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Solar Impulse Concept Plane Unveiled

Illustration credit: Solar Impulse  |  Artist's conception of the HB-SIA in flight

Today, Swiss engineers unveil the Solar Impulse HB-SIA prototype plane. As the name suggests, the plane is designed to fly solely on solar power, and its next trick will be a 36-hour test flight early next year. That’s one compete day and one complete night fueled only by rechargeable batteries and sunlight. Its successor is slated for a trans-Atlantic trip sometime in 2012. The final goal is a complete trip around the world.

The two men at the heart of the enterprise—mechanical engineer Andre Borschberg and CEO Bertrand Piccard, who was with the first group that circumnavigated the world in a balloon—have been working since 2003 to make this zero net energy concept vehicle.

Until now, the plane’s design was a closely guarded secret. The vast expanse of carbon composite and silicon has been under construction since 2007, hidden in a hangar on a ghost-town of a Swiss Air Force base in Dübendorf, about a 15-minute train ride north of Zürich.

I got a chance to take a very brief peek at it last summer when I was in town. Rachel Bros de Puechredon, the adorable blond Frenchwoman who is Solar Impulse’s sole press rep, charged ahead of me in sky-high, pointy-toed white stilettos and ordered me to leave my camera behind, and of course swore me to secrecy.

Super secret hangar

Photo credit: Sally Adee | The inside of the hangar, which was divided into two partitions; the first (shown) was where reporters were allowed. The second (semi-visible through far door) was where reporters were not allowed.


The Solar Impulse plane is one sleek monster. Its 61-meter wingspan is equal to that of an Airbus A340, one of the transatlantic behemoths that ferries passengers between London and New York (228 of them). Unfortunately for the solitary pilot of the HB-SIA, all that width is in the service of a tiny sarcophagus suspended from the middle of the mammoth wing.

The tiny cockpit holds the pilot, two batteries and the flight electronics and not an ounce more. It weighs just 1500 kilograms. Compare that to the A340, which weighs 260,000 kg without cargo.

Why the insane ratio of width to weight? It turns out that only these disproportionate dimensions will let the plane coast at the proper cruising speed, which is about 45 kilometers per hour. That’s slow enough for the motors to operate four propellers that can subsist on what's supplied by the solar panels encrusting every inch of the wings (at most 10 HP per motor).

These monocrystalline silicon solar cells convert about 20 percent of incoming solar energy into electricity. The cells, which are not the most state-of-the-art in terms of performance, were chosen more for their weight than their efficiency. The high-grade solar cells on satellites, for example, are made from compounds like gallium indium phosphide and gallium indium arsenide and would weigh down the delicate plane. The plane’s heaviest components are its four 100-kg lithium polymer batteries that store excess incoming power. The long wingspan means less power needs to be produced by the motors to keep the plane perfectly horizontal. It also means greater surface area to hold all 10,748 of those solar cells. (FYI, you can adopt one. I tend to hate cutesy marketing stuff like this, but I admit this one got me.)

The engineers solved the weight challenge, but in the process created another problem. The featherweight vehicle needs to be in complete control at all times; tilt the plane more than 5 degrees and the pilot will likely lose control. Even at the comparatively low altitude of 8500 meters (the max you can go without pressurizing the plane if you don’t want to pass out), this would be bad news for plane and pilot alike.

So it would take something like a trained fighter pilot to keep the massive plane within five degrees of horizontal for 36 hours solid.

As luck would have it, Borschberg was a fighter pilot with the Swiss Air Force. He likes to fly and he’s not afraid of a little risk, as evidenced by the grayish-green tint of Rachel’s face when she picks me up from the train station. On this unusually humid and sweltery day, Switzerland is in the throes of rainstorms extending from Zürich down to Lausanne, 200 km south and home to the research arm of the Solar Impulse enterprise. I’ve opted for the three-hour train ride. Rachel, on the other hand, left Lausanne in the early hours with Borschberg by helicopter. They got about halfway, tumbling around the opaque black sky, before Rachel, moments from vomiting, screamed at him to turn back. He pressed on just a little further (she tells me he’s masterful at pushing his luck just to the limit and not an inch further) before acquiescing, and turning back. They ended up driving.

Photo credit: Sally Adee  | Andre Borschberg in a mockup of the plane's cramped cockpit, training on a flight simulator.


But it’s not just cojones that will get Borschberg through 36 straight hours in the air. Research has shown that sleep deprivation, even just 24 hours, has the effect of a 0.10 blood alcohol level, illegal in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. But they also found that 20 minute-catnaps, spaced out properly, can stall these effects. That’s because a full complement of sleep includes 90-minute cycles of four stages of sleep, each more deep than the previous one, and finally REM sleep, in which the sleeper dreams. The average person has four or five of these 90 minute cycles per night. If you’ve ever been forcibly awakened 40 minutes into a night’s sleep you know how disoriented and groggy you feel. The magic bullet, research has shown, is the 20 minute nap—you’ve entered only the lightest stage of sleep, and on waking you feel completely alert. But how does the team make sure the far-away pilot never stays asleep for more than 20 minutes?

At the Lausanne campus of the Solar Impulse enterprise, they’ve cooked up a special shirt that will make sure he only sleeps in increments of 20 minutes.

You’ll have to read tomorrow’s post for the sexy details.

In the Commercialization of Nanotech It's Rarely about the Technology

 Back in March, the tech news sites were aflutter with news of “nanoball” batteries that can charge a phone in 10 seconds.

Now Spectrum has an article in which a number of scientists are disputing the performance claims made by the MIT researchers who developed the technology. In the article it appears that just lurking beneath the controversy are developing disputes about IP and patent infringement.

Earlier this year, and actually for some time, I have been expecting more news to be coming out on nanotech and batteries. We got a rash of stories and with them expectations of near-term commercialization of these technologies.

I have been recently harping about how research is coming out a dizzying pace over the last few years in nanotech, but there is a shocking lack of commercialization.

The kind of patent and IP hurdles faced above is one factor and others include the shrinking private funding of companies  and a comparatively well-organized group of environmental groups who feel as though they have stumbled upon genetically modified crops and asbestos all wrapped up into one with nanotech.

With these factors it's a wonder that any companies involved in commercializing nanotech make it. Even companies that just a few years ago were touted as a success story are now seemingly falling apart.

There's plenty of blame to go around in this, not the least of which would be some of the poor business practices of these struggling companies, but when lawyers, short-sighted and greedy investors, and rabid NGOs are out to see something fail, it's hard to see how it can possibly succeed.

How To Dispel the Hype Around Nanotech and Alternative Energy?

When oil prices were beginning to plummet from their highs of $150/bbl about this time last year and the stocks for alternative energy companies didn’t start to go down immediately with them, talk began that the economics of alternative energy solutions were beginning to dislodge themselves from the price of oil. That kind of talk was soon drowned out when the economic crisis really began to bloom in the Autumn of 2008.

While the enthusiasm for alternative energy stocks started to come down into the realm of reality, the hope that somehow nanotechnology was going to make solar power and fuel cells suddenly stand on their own two feet without subsidies and make economic sense when compared with fossil fuels continued on. It has proven much harder to dispel this notion, especially in the case of so-called “nano solar”.

I just helped complete an update to a report originally published two years ago on the impact nanotechnology will have on the energy market.

Two years ago, the report presented the somewhat unpopular idea at the time that nanotechnology’s role in improving energy conversion technologies like solar and fuel cells would have a minor economic impact. Instead energy saving would be a large impact area with better insulation, lighter materials and more efficient lighting. Another area that would be key would be energy storage through improved batteries.

But as the report discovered energy conversion just was not going to feel much of an impact from nanotechnology. And it seems that over the last two years the situation has gotten a little worse when it comes to fuel cells.

While it still appears that stationary fuel cells for providing power to office buildings still makes sense, it seems that with the Obama administration’s cutting of government funding for research of hydrogen fuel cells we may finally be moving away from the diversion that fuel cell powered automobiles are going to happen anytime soon, if at all.

Add on to that carbon nanotubes have not proven to be the effective hydrogen storage material many had hoped and the prospects for nanotechnology and hydrogen fuel cells have diminished somewhat over the last two years.

When it comes to nanotechnology and photovoltaics, specifically thin film solar systems, the last few years would be trying on the patience of just about any investor as manufacturing and reliability issues still remain a significant obstacle. The result is that in reality nano-enabled thin film solar will not have much discernible impact on the energy situation until at least 2015.

Now that the context for investment in alternative energy has become a little more rooted to the realities on the ground, it will be interesting to see if the expectations for nanotech in energy (in the near term) comes back down to earth as well.

 

 

Nanotechnology Goes Underground

It seems that concern is brewing that manufacturers may not publicize the use of nanomaterials in their products.

In the often misinformed exuberance of NGOs to rid the earth of evil nanomaterials produced by heartless, monolithic industry, it only makes sense that companies would start downplaying their use of the novel materials. In fact, I rather unimaginatively suggested this would happen here and here.

I wish I could say that these posts were prescient. No, they were just common sense. If one day sulfuric acid was proclaimed as the next wonder material of the world, as a nylon producer you might want to hype how it's used to make your products. But if you begin to see a rather healthy industry developing around the demonization of sulfuric acid, you might want to just talk about how your nylon is perfectly safe and not mention so much the toxic materials used to make it.

But we do love of our conspiracy theories, especially those that involve corporations trying to stick it John Q. Public. I rather enjoyed the one related here in which in 2007 there were 29 mentions of nanotechnology on a cosmetics website, but today zero. Ah hah...it's a brilliantly conceived plot, no doubt.

In the same article in which we get the conspiracy we are actually given another point of view (an increasingly rare occurrence) that it's all just a problem of semantics. If a size definition of nanotechnology could just be agreed upon, all the controversy would be settled.

"Varying definitions leads to claims that the industry is not open with information. But nobody is lying and nobody is misleading the public or authorities. Let's agree on what we're talking about and work together to inform consumers," said Steffi Freidrichs, director of the Nanotechnology Industries Association.

Yeah, it's just a difference between 300nm and 100nm. Problem solved. That's it. Then again, I'm not so sure those that are convinced that big, bad industry are compelled to poison us for the sake of profit are going to be so easily swayed by that argument.

 

 

iPhone 3.0 - The Little Things Mean a Lot

The release of the new iPhone is the Gadget News of the Day, but I'm waiting a few days before getting mine.

If I do. Last time around, it seemed the biggest changes-other than 3G data rates-were in software, and so I'd enjoy most of the upgrade benefits for free on my existing phone. So step one was to update to 3.0 and see if that's true this time around.

The update was straightforward, though I've heard it wasn't for some people, and I'd read that it could easily take an hour even without complications. I wasn't prompted into 3.0, which was odd. When I checked for updates, I was told 3.0 was available, but I had to update to iTunes 8.2, which of course took me into Software Update... hmm, an Airport update, that might be important..., oh, a 268 MB OS update, that would take a long time, skip it for now....

The iPhone update was not even half an hour,, as it turned out. The first things I noticed were not the big-ticket items-Spotlight, Voice Memos, and Cut-or-Copy-and-Paste. Certainly, Cut-and-Paste is a very big deal, especially from the Notes app, which I rarely used because you could only reuse the text by emailing it. But for me, it's the little things.

 

To take one, the Recent Calls and Voicemail lists now show what phone number someone called from.

This seems miniscule but to me it's huge. Let's say you missed a call while out rock climbing, and it showed up on “Recents,” or they left a voicemail. Good. Now you want to call back. Can you just tap and initiate a call to them? Yes, but you don't know what number you're calling-home, work, mobile, whatever. Does it matter? If they called you from their mobile phone, don't you want to call them back there?

I'm sure that's what the original software writers at Apple said to themselves. But it's hours and hours after they called. The best phone for them to call you from at 9:00 a.m. isn't necessarily the best number to get them on now that it's 6:00 p.m. So you tap the arrow, go to the contact list and tap the number you want. What a pain. Now, at least the list shows which number they called from, and if it's the one you want, you're able to call in one tap. It's not the two extra taps that used to annoy me so much as the thoughtlessness of the original design. Similarly if you use the arrow in Voicemail, previously you would see a contact's phone number, but just that one, and you couldn't edit it. Now you go into the entire Contact entry and anything in it.

There's one other tiny change that's a really big deal for me. I used to have a problem listening to podcasts, in part because street and subway noise here in New York can be unbelievably intrusive, and I had trouble replaying the bits I missed. The noise of course is still there-there's nothing Apple can do about that-and it routinely drowns out audio (no matter how good or noise-cancelling your headphones are, by the way). But it's much easier to rewind now.

On the iPhone, you rewind music (or go forward) by moving a virtual button on a timeline slider that goes from 0:01 to the end of your song. The slider works fine for a 3-minute song, letting you go back or forward to within a few seconds of where you want. But for a long podcast, it was a disaster, jumping in increments that might be a minute at a clip for a 40-minute episode. iPhone 3.0 has two fixes.

The first is a little circular-arrow icon with a “30” inside it: This rewinds 30 seconds. Nice. The second is a new trick: Press the button downward (toward the homescreen button) and then across-the force with which you press downward determines how slowly you rewind. (A message pops up saying, "Slide your finger down to adjust scrubbing rate.") With a lot of force, you go only a few seconds at a clip. Double-nice.

There are lots of other new little tricks, like an e-mail icon in podcasts that opens up a message that already has a URL for the podcast in its body, with the cursor helpfully in the To: field and the Subject: line filled out with the podcast's name (though unfortunately not the episode name if there is one).

There are lots of little tricks that I keep expecting that still don't appear. For example, how do you reorder the Phone / Favorites list, other than delete and re-add? I want to press down on any entry until they flutter, and then simply move them around-just like you do for the app icons on the home screen.

And there's one huge trick that's not in this release, sad to say: multimedia messaging (MMS), which allegedly is coming this summer but probably not at all for the oldest phones, like mine. But with some big-ticket changes that require new hardware, such as the auto-focusing and video-taking camera, I might have to get the 3s anyway.

Give me your arm as we cross the street

 

Call me at six on the dot

A line a day when you're far away

Little things mean a lot

"Little Things Mean a Lot," words and music by Edith Lindeman and Carl Stutz
 

 

Mars Satellite Spies Signs of Ancient Lakebed on Red Planet

Mars may have been a nice place to visit once, but that was a long, long time ago.



Researchers at the University of Colorado (CU) at Boulder studying recent images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) are reporting that they've found the remnants of a primordial lake on the Red Planet. Calling the satellite photos "the first definitive evidence of shorelines on Mars," the CU-Boulder team, led by Research Associate Gaetano Di Achille, said in a

prepared statement

that the lake would have contained water more than 3 billion years ago.



The researchers said the lake would have measured 80 square miles in circumference and have had a depth of 1500 feet, making it roughly the size of Lake Champlain in North America. They also observed that the ancient lake would have been an integral part of a broad delta, suggesting the presence of a large river.



Evidence for their conclusions, which will be published in the latest issue of Geophysical Research Letters, came from a powerful camera aboard the MRO called the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE. Their analysis of the HiRISE images in question suggested to them that they were looking at a a 30-mile-long canyon, which opened up into a valley, depositing sediment that formed a large delta in what planetary scientists now call the Shalbatana Vallis.



"This is the first unambiguous evidence of shorelines on the surface of Mars," said Di Achille. "The identification of the shorelines and accompanying geological evidence allows us to calculate the size and volume of the lake, which appears to have formed about 3.4 billion years ago."



The age estimate runs at odds with standard theories of the timeline for the development of Mars, which hold that the planet's surface water would have dissipated much earlier.  



Di Achille said the newly discovered lakebed and delta would be a prime target for a future landing mission to Mars in search of evidence of past life.



"On Earth, deltas and lakes are excellent collectors and preservers of signs of past life," said Di Achille. "If life ever arose on Mars, deltas may be the key to unlocking Mars' biological past."



[For more on the prospects of exploring the Red Planet in the future, please see IEEE Spectrum's

Special Report: Why Mars? Why Now?

in this month's issue.]


Ineptly Censoring the Chinese Internet - Yet Again

Heavy-handed filtering of pornography and political speech, security holes, and accusations of theft of intellectual property - if that sounds to you like the Chinese Internet of 2005 you're exactly right.

But according to news reports, it also describes the Chinese Internet of 2009. Back in 2005, as part of our special issue on China, we reported on how China's nationwide filtering of pornography and political speech worked. That system relied on filters residing within the country's central servers and routers. This year, China is adding a twist - requiring that filtering software come on every new PC sold. Originally, computers would have had to actually run the software; after a huge national and international outcry, the government has backed down, as has been reported in The Gardian and by the AP

The software, written by a military contractor, closes some loopholes in the central filtering approach that were apparent even in 2005, such as the use of proxies to redirect users from blocked sites to unblocked sites that contain the same censored content. But Green Dam, as the software is named, is apparently problematic in every other possible way. For example, according to the Guardian, the pornography image-blocking

is designed to identify suspicious densities of skin colour. To demonstrate the supposed effectiveness of this method, the bid document contrasts pictures of blow jobs and babies.... [But the] Southern Weekend newspaper has mocked the software for blocking Garfield cartoons but allowing dark-skinned porn.

Problems with Green Dam first came to light in an analysis by three researchers in the University of Michigan's Computer Science and Engineering Division, Scott Wolchok, Randy Yao, and J. Alex Halderman. Their chief finding involved the security problems:

We have discovered remotely-exploitable vulnerabilities in Green Dam, the censorship software reportedly mandated by the Chinese government. Any web site a Green Dam user visits can take control of the PC.

According to a number of reports, the Chinese government has reportedly ordered the developer to issue a patch. China Daily quotes the developer as sheepishly saying, “We are specialists in producing Internet filtering software rather than security."

Yet there's also the question of how much of the software the developer developed. Solid Oak Software, has claimed that Green Dam includes code swiped from its censorship program CYBERsitter, and the U.S. company has, according to PC Magazine, “sent 'cease and desist' letters to both Dell and Hewlett-Packard” asking them to stop distributing Green Dam.

If, as is now being widely reported, the software is compulsory only in that it be present on all PCs, not that it be installed and operating, then Green Dam won't be the nightmare it might have been. It certainly wasn't the first heavy-handed assault on the massive freedoms brought to the Chinese people by PC and Internet technologies.

Nor is China the only country to employ blacklists and filters. Last week my colleague Bob Charette pointed out that ”the Australian government has also embarked on a program to filter (or 'boil the ocean' as some have called it) the Internet.” And my 2005 article noted that even the United States is hardly free of crude and heavy-handed Internet content filtering. As long as there are governments and powerful channels of communication, the two will be at loggerheads.

When Bridging the Credibility Gap in Nanotech, You Should Have a Credible Argument

In an attempt to put a new twist on the environmental, health and safety (EHS) debate swirling around nanotech, a new report from the Investor Environmental Health Network "Bridging the Credibility Gap" argues that companies using nanomaterials may be defrauding investors by not disclosing the risks associated with nanomaterials.

I certainly understand the instinct for kicking someone when their down, and there is no doubt the prospects for just about every nanotech company is in a slump, but does have to be done with such a fallacious argument.

In a nutshell, the report seems to think companies are dissimulating their use of "asbestos-like" nanomaterials and that current SEC regulations contain eight (only eight?) loopholes that allows this kind of fraud from omission to take place.

The press release for the report doesn't even try to make a distinction between carbon nanotubes and other nanomaterials, instead it only discusses "nanomaterials" as though they all seem to simulate the effects of asbestos. Then after essentially making the connection between nanomaterials and asbestos seem almost airtight and beyond doubt, it lists off a a number of products containing nanomaterials "sunscren, cosmetics, food, clothing, sporting goods and packaging" that do not--with the exception of sporting goods--contain carbon nanotubes.

Lawyers do love to make it seem their services are indispensable even if they have to hype the threat a teensy bit. I managed to get through only the first minute of this 13-minute interview before I was compelled to blog on it. So, if by the end the author of the report acknowledges that  "the main evidence that finds a similarity in the behavior between asbestos and some nanoparticles (namely, multi-walled nanotubes (MWNTs)) rests upon research of Ken Donaldson at Edinburg University, which did not really address the issues of dose and exposure," then let me know.

 

 

A High Tech Version of The Dog Ate My Homework

The high-tech version of the dog-ate-my-homework is the corrupted file, which is now available for a small fee. A online retailer, corrupted-files.com, is offering corrupted files for sale, the theory being, that people like teachers—and technology magazine editors—who are expecting a manuscript on deadline, might not actually attempt to open that file until days later. And if they receive a corrupted file with the right title, they'll never know that it wasn't the real file to begin with, buying the writer days of procrastination. And then, of course, the writer might be able to bargain for a few more days to troubleshoot the problem.

At $3.95 a file, it makes a lot more business sense than pets.com ever did.

PS to Spectrum authors: don't try this at home.

The Shrinking Nanotechnology Blog Universe

When IEEE Spectrum was about to launch its new and improved website, they asked the blog contributors to list some of the external blogs they read so links could be provided.

Among those that I provided were Howard Lovy's Nanobot and the Blog@Nanovic both of which have officially signed off as active blogs after I suggested we provide links to them. Even the latest entry in Richard Jones' Soft Machines blog, which I have linked to as well, seems to indicate that posts might be few and far between in the near future.

Other blogs that I used to frequent on the subject of nanotechnology have long since stopped posting or have been transformed into something else entirely, such as the evolution of the NY Times Bits blog under Barnaby Feder  which covered nanotechnology to what it is today, another computer lifestyle blog.

With this ever-dwindling number of blogs on the subject of nanotechnology, the idea was beginning to dawn on me that maybe this all signified something about the field of nanotechnology in general. I am not sure what the significance or meaning might be. Maybe it only indicates that each blog had to shut down due to completely different circumstances and pressures.

Nonetheless I was struck by the way Howard Lovy gave his adieu: "I am proud of the way this blog became a voice for those who believed government and business was taking nanotech in the wrong direction."

Without taking too much of a leap, I believe the "wrong direction" Mr. Lovy is referring to is what some saw as the marginalization of molecular manufactuirng (MNT) proposed by Eric Drexler and instead moved towards material science on the nanoscale.

If that was indeed Mr. Lovy's raison d'etre for his blog, he can take comfort in the knowledge that Eric Drexler has just been quoted as saying "Real nanotechnology is getting closer" and Drexler himself has picked up the baton of bringing MNT into the mainstream with his own website.

Still, while nanotechnology continues to go through a rather awkward period, it would be good to have as many voices as possible informing its development.

 

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