Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 28, 2016

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Issue 28, 2016

This week's headlines:

Scientists develop the world's smallest transistor
October 07, 2016

Scientists from the University of California in Berkeley have succeeded in creating the world's smallest transistor, producing a switch with a working 1-nanometre gate.

Unlike regular transistors, the new prototype isn't made out of silicon – and the smaller size means scientists can still improve performance in integrated circuits by populating them with greater amounts of tiny components. It also could help keep Moore's Law alive too, which predicts that the amount of transistors in an integrated circuit will double approximately every two years, enabling more complex and powerful computer processors.

The team has gotten past the 5-nanometre threshold that was previously considered to be the peak of transistor miniaturisation by using carbon nanotubes with a material called molybdenum disulphide (MoS2), which is sometimes used as an engine lubricant.

In conventional transistors silicon is an ideal material because electrons flowing through the circuitry encounter low amounts of resistance. With MoS2 they encounter greater resistance, but that slow-down effect is actually beneficial when the transistors become extremely small because it helps to control electron behaviour.

One of the reasons 5-nanometre transistors were previously considered to be the theoretical limit is because once you go smaller than that with silicon, a phenomenon called quantum tunnelling occurs, where electrons start leaping from one transistor to another, making signals go haywire. But with MoS2 in place of silicon, and effectively putting the brakes on electrons, the signals can once more be controlled.

Full story: Science Alert / Science Back to top

First farm to grow veg in a desert using only sun and seawater
October 06, 2016

Sunshine and seawater. That’s all a new, futuristic-looking greenhouse needs to produce 17,000 tonnes of tomatoes per year in the South Australian desert. It’s the first agricultural system of its kind in the world and uses no soil, pesticides, fossil fuels or groundwater. As the demand for fresh water and energy continues to rise, this might be the face of farming in the future.

An international team of scientists have spent the last six years fine-tuning the design – first with a pilot greenhouse built in 2010; then with a commercial-scale facility that began construction in 2014 and was officially launched this week.

Seawater is piped 2 kilometres from the Spencer Gulf to Sundrop Farm – the 20-hectare site in the arid Port Augusta region. A solar-powered desalination plant removes the salt, creating enough fresh water to irrigate 180,000 tomato plants inside the greenhouse.

Scorching summer temperatures and dry conditions make the region unsuitable for conventional farming, but the greenhouse is lined with seawater-soaked cardboard to keep the plants cool enough to stay healthy. In winter, solar heating keeps the greenhouse warm. There is no need for pesticides as seawater cleans and sterilises the air, and plants grow in coconut husks instead of soil.

The farm’s solar power is generated by 23,000 mirrors that reflect sunlight towards a 115-metre high receiver tower. On a sunny day, up to 39 megawatts of energy can be produced – enough to power the desalination plant and supply the greenhouse’s electricity needs.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

AI helps identify crop disease with a simple smartphone
October 06, 2016

A team of researchers at Penn State and the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland has turned the keen eye of artificial intelligence toward agriculture, using deep learning algorithms to help detect crop disease before it spreads.

Most crops in developed regions are farmed through large-scale operations, where sufficient finances and manpower help tackle disease early on. In developing regions, up to 80% of agricultural production is conducted by smallholder farmers. These small-scale operations are more prone to the devastating effects of crop disease, which can wipe out entire crops and lead to localised or widespread famine. The issue is made worse by the fact that as many as 50% of the world's hungry population lives in smallholder farm households, with too few resources to address crop disease quickly.

Machine vision has excelled in training cars to drive autonomously, diagnosing cancer, and in pinpointing friends in photos, and this new application is ripe for evaluation. The team developed a programme that’s fast, efficient, and compact enough to pack into a smartphone. They trained the algorithm by feeding it huge datasets - over 50,000 images - gathered as a part of PlantVillage, an open access online archive of plant photos including images of plant disease. With this data, the researchers trained the algorithm to identify 26 different disease in 14 different plant species.

After the training phase, the programme performed with 99.35% accuracy, giving any smartphone user the ability to identify diseases with the eye of a well-trained expert.

Full story: Yahoo News / Frontiers in Plant Science Back to top

Gender bias found in recommendation letters
October 06, 2016

Female postdoctoral fellowship applicants are half as likely as their male counterparts to receive glowing recommendation letters, according to a study by researchers at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO). The researchers also found that both male and female scientists tend to write stronger recommendation letters for men than for women. The findings add more evidence of implicit, or unconscious, bias that women are perceived as weaker in the sciences than men.

While previous studies have shown that those who evaluate applications for postdoctoral fellowships or other scientific positions tend to have implicit bias against women, the new study focuses on the other side of that application – the person writing a recommendation letter. The new analysis focused on geoscience research positions – and specifically postdoctoral-fellowship applications for positions at the LDEO. The team analysed 1224 recommendation letters that were written between 2007 and 2012 by 1101 researchers from 54 countries.

The researchers looked at the tone of each overall letter and classified it as either 'excellent', 'good' or 'doubtful'. Terms like 'outstanding', 'genius" and 'groundbreaking research' were classified as excellent letters, for example. Out of the 1224 letters, 862 were written for male applicants and 362 for female applicants. The researchers found that for male applicants, 24% were rated as excellent, 73% good and 3% doubtful. For letters for female applicants, 15% were excellent, 83% good and 2% doubtful.

The researchers acknowledge that they were unable to statistically rule out the possibility that male applicants may have been better qualified than females. But the results fit with the literature, they say.

Full story: Physics World / Nature Geoscience Back to top

Print stuff on the go with just your phone and a pen
October 05, 2016

You know the feeling: you look around and the one thing you urgently need seems to have vanished. Maybe it's a key, or an earring back, or a specific spanner. Whatever it is, a new project aims to help. With a mobile app and a pocket-sized 3D printer, this personal fabrication kit lets you quickly print what you need on the go.

For several years, 3D printing has been heralded as the next big thing in manufacturing. But Thijs Roumen, a graduate student at the Hasso Plattner Institute in Potsdam, Germany, wondered why it has yet to catch on for individuals. He likens his vision for 3D printing to the rise of personal computing, where computers evolved from enormous machines into easy-to-use handheld devices.

First, Roumen and his colleagues crowdsourced a list of objects people wanted to be able to make when they were out and about, such as a karabiner to fix a broken strap or earplugs if someone were snoring beside them on the bus. Then the team built prototype mobile printers that could make these objects.

The most successful was a modified extruder pen, a kind of handheld printer that spits out a stream of plastic. An app lets you look up the object you want to make, then shows the pattern you need to trace on top of your phone screen to create it. In tests, the team printed a button for a shirt as well as a hex key to fit a loose bolt on a bike accessory.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top