Scientists urge governments to turn old TV frequencies into free “super WiFi”

Governments should sack plans to auction off old television frequencies to the highest bidder and instead use the bandwidth for free super-frequency WiFi if they want to boost the economy, scientists have said.

Old television frequencies are becoming available for other uses around the world, thanks to a switch from analogue to digital transmission.

However, while governments are for the most part auctioning these off to whoever is prepared to pay the most – usually mobile phone networks – they should instead be using the frequencies to create free-to-use, wide-range WiFi, scientists from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) in Germany have said.

This new “super WiFi” would have a far wider range than existing WiFi networks, which are mostly transmitted over wireless local area networks (WLAN) at frequencies of 2GHz or above.


WiFi transmitted over old TV frequencies could be transmitted at lower frequencies than traditional WiFi, resulting in a far wider area covered. This super WiFi’s coverage area could even be as big as several kilometres in radius, a massive improvement on existing networks.

This would mean that pricey mobile services such as 4G were no longer required, which the scientists believe would lead to more mobile internet use, and a wealth of economic benefits.

“Implementation of our approach would have far-reaching consequences,” said Arnd Weber of the Institute for Technology Assessment and Systems Analysis (ITAS) at KIT.

“Individuals, institutions and companies would be far less dependent on expensive mobile communications networks in conducting their digital communication. This would also be of great economic benefit.”

In addition to providing direct, measurable cost savings, the technology could, according to the researchers, result in the development of a host of new technologies just as existing WiFi has.

It could also provide direct benefits during disaster scenarios, as a means of providing updates and enabling communication.


However, the big challenge here is convincing governments that this is the right move.

Many have argued they these frequencies are common property and therefore should be made available to the public free of charge, a view that has been opposition from a number of people, including the late Nobel Prize winning economist Ronald Coase.

Coase argued that the frequencies should be auctioned off to ensure they are most effectively used, and the money used by governments to fund other services.

Others have also argued that congestion would make these lower frequency networks unworkable, however Weber and his colleague Jens Elsner argue that it is possible to avoid such congestion with the right technological approach.

Ultimately, convincing governments will be a matter of showing that long-term economic benefits greatly outstrip the short-term financial gains of an auction.

While Weber and Elsner plan to make this case at the UN World Radiocommunication Conference next year, they will no doubt struggle to get many governments onboard.

In the long run, though, those of us living in areas where auctions have gone ahead could find ourselves quite jealous of the countries that choose the super WiFi option.

Featured image courtesy of gunes t, inline images courtesy of Mr. Theklan

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Fuel-generating photosynthetic solar cell engineered for first time

A research team at the University of Illinois, Chicago, has developed a new form of solar cell that operates on the same basis as plant photosynthesis; cheaply and efficiently converting atmospheric carbon dioxide into usable hydrocarbon fuel, with the only energy it requires coming from sunlight.

While conventional solar cells require heavy batteries to store the electricity they produce from sunlight, the new solar cell directly converts carbon dioxide into fuel. These “artificial leaves”, if in operation on a large-scale solar farm, would be able to not only provide energy-dense fuel at an efficiency far beyond that of normal cells, but also remove significant amounts of carbon from the atmosphere in the process.

“The new solar cell is not photovoltaic – it’s photosynthetic,” said Amin Salehi-Khojin, assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at UIC and senior author on the study.

“Instead of producing energy in an unsustainable one-way route from fossil fuels to greenhouse gas, we can now reverse the process and recycle atmospheric carbon into fuel using sunlight.”

Amin Salehi-Khojin (left) and postdoctoral researcher Mohammad Asadi pose with the artificial leaf

Amin Salehi-Khojin (left) and postdoctoral researcher Mohammad Asadi pose with the artificial leaf

The cell produces syngas, a mixture of hydrogen gas and carbon monoxide that can either be burned directly or converted into a range of hydrocarbon fuels, including diesel. Such a process is known as a reduction reaction, as it converts CO₂ into a burnable form of carbon.

Until now producing such reactions was inefficient, and relied on expensive precious metals as catalysts.

Deciding that they required a “new family of chemicals with extraordinary properties”, Salehi-Khojin and his team selected a group of nano-structured compounds called transition metal dichalcogenides (TMDCs) to focus on. These were placed in a two-compartment, three-electrode electrochemical cell along with an unconventional ionic liquid which functioned as an electrolyte.

The purpose of this was to determine the most efficient catalyst, and it worked: the team’s ultimate choice was nanoflake tungsten diselenide, a material which was found to be 1,000 times faster and 20 times cheaper than the previously used noble-metal catalysts.

However, there was still more to do to make the process work, as on its own, the catalyst can’t survive the necessary reaction to produce fuel. The solution was to add an ionic fluid with the catchy name ethyl-methyl-imidazolium tetrafluoroborate, mixed 50-50 with water, which allows the catalyst to endure the reaction.

“The combination of water and the ionic liquid makes a co-catalyst that preserves the catalyst’s active sites under the harsh reduction reaction conditions,” Salehi-Khojin said.

A lab demonstration of the technology producing syngas when exposed to artificial sunlight. Inline images courtesy of University of Illinois at Chicago / Jenny Fontaine

A lab demonstration of the technology producing syngas when exposed to artificial sunlight. Inline images courtesy of University of Illinois at Chicago / Jenny Fontaine

The technology, which has had a provisional patent application filed, should have a fairly high rate of adaptability, as it is usable on both large and small scales. Perhaps the most exciting possibility raised, however, is usage on Mars. Given that the planet’s atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide, if water is found, these cells could go a long way towards contributing to possible settlement on the red planet.

Robert McCabe, National Science Foundation program director, said: “The results nicely meld experimental and computational studies to obtain new insight into the unique electronic properties of transition metal dichalcogenide.

“The research team has combined this mechanistic insight with some clever electrochemical engineering to make significant progress in one of the grand-challenge areas of catalysis as related to energy conversion and the environment.”

The dangers of space travel: Apollo astronauts experience increased cardiovascular problems

A new study has found that astronauts involved in the Apollo space programme experience higher rates of cardiovascular-related deaths than those who never ventured beyond low-Earth orbit – the cause of which is likely to be exposure to deep space radiation.

The paper, published in Scientific Reports by Florida State University (FSU) Dean of the College of Human Sciences Professor Michael Delp, notes that the men who travelled into deep space as part of the Apollo missions were exposed to very high levels of galactic cosmic radiation.

And it is this exposure to radiation that is now manifesting itself as cardiovascular problems, which could have deep implications for future missions beyond low-Earth orbit, including those to Mars.

Apollo 16 astronauts Thomas K Mattingly II and Charles M Duke undertake a spacewalk during the mission. Above: Duke in his role as lunar module pilot during the Apollo 16 lunar landing

Apollo 16 astronauts Thomas K Mattingly II and Charles M Duke undertake a spacewalk during the mission. Above: Duke in his role as lunar module pilot during the Apollo 16 lunar landing

The Apollo space programme ran from 1961 to 1972, with 11 manned flights into space – nine of which flew beyond Earth’s orbit into deep space. This study is the first to look at the mortality rate of these Apollo astronauts.

“We know very little about the effects of deep space radiation on human health, particularly on the cardiovascular system,” Delp explained. “This gives us the first glimpse into its adverse effects on humans.”

The research is of particular interest as the US, other nations and private organisations continue to make plans for deep space travel. Elon Musk ‘s SpaceX, for example, has proposed landing humans on Mars by 2026. And NASA plans to launch orbital missions around the moon from 2020 to 2030.

While astronauts have access to top medical care, the Apollo mission members did experience vastly different environmental conditions when they travelled into deep space – conditions that, the study has found, have affected their health.

The study revealed that 43% of deceased Apollo astronauts died from cardiovascular problems – four to five times higher than non-flight astronauts and those who travelled in low-Earth orbit.

Apollo 8 astronauts make their way to the launch pad to begin the mission, led by commander colonel Frank Borman and command module pilot James A Lovell Jr. Images courtesy of NASA

Apollo 8 astronauts make their way to the launch pad to begin the mission, led by commander colonel Frank Borman and command module pilot James A Lovell Jr. Images courtesy of NASA

A total of 24 men travelled into deep space as part of the Apollo lunar missions – eight have died; seven were included in the study (the eighth died after the data analysis had been completed).

Delp’s team carried out an animal test as part of the research, exposing mice to the type of radiation that Apollo astronauts would have experienced. After six months, or the equivalent of 20 human years, the mice showed damage to arteries that is known to lead to the development of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease.

“What the mouse data show is that deep space radiation is harmful to vascular health,” Delp said. He is currently working with NASA to carry out further studies on the Apollo astronauts with regard to their cardiovascular health.