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March 3, 2011 | by  | in Online Only |
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Failure to Communicate – AMN-5 Conference

During the week of 7-11 February, AMN-5 was held in Wellington. This is a large academic conference held every other year, and is one of the few conferences in New Zealand on the topics of physics and chemistry. I went along to this conference, and I thought I’d give you my impression of some of the more interesting things I saw there.

Although the topics presented at AMN-5 were extremely broad overall, the standout theme this time around seemed to be magnets. Whether it was an examination of the fundamental science of superconductivity, or spintronics1, or a more practical experiment on how to grow interesting magnetic materials, there was definitely a trend there. This was perhaps to be expected, as between the companies Magritek and HTS-110 there is actually a lot of expertise in magnetism in New Zealand.

In terms of the effect of these areas of science to the public, superconducting cable has already begun to be rolled out in the USA electrical grid. Progress in the research seems to be progressing smoothly, and I’d guess that after the early adopters have had their go, superconducting cable as a standard could reasonably be expected within this decade. What that’ll mean for you is more efficient electricity transmission and a good deal less energy lost as heat through the grid, which ought to help out in the carbon emission area. Hopefully it will also lead on to reduced power prices, but in the New Zealand power market I wouldn’t hold your breath…

Spintronics on the other hand has its applications mostly in computing. It is hoped that one could carry out simultaneous calculations with the same ‘bit’ of electricity by measuring both the current and the spin in parallel, instead of just the current. This technology is still a long way off consumer applications though. There is a lack of a good design of a ‘spin transistor,’ and of a material with the right properties to make such a device. I saw a lot of new materials showcased this week however, as well as a device design that looked promising, so I remain hopeful!

Another hot topic at the conference was organic solar cells, with a large number of presenters showing their various experiments and insights. Compared to the silicon solar cells that most of us are probably used to, organic solar cells are less efficient, but MUCH less expensive. This makes them a lot more viable to cover large areas with, or just to access markets and still be relatively competitive with other energy sources. I personally was quite excited by some of this research I saw presented at the conference, and I’ll try to explain part of it for you here. This research was in part done right here at Victoria University!

For various reasons, it is good to have two different types of polymer2 mixed together in the body of an organic solar cell, and one can control how well they are mixed. You could have something like salt and sand mixed together, or something more like apples and oranges in a fruit bowl. By shining lasers at the mixture, scientists have discovered that to create a bit of electrical energy from the sun, a very finely mixed solar cell is preferred, but that in order to take that bit of energy and put it into a battery, it is better to have coarse mixing. One might initially be disheartened to hear this, because it sounds a lot like these two things which you want to maximise both of are competing with each other. But this is exactly the kind of problem that nanoscience has typically been very good at solving. Now that the problem has been made clear, I feel confident that scientists can find a clever way to work around it. My guess is that this is another technology that we’ll see being used in the real world in the next decade or so.

One final thing bit of science which I found interesting at the conference was a man who gave a talk about the capture of waste heat as useful energy. He convinced us that this was a big deal by giving us figures that showed that in the States, about half of all energy generated is wasted as heat. Think about it – that’s a huge amount of energy! The idea of generating electricity from heat is nothing new – New Zealand already generates close to 15% of its electricity from geothermal power stations. But what this scientist was suggesting that was new is generating power from heat as and where it is wasted – for example, in car engines. Obviously it is impossible to have a whole power station inside a car engine, so new methods are needed to do this, and he looks toward advanced materials to provide them. This is the first I had heard of such an idea, and it sounds like a winner to me.

I realise that I have still not got into the stated aim of this column, that being the examination of science as presented in the media. However it’s not every week that a conference like this comes along, and I thought I should take advantage of it. I also thing that one thing that scientists have to do if they want to improve communication between themselves and the public is to present new research to them, rather than to each other. Today’s article has been an attempt on my part to do that.

And I shall leave you with an image of one further thing that I was surprised to learn at the conference – scientists apparently love a good hoedown.

[1] Spintronics is the topic of how electric current flows differently depending on which way the electrons in it spin

[2] A polymer is a long noodly organic molecule. If this doesn’t help you, feel free to substitute for polymer the word: thing. It works just as well for the purpose of this column.

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