Graphene has put its foot in the door towards real-world electronics

Original news release was issued by the Iowa State University.
Graphene is essentially a wonderkid material, as we have reported time and time again. It’s great at conducting heat and electricity, and it’s extremely strong and stable, on top of being only an atom thick. These amazing properties would single-handedly transform the world of consumer electronics, not to mention industrial applications. But researchers have struggled to move beyond tiny lab samples for studying its material properties to larger pieces for real-world applications.
Recent projects that used inkjet printers to print multi-layer graphene circuits and electrodes had the engineers thinking about using it for flexible, wearable and low-cost electronics. For example, “Could we make graphene at scales large enough for glucose sensors?” asked Suprem Das, an Iowa State postdoctoral research associate in mechanical engineering and an associate of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory.

“The breakthrough of this project is transforming the inkjet-printed graphene into a conductive material capable of being used in new applications,” Claussen said.

But there were problems with the existing technology. Once printed, the graphene had to be treated to improve electrical conductivity and device performance. That usually meant high temperatures or chemicals — both could degrade flexible or disposable printing surfaces such as plastic films or even paper.
Das and Claussen came up with the idea of using lasers to treat the graphene. Claussen, an Iowa State assistant professor of mechanical engineering and an Ames Laboratory associate, worked with Gary Cheng, an associate professor at Purdue University’s School of Industrial Engineering, to develop and test the idea.

Suprem Das holds graphene electronics printed on a sheet of paper. Das and Jonathan Claussen, right, are using lasers to treat the printed graphene electronics. The process improves conductivity and enables flexible, wearable and low-cost electronics. (Photo by Christopher Gannon)
Suprem Das holds graphene electronics printed on a sheet of paper. Das and Jonathan Claussen, right, are using lasers to treat the printed graphene electronics. The process improves conductivity and enables flexible, wearable and low-cost electronics. (Photo by Christopher Gannon)

And it worked: They found treating inkjet-printed, multi-layer graphene electric circuits and electrodes with a pulsed-laser process improves electrical conductivity without damaging paper, polymers or other fragile printing surfaces.
“This creates a way to commercialize and scale-up the manufacturing of graphene,” Claussen said.
Its applications could include sensors with biological applications, energy storage systems, electrical conducting components and even paper-based electronics.
To make all that possible, the engineers developed computer-controlled laser technology that selectively irradiates inkjet-printed graphene oxide. The treatment removes ink binders and reduces graphene oxide to graphene — physically stitching together millions of tiny graphene flakes. The process makes electrical conductivity more than a thousand times better.
That localized, laser processing also changes the shape and structure of the printed graphene from a flat surface to one with raised, 3-D nanostructures. The engineers say the 3-D structures are like tiny petals rising from the surface. The rough and ridged structure increases the electrochemical reactivity of the graphene, making it useful for chemical and biological sensors.
All of that, according to Claussen’s team of nanoengineers, could move graphene to commercial applications.
“This work paves the way for not only paper-based electronics with graphene circuits,” the researchers wrote in their paper, “it enables the creation of low-cost and disposable graphene-based electrochemical electrodes for myriad applications including sensors, biosensors, fuel cells and (medical) devices.”

Inside Hyperloop News

Hyperloop claims levitation is the answer to India's transport woes

Looking past the hopeful developments in Dubai, HTT has chosen their next target: India. What better place to look for increased participation and commitment of the Hyperloop than in one of the world’s fastest developing powerhouses. I mean, the country’s population accounts for almost 18 percent of the world… If that doesn’t ring any bells of opportunity than I am not sure what will.

Mumbai traffic (Image Source: Brett Cole)

There are a few fundamental reasons as to why India appears to be a desirable destination to invest in regards to the future of transport. Firstly, and most importantly, the demand for change most definitely exists, pointed out by The Hindu Business Line earlier this week: 

“Indian Railways, the largest network in Asia is a multi-gauge and multi-traction system with around 66,000 route kilometres. But it is severely capacity-constrained to meet burgeoning demand. While it operates around 12,000 trains carrying 2.3 crore passengers a day, the trains are snail-paced by global standards.”

Whilst the country houses a massive amount of people, there are currently no efficient solutions to the issue of transportation. This goes beyond the mere number of passengers the Indian trains must provide rides for. Think about the density of and the chaos occurring in this situation where Indian roads and railways must co-exist. As talks are on to set up the Hyperloop in India, HTT offers “its promise of limited land acquisition, hyper speed travel, and relatively cheaper fares,” according to their released clip this month seen below.

Another challenge the republic of India faces in regards to transportation is the control and sustainability of energy resources. According to a study released by PwC, India is one of the world leaders in terms of average annual growth rate of emissions. Seeing the increase of their population (and subsequently the demand for vehicles and other modes of transport), India seeks help to find a healthy balance between the supply and demand with their current state of infrastructural inadequacies. 

“While the fuel efficiency of transport vehicles is improving,” the PwC article explains, “the gains are more than offset by increases in vehicle numbers and utilization.”

By the use of linear induction motors and air compressors to propel capsules, Hyperloop may provide a means to India’s optimistic targets for the share of energy from renewable source in consumption. Further, the Hyperloop would be a major decongestant in India’s traffic issue. Let us see how this collaboration plays out…


Human activity is actually not all bad for our planet, new research shows

Original news release was issued by the University of Waterloo.

We are so used to hearing about climate change and the negative impact that human activity has on the environment of our planet, that we rarely even think about what we could do to not only stop hurting it, but to actively start helping.

It is by all accounts accidental, but it does not make it any less true that as new research shows, 13,000 years of repeated occupation by British Columbia’s coastal First Nations has had a positive effect on the area, enhancing temperate rainforest productivity.
Andrew Trant, a professor in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Waterloo, led the study in partnership with the University of Victoria and the Hakai Institute. The research combined remote-sensed, ecological and archaeological data from coastal sites where First Nations’ have lived for millennia. It shows trees growing at former habitation sites are taller, wider and healthier than those in the surrounding forest. This finding is, in large part, due to shell middens and fire.

“These forests are thriving from the relationship with coastal First Nations. For more than 13,000 years —500 generations — people have been transforming this landscape. So this area that at first glance seems pristine and wild is actually highly modified and enhanced as a result of human behaviour.”

“It’s incredible that in a time when so much research is showing us the negative legacies people leave behind, here is the opposite story,” said Trant, a professor in Waterloo’s School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability.
Fishing of intertidal shellfish intensified in the area over the past 6,000 years, resulting in the accumulation of deep shell middens, in some cases more than five metres deep and covering thousands of square metres of forest area. The long-term practice of harvesting shellfish and depositing remnants inland has contributed significant marine-derived nutrients to the soil as shells break down slowly, releasing calcium over time.
The work found that this disposal and stockpiling of shells, as well as the people’s use of fire, altered the forest through increased soil pH and important nutrients, and also improved soil drainage.
This research is the first to find long-term use of intertidal resources enhancing forest productivity. Trant says it is likely similar findings will occur at archaeological sites along many global coastlines.
“These results alter the way we think about time and environmental impact,” he said. “Future research will involve studying more of these human-modified landscapes to understand the extent of these unexpected changes.”


Did a self-learning AI just turn the Turing test on its head?

Original news release was issued by The University of Sheffield.

A fair warning is due, the latest development in Artificial Intelligence research is a tad eerie. Computer AI is now capable of learning by simple observation, no specification of “what to observe” necessary. We are officially a step closer to a successful Turing test.

Turing test is a popular experiment developed by Alan Turing in 1950, that should determine whether a computer has achieved intelligence that is indistinguishable from human. In a Turing test, an interrogator is in a conversation with two subjects – one of them is a person, and the other a computer. If the interrogator consistently fails to correctly determine which of the two is a computer after the conversation, the computer has passed the test, and is considered to have human-level intelligence.
Researchers at the University of Sheffield have turned the Turing test into an inspiration for AI development, making it possible for machines to learn how natural or artificial systems work by simply observing them, without being told what to look for. This could mean advances in the world of technology with machines able to predict, among other things, human behavior.
Dr Roderich Gross from the Department of Automatic Control and Systems Engineering at the University of Sheffield explained the advantage of the approach, called ‘Turing Learning’, is that humans no longer need to tell machines what to look for:

“Our study uses the Turing test to reveal how a given system – not necessarily a human – works. In our case, we put a swarm of robots under surveillance and wanted to find out which rules caused their movements. To do so, we put a second swarm – made of learning robots – under surveillance too. The movements of all the robots were recorded, and the motion data shown to interrogators.”

He added: “Unlike in the original Turing test, however, our interrogators are not human but rather computer programs that learn by themselves. Their task is to distinguish between robots from either swarm. They are rewarded for correctly categorising the motion data from the original swarm as genuine, and those from the other swarm as counterfeit. The learning robots that succeed in fooling an interrogator – making it believe their motion data were genuine – receive a reward.”
“Imagine you want a robot to paint like Picasso. Conventional machine learning algorithms would rate the robot’s paintings for how closely they resembled a Picasso. But someone would have to tell the algorithms what is considered similar to a Picasso to begin with. Turing Learning does not require such prior knowledge. It would simply reward the robot if it painted something that was considered genuine by the interrogators. Turing Learning would simultaneously learn how to interrogate and how to paint.”
“Scientists could use it to discover the rules governing natural or artificial systems, especially where behaviour cannot be easily characterised using similarity metrics,” he said.
“Computer games, for example, could gain in realism as virtual players could observe and assume characteristic traits of their human counterparts. They would not simply copy the observed behaviour, but rather reveal what makes human players distinctive from the rest.”
The discovery could also be used to create algorithms that detect abnormalities in behaviour. This could prove useful for the health monitoring of livestock and for the preventive maintenance of machines, cars and airplanes.
Turing Learning could also be used in security applications, such as for lie detection or online identity verification.


Doubling the amount of cars in shipping containers

Original news release was issued by the University of Warwick.
When it comes to automobile shipping, there are generally two main options. The vehicle can be shipped in a container or via Roll On Roll Off (RORO). The latter is a very popular, cost-effective type of transport where the cargo is simply “rolled on” the vessel at the port of loading and “rolled off” the vessel at the overseas destination. However, it falls behind container shipping in terms of geographical coverage. Recently, WMG at the University of Warwick developed innovative solutions for Warwickshire-based manufacturer Trans-Rak International (TRI) which could lead to a safer and more efficient car shipping than ever before.
A new software — operating a car racking system produced by TRI — automates the task of finding the optimal placement of cars in a shipping container. Intelligence of the software allows for any combination of make or model. Currently, an average of two cars can be stored in each container. That capacity could be doubled to four cars using this revolutionary system.

Since the system is automatic, it eliminates the need for manual processing which is both slower and not as safe. Users simply select the type and number of cars, they wish to transport. A numerical process simulates hundreds of thousands of different loading scenarios, and generates a report of the most efficient combination of cars in each container, as well as their exact positioning.
The racking hardware comprises of removable, metal components that come together to form a variable-dimension frame, with which cars can be lifted up inside a container, allowing other cars to be positioned efficiently underneath the lifted cars.

“The solution developed for TRI has totally transformed the manual-based processes previously used for establishing the optimal placement of a set of cars. The new software-inspired system allows specific vehicles to be selected from a comprehensive list, meaning a quicker view can be gained in relation to vehicle configuration. This has helped save considerable time, resource and money.” said Piero Filippin, an innovation manager at WMG and a developer of the software.

This neat system appears to be a very valuable addition to all those involved in vehicle transportation. Since the software assumes the role of a cargo manipulator, the process of transporting vehicles will become more secure and less time-consuming. That being said, the combined technologies could offer massive savings in cost for the global automotive industry.


Potential Earth-like exoplanet turns out to be right at our figurative doorstep

Original news release was issued by the Scientific American, written by Lee Billings.
Ever since humanity journeyed for the first time into outer space, we’ve been fascinated to push the boundaries of interstellar travel. For decades, astronomers have been searching for a planet that would offer us habitable conditions or even indicate signs of life already existing there. So far either the nature of the planet and its surroundings or the remoteness makes any detailed research rather challenging. News reports that we found a similar planet to Earth are not uncommon. Only this time, Guillem Anglada-Escudé, an astronomer at Queen Mary University of London and his colleagues report signs of a potentially habitable exoplanet, that could be well within the reach of observing probes — given a certain plan by Breakthrough Starshot is carried out — in just 20 years after the launch.
Dubbed Proxima b, the planet orbits the closest neighboring star to our sun: Proxima Centauri — a dim red orb in the Alpha Centauri system about 4.2 light-years away. Despite very close proximity to its star — only 5 percent of the distance from Earth to the sun — its temperature is just right for liquid water to flow on its surface, so that makes it the closest known exoplanet where life might exist.

Its “sun”, Proxima Centauri, is a runt of a star. Temperatures at the surface run about 2,800 degrees Celsius cooler than our sun, giving the planet a feeble, ruddy glow. However, there is much uncertainty about the mass and atmosphere of Proxima b. The researchers only confirm that the planet is no lighter than 1.3 Earths. Their best bet to characterize its atmosphere relies on the planet to pass in front of Proxima Centauri, allowing starlight to filter through the planet’s atmosphere. If this occurs, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescopescheduled to launch in late 2018, should be able to further decipher it’s nature.

“A spacecraft equipped with a camera and various filters could take color images of the planet and infer whether it is green (harboring life as we know it), blue (with water oceans on its surface) or just brown (dry rock).” says Avi Loeb, Harvard University astrophysicist and chairman of Breakthrough’s advisory committee.

An eager and undoubtedly the fastest way to observe the exoplanet would be via sending probes. And Yuri Milner, a Russian entrepreneur funding the Breakthrough Starshot, wants to do just that. He announced to put $100 million toward developing technology that would send a fleet of nanocraft — robotic probes weighing just a few grams — toward Alpha Centauri, nudging them along with an Earth-based 100 gigawatt laser. Accelerating to roughly 20 percent the speed of light, the armada would arrive at Alpha Centauri about 20 years after launch. In comparison, the fastest spacecraft ever to leave Earth — the New Horizons mission to Pluto — would need roughly 90,000 years to complete the journey.
Proxima Centauri is also known for exuberant flames, which would buffet any orbiting planets with bursts of ultraviolet radiation and X-rays. Should Proxima b have any living organisms on its surface, the life might show in unusual ways. Scientists propose looking for biofluorescence, a glow from organisms triggered by ultraviolet light. Critters on Proxima b could have evolved biofluorescence as protection, transforming it into more palatable visible light — a flicker that might be detectable from an Earth-based telescope. Given the hypotheses, it is also speculated that life might have taken shelter underground or underwater.

Source: ESO/M. Kornmesser/G. Coleman

At any rate, the discovery of the planet “could really usher new energy into the search for other nearby worlds,” says Margaret Turnbull, an astronomer with the SETI Institute and based in Madison, Wis. Most exoplanets are hundreds to thousands of light-years away. But little is known about the possible planet families huddled up to the stars nearest to us. “I’d love to see interstellar travel,” says Turnbull. “To really inspire that kind of effort, we need interesting destinations like this.”


Issue #9 of EAI Endorsed Transactions on Ambient Systems is out!

The EAI Endorsed Transactions on Ambient Systems provide a common forum to publish high quality papers, and to offer readers a single source to get inspiring ideas and important findings in this area. It is our pleasure to present the ninth issue of dedicated transactions on Ambient Systems.
The design of Ambient Systems is a cross disciplinary endeavour aimed at supporting and augmenting people’s activities in everyday life, by embedding computational intelligence in the distributed network of devices available in their living environment. While technology needs to become more and more invisible to provide smart support, novel forms of user experience and multimodal interaction need to be devised to enable fluid, intuitive and appealing transitions between the physical and digital world. This journal seeks contributions from leading experts and visionary thinkers in industry and research, about the principles, interaction paradigms, methods and applications that best can drive the future design of Ambient Systems and their human-centred, situated interfaces.
The ninth issue of the journal is now available from EUDL, spanning topics such as flipped classroom experience, learning technology, textbook and cross-institutional learning analytics, computational thinking, and more.
If your research meets the topics of the journal, do not hesitate to submit it.


Squeezing more mileage out of electric cars with refillable batteries

Original news release was issued by the Ohio State University.
Maximum distance travelled on a single charge continues to be one of the biggest drawbacks if one should choose to get an electric vehicle (EV), compared to their gas-powered counterparts. Although electric cars were proven ready to satisfy our commuting needs (as we have reported before), they still remain somewhat a long stretch before most of the motorists warm up to them. Recently, engineers from Ohio State University tipped the scales some more in favor of EVs by developing a thin plastic membrane that stops rechargeable batteries from discharging when not in use and allows for rapid recharging.
This invention — called “ionic redox transistor” — is meant as a crucial component upon which the researchers hope to develop a new kind of batteries. Energy of these batteries would be stored in a liquid electrolyte — which people could recharge or empty out and refill as they would refill a gas tank. Should the development be successful, it could boost the performance limit of the eco-cars up to tens of miles per minute of charge. The current best limit appears to be 0.4 miles — less less than half a mile of driving — per minute of charging. To put it in perspective, the maximum distance range of today’s very best EVs is around 200 miles after an 8-hour charge. In comparison, the gas-powered cars can cover the same stretch after only one minute spent at the petrol station.

“For everyday commuting, the electrolyte can be simply regenerated by plugging it into a power outlet overnight or while parked at the garage. For long road trips, you could empty out the used electrolyte and refill the battery to get the kind of long driving range we are accustomed to with internal combustion engines,” said Vishnu-Baba Sundaresan, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Ohio State and leader of the study.

Batteries — such as lithium-ion batteries — with membrane separators that conduct charge are nothing new. However, the problem with today’s batteries lies in self-discharge. The phenomenon also known as thermal runaway converts battery’s internal energy into heat. In worst case scenario it causes batteries to even overheat and catch fire.
Researchers demonstrated that their membrane can shut down charge transport and prevent thermal runaway at its onset. The design for the membrane was inspired by cell membranes found in human body, which open and close to let cells perform biological functions. Openings in the cell wall respond to the electrical charge of molecules to expand or contract, and it’s this principle that was applied to the smart membrane. In laboratory tests, the engineers found they could control the density of openings in the membrane. As a result, the batteries fully functioned, but reduced charge loss to zero when the batteries were not in use.
Even though the membrane does work with conventional batteries and might be the only way to push the performance limit at the moment, the team primarily focuses to use it as a basis for a new type of fast-charging batteries. The concept of plugging in a vehicle for long hours just to drive for a few hundred miles might not be generally viewed as appealing. But the development of batteries could prove to be a significant addition to the overnight charging once the drivers find themselves in an urgent need to refill the “juice” on the road.

Inside Hyperloop News

Captain America's material is being used to realize Hyperloop

Don’t brush off Hyperloop Transport Technologies just yet. You may have missed a bit of the current event updates coming from the corporation named HTT, which took on the challenge to actualize the Hyperloop concept quite some time ago. This may be due to the increased spotlight coverage of Hyperloop One in recent news because of their large-scale test runs and scandal stories.  Regardless, I am here to keep you in the loop.

Source: The Verge

Earlier in May of this year, HTT proposed a solution to the transport system based on a passive magnetic levitation system. At the heart of this proposal is a smart material, which you may have read about before in Marvel comic books, known as Vibranium. What is this material exactly? Dirk Ahlborn provides us with some insight:

“Vibranium is a composite material that has some sensor technology as part of it,” he said in an interview earlier this year. “Some news outlets think that sensors are just put in there, but in fact they’re part of the composite. The material is actually smart; it can sense structure integrity, temperature, pressure, etc.”

Apart from its extraterrestrial feature in American comic books, apparently Vibranium may have a genuine application to the development of the Hyperloop. The character of this smart material offers a means for HTT to obtain sensor readings within the Hyperloop capsule in real-time. Furthermore, according to HTT’s video below, Vibranium functions with 10 times the strength of steel and is over 2 times more rigid than aluminum. That being said, it provides a leg up for HTT in terms of safety, which may the greatest obstacle for this whole idea moving forward.

So now that they have the material all set, and experiments are on the way, what is the next threat to entry? No, the answer is not truly money. The answer to this question for Hyperloop would most likely be local and national authorities, and more specifically the regulations set in place.

Screen Shot 2016-08-24 at 3.37.38 PM
Source: Google Images

“There is a team in Slovakia’s government that really wants to help and change the country, and one of the biggest issues that we have is with regulations,” Ahlborn said in an interview. “So having a government that wants to make these things happen is very important. It’s not about funding, funding is the easy part, it’s really about having governmental support.”

Like Hyperloop One, HTT depends on the successful collaboration not only between researchers and innovators world-wide but also between the industrial and administrative worlds. And this is the exact reason why Slovakia seems like such a lucrative destination for HTT to plan their first transportation routes, as evident through their ongoing negotiations to connect Bratislava and Vienna.   
You may be surprised to hear that Slovakia is currently the largest producer of cars per capita in the world. Big name automotive companies such as Volkswagen (maybe not so much recently…), Audi, and Range Rover all have facilities located within Slovakia. It is noteworthy to consider the development and progressiveness of the country as it is now in comparison to how it was over twenty years ago. And it will be important to note how the collaboration between the nation and the Hyperloop concept will cooperate and progress in the coming months.  


Sponge coated in bubble wrap boils water by focusing sun’s heat

Original press release was issued by MIT, written by Jennifer Chu
Usually when we order some fragile items, they come in a somewhat amusing packaging that might employ some in popping craziness. The talk is about the bubble wrap. But some people take it further than others and decide to incorporate it into science. Engineers from MIT probably thought along those lines and came up with a pretty handy bubble-wrapped, sponge-like device that soaks up natural sunlight and heats water to boiling temperatures, generating steam through its pores.

“I kept asking myself, ‘Can we basically boil water on a rooftop, in normal conditions, without optically concentrating the sunlight? That was the basic premise.” says Gang Chen, the Carl Richard Soderberg Professor in Power Engineering and the head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering and one of the leaders of the research.

Building on their solar-absorbing structure they developed in 2014this design named “solar vapor generator” is cost-effective as it requires no expensive mirrors or lenses to concentrate the sunlight, but instead relies on a combination of relatively low-tech materials to capture ambient sunlight and concentrate it as heat. The heat is then directed toward the pores of the sponge, which draw water up and release it as steam.
According to Tao Deng, professor of material sciences and engineering at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, this new device offers a totally new approach for solar steam generation. Its key advantage is that it eliminates the need of the expensive optical concentrator, which significantly determines the cost of solar steam generator system. Consisting of only a sponge, bubble wrap to suppress the heat loss and a thin sheet of copper, the whole design may offer inexpensive alternatives for various applications. The group believes it could be used to desalinate small bodies of water, as a residential water heating, medical tool sterilization or to treat wastewater.
In one of their experiments, the researchers managed to use the sponge-like device to heat water to its boiling temperature of 100 degrees Celsius, even on relatively cool, overcast days. The sponge also converted 20 percent of the incoming sunlight to steam.

“The cost is pretty competitive [compared to the other solar-based technologies that rely on optical concentration],” says George Ni, an MIT graduate student, one of the lead authors of the research. “It’s kind of a different approach, where before, people were doing high-tech and long-term [solar absorbers]. We’re doing low-tech and short-term.”

“Clever use of both the bubble wrap and commercially available selective absorber not only improve the solar harvesting efficiency but also lower the system cost.“ says Tao Deng. Ni further adds that the currently used solar-based technologies are designed to last 10 to 20 years and require expensive parts and maintenance. This low-cost design could operate for one to two years before needing to be replaced.