Inspiration from Nature, Gravitational Waves and more effective Solar Panels
This week we will visit an Australian startup that is taking their inspiration from nature. They are developing a range of new surfaces that reduce drag along with other properties. We also examine Google’s parent company, Alphabet, latest venture into AI driven drug discovery. We investigate a tsunami of gravitational waves and finally a cheaper and more effective solar panel.
Taking Inspiration from Nature
Sydney based startup, MicroTau is using the many patterned surfaces found in nature as inspiration to develop surfaces with a range of useful properties. Low-drag shark skin, self cleaning lotus leaves, anti reflective moth eyes and antibacterial pitcher plants are all the result of microscopic patterns on the surface of the plant or animal.
If we are able to replicate those patterns we are able to replicate the functional properties. This has been demonstrated over decades (remember Thorpies shark skin suit that he use to win Olympic Gold, the products were so successful they had to be banned). However without a practical method for manufacturing these surfaces the significant commercial potential has not yet been realized.
MicroTau has developed a Direct Contactless Microfabrication (DCM) Technology that has the potential to offer faster, cheaper, scalable and more versatile fabrication of surfaces that replicate nature. Their shark skin inspired ‘riblet’ surface (below) will reduce drag by 7%. Riblets can be custom designed for different applications. There is potential for the product to be used in shipping and aviation with possible cost savings of over $10Billion in fuel annually.
The company grew out of a competition held in 2015 by the US Air Force. The USAF goal was to increase fuel efficiency for their transport aircraft. MicroTau founder, Henry Belinsky proposed DCM as a scalable method to print the drag reducing shark skin riblets. Out of 296 applications, the proposal won and MicroTau was founded. Wind tunnel testing by Lockheed Martin has demonstrated the 7% drag reduction.
In addition to drag reduction, MicroTau are developing surfaces for self cleaning and antifouling. They are also developing surfaces with optical and antibacterial properties for industries including manufacturing, health care and renewable energy.
We spoke last year about Alpha Fold an initiative from Deep Mind (a part of Alphabet the parent company of Google). Alpha Fold is an AI that is able to predict the 3D structure of a protein and how it folds in a few days. This is something that had taken months to complete manually.
Alphabet is now continuing this work with the founding of Isomorphic Labs. It is a commercial venture that aims to re-imagine the entire drug discovery process. The goal is to use AI to understand the interaction of drugs with the body from the ground up and to ultimately understand the fundamental mechanisms of life.
The AI they are developing is not only used to analyze data, it is also aiming to build predictive and generative models of the complex phenomena that forms our biology. If they are successful, a new field of ‘digital biology’ may emerge. Digital Biology will accelerate drug discovery and ultimately find cures to some our most devastating diseases.
Tsunami of Gravitational Waves
We first detected a Gravitational Wave in 2015. We spoke about them previously however a quick reminder. A gravitational wave is a wave in the fabric of spacetime that travels throughout the Universe. One cause is the collision of black holes.
In the first detection run over 4 months in 2015/6 only 3 gravitational waves were detected. In the latest 4 month detection run we have spotted 35 gravitational waves (using the same equipment). A veritable tsunami of gravitational waves (if tsunami can be adapted to being the collective noun for a number of gravitational waves traveling through space).
32 of the waves are believed to be from black holes merging to form massive new black holes. The other 3 are suspected to be from a neutron star (the remains of a dead star) colliding with a black hole.
This detection means that a gravitational wave has traveled through us and the earth every 3 to 4 days during the observational period. It makes me wonder how often the fabric of space is disrupted and what we will discover in the future that we can not currently detect.
Cheaper and more Efficient Solar Panels
A research group at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology have developed a method for making an ultra-high material efficient solar cell using semiconductor wires. This could double the efficiency of today’s solar cells at a low cost.
The team developed a new method of using Gallium Arsenide (GaAs) material in nano structuring. This allows the solar cell to be much more efficient using a tiny faction of the material normally used. GaAs is the best material for high efficiency solar cells because of its’ extraordinary light absorption and electrical characteristics. Currently it is mostly used to make solar panels for use in space due to the expense.
The team discovered that the most cost effective solution is to grow a dual tandem cell. A GaAs nanowire cell on the top, grown on a bottom Silicon cell. This removes the need for an expensive GaAs substrate. The tiny footprint of the nanowire structure allows for high quality crystals in the nanowire and in the interface with the silicon. This aids in the performance. This type of solar cell can be manufactured at scale using a Metal Organic Vapor Disposition Tool. The resulting solar cells efficiency of up to 40% is double today’s commercial Silicon solar cells.
The team is now working on growing the nanowire on different substrates such as graphene. This type of lightweight two dimensional substrate could open up enormous opportunities to produce lightweight solar cells that could be used in self powered drones, micro satellites and other applications that do not have easy access to a continuous power source.
Paying it Forward
If you have a start-up or know of a start-up that has a product ready for market please let me know. I would be happy to have a look and feature the startup in this newsletter. Also if any startups need introductions please get in touch and I will help where I can.
If you have any questions or comments please email me via my website craigcarlyon.com or comment below.
I would also appreciate it if you could forward this newsletter to anyone that you think might be interested.
Till next week.