Tuesday, January 29, 2008

"MATERIALS: Researchers harvest algae for chip nanofabrication"

Diatoms--single-celled phytoplankton (algae)--are one of the most plentiful life forms on Earth, accounting for 20 percent of the carbon dioxide removed from the environment each year. The mechanism they use--encasing themselves in patterned silicon dioxide shells as they fall to the bottom of oceans and lakes worldwide--removes as much carbon dioxide from the environment as all of the planet's rainforests combined. Now, an electrical engineer, a biochemist and a geneticist are collaborating at the company they founded--NimbleGen Systems Inc. (Madison, Wis.)--to harness the diatom, as an alternative to lithography, to produce the intricate patterns on future semiconductors. By identifying the 75 genes, out of 13,000, that control silicon dioxide pattern formation in diatoms, the researchers hope to precisely control diatoms to pattern chips. Their results will be published in an upcoming issue of the prestigious "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences."
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Monday, January 28, 2008

"MATERIALS: World's darkest material comes to light"

The world's darkest material has been fabricated from vertical arrays of loosely packed carbon nanotubes. The project at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Rice University resulted in a new material that absorbs 99.9 percent of incident light, enabling higher sensitivity and efficiency for applications ranging from solar panels to infrared sensors.

"PODCAST: Week-in-Review, Jan. 28, 2008"

This week's top stories include how Nanochip is on track for terabyte memories, how a retrofit sharpens x-rays with darkfield illumination, how electronic contact lens made their dubut, and how acoustic guitar subtlties were recreated with a Blackfin digital signal processor (DSP). These stories were compiled from interviews I do for EETimes, where you'll find global news for the creators of technology at

Friday, January 25, 2008

"CHIPS Nanochip on-track for terabyte chips"

Nanochip Inc. (Fremont, Calif.) claims to be on-track to the development of terabyte memory chips that combine phase-change media to cantilever read/write heads controlled by a microelectro-mechanical system (MEMS). The memory chips will use conventional, DRAM-like interfaces, but internally will function like a multiple-head hard drive, where slaved MEMS cantilevers will move in unison over their array of bit cells to read and write phase-change media. Nanochip claims its first prototypes will be delivered in 2009, with volume production scheduled to 2010.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

"ALGORITHMS:Acoustic guitar subtleties re-created by DSP"

Guitarists usually associate digital signal processing with electric, rather than acoustic, guitars, especially after early attempts to apply DSPs to acoustic instruments led to modeling effects that kept the guitars from performing as advertised.
Now Fishman Transducers Inc. says it has repurposed the Analog Devices Inc. Blackfin DSP to perform "digital acoustic imaging" instead of modeling, making acoustic guitars with an inexpensive piezoelectric pickup sound as if they were in a pristine studio in front of an expensive condenser microphone.

"NANOTECH: Retrofit sharpens X-rays"

Today's "dark-field" X-ray machines are too expensive for routine use. For instance, the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) uses its $200 million, 300-meter diameter synchrotron to take dark-field X-rays. Now, researchers at the Ecole Polytechnique Fdrale de Lausanne (EPFL, Switzerland) have crafted a nanoscale diffraction grating that could be retrofitted into existing X-ray machines, enabling health-care providers to also take dark-field X-rays.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

"CHIPS: Electronic contact lens debuts"

Electronic contact lenses promise to overlay a heads-up display over a user's visual field, enabling tactical information—like an automobile speedometer for drivers—to be seen only by the wearer. Researchers at the University of Washington (Seattle) recently demonstrated the world's first electronic contact lens, complete with integrated light-emitting-diodes. So far the researchers have only completed animal testing on unpowered lenses, but for the upcoming human trials the researchers hope to power a virtual control panel that enables the display to appear to float in mid-air. Future applications could give military users virtual heads-up displays, give video gamers "anywhere" action, and let any contact-lens wearer surf the Internet sans monitor.

Monday, January 21, 2008

"PODCAST: Week-in-Review, Jan. 21, 2008"

This week's top stories include how memory is going multicore too, how Displaytech is eyeing the lead in the pico projector race, how the Mercury fly-by was a success, and how Darwin's theory has been confirmed. Thse stories were compiled from interviews I do for EETimes where you'll find global news for the creators of technology at

Friday, January 18, 2008

"ALGORITHMS: Darwin's evolution theory confirmed"

Darwin's theory of evolution has been scientifically confirmed in a study performed by an international team of biologics at Technion in Israel, the United States, France and Germany. The team found that the selection of successive traits occurred naturally in a process that Darwin called deterministic inheritance, instead of by seemingly random providence. To prove the point, the researchers tracked the development of 40 characteristics in 51 species of nematode—a species that reproduces so quickly that its evolution can be easily tracked in the lab. By following the changes in of the nematode, they found that the statistically valid means of evolution was natural selection of successive traits, as Darwin predicted, rather than random providence.
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Thursday, January 17, 2008

"OPTICS: Displaytech eyes lead in pico-projector race"

Pico-projectors allow iPod-size devices to project a 12- to 30-inch display on the wall, but they are not yet available in consumer products. So far, most OEMs showing pico-projector prototypes at the Consumer Electronics Show, earlier this month, were using liquid-crystal-on-silicon (LCOS) panels from Displaytech Inc. (Longmont, Colo.). Displaytech's microdisplay technology dovetails well with the emerging pico-projector market, giving original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) a proven technology alternative to more experimental micromirror subsystems that use micro-electro-mechanical system (MEMS) chips--at least in the short term; the final verdict is not yet in.
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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

"ALGORITHMS: Mercury fly-by a success"

The U.S. Messenger spacecraft has flown its first successful fly-by of the planet Mercury. Messenger, which stands for Mercury Surface Space-Environment Geochemistry and Ranging, will perform the most detailed survey of the closest planet to the Sun. Already having flown by Venus, which is between Earth and Mercury, the spacecraft is now training its instruments on the final destination--orbit around Mercury in 2011, just in time to observing the effects of the peak sunspot season.

Related Stories:
Heavy weather: Solar storms expected to disrupt Earth comms
Visible light from planet observed orbiting distant star
Balloon launches biggest solar telescope

Monday, January 14, 2008

"CHIPS: Memory goes multicore"

In the 21st century, instead of depending on continually shrinking design rules, microprocessor makers are harnessing multiple cores for parallel execution. Memory chip architectures, however, have not kept up, according to a cryptographer who claims to have created a memory chip architecture for the 21st century—one that matches multicore microprocessors with parallel, concurrent access to multiple memory chips.

"MEMS: the word for timing chips"

Today, quartz crystals provide the heartbeat for nearly every electronic system, with annual volumes approaching 10 billion units. Electronic circuitry alone cannot generate the precisely spaced pulses that keep gates in synchronization in digital systems, or the rock-solid oscillations that keep analog frequencies tuned. In this sense, microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) represent the final frontier in microminiaturization--downsizing this necessary mechanical reference signal from the millimeter scale of quartz crystals to the nanoscale of integrated circuits. Industrial giants such as Epson Toyocom Corp. (Tokyo)--the world's largest supplier--provide quartz-crystal timing chips. Two upstart makers of MEMS timing chips, SiTime Corp. and Discera Inc., think there certainly is room for them in this sector, with its mammoth volumes. But Epson and the other large timing chip companies are not going to sit still while the MEMS competitors carve out chunks of their lucrative markets. Epson is already offering "QMEMS" technology--downsized quartz-crystal timers that descend into the submillimeter-size regime. Startups will have only a few years' head start before Epson and the other behemoths respond to the popularity of MEMS timing chips with MEMS offerings of their own. SiTime and Discera have the biggest lead in the race to downsize mechanical timing references to the nanoscale. Both companies have invested several man-years of research and development effort into matching the precise timing signals of quartz crystals (which are based on the principles of physics governing piezoelectric materials), deploying tiny silicon mechanical structures--silicon "tuning forks"--with an equal measure of stability and precision. However, if SiTime and Discera do not carve out niches of their own soon, they risk being crushed by the deeper pockets of the established quartz-crystal chip makers.

Friday, January 11, 2008

"MEMS: Measurement scheme could also boost chip yields"

Most instruments used to measure properties in microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) are far too big to determine standard physical properties such as stiffness. To remedy this, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has developed a set of testing procedures for MEMS-sized structures using optical non-contact instrumentation. Besides MEMS makers, NIST claims that CMOS semiconductor makers could also take advantage of its measurement regime to increase wafer yields by reducing the frequency of failures. NIST has encapsulated much of its non-contact optically based measurement expertise in a Web-based MEMS Calculator. The approach enables engineers to plug in measured values made with readily available optical interferometers to determine standard mechanical properties. NIST engineers also contributed to a mechanical version of the regime based on the American Society for Testing and Material (ASTM) standard E 2245. The entire testing regime enables measurement the residual stress in thin films using SEMI Standard MS4-1107. These results, NIST claims, can aid in design strategies, fabrication techniques and post-processing methods to increase yields by reducing failures from electromigration, stress migration and delamination. Stress is measured using a mechanical engineering standard called Young's modulus, which determines a material's elasticity and stiffness. For macroscopic objects, Young's modulus can be determined by pushing on both ends of a beam, then measuring how far the beam deflects. Since chip measurements don't allow physical contact, the NIST technique instead uses an optical vibrometer that measures the vibration frequency of a thin film. Young's modulus can then be used to calculate the thin film's resonant frequency, thereby allowing the chip maker to predict how the thin film will react under various loads. Standard MS4-1107 is available from the Semiconductor Equipment and Materials International.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

"SENSORS:Researchers claim cloak can render subs invisible to sonar"

Duke University engineers will reveal Friday (Jan. 11) details of an acoustic cloak fabricated from metamaterials that they claim can render objects invisible to sonar. Although the acoustic cloak has only been mathematically simulated, the engineers claim that devices based on their blueprint can make submarines invisible to sonar. They work by redirecting sound waves around the hull so that they emerge on the other side without distortion.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

"SENSORS: Solar storms expected to disrupt Earth comms"

Solar Cycle 24 began last week, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). A violent sunspot started the new 11-year long solar season, creating a "space climate" of magnetic storms and strong solar winds that will likely disrupt power grids, satellite communications, global positioning systems, cellphones and even automated teller machines.

Monday, January 07, 2008

"MATERIALS:Medical magnets said to be a 'swell' therapy"

With the medical-magnet market growing by leap and bounds—said to be as high as $300 million in the U.S. and $5 billion worldwide--claims of medical efficacy range from curing carpal tunnel syndrome to eliminating arthritic pain. Unfortunately, no scientific study has yet to verify any of these claims. Time-varying electromagnetic fields have been scientifically verified to have positive medical effects--such as curing cancer in rats--but the static fields generated by the bracelets for wrists and ankles, and the pads for the back and feet, have never been properly scientifically tested.
Now, researchers at the University of Virginia have made the world's first scientifically verified claim for positive medical benefits from static magnetic fields, albeit the most useful medical application found by the researchers is not one claimed by bracelet and pad makers.

Friday, January 04, 2008

"SENSORS: Sensor design gets systematic"

Sensor manufacturers have continued to improve the sensitivity of their designs through engineering innovations derived from trial-and-error experimentation. Electrical engineers have been guided by "black art" principles, which sensor-gurus claim in abundance. Unfortunately, no overarching framework has been available that incorporates these principles into a methodology for new sensor designs. Now EEs at Purdue University (West Lafayette, Ind.) claim to have invented that missing framework, providing a new method of modeling sensor designs that is already solving long-standing puzzles.