Archive for September, 2011

Printing Air Planes

Sunday, September 18th, 2011

3D printing is going to change the way all material is produced one day. At some point 3D printers will create the parts for our automobiles, components for computers, our children’s toys, and almost anything else you can think of. A new and exciting prospect for 3D printing is the manufacturing of air drones, unmanned air craft created from a 3D printer. The production of drone components today is very much an assembly process. Robotics and humans work together on creating identical drones today. The 3D printed air drones of the future can be tweaked and perfected for individual tasks with very little effort.

Do you need a drone for information gathering? Perhaps it needs to collect topography information, or measure readings from an active volcano. Just create a design for it, feed it into the 3D printer and it will produce the right tool for the job. Do you need a drone for spraying crops? Just use a design for it. How about a killer flying robot for the military? You know the government already has a design for that. In fact this process is so painless that a design can go from paper to reality within a matter of days. A team from the University of South Hampton is working on perfecting the printing of these 3D unmanned aircraft, and they have already test flown a prototype.

The process the University of South Hampton is using is known as selective laser sintering. They use a 3D printer in conjunction with a polymer powder to create the parts for the air drone. In this process a prototype component is shaved into appropriate layers and then it is melted into its proper form. This is done layer, by ultra thin layer, until the component is the proper shape. Not only can this 3D printer create static parts, but it can also create moveable components in the final design with little assembly required.

This seems like an exciting step in the future of aircraft design. Without having to worry about laborers and delicate hand/robot cut components, designers will be freer in their plans. The mathematics and physics of airflow can be more adventurously tackled as less “straight line” designs are needed. Straight line components are easier to create and keep costs down, when you don’t need to worry about cutting the right curvature of a component that issue becomes non-existent. I can’t wait for us all to have consumer 3D printers (or replicators if you will), so I can make my own aircraft and not have to deal with the TSA.

The Future of Polymer Solar Cells

Sunday, September 18th, 2011

One of these days our fossil fuel reserves will expire. That is a given. As of today alternative green sources of energy are being researched and experimented with. As long as I have been alive people have been talking about solar panels as a means to power our energy grid. Unfortunately, silicon solar panels are expensive, difficult to adhere to surfaces, delicate, and simply do not capture enough energy from the Sun to be viable. All of these problems make silicon yesterday’s news, it’s time for polymer solar cells to hog the spotlight.

Admittedly today’s polymer solar cells do not retain as much energy as rigid silicon cells. This issue is worked on every day, but that is where the downsides of polymer solar cells end. Polymer solar cells are incredibly lightweight, they can be customized on a molecular level, they have a lower environmental impact, and most importantly they are incredibly flexible; thus making them easy to adhere to surfaces that could not stand the weight of silicon cells.

While a breakthrough in capturing a larger quantity of solar energy is still needed from the polymer solar market, small advancements in other areas of their development have been happening frequently. Recently UK scientists from the Universities of Cambridge and Sheffield have developed a polymer solar film that can be applied to surfaces with ease. They describe the material as a “cling film”, basically a Saran™ wrap that can capture solar power. This cheap, pliable material could be installed onto many things requiring electrical power. Imagine being able to coat your home in this material, soaking up the midday sun could drastically cut down on your energy costs.

Another small victory for the polymer solar market is the advent of thin-film solar. These very small, lightweight solar cells also boast the ability of adhering to surfaces that silicon cannot be applied to. They can stick to handheld devices, oddly shaped objects, and clothing. Recently Mekoprint, a Danish company, has developed a small handheld, solar charged flashlight. It operates by absorbing light during the day, storing that power in a lithium-ion battery, and using a LED as its light source.

One of the most interesting current research projects comes from a solar company in Lowell Massachusetts. Kornarka Technologies is working on a polymer cell that can absorb infrared light. The obvious advantage of this cell is that it can absorb energy all day and night; not being relegate to only daytime use would allow solar cells a large increase in efficiency.

This article is not meant to convince you that polymer solar cells will solve all of our problems tomorrow. Simply put, solar energy in total is just not there yet. Many more research hours and dollars will need to be spent before we can say good-bye to fossil fuels. It is clear however that plastic is making the future look a lot brighter.