Transparent solar collector to turn skyscrapers into power plants

We may soon be able to create electricity using the screens of our phones, windows in buildings and any other clear surface.

Researchers have created a ‘transparent’ surface that can capture light and convert it into electricity using solar technology.

The team, from Michigan State University, developed organic molecules that are able to take in waves of sunlight which are not visible to the human eye.

It is the first time that a transparent solar concentrator has been created.

Richard Lunt who worked on the research, said that the unique nature of the transparency means we may be able to incorporate it into our everyday lives and create energy from clear surfaces.

“It opens a lot of area to deploy solar energy in a non-intrusive way,” Lunt said. “It can be used on tall buildings with lots of windows or any kind of mobile device that demands high aesthetic quality like a phone or e-reader. Ultimately we want to make solar harvesting surfaces that you do not even know are there.”

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As the materials used do not absorb or emit any light that can be seen by the human eye, this means they appear transparent when we look at them.

Instead they rely on infrared light, which is guided to the edge of the material where it is converted to electricity by solar cells.

“No one wants to sit behind colored glass,” explained Lunt. “It makes for a very colorful environment, like working in a disco. We take an approach where we actually make the luminescent active layer itself transparent.

“We can tune these materials to pick up just the ultraviolet and the near infrared wavelengths that then ‘glow’ at another wavelength in the infrared.”

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The previously developed coloured concentrators developed by MIT

However the future for the technology isn’t yet crystal clear as work needs to be done on improving the energy-producing efficiency.

Currently its solar conversion rate lies close to one percent, but the researchers believe they will be able to get it close to five percent when everything has been fully optimised.

At present coloured variations of the concentrator have efficiency levels of around seven percent.


Featured image and image one courtesy of the Michigan State Univeristy. Image two courtesy of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology


Automation will disproportionately hit regions as well as job types

It’s widely known that increased automation, both through AI and robotics, is going to hit many fields of work. But exactly which roles are likely to be affected remains a subject of considerable discussion.

But according to an IT business expert, automation is not only going to hit certain fields more than others, but also affect certain regions more than others.

“The threat to jobs may not be immediate but if the digital economy continues to grow at its current double digit rate the impact on jobs will occur in three key areas,” said Mark Skilton, Information Systems and Management Group professor of practice at Warwick Business School.

“Firstly, low and semi-skilled work could be squeezed, impacting on the less well-off members of society. We are already seeing this with retail stores automating checkout tills and stock tracking with RIFD tags plus self-service in ordering and sales enquiries.

“Secondly, and less obvious, is the shift and relocation of ‘knowledge’ that smart devices and automated intelligence is driving. Google’s recent restructure into Alphabet, while simplifying the corporate research portfolio, also saw it shift focus to speeding up advances in smart technology, robotics and cars.”

Image courtesy of Google

Image courtesy of Google

According to Skilton, this shift will have a significant impact not only how wealth is distributed around the world, but how skills are spread, potentially resulting in pockets of the world with good job opportunities while work in other areas remains scarce.

“Apart from the ‘brain drain’ this creates in countries not able to compete with these huge R&D centric companies, it is more the impact on how wealth and skills will be distributed in the global economy and how governments must protect their economies and incomes,” he said.

In recent years technology has also prompted the rise of more informal means of making money, but Skilton warns that while these approaches can be convenient, they are far less secure and so can impact on the financial health of governments.

“Perversely the likes of Uber and Airbnb, in making taxi drivers and hotel operators of us all, on the face of it is creating new jobs, but in reality it is more a sign of the increasing zero-hours contract workforce and the increase in overqualified graduates chasing fewer jobs and lower pay. This has a direct impact on the governments’ tax revenues,” explained Skilton.

Image courtesy of Uber

Image courtesy of Uber. Featured image courtesy of Andrei Kholmov / Shutterstock.com.

There is also a risk to what Skilton calls “untouchable” jobs, thanks to technological developments.

“A final impact is a new ‘arms race’ to develop artificial intelligence for industries ranging from defence to financial and medical research,” he said.

“This could potentially see complex jobs that were once thought untouchable taken over by computers thanks to emerging creative mathematical research and advanced massive scale supercomputing to model human brain function.”

However, while many see trying to stop automation as being as futile as trying to stop the sea rising, Skilton argues that action can be taken to enable automation to improve rather than damage job opportunities.

“It is not all doom and gloom, I think there are several generations of development yet before the physical world of humans is replaced with cyber alternatives, but it is right to consider the ethical and economic repercussions of this inevitable technological scaling of computing,” he said.

“Putting in place controls now could well help economies make sure robots and computers add growth rather than destroy jobs.”

Autonomous golf carts to bring driverless journeys to city suburbs

Uber has got a long-term plan to get rid of its drivers and replace them with all with self-driving cars. In fact, it is already testing autonomous vehicles and says that if Elon Musk can make enough in 2020 it will buy them all.

But they might have been beaten to it, as a system that allows passengers to order themselves a self-driving vehicle has already been created.

A booking system that allows visitors to organise pickups and drop-offs at 10 different locations has been made and tested by researchers at MIT.

The technology allows the vehicles to be automatically rerouted and deploy the correct number of vehicles at the right time to fill all the requests. However, the catch is that it’s using autonomous golf carts, rather than cars.

“We would like to use robot cars to make transportation available to everyone,” said Daniela Rus from MIT.

“The idea is, if you need a ride, you make a booking, maybe using your smartphone or maybe on the Internet, and the car just comes.”

The golf carts, which use off-the-shelf sensors, aren’t the first small vehicles to be converted to drive autonomously.

In the UK small driverless pods are in the process of being developed to be tested in public areas. The pods, called LUTZ Pathfinder (and animated below), will be used on public footpaths to allow passengers to get across short distances.

The slower speeds of these type of vehicles mean that it is easier for them to create a picture of what else is happening around them. However, the golf carts, while operating on public pathways, had a problem when they encountered a lizard and didn’t know what to do.

Rus said that while these types of small autonomous vehicles aren’t ideal to be used on roads or for long journeys – the golf carts have a top speed of 15mph – they have potential to help some specific groups get about.

“If you think about who needs rides, it’s fast enough for the elderly population who no longer have a driver’s license and live in special areas where maybe their friend lives a mile away, and that’s too far to walk,” she said.

“If they want to go to the doctor or shopping, they can use the self-driving golf carts because that’s within some comfortable distance.”

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Animation courtesy of Catapult Central

For the researchers, which included scientists from the National Research Foundation of Singapore as well as MIT, the key to creating self-driving golf carts was keeping the vehicles as simple as possible.

Rus described a “minimalist” approach to the vehicles.

She claims a “suite of strategically placed sensors and augment that with reliable algorithms” are better than a large number of sensors that can confuse each other.