TWIE 162: Sonic Solar Cells

This Week in Engineering - Kepler resurrection; sewer bomb detectors; rock-climbing robot; 3D painting; sonic solar cells; and tire adjusts treads.

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Kepler resurrection
Launched in 2009, NASA’s Kepler mission found over thirty-five hundred exoplanet candidates before the mission ended in May, after the second of its four reaction wheels failed, impairing its precision in aiming the telescope.  Now, the K2 mission has been proposed, which would repurpose the spacecraft to look for planets orbiting relatively small stars.  The new mission would use a broader view, covering five to ten times more area than the original mission, and would stay pointed near Earth’s plane of the ecliptic to aid the craft’s hindered pointing precision.  Finds from the new mission could be followed up by the James Webb Space Telescope, due to launch in 2018.

Sewer bomb detectors
When terrorists make bombs, they will often dispose of excess materials down the toilet.  Now, the Swedish Defence Research Agency has proposed the Explosive Material Production Hidden Agile Search and Intelligence System, or EMPHASIS, an array of passive sensors installed in sewers to detect and locate bomb-making facilities.  If explosives are detected, an alert is sent, and upon verification, security personnel can sweep an area with hand-held sensors.  I say, while you’re at it, give the sewers a giant alligator sensor.  Why not?  What are you trying to hide, New York City?

Rock-climbing robot
Over the past year, researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have developed a micro-spine gripper system for attaching to rock, originally intended to help astronauts grasp samples.  Now, the gripper has been integrated with the LEMUR IIB to allow the robot to climb rock faces.  The gripper is operated by two actuators controlling over 750 claws, that, when drawn inward through a network of springs, independently find roughness to grip.  The robot has now scaled steep, vertical, and even inverted rock walls.  I say, I fully expect a NASA rock-climbing robot on my next inspiration calendar.  “Ricola!”

3D Painting
Researchers from General Electric have developed a repair process called “cold spray” or “3D painting”, in which layers of metal are deposited onto broken parts by shooting a stream of powdered metal particles at very high velocities -- up to Mach 4.  The target surface is thereby strengthened or rebuilt.  The process could reduce the cost of repairing machines with expensive parts that are difficult to replace.  The first targets of the technology are reportedly GE’s large turbofan engines.

Sonic solar cells
Researchers from Queen Mary University and Imperial College in London have built a solar cell that harvests power from both sunlight and sound waves.  By applying a layer of zinc oxide to an ordinary polymer solar cell, the researchers created an array of tiny piezoelectric rods only nanometers long.  The panels created more current from a combination of light and sound than from light alone -- in fact, at only 75 db, the panel produced 40% more power.  I say, solar cells are for bright places, like deserts.  Not loud places, like rock concerts.  So, I guess, Burning Man?

Tire adjusts treads
Ackeem Ngwenya, a graduate student from the London Royal College of Art, has created a new wheel system that can switch from a wide tread to a thin tread with the turn of a screw.  The wheel’s interlocking spokes connect to two discs on the wheel’s axle, and the distance between the discs can be adjusted to modify the width of the tire -- thin treads for rocky surfaces, and wide treads for sand or mud.  The tire would not be pneumatic -- the tread material would directly wrap around the rod networks.  I like it!  Anything to ke