April 30, 2013
Bet you didn’t know that Texas has more solar energy workers than ranchers and California has more of them than actors, and that more people now work in the solar industry in the U.S. than in coal mines.
Or that in March, for the first time ever, 100 percent of the energy added to the U.S. power grid was solar.
Okay, so now you know all that, but I’m guessing you’re no more aquiver over solar energy than you were five minutes ago. That’s the way it is in America these days. Most people think solar is a good thing, but how jazzed can you get about putting panels on a roof.
Bertrand Piccard understands this. Which is why later this week, weather permitting, he will take off from Moffett Field near San Francisco and begin a flight across the U.S. in a plane entirely dependent on the sun. Called Solar Impulse, it will move at a snail’s pace compared to commercial jets–top speed will be under 50 miles per hour–and will stop in several cities before it ends its journey in New York in late June or early July.
But the point isn’t to to mimic a plane in a hurry, crossing the country on thousands of gallons of jet fuel. The point is to show what’s possible without it.
To do this, Piccard and his partner, André Borschberg, have created one of the strangest flying machines ever–a plane with the wingspan of a jumbo jet, but one that weighs about a ton less than an SUV. Its power is generated by nearly 12,000 silicon solar cells over the main wing and the horizontal stabilizer that charge lithium-polymer battery packs contained in the four gondolas under the wing. The batteries in total weigh almost 900 pounds–that’s about one quarter of the plane’s weight–and they’re capable of storing enough energy to allow the plane to fly at night.
Piloting the Solar Impulse is neither comfortable nor without a good deal of risk. Only one pilot can be in the cockpit–a second adds too much weight–and the engines are vulnerable to wind, rain, fog and heavy clouds. But Piccard is, by blood, an inveterate risk-taker. In 1999, he co-piloted the first gas-powered balloon to travel non-stop around the world. In 1960, his father, Jacques, was one of the two men aboard the bathysphere lowered into the Marianas Trench, the deepest part of the world’s oceans. In 1931, his grandfather, Auguste, was the first balloonist to enter the Earth’s stratosphere.
It was near the end of his own record-setting balloon trip that Bertrand Piccard was inspired to find a way to fly without needing to rely on fuel. He almost ran out of propane while crossing the Atlantic. He and Borschberg spent years planning, designing and finding investors–that was no small challenge–but they persevered and, in 2010, the Solar Impulse made the first solar-powered night flight over Switzerland. Last year it completed the first solar intercontinental flight, from Europe to Africa.
The ultimate goal–after the flight across America–is to fly a solar plane non-stop around the world. That’s tentatively scheduled for 2015, but it will require a bigger plane than the Impulse. Since they estimate that it will take three days to fly over the Atlantic and five to cross the Pacific, Piccard and Borschberg have been making other alterations, too–the larger version will have an autopilot, more efficient electric motors and a body made of even lighter carbon fiber. It also will have a seat that reclines and yes, a toilet.
There certainly are easier ways to go around the world, but Piccard sees his mission as stretching our imaginations about the sun’s potential. “Very often, when we speak of protection of the environment, it’s boring,” he said during a recent interview with Popular Science. “It’s about less mobility, less comfort, less growth.”
Instead, he wants to show that clean energy can just as easily be about being a pioneer.
Here comes the sun
Here’s other recent developments related to solar power:
- It’s always good to save some for later: A team of researchers at Stanford University has devised a partially liquid battery that could lead to the development of inexpensive batteries which can store energy created by solar panels and wind turbines. One of the challenges of both sun and wind power is to be able to store energy efficiently so it’s available when the sun’s not shining and the wind’s not blowing.
- Forget the undercoating, we’ll throw in solar panels: BMW, which will begin selling its first electric cars later this year, says it will offer buyers the opportunity to get a solar-powered home charging system designed to be installed in their garages.
- Go ahead and fold. Avoid spindling and mutilation: A Milwaukee middle school teacher-turned-inventor has created a small, foldable solar array that can charge an iPhone in two hours. Joshua Zimmerman turned what had been a hobby into a company named Brown Dog Gadgets and he’s already raised more than $150,000 on Kickstarter to get his business off the ground.
- And you thought your shirt was cool: An Indian scientist has designed a shirt containing solar cells that power small fans to keep the wearer cool. The shirt would also be able to store enough juice to charge cell phones and tablets.
- Charge of the light brigade: Since you never know when you need a lantern, there’s now a solar powered bottle cap that lights up your water bottle. Its four bright, white LED lights can turn your beat up water bottle into a shiny beacon.
Video bonus: Take a peek at the Solar Impulse during its test flight over San Francisco last week.
More from Smithsonian.com
July 5, 2012
Until a week ago, my relationship with batteries had been purely prosaic. Sure, I charged cell phone and laptop batteries every night, but with no more deliberation than brushing my teeth or skipping past Jay Leno’s monologue.
Then came the Derecho of 2012, and I, like millions of other Americans, lost power for days that seemed like weeks. And I, like so many others, succumbed to juice hysteria, an obsession with staking claims to working outlets in public places–Starbucks, libraries, shopping mall food courts–so that we could bring our devices back to life.
Today I have power again. I also have a far deeper appreciation for all things electrochemical. Because in the world we now live, battery life is a very big deal, whether it’s to keep us connected in the day-to-day or the key to the future of electric vehicles and renewable energy.
As it turned out, last week was a momentous one for batteries. The day before the storm that crippled Washington, a study was published in Nature Scientific Reports revealing that a working battery had been created simply by spray-painting a surface. That’s right, power from paint.
Hard to believe? Here’s how a team of scientists at Rice University in Texas did it. They converted into liquids the five components of a lithium ion battery–a positive current collector, a negative current collector, a cathode, an anode and a separator–and then sprayed each, in extremely thin layers, over a variety of surfaces. They painted bathroom tiles. They painted glass and stainless steel. They painted flexible film. They painted a ceramic beer mug. All were able to carry a charge.
They even connected the bathroom tiles to a solar cell. They were able to keep an LED display–it spelled out RICE–glowing for six hours.
We’re still a long way off from you being able to charge your smart phone with a beer mug, but this could be a game changer in terms of opening up all kinds of new ways to store energy. And that could be a boon to solar power as a source of energy within our homes.
As Neelam Singh, one the Rice researchers put it, “You could turn your home into a battery.”
An Edison comeback?
Also last week, researchers at Stanford announced that they’ve given new life to the nickel-iron battery that Thomas Edison once hoped would power cars. Roughly 100 years ago, Edison was a big believer in electric cars. But batteries back then weren’t up to the job, so he lost out to his friend Henry Ford and his gas-powered engine.
The problem with those nickel-iron batteries was that they were painfully slow to charge and discharge. But the Stanford group, using nanotechnology rather than simply mixing nickel and iron, has been able to make the battery function 1,000 times faster than the old version. It took only two minutes to charge a small prototype battery.
Nickel-iron batteries aren’t strong enough to power today’s electric cars, but if combined with the lithium ion model now being used, they could dramatically reduce the time required to charge an electric vehicle, which now takes hours. This setup also could allow a vehicle to actually capture the energy created when you applied the brakes. And the fast discharge rate would make it easier for a car to accelerate.
At the same time, IBM is among several companies taking on the dreaded range anxiety–the fear having your electric car run out of juice in the middle of nowhere. The typical range now is 100 miles per charge. But IBM is aiming to raise that to 500 miles by refining what’s known as a lithium air battery.
Instead of having oxygen built into the battery, lithium air models would generate power by taking in oxygen from the outside air. That would make them significantly smaller and lighter than the lithium ion batteries now being used.
IBM has been able to get the concept to work in a lab. But, time for a reality check. It likely will be at least another 10 years before it could function in a car.
Who knows, by then you may be able to charge your car with your spray-painted mailbox, which will, no doubt, be needing a new reason for being.
Here’s more recent news about batteries:
- Cutting the cord: It’s only a matter of time before electric vehicle owners won’t need to plug in their cars to charge up. Instead, they’ll be able to do it wirelessly by parking over mats that do the work.
- Put that in the bank: A giant bank of batteries installed near the tracks has started to save Philadelphia’s subway system lots of money. It captures energy created when trains slow down at a station and puts it back on the line to help them accelerate.
- I wear the body electric: Two University of South Carolina engineers were able to turn a store-bought T-shirt into fabric that could store an electrical charge.
- The slow ride to freedom: Inmates at a prison in Brazil can reduce their sentences by a day for every 16 hours they ride a stationary bike that charges batteries. Their pedaling powers streetlights in a nearby town.
- Giving new meaning to the term “button nose”: And now the downside of the battery boom: According to a study published in the journal Pediatrics, the number of kids going to emergency rooms after swallowing those little button batteries– or sticking them in their noses or ears–has doubled in the past 20 years.
Video bonus Here’s a little blast from the past, when TV commercials took on the challenge of trying to make batteries funny.
More from Smithsonian.com:
June 18, 2012
Science is rarely pretty. Stunning, yes. Provocative and enlightening, of course. But pretty? Not so much.
But brain scans are a different story. Once they’ve been splashed with vibrant purples and reds and yellows, they can look downright ravishing. Makes you want you want to pat yourself on the head and say, “Stay beautiful in there.”
Alas, therein lies a problem. Not only has technology made it possible to see our brains as something they’re not–a fiesta of technicolor–but it also has made it easier to draw absurdly simple conclusions about a ridiculously complex organ.
We’re understandably desperate for a neurological Rosetta Stone, something that can help us decipher the magical call and response of electrochemical impulses inside our thick skulls. But when, with that purpose, we conjure up notions of a “love center” or “God spot” inside our brains, we insult our own intelligence.
It’s far more complex than that, particularly when it comes to such matters as spirituality. A recent study concluded that it involves not one, but many parts of the brain. But a larger issue centers on how brain scans are interpreted. As writer Vaughan Bell pointed out recently in The Guardian, false positives are a big concern, resulting in scans suggesting that parts of the brain are linked to certain activities when, in fact, other factors may be responsible. A few years ago, a Dartmouth scientist with a sense of humor made this point by reporting that scans reflected activity in the brain of a salmon shown photos of humans. He also noted that the fish was dead.
Can they predict behavior?
Most neuroscientists have become more cautious about drawing definitive conclusions about what scans show. But, as is often the case with innovative technology that captures the public’s imagination, neuroimmaging is headed in unexpected directions, spreading beyond scientific research into legal tactics and commercial ventures. In a way, it’s become the new DNA testing, science that’s seen as a nifty tool, in this case to predict or explain behavior.
Earlier this year, defense attorneys for a convicted double murderer in Mississippi submitted his brain scans in a last-minute, albeit unsuccessful, attempt to show he was mentally ill and not suitable for the death penalty. Last year the French parliament was moved to update its bioethics law so that it now reads: “Brain-imaging methods can be used only for medical or scientific research purposes or in the context of court expertise.”
Scientists were not happy about that last phrase. Many, such as Olivier Oullier, think it’s too soon to give the technology legal standing. As he wrote in the journal Nature, “Brain scientists may not be oracles, but our research, responsibly interpreted, can help policy-makers to make informed decisions. As such, it should be given the opportunity to progress. Law and science have something in common — both can be misinterpreted.”
On the flip side
That said, neuroimaging has given scientists the first real look inside the brain at work. You can’t underestimate the value of that. And it has allowed them to start making tenuous connections between blood flow to certain areas of the brain and particular behavior. But the more they learn, the more they realize that no matter what “lights up” in an image–and keep in mind, that reflects blood flow, not actual mental activity–it likely tells only part of the story.
Psychiatrists have begun using brain imaging data to try to predict who might develop neurological or psychiatric disorders. It’s a start. But as Kayt Sukel, author of Dirty Minds: How Our Brains Influence Love, Sex and Relationships, wrote recently on Big Think.com, “At best, most of these studies can only offer predictions slightly higher than chance. Better than a coin flip–but only just.”
So while they can create beautiful 3-D images of the brain in action, scientists are still working the surface, still in the realm of educated guesses. The brain, it seems, refuses to be dumbed down.
Despite their limitations, neuroimages are helping scientists get a clearer picture of how brains function and why they malfunction. Here’s some of the latest research.
- Think good thoughts: A study in Wales found that patients with depression could learn to control aspects of their brain activity by getting “neurofeedback” while their brains were being scanned. Scientists described to them how trying different ways of creating positive thoughts was affecting their brains, based on continuous measurements.
- The dope on dopamine: Researchers in Germany discovered a link between low dopamine levels in the brain and aggressive behavior. It was just the opposite result from what they expected.
- Running on empty: A University of Iowa neuroscientist says that based on MRI imaging in his research, self-control is a commodity in limited supply and that a brain can truly run out of patience.
- Early warning system: This month doctors in southern Florida will be able to start using a new brain imaging radioactive dye that will help them detect plaques of the toxic protein that builds up in the brains of Alzheimer’s victims. It will help confirm an Alzheimer’s diagnosis and also rule it out in cases where something else might be causing memory loss. And scientists hope that these scans will help doctors spot Alzheimer’s much earlier, when there still are no symptoms and treatment can be more effective.
- Either I need sleep or barrels of Doritos: According to a study at Columbia University using brain scans, subjects getting only four hours of sleep a night were more likely to develop cravings for junk food than those who got a full eight hours.
Video bonus: Okay, so we’ve reached the point where we’ve started to put dogs in MRI machines. Researchers at Emory University are trying to get a bead on what dogs are thinking. Good luck with that.
April 23, 2012
A strange thing happened in Washington last week. This normally is a pretty jaded place, but when the space shuttle Discovery did its victory lap over the city atop a 747 Tuesday morning, people poured out of government buildings or raced to office windows to take one long, last look. Most fired away on their cell phone cameras, knowing that they weren’t likely to get a great shot, but equally sure they had to try.
It was a moment that revived awe, if only for fleeting minutes, one that screamed “Turning point!” in a way that history rarely does. Some, such as the Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, saw it as a sad funeral procession, a “symbol of willed American decline.” Others, including America’s reigning celebrity scientist, astrophyicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, viewed it as motivation to double NASA’s budget.
Truth is, the next chapter in American space exploration may be more likely to unfold in Seattle tomorrow when a startup called Planetary Resources has its coming-out news conference. Last week it sent out a cryptic press release, announcing that the company “will overlay two critical sectors–space exploration and natural resources–to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP.” Analysts offered an instant translation: It plans to mine asteroids.
Not a big leap to draw that conclusion, especially since one of the principals of Planetary Resources is Peter Diamandis, the space entreperneur behind the X-Prize competition, and a man who recently told an interviewer, “Ever since childhood, I wanted to do one thing–be an asteroid miner.” (The rich apparently are different from you and me.)
What makes this undertaking much more than one man tilting at asteroids, however, is the band of billionaires behind it. Drum roll, please: Film director and ocean explorer James Cameron, Google co-founder Larry Page, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, Google board member Ram Shriram, former Microsoft exec and two-time space tourist Charles Simonyi and Ross Perot, Jr., the suitably wealthy son of the former presidential candidate.
Obviously, it’s a group with loads of money to burn, but also one that knows something about smart investments. While mining asteroids is clearly a high-risk enterprise with enormous challenges, it has the potential to be hugely lucrative. Diamandis has estimated that the platinum alone in one relatively small asteroid could be valued as much as $20 trillion.
Still, Planetary Resources’ mission appears to be driven, at least in part, by the young-boy fantasies of very rich men. Diamandis talks of others like himself who grew up when NASA was golden and “Star Trek” aired weekly and now have the means to be space frontiersmen–people like Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, both of whom are investing heavily in developing vehicles that can launch satellites or carry people into space.
Says Diamandis: “They’re able now to take the money they’ve made and hopefully fulfill the vision they had as a child. In our heart of hearts, many of us have given up on NASA as the mechanism to get us there.”
A rocky road
How plausible is asteroid mining? It turns out that earlier this month NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, along with the Keck Institute for Space Studies and the California Institute of Technology, released a study concluding that asteroids could be retreived, then mined. The scientists agreed that by 2025, it will be possible to have a robot spacecraft capture a 500-ton asteroid and move it into a high lunar orbit. The cost? About $2.6 billion.
But that would be for an asteroid only 22 feet or so in diameter–a big expense for a not such a big rock. And it doesn’t include the cost of actually extracting minerals. The other option would be robotic missions to asteroids where mining operations would be set up. But humans have yet to land a spacecraft on a body as small as an asteroid and take off again with minerals from the surface. The closest attempt came in 2005 when the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency landed a probe on an asteroid. It returned to Earth five years later with about only 100 microscopic particles.
Can’t wait to see what Planetary Resources has in mind.
Meanwhile, back at NASA
No, they haven’t turned off the lights at NASA. Here’s some of its more recent news:
- Private business: The space agency has been working closely with Space Exploration Technologies, better known as Space X, in preparation for the first flight of a private spacecraft to the International Space Station at the end of April. The unmanned capsule, named Dragon, will deliver cargo after it’s grabbed with a robotic arm operated by astronauts in the space station.
- Moons over Saturn: Now 15 years into its mission, the Cassini spacecraft continues to send back images of Saturn and its moons. The most recent photos are of Enceladus and Tethys.
- Can’t get enough…of that Martian stuff: The latest rover headed to Mars, an SUV-sized vehicle named Curiosity, is now more than halfway to its destination. After it lands in early August, it will start exploring the large Gale Crater and a three-mile-high mountain inside it for signs of microbial life.
- The hunt goes on: Earlier this month NASA extended the mission of the planet-finding Kepler space telescope until 2016. It has discovered 2,300 potential alien planets since its launch three years ago.
- “Recalculating…”: NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in California is developing an atomic clock that will serve as a kind of GPS for spacecraft in deep space.
- Where stars are the stars: And we definitely can’t forget the Hubble Space Telescope, which turns 22 tomorrow. It just keeps delivering remarkable images from deep space, including this latest one of the Tarantula Nebula 170,000 light years away.
Video bonus: Here’s one for old time’s sake, a flashback to one of NASA’s signature moments. Using data from its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, NASA has recreated what three Apollo astronauts saw on Christmas Eve, 1968 as they watched a bright blue Earth rise over the moon’s horizon.
April 18, 2012
Here’s the story we’ve been hearing for years: Back in 1965 the coach of the University of Florida football team was befuddled that no matter how much water his players drank, they still became badly dehydrated in the brutal Florida heat and humidity. He asked doctors at the college for advice and one of them, James Robert Cade, devised a concoction of sucrose, glucose, sodium and potassium. Unfortunately, it tasted worse than a bucket of sweat. Cade’s wife suggested adding lemon juice and soon the world would be gulping Gatorade.
The part of the tale we never hear is that Cade got the idea from reading about doctors who went to Bangladesh during a cholera outbreak. They discovered that the locals were using a drink made of carrot juice, rice water, bananas, and carob flour–a combo of carbs and sugar–to rehydrate those suffering severe diarrhea.
This is what’s become known as “reverse innovation”–ideas that move from poor to rich nations. It’s just one of several examples that Dartmouth professors Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble roll out in their new book, Reverse Innovation: Create Far From Home, Win Everywhere. As Govindarajan learned while working as an “innovation consultant” for General Electric (GE), the notion that all the good ideas come from developed countries and simply are tweaked to work in more primitive places is an increasingly flawed concept.
It’s a small world after all
Instead, more and more products, even business strategies, are bubbling up first in “emerging” countries, then flowing uphill into mature markets. Take the case of the GE’s Vscan. It’s an ultrasound scanner not much bigger than a smart phone. But it didn’t start out that way. Not even close. No, GE’s original plan when it moved into the Chinese market was to sell the big, expensive–starting at $100,000–ultrasound machines that you see in so many American hospitals.
Chinese hospitals didn’t have that kind of money. And besides, what was really needed was a portable scanner that a doctor could use on patients in rural areas. So GE started thinking small. And it shifted its focus from high-priced hardware to relatively inexpensive software. This was shrewd. The Vscan has grown from a $4 million to a $278 million business and now American and European hospitals and doctors want them. GE CEO Jeff Immelt has gone so far as to predict that the Vscan could become “the stethoscope of the 21st century.”
Another example: After Wal-Mart discovered that its massive stores didn’t work very well in countries like China, Argentina and Mexico because a lot of shoppers had neither the money nor the storage space to buy in bulk, it scaled way back to models known as “small marts.” It then realized that this approach might work in the U.S., too, in places where buildings the size of airplane hangars didn’t make a lot of sense. So, last year the first of these shrunken stores, called Wal-Mart Express, opened in rural Arkansas. The second and third followed in urban Chicago.
“What works in the rich world won’t automatically achieve wide acceptance in emerging markets, where customer needs are starkly different,” writes Govindarajan. “As a result, reverse innovation is rapidly gathering steam–and will only continue to do so.”
Bright lights, big cities
More evidence of the global shifts of innovation comes from a database released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. By tracking international patents and patent applications, it found, not surprisingly, that inventions tends to flow out of the world’s cities–93 percent of patent applications are generated by inventors in metro areas accounting for only 23 percent of the planet’s population.
But the stats also show the U.S. losing ground on the innovation front. Its share of global patents fell from 40 percent at the turn of the century to 28 percent by 2010. Meanwhile, China saw its share rise by 6 percent over the same period.
And if all the social interactions and economic diversity that come with city living do help drive innovative thinking, as a lot of research suggests, developing countries would seem to be primed for a century of invention. Of the 25 fastest growing major cities in the world, seven are in China, six are in India. By 2025, only two of the 15 largest mega-cities–New York and Tokyo–will be in what are now developed countries.
Did you feel the Earth tilt?
Meanwhile, On the other side of the planet
Here are examples of innovative projects underway in developing countries:
- Going down:Construction began last month on Shanghai’s first “groundscraper,” a 380-room luxury hotel built 19 stories down into an abandoned quarry.
- Don’t look down. No, really: Now this is not for the faint of heart. After five years of construction, a suspension bridge more than 1,100 feet high and more than 3,800 feet long opened recently in China’s Hunan Province. If, God forbid, your car went over the side, it would take eight seconds to hit bottom.
- Start me up: India has launched its first telecom “incubator,” a private-public partnership called Startup Village, which hopes to boost 1,000 startups over the next decade. It’s modeled after a Silicon Valley program that helps finance student innovations.
Video bonus: Vijay Govindarajan explains how reverse innovation can make a rich country want a poor country’s products.