2019's-10-best-books-for-engineers-and-technologists

Engineers will find something of interest in these selections, from Heaviside and Silicon Valley, to sustainable manufacturing, organs-on-a-chip, and more.

  • Don’t know what to get the engineer in your life? Here’s a mix of easily understood, yet engaging, books combined with a few hardcore technical works. All of these books were published in 2019, except for two that still remain worthy of note today.

  • The Forgotten Genius of Oliver Heaviside: A Maverick of Electrical Science

    By: Basil Mahon

    Publisher: Prometheus

    With the release of the film The Current War, it’s easy to forget the contributions of Oliver Heaviside. While The “current war” focused on the competition between Edison, Westinghouse, and Tesla to bring electricity to all of America, Heaviside (a contemporary of Edison and Westinghouse) was focused on electrical engineering technology to help bring mass communication to the country.

    Heaviside gave us the unit step function (remember calculus class?), coaxial cable, and the small coils placed in series with every telephone line to improve the signal by providing inductive loading.

    From the publisher:

    “This biography of Oliver Heaviside profiles the life of an underappreciated genius and describes his many contributions to electrical science, which proved to be essential to the future of mass communications. Oliver Heaviside (1850 -1925) may not be a household name, but he was one of the great pioneers of electrical science: His work led to huge advances in communications and became the bedrock of the subject of electrical engineering as it is taught and practiced today. His achievements include creating the mathematical tools that were to prove essential to the proper understanding and use of electricity, finding a way to rid telephone lines of the distortion that had stifled progress, and showing that electrical power doesn’t flow in a wire but in the space alongside it.

    At first his ideas were thought to be weird, even outrageous, and he had to battle long and hard to get them accepted. Yet by the end of his life he was awarded the first Faraday Medal. This story will restore long-overdue recognition to a scientist whose achievements in many ways were as crucial to our modern age as those of Edison’s and Tesla’s.”

  • Make, Think, Imagine: Engineering the Future of Civilization

    By: John Browne

    Publisher: Pegasus Books

    From the publisher:

    “Today’s unprecedented pace of change leaves many people wondering what new technologies are doing to our lives. Has social media robbed us of our privacy and fed us with false information? Are the decisions about our health, security and finances made by computer programs inexplicable and biased? Will these algorithms become so complex that we can no longer control them? Are robots going to take our jobs? Will better health care lead to an aging population which cannot be cared for? Can we provide housing for our ever-growing urban populations? And has our demand for energy driven the Earth’s climate to the edge of catastrophe? John Browne argues that we need not and must not put the brakes on technological advance. Civilization is founded on engineering innovation; all progress stems from the human urge to make things and to shape the world around us, resulting in greater freedom, health and wealth for all. Drawing on history, his own experiences and conversations with many of today’s great innovators, he uncovers the basis for all progress and its consequences, both good and bad. He argues compellingly that the same spark that triggers each innovation can be used to counter its negative consequences. This book provides an blueprint for how we can keep moving towards a brighter future.”

  • The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America

    By: Margaret O’Mara

    Publisher: Penguin

    Margaret O’Mara worked in the White House of Bill Clinton and Al Gore in the earliest days of the commercial Internet. There she saw firsthand how deeply intertwined Silicon Valley was with the federal government–and always had been–and how shallow the common understanding of the secrets of the Valley’s success actually was.

    In this work, she tells the story of mavericks and visionaries, but also of powerful institutions creating the framework for innovation, from the Pentagon to Stanford University. It is also a story of a community that started off remarkably homogeneous and tight-knit and stayed that way, and whose belief in its own mythology has deepened into a collective hubris that has led to astonishing triumphs as well as devastating second-order effects.

  • The Design of Coffee: An Engineering Approach

    By: William Ristenpart, Tonya Kuhl

    Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform

    Here’s another work that was published a few years ago but is relevant this year for its emphasis on cross-discipline collaboration, a trend noted in the chemistry industry.

    From the publisher:

    “[This book] provides a non-mathematical introduction to chemical engineering, as illustrated by the roasting and brewing of coffee. Hands-on coffee experiments demonstrate key engineering principles, including material balances, chemical kinetics, mass transfer, fluid mechanics, conservation of energy, and colloidal phenomena. The experiments lead to an engineering design competition where contestants strive to make the best tasting coffee using the least amount of energy – a classic engineering optimization problem, but one that is both fun and tasty! 

    Anybody with access to a sink, electricity, and inexpensive coffee roasting and brewing equipment can do these experiments, either as part of a class or with your friends at home. The Design of Coffee will help you understand how to think like an engineer – and how to make excellent coffee!”

  • Human Compatible: AI and the Problem of Control

    By: Stuart Russell, Allen Lane

    Publisher: Viking

    From the publisher:

    “Creating superior intelligence would be the biggest event in human history. Unfortunately, according to the world’s pre-eminent AI expert, it could also be the last. In this book on the biggest question facing humanity, the author explains why he has come to consider his own discipline an existential threat to his own species, and lays out how we can change course before it’s too late. There is no one better placed to assess the promise and perils of the dominant technology of the future than Russell, who has spent decades at the forefront of AI research. Through brilliant analogies prose, he explains how AI actually works, how it has an enormous capacity to improve our lives – but why we must ensure that we never lose control of machines more powerful than we are. Here Russell shows how we can avert the worst threats by reshaping the foundations of AI to guarantee that machines pursue our objectives, not theirs.”

  • Organ-on-a-Chip: Engineered Microenvironments for Safety and Efficacy Testing

    By: Julia Hoeng (Editor), David Bovard (Editor), Manuel Peitsch (Editor)

    Publisher: Academic Press/Elsevier

    From the publisher:

    “[This book] contains chapters from world-leading researchers in the field of organ on a chip development and applications, with perspectives from life sciences, medicine, physiology and engineering. The book details the field, with sections covering the major organ systems and currently available technologies, platforms and methods. As readers may also be interested in creating biochips, materials and engineering best practice, these topics are also described. Users will learn about the limitations of 2D in-vitro models and the available 3D in-vitro models (what benefits they offer and some examples). Finally, the MOC section shows how the organ on a chip technology can be adapted to improve the physiology of in-vitro models.”

  • Sustainable Engineering Products and Manufacturing Technologies

    By: Kaushik Kumar (Editor), Divya Zindani (Editor), J. Paulo Davim (Editor)

    Publisher: Academic Press/Elsevier

    From the publisher:

    “[This book] provides the reader with a detailed look at the latest research into technologies that reduce the environmental impacts of manufacturing. All points where engineering decisions can influence the environmental sustainability of a product are examined, including the sourcing of non-toxic, sustainable raw materials, how to choose manufacturing processes that use energy responsibly and minimize waste, and how to design products to maximize reusability and recyclability. The subject of environmental regulation is also addressed, with references to both the US and EU and the future direction of legislation.”

    Finally, sustainability factors are investigated alongside other product considerations, such as quality, price, manufacturability and functionality, to help readers design processes and products that are economically viable and environmentally friendly.”

  • Introductory Electrical Engineering With Math Explained in Accessible Language

    By: Magno Urbano

    Publisher: Wiley

    From the publisher:

    “[This work] offers a text that explores the basic concepts and principles of electrical engineering. The author explains the underlying mathematics involved in electrical engineering through the use of examples that help with an understanding of the theory. The text contains clear explanations of the mathematical theory that is needed to understand every topic presented, which will aid students in engineering courses who may lack the necessary basic math knowledge.”

    “Designed to breakdown complex math concepts into understandable terms, the book incorporates several math tricks and knowledge such as matrices determinant and multiplication. The author also explains how certain mathematical formulas are derived. In addition, the text includes tables of integrals and other tables to help, for example, find resistors’ and capacitors’ values. The author provides the accessible language, examples, and images that make the topic accessible and understandable.”

  • What Is Data Engineering?

    By: Lewis Gavin

    Publisher: O’Reilly Media, Inc.

    From the publisher:

    “The demand for data scientists is well-known, but when it comes time to build solutions based on data, your company also needs data engineers—people with strong data warehousing and programming backgrounds. In fact, whether you’re powering self-driving cars or creating music playlists, this field has emerged as one of the most important in modern business. In this report, Lewis Gavin explores key aspects of data engineering and presents a case study from Spotify that demonstrates the tremendous value of this role.”

  • Lithium-Ion Battery Failures in Consumer Electronics

    By: Ashish Arora, Sneha Arun Lele, Noshirwan Medora, Shukri Souri 

    Publisher: Artech House

    From the publisher:

    “This comprehensive resource caters to system designers that are looking to incorporate lithium ion (li-ion) batteries in their applications. Detailed discussion of the various system considerations that must be addressed at the design stage to reduce the risk of failures in the field is presented. The book includes technical details of all state-of-the-art Li-on energy storage subsystems and their requirements and provides a system designer a single resource detailing all of the common issues navigated when using Li-ion batteries to reduce the risk of field failures.

    “The book details the various industry standards that are applicable to the subsystems of Li-ion energy storage systems and how the requirements of these standards may impact the design of their system. Checklists are included to help readers evaluate their own battery system designs and identify gaps in the designs that increase the risk of field failures. The book is packed with numerous examples of issues that have caused field failures and how a proper design/assembly process could have reduced the risk of these failures.”

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

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.

the-10-greatest-issues-ai-needs-to-face
  • There are a lot of reasons to be excited about artificial intelligence. AI is transforming industries in innovative ways and even enabling entirely new business models to emerge.

    But there are also a lot of reasons to be cautious about AI. The 2019 AI Now Report, created by the AI Now Institute, takes a look back on the social impact of AI in 2019, and some of the most important issues surrounding the technology as it moves forward. The AI Now Institute is a non-profit, interdisciplinary research institute “dedicated to understanding the social implications of AI technologies.”

    “This year we saw a wave of pushback, as community groups, researchers, policymakers, and workers demanded a halt to risky and dangerous AI,” the report says.

    As AI moves into the next decade we’ve outlined some of the most important issues AI will have to grapple with in the coming years.

  • 1.) Algorithmic bias is already affecting us

    As more and more AI algorithms are implemented into decision making processes in everything from real estate to healthcare, it is important to for developers to be aware of the inherent biases within the datasets they use to train AI.

    Apple’s Apple Pay service recently came under fire from customers – including Apple’s co-founder Steve Wozniak – over allegations that the services approval system was assigning lower credit limits to female customers.

    Experts agree it will likely be impossible to completely safeguard systems again bias, but steps can be taken to mitigate the impact of bias.

    (Image source: Apple)

  • 2.) Facial recognition is watching us

    Facial recognition is already here and being widely deployed throughout the world. In China facial recognition technology has become a part of surveillance and security systems and even allowed customers to use their face to access ATMs.

    While there is an argument for convenience and security, there are also wide spread privacy and ethics concerns around using AI facial recognition. The city of Detroit is facing pushback over plans to add facial recognition to its Project Green Light – a camera system that allows police departments to monitor businesses and intersections in real time.

    In 2019 cities of Oakland, Calif., Somerville, Mass., and San Francisco voted to pass a ordinances banning municipal use of face recognition technology.

    By contrast however, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that it has plans to issue a proposed regulation that could require all travelers, including US citizens, to submit to face and other biometric scans at airports and other ports of entry.

    Regarding the DHS announcement, ACLU Senior Policy Analyst Jay Stanley had this to say:

    “Time and again, the government told the public and members of Congress that US citizens would not be required to submit to this intrusive surveillance technology as a condition of traveling. This new notice suggests that the government is reneging on what was already an insufficient promise.”

    (Image source:  teguhjati pras from Pixabay )

  • 3.) Deepfakes are a reality

    If you want to see the power of deepfakes you only need to browse around YouTube, to channels like Ctrl Shift Face.

    This isn’t a special effect. With enough data (including images and audio) AI algorithms can actually reconstruct and superimpose individual’s faces onto existing video footage. It makes for some entertaining viral videos, but there are wider, more frightening implications for deepfakes as they can be used to create fraudulent videos of political figures, celebrities, and even private citizens. Left unchecked, deepfakes could become a powerful tool for the spread of misinformation.

    (Image source: Ctrl Shift Face)

  • 4.) Algorithms are ruining our social media experience

    Have you ever watched one video on YouTube or liked a post on Facebook or other social media only to be sent down a rabbit hole of increasingly questionable recommendations? That’s not an accident – that’s AI trying to predict what you’ll “like.” And by “like” we mean it’s trying to figure out what content you’re most likely to engage with – and that often means offending or shocking you. Algorithmic issues are being blamed for both a rise in the quantity of extremist content on social media as well as its proliferation. Google, Facebook, and others have pledged to search for ways to tamp down on the spread of dangerous and extremist content as well as misinformation. But many would argue the damage has already been done.

    (Image source: Pixelkult from Pixabay  )

  • 5.) AI is a powerful tool for hacking

    Automation is meant to handle the dirty, dangerous, and repetitive tasks humans can’t or don’t want to perform, right? Well the benefits go both ways. More and more malicious hackers are leveraging AI technology to assist with sophisticated cybersecurity attacks. A well-trained algorithm can attack a target with a level of speed and efficiency that would be difficult for one or even a larger group of hackers. Fortunately, cybersecurity companies like XM Cyber are fighting fire with fire and are also using machine learning algorithms to safeguard networks and sensitive systems as well.

    (Image source: XM Cyber)

  • 6.) AI developers lack diversity

    Issues with AI can be correlated to a lack of racial and gender diversity among the engineers and developers being hired at the top technology companies working on AI. The AI Now Institute has found that Black and Latinx workers are substantially underrepresented in the tech workforce, and women are particularly underrepresented as AI researchers.

    “Rather than recognizing the scale and systemic nature of the problem, tech companies have responded to mounting evidence of bias and misuse by primarily focusing on narrow diversity solutions,” the AI Now Institute said. “They have also attempted technical debiasing, working to ‘fix’ algorithms and diversify data sets, even though these approaches have proven insufficient and raise serious privacy and consent concerns. Notably, neither approach addresses underlying structural inequalities.”

    (Image source: PixLoger from Pixabay)

  • 7.) AI isn’t green

    As engineers come to terms with the realities of climate change and the need to develop greener technologies, AI is having its own energy crisis. The massive amount of compute power required for AI also comes with a massive energy bill.

    “As a whole, the industry’s energy dependence is on an exponential trajectory, with best estimates showing that its 2020 global footprint amounts to 3–3.6 percent of global greenhouse emissions, more than double what the sector produced in 2007,” the AI Now Institute said. “This is comparable to that of the aviation industry,and larger than that of Japan, which is the fifth biggest polluter in the world.”

    Tech companies are already implementing renewable energy sources and other means to make data centers more efficient. But the emergence of 5G and other advanced networking technologies only threatens to make the problem worse before it gets better. “In the worst-case scenario, this footprint could increase to 14 percent of global emissions by 2040,” the Institute warned.

    (Image source: Free-Photos from Pixabay )

  • 8.) AI helps privatize public infrastructure

    “Troubling partnerships between government and private tech companies also emerged as a trend this year, especially those that extended surveillance from public environments into private spaces like private properties and the home,” the AI Now Institute said.

    In 2019 the city of Detroit established the “Neighborhood Real-Time Intelligence Program,” a $9 million, state- and federally-funded initiative that would expand the city’s Project Green Light surveillance system to 500 intersections, in addition to the 500 businesses where it is already deployed, as well as add facial recognition technology to the system. The city has reported reduced crime in areas thanks to Project Green Light, but that hasn’t stopped privacy advocates from protesting the technology.

    In 2018, Amazon came under fire for offering to let police departments utilize its facial recognition software. The company has also negotiated with over 700 police departments in the US to give police access to videos from Ring smart home cameras if the footage can help with a criminal investigation, according to the AI Now Institute.

    (Image source: Pixabay)

  • 9.) Automation impacts people of color and the poor the most

    The debate about automation and labor likely won’t ever stop. But the narrative is taking new shape as more data emerges about specific groups affected by rapid automation due to AI.

    Depending on who you ask, automation will be a boon to the economy as well as personal productivity, or it will usher in a dystopian nightmare where humans struggle for basic needs while robots handle all of the jobs.

    “Both narratives are predicated on the assumption that automation in the workplace is inevitable and that automated systems are capable of performing tasks that had previously been the work of humans. What is missing from both conflicting narratives is the more nuanced prediction of who will be harmed and who will benefit from labor automation in the years to come,” the AI Now Institute said.

    The 2019 AI Now Report predicts that Black, Latinx, and low-wage workers in the US will be disproportionately impacted by increased levels of automation.

    (Image source: mohamed_hassan from Pixabay)

  • 10. ) AI is removing the ‘human’ from human resources

    More and more companies are using AI to manage and oversee workers. AI is even being implemented into the hiring process. Amazon, for example, uses an AI system to set shifting performance goals for its warehouse workers. Workers are assigned a daily “rate” of productivity to hit each day, based on their prior performance and the overall goals of the warehouse.

    “If a worker falls behind, they are subject to disciplinary action. In many warehouses, termination is an automated process (not unlike being “kicked off” a gig-economy platform),” the AI Now Institute said. “According to Abdi Muse, an organizer with Amazon warehouse workers in Minneapolis, if workers fall behind the algorithmically set productivity rate three times in one day, they are fired, however long they may have worked for the company, and irrespective of the personal circumstances that led to their ‘mistakes.’ ”

    “The introduction of AI-enabled labor-management systems raises significant questions about worker rights and safety. The use of these systems—from Amazon warehouses to Uber and InstaCart—pools power and control in the hands of employers and harms mainly low-wage workers (who are disproportionately people of color) by setting productivity targets linked to chronic injuries, psychological stress, and even death and by imposing unpredictable algorithmic wage cuts that undermine economic stability.”

    (Image source: iosphere / Freedigitalphotos.net)

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.

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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!

the-9-most-disruptive-tech-trends-of-2019

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

1.) Robotics – collaborative robots (or cobots)

(Image source: OpenAI and Dactyl)

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

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

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

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

true-confessions:-a-plastics-engineer-discovers-the-true-meaning-of-black-friday

It happens every year, on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Stuff is on sale. All kinds of great stuff. And at incredible prices!

Person in street with shopping bags
Image: Ablokhin/Adobe Stock.

One story about the meaning of the phrase Black Friday is that retailers begin to turn a profit for the year on this day, with their net revenue number going from red to black. I have a hard time believing this. In fact, I have a hard time believing most company reports on profits and losses. I also have a hard time believing general statements on many corporate decisions. Often, the reasoning boils down to a simple statement: It’s not economically feasible.

I took my collection of PE film bags to my local Vons supermarket two days before Thanksgiving. The bag had been sitting in the trunk of my car for several weeks. Someone had referred me to a page to find a collection site. I entered my ZIP code, saw the name Vons on the list, got rather excited. Vons is owned by Albertsons Co., the second largest grocery company in North America. Here in Southern California, Vons stores are everywhere. When I saw Vons on the list, I assumed my local store was involved. I was wrong.

Seems my local store can’t be bothered with collecting plastic bags. I think I can guess the reason: It’s not economically feasible.

I am not an expert, but I know the basic economics of manufacturing and distribution: Fixed costs, variable costs, capital investment, amortization, overhead, gross vs. net, profit vs. loss. I know what’s involved in bringing a new product or new technology to market. Sure, there are times when something is not economically feasible, but there are also times when the real answer is: We don’t know how to do it. Or even worse: We don’t want to do it.

I don’t go shopping on Black Friday. I don’t like dealing with the crowds. Also, shopping online these days has gotten incredibly efficient. I can order anything I need online—the vendor selected based on reliability and cost efficiency—and have it delivered to my door, often at no extra cost. Sometimes, it arrives at my front door within a few hours of my ordering it. How can this be economically feasible?

The delivery itself is simple. The item is well packaged, usually in a cardboard box, with some bubble wrap, foam cushioning, packing peanuts, paper packing slips and receipts, and various PE shipping bags. If I want to keep the item, I take all of the packaging and put it in my recycling bin for curbside pickup. Of course, I am paying for this service via various taxes and fees, but I don’t know the cost breakdown, or if it is economically feasible. But the PE shipping bags I have to separate and take to a specialized collection site . . . which is not my local Vons.

But the funny thing is, if I want to return the item I just bought, with all of its packaging, all it takes is a couple of clicks. I put everything back in the box, drop it off at a local collection site and get a refund within minutes. How can this be economically feasible?

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy delivered a speech to a joint session of Congress. In that speech, he stated that the United States should set a goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth by the end of the decade. I don’t think he used the disclaimer, just as long as it is economically feasible.

That speech inspired America. In July of 1969, we landed human beings on the surface of the moon and brought them home safely. While we left behind all kinds of trash in the process, that event changed the world.

Today, some 50 years later, we are struggling with the issue of plastic trash. Yes, there are technical problems that need to be solved, but it seems that a lot of effort is being spent trying to determine what is—and what is not—economically feasible.  

Now that is what I call a Black Friday.

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

― John F. Kennedy, Address at Rice University, September 12, 1962

The next part in this series will be published on Dec. 19. If you’re a newcomer to this series, you can read part one here.

Eric LarsonEric R. Larson is a mechanical engineer with over 30 years’ experience in designing products made from plastics. He is the owner of Art of Mass Production, an engineering consulting company based in San Diego, CA. Products he has worked on have been used by millions of people around the world.

Larson is also moderator of the blog site plasticsguy.com, where he writes about the effective use of plastics. His most recent book is Poly and the Poopy Heads, a children’s book about plastics and the environment. It is available on Amazon.

5-lessons-learned-from-a-smart-home-experiment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Source: Honda Smart Home – Data
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.

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!