Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 29, 2006

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Issue 29, 2006

This week's headlines:

Researchers build tiny on-chip cooling system
August 29, 2006

US computer engineers at the University of Washington have built a cooling device tiny enough to fit on a computer chip. They said that the breakthrough technology could work reliably and efficiently with the smallest microelectronic components.

The device uses an electrical field to accelerate air to speeds previously possible only with the use of traditional cooling fans. Trial runs showed that the prototype significantly cooled an actively heated surface on just 0.6 watts of power.

The prototype cooling chip contains two basic components: an emitter and a collector. The emitter has a tip radius of around 1 micron. The tip creates air ions, electrically charged particles that are propelled in an electric field to the collector surface.

As the ions travel from tip to collector they create an air jet that blows across the chip, taking heat with it. The volume of the airflow can be controlled by varying the voltage between the emitter and collector.

Full story: VNUnet UK Back to top

Spammers manipulate stock markets
August 25, 2006

Spam messages that tout stocks and shares can have real effects on the markets, a study suggests. E-mails typically promote penny shares in the hope of convincing people to buy into a company to raise its price.

People who respond to the 'pump and dump' scam can lose 8 per cent of their investment in two days. Conversely, the spammers who buy low-priced stock before sending the e-mails, typically see a return of between 4.9 per cent and 6 per cent when they sell.

The study by researchers from Purdue University, US, and Oxford University's Internet Institute, UK, say their conclusions prove the hypothesis that spammers 'buy low and spam high'. They say that approximately 730 million spam e-mails are sent every week, 15 per cent of which tout stocks. Other estimates of spam volumes are far higher.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

Greenpeace criticises Apple over use of toxic chemicals
August 29, 2006

The environmental track records of Apple Computer and Lenovo Group have been singled out for criticism by environmental group Greenpeace in a report on toxic chemicals used by the technology industry. The Guide to Greener Electronics, published late last week, is designed to help consumers and businesses gauge how green tech companies are. Rather than focusing on recycling, customers wanting to buy green should focus on the toxic chemicals used by tech suppliers, Greenpeace claims.

Nokia and Dell came out top in the ranking, with the Finnish handset manufacturer leading the way in 2005 by eliminating use of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) in its products. Dell also has set ambitious targets for cutting its use of PVC and brominated flame retardants (BFRs), according to Greenpeace.

Lenovo and Apple fared less well, with the Chinese PC manufacturer ranked last. Greenpeace claimed that Lenovo earned some points for its chemicals management and voluntary take-back programs but needs to do better on all criteria. Greenpeace also said that Apple could do more to match its environmental record with its hip and trendy image.

Full story: ZDNet UK Back to top

Europe secures extra Galileo cash
August 31, 2006

An amount of EUR 200m needed to cover extra costs on Europe's Galileo sat-nav system has materialised. All participating governments provided the money in time for the 24 August European Space Agency deadline.

Higher than expected costs to develop the system's technology meant Galileo's EUR 1.1bn in-orbit validation (IOV) phase went EUR 400m over budget.

The Galileo positioning system will eventually comprise 30 satellites. The constellation will give Europe its own version of the US Global Positioning System (GPS). Galileo's IOV phase is intended to deliver two test satellites - Giove-A and Giove-B - plus the first four operational spacecraft and ground equipment. Giove-A was launched in December 2005. Giove-B will be launched in December 2006.

The European Commission, which is developing Galileo with ESA, had already pledged EUR 200m towards the funding gap and now ESA member states have agreed to provide the remaining EUR 200m.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

Researchers claim first quantum cryptographic network
August 30, 2006

US scientists from the Northwestern University and BBN Technologies of Cambridge, Massachusetts have developed the world's first truly quantum cryptographic data network. By integrating quantum noise-protected data encryption (QDE) with quantum key distribution (QKD), the researchers have developed a complete data communication system.

The QDE method, called AlphaEta, makes use of the inherent and irreducible quantum noise in laser light to enhance the security of the system and make eavesdropping much more difficult. Unlike most other physical encryption methods, AlphaEta maintains performance on a par with traditional optical communications links and is compatible with standard fibre optic networks.

QKD exploits the unique properties of quantum mechanics to securely distribute electronic keys between two parties. Unlike traditional key distribution, the security of QKD can in theory provide quantitatively secure keys regardless of advances in technology. In the present advance, the QKD and the QDE technologies have been interfaced together, forming a truly quantum cryptographic data network.

Full story: VNUnet UK Back to top

MIT researchers envision giant floating wind turbines
August 29, 2006

Four hundred huge offshore wind turbines could provide onshore customers with enough electricity to power several hundred thousand homes, and nobody standing onshore can see them. The trick? The wind turbines are floating on platforms a hundred miles out to sea, where the winds are strong and steady.

Today's offshore wind turbines usually stand on towers driven deep into the ocean floor. But that arrangement works only in water depths of about 15 metres or less. Proposed installations are therefore typically close enough to shore to arouse strong public opposition.

Researchers at MIT teamed up with wind-turbine experts from the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to integrate a wind turbine with a floater. Their design calls for a tension leg platform (TLP), a system in which long steel cables, or 'tethers', connect the corners of the platform to a concrete-block or other mooring system on the ocean floor. The platform and turbine are thus supported not by an expensive tower but by buoyancy. According to their analyses, the floater-mounted turbines could work in water depths ranging from 30 to 200 metres.

Full story: MIT Back to top

Fast-tracking detection of a tropical killer
August 25, 2006

Researchers at the University of California have developed a new way to rapidly assess the risk of developing a severe disease called leptospirosis from contact with water. The approach, which has been tested in Peru, can gauge whether water contains the bacteria that cause the disease and, if so, how many are present.

Leptospirosis causes severe jaundice, kidney failure and bleeding in the lungs. It is found worldwide but particularly in the tropics and can kill up to 25 per cent of people infected. Bacteria called Leptospira cause the disease - also known as Weill's disease. It is spread through the urine of infected animals such as livestock and rodents. The disease varies in severity depending on which of various types of Leptospira are present. Standard laboratory methods are time-consuming, laborious and usually fail to distinguish the disease-causing strains.

The researchers used a technique called polymerase chain reaction to rapidly amplify tiny pieces of bacterial DNA. This allowed them to assess which types of Leptospira were present. The technique could also be used to identify the risk of other waterborne diseases, such as those caused by the bacteria Shigella, Salmonella, and Escherichia coli.

Full story: SciDev / PLoS Medicine Back to top

New investigation into gadget allergy
August 26, 2006

Researchers at the University of Essex, UK, are trying to unravel the truth behind a 21st century 'disease' produced by exposure to electrical equipment. The research, due to be completed at the end of the year, is examining the effects of electromagnetic fields on 264 people, half of whom are sensitive to mobile phone technology.

Electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS) sufferers - who include Gro Harlem, the former Norwegian prime minister and secretary-general of the World Health Organisation - experience headaches, nausea, dizziness and burning sensations when exposed to mobile phones, laptops and other equipment. Some people have to leave work or move house and cannot go out shopping in the normal environment.

Dr David Dowson, an expert on electromagnetism sensitivity, said that exposure to electromagnetic emissions had affected radar operators and electrical supply workers. 'But the widespread use of new electrical devices in the home and workplace, at the same time that completely original technologies based on microwaves have been introduced, has spread this environmental trigger,' he said.

Full story: Daily Telegraph Back to top

Electrolysis may one day provide 'green iron'
August 30, 2006

Producing iron by electrolysis rather than conventional smelting could prevent the emission of a billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. So concludes Donald Sadoway, a materials scientist at MIT, who has developed a way producing iron by electrolysing a molten iron oxide in the lab. If the process can be scaled up, it could eliminate the need for conventional smelting, which releases almost a tonne of CO2 for every tonne of steel produced.

The iron ore is dissolved in a solvent of silicon dioxide and calcium oxide at 1600°C and an electric current passed through it. Negatively-charged oxygen ions migrate to the positively charged anode, and the oxygen bubbles off. Positively-charged iron ions migrate to the negatively-charged cathode where they are reduced to elemental iron which collects in a pool at the bottom of the cell and is siphoned off.

A similar process is routinely used to produce aluminium, whose oxide is so stable that it cannot be practically reduced by conventional carbon reduction in a blast furnace, the reactor in which iron is produced. The steel industry has never had any reason to switch to electrolysis, since iron oxide is easily reduced by carbon to produce molten iron.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Tool generates fake searches for privacy
August 30, 2006

A new tool seeks to make your searches more private by hiding them in plain sight. TrackMeNot periodically sends fake, innocuous queries to search engines, making it harder for someone to glean your actual search habits by reviewing the companies' logs that contain your queries.

The tool comes as AOL revealed it had released the search histories of more than 650,000 subscribers. Although user names were not included, the company admitted that the search terms themselves could contain sensitive information. Two AOL employees were fired and a third resigned over the disclosure.

The tool, developed by two researchers at New York University, sends random searches to the four largest search engines - Google, Yahoo, MSN and AOL. A fake search is made every 12 seconds under default configurations; the tool can generate millions of unique queries from its list, and users can add their own.

Full story: MSNBC / AP Back to top

Invention: Cellphone smoke-detector
August 29, 2006

Your cellphone may soon serve as a smoke detector if Nokia gets its way. Conventional smoke alarms detect smoke particles by the way they scatter light. But they work using a small chamber that allows smoke in while keeping out ambient light. This makes the detector too big for a small phone.

Nokia gets around this by putting a light emitter and detector in the side of the phone. Any smoke particles in the air then scatter light from the emitter into the detector which then triggers an alarm or dials a pre-programmed number. It gets around the problem of ambient light triggering the detector by using an infrared beam or by pulsing the beam in a way that ambient light cannot reproduce.

The device can also work as a proximity sensor by detecting objects that come within a predetermined distance of the phone, Nokia claims. This might be useful as an intruder alarm, sounding if someone comes through a hotel door while the owner is sleeping, for example.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top