Rise of the power road: Norway targets roads that produce more energy than they use

The roads of the future could function as a massive network of power stations, harvesting wasted energy from cars and generating additional power through bridges fitted with solar panels and wind turbines.

This is the focus of a new project between Scandinavia’s largest research organisation, SINTEF, and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), which is looking to develop ‘power roads’ that generate more energy than they consume.

The plan is to incorporate these into an existing project by the Norwegian Public Roads Agency, also known as Statens Vegvesen, which is looking to replace the ferry crossing sections of the E39 motorway in Western Norway by 2030. The project will simultaneously reduce the energy required to build the roads, and incorporate energy-generating infrastructure.

As ambitious as the project sounds, SINTEF is confident that it is achievable within the timeframe, and is already planning test sites for next year.

“We hope to be launching the first projects in the spring of 2016,” said Berit Laanke, from SINTEF Building and Infrastructure.

“With the dedicated commitment of public sector organisations such as Statens Vegvesen, I’m convinced that the Power Road project will succeed.”

One of the bridges planned for Norway's E39 project. Image courtesy of Statens Vegvesen

One of the bridges planned for Norway’s E39 project. Image courtesy of Statens Vegvesen

In order to create roads that generate power in numerous different ways, SINTEF is planning an array of research projects tackling different aspects of the system.

“In the short term SINTEF is looking to launch a small number of specific projects”, said Laanke.

“This autumn we’re focusing on energy generation linked to bridges, involving systems integrated into safety barriers and noise screens. We’re also looking into how materials production can be made more energy efficient by using locally-sourced stone, and are working together with Statens Vegvesen on a project proposal involving the electrification of heavy-duty transport vehicles, incorporating a kind of ‘rubber track’, equivalent to a tram running on rubber wheels.”

Norway’s E39 project will require a significant number of bridges to be built, so there is also a strong focus on how to turn these structures into multifaceted power stations.

In addition to building solar panels and wind turbines into the bridges, the organisation wants to include systems that generate power from the waves and currents in the water the bridges are crossing.

Bhumibol Bridge in Thailand, which has solar panels built into its base.

Bhumibol Bridge in Thailand, which has solar panels built into its base.

However, the focus will need to be on harvesting energy using the roads themselves, if the project is to be replicated across the country and beyond.

For SINTEF, this means finding ways to extract energy from cars themselves.

“Electric cars are already able to recharge themselves as they go downhill,” said Laanke.

“Will it be possible to harvest some of this energy if the car battery is fully charged? Cars exert a pressure on the surface they roll along, so perhaps we can capture this energy for re-use?

“The same principle has been applied on football pitches. As the players run around, lights are activated to illuminate the pitch.”

Soviet report detailing lunar rover Lunokhod-2 released for first time

Russian space agency Roskosmos has released an unprecedented scientific report into the lunar rover Lunokhod-2 for the first time, revealing previously unknown details about the rover and how it was controlled back on Earth.

The report, written entirely in Russian, was originally penned in 1973 following the Lunokhod-2 mission, which was embarked upon in January of the same year. It had remained accessible to only a handful of experts at the space agency prior to its release today, to mark the 45th anniversary of the mission.

Bearing the names of some 55 engineers and scientists, the report details the systems that were used to both remotely control the lunar rover from a base on Earth, and capture images and data about the Moon’s surface and Lunokhod-2’s place on it. This information, and in particularly the carefully documented issues and solutions that the report carries, went on to be used in many later unmanned missions to other parts of the solar system.

As a result, it provides a unique insight into this era of space exploration and the technical challenges that scientists faced, such as the low-frame television system that functioned as the ‘eyes’ of the Earth-based rover operators.

A NASA depiction of the Lunokhod mission. Above: an image of the rover, courtesy of NASA, overlaid onto a panorama of the Moon taken by Lunokhod-2, courtesy of Ruslan Kasmin.

One detail that main be of particular interest to space enthusiasts and experts is the operation of a unique system called Seismas, which was tested for the first time in the world during the mission.

Designed to determine the precise location of the rover at any given time, the system involved transmitting information over lasers from ground-based telescopes, which was received by a photodetector onboard the lunar rover. When the laser was detected, this triggered the emission of a radio signal back to the Earth, which provided the rover’s coordinates.

Other details, while technical, also give some insight into the culture of the mission, such as the careful work to eliminate issues in the long-range radio communication system. One issue, for example, was worked on with such thoroughness that it resulted in one of the devices using more resources than it was allocated, a problem that was outlined in the report.

The document also provides insight into on-Earth technological capabilities of the time. While it is mostly typed, certain mathematical symbols have had to be written in by hand, and the report also features a number of diagrams and graphs that have been painstakingly hand-drawn.

A hand-drawn graph from the report, showing temperature changes during one of the monitoring sessions during the mission

Lunokhod-2 was the second of two unmanned lunar rovers to be landed on the Moon by the Soviet Union within the Lunokhod programme, having been delivered via a soft landing by the unmanned Luna 21 spacecraft in January 1973.

In operation between January and June of that year, the robot covered a distance of 39km, meaning it still holds the lunar distance record to this day.

One of only four rovers to be deployed on the lunar surface, Lunokhod-2 was the last rover to visit the Moon until December 2013, when Chinese lunar rover Yutu made its maiden visit.

Robot takes first steps towards building artificial lifeforms

A robot equipped with sophisticated AI has successfully simulated the creation of artificial lifeforms, in a key first step towards the eventual goal of creating true artificial life.

The robot, which was developed by scientists at the University of Glasgow, was able to model the creation of artificial lifeforms using unstable oil-in-water droplets. These droplets effectively played the role of living cells, demonstrating the potential of future research to develop living cells based on building blocks that cannot be found in nature.

Significantly, the robot also successfully predicted their properties before they were created, even though this could not be achieved using conventional physical models.

The robot, which was designed by Glasgow University’s Regius Chair of Chemistry, Professor Lee Cronin, is driven by machine learning and the principles of evolution.

It has been developed to autonomously create oil-in-water droplets with a host of different chemical makeups and then use image recognition to assess their behaviour.

Using this information, the robot was able to engineer droplets to have different properties­. Those which were found to be desirable could then be recreated at any time, using a specific digital code.

“This work is exciting as it shows that we are able to use machine learning and a novel robotic platform to understand the system in ways that cannot be done using conventional laboratory methods, including the discovery of ‘swarm’ like group behaviour of the droplets, akin to flocking birds,” said Cronin.

“Achieving lifelike behaviours such as this are important in our mission to make new lifeforms, and these droplets may be considered ‘protocells’ – simplified models of living cells.”

One of the oil droplets created by the robot

The research, which is published today in the journal PNAS, is one of several research projects being undertaken by Cronin and his team within the field of artificial lifeforms.

While the overarching goal is moving towards the creation of lifeforms using new and unprecedented building blocks, the research may also have more immediate potential applications.

The team believes that their work could also have applications in several practical areas, including the development of new methods for drug delivery or even innovative materials with functional properties.