Sponsored: Advantages of time sensitive networking (TSN) in industrial networks

May 29th, 2019 no comment

Key findings you will learn from reading this paper include:

The characteristics of TSN
Real-time communication today and in the world of IoT
Mechanisms and independencies of TSN

Download white paper

Report shows how technology changes cities and development

May 28th, 2019 no comment

How can we build smart cities smartly? By following best practices, experts argue, learning from working examples and, perhaps, via a framework.

The Urban Land Institute, a global organisation comprising more than 40,000 real estate and urban development professionals and leaders of creating sustainable communities, believes it can aid cities to progress into the next generation of city-building through its ‘Urban Technology Framework’.

It identified 12 trends that could “shape metropolitan hubs”, according to the authors of a report.

Urban Technology Framework 12 Key Trends and What Drives Them

Image credit: The Urban Land Institute

The framework is aimed at providing a current understanding of how urban environment can be enhanced by technology, how to establish a modular framework to spur future research and how to bring everyone to the same table by encouraging dialogue among parties

3D printing is one of the key trends the report mentions, which would help to transform the way Internet of Things (IoT) devices are being built. It would help to “progress smart buildings from stationary structures to machines”.

How IoT devices could play an important role is shown in an example mentioned by Munish Khetrapal, managing director of solutions at Cisco. In Jaipur, India, on a particular section of city roadway, around 4,000 accidents occurred annually, “and the city had no idea why”. After installing IoT sensors and video cameras, city officials learned that more than 70 per cent of accidents were due to drivers going the wrong way down the road, Khetrapal explains in an interview on Cisco’s website.

Digital technologies would also transform the way we interact with and in cities, The Urban Land Institute states. “Current technologies have enabled our communities to no longer be limited to locality, as small and fluid tribes are increasingly defined by digital and physical worlds. Further technologies, from increased connectivity through IoT to smart machines and driverless cars, will likely have as significant an impact”, states the report.

Ed Parham, co-chair of the ULI UK Tech Forum said that the framework aims to provide a platform to understand how to shape cities. “From economic opportunities to social benefits, there are ever-increasing possibilities for tech advancements, and with our framework, urban professionals can better understand how digital technologies could improve our cities and create value for the people that are part of them,” he said.

Urban Technology Framework

Image credit: The Urban Land Institute

The report also acknowledges limitations. New technologies such as nanotechnology, space 2.0, androids or biomedical innovation would struggle without ‘data technical platforms’.

The data would include people and communities, buildings and places, resources and the environment. The technical platform will include the ability to store and process data, the connectivity to move it around, and the associated security and identity services needed to protect it.

The report’s conclusion is plausible: “Adoption of digital technologies will change the face of cities”. But, rather than “one huge meteor strike impact”, digital will create many individual heterogeneous changes, clustered into trends that, collectively, may have the same level of impact.

These patterns of change would affect every aspect of the city: “individuals, communities and institutions, the buildings and public realm, the utility, infrastructure and public service networks, and general economic and social activity”.

Implementation of new trends doesn’t come without associated risk. The scale would grow as cities become larger and denser, presenting ever-greater challenges. The urban land community would have the opportunity to consider a balance of risks and opportunities, and would now need to develop the principles that guide decision-making.

Property developers and architects, some that are members of the institute, would need to consider the trends in transformational change facing cities and people’s living experience, and the framework proposal could act as a guide in this urban transformation process, say the report’s authors.

Sponsored: Predicting the thermal performance of electronic devices

May 28th, 2019 no comment

In this technical article the capabilities of simulation software for analysing heat transfer and multiphysics behaviour in devices are described through example use cases. The use of multiphysics simulation to study phenomena such as convective cooling, Joule heating and phase change is discussed.

Download this article to:

  • Learn how concurrent investigations of heat transfer mechanisms and factors in a system that cause temperature variations lead to a better understanding of the impact of design changes on a product’s performance.
  • Read how leading engineers use physics interfaces, couplings and postprocessing functionality of COMSOL Multiphysics® to study phenomena such as convective cooling, Joule heating, phase change and thermal expansion.
  • Explore how simulation applications allow for immediate adjustments of a design while streamlining communication between collaborators and increasing the number of people who can meaningfully contribute to a product. 

Download technical article

Sponsored: Predicting the thermal performance of electronic devices

May 28th, 2019 no comment

In this technical article the capabilities of simulation software for analysing heat transfer and multiphysics behaviour in devices are described through example use cases. The use of multiphysics simulation to study phenomena such as convective cooling, Joule heating and phase change is discussed.

Download this article to:

  • Learn how concurrent investigations of heat transfer mechanisms and factors in a system that cause temperature variations lead to a better understanding of the impact of design changes on a product’s performance.
  • Read how leading engineers use physics interfaces, couplings and postprocessing functionality of COMSOL Multiphysics® to study phenomena such as convective cooling, Joule heating, phase change and thermal expansion.
  • Explore how simulation applications allow for immediate adjustments of a design while streamlining communication between collaborators and increasing the number of people who can meaningfully contribute to a product. 

Download technical article

Hands-on review: LANG remineralising water filter

May 28th, 2019 no comment

Some people buy bottled water occasionally, grudgingly, when they need a drink on the move. Others buy large quantities routinely, either because they prefer the taste or believe it is healthier than tap water.

If you want to kick your bottled water habit then LANG is one of a new breed of machines that promise to not just heavily filter tap water but also remineralise it, for a flavour claimed to rival that of bottled spring water.

At 35cm wide and 40cm deep, first impressions are that it’s imposing. It has a bigger footprint than pretty much any kitchen electrical apart from a freestanding microwave. It’s classy in white, but still when guests arrive they ask “what’s that?” rather than disregarding it. Despite the thoughtful design, it’s industrial enough that we’d rather have it behind a cupboard door or in a utility room than have it hog worktop space in plain sight. That said, if you drink bottled water at home then all those bottles take up a lot of space.

The entire back half of the machine is dedicated to three water filters: sediment, activated carbon and reverse osmosis. At the front, on the left you have a large jug for tap water (in) and a smaller one on the right to receive filtered water (out). In between are attractive, colour, touch-sensitive controls. A hatch on the top pops up for access to its two packets of Swiss salts and minerals (€19.95 total, enough to remineralise 250 litres of water) and a slot to insert an optional flavour pack. We tried two flavour packs: black tea concentrate and green tea concentrate, which make 240 and 280 cups respectively (€24.95 each). There’s also a natural lemon drink and other flavours are coming soon.

Filters are the priciest element, costing €100 for a full set, but they should last 2 years or 20,000 litres. The machine is self-cleaning.

Filtering water is loud, a deep humming sound: it doesn’t just drip, it’s pumped through the filters. It’s not fast: you can either filter a cupful in a minute or a 1 litre jugful in 4 minutes. We left it running and were impressed to see that it stops automatically when the jug is nearly full, rather than overflowing. The water tastes soft and pleasant, compared with London tap water. It tastes a lot like bottled spring water.

LANG can also dispense hot water to make your own drinks. Menus offer the choice or normal (which we measured as 73°C), hotter (78°C) or colder (56°C) hot water temperatures.

Lang water filter on bookcase

Image credit: Lang

The flavour pack teas are fascinating. They aren’t brewed on the spot, they’re made by diluting a liquid concentrate. As a result, you can enjoy them hot or cold. You remove the right-hand jug and then the water outlet is pulled outwards, transforming into a spout to dispense drinks into a cup. It’s a neat design and a mug fits perfectly under the spout. Again, LANG stops automatically after serving a standard cupful, or you can tap the screen to stop it prematurely.

Cold green tea was a bit weird but the warm one was good. We expected something bitter or bland but it tasted very pleasant. You would have thought it was freshly brewed from tea leaves.

We were excited to try the black tea, to compare with a regular brew, but sadly the cartridge didn’t work on our review sample, despite repeated attempts. LANG just didn’t register it as being present. What’s more, the bottom of the tap water jug let out water onto the worktop.

The design is generally good, with just a few other quibbles. It’s annoying that the tap water jug isn’t transparent as you can’t tell how full it is without lifting the lid. And the display is hard to read in bright direct sunlight.

The non-working flavour pack was forgivable, but the fact that the bottom of the tap water jug leaked repeatedly was not. This was an early model and things will need fine-tuning before its official launch in autumn 2019.

Finally, there’s the environmental debate. Whether LANG is green or greenwash depends on your current drinking habits. If you drink bottled water at home then yes, LANG would reduce your carbon footprint as well as save you money. Its mineralised water costs around €0.10 per litre and saves not just on the environmental impact of making all those plastic water bottles (including the oil used in their manufacture) but also their transportation costs. But if you drink tap water… as you were.

€499 drinklang.com


Andrew James Hot Water Dispenser

Filtration isn’t of the same standard, and there’s no remineralisation, but this machine does feature a basic Aqua Ultima filter as well as dispensing hot water at your chosen temperature, between 55 and 100°C. It’s fast and energy efficient, producing a cup of boiling water in as little as 5 seconds.

£72 andrewjamesworldwide.com

Kinetico K5 Pure

Add a tap to your kitchen sink that delivers pure filtered water (sediment, carbon and reverse osmosis) fast. The Pure Plus model (£710) also features remineralisation for a superior taste, while the Pure Ultra (£880) filters out bacteria and viruses too.

From £655 kinetico.co.uk

Tap water

The average cost of tap water in the UK is around 0.1p per litre and quality standards are very high. Experts consider it safe to drink and it’s far more environmentally friendly than bottled water. You’ll save plastic and food (ok, water) miles.

Nearly free! water.org.uk

The unexpected ways in which factories are saving energy

May 24th, 2019 no comment

Green-minded companies are using traditional energy-generation methods such as solar power and wind turbines to good effect. However, rather quirkier solutions that, all-in-all, contribute to the conservation of energy are beginning to emerge.

Government incentives to achieve carbon targets set out in the Paris Agreement of 2015, and dramatic price falls in renewable generating technologies, have combined to encourage businesses to cut their energy consumption and, in the process, reap savings on their bills and emissions. Likewise, government climate policies have encouraged the ‘greening’ not only of farming but also increasingly of manufacturing.

One innovative green-energy solution now being appropriated by businesses is to employ anaerobic digester (AD) plants to turn their organic process and industrial waste into electricity and heat. An AD is an airtight tank in which bacteria break down biodegradable materials into usable products, primarily biogas – a combustible mix of methane and carbon dioxide.

Technology in the form of ground- and air-source heat pumps, which rely on natural heat, is gradually displacing fossil fuels for heating or cooling homes and buildings in South Africa, Australia and the UK.

Another novel sustainable approach seen in southern hemisphere countries is the use of seawater to cool buildings, while cities in the northern hemisphere are taking water from lakes and rivers for the same purpose. Insulation has benefitted from use of new materials and the comeback of natural fibres such as wool and hemp. Management of energy consumption has advanced with the introduction of Internet of Things technology and is being augmented with cloud-based systems.

These innovative measures are being adopted in factories, offices, industrial parks and universities, for example, offering the benefits of reduced operating costs, predictability of energy bills and enhanced green credentials.

Organic waste from manufacturing processes is being transformed into a source of electricity and heat. Essentially, the organic waste is fed into an AD plant in which the ‘digestion process’ produces biogas, which is then burned to release heat. This heat turns water into steam, which turns the blades of a turbine generator to produce electricity.

In the UK, the confectionery arm of food giant Nestlé and the Scottish whisky industry are two prime users of anaerobic digesters, which they use to turn their organic waste into biogas, the first step to producing electricity. There is increasing strong interest from food and drink manufacturers in developing on-site AD plants to ‘digest’ their processing residues.

Nestlé’s factory in Fawdon, north-east England, manufactures well-known brands of confectionery such as Rolo, Caramac and Fruit Pastilles. The factory’s waste – consisting of rejected chocolates and sweets as well as leftovers such as starch and sugar – is dissolved into liquid by onsite cleaning processes to create a ‘chocolate soup’ (which is not as tasty as it sounds). The ‘soup’ is then fed into an AD and the resultant biogas is burned, creating steam for power generation and heating purposes.

Currently, this system meets 8 per cent of Fawdon’s power needs and has cut the factory’s carbon footprint by 10 per cent. It has also shaved £300,000 off the site’s energy bill and saved £200,000 in disposal costs. Andrew Griffiths, head of environmental sustainability at Nestlé UK, views the anaerobic digester as a pet, “a living thing with its own likes and dislikes, since it can get quite upset if its diet changes too quickly. It evolves and develops over time.”



In recent years, as internet-of-things (IoT) technology has brought sophisticated energy management systems to commercial, industrial and public buildings, traditional insulation has also been updated with improved modern materials.

The popular approach to insulating buildings against heat loss, or to protect against invasive sound, is to use thermal insulation made from glass fibre, mineral wool, polystyrene or polyurethane foam for roof and wall spaces and pipework. However, modern materials such as these are often not suitable for historic buildings, which first require breathability from any new insulating material.
A case in point is the Bodleian Library constructed in 1613, one of Oxford’s oldest buildings, and – with a repository holding around six million books – one of the largest libraries in the country. As part of the restoration exercise by the University’s Estates’ Department in 2007, it was decided to insulate parts of this historic complex with wool, commercially known as Thermafleece, which is not only breathable and therefore able to absorb and release moisture, but also flexible, making it ideal to fill the uneven roof spaces of a 17th-century building.
Raw waste wool from lambs farmed for meat in the north of England makes up the greater part (85 per cent) of Thermafleece with just 15 per cent contributed by polyester. These components make it a ‘green’ alternative to traditional building insulation which, being made primarily of glass or mineral fibres, consumes a lot of energy in its making. The use of wool-based Thermafleece insulation fitted well with the University of Oxford’s environmental sustainability policies. This is an eminently practical use for waste wool that would otherwise be destined for the incinerator.
Wool is not the only natural material used for thermal insulation. NatraHemp, for example, is medium-density insulation rich in home-grown hemp fibres, and is suitable for old buildings. It is a safe, efficient, and durable alternative when plant fibre is preferred and was used to insulate St Albans Church, Acton Green.
Straw bales are also an effective form of insulation. These have been used in a fruit-processing factory at Stanmer Park near Brighton, which processes 40 tonnes of fruit a year including 250,000 apples to make 10,000 litres of apple juice.

Whisky, the third largest industry in Scotland after energy and financial services, makes up around 70 per cent of the entire Scottish food and drink sector and is valued at £5bn a year. The whisky distilleries use a hierarchy of measures to cut their energy bills and earn additional income. Traditionally, distilleries have converted the waste grains (known as daff) from the malting process into pellets, a protein-rich cattle feed sold to local farmers.

According to Zero Waste Scotland, the country’s whisky industry produces 1.6 billion litres of pot ale and 500,000 tonnes of daff a year. However, now the daff and sometimes the pot ale is increasingly being used to help power Scotland’s distilleries. AD plants fed with daff and pot ale produce biogas, which is burned to heat water to create steam, which turns turbine blades to produce power and heat.

A good example of the benefits of anaerobic digestion is seen in the Glendullan distillery, which in the first year of operating its new AD plant gained 6,000MWh of thermal energy – enough to reduce the distillery’s fossil fuel consumption by 25 per cent. This is just one of a number of AD initiatives Glendullan’s owner Diageo is implementing across its distillery sites in a £100m investment in renewable energy technology. Other well-known whisky producers, including William Grant & Sons (which owns Glenfiddich and Balvenie, among others) and Glenmorangie, are also employing AD plants.

The heat created by distillation and mashing is also often re-used in distilleries, usually to warm or re-heat water that is crucial to the whisky-making process. Diageo’s Roseisle distillery feeds its waste heat to two nearby malting facilities. However, the benefits need not be confined solely to the whisky-making process. For example the Bruichladdich distillery on Islay re-routes waste not only to heat water but also to heat its visitor centre, bottling hall and meeting rooms. At nearby Bowmore, heat from the distillery warms the community swimming pool next door.

RAF Marham in Norfolk is home to the front-line squadrons of the RAF’s Tornado Force and the new fleet of F-35 Lightning stealth fighters. The airbase receives baseload electricity from an innovative sustainable generating power plant built by Future Biogas on behalf of the Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO) Utilities, the Crown Commercial Service Utilities & Fuels and EDF.

The Future Biogas site, situated four miles east of RAF Marham, generates up to 4.5MW of electricity from three gas engines. The biogas is produced by an on-site anaerobic digester, which is fed with locally grown crops and sugar-beet waste. Heat from the power generators is used to dry the waste residue from the AD process, which is used as a fertiliser on local fields, thereby creating a virtuous circle. It is a green, sustainable solution that undercuts mains electricity costs and benefits the local economy.

This clean-energy AD plant contributes to the Ministry of Defence’s Sustainable Development Strategy and delivery plan for 2011 to 2030. It saves the base £290,000 a year in electricity costs and has cut its carbon emissions by 14,000 tonnes. The project also has strategic importance because, by providing another source of electricity, it has increased the power resilience of RAF Marham. For DIO Utilities, the project proved cost-neutral and low-risk since the build, operation and maintenance of the AD plant and connection to RAF Marham fell to others.

Today, the manufacturing and agriculture sectors are increasingly adopting ground or air source heat pumps to not only reduce their fuel bills and environmental footprint but also to increase their green credentials. As a technology, heat pump systems offer not only heat, as their name suggests, but also active and passive cooling. Two examples from the UK are worth noting. The first of these is the Kensa Heat Pump factory and other enterprises based in the Mount Wellington Mine Renewable Energy Business Park of Cornwall, which use ground source heat pumps to capitalise on the mine’s subsurface heat. A large quantity of special plastic pipe – called a geothermal array – has been lowered into the mineshaft; a mixture of water and antifreeze is pumped downwards from the heat pump and what returns to the surface is warm water at between 12 and 20°C. The heat pump then upgrades this to a more usable 35 to 40°C for underfloor heating.

Richard Freeborn, owner of the Mount Wellington Mine Renewable Energy Business Park and founder of Kensa Heat Pumps, spells out the advantages: “This is the first building in Europe to use heat from the decay of radioactive isotopes, and it is working very well indeed. The heat energy extracted from the mine is 100 per cent renewable. The geothermal arrays require no servicing or maintenance and have a predicted life of over 100 years. The heat pumps are running at an incredible efficiency, thanks both to the warmth of the mine and the high standards of insulation in our manufacturing building.”

In Cambridgeshire, RAGT Seeds, one of Europe’s leading plant breeders, has installed a passive cooling system using heat-pump technology provided by Finn Geotherm to cool its greenhouses in summer. Before this installation, RAGT Seeds glasshouses had been known to reach 45°C (compared to the target temperature of 21-22°C). The traditional low-tech methods of painting the glass panels and using fans were proving ineffective, particularly during the hot summers of recent times. Finn Geotherm’s team of experts devised a bespoke passive cooling system, which circulates air at an ambient ground temperature from the ground loop. Cool air is circulated through 24 Jaga AVS fan-coil units – four per glasshouse – using a control system that is activated if the temperature increases by 1°C from the target range.

Passive cooling not only delivers the cooler temperatures needed by RAGT Seeds during summer, but also provides a ‘gentle summer breeze’ throughout the glass greenhouses. An unexpected benefit of the better-regulated greenhouse temperatures is enhanced plant growth, while in the future the company expects to be able to reduce its chemical inputs.

Guy Ransom, commercial director of Finn Geotherm, explains the benefits: “The installation at RAGT Seeds has not only revolutionised the way in which the company heats its glasshouses but also how it cools them too. The energy and cost savings are outstanding, with plant room meters showing a coefficient of performance of 3.9:1 to date, which is excellent.” Ransom adds, “A typical installation could show a payback on its entire cost within five years, with the return on investment continuing to provide another 15 years of income at no cost to the user.”

Coastal and inland cities with access to large bodies of water such as rivers and lakes can exploit their surroundings to cool the interior of buildings. Some coastal cities in the southern hemisphere – Cape Town in South Africa, Sydney in Australia and Antofagasta in Chile, for example – have seafloors that naturally drop to a great depth close to the coast, which would allow them to access seawater at just 5°C via insulated pipelines. This could drive both district cooling and large-scale water-from-air extraction units for drinking water.

The new Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa and its surrounding buildings in the port and central business district of Cape Town now make use of seawater cooling. Other major cities, including Paris, Toronto and London, make use of large local bodies of water such as lakes and rivers to cut the cost of their cooling bills using a similar approach. The City of Toronto’s water department, for example, installed an insulated water pipe to access cold waters near the bottom of Lake Ontario. During the northern summer and before arriving at the water purification plant, that cold water passes through a heat exchanger to provide district cooling to several office towers in the business district. In cases like this, water cooling has reduced the use of fossil-fuelled electricity for air conditioning.

Saving energy

Using of technology

Energy-related technology now provides businesses and institutions with the ability to manage their building’s energy consumption and to save energy. However, cloud-based energy monitoring is a recently developed innovative method pioneered by Siemens, which has reduced Austrian electrical wholesaler Rexel’s energy usage by 15 per cent at its logistics centre in Weisskirchen. 

MindSphere, a cloud-based IoT (Internet of Things) operating system from Siemens connects products, plants, systems, and machines and generates data for operational energy management according to ISO 50001. The energy savings are delivered using 66 communication-capable 7KM PAC 1500 and 7KM PAC 4200 power-measuring devices. A separate app, programmed jointly by Siemens and Rexel, analyses current power consumption values and makes the potential savings visible only to Rexel.
This experience has encouraged Rexel not only, to apply this technology at another of its sites, but also to launch an advisory service targeted at small-to-medium sized industrial and commercial customers looking for energy savings. To this end, Rexel’s Christoph Czaby and Siemens are working to develop an in-house application – the MindApp – to present energy consumption data to customers in a straightforward form.  
Rainer Brade, Siemens product manager for Energy Monitoring Austria believes that the internet-of-Things is much more important for small and medium-sized companies because, “SMEs don’t have the large IT departments and computing centres that exist in larger companies, so they have to rely on expert partners such as Siemens with its MindSphere.”
Reflecting on this project, Michael Hausser, Rexel Head of the Industry Business Unit comments, “the EU Energy Efficiency Directive provided the necessary impetus for a proper development. We’re pioneers in energy management and have also discovered a new business model.”


SpaceX launches 60 satellites to create broadband service from space

May 24th, 2019 no comment

The multibillion-dollar project has been approved by the US communications agency to send almost 12,000 satellites into space, an endeavour that will take multiple launches over the course of several years. The plan is to launch up to 2,000 annually.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk has previously claimed that once active, the network will deliver “one terabit of bandwidth” to Earth, with the aim of using the new network to provide better internet access to under-served parts of the world.

The company said it would probably take another day to learn whether all the satellites deployed were functioning properly. Each weighs about 227kg, making them the heaviest payload carried aloft by SpaceX to date.

Musk believes Starlink could be an important new revenue stream for his company whose launch service income he expects to top out at around $3bn a year.

He told reporters last week that the service is pivotal in helping pay for his larger goals of developing a new spacecraft to fly paying customers to the moon and for eventually trying to colonise Mars.

“We think this is a key stepping stone on the way towards establishing a self-sustaining city on Mars and a base on the moon,” he said.

A previous demonstration of prototypes called Tintin A and B was carried out in February 2018 with coverage good enough to play fast-response video games, Musk claimed.

The launch came after two previous planned launches were cancelled due to heavy winds and additional safety checks.

The first Starlink payload consisted of 60 “flat-pack” satellites, the heaviest in SpaceX’s history.

Musk has previously said it will take “six more launches” of 60 satellites to initially activate Starlink, and 12 more for significant coverage.

Once completed, Starlink will significantly increase the number of satellites in space, with only around 2,000 currently orbiting the Earth.

Other companies including Amazon and OneWeb are also planning multi-satellite launches designed to boost internet connectivity to areas stuck with slow, or non-existent connections. E&T has looked at how these services may operate in the future and the added cost they could pose to users versus land-based connections. 

Concerns have also been raised that increasing the number of orbiting bodies in space by such a large degree could dramatically worsen the problem of space junk. 

Could skyrmions change the future of computing?

May 24th, 2019 no comment

The chances are high that most people you know have never heard of skyrmions. This is natural, because they are rather murky products of quantum field theory that act like particles without actually being particles. So far so obscure. Skyrmions, however, may soon be as well known as silicon chips. That’s because they have the potential to change the face of computing, revolutionising the fields of data storage, information processing and artificial intelligence.

Skyrmions are quasi-particles – little twists in energy fields that look and behave like particles. They can be moved around, interact with other skyrmions and be created and destroyed. Like particles, they can be extremely stable, lasting years in the right conditions.

Based on their inherent stability, the most promising application for skyrmions is in data storage, where each skyrmion acts as a bit. However, there are challenges to overcome – researchers have only been able to find magnetic skyrmions that are too slow and too large to compete with existing memory devices. Until now.


What are skyrmions?

Skyrmions were first proposed in the 1960s by theoretical physicist Tony Skyrme, who thought they might be a way of describing protons and neutrons within atoms. They turned out not to be particularly useful in this regard, although they did find applications elsewhere such as in liquid crystal displays.

Since then skyrmions seemed doomed to linger in the shadows. But a decade ago these swirls of spin caused a sudden storm in the field of magnetism, when researchers realised that their inherent stability, size and manipulability could lead to breakthroughs in data storage and information processing.

“People realised that you could create these structures inside magnetic materials,” says Professor Christopher Marrows of the University of Leeds. “They can be very small, and you can put them together very densely and you could use them inside various nanoscale devices.”

Skyrmions’ stability comes from their topology or shape. “A sort of analogy would be a Moebius Strip,” explains Marrows. “That’s a loop with a twist in it. You can move this twist around the loop, but you can never get rid of it unless you do something quite violent like tear it open, untwist it and stick it back together again.”

In December 2018, a team from MIT published a paper showing that they could achieve the right sizes and, to some degree, speeds to be competitive. They did it by focusing on a new set of materials. “The field in this past decade has focused on ferromagnets, which are things like cobalt, nickel and iron,” says MIT researcher Lucas Caretta. “We discovered in the paper that ferromagnets have a fundamental limit for the size of the skyrmions you can have and how fast you can drive them.”

Instead, the team looked at materials called ferrimagnets. How ferrimagnets differ is that instead of having their magnetic fields all pointed neatly in one direction (known as a stray field) they are anti-parallel, or all mixed up. Caretta’s team used a material called gadolinium-cobalt where the spins of the electrons in the cobalt were pointed in one direction and the spins of the gadolinium electrons in the other.

“If you get rid of stray fields,” explains Caretta, “then your skyrmions, or bits, are no longer interacting with each other over long ranges. Instead they are stabilised by local exchange interactions and these will dictate the size of the skyrmion.”

‘If you replaced all the different types of memory in your computer with a device like this, there would be no such thing as booting up your computer. It would always remember where it last was, and only consume power when performing a function.’

Lucas Caretta, MIT

Using this new material, Caretta’s team were able to get the size of the skyrmions down to 10 nanometres, the benchmark to be competitive.

The size, speed and stability of skyrmions could mean smaller and faster memory devices are around the corner. But skyrmions’ potential goes far beyond just improving existing models. Memory architectures involving skyrmions could replace the different forms of memory that currently make up your computer, such as RAM, ROM and cache, and merge them into one structure. What’s more, because of skyrmions’ inherent stability, they are still there when you turn the power off. This means that something called normally-off computing could be achieved.

“If you replaced all the different types of memory in your computer with a device like this,” explains Caretta, “there would be no such thing as booting up your computer. It would only consume power when performing a function. So, you’d go up to your computer and start typing and that’s the only time it would consume power. It can always remember where it last was, essentially, without power.”

Skyrmion-based devices could go even further, not only integrating different types of memory but combining memory with processing – one of the holy grails of modern computing.

One way of envisaging it is as a track of skyrmions representing bits. These are there all the time even when the power is off, preserving the data. However, two of these tracks could be merged, forcing the skyrmions to interact with each other to provide the information processing usually supplied by transistors.

“It removes the need for you to be constantly shuttling back and forth between the CPU and the memory and constantly having to refresh it all the time,” explains Christopher Marrows, a professor of condensed matter physics at the University of Leeds and one of the UK’s leading skyrmion researchers. “So if you could make that work it would have huge benefits in terms of energy.”

Skyrmions’ potential extends even beyond classical computing. Neuromorphic computing seeks to use neural networks to mimic the way the brain processes information and is behind some of the most powerful machine-learning algorithms. Current machine-learning programmes such as Facebook’s facial-recognition software, DeepFace, and Google’s DeepMind are neural networks, but they are run on traditional hardware. This leads to huge energy inefficiencies, with supercomputers using megawatts of power to do the same task that a cat’s or mouse’s brain can achieve with just a few watts.

“You’re trying to do one type of computing on a piece of hardware that’s designed to do something very different,” explains Marrows, “ – like add up a list of numbers on an Excel spreadsheet, not to do this kind of fuzzy pattern recognition.”

What is needed is hardware to match the software being run. This is where skyrmions come in because, for one thing, they can move more freely. “What you have is a particle that can move in two dimensions,” says Dr Karin Everschor-Sitte of the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, who is researching how skyrmions can be applied to neuromorphic devices. “But you’re restricting it to one dimension. So somehow you’re not optimally using its functionality.”

One area Everschor-Sitte explored was using skyrmions in a neural network model called reservoir computing. Reservoir computing works by feeding an input signal into a dynamic system of objects that are random and non-linear (the reservoir), which maps the input to a higher-dimensional space before it is read out again on a linear scale. Everschor-Sitte and her team used skyrmions as the reservoir.

“We took a magnetic configuration,” explains Everschor-Sitte. “We applied some different voltage signals, and because of the non-linear answer of the system, it allows you to say which one was which signal. The optimal version would be, I let you speak, and my reservoir can tell me what you said.”

‘It removes the need to be constantly shuttling back and forth between the CPU and the memory… if you could make that work it would have huge energy benefits.’

Christopher Marrows, University of Leeds

Neuromorpic computers like this could find applications where pattern recognition is key, such as face- and voice-recognition software. It could also benefit any application where information is spatially and temporally correlated. Driverless cars are an example, where multiple sensors need to instantly process information and communicate with each other to navigate obstacles.

The ability to process lots of information quickly means neuromorphic devices could be applied to wearable medical devices and the Internet of Things. With billions of connected devices all generating their own data, it is more helpful to have them process it themselves than send it to a central computer perhaps hundreds of miles away. In this way it could be extremely useful for analysing the torrent of data from security and CCTV cameras, which currently provide more information than is feasibly possible to analyse.

“One way would be to have machines that analyse the data on the spot,” says Everschor-Sitte. “So, to analyse situations that are unnatural, and which are super-hard tasks for normal computers, like how do you differentiate between people who are just naturally talking or being angry and about to start a fight?”

There are still many hurdles to cross before any applications, either in neuromorphic or classical computing, can be realised. Firstly, researchers haven’t quite got a handle on how to manipulate skyrmions to their full potential. “They sometimes get stuck, they sometimes crash into each other. They don’t move in a smooth way,” says Marrows.

Although the MIT team managed to crack the size problem, the speed issue was solved with a bit of a fudge involving moving other parts, called domain walls, relative to the skyrmions rather than the skyrmions themselves. Also, although skyrmions can now be created at will – essentially the writing process of data storage – there are still technical issues with the reading process.

All these issues mean the huge potential of skyrmions for the moment remains just that – potential. Professor Geoffrey Beach, head of the MIT team, thinks it could be 10 years before a skyrmion-based device is on the market. Everschor-Sitte thinks it will take longer for skyrmion-based neuromorphic devices. Another leading skyrmion researcher, Professor Jiadong Zang of the University of New Hampshire, believes it will take five years just to answer the question of whether magnetic skyrmions will be applicable at all.

One thing they all agree on is the huge effect skyrmions could have if their potential is realised. “Things like your phone or computer could potentially be extremely small in size,” says Caretta. “I’m talking maybe two, three, 10 times denser memory. And the speeds could be particularly fast. We could be talking an order of magnitude faster memory. And if we can achieve normally-off computing the power efficiency of these devices could be absurd. Instead of charging your phone once a day, you’d charge it once a month.”

In fact, the scale of the change could be so large that we can’t predict what the consequences will be. As Marrows observes, “there have been very unexpected consequences of the social media revolution, that were built on cheap information storage, cheap computing and touchscreen technologies that have affected society quite profoundly in ways that were probably quite impossible to predict. So too with skyrmions, there will be things that will be impossible to foresee.”


What is neuromorphic computing?

Since computing began computers have been based on the classic Von Neumann architecture. Information processing happens in a central processing unit (CPU) before being sent to the memory unit for storage and vice versa. In modern-day computers, information processing occurs via transistors on silicon chips and long-term data is stored on hard drives via magnetism.

Neuromorphic devices would do away with the bottleneck of piping information back and forth between the CPU and the hard drive by combining the two processes in one neural network, just as the brain does.

In the brain, memory and logic are integrated closely in neurons and the connections between neurons known as synapses. A single neuron can combine the outputs of thousands of other neurons via addition and subtraction before producing its own output. The strength and relationships between synapse connections constitute memories which may change over time due to how information is processed and in turn may influence the way that data is used.

Thus memory and logic have a close working relationship which enables the brain to perform many operations simultaneously, or in parallel, and carry out complex actions like speech and facial recognition using relatively little power.

Several ways are being explored to mimic the brain’s hardware, of which skyrmions are just one. IBM for example has created the TrueNorth chip, which combines information processing and storage on the same microchip via one million individually programmable neurons and 256 million individually programmable synapses while consuming just 70mW of power.

Bizarre Tech: global warming mug, art mirror and fruity clothes

May 24th, 2019 no comment

Global warming mug

Good message, backward delivery.

I get the gimmick – global warming being shown by warming a mug, cute – but has this really been thought through? To get a hot beverage, you’re going to probably employ a kettle, which uses electricity. This is quite likely to come from fossil fuels, unless you have your own little solar farm hooked up to your house and not the grid. Or 1,000 hamsters which power your home by running on exercise wheels.

If you want to really help improve your carbon footprint, try having a little campfire in your back garden, using no accelerants like propane, of course. Just use good old twigs, dry leaves and shrubbery, and boil your water like you’re out camping under the stars.

However, you’re going to choose a kettle instead of stumbling – uncaffeinated – outdoors to boil your measly cup’s worth of coffee. Therefore, just boil just enough for the mug, so you use minimal electricity.

With this piece of porcelain, you can have a pleasant experience as you watch the devastating effects of global warming unfold before your very eyes whilst enjoying your morning cuppa. Who doesn’t love some depressing subliminal messaging in the wee hours?

Heat-sensitive technology and detailed satellite imagery means when hot liquid warms the mug, parts of the world map begin to disappear.

The mug can hold up to 300ml of your favourite warm drink. Perhaps if you want to avoid the preachiness of it all, have an iced tea or coffee instead. Because who wants to be reminded that their existence is hurting the Earth, every day?

It’s not dishwasher or microwave safe, so you can save water by washing it the good old-fashioned way.


Art mirror

Scared by your own reflection?

So, you’ve got a hot date at your crush’s house, which happens to be chic and stylish. They leave the room to go for a wee, and you take the opportunity to check yourself out in the big ol’ mirror.

The lighting is a little dim, so you must get closer to peer at your pores, and make sure you don’t have ‘sleep’ in your eye.

Then bam! Up comes a picture of The Scream, and you get such a fright, you stumble backward and stand on your date’s beloved pet cat’s tail, which screeches as you tumble to the floor.

Your date runs into the room, looking distressed and calling the cat’s name as you rub your bum after landing on your coccyx.

Well at least you now know they’re not the one for you. Because they love their cat more than they will ever love you.

No wonder the project didn’t reach its funding goal on Kickstarter.

Apparently, Art Mirror “takes home décor into the Space Age”. It transitions from a mirror to an illuminated piece of art in seconds.  

According to the company, the mirror has a built-in sensor which detects your presence and turns off the LED-lit display, so you can see yourself in all your shiny glory. Its patented technology means the Art Mirror can transform “any living space with fully customisable art work, pictures and images”. Seeing as the funding wasn’t successful, the likelihood that this will be a thing is…doubtful.


Fruit clothes

Love me some fruit ’n fibre.

I’ve covered this sort of thing before – recycling plastic into fibre – and now, there’s been some progress on clothes made from fruit. More specifically, ‘pastazzo’, a waste product from citrus juice leftovers.

Imagine your jumper is made from oranges, but it wasn’t orange. Whoa. A case of ‘mindception’? No?

In Italy, a large source of agricultural waste is the citrus fruit industry. Each year, thousands of tonnes of pastazzo – bits of fruit left behind once the juice is extracted – is created and can be difficult to dispose of.

Fashion designer Adriana Santanocito and social entrepreneur Enrica Arena reckoned they could turn fruit waste into fabric back in 2011. Arena said it could help solve the problems of economic impact of citrus juice leftover disposal, and the need for sustainable materials in the fashion industry.

Orange Fiber is the company they have created. In the pilot plant in Sicily, cellulose is extracted from citrus waste. This process was developed with the Polytechnic University of Milan.

The cellulose is spun into fibres which are then turned into clothing.

It’s a cool idea. Plus, it reuses waste, saving land, water and fertiliser, and reduces pollution. Bonus. 


Compact nuclear reactors could help clean up Alberta’s dirty oilsands

May 22nd, 2019 no comment

Alberta, Canada – where much of the country’s natural bitumen reserves lie – could soon become a test bed for small, modular nuclear reactor projects. Those novel reactors could soon trump other alternatives and would aid in cleaning up the Canadian western province, experts say. 

Alberta has been labeled as ‘dirty’ by environmental activists due to its oilsands operations, which controversially contribute to local greenhouse gas emissions. 

A report by an intergovernmental committee and industry stakeholders says that these ‘small, modular nuclear reactors could offer the capacity needed to provide largely ‘emission-free energy to oilsands facilities.

The report advised federal and provincial governments to finance demonstrative projects and to work towards introducing policies to ensure those small plants can be built safely and there are adequate plans in place to deal with nuclear waste.

Alberta would be well suited to test the technology, argued John Stewart of the Canadian Nuclear Association. 

One obvious difference from conventional nuclear power stations is the reactors size. Small modular reactor would be defined as anything that produces less than 300 Megawatts electric (MWe) and some of the reactors are small enough to fit in a school gym.

For Alberta specifically, the reactors would have several advantages, including low price. They can also be built out of standardised units created in a factory and then assembled on site. Their size would also allow less complex engineering for heat removal and smaller buffer zones than large reactors while having enhanced safety features.

With a small modular reactor, electricity can be produced as well as steam and hot water. Electricity, steam and hot water are then needed to produce the oil from the oilsands, explains Axel Meisen, a senior adviser with government-funded Alberta Innovates (a provincially funded corporation which contributed to the report).

Nuclear plants could replace natural gas to power two processes — heating water for open pit mining, and creating steam for steam-assisted gravity drainage — as well as provide electricity to oilsands facilities, Meisen said. At the moment, however, natural gas as a source of power would still be a cheaper option. But this could change soon. 

Nuclear energy use would need to double globally in the next two decades to meet a scientist-recommended target to limit the increase in global average temperature to 2°C, according to the International Energy Agency.

Despite Canada’s reputation as a world leader in climate policy, the CO2 emissions associated with oilsands might be significantly higher than indicated by industry. In April, a new study found that carbon pollution from four major oilsands mines in northern Alberta was 64 per cent higher than their owners reported, using the UN’s standard emissions measurement framework.

Over three-quarters of Alberta’s crude oil production comes from the oilsands in northern Alberta.

Canada is not the first to contemplate the installation of small nuclear reactors. In November of last year, the UK government announced funding plans to support businesses to test small modular nuclear reactors and to help bring them to market.