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Articles from 2009 In October


USDA Forest Service Tests Voltree Power’s Bio-Energy Harvester

In February 2009, I posted “Voltree Power Harvests Electricity from Trees without Combustion,” describing how Canton, MA based Voltree Power was commercializing a patented technology from MIT to extract energy from trees. Using the pH difference between trees and the soil, a miniscule amount of electricity is produced, which Voltree captures to power wireless mesh networks within forests for agricultural monitoring and early detection of forest fires.

While I liked the novelty of this idea, to be honest, I thought any attempt to actually commercialize wireless sensors running on “tree juice” would likely not succeed. Who would buy such a crazy idea? Well, how about the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forrest Service

In a recent press release, “Voltree Power Announces First Contract with USDA Forest Service,” the company highlights a major success in deploying their tree-powered mesh network for ambient environmental monitoring. This calm news release is accompanied by a vigorous, ecstatic, and well-deserved rant on the company’s home page about how well their technology performed during this initial trial. Frankly, I would be pretty excited, too, if I managed to convince the Feds to invest in an overgrown potato clock that did a better job than Smokey at preventing forest fires.

This initial success of Voltree’s technology demonstrates one viable solution to the long-standing challenge of powering wireless sensors without batteries. As described in my post, “The Walls are Crawling with Energy,” deploy-and-forget wireless networks are being held up by lack of wireless solutions to deliver power to the sensor nodes. These networks could provide data for applications as diverse as human comfort monitoring for building energy reduction to radiation detection for anti-terrorism operations. So, Voltree’s initial success is a laudable step toward data-rich environments enabled by wireless networks that harvest power from their surroundings.

Nissan Plans To Drive Down Electric Car Costs

Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn told The Wall Street Journal that his company plans to make electric cars price-competitive without government subsidies. The newspaper said that Ghosn described a three-year time frame for the cost-cutting effort, and said that government incentives for electric cars would be needed during those three years.

            The key, Ghosn says, are economies of scale, particularly in the production of batteries. “Scale is absolutely important,” he told the newspaper.

            Ghosn’s decision to pursue electric car technology is apparently sincere. He has repeatedly said the company’s future is in pure electrics, rather than hybrids or even plug-in hybrids. In the second half of 2010, Nissan plans to begin selling the Leaf, a battery-electric vehicle.

            His decision is considered to be a daring move by some in the auto industry, who have watched the battery-technology-of-choice evolve from lead-acid to advanced lead-acid to nickel-iron to sodium-sulfur to zinc-air to zinc-nickel-oxide to nickel-metal hydride to lithium-ion over the past 20 years. Lithium-ion battery makers are still trying to dramatically drive down the cost of the technology from more than $700/kW-hr today to less than $200/kW-hr in the next few years.

            Experts, however, have predicted that the cost of battery technology will not drop below $400 kW-hr by 2020, even at larger production volumes.

Nissan Plans To Drive Down Electric Car Costs

Nissan Plans To Drive Down Electric Car Costs

Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn told The Wall Street Journal that his company plans to make electric cars price-competitive without government subsidies. The newspaper said that Ghosn described a three-year time frame for the cost-cutting effort, and said that government incentives for electric cars would be needed during those three years.

            The key, Ghosn says, are economies of scale, particularly in the production of batteries. “Scale is absolutely important,” he told the newspaper.

            Ghosn’s decision to pursue electric car technology is apparently sincere. He has repeatedly said the company’s future is in pure electrics, rather than hybrids or even plug-in hybrids. In the second half of 2010, Nissan plans to begin selling the Leaf, a battery-electric vehicle.

            His decision is considered to be a daring move by some in the auto industry, who have watched the battery-technology-of-choice evolve from lead-acid to advanced lead-acid to nickel-iron to sodium-sulfur to zinc-air to zinc-nickel-oxide to nickel-metal hydride to lithium-ion over the past 20 years. Lithium-ion battery makers are still trying to dramatically drive down the cost of the technology from more than $700/kW-hr today to less than $200/kW-hr in the next few years.

            Experts, however, have predicted that the cost of battery technology will not drop below $400 kW-hr by 2020, even at larger production volumes.

Cool Motor Kits for Future Engineers

Greetings fellow gadgeteers! In this blog post, I will take a look at some electronics projects for kids. Like many of you, I have kids that are at that impressionable age where they can hopefully be steered towards an honorable life spent in a field such engineering, science, or plumbing, and away from such disreputable activities as ticket scalping or lawyering. To that end I present some projects that are kid friendly and which hopefully can stir an interest in electronics as a hobby or career.

The first electronic motor kit I built was a conventional permanent magnet DC motor with brass brushes and commutator. I had to wind the coils by hand (and rewind! I learned that polarity matters!). Then the brushes had to be carefully bent to properly touch the commutator. It was some frustration to get going, but once it worked I spent many hours spinning things with it, and experimenting with the phasing of the commutator to see how fast it would go. As it turns out there are much simpler ways to build motors that don’t involve brushes or paying close attention to which direction the windings are put on.

Homopolar motor

homopolarmotor.jpg

The simplest electronic motor that I’ve been able to find on the internet is called the homopolar motor, so named because the polarity of the current never changes. It runs off DC current and does not use brushes or otherwise change or interrupt the current. This motor is simplicity itself, and you can find the build directions at the Evil Mad Scientist website.

The full explanation is available with the build instructions, but in brief this motor uses the magnet as the rotor, and the conductor as the stator. The magnet itself is part of the circuit, and motion is produced by the cross product of the current flowing through the magnet and the magnet’s own magnetic field. I haven’t built a working version of this yet since I don’t have a round magnet at hand, and the oblong ones I’ve scavenged from dead hard drives don’t seem to work (Even when coupled with a round steel washer it only twitches, it doesn’t rotate). Despite this setback I am rating this project “easy” and (based on other motor experiments I’ve done with my kids) with a high “cool factor”. I’ll search out a round magnet and report back via the comment section below.

A simple DC motor

I ran into this design over at instructables.com, billed as a simple electric motor. This one actually worked when I built it, and my four sons were also able to each build one. The instructable says to coat the wire with nail polish, but I wasn’t able to get that to work. My wife obviously does not buy motor rated nail polish. We found that the nail polish wasn’t necessary, it was enough to simply scrape all the enamel from one end of the coil, and only the enamel from one side of the wire on the other end of the coil. In this motor the field formed by the coil is opposite in polarity to the field of the magnet, which causes the coil to flip over. In this orientation the coil would be attracted to the magnet, except that the circuit is broken by the presence of the enamel on the wire. The motor relies on angular momentum to keep the coil spinning through this dead phase until it is again energized and repelled by the magnet. This project is also rated “easy” and “fun for kids”.
My oldest son recently attended a Boy Scout “merit badge workshop” where he coincidently built another version of this same motor.

Brushless DC motor

brushlessdcmotor.jpg

This is another DC motor that cleverly replaces the brushes with a reed switch. The circuit is the same as the simple DC motor above in that the current is only applied to the coil when the coil and magnet are opposite polarity, but in this motor the coil is the stator and the magnets are the rotor. Kits are available, and there is also a slightly more complicated hall effect motor also.

Build some of these motors and see what your kids (or your co-workers) think of them and let me know! Post your comments below.

Autodesk Previews Change Manager for Inventor Fusion

Autodesk peeled back another layer of detail about its new Inventor Fusion technology, specifically showcasing a new change manager function that unites direct and parametric modeling workflows within a single digital CAD model. The second preview, available now on Autodesk Labs, provides a first look at technology, which gives users the freedom to choose the best modeling approach for their particular task and move back and forth as necessary.

As Kevin Schneider, Autodesk product manager, explains it, the change manager function lets users edit a model in Inventor Fusion and then move it into Inventor, where the model is automatically updated if the user decides to accept the changes. Unlike other solutions, which Schneider says deliver direct modeling capabilities by adding features at the bottom of the history tree, Autodesk’s approach won’t inject inaccuracies into the CAD model, Rather, he says users will be presented with the changes made to the original parametric features and they can choose to accept or deny them as they see fit. Schneider says Autodesk is going with this approach because of feedback it heard directly from customers. “We clearly heard customers say we need changes made in a history-free way to be seamlessly represented in the model’s parametric history,” he explains.

As part of the Inventor Fusion technology preview, Autodesk also debuted a new, moderated Wiki Help site, where users can collaborate, troubleshoot problems and share ideas and references materials. The Inventor Fusion technology preview executable expires on June 1, 2010.

Inventor Fusion’s Change Manager

Balver Zinn introduces two new lead-free solders

Balver Zinn introduces two new lead-free solders

An article in EMT World notes that Balver Zinn will introduce two lead-free solders based on the Iowa State Patent at the Prodcutronica trade fair in Munich November 10 - 13.

First is the i-SAC 387 Solder, which adds Cobalt (Co). The company notes the melting characteristic of silver containing alloys has been improved with the addition of Cobalt. The solder also includes Germanium (Ge), which was added to play the role of an antioxidant, preferentially reacting with oxygen to protect the solder from the oxidation that results in the formation of dross.

Balver Zinn will also introduce the Tin Silver based i-SAC 105. This solder also contains Cobalt, which was added to improve the melting characteristic of the silver. This solder was designed to produce low-priced, bright and shiny solder joints and a fine grain microstructure even with a low addition of silver.

Dassault to Acquire IBM's PLM Sales And Consulting Arm

Dassault to Acquire IBM's PLM Sales And Consulting Arm

Culminating a nearly 30-year relationship around CAD and Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) software, IBM and Dassault Systemes have entered into a deal in which Dassault plans to acquire IBM's sales and consulting operations around PLM for the hefty price tag of $600 million in cash.

The deal, the largest in Dassault's history, will allow both companies to concentrate on their core competencies. IBM, which has been selling components of the Dassault suite, including its CATIA 3D CAD software and ENOVIA data management software, will now focus exclusively on its consulting and integration services for the broad spectrum of PLM offerings in addition to selling its middleware and infrastructure products. For its part, Dassault, which will gain ownership of its complete PLM application portfolio as well as existing customer contracts and related assets, will now have direct control over the sales process and more interaction with its PLM customers.

For existing and future IBM and Dassault customers, the deal should simplify the engagement process since oftentimes they would have a software licensing deal with Dassault and a separate consulting and services contract with IBM. "The acquisition will simplify the engagement process because sometimes IBM wasn't selling all the Dassault applications at once," says Dassault President and CEO Bernard Charles. "Now with one set of contracts, we can provide the software and the consulting expertise and focus on our application knowledge and industry knowledge. We can work as a team for a total solution delivery without having to share royalties on software, which was the case in the past."

While the IBM/Dassault partnership was never exclusive, the proposed sale will give IBM more opportunity to offer consulting and integration services around other PLM offerings. In June, IBM took some key steps toward that scenario with the announcement of a deal with Siemens PLM Software on a set of PLM applications and consulting offerings based on Siemens' Teamcenter platform and IBM's middleware and service-oriented architecture (SOA) framework. "This levels the playing field for Siemens and other players," says Bill Carrelli, vice president of Strategic Marketing for Siemens PLM Software. "There were certainly some differences in terms of the relationship (with Dassault) before ... and for clients of IBM, this opens them up to look at other (PLM) players."

Industry analysts played down the idea of the announcement signaling a rift between IBM and Dassault, but rather say that the timing is right to go their separate ways and the move will ultimately benefit customers. "It gives customers direct contact and direct dialog with the owner of the software," says Ed Miller, president of CIMdata Inc., a market research firm specializing in PLM and product development. "This is a big deal. Nearly all the big CATIA sales have gone through IBM and now (those customers) are getting direct participation with Dassault. Many of them are very happy about that."

As part of the acquisition announcement, IBM says Dassault will continue to remain a close development and integration partner via Dassault's appointment as an IBM Global Alliance Partner. The deal, which is expected to be complete in the first half of 2010, calls for nearly 700 IBM employees to become part of the Dassault organization. Managing that integration seamlessly will be Dassault bigger challenge going forward, Miller says.

Carrelli, who has experienced firsthand the difficulties in melding organizations, agrees. Siemens PLM software grew by acquisition over the last few years and the company has toiled over the years to integrate both the people and the disparate technologies into a cohesive PLM solution. "While the technology isn't changing, the people issue is still huge," he says. "You can't underestimate that."

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Boeing Picks South Carolina for Dreamliner Assembly Plant

Boeing Picks South Carolina for Dreamliner Assembly Plant

Boeing is getting ready to put the pedal to the metal to accelerate production of the stalled 787 Dreamliner. A second final assembly plant will be built in North Charleston, SC. The new plant, expected to be operational in mid-2011, will also have the capability to support the testing and delivery of the airplanes.

“Establishing a second 787 assembly line in Charleston will expand our production capability to meet the market demand for the airplane,” said Jim Albaugh, president and CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes. “This decision allows us to continue building on the synergies we have established in South Carolina with Boeing Charleston and Global Aeronautica,” he said.

Boeing Charleston performs fabrication, assembly and systems installation for the 787 aft fuselage sections. Across the street, Global Aeronautica, which is 50 percent owned by Boeing, is responsible for joining and integrating 787 fuselage sections from other structural partners.

The State of South Carolina is issuing bonds to defray construction costs and is also waiving sales tax for jet fuel on test flights and some construction materials. The move to South Carolina is a rebuke to the aircraft machinists union, which has been at odds with Boeing.  The move also signals a move to try to improve consolidation of Dreamliner production.

The photo shows the site for the new Dreamliner plant in South Carolina.

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Xerox Ink Allows Printing of Electronic Circuits on Plastics

Xerox Ink Allows Printing of Electronic Circuits on Plastics

Xerox says it has developed a conductive ink that creates a low-cost method to add computing power to plastic and other surfaces. One potential application is a “smart” pill box that tracks how much medication a patient has taken.

One of the technical breakthroughs was development of a conductive ink with a melting point below that of plastic. The silver ink has a melting point of 140C, compared to 267C for polycarbonate. Melting points for commodity plastics, such as polyethylene, are much lower and would not be used with the new inks.

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