Xerox PARC turns 40: Marking four decades of tech innovations

On its 40th anniversary, PARC researchers provide a behind-the-scenes peek into the company's culture and projects, past and present.

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Scott Elrod
Scott Elrod

Scott Elrod, Ph.D.

Elrod, a 25-year PARC veteran, is the director of the hardware systems laboratory at PARC, which focuses on clean technologies, inkjet printing and hardware systems for other applications. He's also the director of the Cleantech Innovation Program, whose goal is to find cleaner ways to produce energy and manufacture products.

Laser printers were invented at PARC and have been the foundation of most of Xerox's business. It takes extremely complex physics and science to make laser printing work. The research work to make them faster, with higher resolution, new light sources and multiple lasers, is proving to be a very strong foundation for moving into other technology markets with our research and products.

One area is clean tech. In the future, energy and water will remain as pressing needs and areas where innovation is needed.

By looking at how we manipulate little toner particles for laser printing, including removing the particles from a stream of liquid to better distribute them on a finished document, we can find new ways to apply those processes. Our researchers learned that if you introduce a liquid with particulates into a rectangular channel and then curve the channel, the particulates will migrate to the outside edge with low force. You can get the particulates to gracefully move to one side of the channel.

Now we're looking at this for filtering algae from water, separating materials to distill bio-fuels and for oil and water separation, which is extremely interesting right now because of the stuff going on in the Gulf of Mexico with the BP oil spill. We've demonstrated a 10 times reduction of solids from liquids using these hydrodynamic separation technologies over the last several years. In the Gulf spill, that might be enough to get rid of a sheen on the water's surface; it wouldn't be good for the large globs of oil.

We do a lot of analysis of optical systems and how they can be mass-produced for laser printing. Several years ago, we met some entrepreneurs with SolFocus Inc. who had ideas for a light focuser that would take in light from the sun and focus it onto a receiver for low-cost solar power. PARC became an incubator for the project.

We're also working on a U.S. Department of Energy contract with Santa Clara, Calif.-based Power Assure Inc. to find new ways to teach devices, from laser printer components to whole data centers, how to read their own operating conditions so they can adjust and control themselves with less human intervention using a concept called model-based control. That could help in factory settings with plant controls and also could apply to data centers and help with energy optimization.

We're always looking at ideas and technologies to make them better. Recently, we've been thinking of using acoustics for cooling. Called thermo-acoustic cooling, it involves using sound waves in a series of expansions and compressions, which is what a traditional air conditioning compressor does with a gas. It's been around for a while, but no one has figured how to make it efficient at room temperatures. That's what we've been working on.

Dynabook prototype

The 1976 Dover prototype became one of the first commercial laser printers. Lessons learned from PARC's research into laser printing are now being applied in other areas, including clean technology. Click to view larger image.

It could be two to three times more efficient than conventional air conditioning compressors. That's huge compared to the typical 5% annual industry performance gains using traditional technologies.

Appliance efficiency, new ways to generate electricity and the development of renewable fuels are all areas where we will continue to work. The scale of global warming is so large that it will require new ideas and technologies to solve the problems.

We have a project now that is looking at capturing carbon dioxide (CO2) directly from the air. What if you could capture it on-site and make it into liquid fuel and burn it in vehicles? Then you could recapture it from the air again, essentially using the atmosphere for recycling CO2. It could be 10 years away. We're seeking government partnering for this CO2 extraction.

From my perspective, the energy and water angles are going to be prime markets for innovation for decades.

Next: Timeline of PARC computing milestones

Weiss is an award-winning technology journalist and freelance writer who worked as a staff reporter for Computerworld.com from 2000 to 2008. He spends his spare time working on a book about an unheralded member of the 1957 Milwaukee Braves and watching classic Humphrey Bogart movies. You can follow him on Twitter, where his handle is @TechManTalking. His e-mail address is toddrweiss@gmail.com.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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