Japan Wants To Decarbonize With The Help Of Ammonia

With climate change concerns front of mind, the world is desperate to get to net-zero carbon output as soon as possible. While direct electrification is becoming popular for regular passenger cars, it’s not yet practical for more energy-intensive applications like aircraft or intercontinental shipping. Thus, the hunt has been on for cleaner replacements for conventional fossil fuels.

Hydrogen is the most commonly cited, desirable for the fact that it burns very cleanly. Its only main combustion product is water, though its combustion can generate some nitrogen oxides when burned with air. However, hydrogen is yet to catch on en-masse, due largely to issues around transport, storage, and production.

This could all change, however, with the help of one garden-variety chemical: ammonia. Ammonia is now coming to the fore as an alternative solution. It’s often been cited as a potential way to store and transport hydrogen in an alternative chemical form, since its formula consists of one nitrogen atom and three hydrogen atoms.However, more recently, ammonia is being considered as a fuel in its own right.

Let’s take a look at how this common cleaning product could be part of a new energy revolution.

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Floppy Disk Sings: I’m Big In Japan

The other day, a medical office needed my insurance card. I asked them where to e-mail it and they acted like I had offered them human flesh as an appetizer. “We don’t have e-mail! You have to bring it to us in person!” They finally admitted that they could take a fax and I then had to go figure out how to get a free one page fax sent over the Internet. Keep in mind, that I live in the fourth largest city in the United States — firmly in the top 100 largest cities in the world. I’m not out in the wilderness dealing with a country doctor.

I understand HIPAA and other legal and regulatory concerns probably inhibit them from taking e-mail, but other doctors and health care providers have apparently figured it out. But it turns out that the more regulations are involved in something, the more behind-the-times it is likely to be.

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Fire At Renesas Plant Fuels Chip Supply Woes

The small city of Naka (pop. 53K), a two-hour train ride from Tokyo on the eastern coast of Japan, was thrust into the international spotlight in the early dawn of Friday morning. A fire broke out among electroplating equipment in Renesas’s 300 nm N3 fabrication facility. It was extinguished before breakfast time, and fortunately nobody was injured nor were there any toxic chemical leaks. Only six hundred square meters on the first floor of the plant was damaged, but the entire building has to be closed for repairs. It will take approximately one month to restore normal operations, and CEO Hidetoshi Shibata is “concerned that there will be a massive impact on chip supplies”.

Renesas Naka Plant Location

In a press conference on Sunday afternoon, Renesas reports that the source of the fire has been determined, but the details are still unclear:

The casing of the equipment and the plating tank have relatively low resistance to heat, and the equipment ignited due to overcurrent. However, the cause of the overcurrent and the reason for the ignition is currently being investigated.

Semiconductors are already in short supply, as we reported back in January, forcing slowdowns at many auto manufacturers. The Naka plant primarily makes automotive semiconductors, worsening an already stressed supply chain. While the news focuses on the automotive sector, this shortage spills over into many other industries as well.

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Japan To Launch Wooden Satellites

We may have wooden satellites in just a few years, according to an announcement this month by Kyoto University and Sumitomo Forestry, organizations whose combined roots go back 550 years.

Wood’s place in high-technology has a long track record. During World War 2, wooden boats were used for minesweepers, the Spruce Goose was designed to circumvent wartime material restrictions, and Britain’s plywood-built De Havilland Mosquito had a very low radar cross section. In this century, a man in Bosnia has even built a Volkswagen Beetle out of oak.

The newly-announced aerospace project, led by retired astronaut and engineer Prof Takao Doi, plans to launch satellites built from wood in order to reduce space debris and hazardous substances resulting from re-entry. We’re somewhat skeptical on the hazardous substances angle (and we’re not alone in this), but certainly as a way to help ensure complete burn up upon re-entry, wood is an interesting material. It also achieves a great strength to weight ratio and as a renewable resource it’s easy to source.

Prof Doi has been studying the use of wood in space for several years now. Back in 2017 he began basic research on the usability of timbers in space (pg 16), where his team experimented with coniferous (cedar and cypress) and hardwood (satinwood, magnolia, and zelkova) trees in vacuum environments. Based on successes, they predicted wooden satellite launches in the mid 2020s (their announcement this month said 2023). Sumitomo engineers have not released what kind of wood(s) will finally be used on the satellite.

You might remember Astronaut Doi from an experiment aboard the ISS where he successfully demonstrated flying a boomerang in space (video below), and he’s also discovered two supernovae in his spare time. We wish him good luck.

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Tokyo Mechanical Keyboard Meetup Knocks Our Clacks Off

Just a few days ago, on the other side of the planet from this author, there was a mechanical keyboard meetup in Tokyo. Fortunately through the magic of the Internet we can all enjoy the impressive collection of devices people brought, and boy were there some interesting specimens. There were certainly the inevitable collections of strange artisan keycaps, unusual handmade switches, and keycap sets only available in one group buy five years ago in Nicaragua. But among the bright colors were some truly unique custom designs the likes of which we haven’t see before. A single source is hard to credit, you could check the hashtag #tokyomk6 on Twitter, or [obra]’s thread of photos, or this great blog post (video walkthroughs and photos included) from [romly].

Speaking of [romly], one of their designs stands out as particularly unusual. There are a few things to note here. One is the very conspicuous surface profile of the (clearly totally custom) keycaps themselves. Instead of flat or cylindrical or spherical, these are round. Round like the outside of a log. If we didn’t know better it might look like the entire thing was sculpted or extruded as a single unit. And just below the deck are the perpendicular thumb clusters. Frankly we aren’t sure how to refer to this design feature. The switches are mounted at right angles facing inward so the user places a thumb inside it in a style reminiscent of the DataHand. It’s quite interesting, and we’d be love to know more about what specific functionality it provides.

Another interesting entrant is this keyboard with unusually staggered switches and hexagonal caps (check out the individual markings!). Very broadly there are two typical keyboard layout styles; the diagonal columns of QWERTY (derived from a typewriter in the 1800’s) or the non slanted columns of an “ortholinear” or matrix style layout. By those metrics this is something like an ortholinear keyboard in that its switches overlap their neighbors by half, but the edge to edge close packed caps imply that it might be something else.  We’d be very interested to know how typing on this beast would be!

There were so many more awesome designs present at the meetup that this would never end if we tried to document them all. Take a look through the posts and call out anything else too excellent to go unnoticed!

Thanks [obra] for Tweeting about this so we could discover it.

Review: IchigoJam Single Board Computer

It won’t replace your beloved Rasbperry Pi, but it’s worth saying hello to this “Strawberry Jam”, straight out of Japan. It’s an equally delicious way to get people interested in the basics of coding.

My hackerspace friend Jim is a lucky bloke, for last year he was able to take an extended holiday through a succession of East Asian countries. We were treated to online pictures of beautiful scenery and beaches, city lights, and of course exciting tech destinations such as hardware markets and hackerspaces. On his return he tossed a package on the table in front of me and said “Jenny, you might like to take a look at that, these are big in Japan!” Inside was an electronic kit and a few pieces of documentation, with Japanese text.

A Different Way To Get Kids Coding

The contents of the IchigoJam kit.
The contents of the IchigoJam kit.

What he’d given me was an IchigoJam (Best translation I’ve been given is “Strawberry Jam”), a small single-board computer aimed at young people. In the style of the 8-bit machines of the 1980s, it runs a comprehensive BASIC interpreter and plugs into a TV set, though it brings itself up-to-date with a USB-A socket for a keyboard. At its heart is an NXP LPC1114F102 ARM Cortex-M0 microcontroller with 32KB of Flash and 4KB of SRAM, and though the board Jim passed to me has a surface-mount example it’s clear that it was also designed for the now-obsolete DIP variant of the chip. If you were to think of this as an odd hybrid of a BASIC Stamp, a Raspberry Pi, and one of the smaller MBED boards, you probably wouldn’t be too far from the mark. What follows is my impression of it based on the information at hand. Sadly the IchigoJam website and forum seems only available to Japanese viewers and returns an error code from my European perspective.

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Zen And The Art Of Japanese Tea Robots

In Japan, tea ceremony (cha-dou) is revered as a way to a gain deeper insights into life and philosophy. Traditional Japanese tea ceremony practitioners put in long hours to master the intricacies and details of pouring tea. The road to becoming a tea master is crucial as it develops the practitioner’s mental state as well as physical technique.

However if you don’t have time to master the “way of tea”, then you can build a bot and automate your zen experience. That’s exactly what the people at Ano Labs did when they built their Japanese Tea Ceremony Robot #151A.

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