Category Archives: Energy

How will new patent law affect tech sector?

The America Invents Act was signed on Sept 16, and it makes sweeping changes to the way patents work in the US.  Widely seen as pro-business and possibly detrimental to small time inventors, the new law will phase in over the next 18 months and change the way the technology field is implemented.

VTIP, the technology transfer office of Virginia Tech, is sponsoring an event to help sort out the facts from the myth.  Guest speakers will describe the effects on inventors and tech startups and answer questions.  The event is called “Making Connections” and will be held in 310 in the ICTAS building on Stanger Street on October 18 from 2-5 pm.  Anyone is welcome to attend, but seating is limited so register with Michael Miller using the information provided in the link.


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Filed under biotechnology, Communications, electronics, Energy, genetics, Materials, medical technology, Networks, optics, propulsion, Robotics, Sensing, software, Wireless

Local Tech Companies Nominated for Awards

It’s almost May, and you know what that means:  The NewVa Corridor Technology Council has announced a list of companies nominated for the various awards handed out at the annual awards banquet.  You can find a link to the NCTC website to register for the awards ceremony here.

Awards are handed out in the categories of Rising Star, Educator, Entrepreneur, Leadership, and Innovation.  Sometimes they hand out another special award for a local technology leader whose contributions don’t fit exactly into any of the single categories.  It’s a fun networking opportunity and a chance to reward the technology leaders who help drive the local economy.  This year it will be at the Hotel Roanoke, in beautiful downtown…er, …..Roanoke.

The list of nominees is provided by the local newspaper here.

Now, a comment about the NCTC name.  I liked it better before, when it was the New Century Technology Council.  Apparently they decided that once the New Century had cut it’s first teeth, it would seem passe’ to keep that reference.  So instead, they decided to use the terribly expensive “NewVA” brand (I don’t know who paid for it, or who came up with it – it wasn’t the NCTC as far as I know, but a regional re-branding.).  NewVA is sort of short for New Virginia, as if Old Virginia would be something distasteful, or old fashioned, maybe.  I’m not going to gripe about it too much, except to note that “NewVA Corridor Technology Council” does not roll off the tongue as smoothly as “New Century Technology Council”.

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Filed under biomimetic, biotechnology, Communications, Energy, fuel, genetics, Materials, medical technology, Networks, optics, propulsion, Robotics, Sensing, software, Wireless

New article in April Valley Business Front

There is an article in the current issue of the Valley Business Front that relates to a blog I posted a while back about a new roof vent technology that is designed to hold the roof down when the wind blows.  In fact, the higher the wind speed, the more holding force is generated.

No, wait, I didn’t post this before…but I meant to, so that counts, right?  Anyway, check it out.  There’s a cool photo of the inside of a wind tunnel, even if you don’t want to read the exceptionally well written article.  Actually, the photo is not that cool, since the inside of a wind tunnel is not really a spectacular place to take a photo.  In fact it’s a pretty boring place, at least until you turn the wind on, which obviously you can’t do while you are inside it installing equipment.  But still.

Read the article.  It will blow you away.  Hehehe…I crack myself up sometimes.

The article appears on pages 38-39 of the issue.   And don’t forget to visit all the sponsors of the Valley Business Front, so the sponsors will continue to purchase advertising and I can cash my tiny check for writing the article and buy my $2.99 value meal lunch at Wendy’s.

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Filed under Energy, propulsion, Sensing, software


When I was a kid, one of my least favorite things was to sit in the barber shop on a Saturday morning for what seemed like hours waiting my turn for a two-minute haircut.  My father didn’t allow any of those new-fangled haircuts where it actually looked like you had some hair.  No, sir, we got the standard, GI type of haircut where all your personality was left on the floor to be swept up later.

But, one good thing that came of this experience, aside from the presumed character-building aspect, was that I got to read issues of Popular Science and Popular Mechanics.  Even though these issues were worn and tattered from handling by the army of ten-year-old boys who frequented the establishment, and were in fact possibly older than any of us, it was fascinating to imagine the world we would live in as adults where lasers and robots and other mechanical and electrical marvels would make life much more interesting than it was at that time.  Of course, we had not discovered girls yet.

But all of us in that age bracket agreed, flying cars were going to be so cool, and what’s more, they should have been ready for market by the time we got our driver’s licenses.  Ohhhh, yeaaaah.

Unfortunately, the flying cars never came, even though one was featured later in a James Bond movie.  It was my first great life disappointment.  I mean the lack of flying cars, not the movie, although that, too, was a disappointment.

So, all these many years later, I have come to accept that visions of the future rarely match the actual future.  Sometimes the actual future turns out to be pretty cool anyway, but reality has a way of spoiling the dreams of preteen boys who possess, at last accounting, approximately 99% of the world’s total creativity.

But hold on, I may have found an actual example of how prophetic Popular Science truly was.  Take a look at this website that describes a concept for next-generation living.  It’s called the Lumenhaus and it’s Virginia Tech‘s entry into the Solar Decathlon competition.  It’s chock full of cool materials like aerogel panels, solar panels and anti-hurricane roof vents, and it thinks for itself!  It opens and closes panels to heat or cool as necessary, and it can be operated from an iPhone application.  Dude.

OK, so it looks pretty small, and it is.  But it’s just a concept house.  However, built into the concept is the idea of living more efficiently in less space by using technology and futuristic Star Trek social ideas.  Imagine a house that reconfigured the space for the temporary use to which it was being put.  You really have to take a look at the flash animations on the site, which was apparently designed by up-and-coming web advertising company Modea.  Not only is the house itself cool, I really love the website.  Like the house, the site is just what it needs to be.

So, even though I have still not totally given up on the flying cars, until they come along I can dream about the next generation house.

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Filed under Communications, Energy, Materials, Networks, Robotics, Sensing, software, Wireless

Death of the power grid?

Whoa, check out this story about the installation of apparently feasible fuel cell power for a significant customer:  Server for cleaner energy unveiled.

Actually, multiple customers, including Google, eBay, Bank of America, Staples, Coca-Cola and WalMart.  Seriously!  (Note:  even though I am an SEO whore, I refuse to link back to the websites of these companies, not that they would notice one way or the other.)

Fuel cells are not new, so what’s all the hubbub, bub?  Well, even though the technology has been making progress toward commercial goals (meaning lower cost), the equation has not been favorable for broad adoption.  But Bloom Energy, whose CEO K R Sridhar was featured on this week’s 60 Minutes, seems to have been able to convert their $400 million investment into a winning product.

One of the problems with large scale power generation is transmission losses.  Power generated in Virginia, for example, goes onto the grid and is distributed to the users from there.  Of course it works, but if the power could be generated on the site where it is to be consumed, at least the costs and losses associated with transmission lines could be eliminated.  And of course, we have been worried for years about attacks on our increasingly ‘smart’, and therefore vulnerable, grid.  On a hot summer day, a transformer going offline in Miami can take out part of the power system in New England.  It’s a carefully balanced beast that does not have nearly as much redundancy built in as should be required for such an important service.

Bloom Energy’s units are about the size of a car, and can be arranged in modules for easy increases in generation as demand increases.  Plus, they are much cleaner than, for example, coal-fired power plants, since they can utilize green fuels.

So, it looks like our power problems are solved, right?

Meh, I don’ t know.  After all, this is coming out of Silicon Valley, the same folks who brought you the dot-com bubble whose burst created an economic mess that is still being cleaned up ten years later.  As mentioned in the article, “the market will separate fact from fiction, and will prove claims versus reality”.

I hope it works.  Competitively priced electric power generated locally using green fuels and distributed without the need for landscape blighting high tension power lines cutting broad swaths across my forest covered mountains, has to be a good thing, right?

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Filed under Energy, fuel

Gone Fishin’

You have to see this.  It’s probably one of the coolest and simultaneously creepy pieces of technology I have run across lately.  It’s an artificial fish.

“But Mike, why do we need an artificial fish, when there are so many real ones around?” you might ask.

Well, there is a reason, aside from the sheer coolness factor.

It turns out that good ol’ Mother Nature has had a long time to work on stuff, and at this point has pretty much got it all figured out.  For example, how birds fly and fish swim using the minimal amount of energy.  See, in nature, if you can swim faster or father than other fish on the same amount of energy, or conversely, if you can swim as fast or as far as other fish on less energy, it means you have an advantage in the great circle of life, and you might get a chance to stick around longer.

For all our intelligence, we often have trouble coming up with stuff that is better than, or even close to, working as well as natural systems.  But over the past couple of decades, many researchers and engineers have realized that sometimes we need to just take advantage of all that work that Mother Nature has done for us and see if we can duplicate it.  You know, like copying the answers off the test of the person in front of you (not that I would know anything about that).

Anyway, take a look at this site, where some smart folks have created an artificial carp.  Well, it looks like one to me, anyway.  But the cool part is that it isn’t just a bunch of motors and gears attached to a frame and a skin, like a Walt Disney animatronic fish…this one actually works like a fish.

It uses a combination of composites and electroactive materials, along with very clever mechanical design and probably loads of math to make a fish that wiggles like a fish.  Just look at it.  It’s so cool and creepy!

The secret is that by passing electric current through certain types of materials, you can cause them to expand or contract just a little, sort of the way a real muscle works.  Some of these electroactive materials are made of polymers, which as you know are relatively soft.  Electroactive polymer “muscles” can move fairly large amounts when activated, but they are so soft that they can’t really exert much force.  On the other hand, there are much harder materials, like the little crystal inside your quartz-controlled watch, that can actually exert a lot of force, but they can’t change shape very much.  So, it would seem that both of these types of actuated materials have limitations.

True, but when you give them just the right shape and attach them to other structures just so, such as the artificial fish body, they can produce large, amplified movements that can be used to do significant work for you.

Now, back to the question of “Who cares?”  Well, the same design that creates the wiggly artificial fish body can also be use to slightly change the shape of a wing on an airplane, for example.  Airplane wings need to alter their shapes for different flying conditions, and being able to command the wing to take a slightly more efficient shape for cruising while morphing to a higher lift configuration for landing would save significant fuel (or extend range).  The artificial fish could be released in small schools or swarms to swim about and collect data on temperature or chemical content of a stream for environmental monitoring purposes, or as an early warning system for protecting ports from attack in a homeland security scenario.

The technology behind the creepy wiggly artificial fish is being developed by Dr. Wayne Neu of Virginia Tech’s Aerospace and Ocean Engineering group, along with private research company AVID.  Interestingly, AVID is also working on related technology that can be used to create actual flapping wing structures.  So, maybe soon we will have not just creepy artificial fish, but creepy artificial birds and insects.


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Filed under biomimetic, Energy, Materials, propulsion

Free lunch?

I know there is not supposed to be any such thing as a free lunch, but maybe chemist Karen Brewer has reduced the price considerably.

Over the past few years the ever increasing cost of gasoline, coupled with the increased scrutiny of possible changes in global climate that may be a result of man-made acivities, has once again focused our national attention on alternative sources of power, or at least alternative fuels.

I’ll take a look at some new technology for producing fuels from plant matter and such at a later time, but right now I want to look into the generation of hydrogen from sunlight.

Hydrogen can be used as a fuel for two major power generating schemes.  First, there are hydrogen burning engines.  As the name implies, these are essentially internal combustion engines that burn hydrogen instead of gasoline.  Prototypes of these  vehicles are being tested now in some places, such as this bus in Iceland and the Ford P2000 automobile.  Then there are vehicles that utilize electric drive powered by hydrogen fuel cells, which combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity and waste water, as demonstrated in this fuel cell bus.

One of the bigger problems associated with hydrogen power is….well….where do you get the hydrogen?  Normally, hydrogen is produced by hydrolysis, that is by passing an electric current through water and breaking it down into hydrogen and oxygen.  But the electricity has to come from somewhere, so if you use fossil fuels to generate the electricity to generate the hydrogen, it begins to look like you are not really gaining anything.  Every time you convert energy from one form to another, you lose a little in the conversion.  So, while the burning of hydrogen is much better environmentally than burning fossil fuels, if you have to burn fossil fuel to generate the hydrogen, you still lose.

Another way to generate electricity is to use solar cells.  Sunlight falls on silicon photovoltaic cells which then produce electric current, and that can in turn be used to generate hydrogen via hydrolysis.  Of course, the solar cells have their own problems, so that efficiency thing comes back to get you.  No free lunch here.

To get around this problem, chemist Karen Brewer has figured out a way to generate hydrogen directly from sunlight.  No solar cells, no algae gardens, just plain old sunlight.

For many years Brewer has been researching how to use materials and catalysts to break molecules apart.  She has been experimenting with certain molecules that essentially perform a function like photosynthesis, except in reverse.  Instead of using light to put molecules together, she uses light to break them apart.  By adding some of her materials into a water solution, and then shining light on it, she can directly break the water molecules apart into hydrogen and oxygen without using electricity.  If you want to know more, read all the geeky details in these papers from her research group.

So, of course her work is in its early stages, but it promises to provide a pathway for more efficient hydrogen generation by eliminating the need for electrical current, which is a good thing.  Maybe not a free lunch, but at least a cheaper one.

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Filed under Energy, fuel, Materials