biological-enzymes-eyed-as-source-for-creating-hydrogen-fuels

Researchers long have seen hydrogen-based gases as a way to solve the emissions problem that our global dependence on fossil fuels has created. However, a major stumbling block is that the production of hydrogen for these fuels has never been efficient or cost-effective enough for mass production.

University of Illinois, University of California, Davis, hydrogen-based gasses, biological enzyme, hydrogenase
Chemistry professor Thomas Rauchfuss and collaborators are looking to biological processes to find an efficient source of hydrogen gas as an environmentally friendly fuel. (Image source: Fred Zwicky)

A team of researchers from the University of Illinois and the University of California, Davis have tried to solve this. Chemists on the team have discovered more about how synthetic enzymes can play a role in the simple production of hydrogen.

A team led by University of Illinois Chemistry Professor Thomas Rauchfuss has identified a biological enzyme, or hydrogenase, that can help synthesize hydrogen more efficiently than any current process. Specifically, they worked with one of the two varieties of these enzymes—iron-iron enzymes—because it can generate hydrogen gas faster than the other, nickel-iron enzymes.

Hydrogenases are basically nature’s machinery for making and burning hydrogen gas. “Hydrogenases are enzymes, which can be thought of as small machines embedded in a fluffy protein,” Rauchfuss told Design News. “The machine [equals the] active site.”

Moreover, these enzymes either “eat” H2 or secrete H2 depending on their circumstances (their environment), Rauchfuss explained.  “If the organism is stuck deep in the mud away from air, they ferment biomass, and release H2. Their only way to pull H2 from their substrates is using hydrogenases.”

On the other hand, organisms higher up toward the surface with eat the H2 by using hydrogenases to pull electrons out of H2 and use those electrons to convert some oxidant, he told us.

Finding the right recipe

Researchers set out to find the right chemical composition to synthesize a hydrogenase based on the iron-iron material balance to interact efficiently with hydrogen for potential fuel production. “Organisms have only one way of interacting with H2, and that way involves hydrogenase enzymes,” Rauchfuss said. “Otherwise H2 just does not interact with living creatures. It’s just inert. But hydrogenases do interact with H2 and then wire their interaction to other parts of the cell.”

Before embarking on the project, the chemists on the team already had a general understanding of the chemical composition of the active sites within the enzyme. Building upon this knowledge, they came up with a hypothesis that the sites were assembled using 10 parts: four carbon monoxide molecules, two cyanide ions, two iron ions, and two groups of a sulfur-containing amino acid called cysteine.

Eventually, researchers discovered that they had hypothesized wrong. It was instead more likely that the enzyme’s engine was composed of two identical groups containing five chemicals: two carbon monoxide molecules, one cyanide ion, one iron ion, and one cysteine group. The groups form one tightly bonded unit, and the two units combine to give the engine a total of 10 parts.

However, there was even another surprise in store for researchers after doing laboratory analysis of the lab-synthesized enzyme, Rauchfuss said. The team realized their formula for enzyme composition is incomplete. There are actually 11 bits required to make the active site engine rather than 10.

Researchers plan to continue their work by searching for that last piece of the puzzle. The team reported their findings in a paper the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

While it’s unclear what specific applications will come out of the work. The research could provide an assembly kit that will be instructive to other catalyst design projects. “The take-away from this study is that it is one thing to envision using the real enzyme to produce hydrogen gas, but it is far more powerful to understand its makeup well enough to able to reproduce it for use in the lab,” Rauchfuss said. 

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.

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!

cool-and-super-cool-3d-printed-projects

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).

Thingiverse

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
human-bones-hold-clue-to-stronger-3d-printed,-lightweight-structures

Researchers have taken inspiration from human bones to help improve the strength of lightweight structures that have been 3D-printed for potential use in the construction and other industries. A team of scientists from Cornell University, Purdue University, and Case Western Reserve University has observed how a beam that’s contained in human bone can help maintain the integrity and strength of, for example, a leg or an arm after many years of wear and tear.

3D printing, human bones, structural strength, Cornell University, Purdue University, Case Western Reserve University
Researchers 3D-printed polymer models of trabeculae in human bone and applied loads to them, investigating if certain structures play more significant roles in bone durability than previously thought. (Image source: Purdue University/Pablo Zavattieri)

They have taken this observation and applied it to the development of 3D-printed lightweight materials so that they may one day be used in the construction of buildings, airplanes, and other structures that would benefit from less weight but need to retain their strength and structural integrity.

“Bone is a building,” said Pablo Zavattieri, a professor in Purdue’s Lyles School of Civil Engineering and one of the researchers on the project. “It has these columns that carry most of the load and beams connecting the columns. We can learn from these materials to create more robust 3D-printed materials for buildings and other structures.”

Researchers did exactly that. Specifically, they mimicked the beam, or trabeculae, found in bones by 3D-printing polymer models of the structure and applying loads to them, they said. In the end, they made adjustments and created beams that were about 30 percent thicker using a material that can last up to 100 times longer than the beams in actual human bones do.

Mimicking natural materials

Trabeculae is a spongy material comprising a network of interconnected vertical plate-like struts and horizontal rod-like struts that act as columns and beams for human bones to give them their durability. The denser the trabeculae, the more resilient a bone is for everyday activities, with factors such as disease and age affecting the density and therefore degrading the material and its performance.

Those factors would become integral to the work of the researchers in this study, who discovered that even though the vertical struts of the trabeculae contribute to a bone’s stiffness and strength, the key to decreasing the longevity of the bone lies in the horizontal struts, said Christopher Hernandez, a professor of mechanical, aerospace, and biomedical engineering at Cornell. “When people age, they lose these horizontal struts first, increasing the likelihood that the bone will break from multiple cyclic loads,” he said. This discovery is contrary to the beliefs scientists long have had about trabeculae.

Researchers used this finding to inform the design of 3D-printed polymers with architectures similar to trabeculae, which they then tested for load-bearing to identify how the horizontal struts are affected by strain as a part of the overall structure.

Proving the theory

Simulations of the bone microstructure under cyclic loading confirmed the team’s belief about the importance of horizontal struts to the trabeculae structures. Researchers observed that strains get concentrated in those struts, coming to the conclusion that if they increase the thickness of the horizontal struts in their 3D-printed models, they can mitigate some of the strains.

Researchers also found that thickening the struts did not significantly increase the mass of the polymer, so the design can lend itself to creating more resilient lightweight materials. “When something is lightweight, we can use less of it,” Zavattieri said. “To create a stronger material without making it heavier would mean 3D-printed structures could be built in place and then transported. These insights on human bone could be an enabler for bringing more architected materials into the construction industry.”

Researchers published a paper on their work in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They also published a video of their research on YouTube.

The team believes that their work has numerous future applications not just for the construction industry, but also in other fields like medicine, where studying these structures further could inform better ways to treat patients suffering from diseases like osteoporosis.

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.

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!

ford-has-a-mcdonald's-caffeine-fix-for-plastic-parts
Image souce: Ford Motor Co.

Like many commuters, Ford Motor Co. is making a morning stop by Mickey Dee’s for coffee. Only Ford’s coffee run is for the chaff of the dried skin that comes off the beans when roasting them. 

McDonald’s USA produces millions of pounds of coffee chaff every year, and now Ford is incorporating some of that waste stream into the creation of injection-molded plastic parts like F-150 pickup truck headlamp housings.

An F-150 headlamp housing. Image source: Ford Motor Co.
Ford’s Sustainability Projects

2007: Soybean-based foam for seats and headliners

2008: Recycled plastic bottles for carpets, wheel liners and fabrics

2009: Wheat straw for storage bins and cup holders

2010: Post-consumer recycled cotton for door and trunk sound-dampening

2011: Recycled tires for seals and gaskets and dandelions for floor mats, cupholders and interior trim pieces

2012: Recycled/shredded US currency for small bins and coin holders and kenaf plant into door bolsters

2013: Rice hulls for electrical harnesses

2014: Tomato skins for wiring brackets and storage bins

2015: Cellulose tree bark for underhood applications

2016: Agave fiber for cup holders and storage bins

2017: Captured CO2 to convert into foams and padding

2018: Bamboo for interior and underhood plastic composite parts

2019: Coffee chaff for headlamp housings and underhood components

The chaff serves as a filler in place of talc, which is normally used to help reduce the weight, increase the strength and improve the heat resistance of plastic parts by blending it into the mixture that is used to make parts

The coffee chaff doesn’t just turn out to be a sustainable alternative to talc, it actually performs even better than the regular material. Of course, if you could just grind up coffee chaff and stir it into plastic materials, suppliers would likely have been doing so already.

Ford’s Research and Innovation Center has developed a process that heats the chaff to high temperatures under low oxygen and then mixes it along with other additives into plastic to create the pellets that plastic manufacturers use to create the end product.

Ford and McDonald’s partner with Competitive Green Technologies, which processes the coffee chaff and with Varroc Lighting Systems, which supplies the F-150’s headlamps to Ford. Together, they create parts that are about 20 percent lighter than before and use 25 percent less energy during the molding process, but which have significantly better heat properties than headlight housings made with talc.

“The coffee chaff is even better than the talc material we are replacing,” said Debbie Mielewski, Ford senior technical leader, sustainability and emerging materials research team. “It is better for the environment, lighter weight and it even has better heat properties.”

While McDonald’s produces millions of pounds of chaff annually, the project with Ford is starting off using 75,000 lbs. “Which really is a lot, but it is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Ian Olson, senior director of global sustainability for McDonald’s. “The potential is unlimited,” he enthused.

Indeed, Ford doesn’t plan to stop with just this one part for one vehicle. “We don’t want to put it on just one car line,” said Mielewski. “We start there and grow it until we do sustainability everywhere we can.”

Ford has a record of using recycled and sustainable materials in its vehicles dating to 2007, when the company employed soybean-based foam for seats and headliners. “This has been a priority for Ford for over 20 years, and this is an example of jump starting the closed-loop economy, where different industries work together and exchange materials that otherwise would be side or waste products,” Mielewski explained.

McDonald’s is planning to have all of its coffee beans be sustainably sourced by 2020, which will further improve the benefits of the project. “Like McDonald’s, Ford is committed to minimizing waste and we’re always looking for innovative ways to further that goal,” said Olson. “By finding a way to use coffee chaff as a resource, we are elevating how companies together can increase participation in the closed-loop economy.”

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

bottlebrush-copolymer-materials-eyed-to-customize-coatings

Researchers have combined a polymer material with the shape of a common kitchen tool to help better control the design and application of coatings for various products and surfaces. A team at Rice University’s Brown School of Engineering developed a technique that shows how microscopic bottlebrush polymers are drawn to the top and bottom of a coating applied to a surface. The discovery could lead to a way to customize the properties of coatings for specific applications.

microscopic bottlebrush copolymer materials, Rice University, Brown School of Engineering
Rice University graduate student Hao Mei holds a plate with a pattern of bottlebrush polymers spelling “RICE.” The microscopic polymers could give industry exquisite control over the properties of surface coatings. (Image source: Jeff Fitlow)

The research was led by Rafael Verduzco, an associate professor and chemical and biomolecular engineer at Rice who has been studying so-called bottlebrush copolymers for some time. He and his collaborators now have developed models and methods to refine surface coatings to make them, for instance, more waterproof or more conductive, depending on what an application demands.

Coatings are a key interest for Verduzco because they can be the difference between a successful product and one that fails, he said. “Coatings are ubiquitous,” he said in a press statement. “If we didn’t have the right coatings, our materials would degrade quickly. They would react in ways we don’t want them to.”

Because of this, coating a surface is a separate and different way of thinking than the product itself. Therefore, different processes have to be applied to this part of creating something new, he said. “You make something and then you have to find a way to deposit a coating on top of it,” said Verduzco.

Same name, different use

Resembling the kitchen implements of the same name, bottlebrushes consist of small polymer chains that radiate outward from a linear polymer rod.  The bottlebrushes self-assemble in a solution, which researchers than can work with to adjust their properties. “What we’re looking at is a kind of universal additive, a molecule you can blend with whatever you’re making that will spontaneously go to the surface or the interface,” said Verduzco. “That’s how we ended up using bottlebrushes.”

What researchers discovered in their work is that bottlebrushes mixed with linear polymers tend to migrate to the top and bottom of a thin film as it dries. These films, as coatings, are ubiquitous in products; for instance, they are currently used as waterproof layers to keep metals from rusting or fabrics from staining.

During this migration, the linear polymers hold the center while the bottlebrushes migrate to the air above or to the substrate below. This, in effect, decouples the properties of the coating from its exposed surfaces. “The chemistry of these materials is advanced sufficiently that you can pretty much put just about any kind of polymer as one of these bristles on the side chain,” said Verduzco. “You can put them in different order.”

Researchers published a paper on their work in the American Chemical Society journal Macromolecules.

The team conducted computational models and experiments demonstrating that variations in the bottlebrush itself could be used to control surface characteristics, making these polymers useful in coating applications.

Applications for these materials include drug delivery via functionalized bottlebrushes that form micelles; lubricants; soft elastomers; and even surfaces that heal themselves. However, one challenge researchers still face is that bottlebrush polymers are still difficult to make in bulk.

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.

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!

here-comes-affordable-large-scale-grid-storage-for-renewables

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.

hydrails-are-the-future-of-rail-transportation

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!

new-process-3d-prints-complex-glass-objects

Various glass objects created with a 3D printer using a new fabrication technology developed by researchers at ETH Zurich. (Image source: Group for Complex Materials / ETH Zurich)

Researchers from ETH Zurich in Switzerland have joined the ranks of small group of scientists who have successfully 3D-printed glass objects. The new method is based on stereolithography, one of the earliest 3D-print techniques, and uses a special plastic-based resin containing glass precursors bonded to organic molecules

Currently, scientists have reported only a few successful processes for 3D-printing glass . A team from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) in Germany printed glass objects in a similar way to the ETH Zurich team—using stereolithography and a combination of polymer and glass. Others have printed molten glass using additive methods.

Other methods have created glass objects in an indirect way by using ceramic particles that are printed at room temperature and then sintered later to create glass. This technique, however, does not allow for the fabrication of complex objects.

Solving material complexity

The technique from the ETH Zurich team solves some of the complications other researchers have encountered through material choice—a resin that can be processed using commercially-available digital light processing (DLP) technology, said Kunal Masania, one of the researchers in ETH Zurich’s Complex Materials group who worked on the project.

DLP applies UV light to the resin, hardening it in the places where it strikes because light-sensitive components of the polymer cross link at these points. The end result combines the plastic monomers to form a structure that creates a polymer, with ceramic molecules filling in gaps in the structure, Masania said in a press statement.

In this way, a glass object can be built up layer by layer, just as typical 3D-printed polymer objects are built, he said. Various aspects of each layer can even be changed to create more complex objects – a result that researchers didn’t plan, Masania added.

“We discovered that by accident, but we can use this to directly influence the pore size of the printed object,” he said in a press statement. Weak light intensity creates large pores in the object, while intense light produces small pores.

Making complex glass objects

Pores aren’t the only parameter of objects that the ETH Zurich researchers can manipulate. According to a paper published in the journal Nature Materials, they can also can change the microstructure of an object layer by layer by adding a mixture of silica and either borate or phosphate to the resin. This means they can fabricate complex objects from different types of glass, or even combine different parts in the same object.

One drawback to this new technique is that it can only print very small glass objects about the size of a die, according to the ETH Zurich researchers. However, Masania said still believe they achieved the goal of the project, which was to prove that 3D printing can be used to produce complex glass objects, no matter what the limitation is currently.

Masania said his team has applied for a patent for their technology and is currently lining up commercial partnership with a Swiss glassware dealer.

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.

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Researchers have for the first time printed complete integrated circuits that have more than 100 organic transistors, a breakthrough in the quest to use printing to create complex next-generation electronic and computing devices.

printed circuits, Linköping University, RISE, Research Institutes of Sweden, Campus Norrköping, organic transistors

Some of the researchers behind the breakthrough to developed complete, integrated circuits using a novel screen-printing process: Peter Andersson Ersman, Research Institute of Sweden, or RISE; Simone Fabiano, Linköping University; and Jan Strandberg and Roman Lassnig, RISE. (Image source: Thor Balkhed)

A team of engineers at two Swedish institutions–Linköping University and RISE (Research Institutes of Sweden), Campus Norrköping—achieved the milestone using only screen printing rather than the multiple manufacturing methods to create integrated circuits. “Everything is done by screen printing, and in relatively few processing steps,” he said in the statement. “The key is ensuring that the different layers end up in exactly the right place,” said Peter Andersson Ersman, a researcher in printed electronics at RISE.

The team used this process to place more than 1000 organic electrochemical transistors on an A4-sized plastic substrate, and connected them in different ways to create various types of printed integrated circuits. The work is the culmination of 17 years of research, including an advancement in 2017 to use screen printing to fabricate circuits that set the stage for the latest achievement.

Tweaking the process

In the past two years, the team has made a number of changes to the process and the result includes a reduction in circuit size; spacing the transistors in the circuit more closely to increase the quality of the product; and achieving the integration of silicon-based circuits that can process signals and communicate with the surroundings.

“One of the major advances is that we have been able to use printed circuits to create an interface with traditional silicon-based electronic components,” Magnus Berggren, professor of organic electronics at Linköping University, explained. “We have developed several types of printed circuits based on organic electrochemical transistors.” 

One of these circuits is what’s called a shift-register, which can form an interface and deal with the contact between the silicon-based circuit and other electronic components such as sensors and displays. This advancement means researchers can use a silicon chip with fewer contacts, which requires a smaller area and thus is less expensive.

Ink also was a major factor in printing a complete integrated circuit with such a large amount of transistors. The team used the polymer PEDOT:PSS as their material for printing the circuits; it’s one that is widely used in the world in the field of organic electronics.

The material allowed for the development of ink that could be used with the screen-printing frames—which has meshes that can print extremely fine lines–to create smaller components but without losing product quality.

The team published a paper on its work in the journal Nature Communications.

The large-scale integrated circuits that researchers printed have myriad uses for electronics being developed for the Internet of Things (IoT). For example, they can be used to create an electrochromic display, which also can be manufactured using a printing process.

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.

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!

new-material-is-the-most-effective-ever-at-turning-heat-into-energy

Professor Ernst Bauer in his lab at Vienna University of Technology, where he led the development of a new material with unprecedented effectiveness for converting heat to electricity. (Source: Vienna University of Technology)

Researchers in Austria have developed material that they say is the most effective to date for converting heat into electrical energy. This unprecedented ability means the material could be used to provide an autonomous and renewable source of energy for a range of technologies, such as sensors or even small computer processors, by allowing them to generate their own power from temperature differences.

A material’s ZT value measures the amount of electrical energy that can be generated at a given temperature difference; the higher the value, the better the thermoelectric properties. This new material—created by researchers at Vienna University of Technology – is comprised of iron, vanadium, tungsten, and aluminum applied to a silicon crystal, and has a ZT value of five to six, the highest ever measured for thermoelectric materials. Modern thermoelectric materials are maxed out at values of about 2.5 to 2.8.

“The difference is a much better performance of this material, about two times larger than the best reported so far in literature,” Ernst Bauer, the team lead, and a professor in the Institute of Solid State Physics at the university, told Design News.

Composition informs behavior

Key to the high thermal conductivity of the material is a “combination of several physical properties and parameters, Bauer told Design News.

The atoms in the material are arranged in what’s called a face-centered cubic lattice, he said. The distance between two iron atoms in the material is always the same, while the same is true for the atoms that comprise the other elements found in the material. This structure on its own is irregular.

When a thin layer of the material is applied to silicon, however, there is a dramatic change in its structure. The atoms still form a cubic pattern, but in a way that the distribution of the different types of atoms becomes completely random.

“Two iron atoms may sit next to each other, the places next to them may be occupied by vanadium or aluminum, and there is no longer any rule that dictates where the next iron atom is to be found in the crystal,” Bauer said.

This change in the arrangement of the atoms also changes the material’s electronic structure, which protects the electrical charge—the portions of which are called Weyl Fermions – as it moves through the material from scattering processes, Bauer said. This results in a very low electrical resistance.

The Vienna University of Technology researchers published a paper on their work in the journal Nature.

While a thin layer of the material itself can’t generate enough energy to power even small devices, “it has the advantage of being extremely compact and adaptable,” Bauer said. He and his team aim to use the material as a component of small-scale energy generators to provide power for sensors and other small electronic devices.

Bauer and his colleagues also will continue their work by seeking new

materials with similar properties and taking a deeper look into the one they developed “to understand on a microscopic basis all relevant phenomena occurring in this material,” he told Design News.

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.