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Thursday, April 25, 2013

IBM developing powerful solar parabolic dish

By Mark Ollig

As your humble contributor writes this column, there is still abundant snow on the ground, and the calendar says we are nearing the end of April.

Hopefully, when you read this, the snow will be a memory, as the temperatures become warmer.

The warmth we receive from the bright sunshine has yours truly wondering where we are these days with utilizing the sun to provide us with energy.

I was surprised to learn, even though our planet is some 92 million miles away from the sun, we are still receiving about 85 trillion kilowatts of constant energy from it. This kind of energy would be comparable to the energy realized from burning 1,150 billion tons of coal in one year.

Looking back to 1954, Bell Telephone Laboratories developed the first workable solar cell using a silicon wafer, which converted the sun’s energy into electricity via photovoltaic processes.

Today, nearly 60 years later, comes some exciting news from the clever folks at IBM.

With a grant from the Swiss Commission for Technology and Innovation, the scientists and researchers at IBM Research, Airlight Energy, and other organizations, are working together on developing a High Concentration PhotoVoltaic Thermal system (HCPVT).

Instead of using traditional solar panels to generate energy, IBM is building a futuristic- looking, large parabolic dish-like solar-receiving concentrator, strongly resembling one of those huge Very Large Array (VLA) satellite dish receivers seen out in the remote plains of New Mexico.

“The design of the system is elegantly simple,” said Andrea Pedretti, chief technology officer of Airlight Energy.

“We replace expensive steel and glass with low-cost concrete and simple pressurized metalized foils,” he said.

This solar parabolic dish will use a micro-channel liquid-cooled photovoltaic thermal receiver to keep the component chips from overheating.

Its parabolic curvature will be covered with many individual, rounded mirrors.

The solar-collecting dish will use a tracking system to control and maintain an optimal position in relation to the sun.

The sun’s rays will reflect off the dish’s mirrors and onto a collection of micro-channel liquid-cooled receivers embedded with triple-junction photovoltaic components.

The HCPVT system will be capable of concentrating solar radiation 2,000 times, while using 80 percent of it for useful energy purposes.

IBM said this system would convert total collected solar energy at a cost three times lower than similar solar energy collection systems.

The HCPVT will be using small one-by-one centimeter component chips, which will provide power at a rate of around 200 - 250 watts per chip, on an average sunny, eight-hour day.

The intense heat generated onto the chip components inside the solar parabolic dish will require them to be water-cooled.

IBM decided to use the Aquasar hot-water component cooling method it uses in its SuperMUC supercomputer.

It is integrated inside the supercomputer to cool its components.

Aquasar circulates water using low pumping power at temperatures of around 140 degrees Fahrenheit through a number of small microchannels directly over the supercomputer’s processing chip components.

This same Aquasar system will also be used for cooling the component chips in the new solar energy-collector parabolic dish.

Without this cooling, the component chips inside the parabolic dish would melt.

By means of a thermal driven adsorption chiller (a device which converts heat into cooling), the HCPVT system will be able to provide air conditioning.

In addition, fresh water will be created as a byproduct in this system.

Instead of being discarded, the side-heated water collected from the system will be used for creating drinkable water.

This side-heated water will be used to heat salty water passing through a distillation system. From there, it will be vaporized and purified.

Each day, the distillation system will generate an estimated 16 gallons of drinkable water per 10.76 square feet of the solar dish’s receiver area.

It is thought a large, solar energy collector parabolic dish tracking array system would produce enough drinkable water to supply the needs for a town.

Scientists foresee HCPVT systems bringing sustainable energy, and fresh drinkable water to remote locations around the world, including the southwestern United States.

IBM says it would only need 2 percent of the land area in the Sahara Desert to supply the world’s energy needs using an array of these powerful, solar photovoltaic energy concentrators.

Will this become the future means of providing a cost-effective and viable system for harnessing energy from the sun, while also supplying drinkable water?

The first High Concentration PhotoVoltaic Thermal prototype system is now being tested at the IBM Research laboratory in Zurich, Switzerland.

To see what IBM’s impressively large, solar energy-collector parabolic dish will look like, go to

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Digital Public Library of America opens

by Mark Ollig

Over 20 years ago, the goal was to have a national online library anyone could access. It would be a large-scale, digital public library database where information and knowledge could be easily accessible and navigable, by everyone with an Internet connection.

This vision has been the focus and goal of many individuals and groups over the years.

Today, we have websites such as the Internet Archive, which stores (for future reference) historical and publicly uploaded content, and archives screenshots of web pages.

We also have online access to the government’s national library; we know it as the Library of Congress, which catalogs our country’s historical items of significance.

When researching a subject, how many of us are in the habit of automatically choosing to perform a Google query, and then sorting out the numerous links we find?

I, too, have my hand raised, as well.

We now have a new choice.

It’s called the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA).

“I think we are going to have a lot better descriptions that won’t come through in a Google search,” said Dan Cohen, executive director, Digital Public Library of America. “It will be a far superior experience,” he added.

The DPLA can be thought of as a “search portal for researchers,” said Cohen.

An advantage of conducting research using DPLA is having access to information submitted by local museums and historical societies which was previously stored only on their local computer hard drives. These hard drives were inaccessible from the Internet thus their information would not be found using a Google search.

Today, a brand-new, richly-detailed source of information is available for us to explore.

Access to this growing library of information and knowledge is now available from the newly opened DPLA website located at

DPLA states its mission is “to make the cultural and scientific heritage of humanity available, free of charge, to all.”

I came across an article in The Economic Times, where Cohen pointed out how DPLA can be used by researchers and students as a primary source of information, versus using Wikipedia.

“Wikipedia is a secondary source, but we are going to have the stuff . . . but I think Wikipedia will be a great partner,” he said.

According to Cohen, DPLA will have, “the full array of materials including music, photography, all kinds of art and manuscripts.”

April 18, the first phase of the DPLA and its vast collection of more than two million items of interest became available online to the public.

Using an Internet connection, anyone can freely browse the digital copies of historical photographs, cultural and scientific records, documents, and the audio and video anthologies provided by the libraries, universities, and museum galleries located all across the country.

The world’s largest museum, the Smithsonian Institution, will serve as one of the digital content hubs for DPLA.

Other content hubs include the New York Public Library, the National Archives, Harvard Library, Biodiversity Heritage Library, and Artstor.

Minnesota will also be playing a role in the Digital Public Library of America.

The 133 Internet link resources from the Minnesota Digital Library’s county and state museums, libraries, foundations, historical centers and society websites will be providing digital content to the DPLA’s repository.

The Minnesota Digital Library will also be digitizing its special collections, making them searchable through the DPLA.

One example of a DPLA exhibit includes American Indian culture in Minnesota.

Outreach and education on how to access the DPLA’s resources in local communities, along with supporting digitized oral histories, will be financed in part via funding received from the National Endowments for the Humanities, and the Knight Foundation.

The Minnesota Digital Library is a program of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, and the University of Minnesota. It is located at

In addition to the general public, DPLA’s content will be available “with no new restrictions, via a service available to libraries, museums, and archives in the United States, where use and reuse is governed only by public law,” read a statement from the DPLA’s principles for technical development wiki.

“Special features will include a dynamic map, a timeline that allow users to visually browse by year or decade, and an app library that provides access to applications and tools created by external developers using DPLA’s open data,” stated the DPLA.

“A national digital system could help early childhood literacy and other learning, a prerequisite if students are to live up to their full potentials as learners, citizens, and future workers,” said Dr. Patricia Kuhl of the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences.

“We are bringing together the richest of America’s archives and museums, and making them easily searchable for teachers, scholars, journalists and others,” said Cohen.

We now have access to the first phase of a centralized, digital public library which contains information contributed from thousands of national, state, county, and local databases.

I hope you take time and visit the online Digital Public Library of America.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Futuristic self-building programmable materials

By Mark Ollig

Just when we were up-to-date about what 3D printing had to offer, we now need to consider the next dimension of printing.

Get ready folks, here comes nanoscale-sized, self-programmable materials created using 4D printing.

Empowering objects made with special materials using 3D printing techniques and a fourth dimension of time, shows 4D printed materials will be able to adopt other shapes after being printed.

Micro and nanoscale technology inside the material will be able to redesign itself – by itself – when needed.

Skylar Tibbits is an architect, designer, and computer scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

He has been studying how to program physical materials to essentially re-shape and re-build themselves.

A new 4D self-assembly lab Tibbits is heading will be located at MIT.

In collaboration with Stratasys, a 3D printer and materials maker with headquarters in Minnesota and Israel, Tibbits is starting a new 4D printing project.

He briefly explained the idea behind 4D printing in a video I watched.

“You take multi-material 3D printing so you can deposit multiple materials, and you add a new capability, which is transformation. That right off the bed [printer’s tray], the parts can transform from one shape to another shape, directly on their own. And this is like robotics without wires or motors, so you completely print this part, and it can transform into something else,” explained Tibbits during a TED conference Feb. 26 in California.

Tibbits is working with a Boston consulting and engineering firm called Geosyntec on developing a new prototype for piping materials.

Today, we bury water pipes of a certain size to handle a given amount of water volume and pressure flowing through them.

As time goes by, these water pipes may not be able to handle the increase in demand capacity for water volume. New, larger water pipes would need to be buried to replace the older water pipes.

Imagine a future where existing buried water pipes could be independently adaptive; changing their size and shape by expanding or contracting to accommodate changing water volume.

These futuristic water pipes would also be able to adjust themselves to the water pressure demands flowing through them.

Water pumps will not be needed because of the unique undulation properties of the self-adaptive piping material – the pipe itself will move the water.

Tibbits calls it Adaptive Infrastructure.

He breaks down what is needed:

• Materials and geometry

• Interactions

• Energy

Tibbits suggests using programmable nanoscale materials that can self-assemble, or build themselves, using any type of passive energy source such as; heat, magnetism, gravity, pneumatics, shaking, or water.

Inside the Self Assembly Lab at MIT, Tibbits and others will be working on developing materials which respond to passive energies for re-shaping themselves.

Tibbits described self-assembly as a process by which disordered parts build an ordered structure only through local interaction.

He proposes automated, programmable methods could resolve inefficiencies in currently used production methods.

Tibbits said there is an unprecedented revolution happening.

The revolution is the ability to create physical and biological materials which can change their shape and properties, and have the means to figure out the correct mathematical dimensions for self-assembly.

Tibbits talked about how a flat sheet of material could “self-fold” as needed in order to build multi-dimensional structures, such as buildings.

He showed videos of different materials changing their shape (via programmed nanoscale instruction sets); in one example a material was activated using water.

As I listened to him explain about how these self-assembling materials would be used in the future, I was reminded of a recent online article I had read.

In a Live Science piece dated Jan. 23, researchers from North Carolina State University created a self-healing electrical wire.

The wire, containing gallium and indium in a fluid alloy core, was shown in a video powering a light bulb. The wire was then cut in half with a scissors, thus interrupting the electrical circuit path and disconnecting the power from the bulb.

In 10 minutes, the wire self-heals, fully re-bonding itself together at the ends where it was severed, and is shown once again lighting the bulb. The video is at

You can also watch Skylar Tibbits’ TED talk at

If Tibbits’ self-assembling technology and materials are used in real-world applications in the future, I believe they will also be capable of self-healing.

For example, if part of the finished material’s surface was scratched or punctured, resulting in an indentation or hole, the nano-scaled instruction-set inside the material would implement self-healing by absorbing surrounding material to use for filling in the voids.

This may remind some of you of the aluminum foil-like material with self-healing and self-folding properties found at a supposed UFO crash site in Roswell NM, in 1947.

Rest assured, yours truly is not suggesting we are back-engineering extraterrestrial technology which arrived here from another planet.

“Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry once said, “Ancient astronauts didn’t build the pyramids. Human beings built the pyramids, because they’re clever and they work hard.”

Thursday, April 4, 2013

First cellular telephone call made 40 years ago

by Mark Ollig

The faces of many New Yorker’s displayed puzzlement and curiosity April 3, 1973 while watching a very unusual occurrence.

Martin Cooper, Motorola’s Communications System Division general manager, was walking down a street sidewalk in New York City, talking into what looked like a brick being held against his head.

The “brick” was a 2-pound cellular telephone handset with 20 minutes of battery talk time.

Martin engaged in a telephone conversation with Joel Engel, who was at that time head of AT&T’s Bell Labs cellular telephone program.

AT&T was the company responsible for developing the cellular technology being used inside Martin’s newly created, never-before-seen portable cell- phone.

“Joel, I’m calling you from a cellular phone, a real cellular phone, a handheld, portable, real cellular phone,” Cooper recalled as being the first words he spoke.

Cooper said Engel did not speak for a period of time; I assume he was at a loss for words.

Engel, according to Cooper, was very polite and abruptly ended the phone call.

That call from the first portable handheld cellphone made by Motorola, must have really steamed Mr. Engel of AT&T, as Cooper recently stated Engel does not seem to recall the conversation ever taking place.

Cooper, also had a cellular telephone conversation with a New York radio reporter on that day, 40 years ago.

Before 1973, Motorola had been manufacturing bulky, mobile radio phones used in cars.

Cooper however, had decided it was time for individuals to have their own portable communications device they could carry around with them.

Mr. Cooper has said he was also influenced by the 1960s TV series “Star Trek” and the use of the small, portable, hand-held, wireless communicator used by Captain James T. Kirk.

The original series Star Trek communicator was designed by Star Trek’s prop maker, Wah Ming Chang.

And with that, Martin Cooper and his fellow co-creators made the first truly portable, cellular phone.

The first (non-cellular) wireless, mobile telephone call using a telephone handset was placed June 17, 1946, from a car in St. Louis, MO, according to AT&T’s corporate website.

This type of mobile telephone limited the driver’s telephone call being transmitted by a single radio tower with no “hand off” to another radio tower. When a driver traveled out of range of the tower, the telephone call was lost.

In 1947, AT&T’s Bell Laboratories revealed the technology model needed for a better wireless telephone network solution using cellular technology.

Development of cellular technology began in earnest, using computers and electronics, during the 1960s.

It wouldn’t be until 1977, that AT&T, along with its research and development division, Bell Labs, created the first prototype cellular networking system for widespread public use.

By 1978, AT&T began testing their new cellular telecommunications system in Chicago, and Newark, NJ.

In 1982, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) officially authorized the use of commercial cellular networking services in the US.

The chairman of Motorola, Robert Galvin, while in Washington D.C. during the early 1980s, was able to get one of Motorola’s new cell phones to President Ronald Reagan. When shown the portable cellular phone, Reagan remarked, “What’s keeping us from having this?”

Subsequently, the White House decided against AT&T having a monopoly on cellular phone manufacturing, and allowed open competition for portable cellphones.

In 1983, Motorola’s 16-ounce DynaTAC (Dynamic Adaptive Total Area Coverage) portable cellular phone, costing $3,900 (plus 50 cents per minute voice charge), was first used over the new 1G (first-generation) cellular network in Chicago.

Today, you can buy an iPhone 5 that weighs less than 4 ounces, and costs $199.

It seems to take about 10 years for each new generation of cellular networking to be realized.

Looking back, it was in 1992 that 2G was released, and 2001 that 3G networks appeared.

The current 4G cellular networks have been around for approximately three years.

So, it has taken us, more or less, 30 years to get to 4G.

I wonder when we will begin seeing 5G cellular networking systems.

Reports I’ve read say it will be another seven years, but yours truly feels we will see 5G become publically available sooner.

I’ve become a bit nostalgic thinking about the first Motorola cellular phone I purchased around 1987.

The first cellphone call I remember making was to my mother; “Hey mom, I am calling you from a phone without any wires attached to it!”

All this writing about the first cellphone got me curious, so I checked on eBay and found one vintage Motorola 8000M DynaTAC “Brick” cellular phone currently selling for around $650.

“People are inherently, naturally, mobile. They want to be able to move around freely, and not be inhibited,” Cooper said during a TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference he spoke at about three years ago.

Today, Martin Cooper is 84-years old and holds 11 patents in the field of wireless communications, including US Patent 3906166 titled “Radio Telephone System,” which he filed Oct. 17, 1973.

This patent, showing drawings of the cellular network and his portable cellular phones, can be viewed at