Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 11, 2009

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Issue 11, 2009

This week's headlines:

Major leap for quantum computers
March 19, 2009

Super-fast quantum computers are now a step closer to becoming a reality, thanks to a breakthrough by scientists. Edinburgh and Manchester University researchers have created a molecular device which could act as a building block for super-fast computers.

The researchers have created components that could be used to develop quantum computers, using molecular scale technology instead of silicon chips. They achieved the breakthrough by combining tiny magnets with molecular machines that can shuttle between two locations without the use of external force. The manoeuvrable magnets could one day be used as the basic component in quantum computers.

Conventional computers work by storing information in the form of bits, which can represent information in binary code - either as zero or one. Quantum computers will use quantum binary digits, or qubits, which are far more sophisticated as they are capable of representing not only zero and one, but a range of values simultaneously. Their complexity will enable quantum computers to perform more quickly than conventional machines.

Full story: BBC News / Nature Back to top

Lightweight metallic glass is strong as steel
March 17, 2009

A new type of glass, made from opaque titanium and zirconium instead of transparent silicon, is harder and tougher - and weighs less - than stainless steel. The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory scientists who developed the opaque glass hope it could one day replace steel and aluminium in a wide variety of products, from golf clubs to airplanes.

All glass, including window glass and opaque metallic glass, lacks a uniform crystalline structure. Instead, the atoms are randomly grouped together, with lots of atoms in one area but relatively few in another. Those groups of atoms dovetail to create a strong, hard surface, but a vulnerable one - even the tiniest cracks can grow enough to destroy the entire structure. By contract, crystalline structures are uniform, allowing groups of atoms to slide past one another with relative ease, which stops cracks from forming and spreading.

To create the tough, metallic glass, the scientists first heat an alloy of half titanium and half zirconium to 800 degrees Celsius until it melts. The liquid metal is allowed to cool slowly for a minute or two, and then cooled very rapidly after that. By cooling slowly and then quickly, the scientists allowed tiny crystalline structures to grow through the metal. Rapidly cooling the rest of the metal maintains the glassy atomic structure. The glass gives the material its strength, while the crystalline structures give it toughness.

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

DNA origami comes to life
March 16, 2009

In the natural world, DNA provides a kind of blueprint that directs a complex molecular dance which culminates in the creation of a much larger, more complex object - be it bacterium or elephant.

Now, using a method known as 'DNA origami', chemists have managed a similar if much simplified version, creating artificial DNA that can also build itself into larger, more complex structures. DNA with those capabilities could provide new ways of manufacturing on a small scale - for example, in the field of nanoelectronics - or performing calculations. The new method has been developed by researchers at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

The researchers showed in 2006 how mixing a single, long DNA with many smaller strands could create a 2D 'canvas', 100 nanometres across, that could display patterns such as a map of the Americas. Now the researchers have shown that such canvases can behave like programmable 'seeds' - smaller DNA tiles attach to the seed and the structure snowballs in size to make a structure up to 100 times bigger than the original segment.

The researchers speculate that their technique could provide a way to assemble molecular components into useful structures such as tiny electric circuits. It is also possible to use the self-assembling DNA structures to perform computational tasks.

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

Robots could flex muscles that are stronger than steel
March 19, 2009

A new material that is weight for weight stronger than steel and stiffer than diamond, and weighs little more than its volume in air, could be the perfect artificial muscle for robots, according to scientists at the University of Texas, who developed the new muscle.

The researchers have developed a technique to make ribbons of tangled nanotubes that expand in width by 220% when a voltage is applied and then return to their normal size once it is removed. The process takes only milliseconds. Collections of those ribbons could act as artificial muscle fibres - for example, to move the limbs of a walking robot. And the material has other impressive properties.

It is extremely stiff and strong in the 'long' direction - that in which the nanotubes are aligned - but is as stretchy as rubber across its width. It also maintains its properties over an extreme range of temperatures: from -196 °C, at which temperature nitrogen is liquid, to 1538 °C, above the melting point of iron. This means any robot equipped with the nanotube muscles could potentially keep working in some very extreme environments.

Full story: New Scientist / Science Back to top

Risk-free virtual anaesthetics
March 19, 2009

Medical staff can learn the delicate procedure of spinal anaesthesia without practising on live patients, thanks to a new training device. It uses computer graphics and a virtual needle to realistically recreate contact with the spine. The tool was developed by scientists at the University of Limerick, Ireland.

In the past, the procedure was fraught with danger, and medical staff learning the technique had to take extreme care not to damage patients' spinal columns. Human vertebrae are protected by a delicate gel like substance that is less than one inch thick. Safely injecting the spine is very difficult; anaesthetists run the risk of damaging a patient's spinal column or the blood vessels that serve it.

The new simulator exploits state of the art 'haptic toolkits'. These are multi-disciplinary technologies that can accurately recreate the touch and feel of real-time surgery. The 'haptic simulator' recreates the skin tension felt by the practitioner at the point the needle is inserted. If the injection is not carried out correctly, the trainee receives immediate audio and visual feedback.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

A human failure, seen at face value
March 13, 2009

Humans excel at recognising faces, but how we do this has been an abiding mystery in neuroscience and psychology. In an effort to explain this ability, researchers from MIT are taking a closer look at how and why we fail. The study looks at a particularly striking instance of failure: our impaired ability to recognise faces in photographic negatives. The study suggests that a large part of the answer might lie in the brain's reliance on a certain kind of image feature.

The work could potentially lead to computer vision systems, for settings as diverse as industrial quality control or object and face detection. The results and methodologies could help researchers probe face-perception skills in children with autism, who are often reported to experience difficulties analysing facial information.

In nearly every normal lighting condition, a person's eyes appear darker than the forehead and cheeks. The researchers theorised that photo negatives are hard to recognise because they disrupt these very strong regularities around the eyes. To test this idea, they asked subjects to identify photographs of famous people in not only positive and negative images, but also in a third type of image in which the celebrities' eyes were restored to their original levels of luminance, while the rest of the photo remained in negative.

Subjects had a much easier time recognising these 'contrast chimera' images because the light/dark relationships between the eyes and surrounding areas are the same as they would be in a normal image, according to the researchers.

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

Finn creates USB 'finger drive'
March 17, 2009

A Finnish computer programmer who lost one of his fingers in a motorcycle accident has made himself a prosthetic replacement with a USB drive attached. Jerry Jalava uses the 2GB memory stick, accessed by peeling back the 'nail', to store photos, movies and programmes.

The finger is not permanently attached to his hand, so it can be easily left plugged into a computer when in use. Jalava says he is already thinking about upgrading the finger to include more storage and wireless technology.

Half of Jalava's left ring finger had to be amputated last summer after he crashed into a deer while riding his motorbike near Helsinki. He says he was inspired to create the unique storage device when doctors treating him joked that he should have a USB 'finger drive' after finding out that he was a software developer.

Full story: BBC News Back to top