Saturday, June 30, 2012

#CLOUD: "IBM SmartCloud Shares Desktops with Tablets"

Virtualization--the ability to access a common desktop from your laptop, tablet, smartphone or thin-client--just got a whole lot easier for enterprises comfortable with IBM's solution space. Its new SmartCloud Infrastructure enables employees to use their own, or enterprise supplied, mobile device of any kind even if they are empowered by alternative virtualization suites from Citrix or VMware. Using any of IBM's System x servers with its Tivoli end-point manager, enterprises can virtualize their entire operation so that employees can perform real work whether they are in the office, on-the-road, or sitting in a WiFi cafe anywhere in the world: R. Colin Johnson

Here is what IBM says about its new cloud-based virtualization suite: Building on four decades of industry leadership in large scale virtualization, IBM (NYSE:IBM) today announced a set of flexible workplace solutions that enable clients to create a simple, cost-effective environment that allows employees to use any device to access workplace applications anytime and anyplace.

IBM SmartCloud Desktop Infrastructure solutions are designed to help clients get ahead of the rising trend toward employees bringing their own electronic devices to work. It allows organizations to manage desktops centrally while small or large numbers of users can access desk top applications from any location or device, including personal computers, tablets, smart phones, laptops and thin clients. The solutions were created to help clients escape the constraints of physical computing -- simplifying desktop management, tightening security, and enhancing overall employee productivity.

The IBM offerings support the widest range of industry hardware, software and virtualization platforms across various industries, including health care, education, financial services and retail, as well as the public sector, local, state and federal government agencies. For example, the 2,000-student Gilmer County, Texas Independent School District is using the offering to provide a more flexible workplace for teachers and administrators.
Said School District Technology Director Rusty Ivey, "The IBM virtual desktop solution with Virtual Bridges VERDE on System x allows us to lower desktop management costs, while improving data security and disaster recovery. VDI improves the productivity of our teachers and administrative staff, as well as lab users by providing instant access to the latest operating systems and applications anytime and anywhere, using their choice of electronic devices."

The IBM SmartCloud Desktop Infrastructure solutions come fully-tested across hardware, software and services to help streamline IT administration and help take the guess workout out of the transition to a virtual desktop environment. The offerings were created in collaboration with leading solutions providers such as Citrix, Virtual Bridges and VMware.

Using IBM System x servers running VMware Vie software, The Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ Ltd. implemented a virtual desktop environment that included "Desktop Everywhere" to create an easy-to-use terminal. The bank started by replacing a virtual environment of 3,000 personal computers with Vie software. According to Bank-of-Tokyo-Mitsubishi Senior Manager Mizuhiko Tokunaga, company studies showed that the virtual desktop offered two advantages -- support for more software types and the ability to prevent an application failure from bringing down the entire system.

"Our strong ecosystem of partners and robust, open-reference approach provide a range of time-tested virtual desktop solutions for multiple environments," said Adalio Sanchez, general manager, IBM System x business. "Together, we're able to bring the power of virtual computing to any size company seeking secure, end-to-end solutions that provide greater agility, reduced costs and complexity, while freeing up critical IT resources."

IBM SmartCloud Desktop Infrastructure solutions are also being used at Corporate Information Systems Company Asia Pacific, a division of Panasonic Asia Pacific Pte, Ltd. The IBM System x powered solutions are immediately available worldwide in configurations to match a client's individual desktop management requirements
Further Reading

Friday, June 29, 2012

#Energy: "Nanotech T-Shirts to Charge Cell Phones"

Charing cell phones and other mobile gadgets is a pain, but scientists are seeking ways of making the process painless, such as this University of South Carolina researcher who claims to have used nanotechnology to turn a cotton T-shirt into a supercapacitor. By thermally converting its fibers into pure carbon, then coating it with manganese-oxide nanoflowers, the entire surface of the shirt becomes a supercapacitor which could eventually store energy for recharging cell phones and other portable gadgets: R. Colin Johnson

Xiaodong Li (foreground) demonstrates the flexibility of a swatch of activated carbon textile.

Here is what University of South Carolina says about fabric super capacitors: Over the years, the telephone has gone mobile, from the house to the car to the pocket. The University of South Carolina's Xiaodong Li envisions even further integration of the cell phone – and just about every electronic gadget, for that matter – into our lives.

He sees a future where electronics are part of our wardrobe.

"We wear fabric every day," said Li, a professor of mechanical engineering at USC. "One day our cotton T-shirts could have more functions; for example, a flexible energy storage device that could charge your cell phone or your iPad."

Li is helping make the vision a reality. He and post-doctoral associate Lihong Bao have just reported in the journal Advanced Materials how to turn the material in a cotton T-shirt into a source of electrical power.

Starting with a T-shirt from a local discount store, Li's team soaked it in a solution of fluoride, dried it and baked it at high temperature. They excluded oxygen in the oven to prevent the material from charring or simply combusting.

The surfaces of the resulting fibers in the fabric were shown by infrared spectroscopy to have been converted from cellulose to activated carbon. Yet the material retained flexibility; it could be folded without breaking.

"We will soon see roll-up cell phones and laptop computers on the market," Li said. "But a flexible energy storage device is needed to make this possible."

The once-cotton T-shirt proved to be a repository for electricity. By using small swatches of the fabric as an electrode, the researchers showed that the flexible material, which Li's team terms activated carbon textile, acts as a capacitor. Capacitors are components of nearly every electronic device on the market, and they have the ability to store electrical charge.

Moreover, Li reports that activated carbon textile acts like double-layer capacitors, which are also called a supercapacitors because they can have particularly high energy storage densities.

But Li and Bao took the material even further than that. They then coated the individual fibers in the activated carbon textile with “nanoflowers” of manganese oxide. Just a nanometer thick, this layer of manganese oxide greatly enhanced the electrode performance of the fabric. "This created a stable, high-performing supercapacitor," said Li.

This hybrid fabric, in which the activated carbon textile fibers are coated with nanostructured manganese oxide, improved the energy storage capability beyond the activated carbon textile alone. The hybrid supercapacitors were resilient: even after thousands of charge-discharge cycles, performance didn't diminish more than 5 percent.

"By stacking these supercapacitors up, we should be able to charge portable electronic devices such as cell phones," Li said.

Li is particularly pleased to have improved on the means by which activated carbon fibers are usually obtained. "Previous methods used oil or environmentally unfriendly chemicals as starting materials," he said. "Those processes are complicated and produce harmful side products. Our method is a very inexpensive, green process."
Further Reading

Thursday, June 28, 2012

#TABLETS: "Apple's iPad Eclipses the Rest"

First it was Samsung's Galaxy Tab, then Amazon's Kindle Fire, then Microsoft's Surface and next Google's Nexus 7, but none are even attempting to challenge the iPad, according to ABI Research. The lion's share of the tablet market still belongs to Apple, and it will stay that way for the foreseeable future since no one has the infrastructure to support diverse consumer applications, relegating competitors to niches: R. Colin Johnson

Here is what ABI Research says about tablets challenging iPad: Microsoft may face an uphill battle by throwing its hat into the mobile computing tablet ring. Windows is expected to account for only 1.3% of media tablet shipments in 2012.

The company is introducing a fragmented OS strategy with Windows RT and Windows 8 (something Google has been chastised for by developers of the Android OS)

It assumes that the popularity of Windows for PCs is a draw for Windows on tablets.

ABI Research expects Windows 7, Windows 8 and Windows RT-based tablets to account for only 1.3% of 2012 global shipments; having little impact on the market this year. This is due to lack of adoption for Windows 7, but primarily due to the late-in-year launches of Windows RT and Windows 8 operating systems (estimated to become commercially available in select devices starting in October 2012).

The obvious “low hanging” market opportunity for Microsoft’s Surface tablets is with business buyers that have an installed base of Windows PCs. Is Microsoft suggesting that organizations will make the “post-PC era” move toward a mobile computing device and ditch traditional desktop and clamshell form-factors, or is the company hoping that employees will gain access to multiple devices? So far, businesses have been opposed to buying incremental computing assets for users due to the support costs.
Further Reading

#ROBOTICS: "Music Buddy Heralds Helper Robot Revolution"

The next generation of robotics will feature a co-robot architecture where instead of replacing humans, the co-robot makes a human "master" more productive. Mostly intended for industrial and research settings, Georgia Tech is designing co-robots for consumers too. Its first is call Shimi, which helps a human explore recreational music like a smart buddy who is always ready for fun: R. Colin Johnson

Here is what Georgia Tech says about its Shimi robot companion: Wedding DJs everywhere should be worried about job security now that a new robot is on the scene.

Shimi, a musical companion developed by Georgia Tech’s Center for Music Technology, recommends songs, dances to the beat and keeps the music pumping based on listener feedback. The smartphone-enabled, one-foot-tall robot is billed as an interactive “musical buddy.”

“Shimi is designed to change the way that people enjoy and think about their music,” said Professor Gil Weinberg, director of Georgia Tech’s Center for Music Technology and the robot’s creator. He will unveil the robot at Wednesday’s Google I/O conference in San Francisco. A band of three Shimi robots will strut its stuff for guests, dancing in sync to music created in the lab and composed according to its movements.

Shimi is essentially a docking station with a “brain” powered by an Android phone. Once docked, the robot gains the sensing and musical generation capabilities of the user’s mobile device. In other words, if there’s an “app for that,” Shimi is ready.

For instance, by using the phone’s camera and face-detecting software, the bot can follow a listener around the room and position its “ears,” or speakers, for optimal sound. Another recognition feature is based on rhythm and tempo. If the user taps or claps a beat, Shimi analyzes it, scans the phone’s musical library and immediately plays the song that best matches the suggestion. Once the music starts, Shimi dances to the rhythm.

“Many people think that robots are limited by their programming instructions,” said Music Technology Ph.D. candidate Mason Bretan. “Shimi shows us that robots can be creative and interactive.”

Future apps in the works will allow the user to shake their head in disagreement or wave a hand in the air to alert Shimi to skip to the next song or increase/decrease the volume. The robot will also have the capability to recommend new music based on the user’s song choices and provide feedback on the music play list.

Weinberg hopes other developers will be inspired to create more apps to expand Shimi’s creative and interactive capabilities, allowing the machine to leave the lab and head into the real world.

“I believe that our center is ahead of a revolution that will see more robots in homes, bypassing some of the fears some people have about machines doing everyday functions in their lives,” Weinberg said.

Weinberg is in the process of commercializing Shimi through an exclusive licensing agreement with Georgia Tech. A new start-up company, Tovbot, has been formed and Weinberg hopes to make the robot available to consumers by the 2013 holiday season. Shimi was developed in collaboration with the Media Innovation Lab at IDC Herzliya and led by Professor Guy Hoffmann. Entrepreneur Ian Campbell and robot designer Roberto Aimi were also part of the Shimi team.

This is the third robotic musician created by the Center for Music Technology. Haile is a percussionist that can listen to live players, analyze their music in real-time and improvise with music of its own. Shimon is an interactive marimba player.

“If robots are going to arrive in homes, we think that they will be these kind of machines - small, entertaining and fun,” Weinberg said. “They will enhance your life and pave the way for more sophisticated service robots in our lives.”

This project is supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) (Award Number HCC-1017169). The content is solely the responsibility of the principal investigators and does not necessarily represent the official views of the NSF.
Further Reading

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

#QUANTUM: "Leaps Enable Chip-Scale Spintronics"

Quantum computers promise to solve outstanding problems that cannot be addressed by conventional digital devices, by encoding superpositions of multiple data values all of which can be operated on in a single massively parallel quantum computation. Unfortunately, solid-state materials have yet to provide a rock-solid architecture for executing quantum computations. Now, however, labs in both the U.S. and Europe are reporting progress in casting quantum computations into gallium arsenide and silicon chips, respectively: R. Colin Johnson

Here is what EETimes says about solid-state quantum computers: Separate labs in the U.S. and Europe recently reported progress in adapting solid-state materials to store spintronic quantum states, a critical hurdle on the path to using spintronics in quantum computing.

Many researchers believe that spintronics for quantum computing is the most promising way forward for future computer chips, but few have reliably cast them into solid-state materials. Unfortunately, the most successful experiments today use ultra-cold gases to store quantum spin-states. However, semiconductor R&D labs worldwide are aiming to recast spintronics into traditional solid-state materials.

Researchers at the City College of New York (CCNY) and the University of California-Berkeley (UCB) reported success using laser light to encode the spin-state of atomic nuclei on gallium arsenide chips. Using a technique whereby a scanning laser defines the spin-states on a gallium arsenide chip, the researchers claim they can set-up the initial conditions for a quantum computation that can be quickly reconfigured after completion.

Separately, the current record holders for maintaining a quantum state in a solid-state material recently surpassed their own record, reporting encoded spin states that lasted over three minutes. The researchers at Simon Fraser University and Oxford University reported a 100-time improvement over their 2008 report of 1.75 seconds. Because their solid-state material is conventional silicon, professor Mike Thewalt at Simon Fraser (Canada) and professor John Morton at Oxford (U.K.) claim their technique could enable conventional CMOS manufacturing to eventually be harnessed for future quantum computers...
Further Reading

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

#MEMS: "Neon Beats Google at Personnel Tracking"

Last week Google announced its Earth Enterprise product aimed at charging you $15 a month to allow them to track the location of your mobile phone and report it to your boss. At the recent Joint Navigation Conference (JNC 2012, Colorado Springs) Google was one-upped by TRX Systems. Its Neon personnel tracking system uses sensor fusion that melds 10-degree-of-freedom MEMS sensor data with RF range finding to locate personnel where GPS, WiFi and even cellular networks don't operate, making use of rapidly deployed beacons: R. Colin Johnson

Here is what Neon says about its personnel tracking technology: TRX Systems, an award winning developer of indoor location systems, demonstrated NEON – a new personnel location system that locates and tracks personnel operating indoors and in urban areas where GPS is unavailable or unreliable. NEON greatly improves situational awareness and command effectiveness through the use of advanced sensor fusion, time of flight ranging, and mapping algorithms that deliver precise, real time location of personnel indoors. Uniquely, NEON delivers indoor location without requiring pre-existing or networked infrastructure. NEON meets the requirements for event security, training, and other mission-essential applications requiring a highly portable system that can deliver precision indoor location. TRX demonstrated at the 2012 Joint Navigation Conference in a live presentation of the system’s indoor location and tracking capabilities.

Key features of the NEON Indoor Location System include:

Real Time Location - Easy to monitor interface showing real time 2D and 3D location of all personnel
Rapid Deployment and Portability - Quick set-up including on-scene map configuration and building rendering
Effective After Action Review - Location and status logging for all personnel supporting training and after action review of events.
Wearing NEON Tracking Units, personnel are located as they walk, crawl, use stairs and take elevators inside buildings where GPS is not available, and in outdoor urban centers where GPS is unreliable. The real time status of personnel is communicated back to NEON Command Software via cellular, Wi-Fi, or radio networks.

Information from MEMS inertial, magnetic, pressure and time of flight-based RF ranging is combined in NEON to deliver precise indoor location information. Neon uses location information to infer site maps dynamically as people move about an area or building. An advanced graphical user interface presents all NEON derived information in an intuitive and effective display to provide comprehensive up to the second situational awareness. The NEON extensible architecture also supports enhanced navigation precision with the addition of rapidly deployable fixed-position nodes. These optional Multi-Sensor Anchor Nodes are small, light weight and may be distributed prior to events in fixed site applications with minimal time and effort. The portability of the NEON system makes it ideal for training exercises, event security, and enterprise deployments where networked infrastructure can be difficult or expensive to obtain.

The NEON sensor and mapping technologies are part of the growing indoor location market segment – using motion sensing and RF technologies to augment GPS, Wi-Fi, and other fixed references in buildings and urban areas. “The commercial implications of indoor positioning are even bigger than the commercial aspects of GPS on mobile in recent years” said Bruce Krulwich, author of Grizzly Analytics's report Indoor Location Positioning: Research Pipelines, Start-Ups and Predictions."

Further Reading

Monday, June 25, 2012

#SECURITY: "App for First Responders Tracks Carnage"

First responders now have a total situational awareness app for smartphones and laptops that integrates the known-facts with the options-available in order to help make informed decisions in the event of an energency scenario. Created by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) National Protection and Programs Directorate’s (NPPD) Office of Infrastructure Protection (IP) along with its Office for Bombing Prevention (OBP) in consultation with Applied Research Associates Inc. (ARA), the $12 app contains the complete HAZMAT response information database from tis Emergency Response Guidebook (ERG) including over 3000 hazardous substances: R. Colin Johnson

Here is what the ARA says about the FiRST app: At approximately 6:30 pm on Saturday, May 1, 2010, a smoking SUV in Times Square was reported by alert street vendors. Acting quickly, NYPD evacuated vast stretches on 7th and 8th Avenues, including Broadway theatres and several other buildings and hotels in the area. The entire area was barricaded. Times Square on a Saturday evening before the shows is teaming with people, and the terrorist knew that. The bomb failed, but had it detonated, it would have killed and wounded many, according to NYPD.

In the first chaotic moments after suspicion of a bomb threat, first responders have a myriad of questions, assessments, and decisions to make, all at once, and all the while the scene could be changing rapidly. Is the bomb real? How large is the potential blast radius? Where will we evacuate people? Are there any critical infrastructure or special-needs population centers in the vicinity? Any schools, hospitals nearby? What roads should be closed? Which roads should stay open for evacuees? And on and on. What if they could get all this information in one place?

Now they can: The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) and its public and private sector partners have developed a must-have “app”: the First Responder Support Tools (FiRST) for computers and smartphones.

The FiRST application was developed in partnership with the DHS National Protection and Programs Directorate’s (NPPD) Office of Infrastructure Protection (IP) along with its Office for Bombing Prevention (OBP), and Applied Research Associates, Inc. (ARA). The FiRST app provides information directly to first responders on their smartphones or laptop computers in order to quickly define safe distances to cordon-off around a potential bomb location, calculate rough damage and injury contours, suggest appropriate roadblocks, determine when mandatory evacuation or shelter-in-place circumstances apply, and to identify nearby areas of particular concern: schools, hospitals, care centers. The application also provides the geospatial information with regards to potential injury, glass, or structural damage impact area.

“That’s why it works,” said Christine Lee, FiRST program manager in S&T’s First Responders Group. “Bomb threat scenarios do not reflect a one-size-fits-all approach, and this app allows users to customize information to help them make informed decisions for response.”

The FiRST application also includes HAZMAT response information based on the Emergency Response Guidebook (ERG) which includes information on over 3,000 hazardous materials. In addition to providing health precautions and response guidance, FiRST also retrieves current and forecast weather to show downwind protection zones for over 600 materials that are inhalation hazards.

FiRST is available to first responders for a nominal fee (about $12 for mobile devices and $100 for Window PC version). The app will be of interest and applicable to anyone who might need to address a potential bomb or HAZMAT spill response, such as industry, HAZMAT transport, or security personnel. HAZMAT information is available to all users.

Specifically defined DHS bomb standoff data is considered sensitive and is automatically made available to those that register the application with a .gov, .mil, or .us email address. Users without a .gov, .mil, or .us email address can be approved for access on a case-by-case basis in coordination with the Office of Bomb Protection. (However, any user can input into the app and define his own custom bomb and standoff distances, which might be applicable to certain jurisdictions and/or localities.)

The FiRST app uses services readily available with current smartphones: email, phone, Google Maps, Google Search, and weather and road network data. “We use existing hardware that responders are already familiar with because responders can’t waste time navigating a complex interface during the chaos of an incident,” said Carl Jerrett, ARA program manager. “No longer will first responders have to carry additional tools such as hard-copy blast standoff guidance cards, rulers, or maps.”

Sergeant Thomas Sharkey, the District of Columbia Metro Transit Police Bomb Squad Commander, said “Unlike other confusing software on desktop computers, this app is easy to purchase, easy to install, and even easier to use.”

Once a first responder enters a general definition and location of the bomb or HAZMAT incident into the FiRST app, the results are instantaneous. They can run a roadblock analysis to identify which roads are best suited for closure in order to isolate a bomb threat within that specific region. Google Search features are available to identify and display locations where increased numbers of the public may be at potential risk.

“FiRST allows responders to label a map with critical information, and this information not only helps first responders better understand an incident, but these maps can then be shared with other responders,” said Jerrett. Users can quickly send results to colleagues via email, which includes a text summary, a map image, and GIS file attachments that are viewable in applications like Google Earth or WebEOC®.

The FiRST app is available for iPhones and iPads, Androids, and Windows personal computers. The application is available for purchase at a nominal fee on iTunes, the Google Play, and ARA’s e-commerce website (

FiRST field evaluations were conducted last year by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, bomb squad, police, EMT, firefighter, and hazmat units. United States Secret Service personnel observed the evaluations as well. After the application testing and evaluation phases were completed, Sharkey said, “This app is a must-have for bomb technicians and first responders.”
Further Reading

Friday, June 22, 2012

#QUANTUM: "Strained All-Carbon Graphene Mimics Semiconductor"

A new kind of all-carbon quantum dot, capable of performing functions that mimic a varying magnetic field, was recently described by scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). By varying mechanical strain of suspended graphene films, the team was able to mimic the effects of a magnetic field. The team hopes the technique will enable graphene quantum dots to perform electronic functions similar to silicon, but with much higher conductivity, even though the pure-carbon material lacks the traditional bandgap of semiconductor materials: R. Colin Johnson

NIST researchers showed that straining graphene membrane creates pseudomagnetic fields that confines the graphene's electrons and creates quantized quantum dot-like energy levels. The background is a false color image of the graphene drumheads made from a single layer of graphene over 1 micron-sized pits etched in a silicon dioxide substrate.

Here is what NIST says about straining grapheme to make quantum dots: Tightening or relaxing the tension on a drumhead will change the way the drum sounds. The same goes for drumheads made from graphene, only instead of changing the sound, stretching graphene has a profound effect on the material's electrical properties. Researchers working at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the University of Maryland have shown that subjecting graphene to mechanical strain can mimic the effects of magnetic fields and create a quantum dot, an exotic type of semiconductor with a wide range of potential uses in electronic devices.

Graphene is a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb lattice. Able to conduct electricity with little resistance at room temperature, graphene is a prime candidate for applications ranging from flexible displays to high-speed transistors.

However, the same lack of electrical resistance that makes graphene attractive for some uses also makes it ill-suited for digital computing applications. Graphene conducts electricity so well because it doesn't have a band gap—an energetic threshold beneath which the material won't conduct electricity. This means that graphene can't be turned "off," and computers need "on" and "off" signals to transmit and process information.

Because substrates slow the speed of electrons moving through graphene, Nikolai Klimov, a University of Maryland postdoctoral researcher working at NIST, suspended the graphene over shallow holes in a substrate of silicon dioxide—essentially making a set of graphene drumheads. To measure the graphene's properties, the team used a unique scanning probe microscope designed and built at NIST.

When they began to probe the drumheads, they found that the graphene rose up to meet the tip of the microscope— a result of the van der Waals force, a weak electrical force that creates attraction between objects that are very close to each other, according to NIST scientist Nikolai Zhitenev and NIST fellow Joseph Stroscio.

The researchers discovered that they could tune the strain in the drumhead using the conducting plate upon which the graphene and substrate were mounted to create a countervailing attraction and pull the drumhead down. In this way, they could pull the graphene into or out of the hole below it.

And their measurements showed that changing the degree of strain changed the material's electrical properties.

For instance, the group observed that when they pulled the graphene membrane into the tent-like shape, the region at the apex acted just like a quantum dot, a type of semiconductor in which electrons are confined to a small region of space.

Creating semiconducting regions like quantum dots in graphene by modifying its shape might give scientists the best of both worlds: high speed and the band gap crucial to computing and other applications.

According to Zhitenev, the electrons flow through graphene by following the segments of the hexagons. Stretching the hexagons lowers the energy near the apex of the tent-like shape and causes the electrons to move in closed, clover-shaped orbits—mimicking nearly exactly how the electrons would move in a vertically varied magnetic field.

The work was a collaborative effort with the University of Maryland, College Park, and the Korea Research Institute of Standards and Science.
Further Reading

Thursday, June 21, 2012

#ENERGY: "Carbon solar cell harness infrared light"

Carbon, the future miracle material is now preferred for solar cells too--at least for a the untapped infrared spectrum. Plastics are becoming old school, carbon is is the future: R. Colin Johnson

An atomic-force microscope image of a layer of single-walled carbon nanotubes deposited on a silicon surface, as the first step in manufacturing the new type of solar cell developed by an MIT team. Individual nanotubes can be seen in the image.
Photo: Rishabh Jain et al

Here's what MIT says about carbon solar cells: About 40 percent of the solar energy reaching Earth’s surface lies in the near-infrared region of the spectrum — energy that conventional silicon-based solar cells are unable to harness. But a new kind of all-carbon solar cell developed by Michael Strano and colleagues at MIT could tap into that unused energy, opening up the possibility of combination solar cells — incorporating both traditional silicon-based cells and the new all-carbon cells — that could make use of almost the entire range of sunlight’s energy.

In order for the new solar cells to work, the nanotubes have to be very pure, and of a uniform type: single-walled, and all of just one of nanotubes’ two possible symmetrical configurations.

Other groups have made photovoltaic (PV) cells using carbon nanotubes, but only by using a layer of polymer to hold the nanotubes in position and collect the electrons knocked loose when they absorb sunlight. But that combination adds extra steps to the production process, and requires extra coatings to prevent degradation with exposure to air. The new all-carbon PV cell appears to be stable in air.

The carbon-based cell is most effective at capturing sunlight in the near-infrared region. Because the material is transparent to visible light, such cells could be overlaid on conventional solar cells, creating a tandem device that could harness most of the energy of sunlight. The carbon cells will need refining, according to Strano, since the current proof-of-concept devices have an energy-conversion efficiency of only about 0.1 percent.

Typically, when a new solar-cell material is studied, there are large inefficiencies, which researchers gradually find ways to reduce. In this case, postdoc and co-author Kevin Tvrdy says, some of these sources of inefficiency have already been identified and addressed: For instance, scientists already know that heterogeneous mixtures of carbon nanotubes are much less efficient than homogeneous formulations, and material that contains a mix of single-walled and multiwalled nanotubes are so much less efficient that sometimes they don’t work at all.

The work also involved MIT graduate students Rachel Howden, Steven Shimizu and Andrew Hilmer; postdoc Thomas McNicholas; and professor of chemical engineering Karen Gleason. It was supported by the Italian company Eni through the MIT Energy Initiative, as well as the National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense through graduate fellowships to Jain and Howden, respectively.
Further Reading

#SECURITY: "Freescale grapples with automotive safety mandates"

Automobile makers worldwide are currently scrambling to meet the complicated safety and security standards set by the International Standards Organization (ISO) 26262 and International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) 61508. Freescale's SafeAssure program should help automobile makers to navigate the labyrinth leading to ISO and IEC certification: R. Colin Johnson

Here is what EETimes says about automotive safety standards: Automobile makers worldwide are grappling with meeting the safety standards set by the International Standards Organization (ISO 26262), which sets a high bar for automotive system failures that could cause injuries. Freescale Semiconductor aims to help auto makers meet the emerging safety mandate with a new system basic chip (SBC) which works hand-in-hand with its Power Architecture Qorivva MPC574x microcontrollers which provide a lock-step "checker" core to meet ISO 26262.
Further Reading

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

#CHIPS: "ARM dominating consumer apps"

Intel processors are still the king of consumer applications, but here at the Freescale Technology Forum (FTF 2012) ARM appears to be riding a tidal wave of mobile, industrial and even datacenter design wins. In fact, the motto I kept hearing here was that "ARM has already won the processor war" and its only a matter of time before its more widely recognized: R. Colin Johnson

From left: Freescale senior vice president Henri Richard leads panelists Warren East (ARM), Tony Belkin (Hospira), Greg Couch (National Instruments) and Jeremy Hammer (Ceton).

Vendors defended the mass migration to ARM cores for their low-power, broad spectrum of performance levels and more economical software here at the Freescale Technology Forum (FTF) Tuesday (June 19). Freescale Senior Vice President Henri Richard's annual FTF panel discussion included ARM CEO Warren East, Tony Belkin, a director at medical-device maker director at Hospira Inc. (Lake Forest, Ill.), Greg Crouch, embedded systems business director at National Instruments Corp. (Austin, Texas) and Jeremy Hammer, chief technology officer at consumer electronics firm Ceton Corp. (Kirkland, Wash.) According to the panelists, consumerization favors ARM cores for next-generation applications, since they are lower power than traditional PC- and server-style processors, plus they are already running the software, in industrial and professional settings, that is currently being ported to the consumer setting.
Further Reading

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

#DISPLAYS: "Next app for TI's DLP is large touchscreens"

Touchscreens don't have to be based on flat panels anymore, now that TI has figured out how to turn rear-projected digital light processors into massive touchscreens. The coolest part, for me, is that DLP-based touchscreens can use any surface, not matter how curved and convoluted it is, enabling entire dashboards, or even whole walls, into massive touchscreens that work just the way you expect with taps, swipes, pinches and all: R. Colin Johnson

Here is what EETimes says about DLP touchscreens: Digital light processor technology developed by Texas Instruments 25 years ago has been used to bring big-screen cinema to the digital age is now being used in picoprojectors for smartphones, cameras and tablets, company officials said. By this time next year, they predict DLP technology will powering large touchscreens. DLPs are based on micron-sized mirrors that turn a pixel on or off by deflecting light either to the screen or off to one side at a rate of 10,000 times per second. The technique enable a wide array of projection applications like 3-D TV along with metrology, spectroscopy, medical diagnosis, industrial inspection and other applications. Now TI is targeting large touchscreens...
Further Reading

#3D: "TI brings HD to 3-D printing"

3D printing promises to enable personalized products, the most important of which is "personalized bobbleheads"--where you can put yourself of loved ones on a bouncing doll. But seriously, the future of 3D printing is bright with a wide variety of applications looming for making manufacturing accessible to almost anyone as 3D printer prices plummet: R. Colin Johnson

3D printers enable computer aided design (CAD) software to directly manufacture one-off products,

Here is what EETimes says about 3D printing: Texas Instruments said this week it is adapting its HD digital light processor (DLP) chipset for rapid prototyping systems that can print 3-D objects. By optimizing the DLP for UV light, the surface of a receding photo-activated polymer can be formed into 3-D objects for custom and one-off precision manufacturing. UV-optimized DLPs are also used for exposing photo-active resists in pc boards with a virtual mask, laser repairs and computer-to-plate printing.

Further Reading

#CHIPS: "Ultra-low power cores go 32-bit"

Freescale Semiconductor Inc. is sampling the industry's first microcontroller to use ARM's ultra-low-power Cortex-M0+ processor, which aims to convert 8- and 16-bit applications to 32-bit status by offering one-third the energy consumption of 8-bit processors while delivering twice the performance of a 16-bit processor.

NXP is also a licensee for the Cortex-M0+ announced in March, but Freescale claims its Kinetis L series is sampling first, making it the "world’s most energy-efficient microcontroller," according to Freescale CEO Gregg Lowe, who will demonstrate it Tuesday (June 19) during his keynote presentation at the annual Freescale Technology Forum here.
Further Reading

Monday, June 18, 2012

#MEMS: "Six-axis sensor fuses accelerometer with magnetometer"

Single-chip e-compasses can be sluggish in operation, but by adding an accelerometer and digital-signal processor to perform the sensor fusion, this new model from Freescale claims to give super-fast response time that is dead-on accurate: R. Colin Johnson

Accelerometer and magnetometer data (left) is fused by embedded digital signal processor (DSP) functions (bottom) which conserves power in periods of inactivity.

Digital e-compasses typically fuse data from a magentometer and accelerometer in order to accurately determine heading and orientation, enabling location-based services for navigation, gaming and augmented reality (AR). By housing its magnetometer and accelerometer in the same package with a digital signal processor (DSP), enabling higher accuracy sensor fusion, Freescale Semiconductor Inc. hopes to capture a bigger share of the $1.5 billion market for e-compasses forecast by ABI Research by 2016.
Further Reading

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

#WIRELESS: "Motion Tracking Adds-on to Any Display"

If you have not seen the demo yet, check out the Leap Motion tracker that you set in front of your display to control screen actions with your hands--in mid-air. No applications have adopted it yet--and the end-user product is not shipping yet--but developers are being invited to get of board now: R. Colin Johnson

Here is what Leap Motion says about its motion tracking technology: Leap Motion, the motion-control software and hardware company changing the future of human/computer interaction, today announced the Leap, the world's most accurate 3-D motion control device. It will change the way people control their laptops and desktop computers. The Leap is 200 times more sensitive than existing technologies and will cost a fraction of the price, just $69.99. Open today for pre-orders, the Leap will ship to consumers this winter. Leap Motion also has begun accepting requests for free developer kits today. Thousands will be provided in the coming months to let developers create a wide array of Leap-based applications.
The Leap creates a three-dimensional interaction space of 4 cubic feet to control a computer more precisely and quickly than a mouse or touchscreen, and as reliably as a keyboard. Leap Motion's patented software, the heart of the Leap, represents four years of research and a series of major mathematical breakthroughs by co-founder and CTO David Holz.
The Leap is accurate to within 1/100 of a millimeter, a precision level required for touch-free natural gesture controls like pinch-to-zoom. The Leap addresses the shortcomings of all existing human/computer interaction tools by enabling a 3-D workspace that recognizes intuitive gestures. It is the first product in history to accurately sense the individual movements of all 10 of the user's fingers, and can also track objects like a pen. Traditional mouse-and-keyboard navigation turns actions that are intuitive in the real world, like drawing a picture or manipulating 3-D objects, into highly technical tasks. Existing motion-sensing technology is crude, inefficient and often frustrating, and even touchscreen technology is limited by a two-dimensional workspace and scale restraints.
Computing tasks ranging from simple to complex can now be accomplished with natural hand and finger movements. Current uses of the Leap include:
Basic computing tasks like navigating an operating system or browsing through Web pages
Precise virtual drawing in 2-D and 3-D
Signing a digital document by writing in air
Navigating large-scale 3-D data visualization systems
Creating and manipulating 3-D models like houses and cars
Playing computer games, including fast-twitch first-person shooters
Future applications from developers could include medical imaging, robotics, unique art creations, computer-aided design, virtual-reality environments, training simulators for complex manual tasks and more.
The Leap plugs directly into a USB port and calibrates in one step, allowing users to quickly begin controlling their computers with natural hand and finger movements. Users can fine-tune the Leap's sensitivity settings, create their own custom gestures and even network more than one Leap together to create a larger interaction space.
Developers who want to create Leap-compatible applications can request a Leap software development kit via Leap Motion's website at Leap Motion's app discovery platform will make it easy for developers to promote and monetize their own applications for the Leap.
Further Reading

#COGNIZERS: "Consciousness Arises from Brain Synchronicity"

Consciousness has been a puzzle since the beginning of rational thought, with the greatest minds of all time weighing in on how and why it arises from brain activity. Now the Max Planck Institute (Germany) thinks is has at least part of the answer--synchronicity between memory and planning. The temporal lobe of the brain is responsible for committing new information to long-term memory, but it appears to be synchronized with the lateral prefrontal cortex--which does planning. When something becomes conscious, both areas light up together. Next the researchers want to do precise timing measurements to determine which is first--memory or planning--and how interactions between the two cause consciousness to arise. I just updated this information in my eBook, Cognizers--Neural Networks and Machines that Think, which describes all the current theories and brain-like systems being hawked today, but wanted to share this new insight into consciousness with you first here: R. Colin Johnson

Neurons in the lateral prefrontal cortex represent the content of consciousness. The red trace depicts neural activity (neuronal discharges) in the lateral prefrontal cortex when a stimulus is consciously perceived for 1 second while the green trace depicts neural activity when the same stimulus is suppressed from awareness. © MPI for Biological Cybernetics

Here is what the Max Planck Institute says about consciousness: Consciousness is a selective process that allows only a part of the sensory input to reach awareness. But up to today it has yet to be clarified which areas of the brain are responsible for the content of conscious perception. Theofanis Panagiotaropoulos and his colleagues - researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen and University Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona - have now discovered that the content of consciousness is not localised in a unique cortical area, but is most likely an emergent property of global networks of neuronal populations.

The question which parts of the brain are responsible for the things that reach our awareness is one of the main puzzles in neurobiology today. Previous research on the brains of primates has shown that neurons in primary and secondary cortices provide poor representation of visual consciousness. In contrast, the neurons in the temporal lobe seem to reliably reflect the actual conscious perception of a visual stimulus. These findings indicated that not all parts of the brain are responsible for the content of conscious awareness. Nevertheless, the question whether only one of the brain's areas is responsible for the content of perception or whether more regions are involved in the process has so far remained unanswered.

The Max Planck scientists in Tübingen led by Nikos Logothetis have now addressed this issue using electrophysiological methods to monitor the neural activity in the lateral prefrontal cortex of macaque monkeys during ambiguous visual stimulation. The visual stimuli used allow for multiple perceptual interpretations, even though the actual input remained the same. In doing so, Panagiotaropoulos and his team were able to show that the electrical activity monitored in the lateral prefrontal cortex correlates with what the macaque monkeys actually perceive.

They thus concluded that visual awareness is not only reliably reflected in the temporal lobe, but also in the lateral prefrontal cortex of primates. The results depict that the neuronal correlates of consciousness are embedded in this area, which has a direct connection to premotor and motor areas of the brain, and is therefore able to directly affect motor output. These findings support the “frontal lobe hypothesis” of conscious visual perception established in 1995 by the researchers Crick (the co-discoverer of the structure of the DNA molecule) and Koch that awareness is related to neural activity with direct access to the planning stages of the brain.

The results support this theory in so far as they show that the lateral prefrontal cortex is involved in the process of visual awareness. However, the fact that neural activity in two different cortical areas reflects conscious perception shows that the decision which sensory input reaches our awareness is most likely not made in a unique cortical area but, rather, that a global network of neurons from different areas of the brain is responsible for it. In the near future the group is going to record the electrical activity in both regions simultaneously.

By this they will try to find out which of the two areas is activated first and draw conclusions on how the two areas interact with each other during conscious perception. This may lead to a better understanding of why only certain things reach our awareness and others remain suppressed.
Further Reading

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

#MEMS: "Rad-Hard Logic Gates for Nuclear CleanUp/Deep Space"

When robots were sent in to help assess the damage at the Fukishima Dai-ichi Nuclear Plant meltdown, they ceased to work after a few hours because of the intense ionizing radiation. Now University of Utah researchers have created MEMS logic gates that require no shielding from ionizing radiation because they are completely immune. MEMS logic circuits will be useful not only for nuclear plant cleanup robots, but also for an circuitry that goes to deep space where cosmic ray must be carefully shielded against today: R. Colin Johnson

Microscopic images of two “logic gates” made of microscopic mechanical parts and thus designed to resist ionizing radiation that fries conventional silicon electronics. The top gate performs the logic function named “exclusive or” and the gate in the bottom image performs the function “and.” These devices, designed at the University of Utah, are so small that four of them would fit in the cross section of a single human hair.

Here is what the University of Utah says about its radiation immune MEMS logic gates: University of Utah engineers designed microscopic mechanical devices that withstand intense radiation and heat, so they can be used in circuits for robots and computers exposed to radiation in space, damaged nuclear power plants or nuclear attack.

The researchers showed the devices kept working despite intense ionizing radiation and heat by dipping them for two hours into the core of the University of Utah’s research reactor. They also built simple circuits with the devices.

Ionizing radiation can quickly fry electronic circuits, so heavy shielding must be used on robots such as those sent to help contain the meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant after Japan’s catastrophic 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

The new devices are “logic gates” that perform logical operations such as “and” or “not” and are a type of device known as MEMS or micro-electro-mechanical systems. Each gate takes the place of six to 14 switches made of conventional silicon electronics.

Shown here are three kinds of micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) circuits built from microscopic mechanical devices, known as “logic gates,” designed to resist ionizing radiation. The circuits are a 2-bit multiplexer (top), a 1-bit full adder (center) and a 2-bit full adder (bottom).

Development of the new logic gates and their use to build circuits such as adders and multiplexers is reported in a study set for online publication this month in the journal Sensors and Actuators. The research was conducted by Tabib-Azar, University of Utah electrical engineering doctoral student Faisal Chowdhury and computer engineer Daniel Saab at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. The study was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

In April, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency issued a call for the development of robots to deal with stricken nuclear reactors to reduce human exposure to deadly radiation. In May, NASA said it was seeking proposals for new shields or materials able to resist radiation in space. Circuits built with the new devices also could resist intense heat in engines to monitor performance, Tabib-Azar says.

Current radiation-resistant technologies fall into two categories: conventional complementary silicon-oxide semiconductor electronics shielded with lead or other metals, and the use of different materials that inherently resist radiation.

He says the MEMS logic gates are not degraded by ionizing radiation because they lack semiconducting channels. Instead, electrical charges make electrodes move to touch each other, thus acting like a switch.

MEMS have their drawbacks, which Tabib-Azar believes is why no one until now has thought to use them for radiation-resistant circuits. Silicon electronics are 1,000 times faster, much smaller, and more reliable because they have no moving parts.

But by having one MEMS device act as a logic gate, instead of using separate MEMS switches, the number of devices needed for a computer is reduced by a factor of 10 and the reliability and speed increases, Tabib-Azar says.

Unlike conventional electronics, which get hot during use, the logic gates leak much less current, require just 1.5 volts, and run cooler, so they would last longer if battery-operated.

Each logic gate measures about 25-by-25 microns, or millionths of a mete. Each gate is only a half-micron thick.

The logic gates each have two “bridges,” which look somewhat like two tiny microscope slides crossing each other to form a tic-tac-toe pattern, with tungsten electrodes in the center square. Each bridge is made of a glass-like silicon nitride insulator with polysilicon under it to give rigidity. The insulator is etched and covered by metallic strips of tungsten that serve as electrodes.

He and his colleagues put the logic gates and conventional silicon switches to the test, showing the logic gates kept working as they were repeatedly turned on and off under extreme heat and radiation, while the silicon switches “shorted out in minutes.”

The devices were placed on a hot plate in a vacuum chamber and heated to 277 degrees Fahrenheit for an hour.

Three times, the researchers lowered the devices for two hours into the core of the university’s 90-kilowatt TRIGA research reactor, with wires extending to the control room so the researchers could monitor their operation. The logic gates did not fail.

The researchers also tested the logic gates outside the reactor and oven, running them for some two months and more than a billion cycles without failure. But to be useful, Tabib-Azar wants to improve that reliability a millionfold.

For the study, Tabib-Azar and colleagues built two kinds of logic gate, each with two inputs (0 or 1) and thus four possible combinations of inputs (0-0, 0-1, 1-0, 1-1). The input and output are electrical voltages:

– An AND gate, which means “and.” If both inputs – A and B – are true (or worth 1 each), then the output is true (or equal to 1). If input A or B or both are false (worth 0), then the output is false (or equal to 0).

– An XOR gate, which means “exclusive or.” If input A doesn’t equal B (so A is 0 and B is 1 or A is 1 and B is 0), the output is true (equal 1). If both A and B are either true (1) or false (0), the output is false (0).
Further Reading

Monday, June 11, 2012

#MATERIALS: "Microfluidics to Cool 3-D Chip Stacks"

A new initiative to use liquid cooling techniques by virtue of microfluidic channels that run through 3-D chip stacks to extract heat--much like a car's radiator--is being pursued by a new initiative called "IceCool" by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA). The new program, run by DARPA program manager Avram Bar-Cohen, who also runs the Thermal Management Technologies (TMT) program, begins today and will run for at least three years: R. Colin Johnson

Here is what DARPA says about its IceCool program: The continued miniaturization and the increased density of components in today’s electronics have pushed heat generation and power dissipation to unprecedented levels. Current thermal management solutions, usually involving remote cooling, are unable to limit the temperature rise of today’s complex electronic components. Such remote cooling solutions, where heat must be conducted away from components before rejection to the air, add considerable weight and volume to electronic systems. The result is complex military systems that continue to grow in size and weight due to the inefficiencies of existing thermal management hardware.

Recent advances of the DARPA Thermal Management Technologies (TMT) program enable a paradigm shift—better thermal management. DARPA’s Intrachip/Interchip Enhanced Cooling (ICECool) program seeks to crack the thermal management barrier and overcome the limitations of remote cooling. ICECool will explore ‘embedded’ thermal management by bringing microfluidic cooling inside the substrate, chip or package by including thermal management in the earliest stages of electronics design.

Avram Bar-Cohen, DARPA program manager says the technique is similar to a radiator on a car that runs water through the engine block.

The ICECool Fundamentals solicitation released today seeks proposals to research and demonstrate the microfabrication and evaporative cooling techniques needed to implement embedded cooling. Proposals are sought for intrachip/interchip solutions that bring microchannels, micropores, etc. into the design and fabrication of chips. Interchip solutions for chip stacks are also sought.
Further Reading

#ENERGY: "Superbugs Generate Electricity from Wastewater"

The biggest use of electricity is wastewater treatment, while the second largest user of water is energy production, so if you can find a way to generate energy from wastewater you are "in business" according to UC Researchers Bob Voorhees and Dan Hassett. By genetically engineering superbugs that clean wastewater while generating electricity, Pilus Energy is commercializing this green technologies that cleans up the environment while mitigating global warming: R. Colin Johnson

UC Researchers Bob Voorhees and Dan Hassett (in visor) work on developing superbugs to clean wastewater and generate electricity.

Here is what Cincinnati's WVXU says about electricity from wastewater: Cincinnati scientists are engineering special bugs that will clean wastewater and create energy. Ann Thompson takes you into the lab where this is happening in Focus on Technology. Click "further reading" below to listen to her radio broadcast:
Further Reading

Friday, June 08, 2012

#QUANTUM: "Physicists Say Quantum States Ubiquitous"

Physicists have demonstrated a breakdown in the classical description of system involving simultaneous electrical and magnetic fields, such as mechanical and electrical oscillators. By demonstrating for a single photon the violation of a simple criterion must be fulfilled for any joint probability distribution for simultaneous electrical- and magnetic-fields in classical physics, the researchers claim to demonstrate that quantum mechanical principles like Heisenberg's uncertainty principle apply to macroscopic systems: R. Colin Johnson

In the quantum optical laboratories at the Niels Bohr Institute, researchers have conducted experiments that show that light breaks with the classical physical principles. The studies show that light can have both an electrical and a magnetic field, but not at the same time. That is to say, light has quantum mechanical properties.

Here is what the University of Copenhagen says about light having electrical or magnetic fields, but not both simultaneously: Researchers from the Niels Bohr Institute have made a simple experiment that demonstrates that nature violates common sense – the world is different than most people believe. The experiment illustrates that light does not behave according to the principles of classical physics, but that light has quantum mechanical properties. The new method could be used to study whether other systems behave quantum mechanically. The results have been published in the scientific journal, Physical Review Letters.

In physics there are two categories: classical physics and quantum physics. In classical physics, objects, e.g. a car or a ball, have a position and a velocity. This is how we classically look at our everyday world. In the quantum world objects can also have a position and a velocity, but not at the same time. At the atomic level, quantum mechanics says that nature behaves quite differently than you might think. It is not just that we do not know the position and the velocity, rather, these two things simply do not exist simultaneously. But how do we know that they do not exist simultaneously? And where is the border of these two worlds? Researchers have found a new way to answer these questions.

Eran Kot, a PhD-student in the research group of professor of quantum physics Anders S. Sørensen, maintains that systems possess measurable quantum properties, just like atomic particles. Based on a series of experiments in the quantum optics laboratories, the researchers examined the state of light. In classical physics, light possesses both an electric and a magnetic field.

The aim of the research is both to fundamentally understand the world, but there is also a practical challenge in being able to exploit quantum mechanics in larger contexts. For light it is no great surprise that it behaves quantum mechanically, but the methods that have been developed can also be used to study other systems.
Further Reading

Thursday, June 07, 2012

#MATERIALS: "3-D Block Co-Polymers Pattern Automatically"

Researchers at MIT are patterning complex three-dimensional structures using self-assembling block co-polymers that form tiny wires and junctions automatically. MIT claims its technique will enable a new generation of microchips with tiny nanoscale features not achievable with traditional methods: R. Colin Johnson

Here is what MIT says about their block co-polymer self-assembly method: Researchers at MIT have found a new way of making complex three-dimensional structures using self-assembling polymer materials that form tiny wires and junctions. The work has the potential to usher in a new generation of microchips and other devices made up of submicroscopic features.

Although similar self-assembling structures with very fine wires have been produced before, this is the first time the structures have been extended into three dimensions with different, independent configurations on different layers, the researchers say. The research is published this week in the journal Science.

Caroline Ross, the Toyota Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT, says there has been “a lot of interest” among semiconductor researchers in finding ways to produce chip features that are much narrower than the wavelength of light — and hence narrower than what can be achieved using present light-based fabrication systems. She and her colleagues began by creating an array of tiny posts on a substrate of silicon; they then coated the surface with materials called block copolymers, which have a natural tendency to assemble into long cylindrical structures. By carefully controlling the initial spacing of the posts, Ross explains, the researchers were able to set the spacing, angles, bends and junctions of the cylinders that form on the surface. What’s more, she says, “Each of the two layers of cylinders can be independently controlled using these posts,” making it possible to create complex 3-D configurations.

Amir Tavakkoli, a visiting graduate student from the National University of Singapore and lead author of the Science paper, says many researchers have tried to produce complex arrangements of nanoscale wires through self-assembly. But earlier attempts used complex processes with many steps, and had failed to control the resulting configurations well. The new system is simpler, according to MIT graduate student Kevin Gotrik.

Graduate student Adam Hannon says the team used computer simulations of the structures in order to explore the effects of different post configurations on the double-layer 3-D structure. These simulations were compared with the most promising structures observed in the laboratory to get greater insight into how to control the resulting structures that formed.

So far, the MIT team has only produced two-layer configurations, but Alfredo Alexander-Katz, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering, says, “I think it would be feasible to go to three layers” while still maintaining full control over the arrangement of structures on each layer.

A key enabling technology was the MIT lab’s capability, using electron-beam lithography, to make 10-nanometer-wide cylindrical posts with precisely controlled positioning. These posts, in turn, guide the positioning of the self-assembling cylinders. Karl Berggren, an associate professor of electrical engineering, says it’s as if the lithography puts down an array of pillars, and these pillars then control the complex, multilevel routing of crisscrossing highways.

In earlier work, the MIT researchers had demonstrated that this self-assembly method could be used to create wires that are much finer than those that can be made by existing photolithography techniques for producing microchips — and thus help lead the way to next-generation devices that pack even more wires and transistors into a given area of silicon chip material. “In principle, this is scalable to quite small dimensions,” Ross says, far smaller than the 15-nanometer width of the cylinders produced so far — which is already less than half the width of the finest wires in existing microchips.

The basic technologies involved are compatible with existing manufacturing equipment in the semiconductor industry, the researchers say. But this is basic research that is probably still far from actual chip production, they caution. Within the next year the team hopes to use this methodology to produce a simple electronic device.

The technique is not limited to producing wires on a silicon chip, Ross and her colleagues say. The same method could be used to create 3-D arrays of other kinds of materials — such as proteins or DNA molecules, for example — in order to create biological detectors or drug-delivery systems.

The work was supported by the Semiconductor Research Corporation, the FENA Center, the Nanoelectronics Research Initiative, the Singapore-MIT Alliance, the National Science Foundation, Tokyo Electron and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company.
Further Reading

#SECURITY: "Trained Rats Uncover Land Mines"

Rats are being trained to locate land mines and communicate their location by circling around them at Bucknell University. The Department of Defense funded project aims to perfect the training method, plus attach little backpacks to the rats so a laptop can track their position and map the mine field automatically. All the user will have to do is release the rats near a suspected mine field and watch the screen: R. Colin Johnson

Psychologist Kevin Myers holding a rat trained to detect land mines in his lab at Bucknell University.

Here is what Bucknell University says about it land-mine rats: Since the invention of land mines some seven centuries ago, activists, researchers and government officials have tried to root out the indiscriminant and deadly weapons with everything from metal detectors and robots to dogs, bees and rats.

The methods have, however, proved dangerous, labor-intensive and time-consuming.

Two Bucknell University professors are working with a U.S. Department of Defense contractor to develop faster and more sophisticated technology and methods to detect land mines. The team has devised a system to train rats to recognize and respond to the explosives, using materials that can be delivered anywhere with instructions that anyone can use.

Kevin Myers, an associate professor of psychology uses learning, memory and motivation to train the rats. Together with Joe Tranquillo, associate professor of biomedical and electrical engineering, the team is working with Coherent Technical Services Inc. (CTSI). The U.S. Army Research Office has awarded the company and Bucknell $100,000 for Phase I of the project. Such contracts are designated for small businesses and academic research partnerships that address real problems with marketable technology.

Land mines are especially dangerous because they are often buried then lay concealed for years. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines describes land mines as indiscriminate weapons that kill and injure thousand of people each year, instilling fear and serving as a barrier to development.

The project is an "innovative yet low-tech solution" to address a problem in developing areas of the world, Myers said. The big advantage to training rats rather than larger animals is that the rats are small and light and do not trip the land mines, which can remain dangerous for years after they are installed.

In his lab at Bucknell, Myers is training rats to respond to the scent of land mines by doing a simple task: turning in circles. The project is a combination of psychology, animal behavior and engineering, Myers said.

Myers asked Tranquillo to collaborate with him on making the techniques easy for anyone to use. Tranquillo is working with student Matt Young Jr. in the University's new Richard J. Mooney Innovative Design Laboratory to develop the electrical, mechanical and thermal technology and software for the project. Graphic illustrations will provide users with step-by-step instructions on how to train and work with the rats in areas where land mines are present.

The rats will be outfitted with miniature backpacks and wireless transmitters that track their positions and movements. During the first part of their training, the rats learn to associate a mild buzz in the backpack – much like the "vibrate" setting in a cell phone--with getting a food reward. Eventually, the buzz itself acts as a reward that may be triggered when the rats complete certain tasks.

In the next phase of training, the rats are prompted to sniff various odors and are rewarded for doing something specific in response, such as turning to the left rather than the right, when the land mine odor is present. Eventually, the rats learn to behave more distinctively when they detect that odor.

If the project is successful, the contract could be extended for two years with an award of up to $750,000. In Phase II, the Army would provide support for recruiting private investors for the final phase, product development.
Further Reading

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

#DISPLAYS: "E Ink Targets New Display Niches"

E Ink pioneered the zero-power display for the eReader market, but has had to scramble to find new application in a post-iPad world where readers are willing to recharge their eReader overnight just to get backlit color. This week at the Society for Information Display (SID) conference, E Ink is showing a wide variety of new applications for its flexible displays which require zero stand-by power: R. Colin Johnson

E Ink smartcards let users input personal identification number to unlock information stored in the card.

Here is what EETimes says about its E Ink's zero stand-by power displays: E Ink Corp. is branching out into a wide variety of reflective displays which it is showcased this week at the 2012 Society for Information Display (SID) conference.

E Ink's Vizplex electrophoretic displays uses microcapsules containing white and black pigments that are attracted to the surface with electrical potentials to form paper-like white, black or grayscale pixels. Color versions use filters for red, green and blue. Most of E Ink's new displays, however, are monochrome models. The big advantage is that E Ink's displays require no power once information has been written.

At SID, E Ink is highlighting a small display on the back of a smart card (see photo above). Users can enter a personal identification number which the small display will show along with anti-theft authentication codes and other information. The smart card is identical in size to a standard credit card including a battery with a three-year lifetime.

E Ink also is showing an auxilliary display for smartphones to show status information without waking up the main LCD display. The auxilliary display is built into an iPhone case and shows time, battery power status and the number of pending messages and emails and works even when the phone is turned off.

By converting the black back of the iPhone into an auxiliary display, battery life, waiting emails and messages can be displayed without having to enter a security code and turn on the main display.

E Inks bike display shows speed as well as heart rate read through the handle grips.

E Ink also has developed a traffic light that combines its reflective technology with conventional LEDs to create an ultra-low power signal that can be read under all lighting conditions.
Further Reading

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

#MATERIALS: "3-D Ceramics Solve Cell Phone Drift"

Cell phones today depend on temperature compensation circuits to keep their resonators on-frequency when they get hot in summer and cold in winter, but Sandia National Labs has a better idea--multilayered, ceramic-based 3-D microelectronics circuits that automatically adjust the temperature coefficient of their resonant frequency: R. Colin Johnson

Sandia National Laboratories materials science researcher Steve Dai has come up with a unique approach to creating materials whose properties won't degenerate with temperature swings. (Photo by Randy Montoya)

Here is what Sandia National Labs says about its material: Sandia National Laboratories researcher Steve Dai jokes that his approach to creating materials whose properties won’t degenerate during temperature swings is a lot like cooking — mixing ingredients and fusing them together in an oven.

Sandia has developed a unique materials approach to multilayered, ceramic-based, 3-D microelectronics circuits, such as those used in cell phones. The approach compensates for how changes due to temperature fluctuations affect something called the temperature coefficient of resonant frequency, a critical property of materials used in radio and microwave frequency applications. Sandia filed a patent for its new approach last fall. The work was the subject of a recently completed two-year Early Career Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) project that focused on understanding why certain materials behave as they do. That knowledge could help manufacturers design and build better products.

The familiar cell phone illustrates how the development might be used. The Federal Communications Commission allocates bandwidth to various uses — aviation, the military, cell phones, and so on. Each must operate within an assigned bandwidth with finite signal-carrying capacity. But as temperatures vary, the properties of the materials inside the phone change, and that causes a shift in the resonant frequency at which a signal is sent or received.

Because of that shift, cell phones are designed to operate squarely in the middle of the bandwidth so as not to break the law by drifting outside their assigned frequency range. That necessary caution wastes potential bandwidth and sacrifices higher rates at which data could move.

Dai worked on low-temperature co-fired ceramic (LTCC), a multilayer 3-D packaging and interconnection technology that can integrate passive components — resistors, capacitors and inductors.

Most mainstream LTCC dielectrics now on the market have a temperature coefficient of resonant frequency in a range as wide as that between northern Alaska in the winter and southern Arizona in the summer. Dai’s research achieved a near-zero temperature coefficient by incorporating compensating materials into the LTCC — basically a dielectric that works against the host dielectric and in essence balances the temperature coefficient of resonant frequency. A dielectric is a material, such as glass, that does not conduct electricity but can sustain an electric field.

He presented the results of the approach in a paper published in January in the Journal of Microelectronics and Electronic Packaging.

Another advantage: Manufacturers could cut costs by eliminating additional mechanical and electrical circuits now built into a device to compensate for temperature variations.

One challenge was choosing different materials that don’t fall apart when co-fired together, Dai said. Glass ceramic materials used in cell phone applications are both fragile and rigid, but they’re also very solid with minimal porosity. Researchers experimented with different materials, changing a parameter, adjusting the composition, and seeing which ones worked best together.

He had to consider both physical and chemical compatibility. Physical compatibility means that as materials shrink when they’re fired, they shrink in the same way so they don’t warp or buckle. Chemical compatibility means each material retains its unique properties rather than diffusing into the whole.

The LDRD project created a new set of materials to solve the problem of resonant frequency drift but also developed a better understanding of why and how the processes involved in identifying the best materials work.

Researchers looked at variables to boost performance. For example, the functional material within the composite carries the electrical signal, and researchers experimented with placing that material in different areas within the composite until they came up with what arrangement worked best and understood why.

The team also constructed a computational model to analyze what happens when materials with different properties are placed together, and what happens when they change their order in the stacked layers or the dimensions of one material versus another.

Manufacturing can be done as simple screen printing, a low-cost, standard commercial process much like printing an image on a T-shirt. Dai said the idea was to avoid special requirements that would make the process more expensive or difficult.

Further Reading

Monday, June 04, 2012

#MEMS: "Blast Gauge Monitors Soldier's Concussions"

When an improvised explosive device (IED) or mortar round explodes near a soldier often they are too disoriented afterwards to even know whether they should seek medical help, but by wearing a Blast Gauge soldiers in Afghanistan can find out immediately. After a nearby explosion, the soldier merely pushes a button on the Blast Gauges and it either lights green (OK), yellow (border line) or red (seek medical attention immediately): R. Colin Johnson

Here is what EETimes says about the Blast Gauge: Ultralow-power accelerometers, which draw only nanoamps while holding idle electronics in zero-consumption standby mode, can extend the battery life of freestanding sensors for up to a decade. Analog Devices Inc. says its newest three-axis accelerometer can extend battery life for months even in always-on devices. The part is being tested for use in the Blast Gauge, which the Defense Department has deployed to monitor soldiers 24/7 for exposure to the concussive forces of munitions...
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#ENERGY: "Higher Efficiency Fuel Cells Demoed at National Lab"

Fuel cells are much more efficient in converting the chemical energy of fuel into electricity, which is only about 18 percent for gasoline powered generators. In contrast, Pacific Northwest National Lab's (PNNL's) solid-oxide fuel cells (SOFCs) can achieve almost 60 percent efficiency, making it possible to power whole commercial businesses or even civilian neighborhoods with SOFCs: R. Colin Johnson

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory developed this highly efficient, small-scale solid oxide fuel cell system that features PNNL-developed microchannel technology and two unusual processes, called external steam reforming and fuel recycling.

Here is what PNNL says about its solid oxide fuel cell: Individual homes and entire neighborhoods could be powered with a new, small-scale solid oxide fuel cell system that achieves up to 57 percent efficiency, significantly higher than the 30 to 50 percent efficiencies previously reported for other solid oxide fuel cell systems of its size, according to a study published in this month's issue of Journal of Power Sources.

The smaller system, developed at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, uses methane, the primary component of natural gas, as its fuel. The entire system was streamlined to make it more efficient and scalable by using PNNL-developed microchannel technology in combination with processes called external steam reforming and fuel recycling. PNNL's system includes fuel cell stacks developed earlier with the support of DOE's Solid State Energy Conversion Alliance.

Sprenkle and his co-authors had community-sized power generation in mind when they started working on their solid oxide fuel cell, also known as a SOFC. The pilot system they built generates about 2 kW of electricity, or how much power a typical American home consumes. The PNNL team designed its system so it can be scaled up to produce between 100 and 250 kW, which could provide power for about 50 to 100 American homes.

Knowing the advantages of smaller SOFC systems, the PNNL team wanted to design a small system that could be both more than 50 percent efficient and easily scaled up for distributed generation. To do this, the team first used a process called external steam reforming. In general, steam reforming mixes steam with the fuel, leading the two to react and create intermediate products. The intermediates, carbon monoxide and hydrogen, then react with oxygen at the fuel cell's anode. Just as described in the below sidebar, this reaction generates electricity, as well as the byproducts steam and carbon dioxide.

Steam reforming has been used with fuel cells before, but the approach requires heat that, when directly exposed to the fuel cell, causes uneven temperatures on the ceramic layers that can potentially weaken and break the fuel cell. So the PNNL team opted for external steam reforming, which completes the initial reactions between steam and the fuel outside of the fuel cell.

The external steam reforming process requires a device called a heat exchanger, where a wall made of a conductive material like metal separates two gases. On one side of the wall is the hot exhaust that is expelled as a byproduct of the reaction inside the fuel cell. On the other side is a cooler gas that is heading toward the fuel cell. Heat moves from the hot gas, through the wall and into the cool incoming gas, warming it to the temperatures needed for the reaction to take place inside the fuel cell.

The key to the efficiency of this small SOFC system is the use of a PNNL-developed microchannel technology in the system's multiple heat exchangers. Instead of having just one wall that separates the two gases, PNNL's microchannel heat exchangers have multiple walls created by a series of tiny looping channels that are narrower than a paper clip. This increases the surface area, allowing more heat to be transferred and making the system more efficient. PNNL's microchannel heat exchanger was designed so that very little additional pressure is needed to move the gas through the turns and curves of the looping channels.

The second unique aspect of the system is that it recycles. Specifically, the system uses the exhaust, made up of steam and heat byproducts, coming from the anode to maintain the steam reforming process. This recycling means the system doesn't need an electric device that heats water to create steam. Reusing the steam, which is mixed with fuel, also means the system is able to use up some of the leftover fuel it wasn't able to consume when the fuel first moved through the fuel cell.

The combination of external steam reforming and steam recycling with the PNNL-developed microchannel heat exchangers made the team's small SOFC system extremely efficient. Together, these characteristics help the system use as little energy as possible and allows more net electricity to be produced in the end. Lab tests showed the system's net efficiency ranged from 48.2 percent at 2.2 kW to a high of 56.6 percent at 1.7 kW. The team calculates they could raise the system's efficiency to 60 percent with a few more adjustments.

The PNNL team would like to see their research translated into an SOFC power system that's used by individual homeowners or utilities.

The research was supported by DOE's Office of Fossil Energy.
Further Reading

#ALGORITHMS: "2nd Gen Find-My-Car Smarter Than Ever"

If you've ever forgotten where you parked your car, now there's an app for that. I lost my car the last time I parked in the narrow streets of New Orleans early in the evening (before festivities), but many people have the same trouble at the mall. Consisting of a small Bluetooth dongle for your car plus the iPhone-4S app, it automatically remembers where your car is parked, displaying its location on a map. The new second-generation version adds cloud sync, parking meter reminders and street sweeping warnings: R. Colin Johnson

FindMyCarSmarter app works with a Bluetooth dongle to automatically remember where you parked your car, showing its location on a map.

Here is what FindMyCarSmarter says about its second generation app:
We’ve introduced a system that uses the Bluetooth Smart radio in the iPhone 4S to automatically mark your car's location whenever you park. Our app runs in the background so there is need to pull out and fidget with your phone each and every time you park. It’s almost magical the way your phone just knows where your car is parked. The only time you need to launch our app is after you've realized that you have lost your car, not before.

We think this is a great usage of the technologies already in the iPhone leveraged to enhance people's lives. Find My Car Smarter helps people every day by saving time and reducing hassle in their already stressful lives.

Since our Kickstarter funding we’ve gone through and revamped our user interface, added features like Dropbox syncing that allows users to view the parked location of a shared car, automatic parking metering & street sweeping alarms.
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