Explore Utah Science - Explore Utah Science - Technology http://www.exploreutahscience.org Mon, 22 Jan 2018 01:24:47 -0700 en-gb Biology Inspires Next Generation "Bio-batteries" http://www.exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/technology/item/141-biology-inspires-next-generation-bio-batteries http://www.exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/technology/item/141-biology-inspires-next-generation-bio-batteries Biology Inspires Next Generation

Batteries that power our electronic devices contain heavy metals and other materials that are toxic to the environment. A new battery technology inspired by biology, bio-batteries, overcomes many of these problems. The technology may one day lead to biodegradable batteries that store energy more efficiently than today's heavy duty lithium-ion batteries.

Batteries that power our electronic devices contain heavy metals and other materials that are toxic to the environment. A new battery technology inspired by biology, bio-batteries, overcomes many of these problems. The technology may one day lead to biodegradable batteries that store energy more efficiently than today's heavy duty lithium-ion batteries.

Most electronic devices we use today like cell phones and computers use lithium-ion batteries for their power. These batteries can store a lot of energy, leading to longer use times before recharging than other battery types. But the metals and chemicals used in lithium ion batteries can be dangerous, says Shelley Minteer.

"Interestingly enough, if something makes a very high energy density battery, it often times has a very energetic material and can have sort of safety issues associated with that," explains Menteer, a professor of chemistry and materials science and engineering at the University of Utah. "And we see that with lithium ion. So you've seen the reports of people's laptops catching on fire, you know issues with cars, etc."

To keep these batteries safe means they have to be packaged very carefully and other safety mechanisms such as a temperature sensor have to be included so they don't overheat.

"Because lithium is sort of dangerous chemistry, the protective container takes up a certain amount of space. We are basically hitting the limit taking into account that we have to have the protective cases," says Minteer.

As electronics continue to advance, they need higher battery capacities. Safety concerns and other technological considerations mean that it may not be long before lithium ion batteries can no longer keep up. This has lead to an explosion of research into the development of whole new types of batteries.

"It used to be that we were ok with a cell phone that we used sporadically and now we need our cell phone to take videos, to take pictures, to have a color screen and all of these things require energy," says Minteer. "We have had to sort of change how we think about designing batteries to be able to design them for the applications that people want to use them for today."

Minteer is on the forefront of battery technology. Her lab is developing biodegradable batteries that contain no toxic metals or chemicals.

"We are making batteries that are for all intents and purpose edible. Not that we eat them, but they are edible."

She says her batteries are inspired by biology since every day we consume food, and cells in our bodies convert that food into energy.

"The power house of the living cell, or the energy conversion component of the living cell happens in the mitochondria," says Minteer. "So we either remove the mitochondria intact [from yeast, spinach, or potatoes] and put it on an electrode surface. Or we remove the part of the mitochondria, the actual enzymes or catalysts in the mitochondria that do energy conversion from the cell and put them on the electrode surface," she explains.

The fuel for this type of battery is not a dangerous chemical, but instead can be the same kinds of things that we ingest, like sugar or alcohol. The mitochondria or enzymes convert the fuel into electrical energy.

"We have technology that we know is extremely efficient in the living cell, and if we can get that kind of efficiency we would have energy densities that are over an order of magnitude or roughly 20 times as energy dense as lithium ion batteries," says Minteer. "But we haven't yet got that complete efficiency you that see in the living cell, so we are working on how we can improve that."

Currently, bio-batteries are able to generate high enough current densities to power many portable electronic devices.

"You're typically talking about lifetimes that are on the days to weeks range for mitochondria, so relatively short," says Minteer. "On the other hand with enzymes it really depends on what we do to protect the enzymes. If we protect the enzymes from degradation we can get months to years worth of life out of the enzyme, similar lifetimes to what you would get out of a lot of your traditional battery technologies."

The benefits of bio-batteries are obvious in terms of disposal. It's estimated that Americans throw away 358 million pounds of batteries ever year, dispersing toxic materials into our air, water, and soil. But there are also specific applications that could be more suitable for a bio-battery. Imagine a pacemaker that runs on a battery that uses the sugar in a person's blood stream. Or since the batteries can be made flexible, they could be used in wearable electronics.

Minteer says some applications will take longer to develop than others, but expects to see simple applications come out within a couple of years.

"Some applications, like using biodegradable batteries in a greeting card, doesn't require a lot of engineering," says Minteer. "If instead you look at the battery that is in your cell phone, the battery in your cell phone is a smart device. Any type of smart battery that requires a great deal of power management is longer down the engineering scale than something that can just use the energy as it comes directly out of the battery."

So the next time you open a greeting card, it's just possible that you might be using a bio-battery.

kim@exploreutahscience.org (Kim Schuske) Technology Thu, 09 Jan 2014 14:22:29 -0700
The NSA is Collecting Our Data. Should We Be Concerned? http://www.exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/technology/item/123-the-nsa-is-collecting-our-data-should-we-be-concerned http://www.exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/technology/item/123-the-nsa-is-collecting-our-data-should-we-be-concerned The NSA is Collecting Our Data. Should We Be Concerned?

University of Utah cyber security researcher Matthew Might discusses the NSA data collection controversy.  

The National Security Agency has been collecting massive amounts of data on our phone and internet usage. The Guardian newspaper reported that in March 2013 alone, the NSA collected 97 billion pieces of intelligence from around the world. Kim Schuske talked with University of Utah cyber security researcher Matthew Might about what it means.

KIM SCHUSKE: What can you possibly do with 97 billion pieces of data from a single month?

MATT MIGHT: That's really what data mining is all about. Is when you have way more information than human analysts can handle. How do you extract knowledge from that? What you want to do is turn data into information and then present that information in a comprehensible fashion to human analysis.

KIM SCHUSKE: Then how can they use this?

MATT MIGHT: I've seen maps where they did an analysis of connections of connections, where they took two known terrorists that attended a meeting in Malaysia and they found that they were connected to people who were associated with the U.S.S. Cole bombing. And then if you went to connections of connections, so two degrees out, you had all nineteen 9/11 hijackers with Muhammed Atta as the central node.

And yet, we still didn't catch this plot. I think part of it that if you're looking for shapes like that - you know, this sort of hub and spoke shape - you're going to find that all over the place. Look at the mailman. The mailman is connected to everybody. And there are lots of people like that throughout any individual's life. And so if you're looking for specific shapes, they could show up all over the place, so you're going to get tremendous amounts of false positives.

KIM SCHUSKE: So are there computer programs, or modeling, that can get past that and get down to the more relevant players?

MATT MIGHT: I think we're getting better at throwing out the noise. There's a lot of research going on in Smart Sampling and sampling with low amounts of data to try and figure out what is truly relevant. But ultimately it's a matter of how much data you have. If you just don't have enough data to be statistically significant, then there's not a whole lot you can do to draw out these associations without implicating huge volumes of other people.

KIM SCHUSKE: So you sound a little skeptical that this is going to be a worthwhile endeavor at least at this level.

MATT MIGHT: Right, I do think I'm a bit skeptical that this will be used to stop any large number of terror plots. I think it might catch a few here or there, but again I think just given the volumes of data and the huge numbers of false positives that can show up, that just investigating all of the false positives, all of the things that look like some sort of security threat but actually aren't, I mean, that could chew up any anti-terrorism task force's entire time.

KIM SCHUSKE: But then, another potentially useful thing is not maybe preventing a terrorist attack. But after the fact, going and finding other players, or something like that. Do you think that might be one thing they might try to do?

MATT MIGHT: Well certainly, after the fact. You know, if you've got this data then you can go and start tracking down other people who might be involved. And certainly I think that has been done effectively, but prevention I think is very difficult.

KIM SCHUSKE: So where does this go from here? Do people have to be worried that their particular information is being collected and they could be targeted? 

MATT MIGHT: Honestly, it's unclear. We have an awful lot of trust in our government, with good reason. We are a functioning democracy, but you do have to worry anytime you start collecting these enormous amounts of data. You can build startling predictive models of people's behavior.

I mean, if you look at a company like Amazon and how well they learn what you like after you buy only a few things, I mean, it's remarkable. Or look at Netflix and their ability to recommend the movies you want to watch. With the amount of data that the government is collecting they could know an awful lot about you, like probably who you vote for.

KIM SCHUSKE: So, it's already happening. It's happening with corporations doing that to try and see if they can effectively advertise to you. So is this really any different? Or why is this more scary, at least to some people?

MATT MIGHT: I think it's scary because if you look at countries where the surveillance has sort of gone awry, or is sort of deliberatively used to stop people. I mean, you can use these sorts of technologies to aggressively curtail legitimate political action. Again, I'm not saying this is going to happen in the U.S., but it certainly enables the possibility of it someday happening, which is a bit frightening.

Actually one of my broader concerns here is, even if the U.S. governments never abuses all of the information it is collecting, let's suppose that never happens. I worry deeply about the security of the system doing all the collection. I think it's highly plausible that foreign governments could break into the system that we built and use that to spy on us. I mean basically they could know what we know, better than we know it because they don't have to get a court order.

KIM SCHUSKE: Being that you work on computer science and you know a lot of people in the field, what are you hearing from people that you work with?

MATT MIGHT: A lot of people I know right now are like, "Well, I'm glad I keep all of my data encrypted, I'm glad I encrypt my email, my communications." Because I think that's really the only way to avoid being collected at this point, is to make sure everything is encrypted.


kim@exploreutahscience.org (Kim Schuske) Technology Tue, 11 Jun 2013 07:48:10 -0600
What's Up with the BRAIN http://www.exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/technology/item/119-what-s-up-with-the-brain http://www.exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/technology/item/119-what-s-up-with-the-brain What's Up with the BRAIN

(Audio) Last month, President Obama announced an initiative to study the human brain. One of the researchers on the working group for this project hails from Utah.

Last month, President Obama announced an initiative to study the human brain. One of the researchers on the working group for this project hails from Utah.

Richard Normann begins every morning at his University of Utah office by making a cup of espresso. Like so many of us, the morning routine and the caffeine jolt helps to get his brain cells firing. But he knows a little more about this than most people. 25 years ago he invented an electrode device that can be implanted into a human brain. It was the first of its kind and is capable of allowing researchers to listen to a group of neurons communicating with each other. Previously people used single wires and could only hear the signal of one or a small number of neurons.

"But the way the brain works is not by individual neurons telling the body how to move," says Normann. "The brain works by large numbers of neurons working in concert to achieve a certain end and you're never going to understand what is the spatial and temporal pattern of neural activity with a single wire, a single electrode."

Already Normann's device, which contains 100 electrodes, has helped researchers to better define epilepsy, identify patterns of neuron activity that delineate speech, and even control the movement of a robotic arm by a paralyzed patient using only her mind.

Two groups of researchers have so far achieved this goal. One of those stories was told last December by Scott Pelley on 60 minutes. He profiled Jan Scheuermann who is paralyzed from the neck down due to a degenerative disease. A group at the University of Pittsburgh implanted two of Normann's electrode arrays onto the surface of Scheuermann's brain and closed up her skull leaving two computer connections on the outside.

When they hooked up her brain to a computer, five months later, Scheuermann was able to move the robotic arm and hand in all directions, and was even able to shake Pelley's hand. "That is just the most astounding thing I've ever seen," says Pelley.

Normann and his colleagues are themselves using the Utah electrode array, which is now sold by the local company Blackrock Microsystems, for many projects. One goal is to help amputee patients not only control a robotic arm and hand, but also to let the patients feel the things they touch through sensors in that hand. Because amputee patients retain active nerve fibers in the stump of the arm, the Utah group is working to place the electrode arrays in the arm, rather than in the brain.

"My ultimate fantasy, and I don't think it's much of a fantasy, is a person who would be fitted with such a prosthetic arm and hand, would no longer think of this as a piece of hardware hanging on the end of their amputation," says Normann. "I think they would begin to think of this as their arm and hand."

Achieving these rather remarkable feats in prosthetics and other brain-related fields are due to decades of progress in mapping the nerves in the arm and in the brain, says Normann.

"We know where the senses of touch are, the motor parts of the brain which tell our body to move in space, where the visual parts of the brain are, the auditory parts of the brain. We do know where these rather large global areas of sensory, motor parts of the brain and cognitive parts of the brain." He adds, "But, that's about as good as it gets."

Normann says there is still much that needs to be discovered including how the brain produces complex thoughts and behaviors.

"The real bottom line basic question is consciousness," says Normann. "What is it about this collection of large numbers of neurons, that when working in concert, produces our ability to be aware of ourselves? That's an unbelievable question that we are still kind of in the dark about. So there's a lot of basic understanding that needs to be gotten about how the brain works."

And that's one of the goals of the BRAIN initiative, which stands for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies. Normann is one of 15 members of the working group that will be meeting over this summer to identify promising areas of study. He says they are on a fact-finding mission.

"The goal of this group I think, is to look at existing technologies, hear about others peoples thinking about new kinds of technologies that could be used to address these problems," says Normann. "And to have a better sense of how we could begin to solve these more complex problems over the next decade."

Identifying ways to develop new sets of tools for recording neuron activity in the deepest and hardest-to-reach parts of the brain might be one of their aims. As well as figuring out ways to research new interventions for brain disorders. But Normann cautions that this will take money –
much more than the $110 million dollars currently proposed for the initiative.

"Perhaps the best outcome is that we might be able to get a bit more money from our congress to support the area of neuroscience as it's been identified by Obama as being one of the great challenges of this decade," says Normann.

He adds that this would be a better approach than shifting existing funding away from other promising research. The working group is scheduled to deliver an interim report about their findings at the end of the summer and a final report next year.


Ross Chambless was the editor for this story.

Conflict of interest disclosure: Julie Kiefer is an employee with the Brain Institute at the University of Utah, where some of this research is being done. She did not contribute to this story.

kim@exploreutahscience.org (Kim Schuske) Technology Sun, 12 May 2013 20:00:00 -0600
Building A Bionic Eye http://www.exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/technology/item/91-building-a-bionic-eye http://www.exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/technology/item/91-building-a-bionic-eye Implanted 60 electrode array

A Utah engineer helps develop the first bionic eye approved last week by the FDA.

Retinitis pigmentosa is not a common disease, but it is a debilitating one. It kills cells in the eye, often first leading to tunnel vision, or loss of night vision. In some cases, patients lose central vision, and can become totally blind.

"There is no cure for the disease," says Gianluca Lazzi, USTAR professor and chair of the electrical and computing engineering department at the University of Utah.

Lazzi is a member of a large team of researchers across the country that has created the first bionic eye. The FDA approved the vision system for patients in the U.S. on Friday.

Patients with Retinitis pigmentosa have lost their photoreceptor cells - light sensing cells in the eye - but other cell types remain. The artificial retina works by bypassing the photoreceptors altogether. The goal, says Lazzi, is to "replace the function of the photoreceptor cells and therefore provide an electrical pulse that could stimulate the surviving ganglion and bipolar cells."

An artificial retina

The Argus II artificial retina device consists of a pair of glasses that has a camera to visualize the world. Pixilated images from the camera are relayed to an iPod-sized box worn by the patient that processes the information and sends it back to the glasses. The information is then wirelessly transmitted to a receiver transplanted under the skin of the eye and then to an electrode array implanted into the retina. The array stimulates the remaining cells to convey rudimentary visual information to the brain.

"The camera and the transmitters are on the outside, including battery," says Marc Humayun, professor of ophthalmology and biomedical engineering at the University of Southern California. "The inside part [the receiver] has to receive both power and data, so it basically has a tiny antenna and electronics that we place underneath the skin of the eye."

The electrode array is delicate, flexible, and thin. It contains 60 microelectrode pads in a grid. "Each pad makes a contact with the retina and each pad creates a spot of light, or what we consider a pixel," says Humayan, who was an original founder of the project.

Big science requires collaboration

The complex device was a collaborative effort between academic research institutions, government labs, and a private company, Second Sight. The project was primarily funded by the Department of Energy.

"There are so many skills and different technologies that are necessary for this to be a successful effort," says Lazzi.

Lazzi's group was responsible for figuring out how to keep the device from getting too hot while operating. "We have been trying to keep the temperature increase below three degrees Celsius," he says. "You need to realize that this is essentially a computer working full steam and full time. There is no fan that can cool this device." Keeping temperatures in check required optimizing component design, placement of components, and getting the device to run on just the right amount of power.

Approximately fifty people around the world have undergone the two-hour surgery to implant the receiver and electrode array, and are now using the Argus II. The 60 electrodes don't make up for the millions and millions of photoreceptor cells that have been lost, but Humayun says the fuzzy obscured black and white images do make a difference to patients.

"In these blind patients it is amazing that they are able to see a cup, a knife, they're able to see doorways, they're able to see large chairs, and they're even able to see large letters," says Humayan.

Lazzi says their hope is that the brain will learn how to better use the device and "start associating the perceived images with what the brain knows. "Remember these people all had vision before, so they have a real idea of what a door should look like or a window should look like."

The researchers are already working on a 200 electrode device, and hope to eventually push the technology even further. "The idea is to get to roughly around 1000 [electrodes] which we believe will allow you to read large print and recognize faces," says Humayan.

Under the initial FDA approval, about 15,000 patients are eligible to receive the device.

kim@exploreutahscience.org (Kim Schuske) Technology Mon, 18 Feb 2013 07:15:43 -0700
High Tech Snowmaking Fills in for Mother Nature http://www.exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/technology/item/84-high-tech-snowmaking-fills-in-for-mother-nature http://www.exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/technology/item/84-high-tech-snowmaking-fills-in-for-mother-nature High Tech Snowmaking Fills in for Mother Nature

Labor-intensive and high tech, snowmaking is often a resort’s biggest expense. But it remains essential in the age of climate change.

The snow at Utah ski resorts is plentiful this season, but a year ago it was not. The country’s snowfall at ski areas was down 41% and visits to Utah’s ski areas were down by 10%. To beat mother nature’s unpredictability, most Utah resorts have invested heavily in snowmaking.

Alex Divers, head snowmaker for Park City Mountain Resort, is one of their most valuable employees. Recent storms have allowed snowmaking to slack off, but during the early season, or seasons with sparse snow, making the stuff is constant labor. Divers explained, “There's no days off. Snowmaking runs 24 hours a day and moves really fast, so you can't be absent”. Even on snowy days, snowmakers fill in areas where skiers or snowboarders have scraped snow down to an icy base.

The job is demanding. Heavy snow guns have to be pulled by sled to the precise spot where snow is needed. Nozzles and fans must be manually adjusted in the freezing cold. Water must be cooled to the perfect temperature so that it explodes into snow when blown into the air. All this for the sake of skiable snow.

Science of snowmaking

Divers, his crew, and snowmakers at resorts along the Wasatch Front, are more than snow makers, they are snow scientists. But instead of a warm laboratory, their work is done in freezing temperatures.

"We can make 20 different kinds of snow, from a wet heavy snow to a light kind of powder. Wet snow is used for a base layer to blanket the whole run before we make skiable snow on top of it," says Snowbasin supervisor Cody Jones.

The ingredients of man-made snow are not just water and cold air. Water crystallization can only begin once snow particles have something to 'grab' onto. Some resorts nucleate snow crystals with "Snomax", a bacterial protein that allows crystallization to occur at warmer temperatures. Controversial because it comes from genetically modified bacteria, most Utah resorts load their guns with tiny particles of ice or dirt instead.

Snowmakers also know that successful snowmaking is inextricably tied to the weather. In a worst-case scenario, if the air is too humid and warm, water won’t cool to the freezing point, and the guns will shoot rain instead of snow.

Despite automated technologies, a snowmaker’s judgment is critical. "We still have to go out on a snowmobile to check the plume of every (operating) snow gun,” says Brian Dubuque, Snowbasin’s head snowmaker. “You grab a handful off the ground and kind of squeeze it in your hand, and if it's the density you want, you leave it, or you call back up to the control room and tell them to wet it up a little bit, or if it's too wet, you tell them to dry it up a little bit."

The effort can mean insurance for a ski area. Park City Mountain Resort estimated that just before Christmas, 2011 – peak season - 87% of its runs were open due to snowmaking.

High tech systems are an investment for the future

The biggest and most modern snowmaking system in the United States is at Snowbasin resort in Huntsville. It was built for the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics, and is still one of the most advanced in the world and is totally computerized. The system controls 540 snow guns fueled by15 miles of dual pipes buried underground, one pipe for highly pressurized air, the other for pre-cooled water.

"Our system is 100% automated. You tell it what kind of snow you want it to make, it finds the pressure inside the hydrant and makes the snow,” says Dubuque.

Within a huge mid-mountain building lies the heart of the operation, a control room that seems like something from a NASA lab. A multitude of gauges monitors the pressurized air, which leaves the pump at nearly a thousand PSI (pounds square inch), and regulates water temperature to within one-tenth of a degree. Computers make automated adjustments based on data from 100 weather stations throughout the mountain, changing the water temperature, or changing the mix of water and air to get the right snow consistency.

The technology behind snowmaking makes it one of, if not the biggest expenses at a resort. "It costs roughly $903 an acre foot---covering one acre with one foot of snow---and 95% of that is power costs. So if power costs go up, it gets more expensive for the resort," says Divers. That's not even counting the cost of the snowmaking guns, which can range from 25 to 75 thousand dollars.

Every Wasatch Front ski resort, except Powder Mountain, the highest elevation resort, has decided that the expense and effort of snowmaking are worth it.

Randy Doyle, general manager of Brighton resort in Little Cottonwood Canyon acknowledges that being able to make snow can mean survival for a winter resort. "If we didn't have snowmaking, we wouldn't have been able to open until much later."

With a warming planet and associated variable weather, snowmaking could be even more important for Utah ski resorts in the future.

Snowbasin snowmaker David Roberts directs
a crew member who is manually adjusting
snow gun nozzle angles.
Every green rectangle is a weather station,
every dot is a snowgun.

water coolers

snow gun nozzles
Tanks and pipes in the snowmaking building
allow water to be temperature adjusted to 
one-tenth of a degree.
A selection of snow gun nozzles.

 Photo credits: Wina Sturgeon

Winfishh@aol.com (Wina Sturgeon) Technology Mon, 04 Feb 2013 00:00:00 -0700
Utah's Tech Future--KCPW CityViews http://www.exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/technology/item/73-utahs-tech-future http://www.exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/technology/item/73-utahs-tech-future Utah's Tech Future--KCPW CityViews

Utah has a growing reputation as a friendly place for IT and technology companies. How can the state keep up the momentum?

KCPW CityViews

Nearly 50,000 Utahns work in the IT industry, a sector that grew a whopping 7 percent this past year. But even as high-tech companies are healthy and hiring, they’re finding it hard to find and recruit top tech talent. KCPW CityViews examines the state of Utah’s tech sector and the prospects for growth with the CEO of Merit Medical Systems, Fred Lampropoulos, and President of the Utah Technology Council, Richard Nelson.

Listen to the full discussion with KCPW CityViews host, Jennifer Napier-Pearce.

jnpearce@kcpw.org (Jennifer Napier-Pearce) Technology Thu, 20 Dec 2012 00:00:00 -0700
Do It Yourself—An Old Movement Takes on New Meaning http://www.exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/technology/item/65-do-it-yourself—an-old-movement-takes-on-new-meaning http://www.exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/technology/item/65-do-it-yourself—an-old-movement-takes-on-new-meaning Do It Yourself—An Old Movement Takes on New Meaning

VIDEO Whether it's robotics, information security, 3D printing, or sewing and knitting, Do-It-Yourself has become a new subculture and is thriving in Utah.

Inside a nondescript warehouse at the end of a dark alley, some two-dozen people are gathered into small groups. There is the buzz of muted conversations. Near the door, three men are examining an angular structure of dull metal rods, connected with green plastic braces.

The maker explains the problem with his homemade 3D printer, "The extruder was designed for a different machine, and isn't as deep as required. The platform the extruder normally rests on is too tall, so we need to make it shorter."

This isn't some covert operation. It's the weekly Wednesday get together of MakeSLC, a maker/hacker group that describes themselves on their website as "A group of people that like to hack and play with different things." Though weighted toward high tech, they reach out to any type of maker, including sewers, knitters and sign makers.

On this Wednesday is a class about building 3D printers; devices that are likely to revolutionize how we obtain products in the future.

A 3D printer 'prints' actual objects from spools of plastic filament. It looks like weedwacker string. "All the files you need to print something are online. People make toys, people make useful household objects. You can print out your own musical instruments like recorders or ocarinas [an ancient flute like instrument]," says Tim Anderson one of the founders of MakeSLC and part of the 'maker movement'.

What is the maker movement?

At its core, the maker movement is about do-it-yourself projects. The other part is the hacker movement, says Anderson.

"'Hack' isn't what you would call a black hat kind of thing, like hacking into companies. When we hack things, it's just taking things apart for new uses, like taking an old computer apart and finding a new purpose for the computer."

"Adapting is a core concept of 'making.' It's a tangible thing, rather than trying to take information," adds James Howard, who runs an electronics company with Anderson.

Adapting almost necessitates the exchange of knowledge and ideas. While social media and internet sites abound for the maker movement, these clubs are about in-person sharing. Howard says, with a wide smile, the maker/hacker movement is friendly to all, "It's just a hangout on Wednesday nights. If you're curious and want to learn some things, come on down and ask questions."

There are more than 200 such groups throughout the country, with many more throughout the world, and new clubs are forming constantly. Utah's largest group is The Transistor based in Provo, which just this year opened three new locations along the Wasatch Front in Orem, Midvale, and Salt Lake City.

Each Transistor group has a different focus. The Salt Lake chapter focuses on 'infosec', or information security. They have cryptography classes and look at the way web sites are built. The Orem Transistor is in a 5,000 square foot warehouse that has laser cutters and they work on robotics. The Midvale group specializes in programming and electronics. "Most of our members have some type of technology background, but not all of them do," says Deven Fore, who helped form The Transistor groups.

A new subculture arises from an old idea

The maker movement has its roots in do-it-yourself kits, popular in the 1950's and 1960's. "There were electronics that kids could order through magazines, like build your own crystal radios and things along those lines." But Howard says that kind of thing has all gone away.

Today's kids know how to use technology, but don't know how to make it. "We're trying to create another whole generation of engineers again. Hopefully, they'll go on to school, become an engineer and make something even better and cooler. They're going to be the future."

Dorian Tolman, age 24, is part of that next generation; most of the participants are between 30 to 40 years old. Arriving to the MakeSLC meeting on a skateboard, sporting long hair and a hoody, he doesn't fit the description of the stereotypical engineering enthusiast. His futuristic-looking skateboard has unusual ridges on the bottom. They were his idea.

"I make parts for skateboards. I have a friend print out the skeleton for me, then I wrap it with carbon fiber to make the structure I want. The ridges on the bottom of this board adds torsional strength and gives it flexibility along the length," says Tolman.

On that Wednesday, Tolman came to discuss suggestions for improvements to the board's wheel assembly. As several members strolled over to Tolman, a tiny remote-controlled helicopter flew overhead, hovering here and there. For makers, this is the kind of object that sparks creativity. Could it carry a camera? Could it be made smaller? That is the goal of the movement: working together to find ways to make things better.



Skateboard parts maker Dorian Tolman, one of the youngest members of
MakeSLC at 24, shows the revolutionary ridging on the bottom of a board
he designed and made.

A build-it-yourself 3D printer. A commercial 3D printer costs about
$20,000, MakeSLC offers a full kit for $800, which includes the green
plastic parts that will be custom printed for the buyer.

Wil Bown discusses his extruder problem with two other MakeSLC
members. Tim Anderson, is at right.

Winfishh@aol.com (Wina Sturgeon) Technology Mon, 03 Dec 2012 05:54:49 -0700
Bringing Utah Innovations to Market http://www.exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/technology/item/41-bringing-utah-innovations-to-market http://www.exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/technology/item/41-bringing-utah-innovations-to-market Bringing Utah Innovations to Market

During the recession, the federal government and USTAR invested 3.6 million dollars of stimulus money to help Utah inventors get their products one step closer to market. Now that the program is over, how did they do?

Utah is full of creative people. After all, the first artificial heart was developed here, and Utah born Philo Farnsworth invented the TV. But for many inventors it's difficult to find money to create or test prototypes, says Ted McAleer.

"Typically when an individual or inventor has an idea, the challenge is how do you take that idea through what we call the proof of concept and the prototype phase to make it really come to life, so that some type of investor would want to invest in that technology."

McAleer is the executive director for USTAR, an initiative created by the Utah Legislature in 2006 which invests in research into novel technologies. He says federal agencies usually don't fund this type of translational research, which nurtures inventions into products.

"We saw an opportunity using the technology commercialization grants to fund this gap and to try to accelerate the growth of new jobs in Utah from new technology."

The inventions are out there. They run the gamut from biomedical devices, to products for aviation, homeland security, alternative energy, and outdoor recreation. During the recession, USTAR was given 3.6 million in federal stimulus dollars, which were turned into small grants to help inventors fund their projects. One of them is Scott Sundberg, who was an engineering graduate student at the University of Utah. Sundberg grew up in Salt Lake City and loved physics and math classes during high school and college. As a graduate student, he saw how he could apply this passion.

"That's why I got interested in the medical side, I wanted to make improvements in medical care, so that's my main interest in why I chose this field," says Sundberg.

Sundberg may soon succeed in this goal. He and University of Utah researchers Bruce Gale and Carl Wittwer are developing a system to detect individual cancer cells floating in the blood. Engineering professor Gale says the level of tumor cells in the blood may be an indicator of prognosis in some cancer patients.

"So when someone has cancer or a tumor, these tumors will literally shed cells out into the blood. And if you can find those cells you have an idea of maybe how bad the cancer is, or whether it is spreading, or where it's going. So our project was to find these cells."

It's a project that seemed perfect for USTAR's program. Soon, a $50,000 grant was on its way to Sundberg, Gale, and Wittwer.

They set to work. Gale says finding floating cancer cells is like looking for a needle in a haystack because there may be only one circulating tumor cell for every one million or even ten million white blood cells. He says Sundberg came up with an idea to divide a prepared blood sample into a thousand small chambers. This makes it easier to find the elusive cancer cells.

"The device we made uses a disc. We make a disc that looks a lot like a CD and it has a thousand different chambers on it for putting cells into it," says Gale. "You could literally just take a blood sample, do a little bit of sample preparation and we could do the test. And it would be very fast, maybe 20 to 30 minutes, and you would be able to get some good information about the status of the patient."

Researchers worldwide are working on different ways to identify these circulating tumor cells. Gale says if their system works, it will be cheaper and faster than other tests currently under development.

"The other techniques, they might cost one thousand, two thousand, ten or forty thousand dollars for some of these techniques to do one test, whereas we can just do this for maybe a few dollars. "

The trio of scientists have started a company called Espira and are well on their way toward having a prototype of their cancer cell test.

While the purpose of the technology grants were to invest in promising technologies, the purpose of the federal stimulus was to create or save jobs. According to USTAR, 176 jobs were directly funded through the technology grant program. Engineer Bruce Gale says if their cancer test succeeds, it could create dozens of jobs in the future.

"I think the state has been very wise in how they have applied some of this stimulus money. Not just hopefully stimulating today, but investing in opportunities that may repay them very handsomely."

So far, the technology grant program has lead to 30 new companies, 98 new invention prototypes, and 170 patent applications.

Now that the stimulus money has run out, inventors that have a prototype in hand and want to take their project to the next step are charged with finding private investors or tapping small business grants. Many of them have, raising $20.3 million total in private capital investment, according to USTAR.

As for Espira, they were awarded one year of funding from a new Utah commercialization grant program, and they have the potential for a second year of funding. They are also in discussion with possible collaborators, and if they can tempt additional investors, hope to have a product on the market within five years.

kim@exploreutahscience.org (Kim Schuske) Technology Thu, 01 Nov 2012 00:00:00 -0600
Electric Roads: America’s Transportation Future? http://www.exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/technology/item/10-electric-roads-america’s-transportation-future? http://www.exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/technology/item/10-electric-roads-america’s-transportation-future? Electric Roads: America’s Transportation Future?

Can electric roads one day help Utah clean the air?

Imagine driving on I-80 from Salt Lake City to San Francisco and never stopping for gas. Or breathing clean air, even in winter. USTAR researchers at Utah State University are working on a technology they hope could one day make that fantasy a reality.

Every time we get in our cars, turn the ignition and go about our business, we’re adding to the Wastach Front’s notorious air pollution. And it’s causing major health problems. In fact, pollution contributes to 1,000 - 2,000 premature deaths each year, according to Dr. Brian Moench, Director of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. “Children are actually of particular concern because for example with regards to their lung, they’re in a stage when their lungs are growing and developing very rapidly. And if they’re exposed to more air pollution, they may actually never reach their full adult lung capacity.”

It’s estimated that 50-60% of Wasatch Front pollution is caused by vehicles. Plug-in electric cars like the Nissan Leaf, which have no tail pipe emissions, hold some promise for reducing toxic smog. But Wesley Smith says electric cars are expensive and batteries are inefficient. “If it weren’t for the limitations of the battery, we would all be driving electric vehicles today. They are clearly the weakest link. They are heavy, they are costly, they have limited range.”

Smith is the business director for the Energy Dynamics Lab at Utah State University. He says scientists are developing a new technology that would allow electric cars to travel hundreds of miles and circumvent the need to plug in and charge up. “If you look at a new model instead of carrying around these energy storage devices on every vehicle, if you can transfer electricity as the physicists would say in its purest form, from a power plant, through the road, and into the vehicle, you eliminate almost all of those battery limitations.”

Researchers at the Energy Dynamics lab and USTAR are helping to develop a system to wirelessly charge electric cars while they travel over roads. Smith says electric roads could reduce battery size by as much as 85%, which would also reduce the cost – to consumers -- of an electric car. “You would electrify the main roads, but you would still have these smaller battery packs that would get you up into your neighborhood and then back down from your neighborhood back down onto a main road.”

It’s a revolutionary idea, but how close is it to reality? The technology to wirelessly transfer electricity is called inductive power transfer. It’s been around for over a hundred years. It’s the same technology that allows you to power up an ipod or an electric toothbrush by setting them on a charger rather than plugging them directly into an outlet. Hunter Wu is a research scientist at the Energy Dynamics Lab. “Basically how it works is we take an electrical source input and convert that to a high frequency magnetic field. Now that magnetic field jumps through an air gap and a receiver will receive this magnetic field and convert it back to electricity to recharge your battery.”

The technology to charge personal devices is limited since they have to be within a fraction of an inch from the charger. But Wu, while a graduate student in New Zealand, helped to develop a more advanced system that transfers power over a 12-inch or even larger air gap. The new more efficient system makes it possible to charge electric vehicles. “We can transfer roughly 40 kilowatts per vehicle, so that’s more than sufficient to power any electric vehicle traveling at 75 miles per hour on an interstate. In terms of efficiency, were looking at transmission efficiencies of about 90% efficiency. So it’s going to be very efficient. It’s going to be very comparable to even our power transmission grid,” says Wu.

The idea is to bury charging pads under pavement in parking lots, garages, and roads. And while the technology sounds futuristic, there are already a number of demonstration projects. A tram in a South Korean park is powered by wireless electricity. Only 16% of the one and a half mile road has to be electrified for the tram to run. Now the Energy Dynamics Lab has teamed up with labs in South Korea, New Zealand, and the Oak Ridge National Labs in Tennessee to develop the first demonstration project in the US.

Wesley Smith, business director for the Energy Dynamics Lab, says the first place to start is with a bus or trolley line. For that type of project the price is right. He says a high-density transit route with five buses will cost around 20% less with the wireless system than diesel or gas powered buses over their lifetime. “And what’s compelling about that is that most green technologies can’t survive in the current market place without subsidies. But we feel pretty strongly that these cannot only survive but can ultimately save a forward looking transit authority quite a bit of money.”

Smith says there’s been some interest around the country including in Utah. Craig Dearden is chair of the Wasatch Front Regional Council, which plans transportation projects for the valley. He says he doesn’t know much about the technology. But his group is always looking for transportation alternatives and would be interested in learning more. “The cost of electricity has to be less than the cost of diesel over the long run and so yeah it’s something that we’re going to have to look at.”

Despite promising advances, there are still modifications needed to make the system more efficient, safe, and cost effective before it’s ready to be widely implemented. And switching from oil and gas to electricity that’s generated from coal isn’t necessarily clean. But Jeff Muhs, director of the Energy Dynamics Lab, says he’s confident these hurdles can be overcome. “It’s much easier to scrub a single power plant than it is 250 million cars. In other words you can invest in a technology to reduce the emissions from a power plant because it is all centralized.”

While using wireless electricity on some local transit routes may make sense, electrifying highways across the country would require a huge investment by the federal government. Muhs says their goal at the Energy Dynamics Lab is to come up with big ideas about how to create and use energy in the future. He adds that the only way for the US to truly decrease its dependence on foreign oil and clean up the air is if federal and local governments start thinking big as well.

This story originally aired 2/14/11

UPDATE: WAVE Technologies has obtained a federal grant to fund a pilot project that will use the wireless transfer system to charge University of Utah shuttle buses. Wesley Smith, now the CEO of WAVE Technologies, hopes to have the project up and running early next year, 2013.

A demonstration shuttle has already begun at Utah State University.

kim@exploreutahscience.org (Kim Schuske) Technology Sun, 21 Oct 2012 00:00:00 -0600
Utah Innovation: Bomb-Sniffing Technology http://www.exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/technology/item/4-utah-innovation-bomb-sniffing-technology http://www.exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/technology/item/4-utah-innovation-bomb-sniffing-technology Utah Innovation: Bomb-Sniffing Technology

One day, nanotechnology may put bomb-sniffing dogs out of work.

With the increased threat of terrorism, airports, police, and the military are on high alert. Currently the most sensitive and reliable way to detect a bomb is with a well-trained dog. But USTAR researchers at the University of Utah are using nanotechnology to develop a handheld device that could eventually put bomb-sniffing dogs out of work.

During the legislative session the potential for security threats are always taken seriously, but this year the number of threats are on the rise. Utah Highway Patrol Trooper Dan Huber is making sure the capitol is safe for citizens and legislators alike. He and his bomb-sniffing dog travel the capitol grounds looking for danger. “Diego, he is a five year old Belgian Malenois, he came from Holland. A dog’s nose is 300,000 times more sensitive than a humans nose. And so traces of explosives, any kind of a little bit of gunpowder that’s burn inside of a shell casing, he can find that.”

Dogs are currently the most effective way to detect bombs. They can smell multiple types of explosives at very low concentrations. Huber says that makes dogs an important part of a security team. “He’s kind of like an insurance policy for the state because when you need one and don’t have one, it’s really hard to get one. It’s another added layer of defense that we use to protect people here at the capitol and throughout the state.”

But dogs are expensive to train, feed, and house, sometimes they don’t want to work and they can develop health problems. Deputy Collin Gordon with the Utah County Police Department worked with his German Shepherd Yargo for five years. “We responded to a lot of different types of calls, obviously bomb threats whether that be in a business, or a school, a government facility. We did a lot of protection details for dignitaries when they came in. I was on two different presidential details during my time.”

They never found a live explosive device while deployed, but Gordon says Yargo was able to detect up to 22 different explosive odors. Then last year Yargo developed sclerosis and arthritis in his back and was retired out of service. “It’s a bit of a nice break at times, but I do miss it.”

For decades, the US government has been investing in new technologies to detect explosives. Ling Zang, a researcher at the University of Utah, has received funding from the Department of Homeland Security. He’s trying to develop a handheld bomb-sniffer that can detect many explosive types at the same time, just like a dogs nose. “We are working to target all kinds of typical explosive including nito based, peroxide based, inorganic based explosive,” says Zang.

To find low concentrations of explosive vapor, Zang is using nanotechnology. That’s the study of materials with dimensions of between 1-100 nanometers—it’s very small, about 50,000 times smaller than the width of an average human hair. Professor Mark Porter is director of the University of Utah’s Nano Institute: “What is nanotechnology? Well of course it’s been around for a long time. Nanoparticles or nanomaterials really sit between to kind of things were really familiar with. So we’re familiar with atoms and molecules and were familiar with bulk materials. So as you begin to build things up from atoms to a bulk material, properties change dramatically.”

For example, Porter says a solution of gold atoms are almost colorless, but as atoms come together to form gold particles the color changes to red and eventually to the color we know of as bulk gold. He says modern nanotechnology scientists are exploiting this phenomenon to create new materials that can do amazing things. Zang is building nanofiber materials that can sense trace amounts of explosive. The fibers are assembled into a web containing small pockets and explosive molecules get trapped. “By piling up a lot of fiber together we can form this kind of porous film. So whenever you have a molecule like TNT flowing in the air, so whenever you catch that it will be able to accumulate. So that’s why our material can be so sensitive to detect even trace amounts of explosives.”

But accumulating explosive in the nanofiber film is just the first step. “After you catch up and accumulate this TNT or some other explosive molecule within your sensor materials, now comes to a second step. Your materials should be able to show some response to that vapor molecule explosive,” says Zang.

The nanofibers designed by Zang’s lab emit light and conduct electricity. When explosive vapor is present, the light becomes dimmer and the electrical properties change. These two features allow them to tell how much and what kind of explosives are present. “So why the explosive can give that kind of electrical optical signal to your nanofiber? That’s based on the chemical reactions. Based on a different type of explosive reacting with a different type of nanofiber, which is composed of different type of building block molecules within the nanofibers.”

Each nanofiber material built by Zang and his colleagues binds and reacts to a different explosive type. And since the nanofibers are so small, multiple explosive detectors can be contained within a single device. Last month Zang received funding from Utah’s Governor’s Center for Excellence Program to begin developing a prototype of the bomb sniffing device. He says the task requires bringing multiple experts together. “When you’re trying to get a prototype device you need some people from electrical engineering, from materials science, from physics, from chemistry. So we work as a team to get the real device which can be used one day.”

Deputy Gordon thinks it would be a great thing if a new bomb-sniffing device is developed, but doubts they will stop using dogs. “I think that if we could look at using new technologies in cooperation with the dogs then you start to use all of the tools that are available which is a benefit to law enforcement the community as well.”

Zang hopes to have a prototype of his explosive detector ready in the next 2-3 years.

This story originally aired 2/28/11.

UPDATE: Ling Zang's new company, Vaporsens, is also developing a detector to identify trace levels of methamphetamine.

kim@exploreutahscience.org (Kim Schuske) Technology Sun, 21 Oct 2012 00:00:00 -0600