Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 33, 2007

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Issue 33, 2007

This week's headlines:

Hard drive discovery leads to Nobel Prize
October 10, 2007

The founding fathers of modern hard drive technology have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said that French-born Albert Fert and German-born Peter Grünberg both revolutionised the technology.

Fert and Grunberg independently discovered Giant Magnetoresistance (GMR) in 1988. Very weak magnetic changes give rise to major differences in electrical resistance in a GMR system. A system of this kind is the perfect tool for reading data from hard disks when information registered magnetically has to be converted to electric current. Engineers soon began work to enable the use of the GMR effect in read-out heads. The first read-out head based on the GMR effect was launched in 1997 and this soon became the standard technology.

The GMR effect was discovered thanks to new techniques developed during the 1970s to produce very thin layers of different materials. If GMR is to work, structures consisting of layers that are only a few atoms thick have to be produced. For this reason GMR is also considered one of the first real applications of nanotechnology.

Full story: VNUnet UK Back to top

Researchers in a spin over quantum breakthrough
October 09, 2007

Researchers at Florida State University's National High Magnetic Field Laboratory (NHMFL) and Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, have unveiled a material which they believe could be as important to next-generation quantum computing as silicon is to the computers of today. The new compound, made from potassium, niobium, oxygen and chromium ions, could provide a technological breakthrough that leads to the development of new quantum computing technologies.

One proposed method of developing quantum computers is to use tiny magnetic fields, or 'spins', that are associated with electrons and various atomic nuclei. The Florida scientists used high magnetic fields and microwave radiation to 'operate' on the spins in the new material to get an indication of how long the spin could be controlled.

Based on the experiments, the material could enable 500 operations in 10 microseconds before losing its ability to retain information, making it a good candidate for a quantum bit.

Full story: VNUnet UK Back to top

3-D home printers could change economy
October 11, 2007

When your favourite gadget of the future breaks, you might select a replacement model online, download its design file and make a true 3-D replacement on your home printer. Thanks to falling prices and wider application of an industrial technology called 3-D printing, this option might be a reality for consumers in a few years.

Instead of stamping or casting to create objects using tools, dies and forms that were laboriously created for the task, each object is basically printed - built thin layer by thin layer directly from a computer-aided design file using various high-accuracy deposition methods. 3-D printing technologies can create parts out of plastics, metal and ceramics, and some methods can add photo-realistic colouring.

Prices for 3-D printing machines have been falling rapidly, reaching USD 20,000, and the day is foreseeable when they will fall below USD 1,000 and become home appliances, says Phil Anderson of the School of Theoretical and Applied Science at Ramapo College in New Jersey. The results, he warned, could be economically 'disruptive'. 'If you can make what you need in your own home quickly, then manufacturers become designers, with no need for factories, warehouses or shipping,' he says. Anderson foresees that home printers will appear in 15 years.

Full story: MSNBC / LiveScience Back to top

Virtual human has a roving eye
October 10, 2007

Virtual characters that meet your gaze just like a human have been developed by speech and cognition scientists in France. New software allows them to look at scenes and people the way humans do. The goal is to make virtual humans and perhaps humanoid robots easier to relate to.

Humans and other animals do not steadily scan a scene. Instead, our eyes constantly dart around in rapid unconscious jerks known as 'saccades'. They pin-point interesting parts of the scene the brain uses to build up a 'mental map'. Researchers at the Institut National Polytechnique de Grenoble, France, have developed software that mimics human gaze patterns. Their characters are capable of saccades, tracking moving objects like humans, and fixing their gaze on the same features as humans for similar periods.

The new software is based on a pioneering model devised in 2003 to mimic human vision. The model deals with scenes in three ways: looking for 'saliency' or the most visually outstanding parts in a scene, 'pertinence' or the most important parts, and 'attention', which temporarily inhibits regions that are no longer interesting. The French team added an 'attention stack', which tries to better mimic the way humans rank interesting areas, while another module recognises certain familiar objects, such as faces. The third addition is a 'retinal filter' that simulates the difference between peripheral vision and the high-resolution information gathered by the centre of the retina.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

MIT alumni promise flying car by next year
October 10, 2007

In 1918 the US Patent Office issued Felix Longobardi the first patent for a vehicle capable of both driving on roads and flying through the air. But history suggests that any vehicle design combining these two modes of transport will be a commercial failure: aero-auto hybrids always seem to result in a compromise that serves both functions poorly.

Now a group of MIT alumni believe that they are on their way toward overcoming this problem. Founded in 2006 and called Terrafugia, their startup recently produced the first automated folding wing for a light sport aircraft. The wing, however, is just the first step toward an aero-auto hybrid that the company plans to call the Transition.

To allow for a seamless and quick transformation from plane to car and back, the Terrafugia team has devised a system that allows the pilot to enfold or extend the wings by pushing a button in the cockpit. The wing features off-the-shelf electric actuators, but the team had to design from scratch the mechanical linkages between the actuators and the rest of the craft. The group also uses dual electromagnetic locks to hold the wings tightly to the fuselage when they are enfolded. The team is now building the rest of the first vehicle now and aims to start flight testing by the end of 2008.

Full story: ABC News / Technology Review Back to top

Vertical farming 'is the future'
October 08, 2007

Rice on the seventh floor. Wheat on the twelfth. And enough food within an 18-story tower to feed a small city of 50,000. Vertical farms, where staple crops could be grown in environmentally friendly skyscrapers, exist today only in futuristic designs. However, an environmental health expert in New York is convinced the world has the know-how to make the concept a reality - and the imperative to do so quickly.

With a raft of studies suggesting farmers will be hard-pressed to feed the world's people by the year 2050, Columbia University professor Dickson Despommier believes a new model of agriculture is vital to avoid an impending catastrophe. Working the soil has always been an uncertain venture, and Despommier argues that the price of crop failure is growing ever steeper as the global population mushrooms.

A recent exercise conducted by his students found that a self-sustaining vertical farm able to feed 50,000 people could 'fit comfortably within a city block', rising perhaps 18 stories. With adequate funding, a smaller prototype could be up and running in seven to 10 years, he predicts. Eventually, full-scale versions could be a new feature of city skylines, climbing as high as 30 stories and filled with automated feeders, monitoring devices and harvesting equipment. And they would feature crops such as wheat, rice, sugar beets and leafy greens grown in mineral nutrient solutions or without any solid substrates at all.

Full story: MSNBC Back to top