-- Solar power is making small steps toward wider uses. A new inverter, developed by the U.S. Energy Dept.'s Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M., will allow the connection of solar energy panels to conventional power grids. With old systems, if a region of the grid had to be shut down for maintenance, the photovoltaic cells kept pumping in power, posing a threat to line workers. The new inverter senses when the cells are not needed and shuts them off, or diverts the power to another application, such as a storage battery.
-- The appetite of manufacturers for heat-resistant, light-weight new materials is virtually insatiable. Now a new, highly durable plastic may start replacing metals even in the hostile environment of engine compartments. Two Ohio State scientists have teamed up to patent a mixture, consisting of heat-resistant plastic and silica, that can handle temperatures of up to 427C. It is also five times tougher than regular heat-resistant plastics. They expect it to be used someday in high-heat environments like jet engines.
-- Some jobs are just too big for a can of Rust-Oleum. For such outsize corrosion problems, the Scanning Kelvin Probe may soon help find a solution. Developed by Australia's Commonwealth Scientific & Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), the probe is able to detect and characterize in unprecedented detail the electrochemical interactions that cause corrosion on metals. Using the data collected, Aaron K. Neufeld, the scientist who masterminded the probe, hopes to design new protective treatments for exposed metal surfaces. "Structures such as the Sydney Harbour Bridge may need painting only once every 33 years, instead of every 11 years," he said.