Leaps in Technology, and the spin-off

Whilst pacemakers and other implants have become fairly commonplace in medical treatment systems, these still rely on battery technology, and have a limited life. When dealing with electrodes or sensor devices positioned carefully, sometimes deep in the body, a battery capsule is embedded under the skin, to enable future access for replacement. A new development project at MIT, to be more fully described at an August conference, describes a very small medical implant that can be powered and interrogated using radio frequency waves, even though it is deep within the body.

Medical devices that can be ingested or implanted in the body could offer doctors new ways to diagnose, monitor, and treat diseases. In their study, the researchers tested a prototype about the size of a grain of rice, but they anticipate that it could be made smaller. Giovanni Traverso, a research affiliate at MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, is now working on a variety of ingestible systems that can be used to deliver drugs, monitor vital signs, and detect movement of the GI tract.

In the brain, implantable electrodes that deliver an electrical current are used for deep brain stimulation, which is often used to treat Parkinson’s disease or epilepsy. Wireless brain implants could also help deliver light to stimulate or inhibit neuron activity through opto-genetics.

In animal tests the researchers have shown that the radio waves can power devices located 10cm deep in tissue from a distance of 1m. Until now, this has been difficult to achieve because radio waves tend to dissipate as they pass through the body. To overcome that, the researchers devised In Vivo Networking (IVN), a system that relies on an array of antennas that emit radio waves of slightly different frequencies. As the radio waves travel, they overlap and combine in different ways. At certain points, where the high points of the waves overlap, they can provide enough energy to power an implanted sensor.

Mobile phone developments

The ubiquitous mobile phone. In various past articles I have mentioned the spin-off effects of the technology behind telecommunications and the mobile phone being used to create new industrial sensors, relying on the research and the production capabilities for the devices required for the industry. These spin-offs include the rise of radar level measurement systems, the use of wireless in many industrial sensors, and also the availability of many laser diodes, used for interferometry, liquid analysis etc.

Another major development is that of the liquid lens, used in these same mobile phones. This gets really personal, as for the last 60 years I have been an avid aero-spotter, keenly watching light aircraft arrive at our local airport using a telescope to identify them. Then, on arrival at or near the airport, using long and heavy telephoto lenses to photograph them. Later, I collected antique telescopes, manufactured from 1780 to maybe 1850, as they were still really the best quality optical systems, despite modern (commercial) developments. Again, long and heavy things.

But along came the liquid lens. This is a very small lens device, now commonly used in iPads and mobile phones. The liquid droplet forming the lens has its shape changed electronically, using an electronic control system. This is able to change focal length (to focus) and change optical axis (for optical image stabilization, ie to reduce camera shake effects) – all within a few milliseconds.

The idea for this invention came from research on the phenomenon known as “Electro-wetting” by Professor Bruno Berge, in Lyon, France, with the original patents being issued in 2002. Prof Berge started working on liquid interfaces from 1991 at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Lyon. A drop of water affected by electro-wetting can function as a variable magnifying glass: so two clear, non-miscible liquids of the same density, one being electronically controlled water, can serve as a lens, depending on the curvature of the interface between them. The two liquids are sealed and held in a metal casing that is typically smaller than 10mm in diameter.

Berge first approached Canon cameras with the invention, but attracted no funding. So with French state funding, and investment fund backing, Berge founded the company VariOptic in 2002. In 2007 they established a production line in China, and in 2009 the first industrial barcode reader with a VariOptic lens appeared on the market. Machine vision manufacturer Cognex was an early adopter of the technology, for barcode ID readers.

A new module now available from IDS (Imaging Development Systems) is a single board USB interface camera, available for use with and control of liquid lenses. These low-cost uEye LE industrial cameras with twist-proof USB Type-C connection and practical USB power delivery are quoted as interesting for logistics systems (eg for package acceptance and sorting), for microscopy and traffic monitoring, as well as for installation in small medical or industrial devices.

So, I am still waiting for a lightweight long focal length telephoto ‘liquid’ lens for my Canon camera. Maybe not the telescope – for as I pointed out to Prof Berge, one of my favourite telescopes dating from the 1790s was made by Matthew Berge, his namesake!

The full story about the Prof Berge development of liquid lenses was first reported by me as the very first blog post on www.telescopecollector.co.uk, back in December 2013.

This article was first published in the South African journal of Instrumentation and Control issue of August 2018, published by technews.co.za


MVDC Power Transmission

Azeez Mohammed, president & CEO of the GE Power Conversion business discusses how MVDC technology is creating a more secure and higher-capacity grid for the future. Thanks to the MCDC technology, Scottish Power Energy Networks’ Angle DC project – first of its kind in Europe – will provide a 23% power capacity increase for supplies to Anglesey. Similar technology is being used in offshore wind applications, giving up to  15% cost savings.

Transforming Power Grids for an Efficient Future

With a fast-growing global population and increasing levels of industrialisation, demand for electricity is expected to soar 60% between now and 2040. That means power grids will be called on to transmit more power, more efficiently. And to do so, they’ll have to adapt to an evolving energy landscape.

Today’s grid is still structured around transmitting electricity from a handful of large, centralised power plants running on coal, oil, gas and nuclear. While these will continue to dominate the mix for years to come, renewables are increasingly making their presence felt – and are expected to supply a third of global power by 2040.

With renewables growth comes an increasingly diverse distribution network – from remote and offshore generation sites to microgrids. All must be brought together to ensure we continue to have a reliable, resilient power supply. The challenge now is that the majority of power grids are made up of decades-old infrastructure that’s simply not – yet – up to the task.

Laying the foundations

Creating a future-proof power grid means fusing time-honoured knowledge with forward-thinking technology. For over 100 years, GE electrical engineers have recognised that DC electricity transmission is more efficient than AC. Now, DC is becoming more prominent – both at the beginning and end of the grid. DC is produced by wind turbines and solar PV and used by everything from smartphones, laptops and electric cars to the data centres that keep our digital world up and running. However, having to convert back and forth between AC and DC along the way leads to wasted energy through resistance and heat.

AC may have won the “War of the Currents” that raged between the Edison Electric Company (which favoured DC and would become General Electric) and Westinghouse (which favoured AC) in the 1890s. This was due to its ability to easily step up voltages to the higher levels needed to transmit it over long distances and back down again for safe usage. But today, new power conversion and transmission technology means it is becoming more cost-effective to use DC to transmit at higher voltages, with less energy losses. The same attractive cost story applies when it comes to integrating new, often remote, DC-producing renewables into the wider grid network.

At the GE Power Conversion business, we’re developing the use of DC to enable more efficient power transmission to and from remote areas – both onshore and offshore.

Strengthening the Anglesey power supply

At the GE Power Conversion business, we are delivering Europe’s very first medium-voltage direct current (MVDC) link as part of the Scottish Power Energy Network Angle DC project in Anglesey and surrounding North Wales area. A growing demand for electricity in the region, combined with increasing volumes of renewable generation, is putting the existing 33-kilovolt AC links between the isle of Anglesey and the Welsh mainland under strain.

Converting the existing AC connection to MVDC could help it to carry more than twice the power and do so more efficiently. GE MVDC technology is providing a critical project asset, as it allows for the creation of a more-secure, higher-capacity grid without the need to overhaul existing infrastructure or install new power distribution assets.

Instead, GE will install MVDC power modules at the two existing substations in Bangor and Llanfair PG, where the AC to DC conversion will be performed. GE MV7000 power electronic inverters will transmit the power via the existing 33-kilovolt AC overhead line and cable circuit, increasing the power available to Anglesey by 23% to meet its future needs without additional environmental impact. What’s more, the DC equipment will assist in the provision of further grid support, as the inverters are able to support the AC voltage at each substation.

This MVDC technology works in much the same way as our high-voltage direct current (HVDC) projects, but on a smaller and simpler scale. For example, a comparable HVDC system would operate at 320-400 kilovolts DC, whereas the Angle DC project will operate at 27 kilovolts DC—demonstrating how this technology can be scaled to fit a variety of customer needs.

Lowering the cost of offshore power

From wind turbines stationed far out at sea to solar farms in inhospitable deserts, renewable generation networks are often found in hard-to-reach places. Getting the power generated to a centralised grid via AC can waste energy and keep renewable electricity costs higher than they need to be.

Now, similar technology behind the MV7000 converters used for Angle DC has also been successfully trialed for use in remote power networks. Our PassiveBoost solution will enable DC power transmission, opening up the potential to boost electrical output from these remote sites while also reducing power costs.

PassiveBoost is an MVDC converter which provides a straight replacement, with the same footprint and volume, for the AC transformer inside every wind turbine. This helps to facilitate a direct connection to an efficient MVDC power collection grid, resulting in a lower cable cost and no need for an expensive and complex DC breaker. A 6 megavolt-ampere converter was designed and tested at the GE power test facility in the UK. There, it successfully demonstrated the capability of generation, distribution and protection at MVDC, highlighting efficiency levels that could bring a 15% cost saving for offshore wind electricity by significant reductions in component count, cabling costs and removal of need for offshore platforms.

Greater grid control through data-driven insights

To drive further efficiency across the power grid, GE can also offer VISOR 2.0, an asset management tool that provides remote connectivity to key assets. This not only enables an improved service response time, but also access to real-time support and advice in the event of a fault or problem. By pairing this tool with the GE Data Historian, which collects, processes and stores data, customers can more easily review the capabilities of their MVDC system. Its ability to capture and analyse data about asset performance means customers can then develop optimum control algorithms for the distribution system, helping to ensure the grid is always functioning as effectively as possible.

As electrification within all industries gathers pace and the burden on existing energy distribution networks increases, we’re ready to put our expertise into action where it’s most needed.


Technology disruption, and profiting from university R&D

It is almost a part of engineering folklore that the UK is slow to realise the potential of its inventions. The jet engine, computing and television are perhaps the best-known examples of British inventions whose financial benefits were mainly exploited by other nations. Lithium-ion technology is another that was developed in Britain, in fact in Oxford, but was commercialised mainly in the US and East Asia. However, this was not a failure of foresight but merely a misfortune of timing – the initial invention came many years before the development of mobile phones and camcorders which were the most fruitful early applications for lithium-ion batteries.

The Faraday Institution was then set up as the UK’s independent centre for electrochemical energy storage science and technology, supporting research, training, and analysis. Its function is to bring together expertise from universities and industry, and they are attempting to make the UK the go-to place for the research, development, manufacture and production of new electrical storage technologies for both the automotive and the wider relevant sectors.

Accelerated technology development

Building on this general approach, the Royal Academy of Engineering has now established a scheme as part of the UK Government National Productivity Investment Fund, to accelerate the development and commercialisation of other emerging technologies within the UK. This will involve the establishment of 10 new University ‘Chairs in Emerging Technologies’ at UK universities: this scheme will identify research and innovation visionaries and provides them with long-term support to enable them to build a global centre of excellence focused on emerging technologies with high potential to deliver economic and social benefit. This type of public investment has been seen to be highly effective in stimulating co-investment from the private sector, enabling the UK to secure an early foothold in a potentially important future market and preventing UK companies from losing their competitive advantage as other countries get involved.

The UK magazine ‘The Engineer’ explained both the diversity of technologies and disciplines represented among the chairs selected and the breadth of societal challenges and economic opportunities that have motivated the world-leading engineers appointed, as follows:

  • One chair focuses on technologies with strong medical applications. It has the objective to deliver a step change in personalised medicine by engineering cells that can combine precise disease diagnosis with therapeutic intervention in a closed loop circuit – to prevent the disease developing or provide a cure. This is sometimes called ‘theranostics’.
  • Another focuses on reducing the burden of brain disorders. The goal of the chair is to accelerate the translation of therapeutic bioelectronic systems – for example a ‘brain pacemaker’ – from laboratory to industry.

Artificial intelligence, robotics and materials science, AI and robotics also had strong representation among the chairs selected. For example, one chair addresses the technologies underpinning soft robotics, which have the potential to impact upon many areas of our lives, from implantable medical devices that restore function after cancer or stroke, to wearable soft robotics that will keep us mobile in our old age – plus biodegradable robots that can combat pollution and monitor the environment.

Other chairs address issues of safety and reliability associated with AI and robotic systems – a topic of great societal importance and current interest. Two other chairs focus on driving improvements in materials that underpin important industrial and societal applications. One will develop novel interactive technologies using acoustic metamaterials; another is targeted at the optimisation of next generation battery materials for improved cost, performance and durability.

Others of the chairs draw upon recent advances in the physical sciences to address novel areas. They include radical new space technologies that will underpin entirely new satellite applications; an integrated approach to two-dimensional classical and quantum photonics; and a platform for multiscale industrial design, from the level of molecules to machines.

The CET scheme steering group were deeply impressed by the quality of the applications for these chairs that they reviewed, which bodes well for the UK’s ability to continue to be at the leading edge of technology disruption. Nevertheless, it is notoriously difficult to forecast which technologies will turn out to have the most significant impacts over the long term. It would appear that the major problem will be to attract long-term technology investment from UK companies, who are notoriously short term in their views on financial payback and investment decisions.

This article was featured in the June 2018 edition of the journal South African Instrumentation and Control, published by technews.co.za