Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 36, 2005

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Issue 36, 2005

This week's headlines:

Researchers claim first nanoscale silicon laser
November 21, 2005

Researchers from Brown University, San Francisco, have created what they believe is the first directly pumped silicon laser, a breakthrough that they say could eventually help to make faster, more powerful computers or fibre optic networks.

The researchers say they have created the silicon laser by changing the atomic structure of silicon. This was accomplished by drilling billions of holes in a small piece of silicon using a nanoscale template, resulting in 'weak but true' laser light.

The team created a template, or 'mask', of anodised aluminium. Around a millimetre square, the mask features billions of tiny holes, all uniformly sized and exactly ordered. Placed over a piece of silicon then bombarded with an ion beam, the mask served as a sort of stencil, punching out precise holes and removing atoms in the process, according to the researchers. The silicon atoms then subtly rearranged themselves near the holes to allow for light emission.

Full story: Information Week / Nature Materials Back to top

Living camera uses bacteria to capture image
November 23, 2005

A dense bed of light-sensitive bacteria has been developed as a unique kind of photographic film by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco. Although it takes 4 hours to take a picture and only works in red light, it also delivers extremely high resolution.

The 'living camera' uses light to switch on genes in a genetically modified bacterium that then cause an image-recording chemical to darken. The bacteria are tiny, allowing the sensor to deliver a resolution of 100 megapixels per square inch, or 10 times sharper than high-end printers.

The researchers used genetic engineering techniques to shuttle genes from photosynthesising blue-green algae into the cell membrane of the E. coli. One gene codes for a protein that reacts to red light. Once activated, that protein acts to shut down the action of a second gene. This switch-off turns an added indicator solution black. As a result, a monochrome image could be permanently 'printed' on a dense bed of the modified E. Coli.

Full story: New Scientist / Nature (vol 438, p 441) Back to top

Tech sought for organised EU sky
November 18, 2005

Europe is to get a new 20bn-euro air traffic management system to cope with its congested skies. The Sesar project will overhaul current technologies used to keep planes at safe separations, and allow pilots to fly their own routes and altitudes. The new automated system would shorten individual flight journeys, reducing fuel use and pollution.

Sesar is the technological part of the single European sky initiative, launched in 2004 to reform the organisation of air traffic control in the EU bloc. It is envisaged that future management of our skies will become increasingly automated, with advanced communication and computing technologies being used to optimise the flow of planes in the air.

Sesar, formerly known as Sesame, is expected to make heavy use of Galileo, Europe's next-generation satellite-navigation network which comes into operation over the next five years. Galileo is being built to deliver guaranteed signals at sub-metre accuracies, a performance that would support a safety critical application such as automated air traffic management. Sesar will be deployed between 2014 and 2020.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

Researchers join forces to develop next generation light source
November 23, 2005

More than 20 of Europe's leading companies and research institutes have joined together in a research project entitled OLLA in order to advance organic light-emitting diode technologies for lighting applications. The research team comprises European universities and research institutes as well as leading industrial players like Osram, Philips and Siemens and aims at the further development of light-emitting diodes toward a light source with a long lifetime and a high energy efficiency.

The next generation light source will be both flat - only half a millimetre thin - and light. It will have an extremely long lifetime, using only little energy in spite of its high brightness. Also, it will allow for various shape and colour combinations and a variety of appearances. Scientists have adopted the OLED principle from nature. The basic principle of luminescence can for instance be observed with fireflies. Analysing this phenomenon, researchers noticed that some organic materials are comparable with semiconductors and, thus, are suitable for the transport of electric charges.

The OLLA project, which is running until the year of 2008, comprises a budget of nearly EUR 20m.

Full story: Physorg / Technische Universitaet Dresden Back to top

Tiny swimmer makes a splash
November 24, 2005

Physicists at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel, have designed a tiny swimming robot that could help to answer fundamental questions in biology and may also have applications in medical nanotechnology. The 'micro-swimmer' also outperforms, in theory, other man-made swimmers and simple biological organisms.

The new swimmer, known as 'pushmepullyou', consists of two spherical elastic bladders that exchange volumes of material with each other during each swimming stroke. The researchers predict that their robot will move more efficiently than bacteria and other biological organisms that move by beating a flagellum. Moreover, the pushmepullyou travels faster than other artificial swimmers, such as three-linked spheres, because it swims a larger distance with every stroke.

The team is now studying nanoscale-sized robots that could swim inside channels in the body - such as inside the spine, heart or lungs - and take images or deliver drugs.

Full story: Physicsweb / New Journal of Physics (7 234) Back to top

Scientists flick single-molecule switch
November 21, 2005

US scientists have developed a method of controlling single-molecule switches that could become central to the manufacture of next-generation nano-computers.

The research team, led by scientists at Penn State University, Rice University, and the University of Oregon, showed that single-molecule switches can be tailored to respond in predictable and stable ways, depending on the direction of the electric field applied to them.

It was possible to demonstrate that, while some switches were engineered to turn on, others were engineered to turn off in response to the same applied electric field. The discovery, has been heralded as 'an essential step' in the emerging field of molecular electronics.

The research is the latest achievement in the team's ongoing studies of a family of stiff, stringy molecules known as oligo phenylene-ethynylenes (OPEs) which the scientists have tailored to have a variety of physical, chemical and electronic characteristics.

Full story: VNUnet UK Back to top

Inside a quantum dot: Tracking electrons at trillionths of a second
November 23, 2005

Researchers at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) have developed a new machine that can reveal how electrons behave inside a single nano-object. The machine will allow researchers to study previously intractable materials.

The researchers replaced the standard electron gun filament on an off-the-shelf electron microscope with a 20 nanometre-thick gold photocathode. The gold is illuminated by an ultraviolet mode-locked laser, generating an electron beam that pulses 80 million times per second. Each pulse contains fewer than 10 electrons. The electrons excite the sample, causing it to emit light. The spectroscopic information is collected and analysed to recreate the surface morphology and to trace the path the electrons follow through the sample.

The researchers tested their new machine on pyramidal quantum dots. These 2-micron-high nano-objects, specially synthesised in a lab, contain several different nanostructures. When the electron beam impacts the pyramid, the electrons diffuse towards the closest nanostructure. From there, the diffusion continues until the point of lowest energy is reached - the quantum dot at the tip of the pyramid.

Full story: Physorg / EPFL / Nature Back to top

Nanotube forest does concertina scrunch
November 24, 2005

A film of upright carbon nanotubes can be compressed like a concertina, say researchers at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. They believe that the material could make ideal padding for tiny objects, or form components for microscopic mechanical devices.

Unlike standard compressible foams, whose low density makes them less robust, the nanotube film is both strong and squeezable. The material can be squished to just 15 per cent of its normal height and rebound perfectly, thousand and thousands of times, without showing any wear or losing springiness. The film is also resistant to chemical attack and high temperatures.

Because carbon nanotubes conduct electricity, the springy material could make an excellent flexible electrical connection. It may also be possible to use a current to make the tubes flex, powering microscopic machinery.

Full story: Nature Back to top

Holographic-memory discs may put DVDs to shame
November 25, 2005

A firm that makes a disc that can hold 60 times more data than a DVD said it is ready to release the product next year. InPhase Technologies, based in Colorado, US, has developed a commercially viable version of a holographic disc which can hold 300 gigabytes of data and can be used to read and write data 10 times faster than a normal DVD.

The discs are 13 centimetres across and a little wider than normal DVDs. They store data in a light-sensitive crystal material using the interference of laser light. A single light beam is split and passed through a semi-transparent material. This acts like a filter, changing different parts of the beam to encode bits of information. The altered beam and the reference beam are then recombined in the light-sensitive material and their pattern of interference provides a record of the encoded information.

InPhase says the technique could theoretically be used to store up to 1.6 terabytes of data on the same size of disc and to read data at 120 megabits per second. This is 340 times the capacity of an ordinary DVD and 20 times the data rate.

Full story: The Inquirer / New Scientist Back to top

Invention: Wi-Fi mosquito killer
November 21, 2005

A US biotechnology company with a specialty in killing mosquitoes is turning to wireless technology and computers to make a killing for itself. American Biophysics (AmBio) is already selling the successful 'Mosquito Magnet', a system to rid backyards of biting insects. The magnet emits a humanlike scent that includes carbon dioxide and moisture to attract bloodsucking insects. When the bugs flutter past, they are sucked into and suffocated by a vacuumlike device.

Now AmBio is upping the ante with a 'smart' mosquito net, or computerised defence system, an electronic self-diagnosing network of magnets all communicating with one another through the 802.11b wireless standard. Centralised servers in the middle of the network will record and analyze data transmitted from the computerised magnets on air quality, humidity, wind direction and pollutants. The data is transmitted to AmBio and its client for remote administration.

If it is raining on a magnet-wired golf course, for example, the system will shut down to save power. If the wind is coming out of the north, the south line magnets will shut down and let the mosquitoes blow by.

Full story: CNET News Back to top

Tinfoil hats make government mind probes worse
November 22, 2005

Aluminium tinfoil hats used by the paranoid to shield their thoughts from shadowy government agents in black helicopters may be making the problem worse rather than better, according to research carried out at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). A team showed that, rather than protecting the user, tinfoil hats actually amplify the signals presumed by some to be used for mind control.

The team tested three basic designs: the 'classic' all over skull cap; the 'fez' conical design; and the 'centurion' which has a foil peak. Measurements were taken from four parts of the brain and revealed that the signals received were increased, and in some cases doubled, by wearing the hats. Similarly, the hats amplified the signals sent from the head, from an implanted microchip or hidden bug.

'It requires no stretch of the imagination to conclude that the current helmet craze is likely to have been propagated by the government, possibly with the involvement of the Federal Communications Commission,' wrote the authors of the paper entitled On the Effectiveness of Aluminium Foil Helmets: An Empirical Study. 'We hope this report will encourage the paranoid community to develop improved helmet designs to avoid falling prey to these shortcomings.'

Full story: VNUnet UK Back to top