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If the technology comes to be used widely, it would represent a significant breakthrough in the hunt for greener, more efficient energy.

The team from Monash University in Melbourne says the lithium-sulfur battery it has created is the “world’s most efficient,” and can outperform traditional batteries by four times.

The researchers said they are “on the brink” of commercializing the innovation, and touted its benefits for the fight against climate change.

Most commercial batteries are lithium-ion, but lithium-sulfur alternatives have long been attractive because of their higher energy density and ability to power objects for longer.

However, lithium-sulfur batteries tend to have a far shorter lifespan. They are used in some aircraft and cars, but previous attempts to bring them to mass production and phase out lithium-ion batteries have failed.

According to battery experts The Faraday Institution, the widespread use of lithium-sulfur batteries faces “major hurdles” stemming from sulfur’s “insulating nature,” and degradation of the metallic lithium anode.

The team in Australia, whose research was published in the journal Science Advances, reconfigured the design of sulfur cathodes so that they are able to withstand higher stress loads without seeing a drop in overall performance.

Their work “will revolutionise the Australian vehicle market and provide all Australians with a cleaner and more reliable energy market,” lead researcher Professor Mainak Majumder said in a press release.

The group, whose work received funding from the Australian government, has patented the new battery and further testing is scheduled for later this year.

The rapid rise of electric vehicles could lead to a mountain of battery waste

“This approach not only favours high performance metrics and long cycle life, but is also simple and extremely low-cost to manufacture, using water-based processes, and can lead to significant reductions in environmentally hazardous waste,” Matthew Hill, who also worked on the team, said.

However, the there are some challenges and limitations associated with the technology.

CNN’s Amy Woodyatt contributed to this report.

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Open source: Why governments need to go further

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Commentary: Yes, governments should open source their custom code. But more than that is needed.

Image: lucky-photographer, Getty Images/iStockphoto

For Drupal (and Acquia) founder Dries Buytaert, “the default [in government] should be ‘developed with public money, make it public code.'” That is, if a government is paying for software to be created, that software should be available under an open source license. While he acknowledged there might be exceptions (e.g., for military applications, as I’ve called out), his suggestion makes sense.

Years ago I argued that government mandates of open source made no sense. I still feel that way. Governments (and enterprises) should use whatever software best enables them to get work done. Increasingly, that software will be open source. But when good open source alternatives don’t yet exist, it makes no sense to mandate the use of suboptimal software. 

But software that governments create? There’s no compelling citizen-focused reason for closing it off. Instead, there are many reasons to open it up.

SEE: How to build a successful developer career (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Of the people, by the people, for the people

This topic of why countries should embrace open source is an easy argument to make. As Buytaert pointed out, if public money pays for the code to be developed, why wouldn’t that code be available to the public (except, as mentioned, in the case of sensitive military software)? 

Some countries have already gone this route. As I detailed in 2016, Bulgaria is one of them. A few years later, Bulgaria has been preparing its own national source code repository, based on Git (as required by law: “administrative authorities shall use public storage and control systems for the source code and technical documentation for development, upgrading or deployment of information systems or electronic services”). 

This is a significant step toward greater transparency. However, it’s not enough.

SEE: Open source can thrive in a recession says Drupal creator Dries Buytaert (TechRepublic)

Collaborating on common government issues

As much as I understand Bulgaria’s desire to build its own source code repository, there’s even greater need for governments to collaborate on code beyond their borders. Think about it: Governments tend to do the same things, like collecting taxes, issuing parking tickets, etc. Currently, each government builds (or buys) software to tackle these tasks. Obscene quantities of custom code are created each year by government organizations operating in silos.

Why isn’t the city of Bogota sharing software with London, which shares software with Lagos, which shares software with Pocatello (that’s in Idaho, by the way)? 

As IBM president (and former Red Hat CEO) Jim Whitehurst said way back in 2009, “The waste in IT software development is extraordinary….Ultimately, for open source to provide value to all of our customers worldwide, we need to get our customers not only as users of open source products but truly engaged in open source and taking part in the development community.” This is particularly true in government, where there isn’t even the competitive pressure (e.g., Bogota doesn’t compete with Pocatello) that might prevent large financial institutions from collaborating (though even they partner on open source).

So, yes, we need governments to open source the software they pay to have built, to Buytaert’s point. But we also need those same governments to share that code beyond their borders, thereby driving greater innovation at lower cost for their citizens. 

Disclosure: I work for AWS but the views expressed herein are mine, not those of my employer.

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Elastica: A Compliant Mechanics Environment for Soft Robotic Control

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Soft robots can be used in various spheres, such as agriculture, medicine, and defense. However, their complex physics means that they are hard to control. Current simulation testbeds are insufficient for taking the full advantage of elasticity.

A recent paper on arXiv.org proposes Elastica, a simulation environment tailored to soft robot context. It tries to fill the gap between conventional rigid body solvers, which are incapable to model complex continuum mechanics, and high-fidelity finite elements methods, which are mathematically cumbersome. Elastica can be used to simulate assemblies of soft, slender, and compliant rods and interface with major reinforcement learning packages. It is shown how most reinforcement learning models can learn to control a soft arm and to complete successively challenging tasks, like 3D tracking of a target, or maneuvering between structured and unstructured obstacles.

Soft robots are notoriously hard to control. This is partly due to the scarcity of models able to capture their complex continuum mechanics, resulting in a lack of control methodologies that take full advantage of body compliance. Currently available simulation methods are either too computational demanding or overly simplistic in their physical assumptions, leading to a paucity of available simulation resources for developing such control schemes. To address this, we introduce Elastica, a free, open-source simulation environment for soft, slender rods that can bend, twist, shear and stretch. We demonstrate how Elastica can be coupled with five state-of-the-art reinforcement learning algorithms to successfully control a soft, compliant robotic arm and complete increasingly challenging tasks.

Link: https://arxiv.org/abs/2009.08422