Apr 10

Prepare for the epic total solar eclipse hitting the US in 2017

A once-in-a-lifetime moment will sweep across the US two years from now. Crave’s Eric Mack says it’s already time to plan your travel and your soundtrack.

This map shows the narrow corridor that will see a total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017. NASA/F. Espenak

You may have seen a solar eclipse before, but the odds are good that you haven’t witnessed anything like the total solar eclipse that will roll across the contiguous United States a little over two years from now. In fact, if you haven’t already started making your plan for the first great American eclipse of the century, you might already be behind.

If you’ve seen an eclipse in the US, it was probably just a partial eclipse, which astronomy enthusiasts will tell you is nothing compared with seeing a solar eclipse in totality, when our star goes completely black save for its eerie corona, the sky dims and stars can become visible in the daytime.

The last time such a thing was witnessed in the US was 1991, and that was only from certain parts of Hawaii. The contiguous 48 states haven’t seen a total eclipse since 1979, when one sort of drifted through the northwest quarter of the country — we haven’t had one coast-to-coast since 1918.

The total solar eclipse will first become visible from the Oregon coastline on August 21, 2017, at 10:17 a.m. between Lincoln City and Newport, and then march all the way to the Atlantic near Charleston, S.C.. While at least a partial eclipse will be visible from all of North America and parts of other continents, to experience the the full solar disappearing act, you’ll need to be somewhere along the narrow corridor in the map above at just the right time, and ideally with clear skies.

Notable potential viewing locations include Salem, Ore.; Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming; parts of St. Louis and Kansas City, Mo.; Nashville and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tenn. — and finally Charleston, S.C., will also see anywhere between a few seconds and a few minutes of a total solar eclipse. Bizarrely for me personally, the path of the eclipse will cast its long shadow on both of the small towns where I attended college in Oregon and in Missouri.

NASA offers this particularly helpful Google map to help plan the best spots to view the eclipse from, and a handful of travel agencies are already taking reservations for eclipse trips, particularly from Europe. There’s also a handy breakdown here of where you’ll be able to see what.

Nowhere is more ready for the Great American eclipse than the Kentucky town of Hopkinsville, which is nearest the point where the eclipse will last longest, at 2 minutes and 40 seconds. Locals there expect it to be the biggest thing to hit the town of less than 50,000, where they’ve already been planning for a few years now.

There’s even a site that’s already taking detailed looks at the potential weather forecasts for that day, two years in advance.

That’s a lot of buildup for a performance that’s less than 3 minutes long. To really deliver, this eclipse is going to have to be something like the best punk rock song in history.

What do you think? Where along the eclipse path would you most want to watch from? And what punk song would you want to hear during those 2 minutes?

Apr 08

Flexible Aluminum-Ion Battery Recharges in 60 Seconds

Stanford University researchers on Tuesday revealed they had stumbled onto a breakthrough that could lead to the adoption of fast-charging, long-lasting batteries in the near future.

“An ultra-fast rechargeable aluminum-ion battery,” which details the team’s findings, was published in the April 6 edition of Nature.

The turning point occurred when the researchers were trying out materials to serve as a cathode, and they began experimenting with graphite.

Using one of the aluminum-ion prototypes, they were able to charge a battery comparable to one used in a smartphone, in roughly 1 minute. That’s about 60 times faster than a lithium-ion battery would charge.

Stanford’s aluminum-ion concept promises unprecedented durability, standing up to about 7,500 charge-discharge cycles before losing any of its capacity. To put that into perspective: Lithium-ion batteries endure about 1,000 cycles before declining in capacity, and previous aluminum-ion prototypes could withstand only about 100.

Other benefits of the aluminum-ion prototype include safety and flexibility.

The researchers could safely bore into an aluminum-ion battery without causing a fire, though that wouldn’t be possible with lithium-ion cells. Aluminum-ion batteries are pliable, to a degree, which could have huge implications for just about any device that runs on battery power.

Large Scale

The use cases for aluminum-ion batteries range from making removal of cellphone batteries completely a thing of the past, to making solar devices even more energy efficient.

Before the industry can move to refueling smartphones and smartwatches in a minute flat, however, proof that the Stanford aluminum-ion battery can scale up, suggested Eric Lind, North American sales manager of OEM and PPS for VARTA Microbattery.

“In these types of research programs, much of the research is done on very small cell sizes,” he told TechNewsWorld. “The results are then extrapolated to a commercial cell. However, generally the scale-up does not typically correlate linearly with what is found in the lab.”

Though metal corrosion could hold back the advancement of aluminum-ion batteries, energy density appears to be the biggest hurdle, according to Lind.

“Where these aluminum ion batteries seem to have a shortfall, currently, is in terms of energy density. This would have to be solved in order for it to be a real challenger to lithium-ion systems today.”

Handheld Devices and IoT

Despite the challenges, aluminum-ion batteries appear to have great potential for applications in consumer electronics.

The use cases of aluminum-ion batteries in the mobile space are myriad, because mobility is almost always challenged by power issues, observed Kevin Krewell, principal analyst at Tirias Research. Battery limitations have been hindering the adoption of smartwatches, for example, but a 1-minute-recharge time could change that overnight.

“There is a woefully short amount of cycles to go through with lithium-ion batteries,” Krewell told TechNewsWorld. “To extend that would allow phones to last longer. You wouldn’t have to worry about having to have your phone repaired if the battery wears out and you have an iPhone or the latest Samsung handset.”

Beyond mobile devices, aluminum-ion cells could spur the evolution of the Internet of Things, he suggested.

Aluminium-ion batteries could be beneficial in connected devices that wake up briefly just to pass along information, hybrid cars that want to better harness the electricity they generate, and sensors whose ideal positioning is hard to reach — or at the top of a tower.

Research like this takes a great deal of time, but it’s exciting to see it advancing, said Krewell.

“It’s great that universities like Stanford are putting effort and time into this research,” he remarked. “It’s not as sexy as new websites and faster chips and other new tech, but it’s extremely critical to the future of our mobile devices.”

Mar 22

Google Launches Android Auto

To access Google’s Android-in-the-car experience, you’ll need a Pioneer dashboard unit.

If you’re an Android fan who has been waiting for the day that you’d be able to have a similar experience in your car that all your Apple-loving friends can get via the company’s CarPlay platform, your long wait is over. Google announced this that Android Auto has debuted on both smartphones and a few aftermarket dashboard units.

“Starting today, you can get #AndroidAuto in your car with your #Android 5.0+ phone and compatible Pioneer head units. … Stay tuned for more partners coming soon,” Google said in an Android Google+ post.

Android Auto is now available in the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia. You can check to see if you’re able to install it in your car at Pioneer’s Android Auto page.

To get Android Auto up and running, you’ll need two things. First, you’ll want to grab the official Android Auto companion application for your phone, which is a completely free download for Android users. It’s a completely worthless app unless you have something to pair it to, however; that’s where Pioneer comes into play. Right now, the manufacturer of aftermarket units for your car is the only Google partner who has released Android Auto-friendly devices, and there are three available for purchase today: The Pioneer AVIC-8100NEX, AVIC-7100NEX, and AVH4100NEX.

These units are pricey. The AVH-4100NEX is $700, the AVIC-7100NEX costs $1,200, and the AVIC-8100NEX will set you back $1,400.

The lowest-end version does away with any kind of Pioneer navigation system or GPS for driving around, which should be totally fine, given that you’re likely to just use Google Maps via your paired Android Auto-friendly smartphone instead. The AVIC-7100NEX, Pioneer’s mid-range unit, has a resistive touchscreen (as in, no multi-touch), whereas the AVH-4100NEX bumps that up to a capacitive touchscreen. The latter two devices have the full suite of nav features.

Android Auto, like Apple’s CarPlay, is designed to keep you from having to tap your tiny smartphone screen so much while you’re driving. Instead, a number of your phone’s feature are dumped on a more easy-to-access touchscreen unit within your car’s dashboard—navigation, music, and voice calls, as well as support for popular third-party apps like Spotify, NPR, and MLB.com, to name a few.

Android Auto also supports Google Now, which can give you predictive information like traffic on your commute route, estimated driving times, weather, upcoming appointments you might have, and more.

Unfortunately, those in the market for a brand-new car right now will find that there’s nothing out there that natively supports Android Auto just yet. Hyundai and Honda have both indicated that they’ll be offering Android Auto in various vehicles starting in 2015. And it’s reasonable to assume that other members of the Open Automotive Alliance will invariably follow suit at some point.

Feb 15

Samsung to nix bloatware in Galaxy S6 OS, report says

Samsung will remove many of its own programs in the upcoming version of its TouchWiz user interface, a new report claims.

The new version of Samsung’s TouchWiz will be stripped down to not include any Samsung-built applications, Sammobile is reporting, citing people who claim to have knowledge of the company’s plans. In their place, Samsung will bundle Microsoft apps, including OneNote, OneDrive, Office Mobile, and Skype, the blog’s sources say.

Samsung is putting the final touches on TouchWiz for the anticipated announcement of the Galaxy S6 flagship smartphone at its Unpacked event on March 1. TouchWiz is the company’s user interface that sits atop a standard build of Android. Most Android vendors have created their own user interfaces to differentiate their software experiences from that of other vendors. LG, Sony, and other major vendors, have their own user interfaces that they slap atop a standard Android build.

In years past, Samsung has bundled several of its own applications into TouchWiz — considered bloatware — including its health-related app S Health and its note-taking program S Note. Its S Voice personal assistant has also been among the bundled apps.

However, in an effort to improve the platform’s responsiveness, Samsung will remove all of those apps by default and make them available in its onboard application marketplace, Sammobile says. The programs will be available in the Galaxy Apps store for free.

Samsung’s Unpacked event will be crucial for the company. Last year, Samsung watched its mobile profits fall off a cliff as it faced increasing competition in key markets, like China. To fend off competitors, Samsung was forced to spend more on marketing.

In the last few earnings calls with investors, Samsung has acknowledged its troubles and said that it plans to reduce the number of smartphones it offers this year by a third to focus more on its top performers. The company’s Galaxy S line is among its top performers, so the upcoming Galaxy S6 could play a crucial role in the company’s mobile success or failure.

According to Sammobile, Samsung believes that it can set itself apart from competitors through its software. In addition to nixing some of its own apps, the company will improve the platform’s default keyboard and add more themes to customize the operating system’s look and feel. All of the company’s apps will also be more colorful.

But it’s the addition of Microsoft apps to TouchWiz that might prove most surprising. Microsoft and Samsung have been locked in a patent royalty case that they settled earlier this week. Microsoft sued Samsung for royalties related to Android last year after attempting to resolve their issues out of court. Terms of the settlement were not disclosed.

The timing of the news that Microsoft may have found its way into TouchWiz is ironic, if nothing else, and could call into question whether bundling Microsoft software with the Samsung software was part of the agreement.

Jan 31

New aluminum air battery could blow past lithium-ion, runs on water

As battery technologies go, the world has a love-hate relationship with lithium-ion. On the one hand, breakthroughs in Li-ion designs and construction are responsible for the Tesla Model S, new installations, green energy research, and the modern smartphone. On the other hand, lithium-ion limitations are the reason why most EVs have a range of 40-60 miles, the Model S costs upwards of $80,000, and why your smartphone can’t last all day on a single charge. For all its promise and capability, lithium-ion has limited long-term utility — which is why a new announcement from Fuji Pigment is so interesting. The company is claiming that its new aluminum-air batteries can run for up to two weeks and be refilled with normal water.

How an aluminum-air battery works

First, some basics. The problem with battery technology isn’t whether or not we can build better batteries — as the chart below shows, we can build batteries that blow traditional lithium-ion out of the water. Keep in mind that the chart below is exponential, meaning that fuel cell technology has 10 times the energy density of a typical cobalt-Li ion battery.

The various “Metal-Air” batteries, including zinc-air, aluminum-air, and lithium-air, have some of the highest energy densities its possible to build. The difficulties with aluminum-air construction, in particular, has been rapid degradation of the anode and, in early models of Al-Air, the release of hydrogen gas.

Fuji Pigment’s new announcement makes repeated reference to the work of Ryohei Mori, and while the referenced papers aren’t available for free, the abstracts are online. The studies in question are all aimed at enhancing the performance of Al-air batteries while extending their useful lifetimes — typically, Al-air solutions begin to degrade immediately after the first charge cycle. According to Mori’s work, creating a secondary aluminum-air battery adjacent to the primary buffered the accumulation of byproducts that normally prevent the battery from working properly over the long term.

The “rechargability” of Al-air batteries requires some explanation. Al-air batteries are primary cells, which means they can’t be recharged via conventional means. As the aluminum anode is consumed by contact with oxygen, hydrated aluminum forms as a byproduct. That material can be recycled and used to create a new aluminum anode, which is why the batteries are referred to as rechargeable. Periodically, the aluminum anode will have to be replaced — it’s not clear how often the Fuji Pigment battery would need servicing of this sort.

Could Al-air be the next big thing?

New battery technologies and announcements are a dime a dozen, but there’s reason to think that a workable Al-air technology could deploy within the next 2-5 years. Multiple manufacturers are working on commercializing designs (Alcoa partnered with Phinergy in 2013 with plans for a 2017 debut), and aluminum is abundant and relatively cheap. Al-air batteries have actually been used in specialized military applications for years, which is important — it means there’s some pre-existing expertise and known characteristics that can be leveraged to create additional capacity.

That said, there are question, too. The hydrated aluminum oxide solution produced during the battery’s normal operation would need to be recycled in some fashion, it’s not clear that fresh water is as effective an aqueous solution as saltwater (meaning there might be specific need for one particular kind of solution). The final price is also unknown, though previous estimations had put the cost of an Al-air system at roughly $1.1 per kg of aluminum anode. This was not given in precise terms relative to the cost of gasoline (and the weight of the aluminum anode in these batteries is unknown), but the team that performed that analysis noted that proper recycling would put Al-air in the same cost range as conventional internal combustion engines.

Fuji Pigment has stated that it intends to commercialize this technology as early as this year, which means we could see test demonstrations and proof of concepts by 2016. Whether auto manufacturers will jump for the technology remains to be seen — car companies tend to be conservative and Tesla has already thrown its weight behind the further use of lithium-ion technology.