Tag: ‘Material’

Ultra-futuristic concept vehicles

26 May 2009

What will automobiles look like 50 years down the road? If they turn out to be anything like these concepts from the design studios of four major automakers, we are in for quite a ride.

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- Mazda Motonari RX

Mazda Motonari RX --
Mazda Motonari RX [+]

In Mazda's vision of the late 2050s, advances in molecular engineering have rendered metal-based manufacturing obsolete. The rise of ubiquitous computing and artificial intelligence drastically accelerates the automotive production cycle. Cars are cheap, lightweight (around 200 lbs, or less than 100 kg), and equipped with intelligent crash avoidance systems that eliminate traffic accidents. However, people still manage to get speeding tickets.

Mazda Motonari RX --

The Mazda Motonari RX -- which takes its name from the legendary Japanese warrior Mori Motonari -- interfaces seamlessly with the driver to function as an extension of the body.

Mazda Motonari RX --

The vehicle drives sort of like a street luge. Acceleration and direction is determined by two armrest mounted control points, and the vehicle's exoskeletal frame shape-shifts in accordance with the position of the driver's arms and legs when enveloped in the seat.

Mazda Motonari RX --
Omni wheels

Four omnidirectional wheels allow 360 degrees of movement, and the tread expands or contracts to suit the driving conditions.

Mazda Motonari RX --

A "haptic skin" suit consisting of millions of microscopic actuators enables the driver to experience the road psycho-somatically while receiving electrical muscle stimulation from the onboard AI guidance system (or other remotely located drivers).

Mazda Motonari RX --

The vehicle's entire structure is comprised of a 100% reprototypable, carbon nanotube/shape memory alloy weave with a photovoltaic coating, which allows the vehicle to mimic the driver's body movements while powering the in-wheel electrostatic motors. [More]

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- Toyota Biomobile Mecha

In Toyota's vision of the late 2050s, cities have developed vertically due to limited area on the ground, leading the transportation industry to develop new vehicles capable of navigating vertical space.

Toyota Biomobile Mecha --
Toyota Biomobile Mecha [+]

Toyota's Biomobile Mecha, a shape-shifting vehicle with nano-laser wheels, can read and adapt to changes in the environment and travel vertical pathways by means of biomimetic feet with powerful suction.

Toyota Biomobile Mecha --

In addition, the Biomobile Mecha is powered by pollution. A special skin derives energy from harmful substances in the air, so the vehicle never runs out of fuel (as long as the future skies remain polluted) and restores balance to the environment while it goes.

Toyota Biomobile Mecha --

The real-time strategic navigation planning system, which reads the environment via a 3D scanner, gives the vehicle "instincts" that enable it to autonomously adapt to the driving environment.

Toyota Biomobile Mecha --

Advanced nanotechnology enables the vehicle to expand and contract its structure horizontally and vertically as needed, allowing it to serve as a compact commuter, an aerodynamic performance vehicle, or even as a temporary dwelling. [More]

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- Nissan OneOne

In Nissan's vision of the 2050s, robots have become an integral part of our lives, blurring the line between humans and machines. The Nissan OneOne combines personal mobility with the family robot concept.

Nissan OneOne --

Billed as the ultimate pet, the Nissan OneOne (pronounced "wan-wan," the Japanese sound for a barking dog) is a friendly, helpful member of the family of the future. Able to operate autonomously without a driver, the GPS-guided vehicle can help out by picking up the dry cleaning, fetching the groceries, and taking the kids to school.

Nissan OneOne --

OneOne propels itself forward by flexing and relaxing synthetic polymer muscles in its "legs," much as you would if skating on roller blades.

Nissan OneOne --

The vehicle can also assume various positions depending on the driving environment. It reclines to achieve greater speed, and it stands up to increase visibility and squeeze into tight spaces. [More]

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- Honda 124 (One to the Power of Four)

In Honda's vision of the 2050s, people have flocked back to the suburbs, fueling consumer demand for a truly flexible commuter vehicle.

Honda 124 --
Honda 124 [+]

The solar-hybrid powered Honda 124 (One to the Power of Four) is an energy-efficient, modular vehicle that can separate into four different fully functional units, each uniquely suited for specific driving conditions.

Honda 124 --

A combination of robotics, artificial intelligence and molecular engineering (which enables the body panels to be reshaped according to use) allow each module to instinctively reconfigure itself and operate as a fully functional unit. Two of the modules are suitable for short-distance inner-city driving, while the other two are ideal for longer distances at higher speeds.

Honda 124 --

Because the Honda 124 consists of multiple units that can be joined together, carpoolers can take advantage of HOV lanes and share commuting costs. [More]

Gold mined from sewage sludge

30 Jan 2009

Gold mined from sewage sludge --

A sewage plant in Japan's Nagano prefecture has started mining gold from sludge, earning a cool 5 million yen ($56,000) in its first month of operation.

On January 28, sewage plant operator Nagano Prefecture Suwa Construction Office announced that approximately 1.9 kilograms (4.2 lbs) of gold can be mined from each ton of molten fly ash generated when incinerating sludge at its facility in the town of Suwa.

Located in central Nagano prefecture, the Suwa Basin is home to numerous precision machining companies, metal plating facilities and hot springs, which may explain the high concentration of gold in the wastewater sludge.

Joint research conducted in 2007 by Nagano prefecture and the Japan Sewage Works Agency found that the concentration of gold in the ash was comparable to that of a high-grade ore. But because the cost of extracting the gold outweighed the potential profit, the operator continued treating the ash as an industrial waste material.

However, with the recent rise in the price of gold, Suwa decided to start mining the molten fly ash. Last October, they sold 1.4 tons of the ash to a smelting company. At the end of January, Suwa is scheduled to receive its first payment of 5 million yen ($56,000) for the recovered gold.

By the end of March 2009, Suwa plans to mine a total of 5 tons of ash for a profit of 15 million yen ($167,000). The sewage operator says it will use the revenue to help pay for plant maintenance and operating costs.

The facility treats about 100,000 tons of wastewater each day, generating about 3 tons of ash in the process.

[Sources: Yomiuri, Nagano Nippo]

Photos of JAXA’s origami space shuttles

08 Oct 2008

Oriplane, paper shuttle --

Japanese precision machinery manufacturer Castem has sent nine origami space shuttles to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) office in Houston, it was announced on October 7. If all goes as planned, the paper planes will conduct experimental flights from the space station to Earth early next year.

Oriplane, paper space plane --

The 29-gram (1 oz) origami shuttles, which measure 38 centimeters (14 in) long and 22 centimeter (9 in) wide, are made from lightweight but durable sugar cane fiber paper that has been chemically treated to resist heat and water. Developed by JAXA and the University of Tokyo, the special paper has already been used to construct a miniature prototype shuttle, which was tested in a hypersonic wind tunnel in January. In that test, the prototype survived wind speeds of Mach 7 (8,600 kph/ 5,300 mph) and temperatures of around 200 degrees Celsius (nearly 400 degrees Fahrenheit).

Oriplane, paper spacecraft --

If NASA approves, the Space Shuttle Discovery will carry the origami planes to the International Space Station (ISS) in February 2009. JAXA astronaut Dr. Koichi Wakata, who will be living aboard ISS when the origami planes arrive, will carry out the experiment from the Kibo Japanese Experiment Module. It is yet to be decided whether Wakata himself will throw the paper planes or whether he will use the space station's robotic arm.

In either case, JAXA estimates it will take two days for the origami shuttles to complete the 400-kilometer (250 mi) journey from ISS to the planet surface.

Oriplane, origami space shuttle --

A message printed beneath the wings identifies the plane, explains that it has completed a return journey from the space station, and requests the finder to contact JAXA. The message is printed in 10 different languages, including Japanese, English, Chinese, Hindi, and Arabic.

Japan Origami Airplane Association chairman Takuo Toda, a strong proponent of the experiment, says he hopes the test flights will help engineers develop new types of lightweight spacecraft in the future.

[Source: Asahi // Photos: Oriplane]

Stretchable circuitry for soft machines

13 Aug 2008

Stretchable electronic circuit -- In a technological advance that opens up new possibilities in the fields of robotics and wearable computing, researchers at the University of Tokyo have developed a stretchable, rubbery material that conducts electricity and can be incorporated into electronic devices.

The researchers -- led by assistant professor Takao Someya of the University of Tokyo -- were able to create elastic electronic circuits that could be stretched up to 1.7 times their original size without affecting performance, thanks to conductive wires made from a new carbon nanotube-polymer composite they developed.

In recent years, scientists have made advances in blending carbon nanotubes (good conductors of electricity) with polymers to make flexible conductive materials, but success has been limited because nanotubes tend to cluster together, causing the composite to harden when too many nanotubes are added. The University of Tokyo researchers were able to overcome this hurdle by mixing the nanotubes with an ionic liquid containing charged particles that keep the nanotubes evenly distributed and prevent them from clumping together. The result is a stretchable material that conducts electricity more than 500 times better than other commercially available carbon nanotube-polymer blends.

With the list of potential uses of stretchable electronic circuits limited only by the imagination, the researchers envision applications ranging from high-tech suits that enhance athletic performance and monitor the wearer's physical condition, to soft machines with flexible mechanical parts. For robots, elastic electronic circuits will enable layers of soft, sensor-laden skin to be stretched tightly across the curves of their bodies, giving them both a more lifelike appearance and greater sensitivity to touch.

The research results were published in the online edition of Science (August 8).

[Link: Yomiuri]

See also: Robot beauty goes skin-deep

Styrofoam dome homes

08 Aug 2008

Styrofoam dome house --
Styrofoam dome houses at Aso Farm Land (Photo by: Erika Snyder)

While styrofoam may be most commonly associated with disposable coffee cups, meat trays and packaging, prefab home manufacturer Japan Dome House Co., Ltd. uses it to construct easy-to-assemble modular kit homes.

Japan Dome House --

Dubbed the "habitat for the 21st century," the Dome House is an igloo-shaped structure built from snap-together wall sections made of 100% expanded polystyrene foam (styrofoam). It might seem like an odd choice of material for a house, but the company lists a number of advantages that styrofoam has over traditional materials. Unlike wood and metal structures, for example, the styrofoam Dome House does not rust, rot or attract termites. It is also highly resistant to earthquakes and typhoons. In addition, the walls, which are treated with a flame retardant, emit no toxic fumes in a fire.

Styrofoam dome house --
Dome House interior

The styrofoam used in the Dome House's 175-millimeter (7 in) thick walls is significantly denser and stronger than ordinary packing foam. The material has excellent thermal insulation properties, resulting in higher energy efficiency and lower heating and cooling costs.

Styrofoam dome house --

Construction of the Dome House shell is quick and easy. The prefabricated pieces, which each weigh about 80 kilograms (175 lbs), can be carried by 2 or 3 people and assembled in a few hours. Once the shell is put together, coats of mortar and paint are applied for further protection from the elements. (Watch a short video of the assembly process.)

Measuring 7.7 meters (25 ft) wide and 3.85 meters (13 ft) tall, the basic Dome House has a floor space of 44.2 square meters (475 sq ft). It is possible to construct larger, elongated domes by adding more pieces, and joint units allow multiple domes to be connected into a single structure.

Dome Houses, which are approved by Japan's Land and Transport Ministry, can be erected anywhere in Japan with the proper permit. According to the manufacturer, the versatile structures are suitable for use as hotel rooms, restaurants, freezer rooms, or even as hog farms.

The Aso Farm Land resort village in Kyushu uses about 480 styrofoam domes as lodging, recreational facilities and retail shops.

Styrofoam dome houses at Aso Farmland Village --
Aso Farm Land

The Dome House can also be used as a bar, karaoke room, steam room, and more.

Japan Dome House --
Styrofoam dome bar

Styrofoam dome house --
Mushroom House karaoke room at Suijin-no-mori hot spring (Oita prefecture)

Styrofoam dome home --
Styrofoam dome steam room

Whether or not this type of home is truly "perfect for the modern age" as the company suggests, the price is right. Dome House kits start at around 3 million yen (under $30,000), which does not include the cost of transport, assembly, interior construction, etc.

[Link: Japan Dome House]

Light-sensitive shape-shifting plastic drives motor

23 Jul 2008

Motor powered by light-activated plasticA research team led by professor Tomiki Ikeda at the Tokyo Institute of Technology has developed what is being called the world's first plastic motor powered solely and directly by light.

Unlike solar-powered motors that use photovoltaic cells to convert light to electric power (and which require wires and batteries to deliver and store the power), this first-of-a-kind motor converts light directly into mechanical energy, thanks to a belt made from a special elastomer whose molecular structure expands or contracts when illuminated, depending on the wavelength of light.

Ikeda began working on the light-activated motor in 2003, after discovering that a plastic compound containing azobenzene would contract when exposed to ultraviolet light and resume its original shape when exposed to visible light. Since then, in addition to working on improving the material's shape-shifting properties, Ikeda's team has been looking at ways to use the material in a motor that converts light directly into motion.

To test whether the material could be used as a mechanical power source, the researchers coated a polyethylene film with the shape-shifting plastic to create a 0.08-millimeter thick belt, which they looped around a pair of wheels measuring 10 millimeters and 3 millimeters in diameter. Then, by shining ultraviolet light on the belt near the smaller wheel and visible light near the larger wheel, the belt snapped into action and began turning the wheels. The larger wheel recorded a top speed of 1 rpm.

According to the researchers, the film demonstrated about 4 times more elastic strength than human muscle, and its strength remained unchanged even after contracting and expanding every 7 seconds for 30 hours.

"The material is still not very efficient at converting light to energy, but it can be improved," says Ikeda, who suggests the shape-shifting plastic can be used in larger-scale applications. He hopes to one day see the material used to power plastic automobiles and other fantastic plastic machines.

The results of the research were published in the July 19 edition of the German chemistry journal Angewandte Chemie.

[Source: Tokyo Shimbun]

Ig Nobel Prize: Vanilla flavoring from cow dung

05 Oct 2007

Vanillin -- Mayu Yamamoto, a former researcher at the International Medical Center of Japan, has won this year's Ig Nobel Chemistry Prize for developing a method for extracting vanillin -- an ingredient in vanilla fragrance and flavoring -- from cow dung.

According to an AFP report, Yamamoto, who attended the award ceremony at Harvard University on October 4, said, "At first I thought it was a joke, but I came to the award ceremony hoping my research would become more widely known." Yamamoto says that widespread adoption of her method could help the environment because companies would make greater use of cow dung, which arguably contributes to global warming.

As a bonus prize, Toscanini's Ice Cream in Cambridge, Massachusetts has invented a new flavor -- Yum-A-Moto Vanilla Twist -- to honor Yamamoto, and is offering a free public tasting to its customers on October 5.

The annual Ig Nobel Prizes are meant to honor scientific achievements that "first make people laugh, and then make them think," according to the founders at science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research.

Yamamoto is 12th Japanese person to receive an Ig Nobel Prize since the awards were established in 1991. Previous award-winning achievements from Japan include the invention of karaoke, which received the Peace Prize, and the Tamagotchi, which received the Economics Prize.

Check Improbable Research for a list of all the winners.

[Source: Asahi]

Artificial bones made with 3D inkjet printers

13 Aug 2007

Custom artificial bone made on 3D inkjet printer -- Researchers from the Tissue Engineering Department at the University of Tokyo Hospital and venture company Next 21 are using 3D inkjet printers to produce tailor-made artificial bones for use in facial reconstructive surgery. Following initial trials performed on a Welsh corgi and 10 people over the past year and a half, the researchers are set to begin a more extensive second round of human testing this autumn.

To make an artificial bone with this technology, a 3D computer model of the bone is first created based on the patient's X-ray and CT scan data. The computer model is then sliced into a large number of cross-sections and the data is sent to a special 3D inkjet printer, which works sort of like an ordinary inkjet printer by transferring tiny droplets of liquid onto a surface. However, unlike ordinary printers that print on paper, this one prints onto thin layers of powdered alpha-tricalcium phosphate (alpha-TCP). The "ink" is a water-based polymer adhesive that hardens the alpha-TCP it comes into contact with. By repeatedly laying down the powder and printing successive layers on top of one another, the printer is able to physically reproduce the desired bone to an accuracy of one millimeter.

Strong, lightweight and porous, the printed bones have characteristics similar to natural bone, and because they are tailored to fit exactly where they need to go, they are quick to integrate with the surrounding bone. The printed bone is also designed to be resorbed by the body as the surrounding bone slowly grows into it and replaces it.

In initial human trials conducted between March 2006 and July 2007, the effectiveness and safety of the artificial bones were tested in plastic surgery operations performed on 10 male and female patients between the ages of 18 and 54. In the second round of trials beginning this autumn at 10 medical institutions across Japan, the researchers plan to print up and implant synthetic bones in 70 volunteer patients with face or skull bones that have been damaged or removed due to injury or surgery.

While the printed bones are still not considered strong enough to replace weight-bearing bones, they are ten times stronger than conventional artificial bones made from hydroxylapatite, a naturally occurring mineral that is also the main component of natural bone. The printed bones are also cheaper and easier to make than hydroxylapatite implants, which must be sintered, or heated to a high temperature to get the particles to adhere to each other. In addition to taking longer to produce, sintered implants also take longer for the body to resorb.

The next round of human trials will be conducted at Dokkyo Medical University, Saitama Medical University, Tokyo Dental College, University of Tokyo, Juntendo University, Tsurumi University, Kyoto University, Osaka Medical College, Kobe University and Osaka City General Medical Center.

The researchers hope to make the technology commercially available by 2010.

[Source: Fuji Sankei, The Chemical Daily]

New cement conducts electricity like metal

11 Apr 2007

Electro-conductive cement ---

A team of researchers led by professor Hideo Hosono of the Tokyo Institute of Technology has developed a new type of alumina cement that conducts electricity like metal by altering the crystal structure at the nano level.

Ordinary alumina cement made from a lime-alumina compound (C12A7) has a crystal structure consisting of asymmetric cages, making it a poor conductor of electricity. But by sealing the alumina cement compound along with titanium inside a glass tube and heating it to 1,100 degrees Celsius, the researchers were able to create a homogenized, symmetrical cage structure that conducts electricity like metal.

Results indicate the cement's electrical conductivity is on par with that of manganese at room temperature. Moreover, like other metals, the cement's conductivity increases as its temperature decreases.

The researchers say that forming the cement into thin membranes would make it nearly transparent, making it an ideal substitute material for rare metals such as indium, which is used in plasma and liquid-crystal displays. In addition to being cheaper than rare metals, the cement would make an environmentally-friendly alternative because its ingredients are more readily available.

The Tokyo Institute of Technology worked with researchers from Osaka Prefecture University, the Institute of Physical and Chemical Research (RIKEN), and the Japan Synchrotron Radiation Research Institute (SPring-8) to develop the cement. The results are published in the April 11 edition of Nano Letters.

[Sources: Nikkei Net, Mainichi, SPring-8 press release]