Archive for the 'Technology' Category

Jan 14 2021

Commercializing Low Earth Orbit

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For the SGU podcast this week we interviewed Phil McAlister, who is the Director of Commercial Spaceflight Development at NASA Headquarters (this will be available starting 1/16). It’s an excellent interview I recommend listening to – the overall theme of the discussion is that NASA is pulling back from low Earth orbit (LEO) so that they can focus on deep space exploration, including cis-Lunar space and eventually Mars.

There are a few facets of this decision by NASA, including the shift if focus. The second is that NASA has already paved the way for the private sector, developing the technology and experience to occupy and work in LEO. So in a way they feel they have accomplished their mission and feel it’s time to move on. Further, the private sector is likely to have new and fresh ideas, and to focus much more of efficiency and cost-effectiveness than NASA. And finally, it may ultimately be cheaper for NASA to simply outsource LEO to the private sector rather than do everything themselves.

The upshot of all this is that it has worked out quite well, in all of these aspects. SpaceX is the most dramatic example. They have pioneered new reusable rocket technology. They are now the first private company approved by NASA to launch humans into space, and they can do it more cheapy than NASA, or by purchases seats from Russia. Further, Boeing will likely be approved for human launch soon, and then for the first time in history the US will have redundant capability to launch humans to space.

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Jan 11 2021

Deep History

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You may have heard before that Cleopatra was born closer in time to the Space Shuttle (or Moon landing, or launch of the iPhone – basically today) than she did to the building of the pyramids. The first time you hear this it may seem odd. We have a tendency to compress ancient history, as if it were one time period. It is also difficult for modern people to imagine the incredibly deep history of humanity. Civilization has changed so much over the last 100 years, and 2000 years, that it is difficult to imagine thousands or even tens of thousands of years going by will relatively little change.

I was reminded of this by a recent news item – evidence now suggests that the middle stone age lasted 20,000 years longer than previously thought. To put this into context, the early stone age, with the most primitive stone tools, started about 2.6 million years ago and lasted until about 300,000 years ago. Don’t even try to wrap your head around 2.3 million years. This only counts the human genus, but stone tool use predates humans. From 300k to 30k year ago was considered the middle stone age, using a more sophisticated tool kit and tool production methods. The tool kit was more diversified and likely represented a greater range of activities for hunting and processing food.

Then around 50,000 years ago the later stone age tools started appearing. This was still a more sophisticated too kit, designed to be smaller and more mobile and likely reflected a change in lifestyle. The middle stone age was replaced by the later stone age by 30,000 years ago – or so we thought. New evidence suggests that middle stone age culture persisted until about 11,000 years ago in isolated populations in Africa.

This persistence likely reflects the fact that prehistoric populations were far more isolated than more modern populations. It may also simply reflect the persistence of culture. If these populations did not change their basic subsistence strategy, they would have had no reason to update their tool kit. Researchers hypothesize that changes in the environment allowed for easier migration corridors, causing cultural mixing and the final replacement of the last vestiges of middle stone age culture.

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Jan 08 2021

Graphene Supercapacitors

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While trying to imagine the future of our energy infrastructure we should not forget to include the possible role of capacitors as a means of storing energy. Energy storage is critical for electronic devices, electric vehicles, grid storage, and more. Right now batteries tend to get the most attention, but we should not neglect capacitors.

A capacitor, in its simplest form, contains two conducting plates separating by a thin insulting layer. Energy is stored in an electrostatic field between the two plates. (Read here if you want more details.) Capacitors have some useful advantages over batteries. They can store and discharge energy much more quickly than batteries. This makes them superior for applications that require a burst of energy (in either direction). Capturing the energy of a breaking train, for example, would be an ideal application for a capacitor.

Capacitors also have a higher power density than even the best batteries. Power density is the amount of power that can be produced by a certain mass of the object. A capacitor can provide 10 kW of power in a lighter package than even a lithium ion battery. However, capacitors have a much lower energy density (measured in kWh/kg) than the best batteries. Batteries therefore last longer for their weight – by about a factor of 20. The battery pack of a Tesla Model 3, for example, weighs 1,200 pounds (540kg). A capacitor with the same range would weigh 24,000 pounds. This is obviously a deal-killer.

Capacitors have other advantages, however. They have a much longer lifespan, because they do not rely on chemicals which can break down or crystalize. Capacitors can last millions of cycles. They also don’t overcharge and don’t overheat, so we don’t have to worry about them catching fire or exploding.

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Jan 05 2021

3D Printed Smartgel

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If you follow science and technology news closely over years certain patterns emerge. First, most advances are incremental. True “breakthroughs” are rare, despite how overused that word is in reporting. At best there are milestones – an incremental advance that reaches a critical level that will likely change the application of a technology. Second, most advances do not pan out. They add to our total knowledge, helping us inch forward, but most technological developments will not be ultimately utilized themselves. This leads to a third conclusion: it is very difficult to predict which technologies will flourish and which will be dead-ends.

All this makes science communication tricky, if you’re interested in doing it right. It’s easy just to hype potential advances and applications without context, but context is mostly what science communicators should be communicating.

With all that in mind, a couple of recent science news items caught my eye as having the potential for exciting future applications, but with all the above caveats applying. The first relates to 3D printing, which is a technology that is clearly being widely used and has tremendous potential, but it’s difficult to predict how widespread it will become. That is another difficulty in prediction – even if a technology works and is useful, we don’t know how it will be adopted. It may have a narrow niche application, or may change the world, and predictions err in both directions. But the story of 3D printing is not over yet, and it remains to be seen how much additive manufacturing will displace traditional manufacturing.

The new advance is the development of a 3D printable smartgel. This is a hydrogel that can alter its shape in response to light and temperature. A hydrogel is a solid that contains water, like jello or modern contact lenses. This is definitely a material that panned out and has many applications. The smartgels are smart because they can change their form. OK – so what? That is the big question – can this property be exploited for a usable purpose? This is the “killer app” question for any new technology. Even if it works, what application will justify high demand? Sometimes technology is developed to fill a very specific purpose. At other times technology is developed because it can be, and then goes in search of a purpose. This is definitely a form of the latter, and this is also where the wild speculation comes in.

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Jan 04 2021

The Evolution of Telemedicine

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One of the side-effects of the COVID-19 pandemic was an exponential increase in the use of telemedicine – doctor visits over the phone or video. But the rapid adoption of this technology has had some growing pains, including exposing a predictable divide in socioeconomic status, age, and people of color. There are also technical issues that are still being tweaked. But overall, the adoption of telemedicine has been a great opportunity.

Part of the reason for the dramatic rise in telemedicine, sparked by the pandemic, is the fact that there was so much deferred potential for its use. In other words, many healthcare offices and many patients already had the technology and capability to engage in telemedicine, all that was waiting was for the regulatory switch to be thrown. Insurance companies, including Medicare and Medicaid, were simply not allowing the technology to be widely adopted (by simply not paying for it). The pandemic forced their hand, and once we got the green light, we were massively up and running within days.

But of course there were some rough spots, as you might imagine with any rapid adoption of new technology or procedures. In my office we are now on our third video conferencing application to use for telemedicine in the last 9 months. Along the way functionality has improved. The core application is simple, a secure video connection between health care provider and patient. Initially it was little more than that. Then we added the ability to have an assistant prep the patient beforehand, to make sure their video was working and to get basic health information related to the visit. But we realized we needed the ability for third parties to join the visit, which could be a family member, a student being trained, or a medical translator.

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Dec 04 2020

A Faraday Cage For Your WiFi

It can be amusing when there are multiple layers of fraud in a single scam, but it’s still a scam. With the holiday shopping season upon us, there are lots of products out there exploiting fear, pseudoscience, and scientific ignorance. The “Large WiFi Router Guard” now available from Amazon is a great example. Let’s unpack how silly this product is.

The seller claims that the router guard, “Blocks about 90% of the EMF large WiFi routers emit including the new 5G.” I’ll get to why some people think they should do this below, but first – let’s consider how nonsensical this very idea is. The entire point of a WiFi router is to take your internet signal and then broadcast it using electromagnetic frequencies in a radius that covers your home or office, typically 50-100 feet. If you need to cover a larger area you can use a repeater, which will pick up the signal and then boost it to extend the range. You can also use a mesh WiFi system which uses multiple devices to give larger and more consistent coverage.

The obvious problem with a WiFi router blocker is that you are blocking the essential function of the router – it can’t work if you are blocking the very signal it is designed to release. The product listing says that it can do this, “without affecting router network speed and performance,” which is impossible. I guess technically you can say that the router is still working, and you have not affected it directly, but you have effectively blocked its speed and performance outside the cage. If you are blocking 90% of the signal, you are blocking 90% of the performance.

As an aside, this product is essentially a small Faraday cage. In that respect, it does actual work in that it will block EMF. A Faraday cage is essentially an enclosure of continuous conducting material. Electrical fields will essentially distribute themselves around this outside conducting material, and those fields will tend to cancel out within cage. So if you are inside a perfect Faraday cage, you are protected from even intense electrical activity happening outside the cage. You can even touch the inside of the cage safely.

This is why, by the way, if you are in your car during a bad electrical storm, or when there is a downed power line nearby – stay in your car. It will act to some degree like a Faraday cage an can protect you.

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Nov 30 2020

AI Doctor’s Assistant

I have discussed often before how advances in artificial intelligence (AI) are already transforming our world, but are likely to do so much more in the future (even near term). I am interested in one particular application that I think does not get enough attention – using AI to support clinical decision-making. So I was happy to read that one such project will share in a grant from the UK government.

The grant of £20m will be shared among 15 UK universities working on various AI projects, but one of those projects is developing an AI doctor’s assistant. They called this the Turing Fellowship, after Alan Turing, who was one of the pioneers of machine intelligence. As the BBC reports:

The doctor’s assistant, or clinical colleague, is a project being led by Professor Aldo Faisal, of Imperial College London. It would be able to recommend medical interventions such as prescribing drugs or changing doses in a way that is understandable to decision makers, such as doctors.

This could help them make the best final decision on a course of action for a patient. This technology will use “reinforcement learning”, a form of machine learning that trains AI to make decisions.

This is great to hear, and should be among the highest priority in terms of developing such AI applications. In fact, it’s a bit disappointing that similar systems are not already in widespread use. There are several types of machine learning. At its core, machine learning involves looking for patterns in large sets of data. If the computer algorithm is being told what to look for, then that is supervised learning. If not, then it is unsupervised. If it’s using lots of trial and error, that is reinforcement learning. And if it is using deep neural networks, then it is also deep learning. In this case they are focusing on reinforcement learning, so the AI will make decisions, be given feedback, and then iterate its decision-making algorithm with each piece of data.

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Nov 20 2020

E-Mails and Energy Efficiency

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It is a useful exercise to think about the way millions or even billions of people behave to look for low-hanging fruit in terms of increased energy efficiency or environmental sustainability. While this should be a purely evidence-based and cost vs benefit exercise, it has unfortunately been sucked into the ever-growing culture war (at least in the US). Plastic straws are a great example of this. We use them mostly by habit and culture. They are often given, for example, by default in restaurants. As a result an estimated 8.3 billion plastic straws pollute the beaches of the world. Most people don’t need or even want straws, so it is a simple change to make them on-demand, rather than automatic. Further, paper straw technology is sufficient to replace them with a more biodegradable option. We can argue about the best way to achieve the goal of limiting plastic straw waste, and whether outright bans are necessary, but the plastic straw has now become an icon on the right about overreach on the left. Ugh.

It’s possible that e-mail may follow the path of plastic straws into a senseless culture war. According to the BBC, the Financial Times reports that the UK government is considering recommending that everyone try to send fewer e-mails. Why? Climate change.

“It claimed that if every British person sent one fewer thank you email a day, it would save 16,433 tonnes of carbon a year, equivalent to tens of thousands of flights to Europe.”

That sounds like a lot of carbon, but of course it is tiny compared to total carbon output – about 0.0037% of the output of the UK economy. This illustrates a few principles worth pointing out. First, when hundreds of millions or billions of people engage even in a small behavior, the cumulative effect adds up. So shaving tiny costs (in resources, in pollution, etc.) can have a measurable effect. But obviously the effect is going to be proportional to the action. I probably look at a couple hundred e-mails per day. Not sending one “thank you” e-mail seems like a drop in the bucket – because it is. The result is that the absolute magnitude is large, because there are hundreds of  millions of buckets, but the relative magnitude is small.

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Nov 19 2020

Farming Mars

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It is possible that sometime this century the first human will set foot on Mars. If this happens it is then likely that those humans that do will want to stay there for a while. It takes between 150-300 days to get to Mars with current technology (depending on launch and vehicle variables), unlike the three days it takes to get to the Moon. Perhaps before we try to get to Mars we will have nuclear thermal propulsion, and the trip time will decrease to about 90 days. So extended missions will likely be the norm, and in fact there is talk about a permanent colony on Mars. This will be a tremendous technological challenge, which is one reason I think we should do it. I also think this should be an international project.

One of the many challenges is resources – a colony will need energy, food, water, atmosphere, and protection from radiation. Energy might be the easiest to solve – just use the nuclear engine that got you there. Food, water, and oxygen will likely be the most challenging, as Mars is far away to supply. It’s likely that we will send robotic missions to Mars to pave the way for any human crew, pre-supplying the mission with everything they need. But if the ultimate goal is a Mars colony we will need to figure out how to make it self-sustaining, and this means growing food. Plants not only provide food, they also can provide oxygen to breath. You can grow food hydroponically, but this is limiting. It would be easier to support a colony with soil.

Scientists, therefore, are very interested in how well the regolith on Mars will serve as a substrate for farming. We don’t have direct access to Mars regolith to study, but we do have information about what the regolith is like from the various landers and rovers we have sent to Mars. We can therefore simulate Mars regolith, at least to some degree, and see if we can grow plants in it. There have already been studies doing just that. A 2019 study looked at seed germination and plant growth for 10 crops in Earth control soil, NASA simulated Moon regolith, and simulated Mars regolith. They found that 9/10 of the plants (all but the spinach) germinated and grew well in the simulated regolith, although not as well as  in the Earth soil. Of note, the simulated regolith in this study contained added organic material, to simulate the compost from previous crops or food.

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Nov 12 2020

Biden’s Climate Plan

Despite Trump’s attempt to break US democracy in order to alter reality to his liking, Joe Biden will be sworn in as the next president. This has obvious implications for US’s plans for tackling climate change. The first is that we will now have an executive branch that recognizes science, that climate change is real, and will actually try to do something about it. Immediately this means rejoining the Paris accord, and appointing people to the energy and environmental agencies that are not climate change-denying coal executives.

Biden’s plan (which is not the green dew deal) is to have our energy infractructure be net zero carbon emitting by 2035 and the entire country to be net zero by 2050. That is ambitious, and if I had to bet I would say we will fall short of this goal (although I hope I’m wrong), but it is a reasonable goal. How, theoretically, will we get there?

First, although it is politically risky to say so bluntly, we have to wean ourselves entirely off of fossil fuel. Biden acknowledged this during the second debate – end fossil fuel subsidies, and phase out fossil fuels over time. Given his stated goal, that would mean phasing out coal, oil, and gas by 2035. Is that even feasible? Currently, if we look only at power production, the mix of sources in the US is: fossil fuels 62.6%, Nuclear 19.6%, and renewables (wind, solar, biomass, geothermal, hydroelectric) 17.6%. The question is, in 2035, what do we want our energy mix to look like and how can we get there?

The path to getting there is not insignificant, because we will be emitting carbon along the way. One controversy is fracking and natural gas, which is cleaner than coal, but still a fossil fuel. Should we phase out coal quickly by replacing it with natural gas plants, or skip over natural gas and go straight to renewables and nuclear? If we could skip natural gas that would be optimal, but realistically the perfect may be the enemy of the good. Natural gas may be an effective temporary measure to quickly eliminate coal while we are transitioning to net zero energy production. But I am open on this question.

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