New Technology – February 2017

grapheneThere has been so much going on in the telecom industry lately that I haven’t published a blog examining promising new technologies for a while. Here are a few new breakthroughs that ought to eventually affect our industry:

Metal that Conducts Electricity but not Heat. Physicists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and UC Berkeley have found a metal that contradicts the Wiedermann-Franz Law.  This Law states that good conductors of electricity will also be proportionately good conductors of heat. The physicists were working with vanadium dioxide and unexpectedly discovered this property. There are a few other materials that are much better at conducting electricity than heat, but they only do so at temperatures a few hundred degrees below zero. It appears vanadium dioxide can do this at room temperatures. This property is derived from the fact that electrons move through the metal in a synchronized manner which is normally observed only in fluids, instead of individually which is normally observed in metals.

There is great potential for a material with this property – it could be used as an insulator in computers to keep components cool and to drastically lower the cooling costs experienced in data centers. On a more macro level this could lead to better insulation in homes and appliances and could drastically improve energy efficiency in a wide range of applications.

Superconductor Graphene. Researchers at the University of Cambridge in the UK have found a way to induce superconductivity in graphene. Today all superconducting materials only function at temperatures below -454 degrees Fahrenheit. But their research indicates superconducting graphene will work at much higher temperatures. The researchers created superconducting properties by layering graphene only on an underlying sheet of metal.

Superconduction is a big deal, because in the ultimate state a superconductor passes electrons with zero resistance. Compare that to normal materials, such as our electric grid that loses 7% of generated power getting to homes, and the difference is remarkable.  Finding a room-temperature superconductor would be a huge breakthrough because it could mean electric transmissions with no power losses and an end to the heat generated in electronics and appliances that comes from resistance.

Mass Producing Graphene. Scientists at Kansas State have found a cheap way to mass produce graphene. They discovered the process when working with carbon soot aerosol gels. The process is simple and only requires hydrocarbon gas, oxygen and a spark plug. The gases are forced into a chamber and graphene is formed with a spark. This is a low-power way to make graphene since it only needs a spark rather than continuous power.

Until now graphene has been expensive to make in quantities greater than milligrams and the process required caustic chemicals. With this method it’s easy to make graphene in gram quantities and the process ought to be scalable to much larger quantities.

Better Use of Wireless Spectrum. Engineers at UCLA have found a technique that might allow better use of wireless spectrum. They have found a way to use a tiny device called a circulator that allows a chip to use both incoming and outgoing signals of a given spectrum at the same time. Today’s technology only uses spectrum in one direction since dual use of spectrum has caused interference.

Circulators have been tried before, but earlier devices used magnetic materials which can’t be incorporated into chips. The prototype they built uses coaxial cables to route the signals through non-magnetic materials and they believe the design can be built directly into silicon.

The circulator works by sequentially switching signals using different paths in a similar manner that a busy train station can have trains coming in going in both directions. The design uses six transmission lines and five switches which are turned off and on sequentially to allow incoming and outgoing signals to pass each other without interference.

This would be a big breakthrough for cellphones since it would allow for better use of the spectrum. This wouldn’t increase data speeds, but would allow a cell site to handle more phones at the same time.

New Science for September 2015

sun9501I titled this blog New Science because the breakthroughs I’m covering today are more scientific breakthroughs that will require a lot of effort to turn into usable technology. But the potential for these breakthroughs are immense.

Massless Particles. A team led by Zahid Hasan at Princeton has found a massless particle called the Weyl fermion that could lead to much faster electronics in the future. The particle has been predicted but never before found. Fermions are the elementary particles that make up electrons, and as such are massless.

These Weyl fermions can carry a charge much more efficiently than normal electrons and could be used instead of electrons to power electronics. Electrons act erratically and bounce all over the place, but it’s believed that the Wehl fermions would be far more predictable while carrying a charge, and could travel as much as 1,000 times faster through normal semiconductors. The Weyl fermion’s spin is both in the same direction as its motion (which physicists call ‘right-handed) and opposite its direction (‘left-handed’) at the same time. This means that all the fermions move in exactly the same way and can traverse through and around obstacles that scatter normal electrons.

What’s best about these particles is that the researchers found them in a synthetic crystal, which means that they can be easily produced, while many other exotic particles only exist due to the high energy of a particle accelerator.

Practical Superconductor. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute in Germany have created a superconductor that works at a reasonably warm temperature. In the past superconductors have needed extremely cold temperatures of -220 degrees Fahrenheit to work. These temperatures are far too cold for practical applications. The new superconductor works at -90 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature that is found in nature in Antarctica, and which is by far the warmest temperature that has produced the superconductor effect.

The new superconductor uses hydrogen sulfide, the rotten egg smelling gas, to create the superconductor. Scientists believe if they can find the right materials that they can eventually create superconductors that can work at room temperatures. If so, then electronics and computers can be made far more efficient.

Transporting Light over Distance. Researchers at the Universities of Bayreuth and Erlangen-Nurenberg in Germany have demonstrated how carbon nanofibers might be used to transport light energy efficiently across great distances. All of today’s technologies scatter the light to some degree, which means that when generating solar power we have to convert light to electricity at the site of the light collection.

The nanofibers were made from building blocks called carbonyl-bridged triarylamine. They were then enhanced by inserting three naphthalimidbithiophene chromophores. The resulting nanotubes automatically aligned themselves into tubes of 4 micrometers long with a diameter of only 0.005 micrometers. The nanotubes then naturally align face-to-face and can efficiently transfer light energy with almost no loss. This results is light being transmitted in a wave-like manner called quantum coherence. The potential of this technology would be to gather light and transmit it to a place where the conversion to electricity can be done more efficiently.

Quantum Dot Solar Windows. A team from the Center for Advanced Solar Photophysics (CASP) of Los Alamos and from the Department of Materials Science of the University of Milan-Bicocca (UNIMIB) in Italy have developed a way to generate solar energy from clear window glass. They showed this can be done using colorless heavy-metal free colloidal quantum dots that act as luminescent solar concentrators (LSCs).

The clear quantum dots are embedded within the glass and are aligned in such a way that they reflect some of the light to receivers at the edge of the glass panes. The quantum dots are a huge leap forward in LSC technology. Previous LSC technology has consisted either of organic emitters that were inefficient or heavy-metal emitters that were toxic and dangerous to put into the environment. The new quantum dots are made from copper, indium, selenium, and sulfur, all of which are routinely found in the environment and safe. The dots are several magnitudes more efficient than earlier technologies and could turn any window into a solar collector.