virgin-says-hyperloop-will-be-the-best-mode-of-transportation
A conceptual rendering of hyperloops deployed for cargo shipping. (Image source: Virgin Hyperloop One)

Virgin Hyperloop One (VHO) believes it is sitting on the world’s most efficient mode of transportation. The prediction came as the Los Angeles-based company also announced it is joining the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s CE [Circular Economy] 100 Network. The charity organization is dedicated to bringing public and private groups together in the name of accelerating innovations that will facilitate a circular economy – meaning one in which sustainability, recycling, and reduced waste are the norm.

In a press statement, Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson said that innovations like the hyperloop are going to be necessary to drive toward a more sustainable fufure while still meeting increasing demands for transportation. “The only way to address this mounting crisis is head-on,” Branson said. “We need big ideas like hyperloop to reach zero-emission transport while rapidly connecting people and goods.”

“As the world’s population grows, especially our urban populations, global demands for rapid, seamless travel, and more efficient deliveries will continue to rise. We must meet demand in a way that is efficient, clean, and protects the future of our planet,” Jay Walder, CEO of VHO, added. “Hyperloop technology can be that radical solution, setting the bar for the fastest, most energy-efficient, and sustainable form of travel ever created.”

VHO says its hyperloop technology, which uses magnetic levitation to propel a capsule-like vehicle through a depressurized tube, can transport humans and goods at nearly 700 miles per hour. “It will be able to carry more people than a subway, at airline speeds and with zero direct emissions,” the company said. “By combining an ultra-efficient electric motor, magnetic levitation, and a low-drag environment, the VHO system will be five to 10 times more energy-efficient than an airplane and faster than high-speed rail using less energy.” Further, the company proposes that solar panels can be integrated into the hyperloop’s infrastructure to provide for its energy needs.

VHO is currently on a tour across America. The Hyperloop Progress & American Roadshow has been touring major cities across the US to introduce the public to hyperloop technology, specifically the company’s XP-1 vehicle. The company also has several hyperloop projects underway across the country. The Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Transportation Council and The Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission are conducting active feasibility studies into the environmental impact of the hyperloop and the viability of building hyperloop routes in the Fort Worth area and the Chicago-Columbus-Pittsburgh corridor respectively. VHO also maintains a working test site in Nevada called DevLoop.

Internationally, the company is currently working with the Indian government of Maharashtra on developing a hyperloop route between Pune and Mumbai. “The implementation of a regional VHO system could reduce local greenhouse gas emissions by up to 150,000 tons (300 million pounds) annually while creating 1.8 million new jobs and $36 billion in economic impact across the region,” according to VHO.

An Open-Source Transportation Innovation

The idea of the hyperloop was first proposed by Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, circa 2012. Musk’s vision was for a new form of transportation that would be immune to weather changes, consume very little energy, never have collisions, store enough energy to operate 24/7, and travel at high speeds (able to travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 30 minutes).

The concept was to place pods inside of a tube that contained an array of fans. The fans would create a partial vacuum within the tube, allowing the pods to be propelled (via wheels, air pressure, electromagnetic propulsion, or some other means) through the tube at high speeds. Enthusiasts believe the hyperloop could one day obtain supersonic speeds.

VHO’s XP-1 at the company’s DevLoop test track in Nevada. (Image source: Virgin Hyperloop One)

In 2013 engineers at Tesla and SpaceX released a 57-page white paper detailing an early design concept. That same year Musk announced he was open-sourcing the concept so that other companies and institutions could iterate on the idea and speed its development. This has led to a small ecosystem of hyperloop companies like VHO, Los Angeles-based Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, and Canadian company Transpod to emerge.

There have also been competitions challenging students and startups to develop their own hyperloop solutions. Design News chronicled the journey of one of those teams – Team rLoop. that created its own hyperloop system entirely via social media collaboration.

The Long Loop Ahead

All of this is not to say that hyperloop technology has a smooth road (or tube) ahead. There have yet to be any tests or deployments on the scale comparable to even a short commercial flight. And there are a lot of questions around the logistics necessary to implement a large-scale hyperloop infrastructure.

A 2019 report, “Global Hyper loop Technology Market Research Report- Forecast 2023” published by Market Research Future predicted that transportation demands point to potential growth in the hyperloop market but also that the technology faces major obstacles.

The “possibility of technical glitches and the shortage of power restrain the market growth,” the report said. “Other restraints could be that terrain and other natural disasters will act as a major restraint for this market. In addition to this, it is seen that the online services connected with hyperloop will require connection to the pods which might affect the magnetic field within the tube further forming a major obstacle for the implementation process.”

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

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new-technology-could-generate-electricity-from-wastewater-and-seawater

Researchers at Stanford University have developed a “mixing entropy battery” (MEB) that can harness energy from the mixing of fresh and salt water. The energy created this way is sometimes called “blue energy.” According to a Stanford news release, the team’s objective is to apply the technology to coastal wastewater treatment plants and to use the electricity generated to make the plants energy-independent and carbon-neutral.

“Blue energy is an immense and untapped source of renewable energy,” said Kristian Dubrawski, a postdoctoral scholar in civil and environmental engineering at Stanford. “Our battery is a major step toward practically capturing that energy without membranes, moving parts or energy input.”

Development of a mixing entropy battery (MEB) depends upon the motion of sodium and chlorine ions from seawater into and out of inexpensive electrode materials. (Image source: Stanford)

Electrochemistry

The Stanford battery isn’t the only technology available to capture blue energy, but it’s the first to use battery electrochemistry instead of pressure or membranes. The present work is based on earlier research at Stanford that tapped into salt gradients to produce electricity, but that effort required an expensive electrode made from silver, and an initial energy input to begin the process.

The new Stanford battery floods a tank with salt-free water (which can be wastewater effluent. The tank contains electrodes which release sodium ions (Na ) and chlorine ions (Cl–) from the electrodes into the solution. This motion of ions also causes a current to flow from the anionic electrode to the cationic electrode. Then, a rapid exchange of the wastewater effluent with seawater allows the electrodes to reincorporate the sodium and chloride ions, reversing the electric current flow. Energy is recovered during both the freshwater and seawater flushes. This means that the battery is constantly discharging and recharging without needing any input of energy. As reported in a paper in the journal ACS Publications, energy is recovered during both the freshwater flush (43.6% of the total energy recovered) and the seawater flush (56.4% of the total energy recovered), with no upfront energy investment.

Unlike the earlier effort, that used expensive materials as the electrodes, this new MEB is cost-effective. The electrodes in the new MEB are made with Prussian Blue, a material widely used as a pigment and medicine, that costs less than $1 a kilogram, and polypyrrole, a material used experimentally in batteries and other devices, which sells for less than $3 a kilogram in bulk. The materials are relatively robust and a polyvinyl alcohol and sulfosuccinic acid coating protects the electrodes from corrosion when in contact with seawater.

Wastewater a Good Starting Point

Wastewater treatment is a good starting point for a practical application of the Stanford MEB study. The water treatment process is energy-intensive, accounting for about three percent of the total US electrical load. If sufficient blue energy could be generated by an MEB system, a wastewater treatment plant could be self-sufficient and operate off the grid.

According to the Stanford news release, “The researchers tested a prototype of the battery, monitoring its energy production while flushing it with alternating hourly exchanges of wastewater effluent from the Palo Alto Regional Water Quality Control Plant and seawater collected nearby from Half Moon Bay. Over 180 cycles, battery materials maintained 97 percent effectiveness in capturing the salinity gradient energy.” The team also reported that every cubic meter of freshwater that mixes with seawater produces about .65 kilowatt-hours of energy – enough to power the average American house for about 30 minutes. If the 68% efficiency achieved in a small prototype MEB can be achieved at full-scale, the energy produced would be sufficient to meet much or even all of the electrical energy demands for a conventional wastewater treatment plant.

“It is a scientifically elegant solution to a complex problem,” Dubrawski said. “It needs to be tested at scale, and it doesn’t address the challenge of tapping blue energy at the global scale – rivers running into the ocean – but it is a good starting point that could spur these advances.”

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Senior Editor Kevin Clemens has been writing about energy, automotive, and transportation topics for more than 30 years. He has masters degrees in Materials Engineering and Environmental Education and a doctorate degree in Mechanical Engineering, specializing in aerodynamics. He has set several world land speed records on electric motorcycles that he built in his workshop.

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tokyo-olympic-medals-are-made-from-recycled-electronics

For the first time, Olympic medals will be produced entirely from recycled electronic devices. (Image source: Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee)

The medals awarded to victorious athletes at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic games are special—not just because the symbolize athletic prowess and excellence, but also because  the gold, silver and bronze medals awarded to the athletes are being manufactured entirely from recycled materials.

The Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games conducted the “Tokyo 2020 Medal Project” to collect small electronic devices such as used mobile phones from all over Japan. This project makes Tokyo 2020 the first in the history of the Olympic and Paralympic Games to involve citizens and to manufacture the 5,000 required medals using recycled metals.

The Tokyo 2020 Medal Project also included a medal design competition that invited the public to submit design ideas for the medals. The winning medal was designed by Junichi Kawanishi.

The project brought in 78,895 tons of electronic devices—including 6.21 million mobile phones. Both the gold and silver medals are made entirely from pure silver, though the former uses more than six grams of gold plating on top of the silver base. The bronze medals are made from a red brass alloy, which is 95 percent copper and five percent zinc.

According to a news release by the Tokyo Organizing Committee, “The approximately 5,000 medals in total have now been produced from the small electronic devices that were contributed from people all over Japan. We hope that our project to recycle small consumer electronics and our efforts to contribute to an environmentally friendly and sustainable society will become a legacy of the Tokyo 2020 Games.”

Tokyo 2020 Olympic Medals

Diameter

85mm

Thickness

Thinnest part: 7.7mm

Thickest part: 12.1mm

Weight

Gold: about 556g

Silver: about 550g

Bronze: about 450g

Composition

Gold: more than 6 grams of gold plating on pure silver

Silver: pure silver

Bronze: red brass (95% copper and 5% zinc)

Ribbons

Attached to the top of medals

Side of Medal

The name of the event will be engraved in English

Senior Editor Kevin Clemens has been writing about energy, automotive, and transportation topics for more than 30 years. He has masters degrees in Materials Engineering and Environmental Education and a doctorate degree in Mechanical Engineering, specializing in aerodynamics. He has set several world land speed records on electric motorcycles that he built in his workshop.

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This summer (August 27-29), Drive World Conference & Expo launches in Silicon Valley with North America’s largest embedded systems event, Embedded Systems Conference (ESC). The inaugural three-day showcase brings together the brightest minds across the automotive electronics and embedded systems industries who are looking to shape the technology of tomorrow.

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enzyme-engineering-turns-plant-waste-into-plastics,-fuels

Imagine if there was a plant-based material that could easily be transformed into synthetic materials, the fabrication and disposal of which currently create excess waste and pollution.

That’s the scenario with a new discovery by a cross-institutional team of scientists, who have been working with enzymes to help solve the world’s plastic-pollution problem.

In their latest work, they have identified a new family of enzymes that paves the way to convert plant waste into sustainable and high-value products such as nylon, plastics, chemicals, and fuels.

A team—co-led by Professors John McGeehan at the University of Portsmouth, Jen Dubois at Montana State University, Ken Houk at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Dr. Gregg Beckham at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL)—made a breakthrough in using so-called “promiscuous” enzymes to break down lignin to its basic molecules.

Lignin is one of the main components of plants, and for years researchers have been trying to find an efficient way to break the material down. This is because “lignin represents a vast potential source of sustainable chemicals, so if we can find a way to extract and use those building blocks, we can create great things,” McGeehan said in a press statement.

Lignin, a building block of plants, is seen here stained red in a cross-section of plant cells from an oak tree. (Image Source: Berkshire Community College Bioscience Image Library)

Research Evolution

Building on previous research to improve a plastic-digesting enzyme to help dispose of plastic pollution, the team now has found a way to overcome a key challenge in the process of breaking down lignin to its basic chemicals, researchers said.

The research now paves the way to make new materials and chemicals such as nylon, bioplastics, and even carbon fiber, from what typically is a waste product, McGeehan said.

“It’s an amazing material,” he said in the statement. “Cellulose and lignin are among the most abundant biopolymers on earth. The success of plants is largely due to the clever mixture of these polymers to create lignocellulose, a material that is challenging to digest.”

Specifically, the enzyme researchers worked with is a new class of cytochrome P450 that is categorized as promiscuous—which means it’s able to work on a wide range of molecules. The enzyme class can be used to degrade a variety of lignin-based substrates, so researchers can engineer it to work especially for a specific molecule, allowing them to customize its function, researchers said.

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

Due to lignin’s versatility, researchers foresee the development of numerous new, eco-friendly products if it can be broken down repurposed using their enzyme discovery, researchers said. Creating products from lignin could help reduce global reliance on fossil fuels to make everyday products as well as for fuel, providing myriad benefits to the environment, they said.

Researchers plan to continue their work not just with this family of enzymes but also to discover others that could possibly make the breakdown of lignin even faster, they 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.

Drive World with ESC Launches in Silicon Valley

This summer (August 27-29), Drive World Conference & Expo launches in Silicon Valley with North America’s largest embedded systems event, Embedded Systems Conference (ESC). The inaugural three-day showcase brings together the brightest minds across the automotive electronics and embedded systems industries who are looking to shape the technology of tomorrow.

Will you be there to help engineer this shift? Register today!