Archive for the ‘Chemistry’ Category

Why diesel cars are bad for our health

Broadcast on Today with Sean O’Rourke [24-08-2016]

Diesel Smoke

Tiny particles of soot pollution from diesel cars and vehicles have been linked with cancer and life-threatening lung diseases (source: http://www.dpfcleaningservices.co.uk)

Tax incentives for those buying diesel cars over the last decade has fueled a move to diesel on Irish roads, with diesel cars now outnumbering petrol cars.

This has been widely regarded as a welcome move, as diesel cars are considered ‘better for the environment’ because they produce less carbon dioxide gases than petrol cars – the gases that have been linked with causing global warming.

However, scientific evidence is emerging which shows that the level of diesel particulates, which are damaging to human health, has increased in line with the growing popularity of diesel and that Irish people are dying as a result of this. The European Environment Agency has, for example, estimated that 1,200 people in Ireland per year are dying as a result of diseases caused by particulate pollution.

Research

Until relatively recently, there has not been a significant amount of research into the impact of diesel pollution on public health, particularly in Europe, but the Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal certainly gave it an added push.

The evidence that is emerging from the US primarily – where research has been going on for longer – suggests that there is real reason for concern when it comes to health effects, and environmental effects, or air pollution from diesel engines. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the World Health Organisation and the UK Department of Transport have all produced reports in the last year or two which point to a real problem here.

As well as pointing to increased emissions of particulate matter (PM) and Nitrogen Dioxide gas, which are known to damage human health, the authorities in Europe and the US have started to make a direct link between an increase in numbers of people dying from respiratory diseases and cancers, and this increase in pollution.

The US EPA, who support a lot of work in this area, has led the way with publication of figures of increased numbers of premature deaths, cancers and respiratory diseases due to air pollution from diesel vehicles. There is a tangible link, a ‘smoking gun’ if you link that is linking cause and effect.

Ireland 

There has been little research into subject in Ireland until this year. In January 2016, a research project began at Trinity College Dublin, with funding from the Irish EPA, which is looking to precisely determine the amount of a certain type of damaging particulate, called PM 2.5 which is produced by diesel vehicles here.

It is a multi-disciplinary research effort, involving experts in air pollution, chemistry and transportation and will take place over 24 months. At the end of it, they say they will be able to determine precisely, using computer software modeling, how many deaths and illnesses here are caused by diesel vehicles.

One of the researchers involved, Dr Bidisha Ghosh, is a transportation expert, and said that the plan is to look at diesel particulates first, and to then to a follow up study where the impact of NO2 is measured and assessed.

Measuring 

The Irish EPA has a number of monitoring sites around Ireland that will be used as measuring points. One of the key challenges – and this is the first time anyone in the world has done this – will be to distinguish the percentage of PM 2.5 (particulate matter 2.5, a size of particulate) that is from diesel cars as opposed to other potential sources, such as sand, or the burning of coal.

The measuring sites will be near to roads as that is where diesel fumes are strongest, and another part of the study will determine how quickly dangerous diesel pollution dissipates as you move away from a busy road.

The researchers will be looking closely at what comes out of the diesel particulate filters that are attached to diesel cars. This is in order to get the chemical composition, or signature of PMs to better identify those PMs that are from diesel cars or other diesel vehicles. This is a difficult task and will involve using specialised machines to look at tiny quantities of polluting chemicals.

Dr Ghosh said that by the end of their project, in the latter part of 2017 they will be in a position to give precise numbers on the health effects of the growing use of diesel cars in Ireland. At that stage, she said they will have precise numbers on how many extra deaths, or premature deaths are being caused or what kind of extra number of lung cancers and other respiratory diseases are happening in Ireland due to us driving more diesel cars.

The calculations are based on knowledge of the car fleet, the type and age of cars on Irish roads, and knowledge of what the standard pollution emission from a certain vehicle of a certain age will be. This makes it possible to do comparison such as comparing the 2000 level of emissions versus the 2015 levels and matching the increase in pollution with the increase in deaths and diseases.

The project will also make it possible to predict, based on a number of scenarios – such as increasing use of diesel cars at the current rate – what Ireland can expect in 2020 or 2030 in terms of death rates from air pollution. This, it is hoped, will produce a solid basis for policy makers to address this problem.

Diesel cars 

The new new diesel cars on the market have very good particle filters and if you are sitting inside one of these cars you wouldn’t get a whole lot of this PM pollution, and the newer models may not pollute the atmosphere that much. The old diesels is where the big problem lies, and there are still a lot of old diesel cars being driven on Irish roads today, as they have vastly inferior emissions control technology to more modern cars.

It is also true that the bigger diesel car engines are far more polluting. The researchers at TCD, who have access to pollution figures in Ireland between 2010 and 2015 said there was a very significant increase in diesel PMs in those years, and this finding was what prompted a more detailed air pollution study.

The researchers also strongly suspect that the VW scandal wasn’t just a VW issue, and that many other diesel car makers have been cooking the books, in the sense that the emissions reported in the car manual does not bear much resemblance to the real on road emissions. The real figures, I was told, are likely to be far, far higher than what we see in the new diesel car manuals.

Supports

The Irish government started to actively support diesel from 20o8, with various tax incentives, in order to help Ireland meet its carbon dioxide ‘greenhouse gas’ targets. In fairness to the Irish government back then, the extent of the public health risk from diesel cars was not widely known.

It was initially thought that certain types of PMs were not harmful, but that thinking has changed, and now scientists are looking at the damage caused by diesel particulates that can remain wedged in the lungs. For example, the particulate, PM 1, is very hard to remove from the lung once in.

The evidence that is now emerging, however, is that not only is diesel bad for public health, it is also, by producing NO2, bad for the environment.

The science around this is all still quite new, and emerging. It is only in 2015 that a report was published by the UK authorities which stated that NO2 can also be very harmful to children, their respiratory development, their lung development and that it can cause irreversible changes.

The initial findings about the problem with diesel took time to emerge, as they didn’t perhaps fit with the green image of diesel, especially in Europe. However, the more research on this that is being done, the clearly the scientific picture becomes, and eventually, governments will have to act on the results.

NO2 

Nitrous oxide, and nitrous dioxide gases from diesel cars and vehicles are also linked with health problems, and the data can be collected again by using standard emissions and examining the national car fleet. This is likely to be supported by specific EPA funded research in future, which will, like the TCD project looking at PMs, look into NO2 levels at certain EPA monitoring sites, near busy roads around the country.

Aside from being linked with respiratory disease and death, NO2 is known to have a negative impact on vegetation and acts to break down the ozone layer.

Alternatives? 

There are emerging fuels out there, such as hydrogen gas, which is being made available at existing petrol stations in the UK this summer.

However, experts believe that because the infrastructure and global distribution network is built for diesel and petrol cars, and that huge investment has been made in this system, that it will be impossible to envisage a change to any other fuel or transport type in the near, or even distant future.

Electric cars are still rare in Ireland despite significant government support, as people don’t like some of the unanswered questions that remain on it, such as how long does an electric car last, and what to do should a battery die out?

There is also the fact that a very high amount of energy can be liberated from diesel or petrol, and there is nothing that can rival petroleum on that score.

The solution, some suggest, is to truly move towards a sustainable transport system, where people walk if they can, and only use a car when they have to. Those countries that do this, and that promote public transport have far less emissions from petroleum car engines. It is also very important to think about where we locate our busy roads, as studies have shown that irreversible damage can be done to schoolchildren from air pollution in schools near such roads.

For those that need a car, the advice is to look at getting rid of the old diesel and replacing it with a new one, with better a particulate filter. Also, to avoid buying one of the high performance diesel cars and go for a more modest option.

There is also the issue in Ireland of people removing diesel particulate filters when they start to affect car performance. They can be expensive to replace, and some garages in Ireland are openly offering services on the internet to remove and not replace the filters.

 

A diesel car can run without a filter, and not replacing a malfunctioning filter can save hundreds if not a few thousand euros. However, from a public health and environmental perspective removing a filter is “disastrous, really, really bad” according to Dr Ghosh.

Actively preventing the removal of diesel particulate filters from diesel cars, and insisting on a high standard of operation of diesel filters as part of the NCT test, might be how the Irish government might start trying to tackle this important public health issue.

 

Silicon chip could be replaced by material made in Cork

Siliconchip_by_shapeshifter

Silicon chips, like the one pictured here, could in future be made not from silicon, but from a new alloy material made by a UCC research group (Source: Wiki)

The silicon chip — the tiny synthetic “brain” inside smartphones, laptops and electronic devices — could eventually be replaced by a material made in Cork.The substance, a mixture of tin and germanium, should allow faster, less power-sapping electronic devices. In the short term it could be used to make “wearable” solar cells to power phones or tablets.

The innovation has been announced by Professor Justin Holmes, a scientific investigator at the Advanced Materials and BioEngineering Research Centre and professor of nanochemistry at University College Cork.

The tin-germanium mixture has been used by Holmes and his team to make tiny electricity-conducting wires, called nanowires. These control the electrical flow in devices, as silicon does, but use less power.

Low-power electronics could mean that mobile phones need to be charged less often, Holmes said, and could open the way for solar-powered mobile phones.

“Improved power efficiency means increased battery life for mobile devices, which ultimately leads to lower greenhouse gas emissions,” he said. “The charging of mobile electronic devices currently accounts for 15% of all household electricity consumption.”

This research has been funded jointly by Science Foundation Ireland, a government body that uses public money to support research, and IQE, a British company that produces materials for mobile phones and other electronic products.
The creation could challenge the dominance of silicon chips. Silicon, a component of sand, is a cheap and abundant material. Because of its ubiquity and its power to control electricity, it was used in the first chip made at the Texas Instruments lab in 1958.
As computers’ processing speeds have increased, manufacturers have packed more transistors onto every chip. Intel’s 4004 chip, made in 1971, had 2,300 transistors, while a chip the company makes now has 7.2bn.

The technical problem with having billions of transistors in a single silicon switch is that the amount of heat generated has shortened battery life and can lead to overheating.

This prompted scientists including Holmes to look at different materials that could be used in chips. IQE said it hopes the Irish-made material will make silicon chips faster and reduce their power consumption.

“The ability to increase the speed and number of devices on a chip by reducing size is coming to an end. Novel ideas such as nanowires will allow the microelectronics revolution to continue,” it said.

 This article was first published by The Sunday Times (Irish edition) on 21/08/2016.  Click here to view.

 

 

Could this Irish-invented device have solved VW’s diesel emissions problem?

A portable device, invented in Ireland, easily fitted to cars and trucks has been found to increase engine fuel efficiency by 15% and reduce harmful emissions of NOx compounds.

This is the conclusion of scientific tests on the device by Professor John Cassidy and Dr Michael Farrell, of the Dublin Institute of Technology.

The results of detailed tests on the ‘Nu Nrg Reformer’ – invented by Athlone-based businessman and architect David Harvey – will be published in an upcoming edition of the International Journal of Hydrogen Energy.

____________________________________________________

Nu Nrg Reformer

The device pictured above – called a Nu Nrg Reformer – invented in Ireland has been scientifically proven to increase fuel burning efficiency in engines by 15%.

How it Works

The Reformer device pictured on the right works by extracting water from the reservoir tank above, and splitting it into hydrogen and oxygen gas, the two elements that make up water.

The electrical power needed to get the Reformer working initially comes through a link to the combustion engine’s battery.

When the Reformer gets going, it starts to produce the two gases, and this causes the water in the tank to circulate and heat up.

This in turn causes gases to form and bubbles of gas rise to the top of the water.

The hydrogen gas exits the Reformer via a pipe which carries it to the engine which it enters via its air intake valve.

The hydrogen is burned as a fuel, which reduces the engine’s need to burn petrol or diesel. This improves combustion efficiency and almost eliminates the smoke and soot, which are particularly associated with some diesel engines.

Water vapour is also generated along with hydrogen and oxygen, and it is also piped to the engine via the air intake valve.

This cools the combustion temperature and ensures that oxides of nitrogen (commonly known as NOx) which are damaging to human health are significantly reduced.

Meanwhile, the electronic control module – the ‘brain’ of the device – adjusts the electrical charge going into the Reformer.

This ensures that only the required amount of electricity is going into the Reformer for the job in hand.

The water in the reservoir can be re-filled, and is ‘deionized’ thereby removing charged molecules which conduct electricity and could interfere with the electrical current.

The steel enclosure acts to hold the unit safely and secure it in position on the vehicle.

____________________________________________________

Electrolyser 

“The device is an electrolyser,” explained Professor Cassidy, “which means it splits water into its basic parts, hydrogen and oxygen.”

“There is a lot of work going on trying to produce hydrogen from water and other sources, as a cleaner fuel option to burning fossil fuels.”

Fossil fuels are running out at an alarming rate, explained Prof Cassidy, and this is being exacerbated by the growing fuel demand in China and India, yet there has been little progress on identifying new fuel sources.

While fracking and nuclear power have competed with renewable forms of energy such as wind, tide and solar, Prof Cassidy continued, there is scope for what’s called the ‘hydrogen economy’ to expand.

The majority of hydrogen is synthesised using ‘steam reforming’, said Prof Cassidy, which requires fossil fuel and steam to produce hydrogen.

There is another method for producing hydrogen which is called electrolysis, where water is split into hydrogen and oxygen using a direct electrical current. This accounts for only 4% of hydrogen production.

The Reformer device invented by David Harvey is an electrolyser.

The electrolysing method of producing hydrogen, said Prof Cassidy, is attracting greater interest because it offers the possibility of obtaining large amounts of hydrogen without the consumption of fossil fuels, emission of pollutant gases or use of nuclear power.

Cian O’Reilly, a chemistry graduate from DIT worked on the portable electrolysis cell in the DIT.

“The idea is to produce hydrogen, which can be used as a fuel in a combustion engine, reducing the need to burn petrol or diesel.”

“In a combustion engine, whether it uses petrol or diesel, this device supplies hydrogen to the engine via the air intake valve.”

“Since the device works at high temperature water vapour is also generated and introduced to the engine – essentially cooling it.”

“This cooling reduces the combustion temperature of petrol or diesel fuel in the engine, and, thus, the amount of NOx emissions produced.”

“Research has shown that introducing water vapour into the air intake valve of a diesel engine will reduce emissions and lead to a decrease in fuel consumption as less hydrocarbons will be burnt.”

The net result of fitting this portable device to an engine should increase its fuel burning efficiency by 15% and reduce emissions, said Prof Cassidy.

Emissions 

Inventor David Harvey, says that preliminary emissions tests in the laboratory showed a reduction in CO and NOx emissions – two gases which are poisonous to humans – by 91 and 93.4 per cent respectively.

Prof Cassidy said that while the emissions tests, which were carried out by Dr Jack Tracey at DIT, look promising, more testing is required.

The recent VW emissions scandal centred on the VW claiming falsely low NOx emissions from some of its popular brand of diesel powered cars.

Car manufacturers generally have struggled to find meet stringent NOx emissions regulations, particularly in the US, from diesel engines, while maintaining diesel engine performance.

“This device works at low direct electrical current, which means it requires less power input to achieve its efficiencies,” said Prof Cassidy.

“This also means it is safe, and we have shown it to be reliable and durable, as well as portable and inexpensive.”

 

 

 

Fancy a holiday on Mars?; the science behind the VW scandal; what Snowdon got wrong about aliens; rechargeable solar/ wind roof batteries

Click above to listen to the discussion on The Morning Show with Declan Meehan

HD's Vista Set

The discovery of water on Mars means that holiday makers this century could see sights like this  (Credit: http://www.topgalleriesphoto.com)

The discovery of water on Mars has increased the chances of it becoming the ultimate holiday destination. Martian water, although salty, could be made drinkable, used to generate electricity and as a rocket fuel.

The VW diesel emissions scandal only came to light when diesel VW’s cars were subjected to a random test, in ‘real’ road conditions. This revealed that nitrous oxide emissions were up to 35 times higher than what was permitted.

Edward Snowden, in a rare interview from hiding, commented that alien messages would be likely to be so heavily encrypted as to render them invisible. Alien hunting scientists quickly stepped in to contradict his remarks.

Cheap, reliable, rechargeable batteries, which could store energy from the sun or wind, when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing, store it, and release it as required, have been developed by Harvard University scientists.

[The item above was first broadcast on East Coast FM on 1st October 2015.]

Battery technology has changed little since Volta, but are longer lasting batteries finally here?

The discussion above was broadcast on Today with Sean O’Rourke on 14th September, 2015

Volta's Battery

Battery technology has changed little since Alessandro Volta’s stacked battery of 1799, here being demonstrated above to Napoleon. But, a technological breakthrough may finally be on the way (Source: Jean Loup Charmet/ Science Photo Library)

We take batteries for granted, but it is hard to imagine a world without them. Think about it for a moment. Almost everything that requires power, makes use of battery power.

The list includes cars (electrical and fuel powered), children’s toys, bicycle lights, recording devices, hearing aids, and, of course, our beloved laptops, tablets and smartphones.

Batteries have, however, become a limiting technology, and for years have been acting like a brake on the development of ever faster, more powerful electronic devices and gadgets.

Whereas, the power of a microchip – the brain of our electronic devices – has doubled every two years or so, since the 1970s, battery power, upon which they rely, hasn’t kept pace.

While the microchip has been doubling its power relentlessly every couple of years, engineers have struggled to get an extra 30 per cent of power from batteries over the same time frame.

The remarkable thing is that until recently, the technology upon which batteries are based hadn’t changed much since the first working battery designed by Alessandro Volta in 1799.

Yet there are many new technologies in development which could provide the long sought breakthrough that would provide us – at last – with batteries that can provide power at a high enough level and long enough to suit our needs.

History

In 1791 Luigi Galvani noticed that an electrical circuit created with two different metals, when touched on two ends of the leg of a dead frog, would cause the frog’s leg to twitch.

The two metals were creating an electric current within the frog’s leg, causing its muscles to contract. This was a transfer of chemical energy into electrical energy – a primitive battery.

The first simple, working battery, as we would recognise it today, which became known as the Voltaic pile, was built by Alessandro Volta, an Italian physicist in 1799.

Volta’s battery was not the first device created by humans which could produce electricity, as the famous ‘Baghdad Battery’ dates back to about 200 BC.

These batteries were discovered by an archaeologist called Wilhelm Konig, outside Baghdad in 1938. They were small jars, which held an iron rod contained in copper.

Tests on the batteries indicated that the jars had been filled with some kind of acidic substance like vinegar or wine, leading researchers to theorise that they were ancient batteries.

However, the Volta battery was the first to produce a steady, lasting electrical current.

Volta’s battery had two electrodes. An electrode, to explain, is something which exists to create a connection between an electric conductor and a non electrical conductor.

So, a lamp that is connected to a battery would be connected by an electrode, which would carry the electrical current from the battery, to the lamp, via safe, non conduction materials.

The electrodes in the Volta battery were circular disks of zinc metal and copper metal, separated by cardboard paper in between them, which was soaked in salty water.

An electrolyte is something either liquid, or molten, which is full of ions, or negatively charged atoms, which are the basic building blocks of electricity. Volta’s electrolyte was salty water.

Chemical reactions in the electrolyte led to a positive charge being created at the zinc electrode – the anode – and a negative charge created at the copper end – the cathode.

The electricity in battery flows from towards the positive cathode, because electricity by its nature is negatively charge, and in Volta’s battery this flow could not be reversed.

One problem with Volta’s battery was there was a buildup of hydrogen gas, a by-product of the chemical reactions,which formed a barrier between the electrolyte and the electrodes.

Thus, the effectiveness of the Volta battery diminished over time. Furthermore, when more acidic electrolytes came into use, batteries could often be dangerous to handle.

Another problem was that because the Volta battery was built in a stack, the weight of the stack would, after a certain height, begin to squeeze the brine out of the cardboard.

Model T Ford

The 1926 Model T Ford, pictured here, was the first mass produced car to have an automatic starting key. This was possible by using a battery designed by Irish priest Fr Nicholas Callan in 1837 (Credit: automotivehistoryonline.com)

Fr Callan’s Battery

One of the key researchers in what scientific historians call ‘the electric century’ – the 19th century – when electricity was harnessed and made widely available – was an Irish priest.

Fr Nicholas Callan was a 19th century battery pioneer and Catholic priest, based at at what was then part of The Catholic University of Ireland (now called Maynooth University).

He built some of the most powerful batteries and magnets that had ever been built in his workshop at Maynooth, and he spent long hours there, immersed in his researchers.

Callan, unlike scientists today, did not publish his findings, but when he had mastered some aspect of knowledge, he simply moved on to the next topic that he was interested in.

This meant that he did not get credit for the extent of his contribution to the development of the battery, and to the widespread availability of electricity until relatively recent times.

One of his inventions, called the induction coil, was a quantum leap for battery technology when he invented it in 1837. It was the first immensely powerful battery ever invented.

Our modern cars can be started by a simple turn of a key, thanks to a battery designed by Irish priest in the 19th century, and put into a Model T Ford in 1926.

Up until the 1920s, cars had to be started by manually by turning a hand crank. This was physically demanding, and people that were not young and fit often couldn’t manage it.

Callan developed an induction coil in 1837, almost a century before, which provided a way to massively ramp up the electrical power available to a small Model T car battery.

The 1926 Model T Ford, was the first car that went into mass production with an electrical starting mechanism, and this meant anyone, regardless of age or health, could drive a car.

The technical trick that Callan uncovered was to repeatedly break the electrical circuit in a battery by dipping copper wires in liquid mercury cups.

Callan found that the more rapidly he could break the current, using his ‘repeater’, the more intense the flow of electricity produced would become.

He was a quiet intense man, who spent hours in his laboratory at what is now NUI Maynooth. HIs fellow clerics wondered at his interest in science, and regard his lab work as useless.

Daniell Cell

Around the same time Fr Callan was working, in the 1830s, a British scientist John Daniell, developed an improved version of Volta’s battery which was called the Daniell cell.

The so-called Daniell Cell was made up of two metal plates, one of copper and one of zinc, and two solutions, of copper sulfate and zinc sulfate, all in a simple glass jar.

Copper sulfate is denser than zinc sulfate so it sank to the bottom of the glass jar and surrounded a copper plate. The lighter zinc sulfate floated on top of the copper sulfate and it was surrounded by a zinc plate. The zinc plate was negative and the copper the positive.

This worked well for stationary applications, such as powering doorbells, and early telephones, but it didn’t work for mobile applications such as powering a flashlight. But, it worked.

Chemistry

The principles of what happens when you put a battery into your remote control or flashlight today, in September 2015, is similar to the early batteries, going back more than 200 years.

Basically, chemistry is being used to generate electricity, and move it from one part of the battery to the other, and then into the device where the electrical power is consumed.

In simplest terms, the chemical reactions in the anode, or negative end of the battery, creates electrons, which are the basic units of electricity.

These electrons are transferred in the electrolyte substance, which is liquid of some sort, often an acid, from the anode, to the positive end of the battery, the cathode, via a current.

At the cathode chemical reactions occur which essential absorb the electrons, and their energy, to produce electricity, which is transferred to a device running on battery power.

The battery will continue to produce electricity until one, or both, of the electrodes, run out of the substances which are needed to produce and absorb electricity respectively.

Modern batteries are still based on using chemistry to produce, absorb and transfer electricity. We have got better – somewhat – at manipulating the chemistry to make better batteries.

There are zinc-carbon batteries, alkaline batteries, lithium ion batteries and lead-acid batteries in common usage today.

The lead-acid battery, which is used in a typical car battery has electrodes made of lead oxide and metallic lead, while the electrolyte is a sulfuric acid solution.

These are dangerous to handle, and an environmental nightmare, but they produce enough electricity to get a car started in the morning, and that is what we all ultimately want.

The alkaline batteries, are the kinds of batteries we buy in shops, to put into children’s toys, for example. The cathode here is a manganese dioxide mixture, and the anode a zinc powder.

It gets its name, however, from its potassium hydroxide electrolyte, an alkaline substance..

Acids are often excellent electrolytes, because they strongly ionize in solution. They can produce a lot of ions when put into solution, whether they are positive or negative.

ither way, acids don’t form stable molecules when put in solution. The create ions, which are highly mobile in solution, and facilitate the conduction of electricity.

Rechargeable batteries

In the modern era it has become important to develop decent rechargeable batteries, such as mobile phone charges, which can be plugged in and recharged on the move.

However, rechargeable batteries have been around a long time. In fact they date back as far as 1859 when Gaston Plante, a French physicist invented the humble lead acid battery.

We know that lead acid batteries in our cars can run out, hence the jump leads we carry in the boot. The jump leads are used to re-charge the battery from another battery usually.

The difference between a rechargeable battery and a non-rechargeable one is that the chemical reactions producing electric current in a rechargeable battery are reversible.

As the world, a became increasingly mobile, it was vital to invent a powerful, rechargeable battery. Along came the lithium-ion battery in 1991 (by Sony and Asahi Kasei)

In this battery, charge could be reversed, and the products that were in the battery were not going to be used up rapidly, or diminished in power with multiple weekly charges.

The lithium-ion battery, which goes into so many of our devices, is one such rechargeable battery. These are high performance batteries, which often used lithium cobalt oxide as the cathode and carbon as its anode. These materials, lithium, and carbon, are also very light.

owever, lithium ion batteries still need an electrolyte, typically lithium salt, which is in solution. So, these high technology batteries are still limited by the need for a liquid solution.

The future

There are many competing technologies working to develop the breakthrough that will move batteries on to the next stage.

There are solid state batteries, and solar batteries, and even batteries, which scientists have recently proposed, which could be based on thin air?

Solid state batteries will be made of solid electrodes and solid electrolytes. They can be easily miniaturised, and long shelf lives. They also are not prone to reduced performance due to temperature like liquid electrolytes, when exposed to near freezing or boiling conditions.

The technical problem with solid state batteries, however, is that it is proving difficult for engineers to get high electrical currents moving easily across solid to solid surfaces.

Solar batteries are another technology being explored, as the next big thing in batteries, and these are based on converting the energy in sunlight directly into electrical energy.

The materials used are those that change their electrical characteristics in response to sunlight. They work in a similar way to solar panels, but they need to be smaller of course.

Wind batteries 

Tesla Motors, from the US, meanwhile, are developing industrial scale batteries, which can be used to power the home, they say, or to store energy from renewable sources like wind.

In May Tesla and an Irish company Gaelectric announced they were going to work on a large utility scale battery power project in Ireland.

The plan is to demonstrate that Tesla batteries, can store energy from the sun and the wind, which there is plenty of in Ireland, and release in quantities sufficient for utilities to use.

Tesla also wants to enable business and homes to be able to store renewable energy from the Sun, and wind to manage their power needs, and reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

However, when it comes to our electronic devices, it seems that a workable solar battery, which is powerful and cheap, and reliable is still no-where in sight.

Solar powered batteries can be sluggish on start-up when they are cold, and they don’t have enough power, of the type that an iPhone requires, for example to do the job.

Their role maybe to have a solar battery on the iPhone as a back-up to use in an emergency when the battery is running low and there is no electrical socket in sight.

Hydrogen

Future iPhones could run on hydrogen refuelled via the headphone socket. Intelligent Energy, a British firm behind the breakthrough, expects there’ll be a gas cartridge slot (Credit: iFixit)

Intelligent Energy says it made an iPhone 6 with a battery which creates electricity by combining hydrogen and oxygen – that means air! – to last the phone for a week.

The bonus is that the combination of hydrogen and oxygen, produces only small amount of water and heat as waste products.

This announcement has been shrouded in secrecy as it correct this will be a massive breakthrough. The company said its fuel cell system was incorporated into the current iPhone 6 without any alteration to the size or shape of the device.

The only difference, compared to other handsets is that there are rear vents where a tiny amount of water vapour waste is allowed to escape.

Intelligent Energy, who are reportedly working closely with Apple, said they are considering what price to sell their cartridges at, so it’s not going to be part of the iPhone per se.

It’s likely the cartridge might sell for just the cost of a latte, company executives said, and even so, a 300 billion Sterling market per year could open up.

DNA-based computers set to replace silicon

Click above to listen to discussion with Keelin Shanley on Today with Sean O’Rourke, broadcast on RTE Radio 1 on 27th August 2015

DNA Computers

DNA-based computers have already been built and they look set to replace silicon computers in coming years (Source: http://www.news.discovery.com

We love our electronics, or most of us do, and every year or two, when we go to buy a new phone, computer or laptop we all expect to buy a faster, more intelligent device.

The microchips inside our electronics are ‘the brain’ of the device. They  are currently made up of silicon, an abundant material found in sand.

However, some time soon, perhaps very soon, silicon-based chips will no longer be able to provide devices with the extra speed and functionality that buyers demand.

The big question is, if electronic devices are not based on silicon, as they have been for decades now, what will they be based on?

It might come as a surprise to some to learn that DNA, the genetic material inside every human cell, is a leading contender to fill silicon’s shoes.

Origins

In a way, it makes perfect sense to use DNA for computers.  DNA is brilliant at storing and processing information, and is made up of  a simple, reliable code.

Yet the idea of using DNA in computers didn’t emerge until as late as 1994.

That was when Leonard Adleman, of the University of Southern California showed that DNA could solve a well-known mathematical problem.

The problem was a variation of what mathematicians call the ‘directed Hamilton Path problem. In English that translates to ‘the travelling salesman problem’.

In brief, the problem is to find the shortest route between a number of cities going through each city just once.

The problem gets more difficult the more cities are added to the problem. Adelman solved the problem,using , for seven cities in the US.

Thing is, it is not a hugely difficult problem, and a clever enough human using paper and pencil could probably work it out faster than Adelman’s DNA computer.

The importance of what Adelman did was to show that DNA could be used to solve computational problems – what we might call a proof of concept today.

He used synthesised DNA strands to represent each one of the seven cities and other strands were made for each of the possible flight paths between the cities.

He then performed a number of experimental techniques on the DNA strands to get the single answer that he wanted. Like putting a jigsaw puzzle together.

It was slow, but he showed it could be done.

The question now was, what else can we do with DNA?

Purified Silicon

Purified silicon, pictured here, is sourced primarily from sand and is an abundant element in the Earth’s crust (Source: Wikipedia)

Silicon

The most important element is silicon, pictured here on the right, which is the material used to make the microchip; the brain of our phones, pads and laptops if you like.

The first silicon chip was made in 1968, and it became the material of choice for the emerging computer industry in the years and decades that followed.

It is an abundant material, found in sand, and in rocks like granite and quartzite, and this abundance means it is cheap, and easy to find, all over the world.

It is also a semiconductor, which means it conducts electricity, although badly. It is halfway between a conductor, such as metal, and an insulator, such as rubber.

It would be very hard to control electricity, in terms of switching transistors on and off, using a material that conducted electricity or block its flow entirely.

This semiconducting property makes it easier to control the flow of electricity in a silicon microchip, which is crucial to success of the microchip technology.

Other materials

Aside from silicon, there are plastics, which make up a lot of the weight of many devices and laptops, in the body, circuit boards, wiring, insulation and fans.

These are plastics like polystyrene, a common one, are made up of carbon and hydrogen, two of the most common elements in nature.

There are metals, but usually light metals, such as aluminium, which is popular because it is light, and strong and has a sleek, modern appearance.

Aluminium comes from bauxite mining, and a lot of energy is spent in extracting the ore aluminium from the bauxite rock in big producer nations like Australia.

There is some steel for structural support and for things like screws, and copper is still used in wiring on circuit boards and to connect electrical parts.

The battery is key, of course, and typically it is a lithium-iron battery these days. These batteries also have cobalt, oxygen and carbon.

Rare earths

There are also small elements of rare materials, or rare earths such as gold or platinum, or neodymium, which is used for tiny magnets inside tiny motors.

electronic devices, including iPhones and other devices. This,has proved controversial as the process that extracts those rare earths from the ground is environmentally risky, some believe.

Minerals such as neodymium are used in magnets inside the iPhones to make speakers vibrate and create sound.

Europium is a material that creates a bright red colour on an iPhone screen and Cerium is used by workers to polish phones as the go along the assembly line.

The iPhone wouldn’t work without the various rare earths contained in it. Ninety per cent of the rare earths are mined in China, where environmental rules are slacker.

Price 

There is a human price to be paid – elsewhere – for our shiny, fast, new devices.

For example, a centre of rare earth mining is a place called Baotou, in Inner Mongolia. The town has dense smog, and a radioactive ‘tailings’ lake west of the city, where rare earth processors dump their waste, described as “an apocalyptic sight”.

Radioactive waste has seeped into the ground, plants won’t grow, animals are sick, and people report their teeth falling out, and their hair turning white.

The people that risk their lives mining for  the rare materials that need to make make the electronics we love, usually live far away from Europe or North America.

China is a major centre for such mining, and Australia is significant too.

DNA is ‘clean’ 

When scientists built a computing running on DNA in Israel in 2003, it contained none of the silicon, metals or rare earths used in our devices today.

It could also perform 330 trillion operations per second, which was a staggering 100,000 times faster than silicon-based personal computers.

A DNA computer would be much ‘greener’ and more in keeping with our 21st century ideas of sustainability and reducing the carbon footprint.

DNA computers don’t need much energy to work. It is just a case of putting DNA molecules into the right chemical soup, and controlling what happens next.

If built correctly, and that is where the technical challenge likes, a DNA computer will sustain itself on less than one millionth of the energy used in silicon chip technology.

Milestones

There have been a few important milestones since the pioneering work of Adelman in California opened the door to DNA computers back in 1994.

A lot of the progress has happened in the Weizmann Institute for Science in Israel, a world class institute in a country even smaller than our own.

Between 2002 and 2004, scientists there produced a computer based on DNA and other biological materials, rather than silicon.

They came up with a DNA computer which was, they said, capable of diagnosing cancer activity inside a cell, and releasing an anti-cancer drug after diagnosis.

More recently in 2013, researcher stored a JPEG photo, the text of a set of Shakespearean sonnets and an audio file of Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I have a dream’ speech using DNA.

This proved that DNA computers were very good at storing data, which is something that DNA has evolved to do over millions of years in the natural world.

DNA computers are on the way that will be far better at storing data than existing computers which use cumbersome magnetic tape or hard drive storage systems.

The reason is simple. DNA is a very dense, highly coiled molecule that can be packed tightly into a small space.

It lives in nature inside tiny cells. These cells are only visible under a microscope, yet the DNA from one cell would stretch to 2 metres long if uncoiled and pulled straight.

The information stored in DNA also can be stored safely for a long time. We know this because DNA from extinct creatures, like the Mammoth, has lasted 60,000 years or more when preserved in ice, in dark, cold and dry conditions.

One of the few advantages of our Irish weather is that it is makes it an attractive place for high technology companies to base their data store centres here.

It was a factor in the announcement by Google last week that it was to locate a second data centre in Dublin.

Silicon Chip (Source www.tested.com)

Many industry experts believe the days of the silicon chip, like this one, are numbered, and some believe DNA will replace it as the material of choice in our future devices (Source: http://www.tested.com)

DNA chip

A DNA computer chip – if we call it that- will have to be far more powerful than existing silicon chips to establish itself as a new technology.

This will be ‘disruptive’,and a lot of money is invested in manufacturing plants like Intel in Leixlip, which have been set up and fitted out to make silicon chips.

But, regardless of the level of investment, and Intel have invested something like $12.5 billion in their Leixlip plant since 1990, silicon’s days are numbered.

In 1965, Gordon Moore, one of the founders of Intel, came up with a law governing the production of faster and faster computing speeds, which has proved accurate.

He said that the number of transistors on an ‘integrated circuit’ – the name given to chips before silicon became the material of choice – would double every two years.

This doubling has continued every two years since 1965, but engineers say that they are fast reaching the point where they have exhausted silicon transistor capacity.

The need for something to replace silicon is becoming urgent, and this is why a recent breakthrough in DNA computing in the UK is especially timely.

Scientists at the University of East Anglia have just announced they have found a watch to change the structure of DNA – twice – using a harmless common material.

The material is called EDTA and it is found in shampoo, soaps and toiletries to keep their colour, texture and fragrance intact.

The scientists used EDTA to change DNA to another structure, and the, after changing it, to change it back into its original structure again.

In silicon, the transistors switch between ‘on’ and ‘off’ states and this provides the means of controlling the way that the silicon chip works.

Similarly, this breakthrough has shown, for first time, that scientists can now also switch DNA between two ‘states’ or forms.

The research was just published (17th August) in the journal Chemical Communications.

The fact that the structure of DNA can be changed twice means that it is possible to create DNA ‘logic gates’, like those which are used in silicon computers.

A logic gate, by the way,  is something that is capable of performing a logical operation based on more or more logical inputs, to produce a single logical output.

Future

DNA computers can take us to a new level of computing which wasn’t possible with Silicon.

DNA computers, the size of teardrops, will be constructed in the future, using nanotechnology; will will be as powerful as the supercomputers of today.

This size will be important as we are entering an age when many things will be connected to the internet in our homes and offices, all talking to one another.

These devices will have artificial intelligence, and they will be capable of rapid processing of data, and making decisions to benefit mankind.

We come home, and some wearable device detects we are sweating, and the hot water is put on for a shower, while a cold drink is made in the kitchen.

We will have a lot of devices, and if they are based on DNA technology, we’ll need a lot of DNA, but that is no problem, as we can now make it ourselves.

There are no toxic materials required to synthesize DNA and it can provide us with the technology we crave, without something else paying for it with their ill health.

Creative thoughts linked to movement; Cynics earn less; Large Hadron fires up again; A wrist band that tells wearer they have had enough Sun

Many people get creative ideas while out walking, and science may have found an answer why (Credit: Rackett Hall Country House)

It is hard to force creativity, just ask any writer that suffered ‘writers block’ or a songwriter looking for a catchy line.

Scientists studying the brain may have found an answer why so many people report that they get their best, most creative, ideas, while out walking or running.

A cynical attitude to life and work is costly, according to new research, which found that cynics earn about $300 less than people who had a better view of their fellow man and were more willing to co-operate and collaborate.

A wrist band that changes colour when its wearer has had enough Sun, has been invented by scientists at Queen’s University in Belfast. It is important that people get some sun, as this helps our skin to produce Vitamin D, which is needed for bone health.

The band was developed by scientists Dr David Hazafy and Professor Andrew Mills and they have set up SunCatalyst Laboratories to commercialise it.

In other news, the Large Hadron Collider has powered up again, after a two year absence. It power levels have been increased, and the hope is that particles will be found that can shed more light on the nature of the Universe.

Listen to a discussion on these topics below, on The Morning Show with Declan Meehan

This item was first broadcast on East Coast FM on 4th June 2015.

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