It’s 2014. Why is my battery stuck in the ’90s? – CNET

The devices we all rely on continue to evolve radically. So why has the battery industry failed? Here’s how you can take charge.

James Martin/CNET

When Apple redesigned the MacBook Pro in 2009, it unveiled a new type of battery that ran a whopping 40 percent longer than the previous model.

The laptop lasted as long as seven hours, almost enough time to watch the epic movie "Lawrence of Arabia" — twice. Phil Schiller, Apple’s marketing chief, called the battery "revolutionary." But was it really?

Technological leaps over the past two decades have been astounding. Computers have transformed from utilitarian boxes into svelte rectangles of shiny metal and glass that fit in our pockets. Today’s devices are also far more powerful. A new smartwatch has more computing power than the Apollo moon landing spacecraft. Batteries are a different story.

Even though consumer electronics makers, from Apple to Samsung, pour millions of research dollars into eking out more battery life for devices, the technology isn’t expected to advance much in the next few years. But that won’t slow the rising tide of gadgets that rely on batteries.

Why battery tech has stagnated is a topic of debate among researchers, many of whom claim we’re reaching the limits of what science can muster. No matter the reason, consumers will need to find ways to squeeze more juice out of their battery-powered devices.

Two evolutionary trails

To understand what’s going on, consider where battery makers have been, where they are now, and the challenges they face.

Michael Sinkula of Envia Systems, an advanced battery startup in California, crunched the numbers and found the energy stored in a battery in 1995 didn’t double until more than a decade later, in 2007. Since then, a battery’s energy hasn’t even risen by 30 percent. And Envia believes most batteries likely won’t have doubled again even by 2021.

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But a typical laptop now runs about 10 hours, up from just four hours when President Barack Obama was sworn in for his first term. How’s that possible?

Tech advancements generally come from two separate forces: a relentless drive to shrink every part’s size and ever improving software to manage it all.

The brains of a computer are its microprocessors, the chips that do the complex math needed for drawing images and for helping Facebook update you about a friend’s birthday. For decades, the industry has been shrinking processor size. As they get smaller, they consume less energy, and battery life gets longer.

Batteries are different. Basically, they’re collections of metals and chemicals. When they’re connected, electricity flows. The problem with chemistry is that making it smaller doesn’t always make it better. Think of it like a drink: if you put less beer in your mug, you just have less beer.

Until now, major battery advances came from using new materials. Consumer electronics batteries began lasting longer when they switched from relying on nickel, a type of metal, to lithium.

John Goodenough, a key scientist in the development of modern batteries, says research now is focused mainly on improving lithium batteries. "The periodic table is limited," he says, and advancements are becoming increasingly tough.

Even though more people are working on these problems than when Goodenough announced the breakthrough that made modern batteries possible in 1979, scientists are simply running out of new stuff to work with.

A smartphone that lasts a week — instead of a day — requires a radical new technology that hasn’t even made it to the drawing board. "The strategy for the next step isn’t here," Goodenough believes.

It’s possible that in 250 years, when Capt. James T. Kirk hails the starship Enterprise, his communicator may need a recharge first.

The path to lithium

Modern batteries date back to the 18th century, when scientists stumbled upon a way to harness static electricity by inserting a metal rod into a jar coated with foil on both sides and filled with saltwater. Touch the outside of the jar with one finger and the rod with another, and — zap!

In his book "The Battery: How Portable Power Sparked a Technological Revolution," Henry Schlesinger describes scientists who played with these devices, known as Leyden Jars. One prominent tinkerer was poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. When he was young, he experimented with help from his sister. He also inspired his wife, Mary, who used electricity as a primary plot device in her novel "Frankenstein."

Shortly before people were reading about Mary Shelley’s monster, Alessandro Volta invented the first widely used battery, the Voltaic Pile, by stacking plates of zinc and copper separated by cloth or cardboard soaked in saltwater.

Today’s batteries haven’t changed much. Cut one in half, and you’ll see a material made of metal, such as lithium, on one side, and another material, typically carbon, on the other. In between is the equivalent of the cloth Volta used 200 years ago: a plastic surrounded by a gel or a liquid designed to keep the metals from interacting with one another, but that still lets atomic particles move around.

Mark Hobbs / CNET

When a connection, or circuit, is created by touching a wire from one side of a battery to another, electrons flow out, and the light bulb turns on, the stereo blasts sound or the car‘s lock beeps.

For today’s devices, the most popular rechargeable battery, lithium-ion, has been widely used for about two decades.

A market surge

Batteries are the lifeblood of tech. In 1990, just as lithium-ion was poised to flood the market, worldwide demand for batteries reached nearly 200,000 megawatt-hours, according to estimates from consulting firm Avicenne Energy. That’s the equivalent of 44.4 billion Energizer Ultimate Lithium AA batteries, enough to circle Earth nearly 57 times.

By 2013, just two decades later, demand had nearly doubled.

Lux Research predicts that spending on batteries to power electronic devices alone could reach $26.6 billion by 2020, up nearly 30 percent from this year. Most of that demand will come from phones and tablets, with both expected to jump about 45 percent over the next six years. Battery spending for transportation, such as cars, will double to $20.9 billion.

Given all the money at stake, many researchers are working to improve batteries. Even so, few breakthroughs have materialized. Plus, almost all major research has shifted to cars and power grids.

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Enterprise tech giant IBM, for instance, has a team of scientists at its Almaden facility in San Jose, Calif., working on battery tech. In 2009, IBM pledged $500,000 and a few researchers to work on what it calls Battery 500: an attempt to invent batteries to propel a car 500 miles. That’s enough to go from San Francisco to Los Angeles on a single charge and have some juice left for a trip to the beach.

A key focus is a so-called lithium-air battery. Instead of relying on carbon and other metals, as in a lithium-ion battery, IBM and its partners believe they can create a container filled with air that interacts with a piece of lithium to produce electricity. If they’re right, it could potentially halve the weight of a battery.

But there’s a hitch: to keep the energy consistent and enable recharging, you need pure air. The air we breathe is filled with pollutants and water.

"You would need machinery to clean the air," says Winfried Wilcke, a researcher leading IBM’s battery efforts. That adds size, weight and complexity.

Others, including researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Texas, are considering materials such as silicon, sulfur and sodium. But many R&D efforts are targeting these designs for cars first. It will likely be years before such tech powers consumer electronics.

As for efforts to improve lithium-ion batteries, Stanford University in July said it created a battery with pure lithium that can hold more energy. But this battery still has a long way to go as well.

Some scientists paint a dire picture, saying we’re hitting the limit of what a battery can do and how much it can improve. "There is no order of magnitude to be had," Wilcke says. Others, like Bill Watkins, head of battery startup Imergy Power Systems in California, are more hopeful. "Never underestimate a bunch of Ph.D.’s with a lot of money," he says.

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Dealing with today’s realities

The good news is that companies are finding ways to extend battery life while they wait for new battery technologies.

At Apple, many improvements are coming through software. Its OS X Mavericks operating system, released in late 2013, looks for moments when computer users have several programs open that they’re not accessing. The Mac then strategically reduces the processing put toward running programs in the background. Overlay a window on top of a movie playing on YouTube, for instance, and the sound continues, but the video stops updating.

Inside Apple’s software is a technology it calls "timers," which wake up the computer’s chips from low-power mode so they can complete certain tasks. As Apple’s software team built Mavericks, they realized they had too many timers waking the machine too often. Combining them reduced the processor’s activity by 72 percent, making the computer more efficient.

OS X Yosemite, released this year, adds even more power-saving features. One tweak lets users get up to two more hours of battery life on a MacBook Air when streaming movies in full 1080p HD.

Mark Hobbs/CNET

Companies are making similar strides with mobile devices. Samsung created an "ultra power-saving mode" that can allow up to 12.5 days of battery life for its Galaxy S5 smartphone. The mode switches the screen from color to black-and-gray images and also limits apps, phone calls, messaging and basic Web surfing.

Some companies, including Samsung SDI, are trying to make batteries safer and more robust. Samsung is working on a type of battery that replaces the gels and liquids of today with solid material. The company hopes to make batteries safer, flexible and less likely to explode. It aims to deliver these batteries by 2015.

Apple, meanwhile, also has focused on squeezing as much battery into its devices as possible. In 2009, when Schiller announced battery life breakthroughs for MacBooks, he showed how underneath the hood the typical brick-shaped battery had been replaced by ones designed like puzzle pieces to fill every available space.

As part of that design, Apple eschewed its decades-old practice of letting consumers swap out the battery. This created even more space that would otherwise have been taken up by battery housing and protective shells built to keep the battery safe while outside the computer.

The result: a battery Schiller could call a revolution. Maybe that’s as revolutionary as it gets.

Editors’ note: This story first appeared in CNET Magazine November 3, 2014.

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Why OLED lighting will soon shine on you – CNET

The flat-panel lighting tech is for sale at Home Depot starting at $200, providing a new energy-efficient alternative to LED lights.

Acuity Brands’ Chalina, with five replaceable OLED panels, costs $300 at Home Depot. Acuity Brands

Undecided about whether to buy LED-based lights instead of compact fluorescent bulbs? Get ready to have some more uncertainty in your life, because another new lighting technology has just arrived: OLED.

Where LED (light-emitting diode) lighting uses small, intensely bright sources of light, which are typically made to look like traditional light bulbs, OLED (organic light-emitting diode) lighting uses flat, dimmer sources of light, essentially resulting in a glowing square or rectangle. Steady advances in manufacturing technology have made OLEDs bright and long-lived enough to use, and now they’re going mainstream: Acuity Brands, whose $2 billion in annual sales make it the largest lighting company in North America, is now selling OLED light fixtures in Home Depot.

Because OLED panels are not piercingly bright, they can be mounted in fixtures seen directly by the eye; there’s no need for reflectors or diffusers to cut the glare. The approach also opens new options for lighting designs.

At Home Depot, Acuity is selling two fixtures, each in configurations that can be suspended or that can be mounted directly to a wall or ceiling. The $300 Chalina is like a four-petal flower, with four square OLED panels arranged around a central one. The Aedan uses two elongated panels facing opposite directions and costs $200. The company also offers a variety of OLED fixtures for commercial customers.

"OLED technology is at a premium relative to LED, but there are superior lighting quality benefits," said Jeannine Fisher Wang, director of business development and marketing for Acuity’s OLED group. "The overall design and construction of these luminaires is very high quality, reflective of the superior nature of the OLED light source."

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The Chalina has an output of 345 lumens and power consumption of 8 watts; the Aedan consumes 5 watts and each of its two panels produce 68 lumens. For comparison, an old-style 40-watt incandescent bulb can produce about 450 lumens, and a Cree LED bulb can generate 1,600 lumens with 18 watts. The OLED panels can be replaced.

OLED lighting elements have a lifespan of about 30,000 to 40,000 hours of use — a bit less than LEDs that can reach 50,000 hours, but still more than quadruple what compact fluorescent bulbs offer.

Acuity faces an education challenge, Wang acknowledged, since consumers generally haven’t heard of OLED lighting. "That is definitely an area where we’re working," she said. She watched people seeing the OLED products when they first arrived at Home Depot. "It was their first experience of OLED. People stopped in their tracks when they saw the lights," she said.

Jeannine Fisher Wang, Acuity Brands’ OLED marketing leader. Acuity Brands

Dominance to come?

OLED will become mainstream, predicts Darice Liu, a spokeswoman for Universal Display, a 144-employee company founded in 1994 that licenses hundreds of OLED-related patents to companies commercializing the technology.

"We believe that OLED lighting has the potential to dominate many of the residential and commercial market applications," Liu said.

Energy efficiency and new designs will provide the impetus, Liu predicted, with OLED and LED lighting coexisting because of different advantages.

"Inherent energy efficiency advantages are a key benefit in the lighting market, but there is the potential for OLEDs to be transformational as well. OLEDs will present lighting products in a new form factor, which will expand the design possibilities and change the way we use light in many environments," she said.

That’s what Aurora Lighting Design, a lighting design firm in Chicago, evidently hopes to accomplish with offices redesigned using Acuity’s Trilia OLED fixtures. Dozens of panels are arranged in geometric but somewhat organic patterns across the ceiling in a design that can be used both for commercial or residential use.

OLED lighting is showing up in more portable forms, too. Alkilu Lighting is taking preorders for its $50 free-standing LeafLit, whose battery provides 20 hours of light, the $50 DreamLit night light and the $40 BookLit reading light.

Next up: Colors and lower costs

Prices might be higher now, but they’ll drop in coming years, Wang said.

"We’re looking at the cost of OLED being maybe a tenth of what it is today in about five years," she said, referring to the price of the panel components themselves. Even as entry-level OLED lighting fixture prices drop, though, some products will continue to come with premium pricing as OLED lighting makers embrace the interactive element of the nascent LED lighting industry. There, smartphone apps and smart-home devices add new controls, new costs and new profit possibilities to the lighting market.

Alkilu Lighting’s $60 TripLit is a battery-powered OLED display that can be propped up or hung from a built-in hook. Alkilu Lightint

"As technology integrates into homes, there are advances all over the place, like security systems and thermostats," Wang said. "People are expecting a lot more interaction and integration with other devices, like the ability to control things remotely when people aren’t at home."

Another premium option that will arrive is colored OLED panels, though the cost is too high and color saturation too low right now. These will provide light whose color can be changed according to mood, time of day or other factors.

"We definitely see opportunities for that, not only in the consumer arena but commercially as well," Wang said. "There’s huge interest — corporate interiors, healthcare environments, education facilities. There are a lot of potential applications where color-tuning makes sense."

Regulatory help

She expects governmental regulations could help push OLED along with LED lighting. Specifically, Title 24, an energy standard in California, will mean the disappearance of older lighting technologies for new homes.

"It will pretty much obsolete the use of incandescent lighting. It may even obsolete a lot of compact fluorescent, particularly in low wattages where CFL efficacy isn’t that high," Wang said. It’s just one state, but, "Once California does something in energy standards, other states tend to follow suit."

Today OLED "is a bit under the efficacy requirements" of lumens per watt, she said, "but moving forward, the standard will probably address all lighting technologies through some definition of high efficacy pertinent to particular technologies."

OLED lighting’s biggest push will come with lower prices, most likely, though.

"As the cost of OLED technology drops, you have the opportunity to play in the commodity product market," Wang said.

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Spacecraft Bound for Pluto Prepares for Its Close Encounter | WIRED

Artist’s concept of the New Horizons spacecraft with Pluto and three of its moons. Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute (JHUAPL/SwRI)

The first spacecraft to ever visit Pluto is set to wake up on Dec. 6 in preparation for its midsummer rendezvous with the solar system’s most famous dwarf planet.

The New Horizons spacecraft has been speeding toward Pluto for almost nine years, covering 2.9 billion miles. To conserve energy and general wear and tear, the spacecraft has gone into intermittent hibernation, often for months at a time, slumbering for a total of five years. When sleeping, it was almost completely shut down, maintaining only enough power to send a weekly beep home telling mission controllers that it’s doing fine.

But now it’s go time.

The spacecraft’s systems are programmed to start up again on Dec. 6 at 12:00 p.m. PST/3:00 p.m. EST. An hour and a half later, it will send a signal back to Earth confirming that it’s awake. But because it’s so far away, it will take more than four hours for the message to reach mission control—around 6:30 p.m. PST/9:30 p.m. EST. Mission controllers will then take six weeks to check all of the spacecraft’s systems and prepare its approach toward Pluto, which starts in earnest on January 15, 2015.

When New Horizons launched in January 2006, Pluto was still considered a full-fledged planet, the only one not to have been visited by any spacecraft. But later that year the International Astronomical Union vote to reclassify Pluto as a dwarf planet.

At the time of launch, Pluto was known to have three moons: Charon, discovered in 1978, and Nix and Hydra, spotted in 2005. Then in 2011 and 2012, scientists found two more, Kerberos and Styx, respectively, giving New Horizons even more places to explore. One of the mission’s goals is see whether Pluto has any more companions, and if it has a ring system. Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope haven’t seen anything yet, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t moons and rings too small and faint to detect.

In 2007, New Horizons flew by Jupiter and snapped this photo of the giant planet and its moon Io. NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

More moons and a ring system would certainly be exciting. But they could also be bad news, says Simon Porter, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Tucson, Arizona, who’s on the New Horizons science team. If there are smaller, yet-to-be-detected moons, then they likely have been struck by all sorts of other tinier objects, like baseball-sized space rocks. Those collisions would have kicked up dust that could escape the gravity of its moon, but not the Pluto system. That means there could be a lot of dust floating around, posing a hazard to New Horizons.

From the spacecraft’s point of view, the millimeter-wide dust particles would be space bullets, zipping by at almost 30,000 miles per hour with enough force to do some major damage.

The New Horizons team is especially worried because the spacecraft itself will be chock full of exciting data. As it flies by Pluto, it will save all of its images and measurements onboard before sending them back to Earth (there will be so much data that it will take until late 2016 to finish transferring). If something happens to the spacecraft, all that information could be lost.

Fortunately, Porter and his colleagues have been scoping out the Pluto system. In addition to analyzing Hubble images, they’re running computer simulations to assess the potential dangers posed by hypothetical moons placed in various orbits. So far, they don’t see anything that could threaten New Horizons. But the worry is in the unexpected. “The concern is from dust from satellites that we don’t know about,” he said. New Horizons won’t be close enough to Pluto to really assess the threat until late April. But even if there are unknown moons, the spacecraft might still be safe because its current trajectory takes it through areas that shouldn’t be too dusty based on the physics of the system, Porter explains.

In the worst-case scenario, and New Horizons finds itself in perilous space, the team can position the piano-sized spacecraft so that its nearly 7-foot-wide dish antenna acts as a shield. The team can also change the trajectory of the craft so that it flies by Pluto at a greater distance, farther from any dangerously dusty regions. That would limit the resolution of the images, and if the spacecraft has to orient its dish antenna to act as a shield, then it can’t point some of its instruments at Pluto, which means it can’t collect as much data as scientists hope, Porter says. But at least the spacecraft would be safe.

Despite the risks, the mission is poised to return a glut of discoveries, continuing the legacy of the first planetary spacecraft: the Mariner missions that visited Mercury, Venus, and Mars in the 1960s and 1970s, and the Voyager missions that explored the outer planets in the 1980s. Those missions were pioneers, as nearly every image and measurement revealed fantastic worlds never seen before.

“Every time in the past we’ve had a first look at a new system, we’ve been surprised,” said Will Grundy, a planetary scientist at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, and a member of the mission’s science team.

To date, the best image of Pluto (below), taken by Hubble, shows a blurry disk. Starting in the spring, New Horizons will reveal an icy world with a wispy atmosphere, possible polar ice caps, and maybe even mountains and cryogenic volcanoes and geysers that spew nitrogen or some ammonia-water blend, similar to the ones that might exist on Charon.

The most detailed view of Pluto, taken by Hubble from 2002 to 2003, hints at how the surface changes. NASA/ESA/SRI (M. Buie)

Telescopes reveal that Pluto’s surface has the chemical signatures of compounds such as methane, nitrogen, and carbon monoxide. It’s so cold there—an average of about -380 degrees Fahrenheit—that all those chemicals are frozen. But they are volatile substances and could be subject to all kinds of chemical and geological processes, meaning that Pluto’s surface could be fairly active, Grundy says.

Yes, Pluto is “merely” a dwarf planet now, but that doesn’t seem to matter to mission scientists. They all refer to Pluto as a planet, Grundy says, partly because that’s what they’ve always known it to be and partly because it’s “shorthand for a big round thing.” At a press conference on Nov. 13, New Horizons project scientist Hal Weaver pointed out that the term “dwarf planet” still has the name “planet” in it.

Pluto is one of the largest objects in the Kuiper belt, a collection of cold bodies beyond the orbit of Neptune and the last frontier of the solar system. The first Kuiper belt object wasn’t discovered until 1992. There are now more than 1,000 known Kuiper belt objects, and scientists estimate there are hundreds of thousands of them.

These objects have been around since the formation of the planets, so they serve as relics that help researchers understand the history and origin of the solar system. And Pluto contains clues about these ancient, icy bodies. For example, any craters on its surface will help scientists estimate how frequently Kuiper belt objects slammed into one another in the past, Grundy says.

This Hubble image from 2006 shows Pluto and three of its moons, Charon, Nix, and Hydra. NASA, ESA, H. Weaver (JHUAPL), A. Stern (SwRI), and the HST Pluto Companion Search Team

Today, New Horizons is still 175 million miles from Pluto, but by mid-April, it will be close enough that its images will surpass those taken by Hubble.

“Then it gets better and better and better,” Weaver said at the November press conference. By June and July, New Horizons will be close enough to study Pluto’s geology. “We’ll have lots of juicy science—historic science—well before the day of the closest approach,” he said.

That day of closest approach is July 14, 2015, when the spacecraft will be only about 6,200 miles from Pluto, zipping by at about 31,300 miles per hour. Its high-resolution cameras will be able to pick out surface details 230 feet wide, which, at the same distance from Earth, would be equivalent to identifying the ponds in New York City’s Central Park, according to planetary scientist Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, who’s leading the mission.

The rendezvous with Pluto will last six months, and New Horizons will map the geology, temperature, and composition of Pluto and its moons, and analyze the Plutonian atmosphere. As New Horizons leaves the Pluto system, it will glance back at Pluto passing in front of the sun to see whether there’s a haze above the atmosphere—a feature that was also seen on Neptune’s moon Triton, which is similar to Pluto in size, atmosphere, and surface composition. New Horizons may also discover a comet-like tail of particles streaming off Pluto.

Even when New Horizons leaves the Pluto system, it’s not quite done. In October, astronomers used Hubble to identify three smaller Kuiper Belt Objects that New Horizons could visit in around 2019. But whether the spacecraft will make the extra visit depends on its post-Pluto condition and NASA funding.

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NASA launches $5 million contest to find CubeSats for deep space missions

Attention, scientists, hobbyists and anyone in between who can design a mean CubeSat, or a mini cube-like satellite, for space exploration: registration is now open for NASA’s Cube Quest contest, and the agency’s giving out cash prizes worth a total of $5 million. NASA’s no stranger to holding competitions in an effort to tap into the brilliant minds of folks outside their roster of employees, but this one is a lot bigger than many of its previous events. See, contenders will compete not only for cash prizes, but also for a spot on the Orion spacecraft during its first integrated flight with the agency’s upcoming monster rocket called Space Launch System.

The SLS’ first flight isn’t scheduled to blast off until sometime before November 2018. Cube Quest contenders will need to participate in any of the four ground tournaments (the agency’s earmarking $500,000 to give out as prizes for these preliminary contests) to be held every four to six months before then. Those that excel at these ground tests are the ones that will be ferried to space by Orion and SLS, where they’ll go through even more rigorous testing.

The satellite(s) that can travel farther than 2.5 million miles (or 10 times the distance between Earth the moon) and can remain capable of communication from that distance will win $1.5 million. Meanwhile, the satellite(s) that can function while traveling along the lunar orbit will win $3 million. The agency’s hoping to find effective and affordable CubeSat designs through this competition for use in deep space missions. As NASA’s Eric Eberly says:

If we can produce capabilities usually associated with larger spacecraft in the much smaller platform of CubeSats, a dramatic improvement in the affordability of space missions will result, greatly increasing science and research possibilities.

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The first metamaterial superconductor: One step closer to futuristic physics-defying contraptions | ExtremeTech

In the realms of electronics, magnetism, and quantum mechanics, superconductivity has an almost mythical status. Some materials, when cooled to a critical temperature, electrical resistance instantly drops to zero and magnetic fields are completely ejected (see video below). Superconducting magnets are already used in MRI machines and particle accelerators like CERN’s LHC, and are being considered for advanced maglev trains. Zero electrical resistance means that a current can flow around a superconducting coil indefinitely (at least 100,000 years) without any applied voltage — a feature that could completely revolutionize power distribution, power storage, electric motors, computers, and more.

The problem is, the hottest superconductor yet discovered still needs to be cooled to around -140 Celsius (133 Kelvin, -220 Fahrenheit) — and cryogenic cooling just isn’t feasible for everyday use. Now, however, some US researchers may have unearthed the secret of room-temperature superconductors: Building your own metamaterial superconductor from scratch.

As we’ve covered before, metamaterials are human-made materials that have alien, not-seen-in-nature properties. The most common example is negative refraction: In nature, every known material has a positive refractive index (it always bends light a certain way) — while metamaterials can bend light in the opposite direction. These materials have led to some interesting applications, such as invisibility cloaks. Now, researchers at Towson University, the University of Maryland, and the Naval Research Laboratory have done the same thing with superconductors: They’ve tweaked a compound in the lab, metamaterial-style, to raise its critical temperature. This empirical, deliberate approach is very different from usual superconductor research, which is mostly bested on educated guesswork. [arXiv:1408.0704  "Experimental demonstration of superconducting critical temperature increase in electromagnetic metamaterials"]

Various superconductors and their critical temperatures

In theory, this is a very big step towards creating one of the most powerful, valuable, and elusive materials in the world: a room-temperature superconductor. While superconductors are already used extensively in science and medicine, the fact that they need to be kept at cryogenic (below -150C) temperatures makes them very expensive and unwieldy. A lot of work is being done into so-called “high-temperature superconductivity,” but the best anyone has managed is a critical temperature of -140C — HgBa2Ca2Cu3Ox (HBCCO) in case you were wondering.

Read our featured story: The wonderful world of wonder materials

In practice, the researchers still have a long way to go: Their metamaterial-like approach was able to raise the critical temperature of tin by 0.15 Kelvin. Still, in the realm of quantum mechanics where almost nothing is known about why or how superconductivity exists in the first place, it’s big news. We especially know very little about high-temperature superconductors – we think the “layers” of these complex compounds act like the electron equivalent of optical waveguides, steering electrons through the material with zero resistance. This new research might help us understand these high-temperature superconductors a little better, and maybe also to tweak them to move the critical temperature ever closer to room temperature.

A prototype superconducting power cable — awesome, but commercially unfeasible as it requires constant liquid nitrogen cooling.

If we can eventually master superconductors — and there’s every reason to believe that we can — then we can expect many facets of life to change very rapidly. Superconducting power lines could save billions of dollars in transmission losses — or allow for the building of world-spanning super grids. We could replace every transport system with cheap, super-fast maglev trains. It might even allow for cloaking devices… and I assure you, that’s just the beginning!

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Astronauts find living organisms clinging to the International Space Station, and aren’t sure how they got there | ExtremeTech

By James Plafke on August 22, 2014 at 1:15 pm

During a spacewalk intended to clean the International Space Station, Russian astronauts took samples from the exterior of the station for a routine analysis. The results of the experiment were quite surprising. Astronauts expected to find nothing more than contaminants created by the engines of incoming and outgoing spacecraft, but instead found that living organisms were clinging to outside of the ISS. The astronauts identified the organisms as sea plankton that likely originated from Earth, but the team couldn’t find a concrete explanation as to how these organisms made it all the way up to the space station — or how they managed to survive.

A colorized scanning electron micrograph of a tardigrade. Yes, they look amazing.

Though NASA has so far been unable to confirm whether or not the Russians truly did discover sea plankton clinging to the exterior of the station, there is some precedent for certain creatures being able to survive the vacuum of space. Tardigrades, water-dwelling microscopic invertebrates, are known to be able to survive a host of harsh environments. They can survive extreme temperatures (slightly above absolute zero to far above boiling), amounts of radiation hundreds of times higher than the lethal dose for a human, pressure around six times more than found in the deepest parts of the ocean, and the vacuum of space. The organisms found on the ISS aren’t tardigrades, but the little invertebrates show that some living organisms from Earth can indeed survive the harshness of space.

The bigger mystery is not that the plankton survived, but how they made it all the way up there, 205 miles above Earth. The scientists have already dismissed the possibility that the plankton were simply carried there on a spacecraft from Earth, as the plankton aren’t from the region where any ISS module or craft would’ve taken off. The working theory is that atmospheric currents could be scooping up the organisms then carrying them all the way to the space station, though that would mean the currents could travel an astonishing 205 miles (330 km) above the planet.

The International Space Station

Living organisms have been found far above Earth before, such as microbes and bacterial life discovered 10 and 24.8 miles, respectively, into the atmosphere — though those numbers are a far cry from 205 miles.

For now, we’ll have to wait to see if the Russian team confirms the findings with NASA. Then, maybe the two factions can work together in order to figure out how plankton made it all the way up into space, and perhaps even discover exactly why the plankton can survive. The organisms aren’t alien life, but they did pose another fascinating mystery.

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A Solar-Powered Oasis To Bring Food To Desert Cities | Co.Exist | ideas + impact

Modular greenhouses plus a very long conveyor belt could help create a new agricultural system for growing food in the desert.

Some Middle Eastern countries, like Qatar and United Arab Emirates, import more than 90% of their food. It’s a situation that is getting more expensive, and more energy-intensive, as local cities grow. Now a team of architects hopes to create a new agricultural system that could grow food in the desert–and deliver it using a solar-powered conveyor belt instead of trucks.

is a conceptual design for a modular set of prefab greenhouses, covered in solar panels, which would extend in a straight line into the desert away from a city. The passive design of the buildings would help keep out the intense heat of 120-degree summers, while the solar panels would power the rest of the building’s infrastructure and send extra energy back into the city.

Since the designers wanted to create the smallest carbon footprint possible, they chose to forgo usual transportation and create a unique conveyor system that would deliver produce without the use of any fossil fuels. The conveyor belt would be underground so it could keep running in a straight line even if buildings were in the way.

"The project aims to be flexible enough to be interrupted and keep on sending crops to the city," explains architect Javier Ponce, principal and founder of Forward Thinking Architecture, the Barcelona-based firm behind the design.

Inside the prefab greenhouses, farmers would grow crops like tomatoes, lettuce, and strawberries using a hydroponic system that can reduce fertilizers and pesticides and save 80% of the water used in traditional agriculture, in part by recycling and reusing it.

Still, it’s not clear where the water would come from; the designers suggest that groundwater could supply the farm’s needs, but many Middle Eastern countries already rely on desalination.

A small part of the recycled water would also be used to create an outdoor garden–an artificial oasis–for education. "We thought it cannot only be a farming-only building, it must have a pedagogical approach and have to be attractive in order to become a biodiversity hub which can be visited by the local people and visitors," says Ponce.

Ideally, desert populations would be small enough that the region’s sparse rainfall could support local crops. But that’s not the reality.

"The cities should be smaller, denser, and compact, but this is not the current situation for some of the Arabian peninsula cities since they have exponentially grown and attract more people and workers," says Ponce. "There has been a rapid urbanization in the area since the middle of the 20th century."

The project, he hopes, could help supply food as climate change makes the situation even more challenging. "The OAXIS project is an alternative or complementary way to respond to the food insecurity and water scarcity of the region in a self-sufficient way," Ponce says. "It aims to help reduce the food imports to feed part of the people in a nearby future based on renewable energies."

Ponce hopes to work with local governments to bring the project to life. Already, countries in the region are desperately looking for solutions; Qatar has already invested hundreds of millions in a plan to grow as much local food as possible by 2030.

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