Saturday, July 22, 2017

NEWS POST: Dutch Students Unveil Autobus Powered By Formic Acid Converted Into Electricity

World's first formic acid-fuelled bus
Ant power: Take a ride on a bus that runs on formic acid: Dutch students unveil the world's first system that converts formic acid into electricity, which is then used to power an autobus.

A group of students has developed a way of storing energy that could be cheaper to make, more practical and more sustainable than alternative renewable fuels.

They are young and clever, and they want to change the world - one bus at a time.

"We've created the world's first bus that runs on formic acid, which is a much cheaper solution than hydrogen, yet it delivers the same environmental benefits," says Lucas van Cappellen from Team Fast, a spin-off company from Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands.

"We're building our own future."
Around 40 of his fellow students are endeavouring to develop emissions-free transport that will help in the global battle against climate change. And they're also trying to create careers for themselves.

Formic acid is found in nature, delivered in the stings and bites of ants and other insects - the Latin word for ant is formica.

And this simple carboxylic acid (chemical formula HCOOH) is already used in textiles and leather processing, as a livestock feed preservative, and is also found in some household limescale removers.

But Team Fast has found a way the acid can efficiently carry the ingredients needed for hydrogen fuel cells, used to power electric vehicles.

The fuel, which the team has dubbed hydrozine (not to be confused with hydrazine), is a liquid, which means you can transport it easily and refill vehicles quickly, as with conventional fuels.

The difference is that it is much cleaner.

"The tailpipe emissions are only CO2 and water," explains Mr van Cappellen. "No other harmful gases like nitric oxides, soot or sulphuric oxides are emitted."

To prove the concept in the real world, an electric bus is set to hit the road in the Netherlands later this year, where it will shuttle between running on conventional bus routes and appearing at promotional events and industry fairs.

The bus has an electric drive system, developed by bus builder VDL, that receives additional power from the formic acid fuel cell system mounted in a range-extender trailer, towed behind.

"Our tank is around 300 litres, so we will extend the range of the bus by 200km (180 miles). However, we could of course make the tank bigger very easily," says Mr van Cappellen.

Current hydrogen fuel cell buses have a range of up to 400km.

But why develop a bus rather than a car?
"If we built a car, we would compete with electric cars, but we believe battery-powered cars are a good solution for a lot of people," says Mr van Cappellen.

"But if we prove that we can build a bus that meets the needs of bus companies, with a range of around 400km and quick refuelling, we will have shown the potential of hydrozine in a segment where there is no sustainable competition yet."

Hydrozine is created through a chemical reaction between water (H2O) and carbon dioxide (CO2).

"In a reactor, water and CO2 are bonded using sustainable electricity. This is a direct, sustainable electrochemical process," explains Mr van Cappellen.

The hydrozine is then broken down by a catalyst into hydrogen and carbon dioxide inside a piece of kit called a reformer that Team Fast is attempting to patent.

Its newly designed reformer is a tenth of the size of reformers of the past, which is why "it is now applicable in transport applications for the first time".

The hydrogen is then added to a fuel cell where it reacts with oxygen to generate the electricity that powers the electric motor.

"We are continuously looking for new technologies that can extend the range of zero emissions traffic in a simple way," says Menno Kleingeld, managing director, VDL

The hydrozine-filled trailer will attach to the back of the bus TEAM FAST
Enabling transport solutions
"The decomposition of formic acid into hydrogen gas is one of these new, promising technologies."

But does it really stand a chance of becoming commercially viable?

"It costs about 35,000 (£30,000) to convert a conventional petrol filling station to a hydrozine filling station, a process that essentially involves replacing the pipes and coating the tanks," says Mr van Cappellen.

As such, it is "100 times cheaper" to roll out a fuelling network for hydrozine than for gaseous hydrogen, he maintains.

"Hydrozine is currently cheaper than petrol and more expensive than diesel in the Netherlands, and in future we expect prices to come down so it will be cheaper than both," he adds.

Some types of ant squirt formic acid as a defence mechanism GETTY IMAGES
Although the bus emits CO2, Team Fast argues that the original CO2 used to create the hydrozine is taken from existing sources, such as air or exhaust fumes, so that no additional CO2 is produced - it's a closed carbon cycle in the jargon.

Some experts believe the technology shows promise.

"Team Fast has a very good project," says Professor Richard van de Sanden, head of the Dutch Institute for Fundamental Energy Research.

"It works on a very important issue: the storing of renewable energy in a transportable form and in a form which can actually be used."

And several companies are supporting the project.

"What we're working on together is a version of renewable energy that can combine renewable energy with CO2 capture," says Martijn de Graaff, senior business development manager at TNO Industry.

"If we achieve this it will give us a stable future."

The students' own commitment is impressive, with 15 of the 40 working full time on the project, and the rest contributing at least 20-25 hours per week.

"We don't get study points for it, but you can only learn so much at university about the practical experience of things," Mr van Cappellen says.

"It's our own future we're making."
How to power a bus on formic acid

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

NEWS POST: Japanese Engineers Develop Headset-Less VR System

The 8K "VR" Ride space ride was first showcased at SXSW 2017, a major conference on convergence in the interactive, film and music industries, in Austin, Texas in March 2017
A virtual reality "space ride" in which viewers feel as if they are flying through the air inside a giant glass ball has been developed in Japan. Unlike conventional VR systems, the "8K:VR Ride" -- which resembles a cross between a theme park ride and a miniature IMAX theatre -- does not require users to wear any headgear.

Instead they are placed on two swivelling, elevated chairs just in front of a semi-spherical screen which entirely engulfs their field of vision.

"Unlike the conventional flat screen, you can see images coming closer to you physically in this dome screen," said Makoto Nakahira, an engineer at Wonder Vision Techno Laboratory.

"This is a system in which you can experience visuals that you have never seen before."

The experimental technology was unveiled to Japanese media for the first time on Tuesday before a scheduled showing at Japan's Digital Content Expo 2017 in October.

Its name refers to the screen's super-high definition 8K technology, which is 16 times more detailed than most current HD images.

Wonder Vision co-developed the system with Japan-based NHK Enterprises and NHK Media Technology -- both affiliated with public broadcaster NHK -- and RecoChoku Labo.
The space ride was first showcased at SXSW 2017, a major conference on convergence in the interactive, film and music industries, in Austin, Texas in March.

The system features a hemispherical theatre known as Sphere 5.2 -- a screen 5.2 metres (17 feet) wide, 3.4 metres tall and 2.6 metres deep.

The 8K "VR" Ride resembles a cross between a theme park ride and a miniature IMAX theatre
NEWS POST: Believe It Or Not, Virtual Reality’s Takeover Now Underway
Japan Times reports that for game lovers, 2016 is likely to be remembered as the year when virtual reality technology, having become widely affordable, began to take over. With the much-anticipated commercial debut of VR headsets, gamers are taking a significant step toward total sensory immersion in the world beyond the screen.

But many people, especially those who have yet to experience VR, are simply wondering what all the fuss is about.

The truth, according to experts, is that VR is likely to fundamentally change how people communicate and create a social impact as big as the telephone or the internet. In a not-so-distant future, it’s more likely than not that people will interact and view each other as avatars in multiple virtual realities, moving day to day and moment to moment from one world to another.

Some experts go as far as to contend that this virtual transformation will allow people to gain a deeper understanding of one another.

Yet the effect that deep and prolonged immersion in an ersatz reality will have on the human psyche is anybody’s guess. Some caution that users of VR may have difficulty differentiating virtual from real. Others scoff at the notion.

Diving in
The aim of VR is to trick the brain, via giant high-tech goggles, into mistaking the simulacrum for the real. In effect, a VR headset straps a 360-degree view, a whole world, onto your head. If your head moves, the viewpoint changes accordingly, allowing one to have an immersive experience in a virtual realm.

“The world of the computer was something behind the screen, before,” but now VR gives people a way to enter it, said Masahiko Inami, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology.

“Once people experience quality VR content, there’s no going back,” said Inami, who has been conducting research on integrated human-computer systems.

With the debut of high-end headsets, such as Facebook-owned Oculus’ Oculus Rift, Taiwanese smartphone maker HTC’s Vive and Sony Corp.’s PlayStation VR, people can now enter virtual reality while at home.

Goldman Sachs projected in August that combined sales of VR hardware and software will grow to US$95 billion by 2025, compared with US$3.2 billion this year.

New ways to converse
Some experts claim this new, immersive experience may give birth to new forms of communication. At an Oculus VR event in October, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg demonstrated a way people might use to communicate in the future. Wearing a headset, Zuckerberg and his colleagues turned themselves into on-screen avatars and chatted while switching virtual backgrounds from Facebook’s offices to Zuckerberg’s home and then to somewhere under the sea.

The anime-like avatars could change facial expressions, make gestures and even play cards. With Facebook’s US$2 billion purchase of Oculus, such activities may one day be among the Facebook functions enjoyed by its 1.8 billion users.

“The spread of VR will probably depend on how communication functions will be incorporated into the technology,” said Kiyoshi Shin, a journalist who watches the VR industry closely.

“Think about smartphones. We obsessively check them because there are (apps like) Facebook Messenger and Line. Communication is the factor for it to penetrate into people’s everyday life,” he said.

Inami of the University of Tokyo takes it a step further, saying VR will allow one to walk in other people’s shoes.

“Talking to people face to face has been an important method of communication to understand others . . . but it will be possible to deepen understanding of others by sharing what they are seeing,” which is similar to transforming into them, Inami said, referring to an overseas study on the potential of VR to reduce racial bias.

In 2014, researchers from London and Barcelona studied how virtual body-swapping to a different ethnicity affects attitude. Among white test subjects who virtually acquired black bodies, their unconscious biases against black people diminished, the study showed.

By experiencing a different body, people could gain a better understanding of others, he said.
2016 is being called the dawn of the virtual reality era. |ISTOCK
Uncharted waters
But Inami also said he has concerns, namely that VR may have unintended, unforeseen and decidedly negative effects, just as public exploitation of the internet did. As VR spreads, more people will spend an increasing amount of time online, using multiple avatars to explore multiple digital worlds.

For those perhaps struggling in life, the call of a virtual world could prove more enticing than reality itself, with potentially risky psychological results.

“There must be some kind of effect on people’s minds. Some people might get confused by their virtual transformation,” Inami said.

Journalist Shin is more optimistic about the health risks of using VR.

“Actually, I’m not really worried about it. The virtual and real worlds have already been mixed, to a certain degree,” Shin said.

For instance, some people compulsively stare at their smartphones everywhere they go, playing games or watching virtual content, while others appear to be glued to their TVs at home all the time. It’s the difference between watching it on the screen or being in it, he said.

“I can’t imagine that people won’t be able to differentiate what is real and what is virtual,” he said.

Inami suggests, however, that the government start looking into the potential risks by creating a special virtual zone where a fixed number of people can spend time together and see what happens.

“Some people will do something bad and we could learn from it. Otherwise, we can’t predict what’s going to happen,” he said, adding that cults could use the technology to brainwash new subjects.

The second coming?
Many have dubbed 2016 as the dawn of the VR era. But experts say the technology has been around for decades and this is actually the second VR bubble since the 1990s.

But because the devices cost millions of yen back then, only engineers and researchers at big companies had the chance to use them, Inami said.

“The new VR fad will face some ups and downs from now on, but it’s hard to imagine it will go back to scratch,” Inami said, because, unlike the ’90s, the devices are much cheaper and it is easier to make 3-D content.

State-of-the-art VR headsets cost around ¥50,000 to ¥100,000, which is lower than many personal computers. The drastic price reduction is linked to the smartphone wave, Inami said. The two devices share key parts — such as head-tracking sensors — and the quick spread of smartphones forced parts makers to mass produce them, bringing down the costs.

Smartphones themselves can be turned into VR devices by simply sticking them into a simple, less expensive headset. Although the sense of immersiveness is not as strong, they allow people to experiment with VR in a more casual manner.

Google apparently sees potential in mobile VR. It just launched a headset called the Daydream and a VR-ready smartphone called the Pixel. On the software front, creating 3-D video games has become easier thanks to so-called video game engines, according to Shin.
“During the 1990s boom, it was still really difficult to make 3-D graphics. That’s why there wasn’t much content,” Shin said.

But such video game engines as Unity and Unreal, which are development kits that allow engineers to make games for multiple platforms, have lowered the hurdles for creating elaborate games in recent years, and this know-how can be applied to VR games as well, he said.

Source: Japan Times
Just the beginning
VR may still be at its dawn, but some of the industry’s key players said the technology is improving — rapidly.

“There’s so much innovation happening around hardware,” Joel Breton, vice president of VR content for HTC Vive, said last week at the Japan VR Summit in Tokyo.

For instance, HTC is working on getting rid of the data-transmission cables considered essential to high-end headsets, he said. It is also looking at developing a full-body tracking function to improve the immersive experience, instead of just sticking with heads and hands.

“If I look out to 2020, I feel very confident that we’ll have some good solutions,” he said.
Other industries, from design and cinema to health care and education, are likely to adopt VR technologies in the future.

Young directors will “be thinking how to tell stories, go beyond stories, create interactive stories somewhere between stories and games” using VR, said Noah Falstein, chief game designer at Google.

“I can’t wait to see that.”

Originally published on AFP/WIRES and on JAPAN TIMES

Monday, July 17, 2017

NEWS POST: India Is Rolling Out Trains With Solar-Powered Coaches That’ll Save Thousands Of Litres Of Diesel

Now, that's a sun roof. (Anil Kumar Chhatri/Indian Railways)
India’s massive diesel-guzzling railway network is getting serious about its experiments with solar.

On July 14, Indian Railways rolled out its first train with rooftop solar panels that power the lights, fans, and information display systems inside passenger coaches. Although the train will still be pulled by a diesel-powered locomotive, a set of 16 solar panels atop each coach will replace the diesel generators that typically power these appliances. The railways estimate that a train with six solar-powered coaches could save around 21,000 litres of diesel every year, worth around Rs12 lakh.

In 2014, Indian Railways consumed 2.6 billion litres of diesel, accounting for around 70% to the network’s total fuel bill of Rs28,592 crore.

The first of these trains will be pressed into service on the suburban railway network of New Delhi, one of the world’s most polluted cities, before two dozen more coaches are fitted with similar rooftop solar systems. Retrofitting each coach with these system, including an inverter to optimise power generation and battery for storing surplus power, costs around Rs9 lakh.

The rooftop solar system was developed by Noida-based Jakson Engineers, under the direction of the Indian Railways Organization for Alternate Fuels (IROAF). “It is not an easy task to fit solar panels on the roof of train coaches that run at a speed of 80 km per hour. Our engineering skills were put to a real test during the execution of this rooftop solar project for Indian Railways,” Sundeep Gupta, vice-chairman and managing director of Jakson Engineers told the Business Standard newspaper. Established in 2008, the IROAF initially focused on bio-diesel and compressed natural gas (CNG) to help diversify Indian Railways’ fuel mix, before looking at solar.

Indian Railways has ambitious plans for solar. By 2020, the state-run transportation network plans to generate around 1,000 megawatts (MW) of solar power, which could be scaled up to 5,000 MW by 2025. These numbers are not only significant for the railways, given that it’ll help bring down the fuel bill, but will also impact India’s overall renewable energy goal of 175 gigawatt (1 GW = 1,000 MW) by 2022.

So far, Indian Railways has made limited progress. Out of its 1 GW solar target, only about 16MW of capacity (pdf) has been installed, as of March 2017. However, nearly 255 MW of rooftop and 250 MW of land-based solar projects are in the pipeline, with around 130 MW of capacity already awarded.

Originally published on QUARTZ AFRICA