Ultrathin, Lightweight Solar Panels

A race is on in solar engineering to create almost impossibly-thin, flexible solar panels. Engineers imagine them used in mobile applications, from self-powered wearable devices and sensors to lightweight aircraft and electric vehicles. Against that backdrop, researchers at Stanford University have achieved record efficiencies in a promising group of photovoltaic materials. Chief among the benefits of these transition metal dichalcogenides – or TMDs – is that they absorb ultrahigh levels of the sunlight that strikes their surface compared to other solar materials.

Transition metal dichalcogenide solar cells on a flexible polyimide substrate

Imagine an autonomous drone that powers itself with a solar array atop its wing that is 15 times thinner than a piece of paper,” said Koosha Nassiri Nazif, a doctoral scholar in electrical engineering at Stanford and co-lead author of a study published in the Dec. 9 edition of Nature Communications. “That is the promise of TMDs.”

The search for new materials is necessary because the reigning king of solar materials, silicon, is much too heavy, bulky and rigid for applications where flexibility, lightweight and high power are preeminent, such as wearable devices and sensors or aerospace and electric vehicles.

Silicon makes up 95 percent of the solar market today, but it’s far from perfect. We need new materials that are light, bendable and, frankly, more eco-friendly,” said Krishna Saraswat, a professor of electrical engineering and senior author of the paper. While TMDs hold great promise, research experiments to date have struggled to turn more than 2 percent of the sunlight they absorb into electricity. For silicon solar panels, that number is closing in on 30 percent. To be used widely, TMDs will have to close that gap.

The new Stanford prototype achieves 5.1 percent power conversion efficiency, but the authors project they could practically reach 27 percent efficiency upon optical and electrical optimizations. That figure would be on par with the best solar panels on the market today, silicon included.

Moreover, the prototype realized a 100-times greater power-to-weight ratio of any TMDs yet developed. That ratio is important for mobile applications, like drones, electric vehicles and the ability to charge expeditionary equipment on the move. When looking at the specific power – a measure of electrical power output per unit weight of the solar cell – the prototype produced 4.4 watts per gram, a figure competitive with other current-day thin-film solar cells, including other experimental prototypes. “We think we can increase this crucial ratio another ten times through optimization,” Saraswat said, adding that they estimate the practical limit of their TMD cells to be a remarkable 46 watts per gram.”

Source: https://news.stanford.edu/

Nanoscale Device Acts Like The Brain’s Visual Cortex To Directly See Things

In a new study published in February 2020 in the journal Science Advances, researchers report the development of a nanoscale device that acts like the brain’s visual cortex to directly see things in its path. The scientists created a new superstructure through the use of two nanomaterials in tandem that could help to make a machine that uses AI to simulate a human mind‘s function.

This is a baby step toward developing neuromorphic computers, that can simultaneously process and memorize information. At some time in the future, this invention may help to make robots that can think like humans,” researcher Jayan Thomas says,  The big advantage of the current approach is in its saving of energy for processing as well as the time required for computation.


Another researcher, Tania Roy, predicted that the new technology might be applied to drones that can fly unaided to remote locations to find people in various dangerous situations. The problem with current drones is, she says, because “These drones need connectivity to remote servers to identify what they scan with their camera eye. Our device makes this drone truly autonomous because it can see just like a human.

With earlier research, scientists succeeded in making a camera that can create an image of what is observed, and then upload it for processing and image recognition to a server. The current device, she says, not only sees the image but also instantly recognizes it.

According to the researchers, this could also be extremely valuable for defense applications, such as helping soldiers see better on a battlefield. Another potential advantage is that, according to the co-first author Sonali Das, “Our device can sense, detect and reconstruct an image along with extremely low power consumption, which makes it capable for long-term deployment in field applications.”

The scientists tested out the device in face recognition experiments. These were only meant to be tests to check out how well the neuromorphic computing helped the machine to see objects. Describing these as preliminary, Thomas says they wanted to assess the optoelectronic device. “Since our device mimics vision-related brain cells, facial recognition is one of the most important tests for our neuromorphic building block.”

Source: https://www.news-medical.net/

Electric 3D-Printed Plastics

Rutgers engineers have embedded high performance electrical circuits inside 3D-printed plastics, which could lead to smaller and versatile drones and better-performing small satellites, biomedical implants and smart structures.

They used pulses of high-energy light to fuse tiny silver wires, resulting in circuits that conduct 10 times more electricity than the state of the art, according to a study in the journal Additive Manufacturing. By increasing conductivity 10-fold, the engineers can reduce energy use, extend the life of devices and increase their performance.

Our innovation shows considerable promise for developing an integrated unit – using 3D printing and intense pulses of light to fuse silver nanoparticles – for electronics,” said senior author Rajiv Malhotra, an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering in the School of Engineering at Rutgers University–New Brunswick.

Embedding electrical interconnections inside 3D-printed structures made of polymers, or plastics, can create new paradigms for devices that are smaller and more energy-efficient. Such devices could include CubeSats (small satellites), drones, transmitters, light and motion sensors and Global Positioning Systems. Such interconnections are also often used in antennas, pressure sensors, electrical coils and electrical grids for electromagnetic shielding.

Source: https://news.rutgers.edu/

Mimicking Mosquito Eyes To Create Artificial Lens

Anyone who’s tried to swat a pesky mosquito knows how quickly the insects can evade a hand or fly swatter. The pests’ compound eyes, which provide a wide field of view, are largely responsible for these lightning-fast actions. Now, researchers reporting in ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces have developed compound lenses inspired by the mosquito eye that could someday find applications in autonomous vehicles, robots or medical devices.


Compound eyes, found in most arthropods, consist of many microscopic lenses organized on a curved array. Each tiny lens captures an individual image, and the mosquito’s brain integrates all of the images to achieve peripheral vision without head or eye movement. The simplicity and multifunctionality of compound eyes make them good candidates for miniaturized vision systems, which could be used by drones or robots to rapidly image their surroundings. Joelle Frechette and colleagues from Johns Hopkins University wanted to develop a liquid manufacturing process to make compound lenses with most of the features of the mosquito eye.

To make each microlens, the researchers used a capillary microfluidic device to produce oil droplets surrounded by silica nanoparticles. Then, they organized many of these microlenses into a closely packed array around a larger oil droplet. They polymerized the structure with ultraviolet light to yield a compound lens with a viewing angle of 149 degrees, similar to that of the mosquito eye. The silica nanoparticles coating each microlens had antifogging properties, reminiscent of nanostructures on mosquito eyes that allow the insect organs to function in humid environments. The researchers could move, deform and relocate the fluid lenses, allowing them to create arrays of compound lenses with even greater viewing capabilities.

Source: https://www.acs.org/

AI Closer To The Efficiency Of The Brain

Computers and artificial intelligence continue to usher in major changes in the way people shop. It is relatively easy to train a robot’s brain to create a shopping list, but what about ensuring that the robotic shopper can easily tell the difference between the thousands of products in the store?

Purdue University researchers and experts in brain-inspired computing think part of the answer may be found in magnets. The researchers have developed a process to use magnetics with brain-like networks to program and teach devices such as personal robots, self-driving cars and drones to better generalize about different objects.

Our stochastic neural networks try to mimic certain activities of the human brain and compute through a connection of neurons and synapses,” said Kaushik Roy, Purdue’s Edward G. Tiedemann Jr. Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “This allows the computer brain to not only store information but also to generalize well about objects and then make inferences to perform better at distinguishing between objects.

The stochastic switching behavior is representative of a sigmoid switching behavior of a neuron. Such magnetic tunnel junctions can be also used to store synaptic weights. Roy presented the technology during the annual German Physical Sciences Conference earlier this month in Germany. The work also appeared in the Frontiers in Neuroscience.

The switching dynamics of a nano-magnet are similar to the electrical dynamics of neurons. Magnetic tunnel junction devices show switching behavior, which is stochastic in nature.  The Purdue group proposed a new stochastic training algorithm for synapses using spike timing dependent plasticity (STDP), termed Stochastic-STDP, which has been experimentally observed in the rat’s hippocampus. The inherent stochastic behavior of the magnet was used to switch the magnetization states stochastically based on the proposed algorithm for learning different object representations. “The big advantage with the magnet technology we have developed is that it is very energy-efficient,” said Roy, who leads Purdue’s Center for Brain-inspired Computing Enabling Autonomous Intelligence. “We have created a simpler network that represents the neurons and synapses while compressing the amount of memory and energy needed to perform functions similar to brain computations.

Source: https://www.purdue.edu/

Cartilage-like Material Boosts Batteries Durability

Your knees and your smartphone battery have some surprisingly similar needs, a University of Michigan professor has discovered, and that new insight has led to a “structural battery” prototype that incorporates a cartilage-like material to make the batteries highly durable and easy to shape.The idea behind structural batteries is to store energy in structural components—the wing of a drone or the bumper of an electric vehicle, for example. They’ve been a long-term goal for researchers and industry because they could reduce weight and extend range. But structural batteries have so far been heavy, short-lived or unsafe.

In a study published in ACS Nano, the researchers describe how they made a damage-resistant rechargeable zinc battery with a cartilage-like solid electrolyte. They showed that the batteries can replace the top casings of several commercial drones. The prototype cells can run for more than 100 cycles at 90 percent capacity, and withstand hard impacts and even stabbing without losing voltage or starting a fire.


A battery that is also a structural component has to be light, strong, safe and have high capacity. Unfortunately, these requirements are often mutually exclusive,” said Nicholas Kotov, the Joseph B. and Florence V. Cejka Professor of Engineering, who led the research.

To sidestep these trade-offs, the researchers used zinc—a legitimate structural material—and branched nanofibers that resemble the collagen fibers of cartilageAhmet Emrehan Emre, a biomedical engineering PhD candidate, sandwiches a thin sheet of a cartilage-like material between a layer of zinc on top and a layer of manganese oxide underneath to form a battery

Nature does not have zinc batteries, but it had to solve a similar problem,” Kotov said. “Cartilage turned out to be a perfect prototype for an ion-transporting material in batteries. It has amazing mechanics, and it serves us for a very long time compared to how thin it is. The same qualities are needed from solid electrolytes separating cathodes and anodes in batteries.”

In our bodies, cartilage combines mechanical strength and durability with the ability to let water, nutrients and other materials move through it. These qualities are nearly identical to those of a good solid electrolyte, which has to resist damage from dendrites while also letting ions flow from one electrode to the other.

Source: https://news.umich.edu/

Plane Propelled Via Ionic Wind

MIT engineers fly first-ever plane with no moving parts. The silent, lightweight aircraft doesn’t depend on fossil fuels or batteries. Since the first airplane took flight over 100 years ago, virtually every aircraft in the sky has flown with the help of moving parts such as propellers, turbine blades, and fans, which are powered by the combustion of fossil fuels or by battery packs that produce a persistent, whining buzz.
Now MIT engineers have built and flown the first-ever plane with no moving parts. Instead of propellers or turbines, the light aircraft is powered by an “ionic wind” — a silent but mighty flow of ions that is produced aboard the plane, and that generates enough thrust to propel the plane over a sustained, steady flight.Unlike turbine-powered planes, the aircraft does not depend on fossil fuels to fly. And unlike propeller-driven drones, the new design is completely silent.

A new MIT plane is propelled via ionic wind. Batteries in the fuselage (tan compartment in front of plane) supply voltage to electrodes (blue/white horizontal lines) strung along the length of the plane, generating a wind of ions that propels the plane forward.

This is the first-ever sustained flight of a plane with no moving parts in the propulsion system,” says Steven Barrett, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT. “This has potentially opened new and unexplored possibilities for aircraft which are quieter, mechanically simpler, and do not emit combustion emissions.”
He expects that in the near-term, such ion wind propulsion systems could be used to fly less noisy drones. Further out, he envisions ion propulsion paired with more conventional combustion systems to create more fuel-efficient, hybrid passenger planes and other large aircraft.

Source: http://news.mit.edu/