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Physicists develop basic principles for mini-labs on chips

Colloidal particles have become increasingly important for research as vehicles of biochemical agents. In future, it will be possible to study their behaviour much more efficiently than before by placing them on a magnetised chip. A research team from the University of Bayreuth reports on these new findings in the journal Nature Communications. The scientists have discovered that colloidal rods can be moved on a chip quickly, precisely, and in different directions, almost like chess pieces. A pre-programmed magnetic field even enables these controlled movements to occur simultaneously.

For the recently published study, the research team, led by Prof. Dr. Thomas Fischer, Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Bayreuth, worked closely with partners at the University of Pozn√°n and the University of Kassel. To begin with, individual spherical colloidal particles constituted the building blocks for rods of different lengths. These particles were assembled in such a way as to allow the rods to move in different directions on a magnetised chip like upright chess figures — as if by magic, but in fact determined by the characteristics of the magnetic field.

In a further step, the scientists succeeded in eliciting individual movements in various directions simultaneously. The critical factor here was the “programming” of the magnetic field with the aid of a mathematical code, which in encrypted form, outlines all the movements to be performed by the figures. When these movements are carried out simultaneously, they take up to one tenth of the time needed if they are carried out one after the other like the moves on a chessboard.

“The simultaneity of differently directed movements makes research into colloidal particles and their dynamics much more efficient,” says Adrian Ernst, doctoral student in the Bayreuth research team and co-author of the publication. “Miniaturised laboratories on small chips measuring just a few centimetres in size are being used more and more in basic physics research to gain insights into the properties and dynamics of materials. Our new research results reinforce this trend. Because colloidal particles are in many cases very well suited as vehicles for active substances, our research results could be of particular benefit to biomedicine and biotechnology,” says Mahla Mirzaee-Kakhki, first author and Bayreuth doctoral student.

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Security software for autonomous vehicles

Before autonomous vehicles participate in road traffic, they must demonstrate conclusively that they do not pose a danger to others. New software developed at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) prevents accidents by predicting different variants of a traffic situation every millisecond.

A car approaches an intersection. Another vehicle jets out of the cross street, but it is not yet clear whether it will turn right or left. At the same time, a pedestrian steps into the lane directly in front of the car, and there is a cyclist on the other side of the street. People with road traffic experience will in general assess the movements of other traffic participants correctly.

“These kinds of situations present an enormous challenge for autonomous vehicles controlled by computer programs,” explains Matthias Althoff, Professor of Cyber-Physical Systems at TUM. “But autonomous driving will only gain acceptance of the general public if you can ensure that the vehicles will not endanger other road users — no matter how confusing the traffic situation.”

Algorithms that peer into the future

The ultimate goal when developing software for autonomous vehicles is to ensure that they will not cause accidents. Althoff, who is a member of the Munich School of Robotics and Machine Intelligence at TUM, and his team have now developed a software module that permanently analyzes and predicts events while driving. Vehicle sensor data are recorded and evaluated every millisecond. The software can calculate all possible movements for every traffic participant — provided they adhere to the road traffic regulations — allowing the system to look three to six seconds into the future.

Based on these future scenarios, the system determines a variety of movement options for the vehicle. At the same time, the program calculates potential emergency maneuvers in which the vehicle can be moved out of harm’s way by accelerating or braking without endangering others. The autonomous vehicle may only follow routes that are free of foreseeable collisions and for which an emergency maneuver option has been identified.

Streamlined models for swift calculations

This kind of detailed traffic situation forecasting was previously considered too time-consuming and thus impractical. But now, the Munich research team has shown not only the theoretical viability of real-time data analysis with simultaneous simulation of future traffic events: They have also demonstrated that it delivers reliable results.

The quick calculations are made possible by simplified dynamic models. So-called reachability analysis is used to calculate potential future positions a car or a pedestrian might assume. When all characteristics of the road users are taken into account, the calculations become prohibitively time-consuming. That is why Althoff and his team work with simplified models. These are superior to the real ones in terms of their range of motion — yet, mathematically easier to handle. This enhanced freedom of movement allows the models to depict a larger number of possible positions but includes the subset of positions expected for actual road users.

Real traffic data for a virtual test environment

For their evaluation, the computer scientists created a virtual model based on real data they had collected during test drives with an autonomous vehicle in Munich. This allowed them to craft a test environment that closely reflects everyday traffic scenarios. “Using the simulations, we were able to establish that the safety module does not lead to any loss of performance in terms of driving behavior, the predictive calculations are correct, accidents are prevented, and in emergency situations the vehicle is demonstrably brought to a safe stop,” Althoff sums up.

The computer scientist emphasizes that the new security software could simplify the development of autonomous vehicles because it can be combined with all standard motion control programs.

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High-precision electrochemistry: The new gold standard in fuel cell catalyst development

Vehicles powered by polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cells (PEMFCs) are energy-efficient and eco-friendly, but despite increasing public interest in PEMFC-powered transportation, current performance of materials that are used in fuel cells limits their widespread commercialization.

Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory led a team to investigate reactions in PEMFCs, and their discoveries informed the creation of technology that could bring fuel cells one step closer to realizing their full market potential.

PEMFCs rely on hydrogen as a fuel, which is oxidized on the cell’s anode side through a hydrogen oxidation reaction, while oxygen from the air is used for an oxygen reduction reaction (ORR) at the cathode. Through these processes, fuel cells produce electricity to power electric motors in vehicles and other applications, emitting water as the only by-product.

Platinum-based, nano-sized particles are the most effective materials for promoting reactions in fuel cells, including the ORR in the cathode. However, in addition to their high cost, platinum nanoparticles suffer from gradual degradation, especially in the cathode, which limits catalytic performance and reduces the lifetime of the fuel cell.

The research team, which included DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory and several university partners, used a novel approach to examine dissolution processes of platinum at the atomic and molecular level. The investigation enabled them to identify the degradation mechanism during the cathodic ORR, and the insights guided the design of a nanocatalyst that uses gold to eliminate platinum dissolution.

“The dissolution of platinum occurs at the atomic and molecular scale during exposure to the highly corrosive environment in fuel cells,” said Vojislav Stamenkovic, a senior scientist and group leader for the Energy Conversion and Storage group in Argonne’s Materials Science Division (MSD). “This material degradation affects the fuel cell’s long-term operations, presenting an obstacle for fuel cell implementation in transportation, specifically in heavy duty applications such as long-haul trucks.”

Starting small

The scientists used a range of customized characterization tools to investigate the dissolution of well-defined platinum structures in single-crystal surfaces, thin films and nanoparticles.

“We have developed capabilities to observe processes at the atomic scale to understand the mechanisms responsible for dissolution and to identify the conditions under which it occurs,” said Pietro Papa Lopes, a scientist in Argonne’s MSD and first author on the study. “Then we implemented this knowledge into material design to mitigate dissolution and increase durability.”

The team studied the nature of dissolution at the fundamental level using surface-specific tools, electrochemical methods, inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry, computational modeling and atomic force, scanning tunneling and high-resolution transmission microscopies.

In addition, the scientists relied on a high-precision synthesis approach to create structures with well-defined physical and chemical properties, ensuring that the relationships between structure and stability discovered from studying 2D surfaces were carried over to the 3D nanoparticles they produced.

“We performed these studies — from single crystals, to thin films, to nanoparticles — which showed us how to synthesize platinum catalysts to increase durability,” said Lopes, “and by looking at these different materials, we also identified strategies for using gold to protect the platinum.”

Going for gold

As the scientists uncovered the fundamental nature of dissolution by observing its occurrence in several testbed scenarios, the team used the knowledge to mitigate dissolution with the addition of gold.

The researchers used transmission electron microscopy capabilities at Argonne’s Center for Nanoscale Materials and at the Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences at Oak Ridge National Laboratory — both DOE Office of Science User Facilities — to image platinum nanoparticles after synthesis and before and after operation. This technique allowed the scientists to compare the stability of the nanoparticles with and without incorporated gold.

The team found that controlled placement of gold in the core promotes the arrangement of platinum in an optimal surface structure that grants high stability. In addition, gold was selectively deposited on the surface to protect specific sites that the team identified as particularly vulnerable for dissolution. This strategy eliminates dissolution of platinum from even the smallest nanoparticles used in this study by keeping platinum atoms attached to the sites where they can still effectively catalyze the ORR.

Atomic-level understanding

Understanding the mechanisms behind dissolution at the atomic level is essential to uncovering the correlation between platinum loss, surface structure and size and ratio of platinum nanoparticles, and determining how these relationships affect long-term operation.

“The novel part of this research is resolving the mechanisms and fully mitigating platinum dissolution by material design at different scales, from single crystals and thin films to nanoparticles,” said Stamenkovic. “It’s the insights we gained in conjunction with the design and synthesis of a nanomaterial that addresses durability issues in fuel cells, as well as the ability to delineate and quantify dissolution of platinum catalyst from other processes that contribute to fuel cell performance decay.”

The team is also developing a predictive aging algorithm to assess the long-term durability of the platinum-based nanoparticles and found a 30-fold improvement in durability compared to nanoparticles without gold.

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Battery breakthrough gives boost to electric flight and long-range electric cars

In the pursuit of a rechargeable battery that can power electric vehicles (EVs) for hundreds of miles on a single charge, scientists have endeavored to replace the graphite anodes currently used in EV batteries with lithium metal anodes.

But while lithium metal extends an EV’s driving range by 30-50%, it also shortens the battery’s useful life due to lithium dendrites, tiny treelike defects that form on the lithium anode over the course of many charge and discharge cycles. What’s worse, dendrites short-circuit the cells in the battery if they make contact with the cathode.

For decades, researchers assumed that hard, solid electrolytes, such as those made from ceramics, would work best to prevent dendrites from working their way through the cell. But the problem with that approach, many found, is that it didn’t stop dendrites from forming or “nucleating” in the first place, like tiny cracks in a car windshield that eventually spread.

Now, researchers at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), in collaboration with Carnegie Mellon University, have reported in the journal Nature Materials a new class of soft, solid electrolytes — made from both polymers and ceramics — that suppress dendrites in that early nucleation stage, before they can propagate and cause the battery to fail.

The technology is an example of Berkeley Lab’s multidisciplinary collaborations across its user facilities to develop new ideas to assemble, characterize, and develop materials and devices for solid state batteries.

Solid-state energy storage technologies such as solid-state lithium metal batteries, which use a solid electrode and a solid electrolyte, can provide high energy density combined with excellent safety, but the technology must overcome diverse materials and processing challenges.

“Our dendrite-suppressing technology has exciting implications for the battery industry,” said co-author Brett Helms, a staff scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Molecular Foundry. “With it, battery manufacturers can produce safer lithium metal batteries with both high energy density and a long cycle life.”

Helms added that lithium metal batteries manufactured with the new electrolyte could also be used to power electric aircraft.

A soft approach to dendrite suppression

Key to the design of these new soft, solid-electrolytes was the use of soft polymers of intrinsic microporosity, or PIMs, whose pores were filled with nanosized ceramic particles. Because the electrolyte remains a flexible, soft, solid material, battery manufacturers will be able to manufacture rolls of lithium foils with the electrolyte as a laminate between the anode and the battery separator. These lithium-electrode sub-assemblies, or LESAs, are attractive drop-in replacements for the conventional graphite anode, allowing battery manufacturers to use their existing assembly lines, Helms said.

To demonstrate the dendrite-suppressing features of the new PIM composite electrolyte, the Helms team used X-rays at Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Light Source to create 3D images of the interface between lithium metal and the electrolyte, and to visualize lithium plating and stripping for up to 16 hours at high current. Continuously smooth growth of lithium was observed when the new PIM composite electrolyte was present, while in its absence the interface showed telltale signs of the early stages of dendritic growth.

These and other data confirmed predictions from a new physical model for electrodeposition of lithium metal, which takes into account both chemical and mechanical characteristics of the solid electrolytes.

“In 2017, when the conventional wisdom was that you need a hard electrolyte, we proposed that a new dendrite suppression mechanism is possible with a soft solid electrolyte,” said co-author Venkat Viswanathan, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and faculty fellow at Scott Institute for Energy Innovation at Carnegie Mellon University who led the theoretical studies for the work. “It is amazing to find a material realization of this approach with PIM composites.”

An awardee under the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy’s (ARPA-E) IONICS program, 24M Technologies, has integrated these materials into larger format batteries for both EVs and eVTOL (electric vertical takeoff and landing) aircraft.

“While there are unique power requirements for EVs and eVTOLs, the PIM composite solid electrolyte technology appears to be versatile and enabling at high power,” said Helms.

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New research leads to drones changing shape mid-flight

Soon, the U.S. Army will be able to deploy autonomous air vehicles that can change shape during flight, according to new research presented at the AIAA Aviation Forum and Exposition’s virtual event June 16.

Researchers with the U.S. Army’s Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Army Research Laboratory and Texas A&M University published findings of a two-year study in fluid-structure interaction. Their research led to a tool, which will be able to rapidly optimize the structural configuration for Future Vertical Lift vehicles while properly accounting for the interaction between air and the structure.

Within the next year, this tool will be used to develop and rapidly optimize Future Vertical Lift vehicles capable of changing shape during flight, thereby optimizing performance of the vehicle through different phases of flight.

“Consider an [Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance] mission where the vehicle needs to get quickly to station, or dash, and then attempt to stay on station for as long as possible, or loiter,” said Dr. Francis Phillips, an aerospace engineer at the laboratory. “During dash segments, short wings are desirable in order to go fast and be more maneuverable, but for loiter segments, long wings are desirable in order to enable low power, high endurance flight.”

This tool will enable the structural optimization of a vehicle capable of such morphing while accounting for the deformation of the wings due to the fluid-structure interaction, he said.

One concern with morphing vehicles is striking a balance between sufficient bending stiffness and softness to enable to morphing,” Phillips said. “If the wing bends too much, then the theoretical benefits of the morphing could be negated and also could lead to control issues and instabilities.”

Fluid-structure interaction analyses typically require coupling between a fluid and a structural solver.

This, in turn, means that the computational cost for these analyses can be very high — in the range of about 10,000s core hours — for a single fluid and structural configuration.

To overcome these challenges, researchers developed a process that decouples the fluid and structural solvers, which can reduce the computational cost for a single run by as much as 80 percent, Phillips said.

The analysis of additional structural configurations can also be performed without re-analyzing the fluid due to this decoupled approach, which in turn generates additional computational cost savings, leading to multiple orders of magnitude reductions in computational cost when considering this method within an optimization framework.

Ultimately, this means the Army could design multi-functional Future Vertical Lift vehicles much more quickly than through the use of current techniques, he said.

For the past 20 years, there have been advances in research in morphing aerial vehicles but what makes the Army’s studies different is its look at the fluid-structure interaction during vehicle design and structural optimization instead of designing a vehicle first and then seeing what the fluid-structure interaction behavior will be.

“This research will have a direct impact on the ability to generate vehicles for the future warfighter,” Phillips said. “By reducing the computational cost for fluid-structure interaction analysis, structural optimization of future vertical lift vehicles can be accomplished in a much shorter time-frame.”

According to Phillips, when implemented within an optimization framework and coupled with additive manufacturing, the future warfighter will be able to use this tool to manufacture optimized custom air vehicles for mission specific uses.

Phillips presented this work in a paper, Uncoupled Method for Massively Parallelizable 3-D Fluid-Structure Interaction Analysis and Design, co-authored by the laboratory’s Drs. Todd Henry and John Hrynuk, as well as Texas A&M University’s Trent White, William Scholten and Dr. Darren Hartl.

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Drones could still be a threat to public safety — New research improves drone detection

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), commonly known as drones, are widely used in mapping, aerial photography, rescue operations, shipping, law enforcement, agriculture, among other things. Despite great potential for improving public safety, use of drones can also lead to very undesirable situations, such as privacy and safety violations, or property damage. There is also the highly concerning matter of drones being harnessed to carry out terrorist attacks, which means a threat to public safety and national security.

Radar technology is one of the solutions to monitor the presence of drones and prevent possible threats. Due to their varying sizes, shapes and composite materials, drones can be challenging to detect.

Researchers from Aalto University (Finland), UCLouvain (Belgium), and New York University (USA) have gathered extensive radar measurement data, aiming to improve the detection and identification of drones. Researchers measured various commercially available and custom-built drone models’ Radar Cross Section (RCS), which indicates how the target reflects radio signals. The RCS signature can help to identify the size, shape and the material of the drone.

‘We measured drones’ RCS at multiple 26-40 GHz millimetre-wave frequencies to better understand how drones can be detected, and to investigate the difference between drone models and materials in terms of scattering radio signals. We believe that our results will be a starting point for a future uniform drone database. Therefore, all results are publicly available along with our research paper,’ says the author, researcher D. Sc. Vasilii Semkin.

The publicly accessible measurement data can be utilised in the development of radar systems, as well as machine learning algorithms for more complex identification. This would increase the probability of detecting drones and reducing fault detections.

‘There is an urgent need to find better ways to monitor drone use. We aim to continue this work and extend the measurement campaign to other frequency bands, as well as for a larger variety of drones and different real-life environments,’ Vasilii Semkin says.

Researchers suggest that 5G base stations could made in the future for surveillance.

‘We are developing millimetre-wave wireless communication technology, which could also be used in sensing the environment like a radar. With this technology, 5G-base stations could detect drones, among other things,’ says professor Ville Viikari from Aalto University.

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What to expect when you’re expecting electric transportation

While electric vehicles alone may not reduce carbon emissions, a new study reveals that when electric vehicles are powered with renewable energy and coupled with carbon policy strategies, they can help combat climate change without sacrificing economic growth.

In the study led by Assistant Professor Runsen Zhang at Hiroshima University, researchers combined economic and transport models and data from 17 regions around the world to produce six scenarios for transportation into the year 2100.

As many governments plan to phase out vehicles that rely on fossil fuels by 2050, Zhang’s data provides additional information that could be applied to climate mitigation strategies and policies worldwide.

In one scenario where countries produced only electric vehicles (including cars, two-wheelers, buses, and small trucks) and also implemented a carbon pricing strategy, the global mean temperature increase peaked at 1.82 degrees Celsius in the year 2090 and settled at 1.8 degrees Celsius in 2100.

This figure is lower than the 2 degrees Celsius climate goal that all countries in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change have proposed to constrain global warming to, relative to pre-industrial levels, as part of the Cancun Agreement. The results in this scenario with carbon pricing strategies could help meet the climate change mitigation goals.

“An electric vehicle policy is good for macroeconomic systems, but the condition is that we need a supporting policy and that is carbon pricing or renewable energy,” said Zhang.

While a carbon pricing policy initially revealed a negative impact on the economic system (i.e. gross domestic product loss), when carbon pricing was coupled with policies that mandated electric road transportation, this electric vehicle policy ultimately alleviated negative impacts of carbon pricing on the economic system.

The study also revealed how carbon pricing strategies were more significant in reducing emissions than a high preference for renewable energy sources. However, a high preference for renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power, still facilitated growth in the power sector, so renewable energy remains an important strategy to reduce carbon emissions and maintain economic stability or growth.

Zhang notes a large proportion of a vehicle’s carbon footprint is generated at the factory before cars reach the road. The limitations of this study included that the dynamics of electrical vehicle charging were not considered, but it could be an area of future research.

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Swarming robots avoid collisions, traffic jams

For self-driving vehicles to become an everyday reality, they need to safely and flawlessly navigate one another without crashing or causing unnecessary traffic jams.

To help make this possible, Northwestern University researchers have developed the first decentralized algorithm with a collision-free, deadlock-free guarantee.

The researchers tested the algorithm in a simulation of 1,024 robots and on a swarm of 100 real robots in the laboratory. The robots reliably, safely and efficiently converged to form a pre-determined shape in less than a minute.

“If you have many autonomous vehicles on the road, you don’t want them to collide with one another or get stuck in a deadlock,” said Northwestern’s Michael Rubenstein, who led the study. “By understanding how to control our swarm robots to form shapes, we can understand how to control fleets of autonomous vehicles as they interact with each other.”

The paper will be published later this month in the journal IEEE Transactions on Robotics. Rubenstein is the Lisa Wissner-Slivka and Benjamin Slivka Professor in Computer Science in Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering.

The advantage of a swarm of small robots — versus one large robot or a swarm with one lead robot — is the lack of a centralized control, which can quickly become a central point of failure. Rubenstein’s decentralized algorithm acts as a fail-safe.

“If the system is centralized and a robot stops working, then the entire system fails,” Rubenstein said. “In a decentralized system, there is no leader telling all the other robots what to do. Each robot makes its own decisions. If one robot fails in a swarm, the swarm can still accomplish the task.”

Still, the robots need to coordinate in order to avoid collisions and deadlock. To do this, the algorithm views the ground beneath the robots as a grid. By using technology similar to GPS, each robot is aware of where it sits on the grid.

Before making a decision about where to move, each robot uses sensors to communicate with its neighbors, determining whether or not nearby spaces within the grid are vacant or occupied.

“The robots refuse to move to a spot until that spot is free and until they know that no other robots are moving to that same spot,” Rubenstein said. “They are careful and reserve a space ahead of time.”

Even with all this careful coordination, the robots are still able to communicate and move swiftly to form a shape. Rubenstein accomplishes this by keeping the robots near-sighted.

“Each robot can only sense three or four of its closest neighbors,” Rubenstein explained. “They can’t see across the whole swarm, which makes it easier to scale the system. The robots interact locally to make decisions without global information.”

In Rubenstein’s swarm, for example, 100 robots can coordinate to form a shape within a minute. In some previous approaches, it could take a full hour. Rubenstein imagines that his algorithm could be used in fleets of driverless cars and in automated warehouses.

“Large companies have warehouses with hundreds of robots doing tasks similar to what our robots do in the lab,” he said. “They need to make sure their robots don’t collide but do move as quickly as possible to reach the spot where they eventually give an object to a human.”

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Cobalt supply can meet demand for electric vehicle and electronics batteries

Greater use of electric vehicles might be good for the environment, but further growth hinges on continued availability of critical battery components such as cobalt. Cell phones and other electronics also depend on the element’s availability. Supplies of the metal are adequate in the short term, but shortages could develop down the road if refining and recycling aren’t ramped up or made more efficient, according to research published in ACS’ Environmental Science & Technology.

Roughly 60% of mined cobalt is sourced from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The element is often recovered as a byproduct from mining copper and nickel, meaning that demand and pricing for those other metals affects the availability of cobalt. Half of the current supply of cobalt is incorporated into cathodes for lithium-ion batteries, and many of those batteries are used in consumer electronics and electric vehicles. Demand for these vehicles and their batteries is growing swiftly: In 2018, the global electric car fleet numbered in excess of 5.1 million, up 2 million from the prior year, according to the International Energy Agency. Elsa Olivetti and coworkers wanted to find out if planned cobalt expansions could keep pace with this brisk growth.

To determine potential cobalt supply and demand through 2030, the researchers analyzed variables, including electric vehicle demand; cobalt mining, refining and recycling capacity; battery chemistry trends; socioeconomic and political trends; and the feasibility of substituting other materials for cobalt. These variables could be affected by political instability in DRC, policy decisions favoring electric vehicles, disruptions in China (which refines around half of the cobalt supply), and fluctuations in copper and nickel prices. The researchers concluded that cobalt supply is adequate in the short-term. They estimate supply will reach 320-460 thousand metric tons by 2030, while demand will reach 235-430 thousand metric tons. The team recommends that the industry invest in additional efficient refining and recycling capacity, so it can continue to meet demand.

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Security risk for e-scooters and riders

Micromobility vehicles, such as e-scooters, zip in and out of traffic. In San Antonio alone, over 12,000 scooters are on the road. For this reason, micromobility is seen as an alleviating trend to help tackle traffic congestion.

However, new research out of UTSA finds e-scooters have risks beyond the perils of potential collisions. Computer science experts at UTSA have published the first review of the security and privacy risks posed by e-scooters and their related software services and applications.

“We were already investigating the risks posed by these micromobility vehicles to pedestrians’ safety. During that study, we also realized that besides significant safety concerns, this new transportation paradigm brings forth new cybersecurity and privacy risks as well,” noted Murtuza JaAccording to the review, which will soon appear in the proceedings of the 2nd ACM Workshop on Automotive and Aerial Vehicle Security (AutoSec 2020), hackers can cause a series of attacks, including eavesdropping on users and even spoof GPS systems to direct riders to unintended locations. Vendors of e-scooters can suffer denial-of-service attacks and data leaks.

“We’ve identified and outlined a variety of weak points or attack surfaces in the current ride-sharing, or micromobility, ecosystem that could potentially be exploited by malicious adversaries right from inferring the riders’ private data to causing economic losses to service providers and remotely controlling the vehicles’ behavior and operation,” said Jadliwala.

Some e-scooter models communicate with the rider’s smartphone over a Bluetooth Low Energy channel. Someone with malicious intent could eavesdrop on these wireless channels and listen to data exchanges between the scooter and riders’ smartphone app by means of easily and cheaply accessible hardware and software tools such as Ubertooth and WireShark.

Those who sign up to use e-scooters also offer up a great deal of personal and sensitive data beyond just billing information. According to the study, providers automatically collect other analytics, such as location and individual vehicle information. This data can be pieced together to generate an individual profile that can even include a rider’s preferred route, personal interests, and home and work locations. Jadliwala, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science who led this study.

“Cities are experiencing explosive population growth. Micromobility promises to transport people in a more sustainable, faster and economical fashion,” added Jadliwala. “To ensure that this industry stays viable, companies should think not only about rider and pedestrian safety but also how to protect consumers and themselves from significant cybersecurity and privacy threats enabled by this new technology.”

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