News Feature | September 15, 2021

Bright Ideas: 9/15/21 — DoD Gives $7.5M To HBCU, Lasers Used To Zap Bugs & Bird Poop

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By Abby Proch, Electronics Editor

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An atomic clock loses one second every 100 million years, and that’s considered incredibly precise.

But Chinese-American scientist June Ye and Japanese scientist Hidetoshi Katori have both claimed to best that performance, independently creating clocks that would take 30 billion years — twice as old as the age of the universe — to lose one second, according to an article by Space.com.

Each scientist developed an “optical lattice clock” that uses lasers in vacuum to tame strontium atoms and hold them still well enough to be measured. The advancement could improve the accuracy of GPS navigation and other satellite-navigation systems, as well as allow new tests on Einstein’s theory of relativity. The two were name co-winners of the 2022 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics and will split a $3 million prize

In solar news, curtains and blinds would get the boot if it were up to the Fraunhofer Institute in Denmark. Researchers there claim they’ve developed a smart glass with sunlight-blocking technology that can save some buildings up to 70 percent in heating and cooling consumption.

Inlayed with electrochromic and thermochromic properties that work either alone or in tandem, these windows can darken themselves (either by switch or passively) to block sunlight, thereby reducing glare and the sizeable air conditioning efforts usually enlisted to offset heat produced by solar radiation.

According to the Institute’s news release, the electrochromic coating sits atop a transparent, conductive film that can be “switched on” by electrical voltage and triggers the transfer of ions and electrons. The thermochromic coating activates at a certain ambient temperature.

While researchers in Denmark are blocking solar radiation to benefit the environment, U.S. officials are doubling down on harnessing it for the same reason. The U.S. Energy Department Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy is calling for a 10-fold increase in the country’s reliance on solar energy to combat climate change. Right now, solar energy accounts for about 4% of the country’s electricity and would need to rise to 40% within the next 15 years to have a measurable impact, according to CBS News.

The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), which represents some 750 solar industry companies, supports the endeavor and is calling for the federal government to extend and strengthen the Solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC) at the 30% rate, support training programs for a viable workforce, and increase incentives for American-made components and equipment, among other things.

In academia, Morgan State University earned a $7.5 million grant from the Department of Defense to form its new Center for Advanced Electro-Photonics with 2D Materials, according to a DoD press release. The U.S. Army has identified the niche photonics field, as well as biotechnology, as defense priority areas. Morgan State is one of two historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to receive funding from the DoD through its HBCU and Minority-Serving Institutions (MSI) Research and Education Program.

Morgan State, which is partnering with Johns Hopkins University, will focus on 2D materials and their use in wearable photovoltaics (PV), thermally-managed photo-sensors, and hybrid PV thermoelectric technologies. The Center will also fund undergraduate internships and STEM outreach to K12 students.

In other funding news, the National Science Foundation is providing a 5-year, $25 million grant to create a new optoelectronic, quantum technologies center across 11 American universities. According to a press release from The City College of New York, the center for Integration of Modern Optoelectronic Materials on Demand (IMOD) will focus on developing new semiconductor materials and “scalable manufacturing processes for new optoelectronic devices.” IMOD Director David Ginger said he wants the center to advance optoelectronics in the same way the electronics field transformed clunky, room-sized computers into intensively powerful handheld devices that pervade everyday life.

Another institute is popping up in the Netherlands, and its purpose is to bring next-gen photonics and quantum technology under one roof. The Eindhoven Hendrik Casimir Institute (EHCI), housed by Eindhoven University of Technology, will embrace the science-technology spiral whereby fundamental knowledge and scientific innovation compliment and supplement one another, according to a TU/e press release.

EHCI Scientific Director Martijn Heck says over the next 10 years, the institute will “make significant contributions to new computing paradigms like quantum and neuromorphic computing, to novel technologies to make communication far more energy-efficient and secure and to compact biosensors for detecting diseases, and metrology sensors with atomic-scale resolution.”

“Laser windshield wipers” isn’t a phrase you hear every day, but the concept would become part of daily life if Tesla has its way. The clean energy car manufacturer recently gained approval on its patent for “Pulsed Laser Cleaning of Debris Accumulated on Glass Articles in Vehicles and Photovoltaic Assemblie.” According to a report by Gizmodo Australia, the laser technology would work like this: A bug meets his untimely end on your windshield, a nearby sensor identifies the splat, and a laser follows up with a calculated, direct beam to “burn” it away.

It sounds like it could be hazardous, but Tesla says that the pulsed laser beam “limits penetration of the laser beam to a depth that is less than a thickness of the glass article.” It also notes that the “wiping” would mostly happen while the vehicle is stopped and for the occasional errant bug or bird dropping.

Also on the automotive front, red might not be the only color for stop signs. Rainbow road signs could be next says a group of U.S. and Chinese engineers. The scientists discovered multicolor concentric circles reflecting from microscale conclave interfaces (MCIs) when optical rays were reflected within a polymer-embedded microsphere, according to nanowerk.

The group claims that with a little finesse (namely clearing up why it happens and how to map the colors) the material could be used on “smart” streets signs because it can be seen in the visible and infrared wavelengths, which could benefit autonomous driving development. Other applications include “light-matter interactions, on-chip sensors, anti-counterfeiting tools, and passive and smart color reflective displays,” according to the study.