Friday, April 28, 2006

Ideas2Products – Technology Innovation

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the semifinals of the Ideas2Product competition. It was started at the University of Texas six years ago and now has grown into a series of events held in 13 countries across 5 continents culminating in an International competition.

Idea2Products is part of the National Collegiate Inventors & Innovators Alliance which fosters innovation at the collegiate level through courses, grants, and awards. The NCIIA is sponsored by the Lemelson Foundation as well as National Instruments.

The winner last year was the Micro Dynamo which makes human-powered battery chargers capable of recharging devices and providing energy to soldiers in the field with a simple cranking or pulling motion. What’s interesting about Ideas2Products is how many of the ideas turn into products and then companies. Micro Dynamo is now called UPower.

In the semifinals round I attended last week, eight teams competed by taking a technology and working it from concept to prototype. The goal is not necessarily to make a business plan but rather to vet out a technology that could be used to build a technology-based business.

The first team presented a software tool to meter software as a service so companies can bill customers based on a pay as you go model. and other companies are using the “software as a service” or SaaS model, but it takes a great deal of effort to put metering, pricing, and billing capabilities into a software package.

The second team called Chips2Gas showed a concept that converts woodchips into fuel through a gasifier technology. This technology dates back to WWII and was used in Sweden when gas rations were short. The idea is to attach a gasifier to a truck (in this case a tree service truck) and generate an alternative fuel to gasoline by using the woodchips the tree service generates to fuel the gasifier. As the price of gasoline continues to soar, alternative fuel technologies are finding renewed interest.

The next team consisting of a cross-departmental team of Biomedical, Mechanical Engineering, Computer Science, and Semiconductor, focused on developing target site-sensitive nanocapsules that could deliver contents to specific sites in the human body with a stimulus-triggered release. This was one of the unique innovations on display but also one of the most challenging to bring to fruition.

Another team presented an all-optical router. Currently, optical networks use routers with electromechanical parts which become a bottleneck in achieving high-bandwidth for the network. They came up with an ingrained optical logic gate that can process an optical signal directly on the silicon. It wasn’t clear how fast the industry would adopt the technology given the amount of dark fiber in the ground, but the technology was innovative nevertheless.

I look forward to the finals in November and many more innovations.

Best regards,
Hall T.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Microfluidics – The Next Generation Lab

Microfluidics is the manipulation of fluids on the microscale. It promises to do for the field of biotech what the transistor did for the field of electronics. In biotech, the focal target is called “Lab-on-a-Chip.” By creating valves, mixers, separators, filters, and analyzers on the micro-level, one creates a whole new type of lab.

Microfluidics brings several advantages to the lab. First, it requires only a small amount of sample and reagent to operate, thus reducing the cost. Second, chemical reactions in microfluidics occur faster than in macrofluidics which speeds up the process. This size, cost, and speed advantage makes microfluidics ideal for lab sample processing.

Measurements of microfluidics are a key element of many systems. In this application researchers use electrical detectors employing electrochemical methods to detect the concentration of proteins in a fluid.

Caliper develops Lab-on-a-Chip products which use micro fabricated channels in the sub-millimeter level. It uses pressure or voltage to move the fluids, and an optical system to measure the characteristics of the fluid.

Other applications include handheld chemical analyzers, and cell manipulation sorting.

Virtual instrumentation applies motion, vision, and other tools to control and manage the microfluidics manufacturing and test process. For example, Data Science Automation created a microfluidics system for Morewood Molecular services.

Best regards,
Hall T.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Splashpower – Wireless Power for Wireless Devices

I was in a meeting a few months ago with some fellow engineers and the comment came up about powering devices by wireless means. Everyone laughed and said, if we could do that, we would be infinitely rich. Well, it turns out people are actually doing it. There are two technologies available to do it. The first uses inductive coupling which is also used in recharging electric toothbrushes and smart tags. A startup in the UK, called Splashpower is one of the first vendors using this technology with the added advantage of charging multiple devices at the same time. According to their patent, a laminar surfaced device creates an electromagnetic field which transfers energy to a similar device when that device is within range and oriented in a parallel fashion.

The second technology uses an acoustic signal (ultrasonic) to excite a piezoelectric crystal which converts acoustic energy into electrical energy. According to patent 6,737, 789 a piezoelectric device along with a transformer (to increase the output voltage), and a rectifier (to create a single polarity) can generate electrical outputs based on a mechanical (in this case an acoustic wave) input.

The challenge with both technologies is that the device to be charged must be within close proximity of the charging device. So while the device to be charged is not actually connected to the charger, it’s not too far from it. The technology is in its early stage and could become viable if the distance from the charger to the device were increased.

Best regards,
Hall T.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Titanium Manufacturing – The Sadoway Way

Titanium as a metal offers high-temperature performance, corrosion resistance, strength, and more which is why the aerospace industry continues to increase its adoption of the metal. There’s now a cheaper, and easier way to produce titanium. Called the Sadoway method for its inventor Donald Sadoway from MIT, it produces titanium through direct electrolysis.

Direct electrolysis is the electrolytic decomposition of a compound dissolved in an ionic melt.

In his slides on Titanium Extraction by Molten Oxide Electrolysis the current process for titanium extraction is highly capital intensive and creates toxic substances such as dioxins. By using electrolysis at very high temperatures, one can extract titanium with only oxygen as a by-product.

The new process can produce titanium five times cheaper than current processes dropping the price from $7.5/ingot to less than $1.50 per ingot according to this site. This is the same process as used in most aluminum manufacturing operations.

Currently, titanium is manufactured using the three step Kroll process which reduces the titanium tetrachloride with an active metal such as magnesium. The Sadoway method uses a one step method.

With the next generation of airplanes coming out of Boeing and Airbus, the ability to manufacture titanium more cheaply will bring this technology to the forefront.

Best regards,
Hall T.