Wednesday, March 31, 2010

"CHIPS: IBM warns of 'design rule explosion' beyond 22-nm"

IBM warned of "design rule explosion" beyond the 22-nanometer node during a paper presentation earlier this month at the International Symposium on Physical Design (ISPD). Look for electronic design automation (EDA) tools to begin solve "design rule explosion" by 2012. R.C.J.

IBM described the physical design challenges beyond the 22-nm node, emphasizing that sub-wavelength lithography has made silicon image fidelity a serious challenge. Solving "design rule explosion," involves balancing area against image fidelity by considering the physical design needs at appropriate levels of abstraction, such as within cells. IBM gave examples of how restricted design rules could reap a three-fold improvement in variability with a small area penalty.

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"QUANTUM: Quantum 'Film' Aims to Replace Digital Imagers"

A new quantum film could replace today's digital imagers with a lower-cost alternative that suspends quantum dots in a black polymer, similar in appearance to traditional photographic film, but which performs like a silicon image sensor. Look for improved camera phones over the next few years, thanks to quantum film. R.C.J.

Photographic film is a polymer with embedded silver grains that, when developed, turn into the dark areas of a photographic “negative.” The disadvantage of photographic film, of course, is that it is write-only and must be processed before it can be scanned into a digital file. By substituting a silicon image sensor for the photographic film, the modern digital camera does its own scanning, thus eliminating the need for old-school film. Now InVisage proposes placing quantum film where the silicon image sensor is today. Like photographic film, quantum film is composed of a low-cost polymer with embedded nanoparticles; instead of silver grains, quantum film uses semiconductor nanoparticles. The semiconducting nanoparticles absorb light and convert it into an electrical signal, enabling quantum film to serve the same function as a silicon image sensor, but at a much lower price point.
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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"ROBOTICS: RoboDogs to Assist Military by Carrying Packs"

Dogs may be man's best friend, but Big Dogs aims to one-up the slobbering canines with by packing over 300 pound payloads with no barking! Look for the military to adopt these Star Wars vintage robots over the next five years. R.C.J.

Micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) are even more important to legged robots, which must constantly be tracking the orientation of their body, especially on rough terrain. Boston Dynamics (Waltham, Mass.) for instance, specializes in building biologically inspired robots based on algorithms that mimic real animals.
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"ENERGY: Cold Fusion Resurrected from Batteries to Bacteria"

Cold fusion is hot again--with backing from government, industry and academic researchers, the promise of room-temperature nuclear fusion for ultra-cheap energy production is once again being proposed. Look for cold-fusion applications demonstrations in the next few years. R.C.J.

Cold fusion was once touted as the answer to the energy crisis, but was later debunked as poor science. Now 20 years later, nearly 50 chemists aim to resurrect the dream at the American Chemical Society's annual meeting touting nuclear batteries and bacteria that eat nuclear waste.

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"ROBOTICS: On the Road to Autonomous Assistants"

Check out all the latest developments in robotics technology in EETimes special online report including to of my own contributions on micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) in robotics. Look for increasing use of robots in the home, business and military over the coming decade. R.C.J.

The notion of artificial helpmates and companions has long captured humanity's imagination, but only recently has technology caught up to fantasy, opening the door to fully autonomous robots. Be it dull, dirty or dangerous, work--executed reliably and at low cost relative to human labor--is a robots reason for being. Check out all the latest developments in robotics in this special online report from EETimes.
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Monday, March 29, 2010

"OPTICS: IBM demos graphene optical link"

Silicon photonics is the holy grail of optical communications, enabling cheap integrated optics that handle all high-speed communications among chips and even among on-chip cores. Now IBM has demonstrated the last piece of the photonics toolkit--an optical receiver on a silicon-on-insulator substrate (SoI). Look for optical chips that integrate graphene with CMOS in five years. R.C.J.

IBM Research has demonstrated an optical link using a graphene photodetector fabricated on a silicon-on-insulator (SOI) substrate. The 10 Gbit per second receiver uses a novel interdigitated source and drain on a field-effect transistor (FET) with graphene as the channel. The vertical-incidence metal-graphene-metal photodetector achieved a very wide bandwidth of 300 nanometers to 6 microns, making the graphene optical link a promising candidate not only for communications, but for remote sensing, environmental monitoring and surveillance.
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Thursday, March 25, 2010

"CHIPS: Intel-backed research yields spintronic breakthrough"

Research funded by Intel Corp. and others has led to a spintronic breakthrough that encodes information on the spin of electrons. Look for spintronics to begin replacing traditional electronic devices in four to seven years. R.C.J.

Spintronics encodes bits on the spin of individual electrons—either "up" or "down"—instead of the accumulation of charge, enabling ultra-low-power operation for nonvolatile circuitry that remembers its state even when turned off. The promising new spintronic material category called a dilute magnetic semiconductor (DMS) until now required manganese doped compound semiconductors such as indium arsenide or gallium arsenide. Now researchers say they have found that germanium quantum dots enable electric field controlled ferromagnetism in a material compatible with conventional CMOS.
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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

"ENERGY: Green Plastic Biodegrades Organically"

Recycling does not necessarily renewable since most plastics can only be reused for secondary purposes, but a new "green" plastic could enable a sustainable, renewable future where plastic products get melted down and reformed over and over again, saving energy and natural resources. Look for green plastic within the next three years. R.C.J.

Organo-catalysis is a basis for a new era of green polymer chemistry whereby polymers are made biodegradable like natural materials. With such a technology, disposable water bottles, for instance, would be broken down into the basic monomers needed to reform them again into new polymer bottles, creating a sustainable cycle, according to researchers at IBM and Stanford University. Plastics today, such as the popular polyethylene terephthalate (PET) used in disposable drinking bottles, are not generally reused in other drinking bottles but in a secondary plastic product such as packing material, which in turn eventually ends up in the landfill. Today, more than 13 billion plastic bottles are thrown away each year, and about 63 pounds of plastic for every man, woman, and child in the United States end up in landfills. Green plastic will turn all that around by enabling products to be recreated in their own form.
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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

"MEMS: Report highlights emerging 'killer apps'"

Emerging micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) applications promise to herald a new era of killer MEMS apps, according to market research firm Yole Development. Look for a new MEMS applications like electronic compasses and diminutive oscillators to go mainstream in the next three years. R.C.J.

Yole predicts that the emerging MEMS segment will grow from $550 million in 2009 to over $2 billion in 2015, while the overall MEMS market climbs from $7 billion in 2009 to more than $18 billion in 2015. Some of the applications reported as potential "killer apps" are already familiar, such as MEMS oscillators, the sales of which already account for a share of the reported $550 million in emerging device sales in 2009. Growth in oscillators is predicted to soon accelerate around the "knee" of the hockey stick curve that marks success for a developing technology. MEMS applications just taking off include minuscule electronic compasses for navigation and diminutive bolometers that measure incident electromagnetic radiation by raising their temperature.
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"ALGORITHMS: Gibson Guitar App Gets the Price Right"

Guitarists expressed their appreciation of the free Gibson App for iPhone, which includes a guitar tuner, a metronome, chord charts and lessons—one of over 100 similar offerings ranging in price up to over $100. Look for the Gibson app to become standard equipment in the e-guitarists toolkit. R.C.J.

Gibson Guitar recently began offering a free app in the iTunes App Store that guitarists seem to either love or hate. Almost 5,000 users have rated the app in less than a month, but the votes split almost equally between giving it the highest rating (five stars) and the lowest rating (one star), with relatively fewer ratings in-between.

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Monday, March 22, 2010

"CHIPS: Quantum film threatens to replace CMOS image chips"

Film was replaced by silicon imaging chips, but now CMOS imagers could be replaced by film--this time "quantum film" which looks like a traditional polymer-based film, but reacts to light like a chip. Look for quantum film to lower the cost and widen the applications for digital cameras. R.C.J.

Just as photographic film was mostly replaced by silicon image chips, now quantum film threats to replace the conventional CMOS image sensors in digital cameras. Made from materials similar to conventional film—a polymer with embedded particles—instead of silver grains like photographic film the embedded particles are quantum dots. Quantum films can image scenes with more pixel resolution, according to their inventors, InVisage Inc., offering four-times better sensitivity for ultra-high resolution sensors that are cheaper to manufacture.
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Friday, March 19, 2010

"ENERGY: Design Automation Tackles Cleaner, Greener Fuels"

Green fuels and clean-burning engines used to be the domain of old-fashioned trial-and-error design methodology, but Reaction Design aims to bring design automation software to the modeling and simulation of modern fuels and engines. Look for EDA-like tools for testing new fuels and engine designs to be adopted at major automobile makers worldwide over the next few years. R.C.J.

If you thought that design automation software was being used to model and simulate new fuels and combustion methods at automobile makers, you’d be wrong. Today, the automotive industry still builds old-school hardware prototypes to try out its new engine designs as well as new fuels in old engine designs. While it’s true that design automation software has replaced old-school clay models used to test new automobile bodies and mechanisms, advances in chemistry, timing and use of sensors to lower emissions and increase fuel efficiency of modern automobile engines have mostly been found by trial and error. Now Reaction Design wants to bring design automation to the simulation of new fuels and engine designs, enabling automobile makers to perform "what if" experiments with new formulations without having to build a physical prototype.
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Thursday, March 18, 2010

"ALGORITHMS: NASA proposes new air traffic control system"

Air traffic control costs the U.S. over $40 billion per year at 5,000 public airports managing 40,000 flights a day. Delays at airports now account for $19 billion in unnecessary operational costs and $12 billion in lost time for passengers. Now NASA says it has a way of reducing those costs by increasing the efficiency with which air traffic controllers avoid delays by 20 percent. Look for shorter delays and smoother running airports within five years. R.C.J.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) sponsored engineers at the Oregon State University (OSU) to design a more efficient air-traffic control system for commercial aircraft. The new system uses smart computer agents to make recommendations to air traffic controllers on how to reduce congestion and avoid bottlenecks, but leaves it up to human experts whether to implement the suggestions. The current system of shepherding flights to the correct flight paths and runways at the airport would remain in place the same way it is today, but the automated agent would use artificial intelligence to gather information about delays and weather on other flights that could affect an air traffic controller's decisions, making appropriate suggestions to remedy bottlenecks.
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Monday, March 15, 2010

"GADGETS: Nanocomposite said to boost lithium batteries by 5X"

All your gadgets that use lithium ion batteries--iPhone to Prius--could have their time between recharges increased by up to 5-times according to these researchers who have invented a new type of hybrid silicon-carbon electrode. Look for lithium ion batteries to adopt these new electrode technologies over the next few years. R.C.J.

Nanocomposites aim to boost the capacity of lithium ion batteries by five-times by hanging nanometer-sized silicon particles on trees of carbon black that self-assemble into porous micron-sized spheres, which increase an electrode's surface area with interconnected internal channels. The new nanocomposite material hangs 30 nanometer sized silicon particles on trees of carbon black which then self-assemble into porous spheres about 10-to-30 microns in diameter. The resulting electrode remains stable due to the durable carbon-superstructure that prevents cracking, but benefits from the increased surface area afforded by the smaller silicon nanoparticles.

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"GADGETS: Rolltop Concept Fortells Future of PC"

Every display maker is aiming for a flexible screen that can roll up like a scroll, but what would a computer using it actually look like? This video shows all. Look for roll-top style computers in about three years. R.C.J.

Here's what Orkin Design says about its concept of a "rolltop" computer:
The flexible display allows a new concept in notebook design growing out of the traditional bookformed laptop into unfurling and convolving portable computer. By virtue of the OLED-Display technology and a multi touch screen the utility of a laptop computer with its weight of a mini-notebook and screen size of 13 inch easily transforms into the graphics tablet, which with its 17-inch flat screen can be also used as a primary monitor. On top of everything else all computer utilities from power supply through the holding belt to an interactive pen are integrated in Rolltop. This is really an all-in-one gadget."
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Friday, March 12, 2010

"ALGORITHMS: Data Center Energy: The Newest IT Asset"

Smart energy management maximizes performance in the data center while minimizing waste, and in the process turns energy into the newest IT asset. Look for most data centers worldwide to start using demand-side energy management over the next few years. R.C.J.

Sentilla claims that its demand-side energy management can monitor every device in the data center with no extra hardware to be installed. Using artificial intelligence (AI) inference engines, Sentilla Energy Manager tracks energy consumption at a data center to within 2 percent of actual, as well as provides savings of up to 40 percent by identifying where energy is being wasted.
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Thursday, March 11, 2010

"OPTICS: IBM Preps Optics to Replace Copper Interconnects"

Recently perfected optical interconnection technologies will accelerate multi-core microprocessors to 100-GHz--20-times faster than today--plus will lighten mobile devices to about half their current weight, by obsoleting the heavy copper wire used for routing electronic signals around on printed circuit boards (PCBs) and even between cores inside microchips. Look for all-optical electronic devices within five years. R.C.J.

Optical fibers already carry the fastest communications signals over the Internet and between servers and supercomputers at high-performance data centers. By encoding electronic communications in the language of light, the higher frequencies and wider bandwidth of optical signals not only increases performance, but obsoletes heavy, bulky copper-based interconnects in favor of small, lightweight optical fibers. Each year, IBM announces a few more elements in its nanophotonic toolkit, including on-chip silicon-laser resonators, modulators, waveguides and switches. Plus, it has demonstrated a complete chip-to-chip optical bus. Now IBM claims it has crafted the final tool in its nanophotonics kit -- a tiny germanium optical receiver called an avalanche photodetector -- that will enable it to realize the dream of integrated CMOS optical interconnects.

The new 40G bps photodetector can be integrated on the edge of processors to receive optical signals sent between chips instead of using copper traces on printed circuit boards. And eventually, it will be integrated on the top layer of the microprocessor itself to facilitate lightning-fast communications between cores on the same chip, thus eliminating the need for copper wires inside and outside future electronic devices. By eliminating the copper traces on printed circuit boards and the copper wires inside the chips themselves, a major reduction can be made in the weight of mobile devices today.
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"OPTICS: Organic-silicon hybrid aims at optics"

Polymer filled silicon waveguides promise to bring photonics for CMOS chips, boosting their speed to 100s of GHz. Look for silicon photonics to blossom over the next few years. R.C.J.

Electro-optic-polymer-filled silicon waveguides could propagate optical signals on CMOS chips at up to 100 GHz, according to GigOptix-Helix AG, a subsidiary of GigOptix Inc. The company Wednesday (March 10) announced a $500,000 contract to prove the concept for a European Union project called the Silicon-Organic Hybrid Fabrication Platform for Integrated Circuits (SOFI). The SOFI program is funding seven research teams from four countries for three years. Each SOFI research team will be focusing on fabricating photonic modulators using optical waveguides on CMOS chip
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Tuesday, March 09, 2010

"GADGETS: "3D on the Cheap: $50 Makes iPhone Stereoscopic"

Who says 3-D has to be expensive? An autostereoscopic adapter for Apple's iPhone and iPod Touch converts the handheld into a stereoscopic display for $50, plus a free app lets you take 3-D photos, too. Look for 3D photography to take off over the next few years. R.C.J.

If you are not ready shell out a premium price for a Sony, Samsung, Panasonic, LG or Mitsubishi 3-D TV, all of which are slated for 2010 debuts, then why not get started with an autostereoscopic adapter for your iPhone or iPod Touch that only costs $50? (Soon to be available for laptop screens, too.) The Wazabee 3DeeShell autostereoscopic adapter from Spatial View (Toronto) consists of a lenticular lens that fits over the display to divert two images in a stereoscopic pair to the right and left eyes. And voila -- instant 3-D viewing and without the dorky glasses!
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Monday, March 08, 2010

"NANOTECH: fuels high-density power source"

Energy stored in a chemical does not leak off like the charge on a battery, making these new fuel-coated nanotube materials a natural for long-term storage of electricity, such as for remote "emergency" sensors or for one-use applications such as arming a missile. Look for fuel-treated nanotube applications in about five years. R.C.J.

MIT researchers are using fuel-coated carbon nanotubes as "fuses" for thermowave electrical power sources, which store energy like a battery but promise an unlimited shelf life. Thermowave power ignites its fuel to produce electricity through a newly discovered technique that combines nanotechnology with combustion waves, a phenomenon discovered more than a century ago. In a process much like lighting a dynamite fuse, igniting one end of a fuel-coated nanotube causes a burn down its length that simultaneously produces enough electrical current to be used as power.
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Thursday, March 04, 2010

"WIRELESS: Unclonable RFIDs Authenticate Electronic Fingerprints"

Counterfeiting radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags is possible today by cloning an exact copy of the chip inside the tag. To thwart counterfeiters, Verayo has invented "electronic fingerprints" that work like an electronic passport to make RFID tags unclonable. Look for transit passes and similar mass market applications of RFID tags in the next few years. R.C.J.

Cloning chips today involves reverse engineering their innards, then mass-producing them for applications where OEMs cannot tell the original from the clone. But what if chips had a physically unclonable function (PUF) inside—an electronic "fingerprint" whose unique characteristics could uniquely identify it? That would solve the counterfeiting problem with the electronic version of "biometrics," which is exactly the business of Verayo (San Jose, Calif.).

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Wednesday, March 03, 2010

"CHIPS: IBM jumps 'last hurdle' to on-chip optical communication"

Silicon photonics--using light instead of electrons for communications on and among microchips--will soon be a reality according to IBM which has just patented the last piece of the photonics puzzle--a germanium photodetector. Look for a new generation of microprocessors that use light for communications within five years. R.C.J.

IBM Research claimed a keystone achievement in on-chip optical communications Wednesday (March 3), saying its 40-gigabit-per-second (Gbps) germanium avalanche photodetector completes what it calls the nanophotonic toolkit. Capping its multi-year effort by surmounting this final technological hurdle, IBM (Yorktown Heights, N.Y.) now claims to have all the pieces to enable chip-to-chip optical communications and ultimately core-to-core optical communications on the same chip. The remaining development effort to integrate its nanophotonic toolkit into its commercial processors will occur over the rest of the decade, IBM said.

Over the last few years, IBM has demonstrated silicon modulators for converting electrical signals into light, a silicon delay line for buffering optical signals plus the waveguides and switches necessary to create a complete chip-to-chip optical bus. With the addition of this nanophotonic avalanche photodetector, IBM claims to have its nanoelectronic ducks in-a-row standing poised to obsolete copper wires in favor of optical communications on and among future chips.
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"ENERGY: Smarter Plastic Solar Cell to Solve Energy Crisis?"

Plastic solar cells are inexpensive, but silicon cells are more efficient. Now Caltech claims the best of both worlds -- a miracle cure for the energy crisis that marries 2 percent silicon to 98 percent cheap plastic. Look for ultra-cheap solar cells within five years. R.C.J.

Silicon is the material of choice for microchips, sensors, solar cells and every other kind of electronics today, save a few high-frequency applications using the even more expensive gallium arsenide. Solar cell manufacturers try to minimize costs by making the silicon wafers they use thinner, but they are still meticulously oven-grown perfect crystalline disks of ultra pure silicon semiconductor. Using less-expensive polymers instead of silicon in solar cells is already being done today, but at much lower efficiencies than silicon solar cells. Now, Caltech claims to have married the efficiency of silicon to the low cost of plastic, yielding the best of both worlds.

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Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Freescale chip built to power sub-$99 e-readers

Feeding the e-book craze, a new hardware controller chip from Freescale aims to lower the cost of e-readers below the magic $98 price point while extending battery life to weeks. Look for a flood of ultra-low priced eReaders by Christmas. R.C.J.

Developed in cooperation with E-Ink, maker of the Vizplex electrophoretic display universally used in all of today's popular e-readers, the i.MX508 system-on-chip (SoC) combines a hardware Vizplex controller with a fast ARM Cortex-A8 applications processor and special e-reader power-savings modes. E-readers will achieve 60 percent market penetration if their prices can be lowered below $99, according to Forrester Research. To help original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) meet that magic $98 price point, Freescale has integrated an E-Ink display controller into the SoC alongside Freescale's i.MX508 applications processor for a total cost under $10 (compared to as much as $20 for a standalone display controller today). The i.MX508 also integrates flash memory, dual USB controllers, a DDR2 low-power high-speed interface to SDRAM, support for an auxiliary LCD (like that used on Barnes and Noble's Nook) and other integrated capabilities to reduce the OEMs bill-of-materials.
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"WIRELESS: 'Silicon DNA' secures RFID tags"

Cloning radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags permits counterfeiters to fool security systems by responding to authentication challenges with exactly the same response as genuine tags--but not if they include unclonable silicon DNA inside. Look for RFID tags to proliferate into mainstream consumer applications, such as transit passes, now that an unclonable technology is available to secure them. R.C.J.

Counterfeiters today copy radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags by "cloning" the chips inside them. But making an exact copy of Verayo's new M4H RFID tags is impossible, because they contain silicon "DNA" that uniquely identifies them, according to the company. Verayo Inc. (San Jose, Calif.) announced its unclonable chip technology two years ago but has been concentrating on other applications, such as securing military chips, field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) and secure-door access cards. Applying the approach to mass-market RFID tags required a tweak to the authentication technology. All of Verayo's products are based on a physically unclonable function (PUF) cast as a circuit. PUFs use random variations in the delays of wires and gates on a chip—the chip's silicon DNA—to create a unique response when challenged during an authentication session.
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"CHIPS: Freescale Thin-film flash mimics EEPROM"

Freescale unveiled its 90-nanometer thin-film flash memory technology for next-generation microcontrollers at Embedded World tradeshow in Nuremburg, Germany today. The thin-film flash memory technology is set to be delivered on microcontrollers in the second half of the year, according to Freescale. Look for thin-film flash to supplant polysilicon gates over the next few years. R.C.J.

Freescale unveiled its FlexMemory scheme for microcontrollers, said to make life easier for applications programmers. The FlexMemory approach surrounds flash memory with a hardware architecture that simplifies tasks for programmers by emulating ordinary electrically erasable programmable read only memory (EEPROM), according to Freescale. Freescale described how it was moving from polysilicon floating gates for its embedded flash to nanocrystalline thin-film floating gates last year. The advantage of Freescale's thin-film storage material is that it is relatively immune to leakage, since charge is isolated on nanocrystals thereby preventing any single defect from draining charge off the whole floating gate.
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Monday, March 01, 2010

"CHIPS: SiLabs debuts wireless microcontrollers"

Every wireless device is getting smarter so why not combine the radio-frequency (RF) circuitry with the processor. "Can do" said Silicon Labs this week at Embedded World in Nuremberg, Germany. Look for wireless electronic devices to get smaller and lower power as a result of wireless microcontrollers. R.C.J.

Silicon Laboratories Inc. mated its family of wireless transceivers to its line of ultra-low-power microcontrollers to create a family of a dozen wireless microcontrollers. Silicon Labs claims its ultra-low-power family of 8051-compatible microcontrollers already had the industry's lowest active current consumption, and its lowest sleep current. Plus its line of wireless transceivers already offered +20 dBm output power without an external PA and -121 dBm receiver sensitivity. Together with an on-chip dc-to-dc converter for operating at .9 volts, the new Si10xx family of wireless microcontrollers is claimed to increase the lifetime of the battery powered RF devices using it by five times.
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"SPACE: How to Make Celestial Observations in Your Pajamas"

Poor man's astronomy can be performed by slewing over to (the name sounds like the slewing action of a telescope when it aims at a new object). There, anyone can take control of an observatory to photograph celestial objects.

Making astronomical observations usually involves buying an expensive telescope, learning how to use it, waiting for a cloud-free night, doing a long time exposure, then despairing when your photos do not match the quality of the ones you can download from for free. Now all that has changed by virtue of, where anyone can sign up to point a sophisticated telescope at nearly any celestial object, take a time-lapse photograph, then download the stunning resulting images. There is even a chance that you might discover a comet, supernova, asteroid or other celestial object.
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