Tag Archives: materials


Chalk another one up for the MIT ideas factory: programmable matter‘ comprises sheets of composite material “edged by foil actuators – thin, solid-state motors – that contract or expand when they receive an electric current from flexible electronic circuits embedded in the sheets. After they achieve their preprogrammed shape, the sheets are held in place by tiny magnets on the edges of the fold joints.” [via SlashDot]

In other words, it’s automatic origami. Observe!

Clever stuff. I wonder how far up you could scale this phenomenon? It could make Ikea furniture much less of a headache to assemble, for a start… and Cisco’s city-in-a-box could really be supplied in a box.

Solar cells printed on paper

Chalk up another point for MIT, bounteous font of great boffinry – their latest offering to the world is a solar cell you can print out onto paper. However, I wouldn’t get too excited about it:

… the new solar cells are created by coating paper with organic semiconductor material using a process similar to an inkjet printer.

The MIT researchers used carbon-based dyes to “print” the cells, which are about 1.5 to 2 percent efficient at converting sunlight to electricity. That falls well short of the more than 40 percent efficiency record for a multi-junction solar cell, or even the recent 19 percent efficiency record for silicon ink-based solar cells. But Vladimir Bulovic, director of the Eni-MIT Solar Frontiers Research Center, told CNET any material could be used to print onto the paper solar cells if it was deposited at room temperature.

It will still be some time before solar cells can be installed with a staple gun, however, as the paper variety are still in the research phase and are years from being commercialized.

Drill, baby, drill?

Dude, where’s my island?

Since around 2005, at least 24 small islands have effectively vanished from the Indonesian archipelago. While sea levels are rising quickly enough to make some islands vanish (and solving long-running turf disputes in the process), these particular islands are not victims of climate change, but of ‘sand pirates’ digging them up and shipping them away to be used as building aggregates on the mainland [via Technovelgy].

Given the vast amount of stuff we put into landfills around the world, maybe we could build some new islands from McMansion rubble and consumer electronics junk?

From King’s Cross to Beijing by rail

I love to travel by train, me. Though a habit born of necessity in my case (I never took my driving test), there’s so much to recommend it over cars or flying. Especially flying. [image by Let Ideas Compete]

Well, the far edges of my potential-destinations sphere is going to grow considerably in the next ten years or so. Did you know China are the world leaders in high speed train technology? Well, apparently they are, and they’re involved in serious talks with neighbouring nation-states aimed at linking the Chinese rail system to the European one and extending it down onto South East Asia, with China footing the infrastructure bills. Once it’s all done, you could ride from London to Beijing without once needing to take a car, boat or plane… and that’s a journey I’d love to do*.

Interestingly enough (though not surprisingly) there’s more to China’s plans than some sort of idealistic Victorian-era notion of rail travel as symbolic of progress and industrialisation. Indeed, it’s something far more blunt: in exchange for adding considerable value to its partners’ rail networks, China is cutting preferential deals with them on raw materials that it can’t source locally. Remarkably capitalistic thinking for a nominally Communist nation, eh? Talk about moving with the times… might as well make hay while the sun shines, especially if everyone else is waiting out the rain.

[ * – Seriously, if any publishers out there are willing to make a promise to buy the resulting work for a large four-figure sum plus research expenses, there’s a great book to be written once that network is complete, and I’m definitely the guy for the job. Market me as the new (and scruffier) Paul Theroux, perhaps – hell, I’ve got all the cynicism about human nature you’d need to fill his shoes. I might need to work on amping up my condescension toward other cultures, though… ]