Digging Deep into Solar Panel Technology

Solar panel technology is one of those types of technologies that are continually undergoing innovation, with new advances announced constantly. In fact, keeping up with all of the breakthroughs can be an ongoing task. 

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Right now, there are two main types of solar panel technology. Concentrated solar power (CSP) and photovoltaics (PV). CSP allows us to harness heat from the sun, using it to generate thermal energy to power turbines and heaters. PV capture sunlight, using it to generate electric power. Within these two different types of solar energy, there is a huge range of opportunities for innovation. 

Earlier in 2019, a company called Oxford PV received funding from the United Kingdom government to develop technology that would be able to boost the adoption of renewable energy. This technology makes solar cells with different materials, using tin halide-based or hybrid-organic-inorganic lead to convert light more efficiently and at a much lower cost. 

One of the many reasons why some people have been reluctant to embrace solar panels (other than the price) is due to their appearance. Tesla is aiming to remove this problem, by creating Tesla Solar Roof tiles. These tiles are durable, but also attractive, and your solar roof can consist of both non-solar and solar tiles. Tesla makes it easy for customers to calculate how many tiles they would need and allows them to turn sunlight into power which can be used at any time. The solar tiles have a lifetime guarantee, and the tempered glass makes them much more attractive than any previous solar tiles available on the market. 

It’s not just homes that can benefit from solar technology either. In fact, Audi and Alta Devices have partnered, developing a thin layer of solar film which can be added to car roofs. The goal is that the cells will be able to power a car’s electric power system, ultimately extended how long it can drive for.

Audi hopes that one day, the solar cells can directly charge the batteries of electric cars, minimizing how many times the cars would need to be recharged. 

Right now, these panels are just included in the cars’ sunroofs, however, it’s likely that Audi will eventually be covering the entire surface of the car roof with cells. 

As solar panels become cheaper and more efficient, Floatovoltaics (or floating solar farms) may be the next big thing. These panels are placed on water bodies like reservoirs and dams, generating huge amounts of power without the need to take up valuable real estate on land. 

While solar panel technology represents massive opportunities for saving power, companies around the world are also looking at new ways to use solar. One of them is solar fabric, which would include solar filaments embedded into winter coats, t-shirts, and other clothing. This could help you do everything from staying warm to keeping your phone charged. 

While solar panel technology has long been seen in popular culture, we’ve mostly been lagging behind. In 2008, Wall-E featured the robot using solar panels to recharge his batteries.

In the horror movie A Quiet Place, solar panels are seen when Jim is doing work in his backyard. And of course, Gravity, with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney heavily featured solar panels on the International Space Station. 

Solar panel technology is exciting, and this innovative technology is moving forward all the time. It represents an excellent opportunity for us to move toward clean, green energy while saving money. 

How Soon Will We Be Traveling in Driverless Cars?

Today is the day that driverless cars have arrived in New York City. Although we’re unlikely to be navigating traffic in them anytime soon. 

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These cars were created by Optimus Ride, a startup by five graduates from MIT in 2015. Right now, they’re located in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, far from other cars, pedestrians, and bikes. But soon, the public will be able to try them out, traveling to and from a new ferry landing. They’re completely free, and passengers can just hop in. 

It feels like we’ve been hearing about autonomous, driverless vehicles for years now, so why are they not yet on the road? 

The History of Driverless Cars

Believe it or not, but our fascination with self-driving cars dates all the way back to Leonardo Da Vinci, who created plans for a self-propelled cart in 1478. However, it wasn’t until the early 20th century when Houdina Radio Control Company first demonstrated a driverless car in 1925. The car was guided by signals from a car driving close behind. 

In 1939, Norman Bel Geddes revealed an exhibit at the World’s Fair. His exhibit was called ‘Futurama’ and was both groundbreaking and a realistic depiction of what a city of the future could look like. In it, he introduced an automated system of highways, which would link communities and cities, allowing cars to move autonomously and ensuring passengers arrived safely. 

Interestingly, General Motors began developing and promoting a line of cars which were custom-built based on Bel Geddes’ concept. Unfortunately, the federal government wasn’t convinced enough to put up $100,000 per mile to turn this dream into reality. 

Around the same time, the United Kingdom began trialing its own driverless car system. The technology was similar to General Motors’ plans, however, researchers paired a magnetic rail track (running underneath the road) with a Citroen DS which had been fitted with electronic sensors. Unfortunately, just like the American version, the project was canceled due to costs- despite tests and analysis showing that the system could reduce accidents by 40%, increase road capacity by 50%, and pay for itself by the end of the century. 

In 1986, an autonomous vehicle was created by Ernst Dickmanns, and successfully tested on the autobahn. Teams around the world continued experimenting, and by the beginning of the 21st century, the U.S military was getting involved with autonomous vehicle technology.

By 2010, Google entered the race, announcing that its employees had spent a year developing and testing systems for self-driving cars. The goal was for commercial vehicles to be launched by 2020, and by 2015, Google cars had more than 1 million miles, however, a car accident in 2016 was the first in which the autonomous car was at fault.

Uber has also been hard at work, as has Tesla, Microsoft, and traditional car manufacturers such as Honda, Volkswagon, Toyota, and BMW. Unfortunately, in 2018, progress came to a halt when an Uber test vehicle killed a pedestrian. Uber suspended self-driving car testing, however the company resumed testing in 2018.

Driverless Cars in Pop Culture

From the Batmobile to Johnny Cab, driverless cars have long been a staple in pop culture. Tom Cruise played Frogger with driverless vehicles in Minority Report, and Steven King’s Christine featured a driverless (and murderous) car. 

For some great information about what we can expect to see for the future of driverless cars, check out some of these articles: 

One thing is for sure, driverless cars are guaranteed to make life easier, cheaper, and more convenient for all of us. However, just like any other groundbreaking technology, it must be tested extensively to prevent a repeat of Uber’s accident in 2018.

When Can Tourists Visit Space? Everything You Need to Know

Have you always wanted to visit space? Well, that trip may be closer than you might think. 

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You’ve probably heard of some of the biggest players in the space tourism game: Jeff Bezo is planning to send civilians on crewed missions to space through his company Blue Origin, Sir Richard Branson has been testing SpaceShipTwo, the Virgin Galactic vehicle, and numerous other private companies have plans for their own space tourism programs. 

History of Space Travel

In 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, into space. Just four years later, Yuri Gagarin was the first human who orbited the Earth, reaching an altitude of 202 miles. In January 1958, Explorer 1, the first U.S satellite, went into orbit. Alan Shepard was the first American to fly into space in 1961, while John Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962. 

1969 was the year Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon, and six Appollo missions explored the surface of the moon between 1969 and 1972. By the early 70s, the Mariner was mapping and orbiting Mars, and the Voyager sent back images of Saturn, Jupiter, their moons, and their rings by the end of the decade.

In 1981, the Columbia became a reusable shuttle for military and civilian space missions. Then, in 1986, the Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, killing seven people, including a teacher named Christa McAuliffe who was going to be the first civilian in space. 

Since November 2000, the International Space Station has been a symbol of cooperation, as many different countries (once competitors) work together. The station is serviced by many different spacecraft and has been visited by space tourists, cosmonauts, and astronauts from 17 different countries. 

Now, Mars is the focal point of most space exploration, and NASA wants to send humans to Mars by the 2030s. 

How Will Space Tourism Work?

Despite reluctance from NASA, Dennis Tito (an American businessman), was the first space tourist, paying $20 million to fly into space abroad a Russian Soyuz rocket, staying on the International Space Station for one week in 2001. In 2002, South African Businessman Mark Shuttleworth did the same, followed by another American businessman, Greg Olsen in 2005. 

In December 2013, Virgin Galactic conducted its first trip, taking the spaceplane VSS Unity to near-space- an altitude of 51.4 miles. This year, Virgin has been conducting more test flights, with the ultimate aim of taking passengers (including Richard Branson) to space. 

The company has already been selling tickets on Virgin Galactic, and more than 700 people have paid between $200,00 and $250,000. Each flight will take six passengers who will have incredible views of earth and experience complete weightlessness for several minutes before returning to Earth. 

Blue Origin has taken the industry by storm with New Shepard, a reusable rocket which already has 10 trips to space under its belt. Soon, the company will be launching humans, and rumors are that Blue Origin will begin selling tickets in 2019, with prices similar to Virgin. Unlike Virgin, passengers will return to Earth via a parachute. 

Two private US companies- Boeing and SpaceX are expected to begin sending astronauts into space this year. This is a big step toward making space tourism cheaper and more accessible, and SpaceX has mentioned potentially offering trips to the Moon by 2023. 

Space tourism has long been a staple in popular culture. Movies like The Martian, movies like Aurora, and references to space travel on shows like The Big Bang Theory have continued to stoke the fires of curiousity on Earth. 

For now, space tourism is for millionaires. In the near future, however, it may be more accessible than we could’ve ever dreamed. 

How Will 3D Printed Metal Change the World?

3D printing is a tremendously exciting technology that has changed many industries for the better, but arguably none of them have benefited as much as modern manufacturing. As 3D printed products continue to grow in popularity, it’s easy to assume that this technology has only recently been invented. However, it has actually been used for three decades. 

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The idea of producing 3D objects dates back to the 1970s, but the first 3D printing patent was given to Hideo Kodama in 1981. Kodama invented a device which could harden photoreactive polymers using UV light. Just three years later, Alain Le Mehaute and a team of French inventors applied for another patent- this time using a stereolithography method, which is still used today. Interestingly, the patent application was abandoned by General Electric. Unfortunately for General Electric, the company didn’t see any significant business applications or prospects in the idea. 

While this was sad news for Le Mehaute, it benefited Chuck Hull- the man now widely known as the father of 3D printing. Just a few weeks later, Hull filed his patent for his own stereolithography machine, and today it remains one of the most common techniques for 3D printing. 

How Does Metal 3D Printing Work?

Metal fabrication involves a massive amount of energy, along with a substantial amount of waste. In fact, up to 80% of the metal used in the manufacturing of some products is cut away and wasted. Not only does this mean much more energy is used than necessary, but the finished product also ends up much heavier than it needs to be. 

In contrast, 3D printing allows manufacturers to use exactly the right amount of material necessary, bringing the wastage right down to nothing. The technology is fascinating, and the applications are enormous. 

Traditional 3D printers work by melting down plastic and then depositing it where it needs to go. Obviously, the melting point of metal is much too high for this to work. Instead, 3D printing metal involves slightly more creative solutions. 

One of the most popular solutions is called binder jetting. For this method, the build chamber is filled with a gas to prevent the metal from oxidation. Next, a layer of metal powder is spread, before a polymer compound is sprayed where necessarily, creating one layer. This is repeated until the metal object is completed.  

3D Printing on TV

References to 3D printing are becoming more and more common in popular culture. Not surprisingly, Big Bang Theory was one of the first references to this technology, when Howard and Ray used 3D printing to print action figures of themselves on an episode back in 2013.  

CSI has also referenced 3D printing with an episode from 2013 when a man was found dead from a 3D printed gun- making it untraceable. And of course, Greys Anatomy has long been focused on 3D printing and its applications in the medical field with Meredith and Christina attempting to 3D print a heart and portal vein. 

The Future of 3D Printing

In 2017, 3D metal printers launched at under $100,000 for the first time. While the price has lowered, speed has massively increased, with some 3D printers now capable of producing materials 100 times faster than older 3D printers. 

There’s no doubt that the future is bright for this technology. Printer sales are currently growing at 48%, while NASA plans to use 3D printing for more than 80% of its rocket engines in the future. Many different types of metals are being printed right now, from bronze to silver, platinum to copper, and of course steel, tungsten, nitinol, and titanium. The dental industry is already beginning to 3D print parts like bridges and copings. 

The number of industries that 3D printing will impact is almost endless, and there’s no question that the sky is the limit as far as this technology is concerned. 

Everything You Need to Know About Virtual/Augmented Reality

As with all modern, life-changing innovations, recognizing where they got started and how they have grown is the best way to predict where they’re likely to go in the future. This couldn’t be more true when it comes to virtual or augmented reality. This technology has made leaps and bounds in the last decade, however, advancements have been present since before the Civil War. 

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Charles Wheatstone is arguably the founder of virtual reality. In 1839, the English inventor and scientist invented the Stereoscope, which could transport the viewer to a completely different world. He used his understanding of the human eye and brain and used optical illusion science to show the user a pair of separate images (one for each eye), creating a larger, distant but distinctly 3D image. This technology is still used in viewing aerial photographs and X-rays today.

In 1957, a cinematographer called Morton Heilig achieved the first example of augmented reality. This was the Sensorama, which wasn’t computer-controlled but was the first example of adding visuals, vibration, smell, and sound to a viewer. In 1975, American computer artist Myron Krueger created Videoplace, which was the first ‘virtual reality’ interface, allowing users to interact with and manipulate virtual objects in real-time. 

Of course, none of these examples were actually called augmented reality or virtual reality, as the term virtual reality wasn’t coined until 1989 by Jaron Lainer, and augmented reality was coined by Thomas P Caudell in 1990. 

What’s the Difference Between Virtual and Augmented Reality? 

For many people, the terms ‘augmented reality’ and ‘virtual reality’ are used interchangeably. But they are slightly different. Virtual reality is actually a computer-generated simulation with the goal of making the device user feel like they’re in a different world. Today, this is mostly used in 3D movies and video games. 

Augmented reality is when we mash together the real world and virtual elements. If you ever played Pokemon Go, you were using augmented reality. 

How Does Virtual and Augmented Reality Work? 

Augmented Reality can be used on various devices- head-mounted displays, mobile phones, handheld devices, glasses, and screens. It involves some of these technologies: 

S.L.A.M: This stands for Simultaneous localization and mapping 

Depth or Positional Tracking: Sensor data calculates the distance to objects 

Cameras and sensors: User data and sending for processing

Processing: These devices act like small computers (similar to smartphones)

Projection: AR headsets have small projectors which take sensor data, projecting digital content to the viewer

Reflection: Some devices use mirrors to help the human eye view virtual images

Virtual reality takes the user to a whole new world, with screens eliminating any interaction with the real world. For virtual reality to work well, it must combine 3D objects that seem life-sized to the user, and the ability to track that user’s actions- particularly eye and head movements. This should adjust the images to reflect each change in perspective. 

Augmented reality and virtual reality have both always been ahead of their time in popular culture. For example, Jem’Hadar used augmented reality in the Star Trek Universe with a map that displayed what was happening outside of their ship. 

In 2001, a monster is using virtual reality glasses to have ‘scare training’ in one of the scenes. The unsettling show Black Mirror ha several episodes featuring both virtual and augmented reality, while the movie Her from 2013 portrays artificial intelligence, along with a cute AR game. The Big Bang Theory introduced virtual reality glasses to viewers back in 2013 when Sheldon immersed himself in a VR world. 

One thing is for sure: These technologies represent huge opportunities for the human race- not just in gaming, but in a variety of fields and applications. 

Heard of Flying Drones? Now they Drive Too

Drones are currently being used for everything from package delivery to construction, inspecting wind turbines to surveying farm fields. But this technology is continually being improved upon, and while flying drones are incredibly useful, drones that can drive have even more potential. 

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In 2006, the FAA issued the first permits for commercial drone use. In 2010, French company Parrot released the first ready-to-fly drone, the Parrot AR Drone. This could be controlled entirely through a smartphone, using Wi-Fi. Amazon wowed the world in 2013 when it released a video showcasing the concept of its imagined drone-based delivery system. By 2016, drones were released with machine learning technology and smart computer vision, allowing them to intelligently track objects, animals, and people while avoiding obstacles. 

Flying and Driving Drones

In 2017, MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory released a new prototype for wheeled, autonomous drones that would be able to switch between both flying and driving. While normal drones can’t maneuver on the ground, a drone with wheels can be much more mobile, with the weight of the wheels only resulting in a slight reduction in flying time, according to MIT.

While airborne drones are agile and fast, battery technology has not yet evolved to the point where they can stay in the air for long distances. On the other hand, ground vehicles are much slower and less mobile, however, they’re also much more energy efficient. 

Not only does this mean many more opportunities for the use of drones, but it could pave the way for flying cars. That’s because it makes much more sense to build on the years of research that has gone into drones, instead of simply trying to put wings on cars.

In 2016, Uber announced that it was setting its sights on an on-demand urban aviation system. In other words, it wants to develop flying cars. And if you’re wondering if it’s serious, the company has even released a detailed white paper about its plans.

Uber describes the journeys of the future as being made of small aircraft that can both take off and land vertically. Of course, there are hurdles that are currently standing in the way of flying cars. One of the biggest is battery technology (something that may be overcome with the use of a flying-driving hybrid), vehicle efficiency, affordability, vehicle reliability and performance, emissions, aircraft noise, safety, pilot training, the certification process, air traffic control, and more. That’s quite a list. Luckily, drones are paving the way, although the FAA is still getting rules in place for small, parcel-carrying drones, and has so far paid little attention to flying cars. 

Drones in Pop Culture

If you ever watched The Jetsons, you probably remember their flying cars. With all of the interesting technology that this cartoon had, the flying cars are what most people remember. 

ABC sitcom Modern Family had a number of drone-themed episodes, with storylines featuring the use of drones contributing to the award-winning sitcom. Mythbusters also often used drones, and Jimmy Fallon and Tyler Perry once had a drone race on the Tonight Show.

In the series Black Mirror, each episode is a commentary on some form of technology, and one episode features drones made tiny- Autonomous Drone Insects which were invented to solve the bee population problem. In Back to the Future Part II, a drone is featured as Biff is arrested outside a courthouse, and the drone (from USA today), records his furious response. 

Drones have also been used in video games for some time, both as political statements and to make an impact. 

While drones have long been able to fly, the ability to drive will be a game-changer. Keep an eye out for this technology in the next few years.

Will We Soon Be Eating 3D Printed Food?

It may sound like something out of a science fiction novel, but there’s a good chance we will soon be eating 3D printed food. No more ordering in after a long day of work, or opening the fridge door and wishing something edible would appear. 

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3D printing will allow us to prepare meals in an automated way. This technology could not only save us hundreds of hours each year but could also allow us to make our consumption more sustainable and even make life easier for astronauts- allowing them to prepare meals in space. 

By 2023, the 3D food printing market is expected to reach $525.6 million. This growth has been attributed to an increasing concern over global food sustainability and security. The first 3D food printer was launched by American manufacturer 3D Systems, which revealed the technology by printing out candy at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show in 2013. 

However, this wasn’t the first foray into 3D printing. In 2011, Kyle and Liz von Hasseln wanted to bake their friend a birthday cake. Unfortunately, they didn’t have an oven. After a lot of trial and error, the couple (who have backgrounds in molecular biology) managed to print a cupcake topper with their friend’s name on it, using their 2D printer. They brainstormed until they could translate their ideas into 3D models, launching their company The Sugar Lab, which they then sold to 3D Systems in 2013. 

How Does 3D Printing Work? 

3D printing food is similar to other 3D printing technology because the print head is extruding material onto a surface. This piece can be in any shape, however, unlike traditional plastic 3D printing, the material doesn’t come in spools. It needs to be ‘squish’, and able to be inserted into a syringe-like container so it can then be printed. Since 3D printed food basically needs to be in a pureed form to work, there are currently limitations as to what can be printed. 

However, this makes 3D food printing an excellent option for people who find chewing difficult- including babies and senior citizens. Right now, German company Biozoon Food Innovations is creating accessible meals for the elderly who are unable to eat solid foods. Biozoon uses fresh carrots, chicken, and other ingredients to make nutritionally balanced purees. It then includes an edible adhesive, which prints the puree into the shape of whatever the base ingredient is. 

The result? A meal that looks ordinary, but can easily be eaten by those who would otherwise suffer from malnutrition due to their inability to chew solid foods. 

Currently, experts and innovators around the world are searching for a way to make 3D food printing commercially viable. The goal is that every household will eventually own a 3D printer and be able to create literally any food they could imagine- with the touch of a button. 

Presently, 3D food printers use a variety of different technologies depending on the type of food used. For example, binder jetting or liquid binding is excellent for fast fabrication and low material cost. Selective sintering is used for powders like sugar with low melting points, and this is when hot air is used to fuse sugar powder together to create gorgeous 3D objects. Hot-melt extrusion is also used for pastes and liquids and can create meat paste, dough, and processed cheese. 

For people who have read the J.D Robb series In Death (set in 2058) 3D food printing sounds remarkably similar to the autochef which makes an appearance in almost every book. Will we all have our very own autochef in our homes and offices? Only time will tell.