What''''s the Life Expectency Of Your Home''''s New Technology?

Photo via sanberdoo

by Jaymi Heimbuch, San Francisco, California

How long can you expect new gadgets you bring into your home to last? From appliances to wireless network devices, we should have a better idea of how many years we can expect it to run without problems, so that we can make smart purchasing decisions. But beyond a two-year or five-year warranty, it can be a mystery just how long a dishwasher is expected to keep cleaning efficiently. Thankfully, the National Association of Home Builders has released a new study detailing the lifespans of many of our home””s electronics. So…about how long can you expect to have that new fridge?

The Study of Life Expectancy of Home Components lists everything from building materials to technology and is current for 2007 items. Technology has already changed a bit in just three years, but it””s still pretty accurate in terms of lifespan. Many of our major household appliances and gadgets will last over a decade, which is excellent when it comes to keeping what we have for as long as possible. It notes items such as:

* Dishwasher: 9 years
* Food Waste (“Garbage”) Disposer: 12 years
* Microwave Oven: 9 years
* Electric Range: 13 years
* Gas Range:15 years
* Range/Oven Hoods: 14 years
* Compact Refrigerator: 9 years
* Standard Refrigerator: 13 years
* Freezer: 11 years
* Washer: 10 years
* Electric Dryer: 11 years
* Gas Dryer: 10 years
* Furnaces: 15 to 20 years
* Tankless Water Heater: 20+ years
* Electric Water Heater: 11 years
* Gas Water Heater: 10 years

* Built-In Audio System: 20 years
* Security Systems: 5 to 10 years
* Heat/Smoke Detectors: 5 to 10 years
* Wireless Home Networks: 50+ years
* Home Automation Systems: 50+ years

Unpluggd writes, “These figures might come in handy when you””re deciding whether to repair or replace an appliance or home system. If your tech is near the end of its projected useful life, it might be best to go brand-new.”

While we always back the idea of repairing what you have until it””s past even the miracle work of duct tape, it””s true that especially for home appliances, when it starts to reach the end of it””s useful life, it””s probably greener to replace it with a new energy star model rather than keep letting it run. For example, refrigerators last about a decade, but the technology and efficiency of today””s fridges can drastically show up the technology from 10 years ago. That means recycling the old and replacing with something new and highly efficient can be the best route.

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China''''s Rare-Earth Monopoly

An attractive material: Neodymium (shown here) is one of the rare-earth elements that are key to making very strong magnets for compact electric motors.  Credit: Hi-Res Images of Chemical Elements

The rest of the world is trying to find alternatives to these crucial materials.

By Adam Aston

For three weeks, China has blocked shipments of rare-earth minerals to Japan, a move that has boosted the urgency of efforts to break Beijing””s control of these minerals. China now produces nearly all of the world””s supply of rare earths, which are crucial for a wide range of technologies, including hard drives, solar panels, and motors for hybrid vehicles.

In response to China””s dominance in rare-earths production, researchers are developing new materials that could either replace rare-earth minerals or decrease the need for them. But materials and technologies will likely take years to develop, and existing alternatives come with trade-offs.

China apparently blocked the Japan shipments in response to a territorial squabble in the South China Sea. Beijing has denied the embargo, yet the lack of supply may soon disrupt manufacturing in Japan, trade and industry minister Akihiro Ohata told reporters Tuesday.

Rare earths are comprised of 17 elements, such as terbium, which is used to make green phosphors for flat-panel TVs, lasers, and high-efficiency fluorescent lamps. Neodymium is key to the permanent magnets used to make high-efficiency electric motors. Although well over 90 percent of the minerals are produced in China, they are found in many places around the world, and, in spite of their name, are actually abundant in the earth””s crust (the name is a hold-over from a 19th-century convention). In recent years, low-cost Chinese production and environmental concerns have caused suppliers outside of China to shut down operations.

Alternatives to rare earths exist for some technologies. One example is the induction motor used by Palo Alto, California-based Tesla Motors in its all-electric Roadster. It uses electromagnets rather than permanent rare-earth magnets. But such motors are larger and heavier than ones that use rare-earth magnets. As a rule of thumb, in small- and mid-sized motors, an electromagnetic coil can be replaced with a rare-earth permanent magnet of just 10 percent the size, which has helped make permanent magnet motors the preferred option for Toyota and other hybrid vehicle makers. In Tesla””s case, the induction motor technology was worth the trade-off, giving the car higher maximum power in more conditions, a top priority for a vehicle that can rocket from zero to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds. “The cost volatility going into the rare-earth permanent magnets was a concern,” says JB Straubel, Tesla””s chief technology officer. “We couldn””t have predicted the geopolitical tensions.”

More manufacturers are following Tesla””s lead to shun the rare-earth materials, although the move means sacrificing space and adding weight to vehicles. A week after the China dust-up began, a research team in Japan announced they had made a hybrid vehicle motor free of rare-earth materials, and Hitachi has announced similar efforts. BMW””s Mini E electric vehicle uses induction motors, and Tesla is supplying its drive trains to Toyota””s upcoming electric RAV 4. Given the volatility of rare-earth supplies, and the advantages induction motors offer in high performance applications, “It makes sense for car companies to give serious thought to using induction motors,” says Wally Rippel, senior scientist at AC Propulsion. Rippel previously worked on induction motor designs at Tesla and GM, where he helped to develop the seminal EV1.

Article Continues -> http://www.technologyreview.com/energy/26538/?p1=A2

Autonomous taxi can be hailed with an iPad app

AutoNOMOS labs Spirit of Berlin driverless car

By Noel McKeegan

Not so long ago, the idea that a car could drive itself seemed mildly insane, but thanks to the impetus provided by the DARPA Urban Grand Challenge and ongoing research around the globe, driving might become a hobby rather than a necessity much sooner than you think. One of the pioneers in the field, the Berlin-based AutoNOMOS group unveiled its latest project earlier this year. Known as FU-X “Made in Germany” the tech-laden VW Passat uses GPS, video cameras, on-board laser scanners and radars to navigate autonomously, giving it the potential to be used as a driverless taxi cab. Its latest trick – you can now hail it with an iPad.

AutoNOMOS labs conducts research at the Freie Universität Berlin. Its aim is both to develop an unmanned vehicle navigation system that can co-exist on our roads with conventional cars and to explore potential uses for these systems.

One of the promising applications is for driverless taxis and the iPad demo is an extension of this system which showcases the benefits of the technology. Using the iPad, a “call” is made to the taxi and it immediately knows where you”re at. You can also follow the car”s progress as it makes its way to your location (no more ringing the taxi company to ask where that cab got to!) and use the iPad to tell it where you want to be dropped off.

The video below provides an overview of the iPad controlled “Pick me up!” system.

Follow link for video -> http://www.gizmag.com/autonomous-taxi-ipad/16649/

A Touch Screen with Texture

Subtle sensation: In this TeslaTouch demonstration, one finger is stationary while the other experiences the sensation of friction as it moves.  Credit: Disney Research

Electrovibration could make for a better sensory experience on a smooth touch surface.

By Kate Greene

Touch screens are ubiquitous today. But a common complaint is that the smooth surface just doesn”t feel as good to use as a physical keypad. While some touch-screen devices use mechanical vibrations to enhance users” experiences of virtual keypads, the approach isn”t widely used, mainly because mechanical vibrations are difficult to implement well, and they often make the entire device buzz in your hand, instead of just a particular spot on the screen.

Now, engineers from three different groups are proposing a type of tactile feedback that they believe will be more popular than mechanical buzzing. Called electrovibration, the technique uses electrical charges to simulate the feeling of localized vibration and friction, providing touch-screen textures that are impossible to simulate using mechanical actuators.

One of these groups, composed of researchers from Disney Research in Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of Paris Sud, presented a paper earlier this month at the User Interface Software and Technology (UIST) symposium in New York City. In the paper, they described their approach to electrovibration, called TeslaTouch, in which they modified a commercial touch panel from 3M that uses capacitive sensing — the approach used in most mobile phones and in the iPad.

The touch panel is made of transparent electrodes on a glass plate coated with an insulating layer. By applying a periodic voltage to the electrodes via connections used for sensing a finger”s position on the screen, the researchers were able to effectively induce a charge in a finger dragged along the surface. By changing the amplitude and frequency of the applied voltage, the surface can be made to feel as though it is bumpy, rough, sticky, or vibrating. The major difference is the specially designed control circuit that produces the sensations.

It”s a challenge, says Ivan Poupyrev of Disney Research, to vibrate a screen in a way that makes sense for a user. When an entire device buzzes, it can be more annoying than helpful. There are also technical hurdles and extra costs in making a touch screen mechanically move. The goal, then, was to create a tactile sensation without using any mechanical motion. “It sounds crazy,” Poupyrev says, “but that”s what we”ve done with TeslaTouch.”

Electrovibration was first proposed for touch screens in the 1950s, but the approach didn”t see widespread use because the screens didn”t achieve commercial success until recently. Now, with many researchers looking for ways to improve the now-popular screens, other groups have also rediscovered electrovibration. Nokia recently announced a smartphone prototype that uses the approach. And a Finnish company called Senseg has also implemented electrovibration in touch screens, having closed deals with three companies to incorporate the technology into products that could be available in 2011.

Story Continues -> http://www.technologyreview.com/computing/26506/?p1=A3

TruFocals eyeglasses feature adjustable focus

TruFocals can be instantly focused by the user, thanks to flexible lenses – click the image for more pictures

By Ben Coxworth

If you wear bifocal or even trifocal eyeglasses, then you will know what a hassle it can be having to tilt your head up to see things that are nearby. The areas of image softness or distortion can also be distracting, and even cause nausea or headaches in some users. Using multiple pairs of single-vision glasses gets you around these problems, but introduces the problem of… well, of carrying around and using multiple pairs of glasses. TruFocals, however, allow users to wear one pair of glasses for near-, distance- and mid-vision, without having different focal areas within the same lens at the same time. Instead, users actually focus the glasses by hand, not unlike a pair of binoculars.

TruFocals have three optical surfaces for each eye. On the front is a rigid lens, in the user’s distance prescription. Behind that is a flexible lens, and behind that (closest to the eye) is a rigid, optically-neutral lens. In the space between the flexible and neutral lenses is an optically-clear fluid. By moving a slider on the bridge of the glasses, users change the shape of the flexible lens, by pumping fluid in or out of the space behind it. This allows them to instantly refocus the glasses on the fly, as the situation warrants.

The technology is much like that which retired physics professor Joshua Silver is using in his Adspecs eyeglasses for people in developing nations, in which flexible lenses are bowed out or sucked in by the injection or withdrawal of clear fluid behind them. In the case of Silver’s glasses, however, the lens distortion is set once for each client, then sealed in place – recipients can’t change the shape of the lenses back and forth, depending on whether they want reading, distance, or mid-range glasses.

Article Continues -> http://www.gizmag.com/trufocals-adjustable-focus-eyeglasses/16629/

Casio unveils next gen graphing calculator

Casio has unveiled its next generation graphing calculator – the PRIZM, designed to deliver graphs and statistical data as they appear in color textbooks

By Paul Ridden

A quarter of a century after introducing the world”s first graphing calculator, Casio has announced its next generation model that”s been designed to deliver graphs and statistical data as they appear in color textbooks. The PRIZM gets a new, modern body design, offers high resolution color graphics and gives students the opportunity to plot graphs over background image curves and then discover the math functions used to create them.

Casio”s new PRIZM (fx-CG10) graphing calculator”s outer shell now benefits from a more modern, mobile phone-like appearance. Above the rows of input buttons is a high resolution 82,944 dot, 3.7-inch color LCD screen that”s said to offer a textbook-like display. There”s 61,440 byte program and 16MB storage capacity and the power consumption of 0.6W is claimed to translate to 140 hours of use on four AAA-sized alkaline batteries.

Casio has included something called the Picture Plot function which enables “students to experiment by creating their own graphs over pictures of real-life scenes, and then understand the functions from the graphs that they created on their own.” Once the graph has been plotted over any one of 55 types of color images of real-life curved shapes such as the parabola of jets from a water fountain, the student can then perform regression calculations to help them understand what math functions were used to generate the graph overlay.

The PRIZM comes pre-loaded with 40 images which can be used in eight of the calculator”s 15 applications and also features a Color Link function that matches spreadsheet values to colors used in graphs to help students better understand changes in trends and values.

The 0.81 x 3.52 x 7.42-inch (20.57 x 89.4 x 188.46mm) graphing calculator has a USB 2.0 port for hooking up to Casio”s GREEN SLIM data projectors for display to the whole class or direct connection to a computer to allow students to share calculations using Casio”s manager software.

Casio says that the PRIZM will be available from January 2011 for a suggested retail price of US$129.


New piezoelectric device harvests wasted energy from electronics

The piezoelectric CNF-PZT Cantilever device

By Darren Quick

Piezoelectric generators that harness otherwise wasted energy from vibrations has been proposed for capturing energy in everything from shoes to roads. Now a new device made out of piezoelectric material by researchers at Louisiana Tech University could allow a wide range of electronic devices to harvest their own wasted operational energy, resulting in devices that are much more energy efficient. It even offers the potential to perpetually power micro and nano devices, such as biomedical devices or remotely located sensors and communication nodes.

The device, designed and fabricated by Dr. Long Que, assistant professor of electrical engineering at Louisiana Tech, uses a cantilever made out of material capable of converting distortions to itself into electrical energy. It is coated with a carbon nanotube film on one side that causes the cantilever to bend back and forth repeatedly when it absorbs light and/or heat. This causes the piezoelectric material to generate power for as long as the light and/or heat source is active.

“The greatest significance of this work is that it offers us a new option to continuously harvest both solar and thermal energy on a single chip, given the self-reciprocating characteristics of the device upon exposure to light and/or thermal radiation,” said Que. “This characteristic might enable us to make perpetual micro/nano devices and micro/nanosystems, and could significantly impact the wireless sensory network.”

The research team’s experiments showed that the device, called a CNF-PZT Cantilever, was able to generate enough power to operate some low-power microsensors and integrated sensors. One of the most impressive aspects of the system was its ability to “self-reciprocate” – perpetually produce energy without needing to draw power from an external energy source.

The researchers say that this self-reciprocation occurs from the cantilever’s constant absorption of photons and its high electrical conduction and rapid thermal dissipation into the environment. The team says it has routinely observed this self-reciprocation phenomenon, not only in the lab, but also in the field under sunlight.

“It is truly a hybrid energy-harvesting technology,” Que said. “My lab has been optimizing and making great progress on this technology in an effort to enhance its efficiency and overall performance, indicating great promise for this technology.”