Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 44, 2006

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Issue 44, 2006

This week's headlines:

EU nations face suit on fees for copyrights
December 13, 2006

The largest consumer electronics and computer makers in Europe, the Copyright Levies Reform Alliance, said Wednesday that they would sue France, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands after failing to convince the European Commission to compel those countries to cut the copyright fees they levied on electronic equipment. A group of 80 companies are preparing legal challenges after the commission backed away from a plan to pressure member states to lower fees set by their copyright agencies.

The device makers claim the fees - levied in 20 EU countries and returned to artists who might be harmed from unauthorized copying of their material - delay new technology and add costs to consumers.

The commission had been scheduled to vote Tuesday to ask EU countries to follow a 2001 law that is supposed to require collection agencies to lower fees when digital rights controls can limit the unauthorized copying of music, text and film. But on Wednesday, the commission - after receiving an unusual last-minute objection from France - reversed itself and signalled that it would not change the system of levies this year, and postponed a vote on the issue indefinitely.

Full story: International Herald Tribune Back to top

Cows, pigs and sheep: Environment's greatest threats?
December 12, 2006

Cows, pigs, sheep and poultry have been awarded the dubious honour of being among the world's greatest environmental threats, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The report, entitled Livestock's long shadow, says the livestock industry is degrading land, contributing to the greenhouse effect, polluting water resources, and destroying biodiversity.

The authors say the demand for meat is expected to more than double by 2050 and therefore the environmental impact of production must be halved in order to avoid worsening the harmful impacts of the industry. Perhaps the report's most striking finding is that the livestock sector accounts for 18 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions - more than transport, which emits 13.5 per cent.

Livestock require a lot of land, occupying 26 per cent of Earth's ice-free land. Their pastures account for 70 per cent of deforested areas in the Amazon, and their feed occupies one-third of global cropland. Not only does deforestation increase greenhouse gas emissions by releasing carbon previously stored in trees, it is also a major driver in the loss of biodiversity.

Full story: New Scientist / FAO Back to top

IBM and US universities work to open up software research
December 14, 2006

IBM and seven universities have agreed to embark on a series of collaborative software research projects and make the results of the work in fields like privacy, security and medical decision-making freely available. The initiative is a break with the usual pattern of corporate-sponsored research at universities that typically involves lengthy negotiations over intellectual property rights.

The projects are also evidence that US companies and universities are searching for ways to work together more easily, less hampered by legal wrangling about who holds the patents to research. The projects are being done under the guidelines of the Open Collaborative Research program, which began last year with several universities and four technology companies - HP, Intel and Cisco, as well as IBM.

The schools involved are Purdue University, Carnegie Mellon University, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of California at Davis, Columbia University, Georgia Institute of Technology, and Rutgers University.

Full story: International Herald Tribune Back to top

Handheld device sees more colours than humans
December 14, 2006

A handheld device sensitive to changes in colour not detectable by the human eye could be used to spot objects hidden by camouflage or foliage. The Image Replication Imaging Spectrometer (IRIS) system was developed by researchers at Heriot-Watt University in the UK.

The cells in the human retina that detect coloured light are sensitive to only certain parts of the spectrum - red, green or blue. All perceived colours are a mixture of this basic palette of colours. Digital cameras work in a similar way, also using separate red, green and blue filters or sensors. By contrast, the IRIS system has a greater basic palette, of 32 or more 'colours' - bands of the light spectrum. It works by dividing an image into 32 separate snapshots, each containing only the light from one of its 32 spectral bands. This allows it to pick out features that blend into one for a human observer.

The 32 snapshots are projected onto a detector side by side, allowing the device to analyse them all simultaneously. What IRIS sees can be translated into false colour images to allow a human to make use of its abilities. It could allow soldiers to spot mines or vehicles hidden in foliage, for example. The device is also being tested as a medical tool to diagnose eye disease by looking at blood flow within the retina.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Nano-cables convert light into electricity
December 14, 2006

Nanocables that convert light into electricity could one day be used to power nano-robots. The cables are 16 nanometres in diameter and several micrometres long. They resemble the light-harvesting antennae used by some bacteria and transform light into electricity in a similar way to the semiconductors in solar panels, albeit on a much smaller scale.

The hollow cables can grow up to several micrometres long. To build them, researchers at the University of Tokyo, Japan, created a compound containing hexabenzocoronene (HBC), two carbon-12 chains, and trinitrofluorenone (TNF). They placed the compound in a solution of tetrahydrofuran and bubbled methane vapour though it, causing the compound to self-assemble into hollow cables. The HBC, which sheds electrons when hit by light, formed the inside of the cable wall, and the TNF, which readily accepts electrons, coated its outside.

Each time a photon hits the cable from outside it passes through the outer layer and knocks an electron loose from the inner layer. This causes the electron to jump to the outer layer and leave behind a positively charged 'hole'. These separated charges can then generate a current.

Full story: New Scientist / Science Back to top

Google fires up patent search
December 15, 2006

Google has launched a beta of a service that searches patent filings. The service initially will index seven million patents that have been granted by the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and Google plans to add additional sources in the future. Patents can be searched for patent number, the person filing for the patent or keywords.

The search engine plans to build an index of the patent documents including images by optically scanning the documents and using optical character recognition technology to. The process is similar to the one that Google uses to scan books for its Google Book Search service.

Where Google Book Search has been met with fierce resistance from copyright holders, information in patent filings documents is freely available. The USPTO currently offers online access to the patents through its website.

Full story: VNUnet UK Back to top

Ultrafast electron microscope makes movies
December 08, 2006

Physicists at the California Institute of Technology in the US have created a new form of electron microscopy that can make 'movies' of atoms as they undergo ultra-rapid chemical or structural transitions.

The researchers have used coincident electron and laser pulses to follow vanadium and oxygen atoms as they rearranged themselves on a vanadium oxide surface over the course of several picoseconds. The technique could also be used to study a wide range of ultrafast biological and physical phenomena.

In 2005, the team used coherent electron packets to take single snapshots of a number of materials and biological samples. Now the researchers have further refined their technique to take a time sequence of images that allowed them to watch vanadium and oxygen atoms rearrange themselves in a process that can take as little as 100 femtoseconds.

Full story: Physiscweb / Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. Back to top

Octopus skin yields bright discovery
December 15, 2006

The molecules that make octopus skin so successful as a dynamic camouflage could provide materials scientists with a new way to make super-reflective materials. Octopus, squid and cuttlefish have developed sophisticated skins so they can hide in an ocean full of hungry predators. Researchers at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts took a close look at this skin and identified a new group of proteins with remarkable properties.

The team discovered that the bottom layer of octopus skin, made up of cells called leucophores, is composed of a translucent, colourless, reflecting protein. What is even more odd is that these proteins reflect all wavelengths of light that hit at any angle. The result is a material that looks startlingly white in white light, and blue in the bluish light found beneath the waves.

Closer inspection of a cuttlefish shows that some parts of the skin have enhanced reflective properties thanks to flat platelets called iridophores in the layer lying on top of the leucophores. In the brightest spots, the number of iridophores matches the number of leucophores one for one.

Full story: Nature Back to top

Hull bubbles make boats go faster
December 11, 2006

Boats could so go faster and use less fuel thanks to nanotechnology research being done for the US Department of Energy by researchers at UT-Battelle in Tennessee, US.

The hull of a boat is first covered with a smooth, tough material such as borosilicate glass. A cutter made of diamond is then used to machine a pattern of grooves and sharp ridges, a few millimetres deep, across the material. Finally, the walls of these grooves are etched with nanometre-sized pits using acid, and then coated with a protective coating of hydrophobic trichlorosilane.

As the patterned hull moves through the water, small bubbles of air become trapped in the nanoscale grooves, providing a low friction cushion, akin to a hovercraft effect. For extra cushioning, pipes from inside the boat can continually feed gas into the grooves. The technique reduces friction on any size craft, and the UT-Battelle team claim it could even help submarines move through the water more efficiently. The researchers report that just a few per cent reduction in drag provides a 'significant' increase in water speed and fuel efficiency.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top