Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Thursday, March 5, 2015

National Science Foundation

You may notice the NSF logo on our blog. That stands for the National Science Foundation. The National Science Foundation funds the research that we do. They are a government organization that funds a large portion of federally-supported basic research. Basic research is important because it provides the fundamentals from which technologies are made. For example, without Michael Faraday's fundamental research into electricity and magnetism, we wouldn't have the electric motor and a wide variety of electric and/or magnetic appliances. We also wouldn't have cell phones and the entire telecommunications industry. Einstein also did fundamental, state-sponsored research that has fed into a wide variety of disciplines including the computer that you use to read this website. In order for companies to put money into developing a product, there first needs to be basic research to give them a reason to put money in a given direction. Without basic research, there is no fundamentally new technology. At the same time, basic research tends to be a high-risk/high-reward scenario. Not all basic research pays off and we generally do not know at the onset what will pay off and what will not.

If you are interested in learning more about the NSF, check out their Tumblr, facebook, or website.

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Next Big Thing?

Periodically, science stories hit the news. Universities have PR departments churning out press releases (articles about current research). Researchers also must publish their findings in scientific journals (this is what is meant with the phrase "publish or perish"). In order to get funding, scientists need to communicate the value of their work to the public. 

We see these stories in the news, get excited, and most of the time, nothing comes of it. Why?

There are a variety of reasons. There is an entire subset of science that focuses on "proofs of concept". The systems described in these studies aren't necessarily ready for commercialization. For example, lead-based piezoelectric materials perform great and could do a lot of good if we could put materials with similar piezoelectric properties in the human body. Unfortunately, they contain lead, a poison. A recent article in Time magazine discussed a method of turning solar energy into liquid fuel. Unfortunately, the cell described was only ~1 % efficient. Since commercial solar cells are often ~10-20 % efficient, this technology is nowhere near ready for prime time. The scientists state this. For transportation uses, it would be nice to have liquid transportation fuel (quicker re-fueling, large volume and mass energy densities), so it is seeking a worthy goal and, for technology using bacteria to produce fuel, it is a major step forward.That being said, there is a long way to go. As it currently stands, it is more difficult to see how this technology will catch up to solar cell with battery technologies. It captures the imagination and could play a role in the future. In the image above from Bell Laboratories of the 1950s, solar cells were a similarly raw technology not ready for commercialization. They have only recently became competitive with fossil fuels in many areas. No one knows what the future will bring. Even technologies that do not make it can spur on other technologies and innovations. For example, research into conducting polymers and dye-sensitized solar cells has really helped research into perovskite solar cells. Many technologies that "don't make it" benefit the development of still other technologies, either by capturing the imagination of future and current researchers or by adding to facts and data known. Somehow, an interest in cosmology when I was 10 led to me now studying materials that are useful for engineers here on Earth. While the real-world benefits of cosmology are not readily apparent outside of a science fiction, the ability of the field to inspire researchers and get people thinking of new and creative things cannot be discounted and really is an asset to the scientific community.