Monthly Archives: April 2017

Next-Generation Battery Technology

I have written about a range of emerging technologies. While the devices and apps I’ve featured were designed to accomplish very different things, they do have one thing in common—they all need power. In some cases, power limitations are holding us back from achieving even greater performance and options. What’s happening in the world of battery technology? It would be great if we could charge our devices in under a minute and the charge would last for two weeks. It would also be great if our electric vehicles could travel more than 500 miles on a single charge and recharge in only 5 minutes. How close are we to that? Read on.

Basic Batteries

A battery is made up of a positive and negative electrode with an electrolyte that allows for the flow of ions between the two poles. It is possible to make a basic battery out of a copper penny (negative anode), a galvanized nail (positive cathode) and a potato or a lemon (electrolyte). Energy is created as electrons flow from the anode to the cathode through the medium. This basic technology has existed since the first electric battery was invented in 1799. The only problem was that no one had yet thought of electric cars (or cars at all for that matter) or drones or handheld devices that need batteries we wish lasted longer. The requirements for the original battery were simple in contrast.

Battery Developments

Current battery technologies have settled around alkaline, used for household tools like flashlights; lithium-ion, used in cell phones, laptops, portable tools, and even electric vehicles; and lead-acid batteries, which power the starters on gas and diesel  vehicles. These all use chemicals like cobalt, lead, nickel, graphite, manganese, and aluminum that are available in limited supply on earth and can pollute the environment when disposed of. Tesla, for example, is betting on lithium-ion technology as it completes its gigafactory in Nevada. The company will produce batteries for their cars and to store energy for home solar collectors, among other uses. Tesla is betting that large-scale production and intensive research will allow to improve battery life and sustainably source or create components.

The next generation of batteries may include graphene, which was discovered in 2004. Graphene is a single-atomic layer of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal pattern. It is stronger than steel and diamonds and has the highest electrical and thermal conductivity ever recorded. Battery manufacturers are introducing graphene-enhanced batteries, but a full graphene battery is still in development. Companies, including Graphenano in Spain, are working to bring graphene batteries to market. One positive development is the availability of graphene filament from Graphene 3D Lab, which can be used in 3D printers (including home models) to print batteries. That could spawn a lot of new applications for the technology.

There is also active research in nanowires, which would store electrons and could be recharged more times than a traditional battery. Material scientists are searching for a substrate suitable for these fragile wires so that they can be used in a commercial product.


Battery technology research is marching ahead but demand for more efficient battery materials is adding pressure to speed the pace of development. Cars, electronic devices and sensors all require power that can be stored and used at the push of a button. I will be keeping my eye on new battery technology as we try to find the right blend of sustainable materials and modern efficient manufacturing.

Author Kelly BrownAbout Kelly Brown

Kelly Brown is an IT professional and assistant professor of practice for the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.

The Technology of Sleep

A woman sleeps clutching a smart phone.I have written before about what I call the examined or quantified life. We try to measure aspects of our life such as heart rate or calorie consumption or number of steps taken. This is often part of an attempt to adjust various aspects of our life to bring more control and meaning to our existence. One of the areas that we may not focus on enough is sleep. If done right it should represent a third of our 24 hour day. This blog post highlights various ideas, technologies, and methods to help quantify, and hopefully improve, sleep.

A Measure of Success

It used to be that lack of sleep was a positive sign that we were too busy and important to take such a long break. A recent New York Times article titled “Sleep Is the New Status Symbol” suggests just the opposite is in vogue. The author cites studies that show lost productivity and health crises attributed to lack of sleep. Now, it is more desirable and advantageous to get enough sleep, whether it be in one block or augmented with a short nap during the day. Quality sleep is the new gold.

There have been studies and articles suggesting smartphones and other devices are disrupting our sleep through bright light and mental stimulation. But there are also devices and apps for measuring sleep quality and duration. Apple’s iOS 10 has a sleep timer built right into the clock that reminds you when it is time to go to bed and then gently wakes you. In addition, it tracks your sleep and makes that available to iOS Health for logging. Also available is the SleepCycle app for Apple devices and SleepBot for Android smartphones. These all encourage you to go to bed and wake up on time through an audible alarm and then track the time that your phone is motionless so that you can modify your patterns if necessary.

Sleep Aids

Pharmaceutical sleep aids sometimes cause addictions or even interrupt sleep that they are supposed to protect. However, there are new technologies that are promising to bring deep, uninterrupted rest. While light on details, the Dreem headband promises to bring a restorative sleep. Due out this summer, the device uses electroencephalogram (EEG) technology to monitor brain patterns and produce soothing sounds at just the right moments. Like the apps mentioned above and wearable devices, it also tracks your duration and quality of sleep.

The Thim device, previewed in the above-mentioned New York Times article, will also debut this summer. Thim trains you to get to sleep faster, thus leading to a better quality sleep. It does this by waking you every three minutes after you first fall asleep in the evening. This is intended to condition your body to go to sleep faster. Personally, I think it would drive me crazy but it may work for some. It also tracks your sleep duration and patterns.


There are some medical issues that prevent sleep and should be dealt with, but for those of us with overactive minds or poor scheduling habits, technology can help. Personally I can go to sleep in five minutes but my brain reengages about 3:00 a.m. and it is not always easy to get back to sleep. I follow all of the standard wisdom, but to no avail. Perhaps one of these monitors or trackers might be just the thing I need. I actually sleep better in a sleeping bag in the woods than in my own bed, which may say something about me.

Have you had success with a sleep app or wearable or other technology? How has it made a difference in your life? Please share your experiences so maybe the rest of us can learn better sleep practices from you.

Author Kelly BrownAbout Kelly Brown

Kelly Brown is an IT professional and assistant professor of practice for the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.

Powering the Internet of Things with Clean Energy

Image of the planet imbedded with an electrical socket and a cord plugged into it.Internet of Things (IoT) continues to grow as emerging technologies and devices are constantly being developed and added to the internet. I’ve looked at how information produced by IoT is communicated and considered how to process the data. But what powers all those devices and sensors? In some situations, such as agricultural technologies, extension cords are out of the question as is regularly changing batteries. In response, researchers are working to harvest energy to power these devices.

Mechanical Energy

A 2015 IEEE article highlighted three promising areas for harvesting energy—mechanical energy, heat, and electromagnetic emissions. In terms of mechanical energy, they highlighted a small conformable piezoelectric device developed at the University of Illinois to power a pacemaker from a heartbeat. The heart’s own contractions would power a device that helps keep itself beating regularly. This would eliminate the need to surgically replace batteries.

The article also highlighted a small device that harvests energy from the vibration of trains, created by Perpetuum. The harvester is installed near the wheels and captures energy from the travel motion to power sensors that can monitor wheel bearings and wheel travel on the rail. This is in production now and helps to prevent rail accidents by detecting problems early. The harvester has a 100 year life expectancy.


South Korea’s KAIST university has developed a thermoelectric generator that is embedded in glass fabric and generates power from body heat. This could power wearable devices or be embedded in the device itself, thus providing its own power source.

Here is what I am thinking: what if we can print these thermoelectric materials on our 3-D printers and create our own generators? I may be on to something. I probably create enough heat while riding my bicycle to power my smart phone and computer.

Electromagnetic Emissions

In Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel “Atlas Shrugged,” the hero invented a method for harvesting electrostatic energy from the atmosphere and eventually powered a small village. I suspect that we have been thinking about it even longer than that, but our efforts are still in their infancy. Researchers at the University of Waterloo have been working to improve collection antennas and hope to be able to capture emissions on a large scale. They are working on materials to more efficiently capture energy.


It is an exciting time for research in this area with breakthroughs in physics, material science, and microelectronics all converging on the singular problem of how to replace fossil fuels with clean energy capture. We have a lot of new devices coming that will need to be powered, hopefully with a sustainable energy source. Are we close to solving this mystery? Let me know your thoughts.

Author Kelly BrownAbout Kelly Brown

Kelly Brown is an IT professional and assistant professor of practice for the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.

Telecommuting vs. Colocation: Changing Attitudes and Trends

This week I would like to start a conversation about the merits of working remotely versus colocation. IBM announced in January that all North American marketing employees will be called into one of six offices around the country, thus ending remote work for that department. This follows other IBM departments that recently called in the troops. Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer made a similar move for all employees in 2013 and she was not the first to reverse the trend toward remote work.

My question is this: does colocation make sense in a global workforce, or does innovation flourish when workers are sitting shoulder to shoulder discussing the next breakthrough product or process?

History of Telework

As early as the 1600s, some people were acting as independent contractors by receiving raw materials and producing finished product, all from their home. This was most prevalent in fields such as ironwork or sewing. Often, members of the family would help. Thus was born what we know as the cottage industry and also the first remote workers.

In subsequent years, non-farming jobs moved primarily to cities where factories powered by a growing workforce turned out an array of goods. Offices soon followed, where knowledge workers specializing in accounting or marketing or programming worked. Having everyone together helped with communications and coordination of a large group of people.

With the oil crisis of the 1970s and high gas prices, employers and researchers started to look for ways to keep some employees at home and productive. Improved telecommunications and computing allowed more people to work from home or remote locations. The Clean Air Act of 1990 only accelerated the need to reduce commuting and increase telework. AT&T celebrated the first Telecommuting Day on September 20, 1994 which is befitting of the telecommunication giant. Telework picked up in the 1990s and grew, but by the time Yahoo called back their remote employees in 2013 the pendulum had begun to shift the other way.

A Case for Colocation

The pitch for everyone located in the same office or a limited series of offices has mostly to do with innovation. The argument is that teams can be more innovative when everyone can physically see their coworkers and spontaneous conversations ensue. There is some evidence that this is true. Google encourages employees to come into the office through perks such as transportation via the GBus and free meals on campus. They believe that dining with fellow Googlers will spur innovation. They can meet with other teams around the country and the globe via teleconferencing when necessary, thus promoting their green agenda.

The Argument

I have telecommuted in the past when working with global teams. I had days that opened with phone calls to Europe at 6:00 a.m. and ended with 6:00 p.m. calls to Asia. It was convenient and efficient to work from home. It was also much more efficient than traveling around the globe, although there were times when that was necessary.

I can see the argument for having teams in a central office, but the transition may mean moving families or leaving jobs if a move is not feasible. It also means more commuters clogging roads and more time spent in traffic. Perhaps the self-driving car equipped with wi-fi will be the answer. In the meantime, I think organizations should proceed with caution as they call workers back into the office. They may be trading efficiency for innovation.


Let me know your thoughts on this subject. Are you a telecommuter, and does it work for you? Do you find that you work less or more than if you commuted to an office every day? Do you miss the personal interaction with a physical work team? Perhaps together we can come up with the ideal solution.

Author Kelly BrownAbout Kelly Brown

Kelly Brown is an IT professional and assistant professor of practice for the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.