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E-fabric spools bring bullet-proof watches, paper-thin batteries

E-fabric, etched and layered with microscopic electronics, coud bring bullet-proof watches on every soldier’s wrist and a light in every African hut.

John Maltabes, a Hewlett-Packard research engineer, is reflected in a sample sheet of thin, flexible electronic displays.

Tony Avelar/The Christian Science Monitor

Computer chips are arguably the most complex objects ever built by humans. Manufacturing a Pentium chip involves up to 5,000 steps of painting, etching, and polishing as up to 25 layers of metal and insulator are stacked onto a silicon wafer.

But John Maltabes, a visiting scholar at Hewlett-Packard (HP) Laboratories in Palo Alto, Calif., imagines a different future, one in which electronics are mass-produced like fabrics or newspapers.

Imagine a yard-wide sheet of plastic coated in thin layers of metal and semiconductor rolling off a spool in a factory. That sheet passes under a printing press like a rolling pin, which imprints millions of transistors, capacitors, diodes, and wires onto it. The sheet then scrolls through an etcher to complete the printing process. The sheet would wind onto another spool as a finished product: perhaps a sheet of solar cells that could be unrolled and cut to size on a roof, or a flexible television display that could unwind like a blind in a living room.

Mr. Maltabes is working on these so-called “roll-to-roll” methods for making flexible, paper-thin computer displays. But he believes that the cheaper manufacturing and more flexible, durable products could fundamentally change the economic equation of what is affordable to do with electronics in general.

“There are devices that we can’t even imagine now,” says Maltabes. “You could ‘sensor’ the world. Think about wrapping the pipes in your house with some kind of material that actually senses the temperature of your pipes. They tell you the pipes are about to freeze and warm them so they don’t freeze.”

Or smart bandages that sense inflammation in a wound and release medications. Or lighted wallpaper, purchased by the roll at Home Depot, that changes color and hue with the turn of a knob.

One gadget being created with US military funds is the so-called Dick Tracy wristwatch: This flexible band, strapped on a soldier’s wrist, would provide communication, satellite images, and Google Earth-style maps. “You should be able to shoot a bullet through it and have everything work except for the place where there was a hole,” says Maltabes, of the device, under development at Arizona State University’s Flexible Display Center.

Roll-to-roll manufacturing could also lower the cost of making batteries. Yi Cui, a nanotechnologist at Stanford University, in California, is printing experimental batteries on paper and cloth using inks that contain carbon nanotubes and lithium-containing dust.

The technology potentially overcomes a major problem: Engineers would like to store electricity produced by solar and wind farms during the day, so it can be used at night – but the cost of today’s lithium batteries renders this out of reach.

“The scale of the problem does not match,” says Dr. Cui. “You put together all of the lithium batteries we’ve made for the last 20 years to power the US electrical grid and you can probably only power it for five to seven minutes.” Cui hopes, though, that printed batteries can be expanded to that massive scale.

Roll-to-roll could propel another green technology – printed solar cells – into widespread use in developing countries, enhancing the decentralized, off-grid economies that are already emerging. In areas without electricity, small propane or solar-powered generators are already used to recharge cellphones – or sometimes even small LED lights, says Sandeep Tiwari, a nanotechnologist at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., who devotes some of his time to developing-world technologies.

“Every hut has this light that is then used by children to study at night,” says Mr. Tiwari of one village in northern India. “Lighting has made a huge difference.”

Isaac Asimov – Visions of the Future (1992)

two years before he died, Asimov was prepping a TV series about the thin line between science and science fiction – and how we need to embrace the future. Now you can see footage from it for free online.



Commercial Spaceport to Open in New Mexico

British millionaire and Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson is one step closer to his dream of providing commercial flights into space with the construction of a spaceport in Upham, New Mexico. What is certainly the product of the commercialization of the space industry, Spaceport America is destined to become the “flagship” of other spaceports throughout the world. In fact a similar spaceport project is already underway in Singapore.

Ticket pre-sales for the pricey space flights have already reached over $45 million dollars. Each ticket, costing approximately $200,000 will take you on a sub orbital flight on the VSS Enterprise. Boasting only 6 seats, it is sure to be an adventure to brag about.

The Taxpayer funded, $198 million spaceport will take tourists on short hops into space at first, but plans are already underway for more extended flights that Branson hopes will one day include orbit flights and stays in a space hotel.

Fortunately, the design allows for “green technology” by incorporating a core design implementing renewable energy. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, southern New Mexico has the second highest potential for solar power in the nation. The videos at the bottom of the page contain more information on some of the methods being incorporated into planning.

In addition, cooling methods such as buried air pipes will assist traditional methods. According to the Spaceport America site, ” By powering the nation’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport, Spaceport America, with clean, abundant solar energy, the world will look to New Mexico as the leader in implementing renewable energy solutions!”

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This image from the October dedication ceremony shows the terminal under construction

Weekly flights are set to begin in approximately April, 2012. Also on the agenda for the new spaceport are several companies who will be specializing in research and in transporting payload to space.


According to Executive Director Steve Landeene of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority (NMSA), “The groundbreaking for Spaceport America is the beginning of a historic new chapter in New Mexico’s long legacy of space and cutting-edge technology. From the pioneering rocketry work of Robert J. Goddard in New Mexico in 1930, the beginnings of America’s space program in the 1940’s and 50’s to the ongoing NASA programs at White Sands Missile Range and now to Spaceport America, the Gateway to the Future.”


Construction Images

This image shows the runway, along with the terminal (seen above the runway)


This is a cross section image of the foundation work and surfacing material being applied to the runway.

This video documents a test flight of the VSS Enterprise. As you will see in the video, the design allows for a traditional take off, with the actual suborbital capsule being released after gaining altitude. As you can see, the VSS Enterprise is designed for optimal lift from the enormous wings, thus optimizing fuel consumption. (Side thought: It would be great if they could outfit the top of the unit with solar panels….dare to dream)

Here is a great interview with Spaceport America Executive Director Steve Landeene. Except for the inane text chat scrolling at the bottom, it is a good interview.