Generation of electricity without coal, wind, hydroelectricity, or nuclear power plants, wind turbines or solar cells, etc? – Without any harmful emissions? The Swedish start-up ReVibe Energy is doing just that. A self-charging battery that can be attached to any vibrating surface generates electricity solely via these vibrations. This battery also stores the energy it generates. Apart from its 100% climate-neutrality, this kind of battery also comes in handy when no other power source is available for charging.
ReVibe co-founder and CEO Viktor Börjesson talked to Innovation Origins about his company.
How did you come up with the idea of founding the start-up?
The technology was originally invented by Per Cederwall while he was working at the Saab Group. As the technology was considered to be outside Saab Groups’ core focus areas, Viktor Börjesson and Erik Godtman Kling were asked to start a company that revolved around the technology.
What makes ReVibe or your product special compared to your competitors and what problems does it solve?
All sensors in industrial IoT systems are in constant need of power and the shortcomings of current power sources (cables and/or batteries) do not guarantee long-lasting energy security. At the same time, there are many environments where vibrations are almost constant, of which rail transport, mining, and construction are the ones we have worked with the most. With our products, we can deliver a long-lasting and sustainable power source for predictive maintenance and condition monitoring systems.
Our products utilize a patented design that ensures a longer lifetime, higher output per volume and a faster ROI compared to our competitors.
What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome?
Slow sales cycles! We work with large corporations who are fairly slow in their way of operating which means that the process of signing new customers takes quite a long time.
And vice versa: What were you particularly proud of?
Our team! It’s our team that makes all of our accomplishments possible, so they are the ones who deserve all the credit!
Was there a moment when you wanted to give up?
When you start a company you will always experience setbacks and periods where you feel that there’s no use in continuing but we’ve never been that close to actually shutting down the company. So no, not really 🙂
What can we expect from ReVibe over the coming years?
We’re currently scaling up our manufacturing capabilities to be able to meet the demand from the marketplace, so I’d say that you can expect a ReVibe Energy that will grow as a company and increase its reach across the globe.
What is your vision for ReVibe?
To be the obvious choice when it comes to powering Industrial IoT systems in all environments where vibrations exist.
Technological advancements have created new opportunities for enhancing the quality of life for people with various disabilities. The Spanish start-up Eyesynth wants to improve day-to-day life for the blind.
The start-up has designed a pair of glasses which work as an audiovisual system for the visually impaired. The device is connected to a microcomputer and it records the surrounding environment in three dimensions. This is translated into intelligible audio that is then sent to the person wearing the glasses. Consequently, they work kind of like a pair of glasses that read the room, as it were.
The technology involved was developed and designed by the start-up itself. The glasses have three core features. They work in full 3D, which means that they allow the user to identify shapes and spaces. But also the ability to sense depth and locate objects accurately. Moreover, there are no words involved during this process – the sound is completely abstract. It is a new language that the brain is able to assimilate, and it is very easy to learn. Lastly, the sound is transmitted through the bones of the head. This frees up their ears for their regular range of hearing. This ensures that any subsequent listening fatigue is avoided.
Because the brain is capable of assimilating this information process fairly quickly, the blind person can soon wear the glasses and is able to focus on conversations or any other activities.
Innovation Origins talked with CEO Antonio Quesada, here is what he had to say:
What was the motivation behind Eyesynth?
The start-up stemmed from two distinct routes: one ideological, and the other came from a technical challenge. The ideological route is simple. How is it possible that despite the enormous range of technologies available today, there is still no technological standard beyond the guide dog and the cane? We are firm believers in the “humanist technology.” This refers to technology which concerns the day-to-day problems that people face. That makes us all want to go the extra mile. Regarding the technical challenge, there was one key question: How can we provide spatial information to a blind person in a way that is both easy to understand and instantaneous? We are passionate about challenges, and it was while seeking a solution to both these questions that we founded Eyesynth.
Can you tell me about the technology, how does it work?
The fundamental design premise was that we had to create a system which felt very natural in use. That’s why we had to rely on existing mechanisms that are available in nature. The technical principle which we base it on, is that of “synesthesia”, which means “crossed senses”. When we are born, absolutely everyone is 100% synesthetic. This means that we can smell sounds, taste colors, hear images and all kinds of mishmashes of senses. For practical reasons, the developing brain disconnects certain combinations and only keeps those that are most useful within our environment. The curious fact is that up to 14% of the population has some kind of light synesthesia. Often people who have it don’t realize it, as they assume it is a natural process. In my case, I am slightly synesthetic when it comes to music and images. For me, every sound has a concrete shape in my imagination. Ever since I was a child, I am able to remember complex sequences of music thanks to the shapes that they form in my mind. The “Eureka! moment” came when I asked myself the following question: what would happen if I were to reverse this process? I mean, if I extract real geometric data from the environment and turn it into sound – could a person instinctively interpret that? The immediate answer is yes. We did an initial version of the image-to-speech algorithm and tested it with a friend’s nine-year old son who was born blind. The results were amazing. Then we tested it amongst groups of blind people, and the results were equally as good. That’s when we knew we were onto something important.
So, the Eyesynth’s original motivation was to create smart glasses for this child. But we soon realized that there was clearly a social need for this type of technology. We went on to form our own company with the aim of reaching as many people as possible. We are responsible for the development of both the software and hardware for our technology.
What has been the importance of Eyesynth?
Our goal is to expand blind people’s mobility and independence. This project has provided us with the opportunity to meet a lot of wonderful people with exceptional qualities. We want our technology to serve as a stimulus for showing the value of these people to the rest of the world. In neighboring countries, being blind is not an impediment to leading a full life. Whereas in other countries, unfortunately, being blind automatically excludes you from society. In these cases, we are convinced that people are cast aside, even though they have wonderful qualities that could contribute a lot to their society. That’s why we want to be the instrument that helps people reach their potential.
How is a blind person’s quality of life enhanced with Eyesynth?
From the start, our main goal has been to focus on the issue of navigating and recognizing the environment. We have succeeded in designing a system that does not use words, but a sound signature similar to the sounds of ocean waves that “changes its shape” according to what the glasses’ cameras record. As no actual words are used, there is no language barrier. Which means it can be used in any country. The system offers analysis of an amplitude radius of 120° up to a distance of 6 meters, updating data 60 times per second. This means a lot of information is available in real time. It is very important to note that we cover areas that a cane or guide dog cannot cover. As in obstacles up in the air as opposed to those on the ground, e.g., awnings, traffic signs or tree branches.
Having developed the navigation system, we now plan to expand the system with software functions such as facial recognition, text recognition and a lot of other new features that we will roll out over time.
What makes EyeSynth different from other similar startups?
Our technology is radically different from other offers on the market. We don’t base our recognition system on spoken language but take advantage of the power of the user’s brain to interpret the environment. It’s a real-time system, so response is immediate. On the other hand, the acoustic system we use is cochlear. We transmit the sound through the skull directly to the cochlear nerve. With this, we avoid having to cover the ears with headphones or earbuds. Plus, we eliminate auditory stress during lengthy listening sessions.
What has been the biggest obstacle that EyeSynth has had to overcome?
The image-to-speech algorithm is tremendously complex, and a massive quantity of data is required in order to be able to process it. This invariably leads to a huge amount of energy and computational power being used. That’s why we had to develop our own hardware capable of doing these high speed calculations while using a low level of energy. The challenges regarding both the software and hardware have been very intense.
Did you ever consider giving up?
In very complex projects with small teams, the ups and downs are more noticeable than in large companies. We have had to devise many solutions – in the areas of mathematics, machine vision, computer architecture, or ergonomics. And of course, how to finance all of this. We have become accustomed to finding ourselves in front of seemingly insurmountable walls. But with time, focus and hard work, we have seen that these walls can be torn down. There have been really tough times. Yet the team’s perseverance and the passion we have put into our work have helped us get to where we are today.
What has been the most rewarding moment?
Working on a project like this provides us with plenty of wonderful rewarding moments. Each week, we have a day allocated to visitors who want to test our prototypes. It is amazing to welcome people from other continents who come over just to spend a couple of hours with us and test the technology. Their personal stories, their resilience, but above all, the moment when we see that our technology works for them, well that all feels incredibly amazing to us.
We are currently busy with the manufacturing process as well as arranging distribution channels. We can’t wait for our glasses to reach the streets. We are eager to hear from the blind community to tell us what new features they would like for their glasses. They will then be able to do this through our internet forums.
Eventually, we want to become the technological mobility standard for blind people. We want to create a solid community that shares their experiences and helps us craft technologies and products that really does make their lives easier.
Can you tell me a bit about the feedback you’ve gotten?
The response we have received so far from people who have tried our smart glasses has been fantastic. We are amazed at the human being’s ability to adapt to our technology. Users acquire a level of performance and accuracy that never ceases to amaze us. This is largely one of the reasons why we are moving forward in our mission to bring this technology to as many people as possible
Artificial intelligence is taking on more and more tasks in our modern world. For example, we use it every day when we use online search engines. Translation programs are unimaginable without AI, as are speech recognition, face recognition, computer games and, in the future, autonomous driving. In medicine, AI is also becoming more widespread and has already found its way into the operating theater. Just a few days ago, Innovation Origins wrote about operating with live 3D image navigation inside the body.
The Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) has now gone one step further and has even been awarded the NEO 2019 Innovation Prize (worth €20,000) by the Karlsruhe TechnologyRegion for their ‘HoloMed’ system. The new system assists surgeons in the operating room via Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Augmented Reality (AR). It does this by creating a model from computer tomographic images of the patient. These reveal the hidden structures deep inside the body.
GPS for the brain
HoloMed’s main focus is on cranial punctures. This is a procedure whereby accumulated fluid is removed from the brain in order to reduce pressure. Frequently used for e.g. brain hemorrhages, craniocerebral trauma and strokes. In order to determine the optimal point of insertion and alignment for the puncture, the surgeon must measure and glean data from “various anatomical landmarks” from computer tomography (CT) and/or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans.
“The difficulty lies in the fact that determining the angle of insertion only allows for a very small margin of error and the doctor isn’t able to see the target straightaway,” notes Professor Björn Hein. He oversees the project together with Professor Franziska Mathis-Ullrich at KIT. Determining this exact point is complicated as these images are only two-dimensional and the human head is three-dimensional. That’s why only about 60 percent of all free-hand incisions are able to pinpoint the best position.
Surgeons use HoloMed augmented reality glasses to assist them in determining this optimal insertion point and angle for the puncture needle. An AI developed at the AI by science staff member Christian Kunz uses the data from the patient’s digital file and their latest CT and/or MRI scans for creating a model that accurately depicts the structures deep inside the body that cannot be seen externally. This information is superimposed onto the surgeon’s AR glasses and shows the surgeon precisely where and how to guide the needle, much like a navigation system.
Easy to use and cost-efficient
Professor Hein states that machine learning methods are used in the automated generation of this information. “First of all, a segmented 3D model of the head is generated, which is used to determine the target position. However, the doctor is always able to make their own adjustments if appropriate,” Hein adds. The aim of the system is to provide an “innovative, novel and cost-effective solution that has a direct influence on the quality of these procedures”.
After its puncture method is successfully rolled out, HoloMed will also be used for other operations in the future. Since the system is, firstly, easy to use, and secondly, cost-efficient, the inventors say it is ideal for lowering healthcare costs. Plus it would also benefit poorly financed hospitals in emerging countries.
Cover photo: Dr. Michal Hlavac from the University Clinic for Neurosurgery Ulm and Christian Kunz from the “Health Robotics and Automation” (HERA) KIT team evaluating the HoloMed system during the initial surgery simulation with a dummy. (Photo: KIT-HERA).
The age when vineyards are operated by robots has arrived. As you read this, a robot could well be helping to cultivate grapes that might be used in your next glass of vino.
This is what the French start-up VitiBot is busy with. Vitibot provides winegrowers with robotics and AI so that they are able to radically change their work methods while still maintaining their competitive edge. Its robot, Bakus, helps to reduce the use of chemicals which pollute the air, water, and land and that are suspected of causing serious diseases. All this can be done without the need to resort to manual labor.
Bakus is an electric, autonomous and intelligent robot. It eases the winegrower’s workload, reduces their ecological footprint and improves the quality of the final product for wine drinkers.
VitiBot’s founder comes from vintner’s stock himself, hence his passion for this field. The start-up is aiming to combine modern-day technology with the traditional art of the winegrower. Basically, it wants to provide all the advantages that are available nowadays without compromising on the quality of the product. And do this while also taking care of the environment.
A proof of concept eventuated after studying the market which established that vintners were ready to take on robotics. Interest was bolstered by regulatory developments concerning chemical products. An initial series of 6 Bakus robots was subsequently completed in 2019; a €3.5 million fundraising campaign financed this. And they are currently in the process of raising a further €10 million in order to fund series production. They are planning to enter the market for French and European vineyards in particular over the next 2 years.
Innovation Origins had a brief chat about the start-up with Aurore Lecrocq, part of the communications team at Vitibot.
How does the technology work? Did you invent the technology?
Vitibot has designed a product ththey have named BAKUS, which is a multipurpose robot. This robot is 100% electric and 100% autonomous. Consequently, BAKUS is able to operate independently and can do that night and day. And yes, VitiBot did design its own technologies and has already filed several patents for the robot and its tools.
What are the uses it can have?
Winegrowers are able to use Bakus to do the soil work, i.e., mechanical weeding and threshing – instead of using chemical strippers. Spraying is also done in a very controlled and limited fashion.
What was the motivation behind the creation of Vitibot?
Well, Cedric Bache, VITIBOT’s founder’s father, is a winegrower in Champagne, where the start-up was set up. So, the passion was there from the beginning. Yet we also want to encourage winegrowers to meet environmental, societal and safety challenges and keep their operating costs competitive. That’s how VITIBOT was born.
What makes VitiBot so different from other similar startups?
First of all, the robot was designed from scratch by our engineering team. They integrated the latest technologies that can be adapted to all kinds of vineyards. Also, our robot can navigate its environment autonomously with its sensors, day or night. BAKUS was designed to be as efficient as possible by using only electric actuators.
As a result, BAKUS only requires about €1 worth of electricity, whereas conventional machines use around 10 liters of diesel per hour. The tools take advantage of the robotic platform so as to provide a more efficient and consistent work output. This in turn drastically reduces the need for agrochemicals. Associated services can be accessed via an online platform. Plus it compiles all the data necessary to report on the health of the vines and make it easier to keep a check on how the vines are being looked after.
Can the robot be used for something else other than wine?
No yet. But, in a few years, we will adapt our technologies for other markets. We have already been approached to work in other areas.
Was there ever a moment when you thought of giving up?
No. Not for me.
What has been the most gratifying moment?
Yes, our victory last year at the robotics competition organized by the Champagne Committee was a major highlight. That’s because it signified that our technology’s value has been recognized by the professionals.
What can we expect in the future?
Right now VitiBot is still busy with a prototype. After the initial €3.5 million funding, we are aiming for a €10 million investment by the end of 2019 in order to fund the scaling up of our activities in France and across Europe. We are aiming to become the leader in vineyard robotics in France, Europe and all over the world.
What is your ultimate goal?
To revolutionize winemaking methods so as to make them safer and more environmentally friendly all around the world.
World Economic Forum (WEF) asked a group of international technology experts to identify this year’s Top 10 Emerging Technologies. After soliciting nominations from additional experts around the globe, the group evaluated dozens of proposals according to a number of criteria. Do the suggested technologies have the potential to provide major benefits to societies and economies? Could they alter established ways of doing things? Are they likely to make significant inroads in the next several years? “Technologies that are emerging today will soon be shaping the world tomorrow and well into the future – with impacts to economies and to society at large”, said Mariette DiChristina, Editor-in-Chief of Scientific American, and chair of the Emerging Technologies Steering Committee. In our constant lookout for the origins of innovation, IO will present WEF’s top-10 emerging technologies in a 10-part series. Today: Storage of Renewable Energy.
The way the world gets its electricity is undergoing a rapid transition, driven by both the increased urgency of decarbonizing energy systems and the plummeting costs of wind and solar technology. In the past decade, electricity generated by renewables in the US has doubled, primarily from wind and solar installations, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA). In January 2019, the EIA forecast that wind, solar and other non-hydroelectric renewables would be the fastest-growing slice of the electricity portfolio for the next two years. But the intermittent nature of those sources means that electric utilities need a way to keep energy in their back pocket when the sun is not shining and the winds are calm. That need is increasing interest in energy-storage technology – in particular, lithium-ion batteries, which are finally poised to be more than just a bit player in the grid.
Lithium-ion batteries will likely be the dominant technology for the next five to 10 years, according to experts, and continuing improvements will result in batteries that can store four to eight hours of energy – long enough, for example, to shift solar-generated power to the evening peak in demand.
Getting to the point where renewables and energy storage can handle the baseline load of electricity generation, however, will take energy storage at longer timescales, which will mean moving beyond lithium-ion batteries. Potential candidates range from other high-tech options, such as flow batteries – which pump liquid electrolytes – and hydrogen fuel cells, to simpler concepts, such as pumped-storage hydropower and what is called gravity storage. Pumped-storage hydropower is cheap once it is installed, but it is expensive to build and can be used only in certain terrain. Equally simple is the concept of gravity storage, which purports to use spare electricity to raise a heavy block that can later be lowered to drive a turbine to generate electricity. Although a few companies are working on demonstrations and have attracted investments, the idea has yet to take off.
Other options are still under development to make them sufficiently reliable, efficient and cost-competitive with lithium-ion batteries. There were only three large-scale flow-battery storage systems deployed in the US by the end of 2017, according to the EIA, and utility-scale hydrogen systems remain in demonstration stages. The US government is funding some work in this arena, particularly through the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), but much of the investment in those technologies – and in energy storage in general – is happening in China and the Republic of Korea, which have also ramped up storage research.
It is uncertain whether and how much the costs of energy storage will continue to decline. Yet the accumulating pledges by governments to achieve carbon-free electricity production will provide a continued push to bring more and more storage online.
Faster diagnoses in healthcare and sensors that keep fruit fresh for longer. These are two applications for integrated photonics, an emerging lighting technique. Continued development of this technology will require a stronger connection between the technology and the market. PhotonDelta is the network that takes care of this in the Netherlands. Companies, educational institutions and end users are working together on solutions for the market.
The PhotonDelta foundation was awarded 236 million euros by a financial covenant towards the end of last year. This is how the ecosystem around integrated photonics in the Netherlands is supported so that it is able to continue to grow. The goal is to have at least 25 companies employing 4000 people by 2026. These companies will collectively generate a turnover of more than €1 billion. About four hundred employees are currently working with the technology at the moment. “It’s a big challenge,” admits Giuseppe Coppola, corporate strategist at PhotonDelta. Though he believes it is certainly possible. “Integrated photonics is a promising technology and we are still leading the world in certain areas. Integrated photonics is a technology whereby microchips work using light instead of electricity, known as ”Photonics Integrated Circuits (PICs).” These are much smaller, cheaper and more reliable than non-integrated photonics and optical components.
Want to know more about the mission and vision of PhotonDelta? Read about the new direction the organization has taken here.
This does mean that connections must be made between a wide range of parties. “We bring people from various disciplines together so that we can come up with innovative solutions.” The organization tries to achieve this in several ways, depending on the requirements of the business community. “We are building on one-to-one relationships between the suppliers of integrated photonics and our customers. These are companies in various sectors that are using integrated photonics in their end product or their services. “We try to build up long-term collaboration with them this way in the form of a partnership.” If a company has an idea about an application for photonics, they are invited to contribute it to a bootcamp. During this 3-day event, students from the technical universities develop different concepts, with the aim of further cultivating the company’s thought process.
Lastly, the organization also works with so-called application labs. “We want to further develop the technology by working with experts and end users during an early phase of product development,” Coppola says. The first step is to understand the needs of the various experts in a variety of fields. For example, researchers and physicians who use image technology for making medical diagnoses. “We are all examining the shortcomings of the technologies that they are currently using. This allows us to focus on our search for better, practice-oriented solutions for the future,” Coppola explains.
“The experts are going to think up completely new applications together with companies and end users. Not indiscriminately, but with a focus on a specific field which has market potential.” According to Coppola, the application labs have been set up as an environment where participants are able to explore the possibilities of integrated photonics. They will also be able to experiment with the technology. It’s not always about physical locations, but also about virtual situations where people work together on prototypes.
“Creative discussions that occur in these application labs are highly valuable for innovation.” Ideas that have potential are able to be further developed here by companies. “This can lead to a new start-up or spin-off from a university or an existing company”, says Coppola. “We use application labs as a way to stimulate growth and expansion of companies and to bring new ideas and products around integrated photonics to the market more quickly.” PhotonDelta can also offer support in the further development of a company at that stage. For example, they provide capital for companies and R&D projects, such as research into the latest generation of chips for the aerospace industry.
Substantial need for innovation in healthcare
For the time being, the organization’s application labs are mainly focused on healthcare and agrifood. These are two sectors that must undergo drastic changes as a result of rising costs and population growth. Exploratory research into medical healthcare has already started in the labs, and agrifood will follow later this year. “Healthcare costs must be brought down. As well as that, there is a trend towards decentralization of healthcare and a demand for more preventive care. Fast, accurate diagnoses in people’s homes are the future,” says Coppola. “Medical devices need to be much smaller and cheaper for home use and at the same time be able to take sufficiently accurate measurements.”
Integrated photonics will be able to contribute to this. With the Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT), for instance. This is a device that makes accurate images of the human body. It can be used for a variety of applications in order to make accurate diagnoses, for example in ophthalmology, dermatology and cardiology. “Also, incorporating integrated photonics will make the device much smaller and cheaper, making it suitable for use not only in hospitals but also in ambulances and GP centers. In the future, this could even be done in people’s own homes.”
Efficient food production
Integrated photonics can also make a difference to biosensors. “For example, you can measure the ripeness of a fruit with a sensor that uses light technology. Processes can be further automated and optimized by using this technique; fruit can be picked at the right time,” explains Coppola. The sensors are also able to offer added value after the harvest. “Fresh fruit and vegetables are often stored and moved around in large containers. There is no control over parameters such as oxygen and temperature levels”, he continues. “The more accurately that these are measured and controlled, the longer the fruit remains intact and less food goes to waste.” These are examples of applications that could be further developed in these labs.
“We are offering our expertise on the technology, yet companies are putting the products on the market which are manufactured on that basis.” This will involve various products in different markets in the long term. ” This will result in major changes and innovations in society that will be able to be used anywhere in the world.”
The ‘strict’ environmental objectives for 2021 are rapidly approaching. In that year, the average tank-to-wheel CO2 emissions for an automobile concern’s entire fleet are permitted to amount to just 95 grams, assuming an average weight of approximately 1380 kg per vehicle. For every 30 kg of lighter or heavier weight, respectively 1 gram more or less of CO2 may be emitted.
If a concern fails to meet this CO2 requirement, it may be liable to a fine of € 95 per gram per car or it may approach other manufacturers. FIAT / Chrysler has made a deal with Tesla. Tesla blasts away the excess CO2 from the Fiatjes for half a billion euros. This is a step too far for the German automobile manufacturers. They intend to solve the problems internally, however, this is not easy because the customer wants SUV’s, which are not the most energy efficient due to their heavy weight and aerodynamic resistance. Part of the solution lies in the sale of plug-in hybrids. Mercedes is working on a major expansion of this. The E300 diesel plug-in emits 44 grams according to the test cycle. That brings down the average even more.
Still making money
Aside from that, it is also advantageous to sell all-electric cars. You may make a considerable loss on these because each electric cars reduces CO2 emissions by 95 grams * 1.67 (multiplier) = 159 grams in one go. Any losses that should be covered are easy to calculate. Suppose that in 2021 Mercedes sells 700,000 cars with an average of 1 gram of excess CO2 emissions, the fine per car is then €95 and therefore € 66.5 million in total. If in that scenario Mercedes sells 4400 electric cars with a loss of less than € 15,000 per car, it will still have made money.
Well, that all sounds fine, however there is a peculiarity in the legislation, and that is the condition that favors electric SUVs. The original “problem” – how customers really want SUVs – now appears to be a considerable tax advantage for the manufacturer in question. An example is the Audi E-Tron with a weight of 2490 kg. This car emits zero grams well-to-wheel, but the calculated emission is (1380 – 2490) / 30 = – 37 grams CO2 as a result of its weight component. This is in addition to the standard 159 grams advantage!
Under the current legislation, in the coming years car manufacturers will be able to sell heavier electric status symbols than small electric cars. Just like back in the seventies, when there were no CO2 emission requirements at all then.
About this column:
In a weekly column, alternately written by Eveline van Zeeland, Jan Wouters, Katleen Gabriels, Maarten Steinbuch, Mary Fiers, Carlo van de Weijer, Lucien Engelen, Tessie Hartjes and Auke Hoekstra, Innovation Origins tries to find out what the future will look like. These columnists, occasionally supplemented with guest bloggers, are all working in their own way on solutions for the problems of our time. So tomorrow will be good. Here are all the previous episodes.
Without nanotechnology, hardly anything is possible in many areas of everyday life anymore, because, with the help of nanotechnology, techniques, structures, and systems can be developed that give materials completely new properties and functions. Nanotechnology makes it possible, for example, to produce special functional textiles such as sportswear that are both water-repellent and breathable. Other areas include robotics, process technology, sensor technology, solar technology, biotechnology, medicine, the packaging industry, and even cosmetic products and food.
Scientists at the Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron DESY and the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm have now developed a process that uses a new spray coating process to produce very uniform layers of cellulose nanofibers (CNF) on an industrial scale. In this process, cellulose nanofibers, which have an average length of 500 nanometers (millionths of a millimeter) and a thickness of 3 to 5 nanometers, sprayed in a water-containing carrier liquid onto a silicon carrier.
Wood as a raw material
“I am working on the use of cellulose layers as substrates and structure-giving materials for potential applications in the field of flexible electronics,” says DESY scientist Professor Stefan Roth, who came up with the idea for the new technology. “Spray processes have the advantage that make it possible to coat surfaces of any size and practically any substrate in a controlled and uniform manner layer by layer within a short period of time. The layer thickness can be adjusted very easily and to an accuracy of a billionth of a meter during the spraying. This is why the spraying process is already frequently used in the manufacture of plastic electronics and solar cells nowadays.”
On the basis of X-ray investigations at DESY’s research light source PETRA III, investigations with an atomic force microscope and investigations using neutron scattering, the scientists were able to show exactly how the layer is structured. In addition, such a structure can be tailored to extremely thin, smooth and tough nanopaper, for instance.
Porous, nano-structured cellulose films would have a number of advantageous properties that “make them interesting for various applications, from ultra-strong bioactive fibers to transparent conductive nanopaper,” explains the main author of the study, Calvin Brett of DESY and the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm. “They are lightweight and temperature-stable, have excellent mechanical properties, a low density and are made from renewable raw materials – cellulose nanofibers are usually made from wood.” Since wood is a naturally renewable raw material, cellulose films can be a good alternative to mineral oil-based plastics, which are currently used in products such as functional polymers.
Electric charge increases with the amount of bound water
During production, the substrate is heated to 120 degrees Celsius so that most of the water evaporates quickly, which results in a uniform cellulose layer of just 200 nanometers thick. The nanopaper. “A key question for the right properties is the relationship between the layering of the individual nanofibers, the porosity and the nano-structure within the cellulose film,” explains Roth, who is also a professor at KTH Stockholm. Analyses of the cellulose films showed that the surface charge of the sprayed nanofibers increases with the amount of water still retained. The researchers say that this electrical charge can be specifically influenced during production and thus control the properties of the film. Examinations with the atomic force microscope also showed that the stronger that the individual fibers are charged electrically, the smoother the film becomes. “With our data, we can now tailor cellulose films to specific applications, which for example have the optimum ratio between roughness, water content, and hollow spaces,” says Roth
Production on an industrial scale
Meanwhile, these types of layers can not only be produced in the laboratory but also on an industrial scale, for example by applying a cellulose film “with only two nanometers of a rough layer” to a 50-meter-long film. “Cellulose nanofibrils (“CNF”, diameter 5 nm, length several 100 nm) have the advantage of being ultra-strong mechanically. The world’s strongest fibers can be produced from these biomaterials, as we recently demonstrated together with our colleagues from KTH,” emphasizes Roth. “Furthermore, the roughness of the films we produce using the spraying process is only one billionth of a meter, and thereby within the technically relevant area of thin-film processes for the production of solar cells, for example.”
Next, Roth and his colleagues plan to incorporate functional polymers into the cellulose film in order, for example, to be able to produce a sensor material. “Initially, we produced films on silicon surfaces to investigate the properties of these (CNF) films,” he says. “The aim is to produce ultra-thin, self-supporting, ultra-strong mechanical films based on these films. During production, these films could then become functional by cleverly mixing conductive polymers, for example, as well as serve as templates for flexible electronic applications.”
The researchers present their structural analyses in the journal “Macromolecules“.
More articles on nano technology can be found HERE
“Until recently, vehicle manufacturers have had to choose between a high initial rate of acceleration and a higher top speed for electric propulsion systems,” says Bert Hellwig, head of E-Mobility at the ZF Group in Germany. With a 2-speed transmission, ZF is tackling these conflicting objectives and is enhancing the scale of efficiency.
Current battery-powered electric vehicles do not require a conventional manual gearbox. One forward gear, one reverse gear, the rest is done by the extremely flexible electric motor. Yet the generator also has speed ranges where the efficiency is better or even worse. This is where ZF comes in with its new 2-speed transmission. ” Each percent of efficiency within the efficiency scale,” says Hellwig, “results in two percent more range. ”
Up to five percent more range
In order to substantially optimise efficiency, ZF also developed its own propulsion unit with a maximum output of 140 kW. According to ZF, a drivetrain with this combination of electric motor and 2-speed transmission has a lower energy consumption, which in turn leads to a range increase of up to five percent compared to a single-stage unit.
The gear shift for this variant is made at 70 km/h. Other gearshift strategies are feasible. In combination with digital map data and GPS, the vehicle would be able to detect, for instance, how far away the nearest free charging station is and is able to switch to Eco mode in advance.
More effective gear shifts would also be possible when it comes to demanding landscapes, the motorway or cross-country journeys.
The sea is home to the most successful bacteria on our planet. Marine bacteria’s relevance in the global nutrient cycle is well documented. It is only its chemistry that had not yet been understood. An interdisciplinary team of researchers has now deciphered the degradation pathway of algae biomass. Using this knowledge, algae could soon become an important renewable biomaterial. Even the production of bioplastics should become possible.
Algae are multifarious plant organisms. Their photosynthesis makes them the most important source of oxygen in water and on the earth’s surface. However, they also cause damage as a result of an accelerated proliferation of algae bloom. Algae bloom is the term for the mass occurrence of algae. The problem is: degradation of algae requires oxygen. The more algae that start to degrade, the more oxygen is consumed which in turn endangers the life of all oxygen-dependent organisms in the water.
Following the example of nature
Science is looking for an industrial use for the ecosystem-hostile algae carpets that cause algae bloom. Christian Stanetty from the Institute of Applied Synthetic Chemistry at the Vienna University of Technology explains that the large molecules they produce are to be broken down into individual parts that can be used. The model for this complicated process is nature – specifically the natural metabolism of algae, which takes place via certain bacteria.
Stanetty is part of the transnational research project POMPU (Proteogenomics Of Marine Polysaccharide Utilization), where researchers want to develop algae as a renewable bioresource. What kept everyone from their goal was not understanding the chemistry of algae. Algae form the fundament of the marine ecosystem. They store more carbon than all terrestial plants. The carbohydrates of the algae are broken down by bacteria, making them an important source of energy for the entire marine food chain. That much is known. What exactly happens chemically during the degradation of algae biomass remained unknown until now.
Biochemical functions of enzymes
Polysaccharides (multiple sugars) from marine algae differ chemically from those of terrestrial plants. How algal polysaccharides are degraded by marine bacteria was for the most part not known until now. The researchers at the POMPU project have now succeeded in analyzing and understanding the complete degradation pathway of ulvan, the most important polysaccharide in algae. In an article published in the science journal Nature Chemical Biology, they described the metabolic route which leads to the biochemical workings of enzymes. There are a total of six different enzymes that break down polysaccharides into monosaccharides. In this way, the enzymes transform a previously unused biomaterial into a renewable and ecologically sustainable resource.
A biomaterial which can be used for fermentation, for the production of valuable types of sugar and, in the future, also for specialized bioplastics. The aim is for an environmentally friendly circular economy wherein renewable raw materials are used in as many ways as possible.
Unexpected chemical pathways
The researchers analyzed how the marine bacterium Formosa agariphila degrades the polysaccharide ulvan, which produces the ulva algae. A process Stanetty calls a minor chemical work of art: by using twelve different enzymes, the initial molecule is broken down step by step into ever smaller parts. The task of the TU Vienna was to clarify the exact appearance of these elements with the aid of nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (NMR) and mass spectrometry. The results were surprising. Some of the constituents that set the decomposition process in motion looked different than expected, Stanetty explains. Quote: “This then showed us that the bacteria took different chemical paths to break down the polysaccharide.”
Toolbox for raw bioresources
The procedure showed the researchers:
which enzymes the bacteria uses at what stage;
how these microorganisms gain access to their food source;
At the same time, it enabled the creation of a toolbox with a series of new biocatalysts whereby the complex marine polysaccharide is able to be used specifically as a raw bioresource for fermentation, explains Professor Uwe Bornscheuer from the Ernst-Moritz-Arndt University in Greifswald, Austria.
Completely CO2 neutral
Professor Marko Mihovilovic from the TU Vienna emphasizes that the use of algae for the synthesis of hydrocarbons is completely CO2 neutral and he sees the success of the project as a step towards sustainable chemistry, which makes a genuine, ecologically practical circular economy possible.
His perspective is that synthesis makes it possible for the replacement of fossil raw materials. Even if they are rather simple products at first, such as special types of sugar. Quote: “But the better we understand the chemistry behind it, the better we will be able to use these algae as initial materials for complex syntheses, including bioplastics.”