A new technique to produce cheap graphene

Graphene molecular structure

Graphene molecular structure

In recent years, there’s a lot of talking about the extraordinary properties of graphene (Image ©AlexanderAlUS) for the next generation of electric circuits but also for other applications, for example as a substitute for plastics. One of the major obstacles to the adoption of graphene is its cost: a small piece of graphene can cost more than 1,000 Euros (more than 1,100 USD). Now Shou-En Zhu of the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands showed a technique that could lower production costs a thousand times.

Shou-En Zhu is a PhD student and in his thesis describes how the chemical vapor deposition of methane on a copper sheet can create crystals of graphene that align together to form an endless sheet of great purity. It could be what was missing to trigger the revolution announced since 2010, when physicists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their research on graphene.

The method for producing graphene devised by the two physicists is still considered the one that gives the best results in terms of quality but is also the most expensive. Over the years, various methods have been developed that have more or less halved the cost but we’re still far from competitive levels for common uses. A new method promises to produce it at industrial level but the transition from the experimental phase to the actual production may not be easy.

The new technique devised by Shou-En Zhu to produce graphene sheets could be the winner. Using a low pressure mix of hydrogen, methane and argon, Zhu separated the carbon atoms to form a graphene sheet by passing the gas over a copper sheet at a temperature of 1,000° Celsius. The copper acts as a catalyst stripping the hydrogen from the methane leaving pure carbon that sticks to the surface and aligns perfectly with other carbon atoms to form pure graphene.

This method is about ten times faster than previous deposition methods. Another very important factor is that it could be a thousand times cheaper than the one devised by Geim and Novoselov. This material has a structure in which the atoms form hexagons with 120° angles but in the case of imperfections the structure is different partially losing its extraordinary qualities.

The first tests carried out by Shou-En Zhu gave positive results with the production of high quality graphene. On March 3, 2015 Zhu will defend his PhD thesis on the production of graphene by the method of vapor deposition. Regardless of its outcome, in the coming years we will see if it’s the right way to really start the graphene revolution.

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The Milestone Prizes have been announced in the Google Lunar XPRIZE competition

The winners of the so-called Milestone Prizes have been announced. Those are the  intermediate awards for a total of $6 million allocated during the Google Lunar XPRIZE. The ultimate goal is to bring a private automated spacecraft to the Moon and after its landing it must travel at least 500 meters on the surface and send images and data back to Earth. Five teams of participants showed their progress winning the Milestone Prizes while waiting to proceed with the attempts to actually send the spacecraft to the Moon.

The Google Lunar XPRIZE is a competition started in 2007 by the X Prize Foundation, also known simply as XPRIZE, and sponsored by Google. XPRIZE is a non-profit organization that encourages technological developments that could bring benefits to humanity. It’s actively supported by people such as SpaceX founder Elon Musk, Google CEO Larry Page and director James Cameron.

The final prizes for who can make the required operations amount to a total of $30 million. The first team to achieve it will receive $20 million and there are other prizes, for example for the team that will come second, for the one whose robot will travel 5 km or the one that will photograph the remains of artifacts brought to the Moon in the past decades missions.

The Milestone Prizes are a recognition to the teams that have made progress in the development of the various elements necessary to accomplish the feat. For this reason, prizes were awarded for landing systems (Landing), for the robot mobility (Mobility) and for the camera systems (Imaging). Three teams were awarded for each category.

In this case, the tests were conducted only with simulations on Earth. The teams that participated in this phase are Astrobotic (USA), Hakuto (Japan), Moon Express (USA), Team Indus (India) and Part-Time Scientists (Germany). The teams that haven’t participated in this stage can still try to win the final prizes. 18 teams are still participating in the competition.

For the Landing category, Astrobotic, Team Indus and Moon Express received a prize of $1 million each. For the Mobility category, Astrobotic, Hakuto and Part Time Scientists received a prize of $500,000 each. For the Imaging category, Astrobotic, Moon Express and Part-Time Scientists received a prize of $250,000 each.

XPRIZE is considering the possibility to award more intermediate prizes before the actual attempts to send the robotic spacecraft on the Moon. Whatever the decisions, in the course of 2015 we should begin to see the launch of the first missions.

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Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Hyperion by Dan Simmons (Italian edition)

Hyperion by Dan Simmons (Italian edition)

The novel “Hyperion” by Dan Simmons was published for the first time in 1989. It’s the first book of the Hyperion Cantos. It won the Hugo and Locus awards as the best science fiction novel of the year.

On the planet Hyperion the Time Tombs are about to open up and no one knows what the Shrike might do. It’s a creature that lives near them and kills the pilgrims who go there. The Church of The Shrike has decided to send to the planet seven more pilgrims selected in collaboration with the Hegemony.

In the course of the interstellar journey, the pilgrims tell their stories. They reveal the reasons that led each of them to risk their lives to go to Hyperion. They also reveal the connections of various types they have with the planet Hyperion, the Time Tombs and in some cases even with the Ousters, the descendants of the colonists who developed their own civilization separate from the Hegemony.

“Hyperion” is set in the 28th century but uses the same literary device as “The Canterbury Tales” by Geoffrey Chaucer, written in the 14th century. The characters tell their stories as they go on a pilgrimage, in the novel by Dan Simmons to the planet Hyperion. There they can find the Time Tombs, surrounded by an anti-entropic field that makes travel back in time.

Close to the Time Tombs wanders the Shrike, a mysterious creature who is potentially lethal to the pilgrims. It doesn’t just kill them but impales them on a giant thorn tree. It’s also an object of worship by the Church of the Final Atonement.

The balance in the Hegemony is broken when the Time Tombs are about to open up and at the same time the Ousters are going to try to invade Hyperion. The Church of The Shrike sets up a special pilgrimage sending seven people on the planet. Six of them will die but the survivor will have his wishes fulfilled.

“Hyperion” is mainly composed by the various stories told by pilgrims. They’re not only stories that are beautiful in different ways because Dan Simmons also use them to describe the various parts of this fictional universe. The stories are autonomous and yet there are subtle interconnections that make us also understand why the characters are part of that group of pilgrims.

The Priest’s Tale: “The Man who Cried God”. Father Lenar Hoyt is a Catholic priest who accompanies father Paul Duré in a journey to the planet Hyperion, where he’s going into exile. There father Duré comes into contact with the Bikura, a primitive civilization, and studies its particular form of immortality. This story gives us the first information about Hyperion, the Shrike and also the strange parasite called the cruciform.

The Soldier’s Tale: “The War Lovers”. Colonel Kassad Fedmahn is a Palestinian from the space diaspora who became a FORCE officer. During a simulated exercise something strange happens. He meets a woman who in some way entered that virtual reality and in time finds her again in other simulations. This story gives us more information about the Shrike and above all allows us to get to know the Ousters.

The Poet’s Tale: “Hyperion Cantos”. Martin Silenus is a poet born on the old Earth. He started writing the Hyperion Cantos, created as a parody of the poet John Keats and then continued in a way that is much different and unpredictible for Silenus at the beginning. Another explicit is to “The Dying Earth” by Jack Vance. In some ways Silenus is an alter ego of Dan Simmons and not only for the meta-reference to the Cantos. The poet’s problems with a publisher in the story make me think too much about those the author had when he wrote “Carrion Comfort“. This story gives us more information about the Shrike and the Time Tombs.

The Scholar’s Tale: “The River Lethe’s Taste is Bitter”. Sol Weintraub is a philosopher who lives on a peripheral world with his wife. Their daughter Rachel becomes an archaeologist and leaves for the planet Hyperion for a research but there something very strange happens to her. It’s the most emotionally intense tale in a novel in which the emotions are very strong. This story gives us more information about the Shrike and the Time Tombs and allows us to get to know the Church of The Shrike.

The Detective’s Tale: “The Long Good-Bye”. Brawne Lamia is a private detective who one day starts working for a very special client. It’s a cybrid, a TechnoCore artificial intelligence that uses a physical humanoid body that in this case recreates the poet John Keats. Someone tried to kill him and to help him Lamia gets embroiled in a business far bigger than she thought. The style of this story is inspired by hard-boiled detective stories with a role switch in the sense that there’s a woman as an investigator and the client has the appearance of a man who hides many secrets and needs help. This story gives us more information about the Church of The Shrike and allows us to get to know the TechnoCore and its artificial intelligences.

The Consul’s Tale: “Remembering Siri”. The Consul used to represent the Hegemony on Hyperion. His grandfather led a revolt on the planet Maui-Covenant against it joining WorldWeb that was crushed. The Consul was chosen to secretly negotiate with the Ousters and is now at the center of various plans of both FORCE and Ousters on Hyperion. It’s a slightly modified version of a 1983 story that later inspired the Hyperion Cantos. This story provides more information about the Ousters, the Hegemony and its domestic and foreign policy.

The stories of “Hyperion” are intense and the character development is remarkable. It’s set in a future where technology had enormous developments but Dan Simmons isn’t interested in this side of the story so the technological elements have vague explanations.

The author is very focused on the human side of the story even though this term must be taken in a broad sense. There are the inhabitants of the Hegemony and there are the Ousters but there are also the artificial intelligences. Through very different people and settings, Dan Simmons gives us an extraordinary portrait of this fiction universe.

“Hyperion” ends abruptly, without a real ending. This is because it’s the first part of a novel split into two books and you must also read its sequel. To me it’s absolutely worth reading both of them because this novel is a masterpiece that started the science fiction series that marked the ’90s.

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A Martian panorama for the 11th anniversary of the Mars Rover Opportunity’s landing on Mars

The panorama seen by the Mars Rover Opportunity on the top of Cape Tribulation (Image NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.)

The panorama seen by the Mars Rover Opportunity on the top of Cape Tribulation (Image NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.)

NASA released an image of the Martian landscape seen from the Mars Rover Opportunity on the occasion of the earth’s eleventh anniversary of its arrival on Mars. Opportunity landed at 5:05 UTC on January 25, 2004 and now has traveled for about 41.7 km (25.9 miles) on the red planet. About three weeks ago it reached the top of the segment of the Endeavour Crater called Cape Tribulation and from there it used its Pancam (panoramic camera) instrument to take a series of photographs that were combined together.

Cape Tribulation is the highest place achieved by the Mars Rover Opportunity since it left Victoria crater in 2008 and began its long journey that after three years led to Endeavour Crater. In mid-2013 it began the long climb from the lower area of the crater to reach that altitude, which is about 135 meters (440 feet).

During the past weeks, the Mars Rover Opportunity took a series of photographs from the top of Cape Tribulation showing the desert landscape of the red planet. Often these pictures are released after manipulating their colors to improve their quality. Instead, in this case, the colors are a good approximation of the real ones because their exposures taken through three color filters of the Pancam were combined together.

Despite the problems that it’s been having for several months with its flash memory, the Mars Rover Opportunity keeps on working. NASA engineers are preparing a solution they hope will be final for that problem but it takes time to prepare the necessary software to resize the flash.

Meanwhile, on January 17, 2015 the Mars Rover Opportunity left the top of Cape Tribulation. This is Sol, the Martian day, 3902 of its mission that originally was to last three months. Opportunity is now heading to an area called the Marathon Valley, a journey all downhill.

When the Mars Rover Opportunity has reached its new destination, it will have traveled the equivalent of a marathon. If all goes well it will be a remarkable new record for this extraordinary robot that despite some aging problems is continuing to contribute to scientific research on Mars.

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Boston Dynamics – owned by Google – introduces its new robot Atlas Unplugged

Atlas Unplugged (Photo courtesy DARPA. All rights reserved)

Atlas Unplugged (Photo courtesy DARPA. All rights reserved)

Boston Dynamics, the robot manufacturer acquired by Google at the end of 2013, introduced a new version of its Atlas model. It will participate in the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC), a robot competition which will take place on June 5-6 2015. The new version of Atlas is wireless and for this reason has been called Atlas Unplugged to meet the new demands of DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) for the final phase of its competition.

The use of a 3.7 kWh lithium-ion battery to power Atlas Unplugged is the most obvious change but many other parts of this robot’s “anatomy” were modified to increase autonomy but also the possibilities of movement. In the end, this robot 1,88 m (6’2″) tall weighing a little more than 150 kg (345 lbs) kept only its lower legs from the previous version.

Atlas’s Arms and shoulders were repositioned to allow it to have more workspace in front of the robot. Now Atlas can see its hands moving too and that allows its operators to receive a greater amount of data while during its use.

Its wrists now have a greater freedom of movement. This will allow Atlas to perform operations such as opening a door by simply rotating its wrist instead of moving the whole arm. Its forearms are also equipped with new electrical actuators that give them more power, dexterity and also improve its force sensing. Other actuators of different sizes were installed in Atlas’s hip, knees and back to provide greater strength.

The teams that will use Atlas Unplugged in the DRC can differentiate not only with their competition strategy but also with the software and the control interface. They will operate on the three on-board computers that allow to schedule the robot’s tasks communicating with it via a wireless router.

In the course of the DRC, the robots will face various taks that simulate conditions dangerous for humans. Atlas Unplugged must be ready to perform rescue operations in environments built for human beings where, however, there may be buildings partly destroyed, therefore with further obstacles.

Officially, the purpose is only to create robots that can intervene in places where there was a natural disaster or an event such as an accident at a nuclear plant. However, DARPA is an agency of the US Department of Defense so many people wonder about the applications of the robotic technologies developed. One wonders also about Google’s plans for Atlas and the various technologies developed by Boston Dynamics and other start-ups in the field of robotics purchased in recent years by the company.

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