Engineers Prepare Battery Module Swapping Approach for Electric Cars

Imagine being able to switch out the batteries in electric cars just like you switch out batteries in a photo camera or flashlight. A team of engineers at the University of California, San Diego, are trying to accomplish just that, in partnership with a local San Diego engineering company.

Rather than swapping out the whole battery, which is cumbersome and requires large, heavy equipment, engineers plan to swap out and recharge smaller units within the battery, known as modules.

Swapping battery modules could also have far-reaching implications for mobile and decentralized electrical energy storage systems such as solar backup and portable generators. The technology can make energy storage more configurable, promote safety, simplify maintenance and eventually eliminate the use of fossil fuels for these applications.

Engineers not only believe that their approach is viable, but also plan to prove it. They will embark on a cross-country trip with a car powered by the removable, rechargeable M-BEAM, or Modular Battery Exchange and Active Management, battery modules.  They plan to drive from coast to coast only taking breaks that are a few minutes long to swap out the modules that will be recharged in a chase vehicle. They believe they can drive from San Diego to the coast of South Carolina less than 60 hours — without going over the speed limit.


Also: Learn about a Full-Cell Evaluation/Screening Technique for New Battery Chemistries.

Posted in: News, Automotive, Batteries, Electronics & Computers, Power Management, Energy, Renewable Energy, Solar Power

Researchers Create See-Through Solar Concentrator

A team of researchers at Michigan State University has developed a new type of solar concentrator that when placed over a window creates solar energy.

The device is called a transparent luminescent solar concentrator and can be used on buildings, cell phones, and any other device that has a clear surface.

And, according to Richard Lunt of MSU’s College of Engineering, the key word is “transparent.”

The solar harvesting system uses small organic molecules developed by Lunt and his team to absorb specific nonvisible wavelengths of sunlight.

The “glowing” infrared light is guided to the edge of the plastic where it is converted to electricity by thin strips of photovoltaic solar cells.

“Because the materials do not absorb or emit light in the visible spectrum, they look exceptionally transparent to the human eye,” said Richard Lunt of MSU’s College of Engineering.


Also: Learn about High-Efficiency Nested Hall Thrusters for Robotic Solar System Exploration.

Posted in: News, Energy, Renewable Energy, Solar Power, Materials, Plastics, Semiconductors & ICs

Water Splitter Runs on AAA Battery

Scientists at Stanford University have developed a low-cost, emissions-free device that uses an ordinary AAA battery to produce hydrogen by water electrolysis.  The battery sends an electric current through two electrodes that split liquid water into hydrogen and oxygen gas. Unlike other water splitters that use precious-metal catalysts, the electrodes in the Stanford device are made of inexpensive and abundant nickel and iron.

In addition to producing hydrogen, the novel water splitter could be used to make chlorine gas and sodium hydroxide, an important industrial chemical.

Splitting water to make hydrogen requires no fossil fuels and emits no greenhouse gases. But scientists have yet to develop an affordable, active water splitter with catalysts capable of working at industrial scales.

"It's been a constant pursuit for decades to make low-cost electrocatalysts with high activity and long durability," said Stanford University Professor Hongjie Dai. "When we found out that a nickel-based catalyst is as effective as platinum, it came as a complete surprise."


Also: Learn about a Proton Exchange Membrane Fuel Cell.

Posted in: News, Batteries, Electronics & Computers, Power Management, Alternative Fuels, Energy, Green Design & Manufacturing, Materials, Metals

Researchers Develop Solar Technologies, Origami-Style

As a high school student at a study program in Japan, Brian Trease would fold wrappers from fast-food cheeseburgers into cranes. He loved discovering different origami techniques in library books.

Today, Trease, a mechanical engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, thinks about how the principles of origami could be used for space-bound devices.

Researchers say origami could be useful one day in utilizing space solar power for Earth-based purposes. Imagine an orbiting power plant that wirelessly beams power down to Earth using microwaves. Sending the solar arrays up to space would be easy, Trease said, because they could all be folded and packed into a single rocket launch, with "no astronaut assembly required."

Panels used in space missions already incorporate simple folds, collapsing like a fan or an accordion. But Trease and colleagues are interested in using more intricate folds that simplify the overall mechanical structure and make for easier deployment.

Last year, Zirbel and Trease collaborated with origami expert Robert Lang and BYU professor Larry Howell to develop a solar array that folds up to be 8.9 feet (2.7 meters) in diameter. Unfold it, and you’ve got a structure 82 feet (25 meters) across.


Also: Learn about Origami-Inspired Folding of Thick, Rigid Panels.

Posted in: News, Aerospace, Energy, Energy Harvesting, Renewable Energy, Solar Power, Mechanical Components, Antennas, RF & Microwave Electronics

Secret of Eumelanin’s Ability to Absorb Broad Spectrum of Light Uncovered

Melanin — and specifically, the form called eumelanin — is the primary pigment that gives humans the coloring of their skin, hair, and eyes. It protects the body from the hazards of ultraviolet and other radiation that can damage cells and lead to skin cancer. But the exact reason why the compound is so effective at blocking such a broad spectrum of sunlight has remained something of a mystery. Now, however, researchers at MIT and other institutions have solved that mystery, potentially opening the way for the development of synthetic materials that could have similar light-blocking properties.

Posted in: News, Electronics & Computers, Energy, Solar Power, Composites, Materials, Medical, Optics, Photonics

Students Learn On-the-Fly Engineering in Solar Car Competition

Nine teams of solar powered model cars competed during the inaugural Junior Solar Sprint (JSS) competition held at the STEM Education and Outreach Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD. The JSS is a nationwide competition funded by the Army Educational Outreach Program, which challenges teams of students from elementary and middle school to design, construct, and race small model cars powered entirely by solar energy.

Posted in: News, Automotive, Energy, Renewable Energy, Solar Power, Motion Control, Motors & Drives

'Active' Surfaces Control How Particles Move

Researchers at MIT and in Saudi Arabia have developed a new way of making surfaces that can actively control how fluids or particles move across them. The work might enable new kinds of biomedical or microfluidic devices, or solar panels that could automatically clean themselves of dust and grit.

The system makes use of a microtextured surface, with bumps or ridges just a few micrometers across, that is then impregnated with a fluid that can be manipulated — for example, an oil infused with tiny magnetic particles, or ferrofluid, which can be pushed and pulled by applying a magnetic field to the surface. When droplets of water or tiny particles are placed on the surface, a thin coating of the fluid covers them, forming a magnetic cloak.

The thin magnetized cloak can then actually pull the droplet or particle along as the layer itself is drawn magnetically across the surface. Tiny ferromagnetic particles, approximately 10 nanometers in diameter, in the ferrofluid could allow precision control when it’s needed — such as in a microfluidic device used to test biological or chemical samples by mixing them with a variety of reagents. Unlike the fixed channels of conventional microfluidics, such surfaces could have “virtual” channels that could be reconfigured at will.

The new approach could be useful for a range of applications: For example, solar panels and the mirrors used in solar-concentrating systems can quickly lose a significant percentage of their efficiency when dust, moisture, or other materials accumulate on their surfaces. But if coated with such an active surface material, a brief magnetic pulse could be used to sweep the material away.


Also: Read more Materials tech briefs.

Posted in: News, Energy, Renewable Energy, Solar Power, Fluid Handling, Drug Delivery, Medical, Motion Control

Spongelike Structure Converts Solar Energy into Steam

A new material structure developed at MIT generates steam by soaking up the sun.

The structure — a layer of graphite flakes and an underlying carbon foam — is a porous, insulating material structure that floats on water. When sunlight hits the structure’s surface, it creates a hotspot in the graphite, drawing water up through the material’s pores, where it evaporates as steam. The brighter the light, the more steam is generated.

The new material is able to convert 85 percent of incoming solar energy into steam — a significant improvement over recent approaches to solar-powered steam generation.

“Steam is important for desalination, hygiene systems, and sterilization,” says Hadi Ghasemi, a postdoc in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, who led the development of the structure. “Especially in remote areas where the sun is the only source of energy, if you can generate steam with solar energy, it would be very useful.”


Also: See other Energy tech briefs.

Posted in: News, Energy, Energy Harvesting, Solar Power, Materials

Hurricane-Tracking Unmanned Systems Win NASA Challenge

NASA has selected three winning designs solicited to address the technological limitations of the uncrewed aerial systems (UAS) currently used to track and collect data on hurricanes. Engineering teams at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Purdue University, and the University of Virginia were named first- through third-place winners, respectively, of the agency's 2013-2014 University Aeronautics Engineering Design Challenge.

Posted in: News, Aerospace, Aviation, Alternative Fuels, Environmental Monitoring, Automation, Robotics, Data Acquisition, Measuring Instruments, Monitoring, Test & Measurement

New Fuel Cells Increase Airplane Efficiency

Washington State University researchers have developed the first fuel cell that can directly convert fuels, such as jet fuel or gasoline, to electricity, providing a dramatically more energy-efficient way to create electric power for planes or cars.

Posted in: News, Energy, Energy Efficiency

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