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Researchers Find a Novel Way to Potentially Double Solar Cell Efficiency

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Solar Cell

Affordable solar cells could soon be a reality

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Researchers looking into new and sustainable energy have achieved a breakthrough in solar cell technology by reporting the development of a “green antenna” to potentially double the efficiencies of certain solar cells and significantly, make them more affordable.

Solar energy is a proven, inexhaustible source of energy and is slowly findings its way into communities. While installations of solar cells are an upward trend, the implementation of the technology is growing at a slow pace due to certain disadvantages. Initial costs are expensive and aren’t recouped for years, even with the best-subsidized neighborhoods and solar technology is, currently, notoriously inefficient. In proving a much-welcome shot in the proverbial arm for more adopters of solar technology, the development of a new “antenna” as an add-on to certain existing solar cells could potentially double the cells’ efficiency. The researchers behind it also claim that they intend to make consumer-end solar technology, more affordable.

The researchers will be presenting their work at the 250th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in Boston, today.

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Solar Cell Efficiency Gets a Level Up

ElectricitySolar energy helps produce electric current when sunlight is harvested from a broad spectrum of wavelengths, explains Challa V. Kumar, Ph.D., and a part of the research team at the University of Connecticut.

“Most of the light from the sun is emitted over a very broad window of wavelengths,” says Kumar. “If you want to use solar energy to produce (an) electric current, you want to harvest as much of that spectrum as possible.”

However, silicon solar cells that are often purchased by consumers aren’t entirely efficient in the blue area of the light spectrum. To overcome this inherent hurdle, Kumar and his team of researchers built an antenna that collects those unused blue photons before proceeding to convert them into lower energy photons. With this solution, silicon cells can then turn the lower energy photons into electric current, improving the cell’s efficiency.

Many groups around the world are working hard to make this kind of antenna, and ours is the first of its kind in the whole world – boasts Kumar.

Commercially used solar cells that are available in the market today are only about 11 to 15 percent efficient. While they do an able job of converting light from 600 to 1,000 nanometers (nm) into electric current, they fail at the 350 to 600 nm range. Higher-end panels routinely reach 25 percent efficiency, but are very expensive and are unaffordable to most end-users. Certain lab prototypes that are currently being tested can scale, even higher efficiencies, but aren’t viable as an affordable product.

The process of converting unused portions of the light spectrum to the wavelengths acceptable by solar cells is equally expensive, but Kumar and his team found a workaround by using organic dyes.

Dye molecules turn happy when introduced to photons in light, which could then, under the right factors, help relax and emit less frenetic but more silicon cell-friendly photons. In order to get the dye molecules to work together, it’s required that they are wrapped individually and densely in order to adhere to certain quantum mechanics. Here’s how the research team tackled the issue:

  • The dyes were embedded inside a protein-lipid hydrogel after mixing them together, warming them first and then cooling them down to room temperature.
  • This accelerated the material into wrapping around individual dye molecules, whilst still keeping them separated.
  • Now packed densely, the outcome is a thin membrane of pinkish film that can be coated on top of a solar cell.

“It’s very simple chemistry,” Kumar says.

It can be done in the kitchen or in a remote village. That makes it inexpensive to produce.

Moreover, these antennas are also made exclusively from biological and non-toxic materials. They’re even edible, in theory. “Not that you would want to eat your solar cells, but they should be compostable so they won’t accumulate in the environment,” Kumar adds.

Kumar and his team are actively working with a Connecticut-based company to figure out ways in implementing the artificial ‘green’ (and edible) antenna to commercially available solar cells. Furthermore, they are also trying to use the highly-versatile hydrogel for white light-emitting diodes and drug delivery, confirms Kumar.

Images from Shutterstock and Pixabay.

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Cybersecurity

Israeli Researchers Turn Speakers/Headphones Into Eavesdropping Microphones

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In the current age, even the most secure software and the best security practices might not be enough to prevent someone from being spied upon. Researchers continue to find novel and inventive ways to gather more data on everyday computer users, and the latest research from Israel’s Ben Gurion University is exceptional in this regard.

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Using software alone, Mordechai Guri, Yosef Solewicz, Andrey Daidakulov, and Yuval Elovici were able to convert a given pair of headphones or speakers into Orwellian microphones beyond the user’s control or ability to patch. Their method [PDF] exploits a flaw in RealTek hardware chips, which are one of the most widely used chips in motherboards around the world. Companies like Dell, HP, and Compaq regularly utilize RealTek’s industry standard audio chips in their products. Beyond that, motherboards sold to consumers wishing to build their own systems often also include the hardware.

A simple patch or firmware upgrade will not fix this flaw, making the exploit particularly delightful to intelligence agencies, profit-motivated hackers (think boardroom conference calls), and others. Basically, anywhere a computer has an audio output, which in the case of laptops is everywhere, audio can now be intercepted and then relayed with roughly the same quality as if a microphone itself had been compromised. The images of people like Mark Zuckerberg covering up their webcam and microphone with electrical tape now seem trivial.

Jack re-tasking – the process of converting an output jack to either an input or a two-way port – has long been a possibility, but few developers make use of it. Most laptops and desktops will have separate ports for each, while smartphones and the like often require hardware that can do both. But the innovation on the part of Ben Gurion’s researchers involves making any regular output hardware capable of doing as much with only software. They write:

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The fact that headphones and earphones are physically built like microphones, coupled with the fact that an audio port’s role in the PC can be altered programmatically from output to input, creates a vulnerability which can be abused by hackers.

The researchers noticed that the design of most audio input and output hardware was basically identical at the metal, drawing the following illustration for clarification:

Source: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Cyber Security Research Center

Source: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Cyber Security Research Center

One saving grace is that the audio output device must be “passive,” or unpowered. This means that if your speakers require power to work, they are not currently able to use these to listen to you. However, the vast majority of laptop speakers and earbuds are, by nature and necessity, passive. The researchers note that while they focused on RealTek codec hardware because of their popularity, other manufacturers also have the ability to retask jacks, which is the heart of the exploit.

While this may seem scary at first, it should be noted that, like anything else on your computer, audio input and output are data. They can therefore be encrypted with keys that are local to the machine, and it would seem that this new exploit opens up a new avenue of research for cryptographic researchers to institute audio encryption in the same way that full-disk encryption has become normalized.

Here is a demonstration of the method in action:

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Electronics

Chinese Physicists Achieve Record-Breaking Quantum Cryptography Breakthrough

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Researchers at the University of Science and Technology of China and other Chinese labs, with the collaboration of a lab in the US, have implemented a secure quantum protocol known as Measurement-Device-Independent Quantum Key Distribution (MDIQKD), suitable for practical networks and devices, over a distance of 404 km. The breakthrough, which doubles the previous MDIQKD record, opens the door to secure wide area quantum communication networks.

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Electronics

Dot: Precision Tracking Hardware Makes Your Smartphones Smarter

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Dot

A team of five Berkeley engineers has developed a new hardware product that utilizes precision location tracking to make smartphone notifications highly intelligent and contextual.

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In the technology-minded world that we live in it’s nearly impossible to walk down the street without encountering someone on their phone. However, with the amount of information that we store in our phones it can be difficult to filter out what’s important and what’s not.

This is where Dot enters the scene.

Dot

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Developed by startup Iota Labs, Dot is a physical push notification that informs your smartphone where you are so that it can determine your patterns and behaviors in the locations that make up your world. This could be your living room, bedroom, place of work, car, or garage.

The team behind the creation have made it so that it serves a dual purpose. The first is to provide ultra-precise location data to your smartphone. The second is to permit users to create extensible, interactive interfaces anywhere.

Speaking to Hacked, Rahul Ramakrishnan, co-founder of Iota Labs, said that the idea behind Dot came up over a year ago through a combination of two events. The first was when he and a fellow co-founder of Iota Labs were at a restaurant and witnessed a family constantly checking their phones instead of paying attention to each other.

He said:

Then we watched 2001: A Space Odyssey with Hal 9000 and thought that it would be awesome if there was some sort of personal secretary that streamlines your life and your phone.

After getting into the Foundry in October 2015, a startup accelerator on Berkeley’s campus focused on hardware startups, the team at the time were only undergraduate students where they received some funding from the Foundry team to make their idea a possibility.

Dot

From October to May, the team focused on the product development and from June 2016 they turned their attention to their Kickstarter campaign for an August launch. At the close of their Kickstarter campaign yesterday, the team managed to raise over $115,000 with more than 1,700 backers, and according to Ramakrishnan, nearly 5,000 units have been pre-ordered.

He said:

Our product is out there and people seem to like [it].

How Does It Work?

While the idea behind Dot may not have taken long to design, the execution of it took the team around nine months to make in order to achieve the small size of it. Within the small piece of hardware, though, is a Bluetooth low energy chip and LED. Due to the proximity sensor within the Dot, it can track your location within 200 feet of range of your smartphone as it communicates with iOS and Android apps.

dot-app

According to Ramakrishnan, the Dot acts as a beacon that triggers functions on a smartphone such as notifications or app launching. A smartphone can also communicate to the Dot by turning on the LED to different colors or changing the blink rates, based on what is set on the app.

Ramakrishnan added:

All of this occurs when you are within range of a Dot and triggers actions on your phone, making it contextual and intelligent.

What Does It Do?

As most people tend to have different uses for their phone, the team at Dot realized that they needed to ensure that Dot was equipped with an endless amount of applications to fulfil people’s needs.

DotSome of the applications Dot has are: digital post-it notes, which allows you to post a message on a Dot for another person to see when they come in range; smart home control that gives you control over your home devices such as turning a light on or off; contextual app launching that enables the Dot to open up apps on your smartphone that you utilize frequently in certain areas; location notification, which allows a Dot to enable a smartphone to send you updates when you walk into a new area; and LED colour changes, which permits a Dot to track certain reminders based on the color of the dot.

The team is hoping that with the use of the Dot it will help to streamline people’s lives by eliminating the clutter that a smartphone provides.

Ramakrishnan stated:

This will free the user to take action only when it’s readily available based on where they are and what they are doing rather than being overwhelmed with all of their tasks that are on their phone.

Not only that, but compared to many things available the Dot is considerably cheaper that adds to the functionality and ease of existing technology.

The smart home is dominated by these $200 devices like Philips Hue light bulbs and Nest thermostats that don’t know who you are, where you are, and what you are doing. With just a $25 Dot, all of these questions can be answered and can greatly improve the experience of the smart home without any additional user input.

Ramakrishnan added that every notification you receive from Dot means that it’s important. “You don’t have to sort through your notifications any longer. With Dot, we make your smartphone smarter.”

The team is expecting to ship Dot’s to their Kickstarter backers in March 2017 with pre-orders still accepted on the website.

Featured image and story images from Iota Labs.

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