Friday, November 28, 2008
This week my top stories include how the U.S. may be falling behind in semiconductor research, how silicon chips can be cast onto flexible substrates, how damless rivers can generate the cheapest electricity, and how memristors can help achieve the goal of three-dimensional chips.
Posted by R. Colin Johnson at 4:14 PM
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Memristors technology got a boost recently from Hewlett-Packard Labs, which described the first 3-D memristor chip at the recent Memristor and Memristive Systems Symposium. There HP Labs provided details about a prototype chip that stacked memristor crossbar memory cells on top of a CMOS logic chip. HP used imprint lithography to add a memristor crossbar holding a field-programmable gate array's configuration bits above its transistor cells. HP claims its memristor-based FPGA demonstrates that any CMOS fab can make integrated memristor/transistor circuits in three dimensions. HP Labs is also looking for ways to use memristors in artificial neural networks. Is a new industry forming around memristor technology?
Posted by R. Colin Johnson at 7:36 AM
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Researchers claim to have fashioned a fish-like hydrokinetic scheme that harnesses both fast and slow underwater currents to generate electricity. Called Vivace, for Vortex Induced Vibrations for Aquatic Clean Energy, the technique has the potential to generate electricity, even from lazy river currents, at a cost lower than other energy sources, just 5.5 cents per kilowatt/hour. The technique works by taking advantage of the tendency of moored bodies to bob up and down in a current. Traditional methods of harnessing water power like turbines require currents of at least 5 knots. The Vivace generator, however, can use currents as slow as 1 knot. The company estimates that an underwater array in a river just a few stories high could supply enough power for 100,000 homes.
Posted by R. Colin Johnson at 8:12 AM
Monday, November 24, 2008
Much ink has been devoted to the decline of semiconductor research and development in the United States. Pessimists say Bell Labs has thrown in the towel and pioneers like TI are following the path blazed by offshore foundries like TSMC. Optimists counter that Intel is still the world leader in next-gen semiconductors, IBM remains king in semi patents, IM Flash Technologies is making strides, HP Labs' memristors could make semiconductor memory obsolete and U.S. universities and national labs are inventing game-changing chip technologies. They say research alliances between U.S. industry, labs and universities are filling the gaps.
Traditional silicon circuitry is lightning fast, but can't be deposited on flexible polymer substrates because of the high temperatures used to process CMOS wafers. Conversely, silicon inks and organic circuitry can print electronics onto flexible substrates at low temperatures, but their speed is dismal compared to CMOS. Now, researchers claim to have invented a method that combines the best of both worlds--CMOS circuits on flexible substrates--by transferring silicon circuits from a wafer onto the flexible polymer substrate.
Posted by R. Colin Johnson at 7:43 AM
Friday, November 21, 2008
This week my top stories include how NASA photographed the first planet outside our solar system, called exoplanets, how Hawaii ground telescopes photographed the next three exoplanets, how the National Institute of Standards and Technology is harnessing social networking to solve the nanotech safety issue, how Epson has invented a quartz version of MEMS and how optical chips are said to run cooler and pack more bits.
Posted by R. Colin Johnson at 5:01 PM
MEMS oscillators use IC processing techniques to craft mechanical resonators that can be tethered inside a silicon chip. Traditional quartz oscillators require cutting and beveling, but would be smaller in size, more immune to temperature drift, lower in price and in power consumption using photolithography techniques. Epson Toyocom (Kanagawa, Japan), which claims 23 percent of the global quartz oscillator market, reports it has perfected a semiconductor-like photolithography process called Quartz MEMS (QMEMS) that it claims will keep it ahead in the silicon MEMS oscillator market. Specifications for the QMEMS process were said to be comparable or superior to competitors' MEMS oscillators, including those made by SiTime Corp., Discera Inc., Silicon Clocks Inc. and Mobius Microsystems Inc.
Posted by R. Colin Johnson at 9:56 AM
Thursday, November 20, 2008
Conventional wisdom has it that as long as data is stored as a charge, CMOS will likely remain king-of-the-hill for electronic chips. Now, an ultra-low power alternative to charge that uses lasers to encode data as excitons inside insulators has been proposed by theorists at Johns Hopkins University. If experimental data confirms the theory, then ultra-low power computers based on this new optical phenomenon could someday use lasers to store data within crystalline insulators.
Posted by R. Colin Johnson at 7:25 AM
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is co-developing a collaborative Web site aimed at establishing standard methods for minimizing the environmental, health and safety risks of nanotechnology. Nanoscale materials have alternatively been shown to offer promising new cancer therapies while at the same time causing cancer when not properly handled. Those concerns prompted NIST and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to create a Wikipedia-style community to establish safe nanotechnology development techniques.
Posted by R. Colin Johnson at 9:48 AM
Monday, November 17, 2008
An observatory in Hawaii has harnessed adaptive optics to produce visible light photographs of the first three-planet solar system. The three gas giants, larger than Saturn and Jupiter, are orbiting the star HR8799, 130 lights years from Earth in the constellation Pegasus. Last week, NASA released photographs of a single planet 25 light-years away in the the Southern Fish constellation. The photos were taken by the 2.4-meter Hubble Space Telescope. The much larger telescopes at the Keck Observatory on Maui used adaptive optics techniques to render photographs rivaling those made by Hubble. The technique canceled out the distorting effects of the atmosphere. The resulting photographs of the three gas giant exoplanets (planets outside our solar system) were made by a team of Canadian, U.S. and British astronomers.
Posted by R. Colin Johnson at 10:19 AM
Friday, November 14, 2008
This week my top stories include how the U.S. may be falling behind in semiconductor R&D, what the mobile phone will look like in 2012, how nanotubes can beat RAM and flash, how the MEMS market is cooling and the debut of new MEMS chips.
Posted by R. Colin Johnson at 1:21 PM
NASA claims that visible-light surveys by the Hubble Space Telescope have confirmed the existence of the planet, called Fomalhaut-b, 25 light-years away in the constellation Piscis Australis (Southern Fish). Astrononers confirmed the young, Saturn-like planet's 872-year orbit by measuring its displacement between the two Hubble exposures 21 months apart and applying Kepler's laws of planetary motion. The planet was named after its star, Fomalhaut, and orbits about 10.7 billion miles from the star—about 10 times the distance from Saturn to our Sun—inside a giant debris disk about 21.5 billion miles in diameter. For years, astronomers have predicted the planet's existence using various indirect methods, but NASA recently reported details about how the Hubble Space Telescope confirmed its existence with rare visible light photographs.
Posted by R. Colin Johnson at 7:54 AM
Thursday, November 13, 2008
In 2004, Nokia Corp. created a concept design for a smart phone dominated by a touch screen which looks today uncannily like Apple Inc.'s iPhone. In 2008, Nokia (Helsinki, Finland) repeated the exercise, presenting a concept design of the "morph" mobile phone of 2012. If the predictions ring as true as they did in 2004, then the future of mobile phones will involve transparency, transformability and compliancy. In drawings and animations, Tapani Ryhanen, director and head of Nokia's Research Center Laboratory (Cambridge England) presented his newest mobile phone concept design—dubbed "morph"—last week at the MEMS Executive Congress, hosted by the MEMS Industry Group (MIG). Radio-frequency MEMS, silicon microphones, accelerometers, microbolometers, microfluidics and other embedded MEMS devices will converge to allow mobile phones to sense not only their environment but also the health and temperament of the people in its vicinity.
Posted by R. Colin Johnson at 11:01 AM
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Random access memories require constant power to offer their fast access speeds, but can't be scaled to as small a size as slower nonvolatile flash memories. Now researchers believe they can combine the high-speed of RAM with the nonvolatility of flash by using telescopic nanotubes. Ultra-dense nano-electro-mechanical system (NEMS) arrays could offer molecular sized memory cells that are as fast as RAM but nonvolatile like flash by harnessing concentric nanotubes that turn bits on and off by running current through the tubes to make the inner one stick out or stay inside the outer nanotube.
Posted by R. Colin Johnson at 8:46 AM
Micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) tapped the scalability of CMOS processing this week when the world's smallest digital microphone was shrunk even smaller—down to a single millimeter square. Akustica heralded its $2 digital microphone as the sibling of the world's smallest analog mic, which it announced earlier this year—both cast on a die 1 mm square.
Posted by R. Colin Johnson at 8:05 AM
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
As more mobile devices incorporate micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) chips to detect orientation and control functions—from scrolling the display to preventing damage from drops—accelerometers need low power for always-on operation to prolong battery life. Kionix claims the industry's lowest power with the introduction of its digital-output, tri-axis accelerometers combined with smart, hard-wired on-chip algorithms designed to unburden a mobile device's microcontroller.
Posted by R. Colin Johnson at 9:52 AM
Concealing narrow-bandwidth antennas inside a mobile device gets tricky when they need to be tuned for different services—from cell phone to Bluetooth to WiFi to mobile TV. Peregrine Semiconductor Corp. (San Diego, Calif.) claims to be unveiling the first single-chip solution at Electronica 2008 (Munich, November 11-14, 2008). Peregrine's digitally tunable capacitor chip aims to adjust a mobile antenna's radio-frequency (RF) response to all the different bands mobile media devices receive today. Potentially, it can also dynamically tune even for environmental changes—countering effects like touching your finger to the antenna.
Posted by R. Colin Johnson at 5:49 AM
Monday, November 10, 2008
Micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) chips continue to be integrated into diverse consumer applications, according to the MEMS Executive Congress, hosted by the MEMS Industry Group Nov. 5-7 in Monterey, Calif. As a result, analysts at the conference predicted, the MEMS consumer market will grow 4 percent to 5.5 percent in 2008, to about $7 billion. But as consumer spending slows, they said, the overall MEMS market will slow—and may even contract in 2009. Handheld media players and cell phones will all come in MEMS-enabled versions in 2009, and by 2012 nearly all consumer devices will include at least one MEMS chip, according to an analyst panel at the conference. MEMS also will pioneer application areas—for instance, drastically cutting power requirements and increasing brightness and color accuracy of flat-panel displays, starting in 2010.
Posted by R. Colin Johnson at 9:41 AM
Much ink has been devoted to the decline of semiconductor research and development in the United States. Pessimists say Bell Labs has thrown in the towel and pioneers like TI are following the path blazed by offshore foundries like TSMC. Optimists counter that Intel is still the world leader in next-gen semiconductors, IBM remains king in semiconductor patents, IM Flash Technologies is making strides, HP Labs' memristors could make semiconductor memory obsolete and U.S. universities and national labs are inventing game-changing chip technologies. They say research alliances between U.S. industry, labs and universities are filling the gaps.
Friday, November 07, 2008
This week my top stories include how an E-Ink tablet went to space, how NIST designed an electronic nose, how MEMS could cure EMI, how an algorithm enables nanoscale images to be made cheaply, and how an Internet application developer is offering hackers a $10,000 prize if they can break into his site.
Posted by R. Colin Johnson at 2:36 PM
Thursday, November 06, 2008
Electronic switching of high-frequency signals currently must be handled by either mechanical switches or reed relays. Now, MEMS switches can do the same job in a smaller package, according to Omron Corp. Omron (Shiga, Japan) fabricates its RF MEMS switch using three wafers bonded together before dicing. The bottom wafer contains the electronic input and output traces and the fixed electrodes, the middle has the movable, metallic switch attached to movable electrodes and the top wafer caps the stack in glass to prevent contamination.
Posted by R. Colin Johnson at 9:12 AM
Wednesday, November 05, 2008
ElectriPlast conductive polymer enables wiring that is 80 percent lighter than copper and yet has the same conductivity, according to its inventors Integral Technologies (Bellingham, Wash.). By blending micron-scale fibers coated with metal into a polymer matrix, ElectriPlast can be molded, extruded, or formed into any shape—from traditional wires to flat cables to entire surfaces. Applications include lightweight wire replacement, molded wiring harnesses and antennas built into device packages.
Posted by R. Colin Johnson at 10:04 AM
Hackers could win a $10,000 prize by breaking into a Visual WebGUI (graphics user interface) application between now and Jan. 30, 2009. Visual WebGUI developer Gizmox Ltd. (Tel Aviv, Israel) is offering the prize for its "empty client" development tool designed to help non-programmers to develop uncrackable code for Web-based applications.
Posted by R. Colin Johnson at 9:45 AM
Tuesday, November 04, 2008
Imaging nanoscale objects usually requires expensive electron-beam microscopes since the wavelength of visible light is too long--between 400 and 700 nanometers. Now, features as small as 3 nanometers can be imaged with inexpensive optical microscopes using an algorithm that subtracts the differences between multiple exposures, thereby determining the shape of the object so that the image can be reconstructed. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) developed the technique, called Through-focus Scanning Optical Microscope (TSOM) imaging. It works by taking multiple out-of-focus images at different focal lengths, then stacking them on top of each other.
Posted by R. Colin Johnson at 6:49 AM
Monday, November 03, 2008
Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) claim its electronic nose can identify hundreds of different chemical compounds using pattern-recognition algorithms that mimic the way animals recognize odors. NIST's electronic nose depends on 16 microheater elements supplying samples to eight different types of sensors, enabling them to detect everything from nerve gas to environmental contaminants. NIST researchers suggested the microheater technology could be used in handheld devices used by first responders and hazardous material teams as well as for industrial processes monitoring and space exploration.
Posted by R. Colin Johnson at 12:59 PM
MEMS oscillator maker SiTime Corp. said Monday (Nov. 3) it is expanding into the electromagnetic compliance business with a family of MEMS electromagnetic interference products. SiTime (Sunnyvale, Calif.) said its spread-spectrum clock oscillators are designed as drop-in replacements to bring prototypes into compliance with Federal Communications Commission rules. They also meet most compliance standards for Canada, Europe, Japan and Taiwan. The devices aim to reduce cost and development time.
Posted by R. Colin Johnson at 8:34 AM