Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 31, 2006

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Issue 31, 2006

This week's headlines:

EU widens Intel probe
September 11, 2006

The European Commission has widened an antitrust review of Intel to see if it convinced an electronics retailer to exclude rival Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), a Commission spokesman said on Monday.

The investigation of the relationship between chip maker Intel and German company Metro AG's Media Markt had until now been conducted by that country's competition agency, the Bundeskartellamt, following a complaint by AMD.

The Commission was already looking at whether Intel pressured computer makers in order to prevent AMD from gaining market share. But electronics chain Media Markt has stores in many European countries and the Commission has received complaints about the retailer's conduct in several of those states, sources familiar with the situation said.

The Bundeskartellamt had been investigating assertions Media Markt agreed with Intel to exclude equipment - especially PCs - containing semiconductors made by AMD. The Commission has been investigating whether Intel was using illegal anti-competitive practices to stay dominant.

Full story: Information Week / Reuters Back to top

Solar alchemy turns CO2 back into fuels
September 15, 2006

It is the biggest contributor to climate change. Now chemists are hoping to convert CO2 into a useful fuel. If they succeed, it will be possible to recycle the greenhouse gas produced by burning fossil fuels.

Researchers at the University of Messina in Italy have developed an electro-catalytic technique to turn CO2 back into useful hydrocarbons that can be made into petrol and diesel. They chemically reduced CO2 to produce eight and nine-carbon hydrocarbons using a catalyst of particles of platinum and palladium confined in carbon nanotubes.

The researchers use sunlight plus a thin film of titanium dioxide to act as a photocatalyst to split water into oxygen gas plus protons and electrons. These are then carried off separately before being combined with CO2 plus the nano-catalyst to produce the hydrocarbons.

Although the nano-catalysts produced two or three times more hydrocarbons than a commercially available catalyst, the process converted only about 1 per cent of the CO2 at room temperature. The researchers think it will be possible to improve on that by using higher temperatures and a larger surface area of catalyst.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

New type of hydrogen fuel cell powers up
September 13, 2006

Within a few years, laptops and other energy-guzzling portable devices could run on long-lasting, easily recharged fuel cells based on a safe and practical new way of storing and releasing hydrogen.

Researchers at Arizona State University set out to develop a fuel cell that would generate more electricity for its weight and would also work at room temperature. They used the alkaline compound borohydride. A 30% solution of borohydride in water contains one-third more hydrogen than the same volume of liquid hydrogen.

The borohydride solution releases its hydrogen as it flows over a catalyst. The hydrogen passes through a membrane and combines with oxygen in the fuel cell, generating electricity and waste water. Theoretically, this could achieve an energy density up to about 2200 watt-hours per litre, compared to 200 watt-hours per litre for a lithium polymer battery. To prevent the cells becoming clogged with insoluble boron oxide, the team used ethylene glycol, otherwise known as antifreeze. The ethylene glycol had no effect on hydrogen generation.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Researchers craft bacteria-powered micro-motor
September 01, 2006

Researchers at Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology have crafted a micro-motor powered by the movement of bacteria.

The device is etched out of silicon and measures 20-microns. The micro-motor is shaped like flower with six petals and has 'feet' underneath which drop into a groove, which houses the bacteria. A special protein causes the bacteria to move in one direction, pushing against the feet and thereby spinning the motor at a speed of about two revolutions per minute.

The motor is believed to be the first micromechanical device to combine inorganic materials with living bacteria. The researchers used a genetically modified version of one of the fastest known micro-organisms, the Mycoplasma mobile. It achieves speeds of up to seven tenths of an inch per hour. In the long term, the team would like to make microrobots driven by biological motors.

Full story: VNUnet UK / Nanotechweb / PNAS Back to top

Why men at war will pull together
September 12, 2006

Having a common enemy brings out the best in men, a new study has shown. The findings may help explain the evolutionary roots of men's interest and behaviour in war.

Psychologists at the University of Kent created an economics game. Participants were each initially paid three pounds and divided into groups of six. They could then choose whether to keep the money, or invest it in a group fund. They were told that the group fund would later be doubled and divided equally amongst all group members. The strategy that would make the most money in many situations would involve holding onto your own money, and hoping that others invested in the fund. The researchers therefore used the amount of money that an individual gave to the fund as a measure of altruism to other people.

When people thought that their group was competing against outsiders from other universities, the group dynamic became different to when everyone was competing for themselves. The men in each group became less self-orientated, and were more altruistic than before, approximately doubling their donations. For the women, there was no difference in their behaviour.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

Advertising screen tailors ads to its audience
September 12, 2006

A smart advertising display monitors Bluetooth gadgets in its vicinity, ensuring audiences see only the most appropriate ads, with minimal repeats.

A prototype system called BluScreen has been installed in a UK university. The 58-centimetre-wide screen displays a mix of alerts about upcoming seminars, news items from the university's website and video streams of departmental lectures. As each passing device has a unique Bluetooth signal, this enables the screen to identify different individuals passing by. It builds a record of the adverts those people have been previously been shown to make sure messages are not repeated.

If more than one person is standing in front of the screen, however, the system must try to choose material seen by as few of the current audience as possible. It does so using software 'agents' to represent different adverts. These agents have a fixed advertising budget and bid against each other depending on the number of new exposures their advert is likely to get. Greater exposure results in higher bids and the agent that bids the highest wins.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Mobile phone users 'stressed out'
September 13, 2006

People are becoming addicted to mobile phones, causing them to become stressed and irritable, according to researchers at the University of Staffordshire, UK.

Researchers quizzed 106 student mobile phone owners about how they used their phone. Some 16 per cent were found to have problem behaviour linked to using their phone - either lying about how much they used them, becoming irritable after using them or being overly pre-occupied with them. The result of this was to cause the user stress, according to the researchers.

The theory was reinforced by tests carried out on 20 mobile phone users before and while giving up their mobile phones. The results showed once people had started cutting down their mobile phone use, their blood pressure was lower when talking about them than before.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

The nitrogen the Vikings left behind
September 11, 2006

Discovering ancient settlements is often rather hit and miss, but the odds would be improved with a bit of chemical analysis. Plants growing over old sites of human habitation have a different chemistry from their neighbours, and can reveal the location of buried ruins.

Plants mostly take in nitrogen from the soil as the isotope nitrogen-14, with just a dash of nitrogen-15. Plants growing above archaeological sites in Greenland, however, seem to have absorbed a larger dose of nitrogen-15. Researchers at Simon Fraser University in Canada, spent collected plants from sites in south-west Greenland. Some of their samples were unusually rich in nitrogen-15, and digs revealed that these plants had been growing above long-abandoned Norse farmsteads.

Human habitation and farming can explain the enrichment. For archaeological sites the nitrogen is derived from refuse or other nitrogenous compounds that people have deposited in the past. This will contain more nitrogen-15 than uncultivated soil, according to the researchers.

Full story: New Scientist / Journal of Archaeological Science Back to top

Why it takes a lot of hard work to become a genius
September 14, 2006

Edison was nearly right when he said genius was 1 per cent inspiration, 99 per cent perspiration, according to the latest psychological research. It concludes that geniuses are not born brilliant but are created by extraordinarily hard work.

Experts also believe one of the most crucial aspects is a good mentor to guide the budding genius in their formative years. A high IQ may help, but there is little evidence that it is a requirement. Chess masters, successful artists and scientists usually have above-average IQs, but tend to be in the 115 to 130 range rather than 150-plus associated with the 'greatest' minds.

Anders Ericsson, a professor of psychology at Florida State University and the editor of the Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance said: 'It's complicated explaining how genius or expertise is created, and why it's so rare. But it isn't magic, and it isn't born. It happens because some critical things line up so that a person of good intelligence can put in the sustained, focused effort it takes to achieve extraordinary mastery. They generally invest five times as much time and effort to become great as an amateur does to be competent.'

Full story: The Scotsman Back to top