Fuel From Leaves
Researchers at MIT have produced something they’re calling an “artificial leaf”: Like living leaves, the device can turn the energy of sunlight directly into a chemical fuel that can be stored and used later as an energy source. The artificial leaf comprises a silicon solar cell with different catalytic materials bonded onto its two sides, and needs no external wires or control circuits to operate. When placed in a container of water and exposed to sunlight, it quickly begins to generate streams of bubbles: oxygen bubbles from one side and hydrogen bubbles from the other. If placed in a container that has a barrier to separate the two sides, the two streams of bubbles can be collected and stored, and used later to deliver power: for example, by feeding them into a fuel cell that combines them once again into water while delivering an electric current. The researchers have high hopes for the leaf-fuel to be stored in a cell and used whenever electricity is needed.
It’s a common sci-fi trope: building a computer system to mimic a human’s aptitude for learning new tasks. Now, MIT researchers have now taken a step toward that goal by designing a computer chip that mimics how the brain’s neurons adapt in response to new information – something known as plasticity. With about 400 transistors, the silicon chip can simulate the activity of a single brain synapse. The chips could also become building blocks for artificial intelligence devices, the researchers say.
In December researchers have shown how arrays of tiny plasmonic nanoantennas are able to precisely manipulate light in new ways that could make possible a range of optical innovations such as more powerful microscopes, telecommunications and computers. The researchers at Purdue University used the nanoantennas to abruptly change a property of light called its phase. Light is transmitted as waves analogous to waves of water, which have high and low points. The phase defines these high and low points of light. They say that the antennas could be used to create better telecommunications systems and lightning-fast transmission of data.
As smartphones and other portable gadgets push the limits of handheld computing, their hunger for electricity has only increased—with no end in sight. A new technology aims to address this issue, not by seeking bigger and better batteries but by looking instead to the shoes on our feet. When we walk, our bodies create up to 40 watts of mechanical power as heat when our feet strike the ground. A special electricity-generating cushion placed inside the soles of a regular pair of shoes can transform some of that footfall power into several watts of electricity.
Over the course of a single day, the generated energy, which gets stored in a small battery in the sole, provides enough electricity for a pedestrian to extend her smartphone’s battery life, or for a soldier to augment his portable power needs in the field. A new startup called InStep is developing a shoe sole that would store the energy from each footfall in an embedded battery. InStep says it would provide up to 10 W from each foot—enough to power a mini Wi-Fi hot spot that communicates with your smartphone via Bluetooth and handles the phone’s biggest battery-draining function: long-range communication with cellphone towers.
The Kilobots are coming. Researchers at Harvard University have developed and licensed technology that will make it easy to test collective algorithms on hundreds, or even thousands, of tiny robots. Dubbed Kilobots, the quarter-sized bug-like devices scuttle around on three toothpick-like legs, interacting and coordinating their own behavior as a team. A June 2011 Harvard Technical Report demonstrated a collective of 25 machines implementing swarming behaviors such as foraging, formation control, and synchronization. Does the idea of a thousand tiny ‘bots running around give you the willies? Fear not. The researchers say robot swarms might one day tunnel through rubble to find survivors, monitor the environment and remove contaminants, and self-assemble to form support structures in collapsed buildings. They could also be deployed to autonomously perform construction in dangerous environments, to assist with pollination of crops, or to conduct search and rescue operations. For now, the Kilobots are designed to provide scientists with a physical test-bed for advancing the understanding of collective behavior and realizing its potential to deliver solutions for a wide range of challenges.
Skin so soft takes on a whole new meaning! Researchers have created electronic skin so supple that it can be stretched out to more than twice its normal length in any direction, yet always snaps back completely wrinkle-free. That enviable elasticity is one of several new features built into a new transparent skin-like pressure sensor that is the latest sensor developed chemical engineers at Stanford, in a quest to create an artificial "super skin." The sensor uses a transparent film of single-walled carbon nanotubes that act as tiny springs, enabling the sensor to accurately measure the force on it, whether it's being pulled like taffy or squeezed like a sponge. The sensors could be used in making touch screens for computers or sensitive prosthetic limbs or robots.
Computer, heal thyself! When one tiny circuit within an integrated chip cracks or fails, the whole chip -- or even the whole device -- is a loss. But what if it could fix itself, and fix itself so fast that the user never knew there was a problem? A team of University of Illinois engineers has developed a self-healing system that restores electrical conductivity to a cracked circuit in less time than it takes to blink. They developed a system of capsules inserted along the circuit, each one filled with liquid metal that — when the circuit is broken — are released to restore connectivity and complete the circuit again. In tests, the new system can repair circuits in a fraction of a second, with the majority returning to 99% capacity. The system is autonomous, meaning that it can be used to repair circuits even when mechanics don’t know where the broken circuit actually is, or are unable to get to it easily.
Touching screens with different parts of the finger
In the future, you may be doing less pinching and pulling on your touchscreens and more tapping and knuckle-boxing. At least, that’s what researchers at Carnegie Mellon had in mind when they found that touchscreen interactions can be enhanced by taking greater advantage of the finger's anatomy and dexterity. By attaching a microphone to a touchscreen, the researchers showed they can tell the difference between the tap of a fingertip, the pad of the finger, a fingernail and a knuckle. This technology, called TapSense, enables richer touchscreen interactions. While typing on a virtual keyboard, for instance, users might capitalize letters simply by tapping with a fingernail instead of a finger tip, or might switch to numerals by using the pad of a finger, rather toggling to a different set of keys. Another possible use would be a painting app that uses a variety of tapping modes and finger motions to control a pallet of colors, or switch between drawing and erasing without having to press buttons.
Lightning Data Transfer
Researchers have set a new world record for data transfer, helping to usher in the next generation of high-speed network technology. At the SuperComputing 2011 conference in Seattle during mid-November, an international team transferred data in opposite directions at a combined rate of 186 gigabits per second in a wide-area network circuit. The rate is equivalent to moving two million gigabytes per day, fast enough to transfer nearly 100,000 full Blu-ray disks—each with a complete movie and all the extras—in a day. The team of high-energy physicists, computer scientists, and network engineers says that the super-fast long-range networks will support better big-data science in addition to helping usher in a new era of super-fast data transmission for consumers.
In the future when you upgrade your computer, you may also be upgrading your wardrobe as researchers create novel new textiles that pull double-duty as fabrics and electronics. The integration of electronics into textiles is a burgeoning field of research that may soon enable smart fabrics and wearable electronics. Bringing this technology one step closer to fruition, NASA researchers developed a new flexible memory fabric woven together from interlocking strands of copper and copper-oxide wires. At each juncture, or stitch along the fabric, a nanoscale dab of platinum is placed between the fibers. This "sandwich structure" at each crossing forms a resistive memory circuit. Resistive memory has received much attention due to the simplicity of its design, and such an e-textile could potentially detect biomarkers for various diseases, monitor vital signs of the elderly or individuals in hostile environments, and then transmit that information to doctors.
Make Music with Blocks
Researchers at the University of Southampton have developed a new way to generate music and control computers. Audio d-touch, which is based on research into tangible user interfaces, gives physical control in the immaterial world of computers. It uses a standard computer and a web cam. Through using simple computer vision techniques, physical blocks are tracked on a printed board. The position of the blocks then determines how the computer samples and reproduces sound. All you’d need to participate is a regular computer equipped with a web-cam and a printer. Each user creates physical interactive objects and attaches printed visual markers recognized by Audio d-touch. The software platform is open and can be extended for applications beyond music synthesis.
I know, I know. You’ve heard this one before: better lithium-ion batteries are on the way. But this time, it’s really coming. By swapping graphite for silicon as an electrode material, two university-researched startups have made lithium-ion batteries that can hold twice as much energy as they do today, which would allow cellphones to run twice as long between charges. Both startups say their silicon electrode technology will be on the market in the next two years. In one test, the researchers demonstrated a battery that can complete 250 charge-discharge cycles before its charge capacity drops below 80 percent. The company is now close to meeting the performance goal of the 500 cycles needed for a consumer electronics battery. For electric vehicles, the battery would need to go through at least 3000 cycles. The key is developing nanostructured silicon that can swell and shrink without suffering as much mechanical stress as typical forms of silicon.
Software to Recognize If You’re Happy
Pretty soon, you may not need to scream at your iPhone when you’re mad at your bout of Angry Birds – the system may just know how you’re feeling. Researchers in Madrid created a system that can automatically adapt the dialogue to the user's situation, so that the machine's response is adequate to the person's emotional state. To detect the user's emotional state, the scientists focused on negative emotions that can make talking with an automatic system frustrating – especially emotions like anger, boredom and doubt. To automatically detect these feelings, they engineered a system that could parse sixty different parameters, including information about the tone of voice, the speed of speech, the duration of pauses, the energy of the voice signal and so on. They say their program can help people work more easily with computers, when the machines can sense that their human partners are feeling frustrated.
Paint-On Solar Cells
Imagine if the next coat of paint you put on the outside of your home generates electricity from light -- electricity that can be used to power the appliances and equipment on the inside. A team of researchers at the University of Notre Dame has made a major advance toward this vision by creating an inexpensive "solar paint" that uses semiconducting nanoparticles to produce energy. The team's search for the new material centered on nano-sized particles of titanium dioxide, which were coated with either cadmium sulfide or cadmium selenide. The particles were then suspended in a water-alcohol mixture to create a paste. When the paste was brushed onto a transparent conducting material and exposed to light, it created electricity. The team says they are approaching 1 percent effieciency with the paint so far -- well behind the usual 10 to 15 percent efficiency of commercial silicon solar cells. However, the paint is cheap and easy, so if further innovations crank up the efficiency it could make a real difference.
Magnet-based computing technology has long fascinated researchers, and this year the spintronic future got a boost when a team of Japanese researchers showed it was possible to turn a material's magnetism on and off at room temperature. A material's magnetism is determined by a property all electrons possess: something called "spin." Electrons can have an "up" or "down" spin, and a material is magnetic when most of its electrons possess the same spin. Individual spins are akin to tiny bar magnets, which have north and south poles. The research team added cobalt to titanium dioxide, a nonmagnetic semiconductor, to create a new material that, like a chameleon, can transform from a paramagnet (a nonmagnetic material) to a ferromagnet (a magnetic material) at room temperature. Modern, electronic gadgets record and read data as a blueprint of ones and zeros that are represented, in circuits, by the presence or absence of electrons. Processing information requires moving electrons, which consumes energy and produces heat. Spintronic gadgets, in contrast, store and process data by exploiting electrons' "up" and "down" spins, which can stand for the ones and zeros devices read. Future energy-saving improvements in data processing could include devices that process information by "flipping" spin instead of shuttling electrons around.