Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 25, 2006

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Issue 25, 2006

This week's headlines:

US scientists crack secret codes for EU satellite system
July 11, 2006

Secret codes used by the forthcoming European satellite navigation system, Galileo, have been cracked by American scientists, casting doubt on European Union promises that the EUR 3.4 billion project will pay for itself through commercial fees.

Prof Mark Psiaki of Cornell University said that by using a dish on a laboratory roof his team had worked out how to crack codes on data being beamed down by a prototype satellite orbiting Earth. This has potentially devastating consequences for the EU which wants to charge high-tech firms 'licence fees' to access that same data, before they can make and sell compatible navigation devices to the public.

Cornell's success in deducing the codes just by watching the skies means that future users of Galileo will not have to ask the EU for the codes and may be able to refuse to pay the EU for them. Galileo was set up as a European rival to the US military-controlled GPS system, whose signals are free for use. Galileo's founders boasted that it would be more accurate than GPS and so people would want to pay to use it.

Full story: Daily Telegraph Back to top

Should we flood the air with sulphur?
July 12, 2006

A soon-to-be-published paper by a Nobel laureate will seriously consider injecting sulphur into the stratosphere to combat climate change. His article is already creating a buzz, some of which is highly sceptical.

Paul Crutzen, co-winner of the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for ozone research, says he has been driven to explore the idea out of 'desperation', given the lack of international action to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. In his paper Crutzen argues that it might be possible to cool Earth by injecting sulphate particles into the layer of atmosphere that starts about 10 kilometres above the ground. This would artificially enhance Earth's reflectivity to bounce a larger portion of solar radiation back into space.

In essence, Crutzen suggests we mimic the after-effects of a volcanic eruption. He admits that negative side effects are possible, such as damage to the protective ozone layer and increased acid rain. The Nobel laureate agrees that cutting emissions is the wisest course of action.

Full story: Nature / Climatic Change Back to top

Food-crop biofuels given thumbs down
July 11, 2006

Producing biofuels such as ethanol from food crops is not worth the effort. That is the conclusion of a new and painstaking study published this week. Researchers should instead concentrate either on producing ethanol from indigestible plant material such as cellulose, or on synthetic hydrocarbon fuels.

The comprehensive study finds that if all the maize produced in the US last year were removed from food supplies and turned into ethanol, just 12 per cent of US petrol demand would be offset. Turning soybeans into diesel would account for only 9 per cent of US diesel demand. Moreover, ethanol comes at the price of soil erosion and nutrient runoff. Producing ethanol from cellulose is a much more environmentally preferable option, according to the researchers.

Cellulose, an inedible plant fibre, could be obtained from switchgrass, a prairie grass that could be grown on abandoned agricultural land. This would avoid destroying natural habitats and would require small pesticide input. The researchers also recommend investigating synthetically manufactured fuels.

Full story: Nature / Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Back to top

GPS satellites could help predict the weather
July 10, 2006

Weather forecasts should be improved by a technique to track the variable depth of the atmosphere's lowest layer, using the distortion to signals sent between satellites, according to researchers at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) in Colorado, US.

The atmospheric boundary layer (ABL) is one of the most important layers for weather forecasters. Its depth is determined by the character and intensity of the thermodynamic processes going on inside it - such as the convection that causes cumulus clouds to form - and variations in the energy radiated into the atmosphere by the Earth. Researchers have now developed a new way to monitor the ABL globally. It is an improvement on the patchy information weather balloons currently provide forecasters, they claim. Balloons only cover well-populated areas in detail, leaving particularly big gaps over the oceans.

The new method exploits the fact that signals sent from GPS satellites to satellites in lower orbits are bent, or refracted, by the atmosphere. GPS satellites always transmit standard signals. This means that by examining the signal that reaches a lower satellite, it is possible to work out how it was bent by the atmosphere.

Full story: New Scientist / Geophysical Research Letters Back to top

Paralysed man moves computer cursor through thought
July 12, 2006

A paralysed man using a new brain sensor has been able to move a computer cursor, open e-mail and control a robotic device simply by thinking about doing it, a team of scientists at Massachusetts General Hospital said on Wednesday. They believe the BrainGate sensor, which involves implanting electrodes in the brain, could offer new hope to people paralysed by injuries or illnesses.

The scientists implanted a tiny silicon chip with 100 electrodes into an area of the brain responsible for movement. The activity of the cells was recorded and sent to a computer which translated the commands and enabled the patient to move and control the external device.

In a separate study, researchers from Stanford University Schools of Medicine and Engineering described a faster way to process signals from the brain to control a computer or prosthetic device. From a performance perspective, this type of prosthetic system is clinically viable, according to the researchers.

Full story: Reuters Back to top

Freescale unveils magnetic memory chip
July 10, 2006

Freescale Semiconductor this week announced the commercial availability of a chip that combines traditional memory's endurance with a hard drive's ability to keep data while powered down.

The chips, called magnetoresistive random-access memory (MRAM), maintain information by relying on magnetic properties rather than an electrical charge. Unlike flash memory, which also can keep data without power, MRAM is fast to read and write bits, and does not degrade over time. Freescale said Monday it has been producing the 4-megabit MRAM chips for two months to build inventory.

Sometimes referred to as 'universal' memory, MRAM could displace a number of chips found in every electronic device, from PCs, cell phones, music players and cameras to the computing components of kitchen appliances, cars and airplanes. Ultimately, the technology could displace the RAM found in PCs, enabling systems that boot up immediately because data do not have to be reloaded into the memory chips.

Full story: MSNBM / AP Back to top

MIT scientists create fibre webs that see
July 06, 2006

In a radical departure from conventional lens-based optics, MIT scientists have developed a sophisticated optical system made of mesh-like webs of light-detecting fibres. The fibre constructs are currently capable of measuring the direction, intensity and phase of light without the lenses, filters or detector arrays that are the classic elements of optical systems such as eyes or cameras.

Ultimately the researchers expect the new system will have many potential applications ranging from improved space telescopes to clothing that provides situational awareness to soldiers or even the visually impaired. The transparent fibre-webs could even enable huge computer screens to be activated with beams of light instead of the touch of a finger.

The human eye, digital and film cameras, and even the Hubble space telescope rely on lenses and detector surfaces to create images. But while these systems deliver excellent images, they are constrained by their size, weight, fragility and limited field of view. In contrast, the fibre webs are flexible and lightweight. Moreover, a fibre web in the shape of a sphere can sense the entire volume of space around it.

Full story: MIT / Nature Materials Back to top

Image search at the speed of light
July 12, 2006

A team of scientists at Columbia University have developed a new technology that promises to turn the human brain into a super-fast image-identifying machine. The 'cortically coupled computer vision system' or C3 Vision - is intended to combine the brain's sight with a computer's processing power.

The theory behind the device is that the brain can recognise an image much faster than it can identify it. A person hooked up to the new device, however, can speed through thousands of images, marking the important ones for later study. Technically, this is a series of electroencephalograms, or EEGs, that mark items the brain wants to remember. The device can catalogue these and present them to the brain, making the process much less time-consuming.

The technology would be especially useful to detectives and law enforcement officials, who routinely examine thousands of images a year in the pursuit of catching criminals.

Full story: / Wired News Back to top

Inflatable spacecraft beams back images
July 13, 2006

An unmanned, inflatable spacecraft launched by a US real estate mogul on Thursday beamed back the first images since it slipped into orbit and expanded itself. Seven hours after entering orbit the watermelon-shaped craft, which measured 4.6 metres long and 1.3 metres wide at launch, successfully inflated to twice that width.

Genesis I sent back several photos taken by its dozen cameras showing sections of the craft, according to its builder Bigelow Aerospace. The experimental spacecraft rocketed into space Wednesday from Russia on a mission to test technology that could be used to build an inflatable commercial space station. Genesis I was healthy with functional onboard computers, solar panels, battery power and pressure systems, said company founder Robert Bigelow.

Bigelow, owner of the Budget Suites of America hotel chain, has lofty dreams of building an expandable orbital outpost by 2015 to be made up of several Genesis-like satellites tied together. He has promised to invest $500 million to build a space habitat that could be used as a space hotel, science lab or sports arena.

Full story: Yahoo! / AP Back to top

Power-saving screen
July 10, 2006

Intel has a new idea for saving battery power in portable computers and cellphones. Instead of blanking the whole screen if the computer has been idle for a few minutes, a small part of the screen is left active - like a window. So the device can still display incoming messages or a website, while consuming far less power.

Intel's screen has two backlights, one of which illuminates the whole display area, and another in a corner to provide light for an area one-tenth the overall screen size. When the owner is working hard and using several programs at once, the main backlight is on, making the whole screen usable. But when only one program has been running for a few minutes, such as email or music play, this light switches off, the small corner backlight comes on, and the running program is displayed in the corner window.

The mini-screen can still display text messages, tune titles or news flashes, but consumes just one-tenth of the power of the whole screen. When the owner wants to start using more programs, the screen lights switch back to full-size display mode.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

France to offer low-cost PCs to families
July 11, 2006

Low-income French families will be equipped with a computer and an internet connection for 1 euro a day under a new government proposal. Families who sign up will receive a computer, a high-speed connection, software and a class on how to use the equipment. The program is expected to start early next year.

About half of French homes have a home computer - a figure that Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin wants to boost to 68 per cent in three years. Families in the program will contribute financially for three years, the government said. The program will have both state and private funding, with the state guaranteeing bank loans for families, while internet providers give sharp discounts for access.

The project is in line with the government's 'equal opportunity' plan for children from disadvantaged families. Boosting their prospects has been a main concern since riots swept through France late last year in troubled neighbourhoods where many immigrants live with their French-born children.

Full story: MSNBC / AP Back to top

Boffins chill out with solar-powered beer bottles
July 12, 2006

Beer bottles that use solar power to keep their precious contents cool in the height of summer could be a welcome fringe benefit of thin-film technology currently under development. The material being developed by researchers at the US Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute sticks solar cells and heat pumps onto surfaces, and could ultimately turn walls, windows and even beer bottles into climate control systems.

The researchers have recently unveiled their prototype Active Building Envelope (ABE) system. Comprised of solar panels, solid-state thermoelectric heat pumps and a storage device to provide energy on rainy days, the system accomplishes the jobs of cooling and heating, yet operates silently and with no moving parts.

The researchers hope that a thin-film version of the ABE system will see applications in a range of industries, from advanced thermal control systems in future space missions, to the automotive sector where it could be applied to windshields and sun roofs to heat or cool a car's interior.

Full story: VNUnet UK Back to top