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Cutting-edge developments in lithium-ion batteries

October 24, 2014

Researchers worldwide continue to refine the design and production of lithium-ion batteries, working to drive down cost and improve safety. Due to the widespread uses of lithium batteries, safety issues have become nearly as important as performance in the development of the technology. Cheaper methods of producing larger lithium-ion batteries have the potential to make waves in several industries, like reducing the cost of electric vehicles. Further improvements from the latest scientific research are set to make lithium batteries even more durable and cost-effective.

Graphene flakes extend battery life
Battery efficiency is one barrier that continues to limit the technological applications of lithium-ion technology. A recent breakthrough from researchers at the Italian Institute of Technology may reduce that barrier by increasing the efficiency of lithium-ion batteries by 25 percent, reported ZDNet. The new battery technique shows promise, reflected by growing interest in the project from auto manufacturers. Innovative implementation of wonder-material graphene was critical to the discovery, and Italian researchers are already developing ambitious plans to refine the technology for industrial use.

Graphene has been used to improve lithium-ion performance in the past, but these experiments had used graphene obtained through chemical processes, such as recovering graphene oxide from graphite oxide. However, this process reduces the chemicals electrical conductivity, limiting its effectiveness as a battery material, the source reported. Researchers at the ITT, lead by lab director Vittorio Pellegrini, approached the challenge of producing graphene from different angle, said ZDNet. Instead of working with chemically modified graphene, the team of scientists developed an exfoliation process to collect graphene from pristine graphite without reductions in the material's conductivity.

Graphene flakes were obtained by the team at ITT by separating graphite into pieces and submerging them within an organic solution before bombarding the mixture with ultrasonic waves, said ZDNet. The process turned graphene into flakes, which were then sorted by thickness by spinning the mixture in a centrifuge. By manipulating the shape of the graphene in the centrifuge, the researchers were able to tailor the properties of the flakes to suit the needs of lithium-ion batteries. ZDNet reported that team discovered that smaller flakes with multiple edges proved to be highly effective at attracting lithium ions, a hint at how the graphene flakes could be utilized to improve lithium uptake performance in batteries.

Next, scientists at the Italian Institute of Technology created an ink out of ideal graphene flakes and used it to coat a copper surface. By utilizing the graphene-coated copper in building a lithium-ion battery, the ITT team was able to achieve a 25 percent increase in battery efficiency. Lengthy testing and refinement of the technique is necessary before it can be implemented at scale, but ZDNet noted that early results are very promising.

Copper safeguard detects fires
Safety issues caused by lithium-ion batteries are very uncommon, so the potential risk is often overlooked, with greater attention devoted to extending battery life. Stanford, however, has put great effort into resolving overheating problems in lithium cells, said IEEE Spectrum.The university's material science department added a copper nanolayer to the separator between the battery's anode and cathode, ready to detect signs of a short circuit without interfering with the flow of lithium ions across the battery.

Specifically, the nanolayer of copper is designed to scan the battery for a large volume of dendrites. When the battery malfunctions, these chains of lithium molecules gather on the cell's anode. The battery will short circuit if dendrites accumulate from one electrode to the other, risking a fire in a laptop or smartphone. IEEE Spectrum explained that Stanford's copper nanolayer reports a voltage drop when dendrites reach the midway point of the battery, signaling that the battery should be replaced immediately.

Quick-manufacturing reduces costs
Scientists at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology recently announced that the school had also achieved a major breakthrough in the production cost of lithium-ion batteries, mitigating another one of the technology's longstanding weaknesses. KIT researchers were able to significantly improve the speed of producing batches of electrode foils, achieving manufacturing speeds exceeding that of factory standards by a factor of three. The huge boost to production speed would also translate to a major reduction in the cost of lithium-ion batteries if the new method is widely implemented.

Integral to the manufacturing of lithium-ion batteries is the production of substrate foils placed near the battery's electrodes. The foils require a coating of additives and carbon to maximize their performance, and KIT sought to streamline this coating process. Researchers developed a quick-moving membrane that uniformly coats 1,000 electrode patterns per minute. The subsequent rate of production, 100 meters per minute, achieved by the device is unprecedented. In fact, the German Engineering Association predicted these speeds would be unattainable for another 15 years.

In addition to being fast, KIT's coating technique is highly accurate and cost-effective. The device makes use of few moving parts, making the technology ideal for integration into factory settings. Improvements to the production method of lithium-ion batteries, along with additional improvements to safety and battery life, will help keep lithium batteries at the top of the energy storage game for years. 

Military-grade cloaking systems no longer science fiction

October 23, 2014

Camouflage has been used for centuries by both militaries and hunters. Even the earliest humans used camouflage to catch their prey unannounced, but human beings were not the first to use camouflage. Far from it - that distinction goes to the animal kingdom, where creatures like octopi and chameleons have long ruled as the masters of camouflage. It should come as no surprise then that scientists have been working to emulate these organic disguise systems and adapt them for use in military applications.

Active vs passive camouflage
Up until now, camouflage has been passive. Soldiers and hunters wear leafy clothing called ghillie suits to conceal themselves in wooded areas. Similarly, they kit themselves out in patterned uniforms that are meant to color match their surroundings. The goal is to disrupt the distinctive human profile of an adult male and make it something less immediately identifiable. Naturally, this requires planning and preparation. You wouldn't want to be wearing jungle camo for a mission in the arctic. Likewise, a ghillie suit would just make you stand out if you were to wear it in the desert. As such, scientists have been working on creating universal active camouflage systems that can adapt to any environment and change to reflect immediate surroundings.

Last August, researchers at the University of Houston published a paper on their cephalopod-inspired optoelectronic camouflage systems. The distinguishing feature of soft-bodied sea creatures like octopi, squid and cuttlefish is their ability to quickly change color to blend in with their surroundings. The result of this research was a device that could identify and adapt to different colors.

The earliest prototype, which was highlighted last August, was only able to operate in black and white, but Cunjiang Yu, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at UH and lead author of the paper, claimed that it could conceivably be redesigned to work on a full color spectrum. The prototype was also very small - less than 1 square inch - but Yu said that it could eventually be scaled up for manufacturing.

So what does it look like? The active camouflage device developed by Yu and his team is a flexible skin that is composed of several ultrathin layers. It combines semiconductor actuators, switching components and light sensors with inorganic reflectors and organic color-changing materials that allow for autonomous matching of background colors. Put more simply, it is artificial octopus skin, which means that it features all of the same attributes with two unique exceptions: the iridophores and the central ocular organs.

It will likely be a long time before civilian hunters get access to this kind of tech, but it might be shipping off to the armed forces sooner than you would expect. Active camouflage has been a high priority of the military for a long time, especially for the protection of critical assets like tanks and helicopters. These massive war machines serve a very specific purpose in war and are incredibly effective at neutralizing armored targets, but they are vulnerable to sabotage and rocket strikes. Active camouflage would give armored military assets an extra edge on the battlefield by obscuring them from enemy scouts and marksmen.

Stealth tanks and chameleons 
Recently, Reuters posted a video featuring a newly developed stealth tank designed by Polish military scientists that will replace traditional camouflage paint with thousands of electrochromic plates that continuously change color to blend in with its surroundings. The concept tank , referred to as PL-01, will be tested over the next few years to hammer out some of the bugs before moving to the battlefield.

While the scientists at UH drew their inspiration from cephalopods, the Polish scientists derived their active camouflage from the capabilities of chameleons, the tiny color-changing lizards that are often kept as household pets. The first challenge was to get each pixel of the active camouflage to continually adapt to the colors of its surroundings. In order to accomplish this feat, tiny cameras convey color information based on positioning to the electrochromic plates. The plates then change their color to best match the information they are receiving. At the moment, this system is only able to mask stationary objects, which means the tank cannot be actively engaged if it is to remain hidden. However, by increasing the processing power and adaptability of the plates, the Polish engineering team hopes to increase the reaction time of the active camo system, so it will be able to remain engaged while the vehicle is moving.

The new stealth tank isn't just camouflaged from sight - it's also equipped with radar-absorbing material and thermal-dampening equipment. This means that the PL-01 will also be shrouded from the prying eyes of thermal imaging sensors and even radar. The element of surprise is crucial in warfare, and with this much stealth technology, the Polish stealth tank is sure to be a force to be reckoned with.

New applications for laser technology

October 22, 2014

From the scientific to defensive and even entertainment, lasers have been used for decades in a plethora of different industries. We use lasers to read CDs, detect the speed of moving objects and point at chalk boards. They're also used to track satellites, trigger alarm systems and target weaponry, but lasers have still not begun to meet their true potential. A signature of science fiction, the weaponized potential of laser beams has long been a fantasy perpetuated by movies like "Star Wars." However, it has only been very recently that the technology has advanced enough to begin using lasers for military applications.

Lasers for defense 
Over the past two decades, America has been engaged in two wars and several military conflicts. During these operations, much of the armed forces' military strength has come from superior air support, especially in the form of military helicopters. Helicopters are amazingly versatile, and they can get into and out of hot zones in next to no time. However, their predictable movement patterns and propensity to hover in one spot make them significant targets for rocket and missile fire.

In order to protect these valuable assets, Omni Sciences, Inc, a University of Michigan spin-off company, has been developing laser defense systems that can protect helicopters from incoming missiles. Although the root of this technology has been around for a while, most anti-missile laser defense systems are complex in design and therefore fragile. According to Mohammed Islam, a professor in the department of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan, existing laser-based infrared countermeasures employ 84 pieces of moving optics, which means they simply are not durable enough to stand up to the turbulence associated with helicopter flight. In brief, they would literally be shaken to pieces if installed in a chopper.

Design challenges
In response to this challenge, Islam and his team of researchers set out to design a pared-down laser-defense system that could withstand the shaking, bumping and rattling associated with helicopters. The idea behind their concept was to minimize the moving parts and use technology that is relatively simple and inexpensive, so it can be replaced on the cheap if it is disabled. For this, Islam turned to off-the-shelf telecommunications fiber optics and a portable mid-infrared supercontinuum laser. Using these components, the Omni Science team was able to design a laser-defense system that can blind heat-seeking weapons from a distance of 1.8 miles.

This is accomplished thanks to the broad spectrum of wavelengths emitted by supercontinuum lasers. These devices are able to discharge tight columns of white light that emit a significant amount of heat. When targeting an inbound heat-seeking missile, the laser mimics the electromagnetic signature of a helicopter's engine, confusing the incoming weapon. This causes the missile to deviate course or detonate prematurely, thus protecting the helicopter. Moreover, because of the simple, inexpensive design, these new systems can be installed on helicopters, and they will continue to function even in the diciest conditions.

A picture of things to come
Defense is one thing, but if there is one thing that every science fiction junkie wants to see, it's a laser gun.  Although scientists at the Laser Center of the Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences and the Faculty of Physics at the University of Warsaw aren't about to release a weapon, they have taken photos of what the blasts from such a device might look like. At the Laser Center, scientists have been filming the passage of an ultra​-short laser pulse through the air. The trick to this, interestingly, is not producing the laser pulse, but rather capturing it on film. Camera technology nowhere near advanced enough to detect such a pulse - they would need to record at billions of frames per second, which is simply not feasible.

Instead, the researchers from the laser center adapted an old photography trick to their purposes. The team synchronized a camera to take a series of photos timed with a laser that generated pulses at approximately 10 shots per second. This resulted in a sequence of images that ,when they were put together, revealed a complete rendering of the laser pulse.

Capturing an instant
The laser pulses only lasted a dozen or so femtoseconds, which are millionths of a billionth of a second, and were generated by a device constructed at the laser center. The pulse was so powerful that it instantaneously ionized the atoms it encountered. The result of this ionization was a thin plasma fiber or filament that formed alongside the pulse, which acted as an insulating and focusing element. Instead of dispersing as it hit these particles, the plasma fiber focused the beam, allowing it to travel much farther than it otherwise could without diminishing its power.

Yuriy Stepanenko, team leader of the project, spoke about the findings of this experiment.

"It is worth noting that although the light we are shooting from the laser is in the near-infrared range, a laser beam like this traveling through the air changes color to white," Stepanenko explained. "This happens since the interaction of the pulse with the plasma generates light of many different wavelengths. Received simultaneously, these waves give the impression of white."

The whiteness of the pulse was an interesting finding for the team, since it provides a greater wealth of information about the atoms and molecules in the air around the pulse. This attribute has proven helpful in remotely studying atmospheric pollution among other applications.

Looking forward
Infrared lasers are one of the most low-powered variants, so the pulses generated by Stepanenko and his team are far from lethal. However, this most recent experiment does give an impression of what a blast from a laser gun may look like and how it could potentially function. 

Metamaterial research continues to open new doors for scientists

October 24, 2014

Researchers worldwide are putting great effort into developing the many applications of metamaterials. By engineering regular materials into artificial arrangements at the molecular level, scientists are able to produce materials with behaviors that are impossible to find in nature. Adjustments to a material's molecular geometry may have a significant effect on the way that light interacts with the object, improve its durability or enhance a material with useful properties like greater conductivity. The potential for discovering new material applications through molecular structure manipulation seems limitless, and recent insights discovered through metamaterial research point toward bold new possibilities.

Epsilon-near-zero applications
Basque Research reported that engineer and doctoral candidate Victor Torres, while studying at the Public University of Navarre, has invented three innovative items that take advantage of metamaterials. His work included research into the properties of epsilon-near-zero particles, which allow waves to travel through them at near-infinite speed with very little energy loss. ENZ metamaterials maintain their special properties regardless of how their molecules are geometrically arranged, making the unique material extremely versatile.

Torres developed a way to use ENZ metamaterials to produce highly efficient metallic lenses. The artificial molecular configurations that provide ENZ materials with their special characteristics also imbue lenses made from the material with greater light and radiation-focusing abilities than lenses made from traditional materials. After completing the prototype, Torres and his team developed designs for a smaller lens with comparable performance. The new lenses could help make optics experiments nationwide more cost-effective.

The second device developed by Torres was a gold and silver nanoparticle antenna. The invention detects optical frequencies in a way similar to how normal antenna intercept radio waves. Researchers can utilize the equipment to perform multiple spectroscopy detection experiments at the same time. Finally, Torres developed a new type of transmission medium by arranging metallic materials into configurations that gave the device exceptional waveband characteristics. The metamaterial configuration of the metallic medium was so effective that the device boasted performance levels exceeding those of many products on the market. Torres's ability to produce three unique metamaterial inventions reflects the boundless promise of metamaterials.

Biosensing breakthroughs
The International Society of Optics and Photonics reported that new metamaterial developments may help to accelerate innovation in neuroscience, robotics and biotechnology. Cutting-edge research fields require increasingly complex and precise sensing platforms, and metamaterials may hold the answer to meeting these needs. This is especially relevant for the biomedical industry, where metamaterial-sensing platforms could hold the secrets to next-generation contrast agents, biomarkers and wearable health devices. Advances in this field might even lead to devices that allow patients to self-diagnose conditions with high accuracy. Such technology has the potential to cause a fundamental changes in diagnostic medicine, and greatly influence the landscape of patient health across the country.

Researchers at the University of Arkansas recently published a report on ideal configurations of atomic geometry for producing materials that can act as biological sensors, said SPIE. The results showed that subwavelength structures, resonance energy of meta-atoms and interactions between photons and plasmons all play a part in developing ideal medical sensing technology. The team hopes that the technology can be implemented in the health sector to speed up diagnosis and patient treatment. Advances in the production method would make new optoelectronic devices extremely affordable, allowing even the smallest clinics to provide a full medical diagnosis. Widespread access to this device could save lives in regions with little access to advanced diagnostic equipment.

Vivid "squid skin" displays
Metamaterial research is as useful for creating innovative components for electronics as it is ideal for biomedical and industrial applications. In fact, a metamaterial experiment performed at Rice University recently produced a vivid, full-color display that rivals the richness of picture quality seen on modern LCD monitors, according to R&D Magazine. Developed by the Rice's Laboratory for Nanophotonics, the color display is a key component of an ongoing project to design a color-shifting metamaterial that acts like a squid's skin. When completed, the camouflage will detect light and automatically adjust to match the surrounding colors.

Researches arranged hundreds of aluminum nanorods into pixel configurations, making several adjustments to the length and individual spacing of each nanorod. The scientists at LANP learned that different nanorod configurations produced different hues of red, green and blue. Aluminum, chosen for the material's electromagnetic properties, was used in the nanorod arrays that comprise the display. With the help of physicists for theoretical calculations, the LANP team was able to further refine the configuration of nanorods to display more precise color. Rice researchers aim to combine the aluminum nanorod array with new precision methods for sensing and displaying light to develop a highly responsive instant camouflage.

A breakthrough in Australia draws tractor beams closer to reality

October 23, 2014

A tractor beam that works like the technology depicted in science fiction movies would have endless applications beyond luring cocksure smugglers and their furry alien friends into moon-sized space stations. Physicists and laser experts have labored for years to produce a beam of light capable of attracting and repelling matter, and are still stumped when it comes to scaling the technology for wider applications. A recent discovery by laser experts at the Australian National University may be the breakthrough that sci-fi fans and scientists alike have been searching for.

Star Wars gets real
Physicists at the Australian National University have developed a working tractor beam utilizing a single, hollow laser beam with bright edges and a dark center, according to the ANU website. Researchers have been able to move particles measuring 0.20 millimeter in diameter over a distance of up to 20 centimeters. This distance easily outpaces that of previous tractor beam experiments. Older tractor beam prototypes were only able to move particles by a fraction of the distance achieved by ANU's device, and researchers believe that the tractor beam could move particles over even longer distances if given a larger lab space. The breakthrough is so significant that Professor Wieslaw Krolikowski deemed the successful experiment as "a kind of holy grail for laser physicists."

The tractor beam designed by the Australian National University works by laser heating the particle's surface and surrounding air. The surfaces of particles trapped in the beam heats up as they are bombarded by laser, absorbing energy and producing hot spots on the surface of the particle. Air molecules, trapped in the dark center of the laser beam, collide with the heated particle surface before rebounding in another direction. This interaction impresses a recoil force on the particle, pushing it in the opposite direction of the fleeing air particles.

ANU's technique is also impressive because it employs a single laser beam to attract and repel objects. Laser physicists at the Australian National University are able to carefully control the polarization of the laser beam, subsequently manipulating where hotspots will appear on the particle being heated by the beam. The team can switch between polarization on the fly, and this flexibility allows the university's tractor beam go between pulling and pushing with ease.

An array of possibilities
Fully functional tractor beam technology would have nearly endless applications in a wide variety of industries. CNET pointed  out that the technology could be used to improve pollution collection and help clean up the atmosphere. Alternatively, scientists could use the device to collect samples of dangerous particles from a safe distance. The technology has potential for advancing medical science as well. The New Yorker noted that such a device could improve the effectiveness of medicinal treatment by holding a targeted drug delivery systems in place within the body. With luck, the technology will one day assist astronauts to manipulate objects in outer space.

Recent tractor beam discoveries
NASA took up the challenge of designing a working tractor beam in 2011. The organization invested $100,000 to investigate three methods that showed promise in developing tractor beam technology that could collect and transport items directly to a containment unit. The tool would be a priceless addition to any planet rover or sample-collecting satellite.

The first approach NASA researched was the use of two beams of light to produce an optical vortex. The approach utilized a set of two lasers tuned to different intensities. Scientists were able to move particles caught in the overlap between the two lasers. Another strategy took advantage of electromagnetic properties to drive objects along a light-beam, and this approach showed promise for use in atmosphereless space. NASA also tested a laser beam that moves matter by emitting electric and magnetic fields in the object's path.

The University of St. Andrews and the Institute of Instruments later made a tractor beam breakthrough of their own as recently as January of 2013, according to the school's website. The technique developed by the two organizations generates a unique optical field that manipulates light's radiation pressure on matter trapped in the beam. Light photos naturally exert positive pressure on miniscule matter particles, guiding tiny particles along with the flow of light. The team's research revealed that it is possible to reverse light's radiation pressure under certain conditions.

These conditions are unique to each object, controlled by the particle's size and chemical properties. Scientists also observed that certain conditions influence particles into a configuration that actually reinforces the strength of the laser. A combination of this research and the new device developed by the Australian National University could transform tractor beam technology from bright idea to mainstream.

Rapid advances in 3-D bioprinting rewrite the script for surgery

October 20, 2014

Scientists have had access to methods for creating organs using 3-D printing technology for several years, and the technology is finally beginning to reach its initial stages of maturity. One notable breakthrough that could act as a turning point for the bioprinting community is the recent development of a cost-effective bioprinter by biotech company BioBots and the University of Pennsylvania, according to 3DPrint. The device will be able to put affordable 3-D bioprinting devices in the hands of researchers and non-scientists alike, and this expanded accessibility is bound to help drive innovation.

New technology controls research costs
Any research institution or amateur bioengineer will soon be able to beta test a device designed to print multiple forms of tissue for just $5,000, thanks to research lead by BioBots CEO Daniel Cabrera. The BioBots 3-D printer employs both U-V light and "Blue Light" to harden tissues as they are printed. The printer is able to switch between over a dozen types of tissue and non-organic scaffolding materials on the fly, greatly expanding the complexity of the organs the device can produce.

​In addition to the 3-D bioprinter, BioBots will provide beta testers with several resources in an effort to support innovation by private health organizations and research universities. Those accepted into the beta test will also receive a one-year service agreement from BioBots, software resources and the ability the showcase any developments at BioBots' many scheduled appearances at several upcoming research conferences. Research institutions that are not accepted into the beta test will still be able to purchase the 3-D printer and its peripheral equipment for $25,000. BioBots also promises to provide testers with online channels for collaboration purposes. This widespread testing with the BioBots is sure to help to support current 3-D bioprinting research by cutting costs and streamlining the production of organic tissue.

3-D models provide tools for surgeons
One application where the new BioBots 3-D printer can have an immediate impact is the development of model organs for surgeons. Wired UK reported that surgeons at Kosair's Children's Hospital in Kentucky are utilizing 3-D printing technology to build organs based on the patient's affected tissue. The near-identical model of the heart can be used to give surgeons realistic, hands-on practice with a patient's organ's without performing invasive surgery. This priceless opportunity to simulate surgery's without risking the health of the patients will give surgeons worldwide a significant advantage in completing difficult surgeries once the technique is readily accessible. The price of the BioBots bioprinter will help to put this technique within reach for a larger number of health facilities.

Refining techniques to scale
Widespread access to BioBots' versatile 3-D printer could also help to drive the development of more accurate bioprinters that are closer to producing organs that seamlessly integrate into a patient's body. Modern 3-D bioprinting techniques have been used to create usable implants in orthopedic medicine, but the technology is still limited when it comes to producing functional organs that could be safely implanted into a patient.

Randy Haluck, a surgeon at Penn State Hershey Medical Center, recently offered perspective on the where current 3-D printing technology needs improvement at the school's Bio Life Sciences Future conference, says MedCity News. Haluck noted that the organs produced by current 3-D bioprinters "look more like the organs they're representing rather than function like them" and "need to be about 200 microns from a blood vessel." The BioBots 3-D printer, far cheaper than similar devices on the market that commonly cost as much as $250,000, will be instrumental in helping researchers to refine the 3-D bioprinting techniques and create functioning human organs.

Cutting-edge batteries can charge completely in minutes

October 17, 2014

Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries have become an integral part of everyday life. The innovative batteries can be found in smart phones, power drills, wheelchairs, digital camcorders, portable game consoles, consumer vehicles and space rovers. Lithium-ion batteries are used extensively despite key flaws, including their short life cycle and lengthy charge time, but a new breakthrough by researchers at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University may have helped to minimize these weaknesses. A team led by association professor Chen Xiaodong has invented a new lithium-ion battery that boasts a lifespan of two decades and can be charged to 70 percent in just two minutes.

Nanoparticles key to innovation
Integral to the discovery of quick-charging lithium-ion batteries was the development of a titanium oxide gel used to replace a lithium battery's graphite anode, according to CNET. The gel, comprised of titanium oxide nanoparticles, is able to bond with the battery's electrodes without the need for chemical additives. Eliminating this extra step from the chemical process allows the battery developed by NTU to charge substantially faster than traditional batteries. Professor Chen, who also invented the nanoparticle gel, is currently seeking a Proof-of-Concept grant to develop the new battery at industry scale, according to the Nanyang Technological University website.

Charged with potential
NTU's battery is expected to make its way to the market within two years. Not surprisingly, the innovation has already attracted interest from manufacturers - the list of potential applications for Chen's quick-charging battery is extensive. The discovery has even been praised by famed professor Rachid Yazami, co-developer of the very lithium-graphite anode technology that NTU's titanium dioxide gel was designed to replaced. The battery pioneer, who changed the face of battery design three decades ago, noted that the invention is key for the next generation of battery-powered cars.

CNET noted that the new batteries could allow electrical vehicles to theoretically charge 20 times less often than current litium-ion technology. The increased lifespan of the batteries would ease costs on consumers by requiring fewer and fewer battery replacements over the course of ownership. Reducing the need for replacement batteries will help to slow the production of waste materials as well. If NTU's new battery can address the major shortcomings of electric vehicles, then the invention may also be responsible for new advances in sustainable vehicle design.

Versatile titanium dioxide
Professor Chen's battery is just one of the many areas of research where scientists have found novel use for titanium dioxide nanoparticles. The chemical is cheaply acquired and easy to form into nanostructures, making factory-scale production of products like lithium-ion batteries feasible. Titanium dioxide nanoparticles are also especially adept at the absorption of various toxic chemicals, which makes the material ideal for several industrial and environmental solutions.

Plastic News reported that a team at Johnson Controls Inc. is currently studying the effectiveness of titanium oxide nanoparticles for the removal of volatile organic compounds from car interiors. Researchers hope to use a coating of titanium oxide nanoparticles to remove traces of chemicals used to seal and finish new car interiors. Overexposure to such chemicals can cause adverse health reactions, and manufacturers are required by the EPA to minimize emissions of VOCs.

The ability of titanium dioxide to purify waste materials may even be improved in the near future. Scientists at Tabriz University have found that producing titanium dioxide nanoparticles on a bed of montmorillonite produced a superior decontaminate particle, notes Nanotechnology Now. The composite nanoparticle displayed an even smaller diameter than normal titanium dioxide and was capable of removing 80 percent of test waste from a compromised water source.

New exoskeleton from Lockheed Martin exponentially improves worker productivity

October 15, 2014

Everyone has dreamed of having super powers, but for most of the history of humanity, attributes like x-ray vision or super-strength have been the stuff of comic books and Hollywood movies… until recently. Lockheed Martin, one of the innovating force behind America's armed forces, has created a device that can give workers unsurmountable strength and endurance, and, amazingly, it does not require an external power supply. Dubbed the FORTIS exoskeleton, this device may see use in combat, but its primary mission is to aid behind the scene by granting workers improved stamina.

Engineering solutions
FORTIS is the solution to a very real problem: the limitations of human strength. A Wired article that discusses the exoskeleton cites that most ship workers for the Navy have to carry upwards to 30 pounds of equipment while doing things like sandblasting, riveting and grinding excess metal. Naturally, these tasks are draining, especially when carrying that much weight. The article claims that even the most skilled and physical capable workers can only work for three or four minutes before they need to put their tools down and take a break. Imagine if you had to break every three or four minutes at your job just to be able to rest. How would that affect your productivity?

FORTIS is designed with exactly these parameters in mind. The exoskeleton can support up to 36 pounds by transferring the weight from the hands and arms of a worker to the ground. The Navy has already purchased two of these exoskeletons and intends to evaluate their effectiveness over the next six months to determine how useful they are in an industrial setting.

Pared down and sleek
This is not the first foray into exoskeleton technology for the U.S. armed services. Last year, DARPA revealed the tactical assault light operator suit, or TALOS, which is meant exclusively for military engagements. Unlike the FORTIS, TALOS is powered, so it can carry significantly heavier loads. It is also equipped with liquid armor capable of stopping high-caliber bullets and frag. Lightweight batteries also serve to power a built-in computer, night vision and sensors that monitor vital signs and apply wound-sealing foam. In comparison, FORTIS looks like a mini-van sitting next to a super car.

That, however, is part of the appeal. FORTIS is meant to be functional, affordable and widely available. The entire apparatus only weighs 30 pounds, so it is easily moved and donned by a single person. FORTIS is made from anodized aluminum and carbon fiber, and is worn on the outside of normal work clothes. It's joints correspond to the natural joints in a human body, such as ankles, knees and hips, and can flex from side to side at the waist. While wearing the exoskeleton, users do not suffer from reduced mobility - they can climb stairs and ladders, squat and crawl. Tools can be mounted to the front of the device, and that weight is directed through FORTIS' joints to the floor, relieving much of the stress of carrying and using cumbersome tools.

Improved functionality with no compromise
The engineers at Lockheed Martin designed FORTIS by analyzing the ways in which the human body moves as well as the stress points that are first affected by physical exhaustion. With this in mind, FORTIS is able to transfer the weight of its load, as well as its own weight, directly to the ground, not the feet of the user. This is important because feet are often one of the first parts of the body to be affected by the discomfort caused by physical exhaustion. The Wired article likens the difference to jogging in uncomfortable, ill-fitting shoes versus specialized running sneakers.

The source claims that FORTIS has already been able to increase worker productivity by as much as 27 times. For instance, the team timed how long a worker could hold a 16-pound grinder overhead without having to rest his arms. Without any mechanical assistance, the test subject was able to work continuously for approximately three minutes. While wearing the FORTIS exoskeleton, the test subject was able to work for over half an hour before requiring a short break.

Civilian uses
Although the FORTIS was designed for use by the armed services in its shipyards, this technology will surely prove useful to other, civilian industries. For example, mining and construction are two obvious areas that would benefit from Lockheed Martin's new exoskeleton. Of course, any worker who has to work with heavy objects or operate tools over their heads, such as dock and warehouse workers, would also want a FORTIS.

Quantum computing may help to address the robotics industry's shortcomings

October 7, 2014

While the field of modern robotics has made amazing advances in the past decade, the industry is still short of reaching the standards of science fiction. Robots are capable of walking on two legs, but still have difficulties dealing with uneven surfaces and unexpected obstacles. Factory machines have taken over jobs that are dangerous for humans, but simple artificial intelligence has lead to several robot-related fatalities. Robots are still incapable of thinking for themselves, and this limitation has stunted the development of humanity's inorganic helpers. Quantum computing research at the University of Innsbruck and the Complutense University of Madrid may may be the key to reaching the next era of robotics.

Quantum in action
The challenge of helping robots to think for themselves is also the challenge of designing computers that are as powerful as the human brain. An article from ExtremeTech reports that over 80,000 processors are needed to simulate just one second of human brain activity, so achieving this goal with current technology seems impossible. Thankfully, quantum computing offers new doors to scientists, programmers and engineers.

Quantum computing make use of quantum states and quantum systems to perform calculations that are far more complex than those possible with normal computers, according to sinc. Key to the ability of quantum computers to perform faster, more complicated computations is a phenomenon called "quantum reinforcement learning." When quantum states (energy level, spin, magnetism, angular momentum) are superimposed across multiple systems, the adjacent states naturally adopt and reinforce the behaviors of their neighbors. This quantum behavior is known as "quantum logic." Quantum systems are able to facilitate numerous computations of quantum states occurring concurrently, and this property allows quantum computers to deal with an exponentially greater volume of data than today's most powerful computers.

Quantum computers are also ideal for robotics thanks to a process referred to as "quantum searching." An quantum system's entire set of states can be measured simultaneously, allowing a quantum computer to quickly isolate information that corresponds with a specific quantum state in the system. This process is referred to as "Quantum Random Walks" according to the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology.

Overcoming AI
Advances in quantum computing translate directly to new opportunities for the science of robotics. After all, quantum robots are quantum computer systems loaded onto physical hardware and programmed to perform certain tasks. These quantum computer systems would include searching algorithms and reinforcement learning algorithms to help robots move beyond the limitations of modern artificial intelligence.

This technology would provide robots with a capacity to learn that has never before been seen. Searching algorithms will make it easier for robots to identify and apply proper programming in every environment, while quantum reinforcement learning assists the entire system in solving complex problems. A switch to quantum computing would also greatly expand the types of complex actions that a robot could perform. Miguel A. Martin-Delgado, a researcher at the Complutense University of Madrid, noted that quantum computing breakthroughs give researchers more room to build robots that are "adapting better to environments where the classic agent does not survive." Quantum robots have the capacity to generate their own solution based on information collected from the environment, just like human beings, according to sinc.

Uniting dreamers and pragmatists
The promise of a quantum robots creates an opportunity for the robotics industry to move even further into the mainstream. Space rovers will have more tools for analyzing the delicate ecosystems found on other planets, while weather robots could be used to identify slight fluctuations in magnetic, helping humans to anticipate natural disasters. In countries that have already invested heavily in robotics solutions, like Japan, the potential for alleviating societal ills with the help of robots skyrockets immensely with quantum robotics.

The key to these advancements is the ability of quantum robots to perform tasks far more complex operations than classical robots, and IEEE Spectrum notes that this technological limitations prevent manufacturers from completely committing to robotics. Companies prefer to play it safe with machines that are unambitious in design and adept at performing a single, uncomplicated procedure. Quantum robots, an era beyond the simple mechanized arms found in today's factories, will provide more tempting investments for investors.

Ironically, the standards for evaluating a quantum robot's aesthetic quality are unlikely to differ much from how modern robots are measured. Clean lines, inviting colors and human-like features are sure to dominate quantum robot designs as much as they influence the design of current machines. Dmitry Grishin, co-founder of one of the Russia's tech giants, bluntly encapsulated these aesthetic requirements in a recent interview with IEEE Spectrum. He stresses that visually interesting designs are crucial because, "nobody will buy an ugly robot."

New detection technique used gold nanoparticles to read plasmons

October 10, 2014

A team of researchers at the University of Washington in St. Louis has discovered a new application for gold nanoparticles that could make waves in forensics, improve the effectiveness of bomb squads and help environmental scientists to detect pollutants. By coating laboratory filter paper with a gold nanoparticle substrate, researchers were able to create a "plasmonic paper," a powerful new detection tool that can characterize tiny amounts of relevant molecules. The discovery is both notable for the widespread potential applications of plasmonic paper and for advancing a commonly utilized lab technique known as surface-enhanced Raman scattering.

Enter plasmonic paper
The research team was lead by assistant professor of mechanical engineering Srikanth Singamaneni and postdoctoral scholar Limei Tian. Singamaneni and Tian produced the new detection tool by submerging cellulosic filter paper in a gold nanoparticle solution. The team hoped to create a simple visual-detection platform that could be easily used in the field to detect trace chemicals or fingerprints. The tool is particularly impressive for both enhancing the signal of detectable chemicals and for collecting protein samples that produce optical clues as they bind to the gold paper. In an article hosted by Science Daily, Tian noted that these properties make plasmonic paper uniquely advantageous for homeland defense, diagnostic science and environmental protection.

The plasmonic paper technology devised by Tian and Singamaneni is far from perfect, however. The scientists noted that the technology is not yet able to distinguish between the wide range of trace chemicals that exist in the "chemical space" encountered by police, soldiers and physicians in the field. Though the technique is effective enough to identify molecules that might predict cancer, scientists lack a strategy for making the process sufficiently selective for real-world applications. The team plans to overcome this barrier by incorporating biomimetic target-recognition elements into the gold nanoparticle substrate.

Utilizing gold in SERS
The lab technique utilized by University of Washington team in developing plasmonic paper is called surface-enhanced Raman scattering.  SERS takes advantage of the Raman photon scattering that occurs when a trace chemical comes in contact with the surface of a metallic nanoparticle, according to the International Society for Optics and Phonotics. The energy carried by scattered photons corresponds with the energy of the molecule the photon was originally scattered from, and this property allows scientists to use Raman scattering as a means of distinguishing the identity of unknown molecules.

Previously, experiments with SERS utilized nanoparticle substrates made from glass, alumina or silicon. These substances are commonly used in nanoparticle science, so the academic community is quite experienced with manipulating the surfaces of these nanoparticles and utilizing their unique properties for lithography. Substrates made from glass or silicon are typically stiff and brittle, which makes them ineffective for collecting samples with a swab or from a rounded surface. This limitation has also posed a barrier for utilizing surface-enhanced Raman scattering in the field.

Tian and her team aimed to resolve these issues by creating a substrate that employed gold nanorods. In addition to having different physical properties as glass substrates, gold nanorods can be tuned to react to a specific localized surface plasmon resonance. This tuning enhances the plasmonic paper's ability to detect plasmons being emitted from a material surface.

Russian rivals
The researchers at the University of Washington aren't the only team to take advantage of gold nanoparticles to refine surface-enhanced Raman scattering. A report from NanoTechWeb reveals that a group research project by the Institute of Laser and Information Technologies and Institute of Biochemistry and Physiology of Plants and Microorganisms in Russia have developed a similar technique using ring-shaped arrangements of gold nanoparticles. Queen Mary University in the United Kingdom is also contributing to the research.

Russian scientists approached the University of Washington's problem from a different angle. The research team aimed to use colloidal gold to enhance the strength of Raman signals by passing them through nanoscale gaps between gold particles. However, the process of ordering colloidal gold into a manageable nanoparticle array proved to be prohibitively difficult. Researchers got around this problem by instead producing high-quality silica colloidal crystals at the appropriate scale and then coating said crystals with gold nanoparticles. The result was a highly repeatable SERS response that offered greater than 10 times the enhancement of a random nanoparticle assembly. There is likely potential for cross-application between this technique and the one devised by Tian and Singamaneni. For instance, the Russian model of gold nanoparticle SERS analysis could be used to provide greater selectivity to the plasmonic paper devised at the University of Washington.