The top news articles from this issue

Top news stories from issue 12.

Animated 3D movies drive demand for HPC

By James Hayes

Three-dimensional computer-generated animations can be eye-poppingly cool and funky, but they're also driving a need for back-end processing systems that can handle colossal quantities of data. The genre requires hundreds of thousands of individual images to be rendered through digital animation software to create each frame. Thus, the entertainment industry is becoming a major market for IT vendors, especially where there is a requirement to provision massive non-permanent processing and storage resources.

Illumination Entertainment's newly-released computer-animated 3D movie 'Despicable Me' generated around 142 terabytes of data. The company contracted Parisian digital production studio Mac Guff Ligne to complete the year-long process of intensive graphics and 3D animation rendering, totalling some 500,000 frames per week. Technology partners IBM and French high-performance computing integrator Serviware built a 6,500-core server farm based on IBM's iDataPlex platform to support the diverse processing and management workloads across its 330-person team.

Driverless vans embark on Silk Road challenge

Two pairs of driverless solar-powered electric vehicles have begun a 13,000km trip from Italy to China along the Silk Road, collecting environmental data along the way. The three-month journey will finish at the World Fair in Shanghai by the end of October.

Researchers from VisLab, an artificial vision and intelligent systems lab at Italy's University of Parma, are behind the initiative, which aims to demonstrate that current technology is mature enough for autonomous vehicles to be deployed on public roads - though not entirely without human intervention.

'What we are trying to do is stress our systems and see if they can work in a real environment, with real weather, real traffic and crazy people who cross the road in front of you and a vehicle that cuts you off,' said project leader Alberto Broggi.

Called VIAC, for VisLab Intercontinental Autonomous Challenge, the trip consists of two pairs of vehicles, each with a driven lead van followed by a driverless vehicle occupied by two technicians, whose job is to fix glitches and take over the wheel in case of an emergency. There will also be a number of support and workshop trucks.

The driverless vehicle takes cues from the lead van, but will have to respond to any ordinary obstacles or dangers. The two pairs alternate stretches along the route to China along the old Silk Road.

'We will definitely need some help by humans. It is not possible to have 100 per cent driverless. This is why I call it a test, not a demonstration,' Broggi said.

Specially designed smartphones will monitor carbon dioxide levels in the regions covered - Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Hungary, Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan and China - providing a live stream of data to the Web via Twitter, @greenhaviour, using technology developed by IBM Human Centric Solutions and IBM's Hursley laboratory in England.

'Visualising the data will enable us to identify quickly how pollution levels vary across continents. We will use IBM analytical tools to discover trends such as a correlation between certain illnesses and the quality of the air,' said Ed Jellard, consultant from IBM Hursley Development Lab.

Because the emissions data will be publicly available, the programme serves as a pilot for 'citizen science', in which anyone can collect and share data using a mobile device.

Governments have yet to produce rules of the road for driverless vehicles, so the VIAC team has obtained prior permission from all countries along the route to carry out the experiment. To protect themselves from liability, they are placing one of the technicians in the driver's seat, ready to assume the controls or hit an emergency shutdown button if necessary.

Marine projects surge ahead

The WaveHub subsea grid connection point for wave and tidal generators will be installed off the coast of Cornwall in the next few weeks.

Billed as an 'electrical socket' for marine renewables, Wave Hub will sit on the seabed in some 50m of water around 16km from the coast of Cornwall and will be connected to the National Grid via a subsea cable and a sub-station at Hayle.

Groups of wave energy devices will be connected to Wave Hub and float on or just below the surface of the sea to assess how well they work and how much power they generate before being commercially produced and deployed. Four berths will be available. Wave Hub will have an initial maximum capacity of 20MW but has been designed with the potential to scale up to 50MW in the future. The first wave energy devices are expected to be deployed in 2011.

On a visit to the Hayle site, Business and Enterprise Minister Mark Prisk was briefed on the project and announced a £1.5m grant to Ocean Power Technologies, the first company signed up for a Wave Hub connection, to develop a larger version of its Powerbuoy wave energy device.

OPT said that with the award it will lead a project with partners A&P Falmouth and the Peninsula Research Institute for Marine Renewable Energy to scale up its existing 150kW Powerbuoy to a 500kW version, as well as working on innovations to improve reliability and increase performance. Additional areas of the development programme will include design for manufacture, materials research and site identification procedures.

The OPT grant comes just a week after the Technology Strategy Board announced details of support totalling £7m for wave and tidal stream technology. Nine research and development projects involving 35 British businesses and universities will focus on the twin aims of driving down the cost of energy while improving the reliability and performance of wave and tidal stream energy devices. Some of the projects will look to enhance the performance of existing devices while others aim to develop novel, breakthrough concepts such as new devices for use in deep water locations.

The Technology Strategy Board is investing £6.6m in the nine projects while the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council is contributing £400,000.

Listen to trains to prevent failures

By Lorna Sharpe

An innovative acoustic monitoring system has been installed on a busy rail route to diagnose potential problems with trains by listening to them as they pass.

Siemens and South West Trains (SWT), working in close collaboration with Network Rail, have joined forces to pilot the RailBAM system, monitoring 300 trains a day on the Wessex Route that carries SWT services between London and Weymouth. The system - the first permanent application of this technology in Europe - employs an array of hi-tech microphones mounted at the side of the track that listen to every individual axle bearing on each train as it passes by.

Information on how the bearings sound is then fed back securely to a database in real-time, where it is compared to the sound of a perfect bearing. Sound analysis allows tiny bearing defects to be identified months before they become critical.

As well as SWT's Siemens-built and maintained Class 444 and Cl450 electric fleet, the line is used by SWT diesel trains and by other passenger and freight operators.

Siemens overhaul and repairs manager Nicholas Kay told E&T that all passing trains are monitored. Where Siemens has equipped its fleet with tags, the system can compare data to determine if there is a change in bearing noise, enabling defects to be identified and corrected before a failure occurs. For other trains without tags, the system provides a warning alarm for bearing defects to Network Rail.

The equipment has been installed close to the Siemens maintenance depot at Southampton. Kay says the site was chosen primarily because it captures all 172 of the Cl444 and Cl450 units. This is the company's largest rolling stock fleet in the UK, and currently operating the highest mileage for trains of this type. 'It was also recognised that there are no HABD (hot axle box detector)systems installed on the DC network and the installation would provide some provision of bearing monitoring.'

The site also provides an economical location for the trial with good site access, power, communications and a suitable railway configuration for the technology.

Thixomoulding process reinvented for aerospace parts

By Bryan Betts

Magnesium is set to find new applications in the aerospace, automotive and defence sectors, according to engineering company Shearline, which is working with Sheffield University's Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) to develop a new metal injection scheme for moulding ultra-light, very strong components from magnesium alloys.

It is using thixotropic moulding, or thixomoulding - a relatively new process where fine granules of the metal alloy are heated to a plastic state, then ram-injected to make them flow into a pre-heated mould.

'Thixomoulding enables the precise moulding of magnesium alloy components with thin walls and complex shapes within a single process,' explained Charles Maltby, Shearline's technical and commercial director. 'Metal injection moulding and new additive layer methods can reduce the overall cost of tooling and construction, enabling components that previously required several processes to be integrated within a single mould.'

'Magnesium is strong and lighter than aluminium, and because it enables thinner wall sections, magnesium parts are lighter still,' said Andy Hayward, the company's sales and marketing director. He said that while relatively small magnesium mouldings are already used in mobile phones and even cars, magnesium's flammability - as demonstrated in many a school chemistry class - has limited its use elsewhere.

'We want to make bigger components for more stressed environments,' said Hayward. 'We intend to offer a component manufacturing service to the aerospace industry; it's about two years away.' The target is prototyping and low-volume, high-value production runs, he added, claiming it will make Shearline the first UK commercial facility - and one of the first in Europe - to offer magnesium thixomoulding design and manufacture services.

The project is being driven by metallurgist Rachel Peachey, a Knowledge Transfer Programme associate from the Sheffield AMRC. Part of her role is to develop alloy additives to make the material more suitable for aerospace use - in particular, improving its fatigue resistance and inhibiting combustion.

Outlook brightens for OLED lighting

Companies conducting R&D on organic light-emitting diodes have achieved a breakthrough that will bring them closer to volume production of OLED lighting devices.

GE Global Research, GE Lighting and Konica Minolta (KM) have demonstrated illumination-quality white OLEDs using 'solution-coatable' materials that are essential for producing OLEDs at a low cost.

Anil Duggal, GE's OLED lighting technology leader, announced the milestone of 56lm/W efficiency at the recent International Symposium on the Science and Technology of Light Sources in Eindhoven, The Netherlands.

Explaining the significance of the development, Duggal said: 'We have produced high-performance white OLED lighting devices with a commercially viable lifetime using 'solution coating' rather than 'vacuum coating' processes. This allows us to make use of the high volume roll-to-roll manufacturing infrastructure that already has been perfected in the printing industry.'

GE and KM plan to manufacture OLEDs using high-speed, roll-to-roll processes rather than the vacuum-based batch processes used by companies in the OLED display industry. Roll-to-roll processing is key to making OLEDs commercially viable for general lighting applications. Solution, or wet coating, is the highest throughput manufacturing method for coating the organic layers that are the essence of an OLED lighting device.

Researchers and product development teams from GE and KM have been working together since 2007. In addition to hitting a new efficiency milestone, the teams are continuing to work on improving the lifetime and lighting quality of OLED lighting devices produced from roll-to-roll manufacturing.

The two companies say they plan to introduce their first flexible OLED lighting product in 2011.

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