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Stanford University Professor Hongjie Dai and colleagues have developed a high-performance aluminum battery.


While it has been well known for some time now that rechargeable aluminum-based batteries could offer the possibility of low cost, low flammability and high capacity, research efforts have encountered numerous problems, such as cathode material disintegration, low cell discharge voltage and inadequate life cycles with rapid capacity decay.  A key challenge has been in finding a cathode material that would result in the battery generating sufficient voltage after repeated cycles of charging and discharging.

Recently, Stanford University scientists have developed the first high-performance aluminum battery that's fast-charging, long-lasting and inexpensive.

"We have developed a rechargeable aluminum battery that may replace existing storage devices, such as alkaline batteries, which are bad for the environment, and lithium-ion batteries, which occasionally burst into flames," said Hongjie Dai, a professor of chemistry at Stanford. "Our new battery won't catch fire, even if you drill through it."

Dai and his colleagues described their novel aluminum-ion battery in a paper published in the online edition of the journal Nature.

An aluminum-ion battery consists of two electrodes: a negatively charged anode made of aluminum and a positively charged cathode. For the experimental battery the Stanford team placed the aluminum anode and graphite cathode, along with an ionic liquid electrolyte, inside a flexible polymer- coated pouch. "The electrolyte is basically a salt that's liquid at room temperature, so it's very safe," said Stanford graduate student Ming Gong, co-lead author of the Nature study.

Very fast charging is another benefit of the experimental battery. Smartphone owners know that it can take quite some time to charge a lithium-ion battery, but the Stanford team reported "unprecedented charging times" of down to one minute with the aluminum prototype.

Durability is important as well. Previous aluminum battery attempts usually died after just 100 charge-discharge cycles. But the Stanford battery is said to be able to withstand more than 7,500 cycles without any loss of capacity.

By comparison, a typical lithium-ion battery lasts about 1,000 cycles.

The aluminum battery is also flexible. It can be bent and folded so it has the potential for use in flexible electronic devices. Aluminum is also a cheaper metal than lithium so cost should not be a factor.

Further improvements will be needed, in particular in the area of matching the voltage of lithium-ion batteries.  Dai noted "our battery produces about half the voltage of a typical lithium battery, but improving the cathode material could eventually increase the voltage and energy density.”


The Lane Motor Museum in Nashville TN was established by auto enthusiast Jeff Lane in 2002 based on his personal collection. The museum now has over 400 cars, 150 of which are on display at any time.


Of all the vehicles in the museum, perhaps the strangest is the Helicron (above), which receives its propulsion via an aircraft propeller and engine. It is not a car-and-plane hybrid as it cannot fly and was meant to be driven on public roads. Discovered in a French barn in 2000, having been placed there by the original owner in the late 1930s, the Helicron was constructed in 1932. It has been completely rebuilt but many of the mechanical components are original, such as the frame, wire wheels, dashboard, steering wheel, steering gear, brake pedal, light switch, headlights, and the type plate. The wood frame was sandblasted and treated, the steering gear was rebuilt, and the interior was upholstered. The current engine is a 4-cylinder, air cooled Citroën GS engine with the propeller coupled directly to the crankshaft. The original engine was lost but it is known to have been a horizontally-opposed, two cylinder, four stroke engine. The rear wheel assembly is used to steer the vehicle. The Helicron is reported to have passed a French safety inspection in 2000 and is approved for use on their roads. Speed is controlled by a throttle and top speed is said to be around 75 mph.



Perhaps more unusual is the fact that the Helicron isn’t the only propeller-driven car in the Lane Museum’s collection; it’s joined by several Marcel Leyat creations.  The image above shows the 1919 Leyat Helico. Marcel Leyat believed that propeller-driven cars were the wave of the future. He thought they would be popular because they were simpler – they contained no rear axle and no transmission, differential or clutch were required. Steering was handled via the rear wheels. In the front the giant propeller was powered by an 8 horsepower Scorpion engine that provided movement for the vehicle.

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If you saw the 2014 film American Sniper (or read the book on which it is based,  telling the story of Chris Kyle) much time was spent showing the preparation military snipers go through to acquire moving targets, especially in unfavorable conditions such as high winds and dusty terrain. There is good reason for this preparedness: any shot that doesn’t hit a target risks the safety of troops by exposing their presence and location.


DARPA’s Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance (EXACTO) seeks to revolutionize rifle accuracy and range by developing a guided small-caliber bullet--the EXACTO 50- caliber round-- and accompanying optical sighting technology. Its objective is to combine a maneuverable bullet and a real-time guidance system to track and deliver the projectile to the target, allowing the bullet to change path during flight to compensate for any unexpected factors that may drive it off course.


Technology recently developed in Phase II of the smart bullet’s development focused on the design, integration and demonstration of aero-actuation controls, power sources, optical guidance systems and sensors. The program has now included a system-level, live-fire test, which the agency recently discussed, showing how smart bullets maneuver in mid-air to hit moving targets. During the test an experienced shooter using the technology demonstration system repeatedly hit moving and evading targets. Additionally, a novice shooter using the system for the first time hit a moving target.


The agency says the live-fire demonstration used a standard rifle and showed that EXACTO is able to hit moving and evading targets with extreme accuracy at sniper ranges unachievable with traditional rounds. Fitting EXACTO’s guidance capabilities into a small .50-caliber size is considered to be a major breakthrough and opens the door to what could be possible in future guided projectiles across all calibers of ammunition.


The U.S. Navy's X-47B unmanned combat air system demonstrator (UCAS-D) successfully completed its first aerial refueling last week, quite an achievement given that it doesn't have a pilot to help maneuver it to capture the tanker's fueling probe in mid-air.


The X-47B vehicle 2, also known as Salty Dog 502, was launched from the Naval Air Station at Patuxent River, Maryland. It received over 4,000 lbs. of fuel from an Omega Aerial Refueling Services Boeing 707 tanker aircraft while flying off the coast of Maryland and Virginia.


The X-47B uses preset software programs and is not remotely piloted. When it was 1 mile. behind and 1,000 ft. below the tanker, it requested permission to move closer using GPS. The operator on the ground at Patuxent River then only had to push a button to initiate the refueling process subroutine, after which the computer on the aircraft took over. Once it was 20 ft. behind the tanker the X-47B navigated using a vision system comprised of two electro-optical and two infrared cameras, which provided a three-dimensional image of the tanker and drogue. When the two aircraft were eight feet apart the vehicle extended a fueling probe to meet up with the tanker's hose and drogue. The refueling process lasted over 11 minutes, during which time the two aircraft were “station keeping”—maintaining their relative position while flying in close formation. After refueling the X-47B autonomously disengaged the drogue, maneuvered away from the tanker and returned to base.

The X-47B was built by Northrop Grumman to demonstrate that an unmanned aircraft can be integrated into an aircraft carrier's operations. In July, 2013 it made the first unmanned-aircraft arrested landing and catapult takeoff from an aircraft carrier at sea. Since it was never meant to be an operational aircraft the X-48B will now be retired to make way for the next generation Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike system (UCLASS), which is scheduled to begin operations in the early 2020s.


Artist’s rendition of the Tactical Laser Weapon Module deployed on a drone aircraft.

Perhaps it was apropos that around the same time trailers for the upcoming Star Wars movie “The Force Awakens” were circulating on the blogosphere General Atomics Aeronautical Systems announced that a U.S. Government appointed independent measurement team had completed beam quality and power measurements of its Gen 3 High Energy Laser System (HEL).

The new laser represents the third generation of technology originally developed under the High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System (HELLADS, Gen 1) program. The Gen 3 Laser employs a number of upgrades resulting in improved beam quality, increased electrical to optical efficiency, and reduced size and weight. The recently certified Gen 3 laser assembly is very compact at only 1.3 x 0.4 x 0.5 meters. The system is powered by a compact Lithium-ion battery supply designed to demonstrate a deployable architecture for tactical platforms.

The laser’s run time is said to be limited only by the magazine depth of the battery system. During testing, beam quality was reported to be constant throughout the entire run, which was more than 30 seconds. These measurements confirm that the  beam quality of this new generation of electrically-pumped lasers can be maintained above the 50 kilowatt level.

The Gen 3 HEL tested is expected to be used on the Tactical Laser Weapon Module (TLWM) currently under development. Featuring a flexible, deployable architecture, the TLWM is designed for use on land, sea, and airborne platforms and will be available in four versions at the 50, 75, 150, and 300 kilowatt laser output levels. GA-ASI expects deployment of the TLMW on the Predator C Avenger by 2018. The U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR) also has asked industry to provide a 150-kw laser weapon suitable for installation on future DDG-51-class destroyers.




CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator. It consists of a 27-km ring of superconducting magnets with a number of accelerating structures to boost the energy of the particles along the way. It first started up on September 10, 2008.


In its last series of runs in 2012-13 the ATLAS and CMS experiments at the LHC observed and confirmed the existence of a new particle in the mass region around 126 gigaelectronvolts (GeV). This particle is consistent with the Higgs boson, predicted by what physicists refer to as the Standard Model, which explains how the basic building blocks of matter interact, governed by four fundamental forces. On October 8, 2013 the Nobel Prize in physics was awarded jointly to François Englert and Peter Higgs "for the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles”.


Now, after a period of maintenance and upgrades to the machine,  proton beams have circulated in the LHC for the first time in two years.


LHC operators and systems experts kept the beams at their injection energy of 450 GeV, far below the target energy of 6.5 teraelectronvolts (TeV) per beam. The operators will now test the accelerator's subsystems and key beam parameters in preparation for increasing the beam intensity and ramping up the energy.


Only when the machine is sufficiently tuned – and the team declares "Stable Beams" with the beams in collision at the new energy of 6.5 TeV per beam – will the physics data taking begin. This work will take many weeks.


Researchers and maintenance crews will spend a great deal of this time checking and rechecking subsystems on the LHC. For example, the Machine Protection subsystem ensures that the LHC is protected from its own beams. It includes the beam dump, beam interlock system, collimators, and beam-energy tracking devices. 'Loss maps' tell the team where the beam is losing particles along the ring. Similarly, Beam Instrumentation systems includes position monitors, beam-loss monitors and synchrotron-light monitors among other devices. There are also radiofrequency, vacuum, beam-optics and injection systems, which all need to be tested and double-checked.


Despite the LHC's complexity, increasing the beam energy is a simple enough process: ramp up the current in the magnets and allow the radio frequency system to increase the energy of the beams. The current in all the magnets (and hence the magnetic field seen by the beam) is carefully increased as the beam energy rises. The main dipoles provide the necessary centripetal force to bend the beams around the ring. Other magnets such as quadrupoles have to carefully track along with the increasing dipole field.


Particle collisions at an energy of 13 TeV could start as early as June.


Facebook plans to go aloft to beam Internet access down from a fleet of solar-powered drones. Aquila is the code name for the social media giant’s V-shaped unmanned vehicles, one of which which recently completed its first test flight in the U.K., a fact announced last week by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on—where else—his Facebook page.  Last year Facebook acquired the UK- based drone maker Ascenta, which created early versions of the Qinetiq Zephyr, the world’s longest flying solar-powered unmanned aircraft. In 2010, the Zephyr 7 set a world endurance record of 336 hr., 22 min., reaching an altitude of 70,740 ft.

The Ascenta team, working with Facebook's Connectivity Lab now has come up with a design for a solar-powered craft that can soar at 60,000 feet for up to three months at a time, and use a laser to beam high-speed data to the remotest regions of the world. The fleet of Aquila drones is part of an Internet.org project that aims to bring Internet access to the 5 billion people that don't have it yet. Internet.org is a Facebook-led initiative in partnership with leading technology companies such as Samsung, Qualcomm, and Microsoft, whose goal is to make affordable basic internet services available to everyone in the world.

"Aircraft like these will help connect the whole world because they can affordably serve the 10% of the world's population that live in remote communities without existing Internet infrastructure," said Facebook’s Zuckerberg.

At Facebook’s  developer conference in San Francisco last month Chief Technology Officer Mike Schroepfer said the final design of the solar-powered UAV “will have a wingspan greater than a 737 (about 120 ft.) but will weigh less than a small car”.

Aquila is Latin for “eagle” and, like the constellation of the same name, represents the bird who carried Zeus/Jupiter's thunderbolts in Greco-Roman mythology. Google has a similar project to Aquila in the works; its Project Loon will employ flying balloons to beam down WiFi to areas without Internet service.


A human crew in orbit around Mars controls a suite of robotic surrogates, including a rover, climbing-bot, and miniature sample-return rocket.


Before Apollo 11 landed on the moon Apollo missions 8 and 10 tested various components while orbiting the moon, and returned photography of the lunar surface, paving the way for Neil Armstrong’s “One Giant Leap for Mankind”


A workshop was held recently by the Planetary Society to build consensus on the key elements of a long-term, cost constrained, executable program to send humans to Mars. The 70 attendees suggested a similar, orbit-first approach to human exploration of the red planet.


The questions explored during the event included: is it possible to find an approach that is affordable within a plausible NASA budget for the next 15 years (i.e. 2% - 3% growth to match inflation)? Would it be valuable scientifically? Would people find it engaging?


The Planetary Society’s CEO Bill Nye (yes, “The Science Guy”) and members of the Society’s Board of Directors this week presented results of the workshop. Said Nye: “Getting humans to Mars is far more complex than getting to Earth’s Moon. But space exploration brings out the best in us. By reaching consensus on the right set of missions, we can send humans to Mars without breaking the bank.”


Called “Humans Orbiting Mars,” the plan explored the idea of taking an orbit-first approach to an extended program of human exploration of the planet.  It was pointed out that this isn’t orbit-only, but simply considered the idea of intermediate steps within a long-term program as a way to constrain the cost.


Workshop attendees concluded that an orbital mission in 2033 is required that will enable scientific exploration of Mars while exploring Mars’ moons Phobos  or Demos in person and developing essential experience in human travel from Earth to the Mars system. The 30-month human mission to Mars orbit in 2033 would provide approximately one year spent at the planet. During that time the crew could explore and tele-operate rovers on the planet’s surface with a much shorter communications lag than from Earth. Landing humans on Mars could then more affordably and logically follow later, perhaps in 2039.


It has been estimated that sticking with NASA’s human spaceflight budget as it exists and using NASA’s current  “Evolvable Mars” strategy would place humans on Mars not sooner than 2050.


Under “Humans Orbiting Mars” the Planetary Society would expect NASA to complete work on its heavy-lift Space Launch System and Orion crew vehicle as planned, and once the International Space Station reaches its expected shutdown date in 2024 NASA would shift the budget it uses for ISS to the Mars-mission project. An independent cost estimate showed that such a program would fit within a budget that grows with inflation after NASA ends its lead role in the ISS.


A full report on the “Humans Orbiting Mars” workshop will be released later in the year.

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Artist illustration of the jet-powered Quicksilver

For some of us, our occupation involves a higher than normal risk to our safety and perhaps even our lives. For others, such as those brave individuals who have tried to break the World Water Speed record, “higher than normal risk” does not do justice to an undertaking in which nearly 85% of the drivers that have made a serious attempt at breaking the record since 1940 have died trying. Eleven in all have perished in the attempt.

Having just written the above paragraph I am struck by how appropriate the word undertaking is in this context, as it has two possible meanings: “task” and “the funeral business”. Exactly.

In all these world water speed record tragedies the main cause of disaster has been the boat becoming unstable, generally for one of two reasons: 1) because too much air gets under the boat and the resulting aerodynamic lift has the boat impersonating an airplane (and a very bad airplane at that). Or 2) because the boat has hit a disturbance or debris in the water. Getting calm water is difficult and most of the accidents on record attempts perhaps predictably come during the second run; the quick turnaround required by the record rules may not leave enough time for the water to settle down. Since 1930 these rules, which along with the record certification, have been set by the Union Internationale Motonautique (UIM), stipulating that a craft must make two runs over a timed kilometer course in opposite directions, with the record being the average speed of the two runs.

The current world record of 317.60 mph is held by self-taught Australian engineer and boat builder Ken Wilby, who set the mark on Oct. 8, 1978 (and lived to tell the tale) at Blowering Dam Reservoir, Australia. Wilby used a wooden boat he’d built in his backyard, called the Spirit of Australia, which was powered by a second-hand jet engine.

To put 317 mph on water into perspective consider that the fastest commercial passenger ship of any kind is the ferry Francisco, which shuttles passengers across the River Plate between Buenos Aires in Argentina and Montevideo in Uruguay. With a capacity of over 1,000 passengers and 150 cars, the 325 foot catamaran can travel at speeds of up to 58 knots, or 67 mph. The vessel, which was made by Australia’s Incat shipyards, uses a pair of General Electric LM2500 turbines, which generate 59,000 horsepower.


The ferry Francisco


World Water Speed Record attempts are generally long build projects—a decade or more is not uncommon. Most teams of challengers exist on a threadbare diet of whatever private funding they can scrape up (a speed-record team is not a profitable venture and the risk scares off many big corporate donors), along with the loyal support of their teams and an unyielding enthusiasm for the effort. Let’s now take a look at two teams preparing to take a shot at the record.


Spirit of Australia II under construction

Spirit of Australia II. Ken Warby has teamed up with his 46-year-old son Dave to build a new boat. This time Dave will be in the cockpit, which is a purpose-built carbon/Kevlar construction that is equipped with a radio, fire extinguisher and water-activated Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) locator. Although the wooden boat resembles its predecessor, it is slightly longer and lighter and carries a Bristol Siddeley Orpheus jet engine taken from an Italian Fiat Gina G-91 fighter plane. Construction of Spirit of Australia II’s hull was completed in October, and the boat has been described as “pretty much finished with the motor and the steering in place” with the electrics, gauges, switches and plumbing all being fitted.Warby’s team is targeting a midyear launch for testing on the water.


Don’t look for propellers on these boats; jet engines provide the propulsive force.

Project Quicksilver. The design of this British challenger relies on a modular construction with the main body consisting of a front section with a steel space frame incorporating the engine, a 35,000 hp Rolls-Royce Spey Mk.101 turbine (photo above), and the rear section a monocoque extending to the tail. The front sponsons are also modules, one of which contains the driver. The effort is managed by Nigel Macknight a professional writer who has authored articles and books with subjects ranging from the Space Shuttle to Formula 1 racing cars and the Tomahawk cruise missile. Macknight will also take the controls of the craft for its trials, development runs and record attempts. In the past he has involved himself in many of his subjects, competing in kart racing and Formula Ford motor-racing for seven years and participating in high-performance flights with some of the world’s top pilots, including NASA test pilot Ed Schneider and British Aerobatic Champion Iain Weston.


Good luck, gentlemen.



Iris biometric authentication is going mainstream. This type of authentication validates a person’s identity via recognizing the pattern of that person's iris, the ring around the pupil of the eye, which is unique for each individual, much like a fingerprint.

Fujitsu has built an iris authentication system into a prototype smartphone. The user's iris gets read instantaneously when he or she looks at the smartphone's screen, enabling the smartphone to be unlocked. A prototype was exhibited and demonstrated at Mobile World Congress 2015 earlier this month.

In the Fujitsu system the iris pattern is read by shining an infrared LED light on the eyes and taking an image of them with an infrared camera to acquire the iris pattern, which is registered and used to verify matches (see illustration below). Fujitsu uses ActiveIRIS from Delta ID as its iris recognition engine. This system can be used at a normal smartphone viewing distance, rather than within the 10-cm range that most existing iris recognition systems require. The company reports that In standard photobiological safety testing (IEC 62471), the infrared LED light was verified to be safe for the eyes.


Schematic of smartphone prototype equipped with an infrared camera and infrared LED.

Previously, in the case of smartphones and tablets, a user would employ either a password or a fingerprint scan for authentication purposes to unlock the screen or access information. Fujitsu's iris recognition method is reliable since the pattern of one's iris does not change much if at all after the age of two, and the pattern is difficult to falsify. It is also convenient to use; the screen can be unlocked simply by looking at it. This method eliminates the shortcoming of fingerprint analysis systems, such as having to use one's hands outdoors during winter when one is wearing gloves.

Back in January, at the 2015 International Consumer Electronics show Voxx International displayed a 2015 Jeep Wrangler that used iris biometrics technology from EyeLock to validate the driver and authorize the car to start following an eye scan, without using the ignition switch. EyeLock's technology looks at over 240 points in each eye, and the vehicle starts only after the scan is matched to the driver's iris template.


The 2015 Jeep Wrangler is a test bed for the EyeLock iris recognition system

For its Jeep Wrangler iris authentication application VOXX is working with EyeLock’s myris technology. Myris is a USB-enabled iris identity authenticator that works by converting an individual's iris patterns to a code unique only to that person, to grant access to devices and digital platforms.

With the EyeLock ID vehicle application installed, even if someone unauthorized got a hold of your keys they would not have the ability to start the car.  Only an authenticated user can start the vehicle. The authentication process is said to take less than five seconds to complete and is as simple as looking in the mirror on the visor. Aside from granting access to start the vehicle, the EyeLock ID vehicle application could also offer users customized vehicle settings that would automatically set seat and mirror positions, radio presets, or any other customized features offered by the vehicle.  The solution will offer up to five registered users' access to the vehicle.

EyeLock says that the odds of a false ID with myris are one in 2.25 trillion and that only DNA provides a more accurate means of verification. A small, mouse-like myris device also can be connected to a user's computer via USB and employs video to scan over 240 points on each iris and generate a unique 2048-bit digital signature for the user. After the initialization users need only hold the device up and look into its mirrored lens to gain access to their digital accounts.

Iris authentication promises not only to improve online security for users but it would also eliminate the need to remember the myriad of different passwords required for our different digital accounts.

There is a wonderful idiom that boxing commentators use to physically compare the pugilists before a bout. It’s called “the tale of the tape.” As the contestants are introduced the ringside announcers provide their body measurements (the “tape”) including height, weight, and reach as well as age. Occasionally, an old time commentator will also offer the measurements of a fighter’s neck, fist and ankle to give the viewer or listener (from the time that fights were on radio rather than TV) a better idea of his (or recently her) body type.

A little more than a week ago Apple revealed its newest MacBook. Here is the tale of the tape:

Height: 0.14–0.52 inch (0.35–1.31 cm)

Width: 11.04 inches (28.05 cm)

Depth: 7.74 inches (19.65 cm)

Weight: 2.03 pounds (0.92 kg)


Clearly, the new Mac qualifies, in boxing terms, as a featherweight. But the real story lies in a switch in tactics that enabled Apple to create a slim, elegant notebook as thin and light as its new MacBook.

In designing MacBook Apple had to strive for efficiency in every detail, right down to how it connects to peripherals and power. So instead of providing the usual multiple port options they chose to go with a single, tiny new USB-C connector that combines the essential functions you need every day in one terrific port.

The new USB-C connector offers charging, quick USB 3 data transfer speeds for connecting to external devices and peripherals, and video output that supports HDMI, VGA, and DisplayPort connections. (A quick word on video: the USB Type C with optional DisplayPort "Alt mode" was introduced last year; using the DisplayPort Alt Mode, a USB Type-C connector and cable can deliver full DisplayPort audio/video performance, driving monitor resolutions up to 4K and beyond. Video source devices that support DisplayPort Alt Mode on a USB Type-C connector can use an appropriate adaptor to drive an HDMI, DVI or VGA display.)

All of this means a device does not have to have individual ports for each of these I/O’s. And USB-C comes in a small, reversible design that’s one-third the size of the current USB connector (see photo below).


As a result, the new USB Type-C connector helps to enable thinner and sleeker product designs (if you are not a Mac user you will also find it on Google’s new Chromebook Pixel, although here there are some regular USB connections as well).


Physically, the USB-C port and connector is smaller than the size of the Micro-B USB port, currently the most popular USB port design for smartphones and tablets. A USB-C port measures just 8.4mm by 2.6mm. So it is small enough to work for even the smallest peripheral devices. With Type-C, both ends of a USB cable will be the same, allowing for reversible plug orientation, so unlike previous USB plugs you won’t need to worry about plugging it in upside down. Consumers have complained to cable and PC peripheral makers that existing USB connector types are difficult to use because of confusion over plug orientation and cable direction. Now, once users don’t have to worry about plug orientation, they should be less likely to have trouble fitting cables into slots.

The new Type-C connector is being designed to be plugged and unplugged 10,000 times. The USB-C connector standard also defines an intermediary adapter for going from current 2.0 or 3.0 Micro-B connectors to the USB C connector.

What’s next? Before long expect to see USB-C connectivity showing up on Android Phones and perhaps on the next generation of iPhones, too.

Once upon a time—up until the late 1990s, in fact--we were pretty certain we knew one key thing about the expansion of the Universe: that the gravity of celestial objects was certain to slow the expansion as time went on. Then, around 1998, observations of very distant supernovae from the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), which were intended to be used by scientists to measure the rate of deceleration, instead showed that long ago the Universe was expanding more slowly than it is today. So not only was the expansion of the Universe not slowing down due to gravity, as everyone thought, it actually is accelerating.




After much theoretical study, which included looking at the possibility there was something wrong with Einstein's theory of gravity, astrophysicists decided maybe there was some new, strange kind of energy that filled space and could be blamed for this cosmic acceleration. They gave their solution a name: Dark energy, using the adjective “dark” to describe the invisible nature of the theoretical property that is giving the Universe the energy to expand.


It turns out that most of the Universe is made of stuff that researchers are pretty sure exists but have not been able to see or directly measure. Looking at how mystery ingredients affect the Universe's expansion theorists have calculated that roughly 68% of the Universe is dark energy and 27% is dark matter (clouds of matter we cannot see that distort and magnify light from distant galaxies). That leaves about 5% for normal matter, which we can see.


To find out the nature of the dark stuff scientists want to obtain wide field-of-view images and spectroscopic surveys of the near infrared (NIR) sky. To do so NASA has come up with WFIRST-AFTA (deep breath now: Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope- Astrophysics Focused Telescope Assets) a project selected by the National Research Council committee as the top priority for the next decade of astronomy. WFIRST-AFTA will address many of the most profound questions in astrophysics and is expected to be a key part of NASA’s mission portfolio for launch by 2024.

The current design of the mission makes use of an existing 2.4m telescope to enhance sensitivity and imaging performance. With the 2.4m telescope, a coronagraph instrument has been added to the payload for direct imaging of exoplanets (planets that orbit a star other than the Sun) and what are called debris disks (disks of dust and other matter in orbit around a star).


WFIRST-AFTA will use three independent techniques to probe dark energy:


Baryon acoustic oscillations (BAO), which are regular, periodic fluctuations in the density of the visible (baryonic) matter of the universe. Baryonic matter is the ordinary stuff made up of protons, neutrons and electronics bundled together into atoms.

Observing distant supernovae, the explosion of star, during which the star's luminosity increases by as much as 20 magnitudes and most of the star's mass is blown away at very high velocity. These explosions can be used as cosmic distance indicators. Basically, the further away an object is located in space, the further back in time it is, allowing researchers to measure cosmic expansion throughout the history of the universe.


Weak gravitational lensing. Strong gravitational lensing (distortion) in the presence of a mass is the large scale bending of the path of light passing near an object. Most lines of sight in the universe, however, are in the weak lensing regime, in which the deflection is impossible to detect for a single background source such as a galaxy. Which is to say we don’t have the necessary alignment between a foreground mass and a background galaxy. However, using statistical measurements to determine the masses of astronomical objects without requiring assumptions about their composition or state, scientists can, we are told, provide a way to map the distribution of dark matter around galaxies and clusters of galaxies (it is estimated that approximately 80% of cluster content is in the form of dark matter).

The Federal Government’s FY 2015 budget provides $56M for WFIRST; the President’s current FY ’16 budget request provides $36 million less than last year's appropriation but most observers expect the final appropriated amount for FY 2016 to end up close to or above last year's appropriation. Behind this optimism is the fact that over the past two years significant WFIRST-AFTA funding was added to the NASA budget by Congress for FY14 and FY15 for a total of $106.5M.



In developing countermeasures for biological, chemical and radiological warfare you can’t, for obvious reasons, expose humans to nasty germs or high levels of radiation. You don’t want to expose animals to these pathogens either, if you can avoid it.


The same can be said for pharmaceutical research and testing. Until recently, during drug development animal subjects were the only way of obtaining data from inside a living organism (“in vivo”) to predict human pharmacological responses. It has been estimated that more than 100 million mice, cats, rabbits, dogs, etc. are used for different experiments each year. But besides the ethical issues involved, using animals is not necessarily a good predictor of human responses to new drugs because of fundamental differences in biology between species.


So let’s say you want to know—as the US Department of Homeland Security does-- how many anthrax spores are necessary to cause disease in the body. Or you want to know the effectiveness of a proposed drug while reducing some of the up-front costs—which can reach into the billions—during the research and development phase.


What do you do?


As an alternative, researchers around the country at Harvard University's Wyss Institute, the University of California at Berkeley, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and elsewhere are developing miniature organ-on-a-chip devices to test biological and radiological defense measures as well as new pharmaceuticals.


Lung-on-a-chip (above) can be used to study drug toxicity and potential new therapies. Source: Harvard's Wyss Institute


Wyss researchers are engineering microchips that model the microarchitecture and functions of living organs, such as the lung, heart, and intestine. These organs-on-a-chip devices could result in an accurate alternative to traditional animal testing. Each individual organ-on-a-chip is a cell culture device composed of a clear flexible polymer that contains microfluidic channels (to feed the cells with a nutrient-rich fluid to mimic blood) lined by living human cells and tissues. The goal is to create functional units that accurately model tissue- and organ-level functions, thus permitting real-time analysis of biochemical, genetic and metabolic activities within individual cells.


Since their initial publication in 2010 of a paper in the journal Science on a human, breathing lung-on-a-chip, and with grant support from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Wyss team has developed more than ten different Organs-on-a-Chip models including chips for liver, kidney and intestinal functions.


Bioengineers at the University of California, Berkeley also are combining human cells with computer chips, in this case to eliminate the need to test new heart medicines on animals and to reduce the associated unpredictability of these medicines when given to humans. The latter obstacle exists in part because of biological variables; the ion channels through which heart cells conduct electrical currents, for example, can vary in both number and type between humans and other animals. The pulsating cardiac muscle cells are housed in an inch-long silicone device that effectively models human heart tissue, and the researchers have demonstrated the viability of this system as a drug-screening tool by testing it with cardiovascular medications. Researchers reported on their study this week in the journal Scientific Reports. It is being funded by the Tissue Chip for Drug Screening Initiative, an interagency collaboration launched by the National Institutes of Health to develop three-dimensional human tissue chips that model the structure and function of human organs.


Similar research is being conducted at other facilities.  At a meeting of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) last week in Washington, DC, for example, researchers from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington presented the results of their experiments to determine the ability of anthrax spores to infect a three-dimensional lung-on-a-chip which they developed using rabbit lung cells.


Can these devices make animal (and human) testing obsolete? Post your thoughts in the comments below.

Hi Guys.


I was watching The Conversation starring Gene Hackman a few nights ago and came across a nice exchange between two of the main characters discussing the design of (then) advanced surveillance equipment:


Bernie: That's very nice, Harry. What did you use?


Harry: A three-stage directional microphone. MOSFET amplifier of my own design.




It's always nice when a serious attempt is made by filmmakers to include accurate depictions of technology. It made me wonder: what other cool references to electronic engineering have you come across in popular film or TV? Post them below in the comments!


And if you haven't seen The Conversation, it's an amazing film that's just as timely today as when it first came out in 1974.


Apple CarPlay goes well beyond Bluetooth pairing for playing music or making a hands-free call

Maybe you’ve heard this one before. A big, well-known technology company with billions of dollars to spend and a palpable fear of missing out on the “Next Big Thing” decides to venture far from its comfort zone and launches itself--full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes—into a high-risk venture against well-entrenched competitors.

No, the proper noun that fills in the blank this time is not Google, but Apple.

Rumors suggesting that Apple is developing an electric and possibly driverless iCar to rival Google and Tesla are proliferating like jackrabbits on a fertility drug. As evidence, media reports have cited Apple supposedly poaching Tesla employees and Apple also being sued by battery-maker A123 Systems for allegedly stealing car battery experts. The Wall Street Journal on  Feb. 13 cited unidentified sources in reporting that Apple’s top secret electric car efforts exist under the code name “Titan” and that there are “several hundred” Apple employees working on the project. Apple hasn't commented on the report.

We’ve heard some of these musings before. In 2012, speaking at Fast Company’s Innovation Uncensored event former Apple board member and J.Crew CEO Mickey Drexler revealed that before he died Apple co-founder Steve Jobs dreamed of designing an iCar.

OK, but sentimentality aside why would Apple want to do this?  Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors, which is considered to be a big success by everyone who doesn’t care about financial reporting, sold 35,000 cars last year but the company saw its bottom line shrink from a loss of $74.0M to an even larger loss of $294.0M despite an increase in revenues from $2.0B to $3.2B. What’s more, the auto industry runs on a 5% or 6% margin (at best) so it requires bigtime volume to make a go of it.

Admittedly, automobiles seem to be mesmerizing Silicon Valley these days. People’s exhibit number one: Google has created a working prototype of a self-driving car. Using lasers, cameras, radar and GPS to decipher the world around it--all of which sit in a module directly on the roof--a prototype driverless car has been built and will soon undergo formal road testing. The car, according to Google, will comply fully with California DMV rules during testing. Still, Google has stated all along that when the car is ready for market it does not intend to produce the car itself. Rather, it is looking to partner with auto manufacturers to bring self-driving cars to market within the next five years.


Prototype of Google’s self-driving car. Is Apple jealous?

As in playing poker, when one tries to determine Apple’s next play it is necessary to figure out what the guy holding the cards is likely to do. In this case the player is Apple head-honcho Tim Cook, who, since taking the reins from Steve Jobs in August 2011 has guided the company with a slow but steady, conservative hand. There is no indication whatsoever that Cook is a big time gambler, someone who might go all-in into the car business while hoping to draw a winning card ‘on the river’.

The notion that Cook will turn radical and allow Apple to build a vehicle from scratch seems really unlikely given the low margins, high risks and intense capital requirements of the automobile business.  It’s even more unlikely since the head of the most profitable mobile device maker in the world really doesn’t have to take the full plunge to stake out a nice, profitable niche in the automotive sector. Like Google, Apple has thrown its hat into the connected car arena with Apple CarPlay, a system designed to bring iPhone functionality into cars and trucks and compete directly with Google’s Android Auto; both dashboard system are meant to bring touch-screen and voice-activated entertainment and navigation to cars via a user’s smartphone, which will power the car’s main information screen. Connect a smart phone and icons appear on the car’s display for phone calls, maps, music, etc.


Apple has no need to join the list of less-than-successful car makers (above, a De Lorean).

So, even though Apple is a $700 billion personal tech company with tons of cash on hand (an estimated $178 billion), even though Apple works on many future-looking projects that may never see the light of day, and even though this is the season for unbridled optimism (as one baseball pundit put it, the  pop of a baseball into a catcher’s mitt in the spring is the most hope-inspiring sound in the world for fans, especially in Major League Baseball cities with losing teams) I just don’t see Apple jumping in and becoming a carmaker.

Apple will find its ‘paradise by the dashboard light’, but it will come in the form of vehicles interacting with the millions of iPhones out there. And I think staying out of the car business will in the end be an easy decision for Tim Cook. He won’t have to sleep on it and give us an answer in the morning.

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