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.
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December 21, 2012
Earlier this week I rolled out the first half of a list of a dozen of the more innovative ideas of 2012.
We’re not talking Google Glass or invisibility cloaks or other flashes from the future. No, these are less splashy things, yet, in their own ways, no less inspired and probably more likely to become a part of our daily lives. They’re the creations of people joined under a common maxim, namely, “There’s gotta be a better way.”
So, muffled drum roll, please…the Fresh Ideas of 2012, Part 2:
7) While you’re at it, can you pick up a paper and some gum: Yes, suitcases with wheels were a big breakthrough, but Madrid designer Rodrigo Garcia Gonzalez says why stop there? Why should we still have lug luggage?
So he has invented a new kind of suitcase he calls Hop!. What makes it so special is that it follows you around like the most loyal of pets.
Well, technically it follows your smart phone. The suitcase contains three receivers that communicate, via Bluetooth, with an app on your smart phone and, put simply, it follows that signal. The same controller also directs a dual caterpillar track-type system on the bottom of the suitcase to move it along. If the signal gets lost, the bag locks itself and vibrates its owner’s phone.
Of course, there are issues to resolve–think of the security challenges of an airport full of roaming luggage–but Gonzalez deserves props for giving us hope that we’ll one day break loose from our bags.
8) Anticipation was so overrated: It never really made much sense: In a world increasingly geared to instant gratification, we waited for ketchup. It took forever to come out of the bottle, but we seemed willing to live with that.
Not Kripa Varanasi and his team of MIT engineers. They’ve developed a substance called LiquiGlide, which, when coating the inside surface of bottles, helps ketchup and mustard slide right out. Now this may seem a trivial modern indulgence, but, as the LiquiGlide team estimates, roughly a million tons of food could avoid being tossed in the garbage if it wasn’t getting stuck in bottles. So it’s only right that we go with the flow.
9) Which gives new meaning to “All you can eat”: While we’re on the subject of food waste, let’s give it up for WikiCells. These are the edible membranes created by Harvard professor David Edwards and French designer Francois Azambourg that encase food and liquids. In other words, it’s packaging you can eat.
The membranes, meant to mimic the skin of a grape, are made of food particles, such as cheese or dried fruit, and are held together by calcium or magnesium ions. So far, the pair have conjured up a tomato membrane containing gazpacho, an orange one filled with orange juice, a chocolate version holding hot chocolate. They’ve even created a grape-flavored pouch filled with wine. The goal is to do away with plastic bottles and packaging. Let’s raise our membranes to that.
10) Talk to the glove: Four Ukrainian students have designed gloves that can communicate with a smart phone and, as a result, developed a way for people with speech and hearing disabilities to talk to people who don’t use or understand sign language.
Their invention, which they call Enable Talk, works like this: The gloves are lined with 15 flex sensors in their fingers that can recognize sign language and transmit the message to a smart phone where it’s converted to text. The phone then says the words that the gloves sent.
11) So now we can stay focused on not changing the oil: If you’re like me, you have no idea when you last checked your tire pressure. It’s a blind faith thing. As long as the tires keep rolling, no need to look for that little gauge you bought many tires ago.
Goodyear understands this so they’ve gone ahead and invented a tire that takes us out the equation. It does this by inflating itself. A regulator in the tire senses when the pressure drops below a pre-set point and opens to allow air flow into the pumping tube. As the tire rolls, deformation flattens the tube, pushing air into the tire cavity. And we’ll no longer have to worry about keeping our tires pumped up. Not that we ever did.
12) No longer will a charger come between you and your phone: A few years ago the 11-year-old daughter of Wake Forest University scientist David Carroll wondered aloud if a cell phone could be charged solely by human body heat. Good question, thought Carroll, and earlier this year he and his team came up with an answer.
They unveiled Power Felt, a fabric that uses nanotechnology to convert heat into electricity. It’s still in the early stages of development but initial results suggest they’re on to something big–an inexpensive material that could use the heat from your car’s engine to run its AC and radio and the sun to power your home’s appliances and yes, your own personal warmth to keep your cell phone alive. Thanks, Dad.
Video bonus: While we’re talking about nifty ideas whose time is about to come, it’s pretty certain that Samsung will come out with a bendable phone next year. As you can see in this video, it passes the hammer test.
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December 18, 2012
Within the next week or so, the year-end reviews will start rolling out like strips of prize tickets in a games arcade.
Most will revisit events that we’ll all remember, albeit some we’d rather forget. My own list is a little different. I want to look back at ideas that haven’t received a lot of attention, but struck me as being particularly clever and ripe with potential. Chances are you haven’t heard of many of them. But chances also are you will.
Here’s Part 1 of my list of a dozen ideas whose time is about to come:
1) Sadly, it does not say, “You’re getting warmer.”: Are you flummoxed by how often you lose things–your keys, your TV remote, your glasses. Have I got an invention for you. It’s called Stick-N-Find and it works like this.
You attach one of the Bluetooth-powered stickers to whatever object you’re tired of losing, then download the Stick-N-Find smartphone app. The app will tell you how far away you are from the missing item–it has a range of 100 feet–and you can set off a buzzer in the sticker. If you’re in the dark, you can trigger a blinking red light. Where has this been all my life?
2) Will it do nails? It may be a while before we see it in action, but Dyson, the British company that makes those high-powered Airblade hand dryers, has filed a patent for a tap that would wash your hands with water, then dry them without you having to move an inch. Put your hands under the tap and sensors release water. Move them slightly so that they’re under two connected tubes and warm, dry air shoots out. You’re wet, you’re dry, you’re outta there.
3) All hail plastic: Using nanotechnology, a team of researchers at Wake Forest University has developed a plastic material that glows like a soft white light when an electric current is run through it. Its inventors say it’s as efficient as an LED light and twice as efficient as a fluorescent bulb. But what makes it so innovative is that because it’s plastic, it can be made into any shape. Imagine a soft glowing ceiling panel replacing those hideous fluorescent lights above your head.
4) And all hail fewer jerks on planes: Gemma Jensen used to be a flight attendant for Virgin Atlantic so she has seen more than her share of airline passengers doing the jerk. I’m talking about that moment during long flights when just as you’re starting to nod off, your head tips forward. End of snooze.
So Jensen has invented the J-Pillow. It’s a step up from the familiar U-shaped pillow that keeps your head from falling from side to side, but can’t stop it from dropping forward. Her pillow comes with a “J-hook” that goes around the neck and under a person’s chin. Doctors seem to like it because it keeps your spine aligned while you’re sleeping on a plane. Which explains why a panel just chose it Great Britain’s Best Consumer Invention of 2012.
5) Cause that’s how they roll: Two former MIT students have designed a camera that bounces and rolls. Who needs a bouncing camera, you ask? How about firefighters who have to see inside a building or a swat team looking for hostages? That’s what Francisco Aguilar and Dave Young had in mind when they invented their ball-shaped device outfitted with six wide-angle cameras packed inside a rubber casing.
The idea is that first responders could toss it into a space they need to survey. Its cameras could snap pictures every second as it rolls, then send them wirelessly to a smartphone where they would be stitched together to provide a 360-degree view.
6) Can I make Kit Kat bars in that thing?: There’s nothing new about 3D printers, but Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering has come up with a novel way to give its students access to the nifty replicating devices. It has set up something it calls DreamVendor, which it has described as a “vending machine with infinite inventory.” What it is is a station of four 3D printers where engineering students can load in their designs and wait for the printers to do their magic. It’s free for the students, but it’s not hard to imagine some entrepreneur refining the idea of vending machines that print stuff.
Video bonus: And under the category of an idea whose time is still coming, there’s the LuminAR lamp system invented in MIT’s Media Lab a few years ago. Still being refined, it allows you to screw a LuminAR device–it’s combo projector/camera/wireless computer–into a standard light socket and turn your desk into an interactive surface. See for yourself.
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November 20, 2012
Most Americans have already kicked into Thanksgiving mode, looking ahead to Thursday when they’ll sit down with family and friends, pile an unfathomable amount of food on their plates and then sleep it off to the soothing sound of supersized men smacking helmets on TV.
But between now and then madness lies. There will be traffic jams and long security lines and countless other aggravations that will make you wish that this year you had stayed home and opened a can of tuna.
Don’t despair. Believe it or not, traveling is getting easier. Here are 10 innovations that can help you now or give you hope about the future.
1) You’re the one who likes his cranapple juice shaken, not stirred: British Airways is breaking ground in showing passengers how much it knows about them. As part of its “Know Me” program launched last summer, the airlines is using data it has accumulated about its customers to allow flight crews to give them particularly personal service.
For instance, say a person is flying business class for the first time. That would be flagged 0n the crew’s iPads and a flight attendant could offer a special welcome and make sure he or she knew how to use the seat. Or someone who usually flies business class might instead be in coach taking a vacation trip with his family. A crew member might offer a free drink and make a fuss in front of the whole gang. That’ll score some points.
The big question, though, is when does knowing so much a customer slide from solicitous to creepy?
2) People you meet at airports can be so shallow: When they started showing up at a dozen or so airports around the world this summer, greeter avatars were by no means a sure hit. There was some concern that arriving passengers would be creeped out by holograms that go into a 90-second rap on airport info–location of baggage claim, bathrooms, etc.–as soon as anyone comes within 30 feet of them.
But generally the response has been positive, with plenty of passengers reaching for their cell phones to snap shots of these virtual women for the folks back home. And why not? They’re happy to be on a first-name basis. (Hi, I’m Eva…or Paige or Emily or Heather or Carla.) And they no doubt they bring back memories of Princess Leia, only they’re taller, have much better hair and are way too cheery to bring up anything having to do with Death Stars.
3) Because the real adventure starts after you leave the airport: Last year the Australian start-up Rome2rio launched its search engine designed to provide you with all the travel details for any trip–not just airport-to-airport, but door-to-door. So it includes train schedules and prices, driving routes, even ferry times, if that’s part of the journey. And just last month, it came out with an iPhone app that digs up the same info for you.
4) But can it make the cheapest be the fastest?: Madrid-based Amadeus has been in the airfare search business for several years now, but next year it hopes to take a big leap forward in simplifying the process for travelers.
Using a technology it calls Featured Results, it will be able to do a high-speed search of all possible fares between two locations and, in a matter of seconds, provide the top option in three different categories–the cheapest, the fastest, and the most popular.
5) The next best thing to not having a layover: Another tech product that’s been around for a few years is the mobile app GateGuru. It gives travelers the lowdown on the mysterious world beyond the gate–where you can find the best food, the best airport bar, the fastest security lines, a place to get a massage, the ATMs.
Now it’s entered into a partnership with JCDecaux, a company that handles advertising at airports. Which means the GateGuru content will soon be showing up in digital displays in airports. The first will be at Baltimore-Washington Airport.
6) And then you shoot on down to LA: You have to admit that Elon Musk has earned some cred when it comes to transportation. He’s co-founder of Tesla Motors–its Model S was just chosen Motor Trends’ “Car of the Year”–and founder of SpaceX–which last month flew the first commercial resupply mission to the International Space Station.
So when he talks about a transit system that he says could move people from San Francisco to Los Angeles in a half hour, you can’t dismiss him as someone who’s been munching on a bowl of crazy. Musk’s idea is something he calls “Hyperloop,” which he described as a cross between the Concorde and a railgun. Based on the few details he’s provided, it would be some kind of tube vehicle that would be able to leave as soon as you arrive and then get you to SF or LA in half the time a plane would take.
7) While you’re in the neighborhood: Airbnb started out as an online service that hooked up people looking for a place to sleep in another city or country with people willing to have strangers stay over. And it’s grown quickly–it has listings of 250,000 properties in 30,000 different cities around the world.
Now it’s taken a leap toward becoming more of a full-blown travel service by launching guides to the lesser-known neighborhoods where Airbnb clients are more likely to be staying. So far neighborhood guides have been rolled out in New York, Paris, London, San Francisco, Washington D.C., Berlin, and Rio de Janeiro.
8) What did you expect in Vegas, a milk store?: Given the location, this seems long overdue, but now an operation called the Liquor Library is open for business in Las Vegas’ McCarran Airport. It’s just as it sounds, a place where travelers can pick up beer, wine or booze–and not in some duty-free shop, but in a real live liquor convenience store that calls itself a library.
9) Surprise! There’s a Cracker Barrel in your future: Yes, we’d all like to be able to predict the future, but sometimes we’d settle for being able to know what’s off the next exit. That’s where mobile apps, such as Road Ninja, can make your life easier. It not only lets you know what’s up ahead, but you can also call ahead or read a restaurant review, although there’s only so much you can say about Denny’s Grand Slam.
10) What, no free cocktails for the parents?: Early next year, Air Asia will start setting aside a kid-free zone on its flights. And now a California consulting firm, RKS Design, has gone even further by dreaming up how an all-family airline might work.
They’ve named it cAir and it would feature express check-in services, stroller rentals and play lounges to keep the kids amused. The seats would be arranged so parents would face their kids, bathrooms would be large enough for diaper changes, and sound curtains could be pulled around a noisy little tyke. A kid would even be able to pick out a toy to play with during the flight–which parents would have the opportunity to buy if they can’t wrench it from his hands.
For now, it’s only a concept–no one’s sure if you could actually make a business out of the idea.
Video bonus: The Hobbit opens soon and fittingly Air New Zealand has started airing safety videos featuring a few flight attendants who look like they took a detour from Middle Earth. Sit back and relax, my precious.
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September 20, 2012
Usually I walk to work, but earlier this week, after another apocalyptic forecast of torrential rains and head-twisting winds, I fell prey to weather dread and drove in.
In no time, I was reminded of why Washington D.C. has the worst drivers in the U.S.–Allstate verified it–and also why it’s among the Top 10 congested cities in the country. The latest estimate is that drivers here waste an average of 45 hours a year in traffic jams. I don’t know if anyone’s come up with a comparable analysis of how much time the stress of sitting in gridlock takes off your life, but I’m guessing I said goodbye to 15 minutes or so that morning.
The experience revived my interest in the science of traffic flow and how GPS, sensors, and algorithms have made it possible to imagine a day when the commuting madness will end.
Here are some of the ways we just may get there:
1) Follow the wisdom of E. coli: That’s the thinking of two Chinese engineers wrestling with the hideous traffic of Guangzhou, a city of 13 million in southern China. They are advocates of applying “swarm intelligence” to traffic lights in the city, or more specifically, something known as Bacterial Foraging Optimization. This is an algorithm based on the behavior of E. coli, which, while very basic, ultimately results in the optimal solution to problems. In this case, the algorithm would be applied to stop lights, adapting them to traffic flow instead of keeping them on a fixed loop.
2) Failing that, you can still learn a few things from humans: Scientists at the University of Southampton in the U.K. found that real humans are better traffic controllers than computerized systems. So now they’re focusing on developing artificial intelligence for traffic control systems so they can learn from experience as humans do.
3) Or feel the pulse of social chatter: IBM studied traffic jams in three Indian cities over the past year through the social network comments of people stuck in them. The company’s evaluation of tweets, Facebook updates and other social network discussions of people in Mumbai, Bangalore and New Delhi is designed to show how social data can be used to read public attitudes on big urban issues, such as traffic. Among its findings: Drivers in New Delhi talked more about public transportation, weather and the stress of commuting, while those in Bangalore vented about the overall driving experience, construction and parking. And in Mumbai, they tended to rant about accidents and pollution.
4) Twitter intelligence is not an oxymoron: And Twitter is also being used in real time to stay on top of traffic accidents and backups on British highways. A mobile app called Twitraffic analyzes what people are saying on Twitter about traffic and warns you about problems that have popped up. The company behind the app claims it lets people know about accidents an average of seven minutes before the government’s Highways Agency does. It hopes to launch a U.S. version next month.
5) Meanwhile, back in the U.S.: There’s already a pretty impressive mobile app available here for helping you avoid commuting nightmares. It’s called Waze and it not only gives you directions, but it also monitors what other drivers are saying about what’s happening on the streets around you. It’s a traffic report through crowdsourcing, and one that constantly updates with new directions if there’s bad news coming in about the road ahead.
6) Just let the cars work it out: Since last month, about 3,000 vehicles around Ann Arbor, Michigan have been able to talk to one another. As part of a joint project of the U.S.Department of Transportation and the University of Michigan, the cars and trucks have been adapted to be able to communicate wirelessly and warn each other of potential accidents or backups. For instance, one vehicle could tell another when it’s approaching an intersection or if it’s stopping on the road ahead. The Michigan researchers think these wireless systems, if they become a standard feature, could cut accidents by 80 percent.
7) Car Talk was taken: MIT scientists are heading down the same road, developing something they calls CarSpeak. It’s a communication system for driverless cars that lets them “see” through the data provided by other cars on the road. And that would allow a car to cruise right through an intersection because it would know no other cars were coming.
Down the road
Here are a few other developments designed to help us get around:
- Not so mellow yellow: A researcher at Virginia Tech concludes that one of our big problems is yellow lights because they create what he calls a “dilemma zone” for drivers. He’s developing a system for giving drivers a few seconds notice when a light is about to turn yellow.
- We don’t need no stinking stretch limo: The largest buses in the world, 98-foot-long vehicles capable of carrying more than 250 people, will be rolled out in Dresden, Germany next month.
- Nothing makes an old man feel young like driving at night: According to a study at MIT, the most important car feature for drivers over 50 are smart headlights, which adjust the range and intensity of light based on the location of other cars. The idea is to reduce glare and improve visibility at night.
- I’m sleepin’ here: A new study of traffic noise levels in and around Atlanta found that almost 10 percent of the area’s population is exposed to traffic noise at a level described as “annoying.” And more than 2 percent live where traffic noise was described as “highly disturbing to sleep.”
Video bonus: How maddening are phantom traffic jams, you know, when everything slows to a crawl for no apparent reason? Here are two explanations, one from scientists, the other more like what we imagine.
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