Not all cool tech involved robots and autonomous cars. Here’s a list of the other electronic tech featured at the show.

  • This year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2020 featured a range of marvals enabled by electronic technologies covering application areas from smart cities, AI edge intelligence, body haptics, security systems, real-time accident reports, uncooled thermo cameras, wearables and more.

    Here are the top 10 products and technologies that piqued the interest of the Design News editorial staff.

  • Smart Cities

    Why do major Japanese car manufacturers like to build smart homes and now cities? Several years ago, Honda built a zero-net energy smart home in partnership with UC-Davis. At this year’s CES, Toyota announced it will build a smart city to test their AI, robots and self-driving cars. Toyota’s Woven City will be built at the foothills of Mt. Fuji in Japan. The city will be the world’s first urban incubator dedicated to the advancement of all aspects of mobility, claims Toyota.

    The project is a collaboration between the Japanese carmaker and the Danish architecture firm Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG). Houses in Woven City will have in-home robotics to help with the more mundane tasks of daily life. The homes will have full-connectivity, which will be needed for the sensor-based AI to automate many household chores, like restocking the refrigerator and taking out the trash. Power storage units and water purification systems will be hidden beneath the ground.

  • Intelligence At The Edge

    Blaize is a computing company that optimizes AI at scale wherever data is collected and processed from the edge. The company enables a range of existing and new AI use cases in the automotive, smart vision, and enterprise computing segments. The company claims that developers can create new classes of products to bring the benefits of AI and machine learning to broad markets.

    The company has developed a fully programmable GSP architecture that utilizes task-level parallelism and streaming execution processing to take advantage of very low energy consumption, high performance and scalability. Blaize claims that, in comparison, existing GPUs and FPGAs exert a much higher energy price, while CPUs cost more and scale poorly, and all are subject to excessive latency due to their sequential execution processing architectures.

  • Full-Body Haptics Suit

    Haptics are all about the sense of touch. Now you can immerse your entire body – or at least 70 tactile points mainly around your torso – into the world of artificial experiences. The BHaptics Tacksuit provides an audio-to-haptic feature that converts sound into haptic feedbacks that are felt real time around your torso. For example, when a bomb explodes or you hear footsteps during a PC/VR game, you’ll feel the experience from the right direction. You’ll even be able to feel Samurai cuts and friendly hugs.

  • Security Comes In Many Forms

    There are many ways to protect your PC data and applications, from hardware encrypted portable storage devices, backup solutions, file repair software, and data recovery, to digital forensics services. SecureData provides both products and services in these areas. At CES, the company demonstrated a secure UBS drive which they claimed was the only hardware encrypted flash drive in the world with keypad and Bluetooth authentication.

  • Wireless Six-Degrees Of Freedom (6DOF)

    Atraxa’s system tracks 6DOF motion without the need for optical cameras or infrared markers to be placed around the room, or mounted externally to the XR headset or controller. And no line of sight—or wires—are required between the headset and controllers. Unhindered by wires or line-of-sight constraints, users can move freely in large spaces. Even move from room to room without any room mapping, or controller orienting (or reorienting) is required. Tracking starts immediately and lasts without interruption.

    The tech combines electromagnetic (EM) and inertial technologies into a single sensor-fusion tracking platform. The IMU (inertial measurement unit) returns acceleration and angular velocity data. The EM tracker delivers true position and orientation data; it also establishes the tracking volume and local coordinate system. Atraxa is comprised of two main components: a tracker module and receiver module. The tracker module houses the IMU and an EM transmitter coil that generates the magnetic field (i.e. the tracking volume). The tracker modules are embedded into the handheld controllers (or other peripherals).

  • Real-Time Accident Report

    Sooner or later, all of us get into an automotive accident. When that occures, wouldn’t it be great to have a record of what happened? Through the use of embedded acceleration sensors, MDGo generates a real-time report in the case of a car crash, detailing each occupant’s injuries by body region. The company’s technology enables accurate delivery of needed services and support by providing optimal medical care in the case of an emergency and supporting the claim process.

  • Smart Factory

    Could a factory think for itself or autonomously design a better car or aircraft? Can it eliminate waste? All of these questions fit into the realm of manufacturing intelligence. One company with experience in this area is Hexagon, claiming that their technologies are used to produce 85% of smartphones, 75% of cars and 90% of aircraft.

    Their Smart Factory approach aims to have fewer inputs, zero waste and high quality. All this is achieved through sensor, software and autonomous solutions that incorporates data feedback to improve work to boost efficiency, productivity, and quality across industrial and manufacturing.

  • A Cool “Uncooled” Methane Gas Detector

    The FLIR GF77 Gas Find IR is the company’s first uncooled thermal camera designed for detecting methane. This handheld camera offers inspection professionals the features they need to find potentially dangerous, invisible methane leaks at natural gas power plants, renewable energy production facilities, industrial plants, and other locations along a natural gas supply chain. The gas detector provides methane gas detection capability at roughly half the price of cooled gas inspection thermal cameras, to empower the oil and gas industry to reduce emissions and ensure a safer work environment.

  • IoT Arduino Adds LoRaWAN Connectivity

    You can now connect your sensors and actuators over long distances via the LoRa wireless protocol or throughout LoRaWAN networks. The Arduino MKR WAN 1310 board provides a practical and cost effective solution to add LoRa connectivity to projects  requiring low power. This open source board can be connected to: the Arduino IoT Cloud, your own LoRa network using the Arduino LoRa PRO Gateway, existing LoRaWAN infrastructure like The Things Network, or even other boards using the direct connectivity mode.

  • Wearables, Ingestibles, Invisibles

    One of the keys to a healthy life is nutrition. But what exactly constitutes ‘healthy’ food for a specific person? To answer that question, you need to measure and analyze the processes inside the complex human digestive system. Imec is working on prototype technology that is up to that task. It’s called ingestible sensors.

    The company also develops wearables for medical and consumer applications that enable reliable, continuous, comfortable, and long-term health monitoring & management. This includes high-accuracy & low-power biomedical sensing technologies sometimes embedded into fabrics.

John Blyler is a Design News senior editor, covering the electronics and advanced manufacturing spaces. With a BS in Engineering Physics and an MS in Electrical Engineering, he has years of hardware-software-network systems experience as an editor and engineer within the advanced manufacturing, IoT and semiconductor industries. John has co-authored books related to system engineering and electronics for IEEE, Wiley, and Elsevier.


Forget new TVs and smartphones. These are the real game changers introduced at CES 2020.

  • Now that the smoke is cleared from CES 2020, we can take a step back and see which technologies were the real innovations of 2020. Let’s be honest, CES can be a black hole of vaporware, false promises, and concepts intended to be just that.

    We’ve compiled a list of our favorite technologies introduced at CES 2020 – innovations that we’re sure will be having a lasting impact in 2020 and beyond.

  • AerNos AerSIP Gas Sensor

    The AerSIP from AerNos is a 5 x 5-mm, mulit-gas sensing module that combines nanotechnology and machine learning algorithms to monitor indoor and outdoor air quality. The system-in-package (SIP) is an embedded plug-and-play solution that can be integrated into wearables, mobile devices, and other IoT devices and is capable of detecting hazardous gases and other dangers at parts per billion levels.

    (Image source: AerNos/CES)

  • AMD Ryzen 4000 Series Mobile Processor

    AMD’s Ryzen 4000 could be a literal game changer for high-end laptops users – particularly gamers and designers. AMD says its new Ryzen 4000 series is the world’s first 7-nanometer laptop processor. Designed for ultra-thin laptops, the Ryzen 4000 series features up to 8 cores and 16 threads and configurable 15W thermal design power. AMD pledges the Ryzen 4000 series offers up to four percent greater single-thread performance and up to 90 percent faster multithreaded performance than its competitors, as well as up to 18 percent faster graphics performance over competing chips.

    (Image source: AMD)

  • Atmosic Technologies M3 Battery-Free Bluetooth 5 SoC

    Atmosic says its M3 Battery-Free Bluetooth 5 SoC uses so little power that it can even eliminate the need for battery power entirely in devices such as wearables, keyboards, mice, asset trackers, beacons, and remotes. The M3 integrates Atmosic’s Lowest Power Radio, On-demand Wake-Up, and Managed Energy Harvesting technologies to deliver what the company says is 10 to 100 times lower power than other SoCs, while still complying with Bluetooth standards. The M3’s radio uses two “ears” – one for listening in a low-power state to perceive incoming commands, and another that only wakes when alerted. The SoC uses energy harvesting technology to gather power from radio frequency, photovoltaic, thermal, and motion.

    (Image source: Atmosic)

  • Bot3 Zen-P VSLAM Deep Learning Module

    Bot3‘s Zen-P VSLAM Deep Learning module integrates visual simultaneous localization and mapping (VSLAM) technology (a version of the same technology used in autonomous vehicles) into mobile robots ranging from industrial machines to smart home products. Bot3’s image processing algorithm, Pascal, allows for autonomous navigation without tracks as well as indoor mapping and positioning. (for instances such as warehouse applications).

    (Image source: Bot3)

  • BrainCo BrainRobotics Prosthetic Hand

    Many companies have been developing mind-controlled prosthetics for amputees and other disabled patients. What separates the prosthetic hand developed by BrainRobotics is the integration of AI technology. The BrainRobotics hand utilizes machine learning to allow the hand and its user to learn from each other over time – leading to more lifelike movements. The company is aiming to provide accurate and reliable prosthetics and at affordable price for all patients. BrainRobotics is a subsidiary of BrainCo, a software developer focused on brainwave measuring and monitoring.

    (Image source: BrainCo/BrainRobotics)

  • MultiWake Word and Voice Control Engine is a technology company focused on AI for voice interface and speech recognition. The company’s Multi-Wake Word and Voice Control Engine is an edge-based, noise robust, and multilingual speech technology that consumes minimal power and storage, allowing it to be embedded in small devices. The solution is Cortex M4-based and supports four separate wake words and 100 multilingual commands, according to has recently partnered with semiconductor designer Ambiq Micro to implement’s software solutions into Ambiq’s ultra-small footprint, low-power microcontrollers. Ambiq’s MCU supports frequencies up to 96 MHz, and’s solution requires only 16 MHz from the MCU. The new partnership means and Ambiq will be releasing MCUs for OEMs looking for an easy way to add speech recognition and voice command functionality to their smart home devices and other products.

    (Image source: / CES

  • Intel Tiger Lake Chip

    When Intel announces a new chip, the whole world takes notice. The chipmaking giant is launching its latest chip for consumers this year. Dubbed Tiger Lake, the new chip is said to be optimized for AI performance, graphics, and USB 3 throughput. Rather than desktops, the new chips will be focused on mobile devices such as ultra-thin laptops and tablets. The first products featuring Tiger Lake are expected to ship later in 2020.

    (Image source: Intel)

  • Monster MultiLink Bluetooth Technology

    Sometimes its the most straightforward ideas that can make the biggest difference. Most of us love our Bluetooth wireless headphones and earbuds. The problem is they don’t create a sharable experience. What if you want to show your friend the video you’re watching without disturbing the people around you? Monster has debuted a new technology called Music Share that uses MultiLink technology to allow devices to send Bluetooth audio to multiple devices in sync. The technology expands how Bluetooth headphones can be used and opens up new use cases ranging from air travel to fitness classes as well as new avenues for social interaction.

    (Image source: Bluetooth SIG)

  • Murata Coral Accelerator Module

    Working in partnership with Coral and Google, Murata Electronics has developed what it is calling the world’s smallest AI module. The Coral Accelerator Module packages Google’s Edge TPU ASIC into a miniaturized footprint to enable developers to embed edge-based AI into their products and devices. The new module forms an integral part of Coral’s integrated AI platform, which also includes a toolkit of software tools and pre-compiled AI models.

    (Image source: Murata Electronics Americas)

  • Pollen Robotics Reachy Open-Source Robot

    Reachy is a robot developed by Pollen Robotics, in collaboration with the INCIA Neuroscience Institute in France, that is fully open source. The robot, which can be programmed using Python, is modular – employing a variety of 3D-printed grippers – and comes with prepackaged AI algorithms to allow developers to customize it for a variety of applications ranging from customer service and assisting the elderly or disabled.

    Read more about Reachy, and the rise of open-source robotics, here.

    (Image source: Pollen Robotics)

  • VRgineers 8K XTAL Headset

    VRgineers, a maker of premium VR headsets for enterprise applications in industries ranging from automotive to defense and military, has released a major upgrade to its flagship XTAL headset. The latest version of XTAL features 8K resolution (4K per eye), improved lenses with a 180-degree field-of-view, and a new add-on module for augmented reality and mixed reality functionality. The headset also still includes eye tracking as well as integrated Leap Motion sensors to enable controller-free navigation and interactions.

    (Image source: VRgineers)

  • zGlue ChipBuilder

    zGlue is a software company that develops tools for chipmakers and designers. Its latest offering, ChipBuilder 3.0 is a design tool to for building custom silicon chips and accelerating time to market. The software suite features an expansive library of chipsets and allows engineers to capture schematics, route and verify designs, and download netlists. The tool allows engineers to create realistic 3D models and code their own chips and even place orders for physical chips via zGlue’s Shuttle Program.

    (Image source: zGlue / CES)

Chris Wiltz is a Senior Editor at   Design News  covering emerging technologies including AI, VR/AR, blockchain, and robotics


Image source: Ford Motor Co.

Remember when Chevrolet showed the zoomy Camaro-inspired Volt concept car that made the EV world lose its mind, only to roll out a disappointingly dull production model saddled with an interior seemingly supplied by RubberMaid?

Ford has gone the opposite direction with its upcoming Mustang Mach-E EV, which started life as what Ford terms a “compliance” car. That is, a palatable EV built to comply with California’s mandatory electric car sales. As such, it was seen as little more than an electrified Focus economy car.

But Ford executives recognized that electric car components still cost more than combustion engine components, and that if customers are going to be asked to pay more, the manufacturer should deliver something more inspirational for the money.

The Mustang Mach-E is Ford’s solution to this challenge, explained Darren Palmer, Ford’s global product development director for battery electric vehicles. Most EVs until now have been tall vehicles, with high prismatic pouch battery packs stowed beneath the floor contributing to the upright layout.

Darren Palmer. Image source: Ford Motor Co.

This is an area where Tesla’s use of AA-like cylindrical 2170 battery cells rather than prismatic cells provides an advantage. Those smaller cells can be packaged beneath the floor without raising it to SUV-like heights. Ford wanted to use prismatic packs, but didn’t want them to be so intrusively tall that they would undermine its plans for a sporty looking Mach-E.

The solution was a partnership with supplier LG Chem to develop new prismatic pouches that are shorter in height but wider, trimming the cells’ height to 5.9 inches (150 mm). These shorter cells are suitable for use in a wider array of vehicles than ones that would only fit in tall vehicles, boosting their potential for high volume, Palmer said.

“Should one car be more popular than the others we can switch between them,” he pointed out. This flexibility increases the likelihood that Ford EVs will find customers in one vehicle segment, if not another.

“That gives confidence to our suppliers,” said Palmer. “When they are nervous, they give us prices that are not good.”

Ford and LG Chem negotiated a deal for battery prices that are so aggressive that Ford raised its sales forecasts for the Mach-E. That put different pressure on LG Chem, which now had to worry about making enough cells rather than being stuck with inventory. Nevertheless, “we convinced them to keep the price,” he recalled.

Image source: Ford Motor Co.

Ford apparently believes that customer concern about battery pack longevity remains a potential obstacle to purchase, so the company will apply an 8-year, 100,000-mile warranty to the Mach-E’s battery.

Ford made another key decision on its motor technology, selecting permanent magnet motors rather than induction motors for the Mach-E. Palmer described first encountering the astounding power of small permanent magnet motors in an electric radio control helicopter.

“You have a motor that is like one inch across that has a ridiculous amount of power for the size of it,” he said. The challenge is metering the power from such motors. “You have to carefully control it; that’s where the skill is. How smoothly you do that is the characteristic of the car.” The finesse that is possible depends on the number of coils built into the motor, as increased coil density provides more granular control of the motor’s movement.

Permanent magnet motors are also more efficient than induction motors, which is driving the industry to the same solution, Palmer said. “Others who started on induction are moving to permanent magnets.”


Here’s a look back at several cool hobbyist-level gadgets and a few super cool printed car projects.

The price of 3D printers has become reasonable enough to where hobbyist and businesses can own at least one machine. But once you’ve got it, what do you do with it? Engineers and techies will want to pursue DIY projects, repair machines and equipment, prototype their latest and greatest invention, or just have fun. All of these – but especially the latter – require a STL file and a 3D model. Here’s a very short list of places to get the coolest files for your 3D Printer (and many are free).


One of the biggest content repositories for 3D printer models on the internet is Thingiverse – the site offers close to 2 million STL files. The website is operated by MakerBot Industries, the creators of the Replicator series of 3D printers. The Thingiverse community mostly share their STL files for free in varying categories and complexity.

Need a few gift ideas for the holiday? Try this imaginative bottle opener and cap gun, uploaded by 3Deddy via Thingiverse. Aside from the printed parts, all you’ll need are a set of M3 bolts, an elastic rubber band and a penny or 10 cent eruo coin.

Image Source: 3Deddy, via Thingiverse

Researchers at the Department of Energy (DoE) have developed new technology that paves the way for affordable large-scale grid storage for renewable energy by tapping an aqueous technology for a new battery membrane.

A team at the DoE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have developed a novel flow-battery membrane made from a class of polymers known as AquaPIMs—which stands for “aqueous-compatible polymers of intrinsic microporosity.” The membrane is comprised of readily available materials such as zinc, iron, and water, which drives down its cost as well as has other benefits.

batteries, affordable large-scale grid storage, renewables, Department of Energy, DoE, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley Lab

Staff Scientist Brett Helms (right) and Miranda Baran (graduate student researcher) of Berkeley Lab’s Molecular Foundry have developed AquaPIM, a cost-effective alternative to state-of-the-art battery membranes for flow batteries. (Credit: Marilyn Sargent/Berkeley Lab)

This new technology can be the basis for liquid-based flow batteries, which researchers already have proven effective for the large-scale storage that renewable energy like solar demands, noted Brett Helms, a principal investigator in the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR) at Berkeley Lab. Helms, also staff scientist at Berkeley Lab’s Molecular Foundry, led the study.

“By using our technology and accompanying empirical models for battery performance and lifetime, other researchers will be able to quickly evaluate the readiness of each component that goes into the battery, from the membrane to the charge-storing materials,” he said. “This should save time and resources for researchers and product developers alike.”

The ability to store renewable energy even when the sun isn’t shining or there is no wind has been one stumbling block to using this type of energy as part of the electrical grid. Solving this problem will not only help remove that barrier, but also allow people to use this type of energy in homes for a much longer lifecycle of 10 to 20 years.

Driving down cost

Key to the membrane developed at the DoE is that AquaPIMs is a high-performing yet less expensive alternative to the fluorinated polymer membranes currently used in large flow battery chemistries. This technology currently comprises about 15 percent to 20 percent of the battery’s cost, which makes it expensive for widespread use.

The DoE team discovered the AquaPIM technology while developing polymer membranes for aqueous alkaline batteries in collaboration with researchers at MIT, they said. AquaPIM materials are unique in that they become ionized at high pH, yielding pores that are highly conductive and highly selective. The material also can be molded into a variety of shapes.

Scientists learned a number of things through their early experiments with the AquaPIM materials that it could be well-suited to develop membranes for flow batteries.

One thing they learned is that if they created AquaPIM members and modified them with a chemical called an “amidoxime,” ions could rapidly travel between the anode and cathode. Later, while evaluating AquaPIM membrane performance and compatibility with different grid battery chemistries, they also discovered that AquaPIM membranes lead to remarkably stable alkaline cells.

Researchers found that AquaPIM prototypes retained the integrity of the charge-storing materials in the cathode as well as in the anode, which also was promising for the type of storage needed for renewables.

Proving the technology

Eventually, the team tested how an AquaPIM membrane would perform with an aqueous alkaline electrolyte, discovering that polymer-bound amidoximes are stable under alkaline conditions. Researchers found this result surprising given that organic materials are not typically stable at high pH.

This stability also prevented the AquaPIM membrane pores from collapsing, researchers said. This allows for conductivity without performance loss over time, another quality that is conducive for long-term renewable energy storage.

The team used computational resources at Berkeley Lab’s National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) to test the chemical structure of the membrane. In tests, they found that the structure of the polymers comprising the membrane were significantly resistant to pore collapse under highly basic conditions in alkaline electrolytes.

The team also managed to develop a model tying battery performance to the performance of various membranes while testing membrane performance and compatibility with different grid battery chemistries, they said. This model can be used during the development of flow batteries to predict the lifetime and efficiency of the device without having to do a complete build, which can save significant time and resources, Helms said.

“Typically, you’d have to wait weeks if not months to figure out how long a battery will last after assembling the entire cell,” he said. “By using a simple and quick membrane screen, you could cut that down to a few hours or days.” This computational research and testing also demonstrated that similar models could be applied to other battery chemistries and their membranes.

The next step for the research is to apply AquaPIM membranes across a broader scope of aqueous flow battery chemistries–from metals and inorganics to organics and polymers, researchers said. They also will test the compatibility of the membranes with other aqueous alkaline zinc batteries, such as those that use either oxygen, manganese oxide, or metal-organic frameworks as the cathode.

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for more than 20 years. She has lived and worked as a professional journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco and New York City. In her free time she enjoys surfing, traveling, music, yoga and cooking. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.

Image souce: Automobili Lamborghini

An advance in super capacitor technology by partners Automobili Lamborghini and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology promises to make this method of energy storage and release even more suitable for fast Italian hybrid-electric super sports cars. The patented technique doubles the energy density of the capacitor compared to the current state of the art, according to Lamborghini.

The new patented material was synthesized by professor Mircea Dincă’s team in the laboratories of MIT’s Chemistry Department with the support of Lamborghini’s Concept Development Department, and it is based on the “Metal-Organic Frameworks” (MOF) concept. The molecular structure of this family of materials makes it the ideal candidate for producing electrodes for high performance supercapacitors of the future, because it maximizes the amount of surface area exposed to electric charge in relation to the mass and volume of the sample.

While the patented material is still in the lab and not in the factory, the company does not see any obvious issues preventing manufacturing production-ready capacitors that use it. “The investigation about production of the technology is at the very beginning, but at the moment we don’t see many obstacles,” Maurizio Reggiani, chief technical officer, told Design News.

Reggiani (left) and Dincă (right). Image source: Automobili Lamborghini

Of course, after manufacturability, the next question with new technology is the cost, though a maker of high-end sports cars is less sensitive to cost than others. “Costs have not been evaluated yet,” Reggiani reported.

Lamborghini has been outspoken in its intention to preserve the auditory characteristics of its signature naturally aspirated V10 and V12 engines despite the industrywide move to forced induction. Instead, the Italian supercar maker will rely on electric boosting to keep its machines competitive with turbocharged rivals’ performance while preserving the shriek its customers love.

But rather than follow the conventional hybrid-electric route, using lithium-ion batteries, Lamborghini is pursuing capacitors for energy storage. “There’re several very interesting characteristics,” Reggiani explained. “The power density, first of all, which makes the capacitors much more powerful compared with batteries — up to three times more power for a given mass — with a symmetrical behavior which makes them able to recuperate as much power as they can deliver.  Under this aspect, the difference with batteries is huge.”

Hidden by this cover is the Sián’s super capacitor. Image source: Automobili Lamborghini

And that’s not the only benefit. “Then, the very low electrical resistance, which means high efficiency and low heat dissipation, and the very long life, measurable in millions of cycles in comparison with the thousands of cycles of the batteries,” Reggiani added.

Lamborghini began its push toward super capacitor hybrids in 2017, with the Terzo Millennio, and most recently with the Sián, which debuted at the Geneva Motor Show earlier this year. As for when additional such models will arrive and when they will employ this advance in technology, Lamborghini can not say just yet. “It’s too early for both questions. But the evolution of the project up to now has been quicker than expected, so we’re optimistic for the next steps as well.”

Which should be naturally aspirated music to the ears of fans of the traditional operatic V10 and V12 arias by Lamborghini’s supercars.

Dan Carney is a Design News senior editor, covering automotive technology, engineering and design, especially emerging electric vehicle and autonomous technologies.


Alstom Transport’s Coradia iLint hydrogen fuel cell passenger train in service in Germany. (Image source: Alstom Transport)

With the concern about climate change and proposed solutions such as the Green New Deal that would phase out fossil fuels, there is question of how freight and passenger trains could still operate. While conventional rail electrification could work in Europe and more dense parts of the US and Canada, the investment cost of an electrified infrastructure in vast portions of both countries could be prohibitive. The answer could be hydrogen fuel cells.

While hydrail, that is hydrogen-fueled locomotives and self propelled railcars, hasn’t got much press in the US, several hydrail projects have moved from the conceptual to demonstration phase in Europe and Asia. Hydrail includes both hydrogen fuel cells and combusting hydrogen in an internal combustion engine. Fuel cells are the more promising approach of the two because they can be a direct replacement for the diesel powered generators in a diesel-electric locomotive. The wheel’s traction motors don’t care whether the electricity comes from a generator or a fuel cell.

Hydrail vehicles would probably be hybrid vehicles in which electrical energy from the fuel cell and regenerative braking would be stored in batteries or ultracapacitors for use by the traction motors. Capturing the energy created during braking via regenerative braking rather than dissipating via resistors, the normal case today, reduces the amount of hydrogen that has to carried onboard the locomotive.

Hydrogen-fueled trains have a carbon-free footprint provided the hydrogen is produced by electrolysis using electrical power provided by wind or solar. Fuel cells do not emit anything but water.

One idea is to produce hydrogen track side in electrolysis plants along a rail line. This would be especially attractive in remote regions where there is ample room to build solar farms, or lots of wind for wind turbines. Since hydrogen can be easily stored, it can be produced whenever the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. Alternatively, if electricity comes from the electric grid, hydrogen could be produced during times of none peak electrical demands.

A fuel cell locomotive would be at least as efficient as a diesel-electric one. The efficiency of electrolysis to convert water into hydrogen is 70 to 80 percent, while the efficiency of fuel cells in converting hydrogen to electricity is 40 to 60 percent. Thus, a fuel cell locomotive would be between 28 and 48 percent efficient. The efficiency of a diesel locomotive in converting diesel fuel to electricity is about 30 percent.

The state of hydrails today

Fuel cell technology is ready to be used in fuel cell powered trains. There are several fuel cell, 18-wheel truck projects underway with some with trucks already on the road. The technology could be transferred to hydrail applications. Toyota, working with Kenworth, is building 10 hydrogen fuel-cell Kenworth T680 Class 8 drayage tractors to reduce emissions at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Anheuser-Busch has ordered up to 800 hydrogen fuel cell-powered Class 8 trucks from startup Nikola Motor Co. Engine manufacturer, Cummins, has shown a concept Class 8 tractor featuring a 90-kilowatt fuel cell. This fuel cell system is scalable up to 180 kilowatts.

Of course, the power of a freight locomotive is much greater than an eighteen wheeler – 2000 to 4500 kW versus 565 hp (about 420 kW) for Kenworth’s hydrogen-fueled T680. Fortunately, fuel cell “engines” can be scaled up by adding more fuel cell modules.

Much larger fuel cell power plants are being planned for marine applications from research vessels to container ships. A fuel cell ferry and push boat are already under construction in Norway and France, respectively, as part of the FLAGSHIPS project. SW/TCH Maritime is building the Water Go Round e-ferry, a hydrogen fuel cell-powered ferry for deployment in San Francisco and New York City. PowerCell Sweden AB and Havyard Group ASA are developing a large fuel cell vessel that will service Norwegian fjords. It will use many 200 kW fuel cell system modules connected in parallel for a total output of 3.2 MW. PowerCell and Havyard Group say the first of the four ships should be operation in 2021.

The use of fuel cells to motivate passenger trains and shunting locomotives is less of a challenge than heavy freight locomotives as used in the US. Thus, in the over 20 demonstration of hydrail technology in 14 countries since 2005, most of the projects are people movers. However, in Topeka, Kans in 2009, BNSF Railway debuted its Vehicle Projects HH20B, a switcher-locomotive powered by hydrogen fuel cells producing 2000 hp (1,490 kW).

Alstom Transport’s Coradia iLint, built in Germany, is considered to be the world’s first hydrogen fuel cell passenger train. Two pre-production Coradia iLint trains began operating in Germany in September 2018. Deployment of fleet of some 60 trains is scheduled to commence in 2021. The current trains will be fueled at the world’s first hydrogen train refueling depot with hydrogen generated on-site using wind power.

By using wind power and electrolysis to produce hydrogen for the fuel cells, the Coradia iLint trains have no carbon foot print. (Image source: Alstom)

San Bernardino County Transportation Authority (SBCTA) is ordering four hydrogen fuel cell-powered, Fast Light Intercity and Regional Train (FLIRT) from Switzerland-based Stadler. The two-car, 108 passenger trains will operate at 79 mph between Redlands and San Bernardino (CA) Metrolink station starting in 2024.

HydroFLEX, the first full-sized hydrogen-powered train in the UK, is currently being tested. It uses an existing Class 319 train set fitted with Ballard FCveloCity-HD fuel cells.

The province of Ontario, Canada has contracted with Alstom and Siemans to create concept designs for a self-propelled hydrogen-powered coach to be used on GO Transit lines in the greater Toronto and Hamilton area as an alternative to installing traditional electrification using overhead wires. It has also requested the design of a hydrogen-powered locomotive to pull GO coaches.

CSR Sifang’s 380-passenger urban tram uses a Ballard Power Systems FCveloCity fuel cell engine. (Image source: Ballard)

There have been several hydrogen fuel cell rail prototypes in Asia. In 2006, East Japan Railway Co. developed the world’s first hydrail railcar. This year, it announced that it is investing in developing a two-car trainset using hydrogen fuel-cell technology from Toyota, hopingto have commercially-viable technology ready by 2024. CSR Sifang Co Ltd. in China has built eight 380-passenger urban trams that use 200 kilowatt Ballard Power Systems FCveloCity fuel cell engines. 

With hydrogen fuel cell technology being developed, and already used, in several transportation sectors, the long awaited “hydrogen economy” maybe just over the horizon.

Bill Siuru is a retired USAF colonel who has been writing about transportation technology for over 40 years. He has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Wayne State University, a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology, and a PhD in mechanical engineering from Arizona State University. He has taught engineering at West Point and the U.S. Air Force Academy. He has authored thousands of articles for automotive, aeronautical, and engineering publications.

DesignCon 2020 25th anniversary Logo

January 28-30: North America’s largest chip, board, and systems event, DesignCon, returns to Silicon Valley for its 25th year! The premier educational conference and technology exhibition, this three-day event brings together the brightest minds across the high-speed communications and semiconductor industries, who are looking to engineer the technology of tomorrow. DesignCon is your rocket to the future. Ready to come aboard? 

Register to attend!


What were the breakthrough technologies for 2019? The answer depends on who you ask. Several common themes have emerged such as cobots, emerging energy source, AI, and cybersecurity breaches. Let’s consider each in more detail.

1.) Robotics – collaborative robots (or cobots)

(Image source: OpenAI and Dactyl)

Remember Dum-E (short for dummy) from the first Iron Man movie? Dum-E was a cobot that helped Tony Stark created his flying robotic suit. It was a scaled down, more human, interactive version of the traditional industrial-grade manufacturing line arm robots.

Cobots are designed to collaboratively work alongside human with a gentle touch, i.e., to not smash fingers or step on the toes of their work buddies. Doing so requires that cobots be much more aware of their location in relation to the humans, via sensing and perception technologies. To achieve this goal, one company, Veo Robotics, uses a variety of 3D sensors placed around the robot’s workcell to aid in location awareness. The company’s sensors add an extra measure of safety by automatically slowing down the movement of the industrial cobots whenever a human co-worker comes close.

To help supplement actual human activity, cobots are becoming more dexterous and moving beyond merely picking components on an assembly line. Robots need greater dexterity to pick up objects that have moved even slightly beyond their programmed parameters. Cobots cannot yet grasp any object just by looking at it, but they can now learn to manipulate an object on their own. 

OpenAI, a nonprofit company, recently introduced Dactyl, a dexterous robotic arm that taught itself to flip a toy building block in its fingers. Dactyl uses neural network software to learn how to grasp and turn the block within a simulated environment before the hand tries it out for real. According to the company, they’ve been able to train neural networks to solve the Rubik’s Cube Problem using reinforcement learning and Kociemba’s algorithm for picking the solution steps.


Back in 2013, Honda worked with UC-Davis to launch a smart home project that would consume zero net energy. It was a bold experiment and a technical IoT marvel. Human dwellers occupied the home along with over 230 built-in sensors. Both provided a wealth of data and feedback that yielded several surprising results. Foremost was the importance of collecting data in a real-life environment, analyzing it and then acting on that analysis to try out new conditions and improved technologies. Six years later, the data and details of this project have been compiled into 5 key lessons learned, which will be reviewed shortly.

First, a bit of background on the beginnings of this project are needed. Before the smart house could be built, all aspects of its design, operation and sustainability had to be understood and balanced. Even the home’s site selection was chosen to ensure the best exposure for the rooftop solar panels. Every detail of the overall design was similarly reviewed with a collaborative team consisting of an architect, HVAC designer, electrical/electronic and mechanical engineers, construction certification members, and Honda experts. Heating, cooling, lighting, operation of appliances, and water reuse activities were designed together to support zero net energy consumption while allowing the occupants to live comfortably.

From the human occupant perspective, the goal was not to significantly change specific behavior patterns. For example, if the occupants had to wash dishes, shower or run laundry, then the home had to respond immediately. If the timing of these activities required excessive use of the energy grid, then the Honda-designed Home Energy Management System (HEMS) would intervene to allow them to continue their daily routine, as well as return extra power to the grid if possible.  

The HEMS, located in the smart home’s garage, was a hardware and software system that monitored, controlled and optimize electrical generation and consumption throughout the home’s microgrid. It stored solar energy during the day and was capable of “listening” to the grid to ensure power was only drawn at the most carbon-efficient times.

Image Source: Honda Smart Home System – HEMS and EV in Garage

The project has proven to be a success. Located on the West Village campus of the University of California, Davis, the home as annually produced more energy from renewable sources than it consumes annually, including enough energy to power smart car (e.g., a Honda Fit EV) for daily commuting. Energy management systems were essential to maintaining efficient heating, cooling and lighting systems within the house.

Other sustainability factors, such as water-use, were also managed and controlled. The result a home with three times more water-efficiency than a typical U.S. home.

Proof of the zero-net energy consumption is available from yearly data accessible to anyone on everyone on the download tab of the Honda Smart Home site.

Image Source: Honda Smart Home – Data

Crafting new ways to rapidly shift from fossil fuels to electrification, most critically in the transportation sector, may well be the biggest challenge mankind will ever face.

If engineers can develop novel solutions that reduce, then eliminate, both smokestack and tailpipe emissions, we will have a fighting chance against climate change. If the world’s engineers are not up to this challenge, we will need to shift our focus to re-engineering our buildings and infrastructure to cope with the negative consequences. Either way, this is a time for engineers like no other before, where practical skills and imagination have the potential to shift the fate of mankind.

Lucky for us all, clean energy technologies have advanced dramatically over the last decade. Most importantly, the cost of batteries has fallen dramatically, and materials science and improved battery designs are providing us newer, better-performing batteries each year. Improved, affordable battery systems will become the building blocks of dramatic new engineering opportunities. Better batteries drive more affordable electric vehicles, for example.

But EVs require ubiquitous public fast charging infrastructure to serve this transformation in time to make a difference.

In a utility world, where energy storage has never been cost effective, engineers designed an electricity system that delivered power “just in time” out of necessity. Now the distribution grid, heralded as the most complex feat of engineering in the twentieth century, must adapt faster and go further than it ever has before – moving beyond the controlling paradigm of just-in-time production and delivery. The grid must be redesigned to accommodate not only affordable, ubiquitous energy storage, but also a proliferating array of onsite energy technologies like solar, fuel cells, and DC fast charging.

The new engineering frontier will be out on the “edge,” where we will integrate onsite battery energy storage and mobile EV batteries with EV charging infrastructure, the distribution grid, and buildings. In the face of wildfires, hurricanes, and “rain bombs,” engineers are creating more efficient, cleaner energy solutions to achieve a new quality that we will be hearing more and more about in the next year: regional resilience, which is, “the toughness to bounce back from unexpected events.”

We can already see the patterns of change in North America, as geographic hotspots emerge. California has a front row seat to a 180-degree turnaround in historic utility reliability, as public safety power shutoffs (PSPS) curb the risk of devastating wildfires, but also leave thousands to millions of energy consumers in the dark for days.

In the Caribbean, along the Gulf Coast and up the Atlantic seaboard, regional economies are now hostage to recurrent devastation from increasingly powerful hurricanes, fueled by hotter ocean surface temperatures and new weather patterns. In 2017 Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria introduced us to rain bombs and the awesome destructive power of a Category 5 hurricane. Two years later, Hurricane Dorian pounded Grand Bahama Island for 51 hours, decimating the island community’s buildings and infrastructure.

What new solutions will meet the urgent needs for resilience? For power continuity? For decarbonization? We’ve never before contemplated such a failure of conventional power systems. Resilience has moved from a concept to a distinct reality and necessity.

Examining a new era

Our new era of extreme weather and advancing climate change is motivating us to design and engineer new power and transportation systems that are better suited to our new critical needs. And new technologies and innovative business models are providing us with the necessary tools. We’re embarking on a journey to transform our economies and societies more rapidly than ever before.

As an innovation thought leader and author in the electricity sector, I’ve spent my career trying to understand the bleeding edge. It’s been a challenge, and timing has been critical – too often I’ve been too far ahead and had to wait as institutions and markets caught up. But now technology, innovation, and urgency have converged, and the time is right like never before.

As a smart grid pioneer 15 years ago, I helped showcase new applications of IP networks and data inside electric utilities. As the smart grid matured and became a widely accepted business practice inside the utility sector, an array of new digital technologies became commonplace and more clean energy was able to integrate with the grid.

But progress was slow. With more clean energy, we’ve been able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel generation (i.e., “smokestack emissions”). Our grand clean energy transformation is well underway, but now it must dramatically accelerate to address climate change. We have to go much faster.

There are so many facets to cover, which converge on a wide area of new technologies and new approaches to energy and the environment. I see the landscape as an unfolding innovation spectrum, where I will explore different applications of innovative concepts. The need for pilots and demonstrations among transportation companies, electric utilities, and solution providers has never been greater. We’re rapidly entering a grand age of experimentation.

And nothing will be more important than design and engineering. In the coming months, we will explore and reimagine this area, repeating a pattern of analysis and synthesis, going back and forth in iterative waves. Drilling down on specific technologies and business model innovations will provide insights on new capabilities and possibilities. At the same time, moving back up to 50,000 feet will allow us to chew on the impact of such significant changes.

Energy and transportation are converging, creating a new emergent reality as innovation becomes better understood and more widely applied. Engineers will need to design novel solutions that master new tasks that were heretofore unimaginable, solve old problems that were previously unsolvable, and conquer new problems that still seem impossible.

I’m excited to begin this adventure with the readers of Design News in the weeks and months ahead.

DesignCon 2020 25th anniversary Logo

January 28-30: North America’s largest chip, board, and systems event, DesignCon, returns to Silicon Valley for its 25th year! The premier educational conference and technology exhibition, this three-day event brings together the brightest minds across the high-speed communications and semiconductor industries, who are looking to engineer the technology of tomorrow. DesignCon is your rocket to the future. Ready to come aboard? Register to attend!