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It must be tough to be a solar panel. They’re consistently exposed to sun, heat, and humidity—and the panels installed today are expected to last 30 years or more.

But how can we tell that new solar technologies will stand the test of time? I’m fascinated by the challenge of predicting how new materials will hold up in decades of tough conditions. That’s been especially tricky for one emerging technology in particular: perovskites. They’re a class of materials that developers are increasingly interested in incorporating into solar panels because of their high efficiency and low cost.

The problem is, perovskites are notorious for degrading when exposed to high temperatures, moisture, and bright light … all the things they’ll need to withstand to make it in the real world. And it’s not as if we can sit around for decades, testing out different cells in the field for the expected lifetime of a solar panel—climate change is an urgent problem. The good news: researchers have made progress in both stretching out the lifetime of perovskite materials and working out how to predict which materials will be winners in the long run.

There’s almost constant news about perovskite solar materials breaking records. The latest such news comes from Oxford PV—in January, the company announced that one of its panels reached a 25% conversion efficiency, meaning a quarter of the solar energy beaming onto the panel was converted to electricity. Most high-end commercial panels have around a 20% efficiency, with some models topping 23%.

The improvement is somewhat incremental, but it’s significant, and it’s all because of teamwork. Oxford PV and other companies are working to bring tandem solar technology to the market. These panels are basically sandwiches that combine layers of silicon (the material that dominates today’s solar market) and perovskites. Since the two materials soak up different wavelengths of light, they can be stacked together, adding up to a more efficient solar material. 

We’re seeing advances in tandem technology, which is why we named super-efficient tandem solar cells one of our 2024 Breakthrough Technologies. But perovskites’ nasty tendency to degrade is a major barrier standing in the way.

Early perovskite solar cells went bad so quickly that researchers had to race across the laboratory to measure their efficiency. In the time it took to get from the area where solar cells were made to the side of the room where the testing equipment was, the materials basically lost their ability to soak up sunlight.

The lifetime of perovskite materials isn’t nearly this fleeting now, but it’s not clear that the problem has been entirely solved.

There’s been some real-world testing of new perovskite solar materials, with mixed results. Oxford PV hasn’t published detailed data, though as CTO Chris Case told Nature last year, the company’s outdoor tests show that the best cells lose only about 1% of their efficiency in their first year of operation, a rate that slows down afterwards.

Other testing in more intense conditions has found less positive results, with one academic study finding that perovskite cells in hot and humid Saudi Arabia lost 20% of their efficiency after one year of operation.

Those results are for one year of testing. How can we tell what will happen in 30 years?

Since we don’t have years to test every new material that scientists dream up, researchers often put them through especially punishing conditions in the lab, bumping up the temperature and shining bright lights onto panels to see how quickly they’ll degrade.

This sort of testing is standard for silicon solar panels, which make up over 90% of the commercial solar market today. But researchers are still working out just how well the correlations with known tests will transfer to new materials like perovskites.

One of the issues has been that light, moisture, and heat all contribute to the quick degradation of perovskites. But it hasn’t been clear exactly which factor, or combination of them, would be best to apply in the lab to measure how a solar panel would fare in the real world.

One study, published last year in Nature, suggested that a combination of high temperature and illumination would be the key to accelerated tests that reliably predict real-world performance. The researchers found that high-temperature tests lasting just a few hundred hours (a couple of weeks) translated well to nearly six months of performance in outdoor testing.

Companies say they’re bringing new solar materials to the market as soon as this year. Soon we’ll start to really see just how well these tests predict new technologies’ ability to withstand

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By: Casey Crownhart
Title: Advanced solar panels still need to pass the test of time
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2024/02/08/1087860/future-for-advanced-solar-cells/
Published Date: Thu, 08 Feb 2024 11:00:00 +0000

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The world’s most famous concert pianos got a major tech upgrade

steinway 2 scaled

At a showroom in a Boston suburb, Patrick Elisha sat down and began to play the opening measures of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto #2 to demonstrate why Steinway & Sons grand pianos are celebrated in concert halls around the world.

Steinways are meticulously crafted instruments: it takes around 250 workers a year to assemble each grand piano’s 12,000 individual parts. Everything, from the hand-bent rims (made of more than a dozen layers of rock maple, each heated and shaped to form a grand piano’s classic curves) to the small felt rollers in the piano’s action (which help dictate how much pressure it takes to play an individual note), is crafted to produce clarion, resonant tones that range from the pianissimo bell-like chimes that open the concerto to the thundering fortissimo chords that seem to rise from the depths over its next eight measures.

Elisha, who runs the education division of M. Steinert & Sons, the world’s oldest Steinway dealer, is an award-winning pianist and composer—but I wanted to hear how the piano handled a virtuoso like Lang Lang going to town on, say, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit from the Disney film Encanto.

a Steinway piano with a tablet resting on the sheet music stand, showing a screen from the Spirio app with 6 options for songs
STEINWAY

No problem: Elisha called up a video of Lang performing in New York’s Steinway Hall on a nearby wide-screen TV. Once he hit Play on the video, whatever Lang played was perfectly reproduced on the piano in front of me. When Lang’s right hand flew up the keyboard to produce the opening flourish in the “Bruno” video, the keys on the piano in the room where I stood were depressed with precisely the same velocity for precisely the same amount of time.

This was, I realized, the first time I had ever heard a truly lossless recording. Acoustically, I was getting the equivalent of a private concert from one of the most famous pianists alive, courtesy of Steinway’s Spirio. It’s a thoroughly modern take on the player piano—a device, popular in the early 20th century, that used rolls of paper with holes punched in them to play specific tunes, no pianist required.

Roughly half of all new Steinways sold last year included Spirio technology, which adds between $29,000 and $48,000 to what is already a $150,000 instrument. The most recent addition to the line is the Spirio | r, which has recording, editing, and playback technology. A pianist who’s learning a new piece can play it, record the effort, and then essentially watch the piano play it back—making it possible to pick up on nuances in timing and tone that might be harder to discern from an audio recording alone.

The Spirio, which launched in 2015, added an entirely new set of engineering challenges to what was already one of the most deliberately constructed instruments in history. Before it came to market, Steinway had to ensure that the Spirio tech was, as Elisha puts it, “non-parasitic.” In other words, adding pressure sensors and anything else that could cause friction between the musician and the instrument was verboten; altering the feel in any way would destroy what makes a Steinway a Steinway.

Instead, performances are recorded by dozens of gray-scale optical sensors mounted behind the keyboard that calculate the velocity at which hammers strike the piano wires whenever any of the piano’s 88 keys is pressed. (The sensors have 1,020 levels of sensitivity and can take 800 measurements per second.) A different set of sensors underneath the piano measures the pedal-guided dampers; playback of both the keys and the pedals is controlled by solenoid plungers.

Each Spirio comes with a dedicated iPad; with a couple of swipes, Spirio | r users can edit their performances in an almost infinite number of ways. Everything from individual notes to entire chords can be erased or transposed, elongated or shortened, made louder or softer—if you can imagine it, you can hear what it will sound like as it’s played back to you.

But it’s the constantly updated Spirio library, which currently includes more than 4,000 recordings and more than 100 videos, that really makes this an instrument like no

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By: Seth Mnookin
Title: The world’s most famous concert pianos got a major tech upgrade
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2024/02/28/1088268/steinway-spirio-concert-pianos-performance-upgrade/
Published Date: Wed, 28 Feb 2024 10:00:00 +0000

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I’m a beaver. You’re a beaver. We are beavers all.

MIT beaver panorama

For more than 20 million years, beavers have been, well, busy. They’ve been felling trees for that long, and building dams and lodges for at least the last few million years, earning a well-deserved reputation for industriousness and ingenuity. It seemed only fitting, then, that MIT saw fit to claim the beaver as its mascot in 1914. By 1921, The Tech reported that gray beaver hats had become “the distinguishing mark of an Institute man” at college gatherings. The toothy, mainly nocturnal rodent has appeared on every rendition of the MIT class ring—now lovingly called the brass rat—since it was introduced in 1929. 

Read on to learn more about Castor canadensis, the remarkable four-legged engineers.

Family life

The North American beaver is the largest rodent in the Northern Hemisphere, typically weighing in at 35 to 65 pounds. (Only the South American capybara weighs more.) They make their homes in ponds, rivers, streams, and wetlands throughout most of North America.

long scene of beavers in a natural environment swimming, chewing wood and grooming
SUZI KEMP

They are one of the few species in the world that typically mate for life. Their offspring, known as kits, can swim within days of birth, but their childhoods are among the longest in the animal world. They generally live for two years with their parents, which both take part in raising them. It takes that long for the parents and older siblings to show them, by example, how to build dams and lodges, how to plan and dig channels, and how to select food, harvest it, and store it for the winter. It’s kind of like going to engineering school. Beavers then move on to form their own families, often building their own colonies. They typically live to age 10 or 12 in the wild.

well-planned diet

Beavers are vegetarians but with a twist. They favor the inner bark of certain tree species, including willow, poplar, aspen, birch, and maple, feasting on the cambium, the soft, sap-laden layer immediately under the outer bark. Conifers, however, are not considered a delicacy. Beavers eat them only rarely, and tend to fell them mainly for dam building and to encourage growth of things they’d rather eat. In summer they consume readily available grasses, leaves, herbs, fruit, and aquatic plants. To prepare for winter in cold climates, they create an underwater cache of sticks and logs they’ve gnawed from trees they’ve felled. First they assemble a floating raft of not-so-delicious branches above a deep part of their pond; then they stash their preferred branches beneath them. The pile absorbs water and sinks to the bottom, with the less-favored branches often freezing in the ice at the surface and acting as a protective covering that secures the more-desirable lower branches, which remain accessible below the ice. The cold water preserves the nutritional value of the branches.

While humans can’t digest cellulose, beavers have a small sac between the large and small intestines containing microorganisms that ferment this material, helping them digest up to 30% of it.

chieving the perfect pelt

Forget mink, ermine, and sable. Of all fur-bearing animals, beavers have the coat that is rated the warmest. So it’s no surprise that European demand for hats made of warm, water-resistant, and durable beaver felt led to lucrative trapping and fur-trading ventures in North America. In the 17th and 18th centuries, as many as 200,000 North American beaver pelts were exported annually to Europe. (Fierce competition to monopolize the fur trade led to a series of so-called Beaver Wars between 1628 and the Treaty of Montreal in 1701: the Iroquois Confederation, backed by the Dutch and British, battled the Huron Confederation, backed by France.) These enterprises gave rise to many European settlements and trading centers in North America—and nearly wiped out the continent’s beaver population.

On January 17, 1914, MIT President Richard Maclaurin accepted the Technology Club of New York’s proposal that the beaver—nature’s engineer—serve as MIT’s mascot. In 1977, TIM the beaver first showed up on campus to celebrate the 50th reunion of the Class of 1927

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By: William Miller ’51, SM ’52
Title: I’m a beaver. You’re a beaver. We are beavers all.
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2024/02/28/1087624/im-a-beaver-youre-a-beaver-we-are-beavers-all/
Published Date: Wed, 28 Feb 2024 12:00:00 +0000

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Divine economics

MA24 MIT Unknown jpg

Allison V. Thompkins, PhD ’11, used to spend her days steeped in statistical analysis, digging into economic data to understand how the world works. These days, you’re more likely to find her writing about how to modify prayer or meditation practices to make them more accessible for people with disabilities.

From the outside, the shift from economic policy research to a career writing and teaching about spirituality might seem like a substantial one. But for Thompkins, the instincts behind both pursuits flow from the same place.

“From my perspective, the main connecting thread of economics and spirituality is their power to improve the world,” she says.

That drive to transform the world around her into a more equitable and just place has been with Thompkins for as long as she can remember. As a kid living with cerebral palsy, she was involved in disability advocacy from a young age. At age six, she was interviewed by PBS about her love for Martin Luther King Jr. as an example of someone who fought for people’s rights, and as a nine-year-old she wrote an essay about the need for disability representation in radio programming.

As an adult, that same drive led her to MIT to study under labor economists David Autor and Joshua Angrist, both of whom are Ford professors of economics. She was one of the first people with cerebral palsy and the first power-chair user to earn a PhD from the Institute. While working on her dissertation, which focused on disability policy, she also began consulting for the World Bank. Upon graduating, she found work in economic policy at the research firm Mathematica.

When her health required that she take a step back from full-time work, she decided to share her growing spiritual practice, first on her blog and then in the form of a book, Spirituality Is for Every Body: 8 Accessible, Inclusive Ways to Connect with the Divine When Living with Disability, which was published in February.

“People are most likely more accustomed to thinking about the role of spirituality or the Divine when speaking about professions such as singing or painting or writing poetry, rather than professions that are data driven … [But] for me, the goal of practicing economics was always to improve the world,” she says. The goal of making life better for others—not just oneself—is, in her view, also “the most important reason to engage in spirituality.”

MA24 MIT Unknown 1 jpg
Thompkins worked as an
intern to Senator John Kerry during graduate school. This group shot captures the senator
and her fellow interns.
MA24 MIT Unknown 8 jpg
Thompkins prepares for
a run during an MIT Snowriders ski trip.

Thompkins has always looked for meaningful patterns where others might see only randomness and chance. As an economist, she takes unruly piles of numbers and transforms them into useful data that can inform things like microlending programs for people living with disabilities in India. As a spiritual seeker, she’s adopted the perspective that everything happens for a reason.

All of this has imbued her life with a deep sense of purpose, whether she’s working on disability policy or writing about meditation.

“Love and beauty—I know you don’t always hear those [words] when discussing economics,” she says with a smile on a Zoom call. “But whatever I do, I seek to allow the love and the light that I have to shine through whatever thing I choose.”

The road to economics

Thompkins’s experiences as a youth advocate set her up to dream big about what she might accomplish on behalf of the disabled community. Her hope as a teenager had been to go to law school and become a disability rights attorney—that is, until she surprised herself by falling in love with an economics course in high school. She majored in mathematical economics at Scripps College. And by the time she arrived on MIT’s campus

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By: Whitney Bauck
Title: Divine economics
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2024/02/28/1087629/divine-economics/
Published Date: Wed, 28 Feb 2024 12:00:00 +0000

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