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4 tech facts take you to future

February 02, 2023

New technologies are becoming more and more central in our daily lives. They allow us to do things that were unthinkable just a decade ago and give us access to an enormous amount of knowledge. Ionocaloric cooling, ultrathin solar cells and hybrid electric flight are paving the way for a new future.

Salty Solution

Ionocaloric cooling

Credit: Jenny Nuss/Berkeley Lab.

Researchers at the Department of Energy’s Berkeley Lab are using salt for eco-friendly heating and cooling.

Gas refrigerants can leak into the environment, trapping heat in the atmosphere. “Ionocaloric cooling,” described in a new report in Science, could provide a more sustainable approach. “No one has successfully developed an alternative solution that makes stuff cold, works efficiently, is safe, and doesn’t hurt the environment,” said Drew Lilley, who led the study. “We think the ionocaloric cycle has the potential to meet all those goals if realized appropriately.”

When substances change from a solid to a liquid state, they absorb heat from their surroundings. Lilley and his collaborators use salt ions to drive the state change from solid to liquid, similar to the way salting roads in the winter lowers the melting temperature of ice. Running just one volt of current through their iodine and sodium solution lowered temperature by 25 degrees Celsius (about 45 F).

Going Nuclear

NASA nuclear rocket

An artist’s concept of the Demonstration for Rocket to Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) spacecraft, which will demonstrate a nuclear thermal rocket engine. Nuclear thermal propulsion technology could be used for future NASA crewed missions to Mars. Credit: NASA.

NASA and DARPA will collaborate to build and test a nuclear thermal rocket engine for future missions to Mars.

Faster is safer when it comes to long-distance space travel, because it limits the amount of time astronauts spend in transit. The project will “develop and demonstrate advanced nuclear thermal propulsion technology as soon as 2027,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.

Nuclear thermal rockets can be more than three times as efficient as conventional propulsion systems. They are powered by a fission reactor that generates extremely high temperatures. That heat is transferred from the engine to a liquid propellant, which exits the craft through a nozzle and propels it forward. It’s been more than 50 years since NASA last tested a nuclear thermal rocket.

Light Layers

thin film solar cells

The thin-film solar cells weigh about 100 times less than conventional solar cells while generating about 18 times more power per kilogram. Credit: Melanie Gonick/MIT

MIT engineers made a lightweight, flexible solar cell that can be glued onto fabric.

Thinner than a human hair and one-hundredth the weight of conventional solar panels, the MIT cells could be laminated onto boat sails or drone wings, or used to power rescue tents in emergency response operations, said Vladimir Bulović, senior author of a new paper in Small Methods.

The team integrated nanomaterials into electronic ink and printed it onto a thin substrate. They then printed an electrode on top, completing a solar module that is only 15 microns thick. The module can be peeled off the substrate and stuck to a thin, strong material called Dyneema, resulting in a lightweight, flexible solar cell. The device could generate about 370 watts per kilogram — about 18 times more power per kilogram than conventional solar cells.

Accelerate the Future of Flight

Credit: GE Aerospace.

NASA and GE Aerospace are advancing development of a megawatt-class integrated hybrid electric power train, with plans to flight-test it later this decade using a Saab 340B and GE’s CT7 turboprop engines. Boeing and its subsidiary Aurora Flight Sciences will modify the airplane and perform system integration and flight-testing services.

Hybrid electric propulsion technologies can help improve engine performance, reducing fuel usage and emissions. Further, hybrid electric technologies are compatible with alternative fuels like SAF or hydrogen, and with advanced engine architectures such as open fan.

Not only is GE Aerospace developing hybrid electric engine systems through EPFD, but the engine manufacturer is also looking to demonstrate hybrid electric capability and other technologies through CFM’s RISE program, in collaboration with Safran Aircraft Engines. The goal of the CFM RISE Program is to develop technologies that enable a future engine to achieve at least 20% lower fuel consumption and 20% fewer CO2 emissions compared with today’s most efficient engines.

With any approach — SAF, technology, or others — it will take reaching across industrial sectors to make possible the goal of achieving net zero by 2050.