Archive for January, 2011

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in which i continue to blog about the weather

January 30, 2011

This weekend was glorious,  in a lot of ways.  Yesterday was another beautiful day, and although I spent it trying on clothes in a mall (ugh), I at least got to bike a few miles to the mall and back in the nice weather.  I also got a hot (but professional) suit out of it, which was the point, so that’s good.   Today I went hiking up a nifty little canyon trail west of Loveland.   Now, I’m in lab, but we’ll ignore that sad fact (7pm on a Sunday eve?  eww) and focus on the good.

Except that I just checked the forecast.  This is what I found:

Colorado, you are out of my good books. What the hell are you thinking, doing this to me?

Yay?  I knew you couldn’t keep away forever, winter, but I’m still going to resent you for it.

 

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can i get a hell yeah?

January 28, 2011

Today is an amazing day.  No, nothing of grand celestial importance has happened; rather, I got almost 7 hours of sleep, made really tasty coffee, and then I went outside barefoot in a t-shirt to move my car for my roommate.  I did this just out of laziness, fully expecting to suffer horribly for those few moments, since it’s January on the Front Range and it was still fairly early morning.

I was astounded.  These are the current conditions:

January. Front Range. Arid climates and weird mountain-influenced weather patterns for the win!

Normally this would be nice, but this morning I “had to” bike to an appointment, and now “have to” walk the dog now that I’m done.  Also, even if it was cold out, things are going generally awesome in my life right now, so today would probably be good anyway.

As it is, it’s amazing.  Happy Friday, world!  I hope yours is as happy as mine so far.

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an open letter, and a story of startling incompetence

January 20, 2011

Dear Verizon Wireless,

Despite your brilliantly friendly and helpful customer service representatives, I hope you die and go to hell.  I will never, ever, everevereverever EVER be buying service from you again.

Ever.

If your company one day has a complete monopoly on cell phone service, and I have to choose between buying service from you and not having a cell phone, I will not have a cell phone.  Your incompetence astounds me, and I can’t believe I pay you $70 a month to fuck things up so royally.  Please die.

Love,
Lady Quantum

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So the story here…

Read the rest of this entry ?

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i really ought to know better by now

January 20, 2011

It’s been a stressful couple of weeks.  It’s also been an awesome couple of weeks.  This peculiar cocktail of stressful and awesome has left me really, really, really wanting to spend some time with the partner.  Alas alack and woe, he lives 47 miles to the north of me (not as the crow flies, but as Miss Piggy drives).

Problem: today it snowed on the Front Range, probably about 3″ in grand total.  So the fuck what? you say.  It’s January.  It’s Colorado.  My point is…?

Read the rest of this entry ?

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in which our heroine acts like a real writer

January 13, 2011

As a part of applying to the AAAS Mass Media Science Fellowship, I was required to write a 750-word news story about a technical journal article.   I had a blast doing it, and it was an interesting opportunity to tackle an article that made a splash in my field back in October, which I was especially keen to do since the media that picked it up did such an abysmal job with it.  After writing this, I definitely have a little more of an idea why scientists hate science journalism so much, and why it’s not 100% fair to science journalists to trash them for it.  To break complex research down in a limited amount of space, a writer has to leave a lot of information out, and some of it will no doubt be important information.  In the article below, I had to ditch a few concepts that are absolutely crucial, and it killed me to do it.

At any rate, at the end of this exercise, I was left with what I think is a decently well-written article about an important achievement in my field.  What’s a girl to do but share it with her loyal blog stalkers, many of whom would really like to hear more about my research (research related to it, in this case)?  With no further ado….

Solar energy breakthrough: two for the price of one

Solar technology is a cornerstone of our transition to renewable energy, but traditional solar cells can never be more than about 30% efficient. New solar innovations may one day break that limit, and now a team of researchers based at the University of Wyoming has demonstrated one way that it might be done.

All solar cells operate on the same basic principle: they convert energy from sunlight into electricity. By putting a little bit of light in, we get a little bit of electricity out. It turns out that “a little bit” has an exact meaning here: both light and electricity are “quantized,” meaning they only come in specific amounts, like packages at the store. In traditional solar cells, we can use one package of light – one photon – to buy one package of electricity – one electron. This price is what ultimately sets the upper limit of 30% efficiency.

One way researchers can beat that limit is to try to change the price, which means changing the material used. In strange materials known as “quantum dots,” electricity is buy one get one free: one photon of light can buy two electrons of electricity. Unfortunately, there’s a catch: there has never been a way to extract those electrons. We can get electrons for cheap, but we can only take advantage of the deal if we never leave the store with our purchase.

In a new study published in Science, a group led by Bruce Parkinson at the University of Wyoming has found a way to change that. His team has developed a quantum dot solar cell where one photon of light can produce two electrons of electricity, and for the first time, that electricity can be collected and used outside of the cell.

Their solar cell is radically different from the familiar rooftop devices we see today, which consist of a single slice of solar material – usually silicon – connected to metal electrical leads. Instead, Parkinson’s team uses a thin slice of titanium dioxide as an electrical contact, and applies only a thin coating of the solar material, lead sulfide quantum dots. Sunlight is absorbed and converted into electricity in the quantum dots, and the electricity is then extracted through the titanium dioxide.

This solar cell design is actually nothing new. Known as “sensitized solar cells,” these devices originally used a coating of molecular dye to convert sunlight to electricity. Because good solar materials tend to be expensive, a sensitized solar cell can reduce costs by using less material than a more traditional solar cell. They also require much less energy to produce, and can be manufactured into lightweight and flexible sheets.

One of the most attractive things of all about sensitized solar cells is that the design makes it possible to separate the jobs of converting sunlight and of conducting electricity. A traditional solar cell needs a material that is a good converter and a good conductor, and these two properties are almost always in conflict. A sensitized solar cell, however, can use one material to do the conversion, and a different material to do the conduction, taking advantage of the best properties of each.

The trick to making a good sensitized cell lies in building the connection between the converting material and the conducting material. The converting material does all the real work of the solar cell, but without a good connection to the conducting material, the generated electricity can’t go anywhere and will eventually dissipate as heat. This has long been the problem for quantum dot sensitized solar cells: quantum dots offered buy one get one free prices on electricity, but lacked a good connection to the conducting material, meaning none of that cheap electricity could leave the store.

Now, Parkinson’s team has discovered how to build a good connection between lead sulfide quantum dots and titanium dioxide contacts. Using a chemical called mercaptaprionic acid as a bridge, electrons in their solar cell can cross efficiently between the lead sulfide quantum dots where they are produced into the titanium dioxide where they are collected.

Unfortunately, despite the remarkable efficiency of the quantum dots themselves, other problems make these cells less efficient overall than traditional solar cells. Huge challenges remain before the technology can be scaled up for mass production, and quantum dot sensitized solar cells have a long road ahead before they can compete with traditional technology. Regardless, Parkinson’s team has taken an important first step.

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lady quantum’s guide to biking in the snow

January 10, 2011

Don’t.



My boots looked like this too. My boots...and the entire front of my body. Face included.

Too snowy to use the nice bike with a front fender (it has skinny tires and friction brakes) in the morning, it got too wet in the afternoon to use the knobby-tired beater three-speed and not get everything from my face down to my boots coated in brown slush.  So, I got coated in brown slush.  Mmm.  Good thing I needed to do laundry anyway.

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even our ice is dirty

January 9, 2011

…but it sure looks cool.  Just got back from the partner’s northward residence, after making the drive in the snow now so as to avoid making it in more (and blowing) snow tomorrow.  Miss Piggy (my mid-90s Camry…I ran over a frog once) got a nice coating.  Here are some pictures I snapped of the neat ice formations that result from a gross drive.

Hella sweet rims.

Close-up view.

Miss Piggy is growing cilia. Oddly enough, they face opposite to my direction of travel (likely due to spray from my sweet rims).

[The original story for Miss Piggy’s name is this: she’s big, she’s heavy, but she’s surprisingly efficient and can do pretty much everything you tell her she can’t do.  The “ran over a frog once” version is both more succinct and funnier, but sadly wasn’t my idea (it came from a friend).]