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.

Jan 22

Use WhatsApp in Your Web Browser

Good news for those you who use WhatsApp. The Facebook-owned chat app is now available in your Web browser.

WhatsApp announced the news Wednesday, confirming recent rumors that it was planning to soon introduce a Web client for in-browser chatting. “Our Web client is simply an extension of your phone: the Web browser mirrors conversations and messages from your mobile device — this means all of your messages still live on your phone,” WhatsApp founder Jan Koum wrote in a post on his Facebook page.

At this point, however, it only works with Android, BlackBerry, BlackBerry 10, and Windows Phone versions of the app. Koum said the company is not able to provide a Web client for iOS users at this time due to “Apple platform limitations.”

To connect WhatsApp to your Web browser, simply open web.whatsapp.com in Chrome. You’ll see a QR code — scan that inside of WhatsApp, and voila. Your phone will need to stay connected to the Internet for the Web client to work, Koum said. Also, ensure that you’re using the latest version of WhatsApp on your phone.

“We really hope you find Web client useful in your everyday lives,” Koum said.

Meanwhile, the new Web client comes after WhatsApp cracked down on third-party app WhatsApp Plus, and punished users who downloaded it. The company has cut off access to the unauthorized WhatsApp Plus app, which provided additional customization options for the SMS service. WhatsApp Plus users who tried to return to WhatsApp are now being locked out for 24 hours for breaking the rules.

Jan 22

Doubts Cast on Samsung Ditching Qualcomm in Galaxy S6

Qualcomm stock took a bit of a tumble Wednesday following a report from Bloomberg that Samsung plans to exclusively use its own chips in the next version of its best-selling Galaxy S smartphone.

The Bloomberg report cited unnamed sources as saying that Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 810 “overheated during the [South] Korean company’s testing” of its next-gen Galaxy S smartphone. Samsung is expected to unveil the successor to the Galaxy S5 in the next several weeks, likely in early March at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

Both Samsung and Qualcomm declined to comment on the rumor.

But some industry watchers cast doubt on the Bloomberg report, pointing out that Samsung has never used Qualcomm exclusively in its Galaxy S line of phones.

Samsung already uses its own Exynos processors to power smartphones it sells in several international markets, one observer noted. But in recent years, in the United States and some European markets, the South Korean tech giant has relied on Qualcomm’s combination of Snapdragon-branded application processors and modems.

Using Qualcomm parts makes particular sense in the U.S., where carriers pre-approve phones built on them, making it a lot easier to move new handsets through the carrier approval process.

The idea that Qualcomm’s flagship processor for smartphones is wonky sounded dubious to Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy.

“Samsung has always used their own processors in their own smartphones, but they used Qualcomm in regions like North America and Europe,” Moorhead said. “I’m not buying into the ‘too hot’ argument. It sounds a bit like FUD to me as Qualcomm is the market share leader in smartphones. They know mobile and I don’t see them making a mistake like this. If there’s any semblance of truth to it, it’s more than likely a matter of power optimizations in firmware.”

Another source said that if Samsung really does opt not to use the Snapdragon 810 in U.S.-bound Galaxy S smartphones, it doesn’t necessarily mean those phones will be built on Exynos or another non-Qualcomm chipset. Samsung could simply opt to use the Snapdragon 805 instead.

Of course, it is possible Samsung plans to pair an Exynos chip with Qualcomm RF capabilities in the next-gen Galaxy S. Apple does something similar in its iPhones, which are powered by its own A-Series processors.

If Samsung opted to move away from Qualcomm entirely, Intel has greatly beefed up its LTE technology in the past year with its XMM 7260 LTE Modem—but that’s the sort of move that seems like it would already have loose tongues gossiping from Seoul to Santa Clara.

Dec 02

Cyber Monday: Online retailers hope for shopping surge

Online retailers are hoping that a spending frenzy will continue, with internet shopping reaching a pre-Christmas peak.

Dubbed Cyber Monday, some online stores offer discounts for consumers ramping up their Christmas shopping.

The first two Mondays of December tend to be the busiest online shopping days, after browsing over the weekend.

Cyber Monday comes after the frenzy of Black Friday offers – which some stores have carried over for a few more days.

However, some analysts say that shoppers are leaving their Christmas buying later.

This is the result of greater confidence in delivery services as retailers now rely so heavily on online sales.

Nigel Wilson, managing director of consumer insight at Experian Marketing Services, said that the pre-Christmas shopping peaks were “clearly identifiable”.

Experian predicts consumers will spend £649.6m on 1 December, or £451,000 a minute – a 26% increase on Cyber Monday last year.

As the month goes on, online spending tends to be replaced by spending on the High Street for last-minute gifts and Christmas preparations. The busiest shopping day in stores is, according to Experian, on Boxing Day when traditional sales begin.

Staff tried to keep order at an Asda superstore in Wembley on Black Friday

Cyber Monday is seized on by retailers’ marketing arms. The same is now true of Black Friday – which originated in the US. The discounts on offer prompted some frenzied scenes on Friday.

Police criticised management of some supermarkets after crowd surges and scuffles in scenes that officers in Greater Manchester described as “totally predictable”.

Online retailer Amazon UK recorded orders for more than 5.5 million goods, with about 64 items sold per second – its busiest ever day.

Some online retailers reported problems with customers accessing their websites on Friday owing to demand.

Dec 02

Annie among ‘leaked’ Sony films following cyber-attack

Five films distributed by Sony Pictures appear to have been leaked online following a reported cyber-attack on the company last month.

Among the titles is a remake of classic film Annie, which is not due for release until 19 December.

The company was reported to have shut down its internal systems last week due to an “IT matter”.

Some have linked the cyber-attack to forthcoming film The Interview, Sony’s comedy about North Korea.

That film does not appear to have been leaked.

However, reports say other high-profile titles have been circulated. Among them Fury, starring Brad Pitt, which was in cinemas in October but is yet to be made available on DVD.

According to research firm Excipio, Mr Turner, Still Alice and To Write Love on Her Arms are also being distributed and downloaded.

Sony has not confirmed the authenticity of the leak, but was quoted in Variety magazine as saying: “The theft of Sony Pictures Entertainment content is a criminal matter, and we are working closely with law enforcement to address it.”

A spokeswoman for Sony Pictures refused to comment further on the leak.

Korea row

In The Interview, Seth Rogen and James Franco play two reporters who have been granted an audience with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

The CIA then enlists the pair to assassinate him.

Technology news site Recode quotes unnamed sources saying the possibility that North Korea may have targeted Sony is being investigated.

Brad Pitt’s Fury was released in October, but is not yet out on DVD

The site said: “The sources stress that a link to North Korea hasn’t been confirmed, but has not been ruled out, either.”

In July, North Korea complained to the United Nations that the film, which will be released on 25 December, was “the most undisguised sponsoring of terrorism as well as a war action”.

The country’s UN envoy Ja Song-Nam said there would be a “merciless response” if the film was not cancelled.

In response, Rogen joked on Twitter: “People don’t usually wanna kill me for one of my movies until after they’ve paid 12 bucks for it.”

#GOP

Little is known about the breach of Sony’s systems last month.

A group calling itself the Guardians of Peace – #GOP – claimed responsibility.

Some reports said some computers of Sony employees displayed a picture of a skeleton, threatening to release large amounts of data from the company.

The early leak of films is considered, by the film industry, to have a devastating effect on the potential success of a title.

Last month, in an unrelated case, police in the UK arrested two men alleged to have leaked the Expendables 3 before its release date.

Some calculations said the leak of the film meant $10m (£6.4m) in lost box-office takings – although others said it is difficult to determine the true effect of piracy.