Light Friday: The Science of Snow

Plus: Circumnavigating the Globe on a Solar-Powered Plane, Smart Windows Select the Right Light and Astronomy Explained Via Comics.

Around the World on Solar Power

Plenty of adventurous pilots have circumnavigated the globe in a plane, but so far no one has done it while relying solely on the power of the sun. A pair of Swiss pilots and entrepreneurs hopes to change that by making two historic flights on a plane with no fuel.

Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg, pilots and co-founders of Switzerland-based Solar Impulse, are meeting with government agencies, politicians and benefactors to secure funding for their planned flight from California to New York on a solar-powered plane, as well as a second flight around the world scheduled for next year.

“The aircraft’s specifications are extreme,” Txchnologist explains. “Its wingspan is as long as a Boeing 747 but it weighs only about 3,500 lbs., about the same as a Jeep Grand Cherokee. Four 10-horsepower electric engines, which draw the energy they need from a skin of high-efficiency solar cells covering the wing and stabilizer dorsal surfaces, power it.”

The plane is able to take off at 27 miles per hour and has a cruising speed of 44 miles per hour. While it can reach an altitude of up to 27,900 feet above the Earth, where its solar cells can recharge from sunlight, the biggest challenge for the pilots will be maintain perpetual operation of the vehicle through day and night. To deal with this issue, the team installed 882 lbs. of lithium polymer batteries that can store excess energy generated during daylight.

“They eventually plan to make an around-the-world flight using an updated, and larger solar powered airplane known as HB-SIB. The new model will have a roomier, pressurized cockpit allowing the pilot to nap, and will have a wingspan of more than 260 feet,” notes. “The team originally had hoped to make an around-the-world flight by 2013, but they are currently hoping for a 2015 flight. HB-SIB is currently under construction at Solar Impulse headquarters in Switzerland.”

Snowflake Science

It’s the time of year again when much of the country sees snowfall. If snow is common in your area, you probably take it for granted, but there’s a surprising amount of complexity in the white powder under your feet.

A recent episode of Bytesize Science, a video series produced by the American Chemistry Council, explores the science behind snowflakes, explaining why each flake has exactly six sides, why they form intricate shapes and why many of them may actually be alike. Enjoy:

Smart Windows Choose What Light to Let In

Windows tend to be a major drain on sustainability efforts, even in the most energy-efficient buildings or facilities. Now, a new high-tech coating material aims to deliver low-cost “smart windows” that selectively choose how much light and heat to let into a building, effectively cutting down on energy waste.

Researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have produced a 500-nanometer-thick coating that separately blocks the sun’s visible light and infrared radiation. The coating features metal oxide layers surrounding an electrolyte. Applying a small amount of voltage causes electrons to move through the electrolyte and into an electrochromic coating layer that enables the blocking to occur.

“In addition to improving coating functionality, our technology utilizes a solution processing technique that will transfer well to large-scale manufacturing,” according to Guillermo Garcia, chief technology officer and co-founder of Heliotrope Technologies, a start-up company working with Berkeley Lab to develop the window coatings. “This makes commercial production practical and window cost affordable.”

Although electrochromic window coatings already exist, most are expensive and unable to respond to seasonal changes. The Berkeley Lab project was recently awarded $3 million in funding from the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, which is seeking out breakthrough technologies that show technical promise but have yet to find private-sector investment.

Astronomy Breakthroughs Explained in a Motion Comic

In science, even seemingly minor observations can prove to be groundbreaking discoveries and form the foundation of a new way of understanding the universe. But tracing the development from a simple notion to a complex principle can be difficult – unless it’s in the form of a comic.

In a new motion comic, the folks at PhD Comics explain why stars have different colors and how learning about the composition of cosmic bodies helped transform the field of astronomy. The clip, entitled “The Fingerprint of Stars,” features commentary from experts at CalTech’s John Johnson Exoplanets Laboratory.

Have a great weekend, folks.



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  • December 28, 2012

    Love the quick science videos and the snowflake and star really broke it down to basics so anyone could relate.

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