April R&D Round Up

E-mail Melanie Martella

This month we have a tool to prevent machine jitter, 3D imaging of magnetic fields within non-transparent materials, more material behavior weirdness at nanoscale, and a bat-inspired spy plane.

Just Say No to Jitter
Good news for those people who are in charge of manufacturing production lines, especially if they've experienced mechanical jitter in their machines caused by timing mismatches: NIST researchers have created the EtherNet/IP Perfomance Test Tool that helps assess how the machines may behave when they're part of a networked system. The software takes device data, generates test scripts, and then analyses the performance data. The performance report then allows you to clearly identify where and when timing mismatches occur without having to slog your way through vendor-supplied specifications and translate between the various ways performance characteristics are described.

Imaging Magnetic Fields
While iron filings are handy at showing 2D magnetic fields, understanding how magnetic fields behave within magnetic materials is another matter. Until now. Researchers at Hahn-Meitner-Institute (HMI) in Berlin, in cooperation with the University of Applied Sciences in Berlin, have used neutrons to visualize the magnetic fields inside solid, non-transparent materials. According to "3-D Imaging: First Insights Into Magnetic Fields" in Science Daily, the scientists used spin-polarized neutrons (neutrons with their magnetic moments aligned) to bombard a sample of a magnetic material. The material's magnetic field acts to alter the neutron's magnetic moment; by detecting the changes in the neutrons' spins, it's possible to see the magnetic field within the material.

Nanoscale Ductility
It's not news that materials can behave very differently in bulk and at nanoscale. Recent findings by researchers at NIST and at the University of Maryland-College Park have discovered that silica and other similar materials, which is brittle in bulk form, can exhibit very high ductility as nanoparticles. Essentially, at these very small scales, the structural flaws that can render a bulk material fracture-prone are absent or outweighed by the mobility of the surface atoms of the nanoparticle. As the nanoparticle is stressed, the surface atoms have a greater ability to deform and are, therefore, far more ductile than expected.

Spy Bats Under Development
The University of Michigan College of Engineering, under a grant from the U.S. Army, will be developing a 6 in., bat-inspired robotic spy plane for surveillance in urban combat zones. The 5 yr., $10 million grant establishes the Center for Objective Microelectronics and Biomimetic Advanced Technology (COM-BAT). The university researchers at Michigan will concentrate on developing the sensors, communication systems, and power supplies (batteries, energy harvesting systems, etc.) for this tiny, flapping UAV. Other groups at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of New Mexico will concentrate on developing different subsystems. You can read more about the project in the article "Sensors for bat-inspired spy plane under development." I'll add that although the name makes me groan, this isn't as far-fetched as it might appear. The technologies for echolocation, microphones, stereo vision, energy-frugal microelectronics, and alternative power supplies all exist. The trick will be to shrink them and make sure the various technologies can work together—and any advances in sensor integration, communications, and power are not limited to military applications.