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Archive for the ‘materials’ Category

Strike against Bisphenol – Consumer awareness dictates product shift despite regulatory indifference

Posted by evolvingwheel on March 1, 2008

There has been a growing concern about Bisphenol-A (BPA) over the last couple of years. As different lab test results come out through the media outlet and Internet, highlighting the negative effects on human health and more so on infant health, a sharply heightening awareness is leading consumers to find different options. The story can be told better if I explain a bit about this BPA and how it affects us.

Bisphenol A is a hormone-disrupting chemical considered to be potentially harmful to human health and the environment. BPA is a key building block in plastics and is used ubiquitously in different plastic products ranging from polycarbonate to polyester. BPA is one of many man-made chemicals classified as endocrine disruptor. Lately, the concern has been revolving around several critical findings that talk about the potential of leaching of this compound from transparent plastic bottles being used for feeding babies. In the US several test data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have shown that there is a decent amount of BPA in urine samples of humans between ages of 6 and 85. And CDC data reflects that “Children had higher levels than adolescents and adolescents had higher levels than adults,” says endocrinologist Retha Newbold of the U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

Read more about the studies in the following links below:

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/01/080130092108.htm

http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=plastic-not-fantastic-with-bisphenol-a

The interesting part of this is how consumer awareness of these findings is translating into buying behaviors. The market for infant bottles and other baby utensils that employ BPA is staggering and more than 95% of the feeding bottles today are made from BPA. While Japan, Canada, and EU have acted judiciously on this continued research on the health effects of BPA leaching from the bottles, the FDA in the US are taking a slower reactionary standpoint to the growing concern. Meanwhile, there is a war of words between the chemical industry and health activists on this issue. The industry argues that unless BPA is proved to have ill effects it should continue to be manufactured and used, because it is cheap, lightweight, shatterproof and offers other features that are hard to match. There is no alternative for either of those materials [polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins] that would simply drop in where those materials are used. On the other hand, the activists claim that polyethylene and polypropylene plastics would be fine substitutes for several products. While the industry groups, consumer advocates, government regulators, and healthcare professionals debate over the efficacy of these researches and the true impact on human health, the consumers are now deciding their own options. bisphenolabottle.jpg

There is an increasing number of online orders for BPA free plastic feeding bottles and glass bottles. What could be more dear to one other than his/her kid’s safety. This has juxtaposed with the awareness through blogs, websites, conventional media, and email/text notes between groups and individuals. In a web2.0 world, social networking has also augmented the viral distribution of knowledge that is translating into actions. People are not waiting for Target-Walmart to take these bottles out of their shelves. Concerned parents are going online and finding other channels to suffice their needs for a non-BPA lifestyle. It appears to me that Internet is again going to be a market driver for a product usage shift. And this time it may be a remarkable example of overriding industry dictations, vested interests, and market lobbyists.

Next comes the existing market for BPA bottles. The BPA production numbers by major manufacturers as of 1999 can be found [here]. There are two dynamics to follow. One is a new market for the substitute material for infant bottles as demands grow over the next few years, and next is the shift of the polycarbonate applications from the existing infant utensil market. It wouldn’t be surprise to me if in next few months Walmart announces that they will put BPA-free bottles on their shelves. However, such a move can’t preserve the BPA bottles parallel to the ones free from it. The comparison issue will immediately discount the BPA bottles as a consumer’s choice. Then the immediate business opening is the re-utilization of the manufacturing and distribution process of BPA for infant industry.

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20080214.wlbottle14/BNStory/specialScienceandHealth/home

The final outcome could be FDA issuing a more strict guideline for BPA manufacture and application. However, consumer’s practice would preempt the regulatory aspect by enforcing the product development, marketing, and distribution towards a non-BPA world. Can we call that Internet enabled consumer2.0?

Picture Credit: Univ. of Cincinnati

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Posted in Environment, health, materials | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Tata Motor brings car of $2500 – Can India handle it?

Posted by evolvingwheel on January 10, 2008

First post of 2008! Hope this one talks about my interest for this year 🙂

So the Tata Motor Companyof India has finally accomplished an unprecedented feat by bringing a car that costs a meager $2500! From the post-independence era, Tata has been delivering indigenous solutions for the Indian automobile market and has become a household name when it comes to trucks and cars that can sustain the harsh environment of heat and monsoon and strained infrastructure. However, this time Tata has done something that could not only change the landscape of Indian automobile market but could also shakeout the socio-economic, environmental, and infrastructure aspects of a country beleaguered by poverty, income disparity, and an emerging middle class with increasing buying capacity. /photo.cms?msid=2684679

I am not talking here about the car itself or the business impact from the perspective of automobile industry. You can find all those in this link. What I am interested in is the short-term and long-term effect of bringing a car to the market that could invigorate a whole different buyer’s segment – the bottom of the pyramid (as claimed by Prof. Prahlad).

Let me bring few things into perspective and ask some critical questions.

  1. Buyer’s segment – two wheeler buyers or the ones with low income and somewhere between lower middle class and wannabe middle-class. Millions like that live both in cities and villages. Consider cities first- if the car ownership increases 4-6 fold, does India have that road infrastructure to support the traffic? Even today the country is struggling with new cars hitting the roads. How would this increased number be tackled by a antagonizing political environment fighting over draconian policy implementations and let aside implementing a overhaul change?
  2. In village side – who will take the onus of building roads to the deepest corners where these cars (and ridership) would penetrate? If this car sustains the environmental and infrastructure hardship and ends up surviving for more than 5 years on Indian roads, the explosion of ownership can be daunting. Just think about the environmental impact, recycling of scrap, and junk spare parts after usage!
  3. Now, implications on the positive side are enormous. I can see how cell phones changed the whole way of doing things in the cities and semi-rural areas. Social innovation entered deep into the countryside when fishermen would use cell phones to find out the wholesale market price and distribute their catch according to the prospects of profitability. This car can bring changes like that but in a more amplified scale!
  4. And then there are the prospects of employment style, pattern, location, and timing shifts. When a biker wouldn’t try to go beyond a certain distance and limit his/her business/profession according to those restrictions, this car could break down that deterrence and create whole new format of earning, living, and spending. There is a very good possibility of a nationwide economic and henceforth a social shift that could emerge from communities that fenced for years!

Opportunities as well as problems are enormous. I am more excited to think about the future trajectory of the market and human behaviors when such innovations enable a possibility beyond ones imagination.

Picture: Ratan Tata

Add On: News release – http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/22575262/

Posted in automobile, Energy, fuel, Innovation, materials, pollution | 1 Comment »

Piezoelectrics on steroids – researcher creates artificial compound

Posted by evolvingwheel on November 17, 2007

Pradeep Sharma and his research team at University of Houston are in the process of testing an engineered piezoelectric material that could revolutionize the way piezoelectrics produce power. In naturally occurring piezoelectric materials there are several limitations. Even though these compounds are being used in increasing commercial products such as airbags, lighters, etc., there extensive growth in market utilization and efficiency are limited by their brittleness and the requirement of a lot of energy. Sharma’s research encompasses theoretical approach to design fabrication of materials and then practical testing of real compounds created artificially from ground up. pradeep_sharma_houston.jpg

If a fairly good amount of energy can be created from a tangible mechanical pressure, these compounds have the potential to appear in several commercial applications that require power generation to run internal operations of devices. Considering the claim that the artificially engineered materials are steroids, numerous mechanical applications can be associated with the method of generating power by pressure. Prosthetic limbs is one area of application. Another good application could be tying this process of deriving decent electricity from the gas and brake pedals in cars. Or even from steering wheels. Guess how many times we press these objects while driving.

I will try to do some more research on the nanoscale effects that produces these compounds. With my interest in nanotechnology realm, the process of adding or manipulating attributes in materials with the help of nano-optics will be something worth knowing. Read the article [here].

Picture: Pradeep Sharma; Courtesy University of Houston website

Posted in Energy, Innovation, materials, nanotechnology | Leave a Comment »

Compound changing color on demand

Posted by evolvingwheel on October 22, 2007

Researchers from MIT have created a gel that changes color in response to external stimuli. The compound has the unique characteristic of changing colors when exposed to different kinds of stimuli – light, moisture, pressure, and possibly voltage. The versatile gel provides some significant signatures for changes in the surrounding environmental components. lightgels-2-enlarged.jpg

The researchers have achieved this remarkable feature by using a copolymer thin film made of alternating layers of two materials, polystyrene and poly-2-vinyl-pyridine. The thickness of those layers and their refractive indices determine what color light will be reflected by the resulting gel. External stimuli produce changes to the thickness of the layers (space between them), which then alters the refractive indices of the layers and hence changes the color of the gel. As claimed by the researchers:

The key to manipulating the thickness of the poly-2-vinyl-pyridine (2VP) layer is to give the nitrogens on each segment of the 2VP block a positive charge, yielding a polyelectrolyte chain that can swell to more than 1,000 percent its volume in water.

This is a fundamental research breakthrough – an ingenious way of swelling ultra thin compunds/layers by sending a small chanrge through it. For more details, read the article [here].

I have been thinking of the commercial aspects of this research – and many others already have. True innovation in materials has the key to unfold areas of the application that could have never be contemplated earlier. Some of the immediate uses that comes to my mind are:

  1. Coumpound can be used to detect moisture in food warehouses – where dryness is essential.
  2. Small pressure changes can be detected with the presence of explosive materials.
  3. Color changes through a large spectrum of light can produce vivid and visible responses to the slightest change in the environmental factors.
  4. — I will do research and think of few more — any other ideas are more than welcome.

 Picture: MIT News – Ned Thomas, Morris Cohen Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and head of the department, left, and Joseph Walish, graduate student in materials science and engineering.

Posted in Innovation, materials | Leave a Comment »

Metamaterial refracts light the other way – Fundamental research in optics

Posted by evolvingwheel on October 15, 2007

A research group from Princeton has developed a metamaterial from the semiconductors in a computer chip that is capable of refracting light in the opposite direction from the conventional materials. This breakthrough has been achieved by arranging the semiconductor materials in an alternate pattern in a 3-dimensional format. Earlier, metamaterials were being created in a 2-dimensional format. However, this 3-dimensional arrangement has been able to create the novel property of bending light in the negative direction. The research detail can be found [here].

The research is part of a multi-institutional research center called Mid-Infrared Technologies for Health and the Environment (MIRTHE). MIRTHE is a National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center headquartered at Princeton University, with partners City College New York, Johns Hopkins University, Rice, Texas A&M, and the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

laser3.jpg

The negative refraction achieved in the metamaterial will be able to create microscopes with many fold higher magnification than the conventional ones. The negative refraction property used in flat lenses could compensate the optical aberration created by curved lenses. Furthermore, this research can open the doorway for minuscule particle detection systems using IR light source and sophisticated sensors.

Posted in Infrared, Innovation, materials, optics | Leave a Comment »

A New Dimension in INKJET Printing

Posted by evolvingwheel on September 21, 2007

I am fanatically inclined towards technologies or scientific ideas that try to change an existing concept from inside out. Even thought it might not sound that revolutionary, but the change in the way of thinking through a process is remarkably reflected in the development of nanoscale inkjet printing. John Rogers, a professor of engineering at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, has come up with a concept of inkjet printing that is capable of printing dots of materials just 250 nanometers in diameter. The possible applications of this technology will be in nanomaterial printing for plastic electronics and biomedical sensors. Recently, revolutionary developments are taking place in the nanomaterial domain. Any mass scale printing ability for these nano small compounds on films, ceramic sheets, and plastics will positively be a market winner.

The coolest part of this invention is the way the small droplets are extracted from the nozzle and laid out on the terget substrate. In regular inkjet printers, droplets of the order of micrometers are either pushed out by pressure or by heat from the nozzle. However, in nanoscale engineering, static forces and hydrodynamics of fluids come into play and distort the accuracy of printing. The inventors replaced the concept of PUSH with PULL. An electric field from the bottom (substrate) generates enough force to draw the fluid from the nozzle and make a cone tip. This helps to steer the material towards the exact target spot – a great innovation.

The developers are now working on enhancing the speed of printing. With perseverance and further engineering manipulations, this process can reach industry level efficiency in the near future. Could this be a replacement for the silicon fabrication technology in the coming future?

Read the [article] here.

Click [here] for John Rogers nanoresearch.

Picture Courtesy: UIUC

Posted in hardware, Innovation, materials, nanotechnology | Leave a Comment »

Innovation at Boeing – Dreamliner

Posted by evolvingwheel on July 3, 2007

This can be counted as a continuation of my earlier article on plastic composites for airliners posted on May 18. I just read an article in MSNBC (posted today) about the innovative ways Boeing has employed to rollout its long-awaited 787 Dreamliner. The article briefly touches upon the strategic thinking behind opting out of big fat air cruisers like that of the Airbus Corporation. What grabs my attention is the multi-vendor multi-continent engagement that Boeing pulled off as seamlessly as possible. 

One of the most interesting aspects is the design, development, and procurement of major parts from outside of US. Is the Wal-Mart model going to be a trend in heavy duty airline manufacturing industry in this country? Check this link out: 787 Dreamliner Development Team.

We are often paralyzed by different legalities, regulations, and national security issues when it comes to hi-tech design sharing and development with international vendors. However, if Boeing sets an example with the Dreamliner, may be other heavy duty hi-tech companies (Lockheed, Raytheon, etc. – may be they already do – I have not done enough research on that side yet) will follow suit. What will be the implications? Will there be a rigorous international standardization to support such developments? What are the opportunities with the continued product launches? Will Boeing still have a competitive advantage over the long run? May be the depth of capital investments will dictate the abilities to design innovative products and keep the competitive advantage on this side.

This entire article can be a case study. Another exciting knowledge gathered is the way global investment, requirements, and cost feasibility is making old behemoths change their business model. The old ideologies are being replaced by fresh, new outlooks.

Read the [article]. 

Posted in aviation, Innovation, materials | 2 Comments »

Sony’s paper thin video display – and with that a question

Posted by evolvingwheel on May 29, 2007

I was a day late to read the news. But the article on Sony’s paper-thin video display not only caught my attention but also made me ask few questions. Let me first talk a little bit about the innovative invention. Sony R&D powerhouse has once again delivered to a large investment on organic transistors and electroluminescent displays. They have created an ultra thin panel that is capable of displaying static color images as well as video. It’s like the one we saw in Minority Report. You will have an A4 size film that will deliver dynamic content and you will roll that up and put it in your pocket and walk away. Like a billboard in a paper.   In the race for ever thinner displays for TVs, cellphones and other gadgets, Sony may have developed one to beat them all: A razor-thin display, seen here, that bends like paper while showing full-color video.

Sony has been challenged over the recent years by Samsung and Phillips on flat panel displays and innovations in that field. They are now responding back. Sony R&D had been a great innovator from the days of walkman. Organic transistor is now a big area of interest and possible applications are boundless. Starting from dynamic newspaper and video wallpaper to video films embedded on T-shirts – endless options for marketing in the future. However, time to market and cost will dictate the product’s ubiquity. [Read the article] 

Last year I was reading some article on a startup called Eink who has acquired a decent amount of venture funding over last few years to come up with ultra thin video and dynamic image displays. They have had several buyers for their product as well. Now, when big giants like Sony and Phillips come up with competitive products and allocate their capital investment and resources towards a speedy development, and leverage their existing vendor relationships and marketing channels to enforce the product to the market, how do the startups fare? Obviously, the startups become tentative baits for buy-outs and acquisitions. But that kind of stops another innovation prospect since we never know what could come out from a development life-cycle of a new product. Collateral innovations are always the lucrative serendipities that change the world from time to time. Questions arise about possible ways to counter the mammoth while preserving a competitive advantage during the commercialization phase without being bought out.  

Will keep on thinking 🙂

Picture: Courtesy Sony via AP

Posted in Innovation, investment, materials | Leave a Comment »

Solar cell reaching out to sunlight

Posted by evolvingwheel on April 20, 2007

A solar wafer with tower shaped micro-receptors that can absorb sunlight from all different angles. The outcome – the solar cell has high efficiency all throughout the day, not just the noon time when the sun is right on the top. That’s what Jud Ready at Georgia Tech came up with a new design for solar cells, where the sun goes in angles and the efficiency of the device increases. The solar panels (photovoltaic arrays) on this small yacht at sea can charge the 12 V batteries at up to 9 A in full, direct sunlight

The researcher and his team have designed a pretty nifty fabrication with carbon nanotube towers sitting on a substrate. For more details, please read the [article]. However, one element of concern is the efficiency of the device, which hovers around 7%. The researcher is also targeting towards space technology for commercialization. I would rather consider looking at the commercialization of the technology in consumer solar cells. Furthermore, the cycle time to get to the market looks pretty long. The way things are moving around the alternative energy market, there could be very competitive solutions with better efficiencies soon. So the innovator needs to find ways to bring his invention faster to conventional solar components. 

One other idea I have – how about increasing surface area for absorption depending upon the inclination and direction of the sun? Let’s say there is a nano substrate or base material which responds to thermal energy by expanding in micro scale. If the towers are standing on the base materials, which could be an array of granules that expand with heat, the towers will rise up and down depending upon the incidence of heat on its base material. It will look like a moving mountain or a wave that moves up and down and the towers protrude up or sink in accordingly.

Posted in Energy, Innovation, materials | Leave a Comment »

Sugar powered battery – Will Minteer’s innovation find its way to mainstream consumers?

Posted by evolvingwheel on April 7, 2007

My good friend Mark forwareded to me this news article. The news published in Saint Louis University‘s website talks about one of their research scientists, Shelley Minteer, who presented a sugar powered biodegradable battery at the 233rd national meeting of the American Chemical society. The technology’s most promising aspect is its source of energy. The battery runs on renewable fuel sources such as sugar solution, soda, glucose, and tree sap. power-your-laptop-by-sugar-based-battery_9

Minteer claims that her version of the battery is superior to other similar new devices in terms of power and longevity. The technology mimics the operational model of our body. The human body unleashes energy from glucose and does that very efficiently. The sugar powered battery has similar enzymes that extracts juice out of glucose solutions. Minteer is foreseeing her invention to find its use in cell phone rechargers. The device will come with cartridges pre-filled with sugar solutions and she expects that people will use the recharger for juicing up on-the-go.

However, I would like to ask few questions regarding commercializing the invention for mainstream use:

§         How big will this cartridge pack be? What is the size-to-power yield ratio? An average consumer will not like to have a device that takes too much space in his/her briefcase or pockets.

§         The product definitely can’t be the best looking, sleek accessory for everyday use. Sugar solution is a liquid that needs some form of container – as it appears from the cartridge offering. And furthermore dipping a device in solutions or pouring solutions into it can be a cumbersome alternative – unless the refill takes place once in a month. Considering the proposition of pre-packed cartridges, which will be a recurring source of revenue, how long will these cartridges last? Usability in today’s consumer electronics is mandatory.

§         How will this product compete with current conventional alternatives? Metallic batteries are evolving too fast and inventions are trying to unleash the power of nano-materials. Inventors are also finding recycle methods that can break down the batteries into recyclable if not biodegradable components after processing.

Nevertheless, the product can find its usage in bigger and heavy duty applications like that in military and factory components. May be the researcher should focus more on such areas rather than miniature consumer applications… or may be she has all these questions addressed by now and the realization process will be a no-brainer![Read Article]

Posted in Energy, Environment, hardware, Innovation, materials, Medicine | 1 Comment »