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UMD and U.S. Army Research Lab Engineers Develop 4.0 Aqueous Lithium-Ion Battery

Fri, 2017-09-22 05:04

The lithium-ion batteries that power most of our devices today are little powerhouses of energy. It’s estimated that they’re contained in about nine billion portable electronic devices globally.

The batteries are relatively simple, consisting of two electrodes (anode and cathode) separated by electrolyte. Unfortunately, they’re also flammable, toxic and sensitive to ambient atmosphere, which has made them unsuitable for large-scale applications or extreme environments.

Significant efforts in engineering have reduced the risk of fire and explosion in portable devices, but a few well-publicized cases occur every year. This has inspired extensive research to mitigate or eliminate the risk. In some cases, it has led to attempts to create an aqueous lithium-ion battery that uses water as a natural replacement for typical flammable non-aqueous solvents.

While aqueous lithium-ion batteries that won’t explode have been developed in the past, they’ve typically not been able to compete with their non-aqueous competitors in terms of energy density because of the narrow electrochemical stability window of water: essentially, what makes it safe limits its power. Previous efforts have run into what’s known as a “cathodic challenge” because the aqueous batteries were inherently unable to use the most ideal anode materials such as graphite and Li metal.

Now, researchers from the University of Maryland and the U.S. Army Research Laboratory have developed a new water-based lithium-ion battery that can reach the critical 4.0 volt threshold without the danger of explosion and fire inherent in non-aqueous lithium-ion batteries. The research is built on a new class of aqueous electrolyte, “water-in-salt” electrolytes (WiSE), named for their high salt concentration.


Researchers from the University of Maryland and the U.S. Army Research Laboratory have developed a new water-based lithium-ion battery that can reach the critical 4.0 volt threshold without the danger of explosion and fire inherent in non-aqueous lithium-ion batteries.


The prototype UMD/USARML battery uses an aqueous solid-electrolyte-interphase (SEI) that stabilizes graphite and lithium-metal anodes in the aqueous electrolyte. The research team was able to get around the “cathodic challenge” with what they call an “inhomogeneous additive” approach: a fluorinated additive immiscible with aqueous electrolyte in the form of a gel was applied on anode surfaces to act as an interphase precursor coating to reduce the competitive water reduction during interphase formation (essentially minimizing water molecules at the anode surface before the SEI forms, creating a favorable environment for interphase.) The protective coating permitted high-capacity/low-potential anode materials to couple with different cathode materials to produce batteries with higher efficiency.

Co-senior author of the research Dr. Kang Xu, an Army Research Laboratory fellow who specializes in materials science and electrochemistry, told Design News that what the team did was eliminate the fuel in a lithium-ion battery.

“The risk of explosion comes from thermal run-away due to abuse, which results in the catching fire of non-aqueous electrolytes (the risk comes from the combination of high energy electrode and flammable electrolytes),” he said. “By making electrolytes aqueous, we removed ‘fuel’ from the combination.”

While most of us put down our devices and rest them on occasion, devices used in a military setting, for example, may often be used to “abuse” levels. For these critical applications, the research tea sought to create a battery with improved thermal and chemical stability that can be safely pushed to its limits during intense use.

The main challenge to create this battery was finding a way to enhance the cycle life from approximately 80 cycles to 500 to 1000 cycles. Previous efforts to create a high-power aqueous Li-ion battery, including a 3.0 volt battery created by the same research team in 2015, resulted in batteries that either had low energy density or were not intrinsically safe due to solid-electrolyte protected aqueous Li metal cells that presented the risk of fire if the protected layer was broken. The new prototype eliminates both drawbacks.

“We use a solid electrolyte interphase (SEI) to separate a water-in-salt electrolyte from a graphite anode,” Dr. Chunsheng Wang, a professor of chemical and nuclear engineering at the University of Maryland, told Design News. “The SEI can self-heal and the reaction between lithiated graphite with the water-in-salt electrolyte is very slow even if the SEI is broken. The unique approach of inhomogeneous electrolyte additive expels water from the electrode surface, and forms a dense protection that stabilizes water at the extreme potential of four volts.”

Once Xu and Wang, together with UMD assistant research scientist Chongyin Yang, developed the prototypes, extensive abuse testing of the batteries was carried out, including puncturing charged cells with a nail to initiate a short circuit. Under testing, the batteries produced no fire or smoke, unlike their conventional Li-ion cell counterparts which became dangerous due to direct contact between the metal and the electrolyte.  

In addition to military uses, the new batteries will likely find significant applications in the aerospace industries or in any place where safety outweighs the concerns of energy density or battery cycle life, such as confined spaces such as submarines. The team’s next steps, according to Drs. Wang and Xu, will be to perfect the interphase chemistry to extend the cycle life of the aqueous batteries, and demonstrate that they are intrinsically nonflammable by making larger cells. With more research and the right funding, the batteries could be ready for commercial markets within five years.

The team’s research was published in the September 6, 2017 issue of Joule.

New Material Cuts Weight of Vehicle Window and Door Seals

Fri, 2017-09-22 02:26

A new elastomer shows promise as a lighter, more durable sealing material for vehicle doors and windows.

Known as Fortrex, the material offers the potential for cutting as much as eight pounds from the mass of a typical sport utility vehicle (SUV), while featuring better compression-set characteristics than thermoplastics. “It’s not a synthetic rubber and it’s not a thermoplastic, but it works,” Chris Couch, vice president of innovation and global product line strategy for Cooper Standard, told Design News. “It gives a 30% weight reduction over rubber and it doesn’t compression-set over time.”

The material, introduced late last year, is already being employed inside the doors of the new Lincoln Continental to guide the movement of window glass. It’s also going to be used in two new, unnamed SUV programs to be introduced in 2018.


Fortex sealing material is used on a “below the belt” assembly inside the doors of the new Lincoln Continental. (Source: Cooper Standard)


Key applications for the new technology include so-called “glass runs” and metal-to-metal sealing between vehicle doors and bodies, as well as for seals in hood-to-body interfaces.

The culmination of a four-year development program, Fortrex started out as an effort to create a lightweight sealing material with good weatherability. For more than a half-century prior to its development, vehicle engineers had typically chosen EPDM (ethyl propylene diene monomer) rubber, which exhibited desirable performance characteristics, but was heavy. More recently, some automakers switched to TPV (thermoplastic vulcanizates) as a way of reducing weight. But TPVs also had drawbacks, Couch said.

“As TPV sits in a vehicle over months and years, it degrades -- it begins to lose its original shape,” he said. “Whereas, rubber seals up very nicely, but it’s heavy. So we asked ourselves, ‘What can we make that isn’t heavy and doesn’t degrade over time?’”

Finding a solution wasn’t easy, however. Better compression-set characteristics were typically accompanied by greater density and reduced manufacturability. Cooper Standard material scientists solved those problems, however, by employing a “polymeric cross-linking” process in the elastomer’s chemistry.

“The chemistry breakthroughs got the density down and good old-fashioned mechanical engineering gave us an extrusion process that worked well,” Couch said.

The development effort appears to be paying dividends for Cooper Standard, as well as automakers. A typical SUV saves about 5.7 lbs by using Fortrex in glass runs, and two more pounds by employing it in body seals, Couch said.

The company also plans to market the material as a replacement for coolant hoses in automobiles. Today, most vehicles use EPDM for such applications, largely because EPDM holds up well in the presence of high under-hood temperatures. Couch said that Fortex could do the same, while offering a significant weight reduction of EPDM.

Ultimately, the company may also target the material at building construction applications, such as sealing of glass panels on skyscrapers and as a replacement for EPDM roofing materials.

For now, however, the biggest application is in the automotive industry. Couch said the company is talking to electric carmakers, who want to use it to reduce the wind noise that typically enters vehicles through glass runs. There, he said, it could provide noise reduction of approximately 2 dB, when compared to aging TPV.

Most important, however, is the material’s ability to reduce weight. Given the industry’s emphasis on fuel efficiency, Couch said, lightweighting has become more critical than at any time in the automobile’s history. “This product space is ripe for innovation,” he told us. “And we believe this is a game-changing lightweighting solution.”

Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 33 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and auto.


Code Quality Is Key to Securing the Connected Car

Join Jay Thomas, director of field engineering for LDRA, as he discusses the vulnerabilities of connected automobiles at the upcoming ARM TechCon, Oct. 24-26, 2017 in Santa Clara, CA. Thomas will describe recent hacks, and then walk audiences through the tools and techniques that can be used to protect future vehicles in a technical session, titled “Code Quality Is Key to Securing the Connected Car.” Register here for the event, hosted by Design News’ parent company UBM.


Five Ways to Rethink Enclosures for the IoT

Thu, 2017-09-21 05:13

The industrial Internet of Things (IoT) impacts the ability of companies to manage data and function efficiently. With more than 300 end-to-end IoT solutions in the marketplace, it can be overwhelming for industrial engineers trying to understand IT implementation and workflows.

With all of the challenges that the IoT brings, it is important to consider that the workhorse of infrastructure remains the enclosure. Whether production equipment and controls are communicating locally or pushing data to the cloud, the enclosure is crucial to success.

Specifying additional enclosures and networking equipment without first taking stock of your existing infrastructure can impact program efficiency and opportunities to scale your operations.


Modular enclosures are scalable and versatile, allowing for cost-efficient expansion as a system grows. (Source: Rittal Corp.)

In order for your operations to deliver on the promise of the IoT, the entire process, right down to existing enclosures, must be reexamined to assure they will continue to be useful and effective.

Here are five ways to evaluate your current enclosures for the world of the IoT.


1. Safety and Security

Enclosures may be placed in more vulnerable positions to accommodate the sensors and networking needed to make the IoT practical.

  • Assess both physical and cyber security for the enclosures.
  • Upgrade firmware regularly on all connected mechanisms.
  • Change passwords frequently.

Choose secure lock systems.


2. Protection

As enclosures move beyond the plant floor, exposure to potentially harmful ambient conditions becomes a concern.

  • Choose appropriate NEMA and UL ratings for each environment.
  • Assess ingress protection from such ambient contaminants as oil, dirt, salt air or product dust.
  • Avoid electromagnetic “noise” from motors, belts, and fans.

Choose the appropriate level of NEMA and UL protection for wall-mount and junction boxes.


3. Layout of operational controls

The IoT requires more equipment within the same enclosure so space efficiency and design become primary concerns for engineers.

  • Assess power management for increased density.
  • Audit cooling capacity to ensure additional devices do not impact thermal management.

Determine if panel modification is necessary to allow for additional cable management, via raceways, cabling trays, routing, clamping or busbars to reduce space requirements.


4. Scalability

Enclosure modularity can improve scalability and savings during expansion.

  • Assembly of additional enclosures should be easy to handle on-site.
  • Enclosures could be bayed side-to-side to accommodate custom configurations.
  • Doors should be reversible.

Interior racks need to be repositionable to house new equipment configurations.


5. Future-proof design

Assessing future needs during the design stage can enable operation infrastructure to handle future needs of the IoT.

  • Plan for tomorrow, not “just enough” for today.
  • Consider busbars instead of cabling for more power in less space.
  • Choose enclosures that are flexible for modification.
  • Assess designs to add modifications such as new knockouts, cable entry points, windows or HMI.

A comprehensive assessment of current and future IoT infrastructure can save long-term headaches and ensure success. For instance, the enclosure can play a vital role in the security of interconnected IoT devices. While there are concerns about software intrusion among IoT devices, there is a real threat in the physical hijacking of components, which can be addressed by enclosure lock and security systems.

As legacy systems are upgraded or replaced to accommodate IoT migration, modular enclosure systems offer the ability to load more equipment into current cabinets or bay them together to house additional network controls.

In addition, the ecosystem of cloud providers, mobile network companies and microprocessor companies can be overwhelming for many industrial managers trying to understand the integration of the IoT. Working with infrastructure manufacturers that have global relationships with industrial, IT and IoT companies can provide insight and direction to finding the right solutions providers for your company’s needs.

The evolution of your organization to the IoT can be winding and full of challenges, but leaning on your solutions providers, future-proofing your infrastructure and setting clear goals for adoption can lead you to success.

Steve Sullivan is the Training Supervisor at Rittal Corporation where he oversees instructor-led, computer and web-based learning and development. 


ESC Minneapolis is Back!
The Embedded Systems Conference (ESC) is back in Minnesota and it’s bigger than ever. Over two days, Nov. 8-9, 2017, receive in-depth education geared to drive a year’s worth of work. Uncover software design innovation, hardware breakthroughs, fresh IoT trends, product demos, and more that will change how you spend time and money on your next project. Click here to register today!

Is All Engineering Mechatronics Now?

Thu, 2017-09-21 03:49

The term mechatronics is getting wide use, but there is confusion about what it means exactly. The discipline is widely associated with robotics, as the design, build and deployment of robots requires the cross disciplines of mechanical engineering and electrical engineering.

The term mechatronics was partly popularized to replace robotics engineering. In the late 1970s, when robotics was going gangbusters, universities across the Midwest were cranking out graduates with robotics engineering degrees. That was fine and good until the robotics boom lost its luster in the 1980s. At the same time, Japanese companies started buying up robot manufacturers. Engineers with a robotics engineering degree were suddenly out in the cold. The universities teaching robotics save the study a new name: mechatronics.

The Etymology of Mechatronics

Some say the word mechatronics was coined by the Japanese engineer Ko Kikuchi in 1969. Kikuchi was working for Yaskawa Electric Corp. at the time. Others attribute the origin to Tetsuro Mori, also an engineer at Yaskawa. The company registered mechatronics as trademark in Japan in 1971. Soon afterward, the company released the right to use the word to public. Whoever coined it, mechatronics a combination of the terms mechanical and electronics. Even more than the disciplines of mechanical and electronics, the study of mechatronics now usually includes computer science and systems engineering.




Mechatronics has expanded as more consumer and industrial products started including advanced electronics. Cars now include electronic systems that are intrinsic to the mechanical function in the vehicle. This melding of electronic and mechanical systems will become even more pronounced as autonomous and all-electric vehicles proliferate. Mechanical engineers are well aware they are expected to have more than a cursory familiarity with electronics.

Most of the top engineering schools offer bachelor’s degrees in mechatronics. Some also offer associate’s and master’s degrees in mechatronics.

Design News Webinar on Mechatronics.

To help explore the applications and education opportunities for mechatronics, Design News will present the one-hour webinar, Mechatronics in Robotics: The New Multi-Purpose Engineering Discipline, at 2:00 pm Eastern time on September 28. Registration is free.

Rob Spiegel has covered automation and control for 17 years, 15 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.

Image courtesy of Florida State University

The Top 15 Engineering Schools by Salary

Wed, 2017-09-20 04:00






The Embedded Systems Conference (ESC) is back in Minnesota and it’s bigger than ever. Over two days, Nov. 8-9, 2017, receive in-depth education geared to drive a year’s worth of work. Uncover software design innovation, hardware breakthroughs, fresh IoT trends, product demos, and more that will change how you spend time and money on your next project.  Click here to register today!


Rob Spiegel has covered automation and control for 17 years, 15 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.

3D-Printed ‘Smart’ Biomaterials Respond to Stimuli, Can Degrade on Demand

Wed, 2017-09-20 02:12

Researchers at Brown University have demonstrated a 3D-printing technique for fabricating “smart” biomaterials that can respond to stimuli, self-heal, and degrade on demand, paving the way for a number of next-generation medical and other applications.

Ian Wong, an assistant professor in Brown’s School of Engineering, led the research to develop the materials, which uses a new type of printing method and a biomaterial called sodium alginate--a compound derived from seaweed--that acts like a synthetic polymer, he told Design News.

The work demonstrated structures that can be degraded away with a biocompatible chemical trigger, which Wong said could be useful to developing microfluidic devices, creating biomaterials that respond dynamically to stimuli, and in patterning artificial tissue.

“For tissue engineering, it may be possible to print blood vessel-like networks within a biomaterial that stimulate living cells with molecular gradients, flows, and forces,” he said. “In drug delivery, we could control the release of bioactive species by printing reservoirs with specific shapes and degradation rates.”

Wong and his team—which includes graduate student Thomas Valentin, with whom Wong began the work three years ago and who serves as first author--published a report on their work in the journal Lab on a Chip.


Brown researchers have found a way to 3D print intricate temporary microstructures that can be degraded on demand using a biocompatible chemical trigger. (Source: Wong Lab / Brown University)


To fabricate the biomaterials, the team used the type of 3D printing called stereolithography—which uses ultraviolet laser controlled by a computer-aided design system to trace patterns across the surface of a photoactive polymer solution. In the process, the light causes the polymers to link together, forming solid 3D structures from the liquid. The tracing is repeated until an entire object is built from the bottom up.

Stereolithographic printing typically uses photoactive polymers that link together with covalent bonds, which are strong but irreversible. In their work, Wong and his colleagues aimed to create structures with potentially reversible ionic bonds, which had never been done before using light-based 3D printing. To achieve their goal, the team made precursor solutions with sodium alginate, which is known to be capable of ionic crosslinking, he said.

“Most light-based 3D printing occurs through covalent crosslinking of polymer resins, but we demonstrate the formation of reversible ionic crosslinks in a seaweed-derived biopolymer called alginate,” Wong explained. “This may permit 3D-printed materials that exhibit ‘smart’ and biomimetic properties such as self-healing or stimuli responsiveness.”

The team showed that alginate could indeed be used in stereolithography and that by using different combinations of ionic salts—such as magnesium, barium, and calcium--they could create structures with varying stiffness, which could in turn be dissolved away at varying rates. The work also showed a number of ways the temporary alginate structures can be applicable.

Wong said that 3D printing is a an inexpensive and quick way to fabricate the biomaterials, giving the researchers the ability to work more freely with them to optimize their application.

“Conventional prototyping and manufacturing are based on lithographic masks, tooling, or dies, which are time-consuming and expensive,” he told Design News. “3D printing allows us to digitally design a biomaterial structure and directly print it. We can rapidly optimize a prototype by going back and forth between the digital design and the printed structure.”

The team plans to continue experimenting with alginate structures to find ways to optimize their strength and stiffness properties, as well as control the pace of degradation, Wong said.

“We have demonstrated a proof-of-concept here, but we are working on improvements, [such as]: Can we improve the print resolution? Can we make the printed structures more mechanically robust?” he said.

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for more than 15 years.

Last Days to Nominate Your Product for Innovation Recognition

Wed, 2017-09-20 01:51

Friday is the deadline to enter your stand-out artificial-intelligence, virtual-reality, computer vision, education, wearable, IoT, or open-source product for the Arm TechCon 2017 Innovation Awards. These awards are open to all exhibitors at ARM TechCon 2017 (October 24-26, 2017, in the Santa Clara Convention Center).  

The Arm TechCon event, managed by Design News’ parent company UBM, brings together hardware engineers, software developers, and system architects working across a broad range of applications, from wearables to drones to servers. 

The Innovation Awards highlight the most innovative Arm-based solutions and products developed between Oct. 1, 2016, and Sept. 30, 2017. Be sure to enter before the extended deadline of Friday, September 22! 

This year, you can submit your product in these five categories:

  • Best Use of Advanced Technologies (artifical intellegence, virtual or augmented reality, machine learning, computer vision)
  • Best Use of Technology in Education
  • Best Wearable Device
  • Best Contribution to IoT Security
  • Best Contribution to an Open-Source Software Project

See more information on the awards and details about each category on the Arm TechCon website.

To learn about Exhibitor or Sponsorship opportunities, please contact: ClientServices@ubm.com

Register for the conference here

A panel of ARM experts and Design News editors will select 15 finalists, 3 in each category. The finalists will be featured in a blog on this site and included in an exclusive Arm Innovation Tour during the event. There is no cost to enter a nomination for these awards.

The awards ceremony will take place during the show.

ARM Technology Drives the Future. Join 4,000+ embedded systems specialists for three days of Arm ecosystem immersion you can’t find anywhere else. Arm TechCon. Oct. 24-26, 2017 in Santa Clara, CA. Register here for the event, hosted by Design News’ parent company UBM.


Imagine Feeling What Your Autonomous Car Feels

Tue, 2017-09-19 04:01

Talk to someone who loves their car and you'll often hear them talk about having a feeling of oneness with their vehicle and how their car feels like an extension of themselves. It's a sensation that may go away if autonomous cars become ubiquitous and transform cars from less of an individualized experience and more into a travel utility akin to trains, buses, and airplanes.

The Roadable Synapse project uses sensors technology applied to a Hyundai Ioniq to provide the driver with an audio experience that changed based on the vehicle's performance and external conditions. (Image source: Hyundai Motor / Museum Associates/LACMA)

But what if it didn't have to be that way? What if sensor technology could allow even our autonomous vehicles to provide us with new levels of immersion and interaction with our vehicles – letting us experience what our cars are experiencing?

Hyundai, in partnership with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)'s Art + Technology Lab, have tapped San Francisco-based artist and experimental philosopher, Jonathon Keats to create Roadable Synapse, a conceptual art project designed to explore how drivers interact with their vehicles and how those interactions can grow and change as technology, particularly autonomous driving, advances in the automotive space. By outfitting a Hyundai Ioniq with new sensors, and by leveraging sensors already present in the vehicle, Keats and the R&D team at Hyundai were able to create a vehicle that uses audio to provide a novel sensory experience for the driver. 

"We are constantly exploring how new forms of mobility can help us overcome current transportation limitations. Engaging with art and technology projects allows us to explore this field in entirely new ways," John Suh, Vice President at Hyundai Motor, said in a press statement. 

The idea behind the concept is that it could provide a new level of connection with their vehicle for drivers and provide a more mentally and emotionally engaging experience when riding in autonomous vehicles. “I began the two-year development cycle by screening the neuroscientific literature, searching for ways in which to dynamically alter the driver’s psychological state based on incoming sensory data,” Keats wrote in an article for Nautilus. “I found that factors ranging from speed to aerodynamics could be viscerally experienced by modifying the sound environment in the passenger compartment. Further, the driver’s state of mind can be changed just by tweaking the music playing on the stereo (and it makes no difference whether the music is hip-hop or classical).”

The Roadable Synapse uses sensor data from various points on the car (including the engine) and converts those into unique audio responses for the driver. Music tempo changes based on the car's acceleration, the volume changes based on RPMs, and the audio will distort or become clearer based on driving efficiency. “By making music tempo faster as car goes faster, and stimulating the driver by that tempo, it becomes possible to make the driver psychologically shift in terms of time so the driver is feeling what the car is experiencing,” Keats explained in a documentary released by LACMA about the project (below).

Hyundai engineers even affixed anemometers, devices used to measure wind speed, to the outside of the car to measure the air flow over the left and right side of the car. By having the audio shift from left to right based on where the most airflow is, it creates a binaural hearing experience for the driver.

“I'm not an engineer so ultimately I'm not trying to develop a new technology,” Keats explained further. “I'm interested in the car as a vehicle to be able to explore a relationship with technology over the long term. Think about how we might relate to artificial intelligence, or at the opposite extreme what might happen as we become more one with our machines...and whether in fact that is advantageous.”

While Keats admits the Roadable Synapse is more of a thought experiment than anything else at this point, it does point to possible solutions to address some very real concerns about autonomous vehicles and how comfortable consumers will be with them. According to a 2016 survey conducted by AAA, while 59% of US drivers say they want autonomous functionality in their next vehicle, 78% said they are afraid to ride in a fully autonomous vehicle. Fifty-four percent of drivers surveyed also said they would be uncomfortable sharing the road with a self-driving vehicle.

Perhaps concepts like the Roadable Synapse, which gives riders a better sense of how the vehicle is responding to its environment, will help ease consumers' apprehension around them. Companies are already seeking to address this in other ways with AI systems, such as Microsoft's EmotionAPI and the Emotional AI SDK released by Affectiva, that could allow autonomous cars to better understand their passengers' emotional states and respond accordingly – reducing speed if the driver is feeling fearful, for example.

According to LACMA, Keats is also working on a next-generation of the Roadable Synapse that will take on more advanced sensory experiences, making the driver feel anxious when the engine needs servicing, and feel hunger when the car is low on fuel. Perhaps the real question is just how close do we really want to feel with our vehicles?

Watch a short documentary on Roadable Synapse released by LACMA:


   Artificial Intelligence: What Will the Future Be?  
Intelligent systems and robots will one day help us with routine tasks, handle dangerous jobs, and keep us company. But they could also make decisions that violate our ethical principles, take control of our lives, and disrupt society. Join  Maria Gini — accompanied by her AI-enabled humanoid robot — during herkeynote address at ESC Minneapolis Nov. 8-9, 2017, and explore state-of-the-art intelligent systems and discuss future developments and challenges.  Click here to register today!  

Chris Wiltz is a senior editor at Design News covering emerging technologies, including VR/AR, AI, and robotics.

Nano-Sized Actuator Lifts 165 Times Its Own Weight

Tue, 2017-09-19 03:07

Ants, though tiny, are known for their ability to lift things many times their own weight. Researchers have created a nano-sized device that acts similarly as a small muscle; while it weighs only 1.6 milligrams—or about the same as five poppy seeds—it can lift 265 milligrams, 165 times its own weight.

The strength of the device—called an “inverted-series-connected (ISC) biomorph actuation device” and built by researchers at Rutgers University-New Brunswick— comes from a process of inserting and removing ions between very thin sheets of the material molybdenum disulfide (MoS2), an inorganic crystalline mineral compound.

In this way, the device acts as a new type of actuator that can work in aqueous environments, converting electrical energy to mechanical energy, explained Manish Chhowalla, professor and associate chair of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering in the School of Engineering.

“Based on the principles of beam theory in mechanics of solids, we identified the back-to-back bimorph cantilever configuration as an effective configuration to amplify the strain generated by the electrochemical material into a large macroscopic mechanical displacement and force,” he told Design News.

By applying a small voltage, the team found that the device, although very small, could lift a weight much greater than itself, Chhowalla said.

“The actuation performance is attributed to the high electrical conductivity of the metallic 1T phase of MoS2 nanosheets, the elastic modulus of restacked MoS2 layers, and fast proton diffusion between the nanosheets--all of which are confined into a bimorph geometry promoting high generated displacement and force,” he said.


Shown are very thin sheets of molybdenum disulfide and a schematic and photos of working actuators developed using the material. Researchers at Rutgers University-New Brunswick developed the actuator—which is nanosized but can live 165 times its own weight. (Source: Muharrem Acerce, Rutgers University)


Molybdenum disulfide is a naturally occurring mineral commonly used as a solid-state lubricant in engines. Like graphite, it’s a layered material, with strong chemical bonding within thin layers but weak bonding in between the layers. Because of this composition, chemists can separate layers of the material into individual thin sheets—or nanosheets.

The nanosheets, which remain suspended in solvents such as water, can be assembled into stacks by putting the solution onto a flexible material and allowing the solvent to evaporate. Researchers can then use the restacked sheets as electrodes like the ones in typical batteries with high electrical conductivity to insert and remove ions, Chhowalla said. This, in turn, leads to the expansion and contraction of nanosheets, resulting in force on the surface and thus triggering the actuation of the flexible material.

The team—which also included Muharrem Acerce, a doctoral student in Chhowalla’s group who discovered the potential for actuation of the materials with the help of E. Koray Akdoğan, a teaching assistant professor in Department of Materials Science and Engineering--published a study on their work in the journal Nature. Acerce is the lead author on the paper.

Chhowalla said the device has a range of potential applications to provide actuation for robotics and devices that operate in aqueous environments, particularly in marine biology or medicine.

“As such, the device may find applications in catheter fabrication or marine robotics,” he said.

The team plans to continue its work to use the same principles to develop actuators that can move even bigger things, Chhowalla said. They also aim to break new ground by creating a device that can be used even in non-aqueous conditions to expand its potential for use, he added.

“For instance, it should be possible to incorporate a gel electrolyte to the active material, forming a nanocomposite actuator that is reminiscent to ionic polymer metal composites actuators,” Chhowalla said. “In so doing, the range of applications of the device can be extended to dry conditions.”  

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for more than 15 years.

From Advanced Robotics to Rapid Prototyping: 10 of the Varied Faces of Smart Manufacturing

Mon, 2017-09-18 05:30

Rob Spiegel has covered automation and control for 17 years, 15 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.




The Embedded Systems Conference (ESC) is back in Minnesota and it’s bigger than ever. Over two days, Nov. 8-9, 2017, receive in-depth education geared to drive a year’s worth of work. Uncover software design innovation, hardware breakthroughs, fresh IoT trends, product demos, and more that will change how you spend time and money on your next project. Click here to register today!


Advanced Materials Cut Weight of New Chrysler Minivan

Mon, 2017-09-18 04:04

Using a blend of advanced materials, Fiat Chrysler engineers have created a stiff minivan body that’s 168 lbs lighter than predecessors.

The new Chrysler Pacifica uses ultra-high-strength steel in its body and load beams, aluminum in its hood and sliding doors, and magnesium in its liftgate, helping cut weight and enhance its claim of best-in-class fuel efficiency. “We got a lot of weight out of the body structure while improving the NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) and the safety performance,” James Truskin, Technical Fellow for Fiat Chrysler’s Body-In-White group, told Design News. “We needed to be diligent about the optimization of every component, making sure we had the right material in the right place.”

Using ultra high-strength steel, Fiat Chrysler engineers cut the weight of the Pacifica’s body-in-white by about 12%. (Source: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles N.V.)

The key to the automaker’s lightweighting effort was its use of ultra high-strength steel. Ultra high-strength steel, typically defined as having a yield strength of greater than 780 MPa (about 113 ksi), enabled Fiat Chrysler engineers cut the weight of the so-called body-in-white (the car body prior to the addition of hoods, doors, decklids and fenders) by about 12%. The team accomplished that by employing tailor-welded, hot-stamped steel around the doors to create big, ultra high-strength blanks.

“We used tailor-welded blanks on the previous car, but by doing this one as hot stamped, we were able to get additional strength,” Truskin said. The technology to accomplish that was not available previously, he added.

At the same time, the company’s engineers used aluminum in the vehicle’s hood, doors and rear-end liftgate. The use of aluminum in the minivan’s doors and liftgate represented a change for the automaker, which used mild steels in the past.

Engineers also employed cast magnesium components for the Pacifica’s internal structural elements in the doors. The use of magnesium minimized mass, Truskin said, while enabling engineers to combine multiple components into a single casting, thereby reducing assembly costs.

“When we compared all the possible options, the combination of magnesium inner and aluminum outer gave us good weight savings and a competitive business case, as well,” Truskin told us. 

By employing advanced materials on the Pacifica, Fiat Chrysler joins a growing number of automakers who are migrating to advanced high strengths steels and aluminum on new vehicle lines. Ford Motor Co., for example, used a high-strength, dual-phase steel for about 78% of the frame on its new F-150 pickup, up from about 23% on earlier models. Ford also employed aluminum alloys in the F-150’s cab, hood, tailgate, floor, fender, doors, front end, pickup box and numerous other parts. Similarly, Chevrolet used 60% high-strength steel in the frame of its Colorado pickup, and Fiat Chrysler featured 60% high-strength steel in the frame of its Chrysler 200.

The use of advanced steels with higher yield strengths provides numerous advantages, engineers say. The Pacifica, for example, uses ultra high-strength steel with a yield strength approaching 116 ksi (800 MPa). By comparison, conventional mild steels offer a yield strength of about 26-40 ksi (180-280 MPa). Because advanced high-strength and ultra high-strength steels offer so much more load-carrying capacity, engineers are able to use less steel, resulting in weight reduction, while still offering greater stiffness and safety.

Advanced steels typically also offer a higher modulus of elasticity, which translates to better resistance to forces that might otherwise leave dents in the vehicle’s body.

One key to making more use of the new materials is the availability of better CAE (computer-aided engineering) tools, which enable engineers to more accurately predict their behavior, Truskin said. “A lot of the work done by ourselves and others has helped put us in a position to have higher confidence in the use of aluminum in places where it wasn’t used before,” he told us.

Automakers say the new materials help them meet increasingly tougher standards, especially in terms of corporate fuel economy. On average, manufacturers get a 0.5% bump in fuel economy for each 1% in weight reduction, experts say.


The plug-in hybrid version of the Pacifica earned a US EPA fuel economy ratings of 84 MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent), making it the most efficient minivan ever. (Source: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles N.V.)


That’s why improvements like those in the Pacifica matter, Truskin said. The conventionally powered Pacifica recently earned a highway fuel economy rating of 28 mpg from the US EPA, while the plug-in hybrid version came in at 84 MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent), making it the most efficient minivan ever.

“On the Pacifica, we used a new process and a new strategy,” Truskin said. “And we’re going to continue using that on all of our architectures moving forward.”

Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 33 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and auto.


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