Wednesday, September 30, 2009

"SPACE: Controller boosts telescope output by damping noise"

Multiply the signal, but not the noise? Who says you can't get something for nothing? These researchers have convinced NASA they can, by virtue of a new controller for CCD cameras that multiplies faint images without magnifying any noise in their signal. Look for every major telescope installation in the world to start using this remarkable new technology in the coming years. R.C.J.

Technology to double the effective lens diameter of the world's telescopes has been invented at the University of Montreal, which recently demonstrated what it says is the most sensitive astronomical camera devised to date. The key to the invention is an electronic controller that decreases optical noise tenfold. The controller provides subelectron resolution with any charge-coupled device (CCD)-based imager, such as the NASA camera attached to Québec's Mont-Mégantic Observatory. Photon etc. (Québec) has licensed the controller design from the University of Montreal and sold the first one to NASA, for the observatory installation; the second to the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil; and a third to a European-Canadian consortium equipping a telescope in Chile. Photon etc. was spun off from the University of Montreal after operating for several years under the university's affiliated École Polytechnique IT business incubator.

"WIRELESS: Charting the Final Frontier--Google Maps for Indoors"

Google maps have been extended to the insides of locations like conferences, shopping mall, college campus or even the local theme park. Micello aims to offer free maps for every indoor venue to help people locate the precise room, store or other in-venue location inside of buildings. Look for it in the iPhone app store this fall, with support for Blackberry, Android and Palm coming in 2010. R.C.J.

Google maps are great for navigating to an address, but once you arrive, it's up to you to find the office, meeting room or vendor inside. Now Micello takes over where conventional navigators leave off, mapping your route inside buildings, malls, convention centers and other points of interest. Available as a free service to users of the iPhone, BlackBerry, Palm or Android mobile handsets, Micello displays the Google maps to an address adorned with icons showing where indoor maps are available. Once the user arrives at an address, clicking on the Micello icon overlays the indoor map. Search for a particular venue inside, and Micello highlights a recommended route from your current location. Future versions will also provide directions from your car in the parking lot, as well as store-to-store directions once inside a mall.
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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

"MATERIALS: Exciton transistors inch toward commercialization"

Electro-optical systems got a boost recently by researchers who claims that a new kind of transistor--an excitonic transistor--can accept optical inputs and provide optical outputs, but which operates on the photonic data as if it were electrical--yielding the best of both worlds. Look for excitonic transistors to begin appearing commercially within 10 years. R.C.J.

Excitonic transistors could solve the persistent problem of electronically switching optical communications signals, but until now have required very expensive supercooling. Now, researchers have refined the materials mix and architecture of excitonic transistors to permit economical operation at 125 degrees Kelvin, which they say is attainable with inexpensive liquid nitrogen. Unlike conventional electronic circuits, exitonic transitors automatically convert optical signals into excitons--bound electron-hole pairs. After processing the excitons with conventional signal processing techniques, the electron-hole pairs are recombined, thereby emitting an photon at the output of the circuit.

"ENERGY: Battery 500 Project Charged Up over All-Electric Cars"

IBM--king of the computer--aims to become king-of-the-hill for batteries too, with a new effort to develop lithium-air batteries to the point of providing a 500 mile range for electric cars. Look for lithium-air batteries to take over where lithium-ion left off within five years. R.C.J.

The Battery 500 Project recently held its kickoff meeting at IBM's Almaden Laboratory in San Jose, Calif., where leading scientists, engineers and other experts brainstormed about how to perfect the power source for all-electric automobiles. As a part of IBM's 2-year-old Big Green Innovations program, the Battery 500 Project aims to boost the range of rechargeable batteries for all-electric cars from less than 100 miles today to as far as 500 miles. The consortium's efforts are being led by the Almaden Lab in collaboration with several U.S. universities and the Department of Energy's national labs.
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Friday, September 25, 2009

"ALGORITHMS: Intel vows to make TV personal, social, optical"

Intel plans to supercharge your TV by enabling personalized programming, delivery to any device, extending into 3D and by incorporating "chat" and social networking capabilities. Look for mobile TV devices with Intel's Atom Inside by next year. R.C.J.


Intel has its eye on your TV, according to Intel chief technology officer Justin Rattner who discussed the possibilities at the Intel Developer Forum. His talk entitled "The Future of Television" described how technology might personalize television by adding social networking capabilities and extend viewing to 3-D. Rattner demonstrated a user-personalized TV and previewed Intel's new Light Peak optical interconnection technology, which promises 10 Gbits/second at introduction and will push toward terabit speeds. Rattner predicts that computers will automatically index all programming via vision recognition algorithms that identify not only the content of a program, but even the individual people participating in each scene and what they are doing. For instance, viewers of a sporting event will be able to select a player and ask the TV directly for the athlete's stats. Besides watching the programming, computers will also be watching you—indexing what you watch and when you watch, and integrating that information with other known aspects of your life. The television experience will adapt some of the social media capabilities of the Internet for TV

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

"NANOTECH: Nanotubes pack promise of battery-free energy storage"

Mechanical energy can be stored and released without any degradation over time, like a mouse trap. Now engineers think that the extremely flexible, but very strong, carbon nanotube can store mechanical energy by stretching them like a spring. Such nanosprings could someday replace batteries for long-term energy storage and for use in high- or low-temperature environments where batteries are likely to fail. Look for nanosprings to be commercialized within five years. R.C.J.

Springs can store mechanical energy indefinitely when properly tethered, and they can operate in harsh environments, with immunity to temperature extremes that would kill most batteries. The catch is that conventional steel springs have a much lower energy density than batteries. Researchers working with carbon-nanotube powered springs, however, report that the nanotube springs can store 1,000 times more mechanical energy than their steel counterparts. While that's still lower than the energy density of today's batteries, ganged nanosprings might rival batteries in density, with a greener footprint. Unlike batteries, carbon nanotubes are impervious to temperature, humidity and other environmental factors, since they are composed of pure carbon molecular chains just a few nanometers in diameter but millimeters long. For direct battery replacement, the nanosprings would need to drive a generator to deliver electric current, making the efficiency of the generator a factor.

Monday, September 21, 2009

"MATERIALS: Phase-changing thermal management to prolong LED lifespan"

Heat often causes undesirable changes in phase, such as melting insulators, but what if engineers instead harnesses phase changes for good? Honeywell has done just that with a new family of phase changing thermal management materials which change from a hard plastic into a soft polymer in response to heat, in the process increasing their thermal conductivity and thus cooling off the device. Look for Honeywell phase-changing materials to supplant silicone-based paste over the next few years. R.C.J.

Honeywell engineer stencil prints its thermal management material on the base of an aluminum heat sink similar to those used to cool light-emitting diodes for a flat-panel display backlight.

A new family of phase-changing thermal management material from Honeywell is claimed to improve the lifespan of light-emitting diode (LED) arrays used for display backlights and solid-state lighting, by changing phase during use to more efficienty transfer heat away from devices. Called Honeywell LTM6300-SP, the phase-changing material replaces traditional silicone-based pastes which pump out and degrade at high temperatures, with a polymer matrix embedded with thermally conductive metals. The new material is the first in a family of phase change materials being developed by HEM the growing LED lighting applications, including street lamps, automotive lighting, flat panel TV displays and computer monitors.

Friday, September 18, 2009

"MATERIALS: Strain engineering aims for room-temp superconducting"

Room-temperature superconductors could someday be realized by a new class of material called correlated electron materials which change from insulators to semiconductors to conductors by applying external strain. When coupled to a piezoelectric material, the new correlated electron materials could have their function changed on-the-fly. Look for correlated electron materials to begin appearing in devices within five years. R.C.J.

Strain-correlated electron materials can be conductors, semiconductors or insulators depending on how much strain is engineered into their structure. As a new type of transition-metal oxide, correlated electron materials could allow the selective placement of strain to alter the spatial arrangement of its crystalline lattice, according to researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The Energy Department lab recently created structural irregularities called phase inhomogeneity in correlated electron materials that could someday enable colossal magnetoresistance, and perhaps even room-temperature superconductivity.Correlated electron materials, as the name implies, exhibit correlated electron capabilities at room temperature that otherwise might require a phase change, such as by super cooling a superconducting material. By engineering the right kind of strain into a correlated electron material, designers could theoretically endow them with extraordinary room-temperature characteristics.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

"MATERIALS: Graphene mixes it up with GaAs"

Carbon promises to replace silicon at the end of the semiconductor roadmap, but what about gallium arsenide which is already used instead of silicon for high-performance applications such as radio frequency (RF) power amplifiers (PAs). Now researchers have succeeded in combining graphene and gallium arsenide into a new super-material. Look for hybrid graphene-on-GaAs in discrete devices within five years. R.C.J.

Pure carbon atoms based on depositing graphene on gallium arsenide wafers could yield the next generation of high performance semiconductors, according to German researchers. Investigators at the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt (Braunschweig, Germany) recently claimed to have imaged graphene on the surface of a GaAs wafer for the first time using an optical microscope. Nearly invisible single-carbon atom layers can be made visible using a normal optical microscope if the support layer is designed as an anti-reflection filter. Single-layer graphene is identified inside the marked areas. GaAs is widely used in semiconductors that must outperform silicon chips, especially in RF applications where the wavelengths are too short for CMOS. Future carbon-based chips will likely use layers of crystalline carbon--graphene--to outperform silicon, prompting the German researchers to begin investigating ways of depositing graphene on GaAs to achieve a hybrid material with advanced properties.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

"NANOTECH: Nanotubes sorted, aligned to reduce friction"

As much as six percent of the gross national product is expended overcoming the effects of friction, according to the Department of Energy which plans to change all that at the nanoscale where friction is an even more pronounced effect. By assembling an international team to study the effects of friction on tiny carbon nanotubes, DoE funded researchers now claim that half as much friction will be encountered by aligning them properly. Look for carbon nanotube based electronics within five years. R.C.J.

An international team studying the effects of friction on carbon nanotubes claims that it can be cut in half when carbon nanotubes are aligned lengthwise rather than transversely. Carbon nanotubes are as small as a single nanometer in diameter, making it impossible to accurately pick-and-place them with robots. This obstacle prompted scientists and engineers to search for alternative methods for assembling nano devices. The researchers used an atomic force microscope (AFM) to characterize the coefficient of friction for carbon nanotubes with different grain orientations. The researchers concluded that higher friction in the transverse direction was the result of soft lateral distortion in the tubes' shape, which they called "hindered rolling."

Monday, September 14, 2009

"NANOTECH: Electronic nose knows, warning with color-changing badge"

Nanoscale sensors not only permit many different tests to be performed simultaneously, but also speeds up recognition tasks by virtue of the smaller chemical reactions necessary to trigger alarms. Look for hazardous materials badges that detect exposure to toxic chemicals within three years. R.C.J.

A sensor akin to an electronic nose could be used to detect toxic industrial chemicals and be as commonplace as radiation badges around nuclear facilities, according to the the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. NIEHS funded research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where investigators created disposable badges using optoelectronics technology to create an artificial nose that detects a range of known toxic industrial chemicals. The sensor works by glowing a different color when detecting specific toxins. The 36-color sensor array also will display a unique pattern of color change for a mix of toxins, permitting a library of color fingerprints to be cataloged. These can be used to identify both common and uncommon exposure. A postage stamp-sized optical sensor array for detecting industrial toxins is said to be able to identify toxins and displaying color changes associated with representative poison gases. The colorimetric sensor array detects a wide range of volatile analytes using a disposable array of cross-responsive nanoporous pigments. Colors change in response to complex sets of chemical reactions, revealing the fingerprint of the toxic substance detected.

Friday, September 11, 2009

"ENERGY: 'Tree power' harvests bio-energy"

Harvesting energy from the environment to monitor remote sensors enables more ambitious applications, such as monitoring the weather under the canope of trees in the forest, rather than just in clearings where weather stations can communicate with satellites. University of Washington, MIT and Voltree are advancing the state of the art. Look for tree-powered remote sensors to be deployed by the U.S. Forest Service as early as 2010. R.C.J.

Trees can be used to power circuits, but their voltage is too small to charge conventional batteries. University of Washington (Seattle) researchers recently demonstrated a nanoscale "boost converter" that integrates the ultra-low-voltage potentials generated by trees. A tree's output voltage can be as low as 20 millivolts, according to the researchers. They designed a circuit to nevertheless accumulate enough power over time to produce a 1.1-volt output--enough to power wireless sensors. Last year, the theory behind "tree power" was demonstrated by MIT which spun-off the company Voltree Power (Canton, Mass.) which recently won a contract from the U.S. Forest Service to supply a wireless mesh sensor network powered by trees. The Forest Service operates 28,000 U.S. weather stations, each transmiting conditions on the ground to a satellite. Voltree's energy harvester gathers information from the surrounding forest and transmits it wirelessly to existing weather stations. The architecture extends the stations' reach under the forest canopy for the first time. Pilot sites will be tested this fall, with the first weather station upgrades scheduled for the first quarter of 2010.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

"MATERIALS: Startup pioneers carbon-based FPGAs"

By 2015, carbon films will be ready to take over from copper the interconnection task, as well as the from silicon the semiconductor task and with proper coatings even the role of insulator. But today carbon films--called graphene--cannot be fabricated in sizes larger than one-inch without it deteriorating into its amorphous form, called graphite. Not willing to wait until 2015, a startup and Rice Univeristy are harnessing the easy-to-fab amorphous graphite to create configurable carbon memory elements today. Look for carbon-based field programmable gate arrays in two years. R.C.J.

Carbon-based memory architectures promise to revolutionize FPGA design, according to the founder of a chip startup. Startup NuPGA was founded by Zvi Or-Bach, a winner of the EE Times Innovator of the Year Award. He previously founded eASIC and Chip Express. Or-Bach has applied for a patent, along with Rice University, for its carbon-based memory process developed by professor James Tour. The approach uses graphite as the reprogrammable memory element inside vias on otherwise conventional FPGAs. Rice University researchers developed a bulk chemical process that converted nanotubes into nanoribbons, providing the raw material needed to perfect a technique based on using voltage pulses to make or break connections--essentially turning the carbon ribbons into reprogrammable switches. NuPGA plans to harness these reprogrammable switches in FPGAs by inserting graphite into vias between chip layers, allowing them to be reconfigured on-the-fly.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

"WIRELESS: Black Sand debuts first 3G power amp in CMOS"

The world's first CMOS power amplifier (PA) for 3G wireless mobile devices was demonstrated today at startup Black Sand Technologies, Inc. (Austin, Texas). A clever architecture allowed the company to recast the role of CMOS transistors into a cascaded structure with adaptive algorithms that rivals the performance of a gallium arsenide 3G PA, but on a less expensive CMOS chip.

"The breakthrough innovation that this team has developed is a power amplifier architecture that uses the smart capabilities of CMOS to solve the voltage breakthrough problem that here-to-fore has been a barrier to CMOS playing competitively in the 3G PA arena," said John Diehl, Chief Executive Officer (CEO).

The company estimates that its CMOS 3G PA will be in mass production by 2010, the first year that 3G mobile phone sales will be larger than 2G sales (see figure).

The problem with casting 3G PA's in silicon, which the experts at Black Sand claim to have overcome, was the size of the voltage swings necessary to ramp the power amplifier up and down as required of 3G, compared to always-on 2G PAs. By cascading CMOS transistors atop each other in a voltage-ladder like structure, Black Sand was able to tolerate the smaller voltage swings available in silicon, compared to gallium arsenide.

"A gallium arsenide device can handle a larger voltage swing before it fails--a CMOS transistor is lower, so it comes into the game handicapped from the prespective of power and efficiency," said Diehl. "But our device uses a differential architecture that stacks transistors in such a way that allows the voltage required to swing over multiple transistors," said Diehl.

The company also claims to have built-in the smarts to protects the CMOS circuits from thermal runaway problems as well as from impedance mismatches, such as touching the antenna with your hand. The chip also integrated onto their CMOS die the six discrete components that are required in addition to a gallium arsenide 3G PA chip, making the CMOS solution both smaller and cheaper, according to Black Sand.

CMOS PAs for 2G phones have already appeared, although the lion's share of the market still goes to gallium arsenide devices. The first 2G CMOS PA was demonstrated by Silicon Laboratories back in 2004. Black Sand was founded in 2005 by three former Silicon Labs' employees: Susanne Paul, chief technologist and architect of Black Sand's chips, Dave Pietruszynski, vice president of engineering and Jim Nohrden vice president of marketing.

The world's first 3G CMOS PA has been in development at Black Sand's since June 2007, when the company got its first round of funding. Black Sand also announced today that it had secured $10 million in second round funding from Northbridge Venture Partners and Austin Ventures, bringing the total investment to $18.2 million. Black Sand will use the second round funding to ramp up mass production of its CMOS power amplifiers and to accelerate the development of additional chips.

Black Sand has yet to announce any customers, but claims it has samples out to mobile phone makers, netbook makers, datacard makers and to other application develpers that use gallium arsenide PAs today.


"MEMS: Digital dual-axis MEMS gyro debuts"

Digital cameras when handheld can take much better pictues if their images are stabilized by micro-electro-mechanical system (MEMS) gyroscope chips, which have just dropped below $2 at Invensense. Look for every digital camera--even those in the billions of cell phone cameras being used today--to use a MEMS gyro in five years. R.C.J.

Image stabilization algorithms sense the movement of a digital camera, then nudge the camera lens (or sometimes the sensor) to compensate for the movement. As mobile devices integrate higher-resolution cameras, adding relatively inexpensive MEMS gyroscopes is now an option, according to one manufacturer. Invensense Inc. (Sunnyvale, Calif.) claims to be the first MEMS vendor to offer a digital, two-axis gyroscope chip for camera stabilization. Invensense previously claimed to also have developed the world's smallest analog dual-axis gyro. Since then, other vendors have followed suit. Invensense's digital gyro is a redesigned MEMS chip that consumes 50 percent less power than analog gyros.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

"MATERIALS: Graphene made magnetic with hydrogen coating"

Carbon sheets--graphene--can be made ferromagnetic, called graphone, by adjusting the amount of hydrogenation on their surface, according to these researchers. With an adjustable magnetic moment that can couple ferromagnetically, graphone allows the magnetism to be harnessed in semiconducting devices. Look for spintronic devices using graphone within 10 years. R.C.J.

Graphone, a new magnetic version of carbon monolayers called graphene, could enable a new breed of carbon spintronic devices, researchers claim. Graphene, consisting of pure crystalline carbon sheets, cannot be doped with impurities to adjust its semiconducting and magnetic properties as easily as silicon since carbon does not readily "heal" implantations with annealing. Rather than implanting dopants, researchers say, a surface treatment can be used to adjust a carbon sheet's properties. Researchers say hydrogen can be used to fine-tune graphene's metallic, semiconductor and magnetic properties, resulting in either graphene (metallic), graphane (semiconducting) or graphone (ferromagnetic).

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

"WIRELESS: Nanoscale laser harnesses plasmons"

Semiconductor lasers could someday be used to shuttle light around chips instead of electrons, but not until they are shrunk to the nanoscale. Now researchers think they may have found the key--confining light in waveguides smaller than their own wavelength then linking them to electron waves called plasmons. Look for electronic chips with integrated optics within five years. R.C.J.

What is being billed as the world's smallest semiconductor laser boasts a 5-nm active region that is 20 times smaller than the wavelength of the light it emits. The key to scaling down the laser to the nanometer level was harnessing the interaction between light and surface plasmon waves. Last month, experimental laser collaborators at Cornell University, Norfolk State University and Purdue University performed an alternative nanoscale laser demonstration, but their device was not integrated onto a chip like the current device being demonstrated by the University of California at Berkeley. Discrete semiconductor lasers used in telecommunications equipment are measured in millimeters, but micron-sized semiconductor lasers are currently under development in many labs. The two lasers recently demonstrated are the first to reach the nanometer realm.