What to look for in an electric lawn mower

The days of the gas-powered lawn mower and leaf blower are numbered in California. Last October, Governor Gavin Newsom signed AB 1346, banning the sale of new gas-powered tools in the state by 2024, akin to its ban on new internal combustion vehicle sales by 2035.

And the Golden State is far from alone, "I think that the easier the manufacturers make it for other states to adopt the same sort of ban, the more states will do it," University of Southern California environmental law professor Robin Craig told CBS. Lawmakers in Illinois and New York both are seeking to pass similar bills at the state level while cities like Brookline, Massachusetts; Montclair, New Jersey; and Burlington, Vermont, have all independently enacted seasonal bans of their own on gas-powered leaf blowers.

And it’s not just because internal combustion (IC) landscaping equipment is so loud — leaf blowers average 70 dB at 50 feet (the operator hears closer to 95-100 dB) while mowers start at around 85 dB — they are also significant emitters of greenhouse gasses. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) notes that running an IC mower for 1 hour emits the equivalent amount of carbon as driving a 2017 Camry 300 miles from LA to Las Vegas. Operating a 2-stroke leaf blower for the same amount of time produces the same amount of carbon as driving to Denver, roughly 1,000 miles from LA.

Western Cape, South Africa, Man wearing protective clothing and safety helmet trimming grass in a garden. (Photo by: Peter Titmuss/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Education Images via Getty Images

That’s actually an improvement from what we saw in the ‘80s and ‘90s before California instituted CARB. Today’s small engines are 40 to 80 percent more efficient and cleaner burning than they were before the agency got its start but, regardless, there are still some 16.7 million small (sub-19kW) engines in California — that’s three million more than the number of light duty passenger vehicles currently operating in the state. And given that the average price of a gallon of gas in America is currently $4.37 (the highest since 2000, per AAA), running all those noisy, thirsty mowers and blowers is getting untenably expensive as well.

With a long, hot summer of high gas prices imminent and the writing on the wall for 2-stroke engines, what better time than now to electrify your lawn care equipment? But before you head down to your local home improvement center, here’s some advice on what to look for in an electric mower directly from the people who design them.

Man mowing the grass with a manual petrol lawnmower.
Catherine Falls Commercial via Getty Images

Gas or Electric

Much like the auto industry’s ongoing transition from IC engines to EVs, lawn care equipment makers have spent recent years investing heavily in battery-based systems and have seen the performance of these power plants rapidly improve to be practically on par with the gas engines they’re replacing — not to mention being quieter, less expensive to operate and generally better for the environment.

For example, your average electric mower or leaf blower is going to produce around 75 dB of noise (equivalent to a running washing machine) — granted, that’s only a 10dB difference between the gas and electric motors, but because decibels are measured along a logarithmic scale, it actually sounds nearly half as loud to the human ear. And unlike gas mowers, using an electric doesn’t require you to don hearing protection (though safety glasses are always a good idea). What’s more, electric engines (with their decided lack of moving parts) wear much more gently than their internal combustion counterparts: No spark plugs to replace, oil to change, gas-oil ratios to measure and pour.

“Many professional-grade battery-powered tools come equipped with a brushless motor, which is virtually maintenance-free,” Stihl battery product manager, Paul Beblowski, told Engadget via email. “With a battery — there’s no need to buy, transport, or store fuel. There’s no tune-up for an electric motor and no need to winterize.” Aside from sharpening the cutting blade once a season or so, all owners really need to do is ensure the battery gets recharged before their next mowing session.

Vintage photograph of a woman in shorts and a sleeveless blouse pushing a gas powered lawn mover in a suburban backyard next to a swimming pool. in the 1950s. (Photo by Found Image Holdings/Corbis via Getty Images)
Found Image Holdings Inc via Getty Images

That’s not to say gas mowers are overnight relics. There are still plenty of use cases in which going with a conventional mower makes more sense, like when you need to clear more than an acre of land, or have to cut through dense, damp underbrush on difficult terrain, or are cutting on a remote field far from power outlets (sit down, Lightning Pro). A given unit of gasoline is still 100 times more energy dense than even the bloodiest-edge battery technology.

When it comes to choosing between a corded versus battery electric mower, “buyers must evaluate the size of their yard, access to outlet, and overall need for convenience,” Beblowski said. “It would make most sense to use a battery-driven mower when there is no access to an outlet or the customer wants the convenience provided by not dragging a cord through their yard. In addition, if the user is mowing around their pool or other water sources, it would make sense to stay away from cords and rely on a battery-driven mower.”

Another thing to consider is that while corded mowers will never run out of power, the amount that they can draw from a standard outlet cannot exceed 15 amps and 1800 watts (15 amps because that’s the US regulation, 1800 watts = 15 amps x 120 volts) — that’s actually the theoretical maximum and will continually throw breakers with that much load, so electric mowers typically top out at 13 amps (and therefore 1500 watts). So, if you’re looking for a heavy duty, high performance mower, especially a riding rig, battery-based systems will largely be your only electrified option.

How electric motors work

Standing in the power tool aisle of your local, prepare to be inundated with signage and branding calling out various aspects of the electric motor’s performance like “13 amps of power!” or “70 minutes of runtime!” These are helpful metrics but can be misleading and finding the right ratio of volts, watts and amps in that electric mower is paramount to getting the most out of your lawn care investment.

Lawn mower. Works in the garden. Spring season. Outdoor activity
Elena Gromova via Getty Images

For those of us that slept through that day of high-school science class, a quick analogy of how electricity works: it’s like plumbing. The given rate of water flowing through a pipe — Wattage, the electrical equivalent of gallons per minute — is determined by the ratio between the water pressure (aka Voltage) and the diameter of the pipe that it’s flowing through (the circuit’s Resistance). If you want to increase the wattage (that is boost the flow of electrons or, by this analogy, have more gallons flow per minute) you either have to increase the water pressure (increase the circuit’s voltage) or widen the pipe (i.e. use a higher amperage wire which lowers resistance).

“A good measuring tool for batteries is watt-hours (comparable to the size of a gas tank),” said Guy Dekowski, Outdoor Senior Product Manager at Dewalt. “Battery watt-hours are battery voltage multiplied by amp hours. This is a good signal of how long the mower can potentially run.”

“It’s important to differentiate between voltage and the amount of work a tool can actually do,” Beblowski said, noting that equating voltage to a motor’s overall power is a common misconception. “While voltage is a factor, the true energy capacity of a battery is measured in watt-hours… the watt-hours tell you the power of the tool. So, if you have an 80-volt system and a 2 Ah battery, you’re looking at 160 watt-hours, but if you have a 36-volt system and a 5 Ah battery, the power is actually higher at 180 watt-hours.”

Unfortunately there is no hard and fast rule governing whether high voltage - low amp tools or low voltage - high amp tools are generally superior. “There are pros and cons to both configurations,” said Dekowski. “Generally higher voltage is capable of more power; however there are variables outside of voltage and current to consider. For example, the deck and blade design have an impact on performance.”

“Hills and the thickness of their grass,” are two yard feature factors users should consider, Dekowski continued. “If a user has an incline, a self-propelled mower may suit them best. The thickness of the grass also plays a factor in the runtime of their mower. In thicker grass, the mower will pull more power driving the need for a mower capable of longer runtime.”

What to look for in an electric mower

The size and shape of your lawn will also impact the size and style of the mower that you need. Pay attention to the mower’s deck size, that indicates how wide of a swath it can clear with each pass. You’ll clear your yard in fewer passes with a 21-inch deck than you will with a 14-inch, though the corollary to that is wider mowers tend to be heavier and less maneuverable than their skinnier counterparts.

If you’ve got a compact urban backyard that needs tending, you can more likely get away with just a small push mower such as the 14-inch Worx 40V, 4Ah Power Share. More expansive suburban yards will do well with a larger, perhaps self-propelled model like the 21-inch Stihl 36V, 6Ah RMA 510 or a 20-inch, 12-amp corded Greenworks mower, while rural homeowners might need something a bit more heavy-duty like Toro’s 21-inch 60V, 6Ah Super Recycler or this 42-inch, 75Ah rideable Ryobi.

“Twenty to 21-inch decks are the most popular for a couple reasons,” Dekowski said. “First, it helps keep the weight at a minimum but the deck is still large enough to minimize work. The other benefits are maneuverability and compactness for storage.”

Like any other tool purchase, when shopping for a new mower try to stick to established, reputable brands like Stihl, Stanley Black and Decker (which owns DeWalt), Makita, Ryobi, Toro, Hart, Greenworks and Sun Joe. Pricing is going to range anywhere from around $125 for a compact, corded unit for urban yards up to a couple thousand for a burly zero-turn riding mower.

A young girl in a straw hat is mowing a lawn in the backyard with an orange lawn mower. A woman gardener is trimming grass with the grass cutter. A lawnmower is cutting a lawn on a summer sunny day.
Zhanna Danilova via Getty Images

Regardless of which brand you choose there are a few features that you should look for in a quality electric mower:

  • Deck material: Avoid mowers with plastic decks. Sure you’ll save a few pounds in weight but those made with metal housings will stand up to the elements, kicked stones and general wear and tear for far longer than their plastic counterparts.

  • Comfortable handles: You’re going to be squeezing these things for the better part of an hour as you systematically amble around the yard, better make sure they’re not going to chafe.

  • Big wheels: Getting stuck in a rut is bad enough when it’s just in the metaphorical sense. Make sure it doesn't happen where the neighbors can see by using a mower with 10-inch rear, 8-inch front ball bearing wheels, suggests Beblowski.

  • Height adjustment: As a rule of thumb, you should be taking off about a third of the grass’ total height every time you mow (chopping it to about 2 to 3¾ inches tall). However, weather and solid conditions will impact how fast the blades grow between cuttings so having a mower that can adjust its blade height is key to maintaining a healthy lawn. Look for a model that can span from 1 - 4-inches off the ground.

  • Beware the brush: Electric motors come in two flavors — brush and brushless. The former has a tendency to overheat and stall while the latter generates more power, less heat and requires basically zero maintenance. Guess which you should choose.

  • Bagging options: Your willingness to go back and rake the whole yard vs stop occasionally to empty clippings on to the compost pile is a pretty strong indicator of whether you should spring for a side discharge, mulching or bagging mower.

  • Accessorize: One of the biggest benefits of choosing a battery over a corded mower is that manufacturers designed their battery packs to work in a wide array of power tools and gadgets, from leaf blowers and limb loppers to snowblowers and soil tillers. So if you’re looking to update more than just your mower, maybe take a look and see what other gadgets its batteries are rated for use on.

With the long Memorial Day weekend just around the corner, now is the perfect time to get your yard trimmed up and ready for post-lockdown barbeque parties — as well as defensible for what’s sure to be an unrelenting wildfire season throughout the American West.

Cadillac’s Lyriq EV will start at $62,990

Cadillac has released more details about the vehicle and its features ahead of online orders reopening for its highly-anticipated Lyriq EV on May 19th. The crossover will start at $62,990 and just $2,000 more for its 4WD variant. What's more, Cadillac is sweetening the deal by including either two years of unlimited public charging through EV Go or up to a $1,500 credit for a home charging unit through QMerit.

Orders will open for both the RWD and AWD versions at the end of this week. Customers will have two additional exterior paint options — Opulent Blue Metallic and Crystal White Tricoat — to choose from that happens. Customers should expect the RWD models to arrive first — it's coming this fall after the summer production run of the Lyriq Debut Edition concludes. The AWD models should hit dealerships by early next year. Cadillac also unveiled the EPA-rated mileage of 312 miles for the RWD Lyric (no official word yet on the AWD version but assume it to be a bit lower). 

The company also announced on Monday that it is partnering with both charging station network EV Go and home charging system installers, QMerit, to help reticent buyers overcome their range anxiety through the judicious application of cash. Lyric shoppers will have their pick of two included charging options: two years of unlimited charging sessions at EV Go's 850-plus stations or they'll receive up to a $1,500 rebate for the installation of a Level 2 AC home charging unit. Opting for the public charging option will be faster (with a 190kW max rate on a Level 3 DC charger, the Lyric will add 76 miles of range in about 10 minutes) while the home charging method won't require you to hang around a parking lot for 45 minutes while the Lyric's batteries refill.  

Hitting the Books: Why we need to treat the robots of tomorrow like tools

Do not be swayed by the dulcet dial-tones of tomorrow's AIs and their siren songs of the singularity. No matter how closely artificial intelligences and androids may come to look and act like humans, they'll never actually be humans, argue Paul Leonardi, Duca Family Professor of Technology Management at University of California Santa Barbara, and Tsedal Neeley, Naylor Fitzhugh Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, in their new book The Digital Mindset: What It Really Takes to Thrive in the Age of Data, Algorithms, and AI — and therefore should not be treated like humans. The pair contends in the excerpt below that in doing so, such hinders interaction with advanced technology and hampers its further development.

Digital Mindset cover
Harvard Business Review Press

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from THE DIGITAL MINDSET: What It Really Takes to Thrive in the Age of Data, Algorithms, and AI by Paul Leonardi and Tsedal Neeley. Copyright 2022 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.


Treat AI Like a Machine, Even If It Seems to Act Like a Human

We are accustomed to interacting with a computer in a visual way: buttons, dropdown lists, sliders, and other features allow us to give the computer commands. However, advances in AI are moving our interaction with digital tools to more natural-feeling and human-like interactions. What’s called a conversational user interface (UI) gives people the ability to act with digital tools through writing or talking that’s much more the way we interact with other people, like Burt Swanson’s “conversation” with Amy the assistant. When you say, “Hey Siri,” “Hello Alexa,” and “OK Google,” that’s a conversational UI. The growth of tools controlled by conversational UIs is staggering. Every time you call an 800 number and are asked to spell your name, answer “Yes,” or say the last four numbers of your social security number you are interacting with an AI that uses conversational UI. Conversational bots have become ubiquitous in part because they make good business sense, and in part because they allow us to access services more efficiently and more conveniently.

For example, if you’ve booked a train trip through Amtrak, you’ve probably interacted with an AI chatbot. Its name is Julie, and it answers more than 5 million questions annually from more than 30 million passengers. You can book rail travel with Julie just by saying where you’re going and when. Julie can pre-fill forms on Amtrak’s scheduling tool and provide guidance through the rest of the booking process. Amtrak has seen an 800 percent return on their investment in Julie. Amtrak saves more than $1 million in customer service expenses each year by using Julie to field low-level, predictable questions. Bookings have increased by 25 percent, and bookings done through Julie generate 30 percent more revenue than bookings made through the website, because Julie is good at upselling customers!

One reason for Julie’s success is that Amtrak makes it clear to users that Julie is an AI agent, and they tell you why they’ve decided to use AI rather than connect you directly with a human. That means that people orient to it as a machine, not mistakenly as a human. They don’t expect too much from it, and they tend to ask questions in ways that elicit helpful answers. Amtrak’s decision may sound counterintuitive, since many companies try to pass off their chatbots as real people and it would seem that interacting with a machine as though it were a human should be precisely how to get the best results. A digital mindset requires a shift in how we think about our relationship to machines. Even as they become more humanish, we need to think about them as machines— requiring explicit instructions and focused on narrow tasks.

x.ai, the company that made meeting scheduler Amy, enables you to schedule a meeting at work, or invite a friend to your kids’ basketball game by simply emailing Amy (or her counterpart, Andrew) with your request as though they were a live personal assistant. Yet Dennis Mortensen, the company’s CEO, observes that more than 90 percent of the inquiries that the company’s help desk receives are related to the fact that people are trying to use natural language with the bots and struggling to get good results.

Perhaps that was why scheduling a simple meeting with a new acquaintance became so annoying to Professor Swanson, who kept trying to use colloquialisms and conventions from informal conversation. In addition to the way he talked, he made many perfectly valid assumptions about his interaction with Amy. He assumed Amy could understand his scheduling constraints and that “she” would be able to discern what his preferences were from the context of the conversation. Swanson was informal and casual—the bot doesn’t get that. It doesn’t understand that when asking for another person’s time, especially if they are doing you a favor, it’s not effective to frequently or suddenly change the meeting logistics. It turns out it’s harder than we think to interact casually with an intelligent robot.

Researchers have validated the idea that treating machines like machines works better than trying to be human with them. Stanford professor Clifford Nass and Harvard Business School professor Youngme Moon conducted a series of studies in which people interacted with anthropomorphic computer interfaces. (Anthropomorphism, or assigning human attributes to inanimate objects, is a major issue in AI research.) They found that individuals tend to overuse human social categories, applying gender stereotypes to computers and ethnically identifying with computer agents. Their findings also showed that people exhibit over-learned social behaviors such as politeness and reciprocity toward computers. Importantly, people tend to engage in these behaviors — treating robots and other intelligent agents as though they were people — even when they know they are interacting with computers, rather than humans. It seems that our collective impulse to relate with people often creeps into our interaction with machines.

This problem of mistaking computers for humans is compounded when interacting with artificial agents via conversational UIs. Take for example a study we conducted with two companies who used AI assistants that provided answers to routine business queries. One used an anthropomorphized AI that was human-like. The other wasn’t.

Workers at the company who used the anthropomorphic agent routinely got mad at the agent when the agent did not return useful answers. They routinely said things like, “He sucks!” or “I would expect him to do better” when referring to the results given by the machine. Most importantly, their strategies to improve relations with the machine mirrored strategies they would use with other people in the office. They would ask their question more politely, they would rephrase into different words, or they would try to strategically time their questions for when they thought the agent would be, in one person’s terms, “not so busy.” None of these strategies was particularly successful.

In contrast, workers at the other company reported much greater satisfaction with their experience. They typed in search terms as though it were a computer and spelled things out in great detail to make sure that an AI, who could not “read between the lines” and pick up on nuance, would heed their preferences. The second group routinely remarked at how surprised they were when their queries were returned with useful or even surprising information and they chalked up any problems that arose to typical bugs with a computer.

For the foreseeable future, the data are clear: treating technologies — no matter how human-like or intelligent they appear — like technologies is key to success when interacting with machines. A big part of the problem is they set the expectations for users that they will respond in human-like ways, and they make us assume that they can infer our intentions, when they can do neither. Interacting successfully with a conversational UI requires a digital mindset that understands we are still some ways away from effective human-like interaction with the technology. Recognizing that an AI agent cannot accurately infer your intentions means that it’s important to spell out each step of the process and be clear about what you want to accomplish.

Google makes its AI assistant more accessible with ‘Look and Talk’

Google Assistant is already pretty handy, filling in your payment info on take out orders, helping get the kids to school on time, controlling your stereo systems' volume and your home's smart light schedules. At its I/O 2022 keynote today, company executives showed off some of the new features arriving soon for the AI.

The first of these is "Look and Talk." Instead of having to repeatedly start your requests to Assistant with "Hey Google," this new feature relies on computer vision and voice matching to constantly pay attention to the user. As Sissie Hsiao, Google's VP of Assistant, explained on stage, all the user has to do is look at their Nest Hub Max and state their request. Google is also developing a series of quick commands that users will be able to shout out without having to gaze longingly at their tablet screen or say "Hey Google" first — things like "turn on the lights" and "set a 10-minute alarm."

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Alphabet

All of the data captured in that interaction — specifically the user's face and voice prints, used to verify the user — are processed locally on the Hub itself, Hsiao continued, and not shared with Google "or anyone else." What's more, you'll have to specifically opt into the service before you can use it.

According to Hsiao, the backend of this process relies on a half-dozen machine learning models and 100 camera and mic inputs — i.e., proximity, head orientation and gaze direction — to ensure that the machine knows when you're talking to it versus talking in front of it. The company also claims that it worked diligently to make sure that this system works for people across the full spectrum of human skin tones. 

Looking ahead, Google plans to continue refining its NLP models to further enhance the responsiveness and fidelity of Assistant's responses by "building new, more powerful speech and language models that can understand the nuances of human speech," Hsiao said. "Assistant will be able to better understand the imperfections of human speech without getting tripped up — including the pauses, 'umms' and interruptions — making your interactions feel much closer to a natural conversation."

Follow all of the news from Google I/O 2022 right here!

Google makes its AI assistant more accessible with ‘Look and Talk’

Google Assistant is already pretty handy, filling in your payment info on take out orders, helping get the kids to school on time, controlling your stereo systems' volume and your home's smart light schedules. At its I/O 2022 keynote today, company executives showed off some of the new features arriving soon for the AI.

The first of these is "Look and Talk." Instead of having to repeatedly start your requests to Assistant with "Hey Google," this new feature relies on computer vision and voice matching to constantly pay attention to the user. As Sissie Hsiao, Google's VP of Assistant, explained on stage, all the user has to do is look at their Nest Hub Max and state their request. Google is also developing a series of quick commands that users will be able to shout out without having to gaze longingly at their tablet screen or say "Hey Google" first — things like "turn on the lights" and "set a 10-minute alarm."

asdf
Alphabet

All of the data captured in that interaction — specifically the user's face and voice prints, used to verify the user — are processed locally on the Hub itself, Hsiao continued, and not shared with Google "or anyone else." What's more, you'll have to specifically opt into the service before you can use it.

According to Hsiao, the backend of this process relies on a half-dozen machine learning models and 100 camera and mic inputs — i.e., proximity, head orientation and gaze direction — to ensure that the machine knows when you're talking to it versus talking in front of it. The company also claims that it worked diligently to make sure that this system works for people across the full spectrum of human skin tones. 

Looking ahead, Google plans to continue refining its NLP models to further enhance the responsiveness and fidelity of Assistant's responses by "building new, more powerful speech and language models that can understand the nuances of human speech," Hsiao said. "Assistant will be able to better understand the imperfections of human speech without getting tripped up — including the pauses, 'umms' and interruptions — making your interactions feel much closer to a natural conversation."

Follow all of the news from Google I/O 2022 right here!

Google Maps adds an ‘Immersive View’ of major cities

Google Maps is getting an "Immersive View" that will offer users digitally rendered looks at major US cityscapes, Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai told the audience at Google's I/O 2022 keynote on Wednesday.  

The new feature uses computer vision and AI to blend Maps' existing Street View function with aerial photography to create high-resolution models of the various buildings and urban features of a given location. "With our new immersive view, you’ll be able to experience what a neighborhood, landmark, restaurant or popular venue is like — and even feel like you’re right there before you ever set foot inside," wrote Miriam Daniel, VP of Google Maps, in a blog post. What's more, Maps' other tools and features can be applied to the view as well, enabling users to see what the area looks like at different times of the day and varying weather conditions.

Immersive View will first be available for Los Angeles, London, New York, San Francisco and Tokyo later this year, with more cities to follow. The company also notes that its recently released eco-routing feature, which lets drivers in the US and Canada to pick the most fuel efficient route for their trip, has already been used to travel 86 billion miles and prevented the release of roughly half a million metric tons of carbon emissions.

Google isn't the only company making its navigation systems more readable and user friendly. At WWDC 2021 last June, Apple rolled out a higher-fidelity version of its Maps app, offering added detail like elevation gradients, brighter road colors, more prominent location labels, and hundreds of custom icons for local landmarks.

Follow all of the news from Google I/O 2022 right here!

Google Maps adds an ‘Immersive View’ of major cities

Google Maps is getting an "Immersive View" that will offer users digitally rendered looks at major US cityscapes, Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai told the audience at Google's I/O 2022 keynote on Wednesday.  

The new feature uses computer vision and AI to blend Maps' existing Street View function with aerial photography to create high-resolution models of the various buildings and urban features of a given location. "With our new immersive view, you’ll be able to experience what a neighborhood, landmark, restaurant or popular venue is like — and even feel like you’re right there before you ever set foot inside," wrote Miriam Daniel, VP of Google Maps, in a blog post. What's more, Maps' other tools and features can be applied to the view as well, enabling users to see what the area looks like at different times of the day and varying weather conditions.

Immersive View will first be available for Los Angeles, London, New York, San Francisco and Tokyo later this year, with more cities to follow. The company also notes that its recently released eco-routing feature, which lets drivers in the US and Canada to pick the most fuel efficient route for their trip, has already been used to travel 86 billion miles and prevented the release of roughly half a million metric tons of carbon emissions.

Google isn't the only company making its navigation systems more readable and user friendly. At WWDC 2021 last June, Apple rolled out a higher-fidelity version of its Maps app, offering added detail like elevation gradients, brighter road colors, more prominent location labels, and hundreds of custom icons for local landmarks.

Follow all of the news from Google I/O 2022 right here!

SLAC’s newest laser works best when it’s colder than outer space

After nearly a decade in development, the second iteration of the Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) at the DoE's Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) is nearly ready to start throwing photons harder than ever before. Dubbed the LCLS-II, this billion-dollar superconducting particle accelerator upgrade will produce X-rays 10,000 times brighter than those of its predecessor at a world record rate of 1 million pulses per second — all while working at a frosty negative 456 degrees Fahrenheit.

"In just a few hours, LCLS-II will produce more X-ray pulses than the current laser has generated in its entire lifetime," Mike Dunne, director of LCLS, said. "Data that once might have taken months to collect could be produced in minutes. It will take X-ray science to the next level, paving the way for a whole new range of studies and advancing our ability to develop revolutionary technologies to address some of the most profound challenges facing our society."

The original LCLS came online in 2009, shining a billion times brighter than the accelerator it replaced, but was limited to 120 pulses per second because the laws of physics limit the number of electrons that could be pushed simultaneously through the accelerator's labyrinth of room-temperature copper pipes. But by replacing those pipes with more than three dozen cryogenic accelerator modules — interconnected strings of hollow niobium — cooled down to 2 Kelvin (4 degrees F above absolute zero), SLAC researchers can massively improve the accelerator's output. 

"To reach this temperature, the linac is equipped with two world-class helium cryoplants, making SLAC one of the significant cryogenic landmarks in the U.S. and on the globe," Eric Fauve, director of the Cryogenic Division at SLAC, said. "The SLAC Cryogenics team has worked on site throughout the pandemic to install and commission the cryogenic system and cool down the accelerator in record time."

Once the electrons have passed through all 37 cryo modules and been sufficiently cooled, they're energized and accelerated by a megawatt microwave to nearly the speed of light and fed through a string of undulator magnets that force the electron beam into a zig-zag pattern, generating X-rays. What's more, the undulators can influence the type of X-ray that's produced — either hard X-rays for material imaging, or soft X-rays primarily used to document energy flows and real-time chemical reactions.

The LCLS-II first hit the 2 Kelvin mark in mid-April and with Tuesday's announcement is now ready to begin conducting research. That's expected to happen later this year and could help us examine cutting-edge materials and biological processes in greater resolution than ever before, advance the state of the art in clean energy technology and even unlock the secrets of the quantum realm by imaging individual atoms.

SLAC’s newest laser works best when it’s colder than outer space

After nearly a decade in development, the second iteration of the Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) at the DoE's Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) is nearly ready to start throwing photons harder than ever before. Dubbed the LCLS-II, this billion-dollar superconducting particle accelerator upgrade will produce X-rays 10,000 times brighter than those of its predecessor at a world record rate of 1 million pulses per second — all while working at a frosty negative 456 degrees Fahrenheit.

"In just a few hours, LCLS-II will produce more X-ray pulses than the current laser has generated in its entire lifetime," Mike Dunne, director of LCLS, said. "Data that once might have taken months to collect could be produced in minutes. It will take X-ray science to the next level, paving the way for a whole new range of studies and advancing our ability to develop revolutionary technologies to address some of the most profound challenges facing our society."

The original LCLS came online in 2009, shining a billion times brighter than the accelerator it replaced, but was limited to 120 pulses per second because the laws of physics limit the number of electrons that could be pushed simultaneously through the accelerator's labyrinth of room-temperature copper pipes. But by replacing those pipes with more than three dozen cryogenic accelerator modules — interconnected strings of hollow niobium — cooled down to 2 Kelvin (4 degrees F above absolute zero), SLAC researchers can massively improve the accelerator's output. 

"To reach this temperature, the linac is equipped with two world-class helium cryoplants, making SLAC one of the significant cryogenic landmarks in the U.S. and on the globe," Eric Fauve, director of the Cryogenic Division at SLAC, said. "The SLAC Cryogenics team has worked on site throughout the pandemic to install and commission the cryogenic system and cool down the accelerator in record time."

Once the electrons have passed through all 37 cryo modules and been sufficiently cooled, they're energized and accelerated by a megawatt microwave to nearly the speed of light and fed through a string of undulator magnets that force the electron beam into a zig-zag pattern, generating X-rays. What's more, the undulators can influence the type of X-ray that's produced — either hard X-rays for material imaging, or soft X-rays primarily used to document energy flows and real-time chemical reactions.

The LCLS-II first hit the 2 Kelvin mark in mid-April and with Tuesday's announcement is now ready to begin conducting research. That's expected to happen later this year and could help us examine cutting-edge materials and biological processes in greater resolution than ever before, advance the state of the art in clean energy technology and even unlock the secrets of the quantum realm by imaging individual atoms.

IBM wants its quantum supercomputers running at 4,000-plus qubits by 2025

Forty years after it first began to dabble in quantum computing, IBM is ready to expand the technology out of the lab and into more practical applications — like supercomputing! The company has already hit a number of development milestones since it released its previous quantum roadmap in 2020, including the 127-qubit Eagle processor that uses quantum circuits and the Qiskit Runtime API. IBM announced on Wednesday that it plans to further scale its quantum ambitions and has revised the 2020 roadmap with an even loftier goal of operating a 4,000-qubit system by 2025.

Before it sets about building the biggest quantum computer to date, IBM plans release its 433-qubit Osprey chip later this year and migrate the Qiskit Runtime to the cloud in 2023, “bringing a serverless approach into the core quantum software stack,” per Wednesday’s release. Those products will be followed later that year by Condor, a quantum chip IBM is billing as “the world’s first universal quantum processor with over 1,000 qubits.”

This rapid four-fold jump in quantum volume (the number of qubits packed into a processor) will enable users to run increasingly longer quantum circuits, while increasing the processing speed — measured in CLOPS (circuit layer operations per second) — from a maximum of 2,900 OPS to over 10,000. Then it’s just a simple matter of quadrupaling that capacity in the span of less than 24 months.

To do so, IBM plans to first get sets of multiple processors to communicate with one another both in parallel and in series. This should help develop better error mitigation schemes and improve coordination between processors, both necessary components of tomorrow’s practical quantum computers. After that, IBM will design and deploy chip-level couplers, which “will closely connect multiple chips together to effectively form a single and larger processor,” according to the company, then build quantum communication links to connect those larger multi-processors together into even bigger clusters — essentially daisy-chaining increasingly larger clumps of processors together until they form a functional, modular 4,000-qubit computing platform.

“As quantum computing matures, we’re starting to see ourselves as more than quantum hardware,” IBM researcher Jay Gambetta wrote on Wednesday. “We’re building the next generation of computing. In order to benefit from our world-leading hardware, we need to develop the software and infrastructure capable of taking advantage of it.”

As such, IBM released a set of ready-made primitive programs earlier this year, “pre-built programs that allows developers easy access to the outputs of quantum computations without requiring intricate understanding of the hardware,” per the company. IBM intends to expand that program set in 2023, enabling developers to run them on parallelized quantum processors. “We also plan to enhance primitive performance with low-level compilation and post-processing methods, like introducing error suppression and mitigation tools,” Gambetta said. “These advanced primitives will allow algorithm developers to use Qiskit Runtime services as an API for incorporating quantum circuits and classical routines to build quantum workflows.”

These workflows will take a given problem, break it down into smaller quantum and classical programs, chew through those processes in either parallel or series depending on which is more efficient, and then use an orchestration layer to “circuit stitch” all those various data streams back into a coherent result that classical computers can understand. IBM calls its proprietary stitching infrastructure Quantum Serverless and, per the new roadmap, will deploy the feature to its core quantum software stack in 2023.

“We think by next year, we’ll begin prototyping quantum software applications for users hoping to use Qiskit Runtime and Quantum Serverless to address specific use cases,” Gambetta said. We’ll begin to define these services with our first test case — machine learning — working with partners to accelerate the path toward useful quantum software applications. By 2025, we think model developers will be able to explore quantum applications in machine learning, optimization, finance, natural sciences, and beyond.”

“For many years, CPU-centric supercomputers were society’s processing workhorse, with IBM serving as a key developer of these systems,” he continued. “In the last few years, we’ve seen the emergence of AI-centric supercomputers, where CPUs and GPUs work together in giant systems to tackle AI-heavy workloads. Now, IBM is ushering in the age of the quantum-centric supercomputer, where quantum resources — QPUs — will be woven together with CPUs and GPUs into a compute fabric. We think that the quantum-centric supercomputer will serve as an essential technology for those solving the toughest problems, those doing the most ground-breaking research, and those developing the most cutting-edge technology.”

Together, these hardware and software systems will become IBM Quantum System Two with the first prototype scheduled to be operational at some point next year.