Tuesday, June 23, 2009


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A transparent thin film barrier used to protect flat panel TVs from moisture could become the basis for flexible solar panels that would be installed on roofs like shingles.

The flexible rooftop solar panels - called building-integrated photovoltaics, or BIPVs - could replace today's boxy solar panels that are made with rigid glass or silicon and mounted on thick metal frames. The flexible solar shingles would be less expensive to install than current panels and made to last 25 years.

"There's a lot of wasted space on rooftops that could actually be used to generate power," said Mark Gross, a senior scientist at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. "Flexible solar panels could easily become integrated into the architecture of commercial buildings and homes. Solar panels have had limited success because they've been difficult and expensive to install."

Researchers at PNNL will create these flexible panels by adapting a film encapsulation process currently used to coat flat panel displays that use organic light-emitting diodes, or OLEDs. The work is made possible by a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement recently penned between Vitex Systems and Battelle, which operates PNNL for the federal government.

PNNL researchers developed the thin film technology in the 1990s. At the time, the lab's team investigated 15 possible applications, including solar power. Vitex licensed the technology from Battelle in 2000 and focused its initial efforts on developing the ultra-barrier films for flat-panel displays. Now PNNL and Vitex are taking a hard second look at solar power.

The encapsulation process and the ultra-barrier film - called Barix™ Encapsulation and Barix™ Barrier Film, respectively - are already proven and effective moisture barriers. But researchers need to find a way to apply the technology to solar panels that are made with copper indium gallium selenide, called CIGS, or cadmium telluride, called CdTe.

Under the agreement, researchers will create low-cost flexible barrier films and evaluate substrate materials for solar panels, which are also called photovoltaics, or PVs. Both the film and substrate must be able to survive harsh ultraviolet rays and natural elements like rain and hail for 25 years.

The agreement also calls for researchers to develop a manufacturing process for the flexible panels that can be readily adapted to large-scale production. If successful, this process will reduce solar panel manufacturing costs to less than $1 per watt of power, which would be competitive with the 10 cents per kilowatt-hour that a utility would charge.

"Vitex is proud to continue its long, successful relationship with PNNL," said Martin Rosenblum, Vitex's vice president of operations and engineering. "Vitex is excited to further its Barix™ technology's proven barrier performance for photovoltaics toward mass manufacturing. Together, we look forward to creating a product that will help alleviate America's dependence on foreign oil and increase America's access to an abundant renewable energy source - the sun."

Battelle, which is the majority shareholder of Vitex, is optimistic that this research agreement will contribute to a new way of generating solar power. Battelle recently increased its investment in Vitex for new state-of-the-art thin film encapsulation equipment and expanded its intellectual property portfolio.

"We're confident that Vitex will be uniquely positioned to help meet the demand for flexible solar panels, OLED displays and lighting that should rise along with the economy," said Martin Inglis, Battelle's chief financial officer.

(Photo: Vitex Systems, Inc.)

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory


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The red supergiant star Betelgeuse, the bright reddish star in the constellation Orion, has steadily shrunk over the past 15 years, according to University of California, Berkeley, researchers.

Long-term monitoring by UC Berkeley's Infrared Spatial Interferometer (ISI) on the top of Mt. Wilson in Southern California shows that Betelgeuse (bet' el juz), which is so big that in our solar system it would reach to the orbit of Jupiter, has shrunk in diameter by more than 15 percent since 1993.

Since Betelgeuse's radius is about five astronomical units, or five times the radius of Earth's orbit, that means the star's radius has shrunk by a distance equal to the orbit of Venus.

"To see this change is very striking," said Charles Townes, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of physics who won the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics for inventing the laser and the maser, a microwave laser. "We will be watching it carefully over the next few years to see if it will keep contracting or will go back up in size."

Despite Betelgeuse's diminished size, Wishnow pointed out that its visible brightness, or magnitude, which is monitored regularly by members of the American Association of Variable Star Observers, has shown no significant dimming over the past 15 years.

The ISI has been focusing on Betelgeuse for more than 15 years in an attempt to learn more about these giant massive stars and to discern features on the star's surface, Wishnow said. He speculated that the measurements may be affected by giant convection cells on the star's surface that are like convection granules on the sun, but so large that they bulge out of the surface. Townes and former graduate student Ken Tatebe observed a bright spot on the surface of Betelgeuse in recent years, although at the moment, the star appears spherically symmetrical.

"But we do not know why the star is shrinking," Wishnow said. "Considering all that we know about galaxies and the distant universe, there are still lots of things we don't know about stars, including what happens as red giants near the ends of their lives."

Betelgeuse was the first star ever to have its size measured, and even today is one of only a handful of stars that appears through the Hubble Space Telescope as a disk rather than a point of light. In1921, Francis G. Pease and Albert Michelson used optical interferometry to estimate its diameter was equivalent to the orbit of Mars. Last year, new measurements of the distance to Betelgeuse raised it from 430 light years to 640, which increased the star's diameter from about 3.7 to about 5.5 AU.

"Since the 1921 measurement, its size has been re-measured by many different interferometer systems over a range of wavelengths where the diameter measured varies by about 30 percent," Wishnow said. "At a given wavelength, however, the star has not varied in size much beyond the measurement uncertainties."

The measurements cannot be compared anyway, because the star's size depends on the wavelength of light used to measure it, Townes said. This is because the tenuous gas in the outer regions of the star emits light as well as absorbs it, which makes it difficult to determine the edge of the star.

The ISI that Townes and his colleagues first built in the early 1990s sidesteps these confounding emission and absorption lines by observing in the mid-infrared with a narrow bandwidth that can be tuned between spectral lines. The ISI consists of three 5.4-foot (1.65-meter) diameter mirrors separated by distances that vary from 12 to 230 feet (4-70 meters), said Townes. Using a laser as a common frequency standard, the ISI interferometer combines signals from telescope pairs in order to determine path length differences between light that originates at the star's center and light that originates at the star's edge. The technique of stellar interferometry is highlighted in the June 2009 issue of Physics Today magazine.

"We observe around 11 microns, the mid-infrared, where this long wavelength penetrates the dust and the narrow bandwidth avoids any spectral lines, and so we see the star relatively undistorted," said Townes. "We have also had the good fortune to have an instrument that has operated in a very similar manner for some 15 years, providing a long and consistent series of measurements that no one else has. The first measurements showed a size quite close to Michelson's result, but over 15 years, it has decreased in size about 15 percent, changing smoothly, but faster as the years progressed."

Townes, who turns 94 in July, plans to continue monitoring Betelgeuse in hopes of finding a pattern in the changing diameter, and to improve the ISI's capabilities by adding a spectrometer to the interferometer.

"Whenever you look at things with more precision, you are going to find some surprises and uncover very fundamental and important new things," he said.

(Photo: David Hale 2006)

University of California, Berkeley


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MIT engineers have built a fast, ultra-broadband, low-power radio chip, modeled on the human inner ear, that could enable wireless devices capable of receiving cell phone, Internet, radio and television signals.

Rahul Sarpeshkar, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science, and his graduate student, Soumyajit Mandal, designed the chip to mimic the inner ear, or cochlea. The chip is faster than any human-designed radio-frequency spectrum analyzer and also operates at much lower power.

"The cochlea quickly gets the big picture of what's going on in the sound spectrum," said Sarpeshkar. "The more I started to look at the ear, the more I realized it's like a super radio with 3,500 parallel channels."

Sarpeshkar and his students describe their new chip, which they have dubbed the "radio frequency (RF) cochlea," in a paper to be published in the June issue of the IEEE Journal of Solid-State Circuits. They have also filed for a patent to incorporate the RF cochlea in a universal or software radio architecture that is designed to efficiently process a broad spectrum of signals including cellular phone, wireless Internet, FM, and other signals.

The RF cochlea mimics the structure and function of the biological cochlea, which uses fluid mechanics, piezoelectrics and neural signal processing to convert sound waves into electrical signals that are sent to the brain.

As sound waves enter the cochlea, they create mechanical waves in the cochlear membrane and the fluid of the inner ear, activating hair cells (cells that cause electrical signals to be sent to the brain). The cochlea can perceive a 100-fold range of frequencies -- in humans, from 100 to 10,000 Hz. Sarpeshkar used the same design principles in the RF cochlea to create a device that can perceive signals at million-fold higher frequencies, which includes radio signals for most commercial wireless applications.

The device demonstrates what can happen when researchers take inspiration from fields outside their own, says Sarpeshkar.

"Somebody who works in radio would never think of this, and somebody who works in hearing would never think of it, but when you put the two together, each one provides insight into the other," he says. For example, in addition to its use for radio applications, the work provides an analysis of why cochlear spectrum analysis is faster than any known spectrum-analysis algorithm. Thus, it sheds light on the mechanism of hearing as well.

The RF cochlea, embedded on a silicon chip measuring 1.5 mm by 3 mm, works as an analog spectrum analyzer, detecting the composition of any electromagnetic waves within its perception range. Electromagnetic waves travel through electronic inductors and capacitors (analogous to the biological cochlea's fluid and membrane). Electronic transistors play the role of the cochlea's hair cells.

The analog RF cochlea chip is faster than any other RF spectrum analyzer and consumes about 100 times less power than what would be required for direct digitization of the entire bandwidth. That makes it desirable as a component of a universal or "cognitive" radio, which could receive a broad range of frequencies and select which ones to attend to.

This is not the first time Sarpeshkar has drawn on biology for inspiration in designing electronic devices. Trained as an engineer but also a student of biology, he has found many similar patterns in the natural and man-made worlds (http://www.rle.mit.edu/avbs). For example, Sarpeshkar's group, in MIT's Research Laboratory of Electronics, has also developed an analog speech-synthesis chip inspired by the human vocal tract and a novel analysis-by-synthesis technique based on the vocal tract. The chip's potential for robust speech recognition in noise and its potential for voice identification have several applications in portable devices and security applications.

The researchers have built circuits that can analyze heart rhythms for wireless heart monitoring, and are also working on projects inspired by signal processing in cells. In the past, his group has worked on hybrid analog-digital signal processors inspired by neurons in the brain.

Sarpeshkar says that engineers can learn a great deal from studying biological systems that have evolved over hundreds of millions of years to perform sensory and motor tasks very efficiently in noisy environments while using very little power.

"Humans have a long way to go before their architectures will successfully compete with those in nature, especially in situations where ultra-energy-efficient or ultra-low-power operation are paramount," he said. Nevertheless, "We can mine the intellectual resources of nature to create devices useful to humans, just as we have mined her physical resources in the past. (Photo: Donna Coveney)




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