This column presents technologies that have applications in commercial areas, possibly creating the products of tomorrow. To learn more about each technology, see the contact information provided for that innovation.
Energy-Saving Polymer Manufacturing Process
Makers of cars, planes, buses — anything that needs strong, lightweight, and heat-resistant parts — are poised to benefit from a new manufacturing process that requires only a quick touch from a small heat source to send a cascading hardening wave through a polymer. Researchers at the University of Illinois have developed the polymerization process, which uses ten orders of magnitude less energy, and can cut two orders of magnitude of time over the current manufacturing process. By touching what is essentially a soldering iron to one corner of the polymer surface, the cascading chemical reaction wave propagates throughout the material. Once triggered, the reaction uses enthalpy, or the internal energy of the polymerization reaction, to push the reaction forward and cure the material, rather than using an external energy source. The process could accommodate large-scale production due to its compatibility with commonly used fabrication techniques like molding, imprinting, 3D printing, and resin infusion.
Contact: Scott White, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Optical System Provides Panoramic Perspective with a Single Camera
NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center developed a technology that combines a panoramic refracting optic (PRO) lens with a unique detection system to acquire a true 360-degree field of view. Although current imaging systems can acquire panoramic images, they must use up to five cameras to obtain the full field of view. This technology obtains panoramic images from one vantage point. Unlike fisheye lenses, which use refraction to produce a 190-degree image field, NASA's panoramic reflecting optic lens uses both refraction and internal reflection to provide a unique 360-degree image field of view. A PRO-equipped camera mounted on top of a vehicle could simultaneously view the entire surrounding area, providing optical information without blind spots. In security systems, a single inexpensive camera could monitor, detect, and record movement around a large physical area, such as a parking lot or building grounds.
Contact: Sammy Nabors, Marshall Space Flight Center
Microwaved Plastic Increases Battery Life
Lithium-sulfur batteries don't last long, being usable for about 100 charging cycles. Purdue University engineers have developed a way to tackle plastic landfills while also improving the batteries. Putting sulfur-soaked, ink-free plastic in a microwave — including transparent plastic bags — transforms the material into the ideal substance for increasing the life-span of batteries to more than 200 charging-discharging cycles. The process cheaply provides the quick boost in temperature needed for transformation into low-density polyethylene. The heat promotes the sulfonation and carbonization of the plastic and induces a higher density of pores for catching polysulfide. The low-density polyethylene plastic could then be made into a carbon scaffold to divide the lithium and sulfur halves of a battery coin cell.