Tourists take pictures of Thai soldiers guarding outside Thai police headquarters Tuesday, May 20, 2014 in Bangkok, Thailand.
Image: Sakchai Lalit/Associated Press
Tourism is so important to Thailand that the announcement of martial law in the nation included a concession for travelers.
On Thursday, Thailand’s military chief announced the military had taken control of the government; a curfew has been imposed for the entire nation between 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. each night. While areas in northern and southern Thailand have remained relatively calm, Bangkok has been hit hard by the unrest. The military chief said that security would be provided to foreigners, but travelers are advised to obey the curfew.
Travel and tourism made up $73.8 billion of Thailand’s gross domestic product in 2013, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. Thailand’s travel industry provided 2,563,000 jobs last year, accounting for 6.6% of the country’s total employment.
A booming tourism industry is an obvious fit for a country with gorgeous beaches, crystal blue water and a warm climate, but military takeovers are not an unfamiliar event in the country. There have been at least a dozen successful or attempted coups in Thailand since 1932. The military’s announcement on May 22 comes after months of unrest, beginning in November of last year.
Even a country with practice operating during political unrest cannot avoid all negative impact on its tourism industry.
Last Friday the U.S. State Department issued a travel alert for Thailand. Although the alert is less serious than a warning — which the State Department has issued recently for countries like North Korea — the U.S. is still making sure travelers are aware of potential risks:
Demonstrations, primarily in the greater Bangkok area and occasionally elsewhere in Thailand, are continuing, and there have been regular incidents of violence. U.S. citizens are advised to avoid all protests, demonstrations, and large gatherings. Protests may occur in Bangkok or in nearby areas with little or no prior notice.
Even in Bangkok, the airports, hotels and tourist attractions are still open. Travelers in the northern and southern areas of the country are still enjoying pristine beaches and tropical flora, and many are still visiting the capital city.
The U.S. Embassy in Bangkok advised U.S. citizens “to stay alert, exercise caution, and monitor media coverage,” in a security message. “You are advised to avoid areas where there are protest events, large gatherings, or security operations and follow the instructions of Thai authorities.”
The Tourism Authority of Thailand is providing updates for travelers on its website.
The high cost and limited range of electric vehicles can make them a tough sell, and their costliest and most limiting component are their batteries.
But batteries also open up new design possibilities because they can be shaped in more ways than gasoline tanks and because they can be made of load-bearing materials. If their chemistries can be made safer, batteries could replace conventional door panels and other body parts, potentially making a vehicle significantly lighter, more spacious and cheaper. This could go some way toward helping electric cars compete with gas-powered ones.
Tesla Motors and Volvo have demonstrated early versions of the general approach by building battery packs that can replace some of the structural material in a conventional car. Dozens of other research groups and companies are taking further steps to make batteries that replace existing body parts, such as body panels and frames.
The ability to use batteries as structural materials is currently limited by the use of flammable electrolytes, but researchers are developing safer chemistries that could be used more widely. The approach also raises several practical questions: can the energy-storing body panels be engineered so that even if they’re dented, the car will still work? And how expensive will bodywork be? However, automakers could turn to the approach under pressure to sell more electric vehicles and hybrids to meet stringent future fuel economy standards.
Batteries are the single most expensive item in electric cars, so making them cheaper would make electric vehicles cheaper too. But even without significant breakthroughs, new battery designs could make a car lighter.
One example is the way Tesla has designed the battery for the Model S. The metal casing that protects the battery also serves to make the car frame more rigid, reducing the overall amount of metal needed.
This month, Volvo demonstrated another approach using lithium-ion batteries, which are made of thin films of material that are rolled or folded up to form a battery cell. Researchers at the Lulea University of Technology in Sweden in collaboration with Volvo sandwiched these films between sheets of carbon-fiber composite. The resulting structure was used to replace plastic body parts and a small conventional battery on a hybrid version of the Volvo S80. (The car is a “stop-start” hybrid that uses a battery to make it possible to turn off the engine whenever the car isn’t moving.)
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy is spending $37 million on projects seeking to use batteries as structural materials. (The program is called RANGE, which stands for Robust, Affordable, Next-Generation Energy Storage Systems). In two ARPA-E projects, researchers are figuring out ways to design battery packs to absorb energy in a crash to replace materials now used to protect passengers. For example, rather than packaging battery cells into a solid block, the cells could be allowed to move past each other in an accident, dissipating energy as they do.
Most of the approaches being explored so far still use conventional battery cells — the parts of the pack that actually store energy. If safer battery cells can be made, then this would provide even more flexibility in how a car can be designed. You wouldn’t need to enclose them in protective cases or regulate their temperature to prevent battery fires.
“When you’re not obsessed with protecting batteries, you can be a lot more creative. You’re not limited to the architecture of conventional cars,” says Ping Liu, who manages and helped conceive of ARPA-E’s RANGE project.
To this end, several researchers are developing new chemistries that don’t use flammable electrodes, so the batteries could be safely used as door panels. They’re considering replacing volatile electrolytes with less-flammable polymers, water-based materials and ceramics. Once they have a safer electrolyte, the researchers will look for ways to use the battery electrodes in a cell to bear loads.
Volvo has an experimental version of this approach that uses carbon fibers in composite materials to store and conduct electricity but also to strengthen the composites. The device was formed in the shape of a trunk lid. But it could only produce enough electricity to light up some LEDs, so it couldn’t replace the battery in an electric car or a hybrid. A newer version being developed at Imperial College in London replaces the epoxy that ordinarily holds together carbon fibers in a composite with a blend of stiff materials and ionic liquids that can conduct charged molecules. This forms a type of supercapacitor that could store enough energy to be used in place of a battery in a stop-start hybrid.
For electric cars and hybrids with larger batteries, supercapacitors don’t store enough energy. So to provide enough driving range, some researchers are developing lithium-ion batteries that use carbon fibers for one electrode, but use conventional lithium-ion materials for the opposite one. Others have developed a nonvolatile polymer electrolyte to replace conventional, flammable ones. The resulting material will make it possible to “do two jobs with one thing,” says Leif Asp, a professor at Lulea University. Several ARPA-E projects are taking this kind of approach.
These new electrolytes and load-bearing battery cells are likely more than a decade away from being useful in cars, however. It will be difficult to ensure that the battery stores large amounts of energy and can also be strong enough as a structural component.
Asp says the first applications could be in portable electronics, where load-bearing batteries could replace conventional plastic cases. But if car components can one day be made out of such materials, then batteries could finally go from a limiting factor to a selling point.
There’s a giant scorpion hovering overhead, but have no fear. This creepy crawler is actually the constellation Scorpius — all sparkle and no sting.
In his book The Stars in Our Heaven — Myths and Fables (Pantheon Books, 1948), author Peter Lum writes:
The scorpion is essentially a creature of darkness, a furtive little animal that lurks in the shadows, hides under stones or in any dark crevice and cannot bear to face the light … only at night does it come out in search of its prey. Although seldom fatal (its sting) is extremely painful; hence the scorpion is usually disliked, feared and avoided by anyone who has ever come in contact with him.
But so far as stargazing is concerned, it’s a whole different story, as Lum is quick to point out:
The scorpion may be an insignificant and ugly little beast, but the stars that bear its name form one of the most beautiful and conspicuous constellations in the sky. What is more remarkable is that it looks like a scorpion. At least it looks like some creature with a long and curving tail, or like a … great fish hook.
And if you face due south at around 11 p.m. local time this week, you may be able to get the best view of this magnificent star pattern — the constellation Scorpius — which ironically represents a lowly, creepy-crawly thing that has few friends.
Scorpius is a constellation that can be best appreciated by southerners. Those who live in the far-northern United States, southern Canada or the British Isles will have part or even all of its tail hidden below the southern horizon. As one progresses farther south, the Scorpion slowly climbs the southern sky. For those who live in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, northern Argentina, Uruguay, most of Brazil, northern Chile and southern Peru Scorpius lies directly overhead. The Milky Way Galaxy passes through the lower extremities of the Scorpion. Here, clouds of stars and dark interstellar dust combine in a bewildering array as seen in binoculars and amateur telescopes.
The Scorpion’s brightest star is the first-magnitude Antares, displaying a reddish hue. To the ancients, this distinctive red color suggested the planet Mars, and the name Antares means literally “The Rival of Ares” — Ares being the Greek name for the God of War. I’ve always felt that even on those occasions when Mars outshines Antares, it still rivals Mars in terms of its fiery color. The so-called Red Planet actually glows with an orange-yellow luster, whereas the star Antares always glows with ruddy hue. In the time of Confucius, Chinese astronomers called this star Ta Who, “The Great Fire.”
Antares is a cool, red supergiant star, about 604 light-years away. It is 9,000 times more luminous and about 700 times the diameter of our sun. If our solar system were centered on Antares, the orbit of the Earth would easily fit inside the star. Put another way, if we could reduce our sun down to the size of a baseball, Antares would be a globe measuring more than 134 feet (nearly 41 meters) in diameter.
Yet, despite these impressive statistics, it should be noted that the overall density of Antares is less than one-millionth that of the sun. Antares is also relatively cool as stars go, only about 6,500 degrees Fahrenheit (3,593 degrees Celsius) compared to 11,000 degrees Fahrenheit (6,093 degrees Celsius) for the sun. The star’s low temperature accounts for its ruddy color.
Antares also has a small, very hot companion, bluish-white in color, but yet has been described appearing as “… a little spark of glittering emerald” because of its proximity and contrast to ruddy Antares. The two stars orbit each other over a span of nearly 900 years, separated by a distance of about 500 times Earth’s distance from the sun.
Of all the constellations, only Orion can boast more bright stars than Scorpius. And indeed, there were mythological reasons for the scorpion’s placement in our summer sky. The most famous legend has Scorpius representing the creature that stung Orion, the Mighty Hunter to death. To honor Orion, the Scorpion was placed opposite him in the sky, so that these celestial antagonists will never meet again. And supposedly that’s why when Orion is disappearing below the western horizon during spring evenings, the Scorpion is beginning to poke his head up in the southeast.
Editor’s note: If you snap an amazing photo of the night sky and you’d like to share it for a possible story or image gallery on SPACE.com, please send images and comments, including equipment used, to managing editor Tariq Malik at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York’s Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for Natural History magazine, the Farmer’s Almanac and other publications, and he is also an on-camera meteorologist for News 12 Westchester, N.Y. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Google+. Original article onSPACE.com.
Contemplating the idea of a manned voyage to another star raises many confounding questions, including one that has been around since the days of the first travelers: What to pack?
To build a closed environment that can sustain astronauts and perhaps their descendants during the long mission is going to require many kinds of technological innovations, some of them needed just to clothe the interstellar travelers, said Karl Aspelund, a professor of textiles, fashion merchandising and design at the University of Rhode Island.
“The longest time anyone has been in space is around 400 days. Now we’re suddenly talking years, decades, possibly even generations,” Aspelund said last week at the 100 Year Starship Symposium in Houston, a conference about interstellar space travel. “That changes everything.”
An interstellar mission is most likely going to be a very extended trip, considering the nearest stars are light-years away. Aspelund estimated that every person aboard a ship on a 30-year voyage would need to pack about 100 cubic feet of clothing. For 10 people, that means enough clothes to fill a railcar. Based on current launch costs, so much mass could add $18 million to $36 million to the price tag for the mission simply for shirts, pants and underwear, he calculated.
Clearly, future astronauts will have to pack lighter.
“We might have to rethink the idea of clothing altogether,” Aspelund said. “We might have to really re-evaluate what constitutes being dressed and undressed.”
Aspelund is only half joking when he contemplates sending spaceflyers onto a starship naked. He concedes there are good reasons ? culturally as well as individually ? why humans couldn’t just discard clothes on an interstellar mission.
But researchers will need to find ways for clothes (and everything else astronauts pack) to be used sustainably, he says.
So far NASA hasn’t figured out many good ways to do laundry in space. Astronauts on the International Space Station have been known to rarely change outfits.
“It’s basically a flying dorm room, by the sound of it,” Aspelund said of the space station. “The solution to keeping things clean is exactly the dorm room solution: You stuff it into a hole and you never see it again. That’s not so good if you’re not going to be coming back, or if you’re going to be out there for years.”
Aspelund plans to write a grant and collaborate with other researchers on the issue of cosmic duds and space laundry. The solutions may require completely different types of textiles that are more durable and recyclable, or new ways to clean existing materials.
On an even deeper level, the issue forces people to question just what items are essential for life on Earth and whether those same items are essential in space.
“We have things that are absolutely critical to our well-being on the planet,” Aspelund said. “This project, the 100 Year Starship, inspires a completely fresh look. Suddenly we step back from Earthly concerns.”
Air traffic controllers, from left, Kristen Karcz, Bob Francis and Ross Leshinsky work in the tower at Logan International Airport in Boston, Friday, Nov. 15, 2013.
Image: Michael Dwyer/Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Air traffic controllers are still working schedules known as “rattlers” that make it likely for them to get little or no sleep before overnight shifts, more than three years after a series of incidents involving controllers sleeping on the job, according to a government report released Friday.
A report by the National Research Council expressed concern about the effectiveness of the Federal Aviation Administration’s program to prevent its 15,000 controllers from suffering fatigue on the job, a program that has been hit with budget cuts. The 12-member committee of academic and industry experts who wrote the report at the behest of Congress said FAA officials refused to allow them to review results of prior research the agency conducted with NASA examining how work schedules affect controller performance.
The FAA-NASA research results “have remained in a ‘for official use only’ format” since 2009 and have not been released to the public, the report said.
The committee stressed its concern that controllers are still working schedules that cram five eight-hour work shifts into four 24-hour periods. The schedules are popular with controllers; at the end of their last shift, they have 80 hours off before returning to work the next week. But controllers also call the shifts “rattlers” because they “turn around and bite back.”
An example of the kind of schedule that alarmed the report’s authors begins with two consecutive day shifts ending at 10 p.m. followed by two consecutive morning shifts beginning at 7 a.m. The controller gets off work at 3 p.m. after the second morning shift and returns to work at about 11 p.m. the same day for an overnight shift — the fifth and last shift of the workweek.
When factoring in commute times and the difficulty people have sleeping during the day when the human body’s circadian rhythms are “promoting wakefulness,” controllers are “unlikely to log a substantial amount of sleep, if any, before the final midnight shift,” the report said.
“From a fatigue and safety perspective, this scheduling is questionable and the committee was astonished to find that it is still allowed under current regulations,” the report said. The combination of “acute sleep loss” while working overnight hours when circadian rhythms are at their lowest ebb and people most crave sleep “increases the risk for fatigue and for associated errors and accidents,” the report said.
FAA officials didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the report.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association defended the scheduling, citing the 2009 study that hasn’t been publicly released. The union said in a statement that NASA’s research showed that “with proper rest periods,” the rattler “actually produced less periods of fatigue risk to the overall schedule.”
In 2011, FAA officials and then-Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood promised reforms after a nearly a dozen incidents in which air traffic controllers were discovered sleeping on the job or didn’t respond to calls from pilots trying to land planes late at night. In one episode, two airliners landed at Washington D.C.‘s Reagan National Airport without the aid of a controller because the lone controller on the overnight shift had fallen asleep. In another case, a medical flight with a seriously ill patient had to circle an airport in Reno, Nevada, before landing because the controller had fallen asleep.
Studies show most night shift workers, not just controllers, face difficulties staying awake regardless of how much sleep they have gotten. That’s especially true if they aren’t active or don’t have work that keeps them mentally engaged. Controllers on night shifts often work in darkened rooms with frequent periods of little or no air traffic to occupy their attention, conditions scientists say are conducive to falling asleep.
“We all know what happens with fatigue,” said Mathias Basner, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania medical school and the sleep expert on the committee. “The first thing you expect to see is attention going down, reaction time slows, you have behavioral lapses or micro-sleeps. … If you have to react quickly in that situation, that is problematic.”
After the 2011 incidents with falling asleep, the FAA stopped scheduling controllers to work alone on overnight shifts at 27 airports and air traffic facilities and increased the minimum time between work shifts to nine hours.
Another change was the creation of a “fatigue risk management program” for controllers. However, budget cuts “have eliminated the program’s capability to monitor fatigue concerns proactively and to investigate whether initiatives to reduce fatigue risks are providing the intended benefits,” the report said.
Basner said the FAA was making no effort to determine whether there is a correlation between work schedules and controllers errors. For example, there were near collisions between airliners near Honolulu and Houston recently.
On April 25, 2014, a controller failed to notice when two airliners were on a collision course in Honolulu. The pilot of one of the aircrafts had to initiate an abrupt dive to avoid an accident.
In Houston, two planes almost collided during takeoff — the aircraft came within a few hundred feet of each other when a controller told one plane to turn right when it was supposed to turn left.
The FAA and the controllers’ union have established a program that encourages controllers to report errors by promising they won’t be penalized for honest mistakes. The reports are entered into a database that the agency is supposed to use to spot trends or problem areas. But controllers are sometimes too busy to file reports, and the report forms don’t seek information on the controller’s schedule or other details that might be used to determine whether schedules are contributing to errors, Basner said.
When FAA officials were asked about this, they indicated “they didn’t see the necessity to analyze the data that way,” he said.
The committee also thought it was “a bit strange” that FAA officials wouldn’t show them their 2009 study conducted with NASA, Basner added.
“You would think you would get 100% support, but we didn’t get it.”
The odd shape of ultra-soft silicone Yurbuds ensures a custom fit. The ergonomically designed buds conform to the shape of your ear canals and rarely fall out. They’re great for individuals with sensitive ears.
Inspired by comfortable headbands, Twine is a silk-satin headpiece that offers a unique listening experience. Its speakers move up and down the band, plus clip in place, for a custom fit. The open-sound design boosts various tones in music.
Audiofly headphones were created for music lovers by musicians and craftsmen. The headphones incorporate a large in-ear driver for “uncompromising sound” and “astonishing clarity.” The braided cloth cable prevents tangles. Each pair comes with a range of ear buds of various sizes.
These headphones were made for women. After taking molds of 4,000 pairs of ears, Denon established the slight differences between men and women.
The Bluetooth sports headphones are comfortable to stay and fit securely in ears. The sweat-proof headset comes with four pairs of anti-microbial ear tips for maximum comfort.
Price: $149.99. Available for pre-order for a September 1 delivery date.
12. Quarkie Headphones
Quarkie headphones are very unique. The earphones are engineered for gorgeous sound and an exotic look. Currently, the seven models take the shape of yellow viper snakeheads, green viper snakeheads, snake eyes, cat eyes, chameleon eyes, purple gemstones and rusty bolts.
We love these bold noise-isolating stereophones. They’re super light and comfortable. You’re able to customize the colors and fit of your in-ear earphones. Each pair comes with three ear tips for a unique fit.
A space elevator capable of shuttling robots or humans from the Earth to space remains decades away. But a company headed by a former NASA researcher says it can build a space elevator on the moon using today’s technology.
The LiftPort Group wants to raise $8,000 on the crowd-funding website Kickstarter for its first step — creating a floating balloon platform tethered to the ground so that a robot can climb 1.2 miles into the sky. But the fundraiser also marks the return of a company that had closed during the 2007-2012 economic recession.
“About six months ago we had a fundamental breakthrough — a breakthrough we think will transform human civilization — and we want you to be a part of it,” says Michael Laine, president of the LiftPort Group.
The breakthrough will allow the LiftPort group to build a space elevator on the moon using existing technology and a single-launch rocket solution that has “Sputnik-like simplicity,” Laine says, adding that the concept could become a reality within eight years.
Staying Down to Earth
A space elevator on the moon would face fewer complications than a space elevator on Earth because the moon has less gravity and practically no atmosphere — factors that would otherwise place great stress on whatever material makes up the space elevator’s tether.
Laine worked on space elevator concepts with the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts research team from 2001-2003. He went private with the LiftPort Group in 2003 and experimented with robots that climbed as high as 1 mile up a tethered balloon platform, before the company shut down.
Such balloon platforms don’t just help aim for the moon. They could also act as cheap communications “towers” on Earth to help provide wireless Internet, monitor crops, watch out for forest fires or even carry cameras to provide an eye in the sky in the aftermath of natural disasters.
The newly resurrected LiftPort Group has set a relatively modest fundraising goal because it’s still training a new group of volunteers. Many former LiftPort members have gone on to other projects — Tom Nugent, a former research director for LiftPort Group, co-founded a company called LaserMotive that has experimented with using lasers to power climbing robots and drones.
Laine also emphasized his vision of Kickstarter as being more important for gathering a community rather than simply raising money. He pointed out how most people contributing to the top Kickstarter projects contributed relatively little in terms of money, but instead brought their enthusiasm to the projects.
Shooting for the Moon
Still, modest steps have not prevented the LiftPort Group from planning what to do in case it raises more than the $8,000 in its first Kickstarter project. Its list of “Stretch Goals” pegged at successively higher funding targets include adding more sensors and having the robot climb to almost 19 miles up.
The most ambitious goal of raising $3 million — a target Laine doesn’t expect to hit in the first Kickstarter — would allow the LiftPort Group to carry out a one-year feasibility study for the moon space elevator project. But Laine did express the wish to hit a $100,000 target.
“If we ‘only’ hit $8,001, then we are going to remain a ‘hobby’ team,” Laine said. “If we can hit this number, then LiftPort is a ‘…before this decade is out…’ Lunar Elevator company!”
The LiftPort Group is not alone in its long-term space elevator quest. Seattle-based LaserMotive has previously won the Space Elevator Games, a NASA-sponsored contest. Across the Pacific, Japan’s Obayashi Corp has set the goal of building a space elevator by 2050.
This article originally published at InnovationNewsDaily here
Last week, NASA released a draft solicitation for the fourth and final development phase of its Commercial Crew Program — an initiative that has plans for a crewed space launch to the International Space Station from U.S. soil by late 2017.
The Commercial Crew Program is a NASA effort that subsidizes commercial development of systems to ferry astronauts to and from the space station. According to the draft solicitation, there would be two such flights per year, once NASA places its first task order for a crewed flight.
Before NASA releases the final solicitation this fall, the agency will host a pre-solicitation conference with industry at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Aug. 1 and 2, according to the draft. As expected, the contract will be a fixed-priced deal administered under the Federal Acquisition Regulations. So far, NASA has mostly relied on funded Space Act Agreements to subsidize development of commercially designed spacecraft.
While the competition is nominally free and open, it is generally believed that the companies with the best chance are those NASA is already funding as part of the third round of the Commercial Crew Program: Boeing Space Exploration Systems, Houston; Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Space Systems of Louisville, Colo.; and Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif.
Boeing and SpaceX are working on capsules, while Sierra Nevada has a lifting-body design. All three spacecrafts could seat seven people. Boeing and Sierra Nevada plan to launch aboard United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket, while SpaceX plans to use whatever iteration of its own Falcon 9 rocket is in operation in 2017.
If the schedule and funding hold, the planned demo flight — part of what NASA is calling the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability Contract — would be the first crewed orbital spaceflight launched from the U.S. since 2011, when the space shuttle program ended.
NASA has repeatedly said it needs more than $800 million a year — hundreds of millions more than Congress has ever given the program — to meet the 2017 date and keep more than one company involved with the program.
As automakers work to comply with fuel-economy standards, they’re increasingly turning to hybrids. Last week, for example, Toyota announced that it would make 21 hybrid models by 2015, up from 12 now. Automakers have grown more enthusiastic about hybrids because the cost of making them has plummeted.
Several years ago, Toyota’s Prius hybrid cost the consumer about $6,000 more than an equivalent conventional car — and even at that price, the company was losing money on every one it sold. The difference is now $2,500, and the car is profitable, says Mike Omotoso, an analyst with LMC Automotive. The drop in cost is due to an accumulation of incremental technology improvements, along with economies of scale. And advances going forward — better batteries, electric motors and power electronics and transmissions — could cut costs by another 50%.
At Toyota, for example, the company shifted from a 500-volt electrical system to a 650-volt one, a decision that produced “a host of benefits,” says Justin Ward, advanced power-train program manager at the Toyota Technical Center. The company was able to reduce the cost and weight of copper wiring, use cheaper power transistors in the electronics that control the hybrid system, and make the electric motor cheaper and smaller.
Although other automakers have shifted to lithium-ion batteries, Toyota has stayed with nickel-metal hydride. But it’s made improvements to these batteries, such as shifting from cylindrical cells to flat ones to save space and modifying the cases to improve battery cooling. Simple changes like moving connectors from one side of a circuit board to the other can have big implications in terms of manufacturing, Ward says, making it possible, for example, to replace a worker with a robot for an assembly step.
All hybrid manufacturers have had to cope with the rising costs of rare-earth metals, which are used in the compact, highly efficient motors that propel hybrids in conjunction with their gasoline engines. So Toyota and other major automakers are redesigning their motors either to not need rare earths or to use far less of them.
Ford has helped develop motors that halve the required amount of dysprosium — the most expensive rare-earth material in its motors, used in part to give the magnets resistance to heat. Ford developed a better motor cooling system, which lessened the need for dysprosium. Simultaneously, its supplier, Hitachi, developed a better process for diffusing the material through a magnet, also allowing the use of less of it. This and other advances have helped Ford lower hybrid costs by about 30%.
Even as Toyota is increasing the number of its hybrid models, GM is dropping its conventional hybrids in favor of the much cheaper (and less fuel-efficient) eAssist vehicles — hybrids that use a motor together with a small battery that allows the engine to turn off whenever the car comes to a stop.