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Articles from 2018 In February

February 28 – Day 3 – Beginning Graphics Interface, Hands-on (Part 1)

Webinar Information
Start Date: Feb 28, 2018 - 07:00 PM UTC

The complexities of some IIoT applications require sophisticated user interfaces beyond the simple inputs and outputs that we covered so far. Integrated touch-screen graphical LCDs now allow us to effectively build a tablet or mobile handset into our devices, but developing these can be daunting without acquiring and mastering the right tools. In our third class, we will look at an application that will use a self-contained demonstration board, the NXP OM13092, that includes a touch-screen LCD, as well as a number of useful ports and I/O. We will make use of the free MCUXPresso development tool, as well as a demonstration license of the Draupner Graphics TouchGFX design tool. We will set up the design environment and look at how the tool can first simulate then assist us in programming the target board.

Predictive Maintenance Is Replacing the Plant’s Retiring Knowledge Worker

RRAMAC Connected Systems, Tom Craven, predictive maintenance, artificial intelligence, machine learning, sensors

The retiring Baby Boomer at the plant may get replaced by predictive maintenance software. Just as robots are stepping up to do the mind-numbing and dangerous repetitive manual labor jobs in manufacturing, we’re now seeing that sensors and artificial intelligence begin to replace the plant’s knowledge workers who can smell a failing motor at 50 yards.

This screen shot shows a predictiv.e maintenance system monitoring equipment health. Image courtesy of RRAMAC Connected Systems.

Those highly knowledgeable workers with 20 to 40 years of experience with pant equipment are retiring in a stream that will soon become a flood. These workers have gained years of expertise ferreting out the weakness of plant equipment, judging its health through sound, vibration, even smell. You can’t hire a new grad to replace this expertise. But you can hire software to do it.

Using Sensors to Replace the Five Senses

These experienced workers have been doing predictive maintenance on plant equipment by using their five senses. “The retiring knowledge worker has been doing the same job for 20 or 30 years. They can hear things in the equipment,” Tom Craven, VP of product strategy at RRAMAC Connected Systems, told Design News. “What they do gets into operational efficiency, but also, it’s predictive maintenance. They’ll hear a rattle and know what to do about it. Or they can detect a specific smell that can be a motor current problem. They smell the electrical burn and know that something bad is going to happen.”

Craven will present the session, Best Practices in Successfully Performing Predictive Maintenance, at the Advanced Design and Manufacturing Expo in Cleveland on March 8, 2018.

Craven noted that software is getting developed to detect anomalies in plant equipment, with the goal of catching the failing equipment before it causes any stoppage. “That rattle that the knowledge worker hears has other symptoms that can be picked up by a vibration sensor,” said Craven. “The predictive maintenance system is a combination of sensors and machine learning. The knowledge worker is responding to his five senses and he has the experience to know what to do to correct the problem. The machine learning feeds the system data that knows what to do to correct the equiopment.”

Using Data to Analyze Equipment Health

Predictive maintenance systems take equipment health monitoring into the realm of data analysis, creating a data picture of a healthy machine and searching for anomalies that may be out of sync with that picture. “The machine learning is artificial intelligence applied to a machine. What happens over time is you record data, which includes multiple vibration points, motor current, and temperature,” said Craven. “You look for anomalies. In some cases, it’s obvious – motor current issues are easy to associate with a failure.”

The analysis of machine health becomes complicated when the machine – over its normal course of performance – goes through changes in its vibration, voltage, or temperature. “Where data analysis becomes more complex, is when an anomalous vibration may be normal. Vibrations may vary during the cycles of the machine,” said Craven. “What happens is in these cases, is you look at multiple variables and run a mathematical calculation that can flag the anomaly.”

The artificial intelligence can learn the difference between anomalous machine readings that are healthy and anomalous readings that are unhealthy. “The predictive maintenance system detects when something has changed and is atypical. You can teach the system that this atypical change is OK,” said Craven. “The system learns that one particular anomaly can cause this failure, another anomaly can cause a different failure, and yet another anomaly does not result in a failure at all.”

Rob Spiegel has covered automation and control for 17 years, 15 of them for Design News. Other topics he has covered include supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cyber security. For 10 years, he was owner and publisher of the food magazine Chile Pepper.

For the second year,  Advanced Design & Manufacturing Cleveland  is back at the Huntington Convention Center, March 7-8, 2018.  Register today  for loads of free, can’t-miss education focusing on Smart Manufacturing, 3D Printing, Battery technologies, Medtech, and more!

To Understand If 3D Printing Works for You, Educate Yourself

To Understand If 3D Printing Works for You, Educate Yourself

3D printing won’t help your manufacturing process unless you educate yourself and understand your own products, experts will say at the upcoming Cleveland Advanced Design & Manufacturing Expo.

“You have to put in the effort,” Jack Heslin, founder of J3D Services, told Design News. “You need to look at your components and study them in light of additive technologies. What are your products’ dimensional qualities? What are their stresses, loads and thermal properties? You first need to redesign your components to take advantage of 3D printing, and only then can you assess whether it will help you or not.”

Heslin, who will be joined by a panel of three other experts at the expo, told us that many manufacturers don’t bother to do the hard work up front, and because of that, never fully understand the potential benefits.

“The wrong way to do it is to look at something you’ve made for many years with few modifications, and ask, ‘Can we 3D print this?’” Heslin said. “The answer from a purely technical perspective is probably going to be yes. But if you do it that way, it’s probably going to cost more money. And you’re probably not going to get any advantage out of it.”

Heslin contends that the key to getting benefits from 3D printing lies in the redesign. He cited the example of Optisys LLC, a maker of micro-antenna products for aerospace and defense applications. Using a 3D-printed metal antenna, he said, Optisys recently reduced a product’s part count from 100 to one, cut its weight by 95%, dropped lead time from 11 months to two, and slashed production costs by 20-25%. He also pointed to the recent successful test of a new 3D-printed advanced turboprop aircraft engine from GE. 3D printing reportedly enabled GE designers to combine 855 separate assemblies into 12, allowing engineers to shave off more than 100 pounds of mass and improve fuel burn by as much as 20%.

Jack Heslin of J3D Serices: You first need to redesign your components to take advantage of 3D printing, and only then can you assess whether it will help you or not.” (Source: J3D Services)

The key to realizing such advantages is to examine the entire process that underlies the product, Heslin said. That includes the initial concept, CAD design, prototyping, production, jigs, fixtures, tooling, and support. “If you look at each one of these steps in the manufacturing process, there’s probably going to be a way in which additive manufacturing will provide a benefit,” he said.

Unfortunately, many manufacturers are unaware of the different types of 3D printing processes, and the ways they might help, Heslin added. Many hear the term “3D printing” and believe it’s a single process. “There are seven distinct 3D printing technologies as defined by ASTM (American Society of Testing and Materials), and those technologies can have remarkably little in common,” he said. “So if you’re looking at one 3D printing technology and it doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t mean the others won’t work for you.”

Many manufacturers never do a fair assessment because doing so can be difficult and time consuming, Heslin said. Large manufacturers with big engineering staffs are more likely to be able to afford to create a task force and investigate the matter. “If you have 40- or 50-person manufacturing company, and everyone’s job is crucial to the bottom line, it’s not going to be easy to take the time to do this,” Heslin said.

Still, Heslin urged manufacturers to consider 3D printing, even if it doesn’t seem to be obvious fit at first glance. “You have to start, whether you know a lot or a little,” he told us. “If you don’t, your competitor might.”

Read More Articles on 3D Printing

3D Printing Paves Way for Fabrication of Devices INside the Body

10 3D Metal Printing Companies You Should Know

Olympics Luge Team Builds a Better Sled with Additive Manufacturing

3D Printing of Metal Parts Is on the Rise, Expert Says

Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 34 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and auto.  

Join representatives from RP+M, MAGNET, and The Technology House as they explore how to leverage the shifts in smart manufacturing dynamics resulting from 3D printing; how to manage throughput when frequently changing out materials; and how to scale up efficiently without sacrificing quality, new materials, new possibilities, and new processes, during a lively panel discussion held during ADM Cleveland, March 7-8, 2018. Register today!


NXP Rolls Development Platform for Hybrids, EVs

NXP Rolls Development Platform for Hybrids, EVs

NXP Semiconductors is rolling out a development platform aimed at helping automakers and suppliers accelerate the design of next-generation hybrids and electric vehicles.

Known as GreenBox, the new platform enables engineers to develop the complicated control algorithms that will be needed for electrified powertrains over the next few years. “There’s a sense of urgency with HEV and EV applications,” Brad Loane, automotive MCU product manager for NXP, told Design News. “There’s a lot of demand from OEMs and Tier Ones for more intelligent solutions.”

NXP’s GreenBox platform is aimed at helping automakers and suppliers accelerate the design of next-generation hybrids and electric vehicles. (Source: NXP Semiconductors)

GreenBox would provide that intelligence by enabling engineers to design and test the algorithms that underlie the control of the electric motors, internal combustion engines, battery management systems, and other key parts of an electrified vehicle, before the vehicle comes out. It’s based on NXP’s ARM Cortex-based S32 computing platform and includes a hardware development board, peripherals board, software and operating systems for standardized architectures such as Autosar.

The product’s signature green box would not be employed in the vehicle itself, but rather would serve as a development platform, enabling engineers to integrate an electrified vehicle’s functions onto a chip. “We see an opportunity for many of the vehicle’s applications to be integrated,” Loane told us. “Even today, we’re already starting to see situations where the traction motor and DC-to-DC converters are being addressed by a single MCU.”

Loane acknowledged that some vehicle applications, such as internal combustion engines and electric motors, might require separate chips due to reasons of proximity. But, he said, the ARM-based S32 processors have sufficient computational power to handle all such functions. “In theory, you could have everything handled by a single chip,” Loane added. “This offers a lot of integration capabilities.”

The GreenBox product comes at a time when automakers around the world are broadening the electrification of their vehicle lines due to government mandates. US automakers, for example, must meet a corporate average fuel economy of 54.5 mpg by 2025. Similarly, Norway has announced that all of its vehicles must be zero-emission by 2025; India has called for the same by 2030; The Netherlands wants 50% EVs by 2025; and China has said it plans to stop production of gasoline-burning cars at some point in the coming decades. In all cases, hybrids and pure electric cars are expected to play a big role in meeting those government requirements.

GreenBox, which rolled out on February 20, would serve as an early development tool in such efforts, enabling engineers to get a jump start on NXP’s planned announcement of a specialized silicon platform later this year.

The product comes in two configurations. One is targeted at fully electric vehicles. It supports such functions as motor control and battery management. The other is for hybrids. The hybrid version supports the functions of both electric vehicles and internal combustion engines.   

NXP says that the introduction of the platform is important now, given the pressure on automakers to accelerate their transition to hybrid and electric powertrains. “There’s a definite need in the market for more intelligence and performance in this area,” Loane said. “That’s what we’re addressing with GreenBox.”

Read More Articles on EV Technology

At 95, John Goodenough Is Still Searching for the Next Big Battery Breakthrough

China, Tesla Will Set Pace of EV Battery Production in 2018

10 Massive Trucks Powered by Electricity

GM to Produce 20 New Electric Cars by 2023

Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 34 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and auto.


For the second year, Advanced Design & Manufacturing Cleveland is back at the Huntington Convention Center, March 7-8, 2018. Register today for loads of free, can’t-miss education focusing on Smart Manufacturing, 3D Printing, Battery technologies, Medtech, and more!


February 27 – Day 2 – Simple Interfaces that Aren’t So Simple

Webinar Information
Start Date: Feb 27, 2018 - 07:00 PM UTC

Many off-the-shelf microcontrollers include human-machine interface (HMI) circuitry to enable ‘simple’ inputs and outputs such as touchpads and segmented alphanumeric displays. However, implementing these features is not always easy or even straightforward. In our second class, we will look in detail at some of these features and how to overcome some of the common obstacles that developers may face. We will also begin the process of downloading and setting up the development environment for the hands-on portion of the class.

The Key to Automation ROI for Small Plants Is Flexibility

Universal Robots, return on investment, ROI, automation, smart manufacturing, flexible equipment, feeding equipment, robots, robotics

For decades, sophisticated automation and control systems, from machine learning and predictive maintenance to robotics and smart packaging equipment, belonged to the largest manufacturers – Boeing, GM, and Proctor and Gamble. Reductions in the cost of automation technology has created a paradigm shift. As sensors, robotics, and software systems become more affordable, Small- to smid-size manufacturers can take advantages of smart manufacturing.

Plant operator uses touchscreen to program a plant robot. Image courtesy of Universal Robots.

One of the shifts in manufacturing technology that has help smaller companies adopt these tools is flexibility and ease-of-use. In the past, plant robots did one task. Changing that task required significant programing and disassembly. The newer, smaller robots that can be moved easily and can be programed by using a portable touchscreen HMI. This lets plant personnel redeploy robots from shift-to-shift, task-to-task quickly.

Increasing the Uptime of Plant Equipment

These changes in smart technology helps small manufacturers find a quick return on investment. “The number-one way to keep any system productive and paying for itself is to keep it in uptime mode as much as possible,” Daniel Moore, technical support manager at Universal Robots told Design News. “Not a lot of customers have any one product they run for 24 hours per day. Sometimes it’s best to establish a robot that runs on three machines. That robot could run eight hours a day on one task, and another two shifts on other tasks.”

While a flexible robot helps with uptime, the equipment deployed to support that robot’s tasks also needs to be flexible. To this effect, feeding systems are also becoming more flexible. “If you want to run eight hours and you have a quick cycle time, you may need a flexible feeding system as well, vibration feeder system that can also move task to task,” said Moore.

Flexible equipment makes it easier to switch plant equipment from task-to-task, and it also helps the manufacturer introduce new products without necessarily having to buy new equipment. “With flexible systems, your automation won’t suddenly stop paying off just because you changed the product,” said Moore. “You need to make sure you don’t write any equipment off as a loss. If something changes in the product, will some of the equipment become less useful? With flexible feeding and flexible robots, you don’t need to write off anything.”

In the past robots were heavy and fixed in place. A lighter robot that can be moved around easily becomes a more useful tool, “There are physical considerations as well as technical considerations,” said Moore. “A lightweight flexible robot, may be more useful than a 1600-pound robot, and it may require less prep.”

Moore will be presenting the session, Getting the Best ROI from Your Smart Manufacturing Systems, at the Advanced Design and Manufacturing Expo in Cleveland on March 7, 2018.

Asking Robots to Augment Human Labor

In some jobs, the robot offers an improvement in quality, not just a reduction in cost. “We see some astounding results in robots used in injection molding systems. Here’s why: with injection molding systems, it’s not just a matter of cycle times or moving humans to less stressful part of the plants. It’s also a matter of the time it takes to withdraw and trim the excess material from molded parts,” said Moore. “Using a robot has a huge effect on the cycle time of this process.”

Moore noted that the robot offers improved quality in its ability to do the same task exactly the same way over and over. “By automating, you get repeatable consistency and you don’t have to throw out as many parts,” said Moore. “Plus, people don’t have to cycle in and out of stressful jobs. These hidden benefits make a big difference.”

Moore also noted that robots offer advantages even in regions where labor costs are low. “Most plants have trouble retaining good workers. Even in areas where labor is less expensive, they’re still buying robots for consistency and quality,” said Moore. “The costs of production may go up, but you’re getting better quality and less re-do, so you’re still going to get the ROI benefits in one to two years.”

For the second year,  Advanced Design & Manufacturing Cleveland  is back at the Huntington Convention Center, March 7-8, 2018.  Register today  for loads of free, can’t-miss education focusing on Smart Manufacturing, 3D Printing, Battery technologies, Medtech, and more!

Rob Spiegel has covered automation and control for 17 years, 15 of them for Design News. Other topics he has covered include supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cyber security. For 10 years, he was owner and publisher of the food magazine Chile Pepper.

DesignCon 2018 Featured Papers


If you missed DesignCon, you missed a lot. Below you can sample a small handful of the more than 80 technical papers presented at DesignCon 2018 by engineering experts in the fields of test and measurement, power integrity, and signal integrity.

Click through and gain knowledge on interconnect systems, eye diagrams, high speed serial data signals, DC-DC converters, DDR5, and more.

Mark your calendar now for DesignCon 2019, Jan. 29-31!

Applying IBIS-AMI Techniques to DDR5 Analysis
DDR5 memory is slated to run at speeds from 3200 MT/s to 6400 MT/s. These speeds are well into the range where Tx/Rx equalization is used to ensure reliable signal transmission in serial channel applications. DDR5 is expected to make use of the same techniques (FIR, CTLE, DFE) to improve signal quality when the final DDR5 specification is published.

While DDR5 signaling speeds have reached traditional SerDes speeds, there are significant differences between DDR and serial channel applications, including:
   • Shorter lower loss channels with more discontinuities and reflections
   • Multiple driver / receiver combinations
   • Multiple signal terminations
   • Single-ended signaling
   • Variable network topologies (DIMMs present or absent)
   • Short transmission bursts followed by network I/O reconfiguration
   • Bi-directional signaling

At first, application of SerDes equalization techniques and AMI models seems like an obvious approach to improving DDR5 signal quality. A closer inspection reveals that the design problems incurred by DDR5 topologies are quite different than the signaling challenges that SerDes equalization techniques were originally designed to overcome. However, thoughtful application of AMI models and AMI simulation techniques can highlight which DDR5 signal quality issues are significant and what techniques can best be used to overcome them.

This paper looks at the challenges of achieving reliable data transmission for a DDR5 data net operating at a variety of speeds. We discuss how AMI-style analysis can be used to identify which data transfers are the limiting factors in high speed performance and what equalization / modeling techniques can be used to address them.

Elastomeric-based Interconnects Use Waveguide Structures to Enable Terabit Networks by Minimizing Physical Layer Pathologies
In this paper, the authors present a novel interconnect system for the internet infrastructure of network and data centers. This interconnect consists of a full differential system including twinax cables that are directly attached to conventionally fabricated printed circuit board using a technology that can eliminate the connector. This topology can significantly reduce loss and impedance mismatches within the entire transmission system. The interconnect structure consists of an interposer directly inserted into the board. The interposer comes in two different topologies: H-pin and conductive elastomer. Both configurations allow for a high degree of flexibility when designing the high-speed system. Such flexibility allows for a wide array of PCB materials to be used to optimize the cost/performance ratio.

The Gap Between Eye "Mask" Compliance, BER and BER Contours
Various methodologies existed over recent decades for treatment of eye diagrams. These coexist and in some ways, collide. One such example is “mask compliance”. From the 1950s through the early 1980s, mask testing consisted of a grease-pencil shape drawn on the reticule of an analog oscilloscope … and instructions to be sure the oscilloscope trace stayed inside or outside of the shape.

With the advent of digital oscilloscopes, methods appeared that approximated this kind of test in a more precise fashion. The grease pencil was abandoned. The mask was more precisely specified and drawn. The matter of detecting and recording a mask violation became more objective.

Fast-forward 20-25 years and we have notions of Bit Error Ratio (BER) and contours of constant BER based on statistical analysis of digitized waveforms and eye diagrams. Mask tests are still around … but few seem to know precisely what they mean; just that they seem prudent. Here, we examine the meaning of Eye diagram mask testing, BER contours, BER and the relationships between them.

Improving TDECQ and SNDR for Better Characterization of Serial Data Signals, and Path from Mask Test to TDEC, SNDR, and TDECQ Measurements
The test of high speed serial data signals has developed from mask test to TDEC, transmitter and dispersion eye closure. With signaling moving to PAM4, measurements move in two directions: SNDR for PAM4– signal to noise and distortion ratio, a transmitter test tool which sums noise and other non-compensable features into one figure-of-merit number; and the TDECQ, transmitter and dispersion eye closure penalty quaternary. We summarize these developments, and in an original work we show improvements for SNDR and TDECQ for the near future.

Measuring Current and Current Sharing of DC-DC Converters
The measurement of current in power converters, especially in switching DC-DC converters, is a very important task. This paper will establish a practical range for the time constants that we need to cover and will illustrate the effectiveness of DSP-based corrections for a few selected time-constant values. It will be shown and illustrated that even though the voltage across the capacitor of the RC element rides on the ‘quiet’ output voltage, for multiple reasons the common-mode voltage range and common-mode rejection of the measurement circuit is still very important. This paper analyzes the noise floor, dynamic range, confidence level and measurement speed of the impedance measurement solution.

Examining System Challenges When Implementing Next Generation Data Center Input/Output (I/O) Connectivity
As the networking industry moves to develop higher data rates to support next generation demands, there are also simultaneous demands to support higher Input/Output (I/O) port densities, higher I/O module power dissipation, improved signal integrity, maintain cable reach and satisfactory electromagnetic interference (EMI) performance. In this paper, we will discuss the comparative differences of three state-of-the-art port types including micro quad small form-factor pluggable (microQSFP), quad small form-factor pluggable double density (QSFP-DD) and octal small form-factor pluggable (OSFP). These new I/O ports address the conflicting performance demands in different ways and the comparative performance differences will be presented using a combination of simulation and measurement methods. A summary will be provided highlighting the relative ability of the different port types to meet next generation market needs.

112G Electrical System Performance Study Based on an Improved Salz SNR Methodology
In early system design stage for 112G when no silicon nor hardware components are available, an improved Salz SNR analytical model is derived and a methodology for assessing system margin is introduced. Unlike traditional ICR based Salz method, major noise terms that are recognized to be dominant and are weighted much higher in PAM4 than in NRZ systems are included. Performance ‘upper limits’ such as maximal tolerable insertion loss and crosstalk for ‘optimal’ modulation scheme is analyzed based on six backplane link architectures and those with higher possibility to meet the ‘upper limits’ are selected based on full channel modeling for margin analysis.

16Gb/s and Beyond with Single-Ended I/O in High-Performance Graphics Memory
GDDR5 has emerged as a leading DRAM interface for applications requiring high system bandwidth like graphic cards, game consoles and high-performance compute systems. However, the requirements of newer applications drive even higher memory bandwidth. The paper discusses the development of GDDR6 as a lower-risk and more cost-effective solution as compared to other high-bandwidth memory solutions. We further introduce GDDR6 as offering a 2x increase in per-pin bandwidth over GDDR5, while maintaining compatibility with the established GDDR5 ecosystem. Circuit and channel performance scaling will be discussed and validated through measurement to demonstrate the potential for scaling GDDR6 to 16Gb/s.

February 26 – Day 1 – An Overview of IIoT Applications and Interface Needs

Webinar Information
Start Date: Feb 26, 2018 - 07:00 PM UTC

The Industrial IoT (IIoT) has its own set of challenges as it often involves mission-critical components. In many cases this includes the device’s ability to be operated by a user or to locally display status or data. In our lead-off class we will look at some of the more common application areas of the IIoT and some of the common user interfaces we may be tasked with developing.

10 Robots with Eerie Human Qualities

<p>It’s one thing to read about humanoid robots in science fiction; it’s another to see them at work.</p><p>Take Sophia. The creation of roboticist David Hanson, Sophia’s expressiveness has placed it in face-to-face meetings with leaders in banking, insurance, and auto manufacturing. It even landed a guest spot with Jimmy Fallon on <em>The Tonight Show</em>, where it cracked jokes and played “rock, paper, scissors” with the host<em>.</em></p><p>Or consider Geminoid HI-2. Geminoid looks so eerily similar to its creator, scientist Hiroshi Ishiguro, that it’s difficult to look at photos of them together and know which is which.</p><p>It’s enough to make most of us feel just a tad uncomfortable.</p><p>Like it or not, though, the era of humanoid robots has begun. Here, we provide a glimpse of that coming era. From the beautiful to the fanciful to the realistic, following are 10 of the most unusual and photogenic humanoid robots.</p>

Read Articles on Robot Technology

Do You Want a Fast, Hard Traditional Robot or a Soft, Slow Cobot?

Robots Are Displacing Manual Labor Jobs

For the second year, Advanced Design & Manufacturing Cleveland is back at the Huntington Convention Center, March 7-8, 2018. Register today for loads of free, can’t-miss education focusing on Smart Manufacturing, 3D Printing, Battery technologies, Medtech, and more!

Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 34 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and auto.  

Mesh Membrane Improves 50-Year-Old Battery Technology for Next-Gen Alternative Energy Storage

MIT battery

MIT researchers have revived a 50-year-old battery chemistry by outfitting it with new technology for separating materials in its electrode, making the new design a leading option to provide grid-scale alternative-energy storage in the future, they said.

A team led by Donald Sadoway, an MIT professor of materials chemistry, used a battery made of nickel and liquid-sodium electrode materials in its research, adding a specially coated metal mesh membrane to separate the battery’s molten materials. The metal material is much stronger and more flexible than the ceramic previously used for the membrane, making the battery able to withstand the rigors of use required by industrial-scale storage systems, he said.

“I consider this a breakthrough,” Sadoway said. This is because for the first time in five decades, this type of battery—the advantages of which include inexpensive, abundant raw materials, safe operational characteristics, and the capability to experience multiple charge-discharge cycles without degradation--could finally become practical, he said.

A photo illustration shows how a type of battery first invented nearly five decades ago could be a serious contender to provide grid-scale alternative-energy storage, thanks to new technology designed for it by researchers at MIT. (Source: Felice Frankel, MIT)

Scientists first described this sodium-nickel battery as a concept in 1968 but the idea never caught on because of a major drawback to the design—it required the use of a thin membrane to separate its molten components.

Moreover, the only known material with the needed properties for that membrane at the time was a brittle and fragile ceramic, which rendered the batteries too easily damaged in real-world operating conditions, researchers said. While this type of battery was used in some specialized industrial applications, to date it not widely used.

That could all change now with the MIT’s team’s invention, which actually came about as a surprise as researchers explored various options for compounds in their quest to design a molten-metal-based battery, they said.

When they opened the cell after one of their tests using lead compounds, researchers found droplets of molten lead acting not just as a separating membrane, but as an electrode, Sadoway said.

“That really opened our eyes to a completely different technology,” he said. The membrane had performed its role—which is to allow certain molecules to pass through while blocking others—in an entirely different way, using its electrical properties rather than the typical mechanical sorting based on the sizes of pores in the material.

The team experimented with various compounds and found that an ordinary steel mesh coated with a solution of titanium nitride could perform all the functions of the previously used ceramic membranes, but without the brittleness and fragility, Sadoway said.

Researchers published a paper on their work in the journal Nature.

Their invention now paves the way for an entirely new family of inexpensive and durable materials for building large-scale, rechargeable batteries like those needed to store intermittent, alternative energies—such as solar and wind--for use by the electricity grid.

However, there are some uses for the batteries that would not be practical, Sadoway warned, such as to replace lithium-ion batteries in automobiles or mobile devices. Rather, their sweet spot for utilization is in large, fixed installations where cost is paramount, but size and weight are not, such as utility-scale load leveling, he said.

The team’s use of a new type of membrane also can be transferred to a wide variety of other battery chemistries that use molten-liquid electrodes, Sadoway added.

“The fact that you can build a sodium-sulfur type of battery, or a sodium/nickel-chloride type of battery, without resorting to the use of fragile, brittle ceramic--that changes everything,” he said.

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for more than 15 years.