Fuel cell improvements raise hopes for clean, cheap energy

With pressure mounting to transition away from fossil fuels, fuel cell research has grown significantly in the last several years. In the simplest sense, fuel cells are a battery that you refuel slowly, regulating a chemical reaction and harvesting that energy in the form of usable electrical current. Current solutions use exotic materials to regulate the reactions and often require fossil fuels to generate the chemicals, defeating the purpose of the exercise. Today's release from Science includes three articles that detail methods that may help us overcome the problems with current-generation fuel cells. HangZhou Night Net

Cheap catalyst splits water

Widespread use of fuel cells will rely on cheap sources of hydrogen and oxygen. Researchers at MIT have now made an oxygen-producing catalyst that operates on water in a neutral environment (pH 7 at atmospheric pressure) and can be coupled with solar cells; it's essentially a man-made equivalent to photosynthesis.

Platinum has been used as a catalyst for this reaction in the past, but the costs associated with platinum (it closed today at over $1,730 per ounce) have prompted efforts to eliminate its use. The new research describes the formation of a catalyst composed of a combination of cobalt, potassium, and phosphorous—all cheap and easy to obtain. The researchers found that two different inert electrodes would, when placed into a dilute solution containing cobalt and buffered with potassium phosphate, spontaneously form a coating of the catalyst. When provided with relatively low electrical potentials, such as those obtained from a solar cell, the catalyst would liberate oxygen gas by splitting the water that was acting as a solvent.

The key breakthroughs here are the elimination of precious metals from the catalyst, the in situ formation of the catalyst, and the benign operating conditions of the reaction. All of this adds up to big cost savings in splitting water into is component gasses. Platinum's cost is all too apparent to anybody that has ever been to a jewelry store, but less apparent is the costs associated with producing catalyst materials, a process all but eliminated in this research.

Using less metal

Another use of platinum may go to the wayside in favor of an organic alternative, courtesy of Australian researchers. The metal is often used as a cathode that forms the interface between air and an electrolyte, used in both fuel cell and air/metal battery applications. This electrode's job is to reduce oxygen from the air and diffuse it into the electrolyte, so that it can be put to work in further chemical reactions that generate electricity. Here, platinum has issues beyond its exorbitant cost. It suffers from inactivity in the presence of carbon monoxide gas and diffusion of the platinum particles in the carbon substrate to form agglomerates that harm performance.

Electrically conductive polymers have been tested, but the performance simply wasn't sufficient to justify replacing platinum. But developments in gas-phase deposition techniques have now allowed for higher-quality electrically conductive thin-film polymers to be produced, opening the door for fuel cell applications. In this case, the researchers focused on a conductive polymer called poly(3,4-ethylenedioxythiophene), or PEDOT. The need for both a high surface area in contact with the incoming gas and to avoid moisture ingression led scientists to coat the PEDOT on every hiker's best friend: Gortex fabric. To further enhance conductivity, a 40nm gold coating was added.

The PEDOT electrode is homogeneous, eliminating catalyst agglomerations that plagued the long-term reliability of platinum based electrodes. It's also insensitive to carbon monoxide poisoning, another performance-robbing problem with platinum. The optimal PEDOT coating thickness was found to be 400nm, and performance was on par with that of the standard platinum-based electrodes. Researchers ran the electrode for 1,500 hours with no loss in performance. With the cost of the platinum in a fuel cell being equal to the total cost of an equivalent gasoline engine, this breakthrough has huge potential to drive down the cost of fuel cells, although researchers were quick to point out that similar breakthroughs are needed to get rid of platinum at the anode side.

Solid oxides get to chill

Solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs) represent a completely different approach to the problem. They're one of the leading options because, compared to many other green technologies, they have relatively high efficiency, high energy storage density, and produce only water as a byproduct. While SOFCs have not made substantial in-roads in the consumer space, they are being adopted as emergency power systems for hospitals, 911 dispatch centers, and other critical entities.

The primary limitation of SOFCs is high operating temperature. SOFCs operate by diffusing O2- across a ceramic electrolyte. Current generation systems use Y2O3 doped ZrO2 (YSZ) electrolytes that require operating temperatures above 700°C because the diffusion is a thermally activated process. A variety of alternatives to YSZ have been suggested, but they offer only modest improvements in operating temperature. In this week's Science, researchers from Madrid and Oak Ridge National Lab describe a novel SOFC membrane that operates at room temperature.

In these ceramics, solid state diffusion of the oxygen can be thought of as occurring through a series of atomic jumps, where ions leap from one lattice site to the next provided the next site is vacant. The easiest way to increase ionic conduction is to increase the number of vacancies—raising the temperature is typically the easiest way to do that. This temperature effect gives rise to the high operating temperatures in conventional SOFCs. The materials in this study are unique because they stabilize incredibly high fractions of vacancies at room temperature.

Instead of using monolithic YSZ, the authors used thin-film growth techniques (molecular beam epitaxy) to grow 5-60 nanometer thick, alternating layers of YSZ and SrTiO3 (STO). They found that these two materials form an interface where the anions (O2-) become highly disordered, causing an anomalously high numbers of vacancies. These unique interfaces form a superhighway of O2- conduction.

Electrical measurements showed that the primary conduction pathway in the materials went through the YSZ/STO interface, but the YSZ layers showed some conduction as well. This work conclusively shows that the conductivity is thermally activated and thus is a result of ionic motion, rather than charge migration. This data is incredibly important because previous reports of high ionic conductivity ultimately turned out to be a result of electronic conduction through defective membranes, making the materials useless as fuel cells.

Despite the substantial promise of these materials, it is probably premature to start placing orders for your room-temperature SOFC; drawbacks include processing that is not amenable to mass production, fast conduction in only two dimensions, and a lack of long-term stability information. Despite these concerns, this work is likely to represent a major step in the march towards wider SOFC commercialization.

The same general note of caution applies to all of these developments, as it's possible that some of these techniques won't scale, or will only find a home in some specific applications. Still, they highlight how focused research and development can produce significant improvements in clean energy technology.

Nobel Intent writers Todd Morton and Adam Stevenson produced this report.

Sciencexpress, 2008. DOI: 10.1126/science/1162018
Science, 2008. DOI: 10.1126/science.1159267
Science, 2008 DOI: 10.1126/science.1156393

Interview: PA alum discusses A40 audio for competitive gaming

Josh LaTendresse has a long and storied background in the gaming and audio world. He worked at Monster before coauthoring Gaming Hacks from O'Reilly Books, and he wrote a popular column about the world of audio-visual products and wiring for a little web comic called Penny Arcade. Now he's working for ASTRO Gaming, a company that wants to redesign your gaming peripherals. HangZhou Night Net

Its first product is the $250 A40 Audio System. A combination headset and "MixAmp" that allows you to control your gaming volume and voice chat independently. A40s can also be linked together to create a lag-free audio environment for competitive-level play. Also, the headset is comfortable as hell. LaTendresse was nice enough to give us some of his time to talk about this work, and the A40.

Okay, tell us your background, and how you got into product design.

I'm an unapologetic techno-junkie gamer, home theateraficionado, and gadget freak who cut his teeth during the heyday of the arcade and personal computer revolution. My first computer used floppy discs that were actually, well…floppy and my first gaming console experience involvedwood grain. If you are reading this and nodding your head right now, then you know just how few useful products have been created specifically for our subculture outside of a pure, pragmatic hardware standpoint. Where do you put all of your expensive technology? How do you interface with it? Where do you store, organize, and display it?

These are the questions I asked myself a while ago, and being the
pragmatic, handy guy that I am, I started designing and building a few
things that made my life easier and better. But this only opened a big
can of worms and led to more and more ideas which I knew were way
beyond the small-scale thinking that I'd done thus far. It was around
this time that I got connected with ASTRO Studios—which was just
then finishing up the design of the Microsoft Xbox 360. I had a meeting
with the 360 designers and the CEO of ASTRO, Brett Lovelady—and
literally gushed out about 20 ideas for things I thought that gamers
couldn't live without. A couple of these ideas became the seeds for a
company that we started called ASTRO Gaming.
Explain how you became involved with
Penny Arcade. Did that connection help you get people interested in
your more recent exploits?You also used to work for Monster Cable, correct?

My time at Monster Cable and with Penny Arcade is actually pretty
closely related. I'd been a fan of Penny Arcade since nearly the very
beginning, and one day I came into my job at Monster Cable and saw this
on the PA site:http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2002/11/25/. The Monster IT guys thought we were suffering a DDoS attack—and I had to explain to them that we were only being wanged. I
dropped a note to Mike "Gabe" Krahulik explaining that I was a fan and
loved the lampoon of Monster. He quickly called me back to say that
since they'd put up the comic he was buried in mail from gamers who
really didn't understand how to best wire and set up their home theater
systems, and wondered if I could help him out.Thus, my column called "Hook Up" was born, and I ended up writing
quite a few articles for PA over the next few years (and I think a
couple of people actually read them). This was really the seminal shift
in my career from consumer electronics into gaming. I began with
writing for PA, and that eventually led to helping with Gaming Hacks published by O'Reilly, to being a full-time pseudo-journalist for GamesRadar.com and PC Gamer.I think that if there is something interesting about my career, it is that I came in through the very, very, back, back
door. If you think that you want a career in gaming, get your education
and then find a toehold wherever you can. After that: network, network,
network. Every single person you meet is important, no matter how
junior they may seem today. Get to know every secretary, intern and
staffer that you can—in five or 10 years, these will be the
managers, producers and directors at companies you'll want to work for
or partner with.

Walk us through what the A40 Audio System is, and what you're hoping it's going to do for gaming. Who is your audience?We've designed the A40 Audio System to be a solution for
both professional gamers and hardcore enthusiasts. In a nutshell, the
A40 Audio System combines Dolby Digital/Dolby Headphone
surroundtechnologywith whatever voice communication system you prefer—be it Xbox Live, Skype, or Ventrilo-based VoIP. Furthermore, two or
more A40 MixAmps can be daisy-chained to activate the embedded,
high-quality, zero-lag voice communication network. And you'll just
have to hear it to believe how good the quality is.

What we hoped to do for gaming is really already happening. We've
been working with the premier gaming league, the Major League Gaming
Pro Circuit, for over two years in order to directly address the needs
of the world's most demanding gamers while developing our product. Our
prototypes worked so well last year that they were actually banned
after a big win, which is lifted now that the retail product has been
released for all teams to freely use.
But we are already back on top—just this past tournament at MLG
Orlando we watched (and cheered!) as every single first place team used
the A40 Audio System. So we really feel our products give players an
advantage that is much more than hype, and enable players to
communicate freely and play their best game possible.
For someone who once sneered at people who describe their TV
size in inches, using the A40 on your gaming consoles requires many
cables, and won't work if you're using an HDMI connection. Have you
thought of making a headset-only wireless version?

I see that you were one of the 17 people that read my old column!
It's nice to see that we both have less time on our hands these days.

Seriously though, the A40 Audio System was designed to fit the
needs of the very demanding tournament environment, and today this
means 'wired.' Tomorrow's technology may enable us to cut the cord, but
we'd need to have hundreds, if not thousands of headsets operating in a
very confined space and play nice with each other—and that
technology hasn't yet reached the consumer market.Most devices that attach to an HDMI connector also have an output
for digital audio after the video is stripped out. This is where you
should be attaching your digital audio cable. Connecting digitally is a
real benefit for the A40 Audio System—the noise floor just drops to
zero compared to most of the junky analog connections you see on most
devices today.

We spoke at PAX last year, and you seemed like someone who takes
design and quality very seriously with your personal rig. So dish: what
peripheral or piece of hardware lately has made you gag a little?
What's the last peripheral for gaming you've bought where you were
impressed?

I'm a little obsessed, and I'll be the first to admit my
personal space is a bit out of control. But ever since ASTRO became
involved with the design of the HP Blackbird (ASTRO Studios was the
design consultancy of the Blackbird project), its been really hard to
walk into the PC section of Fry's and not feel physically ill at the
sight of the utterly horrible state of the PC tower industry. Since I
started building my own PCs, I've always gone the rack-mounted server
route for my rigs, rather than wade into a cheap plastic and
tastelessly lighted children's computer. ASTRO designed all three
generations of the Alienware PC towers and laptops, so we are equally
guilty—and obviously they are not my cup of tea, either.

But the HP Blackbird went in a completely different direction and is absurdly
well-designed and built. Not only in form, but in specific function—slot loading drives, HDD docking bay, simple access and tool-less
upgradeability, in addition to an extra dimension in cooling due to its
lifted chassis. And what a chassis!

Do you ever wonder why we don't see more high-quality
peripherals for gaming on the consoles? It seems like there are things
like the official controllers, and then cheap knock-offs. Things are
slightly better for the PC, but the A40 is one of the more notable
pieces of high-end equipment dedicated to gaming I've seen in a while.

Many of us have grown up with our Atari, Nintendo,
Coleco, Sega, and Sony game systems that were—rightfully at the time—very oriented towards the children's toy marketplace. But as we've
grown up, much of the hardware, and nearly all of the accessories
created for gamers, hasn't. On the flip side, there are many
products that are oriented toward the older generation of gamers that
come from "hopelessly corporate," office-productivity companies.
Despite being higher quality, their products are extremely
conservative, and don't embrace the fun irreverence and true identity
of the gamer subculture — not to mention the specific features and
functionality that fit our needs.
So now that the A40 is shipping, what's next on your plate?

ASTRO Gaming will stand astride the lack of products
that I've previously mentioned. I can't go into detail about what we
have in store next, but rest assured, we aren't a "Headset company," or
even an audio-centric one. ASTRO is a high-end gaming equipment and
accessories company.

As I'm sure your readers will agree: gaming is cool, incredibly
social, and anunmistakablyvital component of today's digital
lifestyle—and it's about time we had access to products that
reflected that.

Canada seeks industry, not consumer input on secret treaty

ACTA, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement being negotiated by wealthy nations, continues to make headlines due the secrecy surrounding its drafting. Despite the fact that the agreement may include provisions like ISP filtering that are likely to affect huge numbers of people, no draft of the treaty is available. What's worse, there appears to be a worrying trend among governments to consult early and often with copyright holders and only later let the public in on the action. HangZhou Night Net

That appears to be especially true in Canada, where law professor Michael Geist found that the government had put together a group of "insiders" to advise on the treaty. Included, of course, were representatives of the recording, video game, and movie businesses; not included were privacy representatives, NGOs, or digital society groups.

Geist revealed the existence of the group in a Toronto Star column this week, based on documents he received under Canada's "Access to Information Act" (similar to the US Freedom of Information Act).

According to his information, the "Intellectual Property and Trade Advisory Group" was planned to include 12 government departments and 14 industry groups, and all would be a part of "in-depth exchanges on technical negotiating issues." In other words, they would be brought in to hash out the nitty-gritty of the treaty, which means they would direct input into its formation and access to the negotiators.

It makes sense to invite affected parties in to consult on legislation; they certainly know their business better than the government and are in the best position to understand the effects of legislation. But that means all affected parties. At least the US, while still releasing few details about the fast-tracked negotiations, has solicited public comment and has made those comments publicly available. That's how we know, for instance, that the MPAA favors jamming some kind of "three strikes and you're off the Internet" law into the agreement, while the RIAA wants to criminalize even noncommercial piracy.

ACTA negotiations are going on today, in fact, at an important three-day Washington meeting that wrapped up today. IP Justice, an NGO that deals with such issues, obtained a leaked memo (PDF) that "concerned business groups" submitted to "ACTA negotiators." It's nothing particularly sinister, and doesn't appear concerned with the Internet issues that have so interested some copyright holders, but it shows just how organized the business lobby is. (A previously leaked RIAA memo showed that Big Content has been leaning on negotiators for months, too.

Such important changes to public policy need robust public debate; let's hope Canadians, Americans, Europeans, and everyone else gets some before the treaty is signed.

OSS voices must be heard in national security debate

At the OSCON open-source software convention last week, the Foresight Institute's Christine Peterson—the individual credited with conceiving the term "open source"—urged technology enthusiasts to help redefine the way that society responds to security threats. The stakes are high, she claims, and the cost of failing to act could be enormous. HangZhou Night Net

She began her presentation by discussing the multitude of serious problems that have emerged from the adoption of electronic voting machines in the United States. Although electronic voting was originally devised to simplify elections and increase the accuracy of ballot tabulation, the voting machines in use today are disastrously unreliable and insecure. The hardware failures and demonstrable susceptibility to tampering exhibited by these devices is undermining the transparency and credibility of American democracy.

Many technologists—including those of us here at Ars—anticipated these problems, but were unable to elevate the issue into mainstream awareness before disaster struck. The flood of research, security analysis, and pragmatic criticism came too late to stop widespread adoption of deeply-flawed election technology. This mistake, Peterson argued, is not one that we can afford to repeat. In the face of defective technologies that threaten to undermine basic liberties, the open source software community "should rise up like an allergic reaction," she said.

Resistance, however, is not enough. In order to overcome such challenges, technology enthusiasts must find better ways to address the underlying problems that seemingly necessitate the faulty solutions. According to Peterson, The area where there is the greatest need for action is in national security. The federal government's controversial use of secret surveillance raises serious questions and poses a very real threat to privacy. She believes that the government has adopted this risky top-down approach to security because it lacks the tools it needs to address the problem in a more responsible way.

Christine Peterson

Peterson argues that the legitimacy of the threat posed by terrorism today is widely disputed, but she contends that very real and infinitely more deadly security threats could await us in the future. The rapid advancement of technology opens the door for a whole new class of weapons of mass destruction. She warns that the terrorists of the future might employ bioweapons, nanotechnology, and chemical warfare to bring about death and destruction on an unprecedented scale. "The threat is real, to some extent. If it's not real today, it will be real someday," she stated.

The government, with its extreme dependence on ineffectual top-down surveillance, will be ill-equipped to address these news threats. The result could be an even greater loss of privacy as surveillance becomes more intrusive. Additionally, Peterson also noted the inevitably high price we pay when surveillance fails and inaccurate facts are used to direct policy. One example she cites is an incident from 1998 where the United States government mistakenly bombed a pharmaceutical plant that was making medicine in Sudan because faulty intelligence erroneously indicated that it was producing chemical weapons.

"They don't have a big tool set—they want surveillance. Here in our community, we debate these things. [The government] doesn't give a damn about our debates, they just go ahead with their plans," she said. "Not only does [the top-down approach] lead to a surveillance state, but it doesn't work."

Instead of using secret spying, "we need to track the problem, not the people." The best way to combat the problem is to redefine the solution space. The answer is to drive innovation and deliver new technologies that can guarantee both privacy and security. Tools must be built that can detect security threats while also imposing verifiable limitations on government intrusion. In order to prevent abuse, these tools must be utterly transparent and perpetually subjected to the highest level of public scrutiny. Her mantra is "no secret software for public sensing data."

The people who will build such tools, she insists, need to have a deep understanding of security, privacy, functionality, and freedom. She is completely convinced that the open-source software community has the values and expertise needed to lead the way.

She hopes to take the first steps towards achieving these goals at the Foresight Vision Weekend, an informal conference that will take place in Silicon Valley in November.

Hands on: Delicious 2 cleans up social bookmarking

Popular social bookmarking service del.icio.us has finally unveiled one of its most significant and anticipated redesigns since launching in 2003. Ars Technica went hands on to see what Yahoo has in store for the next generation of social bookmarking. HangZhou Night Net

As a quick primer for those who haven't hopped on the bandwagon yet: social bookmarking websites allow you to save URLs in "the cloud" instead of in a single browser. Bookmarks can be tagged with multiple keywords for easy categorization and recall, which offers a number of benefits. First, sites like these are great resources for watching what other human beings (not automated search engines) are interested in. Second, by harnessing the many integrated tools for both saving and retrieving bookmarks, you can harness these social filtering tools as a way to liberate your web browsing habits since your bookmarks are no longer locked up in a single browser or even computer.

One of the most subtle, yet important, changes in the new Delicious (called "delicious 2" by everyone but its developers) is the loss of two periods from its name. The URL used for the service until now has always been a clever play on domain names: del.icio.us. Now that URL, and all links to bookmarks saved at it, redirect to the much friendlier delicious.com.

Explained in an announcement blog post, the new Delicious focuses on three fundamentals: speed, search, and design. Browsing through the site, that first criterion has clearly been met. Yahoo says Delicious has over 5 million users now, and as a regular user of the site for around three years, I've noticed the gradual slowdown that Delicious acknowledges. That creeping sluggishness is nowhere to be found anymore, though, and clicking through tags from both my own bookmarks and across the site's community is really zippy.

Next on Delicious' menu is the all-important search, which again focused on speed but also utility. I no longer have time to make a pot of coffee while waiting for results, and Delicious' search is both more accurate and social. A search can be directed at one's own tags, a single user's public bookmarks, the bookmarks from one's social network, or of course, the entirety of Delicious. Either way, searches are lightning quick, though I'm disappointed to see the default search option point at the entirety of Delicious, instead of my own bookmarks. Perhaps the Delicious crew has real user statistics to prove that this is the better choice, but I prefer rooting through my own maze of bookmarks and tags before embarking out through the rest of Delicious. At the least, I would like a feature to customize this default setting.

As a brief side note, I'm very glad to see that the Delicious crew maintained composure when it comes to the social networking aspects of the site. The ability to add friends and send links to other users is definitely a value of the service. But in the back of my mind I always worried that this new version would bring a lot of ridiculous cruft like extensive user profiles or, heck, even minigames like "Link that beer" or "URL Scrabble." It's refreshing to see that the site maintained just the bare necessities of a "network" list of friends, as well as "fans" who are interested in what you're bookmarking.

Easily the most significant change to the new Delicious is the team's third criteria: design. Yahoo says that improving usability and adding a handful of frequently requested features were top priorities, and it shows. Delicious' UI is much cleaner now, with bookmark metadata like dates and tags getting cleaned up with more relevant placement and visual markup. A new colorized counter accompanies each bookmark to let the user know how many others have saved the same URL, and the light blue color gets darker and heavier as that number increases.

A handful of new tools have been added to the site to make it easier to navigate bookmarks and hone in on a specific tag. In the top left of each bookmark list, for example, are three view buttons that allow for adjusting how much metadata is displayed with each bookmark (tags, URL, etc.). Bookmarks can now be sorted alphabetically in addition to chronologically, and a "Top 10 Tags" widget in the right sidebar of each user page offers a quick glimpse at what kinds of bookmarks make him or her tick. Lots of smaller bits of polish sprinkled throughout make the new design a joy to explore. Check out a clever video the Delicious team put together that does a great job of highlighting the feature evolution this update brings:

With all of these welcome changes, though, Delicious still suffers from some rough edges and bizarre stubbornness. One previously existing feature that allows for automatic blogging of the day's bookmarks, for example, is still listed as "experimental" and is fairly clunky to set up.

On a grander scale, Delicious is sticking with its single-word philosophy for tagging bookmarks on the service, instead of adopting the far more useful comma-separated method that most other sites have agreed on. This means that if you add 'Mac OS X' as a tag to a bookmark, you've actually added three tags: "Mac," "OS," and "X." This needlessly restrictive limitation can make the process of building a tag hierarchy frustrating, especially for new users.

That said, the new Delicious is largely a success. The new design is far easier to navigate and provides a lot of useful ways to visualize bookmarks from one's own collection and across the site. The speed brings a refreshing boost to performance for those who frequent the site, and some limited testing shows that existing clients for posting and retrieving bookmarks still work perfectly well. The new Delicious may not bring a revolutionary change to social bookmarking, but the significant changes are a very welcome evolution.