All posts by Sandy Ong

Pilot Test Begins for Tech to Connect Everyday Vehicles

Post Syndicated from Sandy Ong original

Drivers can use a number of signals to communicate with other drivers: taillights, high beams, the horn. But car manufacturers envision a future where cars themselves will exchange messages about where they’re going and where they’ve been.

Connected vehicles—those fitted with technology that allows them to communicate with other drivers, pedestrians, and nearby infrastructure—are increasingly being tested around the world. In July, Columbus, Ohio, will be the latest city to launch a connected-vehicle pilot.

Connected vehicles have long been overshadowed by their more famous cousins: autonomous vehicles. Although all autonomous vehicles have aspects of connectivity, adding certain technologies to ordinary cars could prevent accidents and save lives in the near term.

The Connected Vehicle Environment project in Columbus will see up to 1,800 public and private vehicles fitted with special onboard units and dashboard-mounted head-up displays. Those cars will be able to receive messages from traffic lights at 113 intersections, including some of the city’s most dangerous crossings. The aim is to study the impacts of connectivity on safety and traffic flow. Organizers will begin recruiting drivers and installing onboard units in July, with testing to begin in November.

The technology will enable “basic safety messaging,” including warnings to reduce speed or look out for pedestrians ahead, explains Luke Stedke, who manages communications at Drive Ohio, the state’s smart-mobility center. The pilot is part of the Smart Columbus initiative, which was launched after the city won US $40 million in the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT)’s 2015 Smart City Challenge.

Columbus joins two other cities in Ohio—Marysville and Dublin—that have recently begun testing connected vehicles. Collectively, the DOT has invested more than $45 million in such trials in Wyoming, Tampa, and New York City.

The keen interest in connecting nonautonomous vehicles comes primarily from the technology’s potential to reduce crashes and save lives, says Debra Bezzina of the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute. Sensors to alert drivers to hazards in their blind spots, streetlight-mounted cameras that show a pedestrian at an upcoming intersection, and an approaching car that warns of black ice ahead are just a few examples of what may be possible.

“Connected-vehicle technology can prevent 80 percent of all unimpaired car crashes,” says Bezzina. “So it could save billions of dollars a year.”

The new technology also promises more efficient traffic management and greener commuting. Emergency vehicles could move through intersections quicker with all the lights in their favor. Motorists, using information broadcast by traffic signals about their phase and timing, could adjust their speed accordingly and save fuel.

Connected-vehicle communications can run either on a wireless technology called Dedicated Short-Range Communications (DSRC) or on a cellular-based alternative called Cellular-V2X. DSRC is scalable, offers low latency, and works well in an urban environment, says mechanical engineer Joshua Siegel from Michigan State University (MSU). But it has a limited range (roughly 1 kilometer).

C-V2X, on the other hand, has higher latency but superior range and greater bandwidth. With experts predicting that the rollout of 5G will improve latency, some countries, including China, have favored cellular networks. But the United States hasn’t given a clear edict on the issue, causing much uncertainty for automobile manufacturers.

Similar to other pilots around the country, the new Columbus trial will employ DSRC technology, which is farther up the road to being commercially available than C-V2X modules.

Many car manufacturers are keen to incorporate communications technology because it offers benefits that self-driving vehicles can’t. For one, the tech works in all weather conditions, unlike notoriously fickle radar and lidar detection systems.

Another advantage: “You can get information from infrastructure that you just cannot get with an autonomous vehicle,” says Bezzina. While autonomous-vehicle sensors might be able to inform you of a red light ahead, she says, connected-vehicle technology is capable of telling you that “there’s a light ahead, it’s located here, here’s what the geography of the intersection looks like, and that light will only remain red for the next two seconds. It’s much deeper information.”

The next step for connected-vehicle trials would be to expand testing from 1,000 vehicles to possibly 1 million, says MSU’s Siegel. “We’re not seeing the full benefits of scale in the pilots we’ve had today,” he says. With more cars connected, vehicles could platoon or travel close together on highways while remaining safe, and the timing of traffic lights could be automatically adjusted to account for vehicle load.

Large-scale trials will bring another lesson too, says Siegel: “You’ll learn a lot about the social acceptance of this.”

This article appears in the July 2020 print issue as “U.S. Cities Pilot Connected-Vehicle Tech.”

Dethroned! Renewables Generated More Power than King Coal in April

Post Syndicated from Sandy Ong original

For the first time ever, renewable energy supplied more power to the U.S. electricity grid than coal-fired plants for 47 days straight. The run is impressive because it trounces the previous record of nine continuous days last June and exceeds the total number of days renewables beat coal in all of 2019 (38 days).

In a recent report, the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) details how the streak was first observed on 25 March and continued through to 10 May, the day the data was last analyzed. 

“We’ll probably track it again at the end of May, so the period could actually be longer,” says Dennis Wamsted, an energy analyst at IEEFA. Already, the figures for April speak volumes: wind, hydropower, and utility-scale solar sources produced 58.7 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity compared with coal’s 40.6 TWh—or 22.2% and 15.3% of the market respectively.  

In reality, the gap between the two sources is likely to be much larger, says Wamsted. That’s because the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) database, where IEEFA obtains its data from, excludes power generated by rooftop solar panels, which itself is a huge power source.

The news that renewables overtook coal in the month of April isn’t surprising, says Brian Murray, director of the Duke University Energy Initiative. The first time this happened was last year, also in April. The month marks “shoulder season,” he says, “when heating is coming off but air-conditioning hasn’t really kicked in yet.” It’s when electricity demand is typically the lowest, which is why many power plants schedule their yearly maintenance during this time.

Spring is also when wind and hydropower generation peak, says Murray. Various thermal forces come into play with the Sun’s new positioning, and the melting snowpacks feed rivers and fill up reservoirs. 

“Normally you would expect some sort of rebound of coal generation in the summer, but I think there’s a variety of reasons why that’s not going to happen this year,” he says. “One has to do with coronavirus.”

With the pandemic placing most of the country in lockdown and economic activity declining, the EIA estimates that U.S. demand for electric power will fall by 5% in 2020. This, in turn, will drive coal production down by a quarter. In contrast, renewables are still expected to grow by 11%. The reason behind this is partly due to how energy is dispatched to the grid. Because of cheaper costs, renewables are used first if available, followed by nuclear power, natural gas, and then finally coal.

Coronavirus aside, the transition has been a long time coming. “Renewables have been on an inexorable rise for the last 10 years, increasingly eating coal’s lunch,” says Mike O’Boyle, director of electricity policy at Energy Innovation, a San Francisco-based think tank. The average coal plant in the U.S. is 40 years old, and these aging, inefficient plants are finding it increasingly difficult to compete against ever-cheaper renewable energy sources.

A decade ago, the average coal plant generated as much as 67% of its capacity. Today, that figure has dropped to 48%. And in the next five years, coal production is expected to fall to two-thirds of 2014 levels—a decline of 90 gigawatts (GW)—as increasing numbers of plants shut. 

“And that’s without policy changes that we anticipate will strengthen in the U.S., in which more than a third of people are in a state, city, or utility with a 100% clean energy goal,” says O’Boyle. Already, 30 states have renewable portfolio standards, or policies designed to increase electricity generation from renewable resources.

The transition towards renewables is one that’s being observed all across the world today. Global use of coal-powered electricity fell 3% last year, the biggest drop on record after nearly four decades. In Europe, the figure was 24%. The region has been remarkably progressive in its march towards renewable energy—last month saw both Sweden and Austria closing their last remaining coal plants, while the U.K. went through its longest coal-free stretch (35 days) since the Industrial Revolution more than 230 years ago.

But coal is still king in many parts of the world. For developing countries where electricity can be scarce and unreliable, the fossil fuel is often seen as the best option for power. 

The good news, however, is that the world’s two largest consumers of coal are investing heavily in renewables. Although China is still heavily reliant coal, it also boasts the largest capacity of wind, solar, and hydropower in the world today. India, with it abundant sunshine, is pursuing an aggressive solar plan. It is building the world’s largest solar park, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged that the country will produce 100 GW of solar power—five times what the U.S. generates—by 2022.

Today, renewable energy sources offer the cheapest form of power in two-thirds of the world, and they look set to get cheaper. They now provide up to 30% of global electricity demand, a figure is expected to grow to 50% by 2050. As a recent United Nations report put it: renewables are now “looking all grown up.”

A Bright Spot for Solar Windows Powered By Perovskites

Post Syndicated from Sandy Ong original

To most of us, windows are little more than glass panes that let light in and keep bad weather out. But to some scientists, windows represent possibility—the chance to take passive parts of a building and transform them into active power generators.

Anthony Chesman is one researcher working to develop such solar windows. “There are a lot of windows in the world that aren’t being used for any other purpose than to allow lighting in and for people to see through,” says Chesman, who is from Australia’s national science agency CSIRO. “But really, there’s a huge opportunity there in turning those windows into a space that can also generate electricity,” he says.

A North Dakota Utility Wants to Build the World’s Largest Carbon Capture Facility at a Power Plant

Post Syndicated from Sandy Ong original

The Milton R. Young Station, close to the town of Center in North Dakota, is as unremarkable as coal-fired power plants come. But if its owner Minnkota Power Cooperative has its way, the plant could soon be famous the world over.

The Grand Forks-based electric cooperative has launched Project Tundra, an initiative to build the largest power plant-based carbon capture facility in the world, with construction commencing as early as 2022. If Minnkota Power raises the US $1 billion the project requires, it plans to retrofit the station with technology the cooperative claims will capture more than 90 percent of carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted from the plant’s larger generator, a 455-megawatt unit. The effect will be the equivalent of taking 600,000 gasoline-fueled cars off the road. 

Redox-Flow Cell Stores Renewable Energy as Hydrogen

Post Syndicated from Sandy Ong original

When it comes to renewables, the big question is: How do we store all that energy for use later on? Because such energy is intermittent in nature, storing it when there is a surplus is key to ensuring a continuous supply—for rainy days (literally), at night, or when the wind doesn’t blow.

Using today’s lithium-ion batteries for long-term grid storage isn’t feasible for a number of reasons. For example, they have fixed charge capacities and don’t hold charge well over extended periods of time. 

The solution, some propose, is to store energy chemically—in the form of hydrogen fuel—rather than electrically. This involves using devices called electrolyzers that make use of renewable energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen gas. 

A Lithium-Ion Battery That Works Even When It’s on Fire

Post Syndicated from Sandy Ong original

Back in the early 1990s, when local firefighters received a call from Moli Energy, they knew exactly where to head: the company’s battery warehouse. The Vancouver-based firm was the first to mass produce rechargeable lithium-metal batteries. But the batteries had a nasty habit of exploding, which eventually led to a huge recall that bankrupted the firm.

Thirty years have passed, but today’s lithium-ion batteries are still wont to blow up. One culprit is the liquid electrolyte, a usually flammable organic solvent that facilitates the flow of ions between a battery’s electrodes. Replacing this combustible material with a solid, some argue, could produce safer batteries. 

The reality, however, is never as simple. Solid-state electrolytes, while certainly less flammable than their liquid counterparts, aren’t entirely immune to fires either. But that could now change, thanks to new technology developed by a team led by Yi Cui, a materials scientist at Stanford University. 

The Slog Continues for Lithium-Air Batteries

Post Syndicated from Sandy Ong original

For owners of electric vehicles, range anxiety—the fear of running out of power before the next charging station—is real. Car manufacturers, keen to bring EVs to the mass market, have for years sought alternatives that could store more charge than today’s lithium-ion batteries

One option is lithium-air, and a team of researchers has invented a new type of cathode that they claim can lengthen the life of such batteries. In a study published in Applied Catalysis B: Environmental, the team from South Korea and Thailand describe how they coated nickel cobalt sulfide nanoflakes onto a graphene cathode doped with sulfur. The result: an electrode that boasts both improved electrical conductivity and catalytic activity.

To Make Solid Electrolytes, Start With a Liquid

Post Syndicated from Sandy Ong original

New batteries are often described with comparatives: they’re safer, lighter, or longer-lived than today’s versions. Solid-state batteries—those which contain no liquid—can make two such claims. With inorganic electrolytes, they’re much less likely to catch fire than traditional lithium-ion batteries, which have organic electrolytes. And by swapping out graphite for lithium as the anode, you can get a massive increase (up to 10-fold) in energy density, making solid-state batteries look especially promising for electric vehicles.

“That’s the Holy Grail. Lithium metal has the highest gravimetric density of all materials,” says Adam Best, who’s in charge of battery research at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Australia’s national science agency.

But a major snag remains in bringing solid-state batteries to market—how to manufacture electrolytes that are strong and durable, yet thin enough to be good ion conductors. Ideally, these electrolytes should be tens of microns thick, similar to the separators in today’s lithium-ion batteries, says materials scientist Ping Liu from the University of California, San Diego. “But because most solid electrolytes are ceramic, when you make a thin layer, they’re inherently brittle,” he says.

A Lithium-Ion Battery That You Can Scrunch

Post Syndicated from Sandy Ong original

Bend, roll, twist, scrunch, fold, flex. These are terms we might use to describe a lithe gymnast doing a complex floor routine. But batteries?

Yet these are precisely the words the company Jenax in South Korea wants you to use when talking about its batteries. The Busan-based firm has spent the past few years developing J.Flex, an advanced lithium-ion battery that is ultra-thin, flexible, and rechargeable.

With the arrival of so many wearable gadgets, phones with flexible displays, and other portable gizmos, “we’re now interacting with machines on a different level from what we did before,” says EJ Shin, head of strategic planning at Jenax. “What we’re doing at Jenax is putting batteries into locations where they couldn’t be before,” says Shin. Her firm demonstrated some of those new possibilities last week at CES 2020 in Las Vegas. 

Mix Mountains and Gravity for Long-Term Energy Storage

Post Syndicated from Sandy Ong original

A team of European scientists proposes using mountains to build a new type of battery for long-term energy storage.

The intermittent nature of energy sources such as solar and wind has made it difficult to incorporate them into grids, which require a steady power supply. To provide uninterrupted power, grid operators must store extra energy harnessed when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing, so that power can be distributed when there’s no sun or wind.

“One of the big challenges of making 100 percent renewable energy a reality is long-term storage,” says Julian Hunt, an engineering scientist at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria.

Lithium-ion batteries currently dominate the energy storage market, but these are better suited for short-term storage, says Hunt, because the charge they hold dissipates over time. To store sufficient energy for months or years would require many batteries, which is too expensive to be a feasible option.

Air Taxi Takes to the Sky(scrapers)

Post Syndicated from Sandy Ong original

Beneath a gray, rainy sky, the normally vibrant business district of Singapore looked listless. The glass skyscrapers didn’t glitter and no sunlight dappled across the waves in the bay. But that didn’t matter much because the crowd gathered amid the tall buildings today had come to gawk at something else. 

At the stroke of noon, from a promontory across the bay, a speck of white rose into the air. With a lawnmower-like hum, a flying taxi that looked like the love child of a helicopter and a drone approached, drawing a swell of cheers from the crowd. 

Volocopter’s three-minute test flight was not the first time the German aircraft manufacturer has flown its full-scale prototype publicly. But today’s demonstration was momentous in other ways. It marks the first official test flight in Asia, and the first time the aircraft was put through its paces in an urban environment. That’s big news because big cities are the places where the company hopes its air taxis will ultimately find a niche.

“In the next 10 years, we hope to see Volocopter integrated as an addition to existing mobility methods in mega cities,” says Christian Bauer, who is in charge of the firm’s business development. Volocopter is aiming to be the first company in the world to offer commercial air taxi services to the masses.

Air taxis, part of a category called electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, form a rapidly growing market—one that is expected to reach $1.5 trillion by 2040. More than 215 such aircraft are being developed worldwide, and with varying designs. Volocopter operates on drone technology with 18 motors, while others such as Lilium Jet have fixed wings. But only a handful of Volocopter’s competitors have actually built flying prototypes.

Volocopter, which was founded in 2011 and counts Intel, Daimler AG, and the Geely Holding Group (which owns automaker Volvo) among its investors, has raised close to US $95 million to date. That cash and access to a broad array of expertise have allowed Volocopter to present its third generation of lithium battery–operated, two-seater air taxis. Its next prototype, VoloCity, to be launched by 2022, promises improved specs over the current 2x series. The VoloCity expected to debut with an estimated range of 35 kilometers and a top speed of close to 110 kilometers per hour.

“Volocopter is focused on serving the inner-city mission,” says CEO Florian Reuter. With fares expected to be in the “hundreds rather than thousands of dollars,” Reuter says the airborne taxi service’s expected customers fall into three categories: businessmen looking to get quickly from point A to B, commuters seeking ways to beat rush hour traffic, and tourists.

“I believe eVTOLs will play a significant part in the future of mobility,” says Roei Ganzarski, CEO of magniX, an Australian firm developing motors for electric planes. “I don’t think we will see thousands of these flying around each city as some companies would like the public to believe, but I do think we will see shuttle models, movement between nearby airports, movement of cargo between main depots and last mile distribution [hubs], corporate use between campuses, and more.” 

However, it could take 10 to 15 years for this to become reality, says Ganzarski, because there are “many other things that need to be solved first.” Among the hurdles he cites are battery power, regulatory issues, and the ability of autonomous aircrafts to handle emergencies. Other experts, such as aviation professor Jason Middleton from the University of New South Wales, voice concerns about hardware and software safety, the need to build supporting infrastructure, the challenges of navigating in bad weather, and how to manage air traffic control.

Pilots act as a fail-safe in many respects, says Middleton, who has been flying for nearly 50 years. “In an urban environment with lots of skyscrapers, you’re going to have gusts and you can’t predict where they’re going to be. Weather is unpredictable; it can quickly develop from nothing into a raging thunderstorm,” he says. “Who’s going to predict where [air taxis] can or can’t fly? And what happens when they’re in the air and can’t go to their destination?”

He adds that, “At least if you have a pilot, they’re going to look out the front and see what’s going on and take necessary action.”

One of the answers to those concerns is unmanned aircraft system traffic management platforms, or UTMs for short. Volocopter is looking to use them to govern its air taxis. “You can take most of the airspace management techniques we use in drones and apply it to air taxis,” says Pamir Sevincel, who leads urban air mobility strategy at AirMap, one of the UTM companies Volocopter is working with. Drones, which usually fly below 400 feet, are subject to different air traffic management protocols than those applied to helicopters and other aircraft.

AirMap has developed numerous UTM capabilities, all of which can theoretically be used for eVTOLs as well. These include the digital submission and approval of flight plans, surveilling an aircraft and sending alerts if it veers off track, monitoring traffic and sending real-time updates, as well as providing dynamic rerouting during emergencies. In the future, the California-based company wants to enable pilots or ground-based fleet managers of drones and air taxis to update flight trajectories based on an automated assessment of risk as a function of pedestrian and car densities, as well as other potential safety issues along planned routes. It also plans to equip flying craft with “sequencing, scheduling, and spacing” capabilities, which would allow the safe and efficient scheduling of operations in and out of vertiports and within the urban air mobility network as a whole.

“This capability is really going to enable scale in a safe way…because if you don’t, you won’t be able to integrate many flights into urban airspace” says Sevincel.

Building infrastructure to support air taxis—vertiports with passenger lounges, check-in and security facilities, as well as battery charging and aircraft maintenance stations—is another issue that must be addressed before air taxis can become a commercial reality. To that end, Volocopter has partnered with Skyports, a British infrastructure firm that has just unveiled the first prototype of its VoloPort— the air taxi equivalent of a helipad—in Singapore. 

Volocopter’s Reuter says his firm is also working closely with global aviation authorities to ensure that its next-generation air taxi rises to “the same safety level airliners are built to.” He’s also well aware that gaining public acceptance is key when it comes to autonomous transport, which is why he says Volocopter’s first stage of commercial operations, scheduled within five years, will likely involve piloted flights, with the eventual aim of moving towards full autonomy. 

“We, as a global society, have to feel our way into this technology…and try it out in a safe and secure environment,” says Reuter. 

“Many people picture the skies becoming dark and aircraft whizzing around the city without any control or rules. That’s a very negative and chaotic image,” he says. “But let’s take it step by step and evaluate how it goes.” 

IP3: An Amazon for Patents

Post Syndicated from Sandy Ong original

The online marketplace platform, which facilitates the buying and selling of patents, opens on 15 July

Buying and selling patents can sometimes resemble online dating—from the multitude of options, you seek out the one that seems the best fit and hope it all works out. And while optimistic singles might turn to matchmakers for advice, those in the patent world can seek out the wisdom of IP3.

The Industry Patent Purchase Program, as IP3 is officially called, is an online platform that connects patent sellers with large tech companies such as Ford, Google, Philips, Spotify, and Verizon. Run annually, the program’s latest iteration kicks off on 15 July.

“IP3 is a collaborative patent buying program with a fixed duration and fixed price,” says Russell Binns Jr., CEO of Allied Security Trust (AST), the company that launched the platform three years ago. Based in New Jersey, AST helps companies analyze the risks involved in patent purchases and carry out acquisitions.

Google approached AST with the idea for IP3 in 2015, after the tech giant ran its own patent purchasing program and realized that it would work “a lot better [if coordinated] among a number of companies” and that AST was suited to the task as it was “already set up as an entity that could facilitate doing this type of collaboration among a large number of companies,” says Binns Jr.