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Gizmorama - May 7, 2018

Good Morning,

Looking to turn to solar power? There's a formula for determining the type of solar panels that would benefit you the most. MIT does it again!

Learn about this and more interesting stories from the scientific community in today's issue.

Until Next Time,

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*-- Formula can determine ideal type of solar paneling for each installation --*

With the solar power industry growing, there are now a range of solar panels available on the market, complicating installation decisions. Should buyers go with the newest and most efficient, but more expensive, solar panels or the older, cheaper models?

Researchers at MIT have developed a simple formula to determine which solar panels will work best for a given setup.

The formula considers two types of solar panel: a basic design featuring a single kind of photovoltaic material, or the cheap option, and tandem cells, higher-efficiency panels featuring two types of photovoltaic material. Researchers also weighed the economics of two different types of tandem cells, two-junction cells, which are integrated into a single series, and four-junction cells, which are wired separately.

The formula -- detailed this week in the journal Nature Energy -- weighs each unit's output over its lifespan, given the expected conditions at an installation site, against the costs of installation and maintenance. Researchers used the combined arithmetic to spit out a measure of economic efficiency called levelized cost of electricity, or LCOE.

"Standard single-junction cells have a maximum efficiency limit of about 30 percent," grad student Sarah Sofia told MIT News. "Tandem cells, using two materials, can have much higher efficiency, above 40 percent."

Tandem cells have an obvious performance advantage, but they are more expensive manufacture, install and maintain. LCOE can help homeowners and energy companies figure out if they're worth the extra costs.

The formula showed that whether tandem cells' high-performance tech pays off depends on the type of installation and where it's being installed.

Researchers used their formula to determine which type of cell would perform best in three different locations: Arizona's arid climate, South Dakota's temperate climate and Florida's humid climate. Water vapor can hinder the amount of sunlight that is absorbed by solar cells.

Researchers and their formula also considered whether the cells were part of a smaller, residential installation or a larger, commercial setup.

"For residential systems, we showed that the four-terminal tandem system [the most efficient solar cell available] was the best option, regardless of location," Sofia said.

However, the formula showed that for large-scale operations, the cheapest option offered the greatest economic benefit.

"For me, showing that a four-terminal tandem cell had a clear opportunity to succeed was not obvious. It really shows the importance of having a high energy yield in a residential system," Sofia said.

Researchers say their work could be used to weigh the economic costs and benefits of other variables related to solar panel technology, and could also be used to determine where to funnel solar panel research funding in order to get the greatest return on investment.

The growth of the solar energy industry has accelerated in the U.S. over the last decade. Solar and wind projects accounted for 62 percent of all new energy building projects in 2017. But there is some uncertainty over the prospects of the residential market, and reports suggest solar energy companies are looking to scale back expansion in favor of beefing up their most efficient and profitable operations. MIT's new formula could help solar energy companies pinpoint where and how to allocate their resources.

*-- Scientists use holographic projection to edit brain activity --*

Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley are building a brain modulator powered by a novel new technology called holographic projection.

Their aim is to develop a modulator capable of suppressing and activating thousands of neurons in real time, replicating the patterns of actual brain activity. In doing so, the device could trick the brain into various sensations and experiences.

The technology could offer a work around solution to peripheral nerve damage, for example, or be paired with a prosthetic limb to replicate a person's sense of touch.

"This has great potential for neural prostheses, since it has the precision needed for the brain to interpret the pattern of activation," postdoctoral researcher Alan Mardinly said in a news release. "If you can read and write the language of the brain, you can speak to it in its own language and it can interpret the message much better."

Scientists described the modulator prototype in a new paper published this week in the journal Nature Neuroscience. The device uses precise flashes of light to activate as many as 50 neurons at once in a 3D section of the brain. Each of the 2,000 to 3,000 neurons in the brain model is outfitted with a protein that, when hit with light, turns the cell on or off.

To precisely target each neuron, researchers used holography, a method for bending and focusing a light field into a 3D image. The modulator's liquid crystal screen helps convert the laser light into tiny 3D patterns that can be projected into a single neuron.

"The major advance is the ability to control neurons precisely in space and time," said postdoc Nicolas Pégard. "In other words, to shoot the very specific sets of neurons you want to activate and do it at the characteristic scale and the speed at which they normally work."

Both Mardinly and Pégard work in the lab of Hillel Adesnik, an assistant professor of molecular and cell biology at Berkeley.

Researchers tested the technology on mice models, using the modulator to stimulate the touch, vision and motor areas of the brains.

Scientists hope to scale up the technology's capabilities and scale down the actual size of the modulator so that a person could carry one around in backpack. They also plan to begin studying actual brain patterns so to replicate the specific neuronal signatures of different sensations.


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