Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 19, 2006

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Issue 19, 2006

This week's headlines:

Europe: No patents for software
May 24, 2006

Software patent campaigners have reacted with surprise last week to an apparent change in the European Commission's stance on those patents. The Commission stated that computer programs will be excluded from patentability in the upcoming Community Patent legislation and that the European Patent Office (EPO) will be bound by this law.

This statement appears to contradict one made by the EC last year, when it said that the EPO would continue to grant software patents that make a technical contribution, despite the European Parliament's decision to reject the software patent directive. That directive would have widened the extent to which software could be patented. In the past, campaigners have expressed concerns that the Community Patent legislation would be used by the Commission to legalise software patents.

The EC statement last week was made in response to a question posed by a Polish member of the European Parliament, Adam Gierek, who asked whether the Community Patent legislation would ratify the EPO's current practice of granting software patents.

Full story: CNET News / ZDNet UK Back to top

Belgium plans first renewable energy Antarctic base
May 31, 2006

Belgium will build the first polar station powered solely by renewable sources of energy at a site in the Antarctic that will study climate change. The base will be constructed from November 2007 to March 2008 at a cost of EUR 6.4 million, according to project organiser The International Polar Foundation (IPF).

The station, the Antarctic summer home to 20 people, including 12 to 16 scientists, will focus on studying climate change and will mark Belgium's return to the continent after an absence of over 30 years. The station will open during International Polar Year, which extends over two years from March 2007 to March 2009, when scientific effort on the continent will accelerate, the IPF said.

Britain and Germany also have plans to rebuild their stations then, while France and Italy will convert a temporary base into a permanent one.

Full story: Reuters Back to top

The tipping point between chaos and order revealed
June 01, 2006

Scientists at the University of Sydney have discovered the exact moment when a jumbled swarm of creatures becomes an organised, unified and sometimes terrifying mass. Examining a group of desert locusts, they found that at low densities, the insects were unorganised and went their separate ways. But when the group's density increased, the bugs fell into an orderly line and began to follow the same direction.

Theoretical models had previously predicted that animals go through a phase transition that goes from disorder to order when trying to align with their neighbours. The researchers placed locusts in an arena and filming them as they joined each other to form a group. When there were a few of them together, they did not coalesce. As the group grew to 10 to 25 members, the locusts got closer to each other, but still did not move in unison. It was only when the researchers placed around 30 locusts in the arena that the insects fell into a line and started moving in the same direction.

The finding could provide a new weapon in the campaign to control the pests which devastate vegetation in Africa and Asia, with dire impacts on agriculture, health and economies. It could help identify the best time to apply insecticide in order to have the greatest impact.

Full story: MSNBC / LiveScience / Science Back to top

Energy snack: Chocolate-munching bugs provide fuel of the future
May 31, 2006

British scientists at the University of Birmingham have discovered that chocoholic germs can provide hydrogen, the clean-burning energy of the future.

The researchers fed Escherichia coli bacteria a diluted mix of waste caramel and nougat. The germs tucked into the sugar and in the process produced hydrogen, using their own enzyme, called hydrogenase. The hydrogen was used to power a fuel cell, generating enough electricity to drive a small fan.

The experiment has applications far beyond the lab. Waste chocolate, instead of being thrown away by confectionary companies, could be turned into hydrogen and used to help power their factories or sold to energy companies.

The British team got the same bacteria to tuck into catalytic converters from old cars. The bacteria cleverly recovered the precious metal palladium after they were immersed in a vat with hydrogen and liquid waste from spent converters.

Full story: AFP / Biochemical Society Transactions Back to top

Mini fridge exploits brownian motion
May 30, 2006

Theoretical physicists at Hasselt University in Belgium and the University of Alabama at Birmingham propose an idea for the smallest refrigerator in the world. Their device relies on the random jittering of molecules known as brownian motion.

The proposed miniature refrigerator uses a tiny paddle wheel to speed up the molecules in one pool, thereby sucking the energy out of a neighbouring one. In the model, the two pools start out at the same temperature. Then a motor is used to drive the bottom paddle wheel around counter-clockwise. One principle of thermodynamics says that the system will respond by trying to induce a counteractive force in a clockwise direction. As just described, this can happen if the bottom pool gets much hotter than the top one.

The intriguing thing is that the researchers calculate, using standard equations of thermodynamics, that this can not only heat up the bottom pool, but actually cool the top one down. It may be some time before your nano beers reach optimum temperature, however. Making a device to drive a mini wheel around would be particularly tricky.

Full story: Nature Back to top

Invisibility cloaks are in sight
May 25, 2006

Two prescriptions for an invisibility cloak have been unveiled by physicists in the UK and the US. The teams have independently described similar ways to create an invisible 'hole' in space, inside which objects can be hidden. They say it is possible to guide light around the hole, rather like water flowing around a rock in a river, so that the object inside it cannot be seen.

Light rays are bent when they pass between materials with different refractive indices, such as air and water. But bending light so that it passes round a region of space and emerges travelling along the same line as it was initially is a difficult trick, requiring an invisibility cloak made from materials with a 'tunable' refractive index.

Such substances have been made, in the form of so-called metamaterials. These are built from rings or coils of metal wire, etched into printed circuit boards and glued together, which act as antennae that interact with the electromagnetic field of incoming light and modify the paths the light takes. The teams have shown how in theory metamaterials with 'sculpted' optical properties could be deployed to guide light rays around an object.

Full story: Nature / Science Back to top

Hydrogen fuel balls
May 22, 2006

Hydrogen is often promoted as an ideal clean fuel for cars. But it is highly explosive and dangerous to transport and store. The US government's Department of Energy has been looking for ways to make it as safe and easy to pump as gasoline. The solution could be to store it in tiny glass balls, according to a new patent application.

The proposed glass microspheres would each be a few microns wide with a hollow centre containing specks of palladium. The walls of each sphere would also have pores just a few ten-billionths of a metre in diameter. Placing the microspheres in a tank filled with hydrogen gas under pressure should cause the gas to seep through the pores to be absorbed by the palladium. The spheres could then be used to safely store and transport the hydrogen, which could be sucked back out using heat or vacuum pressure.

The glass spheres should be so small and slippery that they ought to flow through pipes like a liquid. In addition, the hydrogen should be so tightly locked inside the spheres that there would be no risk of explosion or fire if a leak occurs.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Eye-like surveillance
May 30, 2006

Mimicking the human eye's rapid intermittent movement - or saccade motion - can make surveillance systems much more effective, according to a new patent filed for the US government by Hui Cheng at the Sarnoff Vision Unit, New Jersey.

To enhance the area viewed by the cameras, Cheng has mimicked a natural trick. The human eye's fovea (where vision is most acute) sees with maximum detail only in a 4° zone but extends useably detailed vision to about 80° by continually flitting its view and focusing on any motion detected. This means areas of interest are covered without needing detailed vision over a large area.

The new surveillance system replicates this with two cameras - a wide-angle, low-definition camera which seeks signs of movement across wide area, and a high-definition narrow-angle camera which darts toward the motion and takes a detailed view. The two views are merged into one for the security officer to view. Detail is continually added where it is most needed.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Mona Lisa 'speaks' thanks to Japanese scientist
May 31, 2006

The Mona Lisa's smile may always remain a mystery, but it is now possible to hear what her voice would have sounded like, thanks to a Japanese acoustics expert.

Dr Matsumi Suzuki, who generally uses his skills to help with criminal investigations, measured the face and hands of Leonardo da Vinci's famous 16th century portrait to estimate her height at 168 cm and create a model of her skull. With that information it is possible to create a voice very similar to that of the person concerned, Suzuki said.

The chart of any individual's voice, known as a voice print, is unique to that person and Suzuki says he believes he has achieved 90 per cent accuracy in recreating the quality of the enigmatic woman's speaking tone. The scientists brought in an Italian woman to add the necessary intonation to the voice, which can be heard at:

Full story: Reuters Back to top