels impractical. “This type of embedded cooling solution is not meant for modern processors and chips, like the CPU,” says Tiwei Wei, who studies electronic cooling solutions at Interuniversity Microelectronics Centre and KU Leuven in Belgium.  Instead, this cooling technology makes the most sense for power electronics, he says.

Power electronics circuits manage and convert electrical energy, and are used widely in computers, data centers, solar panels, and electric vehicles, among other things. They use large-area discrete devices made from wide-bandgap semiconductors like gallium nitride. The power density of these devices has gone up dramatically over the years, which means they have to be “hooked to a massive heat sink,” Matioli says.

Superhigh-voltage Gallium Oxide Transistors Could Transform Power Electronics

Post Syndicated from Prachi Patel original https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/semiconductors/materials/gallium-oxide-transistors-can-handle-over-8000-volts

A new gallium oxide transistor can withstand voltages of over 8,000 volts (V), the highest ever reported for a device of comparable size. The advance opens up exciting possibilities for compact, energy-efficient power electronics systems based on a technology that is only eight years old: the first gallium oxide transistors were reported in 2012.

“Those are extraordinary numbers compared to what’s reported,” says Uttam Singisetti, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Buffalo who led the new device research published in IEEE Electron Device Letters. “Reaching 8kV in eight years is a big achievement.”

Coronavirus’s Economic Blow Forces Universities To Adapt

Post Syndicated from Prachi Patel original https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/at-work/education/coronaviruss-economic-blow-universities-adapt

IEEE COVID-19 coverage logo, link to landing page

The economic slowdown from the coronavirus pandemic presents daunting financial challenges for public and private universities as they face their biggest crisis in decades.

The University of Kentucky is dealing with a more than $70 million shortfall in funds. The university’s engineering school faces a 10 percent budget cut, about the average for other schools at the university. Rudolph Buccheit, dean of the college of engineering, says that while the state budget appropriation is expected to be the same as last year, academic colleges including the engineering school have “picked up expenses that are above and beyond normal leading to a budget deficit.”

Increased expenses for colleges include the cost of technologies needed for distance learning, facilities upkeep and sanitization, and returning students’ room and board fees, among others.

“A lot of public universities are in similar sort of situations,” Buccheit says, facing increased expenses in addition to reduced funding due to state budget cuts. “We want to see if the federal stimulus package will include support for states to protect higher education.” The $14 billion that higher education institutions are receiving so far under the coronavirus relief bill is nowhere close to meeting their needs.

Another big hit could come from lower tuition revenue, given the uncertainty about fall enrollment numbers. “Economic circumstances have changed for some families and there’s uncertainty with health,” he says. The University of Kentucky is planning for 20 percent reduction in first year class enrollment.

Even private schools with large endowments will reel from the tuition loss. And this especially acute for science and engineering schools, since a large part of the student body is international, and those students typically pay higher tuition.

“Undergraduate tuition is the bread and butter,” says Karen Panetta, an IEEE Fellow and dean of graduate education for the school of engineering at Tufts University. “And now you’ve got students saying I think I might defer a year, which is sending shockwaves through research institutions. Right now schools are panicking over this huge loss of revenue.”

Being a Research 1 institution, Tufts also depends on federal research funding, and pandemic-related laboratory closures will affect those research dollars, she says.

Meanwhile, costs keep ratcheting up. Tufts is planning for an anticipated opening in the fall in which they would have to implement social distancing. That means the way everything is done in an academic has to change: dormitories, libraries, classrooms, common spaces. “So the big thing is not just financial loss because that’s global,” Panetta says, “but also how much is it going to cost us for face masks and sanitization.

Plus, she adds, “I took definitive action and made a conscious decision that even if we are open we’re going to have classes available online.” That’s because international students might not be able to get into the country in October. So all the Tufts engineering departments have already started working on courses being available online, which comes at a cost.

Long-term impact on finances might depend on how long the pandemic and its after-effects last. For now, says Buccheit, “we have reserves we can use to help get us through what we hope will be a one or two year fiscal problem.” That means they won’t have to suspend or cancel any programs, or merge smaller departments. In fact, they plan to continue with the launch of a new undergraduate biomedical engineering program this coming fall, something that had been in the works for two years.

Waste Natural Gas Powers Computers Seeking Coronavirus Cure

Post Syndicated from Prachi Patel original https://spectrum.ieee.org/energywise/energy/fossil-fuels/waste-natural-gas-is-powering-computers-looking-for-a-coronavirus-cure

In a partnership that seems par for the course in these strange pandemic times, waste natural gas is powering a computing project that’s searching for a COVID-19 therapy.

The natural gas, a byproduct of oil drilling, would otherwise be burned in air, a wasteful practice called flaring. It’s instead being converted to electricity that helps drive computationally intensive protein-folding simulations of the new coronavirus at Stanford University, thanks to Denver-based Crusoe Energy Systems, a company which “bridges the gap between the energy world and the high-performance computing world,” says CEO Chase Lochmiller.

Crusoe’s Digital Flare Mitigation technology is a fancy term for rugged, modified shipping containers that contain temperature-controlled racks of computers and data servers. The company launched in 2018 to mine cryptocurrency, which requires a tremendous amount of computing power. But when the novel coronavirus started spreading around the world, Lochmiller and his childhood friend Cully Cavness, who is the company’s president and co-founder, knew it was a chance to help.

Coronaviruses get their name from their crown of spiky proteins that attach to receptors on human cells. Proteins are complicated beasts that undergo convoluted twists and turns to take on unique structures. A recent Nature study showed that the new coronavirus the world is now battling, known as SARS-CoV-2, has a narrow ridge at its tip that helps it bind more strongly to human cells than previous similar viruses.

Understanding how spike proteins fold will help scientists find drugs that can block them. Stanford University’s [email protected] project is simulating these protein-folding dynamics. Studying the countless folding permutations and protein shapes requires enormous amounts of computations, so the project relies on crowd-sourced computing.

Enevate’s Silicon Anodes Could Yield EV Batteries That Run 400 km on a 5-Minute Charge

Post Syndicated from Prachi Patel original https://spectrum.ieee.org/energywise/energy/batteries-storage/enevates-silicon-anodes-could-give-batteries-that-run-400-km-on-a-5minute-charge

Battery makers have for years been trying to replace the graphite anode in lithium-ion batteries with a version made of silicon, which would give electric vehicles a much longer range. Some batteries with silicon anodes are getting close to market for wearables and electronics. The recipes for these silicon-rich anodes that a handful of companies are developing typically use silicon oxide or a mix of silicon and carbon.

But Irvine, CA-based Enevate is using an engineered porous film made mainly of pure silicon. In addition to being inexpensive, the new anode material, which founder and chief technology officer Benjamin Park has spent more than 10 years developing, will lead to an electric vehicle (EV) that has 30 percent more range on a single charge than today’s EVs. What’s more, the battery Enevate envisions could be charged up enough in five minutes to deliver 400 km of driving range.

Big names in the battery and automotive business are listening. Carmakers Renault, Nissan, and Mitsubishi, as well as battery-makers LG Chem and Samsung, are investors. And lithium battery pioneer and 2019 Chemistry Nobel Prize winner John Goodenough is on the company’s Advisory Board.

When lithium-ion batteries are charged, lithium ions move from the cathode to the anode. The more ions the anode can hold, the higher its energy capacity, and the longer the battery can run. Silicon can in theory hold ten times the energy of graphite. But it also expands and contracts dramatically, falling apart after a few charge cycles.

To get around that, battery makers such as Tesla today add just a tiny bit of silicon to graphite powder. The powder is mixed with a glue-like plastic called a binder and is coated on a thin copper foil to make the anode. But, says Park, lithium ions react with silicon first, before graphite. “The silicon still expands quite a bit, and that plastic binder is weak,” he says, explaining that the whole electrode is more likely to degrade as the amount of silicon is ramped up.

Enevate does not use plastic binders. Instead, its patented process creates the porous 10- to 60-µm-thick silicon film directly on a copper foil. The cherry on top is a nanometers-thick protective coating, which, says Park, “prevents the silicon from reacting with the electrolyte.” That type of reaction can also damage a battery.

The process does not require high-quality silicon, so anodes of this type cost less than their graphite counterparts of the same capacity. And because the material is mostly silicon, lithium ions can slip in and out very quickly, charging the battery to 75 percent of its capacity in five minutes, without causing much expansion. Park likens it to a high-capacity movie theater. “If you have a full movie theater it takes a long time to find the one empty seat. We have a theater with ten times more capacity. Even if we fill that theater halfway, [it still doesn’t take long] to find empty seats.”

The company’s roll-to-roll processing techniques can make silicon anodes quickly enough for high-volume manufacturing, says Park. By coupling the silicon anode with conventional cathode materials such as nickel-manganese-cobalt, they have made battery cells with energy densities as high as 350 watt-hours per kilogram, which is about 30 percent more than the specific energy of today’s lithium-ion batteries. Enevate says it is now working with multiple major automotive companies to develop standard-size battery cells for 2024-25 model year EVs.

It’s Still Early, but Potassium Batteries Are Showing Promise for Grid Storage

Post Syndicated from Prachi Patel original https://spectrum.ieee.org/energy/environment/its-still-early-but-potassium-batteries-are-showing-promise-for-grid-storage

Renewables are poised to expand by 50 percent in the next five years, according to the International Energy Agency. Much of that wind and solar power will need to be stored. But a growing electric-vehicle market might not leave enough lithium and cobalt for lithium-ion grid batteries.

Some battery researchers are taking a fresh look at lithium’s long-ignored cousin, potassium, for grid storage. Potassium is abundant, inexpensive, and could in ­theory enable a higher-power battery. However, efforts have lagged behind research on lithium and sodium batteries.

But potassium could catch up quickly, says Shinichi Komaba, who leads potassium-ion battery research at the Tokyo University of Science: “Although ­potassium-battery development has just been going on for five years, I believe that it is already competitive with sodium-ion batteries and expect it to be comparable and superior to lithium-ion.”

People have historically shied away from potassium because the metal is highly reactive and dangerous to handle. What’s more, finding electrode materials to hold the much heftier potassium ions is difficult.

Yet a flurry of reports in the past five years detail promising candidates for the cathode. Among the leaders are iron-based compounds with a crystalline structure similar to Prussian blue particles, which have wide open spaces for potassium ions to fill. A group from the University of Texas at Austin led by John Goodenough, coinventor of the lithium-ion battery and a winner of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, has reported Prussian blue cathodes with an exceptionally high energy density of 510 watt-hours per kilogram, comparable to that of today’s lithium batteries.

But Prussian blue isn’t perfect. “The problem is, we don’t know how water content in the material affects energy density,” says Haegyeom Kim, a materials scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “Another issue is that it’s difficult to control its chemical composition.”

Kim is placing bets on polyanionic compounds, which are made by combining potassium with any number of elements plucked from the periodic table. Potassium vanadium fluorophosphate seems to hold special promise. Kim and his colleagues have developed a cathode with the compounds that has an energy density of 450 Wh/kg.

Other researchers are looking at organic compounds for cathodes. These cost less than inorganic compounds, and their chemical bonds can stretch to take up potassium ions more easily.

While Goodenough is giving potassium a chance, his fellow ­lithium-battery inventor and Nobel Prize winner ­M. ­Stanley Whittingham, professor of chemistry at Binghamton University, in New York, isn’t sold. “It’s a scientific curiosity,” he says. “There’s no startup looking at potassium batteries.”

Potassium, says Whittingham, is not a practical technology because of its heft and volatility. Potassium also melts at a lower temperature than lithium or sodium, which can trigger reactions that lead to thermal runaway.

Those are valid concerns, says Vilas Pol, a professor of chemical engineering at Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Ind. But he points out that in a battery, potassium ions shuttle back and forth, not reactive potassium metal. Special binders on the electrode can tame the heat-producing reactions.

Developing the right electrolyte will be key to battery life and safety, says Komaba, of the Tokyo University of Science. Conventional electrolytes contain flammable solvents that, when combined with potassium’s reactivity, could be dangerous. Selecting the right solvents, potassium salts, salt concentration, and additives can prevent fires.

Komaba’s group has made electrolytes using potassium-fluoride salts, superconcentrated electrolytes that have fewer solvents than traditional mixes, and ionic liquid electrolytes that don’t use solvents. In January, materials scientist Zaiping Guo and her team from the University of Wollongong, Australia, reported a nonflammable electrolyte for potassium batteries. They added a flame retardant to the solvent.

Potassium enthusiasts point out that the technology is still at an early stage. It’s never going to match the high energy density of lithium, or be suitable for electric cars. Yet for immense grid batteries, cheap potassium might have an upper hand. “Potassium-ion [batteries] could have worked earlier, but there was no need for [them],” says Pol. “Lithium isn’t enough now.”

In the end, the sum will have to be as good as its parts. Most research has focused on the materials that go into the electrodes and the electrolyte. Put it all together in a battery cell and the energy density drops after just 100 charging cycles or so; practical batteries will need to withstand several hundred.

“It will take time to figure out the exact combination of electrolyte, cathode, and anode,” Pol says. “It might take another 15 years from now to get to the market.”

This article appears in the March 2020 print issue as “Potassium Batteries Show Promise.”

Ion Storage Systems Says Its Ceramic Electrolyte Could Be a Gamechanger for Solid-State Batteries

Post Syndicated from Prachi Patel original https://spectrum.ieee.org/energywise/energy/batteries-storage/ion-storage-systems-ceramic-electrolyte-news-solid-state-batteries

For years, experts have predicted that solid-state batteries will be the next-generation technology for electric vehicles (EVs). These batteries promise to be safer by relying on a solid electrolyte instead of the flammable liquids used in today’s lithium-ion batteries. They could also last longer and weigh less, with a 10 times higher energy density, because they use a lithium metal anode instead of graphite.

Ford, Hyundai, Nissan, Toyota, and Volkswagen are all investing in solid-state battery research. And startups in the space abound.

But Eric Wachsman says his company, Ion Storage Systems, stands out for a few reasons. The company’s strong, dense ceramic electrolyte is only about 10 micrometers thick, which is the same thickness as the plastic separators used in today’s lithium-ion batteries, and it conducts lithium ions as well as current liquid electrolytes. And according to Wachsman, it overcomes two key issues with solid-state batteries: high electrolyte resistance and a low current capability.

The Battery Design Smarts Behind Rolls Royce’s Ultrafast Electric Airplane

Post Syndicated from Prachi Patel original https://spectrum.ieee.org/energywise/energy/batteries-storage/the-battery-innovations-behind-rolls-royces-ultrafast-electric-airplane

Dozens 0f electric general aviation projects are underway around the world, not counting the urban air taxis that dominate the electric propulsion R&D scene. The first all-electric commercial aircraft, a seaplane intended for short flights, completed a 15-minute test flight in December.

Shortly after, luxury icon Rolls Royce unveiled what it hopes will be the world’s fastest electric aircraft. The current speed record for that type of plane is 335 kilometers per hour (210 mph). The new one-seater craft, slated to fly this spring, will top out at 480 km/h (300 mph). It should also be able to fly from London to Paris, about 320 km (200 miles), on a single charge.

That’s thanks to “the world’s most energy-dense flying battery pack,” according to Rolls Royce. The aircraft has three batteries powering three motors that will deliver 750kW to spin the propellers. Each 72 kilowatt-hour battery pack weighs 450kg and has 6,000 densely packed lithium-ion cells.

Getting all this power on board wasn’t easy, says Matheu Parr, project manager for the ACCEL project, short for Accelerating the Electrification of Flight. Careful thought and engineering went into each step, right from selecting the type of battery cell. Lithium-ion cells come in many forms, including pouches as well as  prismatic and cylindrical cells. Cylindrical ones turn out to be best for holding a lot of energy and discharging it quickly at high power, he says.

Next came the critical task of assembling the cells into a pack. Rolls Royce’s partner, Electroflight, a startup specializing in aviation batteries, began that effort by analyzing innovations in the relatively new all-electric auto-racing space.

“Really, the challenge for electric aviation is one of packaging,” Parr says. “So we’ve looked at how Formula E [air racing] tackles packaging and then taken it a step further.” By using lightweight materials—and only the bare minimum of those—the Formula E teams manage to cut their planes’ packaging-to –battery cell weight ratio in half compared with the amount of battery packaging an electric car has to carry around for each kilogram of battery cell.

The high-power, closely packed cells get pretty hot. So, designing an advanced active-cooling system was important. Instead of the air-cooling used in car batteries, Rolls Royce engineers chose a liquid-cooling system. All the cells directly contact a cooling plate through which a water-and-glycol mixture is piped.

Finally, the engineers built in safety features such as an ultra-strong outside case and continual monitoring of each battery’s temperature and voltage. Should something go wrong with one of the batteries, it would automatically be shut off. Better still, the airplane can land even if two of its three batteries are turned off.

The ACCEL battery comes out to a specific energy of 165 watt-hours per kilogram, which puts it on par with the  battery pack powering the Tesla Model 3. That’s still a long way from the 500 Wh/kg needed to compete with traditional jet-propulsion aircraft for commercial flights (aviation batteries are not expected to store that much energy per unit mass until 2030). For now, Rolls Royce and others believe all-electric propulsion will power smaller aircraft while larger planes will have hybrid fuel-electric systems. The company has teamed up with Airbus and Siemens to develop a hybrid airplane.

With its high-speed racing aircraft, Rolls Royce wants to pioneer the transition to the “third age of aviation, from propeller aircraft to jet aircraft to electric,” says Parr. The project will also provide know-how that will shape future designs. “We’re learning an awful lot that we want to see packed into a future aircraft. Innovations in the battery and system integration, packaging and management will all help us shape any future electric product, be it all-electric or hybrid.”

Long-lasting Lithium-Sulfur Battery Promises to Double EV Range

Post Syndicated from Prachi Patel original https://spectrum.ieee.org/energywise/energy/batteries-storage/lithium-sulfur-battery-news-ev-electric-vehicle-range

Lithium-sulfur batteries seem to be ideal successors to good old lithium-ion. They could in theory hold up to five times the energy per weight. Their low weight makes them ideal for electric airplanes: firms such as Sion Power and Oxis Energy are starting to test their lithium-sulfur batteries in aircraft. And they would be cheaper given their use of sulfur instead of the rare-earth metals used in the cathode today.

But the technology isn’t yet commercial mainly because of its short life span. The cathode starts falling apart after just 40 to 50 charge cycles.

By designing a novel robust cathode structure, researchers have now made a lithium-sulfur battery that can be recharged several hundred times. The cells have an energy capacity four times that of lithium-ion, which typically holds 150 to 200 watt-hours per kilogram (Wh/kg). If translatable to commercial devices, it could mean a battery that powers a phone for five days without needing to recharge, or quadruples the range of electric cars.

That’s unlikely to happen, since energy capacity drops when cells are strung together into battery packs. But the team still expects a “twofold increase at battery pack level when [the new battery is] introduced to the market,” says Mahdokht Shaibani, a mechanical and aerospace engineer at Australia’s Monash University who led the work published recently in the journal Science Advances.

Shaibani likens the sulfur cathode in a lithium-sulfur battery to a hard-working, overtaxed office worker. It can take on a lot, but the job demands cause stress and hurt productivity. In battery terms, during discharge the cathode soaks up a large amount of lithium ions, forming lithium sulfide. But in the process, it swells enormously, and then contracts when the ions leave during battery charging. This repeated volume change breaks down the cathode.

4 Products That Make Sense to Manufacture in Orbit

Post Syndicated from Prachi Patel original https://spectrum.ieee.org/aerospace/space-flight/4-products-that-make-sense-to-manufacture-in-orbit

Space is open for business, and some entrepreneurs plan to make the final frontier into a manufacturing hub. There’s plenty of real estate. But it takes a few thousand dollars to launch a kilogram of stuff into space.

“The key question is: What is it that justifies the expense of doing these things in low Earth orbit?” says William Wagner, director of the University of Pittsburgh’s McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine, which will conduct biomedical research on the International Space Station (ISS).

Here are some technologies that might merit the “made in space” label.

  • Fiber-optic Cable

    Made from fluoride glass, a kind of fiber-optic cable called ZBLAN could have as little as one-tenth the signal loss of silica-based optical fibers.

    But quality ZBLAN fibers are hard to make on Earth. As the molten glass is stretched into fibers as thin as fishing line and then cooled, tiny crystals sometimes form, which can weaken signals. Microgravity suppresses the formation of these crystals, so fibers made in space would carry more data over longer distances.

    More data plus the need for fewer repeaters under the ocean would justify a higher price, says Austin Jordan of Made in Space, which plans to produce such fibers in space for terrestrial clients. “The math works. It would pay for itself and drive a profit,” he says.

    Two other companies, Fiber Optic Manufacturing in Space and Physical Optics Corp., also plan to make ZBLAN fibers in low Earth orbit.

  • Organs

    There are 120,000 people waiting for an organ transplant in the United States alone. “Most will never see one, there is such a shortage,” says Eugene Boland, chief scientist at Techshot, which wants to print human hearts in space.

    The heart, with its four empty chambers and highly organized muscle tissue made of different types of cells, is virtually impossible to print on the ground. On Earth, tissues printed with runny bioinks made of gel and human stem cells collapse under their own weight. Scientists must add toxic chemicals or a scaffold.

    Printing hearts and other organs in microgravity could be done using pure bioinks. “The cylindrical shape extruded from the nozzle is maintained, so you can build a more fragile 3D structure that would allow cells in the gels to secrete their own matrix and strengthen up,” says Wagner. And the printed layers fuse together without forming the striations seen in constructs printed on the ground, Boland says.

    Techshot, which is based in Greenville, Ind., is partnering with 3D-bioprinter manufacturer nScrypt. Their first bioprinter went to the ISS in July, but the small patch of heart muscle it printed didn’t survive reentry. The next mission, which launched in November, should result in thicker tissue that can be tested on Earth when it returns in January.

  • Metal Alloys

    Outer space is the perfect place to make metal alloys. Microgravity allows the metals and other elements to mix together more evenly.

    Magnesium alloys for medical implants have especially high potential. At half the weight of titanium alloys, magnesium alloys more closely match the density and strength of bone, and they harmlessly biodegrade in the body, says University of Pittsburgh bioengineering professor Prashant Kumta, who is working with Techshot to produce his patented alloys in a high-temperature furnace on the ISS.

    Making these alloys involves melting highly reactive magnesium with other elements such as calcium and zinc, keeping the melted materials in a vacuum for a long time so the elements mix evenly, and then cooling it all down.

    On Earth, impurities settle to the bottom, and the upper layer oxidizes to form an unusable skin. Both have to be thrown out. Even the usable middle layer has pores and pockets of unmixed elements and must be further processed to make a quality material. None of these problems occur when alloys are manufactured in microgravity.

  • Meat

    What Techshot and nScrypt want to do with human organs, Israeli food-tech startup Aleph Farms plans to do with meat. The two-year-old Rehovot-based company grows cultured beefsteaks that look and taste like the real thing. “While other companies use only muscle cell, we also grow connective tissue, blood vessels, and fat cells, which lets us make beefsteaks instead of patties,” says Yoav Reisler, external relations manager at the company.

    In September, the company teamed up with Russian company 3D Bioprinting Solutions to create the first tiny piece of meat on the ISS. It isn’t a huge technical advance, but it could feed astronauts on long-term crewed missions, as well as future space settlers as they set up a permanent base.

This article appears in the December 2019 print issue as “ 4 Products To Manufacture In Orbit.”