News

HVDC transformer passes muster; BMW unveils payment card car key; a wind farm radar obstacle solution; UK drive to be electric vehicle leader; tree power fights forest fires, and more.

HVDC transformer passes muster

By Dominic Lenton

A transformer the size of a family house is destined for one of the world's longest and highest-rated high-voltage DC transmission systems. The 800kV unit, claimed to be the first of its kind in the world, has successfully completed final tests.

It is one of ten that Siemens is building for China's 1,400km Yunnan-Guangdong link, which, from mid-2010 onward, will transmit 5GW of power.

The company has already landed an order for a further ten units for a 6.4GW transmission system between the Xiangjiaba hydroelectric power plant in south western China and Shanghai.

To achieve the required insulating clearances in air, the two valve bushings through which the current flows from inside the transformer to the converters are 14m long.

Siemens had to build an air-conditioned production hall at its Nuremberg factory to prevent the insulation from absorbing moisture from the atmosphere during final assembly.

Hopes for solution to wind-farm radar obstacle

By Lorna Sharpe

Initial tests of an innovative radar technique indicate that it could remove one of the major obstacles to the development of wind farms.

Signals from the rotating blades of wind turbines are known to confuse existing radar systems, compromising air traffic control (ATC) and air defence radars and leading to situations where planes can 'disappear' for dangerously long periods. At present, around 40 UK wind farm projects with a potential output of nearly 6GW are delayed because of objections from the aviation sector.

Although the vision for the UK government's mitigation strategy - the Aviation Plan - states that "there is no universal solution" to the issue, Cambridge Consultants believes it has developed the 'silver bullet' that the industry is looking for, based on its holographic radar technology.

Tests of a prototype system at Ecotricity's 66m diameter 1.5MW turbine at Swaffham in Norfolk have provided a proof of the principle, with a small-scale holographic radar sensor discriminating effectively between the turbine and a moving target. Further tests are planned with a scaled-up system of the same instrument and moving airborne targets, before a full-scale system is developed for testing at the site of a large wind farm.

A holographic radar installation would be located at the wind farm itself, gathering 'infill' information and feeding it back to the air traffic control system. Current ATC radars can detect an object's movement but don't resolve speeds very well, making it hard to differentiate between an aircraft and a turbine that has moving blades but doesn't change position.

Holographic infill radar is a non-scanning, continuously-tracking 3D radar that provides persistent illumination of the field of view. It has sufficient RF bandwidth and return signal sampling to resolve and measure an object's motion at fine scale, as well as its range and direction. That enables it to discriminate turbine clutter.

"Our solution works because we get to the root of problem: acquiring continuous information about every target," commented Gordon Oswald, creator of holographic radar at Cambridge Consultants and architect of the current development.

"Current radar systems scan the surveillance zone, emitting a pulsed beam and detecting reflections of moving objects. Because the sampling period is too short and the interval between scans too long, speed - or Doppler - resolution is poor and the Doppler spectrum is aliased, making it impossible to separate the target from the turbine using any analytical processing technique. Scanning radars, while excellent at detecting aircraft over long ranges and wide areas, are simply not suited to this task. That's where a supplementary holographic infill radar will come into its own."

Craig Webster, who heads Cambridge Consultants' Cleantech business, said: "The problem arising from the interaction between wind turbines and radar is very real - and the good places to site radars tend to be very similar to the good places to site wind turbines."

As well as the technical benefits of the infill radar, Webster believes its application will greatly simplify the planning process by removing the need to analyse the impact of a proposed development on various radar installations. "We're saying: 'here's the information; pipe it in'," he told E&T.

Cambridge Consultants originally developed holographic radar in the 1980s to measure the thickness of ice caps and subsequently for oil exploration. The technique was later refined for defence and security applications, including through-wall radar, and more recently for vehicle collision avoidance systems. The wind farm radar uses the same principle on a larger scale.

Bright future for black silicon

By Chris Edwards

A spinout from Harvard University aims to use a blackened form of silicon to develop sensor technologies that reduce the risk of patients receiving overdoses from medical X-ray equipment and solar cells that respond to a much wider range of wavelengths.

SiOnyx, which was set up by researcher Paul Mazur a couple of years ago to commercialise work on so-called black silicon, has now obtained exclusive licences to the patents that came from the initial research at Harvard.

Mazur stumbled across the effect at the end of the 1990s when he hit samples of silicon with intense but short-lived laser pulses in the presence of gases such as sulphur hexafluoride. The surface of the material turned black: a forest of thin spikes dissipate and absorb light to a far greater level than normal silicon. Doping effects, caused by the incorporation of elements from the gas help boost the light-absorption range. This, SiOnyx claimed, will lead to a new generation of hyper-spectral sensors.

In X-ray equipment, the black silicon sensors would not detect the radiation directly but the light picked up from scintillators. A device based on black silicon should be able to absorb more wavelengths that conventional sensors, which would reduce the chance of an overdose that might result if a narrowband sensor missed some of the light generated by the scintillator.

Stephen Saylor, president and CEO of SiOnyx, claimed: "SiOnyx is poised to transform the $10bn light detection, imaging and photovoltaic markets by offering device manufacturers a path to smaller, lighter and more efficient photonic systems."

BMW unveils payment card car key

By Dominic Lenton

A high-tech car key that doubles as a bus ticket might not have cut much ice with James Bond when he collected his BMW from Q in 'Tomorrow Never Dies', but it's a development the car manufacturer hopes will prove popular with its customers.

BMW's research and technology arm has joined up with NXP Semiconductors to create a prototype multifunctional car key that it claims is a world first.

The key, which was demonstrated at the CARTES & IDentification show in Paris at the start of November, looks just like any other that comes with a 7 series BMW. However, smartcard capabilities based on a built-in SmartMX P5CD081 security chip from NXP allow it to do more than just open doors and start the engine.

As well as the ability to act as a contactless payment card that would, for example, let the user pay for their petrol by waving it near to the pump, it can handle personalised access control which adjusts seat and mirror positions automatically.

And, with e-ticketing systems like London's Oyster card growing in popularity, the key used to drive a car to the railway station could also ease the way onto trains and buses.

BMW describes turning a car key into a credit card as providing "an enhanced mobility experience". For example, the ability to temporarily register keys with different vehicles will be attractive to fleet owners and rental companies who can leave authorisations and service settings to be activated automatically.

"With the concept of integrating contactless payment functionality in a car key, we are working on the combination of automotive technology and lifestyle," said Professor Raymond Freymann, managing director of BMW Group Research and Technology. "In cooperation with NXP we are doing research in enhancing the capabilities of the car key into one smart device for access, payment, and services that will simplify the lives of BMW car drivers in future.

"It will help us to stay in touch with our drivers directly and deliver a complete range of mobility-enhancing services."

Safety business booming

Diversified manufacturer Parker Hannifin is quadrupling the capacity of one of its factories to meet demand for an aircraft safety system that will prevent the ignition of fuel tank vapours.

In December 2006 aircraft designer Airbus signed a $500m contract with Parker to supply it with on-board inert gas generator systems (OBIGGS), in compliance with the new regulations introduced by the US Federal Aviation Administration and European Aviation Safety Agency. From next year, nearly all new passenger and cargo aircraft with heated centre wing tanks (HCWTS) will be required to fit anti-flash systems that either reduce flammability, such as a fuel tank inerting system, or mitigate the risk of ignition, such as polyurethane foam.

OBIGGS prevent the ignition of fuel tank vapours by inerting the tank with nitrogen-enriched air. This reduces the risk of explosion by lowering the amount of oxygen and increasing the amount of nitrogen, which doesn't support combustion. Since signing the Airbus contract, Parker's factory at Etten-Leur, in the Netherlands, has been operating five shifts instead of three, and the company is investing over 5m in expansion.

Parker will begin supplying the systems to Airbus in 2009 for integration into aircraft from 2010.

See article in this issue: 'Eliminating explosions'.

UK in drive to be electric-vehicle leader

By Bob Cervi

The UK government is aiming to boost the mass production of electric and low-carbon vans as part of a £20m initiative to promote green motoring in the public sector.

Councils in Liverpool, Newcastle and Gateshead, Coventry, Leeds and Glasgow have been selected to participate in the first phase of the green van programme, alongside public-sector organisations such as Royal Mail, Metropolitan Police and Transport for London.

Ten manufacturers have been shortlisted to bid to supply the vehicles. They are Ford, Mercedes Benz, Citroen, Ashwoods, Land Rover (lower-carbon van), and Modec, Smith Electric Vehicles, LDV, Nissan, Allied Vehicles (all-electric van).

In a separate project, a consortium has received backing from the Department for Transport to develop carbon-reducing technology for conventional vans.

The Addzev (affordable add-on zero-emissions vehicle) project is being developed jointly by a group that includes the Advanced Lead-Acid Battery Consortium, Cranfield University and Oxford University Electrical Power Group.

The developers say their technology enables a conventional van to be converted to a hybrid petrol-electric vehicle at low cost. They are using a low-cost electric drive system and an advanced lead-acid battery to enable vans to switch between a hybrid drive mode and electric only.

The government's initiative with local councils is part of a £100m programme over five years to encourage greener motoring, including a £10m fund for families around the country to test-drive electric vehicles.

In addition, £20m will be injected into research and development programmes for electrification of road transport and technologies to decarbonise road vehicles. There will also be a boost to research into developing lower-carbon vehicles.

The plans were announced as motor industry experts and government officials from around the world met in London to discuss how to kick-start the mass-market production of low-carbon and fully-electric vehicles.

The group aims to produce a declaration that could be fed into the Energy Forum of the G8 nations, to be held in Japan this month.

Business Minister Ian Pearson said: "Currently, less than 0.1 per cent of the UK's 26 million cars are electric. The development of electric vehicle technology is an opportunity for the UK to take the lead - and given the state of the global economy, we need to seize the opportunity now."

Greenpeace senior transport campaigner Anita Goldsmith said: "If ministers get this right then Britain's ailing car industry could become a trailblazer in this emerging technology, creating thousands of green-collar jobs and exporting zero-emission cars to developing countries around the world."

Atlantis floats tide-powered data centre plan 

By James Hayes

What's claimed as the first data centre partially powered directly by tidal current energy is being planned for a Scottish location by Singapore-based Atlantis Resources Corporation. The company is looking to site its undersea turbines in the Pentland Firth, which separates the mainland from the Orkney Isles, with the computer processing facility in nearby Castle of Mey.

Initially using a combination of five Solon and 10 Nereus tidal turbines, Atlantis expects to generate around 20MW of power - that's up to 40 per cent of the centre's requirement. This fluctuates according to the
ebb and flow of tides. The remainder will be drawn from the national grid. However, according to Dr James Mitchell, head of business development London for Atlantis Resources, the tide-derived contribution could reach 150MW when fully rolled out.

Atlantis Resources is looking to partner with a major online presence which would be attracted by the data centre's combination of location, capacity, and green credibility, such as Google or Microsoft. It has appointed Arup to undertake a feasibility study to identify potential partners, and sites for the facility. 

Atlantis' Dr Mitchell is also hopeful that low-grade heat generated by the data centre can be deployed to warm local greenhouses growing produce for the nearby Mey Selections food brand.

If planning permissions for a sea-based lease come from Crown Estates, along with government permits to run the turbines, the data centre could be operational by 2011, and fully rolled-out two years after.

Tree power fights forest fires

By Dominic Lenton

A small US company says it is close to commercialising a technique that harnesses a trickle charge from a plant or tree to operate a wireless sensor, overcoming one of the main obstacles to implementing large-scale sensor networks.

The solution, based on work carried out at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, could help the US government reduce the billion dollars it spends every year on fighting forest fires.

'Mesh networks', made up of communicating wireless sensors spread across a wide area, have a huge number of potential applications. However, the need to recharge or replace the host of batteries that would be required, often in hard-to-reach locations, has made them impractical.

Now Voltree, based in Canton, Massachusetts, is applying for patent protection for its 'bioenergy harvester' power module, which it claims will "remove the last bottleneck from practical deployment of large-scale mesh networks". The first application would be in a network of thousands of devices scattered throughout a forest that would monitor the same trees that they draw their power from.

The company envisages using the device in an Early Wildfire Alert Network, or EWAN, which it says could save huge sums of public money. Almost a third of US land is forested, and in 2006 nearly 100,000 fires claimed a record ten million acres (40,000km2).

The US Forest Service currently relies on a range of tools such as remote automated weather stations to spot fires as early as possible. EWAN would do the same job using thousands of humidity and temperature sensor nodes, each with a wireless transceiver using the established IEEE 802.15.4 and Zigbee low-power communication protocols.

Voltree admits that most of the technology is cheap and has been available off the shelf for some time. Its breakthrough, however, is in adding a power module the size of a packet of chewing gum that parasitically harvests metabolic energy from any large plant.

That provides enough power to transmit data four times a day, or immediately if there's a fire, with each signal hopping across the network to an existing weather station that beams data by satellite to a command centre in Boise, Idaho.

The fact that trees can produce extremely small amounts of electricity has been known for some time, but no one knew how it could be harnessed. Writing in online journal PLoS ONE, the MIT researchers describe how they tested a number of theories to rule out a simple electrochemical reaction or coupling to underground power lines, radio waves or other electromagnetic interference.

The experiments involved inserting platinum electrodes into a potted Ficus benjamina placed on insulating foam inside a Faraday cage and a petri dish containing a soil solution. Having eliminated several possible sources of the voltage they observed, the researchers deduced that the cause was relatively straightforward.

"It's really a fairly simple phenomenon: an imbalance in pH between a tree and the soil it grows in," explained MIT researcher Andreas Mershin.

Voltree expects to begin tests of the technology on a ten-acre area of Forest Service Land in Spring 2009. According to Christopher Love, who has been working on the project as a student at MIT and is Voltree's vice president in charge of research and development, the sensors and battery charger modules are ready for installation. "We expect we'll need to instrument four trees per acre," he said. "Right now we're finalising exactly how the wireless sensor network will be configured to use the minimum amount of power."

Ladybird + Rabbit = Three Bears

By Lorna Sharpe

Long-established children's book publisher Ladybird has teamed up with the developer of an Internet-connected talking rabbit called Nabaztag to bring traditional books into the modern world of digital gadgetry.

Violet's Wi-Fi-enabled Rabbit is permanently connected to the Internet and, according to its creator, can act, react, transmit or broadcast Web content such as news, messages, music, text and alerts. It also obeys voice commands and recognises real-world objects. Now it has added reading to its catalogue of skills.

Children will not, however, lose the pleasure of pulling a favourite book off the shelf and turning the pages. Nabaztag is being sold with three Ladybird titles that have a 'Ztamp' RFID tag glued under the cover.

By 'sniffing' the Ztamp, Nabaztag will identify the book, retrieve the story from the Violet server and read it out loud. Listeners can navigate through the chapters by moving the rabbit's ears, and it will remember where it stopped.

The recommended price for Nabaztag with the three books is £115.

Stephanie Barton, managing director of Ladybird Books, said: "We are delighted to be joining Violet on this global initiative which will take the book, in its traditional form, on an incredible and exciting new journey. With Nabaztag we are able to harness new developments in digital technology and offer our customers a new dimension in the reading experience."

US soldiers assess new generation of night vision goggle

By Dominic Lenton

The US Army has completed trials of a helmet-mounted vision system that will give troops a better picture of their surroundings at night or in bad weather by taking input from numerous sensors to build up
a digital image.

BAE Systems developed the digitally fused enhanced night vision goggle, or ENVG(D), which uses its MicroIR sensor technology. Since the prototype was delivered in July the equipment has been undergoing evaluation to compare it with existing night vision goggles.

ENVG(D) combines visible, low-light and infrared imagery and presents it through a monocular eyepiece. It is designed to be part of the Army's vision of a 'digital battlefield', with the resulting data shared across communication networks.

The system, including a goggle, helmet mount, battery pack assembly and related cabling, weighs less than 900g and can run for seven and half hours before it needs recharging, even at temperatures as low as -20°C.

Greg Davies, BAE Systems' US director of advanced systems, said he was pleased with the company's achievement in getting the device from paper to product in 12 months from when the initial contract was placed in July 2007. He estimates the initial requirement, once a decision is taken to issue goggles to troops, would be above 100,000 units, with more to follow.

Recent weeks have also seen the US Army place a $66m order with BAE Systems for continued production of thermal weapon sights that use similar technology to the night vision goggle. The contract is the most recent under a five-year deal and increases the total value to more than $400m, including funding for initial engineering design for new TWS technology that will reduce the size, weight and cost of the sights. To date, the company has delivered more than 32,000 units.

Japanese rail firm presents maglev proposal

By William Dennis

Should plans fall into place, Central Japan Railway Co (JR Tokai) will introduce a maglev train system on the Tokyo-Nagoya route by 2025.

JR Tokai, one of the four firms in the Japan Railways Group that operate high-speed Shinkansen ('bullet train') services, hopes to extend the maglev line from Nagoya to Osaka at a later stage to offer a Tokyo-Osaka service.

It would cost an estimated ¥5tr (£34bn) to construct the maglev line from Tokyo-Nagoya if the shortest route through the mountains is considered.

JR Tokai has submitted its report for the proposed maglev system covering three routes to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism in Tokyo for evaluation and approval. One route is direct, while the other two divert northwards to serve additional cities.

According to Ministry spokeswoman Michiko Miyazaki, the report will be studied in detail, but she could not say when a decision will be made.

The proposed maglev train is expected to have a top speed of 500km/h. It would reduce travelling time between Tokyo and Nagoya to 50 minutes, compared with 1 hour 30 minutes on JR Tokai's current high-speed service, which follows a coastal route and uses Nozomi trains, which are the fasted Shinkansen trains in service in Japan.

Manila-Clark line may never arrive

By William Dennis

In the Philippines, construction of an 80km railway line between Manila and Clark may be derailed if the contractor's demand for an additional US$299m is not met. The project is currently on hold while the financial and legal issues are resolved.

China National Machinery and Equipment Corp Group (CNMECG) was initially awarded the contract in January 2003 with a bid worth approximately $1bn. It has refused to resume construction work, which was abandoned two months after starting in June the same year.

According to the communications executive of CNMECG, Xie Bo, the demand for the $299m is justified, as the cost of construction materials had gone up by as much as 80 per cent.

Xie said the cost of the project has also increased considerably as the line is now to be electrified. The original proposal envisaged diesel-powered trains.

North Luzon Railway Corp (NLRC) president Eduardo Pamintuan said CNMECG workers had abandoned the project without serving any termination notice.

CNMECG claimed the company had no choice but to abandon the project due to delays by the Philippine authorities in relocating squatters and the sudden hike in the price of construction materials and steel, which the company could not absorb. CNMECG says it is willing to resume work if its demand is met.

The line was to start in Caloocan in Manila and end in the Clark Freeport, 10km outside Angeles City in the Pampanga province.

There are two camps within NLRC, with one requesting the Federal government to approve the additional funding while the other has recommended that the project be scrapped. Local commentators are calling for an investigation to confirm or refute allegations of corruption among some of those behind the original agreement.

Tokyo to have third airport

Faced with increasing passenger traffic at Tokyo International Airport (Haneda) and Narita International Airport, the Japanese government is investing US$1.88bn to upgrade the Hyakuri Air Base (HAB) and convert it into a civil airport.

Work at the base started in 2005 and will be completed in December 2009. It involves the construction of a second, 2,700m long, runway, a passenger terminal building and supporting facilities. It will be the third international airport in the Tokyo metropolitan district.

The facility, which will be known as Ibaraki Airport, will handle domestic and regional flights from South Korea, China and Hong Kong.

Located in Omitama, north east of Tokyo in the Ibaraki Prefecture, it will open for operations in March 2010 with a passenger handling capacity of 15 million, operating only for 15 hours daily from 8.00am local time.

HAB went into service in 1937 as a military facility. Japan has 97 other airports, many of which were built in the 1990s after the US pressured the Japanese government to buy more US-made aircraft.

Flash deal off

Korea's Samsung Electronics has withdrawn proposals to purchase SanDisk, saying that talks had made "no meaningful progress" and citing uncertainties about the flash-memory business. An open letter to SanDisk's directors refers to "surprise announcements of a quarter billion dollar operating loss, a hurried renegotiation of your relationship with Toshiba and major job losses across your organisation".

SanDisk responded that it had remained open to a transaction that recognised its long-term value and protected shareholders, pointing out that the company has many factors in its favour.

View from Washington: new President must restore US self-belief

By Paul Dempsey

You have probably heard about Silicon Valley investor Sequoia Capital's 'RIP Good Times' presentation. Just in case you haven't, here's a quick recap: "We're all doomed". Okay, that's a slight exaggeration, but as slices of economic doomlordery go, it was the triple-thick New York cheesecake with whipped cream and caramel sauce. Sequoia's message for the firms in which it has invested was, to paraphrase, "Cut now, cut deep and cut everything, because this downturn is going to be long and grim".

There is one disturbing implication in that advice - indeed, if you check the slides from the supposedly secret meeting (*cough* http://venturebeat.com/2008/10/10/the-sequoia-rip-good-times-presentation-get-your-copy-here/ *cough*), it eventually becomes explicit. Namely, Sequoia wants its investments to slash engineering and research and development costs.

That demands a response, although one runs two risks in offering one. The first is of 'doing a Pollyanna' by painting the current downturn far brighter than the reality. The second is to completely overlook the fact that this advice is specific to Sequoia's investments - companies that may have technologies they can finesse to fruition fairly quickly.

So, having hedged my bets, I still have to say that the Sequoia cure will not work as a general prescription for the technology sector. Medium- to long-term economic growth in the western world is inextricably tied to innovation, and not just in terms of financial instruments or the not-even-dismal science behind giving mortgages to those who cannot afford them. We're talking proper hardcore tech. So, if you really do retrench on R&D, you head into a death spiral. Sequoia's prophecy becomes self-fulfilling - notwithstanding the validity of much of its economic analysis.

There are very fine judgements to be made between realism and pessimism here. The time has come for stoutly remunerated CEOs to prove their worth. At the same time, many engineers will regrettably lose their jobs and many R&D programmes will be slimmed down out of necessity. If the sales numbers aren't there and the banks aren't lending, something must give. But we still need the belief that we can work our way out of today's problems and, just as important, we need sufficient resources to do so.

Which brings us to the impending US election. America's greatest quality is also one that we Europeans most enjoy mocking: an often-heady combination of hope, self-confidence and enthusiasm that underpins its economic competitiveness. Right now, however, that troika is being replaced by a destructive pessimism.

The country's next president must be someone who can bring back some self-belief, who can energise the entire population, and who can achieve these things after a spectacularly ugly campaign that looks certain to leave the USA divided and bitter even after the votes have been counted.

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