Archive for the ‘Engineering’ Category

Thought control of computers; the Irish angle

Listen below to piece broadcast (in edited form) on Drivetime RTE Radio 1 on 23rd August ’17

 

Scientists are working on brain computer interfaces which can enable devices to be control by thoughts alone (Credit: http://www.medium.com)

The power to read thoughts has long been a favourite topic of science fiction writers, but researchers in Ireland and around the world are now working on systems, called brain-computer interfaces, where human thoughts – in the form of electrical signals – can be read and understood by computers, and acted upon.

If this sounds far-fetched, then consider the fact that Facebook revealed in April that it has 60 engineers working on thought reading technology that scans a human brain 100 times per second to pick up the silent internal conversation in our head and translate it into text.

Or that superhero of the US scientific entrepreneurial community, Elon Musk, the man behind Tesla electric cars, the SpaceX rocket systems, and much else, in March, launched a new venture called neuralink, which aims to create devices that can be implanted in the human brain to allow for direct thought-based communication with computing devices.

Applications

The applications for BCIs have been, up to now, aimed at helping people that have are unable to communicate with the outside world such as those with ALS, or locked in syndrome, or someone that has had a severe stroke.

But, there is also another strand of research emerging, where BCIs are being developed to augment, or improve, human abilities. That might be to help a person with hearing difficulties better focus on whom they want to listen to in a crowded room, or to help elite athletes tune into their brain activity which reflects when they are performing best at their chosen event.

The BCIs are either wearable, where a user must wear a cap with many electrodes, or where a device is implanted into the person’s brain.

Headspace 

It’s clear that we are all going to have to get used to the idea that our private thoughts, or headspace, may not, in future be so private after all. Many of us will no doubt baulk at the idea of anyone getting access inside our heads.

Yet many others will welcome the ability to communicate, move and better perform various tasks that his powerful new technology can provide.

Contributors:

Alan Smeaton, Caoilainn Doyle, Dublin City University

Liam Kilmartin, NUI Galway

Tomas Ward, Maynooth University

 

 

Ireland ‘switches on’ to astronomy in historic event at Birr Castle

Broadcast on RTE Radio 1 Drivetime, 27th July 2017

I-LOFAR, Ireland’s radio telescope at Birr Castle, pictured, was switched on today in a historic moment for astronomy here (Credit: RTE)

The most important telescope ever built in Ireland, one capable of revealing  the most closely guarded secrets of the Universe, was switched on by Minister John Halligan today (27th July 2017) in Birr Castle Co Offaly.

The scientists behind Ireland’s LOFAR radio telescope say that it can listen in to signals coming from even the most distant parts of space, and could conceivable, one day, detect a signal from an extraterrestrial civilisation.

 

Extraterrestrial radio 

Up to today, if ET was going to send a signal to the Earth via radio – which many believe would be his preferred option for technical reasons – Ireland certainly would not be the first place to pick up the historic transmission.

After today, it is entirely possible that Birr Castle, which is now proudly home to Ireland’s LOFAR radio telescope, could be the location where the world’s press gather to hear of the first radio contact from another civilisation.

The person that has, more than any other, put Irish astronomy back on the map, in a way that it hasn’t been since the 19th century, is Peter Gallagher, professor in astrophysics at Trinity College Dublin.

Peter led the countdown to the switching on of I-LOFAR this morning, and even heavy rain didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of a crowd of scientists, locals, journalists, as well as Minister Halligan and his officials.

History 

It is entirely fitting that Birr Castle is home to I- LOFAR as it is also home to the Leviathan of Parsonson, an enormous hulking optical, or light-based telescope, that sits in a field adjacent to the new arrival. The Leviathan, was the world’s largest and most famous telescope between the years 1845 and 1917.

It was built, designed and operated by William Parsons, the Third Earl of Rosse, a brilliant scientist, who used his remarkable telescope, and eyesight, to make out the distinctive spiral shape of what became known as a whirlpool galaxy, because of its distinctive shape, called M51. That was in 1845.

This discovery was huge, because it meant that there was more than one galaxy outside our own, the Milky Way and meant the Universe was a lot larger than we had thought up to then. The telescope and Lord Rosse attracted visitors from around the world who came to look in awe on the remarkable man and his machine.

The switching on of I-LOFAR today as a proud and emotional day for the current Lord Rosse, Brendan Parsons, the 7th Earl.

 

 

 

Exciting 
Today was a historic and exciting day for Irish astronomy, and puts it back on the international map in a way it hasn’t been since the 19th century. Scientists here, using I-LOFAR, will, as of today, be able to hunt for new planets, try and unravel some of the Universe’s most deeply held secrets, and even, one day, perhaps, receive a signal from whatever intelligent life form may wish to send a radio signal our way.

Let the astronomical games begin!

Charles Parsons – faster sea travel faster and electricity for the masses

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Irish scientists, episode 3: Charles Parsons, inventor of the steam turbine engine was first broadcast on East Coast FM on 26th November 2016

turbinia

Charles Parsons’ Turbinia yacht, pictured here, outpaced the assembled British navy at Spithead in 1897 with its steam powered turbine engine (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Charles Parsons is considered to be in the top five of Britain’s greatest engineers of all time, by virtue of his enormous contribution to sea travel, and the shipbuilding industry, and making electricity available to the masses.

Parsons’s huge impact on the world has been far less heralded in Ireland, his native land. Hew grew up and spent his  early adult years at his family’s residence in Birr Castle Co. Offaly before moving to England.

The greatest achievement of his stellar engineering career was the invention of the steam turbine engine in 1884, an entirely new type of engine, which extracted thermal energy from pressurised steam in an ultra-efficient manner.

This thermal energy could be converted, through a series of intermediary steps, into electrical energy in such an efficient manner that, it became possible, for the first time, to generate enough electrical energy to make it available to the wide mass of people, not just the well-to-do elite.

Today, 90% of the electricity in the USA is still generated through steam turbine engines.

This engine also transformed the nature of sea travel, as steam turbines could provide the power necessary for large ships to cross the Atlantic far quicker, and for passengers to travel in comfort without rattling, shaking and noise.

The steam turbine was famously put into Parsons’s yacht, the Turbinia, and used to outpace the assembled British naval fleet at Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee Fleet Review at Spithead in 1897.

After this unsolicited, but powerful demonstration of the power that a steam turbine could provide, the British navy decided that it would commission the turbine to be used in its new generation of battleships, the Dreadnoughts (launched in 1906)

This helped to provide Britain with an edge in its naval arms race with Germany in the run up to World War 1.

Does bionics ultimately threaten our humanity?

First broadcast on Today with Sean O’Rourke, RTE Radio 1 (7-11-2016)

woman-with-bionic-arm

A woman with a ‘bionic’ arm. Science fiction is becoming science fact. (Image credit: Telegraph, UK)

Being human means our bodies, tissues and organs, will eventually deteriorate and malfunction. However, advances in medical science mean we can replace aging or diseased hips, knees, even hearts with advanced man-made materials. Many of our bodies, in this way, have become partly artificial or synthetic.

Advances in medical science and engineering mean that a lot more of us, in the developed western world at least, are set to have all manner of misfiring tissues and organs, maybe even our brains, replaced by something synthetic, better, and perhaps an awful lot better. The age of truly bionic man and woman is upon us.

History

The replacement of body parts with something man-made – what we now call bionics – is something that goes back a long way in human history.

Back as far as 1,500 BC there is a report of an Ancient egyptian mummy having its toe amputated and replaced by a prosthetic made of wood and leather. This was done apparently because the Egyptians felt that amputees would be cursed in life as well as the afterlife.

During the middle ages, crude prosthetic limbs ere available, but only to the very wealthy. These were made of wood, leather and metal, and the replacement leg would resemble a peg leg, with a hook replacing a hand.

Towards the end of the 18th century, in about 1897 the scientist Alessandro Volta – he of electricity fame – found that hearing could be restored by the use of electrical stimulation. This was a big advance in medical bionics.

However, it wasn’t until the mid 1970s that bionics entered the popular consciousness with the arrival of the Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman on our television screens.

The bionic man, played by Lee Majors, was human, had a bionic left eye, bionic legs, and a bionic right arm, while the Bionic Woman, played by Lindsay Wagner, had similar bionic limbs, but also had a bionic ear.

Science fiction becomes fact

What was science fiction then is now fact. A bionic eye, and ear have already been built, providing people with something even better than the original, while there have been remarkable advances in bionic limbs, including the human hand.

We could today, build a Bionic Man and Woman, with bionic ears, eyes, and limbs (not necessarily with the ability to run at 60 mph, but it could be done if felt necessary), but science is moving beyond what was speculation in the 1970s.

Neuroscientists have begun to decode the language of the brain, so that it is possible to know what word or series of words they are thinking. This is important because it means that people who are disabled, or paralysed can be now trained to move robotic limbs, or a new limb attached to their bodies.

Bionics and neuroscience is, thus, liberating disabled people from their physical dependence on people around them, and they can control their artificial limbs, or wheelchairs by simply thinking. At the same time, materials are becoming more sophisticated, and these can enhance malfunctioning biological tissues.

Bionic eyes, which pick up signals from the environment and transmit electrical impulses straight to the brain will soon help the blind ‘see’ again. A Bionic ear has been developed which restores hearing to the profoundly deaf via an implant which receives and transmits signals in the inner ear.

A bionic hand, with tremendous dexterity has been developed for a Danish man, which has been integrated by neurosurgeons with his existing nervous system. Bionic feet and legs under the thought control of the brain have been developed. A fully artificial heart has been successfully implanted, and there even moves to build an electronic implant to replace malfunctioing parts of the brain, or to construct a fully artificial brain based on the biological brain.

What this all means is that we are seeing a general trend towards humans becoming more artificial, as we live longer, and want to maintain the functioning of our limbs, organs and brain for as long as possible.

What do people want in life? They want to alive at the age of 90, but still active and healthy, physically and mentally. Bionics offers this, and its alluring.

No one knows where this all will end, or how artificial we will eventually become. Some believe that the trend towards having more and more bionic body parts threatens our humanity. How far can we go towards becoming artificial before we stop being human? It is a huge philosophical question we’ll face in future.

Irish research

The majority of the work in Ireland in this area is on the repair of body parts, through what is called regenerative medicine, rather than bionics, which involves the complete replacement of a tissue or organ, with something new and artificial.

Bionics, and regenerative medicine are moving ahead together and in parallel. It is perhaps a bit like the car industry.

There will always be a market for a brand new cars. Some people will buy a new car because they can afford it, and they want the latest technology and performance capabilities.

Others might want a new car because they have crashed their old one, and is beyond repair. However, there are also people who do not feel the need for a new car, and are quite happy to have their old car service, fixed, and on the road for as long as possible.

Ireland, in this sense, is more in the service and repair market, than the new car sales market, but both are equally important areas.

In terms of bionics, researchers in the University of Limerick, led by Dr Leonard O’Sullivan, along with an industrial partner, MTD Precision Engineering (Cork) are aiming to develop a full body Bionic Suit to help the elderly.

The Axo Suit project aims to help the aging live independently and stay mobile. The suit needs to be light enough to allow them to do daily tasks, such as going for a walk, or putting clothes on the line, but strong enough to give support.

The goal is to produce an ‘exoskeleton’ or bionic suit, which will sell for between 5k and 10k. This could keep many people out of nursing homes.

AT TCD, the Advanced Materials and Bioengineering Research Group (AMBER) led by Professor Danny Kelly’s group is involved in developing 3D bio-printing of tissues and organs, which could negate the need for organ transplants.

It could also lead to printing of organs or tissues made up of a combination of natural and artificial components, or even totally artificial components. There has already been a successful transplant of an artificial heart, and with natural organs hard to come by, this trend is set to increase.

Also at TCD, Dr Mark Ahearne’s group are developing bioengineered corneas which can be used for cornea transplants to restore sight or relieve pain. The artificial cornea has been made by using artificial fibres that mimic the ability of natural collagen fibres in the cornea to allow light to penetrate through. The researchers believe this will help people suffering from corneal blindness.

Meanwhile, At the Regenerative Medicine Institute at NUI Galway, or REMEDI there is a clinical trial underway where stem cells are being used to tackle osteoarthritis. The idea here is to insert stem cells into, for example knee joints damaged by arthritis to facilitate the growth of new, healthy bone tissue.

The potential for knee repair is incredible. For example, Professor Fergal O’Brien,  based at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and AMBER, developed a new material which repaired the severely damaged knee joints of a competitive show jumping horse called Beyonce. The horse was facing euthanasia, but after the material was used, it began competitive show jumping again.

REMEDI researchers are also working with colleagues our Lady’s Hospital for Sick Children, to use stem cells to overcome congenital heart defects in children. In terms of organ repair, or fixing the sky is now the limit.

Is humanity threatened?

Bionics and regenerative medicine are set to help millions of people around the world who are suffering the effects of diseased or damaged tissues or organs. We are living longer, and this technology will help us live better, no doubt.

But, there are some issues, or concerns. For example, some well known scientists in the field, such as Hugh Herr at MIT, believe that synthetic materials such as titanium and silicon will one day replace flesh and blood.

Do we want that? Will this spell the end of humanity, at our own hand?

Herr got caught in a snow blizzard while climbing a mountain at the age of 17, and lost both legs to severe frostbite. Now in his 50s, he is the co-director of MIT’s Center for Extreme Bionics, where he is designing artificial legs (including his own) feet, ankles, knees and hips.

Herr’s view is that we will become more artificial, and eventually totally artificial, but that we will retain our humanity. We already have ‘augmented’ abilities, such as the ability to fly, and devices that improve our memory and ability to communicate.

Herr believes that our humanity, our ideas, our personalities, and our creativity, will become ‘embedded’ into artificial ‘designable’ bodies. We will come to see this as normal in the way, he says, and that artificial legs, or body parts will be considered part of us in the same way as biological legs are now. This is all part of the natural progression, or evolution, or humanity, Herr says.

Others disagree, and argue that as we shed our biology, we will shed our humanity, and that this technology represents an existential threat to mankind.

 

 

 

John Philip Holland – inventor of the modern submarine

The first episode in a six part radio series on Irish scientists began yesterday morning on East Coast FM (7:30am), featuring John Philip Holland, inventor of the modern submarine

The series is presented by myself and written and produced by Colette Kinsella, an award winning independent radio producer with Red Hare Media.

LISTEN:

John Philip Holland, pictured below, from Liscannor Co Clare, was not afraid to test and pilot his own submarines designs for the Fenians and the US navy.

johnphilipholland

Why are electric vehicles not selling in Ireland?

Broadcast on Today with Sean O’Rourke, RTE Radio 1, 21-09-2016

tesla-model-s

The Tesla Model S electric cars which are making inroads into the luxury class car market in the USA will be available for sale in Ireland in 2017 [Picture source: http://www.mashable.com]

In 2008, the then Coalition government of FF, PDs and the Green Party, announced a target of having 200,000 electric vehicles (EVs) on Irish roads.

It was an ambitious target, yet eight years later, despite the building of infrastructure to support electric cars, and financial incentives, there are only 2,000 EVs on our roads – that’s a mere one percent of the Government’s original target.

So why is it that sales of electric cars have not taken off in Ireland, compared to some other countries and is this likely to change any time soon?

Infrastructure

The infrastructure supporting electric cars is good, and one of the most advanced in the world, so that’s not an issue.

There  are 1,400 charge points between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. These have been set up by the ESB e cars unit on an all Ireland basis. The idea is that with one electric car access card you can use any of the charger access points throughout the country – north or south.

This is a better system than in the the UK where different councils and different regions would have developed their own infrastructure, and there is no inter operability between them. The charger plugs are the same, but the driver of an electric car in Britain would need five or six different access cards to use the EV charge points around the UK.

Each charge point in Ireland has intelligence built in so that information is sent back to the ESB e car charge point management system. This system monitors the availability of chargers, whether they are currently in use or not.

If there is an issue such as a cable gets blocked the system can unblock the cable. The ESB from the start decided to install a standard electric charge point in  every town with 1,500 people or more.

The ESB have realised since that a lot more people are looking for fast chargers than had been anticipated at the start of the infrastructural roll out. There are 22kw chargers with two points in each one –  and the Renault Zoe can charge in an hour off that. Then there are the 50kw fast chargers that can charge a car up to 80% in 25 minutes. There are about 75 of these, and one every 50 km of motorway on the main roads.

The idea is that if you leave your house in Dublin heading for Galway and you drive with a full tank, you can stop, get a fast charge and keep going. Most of the in car Sat Navs on cars are linked into the latest information on the nationwide network of charge points which is constantly updated by ESB e cars.

The ESB has a 24-hour call centre in Cork, and there are maintenance teams, response units if anyone breaks down. The charge points can all be operated remotely now – one card for all of Ireland – and in the near future the plan is to have an app that lets you know not just where the nearest charge points on, but whether it is currently in use.

Turnoffs

The three main turnoffs people cite when it comes to their reluctance to buy EVs come under three headings: performance, range and cost.

There is an idea out there that EVs are slow and cumbersome, like the old milk floats we saw around Dublin in the 1980s, but, I know, from driving a Nissan Leaf, that this is not the case. The performance of the car is excellent, and there is more than enough zip and acceleration to make electric cars ideal around the city.

You could put somebody into the smallest electric vehicle up beside a Ferrari at a traffic lights and the electric car will get away quicker. The high powered Ferrari will catch him after couple of seconds but there is great zip  in an electric car, and overtaking is no problem.

The  latest Model S Tesla electric cars can go from 0-100 in 2.6 seconds if you put a Tesla car onto its so called ‘ludicrous’ mode; better than the most powerful Ferrari with an IC engine.

People are concerned about range, and, while surveys of electric car users show that range issues are manageable, it is still an issue for potential buyers.

The industry experts believe that maximum range, which is around 150 or 160km for many electric cars needs to reach 300 or 400 km before ‘range anxiety’ is no longer an issue. That could happen as early as 2018, the experts tell me.

The range of the current Nissan Leaf, which I drove myself a few weeks ago, is between 160 and 165 km after a full charge at home. The home charge points, which are installed for free by the ESB currently for anyone purchasing an electric vehicle, are 16amp, single phase chargers.

A full charge is, however, not enough to get the car from Dublin to Galway (208 km) so anyone planning that trip, must plan to stop at a motorway charge point for about 20 minutes to get a ‘top up’ charge.  

For range to improve the existing battery technology must be improved. There has been huge investment in this area, in laboratories around the world, particularly in Japan, Korea and the US, but even a little here in Ireland.

The flamboyant US-based science entrepreneur, Elon Musk, who is the Chief Executive Officer of Tesla Motors, a hugely innovative and dynamic electric car company, is building what he calls a battery ‘gigafactory’ in Arizona. This is due to go into full production in 2020 when it will produce enough lithium-ion batteries, like the ones in our smartphones, to power 500,000 new electric cars per year. All the raw materials required will be brought to Arizona, and when this factor opens it will double the world’s output of lithium ion batteries.

This will provide some of the economies of scale that have been lacking in the electric car industry up to now, and it should be a ‘game changer’. The electric car is more expensive to build than a ‘normal’ car, even without the battery taken into account, because of this issue of economies of scale.

The average car has about 2,000 moving parts, while the average electric has something like 200. The electric car should be cheaper to manufacture!

The prediction is that somewhere between 2020 and 2025, after Musk’s gigafactory opens, the costs of batteries will go down, and the economies of scale for electric will improve so that there will be cost parity.

That is, for the first time, an electric car will cost the same as a car based on the internal combustion engine. This will be a historic moment for e cars.

In summary then, performance is not an issue, and anyone that gets into a modern electric car will quickly realise that. Range is still an issue for some people, but from 2018, it is expected that electric cars with a range of 400 km will be here, so that issue will disappear.

Cost will remain an issue, until cost parity is reached somewhere between 2020 and 2025. In terms of running costs, the electric car is already far ahead of cars powered by the internal combustion engine.

Many people charge their electric car overnight and, at nighttime rates, the cost works out to be between 10 and 15% of the cost of petrol.  Even when people charge at the daytime rate for electricity, it works out to be about 25% of the cost of petrol.

It costs less than €5 to run an electric car for 100 miles. The cost to run the car for 17,000 miles per annum (average mileage for residential car use in Ireland) will thus, be less than €850.

Authorities

There have been difficulties with some local authorities in terms of having the road marked as an e car space reserved for electric vehicle charging. At the moment someone could find a petrol car parked at the e charging location and there is little that can be done about it, unless the local authority has agreed to mark the space as a space set out for electric car charging only – making it an offence for any other car to park there. Some local authorities have done this, others haven’t. Dun Laoghaire has gone further and offered electric cars free parking for up to four hours.

The ESB is trying to sort out all the questions around people booking charging spaces in advance. These are free, so, if electric sales pick up they are likely to become very busy. There are outstanding questions such as how long in advance should people be permitted to book a space? What should the ESB charge for a booking? What happens if someone books and doesn’t show up? What if someone hooks their car up to a charge point, and goes off to dinner, only returning several hours later, or the next morning, blocking up the space for others?

Comparisons

London is one of the leading cities in the world, when it comes to supporting electric vehicles, and certainly Dublin and other Irish cities and towns could learn a lot about what is going on there, and the picture is changing fast.

London is looking to introduce an ultra low emission zone in central London from 2020. This will be in addition to the congestion charge. There is a £10 charge to drive into central London as things stand, and if you are driving a pre-2015 diesel or a pre-2006 petrol car there is another £10 added on top of that. This is to try and reduce congestion and to improve air quality, primarily.  

The London taxi company has been bought out by Geely, a Chinese electric vehicle company, who have built a new factory in Coventry. Geely have invested £300 million on that factory, and this will churn out new London taxis, which will all be plug in ‘hybrids’ – or mixtures of conventional internal combustion engine and electric.

In the UK as a whole there are now 70,000 electric vehicles on the road which is far ahead of where we are, at 2,000 in Ireland, even accounting for the population difference.

The new Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is talking about extending the low emission zone beyond central London, while the central government at Westminster has allocated £600 million to incentivise the purchase of EVs, build infrastructure and support pilot projects, such as electric bus schemes. There are grants available for the manufacturers and purchasers of EVs and an Office of Low Emission Vehicles, or OLEV, has been set up under the control of the UK’s Department of Transport.

Meanwhile, in Norway 25% of all new car sales are now electric. The Norwegians are proposing to ban conventional vehicle sales in 2025. The proposal is that from 2025 on, cars powered by an internal combustion engine using petrol or diesel will no longer be permitted to be sold. This is extraordinary for a nation that has built its wealth on oil reserves in the North Sea, and shows that the days of the internal combustion engine are numbered at least here in Europe.

There have been 25,000 electric vehicles sold in Norway so far this year. It is the transport department that has proposed to the Government that the new policy to be announced in the Spring. The report to the Government, which is being discussed in the Norwegian parliament at the moment has recommended that there be a ban on IC vehicle sales from 2025. It hasn’t been decided yet, however.

Supports

There is a grant which takes €5,000 off the initial purchase price of the electric car, and VRT relief up to €5,000. The ESB provides  free home charge point with the purchase of an EV as well, as well as free public charging (public) and a 24 hour backup call centre should problems arise.

But, clearly these measures have not enough to encourage a higher level of electric vehicle purchases in Ireland and more needs to be done if EVs are to move out of the niche market situation here.

The car market has recovered and we are on target for 155,000 cars to be sold this year, which is still down on the 2008 figure of 187,000.

The market, which survived a near death experience, is probably secure enough to look at new technology like electric again, so that’s positive.

A revised target for EVs in Ireland of 50,000 has been mentioned in the National Energy Efficiency programme, but that, experts believe, will not be reached with the current level of incentives for EVs. More is needed.

Ireland could perhaps look at the US where there are 400,000 EVs on the road. The US gives a Federal tax credit of $7,500 per electric car purchased. On top of that certain states add their own incentives. For example, California gives an additional $2,500 grant, while Colorado gives a tax credit of $6,000.

The US moves seem to be working, in some places at least. For example, 6% of new car sales in San Francisco are now EVs.

Some believe that giving executives incentives to buy electric cars here by reducing their Benefit in Kind is something that might kick start things.

Executives in the US are buying the latest Tesla Model S, which is outselling BMW and Mercedes in that luxury class in California.

These executives buy a new car every three years, and are helping to generate a second hand market for electric cars there too.

Future

The Tesla Model S is outselling BMW, and Mercedes in that luxury class in California. This has grabbed the attention of the German car companies. Berlin has been resisting the tightening of regulations in Brussels on the car industry, particularly on non greenhouse gas causing CO2 emissions.

However, they won’t be able to hold the line forever, as more cities and countries move to improve air quality for its urban citizens. The situation where diesel cars are pumping carcinogenic substances into the air, and risking the health of children in particularly, can’t continue. The car companies have woken up to this, and they are all working on hybrids if not full electric vehicles in anticipation of what is to come.

The big picture, however, is even more threatening for the existing car companies, as driverless technology begins to become reality. The Mercedes E class in its latest ads in Ireland talks of a move towards the autonomous, or driverless car

The Tesla Model S already has all the technology it requires to be driverless and in a test on the Stillorgan dual carriageway it changed lanes without a hitch. The vision of the future is that the transport needs of society is built around a fleet of driverless electric cars, which can be called on demand by phone apps.

This will reduce the need for car ownership, and provide disabled, elderly or children with the means to safely call for a car to get from A to B. The huge amount of space in our cities given over to parking can be used for something else, noise will be eliminated, and air quality vastly improved.

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.

 

 

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