Semiconductor breakthrough paves way for “inexpensive and nearly invisible” solar panels

Scientists have achieved a breakthrough in organic solar panel technology that could allow the power source to become a ubiquitous presence in our lives, with the ability to be churned out cheaply by manufacturers and laminated to almost any surface you can think of.

Organic solar cells, while far cheaper than the more widespread inorganic equivalents that are most commonly seen in stores and rooftops today, have traditionally had very poor conductivity, meaning they can only generate small amounts of power.

However, engineers at the University of Michigan have changed that, by developing a way to make the electrons found in organic solar cells’ semiconductors travel far further, greatly improving their conductivity and thus their ability to generate power.

As a result, the breakthrough could make organic solar cells a viable alternative to inorganics for the first time, with the added benefit that they are far cheaper to manufacture, meaning they could see far more widespread use than is currently the case.

The research, which was published today in Nature, initially began as an experiment by Stephen Forrest, the Peter A. Franken Distinguished University Professor of Engineering and Paul G. Goebel Professor of Engineering at the University of Michigan, into organic solar architecture using a technique called vacuum thermal evaporation.

This involved Forrest and his team applying a thin film made up of 60 carbon atoms – known as a fullerene layer – over an organic cell’s power-producing later, where the sun’s photons displace electrons from their associated molecules, forming the basis of the power supply. On top of this they added another film of carbon atoms, which was designed to keep the electrons from escaping.

But this action produced a rather unexpected result. Instead of behaving as predicted, the electrons were moving at random through the material, even beyond the confines of the power-generating area, something that had never been observed in organic cells before.

This became the focus of their research, and after months of work they determined the cause: the layer of electrons was creating an area of low energy known as an energy well where negatively charged electrons could not recombine with the power-producing layer, and so moved far further than was normally the case.

“You can imagine an energy well as sort of a canyon–electrons fall into it and can’t get back out,” said Caleb Cobourn, a graduate researcher in the University of Michigan Department of Physics and an author on the study. “So they continue to move freely in the fullerene layer instead of recombining in the power-producing layer, as they normally would. It’s like a massive antenna that can collect an electron charge from anywhere in the device.”

said Quinn Burlingame, an electrical engineering and computer science graduate researcher and author on the study, with the original experiment. Image courtesy of Robert Coelius/Michigan Engineering, Communications & Marketing

While the research is still in the early stages, this breakthrough is hugely significant, and could be used to develop ultra-cheap, near-invisible solar panels in the future.

“This discovery essentially gives us a new knob to turn as we design organic solar cells and other organic semiconductor devices,” said Quinn Burlingame, an electrical engineering and computer science graduate researcher and author on the study. “The possibility of long-range electron transport opens up a lot of new possibilities in device architecture.”

It could even eventually play a vital role in the shift to renewable energy supplies.

“I believe that ubiquitous solar power is the key to powering our constantly warming and increasingly crowded planet, and that means putting solar cells on everyday objects like building facades and windows,” Forrest said. “Technology like this could help us produce power in a way that’s inexpensive and nearly invisible.”

Crypto-currency mining is hindering the search for alien life

Researchers searching for extraterrestrial life are struggling to get the computer hardware they need, due to crypto-currency mining. "We'd like to use the latest GPUs...and we can't get 'em," said Dan Werthimer. Demand for GPUs has soared recently thanks to crypto-currency mining.

Source: BBC

Genetic study of soil reveals new family of antibiotics

Researchers have discovered a new family of antibiotics in samples of soil. In their paper, published in the journal Nature Microbiology, the group describe how the antibiotics, named malacidins, have been shown to kill superbugs such as MRSA, which are resistant to current antibiotics.

Source: Phys.org

UK police are identifying suspects using fingerprint scanners

UK police have begun using a mobile fingerprinting system to identify people in less than a minute. Fingerprints are compared against 12 million records stored in the national criminal and immigration fingerprint databases and, if a match is found, return info like the individual’s name and date of birth.

Source: Wired

Robots 1,000 times smaller than a human hair could treat cancer

Scientists from Arizona State University and The Chinese Academy of Sciences just figured out how to build tiny robots that travel through the body's blood stream, hunting for tumors, without doing any harm to healthy cells along the way. In tests on mice, average survival times doubled.

NASA is bringing back Cold War-era rockets to get to Mars

NASA is planning to use atomic rockets to help get humans to Mars. Unlike conventional rockets that burn fuel to create thrust, the atomic system uses the reactor to heat a propellant like liquid hydrogen, which then expands through a nozzle to power the craft, doubling the efficiency at which the rocket uses fuel.

Source: Bloomberg

Facial recognition systems have gender and racial biases

Research conducted by Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stamford University has found that AI-powered facial recognition systems have gender and racial biases, which means because they have been trained using large data sets of white males they are better at picking out that group than any other.

Source: The Inquirer

Skydio unveils its obstacle-dodging, thrill-seeking, AI-powered drone

An autonomous drone startup founded by former MIT researchers has today launched its R1, a fully autonomous flying camera that follows its subjects through dense and challenging environments.

In a promotional video, launched to introduce the autonomous camera, R1 can be seen following an athlete as she parkours her way through dense woodland.

The drone’s makers Skydio have explained that the camera combines artificial intelligence, computer vision, and advanced robotics and works by anticipating how people move, so R1 can make intelligent decisions about how to get the smoothest, most cinematic footage in real-time.

“The promise of the self-flying camera has captured people’s imaginations, but today’s drones still need to be flown manually for them to be useful,” said Adam Bry, CEO and co-founder of Skydio.

“We’ve spent the last four years solving the hard problems in robotics and AI necessary to make fully autonomous flight possible. We’re incredibly excited about the creative possibilities with R1, and we also believe that this technology will enable many of the most valuable drone applications for consumers and businesses over the coming years.”

Launching today is the Frontier Edition of R1, which is aimed at athletes, adventurers, and creators.

This version of R1 is powered by the Skydio Autonomy Engine, enabling it to see and understand the world around it so that it can fly safely at speeds of upto 25mph while avoiding obstacles.

The autonomous drone is fitted with 13 cameras, which gives it the ability to map and understand the world in real-time, allowing it to be fully autonomous and independently capture footage that in Skydio’s words “once required a Hollywood film crew” and will “enable a new type of visual storytelling”.

The R1 “Frontier Edition” is available for order now on Skydio’s website for $2,499.