Category Archives: Newsworthy

Generating Power from Space

At the beginning of this year, the SSPP or Space Solar Power Project of the California Institute of Technology launched a prototype SSPD or Space Solar Power Demonstrator into orbit. They have an aspiring plan of gathering solar power in space. Not only will the SSPD prototype test several vital components, but also beam the energy it collects back to earth.

Outer space has a practically unlimited supply of solar energy. This energy is constantly available, never subject to cloud cover, and is unaffected by seasons and cycles of day and night. Therefore, space solar power is a tremendous step towards harnessing limitless amounts of clean and free energy.

The launch is a major milestone for the project. In full realization, the SSPD will have several spacecraft in the form of a constellation for collecting sunlight. It will then transform the sunlight into electricity, and transmit it wirelessly over to earth. The project will provide electricity wherever necessary, including places that do not have access to reliable power.

A SpaceX rocket launched the 50-kg SSPD into space on a Transporter-6 mission. The demonstrator has three main experiments. Each handling a vital technology of the project.

The first experiment is the DOLCE. This is the on-orbit, deployable, ultralight composite. Measuring 6 x 6 feet, this structure is meant to demonstrate the packaging scheme, architecture, and deployment mechanism of the future modular spacecraft that the scientists eventually plan to make up as the kilometer-long constellation of the power station.

The next experiment is the ALBA. This is a collection of various types of photovoltaic cells. Numbering 32 in total, this experiment allows the scientists to make an assessment of the effective performance of each type of photovoltaic cell in the extremely hostile environment of space.

The final experiment is the MAPLE. This is a microwave array for transferring power at low orbit. It consists of an array of lightweight flexible power transmitters at microwave ranges. With precise timing control systems, it can focus the power onto two different receivers selectively. This experiment will demonstrate the transmission of wireless power at a distance in space.

The SSPD has an additional fourth experiment. This is a box of electronics interfacing the prototype with the Vigoride computer while providing a control for the three experiments.

The ALBA or photovoltaic cell experiment will require up to six months of testing before it can generate new insights into the most suitable photovoltaic technology for space power applications. MAPLE constitutes a series of experiments, starting from verification of the initial functionality to an evaluation of the system performance under extreme environments over time.

DOLCE has two cameras on booms that can deploy as necessary, and more cameras on the electronics system. They will monitor the progress of the experiments and provide a feedback stream to earth. According to the SSPD team, they expect to have a complete assessment of the experiments’ performance within a few months.

In the meantime, the team still has to deal with numerous challenges. This is because it is not possible to guarantee anything about conducting an experiment in space.

Future Diamond Transistors

At Northrop Grumman Mission Systems and Arizona State University, researchers are working on a new project, creating power transistors, but from diamond. They claim diamond power transistors are capable of very high efficiencies. This can significantly shrink the size of power transistors, leading to smaller electrical grid substations, and a potential drop in the cost of cell phone towers.

Manufacturers typically make power transistors from silicon. However, researchers are investigating diamond, because, they claim, it has very high thermal conductivity. Therefore, diamond conducts heat more than 8 to 10 times more efficiently than current materials like silicon. The researchers claim that at their full potential, transistors made of diamond can be smaller than regular power transistors by about 90 percent.

The breakdown field of diamonds is also high. That means, as compared to most other materials, a diamond can withstand large amounts of voltage, before failure. A high breakdown field is advantageous for applications involving high power. Therefore, diamond transistors will be vital to advancing the transition to renewable energy, while electrifying the transportation sector.

Although silicon has been the standard material for making most semiconductor devices, manufacturers also use gallium nitride and silicon carbide for the more advanced modern transistors, mainly for regulating the flow of electrical power. Now, researchers are studying the use of two new transistor materials—boron nitride and diamond,

The researchers are studying diamonds for the main body of the transistor, while they are interested in boron nitride as the electrical contact for the transistor. Similar to diamond, boron nitride, too, has high thermal conductivity and a high breakdown field,

The research team expects to make transistors by combining the two materials. According to them, the two materials complement each other, working even better than they do individually.

Their research will be useful for several applications, such as communication technologies. For instance, satellites typically operate on solar power, requiring transistors to turn power from solar panels into a form usable by the electronics. For launching satellites into space, one of the biggest impediments is its weight and size. Using a smaller power transistor can help to reduce both.

Smaller diamond transistors can improve many other communication technologies as well. This includes towers that cell phones need. Transistors handle the power that these tower systems need to produce radio frequencies for cell phone usage.

According to the researchers, cell phone designers and operators face a huge challenge of keeping the tower systems cool. This is especially true when the tower location is in hot environments, such as in Phoenix.

Cell phone towers typically use power transistors made of silicon, while the newer 5G towers use gallium nitride transistors. With their substantially better heat transfer characteristics, the new diamond transistors can drastically reduce the power needed to cool cell phone tower systems, and also make easier the task of keeping cell tower electronics from overheating.

In addition to communication technology, power conversion applications for electrical systems and the electrical grid will also benefit from the new power transistors made of boron nitride and diamond. Their higher efficiency will significantly reduce the size of electricity grid substations.

Wearable Electronics with Screen-Printing

Although screen-printing methods are commonly useful for making T-shirts, manufacturers are now experimenting with the same technique for making flexible and wearable electronics. The easy manufacturing technique is also quite inexpensive.

The tech industry is increasingly promoting the popular use of flexible, wearable electronics. This promotion includes fitness trackers and smartwatches, which consumers are adopting widely. However, there is a huge challenge in making these devices—the process is rather error-prone, complex, and expensive.

Another challenge that manufacturers of such flexible, wearable electronics face are the high cost of raw materials. As the materials these devices require for the flexible sensors and displays are relatively new, they are expensive to produce in large quantities. Therefore, manufacturers find it difficult to produce high-quality and affordable devices.

The complexity of the manufacturing processes for these devices is another major challenge. The process of manufacturing these flexible, wearable electronic devices requires various steps, involving the printing of thin-film transistors, creating flexible substrates, and assembling the final device. Each step requires the execution to be at a high level of accuracy and precision. This not only increases the risk of errors but is also difficult to achieve.

In contrast, the screen-printing process, or the silk screen printing process, is a technique that is in use for centuries now. The process requires pushing ink through a mesh screen or stencil and depositing it on a surface. A non-permeable material blocks off sections of the mesh screen to leave open only the desired design. This allows ink to pass through only the openings.

Not only does the above process require very inexpensive and minimal material, but it is also incredibly simple as well, and anyone can do it by hand. So far, manufacturers of T-shirts have used this process, but now it has inspired a research team from Washington State University also. They experimented with the technique to check out its suitableness for printing flexible, wearable electrodes among other electronic components.

The team started by printing multiple layers of polyethylene glycol and polyimide mixture on a glass slide. They interspersed this printing with a conductive, patterned layer of silver. After completing the printing process, they peeled off the screen-printed material from the slide, affixing it to the body or fabric. Then they formed a serpentine, highly deformable pattern of electrodes, which could stretch to more than 30% of its regular size, and bend at up to 180 degrees without any damage.

The researchers created a wearable, real-time, wireless, electrocardiogram monitoring device using their new method, and put it to the test. They developed an algorithm to process the sensor data from the flexible printed circuit and the printed electrodes. Their device could accurately calculate respiratory rates, heart rate, and its variability metrics. According to the researchers, the variability metrics could have clinical applicability in the detection of arrhythmia.

The main advantage of the approach by the team is they can easily scale up their technique. Therefore, they can use the same technique for creating a single device or for mass-producing a commercial wearable. Moreover, the same technology is useful even beyond medical devices, such as in producing fitness trackers and smartwatches.

Green and Wireless IoT

IoT or the Internet of Things presents devices with a collection of components for connecting various systems, software, and people via the Internet technology. Of these, the communications network is a crucial component, and the IoT wireless technology enables this. The communications network acts as the gateway between a software platform and an IoT device.

In many industries and even in daily life, the IoT is already displaying a major impact. IoT basically connects a variety of smart objects of different shapes and sizes, facilitating data exchange between them. These objects can be self-driven cars with sensors that can detect road obstacles, home-security systems, and temperature-controlled industrial equipment. Furthermore, the interconnection is often over the internet and other communications and sensing networks.

Several thin-film device technologies are emerging. They typically rely on alternative semiconductor materials, which can be nanocarbon allotropes, printable organics, and metal oxides. As suggested by an international team, KAUST, these could contribute to a more environmentally sustainable and economical Internet of Things.

By the next decade, expect the ballooning hyper-network of IoT to reach trillions of devices. This will boost the number of sensor devices this platform deploys.

The present IoT technology relies heavily on batteries to power sensor nodes. Unfortunately, batteries require regular replacement. That makes them environmentally harmful and expensive over time. Moreover, the present global production of lithium for battery materials may be unable to keep up with the increasing numbers of sensors and their energy demand.

An alternative approach relies on energy harvesters and wirelessly powered sensor nodes for achieving a more sustainable IoT. These energy harvesters may be radio-frequency-based, photovoltaic cell-based, or use other technologies. Such power sources could readily enable large-area electronics.

The KAUST team has assessed the viability of several large-area electronic technologies for their potential of delivering wirelessly powered IoT that is more eco-friendly.

Relative to conventional technologies based on silicon, large-area electronics are now emerging as an appealing alternative. This is because of the significant progress that solution-based processing is making, resulting in easily printable devices and circuits on flexible, large-area substrates. It is possible to produce them at low temperatures and on a variety of biodegradable substrates like paper. That allows more eco-friendly sensors in comparison to counterparts based on silicon.

The KAUST team has, over the years, been developing a wide range of radio-frequency-based electronic components. These include organic polymer and metal oxide-based semiconductor devices commonly known as Schottky diodes. For making wireless energy harvesters, these devices are very crucial, ultimately dictating the cost and performance of sensor nodes.

The KAUST team has been making key contributions that have included scalable methods of manufacturing RF diodes for harvesting energy. These diodes easily reach the 5G/6G frequency ranges. According to the team, these technologies are providing the necessary building blocks to sustain a trend towards a more sustainable way of powering the future billions of sensor nodes.

Currently, the team is investing in the integration of low-power monolithic devices with sensors and antennae for showcasing their true potential.

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Haptic Skin Sensors

Although great technological advances are taking place to engage our eyes and ears in the virtual worlds, engaging other senses like touch is a different ballgame altogether. At City University in Hong Kong, engineers have developed a wearable, thin electronic skin called WeTac. It offers tactile feedback in AR and VR.

At present, there are several wearable devices with designs that allow users to manipulate virtual objects while receiving haptic feedback from them. However, not only are these devices heavy and big but also require tangles of wire and complex setups.

In contrast, the WeTac system is one of the neatest arrangements among all others. The engineers have made it from a rubbery hydrogel that makes it stick to the palm and on the front of the fingers. The device connects to a small battery and has a Bluetooth communications system that sits on the forearm in a 5-square-centimeter patch. The user can recharge the battery wirelessly.

The hydrogel has 32 electrodes embedded in it. The electrodes are spread out all over the palm, the thumb, and the fingers. The system sends electrical currents through these electrodes to produce tactile sensations.

According to the WeTac team, they can stimulate a specific combination of these electrodes at varying strengths. This allows them to simulate a wide range of experiences. They have demonstrated this by simulating catching a tennis ball or generating the feel of a virtual mouse moving across the hand. They claim they can ramp up the sensation to uncomfortable levels, but not to the extent of making them painful. This can give negative feedback, such as a reaction to touching a digital cactus.

According to the researchers, they can pair the system up with either augmented or virtual reality. They can thus simulate some intriguing use cases. For instance, it is possible to feel the rhythm of slicing through VR blocks in Beat Saber, or catch Pokemon while petting a Pikachu in the park in AR.

Using the WeTac system, it may be possible to control robots remotely or transmit to the human operator the tactile sensations of the robot as it grips something.

Syntouch has a new tactile sensor that performs three important functions. First, it measures the impedance using a flexible bladder placed against an array of sensing electrodes fixed in a rigid core. This arrangement helps to measure deformity, somewhat like the human finger, using its ductile skin and flesh against the rigid bone structure inside it. The finger uses its fingernails to cause bulges in the skin for detecting shear forces.

Second, the tactile sensor registers micro-vibrations using a pressure sensor that the sensor core has mounted on its inside. This enables measurements of surface texture and roughness. The fingerprints are very crucial here, as they can interact with the texture.

Third, the sensor has a thermistor. Its electrical resistance is a function of temperature. Just like the human finger can sense heat, the sensor also generates heat, while the thermistor allows it to detect how it exchanges this heat when the finger touches an object.

Precision RH&T Probe Using Chilled Mirror

The Aosong Electronic Co. Ltd, with a registered trademark ASAIR, is a leading designer and manufacturer in China of MEMS sensors. They focus on the design of sensor chips, the production of wafers, sensor modules, and system solutions. They have designed a sensor AHTT2820, which is a precision relative humidity and temperature probe.

ASAIR has based the design of AHTT2820 on the principles of a cold optical mirror. It directly measures humidity and temperature. Contrary to other methods of indirect measurements of humidity through resistance and capacitance changes, AHTT2820 uses the principles of a cold optical mirror. It can directly measure the surrounding humidity. It is an accurate, intuitive, and reliable sensor.

ASAIR uses a unique semiconductor process to treat the mirror surface of this high-precision humidity and temperature sensor. It uses platinum resistance to measure the temperature by sensing the change in the resistance due to a change in temperature. This gives the high-precision humidity and temperature sensor long-term stability, reliability, and high accuracy of measurement. The sensor features a fast response speed, a short warm-up time, and an automatic balance system.

Users can connect the sensor to their computer through a standard Modbus RTU communication system. It can record data, display the data, and chart curves. The precision RH&T probe provides direct measurement of temperature and dew point. Powered by USB, the split probe is suitable for various scenarios.

The AHTT2820 is a chilled mirror dew point meter that directly measures the dew point according to the definition of dew point. Various industries widely use it. They include food and medicine production industries, the measurement and testing industry, universities, the power electronics industry, scientific research institutes, the meteorological environment, and many others.

The probe uses its optical components to detect the thickness of frost or dew on the mirror surface. It uses the detection information for controlling the temperature of the mirror surface for maintaining a constant thickness of dew or frost. It uses a light-emitting diode to generate an incident beam of constant intensity to illuminate the mirror. On the opposite side, the probe has a photodiode for measuring the reflected intensity of the incident beam from the light-emitting diode.

The probe uses the output of the photodiode for controlling the semiconductor refrigeration stack. Depending on the output of the photodiode, the system either heats up or cools down the semiconductor refrigeration stack. This helps to maintain the condensation thickness of moisture on the surface of the mirror.

As it reaches the equilibrium point, the rate of evaporation from the mirror surface equals the rate of condensation. At this time, the platinum resistance thermometer embedded in the mirror measures the temperature of the mirror, and this represents the dew point.

Under standard atmospheric pressure, it is possible to obtain the related values of absolute humidity, relative humidity, water activity, and humid air enthalpy through calculation after measuring the ambient temperature.

The probe can measure temperatures from -40 to +80 °C, with an accuracy of ±0.1 °C. It measures humidity from 4.5 to 100%RH at 20 °C, with an accuracy of ±1%RH at <90%RH.

Interactive Touchscreens

The interactive touchscreen, being an outstandingly adaptable technology, is a common feature in almost all settings. This includes manufacturing, healthcare, restaurants, movie theaters, shops, railway stations, and even in outer space. People use interactive touchscreens universally for the simple reason that they make life easier. In any industry, interactive touchscreens allow people to do their job better and more quickly.

In the age of digital transformation, the above features are essential. The trend in industries all over is to optimize workflows with technology. More stakeholders value convenience and speed now. Although touchscreens find universal applications, system integrators and their vendors of integrated software uphold their versatility by finding newer uses for them. That means a bright future lies ahead for interactive touchscreens. Moreover, manufacturers are integrating them with future technologies like artificial intelligence, voice recognition, and computer vision.

With a change in customer preference, businesses can respond by using touchscreens. For instance, theaters that have been in business for a long time, are now adapting to new customer expectations of greater convenience. Customers decide on remaining at a site and purchasing, depending on whether the ordering process is convenient for them.

At times, when customers are facing a busy night, or they are running late, they may decide to forego buying candy and popcorn. This represents a substantial loss for the theater since they make huge profits from concessions.

Therefore, theaters are setting up self-service concession and ticketing kiosks based on interactive touchscreens. Any moviegoer can now buy their tickets and concessions as soon as they enter the theater, as many kiosks are available at the entrance in the lobby. Each kiosk has the capability to serve up to 350 customers every day.

This has resulted in a substantial improvement across the board. Customers are more satisfied now that waiting time has come down, and concession sales are booming.

Touchscreens are available in diverse types. For instance, they may be huge 65-inch large-format displays or tiny handheld models the size of a smartphone. Manufacturers are offering additional features to make them more versatile and attractive.

For instance, touchscreens are available with peripherals that the user can customize. They have a choice of peripherals ranging from biometric scanners, status lights, RFID and NFC readers, to webcams, barcode scanners, and so many more. Manufacturers often enhance the basic modularity of touchscreens with computing devices for control over complex situations. For instance, the integrated software in a touchscreen offers a point-of-sale application supporting a number of different peripherals with custom configurations.

Interactive touchscreens are evolving fast. Stand-alone touchscreens are transforming self-service applications. Identification of products using computer vision is speeding up the customer’s intentions of purchase by speeding up at self-checkouts. This integration of technologies is benefitting both, the businesses and the customers. While customers prefer to make their own choices, they receive help from the combination of computer vision, voice recognition, touch facility, and artificial intelligence. All this allows the user to drive the interaction.

By putting the control back where it belongs—in the customer’s hands—the future of interactive touchscreen is moving towards fulfilling its original purpose.

Importance of Edge Sensor Data

The industrial setup is seeing a significant increase in the amount of autonomous machinery with Industry 4.0. Not only are these machines providing human-like thinking capabilities, they are also revolutionizing the industry with their utmost precision and efficiency of operation. Edge sensors are an integral part of the industrial automation ecosystem. The edge sensors collect surrounding and environmental signals, sending them to edge data centers for monitoring and control of various parameters that affect operations. These sensors generate vast amounts of data that require monitoring for the identification of patterns while extracting important insights for further optimization.

With AI or Artificial Intelligence, ML or Machine Learning, and BDA or Big Data Analysis forming the base of Industry 4.0, the industry is treating data as the new gold. These tools process the data generated by edge sensors for efficiently managing and analyzing extensive processes. Enterprises use these tools to obtain insights into the working of processes, for recognizing patterns and looking for events associated with the industrial operation. The analysis helps with the further creation of algorithms that help in the optimization of machines and monitoring devices.

However, large computational power is necessary for processing the data that the sensors produce. The industry resorts to cloud computing, as data processing with the symbiotic support of the cloud, reduces the necessary investments. But this comes at the cost of higher bandwidth requirements and increased latency. On the other hand, applications like computational healthcare and self-driving cars require a faster response. Edge computing easily fills such gaps.

For the computation of data and remote monitoring, the Internet of Things happens to be a complete ecosystem of supporting devices and connected sensors. The cloud processes the enormous amounts of data the system generates. The cloud is simply huge data centers working round the clock, handling extensive amounts of data while being in connection with the internet.

The location of most of these data centers is in remote areas, as they need massive areas of land and cheap power to operate. This increases the bandwidth requirement and latency. Engineers are trying to solve this issue by placing smaller data centers close to the edge sensors, actuators, motors, etc.

Industries also use IoT to share data through unified analytic platforms. Industries usually deploy similar kinds of machinery, but use them in varied conditions of environments and load conditions. This generates various types of data, which when industries share them, can help build a robust ecosystem.

Companies can optimize their products based on shared local consumer data. This optimization can be in the hardware or in the software. Industries frequently conduct software optimization through the internet, while hardware optimization involves generating newer editions of the product. Collecting user data typically involves privacy and security issues. With edge computing, proper handling of local and distributed storage of data can help prevent huge tech giants from accumulating large amounts of private data. However, this makes data more prone to attacks from cyber-crooks.

Engineers typically collect and process the data collected from the edge sensors near the sensor itself. Sometimes, they transfer the data to centralized data centers or localized edge data centers for adding value.

What are Low-Power Reflective Displays

The next-generation display technology is coming up with high-resolution reflective displays. These displays come with motion image capability along with a broad color capability. The reflective displays substantially reduce power consumption, allowing the realization of newer display applications, such as digital textbooks and smartwatches.

E-book applications have been widely using EPD or electrophoretic displays for the past few years. EPDs are low-power displays that form images by the electronic rearrangement of charged pigment particles. However, EPDs are of relatively low reflectivity, as their optical diffusion is essentially Lambertian. Avoiding further reduction in display reflectivity, therefore, requires using narrow color gamut filters, which impacts the display properties negatively.

The use of reflective color liquid crystal displays overcomes this issue of EPDs. Reflective LCDs use a diffusion film and a mirror electrode to diffuse light in its direction of travel. The design of the display system requires a suppression of the chromaticity of the optical components. This establishes a method of controlling the optical diffusion of the reflected light. The net result is a display with high reflectivity and a wide color gamut. This arrangement makes the display optically similar to the white paper.

Sharp makes this low-power, high-resolution reflective display with the technical name IGZO. They offer full color with high-resolution displays, and because of their reflective nature, they are sunlight readable. In fact, their exceptionally high resolution makes them comparable in performance to TFT displays.

Sharp uses unprecedented circuit thinning and transistor miniaturization, leading to a high electron mobility rate. Their design raises the light transmission of each pixel, thereby achieving nearly twice the resolution typically offered by a display of the same transmittance.

IGZO displays achieve power consumption reduction to the order of one-fifth to one-tenth that of conventional displays. This helps to preserve a longer product battery life. Sharp achieves improved pixel performance in their IGZO displays by utilizing a Pause Driving Method that capitalizes on high OFF resistance.

The trend in the electronics industry is towards increasingly thinner and lighter finished products. The IGZO reflective technology meets this demand exceedingly well. This makes IGZO displays ideal for handheld battery-powered products that need full-color, high-resolution displays that perform well in bright outdoor environments. Additionally, the elimination of the backlight opens up the design to a whole new world of possibilities.

The Sharp IGZO reflective displays offer several advantages. The major advantage is they do not require a backlight as they work in a reflective mode, resulting in ultra-low power consumption. The reflective electrode structure results in the displays offering high outdoor readability, with full-color moving images in high contrast. A special design effort from Sharp has resulted in these displays being thin and lightweight. The slim, low-power reflective design enables product design to be made compact.

The IGZO displays support a wide operating temperature range, extending from -20 C to +70 C. Corresponding storage temperatures extend from -30 C to +80 C.

The higher electron mobility of IGZO displays is about 20-50 times faster than those of amorphous silicon displays. This enables them to perform at higher resolution at the same or lower power consumption, as compared to amorphous silicon displays.