David Kirkpatrick

May 5, 2010

Dracula would like this nanotech …

… because it’s perfectly non-reflecting.

The release:

Perfectly non-reflecting

Research News May 2010

A new nanocoating ensures a perfectly non-reflecting view on displays and through eyeglasses. The necessary surface structure is applied to the polymeric parts during manufacture, obviating the need for a separate process step. The hybrid coating has further advantages: the components are scratch-proof and easy to clean.

Link: download picture

Moths are the prototype. As they search for food at dusk they have to hide from predators. Their presence must not be betrayed by reflections on their facet eyes. On other insects these eyes shimmer, but the moth’s eyes are perfectly non-reflecting. Tiny protuberances smaller than the wavelength of light form a periodic structure on the surface. This nanostructure creates a gentle transition between the refractive indices of the air and the cornea. As a result, the reflection of light is reduced and the moth remains undetected.

Research scientists at the Fraunhofer Institute for Mechanics of Materials IWM in Freiburg have adopted this artifice and adapted it to a range of different applications. On eyeglasses, cell phone displays, fitting or panel covers, transparent surfaces are generally only useful if they allow viewing without light reflecting back. Whereas conventional methods apply the anti-reflective coating in a separate step after production, the Fraunhofer scientists have found a way of reducing light reflection during actual manufacture of the part or component: »We have modified conventional injection molding in such a way that the desired nanostructure is imparted to the surface during the process,« explains Dr. Frank Burmeister, project manager at the IWM.

For this the researchers have developed a hard material coating which reproduces the optically effective surface structure. »We use this to coat the molding tools,« says Burmeister. »When the viscous polymer melt is injected into the mold, the nanostructures are transferred directly to the component.« Because no second process step is required, manufacturers achieve an enormous cost saving and also increase efficiency. »Normally the component would have to undergo an additional separate process to apply the anti-reflex coating,« Burmeister adds.

Normal plexiglass and some anti-reflex coatings are particularly sensitive, but the scientists are producing wipe-resistant and scratch-proof surfaces. For this purpose the injection mold is additionally flooded with an ultra-thin organic substance made of polyurethane. Burmeister: »The substance runs into every crevice and hardens, like a two-component adhesive.« The result is an extremely thin nanocoating of polyurethane on which the optically effective surface structures, which are just one ten-thousandth of a millimeter thick, are also reproduced. Working in cooperation with industrial partners, the research scientists now aim to develop components for the auto industry, for example, which are not only attractive to look at but also hard-wearing and easy to clean.

May 3, 2010

Recovering lost art through technology

Undoing 16th century vandalism in the name of religion.

The release:

Reveal-all-scanner for works of art

Research News May 2010

Painted-over murals were thought to be irretrievably lost because conventional methods are seldom suitable to rendering the hidden works visible without causing damage. Research scientists now aim to reveal the secrets of these paintings non-destructively using terahertz beams.

Link: download picture

Many church paintings are hidden from sight because they were painted over centuries ago. In the 16th century, for instance, Reformation iconoclasts sought to obscure the religious murals, while in later times the iconoclast images often were painted over once again. Several layers of paintings from various epochs can now be found superimposed on top of each other. If mechanical methods are used to uncover these pictures there is always a risk that the original work will be damaged. What’s more, the more recent layers and pictures on top of the original, which are also worthy of preservation, would be destroyed. Research scientists at the Fraunhofer Institute for Material and Beam Technology IWS in Dresden are now working on a non-destructive method for rendering these works visible, which involves the use of terahertz (THz) radiation. In the TERAART project funded by the German federal ministry of education and research (BMBF) they are cooperating with Dresden University of Technology, the FIDA Institute for Historic Preservation in Potsdam and the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts.

»We use THz radiation because it can penetrate the plaster and lime wash even if the layer is relatively thick. Unlike UV radiation for example, THz radiation does not damage the work of art. Infrared beams cannot be considered because they do not penetrate deep enough. Microwaves offer no alternative either, because they do not achieve the necessary width and depth resolution,« explains Dr. Michael Panzner, scientist at the IWS. A mobile system that can be used anywhere was developed to conduct the examinations. It consists of a scanner with two measuring heads which travels contactlessly over the wall. One measuring head transmits the radiation, the other picks up the reflected beams. The researchers were supported by the Fraunhofer Institute for Physical Measurement Techniques IPM, which built the adapted THz component.

»To produce the THz radiation we use a femtosecond laser incorporating the design principle of a fiber laser. The THz time domain spectroscopy technique applied by us utilizes the short electromagnetic pulses with a duration of just one to two picoseconds produced by the femtosecond laser. Each layer and each pigment reflects these pulses differently so that both a picture contrast as well as depth information can be obtained,« says Panzner. »The measured results provide information for example about the thickness of the layers, what pigments were used and how the colors are arranged. A specially developed software system puts the measured results together to form a picture displaying the structure of the concealed paintings.«

On a test wall, on which paintings in various types of paint were painted over with distemper, the scientists have already succeeded in revealing the structures of the concealed pictures. The next step will be to conduct a practical test in a church. The experts are also confident of being able to use THz radiation to detect the presence of carcinogenic biocides on and in works of art made of wood or textiles. »Preservationists will be very interested in our reveal-all-scanner for works of art, « affirms Panzner.

July 3, 2009

Printable batteries

Yep, I’m using the title of this release for the title of this blog post because what else could be said? OMYGODWHATAMAZINGTECH? This is pretty amazing …

The release:

Printable batteries

This release is available in German.

IMAGE: The small, thin battery comes out of the printer and can be applied to flexible substrates.

Click here for more information. 

In the past, it was necessary to race to the bank for every money transfer and every bank statement. Today, bank transactions can be easily carried out at home. Now where is that piece of paper again with the TAN numbers? In the future you can spare yourself the search for the number. Simply touch your EC card and a small integrated display shows the TAN number to be used. Just type in the number and off you go. This is made possible by a printable battery that can be produced cost-effectively on a large scale. It was developed by a research team led by Prof. Dr. Reinhard Baumann of the Fraunhofer Research Institution for Electronic Nano Systems ENAS in Chemnitz together with colleagues from TU Chemnitz and Menippos GmbH. “Our goal is to be able to mass produce the batteries at a price of single digit cent range each,” states Dr. Andreas Willert, group manager at ENAS.

The characteristics of the battery differ significantly from those of conventional batteries. The printable version weighs less than one gram on the scales, is not even one millimeter thick and can therefore be integrated into bank cards, for example. The battery contains no mercury and is in this respect environmentally friendly. Its voltage is 1.5 V, which lies within the normal range. By placing several batteries in a row, voltages of 3 V, 4.5 V and 6 V can also be achieved. The new type of battery is composed of different layers: a zinc anode and a manganese cathode, among others. Zinc and manganese react with one another and produce electricity. However, the anode and the cathode layer dissipate gradually during this chemical process. Therefore, the battery is suitable for applications which have a limited life span or a limited power requirement, for instance greeting cards.

The batteries are printed using a silk-screen printing method similar to that used for t-shirts and signs. A kind of rubber lip presses the printing paste through a screen onto the substrate. A template covers the areas that are not to be printed on. Through this process it is possible to apply comparatively large quantities of printing paste, and the individual layers are slightly thicker than a hair. The researchers have already produced the batteries on a laboratory scale. At the end of this year, the first products could possibly be finished.

 

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May 30, 2009

Solar cells and lasers

Filed under: Business, Science, Technology — Tags: , , , , , — David Kirkpatrick @ 12:15 pm

Here’s the latest news in solar — using lasers to improve solar cells.

The release:

Lasers are making solar cells competitive

Solar electricity has a future: It is renewable and available in unlimited quantities, and it does not produce any gases detrimental to the climate. Its only drawback right now is the price: the electric power currently being produced by solar cells in northern Europe must be subsidized if it is to compete against the household electricity generated by traditional power plants. At “Laser 2009” in Munich, June 15 to 18, Fraunhofer researchers will be demonstrating how laser technology can contribute to optimizing the manufacturing costs and efficiency of solar cells. 

Cell phones, computers, MP3 players, kitchen stoves, and irons all have one thing in common: They need electricity. And in the future, more and more cars will also be fuelled by electric power. If the latest forecast from the World Energy Council WEC can be believed, global electricity requirements will double in the next 40 years. At the same time, prices for the dwindling resources of petroleum and natural gas are climbing.

“Rising energy prices are making alternative energy sources increasingly cost-effective. Sometime in the coming years, renewable energy sources, such as solar energy, will be competitive, even without subsidization,” explains Dr. Arnold Gillner, head of the microtechnology department at the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology in Aachen, Germany. “Experts predict that grid parity will be achieved in a few years. This means that the costs and opportunities in the grid will be equal for solar electricity and conventionally generated household electricity.” Together with his team at the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT in Aachen, this researcher is developing technologies now that will allow faster, better, and cheaper production of solar cells in the future. “Lasers work quickly, precisely, and without contact. In other words, they are an ideal tool for manufacturing fragile solar cells. In fact, lasers are already being used in production today, but there is still considerable room for process optimization.” In addition to gradually improving the manufacturing technology, the physicists and engineers in Aachen are working with solar cell developers – for example, at the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE in Freiburg – on new engineering and design alternatives.

New production technologies allow new design alternatives

At “Laser 2009” in Munich, the researchers will be demonstrating how lasers can drill holes into silicon cells at breathtaking speed: The ILT laser system drills more than 3,000 holes within one second. Because it is not possible to move the laser source at this speed, the experts have developed optimized manufacturing systems which guide and focuses the light beam at the required points. “We are currently experimenting with various laser sources and optical systems,” Gillner explains. “Our goal is to increase the performance to 10,000 holes a second. This is the speed that must be reached in order to drill 10,000 to 20,000 holes into a wafer within the cycle time of the production machines.”

The tiny holes in the wafer – their diameter is only 50 micrometers – open up undreamt-of possibilities for the solar cell developers.  “Previously, the electrical contacts were arranged on the top of the cells. The holes make it possible to move the contacts to the back, with the advantage that the electrodes, which currently act as a dark grid to absorb light, disappear. And so the energy yield increases. The goal is a degree of efficiency of 20 percent% in industrially-produced emitter wrap-through (EWT) cells, with a yield of one-third more than classic silicon cells,” Gillner explains. The design principle itself remains unchanged: In the semi-conductor layer, light particles, or photons, produce negative electrons and positive holes, each of which then wanders to the oppositely poled electrodes. The contacts for anodes and cathodes in the EWT cells are all on the back, there is no shading caused by the electrodes, and the degree of efficiency increases. With this technique, it may one day be possible to use unpurified “dirty” silicon to manufacture solar cells that have poorer electrical properties, but that are cheaper. 

Drilling holes into silicon cells is only one of many laser applications in solar cell manufacturing. In the EU project Solasys – Next Generation Solar Cell and Module Laser Processing Systems – an international research team is currently developing new technologies that will allow production to be optimized in the future. ILT in Aachen is coordinating the six million euro project. “We are working on new methods that make the doping of semiconductors, the drilling and the surface structuring of silicon, the edge isolation of the cells, and the soldering of the modules more economical,” project coordinator Gillner explains. For example, “selective laser soldering” makes it possible to improve the rejection rates and quality of the contacting, and so reduce manufacturing costs. Until now, the electrodes were mechanically pressed onto the cells, and then heated in an oven. “But silicon cells often break during this process,” Gillner knows. “Breakage is a primary cost factor in production.” On the other hand, however, with “selective laser soldering” the contacts are pressed on to the cells with compressed air and then soldered with the laser. The mechanical stress approaches zero and the temperature can be precisely regulated. The result: Optimal contacts and almost no rejects.

Laser technology means more efficient thin film cells

Laser technology is also helping to optimize the manufacture of thin film solar cells. The extremely thin film packages made of semiconducting oxide, amorphous silicon, and metal that are deposited onto the glass panels still have a market share of only ten percent. But as Gillner knows, “This could be higher, because thin film solar cells can be used anywhere that non-transparent glass panels can be mounted, for example, on house facades or sound-insulating walls. But the degrees of efficiency are comparable low at five to eight percent, and the production costs are comparatively high.” The laser researchers are working to improve these costs. Until now, the manufacturers have used mechanical methods or solid-state lasers in the nanosecond range in order to structure the active layers on the glass panels. In order to produce electric connections between the semiconductor and the metal, grooves only a few micrometers wide must be created. At the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft booth at “Laser 2009” the ILT researchers will be demonstrating a 400-watt ultrashort pulse laser that processes thin-film solar modules ten times faster than conventional diode-pumped solid-state lasers. “The ultrashort pulse laser is an ideal tool for ablating thin layers: It works very precisely, does not heat the material and, working with a pulse frequency of 80 MHz, can process a 2-by-3 meter glass panel in under two minutes,” Gillner reports. “The technology is still very new, and high-performance scanning systems and optical systems adapted to the process must be developed first. In the medium term, however, this technology will be able to reduce production costs.”

The rise of laser technology in solar technology is just taking off, and it still has a long way to go. “Lasers simplify and optimize the manufacture of classic silicon and thin-film cells, and they allow the development of new design alternatives,” Gillner continues. “And so laser technology is making an important contribution towards allowing renewable energy sources to penetrate further into the energy market.”