Simon Barker, EE Times' resident student entrepreneur, discusses the significance of volcanoes to communicating about his research on silicon-carbide and energy harvesting.
NEWCASTLE-UPON-TYNE, England – As many of you know, I am an electrical engineering PhD student here in the north of England and I also run a startup called Slotzz, which makes bespoke iPad and iPhone cases. Many of my recent posts have been about starting up Slotzz and things that I have learned in the process. I thought it was about time I took a break from discussing Slotzz and switched back to my research work and share some of its commercial aspects.
I work in a research group which, predominately, designs and fabricates silicon carbide devices. For those of you unfamiliar with SiC, it is a wide bandgap semiconductor that is very resilient. Devices made from it can operate in hostile environments at up and beyond 600 degrees C.
These resilient characteristics mean that SiC – among other wide bandgap materials – could enhance our ability to monitor extreme environments. These environments could include the inner containment shield of a nuclear reactor, the gases in a car exhaust, inside a jet engine or even a volcano. And we know along with air traffic disruption one particular volcano has been much in the news this year.
Silicon carbide has traditionally been used for power devices and this has been commercialized by companies such as SiCED Electronics Development GmbH (Erlangen, Germany). What is still to be commercialized are the signal-level devices such as small transistors, diodes and supporting passives. It is with these types of devices that SiC and other resilient materials can begin to enable the monitoring of hostile environments and improve the safety or environmental impact of many of the most dangerous processes in the world.
My supervisors, Dr. Alton Horsfall and Professor Nick Wright, have always known that there is a commercial impact for our work in the industrial sector, but the scale of some of the other aspects of it was only recently brought home to us when we got a bit of a mainstream press buzz.
We held a technology showcase event at the university for our resilient technology in early September, included in the demonstration devices were three packaged sub-systems which, when connected together, could provide an early warning system for volcanic eruptions by monitoring the gas mix leaving a volcano. To highlight how early-stage this is, eruption prediction by gas monitoring is still being explored in the field of volcanology. However, once we mentioned to our press officer what the system could potentially do, it went straight to the top of the press release for the event.
We thought nothing more of it until four days later when the local BBC radio station asked to do a live interview with my supervisor on their primetime 7:50-am slot, from there it began to snowball and before he knew it my supervisor was being interviewed for the evening television news and doing telephone interviews for publications based in London and New York. No one cared about jet engine or nuclear reactor monitoring though, everyone wanted to ask about the possibility of electronics working inside a volcano and predicting an eruption.
From the press reaction, and the reaction in the hundreds of comments left below some of the online articles, this is clearly something people are interested in from the humanitarian aspect. One should bear in mind that something like 500 million people live within the direct impact zone of a volcanic eruption.
The trick now is to convert that interest into a commercial interest and then see if there really is a market for high-temperature products. The technology is developing, we’ve made the core components; simple wireless communications, gas sensors and amplifiers. Yet to be done is the integration and a built-in power source. Batteries don’t run at 300 degrees C, and power cables are out of the question, so it has been the task of my PhD to develop a high temperature energy harvester that is as tough as silicon carbide.
So the student entrepreneur will be taking a brief break as I am heading off to present my work in a paper entitled "High-temperature vibration energy harvester system" at the IEEE Sensors Conference in Hawaii, which takes place Nov 1 to 4.
I will file something about my trip soon after I return. And if any readers should also be attending the conference by all means say "hello." Meanwhile no air traffic control delays please - for whatever reason.
The pressure from media interest affecting investors can be overwhelming. Semisouth have the same issue with their SiC JFETs supposedly targeting solar converters, just one of many possible applications. In their case they had an excuse because they knew the converter field already.
You're right, certainly the research has a lot of impact in industrial settings but from a press point of view, that's not exciting. Although current volcanic monitoring is reasonably accurate it could be much better and working with with vulcanologists on such projects/ideas will create new methods which can be tested. Due to the time consuming method of collecting gas emissions from volcanoes (manually sticking a glass bottle and long pipe down a fumarole) it is currently very difficult determine the accuracy of determining eruptions but gas mix.
Glad you find it interesting, we were amazed at the press reaction but as soon as we saw the images of the Icelandic volcano being reused in articles about our SiC work we realised why there was such an interest. Sadly SiC will never stop an eruption but it could give us a few more days notice
Your research might help more in industrial environments like smelting, furnaces, electrolytic separation etc rather than volcanic applications. There are some proven methods to determine an impending eruption and there may not be a need to have devices directly in the crater.
You sure write interesting stuff.
But... that interest from the press on your topic of study isn't just humanitarian... as you mentioned there was a big problem this year with a volcano erupting in Iceland I think and that stopped a lot of airplanes from taking off at Europe. Imagine all the people that had to stay there, had to wait, hold, change schedules, buy food, pay hotels, rebook... all that translates to money. Millions of dollars were wasted there, and technology such as SiC that you're working on would approach us to the position to be able to predict such kind of eruptions and perhaps not stop them but... surely maneuver in to something less burdening. Congrats and keep up the good work!