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Updated: 7 hours 54 min ago

Editorial: Thoughts of An Engineer On Earth Day

12 hours 42 min ago

Today is Earth Day. Over a billion people in 192 countries are taking part. It’s the largest civic-focused day of action in the world. It is a day when human beings commit to earth-friendly acts, to making more sustainable choices, to reducing their carbon footprint, to conserving energy and resources, and to collaborate on environmental projects to protect us and the environment to create a healthy, more sustainable future. Earth Day is an activity in which engineers should be especially engaged.

The first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, saw more than 20 million Americans demonstrating for a healthier planet (Image source: NYC Department of Records)

In The Beginning

The first Earth Day took place on April 22, 1970. Senator Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin, having seen the damage created in 1969 by a massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, decided to raise the public’s consciousness about air and water pollution and move the discussion into the national political agenda.

Senator Nelson, a Democrat, persuaded Pete McCloskey, a conservation-minded Republican Congressman, to serve as his co-chair and recruited Denis Hayes from Harvard as national coordinator. On the first Earth Day, 20 million Americans took to the streets to demonstrate for a healthier and more sustainable environment. Suddenly, caring for the planet became a priority and by the end of that year, the first Earth Day had led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts. “It was a gamble,” Gaylord recalled, “but it worked.” Imagine if we could move so quickly today?

Are We The Enemy?

When you consider the major global problems facing humanity—among them climate change, species extinction, biodiversity loss, air and water pollution, and an accumulation of plastic waste that is now threatening human survival—it’s easy to point a finger at the engineers whose job it has been to ensure the progress of our civilization. How could they not have recognized the impact of problems resulting from carbon dioxide emissions, the cumulative effects of synthetic chemicals into the biosphere, or the dangers of a seemingly innocuous plastic grocery bag?

No competent engineer starts out to build a system that is unsustainable and wasteful, and often the pitfalls don’t become apparent until it is too late. As Duke University engineering professor and prolific author Henry Petroski said, “Many new technologies come with a promise to change the world, but the world refuses to cooperate.”

Can We Be The Change?

In the almost 50 years since the first Earth Day, engineers have been on the forefront of cleaning the air and water. We have developed viable wind and solar alternatives to fossil fuels. We are developing battery technologies that are revolutionizing everything from personal electronics to electric cars and transportation. Working on the cutting edge of science and technology, engineers have been pushing boundaries in medicine, food security, communications, and exploration that serve to better the human condition.

Though not each invention is a success, and, inevitably, some can be spectacular failures, incremental improvements provide starting points for the next generation of engineers.  As Professor Petroski said, “Although engineers want always to make everything better, they cannot make anything perfect. This basic characteristic flaw of the products of the profession's practitioners is what drives change and makes achievement a process rather than simply a goal.”

If you are an engineer or are studying to be one, it is time to embrace Earth Day and what it stands for. Engineering is a profession that requires great ethical and moral courage to do what is right, not just for the company or the bottom line, but for society, humanity, and the environment. If what you are working on isn’t sustainable, be creative, re-direct, and make it so. If your product or process harms the planet or its inhabitants, find a better solution that allows all of us a chance to carry on. It is time that engineers take the lead: we are some of the smartest people on the planet, and we must apply our skills and talents to better the tiny blue planet on which we live.

Senior Editor Kevin Clemens has been writing about energy, automotive, and transportation topics for more than 30 years. He has masters degrees in Materials Engineering and Environmental Education and a doctorate degree in Mechanical Engineering, specializing in aerodynamics. He has set several world land speed records on electric motorcycles that he built in his workshop.

 

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Flex Fuels and Hybrid Electrification Will Change Heavy Trucks

18 hours 7 min ago

Heavy duty trucks present some significant air-quality and pollution problems. Their diesel engine exhaust contains a mixture of gases and solid particles and the solid particles, known as diesel particulate matter or diesel PM, have been linked to a variety of health and breathing problems, particularly in densely populated areas. Diesel engines also account for a significant portion of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions (primarily CO2), adding to problems associated with global climate change. Some progress has been made to trap the particulate matter produced by diesel engines to improve air quality, but little has been done so far to reduce their climate-change-inducing exhaust emissions.

Moving Away From Diesels

“We’ve been working for a number of years on ways to make engines for cars and trucks cleaner and more efficient, and we’ve been particularly interested in what you can do with spark ignition [as opposed to the compression ignition used in diesels], because it’s intrinsically much cleaner,” said Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Energy Initiative and Plasma Fusion and Science Center research scientist Daniel Cohn. Chon has been researching a variety of fuels and the use of hybrid spark ignition-electric technology in heavy trucks—his research is presented in an MIT news release. In the MIT release it is noted that, “Compared to a diesel engine vehicle, a gasoline-powered vehicle produces only a tenth as much nitrogen oxide (NOx) pollution, a major component of air pollution.”

A flex-fuel engine configuration for a heavy truck that allows it to run on gasoline, ethanol, methanol, or blends of these, would have the potential to emit far less greenhouse gas than pure gasoline engines do, according to the news release. Cohn notes that the incremental cost for the fuel flexibility is very small. If run on pure methanol or ethanol derived from renewable sources such as agricultural waste or municipal trash, the net greenhouse gas emissions could even be zero. “It’s a way of making use of a low-greenhouse-gas fuel” when it’s available, “but always having the option of running it with gasoline” to ensure maximum flexibility, Cohn says.

Tesla has a battery-electric heavy truck under development, however MIT researchers indicate that an interim step using an alcohol-fueled electric hybrid drivetrain may be important when moving away from diesel engines and to full battery electrics. (Image source: Tesla)

A Gradual Transition to Batteries

While the ultimate goal would be to power trucks entirely with batteries, the researchers say, this flex-fuel hybrid option could provide a way for such trucks to gain early entry into the marketplace by overcoming concerns about limited range, cost, or the need for excessive battery weight to achieve longer range. Cohn said, “We think that’s going to be very challenging, because of the cost and weight of the batteries.”  Cohn and his researchers estimate to reach the range of a current diesel engine truck would require somewhere between 10 and 15 tons of batteries “That’s a significant fraction of the payload” such a truck could otherwise carry, Cohn said. “Batteries are great, but let’s be realistic about what they can provide,” he said.

“We think that the way to enable the use of electricity in these vehicles is with a plug-in hybrid,” Cohn said. The engine has been under development for years. It is a highly efficient, flexible-fuel gasoline engine that would, “weigh far less, be more fuel-efficient, and produce a tenth as much air pollution as the best of today’s diesel-powered vehicles,” according to the MIT release. The combination of a hybrid drive and flex-fuel engine is “a way to enable the introduction of electric drive into the heavy truck sector, by making it possible to meet range and cost requirements, and doing it in a way that’s clean,” Cohn said.

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Knowing What is Needed

Cohn and MIT research engineer Leslie Bromberg, “did a detailed analysis of both the engineering and the economics of what would be needed to develop such an engine to meet the needs of existing truck operators. In order to match the efficiency of diesels, a mix of alcohol with the gasoline, or even pure alcohol, can be used, and this can be processed using renewable energy sources, they found.” The MIT release also noted that, “Detailed computer modeling of a whole range of desired engine characteristics, combined with screening of the results using an artificial intelligence system, yielded clear indications of the most promising pathways and showed that such substitutions are indeed practically and financially feasible.”

The relative cost of diesel fuel has gone up and the cost advantages of diesels for heavy trucking no longer prevail. “Over time, gas engines have become more and more efficient, and they have an inherent advantage in producing less air pollution,” said Bromberg.

“We think there’s a significant rationale for trucking companies to go to gasoline or flexible fuel,” Cohn says. “The engines are cheaper, exhaust treatment systems are cheaper, and it’s a way to ensure that they can meet the expected regulations. And combining that with electric propulsion in a hybrid system, given an ever-cleaner electric grid, can further reduce emissions and pollution from the trucking sector.”

The combination of flex-fuel and hybrid electrification allows them to address two major challenges at once. “We don’t know which is going to be stronger, the desire to reduce greenhouse gases, or the desire to reduce air pollution. In the U.S., climate change may be the bigger push, while in India and China air pollution may be more urgent, but this technology has value for both challenges,” said Cohn.

Senior Editor Kevin Clemens has been writing about energy, automotive, and transportation topics for more than 30 years. He has masters degrees in Materials Engineering and Environmental Education and a doctorate degree in Mechanical Engineering, specializing in aerodynamics. He has set several world land speed records on electric motorcycles that he built in his workshop.

 

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NXP Doubles Down on Automotive Radar with China Partnership

18 hours 37 min ago

NXP Semiconductors N.V. is accelerating its move into automotive radar by partnering with a supplier that could cement its foothold in the Chinese market, while helping with development of so-called “imaging radar.”

NXP said last week that the strategic collaboration between it and Hawkeye Technology Co., Ltd. is both a business and a technology play. The collaboration could open the door for the Dutch chipmaker to play a bigger role in China, where the growth rate of automotive radar is approximately twice that of the rest of the world. But at the same time, it gives the company access to research in advanced forms of radar that could one day compete directly with the LiDar systems used on today’s autonomous test vehicles.

“At NXP, it’s our ambition to get as close to LiDar as possible with significantly lower system costs,” Steffen Spannagel, general manager of product line ADAS for NXP, told Design News.

As part of the strategic collaboration, NXP invested an undisclosed sum in Hawkeye Technology, which will build radar sensor modules using front-end transceivers and microcontroller chips from NXP. Hawkeye will combine the NXP reference designs with its own antennas, radar software, and radar firmware. It will then provide those modules mostly to the Chinese automotive market, where the compounded annual growth rate of radar is about 40%, or about twice that of the rest of the world.

Radar chipsets from NXP Semiconductors will be paired with antennas, software, and firmware from Hawkeye Technology for the Chinese auto market. (Image source: NXP Semiconductors N.V.)

The collaboration could be significant because Hawkeye has deep expertise in 77-GHz radar, which is increasingly being used in advanced automotive applications, such as emergency braking and adaptive cruise control. Those more advanced systems are different from the 24-GHz systems employed in less technically-intensive applications, such as blind spot detection.

NXP said that the move to the more advanced systems is largely responsible for the huge growth rate in automotive radar. Whereas today’s production vehicles typically use between one and three radar sensors for Level 1 and Level 2 ADAS, future vehicles may employ as many as 6-10 radar chips on Level 4 and Level 5 vehicles. Moreover, such vehicles will also need more powerful processing to go with the radar chips.

“You’ll have more cars with radar, each car with more sensors, and within each sensor, you’ll need more ICs to get better performance,” Spannagel said.

The collaboration between NXP and Hawkeye could also have other, more far-reaching benefits, Spannagel said. Hawkeye is closely linked with Southeast University in Nanjing, which is considered a leading radar research center. That association could be a key in helping both companies to develop so-called “imaging radar.”

Imaging radar, which operates in the 77-GHz range, is expected to offer advantages over other autonomous car sensors, such as optical- and ultrasonic-based systems, as well as LiDar, in some cases. Imaging radar can potentially recognize objects in the roadway, such as a bike, a person, or a semi-truck. It can also see through bad weather conditions – rain, fog, or snow – in a way that even LiDar can’t do. The technology, however, is not yet fully developed for automotive applications.

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Many Tier One suppliers and a few chipmakers, including Analog Devices, Inc., are said to be working on imaging radar technology. Most believe that it would be at most one-fifth the cost of LiDar, but they’re not sure whether it would serve as a complement to, or as a replacement for, LiDar. Today, OEMs building autonomous cars typically use LiDar on their test vehicles.

NXP said it is setting its sights high for the developing technology. “We have the ambition to improve radar so much that we preferably would not need LiDar,” Spannagel said. “Whether that view would be shared by each and every automotive OEM, we don’t know.”

Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 35 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and auto.

Japan and Israel Tech Experts Join Forces to Create AI Products

19 hours 7 min ago

Japanese and Israeli technology expertise have merged in a new company blended from innovators in each country. Musashi Seimitsu Corporation, a Japan-based Honda Motor Corporation affiliate, has formed Musashi AI, a consortium, in collaboration with Israeli technology expert Ran Poliakine, founder of Poliakine Innovation and SixEye Interactive.

The Musashi Automatic Inspection System was displayed at the AI Expo in Tokyo last month. (Source: Musashi AI)

The goal of the Musashi AI consortium is to bring Industry 4.0 technology into reality in a matter of months rather than the industry’s common prediction of years. The new consortium aims to convene top technological minds from both countries in artificial intelligence, software engineering, hardware engineering, mathematics, and physics in order to produce Industry 4.0 tools. Musashi AI debuted two new products, an automated inspection system and a self-driving forklift, at the AI Expo in Tokyo last month.

A Blend of Two Tech Traditions

The idea for the consortium came about when Poliakine visited Musashi. “I was quite amazed to see how a company like Musashi is getting ready for Industry 4.0. I told Musashi about what is going on with Israel technology, especially in software, AI for security, ecommerce, and medical, and they saw that we could work well together,” Ran Poliakine told Design News. “We realized that much of the expertise we have in Israel can be useful to solve some big technology issues in industry.”

Poliakine then began looking at ways Israeli technology could be useful in building out Industry 4.0 concepts. “We put team together to look at Industry 4.0 in the production line,” said Poliakine. “We saw there is a lot of common technology that we have developed for other verticals that may be useful on the production floor. We took that view and came up with two cool ideas.”

Automatic Inspection System

One of the two “cool” ideas is the automatic inspection system (AIS). Based on artificial intelligence and newly developed optics, the AIS is able to replace people in quality control positions. “The quality issue is very important. Most of the parts in industry are getting inspected by humans. They’re very good at looking at parts to see if they are defective, and machines haven’t been able to do that,” said Poliakine. “The AI of the past could only imitate what a human can do. That has changed. Now the ability of machines to do the inspections effectively is a huge contribution. Now we can divert the human inspectors to a less boring and more useful part of production.”

The inspection system brings together the robotics and sensors that can manipulate the parts and gain data. The data can then examined to ferret out defects. “We designed an architecture that can do the job,” said Poliakine. “Robotic arms put the parts in the chamber. In the chamber, we have sensors and a brain with edge computing to figure out whether or not the parts are defective.”

Fully Self-Driving Automated Forklift

The fully self-driving automated forklift (FAF) is the other “cool” idea. The FAF navigates on its own, performing a variety of functions that previously required human interaction. The vehicle offers efficiency and meets safety standards aimed at preventing injuries to work staff on the warehouse floor.

“The FAF delivers supplies from one place to another. Eighty to 90% of the production floor has humans driving things from place to place,” said Poliakine. “Instead, we utilize the technology from the self-driving industry to move the materials. We use the AI brain to move the materials like an air-traffic controller. The system manages the traffic among multiple self-driven vehicles on the factory floor.”

Beyond the Auto Industry

While the AIS and FAF were developed with an automotive plant in mind, Poliakine noted that the technology can be applied to other uses in a wide range of industries. “The two products that came from the blended technology will be sold to industry as a whole, not just in automotive,” said Poliakine. “This technology can replace labor-intensive work by humans anywhere there is a production line, whether it’s automotive or pharmaceutical.”

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Poliakine explained that Japan and Israel have recently started sharing a wide range of technology. “During the past 24 months, Japan and Israel have experienced real cooperation and collaboration in technology,” said Poliakine. “We in Israel believe we have a lot to offer in AI and software. In Japan they have an amazing legacy in technology and culture, and now they’re ready to take the next step.”

Rob Spiegel has covered automation and control for 19 years, 17 of them for Design News. Other topics he has covered include supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cyber security. For 10 years, he was owner and publisher of the food magazine Chile Pepper.

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A Look at 10 Hot New Internal Combustion Engines

Fri, 2019-04-19 05:00

Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 35 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and auto.

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Preparing for the Growing AI Workforce

Fri, 2019-04-19 04:30

With the expansion of Industry 4.0, machine learning, and advanced robotics, the need for artificial intelligence (AI) skills is growing quickly. According to new data from jobs site Indeed.com, AI engineer jobs ranked among the most in-demand in the US for 2019. Machine learning engineers topped Indeed’s list. AI jobs showed the highest rate of growth in the number of job postings, growing 344% between 2015 and 2018.

Artificial Intelligence has a history going back decades, but in recent years, the extent of AI in applications has greatly deepened. (Source: Fractal Analytics)

AI jobs are showing up across a wide range of industries, since the skills associated with AI touch a variety of challenges, from product design and production to robotic surgery. “Most businesses are looking to use AI skills to power their decisions, and every problem is being reframed as an AI problem,” Raj Aradhyula, chief people officer at Fractal Analytics, a company that brings analytics and AI to the decision-making process, told Design News. “This is driving the demand for these skills. In the US market, we’ve seen a 3-times increase in demand for AI skills since last year. According to Glassdoor, data scientist is the number one job for growth, and it’s among the best paid jobs in the US.”

AI encompass a wide range of job skills. Thus, those entering AI careers come for a wide range of educational experience. “A varied set of backgrounds and diverse skillsets work for AI roles, though ome quantitative background is necessary,” said Aradhyula. “We look for computer science, electrical engineering, mathematics, statistics, and economics as a good foundation. Most engineering disciplines work just as well, and more recently, we look for skills in the areas of human computer interaction.”

AI Skills Can Be Taught

Since universities are not yet cranking out scores of AI graduates, companies are developing programs to train workers in AI, machine learning, and deep learning. “There is a high level of interest in building careers in this area, and the technical skills required for data scientist work can be taught,” said Aradhyula. “At Fractal Analytics, we have invested in learning programs that help individuals develop skills in AI and analytics because we can’t fine people with expertise in all the areas that we need.”

While there is not a large number of AI specialists available, candidates for AI work can be drawn from workers with a variety of technical experience. “Some quantitative background is necessary for AI. We need people to have a good foundation in mathematics, computer science and programming,” said Aradhyula. “Additionally, the best data scientists are also great problem solvers, storytellers, and team players. We need three things to come together: AI, engineering, and design.”

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Aradhyula sees all three of these skills as essential building blocks for a strong AI worker. “We need AI skills to build great algorithms; we need engineering to process large amounts of data at internet scale; and we need design to hone-in on the right problems and structure a solution so that it’s easy to adopt,” said Aradhyula. “All three areas need to come together to power human decisions. Careers in AI can be shaped with expertise in any of these three areas.”

The AI field Is Expanding and Deepening

AI, machine learning, and deep learning – all part of the world of data science – will likely change significantly as technology expands. “The overall field is evolving, and the demand for data science and engineering will continue to grow,” said Aradhyula. “We are learning more and more about what makes humans tick, and how human brains are wired. As this understanding increases, our algorithms will get better and the nature of skills in AI will evolve. I do not expect it to level off any time soon. We are just getting started.”

Rob Spiegel has covered automation and control for 19 years, 17 of them for Design News. Other topics he has covered include supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cyber security. For 10 years, he was owner and publisher of the food magazine Chile Pepper.

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3D Printer Threads Electronic Fibers for E-Textiles

Fri, 2019-04-19 04:00

One of the ways researchers are making wearable technology less bogged down by electronic equipment and more user-friendly is by developing fabrics with electrical capability built in.

A research team led by Yingying Zhang, a professor in the Department of Chemistry at Tsinghua University in China, has made progress in this area with the development of a one-step 3D-printing technique that prints flexible electronic fibers onto fabrics and textiles.

This visual shows a one-step fabrication of coaxial fiber-based smart patterns for e-textiles using a 3D-printing process equipped with a coaxial spinneret. The process can be used to make materials such as high-performance silk energy-harvesting and energy-storage textiles. (Image source: Yingying Zhang)

Flexible Functional Fibers

“Generally, the attachment of rigid and bulky electronic on textile will deteriorate the breathability and flexibility of textiles, leading to a poor wearing comfort,” she told Design News. “One way to alleviate this problem is to develop flexible functional fibers in a textile.”

To achieve this, Zhang’s team used a 3D printer equipped with a coaxial needle to draw patterns, pictures, and lettering using core-sheath fibers onto textile, giving it the ability to transform movement into energy. The work shows that these textiles “could be used for the energy-management purpose, such as for harvesting and storing energy,” she said.

The Chinese team is not the only group of researchers creating fabrics that integrate electronic components into fibers; however, many of them use multiple steps, which makes them more time consuming. What’s novel about the work of Zhang’s team is that it’s the first time researchers have developed a one-step process using 3D printing to develop these electronic textiles, Zhang said.

“E-textiles, incorporating electrical components into conventional textiles/fabrics with add-on or built-in functionalities, enable the integration of traditional textile industry and burgeoning electronics industry,” she said.

Two Inks For 3D Printing

Researchers used two inks to 3D-print the e-textiles—a carbon nanontube solution to build the conductive core of the fibers and silkworm silk for the insulating sheath, Zhang said.

For the process itself, researchers connected injection syringes filled with the inks to the coaxial nozzle, which was fixed on the 3D printer. Then researchers used this process to draw customer-designed patterns, including Chinese characters that spelled out the word “printing,” the word “silk” in English, and a picture of a pigeon.

“For harvesting energy, the silk fibroin sheath is used to induce electrons and the carbon nanotube core is used to transport the electrons,” Zhang explained. “The mechanism is based on the coupling effect of contact electrification and electrostatic induction. The silk fibroin sheath tends to lose electrons when contacting with other materials—with a low-level position in the triboelectric series. Therefore, the contact/separation of the two parts will generate a variable dipole moment, leading to the flow of electrons, thus generating electricity, in the electrodes.”

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Supercapacitor Storage

For electricity storage, researchers based the design on a supercapacitor composed of two parallel sheath-core fibers, where the sodium-carboxymethyl cellulose sheath serves as a solid-state electrolyte, and the carbon nanotube core serves for the conduction and storage of electrons, she added. The team published a paper on their work in the journal Matter.

Researchers plan to continue to continue their work to develop new wearable electronics based on the materials they’re developing as well as to tune the electronic interfaces, including sensors and actuators, Zhang told us.

“At the same time, we will develop a new technique for the large-scale fabrication and integration of flexible electronics and e-textiles by the utilization of new techniques—such as 3D printing—and controlling the assembling behaviors of the functional materials during processing,” she said.

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for more than 20 years. She has lived and worked as a professional journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco and New York City. In her free time she enjoys surfing, traveling, music, yoga and cooking. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.

 

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8 RISC-V Companies to Watch

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Chris Wiltz is a Senior Editor at   Design News  covering emerging technologies including AI, VR/AR, blockchain, and robotics.

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The Untold Truths of 3D Printing You Need to Understand

Thu, 2019-04-18 04:30
(Image source: mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

Additive manufacturing is as guilty as any industry of guzzling its own Kool-Aid and giving people the idea that it's all very, very simple: put in your CAD file, press a button, wait a bit, and here comes your finished part. But as with all new technologies there is always a learning curve required to be able to apply the technology to its fullest.

It helps if we remember the value of any new innovation is directly proportional to the problems it solves, the efficiencies it brings to a process, or the opportunities it makes possible. From that perspective 3D printing is one of the biggest bonanzas of all time. But while many of the companies I’ve worked with have 3D printers, they were bought in a kind of piecemeal fashion. The engineers have their printer, the production people have another printer, and maybe the designers have still another. A genuine three- to five-year additive manufacturing strategy doesn’t exist for most companies; certainly not the smaller ones. And while it’s easy to interpret that as a criticism, it’s not. It’s a reflection on the complexity of the technology as it is today and what it takes to transform your business to fully leverage the benefits of 3D.

Ken Burns, Technical Sales Director at Forecast3D, recently spoke to me about the “untold truths” of 3D printing. The one that really stuck with me is the idea that “complexity is free” in 3D printing. And, of course, it is (sort of). We’ve all gone online and seen fantastic shapes and geometries, and incredibly complex patterns that people have 3D printed. These images do emphasize the crucial differences between additive manufacturing and the traditional manufacturing technologies.

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However, Burns, who recently gave a talk called “The Untold Truths of 3D Printing”at the 2019 Pacific Design & Manufacturing Show, said what the images don’t communicate is that 3D printing is now undergoing a complex evolution. 3D printing is transforming from a prototyping and a low production run technology to producing higher volumes of parts in demanding applications in such fields as aerospace and automotive.

So the question becomes: if you print a component or an assembly with a very complicated geometry, will that geometry scale to a large number? In other words ,you printed 10 of something; they came out of the printer looking okay, but not great. The post-print processing to clean up those 10 parts may have been labor and time intensive to make them look great, but that’s okay because you want the customer to see the best 10 printed parts they can get.

Now the customer is so impressed that they want to order 1,000 of them. Now this really complex geometry that you made look perfect doesn’t scale so easily due to the time and labor the post-print processing takes. Whether you run a service bureau or you're bringing 3D printing in house for your own company’s needs, these steps and associated costs have to be taken into account. This isn’t just an issue for a service bureau. It’s just as much an issue for the established manufacturer that is trying figure out how to adopt additive technologies to keep giving customers a reason to do business with them and to stay competitive with start ups that don’t have to bear the cost of these transformations.

Further complicating the matter is the learning curve of designing for additive manufacturing and how it varies from one technology to another and from one material to another. Thermoplastics, resins, and powders all have their unique material properties and the way you design to maximize the benefits for one type of 3D technology and material will be different than how you design for the other. As Burns put it, “Every single additive manufacturing process has different design constraints you need to follow.” Just to give that some perspective and the challenge it represents that means being aware of the design criteria for fused deposition modeling (FDM), stereolithography(SLA), multi jet fusion (MJF), SLS, DMLS, ProJet, and PolyJet. That’s a tall order for any company. And that’s not even all the 3D printing technologies available.

The transformation additive manufacturing is bringing for business in the coming years is going to produce winners and losers. But the transformation is especially challenging given all the variables that have to be considered such as design, which 3D technologies to use, and to what part of the manufacturing process is it best applied. But those companies that take on this challenge and truly think down the road, will not just be winners, they will have survived.

You can hear the full interview with Ken Burns from Forecast3D on the 3DTechTalks podcast below:

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Jack Heslin is the president and founder of 3DTechtalks. A 3D Printing consulting firm helping small to medium size manufacturers develop an additive manufacturing strategy. He is also the host of he 3DTechTalks podcast series. He can be reached at Jack@3DTechTalks.com

New Thermoelectric Polymer Used For Ultra-Sensitive Heat Sensor

Thu, 2019-04-18 04:00

A cross-institutional group of scientists has combined several engineering disciplines to develop a new flexible and printable sensor with unprecedented sensitivity to detect heat.

A team at the Laboratory of Organic Electronics at Linköping University in Sweden has developed the sensor thanks to a unique thermoelectric polymer, which provides the significant boost in sensitivity, researchers said.

Linköping University research fellow Dan Zhao with the ultra-sensitive printed sensor developed using a unique thermoelectric polymer she discovered. (Image source: Peter Holgersson, Linköping University)

Ionic Charge Carriers

The material uses ions as charge carriers instead of electrons, which is how typical thermoelectric materials function. This boosts the effect about 100 times, said the researchers—which included scientists from Linköping, Chalmers University of Technology, Stuttgart Media University, and the University of Kentucky.

Using the material, the team used a screen-printing technique to develop what they said is the first printed thermoelectric module in the world to operate in this way, giving the sensor its unique sensitivity, said Dan Zhao, a research fellow at Linköping University who discovered the new material.

Signal is 100 Times Stronger

For example, a thermoelectric material that uses electrons can develop 100 microvolts per Kelvin (µV/K) compared with 10 mV/K from the new material. The signal is thus 100 times stronger, and even a small temperature difference gives a strong signal, researchers said in a University news release.

Moreover, the material is easy to work with and versatile, paving the way for a number of new applications, she said. “The material is transparent, soft, and flexible and can be used in a highly sensitive product that can be printed and in this way used on large surfaces,” Zhao said.

The material itself is an electrolyte gel comprised of several ionic polymers. Some of the components are polymers with positively charged ions, which carry an electric current and are commonly found in the known material world.

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Key to Functionality

However, what’s unique about the material is that one of the highly conductive polymer gels is of n-type, which means negatively charged ions carry the current, she said. This characteristic has been rare in materials until now, Zhao said.

This capability is what allowed for the design of a feature that is key to the sensor’s functionalityit is comprised by linked n- and p-legs, where the number of leg connections determines how strong a signal is produced, she said.

This design gives the heat sensor the ability to convert a tiny temperature difference to a strong signal. For example, a module with 36 connected legs gives 0.333 V for a temperature difference of 1 K, Zhao said. Researchers published a paper on their work in the journal Nature Communications.

Applications for the sensor are numerous, including novel smart bandages that can help heal wounds more quickly and even electronic skin for various wearable technology or robotic devices, Zhao said. Another possible application is to use the sensor to monitor the temperature in smart buildings, she said.

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for more than 20 years. She has lived and worked as a professional journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco and New York City. In her free time she enjoys surfing, traveling, music, yoga and cooking. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.

 

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Is Car Insurance on the Horizon for Automakers?

Wed, 2019-04-17 05:00

Forget the gecko, the good hands, and the mayhem guy. Your next car insurer might be an automaker.

A combination of technical and economic forces is conspiring to change the way car insurance is administered, and automakers are moving closer than ever to playing a key role in that process.

Prime among those forces is the rise of the autonomous car. But a second force has also begun to emerge: An unprecedented amount of data is making its way into the vehicle, creating a foundation for change. And automakers may hold the key to that data.

“The combination of autonomous driving and data changes the whole game,” Brian Carlson, director of product line management for connectivity and security at NXP Semiconductors N.V., told Design News. “So we’re starting to see where automotive OEMs will take more responsibility for insurance.”

It’s not yet clear how that would happen. The two could work cooperatively, enabling automakers to sell name-brand insurance along with vehicles. Or automakers could decide to do it themselves, bankrolling and selling insurance in the same way they now provide new-car financing. Either way, experts believe it would be a natural product extension for the industry.

“If they want to get into insurance, they will, and they should,” noted Sam Tawfik, CEO of LMP Motors, an e-commerce platform for buying and renting vehicles. “They already have the installed base of distribution. And if vehicles become autonomous, they can just roll the insurance onto that.”

The New Role of Real-Time Data

To be sure, the idea of automakers in car insurance is hardly new. The industry has floated the idea for years. Toyota, for example, started a jointly-held car insurance services company called Toyota Insurance Management Solutions USA, LLC in 2016. And Tesla, Inc. launched a program called Insure My Tesla, also in 2016.

In 2016, Toyota took a small step toward insurance, launching Toyota Insurance Management Solutions. (Image source: Toyota Corp.)

More recently, however, the concept has begun to pick up steam as automakers roll further down the road to autonomy. The reason is simple: Autonomy takes the burden of driving away from the human, and places responsibility for it squarely on the shoulders of the automaker. “Autonomous cars change the equation because the OEM is basically making the driving decisions,” Carlson said. “So the question becomes: Is the automaker going to have to self-insure the vehicle?”

Moreover, as part of their autonomous effort, automakers are now collecting mountains of vehicle and driver data that would have been unthinkable only a decade ago. To some degree, the data is there for the study of human driving, as a means to improve robotic systems.

But there’s also an opportunity for insurers and automakers to monetize that data, using it to reduce the premiums for human drivers while autonomy is still on the drawing board. The key is the existence of data buses, already in place on all vehicles, and new electronic gateways, which can extract sensor data and convert it to meaningful information.

Such gateways are available today. NXP, for example, rolled out a chipset in February that serves as a foundation for automotive “service-oriented gateways.” The chipset processes vehicle data from CAN, LIN, and FlexRay buses, which contain a constant stream of data bits from every sensor around the vehicle.

In February, NXP rolled out a chipset that acts as a “service-oriented gateway” to enable automakers to collect data from sensors around the vehicle, and convert it to usable information. (Image source: NXP Semiconductors)

In many cases, the data tells a story that insurers want to hear. Using a combination of wheel speed sensors, engine data, GPS information, and brake sensing, among others, the car itself can now paint a portrait of the occupant’s driving habits. Is the driver aggressive? Does he or she speed? Brake hard? Accelerate fast? Or is the driver cautious and law-abiding?

“There are a lot of activities within the vehicle that can indicate a driver’s behavior,” Carlson said.  

Insurers believe that real-time data would provide a more complete portrait of the driver than can be had with simple historical information, such as traffic tickets and accident rates. As a result, they hope to apply it, ultimately lowering the cost of vehicle ownership for certain drivers, who now find insurance to be one of their biggest ongoing vehicle bills.

“The auto company can leverage the data to provide lower-cost insurance capability,” Carlson said. “Whether they do that through a partner company, or whether they take on the whole thing themselves, that remains to be seen.”

Competition or Cooperation?

Analysts who follow the insurance industry are uncertain about how it will play out —whether it will be a competitive or cooperative relationship between insurance companies and automakers. “I don’t think anyone can truly imagine all the implications associated with this – in terms of infrastructure, regulation, and risk,” noted Michelle Krause, a senior managing director and insurance specialist at Accenture. “That’s why we believe they are more likely to lean toward cooperation.”

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Krause questions whether data will play a big role in the transformation, but she’s convinced that autonomy will be a game-changer. The big reduction in accidents brought by automation means that collision premiums will drop, and insurers will have to find other products to sell – such as liability and cyber security protection.

“Once cars become more and more autonomous, the need for insurance will fade into the background,” Krause told us. “There’s a lot of speculation about when that will happen, but everybody agrees it will happen.”

Either way, most observers see this as a golden opportunity for automakers to migrate toward insurance. “It would be a brilliant product extension for the auto industry,” Tawfik told us. “Whether the automakers do the brilliant thing…that I can’t predict.”.

Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 35 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and auto.

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Graphene Wrap Helps Battery Safety

Wed, 2019-04-17 04:30

New uses for graphene seems to be popping up almost everywhere. The allotropic form of carbon consists of a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal lattice. It was originally observed using electron microscopes in 1962. The material was isolated, and characterized in 2004 by Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, working at the University of Manchester and resulted in the two winning the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010 "for groundbreaking experiments regarding the two-dimensional material graphene.”

Lithium cobalt oxide particles coated in graphene. (Image source: Reza Shahbazian-Yassar)

Graphene has many unexpected and unusual properties. It is immensely strong (perhaps the strongest material ever tested), and conducts heat and electricity efficiently. It blocks light surprisingly well for a 1-atom-thick layer of material. It also turns out that graphene sheets are impermeable to oxygen atoms. Reza Shahbazian-Yassar, associate professor of mechanical and industrial engineering in the University of Illinois in Chicago College of Engineering and Soroosh Sharifi-Asl, a graduate student in mechanical and industrial engineering at UIC, thought that if they wrapped very small particles of the lithium cobalt oxide cathode of a lithium battery in graphene, it might prevent oxygen from escaping, and hence help prevent lithium ion batteries from catching fire.

The Aim is to Reduce Battery Fires

According to a UIC news release, “The reasons lithium batteries catch fire include rapid cycling or charging and discharging, and high temperatures in the battery. These conditions can cause the cathode inside the battery — which in the case of most lithium batteries is a lithium-containing oxide, usually lithium cobalt oxide — to decompose and release oxygen. If the oxygen combines with other flammable products given off through decomposition of the electrolyte under high enough heat, spontaneous combustion can occur.”

“We thought that if there was a way to prevent the oxygen from leaving the cathode and mixing with other flammable products in the battery, we could reduce the chances of a fire occurring,” said Shahbazian-Yassar in the UIC release.

Graphene Acts Like a Barrier

To start, the UIC team chemically altered the graphene to make it electrically conductive. Then they wrapped the minute particles of the lithium cobalt oxide cathode electrode in the conductive graphene. When examined with an electron microscope, they noted the release of oxygen under high heat from the graphene-wrapped lithium cobalt oxide particles was reduced significantly compared with unwrapped particles.

The wrapped particles were combined with a binding material to form a usable cathode, and incorporated into a lithium metal battery. When measured during battery cycling, the researchers saw almost no oxygen escaping from cathodes even at very high voltages.  The lithium metal battery continued to perform well even after 200 cycles.

“The wrapped cathode battery lost only about 14% of its capacity after rapid cycling compared to a conventional lithium metal battery where performance was down about 45% under the same conditions,” Sharifi-Asl said.

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“Graphene is the ideal material for blocking the release of oxygen into the electrolyte,” Shahbazian-Yassar said. “It is impermeable to oxygen, electrically conductive, flexible, and is strong enough to withstand conditions within the battery. It is only a few nanometers thick so there would be no extra mass added to the battery. Our research shows that its use in the cathode can reliably reduce the release of oxygen and could be one way that the risk for fire in these batteries — which power everything from our phones to our cars — could be significantly reduced.”

Senior Editor Kevin Clemens has been writing about energy, automotive, and transportation topics for more than 30 years. He has masters degrees in Materials Engineering and Environmental Education and a doctorate degree in Mechanical Engineering, specializing in aerodynamics. He has set several world land speed records on electric motorcycles that he built in his workshop.

 

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Wearable Device Acts as Biopsy Alternative

Wed, 2019-04-17 04:00

Currently when doctors test for cancer, they often have to take a biopsy, which can require a surgically invasive procedure that can make an already stressful situation even more so for a patient.

Researchers at the University of Michigan have found a way to make this type of test easier for both patients and physicians with a prototype wearable device that can continuously collect live cancer cells directly from a patient’s blood.

The device—which already has been successfully tested in animal models—also could help doctors diagnose and treat cancer more effectively, said Daniel Hayes, a professor of breast cancer research at the University of Michigan Rogel Cancer Center.

A small wearable device developed by researchers at the University of Michigan has a cancer-cell-capturing chip mounted on top and can be used in place of a biopsy to test patient cells for cancer. The catheter connecting to the patient runs through the hole in the top left corner. (Image source: Tae Hyun Kim, Nagrath Lab, University of Michigan)

Avoiding a Biopsy

“Nobody wants to have a biopsy,” he said in a U of M news release. “If we could get enough cancer cells from the blood, we could use them to learn about the tumor biology and direct care for the patients. That’s the excitement of why we’re doing this.”

Because a biopsy is not a pleasant experience, doctors currently take just a small sample to test for cancer cells in someone’s bloodstream, taking usually no more than a tablespoon in a single draw. However, this is not always an accurate way to test for cancer, as sometimes even patients with cancer return samples with no cancerous cells.

The device the University of Michigan team developed can take cancer cells directly from the vein, which gives physicians a much higher volume of blood as a testing surface. In tests the team conducted using the device with animal models, the device trapped 3.5 times as many cancer cells per milliliter of blood compared to conventional blood draw samples, researchers said.

Detecting Markers

The device itself uses a chip to detect immune markers, or antibodies in the blood, and is worn on the wrist and connects to a vein in a person’s arm. It includes protocols for mixing the blood with heparin—a drug that prevents clotting—and sterilization methods that kill bacteria without harming the antibodies on the chip. The device also includes tiny medical-grade pumps in a 3D-printed box with the electronics.

Balancing all of these components in a device that performed as expected was not easy, said Tae Hyun Kim, who earned his PhD in electrical engineering at the University of Michigan and is now a postdoctoral scholar at the California Institute of Technology.

All in a Single Device

“The most challenging parts were integrating all of the components into a single device and then ensuring that the blood would not clot, that the cells would not clog up the chip, and that the entire device is completely sterile,” he said.

The key technology of the device—the chip itself—uses the nanomaterial graphene oxide to create dense clusters of antibody-tipped molecular chains, Kim said. This enables it to trap more than 80 percent of the cancer cells in whole blood that flows across it. The chip can also be used to grow the captured cancer cells, producing larger samples for further analysis, he said.

The team tested the device in dogs at the Colorado State University’s Flint Animal Cancer Center in collaboration with Douglas Thamm, a professor of veterinary oncology and director of clinical research there. To conduct the experiments, they injected healthy adult animals with human cancer cells, which the animals’ immune systems destroy over the course of a few hours with no lasting effects, researchers said. Researchers published a paper on their work in the journal Nature Communications.

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It Takes Time

The team plans to continue to work on the device to boost the blood-processing rate, and then will use the improved system to capture cancer cells from pet dogs that are patients at the animal cancer center. To facilitate this, researchers currently are developing chips targeting proteins on the surfaces of canine breast cancer cells.

As for human use, this will take a bit more time, with researchers estimating human trials in three to five years, Hayes said. “This is the epitome of precision medicine, which is so exciting in the field of oncology right now,” he said.

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for more than 20 years. She has lived and worked as a professional journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco and New York City. In her free time she enjoys surfing, traveling, music, yoga and cooking. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.

 

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New Approach To Hypersonic Calculations

Tue, 2019-04-16 05:00

Traveling at speeds far in excess of the speed of sound is usually reserved for ballistic missiles, re-entering space shuttles, and a small number of experimental and proposed space planes. Engineers designate various speed regions as subsonic (below the approximately 760 mph that is the speed of sound), transonic (around the speed of sound, designated Mach 1), supersonic (between Mach 1 and Mach 4), and hypersonic (above Mach 5).

The potential for ultrafast worldwide air travel has enhanced interest in studies of hypersonic airflow “Imagine flying from New York City to Los Angeles in an hour. Imagine incredibly fast unmanned aerial vehicles providing more updated and nuanced information about Earth’s atmosphere, which could help us better predict deadly storms,” said Chen, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the University of Buffalo’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

A 3D computer simulation of air flowing over a hill creating turbulence at transonic speed. The ring-like features are eddies of air. (Image source: James Chen / University at Buffalo)

Limitations of Current Methods

At subsonic speeds, calculation of forces and stresses on an object moving through the air can be calculated using the Navier-Stokes equations. At speeds above Mach 0.3, (230 mph), and into the supersonic range, compressibility and thermal effects begin to come into play—the Navier-Stokes equations can still be used, but additional factors must be included in the calculations.

“There is so much we don’t know about the airflow when you reach hypersonic speeds. For example, eddies form around the aircraft creating turbulence that affect how aircraft maneuver through the atmosphere,” said Chen in a U of B news release describing his work. .

At extremely high speeds, into the hypersonic and high hypersonic (above Mach 10) speeds, the Navier-Stokes equations no longer accurately predict the forces and stresses that fluid flow over a surface produces. At these speeds, heating and even dissociation of the air becomes a significant factor. In addition, air no longer acts as an ideal gas and the effects of the spin of air molecules must be factored into the equations in order to more accurately represent the air flow.

Chen is the corresponding author of a study published Jan. 3 in the Journal of Engineering Mathematics. The study pertains to Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann’s classical kinetic theory, which uses the motion of gas molecules to explain everyday phenomena, such as temperature and pressure.

Long-Standing Problems

Chen’s work extends classical kinetic theory into high-speed aerodynamics, including hypersonic speed, which begins at 3,836 mph or roughly five times the speed of sound. The new study and others by Chen attempt to solve long-standing problems associated with high-speed aerodynamics.

 “When you go faster, the molecule is going to spin,” said Chen to Design News. “My hypotheses was that speed is going to affect the flow—and this shows up in experimental results where the Navier-Stokes analyses cannot predict flow properly, it’s nowhere close to the experiments.”

The Matter Of Turbulence

There are other considerations at hypersonic velocities. “At hypersonic speeds, the flow is moving at high Mach numbers, but there are also wings or flaps on the vehicle. At each of those junctures, you can have very strong recirculation, which leads to unsteadiness. It’s difficult to predict how bad the unsteadiness can become before the flow is no longer smooth, and becomes turbulent,” said Deborah Levin, professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering in the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois. Her research was described in a U of I news release in 2016.

 Chen described to us the need to consider the turbulence. “The second thing is for turbulence. We all know that it is full of eddys—in order to resolve the small-scale rotational motion, we rely on vorticity. To calculate vorticity you need two points, as your flow speed goes up, in order to capture those smaller motions, your mesh needs to be finer and this increases the computational cost. In my method, I don’t need two points, I formulate the rotation for each point theoretically, allowing me to reduce the mesh by an order of magnitude,” said Chen. The mesh reduction will significantly reduce the computational resources required to simulate hypersonic flow.

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Moving to Open Source

“We are moving our code to OPENFOAM. We will release it to the OPENFOAM community so it becomes open source. It is already in the package and some people have started using it, but I just haven’t made it public yet,” said Chen. “I think I can foresee my theory, once it’s more established, will be able to use an order of magnitude less of computational resources. Then we can do a full airplane for the whole analyses—including the flow phenomena and temperature and pressure and how it affects the aircraft structure. We will be able to do full analyses for all of it,” Chen told us.

Senior Editor Kevin Clemens has been writing about energy, automotive, and transportation topics for more than 30 years. He has masters degrees in Materials Engineering and Environmental Education and a doctorate degree in Mechanical Engineering, specializing in aerodynamics. He has set several world land speed records on electric motorcycles that he built in his workshop.

 

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Tunable 4D-Printed Materials Change Shape in Response to Temperature

Tue, 2019-04-16 04:30

Materials scientists are increasingly exploring the design of dynamic materials that can change shape in response to their environment for novel applications.

Researchers at Rutgers University-New Brunswick are on-board with the development of new smart metamaterials that can dynamically transform from being stiff to soft, as well as change shape, in response to temperature.

The team led by author Howon Lee, an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, used 4D printing to create the flexible, lightweight materials, which researchers said could be used in the design of airplane or drone wings, soft robotics, and implantable biomedical devices.

4D-printed metamaterials can be temporarily transformed into any deformed shape and then returned to their original shape on demand when heated. The scale bar is 2 millimeters. (Image source: Chen Yang/Rutgers University-New Brunswick)

4D-Printed Metamaterials

“Traditional metamaterials have fixed mechanical properties and geometry once manufactured,” Chen Yang, a doctoral student in Lee’s lab who worked on the research, explained to Design News. “Our 4D-printed metamaterials add tunability, reconfigurability, and deployability.”

4D printing is based on the 3D-printing technology to turn digital models to physical objects, but it takes the process a step further, using special materials and designs to print objects that change shape with environmental conditions.

The Rutgers team combined 3D-printing, shape-memory polymer, and existing mechanical metamaterials, Octet truss and Kelvin foam, in their research, Yang said.  “The current state of 4D-printing focuses on geometrical transformation; we focused on tunable mechanical properties of our 4D-printed mechanical metamaterials,” he explained.

Using heat, the Rutgers team can tune their materials so they stay rigid when struck or become soft as a sponge to absorb shock, researchers said. The stiffness can be adjusted more than 100-fold in temperatures between room temperature (73 degrees) and 194 degrees Fahrenheit, which allows for significant control of shock absorption.

Tunable Materials

Moreover, the materials can be reshaped for a wide variety of purposes, such as temporarily transformed into any deformed shape and then returned to their original shape on demand when heated, Yang said.

“Tunable materials add adaptability to materials so that they can work in environments or situations with different requirements of mechanical properties or geometrical constraints, without needs to redesign and re-manufacturer the material,” he told us. “It also adds functionalities such as deployability to save transportation cost or to get through narrow space.” The team published a paper on their work in the journal Materials Horizons.

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The materials’ adaptability make them well-suited for a range of applications, such as for airplane or drone wings that change shape to improve performance; structures that are collapsed for space launches and reformed in space for a larger structure, such as a solar panel; and soft robots that could have variable flexibility or stiffness that is tailored to the environment and task at hand, researchers said.

Next steps for the researchers include finding such applications for the metamaterials as well as seeking stimuli other than temperature to inspire their shape change, in addition to developing materials with new properties, Yang said.

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for more than 20 years. She has lived and worked as a professional journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco and New York City. In her free time she enjoys surfing, traveling, music, yoga and cooking. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.

 

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Wood-Based Technology Turns Heat into Electricity

Tue, 2019-04-16 04:00

A team of researchers has used a natural and abundant resource—a piece of wood—as the basis for a new heat-based electricity-generating device. Engineers at the University Of Maryland (UMD) created the flexible device, which runs on ions and which they believe could one day use heat from the human body to generate energy.

An illustration shows the process that allowed researchers at the University of Maryland to modify basswood and fashion it into a device that can turn heat into electricity. (Image source: University of Maryland)  

Natural Microstructures

A team led by UMD materials scientists Liangbing Hu, Robert Briber, and Tian Li and mechanical engineer Siddhartha Das built the device based on natural nanostructures in the wood, using small channels that move water between roots and leaves in to regulate the wood’s ions, they said.

These channels allowed them to transform a piece of wood into a flexible membrane that generates energy from these ions, which also is the same type of energy on which the human body runs. With this new wood-based technology, researchers said that they can use a small temperature differential to efficiently generate ionic voltage.

Specifically, researchers used basswood, a fast-growing tree with low environmental impact. They treated the wood and removed two components—lignin, that makes the wood brown and adds strength, and hemicellulose, which winds around the layers of cells to bind them together.

The removal of these elements left the remaining cellulose, which is inherently a flexible material. This process also served to turn the cellulose’s structure from type I to type II, a key to enhancing ionic conductivity, researchers said.

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Generating an Electrical Signal

To create the device itself, the team bordered a membrane made of a thin slice of wood with platinum electrodes, and injected a sodium-based electrolyte the cellulose, said Li, first author of a paper published on the work in the journal Nature Materials. The construction regulates the ion flow inside the tiny channels and generates an electrical signal, she said.

“The charged channel walls can establish an electrical field that appears on the nanofibers and thus help effectively regulate ion movement under a thermal gradient,” Li explained.

Moreover, the crystal structure conversion of cellulose and separation of the surface functional groups allow the sodium ions in the electrolyte to flow into the aligned channels, she said.

“We are the first to show that this type of membrane, with its expansive arrays of aligned cellulose, can be used as a high-performance ion selective membrane by nanofluidics and molecular streaming and greatly extends the applications of sustainable cellulose into nanoionics,” Li said.

The work is an extension of previous work by a team at UMD to develop novel and potentially high impact applications of modified wood. In previous research, the team created a “super” wood that is stronger than most metals, as well as experimented with using wood in place of glass for windows to regulate building temperature.

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for more than 20 years. She has lived and worked as a professional journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco and New York City. In her free time she enjoys surfing, traveling, music, yoga and cooking. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.

 

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