Tag Archives: volvo

Building Cars Out of Batteries Isn’t as Crazy as It Sounds


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.

Image: Flickr, Asier Llaguno

This article originally published at MIT Technology Review

Read more: http://mashable.com/2013/10/29/cars-made-of-batteries/

How NASA Makes Scientific Data Beautiful


Hurricane Katia, seen from orbit.

How do you make education interesting and, more importantly, beautiful? When it comes to the work of NASA, attracting enthusiasts isn’t difficult with the usual visuals of bright stars and colorful planets on hand. Look no further than the recent awe over Mars rover Curiosity’s high-res pictures to see proof of humanity’s fascination with space.

But not all of NASA’s data is packaged into a neat little photos. In fact, some of the organization’s most important findings about space come back in the form of numbers, beamed in by one of the many satellites orbiting our planet. And this information is brought to life by the Scientific Visualization Studio (SVS) — a team of scientists and animators that turns numerical data into a dynamic graphic or video.

The SVS is not only an active and creative tool for NASA outreach — it has even gone viral. Earlier this year, the SVS team received information from a project team called Estimating the Circulation and Climate of the Ocean, or ECCO, which uses mathematical tools to better understand how the ocean’s circulation patterns change over time. The result was Perpetual Ocean, a detailed and moving video interpreting a year’s worth of the ocean’s current patterns in minutes.

“I think scientists have an amazing internal world — they think about these things and how they work,” says Dr. Horace Mitchell, director of SVS. “But, they don’t do the kind of visuals that can be found in a feature film. That’s why we’ve found a niche that works.”

Mashable spoke with Mitchell about Perpetual Ocean and how to bring beauty to educational information. What do you think of the work of SVS and NASA? Let us know in the comments.

Q&A With Dr. Horace Mitchell, Director of NASA Scientific Visualization Studio

How did Perpetual Ocean come about?

We’re tasked to visualize massive results of all kinds for the purposes of public outreach. Sometimes the things we create are very specific — they’re aimed at providing information for a specific thing, like the latest results of sea-surface temperature or some kind of Earth process like the melting sea ice of the North Pole. As part of that, we do a lot of background work, developing processes and methods for doing those visualizations. We’re always looking into the future to say, “What can we do better? What kind of data do we not have tools to visualize for?”

One of those things we thought we couldn’t do was anything that involved a flow field — an ocean current or wind, for example. We weren’t really happy with the way we were doing those visuals, so a number of years ago, I started working with some of my colleagues to come up with new methods of visualization. We would apply those new methods to all kinds of data sets, and one of the more interesting and successful visuals we started to build was based around a 3D ocean current data set — the ECCO 2 Dataset. It’s a 3D model of the ocean, and it represents a kind of reality: A lot of computer models are done this days, and you have models that show how something would work, and how something did work. A lot of work goes into melding those and making them agree — running computer models but always looking at data. Weather forecasts are a similar technique.

We received a data set of the ocean from ECCO 2 that started around 1992 and runs to the present, and we found a very stable field for visualizing. We had done a 20-minute visualization of the ocean as a test for ourselves, where we visualized moving around the whole world. Every year there’s a computer graphics competition and we wanted to enter it, but the pool is limited to five-minute pieces. So, we took the 20-minute piece, we chopped it off at the beginning and end, and then an editor colleague of ours sped up the film to all of the interesting features. Then, we decided that rather than writing a narration to explain what was going on, we would find an evocative piece of music and just play it — allowing people to feel the piece and not need an explanation. And that’s what we did.

We submitted it to the conference, but it didn’t get selected. So, we had shown it to people and we had it hanging around. We actually have a website where every single thing we do and have done for the past 20 years is on display for anyone to use. We had created an animation page describing the video, but we hadn’t tried to advertise. Then a colleague of ours who pushes NASA stuff to social media put it on our Facebook Page, and it just caught like wildfire — it went completely viral at that point.

What’s the process in developing a graphic like Perpetual Ocean? What tools do you use?

The basic technology for all our work is the same kind of tools that the film and animation industries use. We actually use a lot of the same software that Pixar uses to make all of its movies. We use a software called Maya, and a software to render the final product called RenderMan, which is actually the software Pixar sells. So, that’s the basic thing we use, but we take that commercial software, and we add utility to it — specifically the kind of utility that Pixar is not interested in, which is the utility of visualizing data on the globe and data where a visual is a reference to a particular time and place in the universe or on the Earth.

We built various pieces of software because we didn’t have a tool in our toolkit to take data representing moving things, like water or air. We had been working on the software for years, and now it’s a two-stage process: We take a data set that directs where the ocean is moving in 3D, and we then drop virtual particles into the ocean and allow them to be moved along by that current. Then we’ll add particles or take them out as time goes on, to balance it out. We can run that for a virtual year or two of time, then we’ll store the results of where the particles moved in that time. Then, when we go to do our animation, we access those results. So a line in Perpetual Ocean represents the history of a particle. So if you see a long line, that means the particle is moving relatively rapidly. If it’s a very short line, it means the particle didn’t move very far, and it’s sticking in the same place. So we can then go back and choose how long we want the lines to be, how thick we want the arrowheads to be, what color, etc. We iterate over and over and over in an attempt to get something to look the way we want it to look. In this particular case, that went on for a month, off and on, because we were just doing something for ourselves.

People have been comparing the video to works of Vincent Van Gogh. What of you think of that?

I think in this case it’s sort of fair to say it was a fortuitous accident. When you’re looking at the visual, and you’re looking at the blue areas around the lines, the color represents the depth of the ocean. There’s actually a 3D model of the depth of the ocean in there, so that gave it a sort of unique character. I have to give credit to my colleague, Greg Shirah, who really thinks a lot about how these things look. He came up with a wonderful way of having sort of an ocean surface for these arrows to flow along but still be able to see through it to the depth. The depth is exaggerated by a factor of 50, so we really make it look like a basin that water is moving along in. A lot of that was his aesthetic eye, and I don’t think he was aiming for anything Van Gogh-like. But he was looking for something that would be very dramatic.

Did the way the visualization look ultimately inspire the way it was edited?

The visual was done first, so we knew there were certain places in the ocean that we could look at and other places that weren’t quite as interesting. We made the decision interactively, sitting in a room and deciding when to speed it up and which points to focus on — like speeding across the South Atlantic to get to South Africa. By that time, we’d had a big disk crash and we had lost a lot of the information upon which we created this specific visualization. All we had were the frames from the 20-minute version, so we had to take those and individually speed them up and slow them down to get the effect we wanted. We did a number of tests, and we would look at them until we felt it was going to the right places in the right amount of time. It wasn’t any kind of agonizing process.


What are the challenges of creating a data visualization that is both informative and visually striking?

Obviously, if you don’t have interesting data, you don’t do anything. That’s just it. And I have to give all the credit to the fabulous researchers who work in NASA and with NASA to produce these amazing and accurate data sets in all kinds of ways.

Once we have the data set, then we bring two things to bear. I’m a scientist by training — I have a doctorate in physics and I did research for about a decade — but everyone in my group has a level of understanding what the point is of all these animations. We know what we’re doing, and what we’re trying to bring out. Then, the team is amazing — working together, they play off of each other and every person in the team has a separate project they’re working on. They’re always bouncing ideas off of each other. As a result, over the last 10 or 20 years, we’ve gotten very good at figuring out what we can do. We have tools we can bring out at the drop of a hat to do certain kinds of visualizations. But we’re always thinking about the next thing, and what we can’t do yet.

Some of the visuals happen much more successfully than others, and we’re not always aware of which ones will be successful. We do the best job on every visual, and sometimes we strike gold like on this one.

What’s next for SVS?

One of the most recent things we did, which is highlighted on the front page of our website, is called Excerpt from Dynamic Earth. We did a planetarium show to exhibit a solar storm coming out of the sun and hitting the Earth. From there we flew through the atmosphere and into the ocean. Almost everything that’s moving uses the same software, but uses it in a different way.

We also have an app for the iPad called NASA Visualization Explorer. Someone with the app can get two new interesting visuals per week, one on Tuesday and one on Thursday. You can take a look at them, and they’ll point you to more information about NASA data.

And, in the back of our mind, we’re thinking about a sequel to Perpetual Ocean sometime in the future. But right now, it’s just sort of bouncing around.

Image courtesy NASA, Flickr.

Read more: http://mashable.com/2012/08/28/nasa-svs/

LightScythe: Behind the Luminescent Photo Creation


Creative design is everywhere, especially when there are makers around. This subculture is reviving design, innovation, and ingenuity in the hardware development space, proving that you don’t need big bucks to make a big technological impact.

One of these makers is “The Mechatronics Guy,” also known as Gavin Smith. The Sydney-based maker, who tinkers in the city’s hackerspace Robots and Dinosaurs, caught major buzz this year for his LightScythe, an LED-based wireless device that allows a user to project any graphic into a long-exposure photo. Smith’s demonstrations, of Pac Man in front of the Sydney Opera House or Nyan Cat floating in the city, wowed the Internet and had people clamoring for a device. So, Smith embraced the maker philosophy and made all the plans free to the public.

“Dozens of people told me I should patent or make a business selling LightScythes,” Smith wrote on his website. “I’m not really into that (but it’s open source, so feel free to make your own!).”

Mashable spoke with Smith on the inspiration for his DIY dynamo, the motivations of maker culture and new projects on the horizon.

What are your thoughts on the LightScythe — would you want your own? Let us know in the comments.

Q&A With LightScythe Creator Gavin Smith

What was the inspiration for the design of the LightScythe?

I’m a big fan of colorful things, and I always liked night photography and light painting. And a couple of years ago, I had a huge bulk amount of LEDs laying around and was wondering what I could do with them. I’d had the idea for programmable arrays in my head for a while, and I realized that I could use a 1D setup and move it to get the same effect. 

What were the challenges in designing the LightScythe? Was it difficult to keep it hand-held and mobile?

I had to change the way I did the lighting control a few times until I found something cheaper and more reliable. The wireless link to the laptop was surprisingly easy to implement, and I was aided enormously by free tools and the open source community.

What was it like to create the LightScythe for the first time? Did you have any failed prototypes?

Absolutely. The version up on my website is about my third attempt, and the LED technology has gotten a lot cheaper and easier since I’ve been trying. I’ve got a prototype at home that never worked reliably and probably cost $500. Compare that to the current price, which would probably be in the order of $100 in parts. 

Seeing the image first appear was very, very satisfying. It took a bit of tweaking until I was happy with the effect, but at that point I knew that it would work. 

You’ve made some pretty epic designs with that device. What is your favorite?

I think I’ve really only scratched the surface with photos, we haven’t taken many so far. My current scythe is a bit tricky to use, since it requires a laptop and wireless link to send the image, as well as the camera and the scythe itself and that’s not easy to wrangle when you’re in front of crowded Sydney landmarks. 

My favorite photos are the ones that show interaction between the scene and the image. Water and reflections are nice for this, as are shiny surfaces like marble. You can see that the image is really in the environment, not photoshopped in. 

The Internet is all over your LightScythe. Have you heard from other people who have made one?

Definitely. There’s a chap in Texas who I later discovered had made one before me, but the process was much more involved, and you had to create an Excel sheet for each image. There’s also been at least two people who’ve taken my version and made improved versions of their own. 

And just last week someone from Robots and Dinosaurs made their own version of the LightScythe, complete with Wi-Fi and a mobile phone interface! 

The maker community is all about encouraging creativity. How has your involvement impacted your other work?

Seeing the techniques and tools used in the maker movement has certainly helped my work. The other day I was able to cobble together a pulse counter. Being in a community of like-minded people makes all the difference. Feedback and encouragement is always important when you’re working on things. Really importantly, there’s no one in the group with a complete set of skills in every subject.

What’s your favorite kind of maker technology or design?

Tricky — there’s been so much new technology recently which is cool for makers to work with. It’s probably the laser cutter. It’s versatile, you can use it on loads of different materials, and if you can draw something on a computer you can cut it out in a few minutes. I’ve made boxes, lanterns, signs, engraved gears that really work, as well as loads of other things using it. 

How do you stay creative?

That’s a really good question, and it’s tricky to answer. I carry a notebook with me everywhere, and jot down ideas as they come to me. A quick sketch so that I can visit the idea later is essential. Finding a balance between dropping everything to chase a new idea, and holding off to finish your current project is always difficult. I — and most of the people I know — have dozens of unfinished projects around their house. 

What’s your next project? What do you want to accomplish in the future?

I just finished off a recreation of a medieval wax tablet, which was the device for jotting things down before paper was commonplace. And, for kicks, I made another version that’s an iPhone.

Another project I’m working on is a model of a particle accelerator. I was lucky enough to be involved in the building of the Australian Synchrotron, and I’m hoping to make a scale model of how it works. Here’s prototype 4, and I’ve cut but not assembled number 5: 

The final one will have a series of about 20 balls going around at any one time and two rings that are synchronized, injecting from one into the empty spots in the other. Unlike the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the particles don’t collide with each other, but instead produce ultra-bright light which is used for scientific research. 

On a longer scale, I’ve got a few more projects on the boil involving light, color and movement that I’m hoping to finish off soon. There’s a night lighting & art exhibition in Sydney called “Vivid,” and I’m hoping to present something there next year. 

Read more: http://mashable.com/2012/08/14/lightscythe-design/