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Articles from 2008 In June

National To Enter Solar Arena

National To Enter Solar Arena

National Semiconductor announced today that it has entered the photovoltaic market. The semiconductor giant says it has developed new technology “designed to increase the effectiveness of solar panels under variable light conditions.” Called SolarMagic, the technology is said to recoup up to 50% of lost energy under variable light conditions.

Novomer Scores With New Sacrficial Binder

Novomer Scores With New Sacrficial Binder

The best hope for new bioplastics is to find niche applications where they fill a technical need. One great new example comes out of Cornell University, where research set up a company called Novomer to develop plastics made from carbon dioxide and cirtus fruits. Aliphatic polycarbonates (APCs) made from the process  are biodegradable, biocompatible, are optically clear and provide high oxygen and water barrier. They’re also quite pricey – say $50 a pound an up.


Novomer today announced its first commercial product — NB-180, a poly(propylene carbonate) (PPC) sacrificial binder that burns cleaner, more uniformly and at lower temperatures than currently available products. Sacrificial binders provide mechanical strength to ensure uniform consistency, solidification or adhesion during manufacturing processes. Application areas are extremely broad and include advanced ceramics, microelectronics, nanotechnology, metal brazing and fuel cells. It’s aimed at assembly of micro- and nano-scale devices.


Fox Holt, product manager for Novomer says there are no plans yet to use the material as a sacrificial binder in powder injection molding – a mass market where it could really achieve some volume.


Bill Gates says goodbye, videos galore

Bill Gates says goodbye, videos galore

With Bill Gates no longer sitting atop Microsoft as a fulltime employee, I will eventually write about my near 20-year association covering him and Microsoft. But until I get the time to do it justice, you’ll just have to enjoy the videos that celebrate his farewell town meeting at Microsoft on Friday. Here’s a link to 20 videos covering  the pre-Microsoft days, Bill as a kid and college student and  the early days of programming in Microsoft BASIC. And all the tech sites such and eWeek (formerly PC Week)  where I spent 16 years as editor and news editor. As self-serving as the videos are, I thoroughly enjoyed the 15-minute on the history of Microsoft.  And the Seattle PI has an audio clip of the last two minutes of his goodbye where by all accounts, he fought back the tears (Bill does have a heart!). And dug through it’s video archive put up a collection lot of Bill clips on a web page.

As engineers, you’ll be sure to enjoy watching these.

Speedo’s Swimsuit for the Beijing Olympics Is Not A Drag

The Speedo LZR Racer is shaping up to be the must-have accessory for record setting swimmers. Yesterday at the U.S. Olympic Trials, two more swimmers turned in best-in-the-world performances while clad in the high-tech swimsuit. Michael Phelps lowered his own world record in the Men's 400m individual medley, while Katie Hoff set a new World Record in the Women's 400m individual medley. In all, 40 world records have now been set by swimmers wearing LZR Racer since its debut in February. Read about the engineering behind the world's fastest swimsuit here.

In competitive swimming, where hundredths of a second can separate winners from losers, hydrodynamic drag really is a drag. So the world’s top swimmers now take to the water in drag-reducing suits that cover more skin, leaving the skimpy swimsuits to the sunbathers. Speedo yesterday launched the latest of these sleek racing suits, the FASTSKIN LZR Racer.

Speedo made a splash with its first FASTSKIN swimwear at the 2000 Summer Olympics. Made from a knitted biomemetic fabric designed to emulate the hydrodynamic characteristics of shark skin, these suits were worn in 80 percent of Sydney’s medal-winning performances. The technology in the LZR Racer, which will be worn by members of the U.S. Swim Team in the upcoming Beijing Olympics, makes FASTSKIN even faster.

“We believe the LZR Racer truly is the world’s fastest swimsuit,” says Jason Rance, head of Aqualab, Speedo’s R&D group. And the company’s extensive testing of the new suit backs up that claim. In flume tests conducted at New Zealand’s University of Otago during the development process, the LZR Racer offered a five-percent reduction in passive drag compared to the FASTSKIN FS-Pro suit that debuted last year and has since been worn in more than 20 world-record performances. The same tests showed the suit produces ten percent less passive drag than the FASTSKIN FSII suit that came out in 2004, and Rance adds the suit has about 38 percent less drag than ordinary Lycra.

Those drag reductions translate to speed in the pool. Speedo worked with the Australian Institute of Sport to test the LZR Racer in the pool. According to Rance, swimmers saw a four-percent increase in speed when wearing the new suit, compared to runs in their training swimwear. The new suit also contributed to a five-percent improvement in the swimmer’s oxygen utilization versus runs in the training swimwear.

Seven elite U.S. swimmers, current or former world-record holders all, attested to the suit’s speed during a launch event in New York yesterday. Among them was Michael Phelps, who won a record eight medals at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. Phelps says he “literally felt like a rocket coming off the wall” when he first tried the LZR Racer.

It’s no coincidence Phelps brings up rockets when he talks about the suit. The LZR Racer came out of a development program that seemingly has more in common with aerospace engineering than swimwear design. In fact, NASA Langley researchers had a hand in the suit’s development. So did engineers using ANSYS Inc. computational fluid dynamics (CFD) software.

Those engineering efforts paid off in materials and construction breakthroughs that together improved the suit’s ability to help swimmers slice through the water more efficiently.

One of these breakthroughs involves the development of a new low-drag, water-repellent polyurethane membrane. Speedo laminates panels of this low-drag material onto the suit’s base layer at strategic drag-reducing locations. Rance says Speedo looked at about 100 different fabrics before picking the panel material.

NASA Langley’s Fluid Physics and Control Branch helped with that selection process by evaluating the surface roughness of nearly 60 different fabric candidates in its low-speed wind tunnel — operated at 28 m/sec to simulate a swimmer in water moving at 2 m/sec. “We were assessing which fabrics and weaves had the lowest drag,” says Steve Wilkinson, the aerospace engineer who conducted much of that testing. “The tests have generally shown the smoother the fabric, the lower the drag.” In this regard, the new panel fabric represents a departure from the rougher knit used in the original Fastskin suits.

Speedo’s Rance declined to disclose the measured drag values for the membrane material, but both he and Wilkinson say it has a skin-friction drag on par with the flat, smooth aluminum plate that serves as the point of comparison in the wind tunnel tests. “Speedo really nailed it with this material,” Wilkinson says.

The swimsuit material also has another attribute that contributes to the swimsuit’s low passive drag. As Rance explains, both panels and the swimsuit’s woven base material both have better compressive capabilities than the fabrics found in previous Fastskin suits. That attribute helps reduce the form drag associated with the suit — by compressing the swimmer’s body into a better hydrodynamic shape and by minimizing muscle oscillations. As a way to describe the compressive force, which Speedo doesn’t measure directly, Rance notes that stretching the panel material in tensile tests requires 7 kg versus just 100-200 gm for standard swimsuit fabrics. The new base fabric for the LZR Racer likewise provides more compressive power at 1,200 gm versus about 400 for the base material found on previous FASTSKIN suits.

The location of the panels is where ANSYS’s Fluent CFD software entered the picture. Rance explains the software’s predictions of friction and flow around the body helped Speedo identify “drag hot spots” that could benefit from the panels.

Speedo’s CFD work and physical testing focused on passive drag – or the drag produced by the swimmers body while it’s held in a streamlined position. This position, which the swimmer typically assumes for up to 15m after the initial dive or turn, is important. There are opportunities to do even more with CFD in the future to analyze the swimmer throughout the race. Jim Cashman, ANSYS’s president and CEO, says the success looking at passive drag sets the stage for more complex multiphysics simulations as the swimsuits continue to evolve. “For example, we could look at the hydrodynamic pressure on the swimmer’s body moving through the water in conjunction with the structural aspects of the suit,” he says.

Speedo engineers bolstered the fabric’s inherent drag-reducing capabilities with the construction of the suit itself. For one thing, Speedo engineers built in a corset-like section that supports the swimmer’s core. For another, they reduced the effect of seams on drag by getting rid of many seams and making the remaining ones disappear. Rance points out that previous Fastskin suits were composed of as many as 30 different pieces. Speedo creates the LZR Racer from just three pieces, each one a complex 3D pattern. And it now joins those pieces with an ultrasonic welding process that “gives the effect from a drag standpoint of having no seams at all,” Rance says. The LZR Racer is not the first sporting garment to use ultrasonic welding, but Rance says the strength and quality requirements associated with this high-profile application required many engineering hours to dial in a suitable welding process.

All the technology that went into the suit doesn’t come cheap. The LZR Racer’s full bodysuit will sell for $550. But for its intended users, some of whom will compete in Olympics, that’s a small price to pay for some extra speed.

Speedo’s Swimsuit for the Beijing Olympics Is Not A Drag

Aerospace engineering techniques contributed to dramatic improvements in surface-friction and form drag associated with Speedo’s latest high-tech swimsuit

Are Solar Tax Incentive Loopholes Illegitimately Funding Research?

Are Solar Tax Incentive Loopholes Illegitimately Funding Research?

While in Tempe, Arizona visiting Arizona Student University (ASU), I noted in the local media that ASU has contracted to build the nation’s largest roof-top solar array: 2 megawatts-peak. The East Valley Tribune reported “ASU to create largest university solar project” while the Arizona Republic reported “ASU plans big rooftop solar grid”.

According to officials quoted in these articles, ASU contracted three companies, Honeywell Building Solutions, Independent Energy Group and SolEquity, to install the solar system, which will meet seven percent of ASU’s energy needs.

Instead of paying enormous up-front capital costs, ASU will pay the installation companies a fixed electricity rate; slightly lower than what it now pays the utility. This type of financing could be a win-win for the university and the companies: ASU gets low, fixed utility rates and the installation triad gets a guaranteed income stream.

Nonetheless, there is at least one critic, Scott Gustafson of Mesa Community College and Scottsdale Community College, who sees problems with the financing scheme. In a blog post, “Who is paying for ASU’s solar panels?”, Gustafson points out that the electricity bills alone yield a shortfall on the order of $30 to $50 million over the lifetime of the project. Gustafson says that a big share of this shortfall could be covered by federal and state tax incentives (see also my recent post “Expiring Tax Credits May Sink Major Arizona Solar Project”).

In other words, our tax dollars are going to support ASU’s solar panels. You might say: what’s the big deal? The Federal government reallocates money all the time to stimulate progress in high-risk, low-return technologies (such as renewable energy) deemed critical for U.S. competitiveness in the global economy.

Here is the big deal. I am a professor, working in a brand new engineering college at an emerging research university. My colleagues and I are bending over backward to attract federal money to our school for energy research. To win federal money, university researchers must compete in open proposal processes to prove their university is the best place to investment the money.

At this point, the ASU deal goes sour for me. Jonathan Fink, director of the Global Institute of Sustainability at ASU, said that besides saving the school money, the solar-generating system will provide an important teaching and research tool.

If ASU gets federal tax incentives, they will have essentially exploited a loophole to win federal dollars for energy research in the guise of a tax credit for their massive solar installation. ASU may be the best university in the country to perform the “important teaching and research” that coexists with hosting the country’s largest roof-top solar array. However, ASU did not compete with other research universities to demonstrate their superiority to receive this funding.

What’s done is done, and in a way ASU should be praised for this clever scheme to finance energy research through solar tax credits. I guess my next task should be to follow ASU’s lead and try to get some government-subsidized solar panels for my university before the federal tax incentives expire.

Thinking Small Led ASU to Better Fuel Cells

Thinking Small Led ASU to Better Fuel Cells

After UNLV, my university-hopping trip through the Southwest took me to Arizona State University (ASU). My principle reason for stopping at ASU was to visit with Professor Jonathan Posner, who went to school with me about a thousand years ago at UC Irvine.

Professor Posner now directs ASU’s Micro/Nanofluidics Laboratory, and he is among the most accomplished young microfluids researchers in the country. He recently won the National Science Foundation CAREER Award to study the fluid dynamics of colloidal crystals. Dr. Posner’s work extends into many different areas, including electro-kinetics and bio-sensors. However, the research area that got me fired up was fuel cells.

Many energy conversion processes are limited by flow phenomena occurring at extremely tiny length scales. For example, ion transport through semi-permeable membranes governs rates of energy generation in proton exchange membrane fuel cells (PEMFCs). Membrane hydration is critical to PEMFC performance. However, over-hydration causes liquid build-up in the fuel cell cathode, reducing oxygen transport to reaction sites, which hinders performance.

Professor Posner and his colleagues developed a mechanism to actively pump water away from the fuel cell cathode. In a recent paper on the subject, Posner and his co-authors say “removal of liquid water with a low power, robust, active method should allow PEMFCs to operate in regimes otherwise inaccessible due to flooding.” Not only did they improve performance, but they also extended the effective PEMFC operating range to lower temperatures.

With their well-developed expertise in small-scale fluid flow, ASU’s Micro/Nanofluidics Laboratory is nicely positioned to make an impact in energy generation and other allied industries. Professor Posner is a researcher worth keeping your eye on.

facebook: Reasons to like it

facebook: Reasons to like it

The more I use facebook, the more powerful it has become professionally. That’s for two reasons:

1) I have over 300 "friends" now in my facebook account, most of them professional colleagues. Some of them are former rivals and there was no love lost when we started at each other over the cannons. Facebook breaks down those barriers. Some of these folks are very influential in our business and industries they cover. facebook also puts you back in touch with colleagues from long ago that I never would have from again. We have doubled the number to 134 in our Design News facebook account. Come join us.

2) If I comment on or post something, all 300 plus "friends" get notified.  It’s like my mini-circulation list which I own and control. You have to be careful, though, and not spam them (i.e. over-communicate) and make sure a comment or link to something is meaningful. As for expanding that crowd, I’ve already picked the low-hanging fruit. Now I have to selectively and more slowly grow my list. But expansion is important.

Resource Center E-alert: Materials/Fastening Information Made Easy

Resource Center E-alert: Materials/Fastening Information Made Easy

June 26, 2008
Design News' Resource Center e-Alert provides design engineers fast and convenient access to the latest information - data sheets, design guides, CAD files, application notes, instruction manuals, reference designs and white papers - on technologies and products available on manufacturer sites.
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Rapid Injection Molding Helps Drive Fuel Cell Commercialization
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