the-15-most-influential-technologies-of-the-decade

From breakthroughs and new innovations to established technologies, these are the inventions, gadgets, and trends that shaped the last decade.

  • It’s been a busy decade in the tech space. New innovations emerged and older ones finally matured in ways that have had a major impact. The 2010s brought us the rise of 3D printing, the rebirth of VR, and an explosion in AI technologies. The health industry was all about wearables. And a digital currency gold rush made us rethink encryption.

    As we prepare to enter the 2020s, let’s take a look back at how far we’ve come.

    Here are the 15 technologies, gadgets, and trends that had the biggest impact on the industry, and our lives, in the last decade.

    (Image source: Pete Linforth from Pixabay  )

  • 3D Printing

    A technology first developed in the 60s has become as common a phrase in manufacturing as injection molding or CNC machining. 3D printing has grown from a novel way to create tchotchkes and plastic parts into a serious technology with applications ranging from automotive and aerospace to even medical. 3D printing has become a serious option for prototyping and small-scale production. And rise of new materials and even metal 3D printing has expanded its applications. We may only be a generation or two away from seeing patients with 3D-printed organs in their bodies.

    (Image source: Airwolf 3D)

  • Artificial Intelligence

    You couldn’t open a newspaper in the 2010s without some sort of AI-related headlines. Whether it was IBM Watson winning at Jeopardy, fears of robots taking jobs, or the rise of autonomous vehicles, the last 10 years have put AI on everyone’s mind like never before. AI has potential to transform nearly every industry on the planet and already has in many cases. And the growing ethical and moral concerns around the technology only further demonstrate that it’s here to stay.

    (Image source: Gordon Johnson from Pixabay  )

  • Blockchain

    Bitcoin went from the currency of choice for Internet drug dealers to sparking a full on gold rush as investors looked to cash in on Bitcoin’s skyrocketing value. But the best thing Bitcoin did this decade was bring new attention to the technology underneath it – blockchain. Increased interest in blockchain has found the technology finding implementations in cybersecurity, manufacturing, fintech, and even video games. Blockchain made us rethink security, automation, and accountability and is going to be a key component in the ever-expanding Internet of Things going forward.

    (Image source: Pixabay)

  • Collaborative Robots

    Robots have worked alongside humans for a long time, but never like they have in recent years. The rise of collaborative robots (cobots) brought machines into factories that can work right next to human workers without the need for safety cages. The now defunct Rethink Robotics created arguably the most memorable cobot with Baxter (shown), but several major robotics companies including Boston Dynamics, Fanuc, and Universal Robots have all gotten into the game.

    Cobots also sparked a lot of debate as to their impact on jobs and the economy. But concerns haven’t slowed their growth. You’d be hard pressed to find an industrial robotics company today without at least one cobot offering in its portfolio.

    (Image source: Rethink Robotics)

  • digital twin, VR, AR headsets, machine developers, B&R

    Digital Twins

    The rise of the Internet of Things and Industry 4.0 has brought with it new ways of thinking of the design and manufacturing process. None of these has been more praised than the digital twin. Consumer electronics, automobiles, even factories themselves can be modeled in virtual space, providing real-time insights into design and production workflows without the costly expense of physical prototyping. Add VR and AR to the mix and engineers get an added layer of immersion and visualization.

     (Image source: B&R)

  • GPUs

    Chip technology overall has come a long way in the last decade, but none further than the GPU. Spearheaded by chipmakers including Nvidia (especially Nvidia), AMD, Intel, and Asus, GPUs grew from their specialized role as graphics processors into a key enabler behind the high-end computing needed for AI. Even autonomous cars have leveraged GPUs to handle their computing needs.

    It used to be that only serious video gamers cared about the quality of their GPU. Now any company, engineer, or even hobbyist developing hardware that leverages AI has to take a serious look at GPUs as a solution.

    (Image source: Nvidia)

  • The Internet of Things / Industry 4.0

    There was a time when going on about how, “everything is connected,” might have made you sound like a conspiracy theorist. Now, it makes you sound more like an IT professional. From factory automation; to devices in our homes like thermostats, locks, and cameras; even to our cars – pretty much anything that could have wireless or Internet connectivity added to it got it.

    Sure some use cases were certainly more valuable than others, but the rapid growth of the IoT made one thing certain – the future is connected. And whether you prefer cloud-based solutions or handling things on the edge, no device is ever going to be an island ever again. As staggering as it may sound, the march toward 1 trillion connected devices is far from an exaggeration.

    (Image source: jeferrb from Pixabay )

  • LiDAR

    You need a lot of technologies to create an autonomous vehicle – AI, radar, even thermal sensors – but LiDAR is what really put self-driving cars on the road. It’s not enough on its own, and needs to work alongside other sensors, but engineers have found the technology – traditionally used in meteorology and GPS – to be absolutely crucial in allowing autonomous vehicles to recognize their surroundings – including humans and animals in the road.

    (Image source: Innoviz)

  • Lithium-Ion Batteries

    The key innovators behind lithium-ion batteries received a long-overdue Nobel Prize in 2019. That’s likely because there’s no avoiding just how significant an impact lithium-ion has had – particularly in recent years. New battery technologies have made electric vehicles an attractive option for any consumer, and new battery chemistries and configurations are making our devices lighter and thinner with every generation. Researchers are always looking for better alternatives, but lithium-ion established itself as the heavyweight king of batteries in the last 10 years and it doesn’t look ready to relinquish that title anytime soon.

    (Image source: Johan Jarnestad/The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences)

  • The Mars Rovers

    We learned more about the Red Planet than ever before thanks to NASA’s Mars exploration rovers. The rovers, Spirit and Opportunity (shown), first landed on Mars in 2004 and since then have brought scientists incredible insights about our neighboring planet – including that Mars was once wetter and had conditions that could have sustained microbial life. The knowledge gained from both will surely be carried on as NASA continues to plot a manned mission to Mars in the coming decades. Spirit ended its mission in 2011, while Opportunity operated for an unprecedented 15 years, finally ending its mission in 2018. And we’ll always remember Opportunity’s last communication to NASA – poetically interpreted as, “”My battery is low and it’s getting dark.”

    (Image source: NASA)

  • Open Source

    Open source used to be a dirty word for developers and consumers. The perception was that RISC-Vanything open source was likely to be insecure, shoddily put together, and lacking any long term support. But open source has proven to be a viable option for developers, and a valuable tool. Microsoft and IBM both made big investments in open source with the acquisitions of Github and Red Hat respectively.

    We’ve even seen the growth of open-source hardware for the first time. The open-source chip architecture has seen an ever-growing ecosystem of companies emerge around it in recent years – all aimed at changing the way we build and use processors.

    (Image source: Markus Spiske on Unsplash)

  • Raspberry Pi

    You can’t mention DIY electronics without thinking of the Raspberry Pi. Since its introduction in 2012, the single board computer has gone from a go-to platform for hobbyists and makers to a serious development platform for engineers working in IoT and even AI. Even if you use another single board computer, or even a microcontroller like the Arduino, for your projects, we all owe a debt to Raspberry Pi for bringing electric engineering a bit closer to home.

    (Image source: Raspberry Pi Foundation)

  • Smartphones

    enormous impact smartphones have had on our lives. Smartphones have grown into full-It doesn’t matter whether you prefer iOS, Android, or another option, there’s no denying the fledged computing platforms – enabling entirely new business models ranging from digital health to mobile VR. The gaming market in particular has enjoyed huge returns thanks to the computing power offered by today’s smartphones.

    (Image source: Apple)

  • VR, AR, MR, and XR (The new realities)

    Virtual reality has had a lot of starts and stops over the decades. But thanks to the Oculus Rift and other headsets such as the HTC Vive – VR is finally delivering on its promise. Ten years ago if you had asked anyone if they used VR in their workflow they might have laughed. Today, it’s become more and more commonplace.

    The rise of augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR), and extended reality (XR) have sparked even more use cases in both the consumer and enterprise space. Pokemon Go showed us consumers will value AR for entertainment, but plenty of big names including Microsoft, Google, and HP brought the technology into the enterprise space as well.

    (Image source: HP)

  • Wearables

    The 2010s saw technology grow from something we carry to an actual accessory that we can wear. From consumer focused products like the Apple Watch, Samsung Galaxy Gear, and even the FitBit, to serious medical devices like the AlivCor EEG, intended to track and help diagnose diseases, wearables found their way onto millions of bodies. There was certainly a wearables bubble that has since burst, but the digital health sector owes much of its success to wearables. And Google’s recent major acquisition of Fitbit shows that the tech industry believes there’s more to wearables than being a high-tech fashion statement.

    (Image source: Fitbit)

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

a-climate-change-solution:-remove-carbon-dioxide-from-the-air

Researchers at MIT have designed a specialized battery that can remove carbon dioxide even at small concentrations from air, a device they believe could be used as a tool to fight climate change.

Chemical engineers, including Saha Voskian—an MIT postdoc who developed the work as part of his PhD research—invented the technique, which is based on passing air through a stack of charge electrochemical plates.

taking carbon dioxide from the air, climate change, MIT, battery-like device, removing concentrations of carbon dioxide from a stream of gas

In this diagram of a new system invented at MIT, air entering from top right passes to one of two chambers (the gray rectangular structures) containing battery electrodes that attract the carbon dioxide. Then the airflow is switched to the other chamber, while the accumulated carbon dioxide in the first chamber is flushed into a separate storage tank (at right). These alternating flows allow for continuous operation of the two-step process. (Image source: MIT)

The system can process carbon dioxide at any concentration level, even down to the roughly 400 parts per million currently found in the atmosphere. This is different from most current methods of removing carbon dioxide from air. Other methods require a higher concentration of the CO2 in the air, such as what’s present in the flue emissions from fossil fuel-based power plants.

There are a few solutions that can work with lower concentrations, but the new device that Voskian and his collaborator, T. Alan Hatton, the Ralph Landau Professor of Chemical Engineering, have invented is less energy-intensive and expensive. “Our system relies solely on electrical energy input and does not require and thermal or pressure swing,” Voskian told Design News. “It operates at ambient conditions.”

Absorbing carbon from the air

The device is essentially a large battery that absorbs carbon dioxide from the air, or another gas stream, passing over its electrodes as it is being charged up. As it is being discharged, it releases the gas it collected.

In operation, the device would simply alternate between charging and discharging, with fresh air or feed gas being blown through the system during the charging cycle, and then the pure, concentrated carbon dioxide being blown out during the discharging. “The device comprises of a stack of electrochemical cells with gas flow channels in between,” said Voskian. “The cells have porous electrodes which are coated with a composite of electro-active polymer and conductive material. The polymer responds to electric stimuli and is activated or de-activated based on the polarity of the applied potential.”

That electro-active polymer and conductive material is a compound called polyanthraquinone, which is composited with carbon nanotubes. This gives the electrodes a natural affinity for carbon dioxide so they can readily react with its molecules in the airstream or feed gas, even when it is present at very low concentrations.  “The electrodes either have strong affinity to carbon in their electrochemically activated mode, or have no affinity whatsoever,” said Voskian.

Binding gas molecules even in low concentrations

This binary nature of the interaction with carbon dioxide lends the system its unique properties, giving it the ability to bind to the gas molecules from very low to very high concentrations.

The reverse reaction takes place when the battery is discharged, ejecting a stream of pure carbon dioxide. During this process, the device can provide part of the power needed for the whole system, which operates at room temperature and normal air pressure.

Researchers published a paper on their work in the journal Energy and Environmental Science.

The team envisions the solutions used in a wide array of applications—from industrial plants with high carbon-dioxide emissions, to medical and even consumer applications—given its versatility. The researchers have set up a company called Verdox to commercialize the process and device, and hope to develop a pilot-scale plant for carbon-dioxide processing within the next few years.

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!

doe-achieves-breakthrough-in-artificial-photosynthesis

Researchers at the Department of Energy (DoE) have achieved a chemical reaction that drastically improves upon current methods for artificial photosynthesis, providing a new process for the development of cleaner, hydrogen-based fuels.

Department of Energy, DoE, chemical reaction, artificial photosynthesis, Brookhaven National Laboratory

Brookhaven Lab chemist Javier Concepcion and Lei Wang, a graduate student at Stony Brook University, devised a scheme for assembling light-absorbing molecules and water-splitting catalysts on a nanoparticle-coated electrode. The result: production of hydrogen gas fuel via artificial photosynthesis and a platform for testing different combos to further improve efficiency. (Image source: Brookhaven National Laboratory, Department of Energy)

Specifically, scientists at the DoE’s Brookhaven National Laboratory have doubled the efficiency of a chemical combo that captures light and splits water molecules so the building blocks can be used to produce hydrogen fuel. “Artificial photosynthesis will enable the production of sustainable and renewable fuels from sunlight, water and carbon dioxide,” Javier Concepcion, a Brookhaven chemist who worked on the project, told Design News

In natural photosynthesis, plants use sunlight to transform water and carbon dioxide into carbohydrates such as sugar and starches. The energy from the sunlight is stored in the chemical bonds holding those molecules together.

Researchers have been seeking ways to develop artificial ways to mimic this natural process by using light to split water into its constituents–hydrogen and oxygen. The idea is that the hydrogen can later be combined with other elements such as carbon dioxide to make fuels.

New platform for cleaner fuel

The Brookhaven team has now developed a platform that integrates two types of materials–chromophores for light absorption, and water-oxidation catalysts to split water into oxygen, electrons, and protons–on the surface of photoanodes. These anodes are electrodes that carry out an oxidation driven by photons.  “The electrons and protons are transported to another electrode (the cathode) where they are combined to produce hydrogen gas, a fuel,” said Concepcion.

The approach uses molecular “tethers”—or simple carbon chains that have a high affinity for one another—to attach the chromophore to the catalyst, researchers said. The tethers hold the particles together so electrons can transfer from the catalyst to the chromophore.

This is an essential step for activating the catalyst—but it also keeps the two elements far enough apart that the electrons don’t jump back to the catalyst, Concepcion said. “This new platform allow us to combine these chromophores and catalysts without the need of complicated synthetic procedures and with precise control of the distance between them,” said Concepcion. “By controlling the distance we can control the rate of electron transfer steps between catalysts and chromophores required for the system to work.”

Researchers published a paper on their work in the Journal of Physical Chemistry C.

Necessity fosters invention

The entire process works like this: Light strikes the chromophore and gives an electron enough of a jolt to send it to the surface of the nanoparticle. From there the electron moves to the nanoparticle core, and then out of the electrode through a wire. Meanwhile, the chromophore, now missing an electron, pulls an electron from the catalyst. As long as there’s light, this process repeats itself, sending electrons flowing from catalyst to chromophore to nanoparticle to wire.

Each time the catalyst loses four electrons, it becomes activated with a positive charge capable of stealing four electrons from two water molecules, which breaks the hydrogen and oxygen apart. The oxygen bubbles out as a gas, while the hydrogen atoms diffuse through a membrane to another electrode. There they recombine with the electrons carried by the wire to produce hydrogen gas, which can be used as fuel.

“This research is fundamental in nature and focused on developing the underlying science that will allow actual real-life applications of artificial photosynthesis,” said Concepcion.

This is key to the future design of cleaner energy, which is “something that mankind has to achieve to ensure the survival of our species,” said Concepcion. “The timeline for this achievement can be argued, but its need is without question.”

Researchers plan to continue their work by studying in detail each of the many processes required for the new system to perform well. “This will include a combination of experimental and computational studies, including machine learning and artificial intelligence to help us to understand the current system and to design better ones,” said Concepcion.

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!

insects-inspire-design-of-metal-that’s-impossible-to-sink

Insects that can survive in water are the inspiration behind a new type of metal developed by researchers at the University of Rochester that is so water-resistant it doesn’t sink.

A team in the lab of Chunlei Guo, a university professor of optics and physics, developed the metal, which in tests showed such a high water-repellent aspect that it would not go under the surface even after being punctured and damaged.

unsinkable metal, insects, University of Rochester, water resistant metal
The superhydrophobic metallic structure developed by researchers at the University of Rochester remains afloat even after significant structural damage—punctured with six 3-millimeter diameter holes and one 6-millimeter hole. (Image source: University of Rochester)

Diving bell spiders and rafts of fire ants inspired the design of the structure—in particular, the way these creatures can survive long periods under water or on its surface. These creatures manage by trapping air in enclosed areas in their bodies.

For example, the diving bell spider creates a dome-shaped web that is filled with air. The spider carries the air between its hydrophobic legs and abdomen, Guo said. In a similar way, fire ants can form a raft in the water by trapping air in their bodies.

Guo and his team developed a way to use femtosecond bursts of lasers to “etch” the surfaces of metals with intricate micro- and nanoscale patterns. Like the insect behavior, these trap air to make the surfaces superhydrophobic, or water repellent. “The key insight is that multifaceted superhydrophobic (SH) surfaces can trap a large air volume, which points towards the possibility of using SH surfaces to create buoyant devices,” researchers wrote in a paper in ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces.

Creating the ‘unsinkable’ factor

However, the etching alone wasn’t enough to cause a more permanent unsinkable factor; researchers found that after being immersed in water for long periods of time, the surfaces of the etched metal showed a loss of hydrophobic properties.  So the team went one step further and created a structure in which they etched two parallel aluminum plates and faced them inward, not outward, so they are enclosed and free from external wear and abrasion.

Researchers also separated the surfaces of the metallic structure by just the right distance to trap and hold enough air to keep it floating, which acts to create a waterproof compartment. The superhydrophobic surfaces manage to keep the water from entering the compartment even when the structure is submerged in water.

Though the team used aluminum here, the etching process “could be used for literally any metals, or other materials,” Guo said. They tested the metallic structures by forcing them to submerge for two months. Even after this time they immediately bounced back to the surface.

The team even found the structure didn’t sink even after puncturing it multiple times. This is because air remains trapped in the other parts of the compartment or adjoining structures.

The team expects its work can be used to inform the design of metals for ships that will be nearly impossible to sink. It can also be used for wearable floatation devices that remain afloat even after being punctured.

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!

augmented-reality-won't-advance-until-its-optical-issues-are-solved

Augmented reality (AR) is the gateway to the most immersive phase in computing history. It promises to radically transform the way we work, but it will never realize its potential unless fundamental performance and usability issues are addressed. A recent report from specialist AR/ VR industry analysts Greenlight Insights has shown solving two fundamental optical issues would unlock an additional $10 billion in spending on enterprise AR applications by 2026.

Currently, all AR experiences suffer from vergence-accommodation conflict (VAC) and focal rivalry. These terms may be relatively unknown, but anyone who has worn an AR headset for any length of time will recognize them as eye fatigue, an inability to read text up close, and the struggle to complete precision tasks because virtual content is not well integrated with the real world. Greenlight’s analysts estimate that 95% of current enterprise AR applications would see an immediate benefit if these issues were solved.

What is vergence-accommodation conflict and focal rivalry?

AR headsets like Microsoft’s Hololens suffer from some key optical issues that are keeping the technology from becoming fully immersive and useful for enterprise users. (Image source: Microsoft)

VAC breaks the natural way our eyes focus. In the real world as an object gets closer our eyes turn inwards to triangulate on it, stimulating the eyes to focus at the right distance. This doesn’t happen in AR (or VR for that matter) because lenses in headsets are set at a fixed focal distance. Our eyes are simply not fooled by clever software manipulation of virtual content.

The other major challenge facing AR is focal rivalry, a phenomenon that occurs when we’re viewing real and the virtual content together. Our eyes cannot naturally integrate real and virtual content into a genuine mixed reality unless they are in the same focal plane. So if you want to place virtual content at different distances and interact with it in a natural way you have to deal with the issue.

Why is this a $10 billion issue for the augmented reality industry?

Microsoft’s Hololens is one of the most advanced AR headsets available today and it acknowledges the problem of VAC. The Hololens developers guide advises content developers to place virtual content beyond arm’s reach to avoid an uncomfortable experience. Microsoft suggests that designers should attempt to create content scenes that encourage users to interact one meter or farther away from the content. It also recommends to not require users to rapidly switch from near-focus to far-focus as this can cause visual discomfort and fatigue.

Meanwhile, a research team at the University of Pisa conducted a study exploring how focal rivalry affects people’s performance when using AR to complete precision tasks. It found that accomplishing an AR-assisted task where content is within two meters of the person and requires a high level of precision (such as AR-assisted surgery or repairs) may not be feasible with existing technology.

The inability to bring content convincingly within arm’s reach and realistically place content at any focal point is holding AR back. The eye fatigue and discomfort of VAC will limit the amount of time we can spend in AR, preventing it from being an all-day wearable. Meanwhile focal rivalry will limit its usefulness in enterprise applications that require any significant degree of hands on accuracy such as manufacturing, engineering, or surgery.

The optical interface is the key to unlocking the true potential of augmented reality

If we are to unlock the true potential of augmented reality, we will need to find a solution that is able to address both VAC and focal rivalry – not just one or the other. The solution lies in a dynamic optical interface that is able to re-engage the visual system to allow users to position virtual content convincingly anywhere in the 3D space and integrate real and virtual content without any visual limitations.

Both the HoloLens 2 and Magic Leap One promised to bring some form of multiplane focus that would address focal rivalry and VAC, but no solution has yet come to market. However, it is encouraging to see that in the VR space, Facebook’s Reality Labs Chief Scientist Michael Abrash announced that the company is exploring the use of a liquid crystal technology in a prototype for Half Dome – Facebook’s VR headset that integrates mechanical varifocal displays.

There are several solutions that are currently being developed. These solutions range from visual pass-through (VPT) systems, to light field displays, to liquid crystal lenses, and adaptive lenses. The Greenlight Insights report reviews all the key dynamic focus solution technologies, comparing their relative performance and likely time to market. A detailed comparison concludes that adaptive lenses offer the best combination of addressing all the key issues, while also offering HMD display manufacturers a quicker time-to-market.

For us to advance augmented reality it is necessary that we integrate some form of dynamic optical interface. Once we do this, we will be able to drive a step change in both the experiences and applications that can be created.

John Kennedy is CEO of Adlens, the company pioneering the development of lenses that change focus like the human eye – enhancing vision in AR/XR, VR, and eyewear. Adlens believes that optical technologies will play a key role in helping to create a truly breakthrough mixed reality product that will have comparable consumer impact to the iPhone. An engineer by training, he’s built his experience in technology and fast-growth consumer businesses.

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!

antimony-could-replace-silicon-in-next-gen-processors

With processors getting smaller and smaller while requiring more processing power, silicon is reaching the limits of its ability to meet the needs of future chips.

antimony, silicon, transistors, chips, processing, electronics  
Unlike other materials with electrons that scatter in many directions, the electrons in 2D antimony can be made to move together in an orderly way, giving it a high charge mobility and making the material an efficient semiconductor. (Image source: The University of Texas at Austin)

Consequently, researchers have been searching for new materials that can replace silicon while still packing a lot of processing power into a tiny punch. Assistant professor Yuanyue Liu and a research team at The University of Texas at Austin (UT) Cockrell School of Engineering have found a solution in an existing semi-metal: antimony.

The team, which also includes UT postdoctoral fellow Long Cheng and graduate student Chenmu Zhang, published a paper on their work in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Liu, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, said, in its 2D form, antimony shows promise as a semiconducting material for smaller chips. For one, antimony is only a couple of atomic layers thick while still having a high charge mobility, or speed with which a charge moves through the material when being pulled by an electric field. 2D antimony also has a significantly higher charge mobility than silicon, said Liu. This gives it strong potential as a building block for next-generation processors.

Antimony has already proven its worth in electronics for some semiconductor devices, such as infrared detectors. The UT researchers believe this use can be extended to future devices as well.

So far 2D antimony’s semiconducting potential has only been proven through theoretical computation. The team’s next step is to test the properties of the material with physical antimony samples.

The team’s work has broader implications; since researchers have seen antimony’s viability as a semiconductor for future devices, they also know why the material carries charge so quickly. “We have uncovered the physical origins of why antimony has a high mobility,” Liu said in a press statement.  “These findings could be used to potentially discover even better materials.”

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!

this-new-3d-printing-method-could-make-fiber-optics-cheaper
Researchers used a 3D printing method known as direct-light projection (DLP) to make silica fiber preforms. (Image source: John Canning, University of Technology in Sydney) 

A new 3D printing process developed by researchers at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia could drastically reduce the cost of manufacturing glass optical fibers. Not only would this lead to cost reductions in manufacturing the notoriously expensive fiber optic cables for telecommunications networks, it could also lead to new designs and applications.

The current fabrication process requires spinning tubes on a lathe with fiber cores that are precisely centered, which is labor-intensive, said John Canning who led the research team.

The new process relaxes some of the geometry requirements, which is one of the most complex parts of the process.

“With additive manufacturing, there’s no need for the fiber geometry to be centered,” Canning said in a press statement. “This removes one of the greatest limitations in fiber design and greatly reduces the cost of fiber manufacturing.”

The team published a paper on their work in the journal Optics Letters.

An evolution in fabrication

The researchers said their invention was informed by earlier research in which they fabricated fiber using a polymer material from a 3D-printed preform. Previously, it had been immensely challenging to use silica in this type of printing process because of the high temperatures (more than 1900 degrees Celsius) required to print glass.

“Thanks to a novel combination of materials and nanoparticle integration, we have shown it’s possible to 3D print a silica preform,” Canning said in the press statement. 

To fabricate silica glass, Canning and his team used a direct-light projection (DLP) 3D printer, which is commercially available and typically used to create polymer objects. For this type of fabrication, the printer uses a digital light projector to polymerize photo-reactive monomers.

Creating a silica object required modifying the process as well as the materials used. On the materials side, the researchers added silica nanoparticles into the monomer at amounts of 50 percent or greater by weight.

They then designed a 3D-printed cylindrical object that contained a hole for a core, and inserted the material mix of polymer and nanoparticles into the hole. This time, however, they changed the formula a bit, adding germanosilicate to the silica nanoparticles. This created a higher refractive index to allow for the integration of a range of dopants, the researchers said.

The next step in the process required a unique heating process called debinding, which removed the polymer from the materials mix to leave only silica nanoparticles bound by intermolecular forces behind.

Finally, by raising the temperature further, the researchers fused the nanoparticles into a solid structure that could be inserted into a draw tower, where they once again heated and also pulled the object to create the optical fiber.

The path to commercialization

To validate their process, the researchers fabricated a preform equivalent of a standard germanosilicate fiber that could be used to create multi- or single-mode fibers, Canning said.

They did run into a limitation in their work when they observed high light losses in the first optical fibers they printed, they acknowledged. However, Canning said they have since identified the issue and are working to remedy it.

“With further improvements to limit the light losses, this new approach could potentially replace the conventional lathe-based method of making silica optical fibers,” he said in a press statement.  

Using this process in place of current manufacturing would reduce costs across the board – not just in fabrication and material costs but also in terms of labor, since it also reduces training and the danger factor production workers face, Canning said.

The team is currently seeking to partner with a mainstream commercial fiber fabrication company to improve and commercialize the technology. The researchers also wish to accelerate research and drive new manufacturing approaches in this field.

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!

Now that the holiday season is upon us, 3D printers, both personal and commercial, are busy churning out festive decorations. But did you know that this technology can also create food, from desserts and simple side dishes to (in the near future) more complex, layered foods like mashed potatoes. Still, you don’t need a 3D printer to have a high-tech Thanksgiving with your friends and family. There are plenty of commercial IoT devices to aid the traditional cook – and even the sous chef of the future.

3D Printing 

First, let’s consider the decorations. A wide variety of colorful 3D printed Thanksgiving-themed prints are available to enliven the holiday table. If a nice centerpiece is needed, then download the CAD file for a simple turkey puzzle from Maker’s open 3D printing community known as Thingiverse, load up the appropriate filaments, print and assemble.

Image Source: Simple Turkey Puzzle, Thingiverse, by corben33  

If you’re a bit more adventuresome, you might try downloading and printing a slightly more complex Thanksgiving turkey light box. Be careful though to use tealight LED candles, otherwise the 3D printed lightbox will probably melt. That would be a nailed-it failed-it!

Now let’s consider the Thanksgiving meal. The same technology that can create almost anything – from an entire car to a tiny microchip – can also be used to produce edible food. In fact, the global 3D food printing market is a growth industry according to a recent Research and Markets report: Global $525 Million 3D Food Printing Market Analysis & Forecast 2018-2023.

3D food printing uses different pastes and materials to recreate food by relying on technology similar to fused deposition modeling (FDM) but with a dough instead of a plastic filament. This dough may consist of chocolate, sugar, chewing gum, tomato sauce and more.

While you can’t yet 3D print an entire Thanksgiving size edible turkey, you may soon be able to reproduce many of the side dishes like mash potatoes. The challenge for mash potatoes is that current food printers use only one printhead to extrude a single or a mixture of materials. Such a printhead cannot control the materials distribution on a plate whereas a multi-extruder printer could create a more visually appealing layering and texturing of foods such as mash potatoes. While still in the prototyping stages, a team of Chinese researchers at Jiangnan University have recently applied for a US patent on the 3D printing of mashed potatoes.

Holiday desserts are a bit easier to make as they typically require a single print head. Check out the aesthetically pleasing shape of a chocolate dome from 3DByFlow. I haven’t yet sampled their wares, but the chocolate sure looks good. ByFlow, founded in the Netherlands as a family business in 2015, is one of the companies in the growing market of 3D food printing.

IoT Eases Traditional Cooking Chores

Don’t yet have a 3D printer but still want to have a high-tech Thanksgiving? The IoT is here to help. Consider June, a connected oven that lets you control your baking and view your food from a smartphone. Or how about cooking that turkey (or Tofurky for your vegetarian friends and family members) in the “Crock-Pot Smart Slow Cooker.” It comes with a companion application for your smartphone to adjust time, temperature, and other factors.

When it comes to cooking, one of the more futuristic gadgets will soon be the solid-state RF cooker. The advantage of RF technology over the traditional magnetron-based microwave ovens are significant. The magnetron oven generates one power level at a time. In contrast, the solid-state cooker based on RF technology uses both power level control and frequency tuning to adjust the cooking conditions throughout the oven. In other words, you can cook a variety of different foods at the same time, e.g., turkey slices, potatoes and gravy, vegetables, and the like. Such precise cooking temperatures and locations on the plate are made possible by a number of solid state power amplifiers and antennas with closed-loop control to RF systems.’

While this technology has been available for a decade or so, it’s only recently been ready for prime time. Foremost in this effort has been Goji Food Solutions, an Israeli company that had developed an oven using solid-state power chips, RF energy devices and proprietary software. Together, these technologies and software allow the Goji-based oven to cook a variety of foods on a single plate even in the presence of utensils and metal cups.

For now, the first consumer RF cooking appliance that uses Goji’s technology will be in the industrial market. But competition in the commercial areas are already emerging. For example, Chinese appliance manufacturer Midea, in partnership with NXP Semiconductors, is developing the Semiconductor Heating Magic Cube. The Magic Cube combines NXP’s LDMOS RF power transistors that support the RF cooking module.

Image Source: IEEE IMS Show 2015 (Freescale-NXP demonstration, JB)

Whether you have access to a futuristic RF cooker, an IoT-enabled traditional oven or crock-pot, or a 3D food printer, technology can make this year a high-tech cooking adventure. Just be sure to include a few festive decorations and you will have nailed it.

bridgestone-aims-to-recycle-two-million-used-tires-to-make-new-ones
Bridgestone off-road tires, like this Firestone Destination M/T made at the company’s Aiken, S.C. plant, are candidates to be made with a blend of recycled carbon black. (Image source: Bridgestone Americas)

Carbon black, the sooty by-product of incompletely oxidized petroleum that is used to reinforce the rubber in tires, is such a sought-after commodity that Bridgestone Americas, Inc. expects demand to outstrip supply.

To ensure the supply of carbon black so that it can keep making tires and as a step toward Bridgestone’s commitment to cut its carbon footprint in half by 2050, the company has started blending in recovered carbon black extracted from worn-out tires for use in its new tires.

Delta-Energy Group recovers the carbon black from this crumb rubber of old tires. (Image source: Bridgestone Americas)

Bridgestone started looking at the Delta-Energy Group, LLC’s work in this area starting in 2007, and the companies became partners on the project in 2014, with the goal of promoting industrial-scale recycling, or a “circular” economy.

“Bridgestone Group is deeply committed to advancing an environmentally sustainable society by supporting a truly circular economy,” said Nizar Trigui, chief technology officer, Bridgestone Americas, Inc. “Through this partnership with Delta-Energy Group, we hope to shape the future of our industry and ensure efficient mobility solutions for generations to come.”

Firestone agricultural tires like these will start using recovered carbon black. (Image source: Bridgestone Americas)

Extracting carbon black from old tires provides an 81 percent reduction in CO2 versus creating new virgin carbon black, Bridgestone reports.

The partners have understood the fundamentals of recovering carbon black and re-using it in new tires for a while, but the nitty gritty details have needed sorting out to ensure that the performance and wear characteristics of the new tires with recycled carbon black are exactly the same as those made only with so-called virgin carbon black made directly from petroleum.

Jamie McNutt, Technical Fellow for Bridgestone’s Product Development Group (Image source: Bridgestone Americas)

In the early days, the recovery process charred the old tires so totally that it there wasn’t much left of value, noted Jamie McNutt, Technical Fellow for Bridgestone’s Product Development Group. “The original materials were burned to the point it didn’t have any reinforcement left in the material,” she recalled. Because reinforcement is the purpose of adding carbon black to tires’ rubber, that meant the recovered material was not useful.

Since then Delta-Energy has shifted to a low-oxygen pyrolysis process that minimizes the burning and retaining more of the structure, McNutt said. So far, Bridgestone has bought the equivalent of 70,000 recycled tires worth of carbon black from Delta-Energy, while verifying the correct ratio of recovered carbon black to virgin in the agricultural and passenger car tires where it will be used.

The blend turns out to be about 80 percent virgin and 20 percent recycled carbon black, reports Jon Kimpel, Executive Director of Bridgestone’s New Mobility Solutions Engineering. The material will be used in the tires’ sidewall inner liners, not in the tread area, he added.

The goal is to recycle two million tires to recover and re-use their carbon black in 2020. “As Delta-Energy[’s capacity] grows, that will allow us to grow as well,” he said.

In contrast, the overall tire industry will be facing price increases and availability constraints for virgin carbon black due to tightening regulations that make it difficult for those suppliers to expand production, according to Kimpel. “Supply is not going to be able to keep up with the pace of product.”

Bridgestone makes a lot more than two million tires each year, so the recycling program won’t make the company’s operation fully “circular,” that is a very significant volume. “We’re really proud of what we’re doing,” Kimpel said, “not only in recovered carbon black, but in sustainability overall. It is a good first step.”

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


Harvard University researchers have engineered a new fabrication method that promises to accelerate a lagging area of 3D printing technology – multimaterial printing.

The technique, called multimaterial multinozzle 3D printing (MM3D), was developed by researchers from Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). MM3D uses high-speed pressure valves that continuously and seamlessly switch between up to eight different printing materials at a speed of up to 50 times per second. That’s about as fast as a hummingbird can flap its wings, according to the researchers.

This enables the creation of complex shapes in a fraction of the time currently required using printheads that range from a single nozzle to large multinozzle arrays.

Moreover, the 3D printheads used in the process are also fabricated using 3D printing, which allows for customization and also could allow for others in the industry to create their own.

“When printing an object using a conventional extrusion-based 3D printer, the time required to print it scales cubically with the length of the object because the printing nozzle has to move in three dimensions rather than just one,” Mark Skylar-Scott, a research associate at the Wyss Institute said in a press statement.

MM3D’s combination of multinozzle array provides the ability to switch between multiple inks rapidly to eliminate the time lost to switching printheads, which helps to “get the scaling law down from cubic to linear, so you can print multimaterial, periodic 3D objects much more quickly,” Skylar-Scott said.

MM3D printing’s unique 3D-printed printhead design allows it to seamlessly switch between multiple different materials up to 50 times per second. (Image source: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

Overcoming droplet physics

Currently, most commercial 3D printers are only able to build objects from a single material at a time. While there are inkjet printers that are capable of multimaterial printing, these are constrained by the physics of droplet formation.

One method of 3D printing that does allow for the use of multiple materials to create one object is extrusion-based printing. However, this process is extremely slow. For example, it would take about 10 days to build a 3D object about one liter in volume at the resolution of a human hair and print speed of 10 cm/s using a single-nozzle, single-material printhead.

MM3D solves this speed issue with a series of Y-shaped junctions inside the printhead where multiple ink channels come together at a single output nozzle.

The Harvard team calculated and tuned the shape of the nozzle, printing pressure, and ink viscosity so that when pressure is applied to one of the “arms” of the junction, the ink that flows down through that arm doesn’t cause any of the other arms to spill ink. The researchers said this prevents the inks from mixing and preserves the quality of the printed objects.

The engineers also use a bank of fast pneumatic valves to operate the printheads, facilitating this one-way flow behavior so multimaterial filaments can be rapidly assembled and flow continuously out from each nozzle to construct a part.

The length of the ink channels can be adjusted to account for materials that have different viscosities and yield stresses, which would allow them to flow more quickly or slowly than other inks for custom multimaterial fabrication, said Jochen Mueller, a research fellow at Wyss and SEAS.

“Because MM3D printing can produce objects so quickly, one can use reactive materials whose properties change over time – such as epoxies, silicones, polyurethanes, or bio-inks,” he said in a press statement. “One can also readily integrate materials with disparate properties to create origami-like architectures or soft robots that contain both stiff and flexible elements.”

Complex, durable, and fast

The researchers published a paper on their work in the journal Nature. In it they describe how they demonstrated their technique by printing a Miura origami structure composed of stiff “panel” sections connected by highly flexible “hinge” sections.

To build such an object using previously available methods would have required manually stacking layers of objects that were printed separately. By using MM3D the researchers could print the entire object in a single step by using eight nozzles to continuously extrude two alternating epoxy inks that achieved varying stiffnesses after being cured.

Moreover, researchers reported that the hinges withstood over 1,000 folding cycles before failing. This demonstrates that the transitions between stiff and flexible materials during printing was of a high quality, they said.

Another, more complex object researchers printed using MM3D was a soft robot composed of rigid and soft elastomers in a millipede-like pattern. The robot included embedded pneumatic channels that compressed its actuators sequentially using a vacuum, allowing the robot to “walk” while carrying a load eight times its weight.

The Harvard researchers aid they aim to continue to evolve the MM3D process in a number of ways, particularly to improve the nozzles used. They would like to develop nozzles that can extrude different inks at different times, smaller nozzles for greater resolution, and even larger arrays for rapid, single-step 3D printing that range in size and resolution scales. The researchers also are exploring how to achieve even more complex shapes using sacrificial inks.

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!