How PARC sees printers boosting clean tech

Researchers at PARC, famed for its computing innovations, say printers and copiers have a lot to offer on the eco-tech front. Photos: PARC prints green tech

Dust, heat, bright light, chaos. The inside of copiers share a lot of characteristics with the outside world.

The Palo Alto Research Center--the heralded research labs that Xerox spun out as a separate company in 2002--is examining ways of taking technology and ideas originally devised for copiers and printers into the clean-tech market. The idea, from a conceptual level, is fairly intriguing. A lot of the components and ideas at work inside printers exist to control physical forces and objects in a constantly changing environment. Thus, they should be useful in channeling sunlight or other phenomena on a larger scale.

PARC scientists, for instance, are tinkering with a water purification system in which particles--and even microorganisms--are eliminated through rotational force.

"The liquid passes through a spiral channel. The particles get formed into a beam and then sucked out," said Scott Elrod, manager of the hardware systems laboratory at PARC.

The mathematics behind the device come from earlier research conducted for Xerox on how toner powder moves in waves when ejected above a charged surface.

In another project, PARC has come up with a way to print grid lines--the thin black strips in solar cells that transfer electricity from the silicon to a wire--with inkjet nozzles. Grid lines on existing solar cells are somewhat wide and cast shadows onto the surface of a solar cell. The shadows in turn reduce the efficiency of the cell.

By exploiting its inkjet know-how, PARC can print grid lines measuring a thin 60 microns. The reduction in the shadow from the grid lines leads to a 6 percent improvement in relative efficiency in experimental solar panels, he said. Thus, if a solar cell can convert 15 percent of the light that strikes it into electricity, one printed with PARC's grid lines can convert 15.9 percent of the light (15 percent times 1.06 improvement in relative efficiency).

The company is currently working with a partner on possibly commercializing the idea and may spin out the grid lines concept into a separate company.

Energy efficiency started relatively informally at the lab. It started inviting guest speakers such as California Institute of Technology's Nate Lewis to speak. People got interested, and management decided to pursue it.

PARC is one of the older--and more productive--industrial incubators. Xerox founded it in 1970, and 30 companies have been spun out of it. Inventions from the lab include the mouse, Ethernet, the Alto (the archetype of the PC), the laser printer, and, ignominiously, the computer worm. It was also one of the first industrial organizations to employ anthropologists and ethnographers. Xerox wanted to know how people actually interacted with copiers (besides hitting them and swearing at them).

Xerox didn't always profit from its inventions. Although some of the major concepts and scientists of the IT revolution came out of its labs, Xerox played a minor role in the market.

As a separate company, PARC is trying to avoid repeating history by focusing on research projects with a potential to pay off. Last year, for instance, it spun out the search company Powerset. It also aggressively courts long-term relationships to assist large, established companies with their research agendas. The company pulls in around $55 million a year and gets about 100 patents per year.

In one ongoing project, PARC is trying to take the adaptive control systems that effectively manage the inside operations of printers and apply it to controlling data centers. Instead of slowing down the paper feed, for example, the adaptive system might shut down a bank of servers to cool off part of a data center, according to Nitin Parekh, director of business development in the hardware systems group.

The company will also team with start-ups. Solar concentrator maker SolFocus, for instance, is working with PARC on a second generation of products. SolFocus' current concentrator is a curved mirror measuring 6 inches in diameter. Several of these mirrors are then joined together to produce a panel. (Contrary to many reports, SolFocus is not a spinout of PARC. SolFocus came to PARC to discuss a research project after it had started, Elrod said.)

PARC has found a way to reduce the concentrator mirror to 1 inch in diameter. Several of the smaller concentrators, moreover, can be produced on a single substrate, thereby reducing manufacturing and assembly costs.

But the lab is also looking long-term, too. One of the more novel ideas is for a series of membranes that could convert carbon dioxide into fuel. Carbon dioxide from a power plant would be funneled through the membranes, and then mixed with hydrogen to make methane or other hydrocarbons.

You couldn't put something like this in your backyard, though, Elrod said. The membranes probably would have to be 30 feet high and take up 7 acres. "This is a 10-year project," he said.

And naturally, it has a copier legacy. The hope is that the membranes could be produced on roll-to-roll printing machines.

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