Tag Archives: advanced technology
Superconductors are among the most bizarre and exciting materials yet discovered. Counterintuitive quantum-mechanical effects mean that, below a critical temperature, they have zero electrical resistance. This property alone is more than enough to spark the imagination.
A current that could flow forever without losing any energy means transmission of power with virtually no losses in the cables. When renewable energy sources start to dominate the grid and high-voltage transmission across continents becomes important to overcome intermittency, lossless cables will result in substantial savings.
What’s more, a superconducting wire carrying a current that never, ever diminishes would act as a perfect store of electrical energy. Unlike batteries, which degrade over time, if the resistance is truly zero, you could return to the superconductor in a billion years and find that same old current flowing through it. Energy could be captured and stored indefinitely!
With no resistance, a huge current could be passed through the superconducting wire and, in turn, produce magnetic fields of incredible power.
You could use them to levitate trains and produce astonishing accelerations, thereby revolutionizing the transport system. You could use them in power plants—replacing conventional methods which spin turbines in magnetic fields to generate electricity—and in quantum computers as the two-level system required for a “qubit,” in which the zeros and ones are replaced by current flowing clockwise or counterclockwise in a superconductor.
Arthur C. Clarke famously said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic; superconductors can certainly seem like magical devices. So, why aren’t they busy remaking the world? There’s a problem—that critical temperature.
For all known materials, it’s hundreds of degrees below freezing. Superconductors also have a critical magnetic field; beyond a certain magnetic field strength, they cease to work. There’s a tradeoff: materials with an intrinsically high critical temperature can also often provide the largest magnetic fields when cooled well below that temperature.
This has meant that superconductor applications so far have been limited to situations where you can afford to cool the components of your system to close to absolute zero: in particle accelerators and experimental nuclear fusion reactors, for example.
But even as some aspects of superconductor technology become mature in limited applications, the search for higher temperature superconductors moves on. Many physicists still believe a room-temperature superconductor could exist. Such a discovery would unleash amazing new technologies.
The Quest for Room-Temperature Superconductors
After Heike Kamerlingh Onnes discovered superconductivity by accident while attempting to prove Lord Kelvin’s theory that resistance would increase with decreasing temperature, theorists scrambled to explain the new property in the hope that understanding it might allow for room-temperature superconductors to be synthesized.
They came up with the BCS theory, which explained some of the properties of superconductors. It also predicted that the dream of technologists, a room-temperature superconductor, could not exist; the maximum temperature for superconductivity according to BCS theory was just 30 K.
Then, in the 1980s, the field changed again with the discovery of unconventional, or high-temperature, superconductivity. “High temperature” is still very cold: the highest temperature for superconductivity achieved was -70°C for hydrogen sulphide at extremely high pressures. For normal pressures, -140°C is near the upper limit. Unfortunately, high-temperature superconductors—which require relatively cheap liquid nitrogen, rather than liquid helium, to cool—are mostly brittle ceramics, which are expensive to form into wires and have limited application.
Given the limitations of high-temperature superconductors, researchers continue to believe there’s a better option awaiting discovery—an incredible new material that checks boxes like superconductivity approaching room temperature, affordability, and practicality.
Without a detailed theoretical understanding of how this phenomenon occurs—although incremental progress happens all the time—scientists can occasionally feel like they’re taking educated guesses at materials that might be likely candidates. It’s a little like trying to guess a phone number, but with the periodic table of elements instead of digits.
Yet the prospect remains, in the words of one researcher, tantalizing. A Nobel Prize and potentially changing the world of energy and electricity is not bad for a day’s work.
Some research focuses on cuprates, complex crystals that contain layers of copper and oxygen atoms. Doping cuprates with various different elements, such exotic compounds as mercury barium calcium copper oxide, are amongst the best superconductors known today.
Research also continues into some anomalous but unexplained reports that graphite soaked in water can act as a room-temperature superconductor, but there’s no indication that this could be used for technological applications yet.
In early 2017, as part of the ongoing effort to explore the most extreme and exotic forms of matter we can create on Earth, researchers managed to compress hydrogen into a metal.
The pressure required to do this was more than that at the core of the Earth and thousands of times higher than that at the bottom of the ocean. Some researchers in the field, called condensed-matter physics, doubt that metallic hydrogen was produced at all.
It’s considered possible that metallic hydrogen could be a room-temperature superconductor. But getting the samples to stick around long enough for detailed testing has proved tricky, with the diamonds containing the metallic hydrogen suffering a “catastrophic failure” under the pressure.
Superconductivity—or behavior that strongly resembles it—was also observed in yttrium barium copper oxide (YBCO) at room temperature in 2014. The only catch was that this electron transport lasted for a tiny fraction of a second and required the material to be bombarded with pulsed lasers.
Not very practical, you might say, but tantalizing nonetheless.
Other new materials display enticing properties too. The 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded for the theoretical work that characterizes topological insulators—materials that exhibit similarly strange quantum behaviors. They can be considered perfect insulators for the bulk of the material but extraordinarily good conductors in a thin layer on the surface.
Microsoft is betting on topological insulators as the key component in their attempt at a quantum computer. They’ve also been considered potentially important components in miniaturized circuitry.
A number of remarkable electronic transport properties have also been observed in new, “2D” structures—like graphene, these are materials synthesized to be as thick as a single atom or molecule. And research continues into how we can utilize the superconductors we’ve already discovered; for example, some teams are trying to develop insulating material that prevents superconducting HVDC cable from overheating.
Room-temperature superconductivity remains as elusive and exciting as it has been for over a century. It is unclear whether a room-temperature superconductor can exist, but the discovery of high-temperature superconductors is a promising indicator that unconventional and highly useful quantum effects may be discovered in completely unexpected materials.
Perhaps in the future—through artificial intelligence simulations or the serendipitous discoveries of a 21st century Kamerlingh Onnes—this little piece of magic could move into the realm of reality.
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Henry Ford didn’t invent the motor car. The late 1800s saw a flurry of innovation by hundreds of companies battling to deliver on the promise of fast, efficient and reasonably-priced mechanical transportation. Ford later came to dominate the industry thanks to the development of the moving assembly line.
Today, the sector is poised for another breakthrough with the advent of cars that drive themselves. But unlike the original wave of automobile innovation, the race for supremacy in autonomous vehicles is concentrated among a few corporate giants. So who is set to dominate this time?
I’ve analyzed six companies we think are leading the race to build the first truly driverless car. Three of these—General Motors, Ford, and Volkswagen—come from the existing car industry and need to integrate self-driving technology into their existing fleet of mass-produced vehicles. The other three—Tesla, Uber, and Waymo (owned by the same company as Google)—are newcomers from the digital technology world of Silicon Valley and have to build a mass manufacturing capability.
While it’s impossible to know all the developments at any given time, we have tracked investments, strategic partnerships, and official press releases to learn more about what’s happening behind the scenes. The car industry typically rates self-driving technology on a scale from Level 0 (no automation) to Level 5 (full automation). We’ve assessed where each company is now and estimated how far they are from reaching the top level. Here’s how we think each player is performing.
Volkswagen has invested in taxi-hailing app Gett and partnered with chip-maker Nvidia to develop an artificial intelligence co-pilot for its cars. In 2018, the VW Group is set to release the Audi A8, the first production vehicle that reaches Level 3 on the scale, “conditional driving automation.” This means the car’s computer will handle all driving functions, but a human has to be ready to take over if necessary.
Ford already sells cars with a Level 2 autopilot, “partial driving automation.” This means one or more aspects of driving are controlled by a computer based on information about the environment, for example combined cruise control and lane centering. Alongside other investments, the company has put $1 billion into Argo AI, an artificial intelligence company for self-driving vehicles. Following a trial to test pizza delivery using autonomous vehicles, Ford is now testing Level 4 cars on public roads. These feature “high automation,” where the car can drive entirely on its own but not in certain conditions such as when the road surface is poor or the weather is bad.
GM also sells vehicles with Level 2 automation but, after buying Silicon Valley startup Cruise Automation in 2016, now plans to launch the first mass-production-ready Level 5 autonomy vehicle that drives completely on its own by 2019. The Cruise AV will have no steering wheel or pedals to allow a human to take over and be part of a large fleet of driverless taxis the company plans to operate in big cities. But crucially the company hasn’t yet secured permission to test the car on public roads.
Waymo Level 5 testing. Image Credit: Waymo
Founded as a special project in 2009, Waymo separated from Google (though they’re both owned by the same parent firm, Alphabet) in 2016. Though it has never made, sold, or operated a car on a commercial basis, Waymo has created test vehicles that have clocked more than 4 million miles without human drivers as of November 2017. Waymo tested its Level 5 car, “Firefly,” between 2015 and 2017 but then decided to focus on hardware that could be installed in other manufacturers’ vehicles, starting with the Chrysler Pacifica.
The taxi-hailing app maker Uber has been testing autonomous cars on the streets of Pittsburgh since 2016, always with an employee behind the wheel ready to take over in case of a malfunction. After buying the self-driving truck company Otto in 2016 for a reported $680 million, Uber is now expanding its AI capabilities and plans to test NVIDIA’s latest chips in Otto’s vehicles. It has also partnered with Volvo to create a self-driving fleet of cars and with Toyota to co-create a ride-sharing autonomous vehicle.
The first major car manufacturer to come from Silicon Valley, Tesla was also the first to introduce Level 2 autopilot back in 2015. The following year, it announced that all new Teslas would have the hardware for full autonomy, meaning once the software is finished it can be deployed on existing cars with an instant upgrade. Some experts have challenged this approach, arguing that the company has merely added surround cameras to its production cars that aren’t as capable as the laser-based sensing systems that most other carmakers are using.
But the company has collected data from hundreds of thousands of cars, driving millions of miles across all terrains. So, we shouldn’t dismiss the firm’s founder, Elon Musk, when he claims a Level 4 Tesla will drive from LA to New York without any human interference within the first half of 2018.
Who’s leading the race? Image Credit: IMD
At the moment, the disruptors like Tesla, Waymo, and Uber seem to have the upper hand. While the traditional automakers are focusing on bringing Level 3 and 4 partial automation to market, the new companies are leapfrogging them by moving more directly towards Level 5 full automation. Waymo may have the least experience of dealing with consumers in this sector, but it has already clocked up a huge amount of time testing some of the most advanced technology on public roads.
The incumbent carmakers are also focused on the difficult process of integrating new technology and business models into their existing manufacturing operations by buying up small companies. The challengers, on the other hand, are easily partnering with other big players including manufacturers to get the scale and expertise they need more quickly.
Tesla is building its own manufacturing capability but also collecting vast amounts of critical data that will enable it to more easily upgrade its cars when ready for full automation. In particular, Waymo’s experience, technology capability, and ability to secure solid partnerships puts it at the head of the pack.
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.
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