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Researchers Turn Packing Peanuts into Battery Parts

While setting up their new lab, Purdue University researchers ended up with piles of packing peanuts. Professor Vilas Pol suggested an environmentally friendly way to reuse the waste.The team converted their lab's extra packing peanuts into high-performance carbon electrodes for rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. The batteries outperform conventional graphite electrodes. Carbon-nanoparticle and microsheet anodes were built from polystyrene and starch-based packing peanuts, respectively.Packing peanuts, though valuable for shipping, are difficult to break down and often end up in landfills. The polystyrene peanuts also contain chemicals and detergents that can contaminate soil and aquatic ecosystems.With the Purdue method, the peanuts are heated between 500 and 900 degrees Celsius in a furnace under inert atmosphere, and in the presence or absence of a transition metal salt catalyst. The resulting material is then processed into the anodes.Commercial anode particles are about 10 times thicker than the new anodes and have higher electrical resistance, which increase charging time. The Purdue method is potentially practical for large-scale manufacturing."In our case, if we are lithiating this material during the charging of a battery it has to travel only 1 micrometer distance, so you can charge and discharge a battery faster than your commercially available material," Pol said.Future work will include steps to potentially improve performance by increasing the surface area and pore size to improve the electrochemical performance.SourceAlso: Learn about an Optical Fiber for Solar Cells.

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Will self-driving cars be ready for the road this summer?

This week's Question: Last week, Elon Musk, chief executive of Tesla, said that the electric car maker would introduce autonomous technology, an autopilot mode, by this summer; the technology will allow drivers to have their vehicles take control on major roads and highways. The CEO also announced that a software update for the Model S will be rolled out in 90 days and give Tesla owners new safety features, including automatic emergency braking and blind-spot and side-collision warnings. Some industry experts, however, are skeptical that such autonomous driving is legal and meets current regulations. Although some states have passed laws legalizing autonomous vehicles, those laws address the testing of driverless cars, not their use by consumers. What do you think?

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Self-Powered Sensors Communicate Building Defects

Michigan State University researchers have developed a technology that allows sensing, communication, and diagnostic computing — all within the building material of a structure. Using energy harvested from the structure itself, the "substrate computing" system features sensors that continuously monitor and report on the building's integrity.“Adoption of such monitoring has previously been limited because of the frequency of battery replacement for battery-powered sensors,” said Subir Biswas, professor of electrical and computer engineering, “as well as the need for a separate communication subsystem usually involving radio frequency sensor networks.”In the future, the technology will be routinely used in building materials so that structures, such as bridges, will be able to detect and diagnose potential problems, without the need for an external energy source and a separate wireless sensor network. The researchers' goal is to integrate all of the functions within a 3 x 3-millimeter electronic chip, which can be embedded within the material of a structure. Source Also: Read other Sensors tech briefs.

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Quantum Radar Detects “Invisible” Objects

A prototype quantum radar has the potential to detect objects that are invisible to conventional systems. The new breed of radar is a hybrid system that uses quantum correlation between microwave and optical beams to detect objects of low reflectivity, such as cancer cells or aircraft, with a stealth capability. Because the quantum radar operates at much lower energies than conventional systems, it has the long-term potential for a range of applications in biomedicine including non-invasive NMR scans. A conventional radar antenna emits a microwave to scan a region of space. Any target object would reflect the signal to the source, but objects of low reflectivity immersed in regions with high background noise are difficult to spot using classical radar systems. In contrast, quantum radars operate more effectively and exploit quantum entanglement to enhance their sensitivity to detect small signal reflections from very noisy regions. The radar could be operated at short distances to detect the presence of defects in biological samples or human tissues in a completely non-invasive fashion, thanks to the use of a low number of quantum-correlated photons. Source:

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Sound Waves Detect Aircraft Structural Defects

A system for using sound waves to spot potentially dangerous cracks in pipes, aircraft engines, and nuclear power plants has been developed by a University of Strathclyde researcher. A study found that transmitting different types of sound waves can help to detect structural defects more easily. This is achieved by varying the duration and frequency of the waves, and using the results to recreate an image of the component's interior. The system is a model for a form of non-destructive testing that uses high-frequency mechanical waves to inspect structure parts and ensure they operate reliably, without compromising their integrity. It could potentially have applications in medical imaging and seismology. Source:

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New Solder for Semiconductors Creates Manufacturing Possibilities

A research team led by the University of Chicago has demonstrated how semiconductors can be soldered and still deliver good electronic performance. The team developed compounds of cadmium, lead, and bismuth that can be applied as a liquid or paste to join two pieces of a semiconductor by heating them to several hundred degrees Celsius, which is mild by industry standards. The paste or our liquid converts cleanly into a material that will be compositionally matched to the bonded parts, and that required development of new chemistry. Special molecules were designed that fulfill this requirement so they do not contaminate the material. After application as a liquid or paste, they decompose to form a seamless joint. The technology could enable 3D printing of semiconductors, and could lead to the development of less expensive, solution-processed semiconductors needed for entry into new markets. Among these markets are printable electronics, 3D printing, flat-panel display manufacturing, solar cells, and thermoelectric heat-to-electricity generators for the Internet of Things. Source:

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Compact 3D Printer-Scanner is All-In-One Part Maker

Nanyang Technological University’s (NTU) start-up Blacksmith Group launched a compact 3D printer that can also scan items into digitized models. Named the Blacksmith Genesis, this user-friendly device allows users without much knowledge of 3D software to scan any item, then edit the digitized model on the computer, and print it out in 3D.  Housed in a black aluminum casing, the device features a 2-inch LCD display, Wi-Fi, an integrated SD-card reader, and a USB connection for instant printing. Blacksmith Genesis uses an innovative rotary platform for its printing and scanning, unlike other commercial 3D printers. The revolving platform allows for true 360-degrees scanning. Blacksmith Genesis is also the first to feature remote live monitoring and automatic error detection, thanks to its in-built camera. This allows users to monitor and control the printing process on their smartphone from anywhere in the world through the Internet. Source:

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