Batteries: Going viral

22. November 2013

Date: 21-11-2013

Source: The Economist

Modified viruses help researchers boost battery performance

BUILDING a better battery has become an intense area of research. A device that could store more power in the same amount of weight as widely used lithium-ion cells could, for instance, allow smartphones to run for weeks on a single charge or an electric car to be driven non-stop for hundreds of kilometres. Among the alternatives being explored, lithium-air batteries are a favourite. But they can be tricky to make and unreliable. Now researchers have found a way to overcome some of those shortcomings with the help of genetically modified viruses.

Using viruses to make batteries is not new:

Angela Belcher and her colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) demonstrated in 2009 that it was possible by getting modified viruses to coat themselves with the necessary materials required for the anode and cathode in a small button-sized lithium-ion cell.

Lithium-air batteries oxidise lithium at the anode and reduce oxygen at the cathode to induce a current flow. Because the oxygen comes from the air there is no need for some of the relatively heavy internal materials used in other types of battery. That promises a greatly increased energy density (the amount of power that can be stored in a given weight of battery).  Read the rest of this entry »

Is 3D printing the key to Utopia?

14. May 2012

Date: 14-05-2012
Source: The Observer

The ‘magic’ of digital manufacturing could transform our homes and the industries that serve them. But at what cost?
 Magic trick: a 3D printer makes a plastic rabbit. Photograph: David Neff

You know the problem: the dishwasher that has cleaned your dishes faithfully for 15 years suddenly stops working. You call out a repairman who identifies the problem: the filter unit has finally given up the ghost. “Ah,” you say, much relieved, “can you fit a new one?” At which point the chap shakes his head sorrowfully. No can do, he explains. The company that made the machine was taken over years ago by another outfit and they no longer supply spares for your ancient machine.

Up until now, this story would have had a predictable ending in which you sorrowfully junked your trusty dishwasher and bought a new one. But there’s an emerging technology that could change that. It’s called three-dimensional printing. Read the rest of this entry »

Simplify and repeat

1. May 2012

Date: 30-04-2012
Source: The Economist: Schumpeter

The best way to deal with growing complexity may be to keep things simple

IN 1932, as the global economy collapsed, a Danish carpenter called Ole Kirk Kristiansen started to supplement his income by selling wooden toys. Eventually he hit on the idea of making toy bricks. He and his son and grandson steadily perfected these bricks. They shifted from wood to plastic. And they made their idea global: today there are 75 bits of Lego for every person on the planet.

In the mid-1990s Lego expanded too feverishly into what business theorists call “adjacencies”: theme parks, television programmes, clothes, watches and learning labs. The firm hit a wall made of bricks, not plastic. After years of dismal results, a new boss in 2004 took Lego back to its roots. The company has not lost its appetite for innovation: you can now design a house or castle online and order the bricks you need to build it. But Lego’s focus is firmly back where it was in its heyday—on little interlocking blocks that turn children of all ages into master builders (and hurt like jagged rocks when you tread on them in your socks). Read the rest of this entry »

What made Steve Jobs a giant among the world’s greatest communicators?

30. August 2011

Date: 28-08-2011
Source: The Guardian

Steve Jobs rescued Apple from near oblivion and turned it into a byword for quality, production values and beauty

Steve Jobs in his Los Angeles office in 1981, five years after he co-founded Apple. Photograph: Tony Korody/Corbis

Steve Jobs’s resignation was the most discussed in corporate history. Because his illness has been public knowledge for so long, and because Wall Street and the commentariat viewed his health as being synonymous with that of his company, for years Apple share prices have fluctuated with its CEO’s temperature. If all the “Whither Apple without Jobs?” articles were laid end to end, they would cover quite a distance – but they never reached a conclusion.

Still, you could understand the hysteria. After all, he’s the man who rescued Apple from the near-death experience it underwent in the mid-1990s. When he came back in 1996, the company seemed headed for oblivion. Granted, it was a distinctive, quirky outfit, but one that had been run into the ground by mediocre executives who had no vision, no strategy – and no operating system to power its products into the future. Read the rest of this entry »

Three-dimensional printing: An image of the future

21. May 2011

Date: 21-05-2011

Source: The Economist

One of the biggest manufacturers in the world gives 3D printing a go
Waiting for a new print edition

ULTRASOUND scanners are used for tasks as diverse as examining unborn babies and searching for cracks in the fabric of aircraft. They work by sending out pulses of high-frequency sound and then interpreting the reflections as images. To do all this, though, you need a device called a transducer.

Transducers are made from arrays of tiny piezoelectric structures that convert electrical signals into ultrasound waves by vibrating at an appropriate frequency. Their shape focuses the waves so that they penetrate the object being scanned. The waves are then reflected back from areas where there is a change in density and on their return the transducer works in reverse, producing a signal which the scanner can process into a digital image. Read the rest of this entry »

We must learn to love uncertainty and failure, say leading thinkers

24. January 2011

   Date: 15-01-2011
 Source: The Guardian

Planet’s biggest brains answer this year’s Edge question: ‘What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?’

Edge of reason: Doubt and uncertainty are essential elements of the scientific process. Photograph: Getty Images

Being comfortable with uncertainty, knowing the limits of what science can tell us, and understanding the worth of failure are all valuable tools that would improve people’s lives, according to some of the world’s leading thinkers.

The ideas were submitted as part of an annual exercise by the web magazine Edge, which invites scientists, philosophers and artists to opine on a major question of the moment. This year it was, “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?”

The magazine called for “shorthand abstractions” – a way of encapsulating an idea or scientific concept into a short description that could be used as a component of bigger questions. The responses were published online today.

Many responses pointed out that the public often misunderstands the scientific process and the nature of scientific doubt. This can fuel public rows over the significance of disagreements between scientists about controversial issues such as climate change and vaccine safety.

Carlo Rovelli, a physicist at the University of Aix-Marseille, emphasised the uselessness of certainty. He said that the idea of something being “scientifically proven” was practically an oxymoron and that the very foundation of science is to keep the door open to doubt.

“A good scientist is never ‘certain’. Read the rest of this entry »

Pissing Match: Is the World Ready for the Waterless Urinal?

19. July 2010

Source: WIRED

It’s really a beautiful urinal, says James Krug, CEO of Falcon Waterfreee Technolies.

In a laboratory 10 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, a mechanical penis sputters to life. A technician starts a timer as a stream of water erupts from the apparatus’s brass tip, arcing into a urinal mounted exactly 12 inches away. James Krug smiles. His latest back-splatter experiment is under way. Read the rest of this entry »