Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Amazon Jumps Into 3D Printing Game With On-Demand Store

Amazon has always been an on-demand marketplace of sorts; it can ship virtually anything in two days. But now, the online retail giant is taking "on demand" to a new level with its first 3D printing product marketplace.
As its name suggests, the 3D Printing Store is a place where you can select and customize products that are then 3D printed and delivered to you. The store, which launched on Monday, features dozens of items, including jewelry and trinkets, iPhone cases, bobblehead dolls (even ones that, with a little customization, can look like you), home decor and accessories, toys and art pieces. While most of these objects cost less than $40, the jewelry often retails for $100 or more.
Let us be clear: Amazon is not actually 3D printing anything. Instead, it partnered with a handful of 3D printing pros to bring this shop to life, including Sculpteo, MixeeLabs and 3DLT. It's actually those companies’ 3D products and services that Amazon is selling.
In addition to the traditional product photos, the site includes a 3D image of each object that you can click and drag to rotate. It's not without flaws, of course; all 3D renderings are in grayscale, and the rotation is rather jerky. You also can’t even zoom in for a better look at any of the 3D printed ware.
If the 3D printing companies offer customizable 3D designs, then Amazon's customers can customize their 3D tchotchkes, too — like a 3D wallet from MixeeLabs that lets you add custom text, change the color and alter a couple of design elements. The customization option is indicated with an orange "Personalize Now" button.
On-demand 3D printing continues to expand alongside the exponential growth of affordable, at-home 3D printers. In the on-demand space, Shapeways and Staples' MyEasy3D lead a growing list of consumer-friendly services. Competing for your attention and dollars, though, are Makerbot's Mini Replicator and the $199 Mod-T from Idea Lab's NewMatter.
When asked whether such widely available on-demand 3D printing could dampen enthusiasm for home 3D printers, Idea Labs CEO and NewMatter backer Bill Gross said it simply ups the game.
"Anything that gives more people a 'taste' of how great 3D printing is makes it more mainstream," Gross said. "I think this will make the desire to have a home printer even greater. [This] only makes the demand/desire to print something on the spot — be it for self-expression, or a replacement part, or a mockup, or an invention — greater than ever.” By Lance Ulanoff (

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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Stacking Cells Could Make Solar as Cheap as Natural Gas

A novel manufacturing method could make it practical to stack solar cells and convert more of the energy in sunlight into electricity.
When experts talk about future solar cells, they usually bring up exotic materials and physical phenomena. In the short term, however, a much simpler approach—stacking different semiconducting materials that collect different frequencies of light—could provide nearly as much of an increase in efficiency as any radical new design. And a new manufacturing technique could soon make this approach practical.
The startup Semprius, based in Durham, North Carolina, says it can produce very efficient stacked solar cells quickly and cheaply, opening the door to efficiencies as high as 50 percent. (Conventional solar cells convert less than 25 percent of the energy in sunlight into electricity.)
Semprius has come up with three key innovations: a cheap, fast way to stack cells, a proprietary way to electrically connect cells, and a new kind of glue for holding the cells together. In its designs, Semprius uses tiny individual solar cells, each just a millimeter across. That reduces costs for cooling and also helps improve efficiency.
The conventional way to stack semiconductors is to grow layers on top of each other. But not all semiconductors can be combined this way, because their crystalline structure doesn’t allow it. Semprius grows semiconductor materials in the conventional way but also stacks several different combinations, resulting in a solar panel that can capture more energy from sunlight.
Semprius has demonstrated cells made of three semiconductor materials stacked on top of a fourth solar cell that would not have been compatible otherwise. It has made two versions of the device this year, one with an efficiency of 43.9 percent and the other, using slightly different materials, with an efficiency of 44.1 percent.
In addition to being fast and precise, the approach also makes it possible to reuse the expensive crystalline wafers that multijunction solar cells are grown on. Eventually the company hopes to stack two multijunction devices, for a total of five or six semiconductors with a “very high performance, beyond 50 percent efficiency,” says Scott Burroughs, vice president of technology at Semprius. He says the company hopes to achieve this in three to five years.
The one catch is that the cells will be more costly than conventional ones. Sarah Kurtz, a principal scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, says costs won’t come down until production happens at a large scale.
With economies of scale, however, such cells could improve the economics of solar power. At a scale of 80 to 100 megawatts a year of manufacturing capacity, a cell with 50 percent efficiency would make it possible to reach costs of less than five cents per kilowatt-hour, Burroughs says. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that new natural-gas power plants will produce electricity at 6.4 cents per kilowatt-hour. By Kevin Bullis (

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