May/June 2010

Automation by the Numbers


Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have successfully coated paper with a solar cell. The printed solar cells are still in the research phase and are years from being commercialized. However, the technique, in which paper is coated with organic semiconductor material using a process similar to an inkjet printer, is a promising way to lower the weight of solar panels. "If you could use a staple gun to install a solar panel, there could be a lot of value," said Vladimir Bulovic, the Eni-MIT Solar Frontiers Research Center's director. The materials MIT researchers used are carbon-based dyes and the cells are about 1.5% to 2% efficient at converting sunlight to electricity. But any material could be used if it can be deposited at room temperature, Bulovic said. MIT and Eni said this is the first time a solar cell has been printed on paper.



Lehigh Technologies of Tucker, Ga., has developed a process for rejuvenating discarded rubber that could open up new recycling opportunities. Used rubber is hard to recycle because it is vulcanized by the addition of sulfur and other compounds to the material's long molecular chains. Lehigh shatters rubber into a fine powder using a process that involves freezing old rubber and smashing it to pieces. This starts with tires that have been torn into half-inch chunks using conventional shredding equipment.   Lehigh mixes these rubber pieces with liquid nitrogen, cryogenically cooling the rubber to -100°C (-148°F). The rubber is then fed into a high speed "turbomill" that shatters it into particles no more than 180 microns in size. Creating such fine powder transforms the rubber from a highly inert filler material to one that can bond with other materials.

One bit

A researcher at North Carolina State University has developed a computer chip that can store an unprecedented amount of data-enough to hold an entire library's worth of information on a single chip. The new chip stems from a breakthrough in the use of nanodots, or nanoscale magnets, and represents a significant advance in computer-memory technology. "We have created magnetic nanodots that store one bit of information on each nanodot, allowing us to store over one billion pages of information in a chip that is one square inch," said Dr. Jay Narayan, the John C. Fan Distinguished Chair Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at NC State and author of the research. The breakthrough is these nanodots are made of single, defect-free crystals, creating magnetic sensors integrated directly into a silicon electronic chip.


German researchers have developed a new technology that lets drivers steer cars using only their eyes. Raul Rojas, an artificial intelligence researcher at Berlin's Free University, said the technology tracks a driver's eye movement and, in turn, steers the car in whatever direction they are looking. The technology called eyeDriver lets the car drive up to 31 mph (50 kph). For now, exercises remain relatively simple. The car chases a pedestrian or another car across the tarmac and shows agility and even drives backward-the driver only has to look into the rear-view mirror to guide the car. To demonstrate the car's autonomy, Rojas at one point jumped in front of the car-which was at that moment driving at perhaps 10 miles per hour-and the car was immediately stopped by the cameras that had detected the obstacle.