Science in Brief

More efficient power plants from charged droplets
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US have discovered that tiny water droplets that form on a super-hydrophobic surface and then jump away from that surface carry an electric charge. The finding could lead to more efficient power plants and a new way of drawing power from the atmosphere.

Under certain conditions, droplets can leap away from rather than slide down a surface when water condenses on a metal surface with a specific kind of super-hydrophobic coating. When at least two droplets coalesce, they can spontaneously jump from the surface as a result of a release of excess surface energy.

The charging process takes place because as droplets form on a surface, they naturally form an electric double layer - a layer of paired positive and negative charges - on their surfaces. When neighbouring drops coalesce, which leads to their jumping from the surface, that process happens so fast that the charge separates.

The initial finding that droplets could jump from a condenser surface - a component at the heart of most of the world's electricity-generating power plants - provided a mechanism for enhancing the efficiency of heat transfer on those condensers, and thus improving power plants' overall efficiency. The new finding now provides a way of enhancing that efficiency even more: by applying the appropriate charge to a nearby metal plate, jumping droplets can be pulled away from the surface, reducing the likelihood of their being pushed back onto the condenser either by gravity or by the drag created by the flow of the surrounding vapour toward the surface, thereby enhancing heat transfer.

Recovering rare earth elements from products
Many of today's technologies, from hybrid car batteries to flat-screen televisions, rely on materials known as rare earth elements (REEs) that are in short supply, but scientists are reporting development of a new method to recycle them from wastewater.

Zhang Lin and colleagues from the State Key Laboratory of Structural Chemistry in Fujian point out that REEs, such as terbium - a silvery metal so soft it can be cut with a knife - behave in unique ways as super magnets, catalysts or superconductors. That makes them irreplaceable in many of today's hi-tech gadgets and machines. Market watchers expect global demand to rise to at least 185,000 tons by 2015.

Although some of these elements are actually plentiful, others are in short supply. According to reports, terbium and dysprosium supplies may only last another 30 years. Attempts so far to recycle them from industrial wastewater are expensive or otherwise impractical. A major challenge is that the elements are typically very diluted in these waters.

The team knew that a nanomaterial known as nano-magnesium hydroxide, or nano-Mg(OH)2, was effective at removing some metals and dyes from wastewater, so they set out to understand how the compound worked and whether it would efficiently remove diluted REEs, as well.

To test their idea, they produced inexpensive nano-Mg(OH)2 particles, whose shapes resemble flowers when viewed with a high-power microscope. They showed that the material captured more than 85% of the REEs that were diluted in wastewater in an initial experiment mimicking real-world conditions.

Quantum effects in nano devices overestimated
New calculations shows that the influence of quantum effects on the operating conditions of nano-devices has, until now, been overestimated.

Micro- and nano-electromechanical devices, referred to as MEMS and NEMS, are ubiquitous. These nanoscale machines with movable parts are used, for example, to trigger cars' airbags following a shock. They can also be found in smartphones, allowing them to detect the viewing angle for optimal display. The trouble is that, as their size decreases, forces typically experienced at the quantum level start to matter in these nano-devices.

Forces of quantum origin become important as the scale of these devices shrinks. This is particularly true for the so-called Casimir force, which leads to van der Waals interactions that represent the sum of all intra-molecular interactions. These include attractions and repulsions between atoms, molecules, and surfaces, as well as other intermolecular forces, and are caused by correlations in the fluctuating polarisations of nearby particles.

To investigate the stability of nano-devices, researchers at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, in Mexico City, used the classical calculation of the Casimir force, referred to as the Lifshitz formula, combined with the theory of stability of micro- and nanoscale machines. Their research shows that previous works overestimated the operating conditions of the devices by not taking into account this Casimir/van der Waals effect.

In addition, they demonstrate that the stability of these devices under the Casimir force changes depends on the nature and thickness of the metal coatings used. It also depends on the variation of concentration of the free charges in the silicon used, which changes with doping levels.

Recyclable building material made from potatoes
A new biodegradable and recyclable form of medium density fibreboard (MDF) has been created that could dramatically reduce the waste problem.

Almost one million tonnes of MDF is produced in the UK every year. It is a cheap and popular engineered wood product widely used for furniture and other products in homes, offices and retail businesses. However, as MDF cannot be recycled, waste MDF either has to be incinerated or ends up in a landfill.

A team at the Department of Chemistry at the University of Leicester has developed a new wood-based product similar to MDF that uses a resin based on starch from completely natural sources, including potatoes. As a significant proportion of MDF is used for short-term applications in the retail sector, the use of a material which can either be recycled or composted would be a significant benefit to the environment.

MDF is made by breaking down bits of wood into wood fibres, which are then pressurised and stuck together with resin and wax. The resin is currently composed of urea and formaldehyde (UF), the use of which is restricted due to health concerns. The new resin avoids the use of UF and therefore the associated concerns.

The new material is easier to manufacture than existing MDF as the components are easily pre-mixed and only set on the application of heat and pressure; end-user feedback suggests it is also easier to work with than currently available MDF boards.

Looking for significant changes in the 2015 revision of ISO 9001
By Ir William S K WONG

The current edition of ISO 9001¹ was published in 2008. The ISO standard has a defined mechanism for reviewing every standard regularly. According to the previous pattern, ISO 9001 is updated approximately every seven to eight years. The review of the standard is now in progress. A new revision is targeted for issue at the end of 2015. According to the committee draft² issued in June 2013, the proposed changes in the new revision is huge, even more significant than the revision made in the 2000 version. The new revision is not only a structural change, but also includes some fundamental changes. This paper introduces some of these significant changes.

Extended scope
To cope with the introduction of Annex SL³ (previously ISO Guide 83), the structure of the standard also will be changed. The main elements are described in five sections (section 4 to section 8) in the current edition. In the new revision, the main elements will be described in seven sections (section 4 to section 10). An individual section is developed for "planning". It is also noted that some rationalisations will be made; for example, "control of measuring device" is moved from "process control" to "support".

Starting from the 2000 edition, ISO 9001 has been developed based on the eight quality management principles. In the 2015 revision, the number of quality management principles will be reduced to seven. "System approach to management" will be removed. It may be because the standard itself is demonstrating a systems approach, so there is no need to re-emphasise. Another quality management principle, "Mutually beneficial supplier relationships", will become "Relationship management". Starting from the first edition of ISO 9001, the standard has focused on describing the relationship between customers, the organisation and suppliers. However, in the new revision, there is a fundamental change in the scope, which will be extended to cover interested parties too. This change implies a transition of the standard from a quality management standard to a business management standard.

Under Note 1, clause 8.2.1 of the proposed revision, the term "customer" refers to an existing customer or potential customer. It implies that an organisation should manage not only the interactions with existing customers (that is, sales activities) but also interactions with potential customers (that is, marketing activities). However, someone may also query whether a person or party approaching the organisation which is not in the targeted customer segment should be classified as a potential customer or not.

The proposed revision adds two clauses at the beginning of the standard:

4.1 Understanding the organisation and its context
4.2 Understanding the needs and expectations of interested parties

Introduction of these two clauses provides more specific guidelines for reviewing an organisation's external and internal competitive environments, in order to enhance the planning of its quality management system and identify opportunities for improvement and innovation. These two clauses also extend the scope of the standard from a focus on customer satisfaction to considering the needs and expectations of interested parties, including direct customers, end users, suppliers, distributors, retailers, others involved in the supply chain and regulators, etc.

There are also a number of statements made, in the new revision, requiring an organisation to determine and address risks and opportunities. These requirements include clauses 4.4.2(d), 5.1.2(a), 6.1, 6.3, 8.3(b), 8.4.2(a), 8.5.1(e), 8.6.5(a), 9.1.1, 9.2.2(a) and 10.2(c). However, there is no specific requirement for a formal risk assessment.

Process approach
ISO 9001:2008 promoted the adoption of a process approach when developing, implementing and improving the effectiveness of a quality management system. The proposed revision to the standard makes this more explicit by including "process approach" (clause 4.4.2) in the core text. It implies that the adoption of a process approach is not a choice, but a requirement.

Another significant change in the new revision is the documentation requirement. In the new revision, the documentation requirement will be reduced to minimal. There is no specific requirement for any 'documented procedure' in the new revision. Even the requirement for a 'quality manual' will be deleted. In the new revision, only three items must be documented, which are:

- Scope (4.3)
- Policy (5.2)
- Quality objectives (6.2)

Organisations can determine the extent of their quality system documentation according to their situations (7.5.1). Since by definition an 'audit' should be a documented process, an 'internal audit' is the only process that must be documented according to the new revision. The terms 'document' and 'record' have both been replaced throughout the requirements text by 'documented information'. Therefore, the requirements, "Control of documents" (4.2.3) and "Control of records" (4.2.4), will also be combined as a new requirement, "Control of documented information" (7.5.3).

Starting from the 2000 edition, the standard carries an "exclusion" clause (clause 1.2) which allows an organisation to exclude some clauses under certain circumstances. The "exclusion" clause was originally introduced following the decision to withdraw ISO 9002 and ISO 9003 in 2000. This clause still exists in the committee draft. However, as the committee draft has taken a different approach to the way in which its requirements are stated, when compared to the earlier editions of ISO 9001, the technical committee considers that there should no longer be any technical reasons for an organisation's quality management system not to be able to meet all the requirements of the future standard. Therefore, the technical committee is also considering the possibility of removing this "exclusion" clause.

The term "monitoring and measuring devices" as stated in ISO 9001: 2000 was changed to "monitoring and measuring equipment" in ISO 9001: 2008. It is interesting that the proposed revision will go back to "monitoring and measuring devices" again. Whether "survey" should be considered as a measuring device or not is a debatable topic. In the proposed revision, there is a note that clearly states that monitoring and measuring devices can include assessment methods such as surveys. It implies that surveys, such as customer opinion surveys, should be verified or calibrated before being used in the future. It can also further imply that the clause may also be applicable to other subjective assessment methods, such as personal judgement or visual inspection, which is quite debatable.

More specific and new requirements
It is well known that quality objectives should be measurable. Although it is implied, there is no specific requirement in ISO 9001: 2008 for quality objectives to be monitored. In the proposed revision, it is clearly stated, in clause 6.2(e), that quality objectives should be monitored. Moreover, more specific requirements are stated for planning to achieve quality objectives. It is clearly stated that actions, resources, responsibilities, timeframe for completion and evaluation method should be determined.

The requirements for authorities and responsibilities will also be changed. The term, "management representative", is removed. Instead, it is clearly stated, in clause 5.3 of the proposed revision, that top management is accountable for the effectiveness of the quality management system. The top management should assign responsibility and authority for managing the quality management system. However, there is no statement requiring these responsibilities and authorities to be assigned to a single person or a member of management.

The proposed revision will introduce a new requirement about knowledge management (clause 7.1.5) which will require an organisation to determine, maintain, protect and make available the necessary knowledge.

In conclusion, the proposed changes are significant and ambitious. Due to the degree of changes proposed, the transition period for users of ISO 9001:2008 to transfer to the new revision has been set for three years. As it is only a committee draft, the changes have not been finalised yet. Another consideration is that ISO 14001 will probably be amended in 2015. The changes of these two standards, which are the two standards that are most widely adopted, will surely have a significant impact on the business community.

1. ISO 9001: 2008
2. ISO/TC 176/SC 2/N1147 Committee Draft of ISO 9001 dated 3 June 2013
3. ISO/IEC Directives, Part 1 - Consolidated ISO Supplement - Procedures specific to ISO, 4th Edition, 2013

About the author: Ir William S K Wong is the principal consultant of Knowledge Workshop and is a registered quality management system lead auditor of the International Register of Certificated Auditors.

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