Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 25, 2015

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Issue 25, 2015

This week's headlines:

Warmest ever superconductor works at Antarctic temperatures
August 19, 2015

Superconductors have just reached a new high. A material has been shown to transmit electricity with no resistance at the highest temperatures ever: the chilly conditions you might experience in Antarctica.

Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany, used a diamond anvil to squeeze a tiny quantity of hydrogen sulphide to almost 1.6 million times atmospheric pressure. They found that it transformed into a material that superconducted at temperatures as high as -70 °C, breaking the previous record of around -110 °C.

They’re not sure why it works, but it could have to do with the material’s light hydrogen ions, which help electrons form pairs – a configuration that lets current travel more swiftly. The researchers hope the new record will be beaten. There are a lot of materials to try which could have even higher thresholds, they say.

Superconductors can sustain a current indefinitely without an energy top-up, and finding ones that work at room temperature would spell a revolution in electronics.

Full story: New Scientist / Nature Back to top

Turning CO2 from air into car parts may help carbon capture pay
August 19, 2015

All that extra CO2 clogging our atmosphere might be useful for something new. In a new process, developed by researchers from George Washington University in Washington DC, the carbon from piped-in air is spun into tiny nanofibres – a raw material used to build strong composites such as those used in aircraft, fitness equipment and sports cars.

Carbon nanofibres sell for about USD 25,000 per ton, but making a ton of them using this process would cost only about USD 1000, according to the team’s calculations.

The technique works in an electrolytic cell, in which atmospheric carbon is dissolved into a vat of lithium carbonate. Nanofibres grow in threads that look like steel wool from electrodes made of steel, sprouting from tiny amounts of nickel, cobalt or copper.

So far, the team’s efforts to scale up from one amp of current for growing nanofibres to 100 have revealed no unexpected snags. The electric current could come from conventional sources – which might offset the technique’s carbon-sucking potency – but the team has also successfully run it on solar power.

If extrapolated to very large scales, the process could in theory have an enormous impact on fighting climate change. The researchers claim that with a physical area less than 10% the size of the Sahara desert, the process could remove enough CO2 to decrease atmospheric levels to those of the pre-industrial revolution within 10 years.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Artificial photosynthesis 'could power homes in a few years'
August 18, 2015

Figures indicate that the world’s uptake of renewable energy has finally eclipsed its demand for fossil fuel sources, and now a record-breaking solar device made by Australian scientists could mean a whole new category of clean energy production is just around the corner.

Researchers at Monash University in Melbourne have successfully developed the world’s most energy-efficient artificial photosynthesis technique, which effectively mimics plant-based photosynthesis by using solar energy to convert water into hydrogen. The process, which creates hydrogen and oxygen by running an electric current through water, could be used to inexpensively power our homes and cars in just a few years, say the researchers.

Success in the field of artificial photosynthesis normally means achieving an energy efficiency of above 10%. In this case the team’s system goes above and beyond, reaching 22.4%. While it’s not a particularly massive gain on the previous record – which stood at 18% - the team was able to hit its result using nickel as a catalyst. This is significant because previous methods required using precious metals, whereas nickel is inexpensive, abundant, and offers great stability.

Another innovation is that the Monash system can run on river water, which the researchers say will allow it to be implemented easily in a number of geographic locations. The applications for the technology are massive, with hydrogen suitable for powering all kinds of technologies.

Full story: Science Alert / Energy & Environmental Science Back to top

Bug-killing book pages clean murky drinking water
August 16, 2015

A book with pages that can be torn out to filter drinking water has proved effective in its first field trials. The 'drinkable book', developed by researchers from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, combines treated paper with printed information on how and why water should be filtered.

The book's pages contain nanoparticles of silver or copper, which kill bacteria in the water as it passes through.

In trials at 25 contaminated water sources in South Africa, Ghana and Bangladesh, the paper successfully removed more than 99% of bacteria. The resulting levels of contamination are similar to US tap water, the researchers say. Tiny amounts of silver or copper also leached into the water, but these were well below safety limits.

According to tests, one page can clean up to 100 litres of water. A book could filter one person's water supply for four years. Instructions are printed on the book's pages, in English as well as the local language

The researchers are hoping to step up production of the paper, which is currently made by hand, and move on to trials in which local residents use the filters themselves.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

New batteries could last a lifetime
August 20, 2015

Researchers have developed a new material for a basic battery component that they say will enable almost indefinite power storage. The new material - a solid electrolyte - could not only increase battery life, but also storage capacity and safety.

Today's common lithium-ion batteries use a liquid electrolyte - an organic solvent that has been responsible for overheating and fires in cars, commercial airliners and cell phones. With a solid electrolyte, there's no safety problem. Additionally, with a solid-state electrolyte, there's virtually no degradation, meaning such batteries could last through hundreds of thousands of cycles, according to the researchers.

Organic electrolytes also have limited electrochemical stability, meaning they lose their ability to produce an electrical charge over time. Along with MIT, scientists from the Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology, the University of California at San Diego and the University of Maryland conducted the research.

A past problem with solid electrolytes is that they could not conduct ions fast enough to be efficient energy producers. The MIT/Samsung team says it overcame that problem. Another advantage of a solid-state lithium-ion battery is that it can perform under frigid temperatures.

Full story: Infoworld / Nature Materials Back to top

Boeing's patent reveals a drone that transforms into a submarine
August 20, 2015

Boeing's latest patent application is yet more evidence of just how rapidly drone technology is advancing: it shows an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) that can, at a moment's notice, swoop down into the depths of the ocean and continue its journey underwater. The official name for this equipment is a 'rapid deployment air and water vehicle'.

The device is ultimately intended for military use. The drone is theoretically launched from an aircraft carrier, and once it decides the time has come to hit the water, portions of the wings are detached and abandoned to reduce drag. The drone can then continue on its exploratory mission before resurfacing to report back to base. Once under the water, a buoyancy tank helps keep the craft moving along its route, and a second set of propellers are engaged.

As Boeing notes in its patent applications, UAVs and UUVs of this sort are typically dispatched in situations where it's too expensive or too dangerous to send a human being. Provided they're kitted out with enough cameras and sensory equipment, they can act as eyes and ears to the human operators back at base, which may be thousands of kilometres away. Boeing also has commercial viability in mind, because building a drone that can cope with both air and water is ultimately cheaper than building one for each scenario.

Full story: Science Alert Back to top