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Can High-Capacity Sodium-Ion Compete With Rechargeable Lithium Batteries?

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Lithium-ion batteries are the bane of electronics’ existence: expensive, resource-hogging, and energy intensive, they aren’t very sustainable in the long run.

But sodium may be.

At least, scientists at the University of Birmingham hope so.

Researchers are swapping one element for another, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Sodium is inexpensive and can be found in seawater, making it “virtually limitless.” On the other hand, it is a larger ion than lithium, and may not fit well into our cherished pocket-sized devices.

It can’t, for example, squeeze between the carbon layers of a lithium-ion battery’s graphite anode.

So, the team needed to find new materials to help sodium-ion compete with lithium for capacity, charging speed, energy, and power density.

In 2016, senior Birmingham fellow Andrew Morris predicted how phosphorus would behave as an electrode. (Spoiler alert: it forms helices at intermediate stages of charging.)

Now, in collaboration with Lauren Marbella and Clare Grey from the University of Cambridge, Morris was able to verify and improve on those predictions.

Based on their research, sodium provides a volume of charge carriers seven times that of graphite for the same weight—good news for the future of high-capacity sodium-ion anodes.

“This is a huge win for computational materials science,” Morris said in a statement. “It’s amazing how powerful combined theory-experimental approaches are.”

You’re telling me.

A soft, silvery-white, highly reactive metal, sodium is an alkali metal; it is the sixth most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, and exists in numerous minerals like feldspars, sodalite, and rock salt (NaCl).

But can it compare to sulfur—the proposed secret to next-generation battery technology?

By adding sulfur to lithium, manufacturers can create a power unit that’s cheaper, lighter, more environmentally friendly, and able to hold three to five times the charge of lithium-ion alone.

Samsung is already working on “graphene ball” technology for higher capacity and faster charging. Meanwhile, researchers may have found a way to prevent lithium-ion battery fires. Keep up to date on all things battery-related here.

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Americans Are Checking Their Phones More Than Ever

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Like most people, my smartphone is an extension of me: It’s the first thing I see after I wake up and one of the last things I see before I go to sleep. It sits on my desk as I work, in my pocket while I travel, and in my hand when I make a cup of tea.

And I know I’m not alone.

According to consulting firm Deloitte, Americans are viewing their smartphones more often than ever before—on average 52 times per day, up 6 percent from last year.

The unsurprising data was revealed as part of the UK-based firm’s 2018 Global Mobile Consumer Survey, which confirms the central role of handsets in the connected ecosystem.

One of the only gadgets (aside from smartwatches) to gain market penetration over the last year, smartphones have become a primary form of online access for 20 percent of U.S. adults.

After all, who needs traditional broadband service when you’ve got a mobile connection and Wi-Fi?

“This year’s survey really advances the story of smartphones as the true center of our lives, both inside and outside the home,” Deloitte Vice Chairman Kevin Westcott said in a statement.

“The smartphone remains the go-to device for consumers,” he continued, “enabling them to do anything they desire: communicate, work, socialize, consume entertainment, stay fit, or take take of things at home.”

But the first step is admitting you have a problem. And many people have.

Nearly 40 percent of Americans think they use their smartphone too much, Deloitte said; a whopping 60 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds concede to mobile overuse.

And while 63 percent of folks claim they’re trying to limit handset usage, only a little more than half are succeeding.

“While smartphones are becoming the nerve center of our homes, our businesses, our families, and our lives, consumers are craving more speed and responsiveness as their usage patterns mature,” according to Mic Locker, a managing director in Deloitte’s Technology, Media, and Telecommunications industry practice.

“It will be interesting to watch the availability of 5G networks and 5G-enabled smartphones over the next year to see if consumers’ yearning for better performance is satisfied,” she added.

That’s not the only thing smartphone-addicted Americans desire: A majority of folks also worry about keeping their personal data private.

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Wireless System Uses RFID Tags to Sense Food Contamination

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The MIT Media Lab is putting food-safety detection directly in the hands of consumers.

Researchers developed a wireless system leveraging the RFID tags already on many products to sense potential contamination.

Inspired by two real-life events involving corrupted baby formula and poisoned alcohol, the team created a simple program that could save lives.

Dubbed RFIQ, the MIT reader senses minute changes in wireless signals emitted from radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags when those signals interact with food.

Even the smallest adjustments correspond to levels of certain contaminants, according to a new release. A machine-learning model reviews those correlations and, given a new material, can predict if it is pure or tainted, and at what concentration.

When tested on baby formula laced with melamine (an organic compound used to make plastics which, in high concentrations, is toxic) and alcohol diluted with methanol, the system boasted a success rate of 96 percent and 97 percent, respectively.

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“In recent years, there have been so many hazards related to food and drinks we could have avoided if we all had tools to sense food quality and safety ourselves,” study co-author Fadel Adib, an assistant professor at the Media Lab, said in a statement. “We want to democratize food quality and safety, and bring it to the hands of everyone.”

RFID tags—stickers with tiny, ultra-high-frequency antennas—can be employed in a variety of applications, including tracking of goods, people, and animals; contactless payments; machine-readable travel documents; and timing sporting events.

A wireless reader (used manually or automatically) pings the tag, which emits a unique signal containing information about whatever it’s attached to. Electromagnetic waves then penetrate the material and return distorted—in MIT’s case, to a machine-learning model on a separate computer.

Currently restricted to a lab, the system may eventually be available for commercial use; researchers envision a future in which people have their own reader and software to conduct food-safety sensing before buying virtually any product.

Models could also be implemented into supermarkets or smart fridges to keep a steady eye on food spoilage.

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Study: Sex-Crazed Lawbreakers Will Turn Autonomous Cars Into Roving Brothels

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Buried in an otherwise dry report on autonomous vehicles and urban tourism is the very interesting conundrum of selling sex in self-driving cars.

Researchers Scott Cohen and Debbie Hopkins teamed up to explore how advances in transportation technology could affect global tourism.

Their study, published in the journal Annals of Tourism Research, highlights the seedier side of driverless vehicles.

“It’s only a natural conclusion that sex in autonomous vehicles will become a phenomenon,” Cohen, a tourism professor at the University of Surrey, told The Washington Post, citing convenience and the “lack of front-seat chaperones” (as the newspaper put it).

Still in their infancy, self-driving cars are expected to flood roads in less than a decade.

And when they do, luxurious cabs (featuring room enough for bedding, perhaps a massage chair) will chase out traditional taxis, with their glass partition and sticky seats.

Enter brothels on wheels.

“‘Hotels-by-the-hour’ are likely to be replaced by CAVs, and this will have implications for urban tourism, as sex plays a central role in many tourism experiences,” Cohen and Hopkins, a transport studies lecturer at the University of Oxford, wrote in their report.

“It is just a small leap to imagine Amsterdam’s Red Light District ‘on the move,’” they added.

The world’s oldest profession, of course, is illegal in the US (save for a few counties in Nevada). But, as the study authors pointed out, motivated lawbreakers will find a way around those pesky rules.

Shared CAVs, they said, will likely be monitored, “to deter passengers having sex or using drugs in them, and to prevent violence.”

Surveillance, however, can easily be disabled or removed. And personal autonomous cars will likely be “immune” from such scrutiny.

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