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
April 9, 2012
If you had to pick an animal that could end up as the inspiration for one of the more ingenious medical tools of the future, which do you think it would be? Ants, with their amazing sensing skills? What about salamanders, which can replace a lost tail like we would a cell phone? Or bats? They nailed echolocation before our ancestors were walking.
Wrong, wrong and wrong. No, it’s the slimy sea lamprey, a bizarre-looking creature with a round, tooth-filled sucking disk where its face should be. It has no vertebrae, no jaw and a nervous system about as primitive as anything in the sea.
And therein lies its appeal.
A team of scientists at Newcastle University in the U.K. and the National Science Foundation in the U.S. really like that about the sea lamprey, so much so that they’re using it as a model for a tiny robot they’re developing–a robot that one day could swim around inside our bodies looking for diseases.
Pretty strange, eh? The researchers would acknowledge as much, but they think their invention, called Cyberplasm, is years, not decades, away from being used in the real world.
Here’s what they envision: A tiny robot–a half inch long initially, but eventually much smaller–that would have “eye” and “nose” sensors developed from living animal cells and an artificial nervous system that would collect data from its surroundings. It would respond to external stimuli, such as light or chemicals, the same way that biological systems do, and send electronic signals to its artificial muscles, which would be powered by glucose, just as real muscles are.
Because a lamprey’s nervous system is so simple, but complex enough to control a swimming motion, it’s an excellent model for a micro-robot that would be sensitive to its surroundings and move freely around inside a body. That would allow it to check for tumors or blood clots or chemical indicators of various diseases.
“Nothing matches a living creature’s natural ability to see and smell its environment and therefore collect data on what’s going on around it,” says Daniel Frankel, head of the Newcastle part of the research team.
Kinda makes you feel all slithery inside.
Humans, of course, have been mimicking animals for thousands of years, dating back to copying how they hunted. Now most of our focus is on design and mechanics, whether it’s stealing the look of a kingfisher’s beak to make bullet trains more efficient or replicating the giant self-cooling mounds of African termites to cut energy costs in office buildings.
The latest inspiration comes from butterfly wings. Chinese scientists wanted to better understand how their design helps keep butterflies warm on cool mornings. What they saw through an electron microscope provided an answer. The wings are made of long rectangular scales that fit together like overlapping shingles on a roof. Also, ridges in the scales had tiny holes that allowed light to filter through to the lower layer. And that helped hold heat.
Which could lead to a very different way of designing solar energy technology. Instead of the flat panels used today, we could see solar arrays that are three-dimensional and more complex, but much more effective.
It’s nature’s way
Here are other recent examples of biomimicry breakthroughs:
- Where is thy sting?: The U.S. Navy is sponsoring research to develop robotic jellyfish that could be used to help emergency teams in underwater rescue situations. Very cool. But even more innovative is how this underwater robot would be powered–it’s being designed to run on hydrogen taken from sea water.
- Building a better thumbtack: Mimicking how a cat withdraws its claws, Japanese inventor Toshi Fukaya has invented a safer thumbtack–its point stays covered until you push it into a wall.
- Sticky business: Scientists have been studying geckos for a while, captivated by their ability to scamper up a vertical wall without slipping a bit. The latest invention they’ve inspired is an adhesive device only 16 inches square that can hold up a flat screen TV.
- Who knew snails were so cool?: A group of Iranian students has won the Biomimicry Institute’s Student Design Challenge by designing a desert house based on a snail. The building has an overlapping and curvy shell to mimimize the amount of sunlight that hits any part of the roof and buffer zones inside to take advantage of natural ventilation.
- Follow the robot: If you created a robot fish, would real fish follow it? That’s the thinking behind the swimming robot created by engineers at NYU’s Polytechnic Institute. If it works like they hope it will, it will be able to lead schools of fish away from oil spills or other dangers.
Video bonus: One more tale of animal inspiration. This one could end up in disguising submarines with a surface modeled after squid skin.
March 1, 2012
Let’s think big thoughts. Everyone else is. Out in Long Beach, they’re in the middle of the 2012 TED conference, where really smart people pay $7,000 to hear other really smart people talk about things that make them sound really, really smart.
In February, Google rolled out its own version of geek gab, with a name that screams high school math club: “Solve for X.” And earlier this week Microsoft staged its annual TechForum, where it showcased its contributions to the cutting edge. Even the Department of Energy joined the prototype party a few days ago, with a conference in Washington designed to highlight bright ideas that may never make it past demo phase.
All of the above are geared to stretch beyond innovation into the realm of “What if?” They’re about celebrating imagination and invention, and with that often comes an upbeat spin on the future. Otherwise, why invent? Case in point: one of the first speakers at this year’s TED event was Peter Diamandis, head of the X Prize Foundation, and one of the founders of Singularity University, which has been described as an “academic boot camp” in Silicon Valley for inventors and entrepreneurs. For Diamandis, the glass isn’t just half full, it’s spilling over the top.
He riffed on the theme of a new book he’s written with science journalist Steven Kotler, Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think. His take is that human ingenuity and the exponential growth of technology will solve many of the planet’s more vexing problems, including water and energy shortages, in ways we’re only starting to imagine. As Diamandis puts it, “The world is getting better at an extraordinary rate and most people are unable to see the good news through the flurry of bad.” For more rays of his sunshine, check out this clip made prior to his appearance at TED.
In the spirit of Diamandis’ rosy forecast of the future, here are five big ideas that may make you feel better about what’s ahead:
Plenty of juice
It says something about the crowd at TED that a guy gets a standing ovation for talking about batteries. In fairness, though, this was one awesome battery. Even Bill Gates tweeted about it. MIT professor Donald Sadoway shared his story of how six years ago he started developing a liquid battery, a three-layered device comprising high-density molten metal at the top, low density molten metal at the bottom and the layer of molten salt in between. His prototypes got bigger and bigger until he was able to produce a working model the size of a 40-foot shipping container. I know what you’re thinking: What am I going to do with a 40-foot battery? But Sadoway’s invention isn’t about us, it’s about cheap energy, or actually the storage of it, and if it works as well as he says it does, it could be a game changer in making wind and solar power a lot more reliable.
A mightier wind
While we’re on the subject of renewable energy, another invention involving wind power took center stage at the Department of Energy’s confab. Created by Makani Power of Alameda, California, it’s called an airborne wind turbine, but looks more like a small airplane with four propellers. Yet it doesn’t actually fly anywhere. It’s tethered to the ground, but moves in large circles more than 600 feet in the air. Because it’s small and follows a continuous circle, the flying turbine can generate power in winds too weak to turn a more conventional wind turbine. Its developers think it would be most valuable as an off-shore power source, a lot cheaper and less obtrusive than ocean wind farms. It would need only to be attached to a buoy. The Department of Energy has already invested $3 million in the project. Google has kicked in another $20 million.
At Google’s “Solve for X” fest, Kevin Dowling, R&D vice president for MC10, a Massachusetts firm, gave the audience a sense of just how far we’ve come in our ability to bend and stretech electronics. Scientists can now weave electric sensors into paper, leather, vinyl and just about any other flexible surface and can build electric arrays into strips thinner than band-aids that we can attach to our skin. Dowling talked about catheters with sensors that can provide a ”cinematic visualization of what’s going on in a heart in real time,” and gloves that will allow surgeons to actually touch a beating heart and send images wirelessly to a display screen. Dowling explains it this way: “You’re essentially putting eyes in your fingers.”
Microsoft, meanwhile, provided a glimpse of grocery shopping in the future at its TechForum. No more pushing carts around the store for us. Instead, the “Smarter Cart,” designed by Chaotic Moon, a mobile apps developer in Austin, Texas, as part of a partnership with Whole Foods, would use Microsoft’s Kinect 3D camera and voice recognition system to help the cart follow us around the store. The cart, which has a Windows 8 tablet attached, could let also let you know in which aisle the dog treats are hiding and also suggest recipes, although hopefully not involving dog treats. But here’s the best part: No more checkout lines. Your cart has its own scanner. You shop, you scan, you leave. The future’s already rosier.
A little birdie told me
Back at TED the other day, another demo that dazzled the not-so-easily impressed crowd featured what could become the Defense Department’s smallest spy. It’s the Nano Hummingbird, by AeroVironment Inc., of Monrovia, California, developed for DARPA, the Pentagon’s research arm, and it’s designed to not only move like a hummingbird, but also look like one. So it can hover or sit on a branch, all while shooting video. The little drone can fly as fast as 11 miles per hour, go sideways, backward and forward, as well as go clockwise and counterclockwise. Its flights, controlled remotely, can last close to 10 minutes.
Imagine what Albert Hitchcock could have done with this.
Video bonus: And now a video interlude from U.S poet laureate Billly Collins, who also took the stage in Long Beach, proving that the TED folks gets the soul thing. Collins now sets some of his poems to animation, showing that he gets how they like their entertainment.
January 17, 2012
Most innovators aren’t inventors. We were reminded of that again last year during the swirl of coverage of Steve Jobs, who achieved his godlike status largely through his unique ability to distill, refine and, above all, execute the ideas of others. As the new year begins to pick up speed, it’s a good time to take a look at some young entrepreneurs whose innovative thinking, rather than pure invention, has them poised for big things in 2012.
Can’t stop the music: The recording industry has been in a death spiral for awhile now, dating back to when Napster fed the notion among a generation that freedom to download music without paying is an inalienable right laid out in the Constitution, or maybe it was the Magna Carta. Whatever. Bottom line is that CDs are going the way of the 8-track. But all may not be lost, thanks to a Swedish computer geek-turned-musician-turned-Internet-innovator. That would be Daniel Ek, who launched Spotify in Europe three years ago when he was 25.
Earlier this month Forbes magazine called him “the most important man in music.” That’s probably over the top, but Ek has devised a model that provides instant access to free music while pumping up struggling record labels through licensing fees. Spotify, which makes its money through advertising and user fees ($10 a month for mobile access to your playlists, $5 a month to avoid ads), didn’t roll out in the U.S. until last summer, but raised its profile dramatically a few months later when it hooked up with Facebook. Ek knows that building a personal brand is a subtext of the Facebook experience and a person’s taste in music is often a big part of that. So now, through Spotify, Facebook users see the songs their friends listen to and the playlists they compile, and with a single click, can give a listen. If Spotify goes mainstream in the U.S. this year, Forbes just may be right.
Return of the pin-ups: Often the shrewdest innovations are about carving out the right niche at the right time and so it appears to be with Pinterest, the hot social network of the moment. As someone who says he was a “maniacal” insect collector while growing up in Iowa, co-founder Ben Silbermann realized how passionate people can be about their hobbies or collections. And he and his partners, Evan Sharp and Paul Sciarra, also recognized that posting photos has become as popular a means of self-expression on social networks as clever status updates and funny video links. So they combined passions and photos in Pinterest, where members can “pin” up pictures–their own or ones found on the Web–of their hobbies or just quirky obsessions. They could be muscle cars or Amish quilts or Halloween costumes made of duct tape. Hey, it’s your show. Yes, a year from now Pinterest could be yet another Web sensation gone south. But some analysts are already saying it’s worth more than $150 million.
Power play: Wind and solar energy are clearly appealing alternatives to 50-year-old coal-powered plants pumping out pollutants. But clean energy sources still face a big hurdle: If the wind’s not blowing or the sun’s not shining, how do you keep the lights on? That’s the key to wind and solar becoming core components of the power grid and it’s why a lot of researchers are trying to find ways to cheaply and efficiently store energy that comes from renewable sources. Danielle Fong, chief scientist for an California company called LightSail Energy, is focusing on a process in which wind and solar power would be converted to compressed air. Then, when needed, it could be expanded to drive turbines that support the power grid. Fong’s only 24, but based on her credentials, you have to think that she has as good a shot as anyone at solving this one. At the age of 12 she was taking college-level physics sources; at 17, she was studying nuclear fusion at Princeton.
Copy that: It’s easy to get carried away with the potential of 3-D printers. Imagine being able to download specs for a part you need, then printing it out in your home office. Or have your kids or grandkids use it to build toys they designed themselves. The reality, though, is that it’s likely to be years, maybe even a decade, before they’re as common as PCs in our homes. But if it does happen sooner rather than later, Bre Pettis and MakerBot, the Brooklyn-based outfit he heads as CEO, will have a lot to do with it. They’ve brought the cost of 3-D printers down to about $1,000 and just last week unveiled the MakerBot Duplicator, which prints objects in two colors. But for Pettis, it’s not just about building a business; he once was a teacher and one of his dreams is to bring 3-D printers into the classroom where they can really tap into kids’ creativity.
When cheese says cheese: If most of us had seen what Alexa Andrzejewski did a few years ago while visiting Japan and South Korea, we probably would have dismissed it as slightly bizarre dining behavior and gone back to our meal we couldn’t pronounce. But Andrzejewski, a one-time graphic designer, thought there was something to it. What she saw was people taking pictures of their meals with their cell phones. She first thought about doing a picture book of exotic meals. But she ultimately concluded that she may have found a way to differentiate a business from all of the restaurant mobile apps out there. Why not provide diner reviews of specific meals and build them around photos of the food so people could see what they’d be ordering.
That was the genesis of Foodspotting, a mobile app that shows you pictures of meals that are near where you are at the moment. Or as Andrzejewki puts it, it’s like gazing at the windows of a bakery, except you’re staring at your phone. Now the company is looking for ways to build its business by partnering with apps that let diners know about deals and working with restaurants that want to promote their specials. It also plans to release a new version of its app, one that suggests nearby meals based on your preferences.
Thanks for sharing: The latest estimates are that by 2050, 70 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas. Already, 21 mega-cities have populations of 10 to 20 million. I’ll go out on a limb and say we’re going to need some pretty innovative thinking about urban life over the next decade if we’re going to keep cities liveable. One person who’s been giving this a lot of thought is Alex Steffen. He’s the author of Worldchanging: A User’s Guide For the 21st Century, which was updated last year. He’s also been called a futurist and he is, but in a practical way. Steffen’s very big, for instance, on the growth of a culture within cities where people share instead of own, whether it’s cars, sports equipment or power drills. He also knows that it’s going to take a lot more than putting plants and trees on rooftops to make cities sustainable and keep them from, as he puts it, “stealing the future.”
Good reads: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention other bloggers worth watching this year because of their insightful takes on all things innovative, starting with Dominic Basulto, who works at Electric Artists in New York, but whose writing appears regularly at at Ideas@Innovation at WashingtonPost.com and at BigThink.com. Another deserving a visit is David Dobbs’ “Neuron Culture“ blog for Wired.com. And to stay on top of the latest tech, stop by when you can at the “Bits” blog on the New York Times website.
Video Bonus: Salman Khan has made a big splash with his Khan Academy, built around low-tech, conversational educational videos. Check out his TED Talk from last year on using video to reinvent education.
September 21, 2011
I once made a loan to Solyndra
And suddenly I found
How hideous a loan can be.”
–Sung to the melody of “Maria” from West Side Story
Okay, that’s not quite how Stephen Sondheim wrote it, but as company names go, Solyndra is a pretty sweet sound. Until a few weeks ago. Now it’s the dirtiest word in the clean energy business. It’s also a sure bet that Barack Obama doesn’t break into song when he thinks about it. On the last day of August, Solyndra declared bankruptcy, laid off 1,100 workers and walked away from a $535 million government loan.
A quick refresher: Solyndra was a California outfit that devised an innovative solar panel and the first renewable energy firm to land a big loan guarantee from Department of Energy as part of the 2009 stimulus package. President Obama hailed it as one of the companies “leading the way toward a brighter, more prosperous future.”
A week ago there was another public event in Washington that kinda got lost amid the Solyndra swirl. Big-name CEOs—Bill Gates, General Electric’s Jeffrey Immelt, Xerox’ Ursula Burns, to name a few—said the federal government needs to continue investing in research to develop energy sources because most companies no longer are willing to sink money into ventures that may not pay off for years and years.
It’s a forward-thinking sentiment, but what we don’t know, and won’t for awhile, is whether it will survive the Solyndra stigma.
That said, there’s still an unusual collection of big players placing bets on renewable energy. Among them:
- The U.S. military: Last month the Marines invited 13 companies to a base in the California desert to pitch their ideas for solar products and energy efficiency on the battlefield. The Army, meanwhile, is encouraging private companies to build large solar energy projects on land owned by the military, with the hope of eventually cutting its energy costs. And while not funded by the military, another project called SolarStrong will use a $344 million federal loan guarantee to install solar panels on up to 160,000 rooftops at 124 military bases.
- Google: The sultan of search is still saying it hopes to one day make renewable energy cheaper than coal. Last spring it announced a $168 million investment in the giant Ivanpah solar thermal project in the Mojave Desert. A week later it promised to pump $100 million into the country’s largest wind farm, being built in Oregon. Google has even used its flair for analytics to figure out how to make the solar panels on its own buildings twice as efficient.
- Samsung: Early this year the South Korean high-tech giant committed to spending many boatloads of money—almost $7 billion—to build wind turbine and solar module manufacturing plants in Ontario, Canada.
- China: Big surprise, right? It now manufactures 40 percent of the solar panels produced in the world and had $48.9 billion in renewable energy investments last year—almost double the U.S. total. It also now has twice as much installed renewable energy capacity as the U.S. And Chinese companies keep looking for investment opportunities in America. Yesterday the Xinjiang Goldwind Science and Technology Company announced that it will spend $200 million to build a wind farm in Illinois.
A Mightier Wind
Wind power, meanwhile, has managed to stay out of the headlines. But recently there was news from Japan about a new kind of turbine that could be a game-changer. Called a wind lens, it encircles the turbine blades with a brim. Its inventor says it can generate two to three times more energy than the conventional model.
Bonus: Have you hugged an infographic today? Here’s your chance.