Monday, December 26, 2005

"CHIPS: EU group researches one-chip phone"

In search of a single-chip cell phone, researchers worldwide are seeking alternatives to the many discrete front-end surface-acoustic-wave filters (SAWs) and other tunable radio frequency (RF) components required by today's communications devices. Now the European Union is proposing to use nanostructured ferroelectric films to integrate tunable microwave devices onto silicon-based microwave communications devices. The EU's Nanostar project ( is a three-year effort aimed at bringing the electronics industry one step closer to a single-chip cell phone. SAW devices have replaced bulk ceramic and quartz as microwave filters, correlators and modulators. But since they are not fabricated on silicon, Philips and others have turned to bulk acoustic-wave-devices that can be fabricated on silicon. But the Nanostar program aims to demonstrate that ferroelectric films can offer lower cost and power as well as new performance capabilities. Ferroelectric films are already being integrated into silicon-based memory chips as the capacitors for bit cells, but they can also be used in an analog mode as voltage-controlled capacitors (varactors) that are useful in tunable microwave components. However, the Nanostar program aims to exploit the other properties of ferroelectrics to create unique devices that someday could enable a single-chip cell phone.

Monday, December 19, 2005

"NANOTECH: Buckyballs may be hazardous to your DNA"

Nanotechnologists have performed theoretical calculations predicting that buckyballs, a common nanoparticle, could disrupt the functioning of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). These 60-atom hollow spheres of carbon can be functionalized for a variety of applications — from ultrasmall sensors to drug dispensers targeting particular sites inside the body. Buckyballs are developed for a wide variety of applications, including dry lubricants and semiconductors. The bad news is that computer simulations performed by Vanderbilt University and Oak Ridge National Laboratories researchers show that buckyballs have a strong affinity for animal DNA, attaching to it in a manner that prevents it from performing the reproductive actions necessary for cells to mount immune-system responses or even to repair themselves. Today, buckyballs are already treated like a hazardous material simply because their toxicity is unknown, said Cummings. So these calculations come at just the right time, he said, when researchers can study just how toxic buckyballs and other nanoparticles may or may not be — before they are mass-produced. Cummings' team found that buckyballs would shut down the human immune system and prevent cells from self-repairing. However, to penetrate to the DNA, the nanoparticles would first have to have an affinity for living tissue — which usually means they need to be organic like buckyballs, which are simply a form of carbon, a basic building block of life. The team's molecular model showed that buckyballs fit precisely into two spots on the spiraled helix of DNA molecules. Buckyballs could lodge at both the end of DNA strands or in minor grooves along the outside of the DNA. In either case, the binding will cause the DNA molecule to bend over to one side. The damage was most severe when the cell was reproducing by splitting into two separate helices, as it does when it divides or when it manufactures new proteins. The presence of buckyballs prevents both actions from happening.

"SENSORS: Fire or false alarm? Detector knows"

Currently, more than 90 percent of fire alarms are false, which leads to a laxness in response so severe that fire alarms in residential neighborhoods often go unheeded, according to the European Union's Information Society. Now the EU's Information Society is doing something about it. It plans to launch a false-alarm-free fire detection system for 2006. The project, dubbed the Intelligent Modular Multi-Sensor Networked False Alarm Free Fire Detection System (, has just released test results that indicate the commercial version of its fire alarm, based on a prototype called IMOS, will virtually eliminate false alarms. Manufacturers are currently gearing up to demonstrate commercial alarms based on the IMOS technology at the Security 2006 exhibition, to be held in Essen, Germany, next October. The key to the false-alarm fire detection system is its smart look-and-sniff approach. An optical multisensor first determines if smoke is in the air, or just humidity. Then a laser scanner looks to see if there is particulate matter in the air. The detector portion of the electronics gets the go-ahead to sniff only if the laser scans smoke, thereby preventing the alarm from sounding when only condensed humidity is present. In phase two, a second multigas-sensor system measures CO, CO2, NO, unburned hydrocarbons and alkaloids to determine whether the smoke is just from cigarettes or whether it comes from any of a variety of burnable materials that warrant an alarm.

"DISPLAYS: No illusions: toward brighter flat displays"

Candice Brown Elliott is founder and chief technology officer of Clairvoyante Inc. (Cupertino, Calif.), which develops and licenses unique subpixel architectures and associated algorithms to reduce the power, increase the brightness and lower the cost of manufacturing flat-panel displays. Its PenTile Matrix harnesses Elliott's knowledge of the human visual system to trick the eye into perceiving a display as twice as bright for the same power (or just as bright at half the power). By reducing by one-third to one-half the number of pixels needed for a given resolution, the company's PenTile subpixel rendering also lowers costs. PenTile Matrix technology has been licensed by 10 of the world's leading flat-panel makers, including Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. and AU Optronics Corp. EE Times' R. Colin Johnson caught up with Elliott at a recent display conference, where she revealed the specific aspects of the human visual system that Clairvoyante harnessed.
Read the interview at:

How Clairvoyante fools eye
Subpixel technologies attempt to organize red, green, blue — and, exclusively with Clairvoyante Inc.'s PenTile — white subpixels into a matrix that can represent any color. Most flat panels use stripes of RGB subpixels; white can be made only by mixing equal amounts of red, green and blue — essentially, by turning on all three stripes. The technique, however, yields dimmer whites. PenTile adds a white subpixel and, instead of just stripes, uses a unique subpixel matrix that has an average of only two subpixels per pixel, instead of the normal three. More important, Clairvoyante has harnessed the physiology of the human eye-brain system. Based on this understanding, a set of algorithms for the company's driver chips makes the overall display appear higher in contrast, sharper and up to twice as bright as a standard display — or, alternatively, just as bright, but with half the power consumption. Intel Corp. has acquired a minority interest in Clairvoyante, and two manufacturers — Silicon Works (Daejon, South Korea) and Sitronix Technology Co. Ltd. (Hsinchu, Taiwan) — have already begun fabricating PenTile Matrix driver chips for flat panels.

Monday, December 12, 2005

"QUANTUM: Lab advances boost quantum info systems"

Recent developments bode well for comprehensive quantum information systems. Work at labs in Colorado and Austria has increased the ability to store quantum states on groups of atoms, and researchers in Georgia have found a way to transfer quantum states over networks. Two groups-at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST; Boulder, Colo.) and at the University of Innsbruck's Institute of Theoretical Physics-have separately pushed up the number of ions that can exist in a simultaneous superposition of states. Just as NIST researchers were reporting a successful experiment observing six rubidium ions in a synchronized state of superposition (see Nov. 28, page 12), the Innsbruck group announced the observation of eight calcium ions in a magnetic ion trap. Previously, quantum computing research had established quantum entanglement in five photons. Meanwhile, a team at the Georgia Institute of Technology has found a way to build quantum state "repeaters"-systems that regenerate a quantum state being transmitted over a network-which would enable larger quantum networks to be built. The first application of the development will likely be in emerging quantum encryption systems that operate over optical networks. In theory, quantum repeaters could exchange secure encryption keys. By demonstrating the temporary storage and retrieval of quantum information from a cloud of rubidium atoms, the Georgia Tech researchers have verified the possibility of building such systems.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

"NANOTECH: Nanoparticles shown to slow plants' root growth"

New research suggests that plants may suffer adverse reactions to tiny nanoparticles. While the possibility of detrimental health effects from nanotechnology has been investigated in relation to animals and humans, researchers at the New Jersey Institute of Technology have now demonstrated that plants too can be hurt by nanoparticles. A toxicology expert, professor Daniel Watts, reports that aluminum-oxide nanoparticles in groundwater inhibit the growth of all five species tested-corn, cucumber, cabbage, carrot and soybean. Watts warned that care must be taken to prevent these nanoparticles from dispersing in the air, where they will be carried by rain into groundwater systems and stunt plant growth. These concerns underscore the already accumulating evidence of possible harm to human health (see news/latest/ showArticle.jhtml?articleID=172900608) posed by nanotechnology. Nanoparticles in general may not be a problem. In Watts' tests on plants, most of the nanoparticles studied had no effect on health. In particular, silicon dioxide-a common nanoparticle-had no detrimental effect on plants. But aluminum-oxide nanoparticles slowed the growth of roots in all five vegetables tested.

"NANOTECH: Pilot line planned for lighting nanotubes"

The world's first pilot line for carbon nanotube-based electron-emission lighting devices was announced recently by Applied Nanotech, Inc. in cooperation with Shimane Masuda Electronics Co., Ltd. (Masuda, Japan). Applied Nanotech is a subsidiary of Nano-Proprietary, Inc. (Austin, Texas) and the joint development project aims to build a joint pilot line for the development and production of carbon nanotube electron emission based lighting devices by June 30, 2006. Earlier this year Texas Governor, Rick Perry, made a joint announcement with the Governor of the Shimane Prefecture in Japan, Nobuyoshi Sumita, detailing a deal between the U.S. and Japanese regions to develop a nanoparticle-based aluminum alloy with enhanced thermal conductivity for microelectronics applications. That deal was between Applied Nanotech and the Shimane Masuda Electronics research arm called the Shimane Institute for Industrial Technology. The success of that research effort prompted the manufacturing arm of Shimane, the Shimane Masuda Electronics, to broker the deal with Applied Nanotech. Under the deal, Applied Nanotech will reap a 5 percent royalty from any subsequent sales resulting from products developed on the pilot line. Shimane Masuda Electronics has agreed to provide all the equipment and personnel while Applied Nanotech contributes the technical expertise and access to its patent portfolio. Applied Nanotech and Shimane Masuda Electronics declined to specify exactly what type of nanotube-based lighting devices will be made on the pilot line, however Nano-Proprietary (Applied Nanotech's holding company) has announced in the past that they were developing the technology for carbon nanotube backlighting to replace LCD backlights. At that time, the company claimed its nanotube-based LCD backlights will burn brighter and longer and contain no mercury as do conventional backlights.

Monday, December 05, 2005

"QUANTUM: NIST claims largest quantum computer"

Scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology predict a sixfold improvement in the speed of synchronizing atomic clocks, and more than a doubling of magnetic-sensor sensitivity, by applying the lessons learned from NIST's demonstration of the world's largest quantum computer. NIST showed that six qubits could be entangled in synchronized "Schrödinger's cat" states of superposition — simultaneously spinning "up" and "down" — thereby enabling both ones and zeros to be superimposed. The previous world's record was an IBM Corp. five-qubit-device quantum computer using flourine atoms ( instead of the beryllium atoms used here by NIST. In applications, Schrödinger cat states could make it possible to set atomic clocks six times faster than today, since it would be six times easier to synchronize their frequencies. Likewise, entangled qubits could enable fault tolerance in quantum computers by providing sixfold easier verification that a quantum calculation had been performed without disturbances. NIST also proposes using the six-synchronized states to build more-sensitive sensors. Higher sensitivity to disturbances could enable quantum encryption algorithms that would foil undetected eavesdropping. The NIST experiment held the six atoms stationary in an electromagnetic trap. It used ultraviolet lasers to cool them almost to absolute zero and then synchronize their states by entangling them. The Schrödinger cat states lasted about 50 microseconds and could be repeated every millisecond.

Monday, November 28, 2005

"SECURITY: CMOS chip slashes time needed to ID flu strains"

CombiMatrix Corp. fabricated a smart CMOS chip for influenza identification that addresses a central criterion for containment of a potential pandemic: timeliness. The company says its microarray can be updated for new flu strains in less than 24 hours and can identify any known flu strain in as little as four hours, without requiring skilled technicians to operate it. The chip's CMOS format can electronically identify the binding events that represent a match between a sample of DNA and the DNA from a flu strain found in the body. An array of electrodes that are organized like memory cells in an SRAM determines where a binding event has occurred, eliminating the need for the fluorescent tags and optical scanners used with other methods. Current influenza identification tests require batch operations that must be run overnight. The conventional flu chips use dumb plastic or glass substrates that require skilled technicians to inspect the microarrays visually. And labs can't update the chips for new flu strains without waiting 18 months for Federal Drug Administration (FDA) approval. Laboratories with CombiMatrix chips in stock can repopulate them with any new DNA sequences they desire, literally overnight. By using CombiMatrix's desktop DNA synthesizer, any certified laboratory can populate the microarrays inside the CMOS chips with any predetermined DNA sequence. CombiMatrix's CMOS flu chips are disposable and can be ordered preloaded to identify DNA sequences for up to 12,000 strains of influenza. A forthcoming electrochemical detection system for the CombiMatrix chips will be packaged in a portable battery-operated unit. The array can be used as an adjunct to existing technology, to type difficult or ambiguous samples of flu or to study genetic drift in a flu strain as it migrates through a population. The system can process samples from animals as well as humans.

Monday, November 21, 2005

"NANOTECH: Nano transistors light the way to all-optical silicon chips"

An experimental light-emitting nanotube (LEN) transistor that's said to achieve 10,000 times the photon flux and over 1000 times the efficiency of LEDs could put researchers closer to the goal of "computing with light." By emitting thousands of photons for the same energy expenditure as one photon emission in an LED, the unipolar carbon nanotube transistor could lead to optical silicon chips, said its creator, IBM Corp. Light emission in solid-state LEDs occurs when separately injected electrons and holes recombine in an exotic material such as gallium arsenide. The resultant drop in energy causes a single photon to be emitted to compensate. IBM had earlier reported an ambipolar nanotube transistor, billed at the time as the world's smallest solid-state emitter, for which hot carriers — electrons and holes — were injected separately into the source and drain. The new technique induces electroluminescence from a single type of carrier — an exciton — using a unipolar nanotube transistor that the company says is three orders of magnitude more efficient than the ambipolar transistor. IBM believes light-emitting nanotube transistors will revolutionize the communications industry by enabling silicon devices to perform both electronic and optical signal processing operations. Eventually all-optical silicon chips could result, but in the meantime silicon chips could perform electrical-to-optical conversions, reducing the need for separate devices made from exotic materials, IBM researchers believe.

"SUPERCOMPUTERS: Big computers, little apps"

From realistic predictive modeling of natural and man-made disasters to atomic-level explorations of photosynthetic bacteria, supercomputers are enabling next-generation applications in science and technology. Increasingly, the machines' modeling muscle is even being applied to the design of consumer products. Supercomputing 2005, held here last week, reported on achievements and trends in the field. Simulations remain the most important supercomputer applications. At SC/05, researchers discussed the use of supercomputer simulations to forecast the course of disasters, such as modeling wave heights or predicting the drift of a plume from a so-called dirty bomb. But the era of big-application supercomputer simulations is giving way to small ones, said Thomas Lange, director of modeling and simulation for Procter & Gamble. Last week's conference continued a common practice in the supercomputing world: the smashing of records. Bragging rights to the world's largest full-electron calculation were claimed by a team that said it had successfully simulated every atom and every electron in the photosynthetic reaction center of the Rhodopseudomonas viridis bacterium. NASA, meanwhile, announced it had crafted the first complete simulation of a space shuttle flight from liftoff to re-entry, a feat achieved using its year-old Columbia supercomputer. While simulating a shuttle flight or a bacterial structure proceeds largely from known, fixed inputs, simulating the airborne drift of a contaminant plume depends on random inputs of incomplete and unreliable data. Simulation of a plume from a toxic contaminant requires a dynamic data-driven (DDD) approach to make sense of first responders' reports, which are subject to error, according to a team under the auspices of Sandia.

"MATERIALS: Carbon nanotube 'paper' stronger than steel"

Recent research using carbon nanotubes in place of conventional carbon fibers is revealing large gains in such critical material properties as tensile strength and electrical and thermal conductivity. A striking example is a paper product that is ultrathin, electrically conducting and 10 times lighter than steel while still being 250 times stronger. Called buckypaper by its developer, the Florida Advanced Center for Composite Technologies (FAC2T), the material could enable the development of stronger ultralight aircraft or of lighter-weight yet more-effective body armor. It might also find a role in vehicle armor or the construction of stiff, durable yet paper-thin computer displays, researchers said. Buckypaper is created from carbon nanotubes, which can be magnetically aligned during fabrication using the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory's 25 Tesla supermagnet, located at Florida State University. Carbon nanotubes have a high aspect ratio, measuring nanometers wide but extending tens or hundreds of microns in length. Carbon commonly forms into graphite, a flat sheet of carbon atoms bonded in a hexagonal, closely packed structure. Although the carbon-carbon bond is very strong, the two-dimensional sheets do not have much strength in any direction out of their plane. Carbon atoms can also bond into diamond, a three-dimensional crystal that is identical to crystalline silicon-a form that demonstrates the potential strength of carbon bonding. FSU has four U.S. patents pending for buckypaper. Among the smorgasbord of applications slated for development using the material, FAC2T predicts buckypaper will prove applicable as a large-scale electron-field emitter for flat-panel displays, as a thermal conductor for superefficient heat sinks and as high-current protective film for the exteriors of airplanes. Such film would allow lightning strikes to flow around a plane and dissipate without damaging it.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

"OPTICS: IBM claims to best venerable LED"

IBM Corp. unveiled the world's first unipolar electroluminescent nanotube transistor and claimed it glows over 1,000 times brighter with as much as 10,000 times more photon flux than a light-emitting diodes (LEDs). By emitting thousands of photons in silicon with the same energy expenditure as one photon in gallium arsenide, IBM predicted that carbon nanotube transistors will lead to integrated optics on silicon chips. According to IBM, integrated optics on silicon chips could lower costs, accelerate electronics and mitigate the need for exotic semiconductors like gallium arsenide. IBM said its technique achieves 1000-fold brighter emissions by electrically stimulating a carbon nanotube suspended over a doped silicon wafer. The resulting excitons are electrically neutral, yet emit infrared light when recombined. Other research groups have reported light emission by carbon nanotubes stimulated to photoluminescence with a laser. IBM claims its technique uses only electrical stimulation to create an exciton density that is 100-fold larger than photoluminescence in nanotubes. IBM claimed it achieved very high efficiency with its light-emitting technique, IBM through the extreme confinement within a 2-nm-diameter carbon nanotube suspended from each end over a silicon back gate. IBM fabricated the light-emitting transistor by etching trenches in a silicon dioxide film on a highly doped silicon wafer. The wafer substrate acted as a back gate to the carbon nanotube transistor.

Monday, November 14, 2005

"QUANTUM: dot technique builds 'better light bulb'"

Vanderbilt University researchers claim their quantum-dot approach to the generation of tunable broad-spectrum white light simplifies solid-state lighting. The quantum-dot light bulb, invented by professor Sandra Rosenthal uses a single size of nanocrystal to produce white light when irradiated with commercially available blue LEDs. The work shows that building a "better light bulb" does not require pumped lasers, exotically formulated phosphors or integrated quantum wells and nanocrystals, Rosenthal said: All you need to do is coat blue LEDs with her broad-spectrum quantum dots. The quantum-dot light bulbs are predicted to last as long as their LEDs-up to 50,000 hours, or 50 times as long as a normal light bulb. Usually the emitted light's wavelength is determined by the nanocrystal size-for example, a 10-nanometer diameter for red-but Rosenthal's group discovered a size and surface treatment combination that enables a single quantum dot to emit a full spectrum combination of light, resulting in warm yellowish white emission. The quantum dots used were half the size of normal nanocrystals and appeared to exhibit photonic surface emission. Rosenthal hopes that stimulating her photonic surface-emitting quantum dots electrically will yield an all-semiconductor white light bulb that does not rely on exotic compounds. The quantum dots theoretically could be sprayed on any surface to turn it into a light bulb producing a variable rainbow of shades.

Monday, November 07, 2005

"OPTICS: IBM controls speed of light in silicon"

Thomas Theis Photo Researchers at IBM Corp. have fabricated the world's first optical chip to electrically control the speed of light. Director of physical sciences at the T.J. Watson Research Center (Yorktown Heights, N.Y.) Thomas Theis (pictured above) describes IBM's demonstration of an optical silicon chip that can electrically alter the effective index of refraction of an integrated photonic-crystal waveguide. The experimental component could one day enable tunable optical delay-line chips, optical buffers, high-extinction optical switches and highly efficient wavelength converters, IBM said. Together with other optical components, such devices could also eliminate the telecommunications industry's reliance on bulky and costly optical-to-electrical and electrical-to-optical converters. The optical chip can variably slow light by a factor of 300x, under active control by a low-power (under 2-milliwatt), fast-changing (less than 100-nanosecond) electrical signal. It was constructed using normal silicon-on-insulator CMOS fabrication techniques, the team said. The active element is a 250-micron-long photonic-crystal waveguide formed with a nanoscale version of micromachining that perforated a 223-nm-thick membrane with holes 109 nm in diameter, spaced at a 437-nm pitch. As a result, the waveguide slows light passing through it in a 20-nm bandwidth at the communications wavelength of 1,620 nanometers.

Monday, October 31, 2005

"DISPLAYS: Flexible displays, e-paper are around the corner"

Next year might be dubbed the year of the flexible, as roll-up displays and digital signage made of electronic paper debut. Ultrathin displays and e-paper took center stage at the Americas Display Engineering and Applications Conference here last week, with researchers reporting progress and predicting a 2006 deployment. Conference goers also heard of advances in LCD technology and in military-grade head-mounted displays. Nick Colaneri, associate director of the Flexible Display Center at Arizona State University in Tempe, outlined progress at that Army-funded center for the process development and pilot production of flexible backplanes and displays. Their target technology is organic transistors that can be fabricated at a cool 90°C, as well as other low-temperature formulations. The center will begin qualifying its second-generation TFT pilot line in 2006 and start prototyping with it in 2007. Flexible Display Center member companies are also providing facilities for research on electrophoretic ink for paperlike displays at E-Ink Corp. (Cambridge, Mass.), and on cholesteric liquid crystals for reflective and near-infrared displays at Kent Displays Inc. (Kent, Ohio). Unlike electrophoretic ink, which is monochromatic, cholesteric liquid crystals create full-color reflective displays without filters. SiPix Imaging Inc. (Fremont, Calif.), described progress toward commercial production of the company's full-color e-paper. SiPix's Microcup Electronic Paper is flexible, high-contrast and offers nearly a 180° field-of-view, but also is ultralow in power. Because it needs power only to change a pixel's color, it has zero standby power. Military head-mounted displays were described by Primordial (Saint Paul, Minn.). Its Primordial Soldier heads-up vision system applies tactical overlays, including annotations that label friend from foe on a soldier's HMD, perform automatic threat assessment and provide statistics on vulnerabilities. A revolutionary improvement for LCDs harnessing the human visual system was unveiled by Clairvoyante (Sebastopol, Calif.) The company's PenTile subpixel renderings reduce by one-third the number of pixels needed for a given resolution.

"NANOTECH: Nanotubes bend to the task of switching"

Cooperating to make an all-nanotube switch, electrical engineers from Cambridge University (England) and Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. have circumvented the nano-to-micro interface. By lithographically seeding silicon wafers for nanotube growth of source, drain and gate electrodes, the EEs formed three-terminal switches that function like mechanical DRAM, dubbed a nanoelectromechanical system (NEMS) switch. The device can be used to switch routing connections on chips, as an alternative to on-chip fuses, for reconfiguration in a reversible manner and as an alternative to the silicon pillar structure now used as the base for capacitors in DRAM. The nanotubes for the source and drain grow from seeds to a precise length at right angles to the silicon wafer surface. The source nanotube is pinned to ground with photolithography while the drain is positively biased. The gate electrode, also a nanotube but shorter, switches the NEMS by introducing a positive voltage bias that repels the drain by electrostatic force. When the voltage on the gate surpasses a threshold, similar to the "on" gate voltage of a transistor, the drain nanotube bends and touches the oppositely charged source nanotube, thereby throwing the mechanical switch and allowing current to flow from source to drain. Van der Waals forces then provide hysteresis to "debounce" the switch, keeping it "on" until the gate voltage drops below an "off" threshold. To create a memory cell with the NEMS switch, the Cambridge researchers cooperated with Samsung to fabricate a complementary vertical capacitor structure to latch "on" states so that the gate voltage can be removed without switching the cell "off." By integrating the two into a vertical nanotube electromechanical switch and latch, the researchers said, ultrasmall DRAM memory cells could result. The University of Cambridge and Samsung team will reveal the tiny dimensions of their NEMS DRAM cell at the IEEE's International Electron Devices Meeting in December.

Monday, October 24, 2005

"OPTICS: Photons advance on two fronts"

Photons have electron and molecular properties that could be applied to such areas as sensors and fiber optics, recent experiments show. One group has discovered that solitons — self-sustaining waves of light — can form stable structures resembling molecules. Another team has extended photonic work on the Hall effect to phonons, which are quantized vibrations in a crystal lattice. The first discovery could enable fiber-optic telecommunications lines to double their capacity and eliminate the need for repeaters. The second result might enable Hall-effect sensors to be made from dielectric materials. France's Grenoble High Magnetic Field Laboratory reported observing the Hall effect in phonons. The work builds on a discovery several years ago by Grenoble researcher Geert Rikken that the Hall effect can be realized in photons — a surprising revelation because it had been thought that only charged particles, such as electrons, would respond in such a way to an external magnetic field. Now Rikken and Grenoble colleagues Cornelius Strohm and Peter Wyder have shown that phonons can likewise be harnessed to exhibit the Hall effect. The Hall effect is used widely in semiconductors for sensing and switching. A phonon-based version of the effect could lead to new operating modes for magneto-optical materials and devices that might in turn yield new sensor types.

"SECURITY: Lab-on-a-chip prepped to protect drinking water"

On Sept. 11, 2001, water resource managers across the United States got a wake-up call. In addition to desalinization projects and efforts to remove industrial waste, they now faced the possibility of intentional acts of poisoning public water. Sandia National Laboratories thinks it can help. To head off terrorist attacks on U.S. drinking water, Sandia has adapted its lab-on-a-chip, called the MicroChemLab, to real-time monitoring of public waterworks. The device aims to give water resource managers a real-time readout not only of poisons, but also of the naturally occurring toxins for which waterworks can now sample only randomly. The microfluidic-chip-based MicroChemLab prototype, fabricated with microelectromechanical systems, today resembles a 25-pound suitcase with two water collectors protruding from it. It is currently being tested in the Contra Costa Water District in California, collecting and analyzing water samples every 30 minutes and reporting the results in real-time over a wired link to researchers at Sandia. If testing is successful, future production versions of the MicroChemLab will be eligible for installation in any of the more than 300,000 U.S. public-supply water wells, 55,000 utilities and 120,000 rest stops and campgrounds.

Monday, October 17, 2005

"SOFTWARE: Steady pace takes Darpa race"

Slow but sure took the $2 million purse in the second Darpa Grand Challenge. Using what its developers called a "tortoise strategy," an autonomous Volkswagen Touareg named Stanley exploited artificial-intelligence techniques to cover 132 miles of Nevada desert in 6 hours and 53 minutes, for an average of just over 19 miles per hour. Second and third in the Oct. 8 race, sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, went to a pair of Hummers from Carnegie Mellon University. Sandstorm trailed the leader by 11 minutes and H1ghlander by 21 minutes. Of the field of 23 autonomous ground vehicles that started the race before 2,000 spectators, only five crossed the finish line, and one of those exceeded Darpa's 10-hour time limit. Still, the results vastly improved on last year's Grand Challenge, when every entrant either stalled or crashed within seven miles. Last year's starting field all tried to outpace one another with horsepower. This year, the top three winners swore off horsepower in favor of reliability, ruggedization and smarts. "Our focus was reliability from the start, and in the end it was reliability that won the race," Bradski said. With two entries, Carnegie Mellon tried a tortoise-and-hare approach. H1ghlan-der, the "hare," had been favored to win, but ran into mechanical difficulties. "The pace we set for H1ghlander should have had it finishing 30 minutes ahead of [tortoise] Sandstorm. Unfortunately, H1ghlander had mechanical trouble that slowed down its pace," said professor William Whittaker, the CMU team leader. The brains of all three winning vehicles were identical, having been donated to Stanford and Carnegie Mellon by Intel, which permitted separate engineers to work with the rival teams. The computers used were six Pentium M processors, which were low power enough to run off the alternator in two of the three vehicles (H1ghlander had an auxiliary power generator supplied by Caterpillar Inc.). In-stead of laptops, the six Pentium M's were packaged as blades in a ruggedized platform designed to be earthquake proof (no spinning hard disks and a spike-resistant power supply). Each winning vehicle used one Intel 5091 chassis and six Intel MPCBL5525 processor blades. The Grand Challenge was conceived in 2002 by Darpa director Anthony Tether. The first race, in March 2004, offered a $1 million purse. When no one finished, the purse was upped to $2 million. So far, Darpa has reported spending about $20 million to organize and promote the Grand Challenge program. The agency has sponsored autonomous-vehicle research for more than a decade in hopes of meeting a Congressional mandate that one-third of all military vehicles be autonomous by 2015. Progress, however, has been so slow that Darpa decided to enlist outside help. Hence, the Grand Challenge.

"POWER SOURCES: Battery gets bionic charge"

Surgically implanted pacemakers only last for about five years before their nonrechargeable batteries — which draw current of less than a microamp — must be replaced. And devices like microstimulators, whose milliamp-current flows require bulky rechargeable batteries, must be reimplanted surgically far more often. Now a consortium of government, industry and academic organizations has developed a microstimulator with a tiny battery that can be recharged through the skin, enabling nonsurgical implantation for much longer periods of time. The microstimulator is used to bridge broken nerve connections resulting from Parkinson's, epilepsy and spinal chord injuries and other conditions. The bionic device also has a wireless transceiver that permits doctors to monitor the battery's state from outside the body. By building battery-monitoring and -charging functions into the external electronics, the bionic device can selectively monitor and direct the recharging of multiple microstimulators. The lithium-ion rechargeable battery was created with organic liquids, called organosilicon compounds, specifically for bionic implants. Organosilicons enable bionic batteries by using compounds composed of silicon and other natural materials, here designed to be electrolytes — the electricity-conducting liquid that stores charge in a battery. Today's microstimulators are so large that they have to be implanted and removed periodically to have their batteries replaced. These batteries are rechargeable through the skin, since nonrechargeables can't supply enough current, but they have be encapsulated to prevent them from leaking harmful chemicals. In contrast, the organosilicon-based bionic batteries contain no harmful chemicals and thus do not require a bulky case. In fact, the resulting implant is so small that it does not even require surgery to be inserted inside the body. The bionic battery was patented through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation and licensed to a startup company, Polyron Inc.

"CHIPS: Surface-process study reveals transition region"

Understanding the surface process called wetting has become essential to the bottom-up assembly of atomically precise semiconductors as well as to the functioning of chips and boards. Now researchers at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology (Haifa, Israel) have modified a transmission electron microscope (TEM) to reveal new details about wetting. At the atomic level, wetting is the movement of atoms at the interface between a solid and a liquid. Understanding the phenomenon is key to understanding crystal growth on silicon wafers, for soldering chips to boards, brazing flip-chips and controlling liquid flow through microfluidic chips. The aluminum-sapphire interface has been extensively studied worldwide in an effort to understand the high-temperature wetting processes, but the Technion group has uncovered evidence to back a hitherto unproven theory that a transition region exists at the interface. In this transition region, the precise atomic structure of the solid causes the liquid atoms likewise to become highly organized, resulting in layers of crystalline-like metal adjacent to the sapphire.

Monday, October 10, 2005

"SECURITY: Detector senses tiny sample of explosives"

While the increased threat from terrorism today has airports X-raying all luggage for weapons, there has been no fast, practical way for security personnel to scan baggage for the presence of bombs. Now, a Purdue University research team claims to have developed a sensor that is fast enough to detect tiny amounts of residue from explosives, using standard mass spectrometers outfitted with a special puff-and-sniff, two-nostril "nose." Professor R. Graham Cooks developed the method with the assistance of the doctoral candidates in his research group (, Ismael Cotte-Rodriguez, Zoltan Takats, Nari Talaty and Huanwen Chen. In the lab, mass spectrometers can easily detect trace residues of explosives brushed from the hand of someone loading a suitcase, thus determining whether a hazardous substance is likely to be inside. But either the suitcase must be swabbed or other time-consuming methods must be used to prepare a sample taken from its surface. In contrast, the Purdue researchers puff a gas mixture of ions onto the suitcase as it passes by, thereby using the ionic charge to eject molecules from the surface of the suitcase and into the two-nostril nose of the mass spectrometer. The technique, called desorption electrospray ionization (Desi), detects picogram (trillionths of a gram) traces of the explosives TNT, RDX, HMX and PETN, which are found within the plastic compositions of C-4, Semtex-H and Detasheet. An ionized solvent that specifically pinpoints the suspected explosives is sprayed on the suitcase. Two mass spectrometers used in tandem-the nostrils of the device's nose-reduce false alarms to negligible levels, according to Cooks, who claims the technique worked directly on a wide variety of surfaces without swabbing or pretreating them, including metal, plastic, paper and polymers.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

"SENSORS: U.S. funding MRAM, night-vision sensor research"

A key U.S. military advantage has been its ability to fight at night. But current night-vision gear can't spot the enemy beyond 100 meters on moonlit nights.
Seeking to shed more light on the technology, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's (Darpa) Microsystems Technology Office in investing in large infrared focal-plane arrays from Sensors Unlimited Inc. (Princeton, N.J.). The low-noise, dual-wavelength (both day- and night-vision) detector measures 1,280-by-1,024 pixels. It could help Darpa achieve its goal of seeing the enemy at 100 meters under "no-moon" conditions, including cloudy nights. No-moon focal-plane arrays could be available within three years. Separately, NVE Corp. ( Eden Prairie, Minn.) has received funding from the Office of Naval Research to continue development of it deep submicron vertical transport magnetoresistive RAM technology, which combines random access with nonvolatility. Sensors Unlimited's main business is short-wave infrared cameras using its proprietary indium gallium arsenide (InGaAs) process, which can transduce photons into electricity at dual wavelengths — both visible and shortwave infrared.' Requiring no cooling, the InGaAs focal-plane array is billed as providing high-resolution, passive night vision imaging using pixels oriented on a 15 micron pitch. The pixels are sensitive to wavelengths from 0.4 to 1.7 microns.' The company said it will take up to three years to complete the project. If it passes annual Darpa evaluations, the entire contract will be worth for more than $4.57 million.

Monday, October 03, 2005

"SENSORS: Microarrays, labs-on-chip enlist for early avian-virus diagnosis"

The scenario makes public-health officials sweat: Avian flu breaks out here in Portland. By day 24, there are 104 dead and 6,414 infected. By day 42, the death toll has risen to 846 or more and the infection level to 33,246. Had the city followed the vaccinate-and-quarantine regimen prescribed by the Models of Infectious Disease Agent Study (Midas), however, just 362 would be dead and 2,564 infected, with 34,559 citizens under quarantine. The quest to diagnose flu cases early, as the first step in containing an outbreak, has a new ally in an emerging breed of microarrays and labs-on-chip. In the face of dire warnings about bird flu from the World Health Organization, biochip makers are gearing up to provide custom microarrays to screen for avian flu strain H5N1 and its close cousins. The version built at the University of Colorado, Boulder, under contract with the National Institutes of Health, has just come out of testing at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), where a prototype microarray was exposed to a sample from a patient infected with avian flu. Meanwhile, STMicroelectronics says that its recently launched lab-on-chip, called In-Check, can be used to identify viruses like the flu. The nightmare scenario outlined for Portland is no fantasy. It comes straight from Midas' epidemic modeler, EpiSims, based on earlier simulations of 1.6 million Portland residents frequenting 180,000 locations where they might infect one another. EpiSims, designed to model smallpox outbreaks, has been retooled to model pandemic influenza of the bird-flu type. Another modeling tool comes from IBM Corp. According to James Kaufman, manager of Healthcare Informatics at IBM's Almaden Research Center (San Jose, Calif.), just a few changes in the parameters of its downloadable code ( could measure the use of flu chips in the fight against avian flu. The Java program, which IBM is offering free for noncommercial use, is called the Spatiotemporal Epidemiological Modeler (Stem). Users can tweak any number of parameters to try out their own ideas on containment.

"ROBOTICS: Bots prove their fitness as first responders"

The first responders surveying the devastation that Hurricane Katrina wrought in Louisiana and Mississippi were not all human. Autonomous vehicles also had a role, in an early indication of how robots might expedite the government's much-maligned response capability in future disasters. Vehicles that can go where humans cannot safely venture in the critical hours after a catastrophe have been developed at the center, which receives National Science Foundation funding, since the 1990s. The first application of center equipment for disaster response was the deployment of ground robots in Manhattan on the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, to search the rubble of the World Trade Center. After Katrina savaged the Gulf Coast in August, disaster responders deployed the center's unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to search remote flooded areas in Mississippi. Within two hours of arriving on the scene, the UAVs had "cleared" a town by showing that no survivors were trapped — far faster than would have been possible by boat or manned helicopter, said Safety Security Rescue Research Center team member Robin Murphy, director of the University of South Florida's Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR). Ground robots also aided in the Katrina response, searching structurally un-sound buildings in New Orleans. For such missions, CRASAR last year developed a sensor that enables a robot to determine whether a victim is dead or merely unconscious. Called a triage sensor by its commercial developers, Radiance Technologies Inc. (Huntsville, Ala.), the device can quickly screen for vital signs. On the battlefield, robots equipped with the sensor could be used to check downed soldiers, mitigating the risks to human medics. The fixed-wing UAV used in the Katrina response had both video feeds and a thermal imagery feed streaming from up to 1,000 feet away to provide overview scenes of the disaster area. The vehicle was launched manually by throwing it into the air and required a clear landing area of only about five car lengths. Also used was a miniature, electric T-Rex helicopter, courtesy of, that carried a streaming video camera. The hovering craft could scan areas from an altitude of less than 250 feet, its zoom lens inspecting rooftops and even peering in windows.

"SENSORS: Flu chips find clues in viral DNA"

A robotic inkjetlike nozzle places viral RNA on a microarray to populate it with more than 100 variations — bits and pieces of RNA called markers, that together identify the exact strain of the virus. Body fluids from the patient are amplified with a polymerase chain reaction, which makes thousands of copies for testing many simultaneous possibilities within the same microarray, and these are applied over the entire array. After that, the array is "developed" thermally and irradiated with a laser to induce fluorescence. Any matches will show up as glowing dots in a known location on the microarray, thus identifying the matching DNA sequence. Using a variety of known sequences, new viral DNA can usually be identified and sequenced in a few weeks to a month. SARS, for instance, was identified in this way in a coordinated worldwide effort of just a few weeks. After the virus is identified, microarrays can be stamped out like the microchips they are, and sent around the world for insertion into diagnostic gear, or readers.

Monday, September 26, 2005

"NANOTECH: Construction plan for the nanozone"

Nanotechnology-tool maker FEI Co. (Hillsboro, Ore.) broke the angstrom barrier this year, announcing imaging features as small as half an angstrom (1/20 of a nanometer). It did so under the leadership of chairman, president and CEO Vahé Sarkissian, a chip industry veteran and cofounder of AMD's processor business, who took on day-to-day oversight when he joined FEI in 1998. Sarkissian shared his opinions on what it will take for nanotechnology pioneers in semiconductors, materials and the life sciences — FEI's customers — to travel the learning curve in the uncharted territory he calls the "nanozone."

EE Times: You are an EE, like most of our readers, and you helped found Advanced Micro Devices' memory and microprocessor businesses. Most of the companies you have been a part of have done chip-related work, from wafer lithography to electron-beam metrology. How did you go from there to building nanotechnology tools?

Vahé Sarkissian: I actually started in physics. A professor at MIT pointed me in the right direction; I took a physics course from him one semester, and it was almost all about semiconductors. After that I switched my major to EE.

What drove semiconductors originally was physics, but the convergence with chemistry and now mechanical engineering, with MEMS [microelectromechanical systems], is even more multidisciplinary. And the nanozone is where it's all converging. I joined FEI because it provides tools for pioneers in that area.

"CHIPS: Semiconductors from algae? It's no fish tale"

Using chemical deposition and other techniques, Georgia Institute of Technology researchers have demonstrated that microscopic algae — silicon-dioxide diatoms — can be converted into semiconductors without changing the intricate structure of the organism's shell. The ability to mass-produce the shellfish easily and form thin films of them in uniform arrays prompted the researchers to convert them into semiconductors. Nearly 20 percent of living things are 10-micron-diameter unicellular algae called diatoms — microscopic silicon-dioxide shellfish that float in every sea, lake, river and stream. Diatoms, which eat carbon dioxide and give off oxygen, generate 40 percent of the 50 billion tons of organic carbon in the sea. They multiply by doubling, enabling enormous populations to grow quickly. By doubling their number every generation, diatoms can be grown in almost any amount necessary — 40 reproduction cycles yield 1 trillion replicas. Sandhage's method first evicts the tenants, leaving only the intricately patterned silicon-dioxide shell with thousands of compartments inside, measured in nanometers. Ideally, the internal structure would be programmed by genetic engineering so that each 10-micron diatom shell would be about as smart as a microprocessor.

"ALGORITHMS: 'Rational' geometry simplifies EE toolbox staple"

Engineers today model alternating current, magnetic flux and other quantities using trigonometric calculations that require the use of a computer, calculator or, at the least, lookup tables. Now mathematician Norman Wildberger proposes scrapping the angle representation in geometry in favor of a "rational" system. By beginning with simpler definitions, all the familiar engineering calculations that currently require tables or a calculator can be done with simple arithmetic, argues Wildberger, whose "rational trigonometry" uses ratios of whole numbers in place of the sine, cosine and tangent functions. Wildberger says his concepts of divine proportions, rational trigonometry and universal geometry will benefit EEs and anyone else whose work involves trigonometry.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

"WIRELESS: Virginia Tech to smarten up cognitive radio"

Virginia Tech hopes to smarten up experimental cognitive radios so that ad hoc communications networks can adapt to aid in disaster relief, battlefield communications, consumer Wi-Fi and other cognitive radio applications.
By sharing a distributed knowledge base, Virginia Tech's "cognitive engine" will serve as the communication system's "brain" by sensing unused bandwidth, avoiding interference, adapting to changing circumstances and optimizing network performance. At the same time, the engine will help maintain the autonomy of individual cognitive-radio nodes. Virginia Tech researchers have applied for a patent on their cognitive engine, which will also work with existing hardware, said Charles Bostian, director of Virginia Tech's Center for Wireless Telecommunications. "We are going to see if we can use vacant TV channels for Wi-Fi-like services without interfering with other emergency services that are already operating there." Cognitive engines allow radios to share a distributed knowledge base that parcels out individual and collective reasoning tasks to network nodes as a way to automate adaptation and learning. Cognitive radios have surpassed software-defined radio as the focus of radio design because they give radios the ability to decide which bands to use based on availability, location and experience. Cognitive radios may not autoconfigure by themselves, but under the supervision of a cognitive engine a network can be optimized.

Monday, September 19, 2005

"MATERIALS: Inventor's 'recipe' makes polymers conductive"

A new type of conductive polymer created at Integral Technologies Inc. promises to offer a plastic material that can be used as a substitute for metal. While today's conductive polymers are more flexible and weigh less than metal, their higher impedance has made them suitable only for low-voltage, low-current applications. When polymers are doped enough to support high-current ac, for instance, they become too brittle. Now Integral Technologies (Bellingham, Wash.) claims to have melded polymers with micron-sized metal filaments to create a material with properties that are the best of both worlds, to form anything from copper wires to flexible interconnects to antennas. "Ours is the world's only highly conductive polymer," claimed Thomas Aisenbrey, inventor of the material and general manager and vice president of product development at Integral. "It's conductive enough that you can run heavy current through it, either ac or dc." Called ElectriPlast, the approach is derived from a material called Plastenna that Aisenbrey engineered to make moldable antennas for wireless telephone handsets. The company embedded metal filaments in the handsets' case to gather RF signals. Then it broadened the recipe for the material, so that now its process can be used to make nearly any currently available polymer conductive.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

"ROBOTICS: NSF panel to assess U.S. robotics technology"

The World Technology Evaluation Center (WTEC) will release its International Study of Robotics on Friday (Sept. 16) at a National Science Foundation conference. During the NSF conference, “Robots: An Exhibition of U.S. Automatons from the Leading Edge of Research,” WTEC will compare Asian and European robotic technology with U.S. robots exhibited at an NSF workshop last year. Since then, a six-member panel has toured 50 robot facilities in Japan, South Korea and Western Europe to assess the status of international research.

Monday, September 12, 2005

"CHIPS: Conductive diamond/nanotubes promise ice chips"

Argonne National Laboratories has found a way to make diamond a conductor as well as an insulator and semiconductor, opening the door to a new era of all-diamond chips. A spin-off company, Advanced Diamond Technologies Inc., has licensed the technology and material for development. In general, diamond deposition yields high-performance, long-lasting, radiation-hard dielectric films that can be thin or thick, can be etched alongside silicon components and can be doped either as n- or p-type semiconductors. Diamond's stiffness yields faster resonators, its smoothness yields friction-free microelectromechanical systems and its chemical inertness makes it ideal for bioengineered devices such as human implants. Argonne's patented ultrananocrystalline-diamond deposition taps a plasma-enhanced chemical-vapor process that is seeded with 2- to 5-nanometer grains of diamond. Instead of growing layers of single-crystal diamond one atom at a time, Argonne's process grows the material from seeds to islands to film. By adjusting the ultrananocrystalline process, the lab's researchers have managed to grow nanotubes between the diamond islands, turning what would ordinarily be a dielectric that insulates as well as silicon dioxide into a conductor that conducts as well as aluminum or copper.

Monday, September 05, 2005

"OPTICS: Varying speed of light a fiber-optics plus?"

In an experiment at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, researchers have been able to speed up or slow down light transmitted through an optical fiber with precise control. This capability could have application in telecommunications, optical switching and optical computing. The experiment, which uses stimulated Brillouin scattering, verifies a prediction of Arnold Sommerfeld and Leon Brillouin, who early in the 20th century theorized that narrowband amplification at a sharp spectral transition could enable the speed of light to become variable. "We are reporting the first demonstration of a wide optical control of the signal velocity in an optical fiber," said Luc Thevenaz, who leads the group. "The starting and ending points of a pulse carry the information and those still propagate at the normal velocity, but the peak of those same pulses propagates at a variable group velocity that can exceed c [the speed of light in a vacuum]. This is what we experimentally demonstrated and observed." Thevenaz performed the work with EEs Miguel Gonzalez-Herraez at the University of Alcala (Madrid, Spain) and Kwang-Yong Song at the University of Tokyo (Japan).

Monday, August 29, 2005

"BioMEMS: Labs climb onto nanochips"

Bioengineering-device design is drawing the electronics, scientific and medical fields into collaborative research and development projects reminiscent of the Star Trek "tricorder." Spock's tricorder could be pointed at anything to analyze its composition, and Dr. McCoy's version — a handheld medical scanner — could instantly monitor vital signs and diagnose disease. These are precisely the applications bioengineers are aiming at today: smart sensors for security, point-of-care medical diagnosis and environmental monitoring. The discipline of bioengineering integrates the biological, physical and engineering sciences to create technology that advances the understanding of living nucleic acids, proteins, cells and tissues. Its emergence has resulted in a dizzying array of innovative new biologics, therapeutics, materials and processes. The frontier technology of BioMEMS — microfluidic chips made from biological microelectromechanical systems — will enable a new era of "labs on a chip."

"SECURITY: Research enlists radiation to reveal hidden bombs"

M2 Technologies Inc. (Manhattan, Kan.) is teaming with Kansas State University professor William Dunn to develop a technology for detecting explosives from several meters away. The developers are tapping established gamma and neutron radiation sources and phenomena to build a system that they believe will detect explosives from a greater distance than the "sniffer" technologies proposed by others. "We are trying to address the problem of looking inside packages-vehicles or backpacks or whatever-to see when the contents have the characteristics of an explosive," said Dunn. "We are not using sniffing technology but instead are looking at the target with radiation that penetrates its surface and interrogates the contents, after which we look at the characteristics of the radiation that returns." Gamma rays "backscatter" from molecules to create a distinctive radiation pattern whose signature can be detected and analyzed to determine a container's contents. By using short pulses of gamma rays, any suspicious substances can be detected.

Monday, August 15, 2005

"SOFTWARE: IBM broadens the language of search"

Software that enables semantic metadata and natural language queries has been released by IBM Corp. as an open-source product. The Unstructured Information Management Architecture automatically annotates any type of metadata to text, images, audio and video, and associates semantic information about that data's meaning, allowing hidden relationships to be uncovered among facts. It also enables users to query with natural language rather than with a strict syntax. "Our open-source initiative enables software development that leverages unstructured information," said Arthur Ciccolo, department group manager for information and knowledge management at IBM Research. "The Unstructured Information Management Architecture provides interoperability among analytic software for searching, knowledge discovery, business intelligence and text." The UIMA is part of a trend in semantic software research that automatically annotates databases with metainformation about the meaning of the data. While ordinary data searches must specify syntax exactly, such as precisely spelling the text string "George W. Bush," the UIMA allows users to conduct semantic searches such as "current president." After IBM announced UIMA's release as open source, 16 software vendors promised compatibility.

"QUANTUM: Ultrasensitive quantum lasers sniff toxins"

Less than two years after Lucent Technologies Bell Labs pioneered the quantum cascade laser and predicted more-sensitive spectroscopy, Georgia Tech researchers say they've validated the concept of single-chip spectra analysis. By integrating all the components in one device, such a spectrometer could enable lab-on-a-chip applications reminiscent of the handheld "tricorder" popularized by Star Trek. No one has yet integrated all the components onto a single chip, but Boris Mizaikoff, an associate professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said he has proven the concept using available laboratory quantum cascade lasers, waveguides and detectors. Now he is testing the device as an ultrasensitive spectrometer. By using the midinfrared signatures for molecules that have the characteristics of known explosives, toxins and other agents of interest, Mizaikoff has shown that a single chip can identify through spectroscopy almost any substance of interest after "sniffing" scant parts per billion of that substance. Ultimately, the single-chip lab would be housed in a handheld device. In his initial tests, Mizaikoff coupled a hollow waveguide to a frequency-matched quantum cascade laser to irradiate a 1-milliliter gas sample. Conventional spectroscopy, by contrast, samples hundreds of milliliters. Yet sensing inside the photonic-bandgap material enabled the detection of levels down to 30 parts per billion.

Monday, August 08, 2005

"NANOTECH: MEMS spinoff joins medical, consumer drive"

Joining a lengthening line of large companies that have spun out entities with a MEMS focus, sensor vendor Robert Bosch GmbH has formed a subsidiary to centralize its microelectromechanical systems activities. Bosch Sensortec (Kusterdingen, Germany) will not compete with such MEMS giants as Analog Devices Inc. and Motorola Inc., which are mainly addressing the much larger automotive market, using MEMS for use in airbags and anti-lock brakes. Instead, Bosch Sensortec will concentrate on the emerging consumer and medical MEMS-chip markets. In doing so, the startup will compete with young companies like Kionix Inc., Cornell University's commercial MEMS licensee. Earlier this year, Kionix claimed the world's smallest triaxis accelerometer, which measures just 5 x 5 x 1.2 mm. Bosch Sensortec's own first product is also a triaxial accelerometer for consumer and medical applications, measuring 6 x 6 x 1.45 mm. Based on 17 years of MEMS development at Robert Bosch (Stuttgart, Germany), Sensortec's offering uses a high-aspect-ratio, deep-reactive ion-etching process. Bosch Senortech joins other large companies that have spun off MEMS enterprises in recent years, including Freescale Semiconductor, which last year was spun out from Motorola and includes a MEMS division. In 2003, Infineon Technologies acquired SensoNor; in 2002, GE bought NovaSensor. Some large companies are targeting the consumer and medical markets specifically. One of those is Oki Electric Industries Co. Ltd., which has announced a triaxial accelerometer measuring just 5 x 5 x 1.4 mm.

Monday, August 01, 2005

"NANOTECH: Sub-angstrom microscope targets nanotechnology"

A company based here has unveiled what it claims is the highest-resolution scanning-transmission electron microscope.
FEI Co. unveiled the new device at the Microscopy & Microanalysis conference this week in Honolulu. FEI claims its commercial instrument resolves at the sub-angstrom scale for the first time. Designed for nanotechnology development, FEI�s microscope, called the Titan 80-300, enables sub-angstrom (atomic scale) imaging and analysis. Vahe Sarkissian, FEI's chairman and CEO, called the microscope "a significant breakthrough for researchers, developers and manufacturers needing greater access to the nanoscale." Titan will be the platform from which the TEAM effort will develop their new microscope. TEAM (transmission electron aberration-corrected microscopy), is a collaborative project with the U.S. Office of Basic Energy Sciences, which coordinates microscopy efforts between U.S. national laboratories, universities and industry. The Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences Nanoscale Imaging, Characterization, and Manipulation at Oak Ridge National Laboratories is also participating.

"NANOTECH: Oregon flexes nanotech muscles"

Nanotechnology breakthroughs are poised to fuel rapid economic growth in the state of Oregon and beyond, according to speakers at last week's Micro Nano Breakthrough Conference here. "I believe that nanotechnology is the future of Oregon, the future of America and the future of the world economy," said Gov. Ted Kulongoski in his keynote here. Kulongoski said that major advances in nanotechnology are vindicating Oregon's investments, including breakthroughs in "green" manufacturing, nanoscale energy systems, safer nanoscale materials and a local market in test-and-measurement tools for the nanotech industry. To capitalize on growth in nanotechnology markets, Kulongoski is sponsoring a bill that would continue the state's $7 million funding for the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute (Onami), which sponsored the conference. The bill also proposes a two-phase program that would expand funding for startups, allocating $75,000 to seed proof-of-concept projects and up to $200,000 in product-development funding for proof-of-concept projects that are successful enough to be offered a phase-two award.

"QUANTUM: One-dimensional wires demo electron split"

Researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science have experimentally verified a long-postulated possibility for one-dimensional quantum devices. The team fabricated wires so small that they were able to witness electron spin separating from its charge. The observation holds out more hope for the development of spin-based circuits.
"If you were to naively scale down the width of the wires in your device, they would cease to conduct at some point, even if you were able to make them perfect, which you won't," said Ophir Auslaender. The Weizmann Institute postdoctoral researcher was the one who first observed spin separating from charge. "We were able to observe some of these effects because our experiment circumvents some of the experimental barriers," Auslaender said. In the new breed of spintronic devices, digital logic is represented by electron spin rather than charge. In some research centers, experiments have shown that spin can flow and be modified by spintronic logic gates. Without the independent propagation of spin, spintronic devices would be limited-unable to add much functionality to the array of options available to today's circuit designers. Researchers Auslaender and Hadar Steinberg performed the work in the laboratory of professor Amir Yacoby at the Weizmann Institute of Science's Condensed Matter Physics Department.

Monday, July 25, 2005

"CHIPS: NIST previews wafer calibration technique"

As submicron precision becomes the industry bellwether, the American Society for Precision Engineering has become the premier venue for announcing developments in interferometry. Last week, at ASPE's Summer Topical Meeting on Precision Interferometric Metrology in Middletown, Conn., breakthroughs in submicron measurements were announced for semiconductor wafers, flat-panel displays, photolithography, automotive systems and other challenging environments. Interferometry is the science of combining two or more waveforms to create a higher-resolution measurement. An interferometer makes use of the principle that when two waves of the same phase coincide they amplify each other, while two waves with opposite phases will cancel each other out. At the conference, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) demonstrated an infrared-laser technique that it claims more precisely measures the thickness of 300-mm silicon wafers. The technique uses color infrared interferometry to produce a spatial map that represents variations in wafer thickness as different colors. Green represents the ideal thickness; red, orange and yellow show areas that are overly thick; and turquoise and blue shows areas that are too thin. NIST plans to offer a calibration service based on its infrared laser interferometry for the master wafers that the industry uses to calibrate wafer thickness.

"SECURITY: Missile-launched blimp will survey 'no-man's land'"

When the U.S. military stormed Fallujah, it relied on a range of aerial surveillance sources � high-orbit geosynchronous satellites deployed 20,000 miles over Iraq, low-Earth-orbit probes that scanned the horizon from just 20 miles up, unmanned Predator drone aircraft surveying the ground below from an altitude of 65,000 feet. None of those eyes in the sky, however, was cheap enough to be considered disposable, nor could any hover in the "no-man's land" above aircraft but below satellites. Now Johns Hopkins University has developed a blimp that it claims will achieve both aims. "What we can do is what a satellite cannot do � provide persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance from no-man's land" at a relatively low cost, said Vincent Neradka, an engineer at Johns Hopkins' Applied Physics Laboratory in Baltimore. No-man's land isn't just an expression in this context: It's the gap between the 65,000-foot ceiling of commercial aircraft and the 100,000-foot (20-mile) minimal distance required for low-Earth-orbit satellites. Nor is Johns Hopkins the only organization targeting that void: Unmanned military blimps from the U.S. Air Force Space Command and Lockheed Martin are close to deployment.

Monday, July 18, 2005

"NANOTECH: Work eyes angstrom-scale wafer patterning"

As major semiconductor fabs tackle the submicron nanoscale patterning of wafers, researchers at Pennsylvania State University have already moved to the angstrom scale. Their organic monolayers with 5-angstrom features promise to enable the self-assembly of patterns too small for lithography by serving as templates for chip atoms. "We use molecules that are deliberately designed to be less stable in their substrate attachment than other related molecules, so they would be unlikely to be used directly," professor Paul Weiss said. "Rather, they will be used to shore up patterns and to stabilize the precision of the patterns at this subnanometer scale." Self-assembled monolayers (SAMs) offer a way to create intricate angstrom-scale patterns that can be tuned by adjusting their chemical makeup and thereby precisely adjusting their resulting physical properties. Using these patterns, which serve as placeholders, single-molecule devices can potentially be arrayed across wafers. The SAMs consist of adamantanethiol, a commonly used organic molecule for this kind of work. Weiss' group is developing a catalog of useful chemical formulas that can create a variety of self-assembled monolayers that serve as patterns for single-molecule semiconductor devices.

"NANOTECH: Nanoscale progress leaps physical hurdles"

While nanotechnology promises devices with extremely high speed and simplified architectures, physical problems that make the structures unreliable and difficult to manufacture must be tackled. Recent developments in fabricating semiconducting nanowires and nanocrystals may move the industry closer to realizing new generations of ultrasensitive, high-frequency, high-density devices. Northwestern University researchers have hit upon a reliable and efficient method for forming 5-nanometer gaps in nanowires that could be used to establish electrical contact to nanoscale devices such as nanocrystals and molecular transistors. Experimental physicists at Northwestern University, meanwhile, have applied theory developed at the Naval Research Laboratory to demonstrate a technique for doping nanocrystals. And work on ballistic electron devices at the University of Manchester has paid off with a nanowire-based diode that can operate at frequencies as high as 110 GHz.

"ENERGY: Bacteria in wastewater harnessed for electricity"

An environmental engineer has found a way not only to cleanse contaminated wastewater with its own bacteria but to generate electricity from the funky flow. Lars Angenent, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at Washington University (St. Louis), has already prototyped his findings in a device the size of a thermos bottle � a variation on the hydrogen fuel cell � but he knows it will have to scale up dramatically to fill a commercial role. With scaled-up capacity, Angenent said, a large food-processing plant, which now must cleanse its water at a cost, would be able to turn that processing into a profit center. Industrial-scale wastewater treatment plants, he said, could produce enough electricity to power thousands of households while simultaneously cleansing their water. Angenent's microbial fuel cell design uses the bacteria from wastewater on its anode and cathode instead of platinum, enabling it to make a fuel from the water to create electricity while simultaneously neutralizing the biological matter that would otherwise have to be purged from the water.

Monday, July 11, 2005

"OPTICAL: Eyewear mimics image of big flat-panel display"

As flat-panel liquid-crystal displays made from amorphous silicon grow to gargantuan sizes, Hong Choi, chief technology officer at Kopin Corp., has an alternative display solution. "At Kopin, we believe that mobile video will be really big-you already have television content available on cell phones, and portable media players can store three movies in a single gigabyte," Choi said. "The only thing that is missing is a way to view a really good, large-sized image without having to carry around a big monitor." Kopin (Taunton, Mass.) offers OEMs tiny single-crystal silicon microdisplays that combine with a magnifying lens to project onto the retina an image that appears to be coming from 20- to 30-inch displays. By eliminating the need to carry a life-sized display, the microdisplays offer mobile users of cell phones and media players the same resolution as large flat panels but in a package small enough to fit into a shirt pocket.

Friday, July 08, 2005

"SECURITY: London blasts underscore need for bomb-detection technology"

Detecting a bomb in a public space like a bus or a building is technologically doable, according to engineers and researchers working on such devices today. The solutions won't come cheap, and it will be at least a year before devices sensitive enough to prevent disasters like last week's bombings are deployed. But "when terrorists are willing to go to the extremes we have seen, the one thing we have to fight them is technology," said Bonner Denton, a professor at University of Arizona. Denton has invented a capacitive transimpedance amplifier that he claims increases the sensitivity of ion-mobility spectrometers by a thousandfold, thereby enabling 100 percent of passengers to be efficiently screened. Denton collaborated with researchers at Sandia National Laboratories (Albuquerque, N.M.) to develop the device. Sandia is using it in a "microhound" explosives detector that it says will replace bomb-sniffing dogs.

Monday, July 04, 2005

"SECURITY: Air Force taps secure ultrawideband"

Sandia National Laboratories has combined ultrawideband (UWB) radio signals with advanced encryption techniques to develop a secure sensor and communications network for the U.S. military. The ultrasecure UWB communication system promises to help the government protect its troops on the battlefield by detecting the position of enemies and by making it much harder for them eavesdrop or jam military communications. "We are making military communications signals extremely difficult to detect, intercept or jam," said Sandia National Laboratories researcher Timothy Cooley, "by utilizing the immense spectrum of UWB to spread the energy of communications signals from sensors over such a wide frequency spectrum that the signal power falls below the noise floor of normal receivers." Cooley added, "By combining UWB with AES [Advanced Encryption Standard], our signals are virtually impossible to crack." Also known as "impulse radio," ultrawideband radio transmissions smear a wide spectrum with short, 100-picosecond pulses that are below the noise floor of conventional radio receivers. Even if enemies were equipped with a special UWB receiver, they would be unlikely to know how to reassemble the disparate data packets of each impulse into a coherent whole. And even if they should manage to reassemble the packets, they would still have to crack the 256-bit AES encryption used by Sandia's special secure military communications version.

"CHIPS: Water-filled wafers streamline chip cooling"

Georgia Institute of Technology researchers have developed a chip-cooling process that they hope will replace the bulky, bolt-on metal towers used with microprocessors like the G5. Instead of an entire tower through which water circulates, they have created water-filled wafers that can be integrated on self-cooling pc boards. The boards, which are being fabricated by the Microelectronics Advanced Research Corp. (Marco), will provide the plumbing for flip-chip-mounted ICs. In the streamlined cooling system envisioned by the researchers, water will circulate through the silicon substrates of microprocessors and other system-level chips by virtue of trenches etched on the otherwise unused backside of the wafer. "We have applied for the patents with Marco, and so far we have garnered interest in licensing our technology from over a dozen major semiconductor makers," said Georgia Institute of Technology EE Bing Dang. The researcher co-invented the technique in collaboration with professors Paul Kohl and James Meindl and their research assistants Paul Joseph, Muhannad Bakir and Todd Spencer. Although the technique is still in the prototype stage, the EEs have succeeded in fabricating very deep trenches that are only about 100 microns wide in the backside of wafers. Normally that side remains unused, but the new technique utilizes almost the entire surface area of that side for cooling. Because the water circulates through the silicon chips themselves, which have excellent thermal conductivity, the approach promises to cool chips much more efficiently than the customary metal cooling towers.

Monday, June 27, 2005

"CHIPS: Molecular gates spin photons from chemicals"

The human eye employs millions of nanoscale photoreceptors that output chemical signals when they are stimulated by photons. By reversing that process, a team of researchers in Northern Ireland and Japan has engineered a tiny molecular transistor that emits photons when supplied with the right chemicals. The researchers showed just how small logic gates can be made when using individual molecules � in this case, 3 nanometers in radius. And besides demonstrating the ability to operate nanoscale molecular logic gates (a capability that has been shown elsewhere in solutions inside test tubes), the team showed how such gates could be embedded in an organic thin film. Arrays of logic gates could be assembled on such membranes, heralding a comprehensive architecture for future molecular-sized computers, the team said.

Monday, June 20, 2005

"CHIPS: Soft-lithography method harnesses DNA"

A soft-lithography technique that harnesses deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) as a self-reproducing template is being developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Supramolecular Nano Materials Group. Researchers in the SuNMag project have demonstrated a self-assembling method, dubbed nanocontact printing, that transfers subnanoscale patterns from a master wafer to any number of production wafers. In doing so, the method sidesteps the problems of both photolithography and nanoimprinting.
"What we have developed is a method that is able to reproduce DNA patterns from one surface to another," said materials scientist Francesco Stellacci, who heads the project. Stellacci, who describes the technique as using "DNA strands as Gutenberg movable type," performed the work with EE professor Henry Smith, EE graduate student Tim Savas and materials science graduate student Amy Yu. Yu described Stellacci's new method as marshaling "nature's most efficient printing technique: the DNA/RNA [ribonucleic acid] information transfer."

"PC-BOARDS: Low-temperature adhesives putting heat on solder"

Low-temperature, low-profile conductive adhesives are poised to enable ultraflat-panel displays for cell phones, laptop computers and wall-mounted televisions.
Going beyond recommendations to take the lead out of solder, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology are working to build a world of electronics free of metal-solder itself. While the interconnect trade association IPC and other organizations are pursuing a no-lead goal, they "are only looking at low-temperature adhesives as one of many different alternatives," said Ching-Ping Wong, professor of materials science and engineering at Georgia Tech (Atlanta). "We believe that our approach to low-temperature adhesives has much greater potential because we are solving the fundamental problems that make others hesitant to use them." Other approaches to low-temperature conductive adhesives have been afflicted with self-alignment and low-carrier mobility problems. Wong's group, which included graduate student Grace Yi Li and post-doctoral researcher Kyoung-sik Moon, is working to overcome those obstacles.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

"SYSTEMS: U.S. expected to dominate supercomputer list"

U.S. supercomputer makers are expected to dominate this year's list of the world's fastest supercomputers. The list of world's fastest supercomputers will be released at the 20th International Supercomputer Conference (June 22-24) in Heidelberg, Germany. IBM Corp. is expected to snag three of the top five slots, with Silicon Graphics Inc. (Mountain View, Calif.) taking third. NEC Corp. is the only non-U.S. supercomputer maker expected to make the list. The fastest supercomputer list will be released by the TOP500 organization, which is an independent judge of supercomputer performance. The TOP500 project originated in 1993 and each year provides a nonpartisan method of measuring supercomputer performance. IBM's BlueGene/L supercomputer is expected to remain at the top of the TOP500 list, delivering peak performace of 91.8 teraflops.

Monday, June 13, 2005

"CHIPS: Silica, dye yield new kind of quantum dot"

An alternative to quantum dots-encapsulating organic dyes in a silica matrix-has been developed by researchers at Cornell University. The process, they said, could cut the cost of making optical computing devices, and render them chemically inert as well. The Cornell approach is a departure from the way most quantum dots are fabricated: nanoparticles being doped with heavy metals like cadmium-selenium. "We have encapsulated multiple organic dyes in the core of a nanoparticle," said Ulrich Wiesner, professor of materials science and engineering. "The core is then encapsulated into a pure silica shell for protection." The core-shell architecture can be used in applications ranging from flat-panel displays to medical imaging to sensor and optical lasers that emit a single photon at a time, he said. Wiesner's nanoparticles, which he calls "Cornell dots," are novel. They begin with a core 2.2 nanometers in diameter that contains a few colored dye molecules. The molecules are surrounded with 22.8 nm of silicon dioxide, resulting in quantum dots measuring 25 nm in diameter. This core-shell architecture, Wiesner said, makes his quantum dots as much as 30 times brighter than conventional fluorescent dyes. "The particles are very, very bright, because they act independently rather than quenching each other," he said. "Our dots are almost as bright as quantum dots." Wiesner collaborated with fellow Cornell professors Watt Webb and Barbara Baird. They were assisted by postdoctoral researcher Mamta Srivastava and graduate students Hooisweng Ow and Daniel Larson. The silicon dioxide-or silica-shell also prevents the dyes from fading, while allowing a variety of colors to be produced without changing the diameter of the core. The silicon dioxide-coated nanoparticles are also chemically inert, making them safer to manufacture and handle.

Monday, June 06, 2005

"CHIPS: Organic molecule switches like a transistor"

Researchers at the University of Alberta have successfully demonstrated a single-molecule switch and transistor. "There is no longer a question of whether a single molecule can be used as a switch; we have shown that it can be done," professor Robert Wolkow said. "Also, we have demonstrated how you can get two electrodes to act like the three electrodes normally associated with a transistor. In particular, we have shown that a chargeable atom can act as a gate using the same electrode that is also acting as the source." But there's a caveat: "We don't yet have any kind of realistic temporal control" of the switch," Wolkow said. "Right now, it takes minutes to turn it on and off." Working with postdoctoral fellows Paul Piva and Stanislav Dogel, as well as graduate student Janik Zikovsky, Wolkow's team placed a single organic molecule on a silicon substrate so that the molecule acted as the transistor channel, with the substrate acting as a back gate for switching. The work was performed in cooperation with staff scientists and their postdoctoral assistants at the National Institute for Nanotechnology, which is a part of the National Research Council of Canada, as well as with professor Werner Hofer of the Surface Science Research Centre at Britain's University of Liverpool. Wolkow's group has been working with many organic molecules, learning how to bond them to silicon substrates and get them to line up into rows. But the current demonstration is the first to inject electrons into the molecule.

"CHIPS: Vision chips' mimic eye, brain functions"

As the long development of charge-coupled device (CCD) and CMOS active-pixel sensor technology begins to pay off in the form of affordable all-electronic still and video cameras, a second wave of solid-state imaging chips with very different capabilities is emerging from research labs around the world. Called "vision chips," these silicon imaging devices are typically parallel computers on a chip implementing a processor per pixel to mimic neural processing circuitry in the retina. Rather than striving for high resolution and faithful color reproduction, vision chips capture other aspects of the eye and brain functions, such as edge and motion detection. Target applications include security systems, autonomous robots, artificial implantable retinas and biochemical analysis. A few projects have reached the commercial stage, including a real-time in vivo glucose-monitoring system from Array Vision Engineering Co. (Alachua, Fla.) and a security camera being marketed by Pixim Inc. (Mountain View, Calif.), which has commercialized research from a project at Stanford University. An example of state-of-the-art vision chip technology surfaced at last month's International Symposium on Circuits and Systems in Kobe, Japan, where EE professor Piotr Dudek of the University of Manchester (England) demonstrated a third-generation device with 16,384 pixel-processors that mimics the retina. Called Scamp, for "SIMD current-mode analog-matrix processor," the chip integrates an arithmetic-logic unit, memory, control logic and an input/output circuit behind each and every pixel. The Scamp-3 vision chip promises to enable robots and automated inspection, surveillance and vehicle-guidance systems to "see" in a manner similar to human sight. The Scamp-3 is a 1-cm2 chip fabricated in 0.35-micron CMOS that arranges its 16,384 pixel-processors in a 128 x 128 array. Each pixel-processor measures 50 microns2 and consumes 12 microwatts when running at 1.25 MHz, giving the chip a computational power efficiency of 104 billion instructions per second per watt.

"NANOTECH: Conference plots future of electronics"

Presenters at the First International Nanotechnology Conference on Communication and Cooperation last week identified the key issues facing nanotechnology. The San Francisco conference, which hosted more than 36 presenters from nearly a dozen countries, kicked off with overviews of the state of nanotechnology in the United States, Europe and Japan. A dozen presentations zeroed in on the key issues and challenges facing future EEs designing nanoscale devices. Researchers spoke about nanowires, organic large-area solar cells, molecular electronics, spintronics, bioanalytic systems and nanotechnology in medicine. Speakers looked at the biological and societal implications of nanotechnology, including the use of organic materials in the fabrication of everything from large-area electronics to artificial organs. Also discussed were the ethical issues facing the safe deployment of processing methodologies and end-user applications in nanotechnology that hold the potential to shift the worldwide economic balance. Presenters speculated that chemistry, especially nanoscale catalysts, would be the first technological area to be revolutionized by nanotechnology, followed by semiconductors that employ nanotechnology to indefinitely extend Moore's Law, with a sprinkling of medical breakthroughs along the way.

Monday, May 30, 2005

"ROBOTICS: 'Skin' could refine robots' sense of touch"

Robots have mastered picking and placing, welding, and similar tasks that can be precalibrated, but they cannot perform tasks that requite a sense of touch, such as "feeling" when a bolt's threads mesh before screwing it in. Even the most accurate robots today will strip the threads on bolts and otherwise damage items that require a sensitive tactile sense. Electrical engineers at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) say they are on the way to solving this problem. The team has created a prototype robot "skin" from a flexible polymer with multiple sensors that simultaneously assess shape, force, hardness, motion, temperature and thermal conductivity. Robots with a sense of touch are rare, but even those with touch sensors usually just have a single strain gauge, making it impossible for them to determine the hardness of an object or even how hard they are squeezing it. Applying the same pressure to different objects may cause the robot to drop one that is very hard and slippery or break another that is soft and fragile. The challenge is to enable the robot to sense the material from which the object is made so that it can adjust its grip accordingly.

"CHIPS: Brain wave sensor system taps Bluetooth marshaled for mind readers"

NeuroSky Inc. wants to get into your head. By fusing brain wave recognition algorithms with a sensor chip and dry electrode, NeuroSky hopes to simplify cell phone-based applications that today require error-prone human input, as well as revolutionize applications from gaming to medical diagnostics and therapy. Conventional EEGs require the use of greasy paste to reduce the impedance between an electrode and a person's skin, but NeuroSky's dry electrode just needs to touch the forehead via a pod that can be attached to virtually any headset. Five companies, including a Bluetooth headset provider, game console maker and trucking company, are said to have signed up to market end-user products containing NeuroSky's chips. Its biggest customer thus far is Ziyitong Technology Co. Ltd. (China Mobile), which has more than 100 million cell phone subscribers, 13 million of whom have high-speed 3G service.

Monday, May 23, 2005

"CHIPS: Memory marquee catalogs new technologies"

With SRAM, DRAM and flash high-stepping down the road map for both standalone and embedded designs, any competing memory chip technology faces an uphill battle. Nevertheless, other types of memory � in various stages of development � are rumbling offstage. Ferroelectric random-access memory, for example, has entered mass production at Ramtron International Corp. and is close to commercialization elsewhere. Beyond FRAM comes a bewildering array of alternatives, some still in basic research and all aiming to shrink design rules toward the angstrom scale (an angstrom is one-tenth of a nanometer). Among the contenders are magnetic tunnel-junction RAM (MRAM), phase-change RAM (PRAM), nanowire and nanotube designs, and molecular memories. For any of these, however, gaining traction will probably mean following in the footsteps of Ramtron and finding a niche in which to flourish while sustaining the long-term research required to someday catch up to DRAM and flash.

"OPTICAL: Metamaterials yield left-handed complement for optics"

Metamaterials that are able to reverse basic optical properties of conventional lenses and microwave antennas are being explored as a superior optical medium. Normal materials refract electromagnetic radiation by bending it away from the angle of incidence, which requires that lenses be convex in order to focus. Left-handed metamaterials, on the other hand, bend light toward the angle of incidence, thereby enabling a planar lens to focus radiation to a point. "Using left-handed metamaterials, we can build novel, smaller, lighter-weight lenses, sensors and antenna systems than those that are available today," said Srinivas Sridhar, a professor at Northeastern University. "Besides cheaper and better, our form factor is also more flexible, because metamaterials can conform to odd shapes since they are composed mostly of air. In our experiment, we used a periodic array of aluminum-oxide rods in air laid out in a lattice like a photonic crystal." Sridhar performed the work with research associates Patanjali Parimi and Wentao Luj as well as doctoral candidate Plarenta Vodo. The "meta" in metamaterials means they substitute macroscopic objects-rods in this case-for atoms in a macrosized, crystalline-like lattice. The pitch of the lattice's grid sets the wavelength affected. Unlike normal lenses, that wavelength can be set to an arbitrarily small subwavelength, giving the lens a nearly infinite focusing and resolution capability.